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Interpretive Spins and Literary Sparks in the Ψαλμοὶ: pt 3, intemperate David

January 24, 2012

This is the 3rd part in a series on how the Greek translator of the Hebrew Bible strays from his literal rendering of the original.  It’s our look at how he adds what English translator Albert Pietersma calls “interpretive spins” and “literary sparks” in Hellene, spins and sparks that have seemingly less to do with the first Semitic purposes of the text and more to do with Greek literature before it.  This post is on a spin and a spark in the 23rd Psalm.

This Psalm may be the most well known today.  (But since it was my missionary evangelical Christian parents who paid me to memorize it and since it was quoted so much so often as I was growing up, maybe I’m just projecting its popularity on everybody else now.)  See how it has its own wikipedia entry, and see the King James translation of the Hebrew with the accompanying painting to depict the scene of this Psalm:

In Greek (as the 22nd Psalm) it starts out with a title:  Ψαλμὸς τῷ Δαυιδ.  That can mean something like:  A Strumming to David’s Rendition.

Then in verse 3, those “paths of righteousness” are these kinds of paths in Hellene:  ὡδήγησέν [Odegesen].

This sounds a little like a hearkening to the wordplay of the Iliad (Book III) and Odyssey (Book XXII).  Some of that goes like this:

οὐ τότε γ’ ὧδ’ Ὀδυσῆος ἀγασσάμεθ’ εἶδος ἰδόντες.
  Τὸ τρίτον αὖτ’ Αἴαντα ἰδὼν ἐρέειν’ ὃ γεραιός·  (225)
ἦ γούνων λίσσοιτο προσαΐξας Ὀδυσῆα.
ὧδε δέ οἱ φρονέοντι δοάσσατο κέρδιον εἶναι,
γούνων ἅψασθαι Λαερτιάδεω Ὀδυσῆος.  (339)
These are Homeric wordplays on the fact in the Greek epics that Odysseus is the large character on the big Odyssey, and the Paths this protagonist hero takes are an inherent and meaningful play on his name.  The Odyssey Adventure is taken by the Adventurer Odysseus.  As you may know, in Book IX of Homer’s Odyssey, there’s the story of the Shepherd named Polyphemus, who is the monstrous one-eyed Cyclops.  This character asks to know our hero’s famous name, to which Ὀδυσσεύς replies as follows, playing on words, and tricking the villian:

Οὖτις ἔμοιγ’ ὄνομα: Οὖτιν δέ με κικλήσκουσι  (366)

