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Interpretive Spins in the Ψαλμοὶ: part ii, Music of Hades

January 19, 2012

I will sing you an answering song,
the Asian strain, the barbarian dirge,
mistress, the melody used
in lamentation,
dirges for the dead, the song that is sung
by Hades, no peal of triumph.
Chorus, “Iphigeneia in Tauris,” by Euripides
———–(trans. by Richmond Lattimore from Greek to English)

1  A Psalm. Of an Ode of the dedication of the house. Pertaining to Dauid.

2(1)  I will exalt you, O Lord, because you upheld me
———–and did not gladden my enemies over me.
3(2)  O Lord my God, I cried to you,
———–and you healed me.
4(3)  O Lord, you brought up my soul from Hades;
———–you saved me from those that go down into a pit.
David, “Psalm 29(30),” trans. by anon from Hebrew to Greek
———–(further trans. by Albert Pietersma from Greek to English)

Could it be that the Psalms provide literary sparks and interpretive spins that have been lost in English translation?  And what’s up with the post title and the epigraphic, literary allusions to “Hades”?

Before we answer and especially before we get to any possible spark from “Hades,” here’s a bit of background on the Psalms.  I’m talking about the Psalms, or the the Ψαλμοὶ (or Psalmoi), as the original translation of ancient Hebrew poetry known as Tehillim, תְהִלִּים, or “praises” in the Hebrew Bible.  What I mean by “original translation” is this:  it’s that first and most unique rendering of the Hebrew songs of praise into Hellene, or Greek, by now-unknown and perhaps-always anonymous diaspora Jews living in Egypt again, in the namesake city of Alexander the Great (or Alexandria); their translating started around the year 250 BCE, not even a century after the death of the Greek conqueror, who was tutored by  the considerably political Greek language prescriptivist, Aristotle.  (An important history of the legend of this translation is written by Sylvie Honigman, and some critical theories of just what the translators of the translation might have been up to is written by Naomi Seidman; but the wikipedia entry for the “Septuagint” or LXX, or  \mathfrak{G} , or G does fine for an introduction.)

The Ψαλμοὶ  do offer interpretive spins and literary sparks in Greek, and we will get to Hades soon enough.  (This is the second post in now a series.  In the first post, we looked at the Greek clause/phrase that means “to throw to the crows” and saw how a playwright like Aristophanes had used it and then viewed the very few and very marked uses of the same by the LXX translator[s].  These few uses were Greek literary sparks and interpretive spins in a translation of the Tehillim that otherwise basically just gave Greek glosses of the Hebrew words to get at the Semitic language meanings in a fairly literal and inter-linear way.)  Let’s now review what Albert Pietersma says about LXX translator and his choice in the name, the title, the Greek word, Ψαλμοὶ (or Psalmoi):

Pietersma has done a wonderful thing by noting the “interpretive spins”  of the translator as rare as they are.  He does note that they are “titles,” that is, considerably prominant and extremely conspicus words and phrases.  Rather candidly, nonetheless, he admits that to him some of these titular tropes “seem less transparent” in what is meant by or intended with them.  With his NETS English translation of the Greek translation, he has “a psalm of song” and “a song of a psalm” and a “praise-song of a song.”

Hopefully, we can approach a good bit more transparency in this post.  To approch just a little more transparency, first let me transliterate with English letters the Greek phrases Pietersma matches with his English:  (for ψαλμὸς ᾠδῆς) psalmos odes = “a psalm of song”; (for ᾠδὴ ψαλμοῦ) ode psalmou = “a song of a psalm”; and (for αἶνος ᾠδῆς) ainos odes = “praise-song of a song.”  What’s clear is that the English “song” is the match for the Greek “odes” and “praise-song” is for “ainos” but that “psalm” is for “psalm.”

Now, I’d like to suggest additional nuance and meaning for the English glosses from the NETS:

  • An Ode (ᾠδή), for the Greeks, was a song often used in what Aristotle classified as epi-deictic rhetor-ic (or show-y speech-acts).  In other words, odes were typically songs to accompany public praise or public shaming at events such as funerals (where there were dirges and eulogies) or victory parties (in which accolades were sung to heroes and in which blame and disdain was musically heaped upon enemies).
  • An Ainos (αἶνος) was a song sung usually to express — in the form of poetry or as a ballad — praise but often communicate a taunt, or despair, or dread.  The direct or secondary use of an Ainos could be used in political (or deliberative) communications, another species or genre of rhetoric for Aristotle.  For example, in his Athenian Constitution (12.5), Aristotle himself — for political purposes — quotes a poem by Solon, a forefather of Athenian democracy, in which the latter complains of an Ainos — in verb form — as an action in subjunctive mood; Henry Rackham translates that thusly:

And again in his [Solon’s] taunting reply to the later querulous complaints of both the parties:

“If openly I must reprove the people,
Never in the dreams of sleep could they have seen
The things that they have now . . .
While all the greater and the mightier men
Might praise [αἰνοῖεν, ainoien] me and might deem me as a friend;

  • A Psalm (ψαλμὸς) was not just a “psalm.”  Nor was it always or primarily even singing or poetry or a song.  Rather, a psalm basically was a strum, a pluck, a pick, a twitch, or a twang of the strings of a musical instrument.  One could perform an Ode or an Ainos by PS-al-ING or PS-alM-ING, by STR-um-ING, by PL-uck-ING, by P-ick-ING, by TW-itch-ING, or by TW-ang-ING.  I suspect the Greek word was, and is, an onomotopoeia.  It sounds like what it is, and makes noise that descriptively does what it does.

