Wednesday, December 26, 2007


Before I switched to a small Jewish day school, I attended a very large, fairly prestigious public high school. I've written elsewhere how it was at this school I stopped studying Japanese, and began studying Hebrew. That was certainly the benefit of a large school - they offered many foreign languages for study.

In addition to languages, there were also an impressive amount of "clubs". Students could participate in after-school groups ranging from "Pre-Med" to "Model Airplane" to "Bowling". Looking at the current list, it's interesting to see how interests have changed in the past 20 years. For example, when I went to school there, they had an "Israeli Culture Club". Today they have "Schmooze For Jews".

One of the clubs that I still remember reading about, but never really understood what it was about was "Agape". The yearbook entry states:

Agape in Greek, means unconditional love. Members share in this unconditional love at each meeting. During the course of the year, members sing, have group discussions and hear from different special speakers.

I only found out recently that agape (pronounced ah-GAH-peh) is a Christian term (and the club was indeed a Christian club). I just finished reading a fascinating book - highly recommended to readers of this site - Empires of the Word - A Language History of the World, by Nicholas Oster. On page 270, he writes in the footnote:

It has been suggested that the favourite choice of the Christian word for 'love', agape, is influenced by Hebrew aheb, 'love' (which happens to have much stronger sexual overtones than the Greek), and Greek skene, 'tent', by Hebrew seken, 'dwelling' (Moule 1959:186)
I tracked down Moule's book, An Idiom Book of New Testament Greek, and he has a list of:

Greek words whose use, or at least frequency, may have been suggested by a certain (perhaps fortuitous) similarity of sound or spelling to certain Semitic words.
So while the use of the word agape may have been influenced by Hebrew, please don't make the mistake (that I did when I first read the footnote) of thinking that agape actually derives from the Hebrew אהב.

While agape is generally used in a Christian context, the word helps us understand a difficult Talmudic phrase (found on Menachot 44a). The columnist Philologos quotes (his uncle?) Rabbi Saul Lieberman:

There is a Talmudic legend about a pious Jew who, hearing of a famous courtesan in Italy who charged the astronomical sum of 400 gold coins to spend a night with her, could not control his curiosity and traveled to her with the money to find out what she charged so much for. Yet his religious inhibitions got the better of him and at the crucial moment he was impotent — which made the courtesan, no less curious herself, react by saying, “By the limb of Rome [gapa shel Romi, in Hebrew], I will not let you go until you tell me what is wrong with me.”
What is “the limb of Rome”? Lieberman convincingly shows that the Hebrew word gapa, “limb of,” is actually a later corruption by scribes who no longer understood Greek of the Greek word agape, “love,” and that in the original story, as told and understood by Jews in Palestine, the courtesan swore by “the love of Rome.”
In Lieberman's book (Greek And Hellenism In Jewish Palestine), he explains what "the love of Rome" meant:

It seems quite certain to me that גפה דרומי really means agape of Rome, but refers not to some obscure love of Rome, but to the famous goddess - Isis, who was called Agape.
Lieberman than shows how the one other Talmudic mention of גפא דרומא (Pesachim 87b) also likely refers to an oath to the goddess Isis.

So we have a Greek word that is used by Christians via Jewish influence, and was used by idolatrous Romans as quoted in the Jewish Talmud. How can you not love this - unconditionally?

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