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Jewish Bible Translation as Resistance: An Example in the Diaspora

October 7, 2012

In this post, I want to focus on one little bit of the Bible as a fairly big example of translation used by Jewish peoples in the Diaspora as a means of their resistance against dominant political forces around them.  The resistance by translation might even be seen as centrally linguistic.  Quite literally, it seems to be a creative appropriation of the predominant language of colonizing empires in order to undermine them.  So let’s get to that little bit of the Bible.  It’s Proverbs 3:34.

In good English translation, the Hebrew wordplay is highlighted.  The turn of a noun into a verb with G-d as its subject against the referent of that noun emphasizes playful agency and action with language.  It sounds like this:

If it concerneth the scorners, He scorneth them, but unto the humble He giveth grace. - Jewish Publication Society

As for the scoffers, He scoffs at them,
—— but to the humble He grants favor. - Robert Alter

In Míshlê Shlomoh, the Proverbs of Solomon, this quite originally goes as follows.  It goes as follows in a way that even those who don’t so easily know how to pronounce the Hebrew can see the change, the play against לַלֵּצִ֥ים with יָלִ֑יץ:

אם ללצים הוא יליץ ולעניים יתן חן׃

In other words, in English passive voice, we might paraphrase.  “The scorners are scorned” and “The scoffers are scoffed at.”  The Hebrew makes G-d a scorner or a scoffer, and gives Him alone this active agency, and so this is just and this is right.  The active voice Hebrew verbs have Him alone doing the action.

So now if one is Jewish in the Greek empire established by Alexander the Great, then how would one use imperial Greek to translate all of that?

Well, we can look at how the Septuagint translator(s) living back in Egypt, in Alexandria, used the available Hellene to translate Proverbs 3:34.  It goes like this:

The Lord resists the arrogant,
—— but he gives grace to the humble. - Johann Cook, New English Septuagint Translation

The Hebraic Greek, of course, goes like this:

κύριος ὑπερηφάνοις ἀντιτάσσεται ταπεινοῖς δὲ δίδωσιν χάριν

The stark contrast between the Hebrew original and this translation into Hellene is in the first line.  No longer are there scoffers whom G-d scoffs at.  Now there are the arrogant (or literally, the supercilious or the hyper-show offs) whom the Lord resists.  The Greek word for resists here is anti-tassetai.  It’s exactly what the women in Greece would do — feared the Athenian man to his fellow man — if men were to impose their laws on them.  As Plato writes it in The Laws:  “women will use every means to resist [πᾶσαν ἀντίτασιν ἀντιτεῖνον] being led…”   So why this word for the Jewish translator in Alexandria?  Why such a change of the Hebrew text?

Johann Cook gives one possibility:

“The translator of Proverbs, unlike many of his Septuagintal colleagues, had a marked interest in exegeting his source text.”

Cook expounds on the nature of the exegesis (i.e., religious, spelling out justice, and so forth).  But isn’t exegesis what most translators of proverbs do?  For example, when any of us translates the Latin proverb Abyssus abyssum invocat into English, we won’t only give the so-called “literal” translation.  That is, we will not just say, “It means, ‘Deep calls to deep’.”  Rather, we tend to expound, to read out what is meant in and by the proverb:  “So that means, ‘If somebody is publicly profound in thought, then this encourages others to be just as deep with their considerations of things’.”  Proverbs call for exegesis when translated from the original idiom into a second language.  So is that all the Septuagintal translator is doing here?

Not necessarily.  Cook gets into what the translator does in rendering Hebrew with Greek.  And yet the who and the why needs to be considered.

At this blog, I’ve written some already about the theses of a couple of translation theorists who consider the Septuagint.  Namely, you may have read here about the notions of Sylvie Honigman and Naomi Seidman:

Honigman (studying the contexts of the letter of Aristeas) generally suggests that the LXX translators followed not the Alexandrian paradigm and not even the Hebrew Exodus paradigm but rather the Homeric paradigm. Seidman (reading an account in the Talmud) proposes that the Septuagint was a trickster translation; and thus the text enacts the sort of sophistic and barbaric rhetorics that Plato and Plato’s Socrates and eventually Aristotle tried to work against.