A description of this method of stricking or plucking the strings is offered in Problems (Bekker page 919b), a treatise Aristotle ostensibly wrote. Here is the English translation by William David Ross and John Alexander Smith [with Aristotle’s Greek and a transliteration and my “translation” in bold font within brackets at certain points]:

Why is hypate double nete? Is it because in the first place, when half the string is struck [ψαλλομένη, PS-al-LO-me-NE, is “twanged”] and when the whole string is struck an accord in the octave is produced? So too with wind instruments, the sound produced through the middle hole and that produced through the whole flute give an accord in the octave. Again, in the reed-pipe an accord in the octave is obtained by doubling the length, and this is how flute-makers produce it. Similarly they obtain a fifth by means of a length in the ratio of 3 to 2. Again, those who construct Pan-pipes [σύριγγας, SYR-in-GAS, or “pipe”] stuff wax into the extreme end of the Ayjpate-reed, but fill up the nete-reed to the middle. Similarly they obtain a fifth by means of a length in the ratio of 3 to 2, and a fourth by means of a length in the ratio of 4 to 3. Further, hypate and nete on triangular stringed [ψαλτηρίοις, PS-al-TER-iois, “twanged”] instruments, when they are equally stretched, give an accord in the octave when one is double the other in length.

In Genesis, in the Greek translation of the Hebrew first book, there’s the first introduction of such “twanged” instruments.  The English translation of Genesis 4:20-21 (by Robert J. V. Hiebert for the NETS) goes like this [with similar interpolations by me]:

And Ada [the first wife of Mathousala] bore Iobel; he was the ancestor of cattle-raisers living in tents.  And his brother’s name was Ioubal; he was the one who introduced the [ψαλτηρίοις, PS-al-TER-iois, “twanged instrument”] harp and the [κιθάραν, ki-THAR-an, “guitar”] lyre.

Aristotle’s Problems (Bekker page 922b), also mentions what Ross and Smith translate into English as a “lyre.”  The exact Greek phrase is κιθαρ-ῳδικωτάτη, ki-THAR Odiko-TAte, or a “guitar to accompany odes, for public oratory.”  Clearly, this Ioubal, the Greek version of Jubal, played two twanged or strummed instruments.  For whatever reason, this was an important literary spin for the LXX Genesis translator since in the Hebrew Bible this character played just one stringed instrument and something else like a flute or like a Pan’s pipe, mentioned in the longer quotation of Problems (919b) above.  Why this change?  Why have this character forgo the pipe only to introduce the different twanging instruments, one perhaps more like a harp and the other more like a guitar?

The LXX translators do not use Psalms (ψαλμοι) or any such twanged things until the stories of Saul and of David, the first two kings of Israel.  NETS translator Bernard A. Taylor renders the Greek variants of the words for twanged instruments that David plays for Saul as the “English” word, “cinyra.” Cinya is actually ostensibly a “Semitic word for lyre” — so the Greek meaning is lost (unless one is to think of the allusions to “Kinyra, the king of Paphos, … grandson of Aphrodite, son of Apollo, priest of Aphrodite and father of Adonis, the lover of Aphrodite, born from the tragic and incestuous love with his daughter Myrra.”).  Taylor’s footnotes on each of his uses of this peculiar word cinyra suggests he’s wanting readers to read his English not as Greek but as an earlier Hebrew:  ” = Heb kinnor = lyre.”  Why?  This English loses all connections to the Greek “harp” and nearly all connection to the Greek “lyre” that is introduced in LXX Genesis 4:21.  More than that, Taylor’s English renderings and footnotes make absolutely no connection between the TW-ang-ing and the ψαλμ-ing of David here (in the Greek 1 Samuel or ΒΑΣΙΛΕΙΩΝ Α or “1 Reigns” as the NETS) and in the book of Psalms, that book of Greek-language STRumings and Twangings.

In 2 Reigns (at the first verse of chapter 23), Taylor and NETS translator Paul D. McLean make David’s last words like this:  “and fitting are Israel’s melodies.”  Lancelot Brenton’s English translation of the Greek seems closer to the Greek:  “and beautiful [are] the psalms of Israel.”   The Greek translation of the Hebrew goes like this:  καὶ εὐπρεπεῖς ψαλμοὶ Ισραηλ.  Here again the psalms refer to PLuckINGs of strings on musical instruments, in essence, in Greek.  One thing that the David of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible is known for is his music made by Strummings.

Unfortunately, at this blogging moment, I only have time to discuss one of the Psalms or Ψαλμοὶ (or Psalmoi), that Pietersma mentions as a literary spark.  It’s Psalm 29(30), that I started this post with, following the bit from “Iphigeneia in Tauris,” by Euripides.  (If we had more time, then I’d show you Psalms or lots more STrummings and PLuckings and TWangings in various plays by Euripides.  The one you have here is one that, like this Psalm you have, also has a mention of Hades.)  I believe if I just put back in the Greek now [with the transliterations and my translations also in brackets] you will see the literary connections and perhaps the sparks.  The thing to remember is that an Ode (ᾠδή) is for music and songs for praise or for shame typically.   So here we go again with the interpretive spins spun also into English and the literary sparks now lit up just a bit more:

I will sing you an answering song

[ἀντι-ψάλμους ᾠδὰς, anti-PSalmous Odas, “a TWangING-against, a disparaging Song“],

the Asian strain, the barbarian dirge,
mistress, the melody used
in lamentation,
dirges for the dead, the song that is sung
by Hades [Ἅιδας, Haidas, “Netherworld Wrong“], no peal of triumph.

— Chorus, “Iphigeneia in Tauris,” by Euripides
———–(trans. by Richmond Lattimore from Greek to English)

1 A Psalm. Of an Ode

[ψαλμὸς ᾠδῆς, PSalmos Odes, “TWangING of a Song“]

of the dedication of the house. Pertaining to Dauid.

