The Bible translation I am most looking forward to this Fall is Everett Fox’s The Early Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. Fox tries to realize in English what Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig accomplished with their German Die Schrift.
While I need to wait until November 4th for the volume to appear, it is already partly readable in the “Look Inside” feature on Amazon. Reading portions of the Translator’s Preface make it sound like this will be an interesting volume. (Fox’s translation of the Pentateuch is my favorite recent translation of those books.)
Suppose that you could just revise one word in a Bible translation. Which word would it be?
Well, that’s the opportunity that presented itself to Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler in their (brand new for Simchas Torah) second edition of the (Oxford) Jewish Study Bible. They were able to persuade the Jewish Publication Society, which owns the copyright on the NJPS (“Tanakh”) translation to change one word.
The word they chose was חטאת, which they persuaded the JPS to allow them to present as “purification offering” rather than “sin offering.” Now doubtlessly this was a justifiable choice – after all, it is 43 years since Jacob Milgrom published his study “Sin-Offering or Purification-Offering,” persuasively arguing that “purification offering” was the better translation. But certainly there must be more words than that to revise!
Even in the first (2004) edition, Baruch Schwartz’s notes made it clear that he considered “purification offering” the better choice (in the way that scholarly study Bibles often correct the translation being used). And there are many more places in both the first and second editions that commentators suggest better translations than the NJPS used.
But there are so many other places one could revise. For example, David E. S. Stein, in a series of volumes (Torah: A Modern Commentary, The Contemporary Torah, Torah: A Women’s Commentary) has been making persuasive arguments for revising the NJPS translation of the Pentateuch and Haftoroh for nearly a decade. But instead, Berlin and Brettler decided just to settle on “purification offering.” Odd.
Berlin and Brettler say “in some cases, we sought new annotators to reflect more recent scholarship and to include more women and Israeli scholars.” (However, despite these words, a number of women got the boot in the second edition, including Carol Meyers – who was the consulting editor for the Genesis and Exodus in The Contemporary Torah. Neither can we somehow assume that the Berlin and Brettler were ignorant of The Contemporary Torah – in fact, Berlin was the consulting editor for Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy in that work. And the same editor, Ellen Frankel, was key to both The Jewish Study Bible and The Contemporary Torah.) Somehow, it seems that Berlin and Brettler were eager “to include more women” (even though that meant booting women) but were not eager to use a more accurate translation that better reflected the meaning of gender in the Pentateuch.
(Note: I hope to post a full review in due course. But for now, I’ll just mention my disappointment that much good material from the first edition has been deleted, including Elliot Wolfson’s sublime essay “The Glorious Name and the Incarnate Torah.”)
I was saddened to learn of the recent death of Ann Olivier from a lovely eulogy at Commonweal. Although we had fallen out of touch, Ann was a very significant influence during my years of self-directed theological study leading up to graduate school.
I first met Ann online in the autumn of 2004 when I joined the VaticanII-Documents group on Yahoo, which was beginning a round of detailed reading and group study of the council documents by email. It was a very large group, but Ann O., as she always signed herself, was one of the more frequent and substantive commenters, and I soon began to look for her contributions in particular. She was a generation older than I am, and hearing about her experience with the pre-conciliar church and the changes that resulted from the council was a real gift. She also brought the training and perspective from her PhD in philosophy into our theological discussion of the documents.
What I particularly remember about Ann’s participation in the group is that, while she often had strong opinions which she expressed spiritedly, she seemed to do so almost always without ego. I never got the sense that she took criticism of her opinions or arguments as a personal attack. The word that comes to mind is dispassionate, except that she wasn’t! She had a lively curiosity, and was always willing to wonder, to ask questions, and to follow the implications of an idea no matter where they led.
I dropped out of the group after a little over a year (partway through Lumen Gentium — I still regret not having gotten to do the close read of Dei Verbum or Gaudium et Spes with that group), but I had already started emailing with Ann and a couple of other women from the group offlist. We formed our own little email group for a while, discussing various theological and spiritual themes that interested us from our varied backgrounds and perspectives. This included the time when I was deciding, applying, and preparing to go to grad school for theology, and all three of these women were tremendously helpful and supportive of me during that process.
As I recall, Ann and I were both particularly interested in language, how language functioned liturgically and theologically and symbolically. She introduced me to the work of Wittgenstein (ever so slightly) and Lonergan (more seriously), so that when I encountered them in grad school, we were already acquaintances. As it turned out, my master’s thesis engaged with ecclesiologists who had been strongly influenced by Lonergan, and one theologian who correlated Lonergan with Girard.
My particular gift from Ann as I was preparing for grad school was twofold. First, she strongly recommended that I read a book called How to Read a Book.
“Ann,” I said. “I’ve been a voracious reader since I was four years old. Surely I know how to read a book by now!” But she was adamant that I would find it helpful, because I had expressed concern about the culture shock and other difficulties I might experience moving from the sciences to the humanities. And she was quite right: it was very helpful, especially as I transitioned out of the self-directed theological reading I’d been doing for a couple of years, during which I had been reading everything that interested me as fast as I could looking for the pieces that would “click,” that would fit, that would seem right. Reading this book helped me understand that although I was reading extensively, I had not been reading critically, and that this would be a critical (ahem) skill in grad school. (Science majors don’t do critical reading in college; we do math instead. Lots and lots of math!)
She also persuaded me to… to… to start writing… in my books. :gasp!: Words cannot convey the depths of horror with which I greeted this suggestion. Write in my books?? Write in my books??!! Blasphemy!! I was brought up better than that! Books are for reading, not for writing in! Only barbarians write in books! I… I… I don’t think I could!
But she kept encouraging me to do it, insisting that it was an invaluable way to really engage with ideas of a text, to have conversations with the author in the margins. She said I could use a mechanical pencil, because it had the finest point. I really respected her opinions, so I dubiously agreed to try it… once… in this book she thought I should read.
And sure enough, she was right. I started out by making little notations, question marks, exclamation points, asterisks. My marginal comments gradually expanded. I started circling key words; bracketing key phrases; and ended up by drawing all over the page to connect the key ideas to each other! I was a convert. To this day, when I’m deciding between hardcopy or ebook, I’ll buy the hardcopy if I will need to really engage with the text, so I can write in it. Without Ann, I would never have known the joy (and it is a joy) of arguing with authors in the margins. :)
We lost touch not long after I started school, but I have always remembered her with fondness and gratitude. I would occasionally come across a comment from her in the Catholic blogosphere and once again appreciate her clarity and perspective. And I still, often, think of her when I pick up a pencil to write in my books.
They say that when someone dies, while we who have lost them are mourning that they’re leaving us, the great cloud of witnesses in heaven are rejoicing, Here she comes!! I’m confident that Ann is gathered with the saints at the river, deep in spirited conversation by the river that flows by the throne of God.
This sentence is the one that the NobelPrize.org translator has left in French in the following excerpted “free English (not literal) [translation] of a telephone interview in French with Patrick Modiano following the announcement of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature, 9 October 2014. The interviewer is Hélène Hernmarck of Nobel Media.”
[HH] My name is Hélène and I’m calling from Nobelprize.org. Thank you for giving us the time to ask you a few questions.
[PM] Ah, yes, yes, yes.
[HH] Where were you when you received the news?
[PM] I was actually in the street. Yes, I was in the street. It was my daughter who notified me.
[HH] Oh your daughter called you on your mobile?
[PM] Yes, yes, yes. I was very touched. It gave me even greater pleasure because I have a Swedish grandson.
[HH] Where were you, in the centre of Paris? In which particular street?
[PM] Oh, I was just next to the Jardin de Luxembourg….
[HH] You’ve written 20 or 30 books. Is there a certain book that you take greater pleasure in, which signifies more to you than the others?
[PM] Listen, it’s difficult. I always have the impression that I write the same book. Which means it’s already 45 years that I’ve been writing the same book in a discontinuous manner. You don’t really know your reader.
[HH] Now that you will become world famous which book would you recommend everyone to read?
[PM] Yes, I always have the impression that’s the last book I write.
[HH] What’s the title?
[PM] It’s called Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier.
[HH] Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier?
[PM] Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier.It’s about losing perspective within your surroundings. The last book is always the one I recommend because it leaves you …
[HH] Wishing for more?
[PM] Yes, yes.
And, Henri Astier, for BBC News, makes these additional, related and somewhat pertinent observations:
Only a handful of his 25-odd novels have been translated into English.
One reason for this might be that Modiano’s storylines are as slim as the books themselves. They usually centre on young men cast adrift among high-living crooks in 1960s Paris. There is a sense of threat, but little is explained.
The plot, however, matters much less than the feelings evoked by his deceptively simple prose. Blurred memory plays a key role. Modiano’s narrators try to make sense of half-remembered events from their youth, looking back through a glass darkly.
The lack of clarity goes hand in hand with geographical precision – with each Paris location overlaid with layers of imperfect memories. The poetic character of Modiano’s writing may explain why few have ventured to translate him so far.
The bible begins with two creation stories, and each has its own purpose. Gen 1 tells the story of how all creation came to be, with the creation of humanity, male and female, as the culmination of creation. In this story, which is dominated by themes of generation and fertility, God tells people to be fertile and multiply, fill the earth; eat these things for your food, and leave those things as food for the animals. This is a story about the world, and humanity’s relationship to the world.
Genesis 2 tells a story about humanity. In Gen 2:18, God says “It is not good for the human to be alone,” determines that none of the animals are suitable companions for the human, and fashions a suitable companion from the side of the human, from the very same flesh. (Note the single-nature anthropology implied here: ie, there is a single human nature shared by women and men.) Gen 2:24 says “that is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body.” This is a story about the origin of marriage.
Notice that the story about the origin of marriage says nothing about procreation.
Davis shows this caption to an old photo:
And she explains what we know and do not know:
The photograph is of a “A warrior woman, near Kambole; insisted on fight with the men” according to the caption. While we do not know much other than the location (the date and name of the photographer are unknown), we do know that at some point the photograph was in the hands of an English speaker, and was probably taken by an English photographer as Zambia was part of the English colony of Rhodesia. The photograph belongs to a larger collection entitled “Scenes of daily life of natives and a foreign missionary in Malawi” (where it states that the collection is from not before 1862).
Now we are just about ready for the mother-tongue of the poem, Isaiah 54.
There are, of course, different ways of gazing and being gazed at, depending on who you are and how your body is sexed and what color it is. The two posts I’ve linked to above try to get at that. So to be just a little more ready, we might read the Hebrew-Bible Hebrew of Isaiah 54. My BLT co-blogger has called it HerBrew. Read it beside the 1917 JPS translation (mainly because, for Proverbs 31, our English translator, the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney gives her “[t]hanks to Leonard Greenspoon for pointing out that the 1917 JPS translation is ‘woman of valor'”). And you may want to see and to sound out the mother-tongue where the JPS has named “the LORD” out of respect.
Here that is: http://www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt1054.htm.
Now we may be ready, for her or him who has ears to hear, Isaiah 54 -
With a pregnant girlfriend in the news because she’s been allegedly beaten,
and two different 4-year-old boys of different mothers allegedly by the same father beaten,
and Janay Palmer,
and Nicki Holder,
and Candace Williams
in the NFL news,
and with Michael Brown dead
in the Ferguson, Missouri news,
I was reminded of the Bible,
and the ways that Wil Gafney,
a woman, African-
American, in the diaspora
(not so unlike what Brigitt Hamman
and Willis Barnstone see):
The normative portrayal of marriage in Ruth is a particular problem for English readers because it masks sexual and domestic violence in a text that has been canonized as scripture for Jews and Christians. There are at least three indicators that Ruth was abducted into marriage: (1) the use of the verb ns‘, “lift,” with “woman,” instead of the standard lach, “take (as wife),” (2) the long-standing Israelite practice of abduction or rape-marriage, and (3) the preferential abduction of foreign women for rape-marriage.
The verb in Ruth 1:4, vayis’u, from ns’, “to lift” or “pick up,” may be taken to indicate that Ruth and Orpah, both Moabite women, were abducted into marriage. I translate the first three works of Ruth 1:4, “They-abducted for-themselves Moabite-women. . . . ” The verb ns’ occurs 661 times in the MT. The primary meaning of ns’, according to The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (HALOT), is “to carry” or “to lift.” In virtually every translation of ns’ in which the object is not a person, the verb is rendered with some form of “lift,” “carry,” “take,” or something similar. Any thing or person may be the object of ns’: the hand (Deut. 32:20), prayer (Jer. 7:13), or sin may be lifted off of a person or community (Isa. 53:11), and so forth. In Ruth ns’ is also used to indicate lifting grain in 2:18. Women are the object of ns’ five times: Judges 21:23; Ruth 1:4; Ezra 10:44; 2 Chr. 13:21 and 24:3. Note that in Judges, the context is the abduction of sexually naive girls from Shiloh into forced or rape-marriages for the purpose of progeny. The verb chtph in Judges 21:21, “to catch” (women), functions as a synonym. In Ezra, the women in question are specified as foreign. In 2 Chr. 13:21, Abijah’s collection of women and the resulting offspring is cited as evidence of his strength in the previous verse, suggesting that these were abduction-marriages….
The normative verb indicating marriage in the Hebrew scriptures, lach, “to take,” with a woman as the object, indicates in every case in the Hebrew scriptures socially sanctioned union (Gen 4:19; Exod. 6:20; Jer. 16:2, and so on)…. Rape-marriage as a normative practice is introduced in Numbers 31, where sexually naïve girls are abducted as “booty,” shalal. It is codified subsequently in Deuteronomy 20,21, and 24. Among the modifications introduced are the shift of focus from any outsider girl whose people are designated as “enemies” (as in Num. 31:19) to “beautiful” women and girls among the enemy (Deut. 20:11). Deuteronomy20:12-13 also calls for the abducted women and girls to be stripped, their heads shaved, and their nails cut….
…. The very name, “Moab,” literally “from [my] father,” evokes the alleged incestuous and therefore despicable nature of all Moabites according to the Israelite account of their origins in the Genesis 19 account of Lot and his daughters. As a result, Moabites, particularly Moabite women, are highly sexualized in the scriptures of Israel, as are many contemporary Africana women readers of those same scriptures.
