The École Biblique welcomes every year and for the whole year two scholarship holders from the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. At the end of the second semester, each scholar must submit a single research paper to both institutions. During this academic year 2019-2020, Xavier Lafontaine, doctoral student in religious sciences and Greek philology, has chosen to work on the following theme: “A semantic study of wonder in the New Testament” (originally in French: « Une étude sémantique de l’étonnement dans le nouveau Testament »).

“The application for the scholarship of the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres at the EBAF requires one to submit a research paper at the end of his stay. As I have taken pleasure in following a number of courses and seminars this year, I have chosen to propose this thesis to the EBAF Academic Council in order to apply for validation of the EBAF’s student title (which is not obligatory): the approach to biblical texts according to the methods of semantics proposed by M. Christophe Rico attracted me and allowed me to renew my training in classical literature and comparative grammar, followed between France and Germany until my agrégation in grammar in 2015.

Anyone who has had some contact with Greek philosophers or who has been introduced to philosophy by the famous work of the Swiss philosopher Jeanne Hersch knows the importance of the link between wonder and thought; but the Gospel accounts also often mention the wonder of their protagonists and the witnesses they portray. Just think of the Annunciation, the miracles performed by the figure of Jesus or the accounts of the Resurrection: these narrative details give an incarnate colouring to the Gospels that has always fascinated me. So my curiosity was aroused when M. Rico spoke of the interest that a linguistic study of the expression of wonder in the New Testament could stimulate!

Our modern translations often use terms related to wonder or surprise to render different Greek terms, verbs or nouns, which overlap while remaining distinct. This work proposes first a semantic description which aims at giving tools to better appreciate and understand the richness of the Greek language on this point—I hope to have time to deepen it in order to propose an article. It is then up to the exegetes, if they wish, to appropriate its conclusions. This linguistic method applied to the New Testament in fact makes it possible to take a step back from exegesis and to reconsider these texts from an external point of view. One can then compare them, as a linguistic system, with related literary works, to shed light on their similarities and specificities, here on the lexical level.

My conclusions concern first of all the structure of the semantic domain of wonder as it can be reconstructed from its usage in the New Testament: the least marked term is thaumázein, to wonder or marvel, which makes it possible to describe the fundamental emotion of wonder. I was also surprised to note the rather significant differences in the place given to this emotion from one evangelist to another, or in comparison with the epistles: for example, there is little wonder in John or in the Apocalypse—though this does not mean that this emotion is not important. Mark is the only one to insist on wonder as stupor, using the verb (ek)thambeîsthai, to be amazed, even to be afraid, which is rare in the Greek of that time. The other authors more readily describe wonder from the physical or cognitive impact it has on the person experiencing it: a shock (ekplḗssesthai) or a profound cognitive alteration, which can go, in rare cases, as far as a modification of consciousness (existánai, exístasthai, ekstasis which gives ecstasy in English). Fear, phóbos, is sometimes close, but the terms generally preserve the fundamental idea of an emotion that arises in the face of the unexpected or the extraordinary—the latter merges into fear only when the unexpected is perceived as a threat, immediate or more blurred : in Gethsemane, Mark presents Jesus as experiencing fear and anguish by coordinating ekthambeîsthai kai adēmoneîn (Mk 14:33) ; the porosity of the two areas, exploited by the evangelist, is perceptible, for here it is no longer exactly a question of being amazed!

Working simultaneously on my doctoral research and on this dissertation has been a great stimulus for me: doctoral work involves a continuous, sometimes arid, reflection over several years. This dissertation is part of a more modest framework, where reflection is concentrated over one year. My doctoral thesis is a literary and formal analysis of the Jewish and Christian Sibylline Oracles, a collection of oracles written in Greek poetic language. The oracles’ ancient editors claim that the Sibyl proclaims the Last Judgement and various catastrophes, interweaving biblical and epic references. Attention to the metrics and choice of words used to paraphrase the biblical episodes is constant in this work, and this has overlapped with the method used in this dissertation: starting from ongoing attention to the text and its lexicon to try to extract salient facts from it, as well as setting aside what one believes one knows a priori.

I am grateful to the AIBL, the EBAF and M. Christophe Rico for giving me a framework to explore an area that I would not necessarily have had the courage to confront without these ideal conditions.”

Xavier Lafontaine
Doctoral student in religious sciences (University of Strasbourg)
and in Greek Philology (University of Rome La Sapienza)
Fellow of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres

To consult the conditions of admission to the scholarships, click here.