If you look at English translations at all, you may get the general drift of the epic stories.  But it’s only the best translators who can bring out the critical and crucial wordplay here.  There is homophonic wordplay going on.  Odes, are musical ballad songs, and an Odys is a Path, and the Odyssey is the name of what the character Odysseus is on.  And then Odysseus, our hero, tells Polyphemus the awful Shepherd, that his name is Oytis.  Usually one gains potential advantage when learning the name of another.  But Odysseus is a trickster.  He claims his name is Oytis, which (dear reader please see this) sounds like Odysseus, but actually means “Nobody” or “No man” or “Nothing.”  If you know the end of the story, then you know why that trick is important to give Odysseus power over the Shepherd.   So, maybe the Septuagint translator is taking David on an Odyssey here.  You know, the Greek Paths of Justice.  And the allusion at the beginning of the Psalm to the Shepherd.  Maybe.  Well, here’s another picture painted, but this one depicting the Polyphemus Odyssey scene:
In this post, I’m not going to get you to the end of the Polyphemus Shepherd story in which Odysseus disguised as Nobody tricks the Cyclops.  But I do want you to hear just a little more.  I’d like for us to back up a little bit in Book IX of the Odyssey before we move foward with the 22nd Psalm (aka the Greek version of the 23rd Psalm).  Here’s Richmond Lattimore’s English translation of Homer’s Greek:
What I’m hoping we’ll notice is how Odysseus is telling his story (as Homer gives it), and look how he is leading us listeners and readers up to the point where he plays on his name (“Nobody” for “Odysseus”).  You see that our hero has given this awful sheep-and-human eating Shepherd a cup full of black wine.   The cup overfloweth.  With “wine of strength.”  Three ivy-bowl-fuls are drunk (“he took it and drank it off, and was terribly pleased with the wine he drank”; “Give me still more, freely,”; “three times he recklessly drained it”).  The monster gets drunk (“the wine had got into the brains of the Cyclops”).
And notice the rationale:
“it would have been your libation had you taken pity and sent me home.”
And the effect:
“and he answered me in pitiless spirit.”
Now, we are ready to go back to the Psalm.  Definitely, the Greek translator is making David look intemperate.  Perhaps, the Greek language used hearkens listeners back to Odysseus.  That comes in the penultimate verse, in verse 5 of this Psalm, where the Psalmist’s “cup overfloweth.”  In the Greek version, there’s this addition not in the Hebrew:
μεθύσκον ὡς κράτιστον
Lancelot Brenton turns that into English as “like the best [wine].”  And Pietersma changes the Greek into English as “was supremely intoxicating.”  Neither one is a bad translation, and the latter does, I think, reflect the senses of the individual words best.  Maybe we should not so strongly hear the Odyssey story of Book IX here.  Maybe we should not so quickly notice the mention in the very next verse, the final verse, how there’s this emphasis on “pity.”  So let’s come back to that.  Let’s move away from Homer.  Let’s listen, instead, to Socrates (as Plato gives his speech) and then to Aristotle.
Let’s now read the phrase, μεθύσκον ὡς κράτιστον [or "drunken drink that's extremely stout"], against the injunctions against strong drink and drunkenness by Socrates (and Plato) and Aristotle.  Here is Plato’s Socrates giving advice, and then here is Aristotle giving advice.
Socrates first (advising Glaucon, in Plato’s Republic, Book IX, Benjamin Jowett then translating into English [my bold font and insertion of Greek phrases]):
When a democracy which is thirsting for freedom has evil [κακῶν] cupbearers  presiding over the feast, and has drunk too deeply of the strong wine [ἀκράτου αὐτῆς μεθυσθῇ] of freedom, then, unless her rulers are very amenable and give a plentiful draught, she calls them to account and punishes them, and says that they are cursed oligarchs.
Why, when a democratic city athirst for liberty gets bad [κακῶν] cupbearers for its leaders and is intoxicated by drinking too deep of that unmixed wine [ἀκράτου αὐτῆς μεθυσθῇ], and then, if its so-called governors are not extremely mild and gentle with it and do not dispense the liberty unstintedly,it chastises them and accuses them of being accursed oligarchs.
Aristotle next (advising his son Nichomachus and his students such as Alexander the Great, in his Nichomachean Ethics, first at Bekker page 1117a around line 14 and then at 1151a around 3, H. Rackham’s translation [with Greek insertions and bold font added]):
Nor yet again is the boldness of the sanguine the same thing as Courage. The sanguine are confident in face of danger because they have won many victories over many foes before. They resemble the courageous, because both are confident, but whereas the courageous are confident for the reasons already explained, the sanguine are so because they think they are stronger [κράτιστοι] than the enemy, and not likely told come to any harm. [14] (A similar boldness [implied κράτιστοι] is shown by men who get drunk [οἱ μεθυσκόμενοι], for this makes them sanguine for the time being.) When however things do not turn out as they expect, the merely sanguine run away, whereas the mark of the courageous man, as we have seen, is to endure things that are terrible to a human being and that seem so to him, because it is noble to do so and base not to do so.

Among the unrestrained themselves, the impulsive1 sort are better than those who know the right principle but do not keep to it; for these succumb to smaller temptations, and they do not yield without deliberation, as do the impulsive; the unrestrained man [ὁ ἀκρατής] is like people who get drunk quickly [τοῖς ταχὺ μεθυσκομένοις], and with a small amount of wine, or with less than most men. [3] That Unrestraint is not strictly a vice (though it is perhaps vice in a sense), is clear; for Unrestraint acts against deliberate choice, Vice in accordance with it. But nevertheless in the actions that result from it it resembles Vice: just as Demodocus wrote of the people of Miletus— “Milesians are no fools, ’tis true.  But yet they act as fools would do.”

