Nestled away in the quietest spot I could find at a local coffee shop, I stared down at the strange characters typed across the center of a handout. Glancing back at my calendar of assignments for New Testament 101: Introduction to Greek, I sighed as I read, “memorize the class motto.” My forehead promptly descended to the table. Our professor had not yet taught us a lecture. Even more, I didn’t even know what sounds the characters on the page in front of me made. I couldn't read the words, much less understand, or even memorize them. Ironically the phrase ἑν οἰδα ὁτι οὐδεν οἰδα (hen oida hoti ouden oida) means “One thing I know, that I know nothing.” I am sure the irony was intentional.
In the great exuberance of signing up for my first seminary classes, I accidentally selected the honors section for first-year Greek. How does that happen? I honestly couldn’t tell you. Potentially more mysterious than the means by which I unintentionally selected the most difficult first year class at the institution, I actually decided to stick with it. In the words of Ron Weasley, I must have gone mental. Or maybe my little enneagram three soul craved the mountain to climb. But as soon as our professor declared, “this class has but one prerequisite: desire.” I knew I would remain in the class.
Desire to learn? Hello! I’m raising my hand really high. I crave diving into a subject matter so deep I find sea caverns that open up wider and wider until I’m absolutely astounded. Learning something new draws me in like playing a new game: slowly as you catch on, the desire to keep going grows until you are immersed in the frolic of it all.
Catching on to the honors Greek game certainly came slowly. Our professor effectively took everything I had learned about the alphabet, nouns, verbs, sentences and threw it up into the air to introduce an unfamiliar language that even the modern Greeks would not recognize. Rules of the game in Koine (the kind of Greek spoken by the majority of the known world in the first-century) differed from the play of American English. Not to mention, Dr. Wallace set the expectations and workload sky-high. At the end of the day, I couldn’t say “I know things” anymore. All that was left was Ἑν οἰδα ὁτι οὐδεν οἰδα (hen oida hoti ouden oida)—one thing I know, that I know nothing.
And then I found that the “game” I dive into turns quickly into competition and conquest. The lines blur between learning and knowing, between wonder and accomplishment. The play turns into a push towards proficiency so that I can say, “I know things.”
Revisiting the Motto
Roughly two-and-a-half years later, I stepped into my sixth semester of seminary with honors Greek behind me and a wedding date planned for the Saturday preceding Spring Break.
I wrapped up some work on a draft for a research paper on a Thursday, got my nails done on a Friday, and married my love on a Saturday with joyful celebrations and a crazy dance party. We returned home from a honeymoon in Costa Rica to stay-at-home orders. Our marriage was not yet two whole weeks old.
I didn’t misread the course catalog this time. We intentionally got married, it was just unintentionally moments before the pandemic knocked on our front door and we all went into quarantine. Starting my marriage while sheltering-in-place added an element of adventure and fun. But more than our marital bliss was concentrated. The situation also concentrated our communication differences.
Like my introduction to Koine Greek, pursuing unity with my new husband shook up what I thought I understood about communication and conflict resolution. I asked questions to understand him, and he grew frustrated. He tried to help, and I felt criticized and incompetent. My least favorite moments started with what I thought were brilliant ideas of how to love him that ended up instigating hurt. We spent hours on the couch seeking and extending forgiveness, crying, and asking one another to “just try to understand.” It seemed, though, that we kept coming back to my Greek class motto. Ἑν οἰδα ὁτι οὐδεν οἰδα (hen oida hoti ouden oida). One thing I know, that I know nothing.
Relearning the Motto
Loving another human has sent me back to my experience learning an ancient language. There is a different set of language rules than those of our native tongue. Each of us carries around vocabulary and syntax shaped by our creator and our history, marked by biases from which we cannot escape. My definitions of “good,” “bad,” “happy,” and “love” formed by a series of experiences and the unique eyes God gave me to see them. Because I lean towards perfectionism and have experienced great pain with failure, I translate correction as a painful falling short that could likely lead to a broken relationship. My husband on the other hand values correction, his challenger mentality leans in when someone cares enough to make him better. We speak different languages.
Unfortunately, as with learning a language, I find myself on a trek to prove my understanding of the situation and conquer the language of love in front of me. I try to run to the summit of accomplishment mountain and throw my flag in the ground to say, “Look at me! I figured it out. I know how to love people.” Only after I start to struggle with the climb do I realize that I shifted my gaze to self back at base camp and I’m going to have to refocus if I want to succeed.
Dr. Wallace rightly established Ἑν οἰδα ὁτι οὐδεν οἰδα (hen oida hoti ouden oida) as the first year Greek motto. He knows that unless we admit our lack of knowledge, we will never truly know something new. We cannot simply transfer our lessons from junior high Language Arts workbooks to first-century writings from the Middle East. We must first admit “I know nothing” so that our minds become rich and ready soil for planting. Even more, it frees us from pressure to accomplishment that we may wonder at the beauty that God preserved his words in an ancient language.
In a similar manner, we cannot love another without stepping away from the preeminence of our own personal language. Our fluency ranges only as far as our ability to listen and recognize that another’s understanding of the world varies from our own, even if those worlds are similar. It looks like the Son of God who, in a full understanding and acceptance of his deity, willingly laid his privileges aside so that he might radically love us. Laying down what we could assert makes room for loving another.
Recently, I sat in a bar stool across from my husband while he gently talked me through creating a schedule for my studies. Schedules intimidate and frustrate me, mostly due to my weakness in understanding or creating them. I sat confused with a growing fear that I had let him down and a simultaneous frustration that he would expect so much of me. Tears snuck out of the corner of my eyes and he drew nearer asking, “Why?” I explained what I had heard and cried a bit more. He grabbed my hand and reminded me, “I’m here to help you. I want to do this with you.” I realized in that moment I remembered the motto: Ἑν οἰδα ὁτι οὐδεν οἰδα (hen oida hoti ouden oida) One thing I know, I know nothing. I thought I knew more than I did and my translation missed his meaning. I was ready to listen to his translation.
Cover image by Anastase Maragos.