A Sociolinguistic Reading of ptōchos in Luke’s Gospel, Part I

Posted: October 15, 2013 in General

poverty-7In December 1995, the General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed the first Decade for the Eradication of Poverty (1997-2006). In the following year (December, 1996), the General Assembly declared the theme for the Decade as a whole to be “Eradicating Poverty in an Ethical, Social, Political, and Economic Imperative of Humankind”. This fact motivated me to re-read the scriptures with a social outlook and I found the Gospel of Luke as the best choice to reach the intended goal. In the contemporary global context, the Lukan message on ‘riches and poverty’ can be presented as a paradigm for equality, justice, and fraternity. What Lukan Jesus says and demands cannot be reduced to a few religious or ethical principles; but they are emerged out of the social realities of the first century Mediterranean world. This series, entitled “A Sociolinguistic Reading of ptōchos in Luke’s Gospel”, is basically an attempt to discuss the Lukan usage of ptōchos, which is not merely a term to designate ‘poverty’. In my analysis, I find that ptōchos is an inclusive social rhetoric used by Jesus (and hence the evangelist) to recapitulate the nature of the new movement led by him in favor of the poor. Language is the reflection of the wider social realities. In Luke’s Gospel, the relation between language and society receives attention. Therefore, in this study I employ sociolinguistics as the basic method to understand the concept ptōchos within its social milieu.

First of all, let us see the use of diverse terminologies in the OT to designate ‘the poor’. In Ancient Israel, the poor constituted a diverse body of social actors: small farmers, day laborers, debt slaves, construction workers, beggars, and village dwellers (cf. P. H. Davids, DJG, 1992: 701-10; cf. Wolf, “Poverty”, IDB, Vol. K-Q, 1962: 853-54). Poverty in the Hebrew Bible denotes: firstly, a lack of economic resources and material goods; and secondly, political and legal powerlessness and oppression [1]. It is important to note the distribution of the vocabulary throughout the Hebrew Bible. There were a number of Hebrew words used for “poor”/“poverty”: ebyon [2], dal [3], dalla [4], mahsor [5], misken [6], miskenut [7], ani [8], anawim [9], and ras [10] (cf. Paul J. Achtemeier, ed., “Poor”, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, 2009: 866-67). In fact, the distribution reveals selectivity on the parts of the biblical authors: ras, for example, is a wisdom word and not a prophetic word. This selectivity should also alert us to the fact that even when the various blocks of the biblical text make use of the same Hebrew term, the writers may not mean the same thing by that term. In Proverbs, for example, dal is a lazy person; whereas for the prophets [11], dal is an object of exploitation (cf. Bammel, “ptōchos ktl”, TDNT, Vol. 6: 885-916). The authors of the OT were compelled to alter the meaning of the same term according to the various socio-cultural and political circumstances. But in most cases, the terms used for ‘poverty’ in the OT have their own restricted meanings and are unable to comprehend others (cf. M. D. Carroll R, “Wealth and Poverty”, DOTP, 2003: 881-87; cf. Wolf, “Poverty”, IDB, Vol. K-Q, 1962: 853-54). The OT writers used diverse terminologies related to ‘poor’/‘poverty’ in order to suit their interests and also to relate to their intended contexts.

A reader of the OT must attempt to see the way ‘poverty’ terminology is expressed. It is also important to make a clear distinction between the meaning of ‘poverty’ terminology, and the social position of the poor and attitudes to them (cf. H. Merklein, “ptōchos”, EDNT, Vol. 3: 193-95). It is noted that the idea of ‘poverty piety’ (i.e., anawim is used to express this idea) and groups of ‘pious poor’ in post-exilic Judaism results from the confusion of these two issues. The psalms were used as a prayer book for all Israel, including kings and high priests. There is no reason to connect these texts and their piety with specific social groups (cf. Paul J. Achtemeier, ed., “Poor”, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, 2009: 866-67) [12]. It is difficult to determine to what extent the language has moved away from concrete cases of poverty to a more spiritualized level of worship. In the Psalms words for ‘poor’ are used as self-designations by the praying person (cf. Psalms 25:16; 40:17; 69:29; 86:1; 109:22) or in promises of God’s care (Psalms 18:27; 68:10; 140:12; cf. F. Hauck and W. Kasch, “Riches and the Rich in the OT”, TDNT, Vol. 6: 323-25). The liturgical terminology is based on the metaphor of God as a righteous king of Israel, who cares for his people and for those who suffer (Psalm 146; cf. Pleins, “Poor. Poverty”, ABD, Vol. 5, 1992: 402-14) [13]. Merklein (1994: 3: 193) says, “According to OT and broader oriental understanding the poor person stands under the special protection of the deity”. This tendency of ‘poverty piety’ (i.e., a kind of anawim movement) was influential for some of the NT writers too (cf. P. H. Davids, DJG, 1992: 701-10) [14]. Thus, in the OT, there is no focused understanding of the idea of material ‘poor/poverty’, and mostly it was discussed in religious sense.

