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Interpretive Spins in the Ψαλμοὶ: Out of Aeschylus

May 29, 2013

In 2012, I wrote a series of posts on the literary sparks and the interpretive spins in the Hebraic-Hellene translation called “the Psalms.”  From this Septuagint, we actually get this name “Psalms,” from the Greek word, Ψαλμοὶ.  Quite literally, this means something like Pluckings or Strummings [as in the activity of a musician playing a stringed instrument while singing the lyrics of poetry].

In 2013, just today, I want to write a very brief post on some of Psalm 8.

I do not want to imply that there is not much to see in this Psalm or, consequently, that there must not be much to say about it.  Rather, in my re-reading of it this morning, there came just a few things that sparked my attention for the first time.  I recognized a few words from one of the plays of Aeschylus.  This made me wonder whether the translator(s) might have been thinking of the Greek literature.  Was the reader or listener being signaled to a larger or different context of some sort?  Was there an attempt to place this poem in a particular genre of interpretation?  We might only speculate.

And yet, on this particular Psalm, even only in the Hebrew original, there has been much much speculation over the years.  In the very first line, for example, there is a Hebrew phrase that nobody knows today. גִּתִּית  What does this mean?  Robert Alter reads this (literally reads it aloud on National Public Radio) as “on the gittith.”  Sometime later, when he’s published his English translation of the entire Psalm in his wonderful work, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, he explains in a footnote: “This is another musical instrument that has eluded persuasive identification.” There has been so much elusion of identification of this Hebrew word that often the English translator looks to the Hellene, to the Greek, of the Jews in Alexandria, Egypt for possible clues to the meanings.  Ann Nyland translates the Hebrew, like Alter does, as a transliteration (“According to the gittith“); but her footnote also explains her translation of the Greek translation of the Hebrew:  “The Septuagint has, ‘… concerning the wine presses…’.”  Then, in verse 5 of the Hebrew, there is אֱלֹהִים, which the King James Version translators make “angels,” presumably because the Septuagint has ἀγγέλους.  Alter translates this “the gods” and offers a footnote on the possible meanings of “the ambiguous Hebrew”; and Nyland transliterates again (as elohim), explaining the following by a footnote:  “a divine name, also used for rulers, heavenly beings, divine possessions.  Not translated here as referent unknown.”  We might go on at length about the gendered language in verse 5.  We might see it somehow contributing to the debate Geza Vermes participated in, when writing “The Present State of the ‘Son of Man’ Debate,” a chapter in his book Jesus in His Jewish Context.  (Regrettably, Vermes insisted that the phrase “‘the son of man’ [with the definite article] is not a Greek phrase, but Aramaic,” and he seems to have overlooked the fact that this Septuagint Psalm does indeed translate the Hebrew, not Aramaic, with the Greek, ἢ υἱὸς ἀνθρώπου, which the New Testament writers, especially the gospel writers, seem to flaunt.)

Let’s read the Psalm in Greek, before the New Testament context.  What then do we see?

First, let’s just look at the entire Psalm in Greek. Then let’s read Albert Pietersma’s English translation of the Greek translation of the Hebrew.  Then we might consider some of the literary spins and “nuggets” and “sparks” that seem to come out of the play of Aeschylus.  (Although Pietersma is the one who mentions such nuggets and sparks in the translations into Greek, he does not identify them.)