Given the specific vocabulary deployed in the text and Ruth’s identity as a Moabite woman — which she never escapes — Ruth is multiply marginalized, socially and sexually vulnerable. Ruth and Orpah’s marriages, therefore, hide dirty not-so-little secrets, covered up by generations of male translators. Yet the experience of abduction-marriage and forcible pregnancy is not unimaginable to contemporary Africana readers. In some parts of Eastern and raped into marriage.
The Associated Press (AP) ran a story on June 21, 2005, under an Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, dateline in which a twelve-year-old girl, kidnapped by men who wanted to force her into marriage, was rescued by three lions that chased off her abductors and guarded her until police and relatives located her. Sergeant Wondimu Wedajo of the local police reported that the men had held the girl for seven days, repeatedly beating her: “Often these young girls are raped and severely beaten to force them to accept the marriage.”
The AP report noted that in Ethiopia, kidnapping has been part of the marriage customs for quite some time and that the United Nations estimates that more than 70 percent of marriages in Ethiopia occured by abduction, particularly in rural areas where the majority of the country’s population lives. (The AP report did not delineate its sources).
Interpreters appealing to biblical narratives to describe idealized marriage have in many cases legitimized violence in marriage. Religious authorities (Bible translators, pastors, seminary professors) have been negligent (and, I argue, criminally so) in failing to expose the ways in which the biblical narrative sanctions and contributes to the abuse of women in general and wives in particular. By highlighting Ruth’s embrace of Naomi and Naomi’s god, interpreters of the book of Ruth have regularly overlooked the colence with which Ruth was initiated into marriage (and relationship with Naomi), as specified by the Biblical Hebrew vocabulary of that union. Biblical interpreters, like all readers, are shaped by their own constructed cultures, which they in turn lay onto the text even as they identify “biblical principles” for marriage. In doing so, lay and professional, clergy and academic interpreters of the Bible overlook the violence in which many women live, particularly in their marriages. Men in every part of the world rape their wives. According to Molly Egan and Jason Wood’s 1999 Lehigh University report, The Abolition of Marital Rape Exemption, in the United States, spousal rape was criminalized by only seventeen out of fifty states in 1996. By 2007, all fifty states and the District of Columbia had criminalized spousal rape. (The state of New York relies on the ruling of an appeals court in 1984, People vs. Liberta, because an exemption for married men accused of raping their wives remains on the books.) Spousal rape affects all people in the United States and beyond, including those in the African dispersion.
Hitler adopted Jewish “purity of race” as nothing less than a model for his own weltanschauung regarding the necessity of the racial purity of Aryans.–Brigitte Hamann, “Jews in Vienna,” Hitler’s Vienna: A Dictator’s Apprenticeship
It is enough to say that Yeshua and his circle, whatever masks their writers gave them, would have fared less well in Germany between 1933 and 1945. In those days, the designation of the Jew as “vermin,” found famously first in Matthew’s “brood of vipers,” was fixed, and even the intervention of Pope Pius XII could not have altered that designation of Yeshua’s blood and racial identity, and his inevitable way to the chamber. His parents, brothers, sister, and messengers would also have been picked up in trucks and sent to the death camps as Jews. In the eyes of the master race, the identity of Yeshua as one of the Jews had no way out.–Willis Barnstone, “Afterword:… A Gentleman’s Agreement in the Gospels that Jews in the Yeshua Movement Not Be Perceived as Jews,” The New Covenant: Commonly Called the New Testament
Responsible reading of the scriptures of Israel also calls for revisiting the ways in which racial constructs are imposed on the text. Israelite identity is, like all identities, a constructed identity; in its earliest formulation, it is a cultural rather than a biological identity. Yaakov, the Heel-Grabbing Sneak, who becomes Israel the God-Wrestler, is the grandson of Abraham the Chaldean in Gen. 11:28. His Caldean kinfolk would eventually evolve into the Babylonian Empire that decimated his descendants — so the Israelites and Babylonians shared biology but not culture. The tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh shared African maternity because of Joseph’s marriage to Asenat, the Egyptian in Gen. 41:45. Even Moshe, Moses, the Torah-Vessel, married non-Israelite women — Zipporah the Midianite in Exod. 2:21 and an unnamed Nubian woman in Num. 12:1 — meaning that some of the priestly community had multicultural heritage. A non-Israelite, mixed multitude accompanied Israel when they departed Egypt in Exod. 12:38 and became absorbed into the community. In 2 Sam. 22:51, David — called “meshiach,” or “messiah” in Hebrew, and “christos,” or “christ” in Greek (although generally translated “anointed” in English) — was the grandson of a Moabite woman named Ruth.
The multicultural nature of Israel is especially important to read over and against racialized constructions of Israel as ethnically and racially monolithic, and their construction as “white” in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The supposed whiteness of biblical Israel has been used to sanctify colonization of black, brown, and beige peoples around the globe, invoking the ahistorical “Conquest of Canaan” paradigm.–Wil Gafney, “Reading the Hebrew Bible Responsibly:… Multicultural Israel,” The Africana Bible: Reading Israel’s Scriptures from Africa and the African DiasporaRuth was abducted into the messianic lineages of David and Jesus. But the text should not be read as an endorsement of abduction. It is in Ruth’s power to choose where she will make her way in the world. She chooses her mother-in-law…. When Ruth gives birth, she is a surrogate for Naomi:“Blessed be YHWH, who has not left you, woman, without redeeming kin this day; and may that name be proclaimed in Israel! That one shall be to you, woman, a restorer of life and a provider when your hair grays, woman; for your daughter-in-law, she who loves you, woman, she has given birth — she who is more to you, woman, than seven sons.” Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurturer. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” (Ruth 4:14-17, my [Wil Gafney's] translation)
–Wil Gafney, “Ruth,” The Africana Bible: Reading Israel’s Scriptures from Africa and the African Diaspora
In addition to the difficulty of comparing data sets of varying size and depth, however, comparing male versus female online “harassment” is problematic for many reasons.
First, as Young points out, women’s harassment is more likely to be gender-based and that has specific, discriminatory harms rooted in our history. The study pointed out that the harassment targeted at men is not because they are men, as is clearly more frequently the case with women. It’s defining because a lot of harassment is an effort to put women, because they are women, back in their “place.”
Second, online comparisons like this decontextualize the problem of harassment, as though a connection to what happens offline is trivial or inconsequential.
Third, the binary frame camouflages the degree to which harassment of people, often men, is frequently aimed at people who defy rigid gender and sexuality rules. LGBT youth experience online bullying at three times the rate of their straight peers.
For girls and women, harassment is not just about “un-pleasantries.” It’s often about men asserting dominance, silencing, and frequently, scaring and punishing them.
– Soraya Chemaly, “There’s No Comparing Male and Female Harassment Online” Time online, Sept. 9, 2014
So many, many times, men have told me that anthropos means a human being, or a male human being, but never a woman on her own. One man asked me what the feminine term was for Adam. When I claim humanity for women, when I say, “but women are human beings, and these words which mean “human being” must refer also to women,” usually they mutter words like “shrill” “vitriol” etc. Why should a woman make such a fuss? Sad, but true.
Here are two passages of odd Greek, where the anthropos and the aner are female.