Both Plato and Aristotle assumed their readers knew Homer.  The Cyclops story and the wordplay of Odysseus was famous and was a way to teach Greek peoples of the virtues of their heroes and of the evil and the downfall of their enemies.  Here, nonethless, Plato and Aristotle rather independently of Homer (and maybe as a more direct directive against the indirectness of the epic poet) are writing against intemperance.
My point is that the little Greek addition to the 23rd Psalm once in Hebrew is one potent cup of Hellene.  For the translator to add – μεθύσκον ὡς κράτιστον – in the context of the Psalmist, the Strummer, this David singing of his Shepherd is rather interesting.  The addition is interesting within the context of Alexander the Great’s Alexandria.  (Alexander, as we all know, was the student of Aristotle.)  Temperance was the ideal of citizens in Greek democracy.  Intemperance was barbaric and got the Cyclops in big trouble.  Polyphemus, the Shepherd, was showing no pity, and no mercy.  Odysseus had to resort to wordplay, to strong wine Yes, but to tricksterism.  Maybe the Greek translator is being a trickster also, like Odysseus.  Surely the translator in Alexandria knows what Alexander’s teacher Aristotle and what Aristotle’s teacher Plato (and Plato’s teacher Socrates) intended for Greek citizens, that they should not be intemperate and get drunk quickly with such a false boldness as the fools who are not Greeks.  And yet the Strummer David’s rendition adds – μεθύσκον ὡς κράτιστον – Your cup “gets me drunk with the stoutest of drink.”  Is this more like tricky Homer?
Jewish scholar Naomi Seidman, in her Faithful Renderings: Jewish-Christian Difference and the Politics of Translation (Afterlives of the Bible), suggests that the Jewish Talmud looks at the Jewish translator in Alexandria, Egypt as a trickster.  On pages 62 and 63, Seidman notes the typical view of the Septuagint, the Christian view, first:
The [Church] Fathers imagine the Jewish translators as passive channels of God’s [clear] message to the world;
But she goes on:
The [Church] Fathers imagine the Jewish translators as passive channels of God’s [clear] message to the world; in the [contrastive] talmudic account God works to keep certain things [only very clear and just clearly] between the Jews and himself [i.e., away from the Greek and the Egyptian worlds], not only sanctioning Jewish conspiracy but taking the role of conspirator-in-chief.  In this regard, the talmudic rewriting of the [Christian] patristic Septuagint legend is a trickster text: the [Jewish] translator is a trickster, who in folklore ‘represents the weak, whose wit can at times achieve ambiguous victories against the powers of the strong.’
What is emphasized by the Talmud (according to Seidman) is how you’ve got to know your Greek to really get what’s going on in the Septuagint.
Another Jewish scholar, Sylvie Honigman, also seems to make this emphasis.  In her book, The Septuagint and Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria, she several times alludes to apparent literary and rhetorical views of the Greek versions of the Hebrew scriptures, and these are not the typical (i.e., Christian) views:
The comparison between the status of Homer’s text and the LXX as ‘scripture’, that is, a ‘standardized’ text [page 188].
As soon as the translation is completed, the Jews of Alexandria are called to a gathering and the new text read out to them….  The reading is follwed by the acclamation of the Jews — either the Jewish community of Alexandria, or the Jewish people:  the dual layer of meaning is to be read into this section too.  Then the leaders of the Jews stand up and make the following statement:  ‘Since this was translated rightly and reverently, and in every respect accurately, it is good that it should remain as it is, and that there should be no revision.’…  There follows a malediction uttered by the whole people against anyone who might make any addition or change to the text….
As [Harry] Orlinsky has convincingly shown, the successive elements in this scene correspond in an accurate manner to the ‘biblical procedure in designating a document as official and binding, in other words, as divinely inspired, as Sacred Scripture.
In my post here, I’m not so interested in the validity of the Talmudic account (or Seidman’s representation of such) or the validity of (what Honingman recounts as interpretations around) the Letter of Aristeas.  Rather, I’m interested in the literary sparks and interpretive spins that we Greek readers today might see in the Psalms; and, I believe, there’s an ancient Alexandrian Jewish view of the Greek text that gives it much more respect than the typical Christian reading gives it.  Whereas a Christian reading might validate the Septuagint as inspired by God especially since the New Testament writers quote it so much, an ancient Alexandrian Jewish view is quite different.  The literary and the rhetorical, in the political and cultural and linguistic climate of Alexandria, are key to understanding the Alexandrian Jewish view or views of old.
So we come to the end of the 22nd Psalm, that Greek rendition of the Strummer.  Notice what’s left out of the Hellene version that was in the Hebrew.  The Hebrew goes (in King James English) something like this:  “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”  Well, the Greek version goes (in Brenton’s and in Pietersma’s English, respectively) like this:
Thy mercy also shall follow me all the days of my life:
and my dwelling [shall be] in the house of the Lord for a very long time.
And your mercy shall pursue me all the days
___of my life,
_and my residing in the Lord’s hours is for
___length of days.
See how “Surely goodness” is missing.  Notice how that leaves “mercy” or, in other translations of the Greek word in Homer, “pity.”  No goodness is noted after the intemperate “drunkeness with the stoutest of drink” is added.  Only “pity” or “mercy” is sung about “all the days.”  Now, in the Jewish Greek version this final interpretive spin does indeed seem to be some sort of literary spark.  As with Homer and Homer’s Odysseus, it seems we have to be literary or Greek insiders to get the tricky wordplay.  Otherwise, we’re as deaf to the differences and then as blind as the blinded, one-eyed Cyclops.
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7 Comments leave one →
  1. January 24, 2012 3:51 pm

    I should add that if you click on the second image above, then it takes you to a wikipedia entry:

    The entry has an error:

    In Homer’s Odyssey (Book 9), … When Polyphemus asks for Odysseus’ name, promising him a guest-gift if he answers, Odysseus tells him “μή τις,” literally “nobody.” (which, when combined, as in speech also meant “cunning” – “μήτις,” and is thus, a play on words.) Being drunk, Polyphemus thinks of it as a real name and says that he will eat “nobody” last and that this shall be his guest-gift—a vicious insult both to the tradition of hospitality and to Odysseus.