2(1) I will exalt you, O Lord, because you upheld me
———–and did not gladden my enemies over me.
3(2) O Lord my God, I cried to you,
———–and you healed me.
4(3) O Lord, you brought up my soul from Hades [ᾅδου, Hadou, “Netherworld Wrong“];
———–you saved me from those that go down into a pit.
— David, “Psalm 29(30),” trans. by anon from Hebrew to Greek
———–(further trans. by Albert Pietersma from Greek to English)

Could it be that the Psalms provide literary sparks and interpretive spins that have been lost in English translation? Could it be that the Greek changes from the Hebrew are suggesting that a STRummed Song of EpiDeictic Showy Rhetoric is a way to tell off the Greek empire in Alexandria, Egypt?  Could it possible be that the Greek word for Song might be a near rhyme to the Greek word for Netherworld?  Is it wrong to try to bring some of that out in English?  Could the lines of Psalm 29 with the Greek title be a way to flaunt the accusations of the Greeks that everyone else was StamMerING BarBarIANs?  Could it be that Greek literature put further eastern and barbarian strains of music in Hades, but could it be that the Jewish Greek literature rescues it out of Hades?

Would ancient Hebrew poetry have communicated in Alexandria if these Semitic lyrics were not retitled as Hellene songs, so brash and so instrumental?

What do you see and hear?

20 Comments leave one →
  1. January 19, 2012 10:07 pm

    [Note: in this comment I use Hebrew verse numbering — not Greek or English]

    As usual, your post is provocative and suggestive, and I find myself admiring it as a type of prose poetry itself. But although it is evocative as a suggestion, I think it rather weakly supported as a theory.

    Not all readers of the Septuagintal psalters hold it in such esteem. Mitchell Dahood (Pontifical Bible Institute) Anchor Bible Psalm trilogy is one of my go-to commentaries, and Dahood seems to take a dim view of the Septuagintal psalters.

    Dahood writes (pp. xxiv-xxvi):

    In the present study the ancient versions are cited infrequently, not because they have not been consulted, but because they have relatively little to offer toward a better understanding of the difficult texts. For such texts, the critic who seeks succor from the ancient translations will usually be disappointed. A significant corollary of Ugaritic studies will be the devaluation of the ancient versions. My consistent experience in studying Psalms (as well as Job and Proverbs) has been that Ugaritic embarrassingly exposes—at least in the poetic books—the shortcomings of the versions and seriously undermines their authority as witnesses to the original text. The Bible de Jérusalem can be taxed with a serious error in method when, in the poetic books in particular, it detours to the LXX whenever the Hebrew text throws up an obstacle. The numberless details of grammar which Phoenician and Ugaritic place at the disposal of the Hebraist allow him to ask anew: “How much grammar did the translators in antiquity understand? Were they familiar with the poetic vocabulary of the second millennium, the language often used by the biblical poets? How many mythological allusions did they seize?”

    In response to the first query, Ps 49:16 may serve as an object lesson: ʾak ʾelōkīm yipdeh napšī miyyad šeʾōl kī yiqqāḥēnī, is rendered by the LXX, “But God will redeem my soul from the power of that mansion when it receives me,” and by the Vulgate, “Verumtamen Deus redimet animam meam de manu inferi, cum acceperit me” (“But God will redeem my soul from the hand of hell, when he shall receive me”), while the Psalterii Nova Recensio of 1961 adopts the Vulgate reading except for the substitution of acceperit by abstulerit. Even the most casual reader will notice an imbalance that’s uncharacteristic of biblical verse-structure. Four clear Ugaritic examples of an emphatic kī, which effects the post-position of the verb at the end of its colon, suggest the following translation and verse division: “But God will ransom me, from the hand of Sheol will he surely snatch me.” The first colon thus ends with napšī and the second with yiqqāḥēnī; the rhyme was doubtless intended by the poet. In fact, none of the ancient versions grasped the nature of the construction in any of the passages where it is admittedly employed: Gen 18:20; 2 Sam 23:5; Isa 7:9, 10:13; Pss 49:16, 118:10–12, 128:2. They were equally strangers to the waw emphaticum in such texts as Pss 4:5, 11:6, 25:11, 49:11, 77:2, etc.

    Their knowledge of poetic vocabulary leaves much to be desired. The psalmists frequently used ʾereṣ, “earth,” in the poetic sense of “nether world,” as in Akkadian and Ugaritic, but this nuance was lost on the ancient translators. Ps 75 abounds in divine appellatives, but this could never be gathered from a perusal of the versions. Titles such as ʿōlām, “the Eternal,” lēʾ, “the Victor,” mārōm, “the Exalted One,” hammēbīn, “the Observer,” were simply not reproduced in antiquity and now must slowly be recovered with the aid of Northwest Semitic texts.

    A poetic practice, notably clarified by recent discoveries, is the use of plural forms of nouns signifying “home, habitation,” which, however, are to be translated as singular. Thus the ancient versions render miškānōt as plural in Pss 43:3, 84:2 and 132:5, 7, where the singular would appear more correct.

    Many of the biblical images and metaphors do not come through in the ancient versions. A probable instance is the famous crux in Ps 8:3, yāsadtā ʿōz, lemāʿōn (MT lemaʿan), “You built a fortress for your habitation,” where ʿōz is a poetic name for “heaven,” precisely as in Ps 78:26, yassaʿ qādīm baššāmāyim wayenahēg beʿuzzō tēmān, poorly reflected in LXX, “He removed the southeast wind out of heaven, and by his power brought on the southwest wind.” This rendition can scarcely be correct since it fails to preserve the synonymous parallelism which characterizes the preceding and following verses. The more plausible reading would be, “He let loose the east wind from heaven, and led forth the south wind from his stronghold.”

