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Interpretive Spins in the Ψαλμοὶ: the enthymeme

December 29, 2012

When I began classical studies of rhetoric at the doctoral level, I was astounded by how technically appropriated many of the Greek phrases were in this exciting discipline.  The phrases were interpreted not at all as one might get at them when reading either, say, Homeric literature or when reading the Septuagint and the New Testament.

For example, ἐνθύμημα, enthumēma, is one of the key terms of Greek rhetoric.  Aristotle, especially, made this term key.  In his major treatise on rhetoric, he starts The Rhetoric by correcting other writers, who have gone on and on; and he rightly notes:  “And yet they say nothing about enthymemes which are the body of proof, but chiefly devote their attention to matters outside the subject.”  But all that Aristotle himself goes on to say about an ἐνθυμημάτων as σῶμα τῆς πίστεως is fittingly defined rather enthymematically. And this gives contemporary scholars of rhetoric fits. So as I studied, I made a hobby out of collecting declarations of contemporary scholars about how rhetorical Aristotle was with all of such technically appropriated terms. Here’s a very short collection, for example.

Given the centrality of the enthymeme (as Father William M. A. Grimaldi, S. J., rhetoric scholar, puts it), one might suspect that writers of the New Testament, like Matthew, would employ it.  (Of course, we wouldn’t necessarily think that Homer or Hesiod or Sappho would use that rhetorical Greek term the way that Aristotle does and the way he wants other rhetoricians to say more about it.  And these older Greek Homeric and poetic texts, so central to much of Greek culture in its various manifestations in the later plays and lore and such, do use the phrase but not as some sort of rhetorical syllogism.  Rather, it’s more as a passion of the inner heart, and so forth.)  When we come to the Septuagint, then we have to wonder.  Are the Jewish translators of the Hebrew text choosing to give a technical, rhetorical interpretation?  Are they just letting the older Greek meanings work?

Or is there some interpretive spin or literary spark that is more rhetorical?  In the first post of a series on such, we read how NETS Psalm translator, Albert Pietersma, mentions very briefly that there are spins and sparks.

When Pietersma encounters the Greek word ἐνθύμημα in Psalm 118(Hebrew119):118, he translates it as follows:


Yes, “notion.”  The footnote on this is “aOr reasoning.”  Pietersma saw that Brenton much earlier translated this Greek with the English “inward thought.”

So what do we think or reason about the Greek translation of the Hebrew?  The Hebrew phrase תָּרְמָה (tormah) is rather consistently translated by the KJV translators as “deceit.”  So, if that’s more what the Hebrew means, then why the Greek ἐνθύμημα?

Could it be that the LXX translator(s) of the Psalmoi were thinking of Greek rhetoric?

ἐξουδένωσας πάντας
τοὺς ἀποστατοῦντας
ἀπὸ τῶν δικαιωμάτων σου,
ὅτι ἄδικον τὸ ἐνθύμημα αὐτῶν.

You shun all
Who stand away
From those Just persuasions of yours,
Because unJust is that Rhetorical Syllogism of theirs

Whatever the logic of this Greek translation of the Hebrew, it sounds enthymematic – a little like an inside joke in which those telling and those hearing share something not entirely stated but if indeed understood.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 29, 2012 10:56 pm

    Very interesting! It conjures up for me an association with the polished, sophisticated, but ultimately deceptive speeches of politicians – something like

    You turn away from those
    Who turn away
    from your right reasonings
    for their polished punditry

    (…for their sleazy speechifying?)

  2. December 30, 2012 7:57 am

    ultimately deceptive speeches … their polished punditry … their sleazy speechifying

    Yes, this is the sort of thing that Aristotle (and his teacher Plato) would suggest that some “politicians” and many “poets” and all “rhetoricians,” “sophists,” and “women” did with their speech.


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