ποτὲ ἀνὴρ ἀγαθὸς γίγνοιτ’ ἄν,
τὴν ἀνθρώπῳ προσήκουσαν ἀρετὴν τῆς ψυχῆς ἔχων ,
εἴτε ἄρρην τις των συνοικούντων οὖσα ἡ φύσις εἴτε θήλεια, νέων ἢ γερόντων
- in which a member of our community -
be he of the male or female sex, young or old,-
may become a good citizen,
possessed of the excellence of soul which belongs to man. Plato’s Laws 1 – 6, Bury, Harvard U. P. 1926, 6. 770d.
“In brief this was the substance of the agreement,
in whatever way a member of the community,
whether his nature be male or female, young or old,
might become a good man,
possessing the virtue of soul that befits a human being … ” page 158 Laws by Plato, trans. by T. Pangle, 1980. U. of Chicago P. 6. 770d
In the first translation, the Greek word ανθρωπος is translated as “man” generic – meaning human, “the excellence of soul which belongs to man” and the word ανηρ is translated as citizen, either male or female. Being human had an excellence which belonged equally to men and women. However, being a man had an excellence which properly belonged to men, but women could also share in it. Bury translated aner as “citizen” in a gender neutral way, and Pangle translated aner as “man,” a man which could be either male or female.
Here is another expression, one which I was told did not and could not exist. It is not found in the Bible but in Greek literature a few centuries later.
Ἐν τῷ ὄρει τούτῳ Νιτρίας γέγονεν ἀνὴρ ἀσκητὴς Ὠρ ὀνόματι ᾦ πολλὴν προσεμαρτύρει ἀρετὴν καὶ πᾶσα μὲν ἡ ἀδελφότης ἐξαιρέτως δὲ ἡ ἄνθρωπος τοῦ θεοῦ Μελανία, πρὸ ἐμοῦ εἰσελθοῦσα εἰ τοῦτο τὸ ὄρως Palladius Lausiac Histories, chapter IX
In the mountain of Nitria there was an ascetic named Or, to whose great virtue the whole brotherhood bore witness, and especially Melania, that woman (anthropos) of God, who came to the mountain before me.
The Lausiac History of Palladius, trans. W.K. Lowther Clarke B.D. Aeterna Press, April 18, 2014, tns. W.K. Lowther Clarke B.D.
Some commentators have translated he anthropos of God, as the “female man” of God. Bible translators usually translate ho anthropos of God as “man of God.” But aren’t Melania and Timothy both equally “persons of God.” How can we show the equal status of the two? How can we show that a woman does not have to be a man to be an anthropos.
There are two words translated “man” in Greek, and two in Hebrew. The way I understand it anthropos and adam predominantly mean “a human being,” while aner and ish mean an individual and predominantly refer to men, but can include women. In English, “man” can include women, but “a man” cannot. So, one cannot really say “a good man, male or female” in English. It doesn’t quite work.
However, many Bible scholars, not familiar with obscure classical Greek and modern Hebrew, claim that aner and ish exclusively mean “a man” and there is no deviation from this. Joel, at God Didn’t Say That, expresses the case regarding ish well. It is inclusive, although with less clarity, he compares anthropos to ish. These are not usually thought of as equivalent terms.
My point is that anthropos is not like “person” or “man” in English.
Here’s another example, this time from Modern Hebrew, where we can actually test hypothetical sentences to see if they are accepted by native speakers.
There’s a Modern Hebrew word ish.
In many contexts, it looks exactly like our English “person.” The phrase anashim tovim (“good ish‘s”) refers to good people of any gender or age. In the negative — ish lo nimtza, e.g., ["not an ish was present"] — it again refers to people of any gender or age. And so on.
Yet in other contexts it contrasts with “woman.” The phrase ish v’isha, “an ish and a woman,” means “a man and a woman.” Even more clearly, the phrase at lo ish, “you (f) aren’t an ish,” simply means “you aren’t a man.” It does not mean “you aren’t a person.”
The main point is clear. These words are not exact equivalents of either “man” or “person.” There will be no exact equivalents. Perhaps the most worrisome for some people is that neither aner nor ish exclude women.
Here is another passage, from the Dialogue of Palladius on the Life of Saint Chrysostom, chapter 16, pqge 151, which may clarify a little how the early church used these Greek terms. I will take a stab at transliterating this, starting with “the deacon” at the end of the first line, and ending with schema, second word in the last line.
ὁ διάκ. ποταπῂ γυνὴ τυγχάνει οὖσα;
ὁ ἐπίσκ. μὴ λέγε γυνὴ, ἀλλ’ οἷος ἂνθρωπος.
ἀνὴρ γάρ ἐστί παρὰ τὸ τοῦ σώματις σχῆμα.
The deacon speaks: Now, if it’s not too much trouble, tell us about Olympias,
if you have some knowledge of her.
The bishop: Which one? There are several.
The deacon: The deacon (diakonos) of Constantinople,
who was the bride of Nebridius, the former prefect.
The bishop: I know her well.
The deacon: What kind of woman is she?
The bishop: Do not say “woman,” but “such a person” (anthropos),
for she was a man (aner) despite her bodily appearance.
The deacon: How is that?
The bishop: By her life, her asceticism and knowledge,
and her patient endurance in trials. Madigan, Osiek, 2011
So, in the early church, the most important thing about being a Christian woman was being a man. And many women were called manly in the early church. How else can we phrase this in English? Sometimes, I see that people can’t wrap their brains around the women that are men. Not women who inherit eternal life because they are “sons.” These are women who behave as men, who perform as men, and are respected as men. But you must empty your brain of your native language, before trying to fill it with a new one. Is translation – the pursuit of equivalent words and terms – even possible?
What is a man? A man is a mature and fully responsible human being with all the rights of citizen and head of the family, and with all the attributes of the ascetics and martyrs, male or female. That’s why a man would set the price of a manly – ἀνδρεία – wife far above rubies. Nobody ever remembers that the Bible says a woman should be manly. But if we define the Greek word “man” properly, then women are also to be men. Or men should be called “persons.” One way or the other.
(Cross-posted from Wordgazer’s Words)
I have been asked a few times over the last several months to do a blog post on Matthew 18:15-17, where Jesus teaches about what to do if a member of a Christian group is committing wrongs that are harmful enough that they cannot be overlooked. Here’s the text, from the 2011 NIV:
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
The context of this verse is as part of one of Jesus’ large teaching units in the gospel of Matthew. He is here teaching about interpersonal relationships within the “kingdom of heaven” [verse 1], which will include all who trust and follow Jesus. He starts by stating that the greatest in the kingdom is as a little child, which, as I described in another blog post, meant letting go of earthly status and hierarchy. Then He goes on to warn against “despising” any of these “little ones– those who believe in Me.” In other words, those who believe in Jesus should voluntarily become lowly and without status, like children (“little ones”), and their resulting vulnerability must not be taken advantage of or used to harm them. (For an excellent study of the whole chapter, see the Christian Resource Institute’s study by Roger Hahn.) He then talks about how valuable these “little ones” are to the Father, and how He will seek them if they stray.
It is at this point that verses 15-17 occur: just after the discussion of stumbling blocks put in the way of the “little ones.” The Christian group as a whole can choose to remove anyone who is causing grievous harm to one or more members of the group. Jesus speaks in terms of “brothers and sisters” to indicate equality of status in the group. He does not envisage the church as a hierarchy where leaders alone assume the power to excommunicate; an action as drastic as that should be done by the consensus of the whole group.