    The ancient versions do, however, make a positive contribution to textual criticism in their flexible attitude toward prepositions, an attitude which modern translators might well adopt. They often translated according to the needs of context, rendering be “from” when the context required this meaning. Contrast the translation of Deut 1:44, beśēʿīr ʿad ḥormāh, “from Seir to Hormah,” as rendered by LXX, Vulgate, and Syriac, with the less felicitous efforts of CCD and RSV (CCD: “in Seir as far as Horma”; RSV: “in Seir as far as Hormah”). Notice their handling of baššāmāyim in Ps 78:26, cited above. This sense has amply been confirmed by Ugaritic where b and l denote precisely this in many cases; in Canaanite poetry min was unknown and its function was filled by b and l. The introduction of min into biblical Hebrew did not completely deprive b and l of their older function. Here the testimony of the LXX, Vulgate, and Syriac can be extremely valuable. But the overall judgment that the ancient versions invite in view of the new testimony is that they are not always reliable witnesses to what the biblical poets intended.

    In particular, in his commentary on Hebrew Psalm 30, Dahood again argues how the Greek translation differs from the Hebrew. He points out the verse 13 is completely different in the Greek and Masoretic text, that the Greek of verses 11-12 (incorrectly) take all verbal elements as perfects, , that verses 11-12 (incorrectly) take all verbal elements as perfects, etc.

    I can understand how you could analyze or praise the Septuagint psalters in isolation as literature, but given the enormous gap in times between the composition of the individual psalms and their later Greek translation, as well as the many demonstrative errors in the Septuagintal versions, your argument is an uphill battle.

    In particular, the concept of sheol is a complicated one and some critics have argued that its meaning changed both during the period of Biblical composition and then further in the Rabbinic period. There is rabbinic commentary on this (which is closer in time to the initial Septuagint translations than the Septuagint translation is to the Greek.) There is also commentary among the prominent Hellenistic Jewish writers: Josephus and Philo. Should we not look to them for the best understanding of this terminology.

    However, the Jewish commentary on sheol is dwarfed by the enormous Christian commentary on Hades. The afterlife, eternal punishment, and related topics are a dominant theme in the New Testament and the writings of the Early Church Fathers. It is certainly possible to see an evolution in the view of Hades (or at least a diversity of views of Hades) even in the New Testament proper.

    Even more complex: Hades, as you suggest, has a complex set (and shifting) set of associations in Greek thought.

    If you were to make an argument that there were parallel developments of in the conception of Hades and Sheol — even among the Hellenistic Jews — it would require substantial justification.

    To go the further step and suggest that limited consonance and assonance (in inverted order: from ou-d to d-ou) in the target language implies a certain theological understanding in Hebrew is quite a speculative move. I think your case would be strengthened if you found further support.

  2. January 20, 2012 10:26 am


    Your comment here could be developed into its own post, or even a series. Thank you for bringing in Mitchell Dahood and his commentary on the Septuagintal psalters with some analysis.

    Albert Pietersma studies the Septuagintal psalters very very careful and concludes of the translator:

    to call him a hack would be unfair

    Dahood has “consulted” the same but asserts just the opposite, that the Greek translator(s) surely must

    have relatively little to offer toward a better understanding of the difficult texts

    I’m listening to this would-be contradiction perhaps the way that Krista Ratcliffe says that she has to listen to Audre Lorde and to Mary Daly contradict one another (until there seems a stalemate and until there actually is a call to silence or even self-imposed silencing). Ratcliffe, in her book Rhetorical Listening (page 84) says:

    In sum, Daly claims that Lorde misunderstood her intent in Gyn/Ecology and contends that a public debate about this issue will serve no purpose.
    Respectfully, I disagree. Without downplaying how personally painful this debate undoubtedly was for both women (as Rich says, such debates are meant to break our hearts), perhaps the rest of us can now benefit from the debate if we revision it [i.e., Rich’s concept of revision from “When We Dead Awaken” (page 35)], using it [i.e., the debate] to imagine not who was right and who was wrong but rather how one moves from a rhetoric of dysfunctional silence to a rhetoric of listening.

    My post, as you’ve suggested, is rather rhetorical. You actually put it this way: “provocative and suggestive, … as a type of prose poetry itself.” Well; yes.

    What I’m wanting to do with my post, maybe the series, is to move “to a rhetoric of listening.” As I listen in on the conversations around the Septuagint (and I am reading and citing Seidman who cites the Talmud and Honigman who studies the Letter of Aristeas), I am more and more convinced that Phyllis A. Bird is on to something. Bird, as you know, is one of the NRSV translators. She writes (in “Translating Sexist Language as a Theological and Cultural Problem,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review pages 89, 91-92) the following:

    The aim of the Bible translator, in my view, should be to enable a modern audience to overhear an ancient conversation, rather than to hear itself addressed directly. . . . It is not the translator’s duty to make her audience accept the author’s message, or even identify themselves with the ancient audience, except in the sense that any literary work invites identification with its subjects. I am not certain that the translator is even obliged to make the modern reader understand what is overheard. Much of an ancient work may remain enigmatic and uncomprehended because the experience and thought world of the ancient audience is foreign (as we recognized when we encounter such terms or usages as firmament, leprous houses, teraphim, or bride price).

    So let me just enumerate some of my concerns — as bald points — rather than as playful attempts to echo what the literary and interpretive Greek of the Septuagint texts sounds like to me.

    • The NETS translators, especially Pietersma who leads the project, make the judgment that the LXX translators are not “hacks”
    • Further, the seeming abberations in the rather even interlinear approach to translation of the Hebrew, the consistent Greek glossing of the Hebrew in the Psalms, are abberations that might be “literary sparks” or “interpretative spins.”
    • I think the NETS does a better job of telling readers that the abberations are “literary sparks” and “interpretative spins” than it does in showing us readers how these abberations may be such sparks and spins.
    • Lexically, there seem to be allusions in the Greek Psalms to the playwrights of old, such as Aristophanes and Euripides; and I want to try to show what readers in Alexandria, in the emperial city where Greek culture and Greek language was on show to the world, might have seen in Greek literature there.
    • I am very interested in the likelihood — as per Honigman and Seidman suggestions about the LXX — that the Jewish community in Alexandria were aware of the Greek culture wars going on.
    • The Greek culture wars started at least as early as Plato’s project with his Republic. I believe Eric Havelock with his Preface to Plato has made a compelling case that Plato’s Socrates is arguing against the poets and playwrights, assuming that they have duped the demoi, who are in need of an enlightened leadership. From my own careful study of all the extant primary literature of Aristotle, in Greek, I believe he was carrying on the project of his teacher Plato with a vengeance. I don’t just mean his Politics is evidence of that but also that his Rhetoric, Poetics, and Metaphysics are rather systematically prescribing an ideal Pan-Hellenism. Further, I think Alexander carries this out, with an empire.
    • Pietersma is more compelling to me than Dahood. Independent English translators of the Psalms — notably Robert Alter and Ann Nyland — as well as translation teams tend to use the Septuagint Greek translators as substantially “reliable witnesses to what the biblical poets intended” with the Hebrew poetry. Alter actually prefers the Septuagint translators to the Masoretes in several, noted instances.
    • I believe the effort to use English translation to reconstruct Hebrew poetry, whether one finds the LXX reliable or not, is fascinating. But I also think the “ideal” Hebrew, the prototypical semitic lyric, is a platonic vision.
    • The LXX does not necessarily need to be read in terms of how well or how poorly it is a match of the (somewhat lost and would-be purely original) Hebrew Bible. The Greek version can be read rhetorically in the context in which it was developed, as a text more involved in the Greek culture wars than as a text that would somehow replicate or even recover or restore the Bible.

    I’m not ignoring what you’ve said about Sheol and Hades. I have already gone on and on much too long. Let me acknowledge, nonetheless, how you ended your comment:

    “I think your case would be strengthened if you found further support.”

    I agree. I’ll try.

  3. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    January 20, 2012 1:08 pm


    I was also going to respond to the Dahood citation with your last two points. The original Hebrew version is an illusion. And even if we can ascertain a probable text, to interpret Hebrew with other Semitic sources is often frustrating. It is by no means definitive. It may be a foundation of sorts, and essential but not sufficient.

    And second, we are in our present culture and theology, shaped by the history of interpretation. Our own understanding is formed by the interpretation given to the Psalms throughout history. So, from my end, I am aware that all the Reformers used to Vulgate and Pagini/Erasmus to communicate in Latin and this continued well into the 18th century. There is no use taking an English translation of the Bible now, and citing it beside a Reformation doctrine unless you know from comparison with the Latin that you have a match. And last, we can gain an understanding of the culture that produced the translation.

    The Latin translation of the Greek Psalms is the text used in the Vulgate,

    Here is an example, in Psalm 1:4

    4 Non sic impii, non sic;
    sed tamquam pulvis quem projicit ventus a facie terræ. (from LXX)

    4 Non sic impii,
    sed tamquam pulvis quem projicit ventus (from Hebrew)

    The first one is found in the Vulgate.

    Dahood’s point is well-taken, that the versions are not always reliable sources into what the Biblical poets intended. But I have difficulty believing that we can achieve that understanding. We can make some gains in that direction, but if is an ancient text, and we don’t have the cultural insight to really get into it.

    I am thinking again, of my realization that when a hoe is used, farming is predominantly a woman’s job, but when a plow is used breaking the soil is more a man’s job. So what does that tell us of Adam and Eve? Perhaps that the author of Genesis lived in a plough culture, and thought of Adam and Eve as living in a plough culture?? It is not really the meaning of the words that matter here, but a whole mindset.

    The Greek of Genesis 1-3 contain completely different insights again. Interpreting a few words in a certain way shifts the entire focus of the story and suggests something that may or may not be in the Hebrew. I can never come to any conclusions about these things, but it is the process of contemplating the story from many different angles that makes it so fascinating.

  4. January 20, 2012 1:54 pm

    Kurk: OK, let me see if I have you right here. When you write:

    “Could it be that the Psalms provide literary sparks and interpretive spins that have been lost in English translation?”

    you are not referring to what appears in most Bibles, but of English translations of the Greek Psalms, right? Because you are reading “the Greek version … rhetorically in the context in which it was developed.” That is certainly valid, as I wrote “I can understand how you could analyze or praise the Septuagint psalters in isolation as literature.” In fact, this is the way in which I am most comfortable in reading Septugintal texts. I notice that Suzanne also seems to agrees with this.

    Now you also write

    “I believe the effort to use English translation to reconstruct Hebrew poetry, whether one finds the LXX reliable or not, is fascinating. But I also think the ‘ideal’ Hebrew, the prototypical semitic lyric, is a platonic vision.” and Suzanne goes even further, seemingly denying that the original Hebrew ever existed at all “The original Hebrew version is an illusion.” I agree with Kurk’s point here more strongly than he could possibly imagine, although I would not go so far as Suzanne. We have one dominant Hebrew text today, and attempts to reconstruct a vorlage are interesting but necessarily speculative. By the way, I do not believe Dahood is attempting to construct a vorlage text at all; rather he is attempting to understand the often confusing vocabulary and syntax of poetic Hebrew. Now, those attempts may be “frustrating” as Suzanne states, but I think they are more compelling than taking a translation that is centuries later.

    My own feeling is that it is valid to consult ancient translations when the standard text (in this case, the Masoretic Text) is unclear or apparently corrupted; but that those consultations need to be balanced with our full arsenal of techniques, including looking at cognate languages. I think that we have for more knowledge of Hebrew and Semitic writings than did the Septuagintal translators, so I think our understanding today is superior to theirs.

    But in any case, I think your question here is: “what is the best way to translate the Greek Psalms.”