There is a growing consensus today that in the NT, the word ptōchos is a sociological category, even in the good-news-to-the-poor texts [15]. Ptōchos is related to ptōchssō meaning ‘cringe’ or ‘crawl’ [16]. It describes a person who is destitute, that is, one who lacks the necessities of life, and must eke out his existence by begging. The word ptōchos is much a stronger term than its equivalents (cf. L. E. Keck, “The Poor among the Saints in the NT”, ZNW 56, 1965: 100-129) [17]. While both penēs (2 Cor. 9:9) and the related penichros (Lk. 21:2) describe an indigent rather than a destitute person (i.e., one who lacks property and so must work painfully for his living), endeēs (from the root endeō, ‘to be in want of something’; Acts 4:34) stands simply for someone in need [18]. In both the cases of penēs and endeēs, acute human situations do not come to the fore. But in the case of ptōchos the term represents the acute economic and social status of the people who are in that category.

The synoptic evangelists do not adopt the same pattern in their usage of the ‘poor’/‘poverty’ vocabulary. Despite the length of his gospel and his inclusion of five lengthy discourses of Jesus’ teaching, Matthew contains no more explicit references to poor (ptōchos) than Mark (i.e., five times each). Three of Matthew’s references (19:21; 26:9, 11) are taken from Mark (cf. 10:21; 14:5, 7); the other two (5:3; 11:15) are from ‘Q’ (= Luke 6:20; 7:22; cf. H. Merklein, “ptōchos”, EDNT, Vol. 3: 194) [19]. But six of the ten occurrences of ptōchos in Luke are found in pericopes peculiar to the author (Lk. 4:18; 14:13, 21; 16:20, 22; 19:8) [20], and do not allow for redactional comparison (cf. P. H. Davids, DJG, 1992: 701-10; Hanks, “Poor. Poverty”, ABD, Vol. 5, 1992: 414-24). The final two occurrences are found in the material Luke uses Mark and the Synoptic tradition (Lk. 18:22; 21:3) [21]. The Lukan usage of ptōchos is more social, inclusive, and comprehensive to stand for all other terms (such as penēs, penichros, endeēs, and papeinos) [22]. For the context of these texts and the way in which they have been formulated make it clear that in Luke ptōchos has been given a sociological and not a religious meaning—but a sociological meaning that is wider than the one it has elsewhere in the NT (cf. T. E. Schmidt, DPL, 1993: 826-27).

One needs to know the range of scenarios for social interaction actually available in the first-century eastern Mediterranean in general and in the area of bible reading in Israelite Palestine in particular. This is the interpersonal context of reading, and it is a primary concern in sociolinguistic [23] perspective of reading [24]. As Hymes states, the purpose of sociolinguistics is “to lay the foundation for an adequate understanding of the place of language in social life” [25]. Luke is welcomed by many theologians of liberation as the gospel that points most vividly the implications of the message and ministry of Jesus for the marginalized people of society. Clearly, the Gospel of Luke appears to have been written from the “underside” of the dominant society of Luke’s day [26]. A sociolinguistic reading of the concept ptōchos reveals the fact that Luke was leading a movement of the ‘poor’ (i.e., a ptōchos Movement), which was inclusive and broader in nature, and liberative in character. In the following discussions, we will discuss in detail this Lukan tendency with the help of the ptōchos vocabulary of the gospel.

End Notes:

[1] David Pleins, “Poor, Poverty (OT)”, ABD, Vol. 5 (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 402.

[2] The beggarly poor (“economically or legally distressed, destitute, beggars”), occurs 61 times in the Hebrew bible (cf. Is. 14:30; 25:4; 32:6-7; 41:7; Ez. 16:49; Am. 8:4; 5:12; Pss. 35:10; 40:18ff.; 69:34ff.; 70:6).

[3] The poor peasant farmer (“poor”, “weak”, “inferior”, “lacking”), is used 48 times in the Hebrew Bible, and half of those occur in prophetic and proverbial texts. In many cases it seems to allude to the plight of the beleaguered peasant farmer. Cf. L. E. Keck, “The Poor among the Saints in the NT”, ZNW 56, 1965: 100-129.

[4] It is closely related to dal, occurs twice in 2 Kings and thrice in Jeremiah. Cf. Pleins, “Poor. Poverty”, ABD, Vol. 5, 1992: 402-14; M. D. Carroll R, “Wealth and Poverty”, DOTP, 2003: 881-87.

[5] The lazy poor (i.e., “lack of, or need for, material goods”), occurs 13 times in the Hebrew Bible, mainly in Proverbs. Cf. F. Hauck and W. Kasch, “Riches and the Rich in the OT”, TDNT, Vol. 6: 323-25.

[6] The word is a later Hebrew term for “poor”, appearing only in Wisdom text of Ecclesiastes (4 times; cf. 4:13), but common in the Talmud and Midrash. Cf. H. Merklein, “ptōchos”, EDNT, Vol. 3: 193-95.

[7] It is related to misken, denoting scarcity of material goods, appears once in Deut. 8:9. Cf. Pleins, “Poor. Poverty”, ABD, Vol. 5, 1992: 402-14.