The rest of the teaching is about interpersonal forgiveness when brothers and sisters sin against one another. Jesus speaks of the need to forgive “up to seventy times seven” times, and tells a parable whose point is that, since God has forgiven us so much, we ought also to forgive one another. Taking this section together with verses 15-17 leads me to conclude that Jesus is differentiating between forgiveness (personal letting go of animosity) and reconciliation (restoring relationships). To forgive someone up to seventy-times-seven times is one thing; to have them “listen to you” so that you have “won them over” is another. The possibility of excommunication means that relationship is not to be restored when the person who has harmed you is unrepentant and unwilling to change– even after being confronted with witnesses to the harm that was done.
The principles of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18:15-17 are sound. A group should have the power to disassociate itself from people who are causing serious harm to one or more members, and a graduated-step process seems the most appropriate way to deal with such people. The problem is that these verses are so often misused, particularly by people in power to enable themselves to stay in power. Here are some examples from around the blogosphere:
From Under Much Grace:
In many spiritually abusive groups, Matthew chapter 18, verses 15-19 is used like a static formula which is misapplied to manipulate and control others. Many misapply it as something appropriate for minor offenses instead of overt sin, as the consequences of the process can result in excommunication from that local church. A person can be offended by someone’s behavior, but it may not necessarily constitute a sin, particularly not one that carries such heavy consequences. In aberrant Christian groups, the passage is used to rid the group of “problem,” nonconformist members (who are not sinning) and becomes a means by which clergy can micromanage if not threaten church members. (It is used to manipulate and control behavior.)
Among very litigious groups, the process is used to declare people non-Christian or never legitimate Christians so that they can be at liberty to violate a directive of the Apostle Paul who forbids Christians to sue other Christians, as it is found in a letter he wrote to the Church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 6:1-11). This practice of threatening to “de-Christianize” other professing Christians is actually common among those who follow patriarchy. This type of abuse of the passage has become popular enough that the saying that a person has been “Matthew Eighteened” has become somewhat commonplace among some Protestant Evangelical groups.
When Biblical apologists comment publicly on . . . aberrant, sometimes heretical, teachings, the principals involved, and their supporters, quickly and repeatedly raise the “Matthew 18 Argument”, contending that the “brother” [or, as the case may be, "sister"] should have been approached privately, “according to Matthew 18″.
Jesus’s words here were not intended and should not be used as a general model for all conflict resolution. . . Matthew 18 instructs the church on how to deal with sin on an interpersonal level that is serious enough to remove an unrepentant member from fellowship. . . Matthew 18 is not applicable for solving differences of opinion and other kinds of problems.
99 percent of the time, this is the way this passage is used and abused — as a cudgel to beat truth-tellers back into silence. How dare you expose my wrong-doing? Jesus commanded you to come to me privately, so that we could work this out just between the two of us. . .
From the Biblical Seminary Theology Blog:
Does this passage require that abuse victims forego reporting abuse to the authorities and to make a private confrontation of the perpetrator? Sadly, I have heard stories where not only were victims chastised for reporting abuse, but then made to go to the perpetrator and confess their sin of not following Matthew 18.
[T]his passage is used as a justification for 1) not reporting abuse disclosures to the civil authorities and 2) convincing sexual abuse victims to privately confront their perpetrators. Needless to say, this misinterpretation of Matthew 18 is hugely destructive on a number of fronts.
It’s very important not to lift verses like Matthew 18:15-17 out of their historical context– how they were meant to be understood and applied in their original setting, to their original audience. Jesus’ words were meant to be understood in terms of a small counter-cultural group within an indifferent or even hostile surrounding culture. Such a group had a much greater need to police its own members for things which today are crimes which should be handled by civil authorities. Jesus also was not envisioning a church where power was concentrated in the hands of one or two people who would then be in a position to abuse their authority. Neither was He setting forth some universal principle for conflict resolution to be applied in a blanket manner to all situations. As Boz Tchividjian says later in the above-linked interview:
Matthew 18 is important for local church life, because Jesus commands us there how to deal with sin. But it is not the only passage in which Jesus tells us how to deal with sin. It must be properly synthesized with others that address the same subject directly and/or indirectly. It is critical to remember that all passages are regulated and interpreted by the balance of Scripture. . . [For instance,] on Romans 13, Jesus tells us through the Apostle Paul that believers are to be subject to the civil authorities.
I don’t think that even in the early days when the civil authorities were mostly hostile, would the church have required a sexual abuse victim to privately confront a perpetrator. 1 Corinthians 5:1 seems to indicate a situation like this, where the man who “had his father’s wife” appeared to be held solely responsible and the congregation was instructed to remove him from the fellowship. Women had far less agency then than they have today in any event– but there appears to have been no idea in Paul’s mind that the woman should follow a Matthew 18 private confrontation.
In the authoritarian, spiritually abusive group I was part of in my earlier Christian life, the problem was not so much crimes that should have been handled by civil authorities, but the fact that confronting a leader with his sin would lead directly to leader-led discipline against the person who dared to complain. Trying to discuss a wrong privately with an authoritarian leader is impossible– it will immediately be turned around to be construed as your sin, not his. As the above Slacktivist quote states, Matthew 18 thus becomes a way to keep the rank-and-file members from speaking out.
And of course, authoritarian leaders often also use Matthew 18 as if simply disagreeing with them– about anything at all– were sin. And then once a person has been excommunicated using the Matthew 18 process, they can be treated as enemies and prosecuted or sued accordingly (as the above Under Much Grace article notes).
Finally, a person who speaks out publicly against spiritually abusive doctrines can be accused of not handling it biblically, by taking the disagreement to the person privately first. This has a way of simply shutting down all discussion. But Jesus and the apostles themselves were actually quite vocal about publicly refuting doctrines and teachings they disagreed with. Matthew 18 is not about doctrinal differences.
Other passages show situations which were not “Matthew 18″ events. In Acts 15:39 Paul and Barnabas had a “sharp disagreement” without handling it according to Jesus’ Matthew 18 teaching, because His teaching simply did not apply to disagreements about who to travel with! And when Paul found Peter, a fellow church leader, involved in public hypocrisy, Paul also rebuked him publicly (Galatians 2:11-14). Paul doesn’t seem to have expected any of the Gentiles who were being ostracized at the table, to confront Peter privately. Jesus’ Matthew 18 teachings apparently didn’t apply there, either– possibly because Peter’s sin was not harmful enough that he needed to be asked to leave. Or possibly because Peter’s actions were in front of everybody, and so his correction needed to also be in front of everybody. Or perhaps because Peter was an apostle, and Paul thought it best for another apostle to confront him. Or all three.
It’s never a good idea to isolate one set of verses from the rest of scripture and follow them slavishly as if they were universally applicable in every situation. Particularly in ways that violate the good which the passage intended, and do harm the passage never contemplated.
In any event, Christians, and especially Christian leaders, need to be careful about using passages of scripture to their own advantage at the expense of others. This is against every principle that Jesus taught– and it’s what most of His rebukes of the scribes and Pharisees were about.