    You went a bit further in your comment though, discussing a “culture war” conducted by Plato and Aristotle that began with Plato’s Republic, continued with Aristotle’s Politics, Rhetoric, Poetics, and Metaphysics, and then was further realized by the Alexandrian empire. Here I am not sure I follow you (although, to be fair, you only sketch your opinions.) In particular, contra Leo Strauss, I do not believe Plato or Aristotle write with hidden meanings in mind (even in Book 10 of the Republic), and so the meaning we get is the one we see. Plato’s ambivalent attitude towards poets is well documented in his writings; but Aristotle is not really continuing the Platonic project as much as he is criticizing it, and proposing alternatives. A straightforward reading of the Politics yields a detailed argument against the profoundly anti-democratic system of the Republic.

    Did Alexander imagine himself to be a philosopher-king? I don’t know that to be so: history has handed us down an image of Alexander as a warrior. Moreover, the Alexandrian experience is Persia is not so much one of cultural hegemony as it is one of adaptation of local cultural norms.

    As I said, you only briefly outlined your “culture wars” theory here, so my comments need to be taken with a grain of salt; I should really wait to see a more thorough exposition of your ideas. (Interestingly, though, even before I read your comment, I was preparing a post that touched on the aesthetic qualities of the Republic.)

  5. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    January 20, 2012 3:03 pm

    “The original Hebrew version is an illusion.” If the original was oral, then changes and interpretation happened before it was written down. In an oral culture, is there a fixed text? Ps 68 threw a lot into question for me. The text we have provides only one, perhaps two, and sometimes three versions of the same story, but there may have been many more. In the case of passages in Ps. 68, subsequently cited in the NT, it appears that neither the psalmist, (although I doubt such a person existed in this case) understood the passage nor the author who cited it in Eph. 4. Do we need to understand what it meant, or merely what everyone thought it meant.

    On the one hand, it is interesting to understand the original. On the other hand, we also have a view of the original that is grounded in our own culture. The history of interpretation deconstructs that. I am not disinterested in the original language interpretation, not at all. But I sense there are far more people who feel that the history of interpretation is simply not necessary than those who think that understanding the original language used is not necessary.

  6. January 20, 2012 3:47 pm

    Suzanne, perhaps we agree then. I’m skeptical of attempts to reverse-engineer the text in an attempt to tease out pre-redacted versions. It certainly has not worked out very well in the case of Homer or Shakespeare, and I argue that it is only our unfamiliarity with Hebrew that makes us believe that passages in the Bible are best read in terms of tiny fragments instead as an integrated whole.

    I also agree that reception history is often more interesting than higher criticism.

    Having said that, I do believe that there is an esoteric aspect to Biblical writings, in accordance with the PaRDeS approaches to exegesis or the four senses of scripture. In the mystical (sod) sense, to meditate on Scripture is to, at least in some fashion, encounter God.

  7. January 20, 2012 4:38 pm


    Your examples from the Latin Psalms 1:4 are very interesting. Yes, the Vulgate follows the Septuagint. And right there, the LXX psalter translator has added a line (bolded below), not from a Greek play but from Genesis 4:14, from Cain’s prayer for mercy:

    εἰ ἐκβάλλεις με σήμερον
    ἀπὸ προσώπου τῆς γῆς
    καὶ ἀπὸ τοῦ προσώπου σου κρυβήσομαι
    καὶ ἔσομαι στένων καὶ τρέμων ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς
    καὶ ἔσται πᾶς ὁ εὑρίσκων με ἀποκτενεῖ με

    In LXX Psalms, this is clearly an addition to what’s in the Hebrew, as your contrastive Latin translations show. In Genesis, the line is a Greek mirroring of the Hebrew.

    Nonetheless, the Hellene has poetry in this prose prayer that is beside the Hebrew; that is, the Greek meters and the sounds are uniquely Hellene. I’ve tried to emphasize the interplay by formating the lines and using different fonts and italics and underlinings to illustrate how readers might hear the poetics.

    And there’s one little addition, the εἰ [which is more explicit than the Hebrew הֵן֩ ] — it’s there like the start of the premise of one of Aristotle’s Barbara Syllogisms that he so clearly outlines examples of in his Prior Analytics. The prayer now reads like an argument to God. Maybe it is that in the Hebrew too, but it’s surely less direct in Hebrew, much less forceful, much less demanding of God.

    A joke, then: The Septuagint’s Καιν used, not a hoe, but a plow. And I think you’re absolutely right about mindset. This is what was going on, I think, in the Greek culture wars I was referencing in my earlier reply to Theophrastus. Especially when it comes to difference between males and females, the mindset governed much. What Aristotle does — apart from his flawed biology about the differences — is to separate women (even their thinking and their virtues) from men, defining the same words differently genderwise, characterizing Sappho’s poetry differently from Homer’s, “because she was a woman,” ignoring Asphasia, though his teachers praised her and her rhetoric, again because she was not a man.

    You are correct:
    “The Greek of Genesis 1-3 [and even of Genesis 4] contain completely different insights again. Interpreting a few words in a certain way shifts the entire focus of the story and suggests something that may or may not be in the Hebrew.”

  8. January 20, 2012 4:45 pm

    I should really clarify the issue of “hidden meanings” in Plato and Aristotle.

    In the case of Aristotle, I think the argument against “hidden meanings” is quite strong. Many scholars believe we do not have any truly completed works by Aristotle; the writings are all “esoteric” in the sense that they were intended internally for his Academy and not (“exoterically”) for a broader audience. Moreover it would seem odd to impute to Aristotle, who highly praises rationality and logic, some sort of “hidden meaning.”

    The case of Plato is more complex, I would claim. While I cannot support a Straussian “numerology” for the Platonic corpus, I will concede that there are passages in Plato that seem to have multiple meanings. Plato wrote works that are more dramatic in character (in a future post, I will argue for the dramatic qualities of the Republic; but a more obvious example would be Symposium), and further, there is a real ambiguity about what part of Plato is his best effort at depicting Socrates and what is really Plato himself. Finally, in many places Plato does touch on mystical topics (not least in Book 10 of the Republic). This creates a real tension since although Plato denounces the poets, he is a bit of a poet himself. In all of these ways, Plato is a more interesting writer than Aristotle.

