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Odd Gospel Greek: Jesus’s Coffer, Judas’s Coffin

June 5, 2012

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.

Lancelot Brenton translates this Hellene γλωσσό-κομον (in “2 Chronicles 24“) into English as “box”; and (for the NETS, “2 Supplements“) English translator S. Peter Cowe let’s it be a “chest.”

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.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. June 5, 2012 10:32 am

    I’m dazzled by your detective work, especially since this is the first time I’ve even heard of the controversy, much less analyzed it. Well done.

    My one addition might be to suggest that reeds would need to have been kept in a box, not a bag, because they must lie flat. And the position of the box just outside the gate suggests it’s a donation box, not unlike those we use today, locked but with a slit in the top through which people may quietly drop their money.

    If we stick with the Yehoash/Yeshua’ connection, then the disciples’s “donation box,” kept for the support of the fledgling faith community, was symbolically a means of rebuilding the “Temple,” that is, the Reign of God that Jesus was proclaiming.

  2. June 5, 2012 11:45 am

    I really like your logic, Craig! Yes, it makes more sense that this thing the gospel is referring to is not a bag or purse but a box (for carrying and caring for “tongues” or “reeds” of musical instruments; something shaped like that, for a coffer, as Yehoash commanded). I love, then, your further connecting the symbols that might be a literary connecting of the two narratives.

    (By the way, in The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation, your “the common fund” works well because it plays against other themes in the context, such as “the poor” and “what was needed for the festival” vs. the extravagance of the death-anointing Jesus was getting. Of course, I do think the stress is on death and conjecture that the Greek phrase is trying to signal some cheap “coffin” or “casket” in some way in contrast with the Death?)

  3. June 5, 2012 4:59 pm

    Certainly κομον means cask/casket/coffin, which plays nicely with the Johannine emphasis on life vs. death, though I think γλωσσό-κομον skews that a little (I don’t believe γλωσσό-κομον is ever used in the context of a coffin). Still, John was a very deliberate writer, making his points cleverly and carefully, so he could have easily drawn symbolic connections in all sorts of directions!

    I find it interesting that it is John who indicates that Judas was money-obsessed; the other gospels seem to point toward Judas leaving Jesus because of political and philosophical differences. Making Judas merely a greedy thief seems to make his betrayal so much more crass and, to my mind, less poignant.

  4. Daniel Olson permalink
    June 6, 2012 10:42 am

    Good find. I like how you used γλωσσό-κομον to connect to 2 Chronicles and see how that may symbolize Judas’ negligence similar to the priests in Joash’s time. I also like Craig R. Smith’s insight of how the γλωσσό-κομον is connected to rebuilding the temple, a theme, I think, John would be interested in.

    A piece of your quote from Barnes, “Hence, it came to mean any bag or purse in which travelers put their money or their most precious articles.” made me speculate that given that they traveled quite a bit, Judas may have had the γλωσσό-κομον because he was the most likely to keep it secure due to his size, strength, or fierceness.

  5. June 7, 2012 10:53 am

    I don’t believe γλωσσό-κομον is ever used in the context of a coffin

    Craig, I think you’re correct. My English wordplay here (coffer/coffin) in the post title especially reaches too far.

    In Plutarch’s Galba, Section 16, there is a compelling hint that γλωσσό- (“tongue”) has something to do with the “reed” of a flute-like instrument which was αὐλήσαντος (i.e., related to “fluteplaying”). Here are John Dryden’s and then respectively Bernadotte Perrin’s translations [with some of Plutarch’s Greek inserted into the translations]:

    But when he desired presently to let it appear what a change would be made from Nero’s profuseness and sumptuosity in giving presents, he much missed his aim, and fell so short of magnificence, that he scarcely came within the limits of decency. When Canus, who was a famous musician, played [αὐλήσαντος] at supper for him, he expressed his approbation, and bade the bag [ἐκέλευσεν αὑτῷ κομισθῆναι τὸ γλωσσόκομον] he brought to him; and taking a few gold pieces, put them in with this remark, that it was out of his own purse, and not on the public account. He ordered the largess which Nero had made to actors and wrestlers and such like to be strictly required again, allowing only the tenth part to be retained; though it turned to very small account, most of those persons expending their daily income as fast as they received it, being rude, improvident livers; upon which he had further inquiry made as to those who had bought or received from them, and called upon these people to refund. The trouble was infinite, the exactions being prosecuted far, touching a great number of persons, bringing disrepute on Galba, and general hatred on Vinius, who made the emperor appear base-hearted and mean to the world, whilst he himself was spending profusely, taking whatever he could get, and selling to any buyer. Hesiod tells us to drink without stinting of-

    “The end and the beginning of the cask.” [ἀρχομένου τε πίθου καὶ λήγοντος κορέσασθαι]

    And Vinius, seeing his patron old and decaying, made the most of what he considered to be at once the first of his fortune and the last of it.

    And now, in his desire to display a great change from Nero’s immoderate and extravagant manner of living, he was thought to fall short of what was fitting. For example, after Canus had played on the flute [αὐλήσαντος] for him at a banquet (now Canus was a performer of high repute), he was loud in his praises and ordered his purse to be brought to him [ἐκέλευσεν αὑτῷ κομισθῆναι τὸ γλωσσόκομον]; and taking from it a few gold pieces, he gave them to Canus, with the remark that the gift was made from his own, and not from the public moneys. Again, he ordered that the gifts which Nero had made to people of the theatre and palaestra should be demanded back again with strictness, all but the tenth part; and then, when he got only slight and grudging returns (for most of the recipients had squandered their largess, being men of a loose and improvident way of living), he had a search made for such as had bought or received anything whatsoever from them, and tried to exact from these. The business had no limits, but was far extended and affected many; it gave the emperor himself a bad name, and brought envy and hatred upon Vinius as having made the emperor ungenerous and sordid with everybody else, while he himself used money lavishly, taking everything that was offered and selling freely. For Hesiod bids men to

    “Drink without stint at the beginning and end of the cask,” [ἀρχομένου τε πίθου καὶ λήγοντος κορέσασθαι]

    and so Vinius, seeing that Galba was old and feeble, sated himself with the good fortune which he thought was just beginning and at the same time was soon to end.

    Notice Plutarch’s emphasis that neither translator picks up on: κομισθῆναι τὸ γλωσσόκομον

    And quoting Hesiod, Works and Days<, 366, Plutarch’s “cask” a few lines down is a synonym, the πίθου.

  6. June 7, 2012 10:54 am

    Judas may have had the γλωσσό-κομον because he was the most likely to keep it secure due to his size, strength, or fierceness.

    Thanks for the comment, Daniel! Do you speculate here because of anything you see in the gospel and/ or elsewhere in the New Testament? How (and where) is Judas’s “size, strength, or fierceness” described?

  7. Daniel Olson permalink
    June 10, 2012 11:30 pm

    There is little basis to my speculation. It was mostly from the comment, “Hence, it came to mean any bag or purse in which travelers put their money or their most precious articles.” If you are traveling in a group in areas that may be dangerous at times, who in the group would you have carry the group’s most precious articles?

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