Skip to content

You be the judge: Part II, “Esther” translations

December 10, 2011

Practice is to Judaism what belief is to Christianity. That is not to say that Judaism doesn’t have dogma or doctrine. It is rather to say that for Jews, the essence of the thing is a doing, an action. Your faith might come and go, but your practice ought not waver.

Lauren F. Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline

If, as [Leo] Baeck claims, the New Testament can justly be considered a Jewish book, it must be ranked as one of the strangest Jewish books ever written. This is a “Jewish book” that holds the Jews responsible for murdering the beloved son of God. It vilifies the rabbis as hypocrites and liars, and has served as the pretext for centuries of abuse and persecution of the Jewish people. It is a book most Jews neither own nor read. What can it possibly mean to call the Christian scripture a Jewish book?

Julie Galambush, The Reluctant Parting: How the New Testament’s Jewish Writers Created a Christian Book

[There are] subtly negative images of Jews that have unconsciously become the daily bread of perfectly well-meaning Christians. Take, for example, Luke’s parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee. Both enter the temple to pray, but the tax collector seeks God’s forgiveness while the Pharisee indulges in self-congratulation. As a child [taught in a Christian home], I quickly learned that I was supposed to act like the tax collector and not like the Pharisee. For me, however, this lesson included an unconscious assumption that the tax collector, who modeled the correct relationship toward God, was a Christian; only the smug old Pharisee was a Jew. Sometimes reading [the New Testament] with Jewish eyes means opening one’s eyes to layers of anti-Judaism within the Christian tradition.

–Julie Galambush, The Reluctant Parting: How the New Testament’s Jewish Writers Created a Christian Book

I’m starting this post with three epigraphs. They are statements written respectively by one who has converted from Judaism to Christianity (i.e., Lauren Winner) and by one who has converted from Christianity to Judaism (i.e., Julie Galambush). I would like us to consider again Adele Berlin’s statements about the Greek Septuagint being more Jewish than the Hebrew Masoretic Text. Would you now be the judge?

Whether it is the New Testament or the Septuagint (that Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures quoted by the writers of the NT), it seems peculiar to refer to these texts – used by Christians – as Jewish. It’s even stranger to call them more Jewish than the Hebrew texts. Berlin’s statements, which I quote again below, are not particularly common ones in the history of Jewish biblical scholarship. The usual understanding of the LXX, expressed in the Talmud, has been that the day the Torah was rendered into Greek “was as difficult for the Jewish people as the day when the Golden Calf was made.” And even the Jewish translator of Ecclesiasticus into Greek noted that “what was originally expressed in Hebrew does not have the same force when it is in fact rendered in another language.” So what does Berlin say, in particular?

Berlin suggests that, for the book of Esther, the Greek LXX is less sparse than the MT and is actually richer in terms of literary narrative. Berlin also says that, in the Greek translation of Esther, “the Jewish characters are more religious, for it is religious practice that defines one as a Jew.” She goes on: “The Septuagint has made Esther into a pious Jewess of the Hellenistic (early rabbinic) period, who disdains marriage with a non-Jew, eats only kosher food, and does not drink wine used for libations to pagan gods (yein nesekh).”  Thus, Berlin asserts, “the Septuagint sought to make the book sound more biblical.”

So how might you judge this? Theophrastus suggests this test:

“If one sits down and reads two equivalent translations of MT Esther and LXX Esther (for example, in the NRSV translation, where the two works are translated independently to similar standards) at least I cannot help but feel that the Hebrew version is superior.”

With this post, we will do this. You be the judge. Here are NRSV English translations produced by the consistent standards, translations of the same Esther passages, but translations of the passages respectively from Hebrew into English and from Greek into English. In other words, what you find below are verses from the MT and the LXX, both translated into English, one presented right after the other. (I have not included the longer “Additions,” passages only found in Greek but not in Hebrew.)

By your definitions, which is more Jewish, which more literary?

ESTHER NRSV MT FOLLOWED BY NRSV LXX

Chapter 2:

15When the turn came for Esther daughter of Abihail the uncle of Mordecai, who had adopted her as his own daughter, to go in to the king, she asked for nothing except what Hegai the king’s eunuch, who had charge of the women, advised. Now Esther was admired by all who saw her. 16When Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus in his royal palace in the tenth month, which is the month of Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign, 17the king loved Esther more than all the other women; of all the virgins she won his favor and devotion, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti. 18Then the king gave a great banquet to all his officials and ministers—“Esther’s banquet.” He also granted a holiday to the provinces, and gave gifts with royal liberality. 19When the virgins were being gathered together, Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate. 20Now Esther had not revealed her kindred or her people, as Mordecai had charged her; for Esther obeyed Mordecai just as when she was brought up by him. 21In those days, while Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate, Bigthan and Teresh, two of the king’s eunuchs, who guarded the threshold, became angry and conspired to assassinate King Ahasuerus. 22But the matter came to the knowledge of Mordecai, and he told it to Queen Esther, and Esther told the king in the name of Mordecai. 23When the affair was investigated and found to be so, both the men were hanged on the gallows. It was recorded in the book of the annals in the presence of the king.