[8] This term (“economically poor, oppressed, exploited, suffering”) is the most common term in the Hebrew Bible for “poverty”, occurring 80 times in the biblical corpus. Cf. Frank Charles Thompson, “Poor”, The Thompson Exhaustive Topical Bible [KJV], 1997: 953-54, 957-61.

[9] This term (means, “poor, pious, humble”) is a plural form for a supposed singular anaw and occurs 24 times in the Hebrew Bible. The word appears in the Prophetic Literature, in the Psalms, and in the Wisdom texts. Although, this is not the most common word for “poor” in the Hebrew Bible, it is one of the most frequently discussed among scholars because many see in anawim a merger between poverty and piety, possibly making a political movement among the pious poor. Cf. H. Merklein, “ptōchos”, EDNT, Vol. 3: 193-95.

[10] This word occurs 22 times in the Hebrew Bible, mainly in Wisdom texts, and should be viewed as a Wisdom text (it does not appear at all in the Pentateuch or the Prophetic writings). The word refers to someone who is politically and economically inferior, frequently referring to someone who is lazy. Cf. F. Hauck and W. Kasch, “Riches and the Rich in the OT”, TDNT, Vol. 6: 323-25; Frank Charles Thompson, “Poor”, The Thompson Exhaustive Topical Bible [KJV], 1997: 953-54, 957-61.

[11] The eighth century prophets became the earliest prophetic spokespersons on behalf of the poor. Their critique against the social abuses of their society was grounded theologically in God’s covenant with Israel, his act of election. This covenant had called for faithful obedience, as expressed in the Torah.

[12] H. Kvalbein, “Poor/Poverty”, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, eds. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner (Leicester/Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 688.

[13] Plains, “Poor/Poverty (OT)”, ABD, 403; cf. Wolf, “Poverty”, IDB, Vol. K-Q, 1962: 853-54.

[14] In some of the NT texts, the word ptōchos is used for the spiritually poor, but its spiritual sense clearly indicated by a qualifying expression (as in the ‘poor in spirit’ of Matt. 5:3), a governing word as in the ‘beggarly elemental spirits’ (ptōcha stocheia) of Gal. 4:9, or by the context (as in Rev. 3:17 where ‘poor’ stands for the spiritual emptiness of the Laodicean church, which is what the text is talking about). The poor of Qumran appear to resemble in many ways the anawim mentality of the pious poor. Cf. P. H. Davids, DJG, 1992: 701-10; T. E. Schmidt, DPL, 1993: 826-27.

[15] George M. Soares-Prabhu, “Class in the Bible: The Biblical Poor a Social Class?”, Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World, ed. R. S. Sugirtharajah (New York: Orbis Books, 1991), 156; Hanks, “Poor. Poverty”, ABD, Vol. 5, 1992: 414-24.

[16] Philip Francis Esler, Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts: The Social and Political Motivations of Lukan Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

[17] Soares-Prabhu, “Class in the Bible”, 154.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Thomas D. Hanks, “Poor, Poverty (NT)”, ABD, Vol. 5, 416; cf. H. Merklein, “ptōchos”, EDNT, Vol. 3: 193-95.

[20] It is my assumption that Luke might have used a ptōchos source for that.

[21] In the ‘Magnificat’ passage, Luke mentions that Mary is exalted because she is poor (papeinos; 1:46-55). Here, Mary is the personification of poor, of that privileged people chosen for salvation. Mel Shoemaker, “Good News to the Poor in Luke’s Gospel”, Wesleyan Theological Journal, Vol. 27, No. 1 and 2, Spring-Fall 1992, 182.

[22] John Navone, Themes of St. Luke (Rome: Gregorian University Press, ny), 104. Scholars like Pilgrim connects ‘Magnificat’ in the Infancy Narrative of Luke with the anawim (the pious poor). It is important to note that Infancy Narratives (chs. 1-3) and the Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection narratives (chs. 22-24) do not contain the term ptōchos. It is a leading term in ch. 4 through ch. 21. As ptōchos is a leading term in Luke, we can doubt the Lukan authorship of the above said documents (i.e., chs. 1-3 and chs. 22-24).

[23] Sociolinguistics is a branch of modern linguistics, which studies the interrelationship between society or social groups and language. Some investigators have found it appropriate to try to introduce a distinction between sociolinguistics and sociology of language. Hudson has described the difference as follows: Sociolinguistics is ‘the study of language in relation to society’, whereas Sociology of Language is ‘the study of society in relation to language’. See Ronald Wardhaugh, An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, Second Edition (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986); R. A. Hudson, Sociolinguistics (Cambridge: University Press, 1980); Nicholas Coupland and Adam Jaworski, eds., Sociolinguistics: A Reader and Coursebook, Modern Linguistics Series (London: McMillan Press Ltd., 1997).

[24] Bruce J. Malina, The Social World of Jesus and the Gospels (London/New York: Routledge, 1996), 22.

[25] Dell Hymes, Foundations in Sociolinguistics: An Ethnographic Approach (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1974), 125.

[26] Sharon H. Ringe, Luke (Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), 9.

By Johnson Thomaskutty, Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India


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