“Encountering Christ”: What Does that Mean?

Spontaneously, all converts say, “I met Jesus.” What do they mean?

What is mysterious is not only the fact that it is Jesus, but the fact of the encounter itself. The main nowadays common meaning of the verbs “to encounter” or “to meet” are not so old. Previously, converts could only say, “I have found Jesus, or “I have known Jesus.” In the first case, one is tempted to ask them “where;” and in the second “how.” Some word was missing to carry an important unspoken meaning; and this lack seriously handicapped ancient theology, Latin or Greek.

The old meaning of “to meet” ‒from Germanic origin‒ was “to come into the same place with.” Later on, a possible physical contact was added to the meaning, or in the figurative sense of an agreement. For its part, the word “encounter” was built on the French adverb “contre” (Latin “contra”, in front of, against) with the thought of a confrontation. These words are however inadequate to describe the experience of the converts.

A Word to Say What?

Indeed, there is a difference between being with someone in the same room and actually meeting him. When you simply see a person, even if you notice him, nothing happens. But if you stop and talk to that person, something happens—an exchange. From then on, something is changed in me and also in the other person. Of course, things can go wrong and end up in a fight. Or, on the contrary, everything goes so well that in older French, we spoke of “se marier contre un(e) tel(le)” [marrying against such a one]. The word “encounter” gained this perspective of a very particular experience, while it is more the verb “to meet” that suggests it.

What is changed in me and in the other person? It is indefinable precisely; it depends on many things (circumstances, the past). If, therefore, the word “encounter” is too vague to constitute a true concept, it at least means that something has influenced my “personhood” at the same time as that of the other person—the term “person” being a word invented (not in the recent times but as early as the 3rd or 4th century) in order to highlight our becoming [at the beginning of the 6th century, Boethius tried to define what a “person” is; he gave six or seven definitions (it is not simple). He did not create the word, he contributed in popularizing it]—we are individuals endowed with reason and above all with relationships, and therefore perfectible. It is Christians who invented this word. It is also appropriate to speak of the relationships in the very Life of the One God who revealed Himself in three “Persons” who are perfect (they do not need perfection).

In fact, it was also (Western) Christians who extended the meaning of the words “encounter” and “to meet” as we can use them today: an “encounter” of Jesus changes something in our lives and in us—and more than a little. In Aramaic, such a word already existed, so to speak—qurbanah, i.e., to go as far as to touch or be touched; this word was retained to designate what in the West was called “Mass.” The word “mass” does not mean anything; let us imagine that the word “encounter” existed as early as the 2nd century: it would certainly have been used to say that on Sundays, Christians go “to the Encounter.” The term would be defined by itself: to touch/be touched by God. It would have been wonderful.

Each “encounter” with Jesus is a unique but also relative experience. Rather than trying to highlight features that would be common to the testimonies of converts or even to those of other people, it seems more appropriate to look at how all these encounters announce a plenary encounter. For the encounters of Our Lord here below are never absolute—they are clearly foretastes of something that can only take place outside the framework of this present world.

Preparing for a Plenary Encounter

We must therefore speak of a plenary Meeting of Jesus, of which those of our earthly life are, so to speak, preparations. This Encounter that awaits us can have two plenary “forms”:

  • the first is that which, in the “depths of death” (Catechism of the Catholic Church no. 635) , awaits the soul of every deceased person facing the soul of Christ “descended into hell” (Sheol– שאול, not Gehenna, the Hell of the doomed, according to Hebrew terminology), an encounter linked to Salvation, for we can only go to the Father through Him whose name means “He saves” or “Salvation” (in Hebrew) [ Introduced by the recalling that Jesus himself descended into the “mystery of death” and that through him “the gospel was also proclaimed to the dead” (1 Pet 4:6), no. 634 constitutes, together with no. 635, the heart of the understanding of the section of the CCC devoted to the Descent into Hell: “‘The gospel was preached even to the dead.’ The descent into hell (שאול) brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment. This is the last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ’s redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption” (no. 634)];
  • the second is the one that historically awaits those who will be on earth at the moment when Christ appears as the “Son of Man,” according to the words of the prophecy of Daniel 7:13 and countless proclamations in the Gospels; and it will be an encounter of Judgment for some, but of salvation-vivification for those who will have waited for it and will have suffered from the Anti-Christ (Heb 9:28).

These are two different things, which are neither superimposed nor combined: personal destiny beyond death and the judgment of humanity are not the same thing, even if we can underline analogies between one and the other, as we shall see, and the experience of the encounter with Christ in the course of our life on earth already has a little to do with both. Of course, it would be necessary to (re)give a whole teaching here on both of these two plenary “forms” of the Encounter with Jesus; we can only refer here to the all too rare serious studies which speak of them.

For some, one difficulty is the nature of the Encounter with Christ, whatever its “form” or its time: an encounter of Light or in the Light (it does not really matter); that would be too simple. The Encounter of the Light is linked to salvation: the light of Christ illuminates the shadows—the turpitudes of the past life—so that one can no longer lie or pretend. One can only ask for forgiveness, which allows one to start moving towards the Light. In the best of cases. For if one refuses to ask for forgiveness, the Meeting turns sour: one will flee from the light (Jn 3:21).

“What you have hidden from the wise and the learned, you have revealed to the little ones,” Jesus tells the Father (Matthew 11:25). Everything is simple for those who want to understand clearly.

[As early as the 17th century, Puritan preachers misunderstood this passage from St. Paul 1Thess 4:15-17: “We who will be left alive in [the length of] the Coming (Aramean: bə-meṯīṯēh) of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who will be still alive and left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.”

They have imagined in it the announcement of a “rapture of the [true] Christians”, whereas what St. Paul describes there, in a somewhat rudimentary way, is what is to happen at the end of the time of the Parousia, “when he will hand over the Kingdom to God the Father” (1Co15:24), i.e. Jesus comes down to hand over the participants of his Kingdom to his Father.

The Anglo-Irish Rev. John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) spread this doctrine of the “Rapture”, which became popular in the United States, to the point of giving rise to a novel (Left Behind) and to a movie; in the rest of the world, this doctrine made people smile].

Theologian and Islamologist, Father Edouard-Marie Gallez is the author of the magisterial  Le messie et son prophète (The Messiah and His Prophet), published in Paris in 2005 (and awaiting an English translation), which is an 1100 -page study that reconnects the origins of Islam to factual history by showing that the Koran and Islamic legends developed gradually over time. This study paved the way of current research into early Islam. See Roots of Islam and the Great Secret. Father Gallez also participates in research groups on early Christianity and its influence.

Featured: “Apparition du Christ aux pélerins d’Emmaüs (Appearance of Christ to the Disciples in Emmaus—Supper at Emmaus),” by Laurent de La Hyre; painted in 1656.

Aramaic: Lingua Franca Of The Ancient World

It is only in Heaven that we will see the truth about everything. On earth, it is impossible. So, even for Sacred Scripture, isn’t it sad to see all the differences in translation. If I had been a priest, I would have learned Hebrew and Greek, I would not have been satisfied with Latin, as I would have known the real text dictated by the Holy Spirit.
(Saint Therese of Lisieux, “The Last Interviews,” in the Yellow Book of Mother Agnès, August 4, 1897).

Thérèse of Lisieux is undoubtedly right, but to learn the language in which our Lord deigned to express himself, we must ask ourselves what that language was. Jesus could not ignore the Hebrew language, that of Revelation, but it was then no more than a liturgical language, what today we would call a “dead language.” The oral language, the language of communication, was Aramaic, the history of which begins with that of the men who brought it with them.

These Aramaeans were Semites who burst out of the desert to conquer the fertile lands of Mesopotamia and Syria. They went everywhere, settling, seizing supplies, creating little kingdoms.

Then arose Assyria, the empire of war, of force, of power – the “Hitlerites of the ancient world.” As soon as Assyria awakened, the various small Aramaic kingdoms disappeared, one after the other. But they left their language and their gods to the world.

This language, the Assyrians themselves would adopt. On several figurative documents concerning Aramaic origin, in particular on one of the frescoes of Til Barsip, we see depicted side-by-side an Assyrian scribe who writes on a tablet, and an Aramaic scribe who writes on a sheet of parchment or papyrus (13th century to the 9th century BC). But what the Assyrians instituted was not a properly Mesopotamian dialect of Aramaic but common Aramaic. Thus, a body of Aramaic scribes was officially constituted inside Assyrian administration.

In 632 BC, the Assyrians disappeared from the face of the earth. Then a new power arose – the Persians.

They were called the Achaemenids, among whom the prominent name is Darius the Great. With the Achaemenids, the Iranians became “the imperial race of Asia,” to use Roman Ghirshman’s phrase. In terms of political organization, Greece hardly arose beyond the polis – the State remained the City there. The Persians, for their part, developed an entity which, in its unity, encompassed countries of various races and cultures, united by the cogs of a vast administration. and above all else, these peoples were protected by a powerful army against foreign domination (especially against the persistent threat of nomads from the North and East). This empire, which remained a warrior one, was nevertheless driven by a desire for association rather than the thirst for domination, so characteristic of Assyria that always retained a powerful fascination.

The Achaemenids also made the linguistic choice of Aramaic, for reasons, no doubt, a little different than those which motivated the Assyrians; and it indeed seems to be a more conscious choice.

The use of cuneiform for writing Old Persian dates back at least to Teipses (as evidenced by the gold tablet of his son, Ariaramnes). At the time of the transformation of the small kingdom of Pars into empire, this language and this writing were only accessible to a minority of the ruling class. However, the rapidity of the formation of the Achaemenid Empire precluded the possibility of translating Persian into all languages. It was therefore necessary to choose an already existing language. But, also, by this time, Aramaic had spread throughout anterior Asia to western Iran. It was therefore Aramaic that the Persians adopted.

The Achaemenids had three other languages of culture, but it was this fourth language that they chose. Persia owes a great deal to the Kingdom of Urartu. From Urartu came the use of the breastplate. The Urartians transmitted their arts and techniques to the Iranians, as well as their strategy of conquest in their great symbols. According to Herodotus (III, 85), Darius obtained his crown thanks to his squire and his horse, just like King Rusa of Urartu. The traditions of the Urartian chancelleries were followed by the Persians: it is only in the Urartu texts that a royal inscription is divided into parts, so each one begins with “Thus spoke King X…,” which is found in the inscriptions of Achaemenid kings.

The most famous piece of Achaemenid glyptic belongs to Darius the Great. It is inscribed with his name and bears a text written in three languages. The use of cuneiform writing was not, however, completely abandoned, though it was reduced to stone inscriptions on monuments.

Thus, being already a lingua franca throughout the Near and Middle East, with the Achaemenids, Aramaic took on the status of an official language throughout Asia; and it remained in use, in particular in state affairs, from Egypt to India, where documents written in Aramaic have been found. If in Elam, one wrote in Elamite, and in Babylon in Babylonian, then all the Persian chancelleries used Aramaic.

The Achaemenid Persians also then were the enemy to be defeated, for Alexander the Great. The archives of the Achaemenid Empire were kept in Ecbatana (the Bible makes it clear), and the excavations at Persepolis and Suza confirm this. Alexander stored there all the treasures of the capitals looted during his campaigns.

This Hellenization, which is held to be the marvelous consequence of this lightning raid of unheard-of insolence, actually began long before, and rather peacefully. It was when the ancient kingdom of Urartu was formed (ca. 800 BC) that a slow expansion of the Greeks around the coasts of Asia Minor took place. Greek merchants had found on the Pontic coast iron, wax, linen, wool, precious metals, cinnabar, bronze, wood, furniture, fabrics, as well as Elamite and Median embroidery. Iran was not excluded from trade between Greece and the East. On the contrary, there was an Irano-Urartian koine, which then extended from the Oxus to the Ganges, and indisputably linked artistic traditions (some attest to the links between Crete and Iran), and therefore to techniques, in particular, metallurgy. And all interaction was probably not in one language.

Alexander’s conquest marked a pause in the development of Persian art (constant for seven centuries), as in all likelihood the use of Aramaic also marked a pause. But Alexander’s empire did not last. Thereafter, the Parthians came to the forefront of history, firmly determined to oust the Seleucid monarchy, one of the three monarchies that were heir to Alexander, and thus to reconquer Iran. They took a little over a century to accomplish all this. At the time of the Achaemenid Empire, the region where these Parthians settled existed under the name of the “Parthian satrapy.”

The Parthian Empire was born in a great expansion of the Iranian tribes of the steppes which spread to the four corners of the horizon, from the Black Sea with the Sarmatians, to the mouth of the Indus with the Saka, and from the Euphrates with the Parthians to eastern India with the Kushans. This vast area, despite the diversity of peoples and countries, climates and landscapes that it contained, became what René Grousset called, “outer Iran,” where a composite yet enduring civilization was established. Such was the Parthian element that founded, rebuilt, enriched, and stabilized civilization in this part of the world.

Much of Parthian history took place during the reigns of thirty-two kings, all of whom bore the same name, Arsaces; hence the Arsacid dynasty If they chose the path of Iranism, it was not only because they believed it more capable of supporting them in their fight against the Seleucids, then vis-a-vis the Romans who claimed to realize in their Eastern policy the imperialist conceptions of ‘Alexander the Great, but because the Parthians were more Iranian than Greek. It was not just a political choice, but a deep affinity. It was a conscious decision, not solely a political choice.

And for this reconquest and this refoundation, the Parthians relied on the language that the Achaemenids, of whom they considered themselves to be successors, had adopted before them, namely, Aramaic, which was also then made the language of the chancellery. The ostraca that have been found are either bilingual (Indo-Aramaic, or Greco-Aramaic), or only in Aramaic. This means that Aramaic extended as far as the Kushan empire and therefore Bactria, which had long been Hellenized (historians speak of the Greco-Bactrians).

Their empire lasted five centuries, and it was nurtured by an unprecedented event.

In 105, King Mithridates II received the first Chinese embassy in his capital of Hecatompylos. He concluded a commercial treaty with China, which guaranteed him monopoly on silk. The center of gravity of the Persian world now changed – from the banks of the Tigris, it moved towards Bactria and Sogdiana. Many cities were then transformed into merchant cities, provisioning and training the leaders of the caravans, including Palmyra, which was to be called to a singular destiny.

Thus, under the pax parthica, in the first century of our era, two men set out. One was called Bartholomew, the other Thomas. In the heart of Asia, where Iran was the cultural engine, but which had chosen the Semitic language of Aramaic, and within an empire which felt a particular sympathy for the Jewish world, these two men were to go far, even to the ends of the earth, to evangelize and to found churches.

The Word not only prepared His coming, He also prepared the conditions for the dissemination of His Message. And by learning the language in which our Lord deigned to speak, we can focus on understanding the role that that language has played in history in general and in that of Christians in particular.

Marion Duvauchel is a historian of religions and holds a PhD in philosophy. She has published widely, and has taught in various places, including France, Morocco, Qatar, and Cambodia.

[The original article in French was translated by N. Dass]

The featured images shows “the Kandahar Sophystos Inscription,” ca. 260 BC, or later. It is a metrical, bilingual (Greek and Aramaic) inscription. The Greek acrostic down the side reads: “ΔΙΑ ΣΩΦΥΤΟΥ ΤΟΥ ΝΑΡΑΤΟΥ (Dia Sophytou tou Naratou): By Sophistos, son of Naratos.”