15When the time was fulfilled for Esther daughter of Aminadab, the brother of Mordecai’s father, to go in to the king, she neglected none of the things that Gai, the eunuch in charge of the women, had commanded. Now Esther found favor in the eyes of all who saw her. 16So Esther went in to King Artaxerses in the twelfth month, which is Adar, in the seventh year of his reign. 17And the king loved Esther and she found favor beyond all the other virgins, so he put on her the queen’s diadem. 18Then the king gave a banquet lasting seven days for all his Friends and the officers to celebrate his marriage to Esther; and he granted a remission of taxes to those who were under his rule. 19Meanwhile Mordecai was serving in the courtyard. 20Esther had not dislosed her country – such were the instructions of Mordecai; for she was to fear God and keep his laws, just as she had done when she was with him. So Esther did not change her mode of life. 21Now the king’s eunuchs, who were the chief bodyguards, were angry because of Mordecai’s advancement, and they plotted to kill King Attaxerxes. 22The matter became known Mordecai, and he warned Esther, who in turn revealed the plot to the king. 23He investigated the two eunuchs and hanged them. Then the king ordered a memorandum to be deposited in the royal library in praise of the goodwill shown by Mordecai.

Chapter 4:

5Then Esther called for Hathach, one of the king’s eunuchs, who had been appointed to attend her, and ordered him to go to Mordecai to learn what was happening and why. 6Hathach went out to Mordecai in the open square of the city in front of the king’s gate, 7and Mordecai told him all that had happened to him, and the exact sum of money that Haman had promised to pay into the king’s treasuries for the destruction of the Jews. 8Mordecai also gave him a copy of the written decree issued in Susa for their destruction, that he might show it to Esther, explain it to her, and charge her to go to the king to make supplication to him and entreat him for her people.

5Then Esther summoned Hachratheus, the eunuch who attended her, and ordered him to get accurate information for her from Mordecai. 7So Mordecai told him what had happened and how Haman had promised to pay ten thousand talents into the royal treasury to bring about the destruction of the Jews. 8He also gave him a copy of what had been posted in Susa for their destruction, to show to Esther; and he told him to charge her to go in to the king and plead for his favor in behalf of the people. “Remember,” he said, “the days when you were an ordinary person, being brough up under my care – for Haman, who stands next to the king, has spoken against us and demands our death. Call upon the Lord; then speak to the king on our behalf, and save us from death.”

Chapter 6:

On that night the king could not sleep, and he gave orders to bring the book of records, the annals, and they were read to the king. 2It was found written how Mordecai had told about Bigthana and Teresh, two of the king’s eunuchs, who guarded the threshold, and who had conspired to assassinate King Ahasuerus. 3Then the king said, “What honor or distinction has been bestowed on Mordecai for this?” The king’s servants who attended him said, “Nothing has been done for him.”

That night the Lord took sleep from the king, so he gave orders to his secretary to bring the book of daily records, and to read to him. 2He found the words written about Mordecai how he had told the king about the two royal eunuchs who were on guard and sought to lay hands on King Artaxerxes. 3The king said, “What honor or dignity did we bestow on Mordecai?” The king’s servants said, “You have not done anything for him.”

Chapter 8:

15Then Mordecai went out from the presence of the king, wearing royal robes of blue and white, with a great golden crown and a mantle of fine linen and purple, while the city of Susa shouted and rejoiced. 16For the Jews there was light and gladness, joy and honor. 17In every province and in every city, wherever the king’s command and his edict came, there was gladness and joy among the Jews, a festival and a holiday. Furthermore, many of the peoples of the country professed to be Jews, because the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them.

