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A Bible Translator’s Greeky Wordplay: Before Hosea Became a “Christian” or a “New Testament” Spokesman

October 22, 2012

I’m so glad to see that Daniel Boyarin has come over to BLT to make clear his opinion and his arguments for his opinion.  Among other things, he’s said:

“As for the notion that anything can be found in the OT; I don’t think so.”

Notice his language.  In his book, by this book of his, he’s arguing for The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ.  And here now, he’s saying, “the OT.”  This is refreshing, I must say!

It’s not what some, like Amy-Jill Levine, would suggest.  She’s given a talk that Brian LePort has blogged about: “How Jews and Christians Read Scripture Differently.”  According to LePort, “Levine argued that Christians should say, ‘Old Testament’ [because …] when Christians say things like ‘Hebrew Bible’ or ‘Jewish Scriptures’ it assumes falsely that everything is shared [presumably by Jewish and Christian readers].”  (For example, “For Orthodox the LXX is more authoritative than the MT.”)  This is no doubt the case.  So “Jews and Christians read scripture differently.”  And how!  This gets one Jewish reader, like Willis Barnstone, restoring the NT so that it can be read in ways not so exclusively Christianly when that Christian re-writing of the Hebrew Bible or Jewish Scriptures excludes, well, the Jews.  BTW, NT = The New Testament.  So let me give a footnote from Barnstone’s Restored New Testament, and then if you’re still with me, we’ll look at “the original” texts of Scripture.  We’ll get to something Greeky and still authoritative for the Jews if not so Christian, yet.

Barnstone notes:

Barnstone’s footnote 97 refers back to Romans 9:25-26, where Paul is quoting the Hebrew Bible, the Jewish Scriptures, and specifically what we today call “Hosea.”

What I want to suggest is that Paul is not quoting the Hebrew at all.  He’s quoting what Christians today tend to call the OT, but — not just any OT — the LXX.  Paul is quoting to his readers in Rome the Greek translation of the Hebrew.  And why?  It is because they are Christians?  Jews first and also Greeks?  Is it because they are more facile in reading Greek or more familiar with the Alexandrian Jewish translation into Hellene than with the Hebrew Bible?  Well, couldn’t Paul just have translated the Hebrew into Greek for them to make whatever point it is he is trying to make about the Jewish God, namely his exclaimed “rhetorical question” point?!  οὓς καὶ ἐκάλεσεν ἡμᾶς οὐ μόνον ἐξ Ἰουδαίων ἀλλὰ καὶ ἐξ ἐθνῶν;?!

I’m sure I do not have the answers to my questions here.  My point is to say, nonetheless, that the Greek translation that becomes the NT has the Jewish God speaking more like Homer than like the “later church fathers and scribes” for whom “the Christianization of the [Jewish] Bible] will often be line by line” the very exclusion of the Jews.

Homer sounded punny and Greeky and cunning like this:

There is homophonic wordplay going on.  Odes, are musical ballad songs, and an Odys is a Path, and the Odyssey is the name of what the character Odysseus is on.  And then Odysseus, our hero, tells Polyphemus the awful Shepherd, that his name is Oytis.  Usually one gains potential advantage when learning the name of another.  But Odysseus is a trickster.  He claims his name is Oytis, which (dear reader please see this) sounds like Odysseus, but actually means “Nobody” or “No man” or “Nothing.”

Hosea’s Greeky translator sounds like this as well:

And he said, “Call his name Not My People [Oulaosmou / Οὐ-λαόσ-μου], for you are not my people [ou laos mou / οὐ λαός μου] and I am not your “I am” …. and it shall be, in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people [ou laos mou / οὐ λαός μου],” they too shall be called, “sons of a living god [huioi theou zontos / υἱοὶ θεοῦ ζῶντος].”

The English translation I’m giving here is George E. Howard’s for the New English Translation of the LXX (aka NETS).  It’s LXX Hosee 1:9-10 in English.  I’ve only added back in the Greek and its transliteration.  Doesn’t it sound like Homer’s Odysseus tricking the Cyclops?  The name plays on the Greek.  (Of course, the Hebrew has a similar play, but the Greek in the disapora is making a play of the Hellene in a rhetorical way.  At the very least, those readers familiar with Homer’s epics in Alexandria would get the connection to God here speaking like Odysseus.  It smacks of politics long before any Christians came to claim the LXX and the NT as their non-Jewish own.

