Odd Gospel Greek: Jesus’s Coffer, Judas’s Coffin
The gospel of John uses some very odd Greek. English translators usually don’t know what to make of it, and nowhere in the text is this clearer than in the case of “the bag” that Judas had (in John 12:6, King James Version, Richmond Lattimore, Robert Young’s “literal”). Or did Judas keep more specifically “the moneybag” (ESV, GOD’S WORD®), or “the purse” (Duay-Rheims)?
Or can’t translators just skip over whatever-it-was to simply say as if with some more natural English dynamic equivalence to John’s Greek clause, that “Judas had charge of the money” (John 13:29, NIV) or that “Judas was their treasurer” (NLT)? Should English readers understand, as Ann Nyland does, that the odd Greek of John’s gospel has “Judas being in charge of the money”?
Or was Judas “keeper of the money box” (as Willis Barnstone restores it in our century)? And isn’t this attune to the Greek idiomatic idiom here when the “modern speech” New Testament (of Richard Francis Weymouth with some help from Ernest Hampden-Cook) earlier, at the turn of the 19th century in London, renders it as follows: “Some, however, supposed that because Judas had the money-box Jesus meant, ‘Buy what we require for the Festival,’ or that he should give something to the poor”?
The odd gospel’s odd Greek here is peculiar indeed. It is a compound noun, γλωσσό-κομον, which means something like “tongue-care.” Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, in their Greek-English Lexicon, find very few uses of this phrase anywhere. When they do, they suggest it “most frequently” means “case, casket,” and that it is particularly for a “case to keep the reeds or tongues of musical instruments,” but “generally, casket.” These two lexicographers seem to agree with Albert Barnes‘s Notes on the Old and New Testament, in which he says:
Had the bag – The word translated “bag” is compounded of two words, meaning “tongue,” and “to keep or preserve.” It was used to denote the bag in which musicians used to keep the tongues or reeds of their pipes when traveling. Hence, it came to mean any bag or purse in which travelers put their money or their most precious articles. The disciples appear to have had such a bag or purse in common, in which they put whatever money they had, and which was designed especially for the poor, Lu viii. 3; Mat xxviii. 55; Ac ii. 44. The keeping of this, it seems, was intrusted to Judas; and it is remarkable that the only one among them who appears to have been naturally avaricious should have received this appointment. It shows us that every man is tried according to his native propensity. This is the object of trial – to bring out man’s native character; and every man will find opportunity to do evil according to his native disposition, if he is inclined, to it.
Well, okay. There’s a Greek compound noun that could be clearly referring to “any bag or purse.” Who cares if this is absolutely a very very rare Greek phrase (not in Homer, Hesiod, Sappho, neither in Plato, Isocrates, or Aristotle, never anywhere else anywhere in John’s gospel and not in Mark’s gospel or Matthew’s or Luke’s, not in Acts, not in Hebrews or in Revelation or in any of the epistles of Paul or any of the others)? Most generally, we’ve been told, the compound noun refers to a casket, to a coffin.
But neither Barnes nor Liddell and Scott observe something that the odd gospel Greek may be signaling. The New Testament text may be pointing readers to very odd Septuagint Greek.
If γλωσσό-κομον is only twice used as odd gospel Greek (i.e., John’s two references to this thing that Judas had), then the same phrase is only thrice used in one short context in all of the LXX.
This is also odd indeed. It’s also odd because the translators of the Hebrew Bible in Alexandria, Egypt some 250 years before Jesus and Judas in Jerusalem had more common Hellene phrases to use for this short context (which we’ll get to shortly). The Hebrew word in question was aron (אָרוֹן). When Joseph dies and his body in Egypt is put into one of these (in Genesis 50), then the LXX translators say he was put into a σορός, or a common Hellene word for a cinerary urn or coffin or some such container of human remains. When God tells Moses (in Exodus 25) to have his people make one of these, then the LXX translators say this ark-like thing was a κιβωτός, or a box, a chest, a coffer, a ship. Those are the common Hellene nouns for this not uncommon biblical Hebrew noun. But then we come to 2 Chronicles 24.
The LXX translators of the thrice used Hebrew phrase aron (אָרוֹן) in 2 Chronicles 24, thrice use an odd Greek term (not σορός, for coffin, or κιβωτός, for coffer). No, they choose γλωσσό-κομον, and this is the only place the Septuagint uses this odd and rare Hellene. In fact, earlier in the same text, in 2 Chronicles 8, the Hebrew phrase is rendered as κιβωτὸς. But not in chapter 24.
The story goes that young King Joash decides to repair the house of the Lord. He commands the priest and the Levites, “Go out unto the cities of Judah, and gather of all Israel money to repair the house of your God from year to year.” When they dally, he says (according to the LXX translators as further translated by Brenton), “Let a box [γλωσσό-κομον] be made, and let it be put at the gate of the house of the Lord without.” Or (according to the Septuagint translators as read by Cowe), “Let there be a chest [γλωσσό-κομον], and let it stand outside the gate to the Lord’s house.” And it was into this thing that the people, day by day, put their money, the money by which the materials were purchased and the workers were paid to rebuild the house of the Lord. Why did the LXX translators call this thing here a “tongue-keeper”? Was it in Alexandria, Egypt at that time already some sort of something (a bag or a purse or the like; or a box for instrument reeds) in which people were dropping and / or keeping their money? Who knows!? What we do know is that this is very very odd Greek in any case.
And what we do know is that the odd gospel Greek that has Judas having this thing seems to point Greek readers back to this story in ΠΑΡΑΛΕΙΠΟΜΕΝΩΝ Β (or 2 Chronicles aka 2 Supplements). It was Joash’s coffer, then it’s Jesus’s coffer. But it was the negligent priests and Levites’s lack. And in the context of the odd gospel, where Jesus is getting anointed (figuratively for burial) by Mary while dining with the resurrected Lazarus at the protest of Judas, it seems oddly somehow to symbolize Judas’s negligence, and the γλωσσό-κομον becomes perhaps a symbol to readers, a symbol perhaps of his figurative casket or coffin.