Friday, April 29, 2011

socialist Bible note of the day: two comments from Bill Colsher

Bill Colsher sent two emails that I'm sharing with his permission. For folks less obsessed with the Bible or translation, I'll note that semitic refers to a family of languages in the Middle East. In Jesus's time, Hebrew had died out; it only survived as a scholarly language. People in the region spoke Aramaic: the semitic words in the New Testament are Aramaic, not Hebrew.

Bill's first email addresses the choice of Mammon in the King James Bible instead of an English equivalent like riches, which the Wycliffe and Geneva Bibles used:

Turns out that apart from proper nouns, there are 12 "for sure" Semitic words in the Greek NT and one of them is a "semiticised" Latin word. There are 5 more or less uncertain words, and of course the famous last words: "eli, eli...". [1]

Here they are, with citations and usage in KJV
’abba’ - father - Mark xiv. 36 - indirect speech, not translated.
beyth hesda’ - house of grace - John v. 2 - used as in the Greek, i.e. "called in Hebrew Bethesda".
gabb’tha’ - hill - John xix. 13 - used as in the Greek, i.e. "called in Hebrew Gabbatha".
gulgalta’ - skull - Matthew xxvii. 33 - used as in the Greek, i.e. "called Golgotha".
’eth ’phattah be opened! - Mark vii. 34 - indirect speech, not translated, passage then translates.
keypha’ - rock, cliff - John i. 42 - indirect speech, not translated, passage then translates.
l’ghyon - Latin Legio - Mark v. 9 - indirect speech, the demon naming himself, in Latin !?
mamona’ - money - Matthew vi. 24 - not translated.
m’shiha - anointed one - John i. 41 - indirect speech, not translated, passage then translates.
satana’ - opponent - Matthew iv. 10 - indirect speech, not translated.
sikhra’ - intoxicating drink - Luke i. 15 - translated. This is the "wine and strong drink" passage. Since distillation had not yet been discovered one wonders what is meant.
tabhy’tha - gazelle - Acts ix. 36 - Used as a name & translated.

The uncertains:

ῥαββουνί - Mark x. 51 - Translated as "lord", presumably with the assumption it's a corrupt form of "rabbi".
βοανεργές - Mark iii. 17 - A name, explained as "Sons of Thunder".
ῥακκά - - Matthew v. 22 - untranslated, presumably a curse.

The Very Uncertains:

Μαρανα θα - I Corinthians xvi. 22 - untranslated.
Ταλιθα κουμ - Mark v. 41 - indirect speech, not translated, passage then translates.
So... what do we have here? There are only 5 instances of Semitic words left untranslated in the KGV which do not also have an "in text" explanation:

Μαρανα θα
The pattern here is simple and completely consistent: in each case, the translators have chosen to use the Semitic word "as written" (recall that the teams were explicitly instructed NOT to add explanations). This is exactly the same approach used with the words that are translated to Greek "in text". Unless there are specific notes left by the translators (and there might well be) there doesn't appear to be any agenda here. Each of those passages is well translated and accurately reflects the Greek.

The doubtful case of ῥαββουνί has an obvious explanation, but without knowing exactly which manuscript(s) they were using one can't draw any conclusions.


[1] Hebrew, Aramaic, and the Greek of the Gospels Author(s): W. Leonard Grant Source: Greece & Rome, Vol. 20, No. 60 (Oct., 1951), pp. 115-122

Bill's second note is about the Geneva Bible's translation of James 2:6, "But ye haue despised the poore. Doe not the riche oppresse you by tyrannie, and doe not they drawe you before the iudgement seates?":

As it happens, there's no mention of tyranny in the Greek text. What it says, more or less literally is:
You have been treating the poor with contempt. Do not the wealthy oppress you and do they not drag you into court (with lawsuits)?
As to tyranny... note that "tyranny" had a rather different meaning back in the day. It was just another form of government, and while any given tyrant might be resented or even assassinated (typically by the opposing "party's" thugs so they could set up their guy) "tyranny" per se was not viewed as completely evil as it tends to be today. In times of unrest, tyranny was generally seen as a good thing. The Romans even had an official way to appoint a tyrant, though they called him a dictator, for a limited period (at least until Julius Caesar got appointed "dict. perp.").

The Geneva Bible version exhibits two of the cardinal sins against good translation. It inserts a clause ("by tyrannie") that is unjustified by the original and it uses the phrase in a contemporary way, rather than they way the word would have been understood by the writer's audience. The KJV is the more accurate translation in this instance.

Now, being the close reading classicist wannabe that I am, I just noticed that this passage (in context) implies an at least 3 layer economic system with regards to getting into heaven:

The Poor - presumably those who literally do not know where their next meal is coming from and, according to the text, dress in rags. They've got it made in the shade as long as they have faith.

The People Being Addressed - who are holding the poor in contempt - apparently retail level merchants, craftsmen, brothel owners, etc. In any case, they have enough wealth to be worth dragging into court. If this was Rome, that gold ring would indicate senatorial rank. Better not be mean to poor people or you won't get in.

The Wealthy - Since they're dragging people into court, these guys are are citizens, possibly Roman, but at least of the local "polis". It's pretty clear that when James uses the words οἱ πλούσιοι he's talking about a specific subset of wealthy persons (the ones who can oppress the regular guys who have gold rings and colored clothing). Now, since this epistle was written in the late first to early second century, that is, within the first generation after the sack of Jerusalem, and James is writing to Jews, those specific wealthy persons are almost certainly Roman tax farmers and land speculators who've come in to try to make some quick profits. These guys are screwed unless they straighten up and fly right.

So the take-aways for James 2 are:

1) be nice to poor people or else
2) It's probably a bad idea to oppress your neighbors or sue them
3) If you violate even the smallest part of "the law" you're truly fucked
4) You must have faith and do good deeds, otherwise you're out


Brother Will says: Many thanks for the research! I love this stuff too much. But I have to disagree with two of your conclusions:

King James' agenda is in the instructions. By not putting explanations in the text and by not translating obscure words, the ability to interpret the Bible is kept in the hands of priests who have royal approval. Translators are always torn between the desire to be faithful to the text and faithful to the meaning. When Wycliffe made the Bible available to anyone who could understand English, he chose to favor meaning; the Geneva Bible followed his example.

Now, whether the Geneva scholars followed that example too far when they added "by tyranny" to James 2:6 is a trickier point. They wanted it to be clear that though the "judgement seats" were legit legally, they were not legit morally.