    Nonetheless, I still think that most of what is going on in Plato’s writings is on the surface. Leo Strauss’s theories, while brilliant, tell us more about Strauss than about Plato.

  9. January 20, 2012 5:05 pm

    you are not referring to what appears in most Bibles, but of English translations of the Greek Psalms, right?

    That’s right, Theophrastus. And I’m glad you, Suzanne, and I can agree about this too. Let me add that I agree too that “Dahood is [not] attempting to construct a vorlage text at all; rather he is attempting to understand the often confusing vocabulary and syntax of poetic Hebrew.” If Dahood would regard the Greek version(s) of the Bible as not necessarily a would-be mirror of the Hebrew, then I would probably go along with pretty much all of what he says. (For that matter, I think Pietersma regards unnecessarily the LXX translator as one who’s always and only intending to gloss the Hebrew, for all of his concession that there are “literary sparks” and “interpretive spins” interspersed.)

    I see your most recent comment, discussing Plato’s complexity and how Book X of the Republic can be read as touching on the hidden, the mystical. In the earlier comment, where you were noting how I simply sketched through the claims of a culture war, you said that “Aristotle is not really continuing the Platonic project as much as he is criticizing it, and proposing alternatives.” And you asked, rhetorically I take it, if “Alexander imagine[d] himself to be a philosopher-king?” Well, I agree with all of that. Unfortunately, I’m running out of time for now to say much more, but I’ll just say I think the common enemy of this line of men, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Alexander, were the sophists, the rhetoricians such as Plato’s Gorgias and the real Gorgias too, Isocrates perhaps, Protagoras for sure, and many of the earlier poets. Aristotle straightened out not only the teaching of Plato, but also his methods; and Aristotle not only formalized the Syllogism but actually systematized Rhetoric and rescuing it from his teachers’ Dialectic and put forward above all Logic. He even coined, I think, the Greek word for logic. (What’s interesting to me, and for another time, is how Aristotle couldn’t always practice as he preached; he had to resort to metaphor rather than logic, for example, in his definitions of metaphor and of rhetoric.) One more thing, it’s not just from reading the texts of Aristotle but I confess it’s also from reading histories of rhetoric that I’m finding a culture war. Well, that’s such a 1980s American English phrase isn’t it? Yes, my label is anachronistic. But contemporary rhetoric historians (should I drop names?) are on to the paradigm shifts roughly before and after the great Aristotle.

    I hope you do post on “the aesthetic qualities of the Republic.” As time allows, maybe I can say more to expound on the rhetorics struggles among the Greeks (that I think the Septuagint translators had to work with, and through, and around).

  10. January 20, 2012 7:57 pm

    I suppose that “culture war” was what triggered my reaction; I’m leery of approaches that project back historical figures in the casts of 1980s humanities professors. I think that the intellectual debates of Classical Athens were fundamentally different than the debates of the 1980s (or today.)

    I’m not sure I see the moral difference between the “pan-Hellenism” of Alexander on the one hand and, say, his father Philip II. Was the Philipian/Alexandrian project really pan-Hellenistic or were they simply garden variety conquerors? Why attempt a pan-Hellenistic project rather than one of Macedonian hegemony?

    (I know you are busy and won’t have time to reply for a while.)

  11. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    January 20, 2012 9:03 pm

    I think that framing Aristotle in terms of his sexist passages is really too constraining. He, and Plato, are more memorable for their theories of state. Aristotle was behind the relationship of England to its colonies, and European to Indigenous peoples … unfotunately. On the positive side he drew up many different models of rulership, and on the negative side he provided justification for the subjugation of inferior peoples. Plato envisioned an ideal model, but the reality never lived up to that. At least Aristotle developed the framework, the possibility for looking at different models of government, different types of relationships between people. His work on friendship and common interest is also foundational. But if we want to think of beauty and yearning for something better, for breaking into light, then Plato.

    I guess what I am saying is, let’s leave their actual theories behind, but keep the method, the meticulous descriptions and variety of models of Aristotle. This makes it possible to analyse. But its too confining. It does not let us imagine or dream of something better.

  12. January 21, 2012 1:31 am

    Theophrastus wrote

    I think that we have for more knowledge of Hebrew and Semitic writings than did the Septuagintal translators, so I think our understanding today is superior to theirs.

    And Suzanne responded:

    Do we need to understand what it meant, or merely what everyone thought it meant.

    Expanding a bit on the point that I think(?) Suzanne is making: weren’t the Septuagintal translators working within a living religious tradition? And weren’t the psalms, especially, liturgical texts that were regularly used in worship? (I tend to think of the book of Psalms as the Temple hymnal.)

    I would entirely expect the LXX translators to be informed by the liturgical practice and theological perspective of the community for which it was produced: it would almost seem a form of malpractice if they weren’t.

    Maybe the question I’m trying to get at is, what did the LXX translators think they were doing? And is that the same thing that the contemporary translators, with their greater knowledge of Hebrew and Semitic writings, think that they are doing? I suspect it isn’t. I would expect that contemporary translators of the Masoretic are trying to translate as accurately as possible what the Hebrew meant to the original authors; whereas the LXX translators were trying to translate what the (possibly/probably different) Hebrew meant to the members of their community who spoke both Greek and Hebrew.

    Since the Christian church was born with the Septuagint in its cradle, so to speak, I think that the Septuagint translation has a distinctive value for Christians, that is worth holding along with the contemporary translations from the Masoretic.

    Victoria Gaile

  13. January 21, 2012 8:56 pm

    Suzanne: I think that one of Kurk’s main intellectual interests is philosophy of gender (or the non-philosophy of gender, which may be the same thing.) It is hardly surprising that he reads philosophers with special attention towards their theories of gender.