If we need to discuss these ideas again now, then let’s do.  Could it be that the translator of Proverbs 3 in Alexandria was using Greek as a means of resistance?  It’s an awful lot of speculation, perhaps.

And yet I believe if we move forward to the New Testament, to writers writing explicitly to Jewish fellows in the Diaspora, then I think we might see evidence.  Let’s look at the letters of James and of I Peter.

These two epistles quote (maybe paraphrase just a bit) Proverbs 3:34.  If we start with James, then we may review some of the context.  Julie Galambush asserts that this is not a very Christian text (if by that we mean goyish Greeks and Christian Jews) and really is much more of a Jewish text for Jewish purposes (if we consider the intended recipients those Jews in the Diaspora following Jesus):

The letter of James provides one of the New Testament’s best glimpses into the beliefs of a fully Jewish sect of Jesus-followers.  The “Jewishness” of James has long been recognized, to the point that the book was nearly excluded from the Christian canon.  Martin Luther did not consider James among the books that “show thee Christ,” and in an important sense he was right.  James says nothing about Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, or relationship to God.  Jesus’ status as Lord and messiah is taken for granted, but it is by no means the primary subject of James’s letter.  Jesus fails even to show up as one of the author’s moral exemplars; instead, Abraham, Rahab, Job, and Elijah demonstrate virtues to be pursued. // The letter is written by James to “the twelve tribes of the Dispersion” (diaspora).  “James” is an English version of the Hebrew for “Jacob” (Greek iacobos), father of the twelve tribes of Israel.  The letter can thus be read as a message from “Israel” to diaspora Jews — presumably diaspora Jewish Christians.

Perhaps the letter of James (or of “Yaakov” as Willis Barnstone calls him) is for Jewish diasporic purposes that don’t so emphasize Jesus.  Perhaps the quotation of Proverbs 3:34 in the letter is for such a purpose.  Perhaps the quotation of the Greek translation from Alexandria is intentional.  Couldn’t James, or Jacob, or Yaakov translate the Hebrew into Greek somewhat differently?

Yes, but he doesn’t.  The bit about resistance is retained.  It goes like this:

God opposes the proud,
And graces the lowdown. - Willis Barnstone, Restored New Testament

And that looks like this:

ὁ θεός ὑπερήφανος ἀντιτάσσομαι ταπεινός δέ δίδωμι χάρις

Notice the tiny difference between this Greek (above) and that of the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew (below):

κύριος ὑπερηφάνοις ἀντιτάσσεται ταπεινοῖς δὲ δίδωσιν χάριν

James 4:6 changes “The Lord” for “God” (or κύριος for ὁ θεός), but other than this little change, it’s a direct quotation.  The resistance and the opposition verb is the same.  In fact, the whole proverb in Greek is the same.  Can’t we guess that Jewish peoples scattered from Alexandria and from Jerusalem into the Greek and then Roman empires would have been familiar with this passage of their Bible?

We also find the quotation of this “resistance” translation Proverbs in another of the letters in the New Testament.  It’s one of the letters from Jerusalem, from Peter to the disapora Jews.  We call it I Peter 5:5, and the quotation goes like this:

God opposes the proud,
—— But to the lowly he gives grace. - Willis Barnstone, Restored New Testament

Peter’s Greek is James’s or Yaakav’s Hellene or the Alexandrian Jewish translator’s “oppositional”-language translation:

ὁ θεός ὑπερήφανος ἀντιτάσσομαι ταπεινός δέ δίδωμι χάρις

In the context of the empires, where Greek is read and spoken so commonly and so by educated readers of the language, the translation of the Hebrew proverb gives a full exegesis of the Hebrew for that context.  It is the language of opposition and of resistance, with κύριος and ὁ θεός fully active and resistant.

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