15Mordecai went out dressed in the royal robe and wearing a gold crown and a turban of purple linen. The people of Susa rejoiced on seeing him. 16And the Jews had light and gladness 17in every city and province wherever the decree was published; wherever the proclamation was made, the Jews had joy and gladness, a banquet and a holiday. And many of the Gentiles were circumcised and became Jews out of fear of the Jews.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. December 10, 2011 6:19 pm

    I gave up on the fifth scroll after chapter 1 or 2. Or at least I put it aside – I was too weak on the Aramaic (not to mention Greek, Hebrew or English) and it read like a comedy to me – I could not place it in me from the point of view of tone. I don’t know where my next adventure in translation or language will be – apart from this blog of you three (!). So these passages I read with interest – can I hear the difference? and what do I like?

    The translation from the Greek reads as if it were interpreting or even paraphrasing at times. Maybe the Hebrew text was not the same? Why would מִלִּפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ be omitted in the Greek in 8:15 for instance. And it seems περιετέμοντο is added. I would have glossed פַּחַד as something other than ‘fear’. My preferred gloss for this root is ‘dread’ – but that’s my bias – I can’t bring myself to cross-map words in the same lexical domain.

    Curiously enough, in 6:1, I almost prefer the foreignness of the LXX over the Hebrew which is more like English usage. Oh well – de gustibus …

  2. December 10, 2011 10:43 pm

    Well, to be sure, I was referring to the text with the additions. The effect of the story (which in Hebrew is quite crude, with Aristophanes-style burlesque scenes, such as when Mordecai falls on Esther when she is laying on the couch, and is discovered by King Ahasuerus) is blunted by the obsequious pseudo-piety of the Greek version.

    Indeed, if one feels that Esther needs elaboration, the Esther Rabbah is rather more interesting than Greek Esther.

    By the way, as you are no doubt aware, there are two major Greek Esthers: Old Greek and the Alpha/L Text. Both are translated in the NETS version. Care to compare them for literary value?

  3. December 10, 2011 11:29 pm

    Bob,

    Thank you for interacting with the two parallel texts, and for making your observations at 6:1 and at 8:15. For the latter, I don’t think Berlin speaks so much to “omission” as she does to the additions, especially noting some of the small editions or additions like “circumcision” which you also have seen is in the Greek not the Hebrew. Is this Jewishness? an attempt at making the text “biblical”? That’s the interesting question!

    Theophrastus,

    The Greek additions with no Hebrew correspondence is impossible to “compare.” NRSV certainly does have both versions (the MT to English and the LXX to English, but the LXX is only the Old Greek for NRSV). For a blogpost, it’s most interesting just to compare where there’s mostly the concordance with the clear theological additions in the Greek.

    (Otherwise, I’d suggest our blog readers just get a copy of the NRSV Esthers in paper format and try to lay the two side by side, noting how much longer the LXX version is. A good place to start with this is to find the Parallel Apocrypha edited by John R Kohlenberger, III.

    On the NETS, it’s clear that Karen Jobes has done a fine job of translating and of editing both Greek versions of Esther to make it easy to compare them. They don’t really compare so well, do they? I like the speculation that the “Alpha” version is “a midrashic re-write of the Esther story.” What would that say about it’s literary value and/ or style?)

    So as we can most directly compare the Hebrew with the Greek Esther — through the NRSV translation as you suggested — do you still hold that the Hebrew is more elegant? Would you say Berlin’s argument is warranted by looking at those few passages I’ve included in this blog?

  4. December 10, 2011 11:48 pm

    Esther is a short work. Certainly it is possible to compare the entirety of Greek and Hebrew Esther. It is no more difficult than comparing the “director’s cut” of a movie with the “original theatrical version.”

  5. December 11, 2011 12:24 am

    I guess I just misunderstood what you were suggesting with the NRSV.

    Yes, we’ll compare three texts, and more: the Hebrew MT, the LXX old Greek, and the LXX Alpha text. And, for the AT, there are four variants, I understand. Karen Jobes, the NETS translator of both Greek versions wrote her dissertation that would get us started: “The Alpha-Text of Esther: Its Character and Relationship to the Masoretic Text.” To find the AT in Greek, I think we may need a copy of A.E. Brooke’s, N. McLean’s, and H.St J. Thackeray’s The Old Testament in Greek, Cambridge UP, 1906-1940.

    Until then, and if we want an online parallel comparison, there’s the MT and LXX old Greek here at κατα π

    Now, by whatever definitions, which of these is more Jewish, which more literary? What is Adele Berlin thinking?

Trackbacks

  1. Ἐσθὴρ: An Open Window Onto the Jewish Bible « BLT
  2. On the literary merits of Hebrew Esther « BLT
  3. On the literary merits of Hebrew Esther « BLT
  4. The Whole Megillah? « BLT

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: