On misunderstanding the kiss, the handshake, the warm greeting between a man and a woman
A few recent blogposts are up – describing the handshake in general and the handshake in same-sex or cross-sex situations in particular. These posts have taken me back to what Bible translator Eugene Nida said a while back. He said the following (respectively in 1964 and then again in 1984):
One of the modern English translations, which, perhaps more than any other, seeks for equivalent effect is J. B. Phillips’ rendering of the New Testament. In Romans 16:16 he quite naturally translates “greet one another with a holy kiss” as “give one another a hearty handshake all around.”
In Romans 16:16 he has translated “give one another a hearty handshake all around,” rather than employing a literal rendering such as “greet one another with a holy kiss.” One can well understand the reason for such actualizing, since the phrase ‘holy kiss’ is likely to be misunderstood.
Nida was implying that giving a hearty handshake is less likely to be misunderstood.
It’s time we understood some of the nuance here. There are subtle significances in what is written in the Greek of the New Testament. But there may be subtle sexism and racism and sect-ism and ethnocentricies in our behaviors today too.
Often the translator will not account for these behaviors, the unlikely “to be misunderstood” habits. When trying to make “them yesterday” dynamically equivalent to “us today,” there’s rarely any acknowledgement of the questions of exclusion, of lack of equivalence, between persons in our own context. Who is included in one’s group, and who left out, by how two bodies touch in public, in greetings? Did Paul the man and the woman Junias in Romans 16 ever greet one another ἐν φιλήματι ἁγίῳ? Did he also greet the woman Priscilla this way? How about “Phoebe, our sister, a deaconess of the Church at Cenchrea”? Did J. B. Phillips greet the women around him this way? His translation suggests this to be the case: “Shake hands for me with Priscilla and Aquila…. A handshake too for Andronicus and Junias my kinsmen and fellow-prisoners; they are outstanding men among the messengers and were Christians before I was.”
(Well, we see that the Phillips translation considers Junias to be a man, and Priscilla not a man; but my question is whether the instruction to “give one another a hearty handshake all around” equally applies to men and to women and to men with women equally all around. This is the question brought out in those recent blogposts I’ve read. More on that in a moment.)
I’d like us to consider more the significances of the kiss, the handshake, and the warm greeting — as symbols of inequalities not only in religious contexts but also in male-female contexts. I’d just like to recall how J. B. Phillips translated other such things in the New Testament. I’d like to recall also how Nida said nothing about the Phillips translation on these other such things.
For example, Phillips has Judas kissing Jesus in betrayal. Here is Luke 22:48 -
“Judas, would you betray the son of Man with a kiss?” said Jesus to him.
That kiss of course for Phillips, for Jesus, for Judas, is significantly different from “a hearty handshake all around.” And yet the translator finds that his English readers, like Luke’s Greek readers, had no real misunderstanding of the cultural implications of the kiss.
And here is Matthew 26:47-48 in the Phillips -
And while the words were still on his lips, Judas, one of the twelve appeared with a great crowd armed with swords and staves, sent by the chief priests and Jewish elders. (The traitor himself had given them a sign, “The one I kiss will be the man. Get him!”)
Again, there is no attempt by Phillips here to make Judas betray Jesus with a hearty handshake. The kiss is clear enough. What is more, in this Matthew passage, Phillips actually adds his own literary flair by noting that Jesus had fresh words on his lips (like a kiss). Jesus’s words on his lips are signaling some things; Judas’s kiss with his lips is signaling other things. My guess is that this literary spark is accidental and an unconscious addition by the translator. In the Forward to his New Testament, on his on principles of translation, he discusses just how Nidan he is intending to be:
I feel strongly that a translator, although he must make himself as familiar as possible with New Testament Greek usage, must steadfastly refuse to be driven by the bogey of consistency. He must be guided both by the context in which a word appears, and by the sensibilities of modern English readers. In the story of the raising of Lazarus, for example, Martha’s objection to opening the grave would be natural enough to an Eastern mind. But to put into her lips the words, “by this time he’s stinking,” would sound to Western ears unpleasantly out of key with the rest of that moving story. Similarly, we know that the early Christians greeted one another with “an holy kiss”. Yet to introduce such an expression into a modern English translation immediately reveals the gulf between the early Christians and ourselves, the very thing which I as a translator am trying to bridge.
So we catch Phillips himself talking like this — “into her lips the words.” This is his idiom. He puts this idiom of his on Luke’s Jesus this way: “the words were still on his lips.” This rendering does seem not a very conscious thing for him to do (which is why I can only guess that his Matthew 26:47-48 has that added literary flair).
Nonetheless, there are other parts of language that Phillips does not appear to be aware of. I’m interested in how his words here betray perhaps-unconscious separations. There seems to be an ethnocentric presumption. What’s in “an Eastern mind” must not fall on “Western ears.” The woman, Martha, might indeed be — in her Eastern mind — thinking the following: “by this time he’s stinking.” But the man, J. B. Phillips, for the Western and Christian ears of his own modern English readers must render that — as if entirely pleasantly in-key — the following way: “By this time he will be decaying.” Phillips has to pre-suppose difference. He presumes to stand for all who use modern English in the Western world who are modern Christians who will not stand for the Eastern “sound … [so] unpleasantly out of key.” Then he has to bridge the dissonance. Thus, as a translator, he is working actually to erase the differences “between the early Christians and ourselves [the later Christians].” If the “out of key” can just be silenced, then the bridge backwards to these different others can be constructed.
The modern Christian part is interesting. Phillips does not seem to be thinking of the very differences among various Jews that are flaunted by the Greek text of “the story of the raising of Lazarus.” Phillips, by his translation, actually erases an important phrase that punctuates a textual and a contextual contrast. His modern English for late Christian readers has this for John 11:8 – “Master!” returned the disciples, “only a few days ago, the Jews were trying to stone you to death….” The Greek, of course, has something different, and notably different – λέγουσιν αὐτῷ οἱ μαθηταί· Ῥαββί, νῦν ἐζήτουν σε λιθάσαι οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι. Admittedly, this is odd gospel Greek that is not easy for any to understand entirely; however, other translators have not had to erase “Rabbi” with “Master!” just bridge some gulf “between the early Christians and ourselves [the later Christians].” Willis Barnstone, for example, brings out the oddity of the Greek for readers of English; in his footnote, Barnstone writes:
The conjunction of “rabbi” with “the Jews” here is an anomaly whose contradiction in identity befuddles the purpose of making the Jews appear abhorrent. In like passages in Matthew and Luke, “rabbi” [in the Greek text] has been changed to “master,” “teacher,” or “Lord,” [in the Greek text] and so the anomaly is less apparent.
It would seem that in this context, the word “Rabbi” in the Western and Christian and modern English ear of Phillips does “sound … unpleasantly out of key.” The solution to this problem is to erase the word, to supplant it with another.
What, then, of the male-female differences flaunted by the Greek text of John 11? What does the Phillips translation do with these in “the story of the raising of Lazarus”? The Greek narrative highlights these facts:
- that the women in it speak freely to the man Jesus as a lover (φιλεῖς),
- that this man does in fact love (ἠγάπα) these women and their brother,
- and that one of these women (Μαριὰμ) has loved him back in ways that are easy to misunderstand and that are far more than a “a hearty handshake.”
What we notice is how consistent Phillips is to his translation principle to “steadfastly refuse to be driven by the bogey of consistency.” In this case, this is a good thing. We all can see how the Phillips translation of John 11 (“the story of the raising of Lazarus”) does not entirely lose all of the male-female differences that the original text highlights. The modern translation does not erase the fact, for instance, that “Mary [was the woman] who poured perfume upon the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.” There she is in her “Eastern mind.” And, presumably, she’s acting as if any late-Christian Western woman would. Moreover, Phillips, the translator, does seem aware that this bit of text (ἦν δὲ Μαριὰ[μ] ἡ ἀλείψασα τὸν κύριον μύρῳ καὶ ἐκμάξασα τοὺς πόδας αὐτοῦ ταῖς θριξὶν αὐτῆς) is elaborated on in another gospel. At the very least, John’s gospel and Luke’s record something very similar. And the Phillips translation does treat both John 11 and Luke 7 consistently, even if both are inconsistent with the translation treatment Romans 16. In both John 11 and Luke 7 of the Phillips, there the woman publicly loving the man is not giving him “a hearty handshake.” The point of the gospels in this context is, in part, that this is a woman, not a man, greeting the other as a woman might however shocking that is but certainly not as a man would.
In Luke’s account, the woman is giving a man stinky kisses.
Here is Luke 7:36-50 in the Phillips -
Then one of the Pharisees asked Jesus to a meal with him. When Jesus came into the house, he took his place at the table and a woman, known in the town as a bad woman, found out that Jesus was there and brought an alabaster flask of perfume and stood behind him crying, letting her tears fall on his feet and then drying them with her hair. Then she kissed them and anointed them with the perfume. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were really a prophet, he would know who this woman is and what sort of a person is touching him. He would have realised that she is a bad woman.”
Then Jesus spoke to him, “Simon, there is something I want to say to you.” “Very well, Master,” he returned, “say it.”
“Once upon a time, there were two men in debt to the same money-lender. One owed him fifty pounds and the other five. And since they were unable to pay, he generously cancelled both of their debts. Now, which one of them do you suppose will love him more?”
“Well,” returned Simon, “I suppose it will be the one who has been more generously treated,”
“Exactly,” replied Jesus, and then turning to the woman, he said to Simon, “You can see this woman? I came into your house but you provided no water to wash my feet. But she has washed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. There was no warmth in your greeting, but she, from the moment I came in, has not stopped covering my feet with kisses. You gave me no oil for my head, but she has put perfume on my feet. That is why I tell you, Simon, that her sins, many as they are, are forgiven; for she has shown me so much love. But the man who has little to be forgiven has only a little love to give.”
Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
And the men at table with him began to say to themselves, “And who is this man, who even forgives sins?”
But Jesus said to the woman, “It is your faith that has saved you. Go in peace.”
What is notable about the Phillips translation here is how he does not erase the sexism, the contrast in behaviors between the man and the woman that puts the men over women.
What we might also note is how Phillips erases the failure of the one man to kiss the other. Perhaps for the modern English Christian Western ears of Phillips and his targeted readers this is just too much. The Greek of Luke clearly has “φίλημά μοι οὐκ ἔδωκας” and refers to the lack of a kiss by the man in contrast to the constant warm kissing by the woman. But the Phillips renders that as follows:
There was no warmth in your greeting, but she, from the moment I came in, has not stopped covering my feet with kisses.
Phillips seems to be implying the lack of an expected hearty handshake man to man. But at least the sexist difference is not erased. Men shake hands heartily. Men allow women to kiss them. There is a question about whether men ought to kiss each other or women in public. There is a question about when women ought really to do the handshake as do men with men.
And so that brings us to some recent blogposts. Well, the first doesn’t so much point to sexism as it does to other constructions of difference around a hearty handshake.
A while ago (in 2012), “Rod the Rogue Demon Hunter, Preacher of Hope | Black Scholar of Patristics | Writer for Nonviolent Politics… Destroyer of Trolls… that angry puppy” shared the following “image of a handshake superimposed upon a Greek cross.” This is easy to misunderstand despite the fact that it’s no image of kissers superimposed on, say, a Roman cross. So, let’s understand. Rod was flaunting the fact that some blogs [including this one, sigh] — but not others — based on rather spurious criteria were deemed “exceptionally Christian.” Here’s that image:
As Rod’s post was posted, a scientific study came out that other blogposts (earlier in 2012) were reporting. For example, an unnamed writer for sciencedaily.com reported one of the scientists publishing the study as saying:
[B]e aware of the power of a handshake. We found that it not only increases the positive effect toward a favorable interaction, but it also diminishes the impact of a negative impression. Many of our social interactions may go wrong for a reason or another, and a simple handshake preceding them can give us a boost and attenuate the negative impact of possible misunderstandings.
