Title: Joy & Joyful

Part 2: Understanding

Aug 09, 2021

2. Seeking to Understand “Joy.”

What is joy? We would like to know how joyful the society and the individual people were. The problem with this question is finding a good definition of “joyful.” Maybe the word cannot be defined. “Joy” is a concept that escapes dictionary-style definition, because it is a feeling or sense of being (or whatever) that is deep within a person. However, even if we cannot define it, we can discuss the concept.

            A Christmas letter I received from a colleague commented, “So often when we hear the word ‘joy’ it equates to a state of happiness, as if it is a feeling. However, as I was doing some research around the origins of the word ‘joy,’ I found a simple explanation that brings this word to life. Joy means “to boast, glory, exult...” The one who wrote this letter was apparently referring to the many Hebrew words that are often found in poetic parallelisms with the basic word for “joy,” samakh. Such references have to do with singing and dancing in corporate worship and it seems likely that joyful Jewish worship carried over into daily life. We just now noted that joy requires a sense of trust, and Jewish celebration affirmed that God is trustworthy.[1]

Joy seems to be a universal human response, but its manifestation and vocabulary differ from culture to culture. Zephaniah 3:17 speaks in Hebrew of the joy that God has in regarding God’s people, and uses four words related to joy: “He will rejoice (sus) over you with gladness (samakh) . . . exult (gil) over you with loud singing (ranan).” The image is of God actually dancing, shouting, and singing for joy, an image of God utterly unknown to Greeks and Romans who felt that a deity should not demonstrate emotion. Very early in ancient literary history the Greek word “chará” referred to a feeling of joy. The Greek way of expressing “joy” both verbally and behaviorally seems different from the Hebrew. For example, the verbal description of joy in the Greek translation (LXX) of Zeph. 3:17 seems less demonstrative than in Hebrew. “Exult” (gil) becomes “will feel gladness” (euphrainō). In the New Testament, Christian Greek expression includes passages such as “you will have joy (chará) and gladness and many will rejoice (charēsontai) at his birth” (Luke 1:14). This is a description of a birth in the Hebrew world, and the Greek word, chará, doesn’t capture the full sense of dancing and singing that would have been the community response to this birth. Existentially we are certain that everyone must sense “joy” as something other than mundane “happiness,” but, as we have said, “joy” is difficult, or even impossible, to define.

With this caution, let’s consider some vocabulary. If there is no way to talk about joyousness, then there must not be any joy, and this would be an unimaginable situation. Yes, the Greek language (and Christianity grew up in the Greek-speaking part of the Roman Empire) has a vocabulary for pleasure and joy.

            Perhaps most important is the family of words that include charis, chariō, and chará. Chariō can mean “to be merry,” and chará can reference merriness, or rejoicing, or a feeling of joy. What, then, is this kind of “joy?” Conzelmann tells us that, in the day-to-day secular world, the feeling of “‘joy’ is a culmination of being that raises no problems as such and that strains beyond itself.”[2]In other words, maybe “joy” is not only “of the moment,” but is also transcendent. Maybe that is a quality of “joy” in our own experience. Maybe, no matter how bad things are, the feeling of “joy” raises people above the pain and grief. This is important, and we will return to it toward the conclusion of this essay.

            Transcendence may not be the most common way to think about “joy.” Charis can be described as something that delights, but “delight” can be lowered to the level of ordinary social interaction. In our day we may refer to a host or hostess who practices good etiquette as being “delightful” or “gracious,” showing that this ancient understanding applies to all people at all times. The dinner party may not have been a truly joyous occasion, but we can say it was “delightful.” Related to this is “eucharisto,” a word that has entered our technical religious vocabulary, but that, in secular terms, meant “pleasant” or “graceful.” Again, the word can simply be a polite way of describing a social interaction which may not have really been “joyful.”

            There is another aspect to charis, in particular. Charis can make reference to gifts from the gods as well as thanks given to the gods. We often translate this as “grace.” The ancients saw such godly charis as power. One would petition the deity for charis, that is for power to gain someone’s love, or to win a sports contest, or to prevail in a law suit, and the means of petition could employ magic in addition to ordinary temple sacrifice. In our era we have a difficult time imagining how great a role magic played in Greek/Roman culture. However there is nothing joyful about magic. Magic is an activity of desperation. Asking a god for charis is not joyful.

            The philosophers, beginning with Plato and Aristotle, forsook words related to charis, and spoke instead about hēdonḗ, which we hear as “hedonism,” a bad word. Hēdonḗ, as used in the ancient world, was not necessarily bad, but it could be. The philosophers were divided. Stoicism was probably the most influential school in the first centuries BCE/CE, and the Stoics said hēdonḗ is bad.[3] New Testament writers agreed.



[1]Harvey, D., “Joy” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, v. 2, NY: Abingdon, 1962, p. 1,000; Lee, Eunny, “Joy” in The New Interpeter’s Dictionary of the Bible, v. 3, Nashville: Abingdon, 2008, p. 417.

[2] Conzelmann, H., TDNT (One volume abridged), p. 1299.

[3] TDNT (one volume abridged), p. 304.


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