    Odysseus does tell Polyphemus his name is “Nobody” (as is in Lattimore’s translation I gave above). However, “Nobody” is Οὖτις (as in line 366, as I also typed in above); it is not, as the wikipediaist claims, “μή τις,”

    After Odysseus tells Polyphemus that his name is Οὖτις, then he does taunt the Cyclops as follows:

    μή τίς σευ μῆλα βροτῶν ἀέκοντος ἐλαύνει; (405)


    μή τίς σ’ αὐτὸν κτείνει δόλῳ ἠὲ βίηφι; (406)

    Lattimore translates that taunting as follows:

    Surely no mortal against your will can be driving your sheep off?
    Surely none can be killing you by force or treachery?

    Polyphemus, the Cyclops Shepherd, comes out of his cave and replies to the taunting by calling his friends for help:

    ὦ φίλοι, Οὖτίς με κτείνει δόλῳ οὐδὲ βίηφι. (408)

    And Lattimore renders it:

    Good friends, Nobody is killing me by force or treachery.

    It’s funny enough in English to hear that “Nobody” when we know that it’s the Somebody of the Odyssey who really is about to kill by force or by treachery.

    The Greek, of course, plays better. And there is much play, many plays. This is why the wikipediaist got tripped up.

    At the beginning of the Odyssey (in Book I, line 70), Homer provides a preview of the Cyclops story, and the Shepherd monster is named, the godlike “Polyphemus.” The Greek name is a phrase, Πολύ φημος, meaning “Much famous” or “In many ways renowned.”

    In Book II, in contrast, Odysseus is reintroduced by a name that runs throughout the Iliad and from Book II, Line 173, throughout the Odyssey. The name is πολύμητις Ὀδυσσεύς. If you look closely at the first name, or if you pronounce it even not too well, then you can tell, it’s a play on the name Poly Phemus. Odysseus’s other name is πολύ μητις or even πολύ μη τις. In English, this is something like “Much a trickster” but might even be understood (or misunderstood also) as “Much of no one.”

    So in Book IX, there’s the story of “Much a famous one” against “Much a tricky one, the Pathtaker.” That name “”Much a tricky one” sounds just like “Much a no one” in Greek. And this one with this name says that his name is really “Nobody” and he taunts him saying, “Is ‘No one’ driving away your sheep against your will? Is ‘No one’ going to kill you by force or by cunning?” To which he replies, “Friends, help! Nobody is going to murder me.”

    So, as I said, the Greek, of course, plays better. I think this is true of the Septuagint version of the Psalm too; the wordplay in Greek adds a playful, dramatic literary spark and interpretive spin.

  2. January 24, 2012 4:04 pm

    Off topic — when you find an error in Wikipedia (I find them often), what do you do? Me, I just chalk it up to the decline of Western Civilization, but I feel guilty — what I really should do is correct it (which is, after all, quite easy to do.) I am still not quite able to analyze why I don’t take the extra step of correcting the mistakes, though.

  3. January 24, 2012 4:53 pm

    Good question. I wish I could say I consistently corrected errors, but I don’t. When it’s something I’ve studied a good bit, or am passionate about, then I usually make the correction. However, I often am just lazy. I like using wikipedia but find it much more work to contribute to it. And now I have the dilemma of whether to correct the entry I’ve mentioned in the blog comment, and then to have to ammend my comment or make another — or whether to just leave it. For now, I’ll leave it.

  4. January 24, 2012 8:37 pm

    I should have mentioned, by the way, that I find this to be the the best of your entries in this series. I’m still working my way through the implications of what you are saying here.

  5. January 25, 2012 11:49 am

    Theophrastus, Thank you. For some reason, I’m having more trouble with the image and paragraph formatting in this post than in others.

    I’m interested in what you see as implications. For me, I really don’t believe the translator wants the Greek version to make David intemporate. My confession: read against Homer, Plato, and Aristotle, the added phrase in the Psalm and the deletion of the phrase for sure goodness the new Psalm (i.e., LXX 22) is very difficult. I like the Hebrew Bible 23rd Psalm much better. Maybe I’ll try an English translation of the Greek to work through this better, to show how I’m perplexed. My main point is that the Alexandrian Jews (and others in their city) would have read the Psalms intially in the context of a rich literary and remarkable cultural center.


  1. A Bible Translator’s Greeky Wordplay: Before Hosea Became a “Christian” or a “New Testament” Spokesman « BLT
  2. Did an LXX Hellene spin enable Odd Gospel Greek imbibing? | BLT

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