A Bible used as a weapon against other human beings, is always a Bible misused.
Let me offer here a translation of the first 11 verses of John 8, a reading, an Englishing with the verb tenses tense. This is how I hear it (in light of some of the recent blog commentary here and here).
1 Joshua goes to the Mount of Olives
2 At the crack of dawn again he comes to the Temple
The people all go with him
He sits he teaches them
3 To him the Midrash Writers, the Purists, bring
a “wife” wearing a Scarlet Letter
They sit her in the middle 4
“Teacher” they say to him
This “wife” for her adultery has cause to wear this Scarlet A
5 By law we are commanded, by the Torah of Moses, to execute her by stoning
What do you say to that, sir?
6 This speech of theirs is intended to test him
To give cause to categorically convict him
Joshua goes squatting in the dirt, like a woman, silent, his finger writes in it
7 Since they stay with their line of questioning at him,
He goes back up to their eye level and says to them
Fine, the “Error-Free” Men Go First: “Bash her with a stone”
Again, Joshua goes squatting in the dirt, like a woman, silent, writes in it
9 The men hear, they go away, the senior men first
He is left alone
This wife is in the middle
10 He goes back up to her eye level, says to her
Where are they?
Are none of your judges here?
11 She says
None is your judge, not even me
Go on now
No more error for you
[[1 Ἰησοῦς δὲ ἐπορεύθη εἰς τὸ Ὄρος τῶν Ἐλαιῶν.
2 Ὄρθρου δὲ πάλιν παρεγένετο εἰς τὸ ἱερόν,
καὶ πᾶς ὁ λαὸς ἠρχετο πρὸς αὐτόν,
καὶ καθίσας ἐδίδασκεν αὐτούς.
3 ἀγουσιν δὲ οἱ γραμματεῖς καὶ οἱ Φαρισαῖοι
γυναῖκα ἐπὶ μοιχείᾳ κατειλημμένην,
καὶ στήσαντες αὐτὴν ἐν μέσῳ 4 λέγουσιν αὐτῷ,
αὑτη ἡ γυνὴ κατείληπται ἐπ’ αὐτοφώρῳ μοιχευομένη·
5 ἐν δὲ τῷ νόμῳ ἡμῖν Μωϋσῆς ἐνετείλατο τὰς τοιαύτας λιθάζειν·
σὺ οὖν τί λέγεις;
6 τοῦτο δὲ ἐλεγον πειράζοντες αὐτόν,
ἵνα ἐχωσιν κατηγορεῖν αὐτοῦ.
ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς κάτω κύψας τῷ δακτύλῳ κατέγραφεν εἰς τὴν γῆν.
7 ὡς δὲ ἐπέμενον ἐρωτῶντες [αὐτόν],
ἀνέκυψεν καὶ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς,
Ὁ ἀναμάρτητος ὑμῶν πρῶτος ἐπ’ αὐτὴν βαλέτω λίθον·
8 καὶ πάλιν κατακύψας ἐγραφεν εἰς τὴν γῆν.
9 οἱ δὲ ἀκούσαντες ἐξήρχοντο εἷς καθ’ εἷς ἀρξάμενοι ἀπὸ τῶν πρεσβυτέρων,
καὶ κατελείφθη μόνος,
καὶ ἡ γυνὴ ἐν μέσῳ οὖσα.
10 ἀνακύψας δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτῇ,
οὐδείς σε κατέκρινεν;
11 ἡ δὲ εἶπεν,
εἶπεν δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς,
Οὐδὲ ἐγώ σε κατακρίνω·
[καὶ] ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν μηκέτι ἀμάρτανε.]]
γυνη is Greek for “woman” or “wife.” It is in the vocative case [i.e., Γύναι] as Jesus addressing her directly. It is not nearly so abrupt in Greek as it sounds in English. It is the same form of the word Jesus uses when he tenderly comforts Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb (John 20:15). And yet it is not usual. Leon Morris (The Gospel According to John, Eerdmans, 180) comments that while the vocative can be used to express “respect or affection,” it is an unusual term for a son to use of his mother. It is not a Hebrew or a Greek expression.
– Bill Mounce, How Rude was Jesus?
There is no getting around that the fact that the use of “woman” sounds pejorative to our ears, and yet there is nothing pejorative at all in the Greek γύναι. After all, this is what Jesus calls his mother (John 2:4; 19:26). It is the term Jesus uses to address the weeping Mary at the tomb (John 20:15)…. “Lady” sounds pejorative to me, and “girl” is only a young “woman” and again sounds pejorative. So what are we left with [in English for the Greek Jesus’s addresses of women using γύναι]? Nothing.
– Bill Mounce, An Untranslatable Word: γύναι
After reading my post The Womanly Adultery of a Gospel, my BLT co-blogger Victoria responded this way: “Can you help us out a little here, Kurk? What is odd about this gospel Greek?”
I apologize for being unclear sometimes. And much much more than that I always appreciate intellectual curiosity, especially Victoria’s on this blog and at her other blog Gaudete Theology.
So here are a few things I’m thinking as I try to begin answers to the helpful questions:
- The fourth canonical gospel of the New Testament often uses odd Greek, and also since it’s the oddly non-synoptic gospel (i.e., it doesn’t always see things about Jesus and his message in the same way that the other three canonical gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke, see things together), I’ve got this blog series going themed ambiguously: “Odd Gospel Greek” (or the gospel using odd Greek and also the oddest of the gospels in Greek).
- The first quotation of Bill Mounce (i.e., my epigraph) above correctly asserts that Γύναι /Gynai/ “is an unusual term for a son to use of his mother” and is “not usual” for a tender comfort coming from a man when addressing a grieving woman.
- That first quotation of Mounce could even be more general and still be correct: Γύναι /Gynai/ is odd Greek. The vocative address is used only a couple of times in the Homeric epics (in the Iliad twice); once only in one of the fragments of Bacchylides; once only in Thesmophoriazousai by Aristophanes, who has women celebrating the festival of the Thesmophoria; and only thrice by Sophocles (only twice in the Oedipus King, and only once in Ajax). Much later, after all this old Greek literature shows only these few uses of the vocative Γύναι /Gynai/, this odd Greek address to a woman/wife/lady/mother/girl is also rare in the Septuagint: only once in Judith and only twice in 4 Maccabees. Then comes the New Testament in Greek and its few odd uses of Γύναι /Gynai/ for direct speech to or at a woman: the first Pauline epistle to the Korinthian readers has it once; Mark’s gospel does not have it; Matthew’s gospel puts it in the mouth of Jesus once; Luke’s gospel has it once in the mouth of Jesus and once in the mouth of Peter and no more; and, except for the odd gospel of John (which uses Γύναι [Gynai] six times), this odd Greek does not appear anywhere else in the post-LXX Christian scriptures.
Here are a couple of other things to note as we begin to consider Englishings of this odd Greek:
- The gospel of John uses the Greek vocative address of a woman Γύναι [Gynai] twice as often as the Septuagint uses it and nearly twice as often as the rest of the writers of the New Testament use it. Invariably, the Greek writer of the gospel has Jesus saying this to women, different women in different contexts — his mother at a wedding; an unnamed Samaritan adulteress; an unnamed Jewish adulteress; his mother watching him hang naked and shamefully on a Roman cross; the crying grief-stricken Miriam of Magdala [addressed exactly the same way as angels had addressed this Miriam moments earlier]. This is high frequency usage of a rare Greek form in one short narrative mostly in the mouth of its male protagonist. Odd.