And Lisa M.P. Munoz, for cogneurosociety.org, also reported with quotations from this same scientist, Sanda Dolco:
Handshakes have been proven to increase the perception of trust and formality of the relationship, and a handshake initiated by a female has been shown to increase the perceived feeling of security when making risky financial decisions. Yet, the study of interpersonal and emotional effects of handshake, and the associated neural correlates, has been largely neglected.
The respective posts were accompanied by these pictures:
And Steve McGaughey, for the Beckman Institute that was sponsoring the study, posted the following picture (of “Beckman Institute researcher Florin Dolcos [on the right] and Department of Psychology postdoctoral research associate Sanda Dolcos [on the left]”):
The visual rhetoric here is that a female engaging in a hearty handshake with a male may “attenuate the negative impact of possible misunderstandings” and definitely will “increase the perceived feeling of security when making risky financial decisions.” It takes twenty-first century science to prove these things.
Sometimes we in the Western world understand the hearty handshake as something men do that women don’t initiate much or do as well or even need to do with men. So three more recent blogpost cases of that:
Throughout the book the reader is introduced to Rachel’s husband Dan through journal entries he wrote during the course of the book’s development. Let me tell you something: Dan challenged me to be a better husband to my wife far more than any literature from Focus on the Family or Desiring God could ever do. Dan is the ultimate team player. He supports Rachel. I gain from the book that he makes Rachel a better person and she makes him a better person. One can critique egalitarian marriages, but the fruit of the Spirit seems to be blossoming in the midst of their relationship, so do what you will with that. As I read his thoughts he made me ask myself if I am doing all that I can do to help Miranda become all that God has made her and whether I have supported my wife in her giftedness. Someday I’d like to meet Dan, give him a big handshake, and thank him for existing.
What is interesting is how LePort does not express any desire to give Held Evans a big handshake or to have her and his wife give one to each other. The context, of course, is a discussion about how Mr. Evans supports Mrs. Held Evans in their most egalitarian marriage.
You see a business associate at a conference. You meet a new co-worker at the plant. Your boss wants to meet with you for a second.
But there’s a complication! The person in question is a woman. Tricky stuff. What do you do?
Hold out your hand. Shake it two to three times firmly whilst making eye contact. All fingers, yes. Smile and continue with business.
Shaking hands with a member of the opposite sex should be that simple, but unfortunately others don’t see it that way.
What is interesting is how Quinlan has to remind, at the end of her post, “At the end of the day, women are human beings.”
Grace Yia-Hei Kao in her (2013) post to women, concludes “by quoting Dr. Karen Kelsky of the ‘Professor Is In’ blogsite… from her helpful post entitled ‘The Six Ways You’re Acting Like a Grad Student (And how that’s killing you on the job market)’”:
“And lastly, the handshake. Oh my god, the handshake. If you do nothing else from this post, please, I beg you, do this. Get up from your computer, go find a human, and shake their hand. Shake it firmly. Really squeeze! Outstretch your arm, grip their hand with all your fingers and thumb, look them firmly in the eye, smile in a friendly, open way, and give that hand a nice, firm shake. Repeat. Do this until it’s second nature. If it doesn’t feel right or you aren’t sure if you’re doing it right, find an alpha male in your department, and ask him to teach you. Seriously, grad students, butch it up.”
Good advice for all of us.
What is interesting is the way Kao must emphasize the gendered difference in the handshake.
What is interesting to think about is how Romans 16, in the Greek, is perhaps written by a Roman citizen. But as J. B. Phillips would translate it, this same letter to the young church in Rome would be written by “a true Jew, [... a male] circumcised on the eighth day, … a member of the tribe of Benjamin, … in fact a full-blooded Jew.”
What is interesting is to try to understand the φιλήματι ἁγίῳ or the holy kiss or even the hearty handshake as being applied by so many men, with so many women also named, equally here. Did men back then need to learn this from women? Do men now have anything to learn from women?
How dynamically equivalent are all of our equivalencies? Doesn’t erasure of difference by the translator, when the difference is the difference of the Other, presume that there is no dynamic equivalence in the translation?