Monday, July 02, 2007


Via Negativa

Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (1986; rpt. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989), p. 169, translates part of a Greek inscription from Lycia in Asia Minor:
Self-born, untaught, motherless, unshakeable,
Giving place to no name, many-named, dwelling in fire,
Such is God; we are a portion of God, his angels.
This, then, to the questioners about God's nature
The god replied, calling him all-seeing Ether; to him, then, look
And pray at dawn, looking out to the east.
George Ewart Bean, Journeys in Northern Lycia 1965-1967 = Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-historische Klasse, Denkschriften [DAW], 104. Ergänzungsbände zu den Tituli Asiae Minoris, 4 (Vienna, 1971), prints the relevant portion of this inscription as follows:
[α]ὐτοφυής, ἀδί-
δακτος, ἀμήτωρ,
οὔνομα μὴ χω-
ρῶν, πολυώνυμος,
ἐν πυρὶ ναίων.
τοῦτο θεός, μεικρὰ
δὲ θεοῦ μερὶς ἄνγε̣-
λοι̣ ἡμεῖς. τοῦτο πευ-
θομένοισι θεοῦ πέ-
ρι ὅστις ὑπ̣ά̣ρχ̣ε̣ι
Α̣ἰ[θ]έ̣[ρ]α πανδερ̣κ̣[ῆ]
[θε]ὸν ἔννεπεν, εἰς
ὃν ὁρῶντας εὔχεσθ’ ἠῴ-
ους πρὸς ἀντολίην ἐσορῶ[ν]-
I have not seen Bean's book, but rely on the Packard Humanities Institute's Searchable Greek Inscriptions for my knowledge of it and for the Greek text above.

The phrase ἀδίδακτος, ἀμήτωρ, ἀστυφέλικτος (adidaktos, amētōr, astupheliktos = untaught, motherless, unshakeable) in the inscription is an example of a series of asyndetic, privative adjectives. "Asyndetic" means not joined by conjunctions, and "privative" means altering the meaning of a term from positive to negative, by means of a prefix (e.g. a-, non-, un-) or suffix (e.g. -less).

This rhetorical device is sometimes used to describe God, by specifying what He is not, rather than what He is (the so-called "via negativa," or "negative way"). In the New Testament at Hebrews 7.3 we see this technique:
Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life.

ἀπάτωρ, ἀμήτωρ, ἀγενεαλόγητος, μήτε ἀρχὴν ἡμερῶν μήτε ζωῆς τέλος ἔχων.
Note the privative adjective ἀμήτωρ (amētōr = motherless) in Hebrews, which also appears in the inscription from Lycia.

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