- That first quotation of Mounce is correct in quoting Morris in saying that, in Greek, for John to have Jesus addressing his mother as her son with Γύναι [Gynai] is rather odd. It’s also correct in noting that “γυνη is Greek for ‘woman’ or wife’.” In Greek literature, the only other writer to have a son address his mother, in Greek, this way is Sophocles. Sophocles has Oedipus address Jocasta, his mother, as follows:
Lady [Γύναι /Gynai/], do you know the one whom we summoned just now? [English translation by Sir Richard C. Jebb]
Wife [Γύναι /Gynai/], do you remember the man we were earlier asking to come here? [English translation by Dr. George Theodoridis]
Here are a few other things as we begin to consider whether this odd gospel Greek is really translatable or not (especially since we might not want to make the ambiguities of Oedipus and Jocasta our standards):
- That first quotation of Mounce correctly claims generally that “γυνη is Greek for ‘woman’ or ‘wife’.” And yet for a man to call the woman who is his mother by “the vocative case [i.e., Γύναι]” is “unusual” and odd and “not a Hebrew or a Greek expression.”
- However, that second quotation of Mounce incorrectly claims, in all too overgeneralized way, that “there is nothing pejorative at all in the Greek γύναι.” Mounce incorrectly claims by this second quotation also that this term John’s gospel puts five times in the mouth of Jesus is “untranslatable.”
- What Mounce has overlooked is how the sexist Aristotle quotes Sophocles, who has his character Ms. Tecmessa quoting a sexist Greek jingle or insult using Γύναι [Gynai] to justify her subjugating herself to Mr. Ajax in the play Ajax. Here’s the Greek in her mouth and a couple of good translations:
ὁ δ᾽ εἶπε πρός με βαί᾽, ἀεὶ δ᾽ ὑμνούμενα:
γύναι, γυναιξὶ κόσμον ἡ σιγὴ φέρει.
κἀγὼ μαθοῦσ᾽ ἔληξ᾽, ὁ δ᾽ ἐσσύθη μόνος.
But he answered me curtly with that trite jingle:
“Woman, silence graces woman.”
And I, taking his meaning, desisted, but he rushed out alone. [Jebb]
What I got as an answer from him was the usual short insult.
“Listen woman! Women are only beautiful when they are silent!”
At that I shut up and he ran out of the hut all alone. [Theodoridis]
For Mounce, it would seem, there is no English to address a woman, as a son must his mother, that is not pejorative. Of course, to address a woman who’s committed the capital offense of adultery (as much as Mounce would have translators put non-pejorative English in the mouth of John’s Jesus addressing individual women), I’m afraid it’s not so clear that the johannine Greek is not sexist.
Γύναι [Gynai] seems as marked, and as odd, as any other term of address at a “Wo-Man!” or a “Fe-Male!” has to be.
Females are botched males, claimed Aristotle.
Adulteresses botch marriages, as we all know.
And so it’s a perfect example of imperfection that there’s this odd gospel Greek botching an otherwise fine Greek gospel (and here’s the United Bible Societies text – Ed.26.):
[[1 Ἰησοῦς δὲ ἐπορεύθη εἰς τὸ Ὄρος τῶν Ἐλαιῶν. 2 Ὄρθρου δὲ πάλιν παρεγένετο εἰς τὸ ἱερόν, καὶ πᾶς ὁ λαὸς ἠρχετο πρὸς αὐτόν, καὶ καθίσας ἐδίδασκεν αὐτούς. 3 ἀγουσιν δὲ οἱ γραμματεῖς καὶ οἱ Φαρισαῖοι γυναῖκα ἐπὶ μοιχείᾳ κατειλημμένην, καὶ στήσαντες αὐτὴν ἐν μέσῳ 4 λέγουσιν αὐτῷ, Διδάσκαλε, αὑτη ἡ γυνὴ κατείληπται ἐπ’ αὐτοφώρῳ μοιχευομένη· 5 ἐν δὲ τῷ νόμῳ ἡμῖν Μωϋσῆς ἐνετείλατο τὰς τοιαύτας λιθάζειν· σὺ οὖν τί λέγεις; 6 τοῦτο δὲ ἐλεγον πειράζοντες αὐτόν, ἵνα ἐχωσιν κατηγορεῖν αὐτοῦ. ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς κάτω κύψας τῷ δακτύλῳ κατέγραφεν εἰς τὴν γῆν. 7 ὡς δὲ ἐπέμενον ἐρωτῶντες [αὐτόν], ἀνέκυψεν καὶ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Ὁ ἀναμάρτητος ὑμῶν πρῶτος ἐπ’ αὐτὴν βαλέτω λίθον· 8 καὶ πάλιν κατακύψας ἐγραφεν εἰς τὴν γῆν. 9 οἱ δὲ ἀκούσαντες ἐξήρχοντο εἷς καθ’ εἷς ἀρξάμενοι ἀπὸ τῶν πρεσβυτέρων, καὶ κατελείφθη μόνος, καὶ ἡ γυνὴ ἐν μέσῳ οὖσα. 10 ἀνακύψας δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτῇ, Γύναι, ποῦ εἰσιν; οὐδείς σε κατέκρινεν; 11 ἡ δὲ εἶπεν, Οὐδείς, κύριε. εἶπεν δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Οὐδὲ ἐγώ σε κατακρίνω· πορεύου, [καὶ] ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν μηκέτι ἀμάρτανε.]]
This bit is purified out of ΚΑΤΑ ΙΩΑΝΝΗΝ 8 of the SBL Greek New Testament, which is a little weird. It’s weird also because the Society of Biblical Literature has a website called Bible Odyssey, where some decent articles are posted by Bible scholars in somewhat of a pop format.
For example, there’s “The Woman Caught in Adultery (John 8:1-11)” by Jennifer Knust. When you read what she’s written, here, doesn’t it make you think “How appropriate this ‘inappropriate’ womanly adulteress story in this would-be unadulterated gospel”?
Crossposted from Gaudete Theology
Last Sunday afternoon, I spent a couple hours at the Oakland Mills Interfaith Center, one of the two interfaith centers in which my parish has a presence. The building has a central area resembling a courtyard, with plenty of natural light, opening out to various worship spaces and meeting rooms around the perimeter, and the walls of this courtyard-like space are used as an art gallery. Sunday was the final day of an exhibition called Picture Windows: The Painted Screens of Baltimore.
I’ve been intrigued by painted screens since I first learned about this Baltimore folk art form, but this was the first time I’d seen them. Like many domestic arts, it was intended to be both practical and pretty. In the days before air conditioning, the row houses of Baltimore would get pretty sweltering in the summer, and folks wanted all the windows and solid doors open to get as much ventilation as possible, with no curtains in the way to obstruct the air flow. But then what do you do about privacy, especially in an urban environment with folks walking right past your windows?