It helps us here, perhaps, to see that there’s something rhetorical, literary, political, sophisticated and poetic about the Greeky Jewish translation of the Bible.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. October 23, 2012 4:28 am

    Unfortunately I don’t know Greek so I’m missing the innovation in this translation from Hosea. The English itself does not look noticeably different from a translation directly from the Hebrew following one of the several traditional Jewish interpretations of the passage. Are you pointing out that even the relatively straightforward translations in the Septuagint (not dealing with virgins, etc.) enact a radical displacement of the text, severing its ties with Jewish interpretive traditions and embedding it in Greek culture? This seems to fit with Amy-Jill Levine’s view; here, a first round of translation serves to quietly neutralize much of the Tanach’s Jewishness so that it may later be given a parallel existence as (the) Christian Old Testament(s). This also appears to be the rabbinic view towards the Septuagint. In Jewish tradition, the completion of the Septuagint translation under orders of Ptolemy was considered a great tragedy, despite the belief that the translators worked via divine inspiration. It is marked as the first of three consecutive dates in the month Tevet, the others being the death date of Ezra and Nechemiah and the start of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem, all of which were commemorated as fast days, although in our time the fast is only observed for a single day relating to all three events.

  2. October 23, 2012 4:31 pm

    Thanks so much for your question! Let me get at the Greek a little better and then attempt to make sense of it in various possible historical contexts.

    καὶ εἶπεν

    κάλεσον τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ οὐ λαόσ μου

    διότι ὑμεῖς οὐ λαός μου

    καὶ ἐγὼ οὔκ εἰμι ὑμῶν

    καὶ ἦν ὁ ἀριθμὸς τῶν υἱῶν Ισραηλ

    ὡς ἡ ἄμμος τῆς θαλάσσης ἣ οὐκ ἐκμετρηθήσεται

    οὐδὲ ἐξαριθμηθήσεται

    καὶ ἔσται

    ἐν τῷ τόπῳ οὗ ἐρρέθη αὐτοῖς οὐ λαός μου

    ὑμεῖς ἐκεῖ κληθήσονται υἱοὶ θεοῦ ζῶντος

    and he said

    call him by name: Nopeopleofmine,

    since you’re no people of mine

    and I shall not be yours

    and the number of ChildrenofIsrael will be

    as the sand of the sea: not countable

    no way numberable

    and it will be

    in the place where it was said to them Nopeopleofmine

    that they there will be called now Childrenofagodalive

    I’m putting various emphases on the Greek phrasing and trying to offer an English translation that highlights some of the things that stand out as “innovation.” Check the Vulgate and the MT for differences from this. Again, there’s the explicit verb(s) that refer to naming, and there’s the allusion, I think, to Homer’s Odyssey or at the very least the existence of rhetorical tropes and poetic antistrophes that borders on sophistry. In Aristotle’s view, sophistry was trickery.

    That then brings me to the histories of the LXX that aren’t so, well, traditional. Historian Sylvie Honigman is the one who got me started looking specifically for Homeric influences in and on the Greek of the LXX. In her book The Septuagint and Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria, she works toward “a new reconstruction of the circumstances surrounding the translation of the LXX and its early history” and “proposes that the many parallels drawn … between the translation of the LXX and the edition of Homer are meaningful.” She argues “that this pervasive comparison between the LXX and Homer reflects, above all, the perception that the Alexandrian Jews [in the mid century BCE and afterwards] themselves had of the undertaking of the translation of the LXX … that this perception, in fact, either influenced or reflected the way things [in Greek vis a vis a Homeric paradigm] were actually carried out.” That’s from Honigman’s introduction. In her conclusion, she gives this final paragraph to end the book:

    Jewish texts [like the LXX and the legendary “Letter of Aristeas”] survived the general loss of Alexandrian and Hellenistic literature thanks to their Jewish content. While Hellenistic works suffered a complete disaffection after the late first century BCE as a result of a change in literary taste that disqualified them altogether as rhetorical models, texts with a Jewish content continued to be copied by the Fathers of the Church. Only in their case did concerns for content supersede concerns for style. The conditions of this survival are, perhaps, the most conspicuous specificity of the “Judaeo-Hellenistic literature.” It was the Fathers of the Church who created this special category. It is time to query its continued relevance today.

    Another against the traditional grain writer on the LXX is Naomi Seidman. Seidman, in Faithful Renderings: Jewish-Christian Difference and the Politics of Translation, investigates Jewish translation generally as often a way to create insider language and/or insider texts. She asserts the following:

    [T]he Talmud does present an extraordinary Jewish counternarrative to the [Christian] patristic Septuagint legends (which themselves, of course, are variations on the Jewish Septuagint romances of Aristeas and Philo)…. The [Church] Fathers imagine the Jewish translators as passive channels of God’s message to the world; in the talmudic account God works to keep certain things between the Jews and himself, not only sanctioning Jewish conspiracy but taking the role of conspirator-in-chief. In this regard, the talmudic rewriting of the patristic Septuagint legend is a trickster text; the translator is a trickster…. Not only does the Talmud present the composition of the Septuagint as an elaborate Jewish trick, it also describes those passages in the Hebrew Bible itself as a “hidden transcript,” the private discourse of a minority culture.

    Clearly, Honigman and Seidman are arguing two different directions for the same thing. They are proposing that neither the LXX nor its method / goals of translating are Christian. The church fathers get involved at much later stages, and as a consequence we may miss much for all of their Christian redirecting of the texts. We may also miss much if we ignore the Greek classics when reading the Septuagint. As Honigman notes, “LXX exegetes and theologians … have been very slow in realizing that the work of classicists and ancient historians could be of direct interest to them.”

  3. October 25, 2012 12:26 am

    Thanks, Kurk. Though the passage you present from Naomi Seidman does seem totally “traditional” to me, and actually describes more of the very same Talmudic reference to divine inspiration I mentioned. I don’t think the rabbis viewed inspiration as entailing human passivity. Perhaps I should fill out more of the rabbinic view of the event so as to connect those pieces.
    In the “traditional Jewish” view, Ptolemy wanted the translation for use as a political tool against the Jews. He commanded 70 Jewish sages to produce the translation both to validate the accuracy of the translation and at the same time to discredit the divinity of the Torah by exploiting the inevitable differences 70 different versions would have. Each of the sages working on the translation attempted to write a deliberately inaccurate translation to protect through deception sensitive elements of the original. However, God inspired them so that they were all deceptive in exactly the same language. And yet, this miraculously enabled “elaborate Jewish trick” described by Seidman was not considered enough to ameliorate the inherent tragedy of the situation, and itself was seen as contributing to that tragedy, even though the act was necessary to make the best of a terrible situation.

  4. October 25, 2012 10:38 am

    Yes, I can see now that my bald conclusion that Seidman is “another against the traditional grain writer” may have seemed to have jumped the tracks of logic before I even made the argument. My quotation of Seidman’s book, in which she discusses “an extraordinary Jewish counternarrative” with respect to the LXX, is by her given to support her central thesis. Her book, she emphasizes in the introduction, “explores translation as a border zone, a transit station, in which what does not succeed in crossing the border is at least as interesting as what makes it across.” And she goes on: “This book situates translation between Jewish and non-Jewish languages (and particularly between Jews and Christians) not in the abstractions of linguistic theory but squarely in the contingent political situations in which translation and, inevitably, mistranslation arise.” I guess the traditional Jewish dispute over the LXX is that it is not Torah and, therefore, as a strategic and intentional mistranslation, therefore, it must necessarily be inherently terrible and tragic.

    For me, for this post, I’m not so interested in that (tragic Jewish – traditional – narrative). But I am interested in putting Seidman with Honigman in our conversation now because the former does discuss, some, if not much at all, the nature of the “non-Jewish languages.” In this case, of course, the language is the Hellene of the Septuagint. What makes it tricky? How is it mistranslation? Why this? —

    κάλεσον τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ οὐ λαόσ μου
    ἐν τῷ τόπῳ οὗ ἐρρέθη αὐτοῖς οὐ λαός μου
    ὑμεῖς ἐκεῖ κληθήσονται υἱοὶ θεοῦ ζῶντος

    How would Ptolemy read that? How would the Alexandrian Jews? How about imperial Greek readers vs. users of demotic (and especially of performed Homeric Greek)?

    The other thing I’m not really interested in is the Jewish v Christian — or alternatively the various Christian vs. the various Jewish — claims on the LXX. The original audience of the Alexandrian translation cannot be Christian. Given that, we now can only speculate about whether tragic and how tragic for these unhappy exiled or maybe happy disapora Jews the LXX was originally. Uninteresting. It’s not particularly interesting because it takes the focus off of a set of extant texts that have tricky, a-musing Greek. (As as we all know, even as Seidman gets to as well, there are various Jewish views about whether the Scriptures are for the Jews only or are for the whole world. Even the JPS English version of the Bible originally notes the legend of translation for universalistic purposes; the 1917 Preface begins: “The sacred task of translating the Word of God, as revealed to Israel through lawgiver, prophet, psalmist, and sage, began at an early date. According to an ancient rabbinic interpretation, Joshua had the Torah engraved upon the stones of the altar (Joshua 8:32) not in the original Hebrew alone, but in all the languages of mankind, which were held to be seventy, in order that all men might become acquainted with the words of the Scriptures. This statement, with its universalistic tendency, is, of course, a reflex of later times, when the Hebrew Scriptures had become a subject of curiosity and perhaps also of anxiety to the pagan or semi-pagan world.” When I read the Greek of the Septuagint, it’s rhetorical and political in rather startling ways, Greeky-sophistic ways. Why does it have this sort of language? Why does it seem to play into old Greek disputes over the nature of language, and particularly, the nature of the Greek language?)


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