“The” Indefinite Article

Do you remember the Schoolhouse Rock cartoons and songs from the 1970s? Even my kids watch them today on DVD and reruns. There was a series about math, about politics, and about grammar. My favorites were “Conjunction junction, what’s your function,” “Interjection,” and “I’m just a bill, sitting here on Capitol Hill.” I think they remain one of the most brilliant television-learning tools ever created. But there was a serious gap in Schoolhouse Rock, for which I think America’s youth have suffered for too long. They never created an episode about the most important part of speech. The article. If Schoolhouse Rock had taught us the difference between the definite and indefinite article, English speakers would be a more enlightened crowd.

Okay, I know you are trying to remember what an article is. “The” is a definite article. “A” and “an” are indefinite articles. “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” has a very different meaning than “I am a way, a truth, and a life,” or even “I am way, truth, and life.” Sometimes there is elegance in the indefinite, or even in the absence of an article.

John 14:6 is used often by Christian fundamentalists as irrefutable truth that Jesus and Christianity are the only path to salvation. I agree that the author of John, who most scholars do not believe would have been the disciple himself, had as his primary objective, making Jesus the Christ. Chapter 20 verses 30 and 31 even say, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book, but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and by believing you may have life in his name.”

And so, it is likely that the author meant exactly what he wrote. In the Greek original, the definite article “ho”, which is in the nominative singular feminine form (in case you were wondering), is clearly present. “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” However, there is no other way to say this in Greek. The indefinite article is seldom used and specifically means “one.” No clarification needed here.

Of course, we have no way of knowing whether or not Jesus actually said these words, especially to that specificity. The best guess of modern day biblical scholars is that he did not. The Jesus Seminar, which is a group of scholars who systematically analyze the Christian scriptures toward the goal of determining the authenticity of Jesus’ words, have come to the conclusion that almost none of the words attributed to Jesus in John, were actually uttered. John is a persuasive story toward a specific goal.

For arguments sake, let’s say that Jesus did say something about being way, truth, and life. Jesus may have understood and spoken the Greek that John was written in, the common language of the occupied land. However, his native tongue was almost certainly Aramaic, which is a Semitic language closer to Hebrew, and very different from Greek. There is also the 50-80 year gap of oral tradition between Jesus’ death and the time that John was likely written. But even if Jesus spoke the words, definite articles in Aramaic are even more troublesome. The definite article doesn’t really exist in Aramaic, but is embedded and expressed in the noun itself, which has three forms. A definite article is expressed via the emphatic form of the noun, but is not really so definite as in English. If that isn’t enough, ancient Aramaic and modern Aramaic (like English and most living languages) are different. Noun forms have changed over time. For example, emphatic (definite) nouns are more used in modern Aramaic than they were in biblical Aramaic. Regardless of what, if anything was said, it seems impossible to know definitively how definite Jesus was being here.

It is also interesting to look at languages that have no articles at all, like Latin and Russian. In Russian (which I speak) this passage reads, “Ya yest’ put, i istina, i zhizn’.” Literally “I am way, and truth, and life.” Another interesting aspect of this is that, in Russian, the noun “to be” is usually not voiced in the present tense. If you and I were speaking to each other, I would simply say, “Ya put, i istina, i zhizn”…or “I way, and truth, and life.” The verb form “yest'” (I am) is likely included in the Russian Bible because it is also emphasized in the various Hebrew forms of the Hebrew Scriptures, and expresses more of an existential quality. One might say, “I exist as way, and truth, and life,” but even that wouldn’t be exactly correct.

The point is that, without any articles at all, languages like Russian are actually more robust because meaning cannot be so clearly defined, or misinterpreted, with a single qualifier. Meaning must be derived in other ways like nuance, word order, emphasis, and more in-depth conversation. The meaning of “Ya yest’ put, i istina, i zhizn’,” requires more information to be fully understood.

Liberal expressions of faith are more like the indefinite article. We are not the way, the truth, and the life. We are more of a way, a truth and a life. But even the singular indefinite article is limiting. Liberal faith can also be lived as faith with no articles at all. And in that absence, I find even more strength. The Bible loses so much of its power if we limit it to a singular and definite meaning. When we say that there is only “the way, and the truth, and the life,” we seal revelation, and there is nothing new to learn. When there is nothing new to learn, put me in my grave. I’m done.

The Unitarian Universalist principles, for example, don’t say that we are have the truth or even a truth. They say, “free and responsible search for truth and meaning—no articles—just truth and meaning. How we define truth and meaning then requires more discussion and explanation and interpretation and even debate. Unitarian Universalism requires nuance, emphasis and more in-depth conversation. I actually believe all religions require this, because I don’t believe any sacred text can be taken at literal face value. Doing so might make it easier on our brains, but would sell the authors short. And Jesus said,

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.

To be a person of faith who does not take the path of the definite article, one must have some comfort with ambiguity. One must be willing to work out truth and meaning with nuance, emphasis, and more in-depth conversation. Grammar matters.

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