Well, it turns out, if you paint a picture on the front of the window or door screens, then that effectively blocks the viewers’ gaze through the screen. Your eyes focus on the picture, instead of looking through the screen; at least, if the area behind the screen is not illuminated. What a clever way to solve the problem! And what an opportunity it creates for beautifying a city street. Time was, most houses in some areas of Baltimore had painted screens on the windows and doors, so walking down the street was much like walking past a gallery of paintings.
The exhibit included screens that had been painted by traditional screen painters near the end of the era when the art was flourishing, and contemporary screens (for sale!) by currently practicing screen painters, some of whom had been trained by traditional painters. There was a little biography of each painter mounted among their works. The sizes ranged from small screens that might cover a ventilation window, to medium/large screens that would fill a normal sized window or the top of a screen door, to full door-sized screens (in some cases, mounted in the door frame, into which the painting extended).
What struck me at first inspection of these pieces is that they reminded me of cross-stitch. The screen, of course, is a fine rectangular grid to which the colors are applied; visually, this creates an impression similar to the fine rectangular grid used for cross-stitching.
The older, traditional pieces had some common themes; I don’t recall whether these were themes that were common to screen painting generally, or to one particular screen painter. They were landscape themes, mostly: a cottage, a stream, a flowering tree nearby. Quiet bucolic images, gentling the urban landscape in which they resided.
My favorites among the traditional pieces, though, were the ones that depicted a block or two of Baltimore rowhouses, each with its windows and doors covered by painted screens, as well as people scrubbing stoops, selling vegetables from a horse-drawn cart, or just ambling along. Delightfully self-referential, as well as showing how these screens looked in their native habitat.
Some of the contemporary pieces were painted in traditional styles; others took traditional themes but rendered them in a more contemporary style; still others ignored tradition entirely, and simply used the screen as canvas. It seemed to me that the modern pieces tended towards a more pastel palette and an airier feel. There were lots of Baltimore scenes, often harborscapes, or showing city landmarks like the Bromo-Seltzer Tower. My favorite, though, was much like this whimsical piece that portrayed a cat clinging to the screen door from the inside, obviously after the butterflies she could see outside. What fun!!
The same artist, Anna Pasqualucci, exhibited a few small (5×7, maybe? 8×10?) pieces in shadowbox frames, in which the screen had been shaped to create a 3D effect. A scene of the Baltimore harbor, with buildings standing out from their surroundings and waves rolling up onto shore, was my favorite of these.
After taking my time with all the painted screens, I decided to check out the Catholic chapel. While weekend Catholic masses are celebrated in one of the large worship spaces, both interfaith centers have a dedicated Catholic chapel for the reservation of the eucharist. I normally worship at the Wilde Lake interfaith center, and I’ve been in its tiny eucharistic chapel a number of times, but I’d never been to the one at Oakland Mills.
Well, it was lovely. It was larger than the one at Wilde Lake, and clearly intended for small masses and prayer services of 30-40 people. The chairs were arranged choir-style, in rows along the left and right walls, facing each other across a central aisle, as they are in the large worship space at Wilde Lake; the altar, centered in front of the far wall, was small and plain; there was an electric piano off to one side. But it was clearly designed for both communal and private prayer: there were a few prie-dieux here and there.
A characteristic artistic feature of most Catholic churches are the Stations of the Cross. These are fourteen artworks, each of which corresponds to a moment in Jesus’ passion, beginning with his condemnation to death and ending with his burial in the tomb. How the stations are depicted may vary, which is part of their charm as works of art. They may be lavish or simple; they may represent the entire scene, or just a symbolic element. They are typically placed along the outer wall of the worship space, so that as you pray the devotion, you move from station to station and thereby walk with Jesus on his via crucis.
That wouldn’t work in this small chapel, which has a large central aisle, but no outer perimeter through which one might walk. I was delighted by their solution: the stations of the cross in this chapel are presented as tall narrow paintings, each containing a single key word (“condemned”, “falls”, “meets”, “dies”, “buried”) painted vertically in black capital letters ending at the bottom of the painting against a purple background, with the remaining vertical space, above the word, filled with swirls and smears of purple paint. (The stations are a particularly Lenten devotion, and purple is the liturgical color for Lent.) They are hung close together, on the front wall behind the altar, so that while they take up relatively little linear wall space (maybe 12 feet?), it would still be possible to stand in front of each one to pray, then step to the next.
My initial reaction was to be pleased by the text-oriented nature of these paintings: I’m about the most text-oriented person I know, and it’s rare indeed that I find a visual presentation that feels like it was made for me. But the more I think about it, the more I’m appreciating the non-text aspects of this art and its presentation. Each word has a different length, so the black text reaches up to a different height in each panel. This gives the visual suggestion of a rising and falling path, subtly reinforcing the notion of walking. And it hangs on the wall behind and slightly above the altar: a space that, in Catholic churches, is normally occupied by a crucifix. This artwork expands the crucifix, so that we have before us an image of the crucifixion from condemnation to burial. I would never have thought of this, and it probably wouldn’t pass muster for a lot of liturgical purists, but I think very highly of it.
Centered on the right-hand wall (as you face the altar and this representation of the crucifixion) is hung a medium-sized square textile artwork in shades of yellow that abstractly suggests a sunrise. Because it’s off to the right from the left-to-right ordered stations, and because there is a gap of unadorned wall between the stations and the sunrise, it also suggests the continuation of the story: the time Jesus was in the tomb, and his resurrection on Easter Sunday.
I don’t recall that there was any art on the lefthand wall.
Immediately to your right as you enter the chapel, in the corner formed by the righthand wall and the wall containing the door, is a statue of Mary as our Lady of Guadalupe. It’s a medium-sized statue, perhaps three feet tall, on a low wooden stand; she is dressed in green, brown-skinned, holding a chaplet (a real one, not a painted one). A prie-dieu is placed in front of her. On another low stand, off to her left, is another small statue: Juan Diego, on one knee, looking up at the lady, with his cloak full of roses. I love this little tableau, and the fact that Juan Diego kneels alongside a person who kneels before our Lady.
Just a little further along that right hand wall, there hangs a wall-mounted tabernacle, centered slightly above eye-level for me, which meant I could get a really good look at it. It was quite beautiful: the sides of the case were silver, and the doors were clear glass covered with small square simple line drawings, rendered in silver or gold, arranged in a grid like patchwork. So you could see through the decoration to the simple gold ciborium, which thus contributed to the beauty of the tabernacle. Looking through the artwork to the ciborium reminded me that we look through the bread and wine with eyes of faith to see Jesus. The line drawings in some cases represented loaves or fishes, which are traditional tabernacle art, and in other cases seemed to be simply pleasing abstract shapes, often in groups of three. This was a lovely yet sparse use of the fine metals to give luster and beauty without a hint of opulence.
To the left and slightly above the tabernacle is mounted the usual red sanctuary lamp; before it is another prie-dieu, and beneath it is another wooden stand, in the center of which stands a medium-sized carved and painted wooden crucifix, so that a person kneeling there can look directly into the eyes of Christ. I noticed particularly that he seemed to be wearing a crown woven both of brown thorn and green laurel, and I very much liked that artistic representation of the resurrection victory over sin and death.
Overall I was very pleased and impressed by the sacred art in this chapel, both its quality and the care and thoughtfulness of its installation. It is a welcoming and peaceful space that I look forward to visiting again.
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
—Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.