    While it is true that Plato and Aristotle are fundamental philosophers in terms of political philosophy, I do not think that their political philosophy is at the center of their work, or even that they are the most important philosophers in forming political philosophy. (For example, I would argue that Plato’s is more important for his theories of epistemology and ontology); and that Aristotle is more important for his formalization of philosophy (logic, natural philosophy, and philosophy in general).

    I agree with Karl Popper that Plato is, ultimately, opposed to the open society, and so I do not admire Plato’s political philosophy. At the very least, he (or Socrates) was a lousy lawyer.

    Victoria Gaile: I agree with you that Septuagints (rather than the Hebrew Masoretic) are by tradition, the Christian Old Testament. The Septuagints were in the custody of the Church, and are obviously the foundational documents for the New Testament.

    Your point is valid: the Septuagints may reveal things about the Alexandrian Jewish community. The problem is that this community is reviled by most contemporary Judaism. Today’s Jewish community views Palestinian Judaism rather than Alexandrian Judaism as its ancestor. As a result, it tends to portray Alexandrian Judaism in a highly negative light. Thus, for example, Philo was only preserved by the Christian Church and is more highly esteemed by Christians over Jews to this very day.

    We can even perform an empirical test. We can analyze the Targums to see how their translation philosophies differ from the Septuagints; to the extent that those translation philosophies differ, that may represents either mistranslation by the Septuagint translators or different (and now lost) values held by the Alexandrian Jewish community.

    I think that all of us in this discussion agree that the Septuagints are interesting literary documents to study, and that we should view them in terms of their own merits, rather than as a pale echo of the Hebrew text. Kurk (J. K. Gayle) is eager to rehabilitate the literary reputation of the Septuagints. (Some critics claim the Septuagints are wooden compared to the literary elegance of the Hebrew Bible or when contrasted with classical Greek literature). So, like you, I say let us evaluate the Septuagints on their own merits, rather than claiming that the Greek should shed light on the Hebrew.

  14. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    January 22, 2012 12:01 am

    “his formalization of philosophy (logic, natural philosophy, and philosophy in general).”

    Yes, that’s what I meant by method. Thank you.

  15. January 22, 2012 1:43 am

    Suzanne: Somehow paragraphs were lost in my earlier reply. At the (substantial) risk of tedium, I’ll recreate it now.

    I am not certain that there is fundamentally a difference between the actions of colonial Europe and that of East Asia. Making the reasonable assumption that the Mongols and Manchurians were not influenced by Aristotle but behaved in ways similar to the Western Europeans, then Aristotle emerges not as an innovator but rather as an after-the-fact convenient rationalization for an all too human tendency.

    I’m not even convinced that Plato and Aristotle are the most important political philosophers. I think that modern philosophers, such as Machiavelli and Hobbes and Locke (or even Clausewitz) have been more important. In fact, I would even say that Aquinas was a more important political philosopher than Plato or Aristotle.

    I think in the end that the complaints against Aristotle are fundamentally that in some things, he was a man of his time rather than a man ahead of his time.

  16. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    January 22, 2012 11:23 am

    “an after-the-fact convenient rationalization for an all too human tendency.”

    That seems right. Are you familiar with the Las Casas and Sepulveda debate?

    Click to access hernandez_b.pdf

    Aristotle cited by Sepulveda and Augustine by Las Casas. I’ll be away from the internet for a while but this is a topic I would like to come back to some time, in the context also of British Imperialism. I agree with you, however, that Aristotle provides, not impetus, but rationalization, and that he was a man of time.

  17. JKG permalink
    January 22, 2012 1:12 pm

    Thanks for your important comment, Victoria Gaile. Suzanne and Theophrastus, your conversation here clarifies much. Wish I were able to contribute but only have but a moment for this quick reply.

    The question about the extent to which Aristotle is merely “a man of his time” is key. Our historiographies determine that for us, but sometimes we are about as objective on this point as fish are about water. I think we, in the West, swim in Aristotelianism and methods and syllogistic conclusions to such an extent that we are blind to how big his contributions have been and still are. He didn’t invent “rhetoric” but any rhetoric scholar and many who know just a bit about this topic are aware of his unique contributions (i.e, logos, ethos, pathos; epideictic, judicial, political; and other such unique categorizations and canon categories). I do believe the world was different after Aristotle invented and began propagating “logike.” Feminists who carefully study his novel conceptions of “female” about which he was undeniably prolific are not able to trace the influences on his gender project to much more than his ostensibly objective scientific observations and calculations (which ironically are made subjectively with a veneer of objectivity and result in now-proven miscalculations).

    F.A. Wright in Feminism In Greek Literature From Homer To Aristotle (first published in 1923) asserts (and correctly I think) the following:

    In every department of civilized existence the influence of Aristotle must still be taken into account, and his judgment of women’s positions in society–a view sincerely held and on the whole most temperately expressed–has had far more effect on the world than have the idealist theories of Plato. . . . In Aristotle’s time, for reasons which this brief survey of Greek literature has, perhaps, made plain, the facts of women’s nature were certainly not sufficiently comprehended…. [To] any true appreciation of a woman’s real qualities, . . . Aristotle, by the whole trend of his prejudices, was opposed. His mistake was that he failed to realise the moral aspects of feminism. A nation that degrades its women will inevitably suffer degradation itself. Aristotle lent the weight of his name to a profound error, and helped to perpetuate the malady which had already been the chief cause of the destruction of Greece. (pages 202, 222)

    I hope to comment more on the LXX and its receptions, later.

  18. January 29, 2012 5:05 pm

    I hope you do post on “the aesthetic qualities of the Republic.”

    My post morphed into a completely different theme, but it still has a tiny kernel of its original inspiration. You can see it here.


  1. Is Aristotle dead? « BLT

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