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St Paul the Word Sower

December 20th, 2022 | 8 min read

By Andrew Beer

“Word sower” deserves reviving. It comes from the Douay-Rheims translation of Acts 17:18: “What is it, that this word sower would say?” The word sower in question is the Apostle Paul, visiting Athens. “Word sower” is a literal rendering of the Latin word seminiverbius, which was intended as a calque of the Greek word spermológos. For a thousand years and more, the Latin translation was a cherished honorific of Christian preachers, the sowers of God’s Word. The tradition goes back, through the Glossa Ordinaria and the commentaries of St. Bede and Cassiodorus, to a sermon preached by St. Augustine. Augustine’s Bible contained an earlier version of the Latin, seminator verborum, “sower of words,” which sent Augustine’s mind directly to the Parable of the Sower. As the sower in the parable scatters seed along the roadside, on rocky ground, and among thorns before finally finding good soil, so Paul preaches to the ridicule of the learned until he finds those few Athenians who “cleaved to him and believed” (17:34).

But this interpretation is problematic. It is not fellow Christians who hail St. Paul as spermológos but rather Stoic and Epicurean philosophers, who intend not to honor but to mock him. To them, Paul appears not as a sower of God’s Word, but as a babbling idiot, which is what the word spermológos really means. How then did St. Paul the babbling idiot become the exemplary Sower of God’s Word? And does the curious history of spermológos and its Latin interpretation hold any importance for Christians today?

First, a bit of etymology: The possibility for such widely divergent translations is due to the peculiar character of the Greek word and its constituents. On the one hand, Latin tradition from its earliest days took spermo– in the sense of sperma (“seed”), which derives from the verb speirō—“to sow” or “scatter.” The latter half of the compound (-logos) was then understood simply as “word”—hence “sower of words” (seminator verborum), which was later simplified to “word sower” (seminiverbius). Modern etymology, however—going back at least as far as Erasmus’s Annotationes in Novum Testamentum (1516)—while also deriving spermo- from sperma, explains –logos as originating from the verb legō in the sense of “pick up” or “gather.” Spermológos was thus used not with the meaning “word sower” but rather “seed picker,” and not with any flattering implications.

In the first place, “seed picker” is a kind of bird, the rook, which in Latin is corvus frugilegus, “the fruit picker.” A hint of the word’s semantic range emerges from the fact that “rook” in English was once used, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, as “a derogatory term for: a disreputable, greedy, garrulous, or slovenly person.” This comes close to the Stoics and Epicureans’ use of spermológos of St. Paul. For a second meaning of spermológos is “gutter bird” or “gutter snipe,” a bird that sifts through the gutters of streets in search of seeds; or, like “gutter snipe” in English, it can be used pejoratively of a low-class child. A further meaning—defined by Bauer, Danker, Arndt, and Gingrich—is “scrapmonger” or “scavenger,” which can refer in particular to “people who spend their time around stores and markets to pick up scraps from the produce and live off them”—something like our word “trash digger.” Metaphorically, the word was applied to a person whose communication lacks sophistication, who seems to pick up scraps of information here and there.

Joshua Jipp, who translates the word “unmethodical scavenger,” notes that, “The slur against Paul refers to the philosophers’ perception of him as a philosophically untrained novice who spouts forth bits of street philosophy.” Most English translators thus opt for “babbler” or something similar. Something like babbling scrapmonger, or David Bentley Hart’s “dithering seed picker,” conveys more of the word’s full derisive force. This is what St. Paul the “word sower” is really taken to be by certain philosophers of Athens, a babbling scrapmonger. But this fact was not lost upon St. Augustine—the apparent originator of the traditional Latin interpretation. In his Sermon 150, Augustine remarks, “[the apostle] was called ‘a sower of words’ [verborum seminatorem] by those who mocked his preaching of the truth. Indeed, it was a name given by mockers, but not to be rejected by believers. For in truth he was a sower of words, but also a reaper of good works.” Later in the same sermon, Augustine imagines himself directly addressing Paul’s critics and wryly retorts: quod fuit convicium vestrum, officium est meum, “what you said in derogation, is my own solemn obligation.” While Augustine understood that Paul’s philosopher critics were mocking him, he did not hesitate to claim “word sower” as a fitting title for a Christian preacher.

You see now the reason for my scare quotes around the phrase “word sower” in the title of this essay. They are a caution that the original Greek word is elusive, if not unreachable by mere translation. For though in the mouth of Paul’s critics the word drips with disdain, yet it becomes the very word that gives us, through Latin interpretation, our own precious phrase “word sower”—the perfect epithet for every teacher of Christian truth. What better way of describing the humble yet careful handing on of God’s Word and the conditions necessary for its reception and growth, from tiny seed to great fruit? But, then, is the word’s original meaning merely a strange coincidence, of little importance for the current meaning of “word sower”?

Before answering that question, let us consider the rest of Paul’s visit to Athens, the entirety of which is the basis for Augustine’s interpretation of seminator verborum. After his disputes in the synagogue and marketplace, having received his new nickname from the local intelligentsia, Paul is ushered to the Areopagus, the Hill of Ares, near the center of Athens. Here he proclaims to all those gathered the “unknown God,” the very God whom the Athenians have been worshiping without knowing it, the God who made the world and everything in it. Paul even quotes from two Greek poets, but when he finally exhorts his audience to repent before God judges the world with justice in the man whom He raised from the dead—he gets a mixed response. Many begin to mock him openly; the more polite say, “we’ll hear you talk about this another time”; a much smaller group, only two are mentioned by name, “cleaved to him and believed.” The verb translated “cleaved to” (kollaō) literally means “to glue” or “cement.” Their belief was such that they became as if “glued” or “cemented” to St. Paul (Acts 17:19–34).

Let us underline two qualities of St. Paul’s “word sowing.” Throughout his stay in Athens, Paul never ceases to appear to many Athenians as a babbling scrapmonger, as an object of ridicule and contempt, as a spermológos in the original derogatory sense of the word. And yet the very words he speaks, or sows, which make him appear so foolish to many, are also the instrument of forming, between St. Paul and a few others, bonds as fast as cement.

Such reflections reveal the great distance that divides modern translations of Acts 17:18 from the traditional Latin interpretation. Whereas Latin tradition was able to bear in mind the insult, while also discerning a deeper significance in the word—namely, its resonance with other agricultural imagery throughout the New Testament—the consensus of modern scholarship leaves today’s Greek-less and Latin-less readers of the Bible with only the insult. St. Paul has ceased to be a “word sower”; he is now merely a vulgar “seed picker” or “scrapmonger.”

Where does this leave Christian readers of Acts 17:18 today? Are they wrong to recognize St. Paul as the Word Sower, just as Latin-speaking Christians did for over a thousand years? And what translation of spermológos should they print in their Bible? Perhaps, as far as our translating goes, we should follow the example of Erasmus, who, in spite of all the erudition of his notes on Acts 17:18, still opted for a freshly updated version of the traditional Latin interpretation: verbisator, “word sower,” is what Erasmus printed in his Latin translation of 1516. Later, in his Paraphrase on the Acts of the Apostles, he chose rather to leave the word untranslated, simply printing spermológos —thereby, in fact, reviving the tactic of some of the earliest Latin translators. In the end, their ignorance and Erasmus’s erudition produced the same result. St. Paul is simply a spermológos —a vile scrapmonger to some, a sower of God’s Word to others.

But surely the eyes and ears of faith can perceive in this strange coincidence a startling revelation of the true character of Christian witness. St. Paul himself, in his own writings, often displays a certain magnificent eloquence of self-depreciation. In Ephesians 3, for example, he declares that he is “the very least of all the holy ones”—a declaration which prompted St. Augustine (in his Sermon 101) to develop a fanciful etymology of the name “Paul,” in Latin Paulus. In Latin the word for “the very least” is minimus, the superlative degree of the adjective parvus (“small”). Thus Paul, in a certain sense, is the “smallest” of all the holy ones. By yet another strange coincidence, the word paulus in Latin also means “little” or “small.” To Augustine’s thinking, the Apostle we know as Paul would be better called “Small”—St. Small the Apostle! Through the Roman surname Paulus, God, Augustine imagines, was revealing to us the secret strength of smallness.

But surely the best example of Paul’s eloquent self-depreciation is 1 Corinthians 4:9–13.

I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.

The Greek words translated “scum” and “refuse” are perikatharmata and peripsēma. They are closely related words. The first comes from a verb which means “to cleanse all around” or “to cleanse on all sides,” but the noun perikatharma refers not to the act of cleaning but rather to all the filth that is removed in the process. Similarly, peripsēma comes from a verb which means “to wipe all around” or “to wipe clean” but refers to “that which is removed by the process of cleansing.” As a father of several young boys, I have a vivid sense of the words’ literal meaning. I have often seen perikatharmata and peripsēmata clinging to the walls and bottom of the bath tub after thorough cleanings.

The metaphor is different from that implied by spermológos, but it contains the same startling revelation of the humiliation—the reduction of one’s self to the level of the ground (humus)—required of those who endeavor to bear witness to Christ. Paul—St. Small—whether as spermológos, minimus, perikatharma, or peripsēma, lives out in his very person the teaching of Christ, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.” (John 12:24–25) St. Paul the Word Sower, St. Small the Apostle, pray for us!

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