1 εἰς τὸ τέλος ὑπὲρ τῶν ληνῶν ψαλμὸς τῷ Δαυιδ
2 κύριε ὁ κύριος ἡμῶν ὡς θαυμαστὸν τὸ ὄνομά σου ἐν πάσῃ τῇ γῇ ὅτι ἐπήρθη ἡ μεγαλοπρέπειά σου ὑπεράνω τῶν οὐρανῶν
3 ἐκ στόματος νηπίων καὶ θηλαζόντων κατηρτίσω αἶνον ἕνεκα τῶν ἐχθρῶν σου τοῦ καταλῦσαι ἐχθρὸν καὶ ἐκδικητήν
4 ὅτι ὄψομαι τοὺς οὐρανούς ἔργα τῶν δακτύλων σου σελήνην καὶ ἀστέρας ἃ σὺ ἐθεμελίωσας
5 τί ἐστιν ἄνθρωπος ὅτι μιμνῄσκῃ αὐτοῦ ἢ υἱὸς ἀνθρώπου ὅτι ἐπισκέπτῃ αὐτόν
6 ἠλάττωσας αὐτὸν βραχύ τι παρ’ ἀγγέλους δόξῃ καὶ τιμῇ ἐστεφάνωσας αὐτόν
7 καὶ κατέστησας αὐτὸν ἐπὶ τὰ ἔργα τῶν χειρῶν σου πάντα ὑπέταξας ὑποκάτω τῶν ποδῶν αὐτοῦ
8 πρόβατα καὶ βόας πάσας ἔτι δὲ καὶ τὰ κτήνη τοῦ πεδίου
9 τὰ πετεινὰ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ καὶ τοὺς ἰχθύας τῆς θαλάσσης τὰ διαπορευόμενα τρίβους θαλασσῶν
10 κύριε ὁ κύριος ἡμῶν ὡς θαυμαστὸν τὸ ὄνομά σου ἐν πάσῃ τῇ γῇ


Now let’s focus on what jumped out at me this morning.  It was something in the third verse (which in Hebrew is the 2nd). What is there? And why?

ἐκ στόματος νηπίων
καὶ θηλαζόντων
κατηρτίσω αἶνον
ἕνεκα τῶν ἐχθρῶν
σου τοῦ
καταλῦσαι ἐχθρὸν
καὶ ἐκδικητήν

The Greek declensions, the grammatical endings, form the rhymes.  Roughly in English we might render that as this:

Out of the mouth of a child
And of a nurseling so mild
There is a praise so restyled
For an enemy reviled
By you
The enemy’s now reviled
And out of justice’s now riled

If the English of mine sounds a little forced, then please imagine that the Hellene representing the Hebrew sounds this way a bit too. Much much later, when the Greek gospel of Matthew has Jesus quoting the first these lines (exactly from the Greek Septuagint), there’s this odd exchange. The ones reviling him and trying to get him riled are asking rhetorically: “Do you hear what they are saying?” And the Greek writing Matthew has his Greek speaking Jesus having all (of us) Greek readers reading his reply: “Ναί οὐδέποτε ἀνέγνωτε”?! “Yes, have you never read“?! The implication is that they (and us) would read: ἐκ στόματος νηπίων καὶ θηλαζόντων κατηρτίσω αἶνον. It’s rather poetic in the Greek, and it’s certainly there with a flair:

Out of the mouth of a child
And of a nurseling so mild
There is a praise that’s restyled

But we are getting way too far ahead of ourselves. Yes, I was only wanting to show that at least somebody at some point looked back and considered this Greek poetry something to read. But I think we might go as far back as the plays of Aeschylus. What sparked my interest reading the Hellene translation of the Hebrew Psalm this morning was hearing in it this short exchange between Prometheus and Hermes in “Promethius Bound.”

Here is the English translation of Herbert Weir Smyth with the Greek of Aeschylus inserted within the brackets:

Better, no doubt, to serve this rock than be the trusted messenger [ἄγγελον, angelon] of Father Zeus!

[970] Such is the proper style for the insolent to offer insult.

I think you revel in your present plight.

I revel? Oh, I wish that I might see my enemies [ἐχθροὺς] revelling in this way! And you, too, I count among them.

What! You blame me in some way for your calamities?

[975] In one word, I hate all the gods [τοὺς πάντας ἐχθαίρω θεούς] that received good at my hands and with ill requite me wrongfully [ἐκδίκως, out of Justice].

Your words declare you stricken with no slight madness.

Mad I may be—if it is madness to loathe one’s enemies [ἐχθροὺς].

You would be unbearable if you were prosperous.

[980] Alas!

“Alas”? That is a word unknown to Zeus.

But ever-ageing Time teaches all things.

Yes, but you at least have not yet learned to keep a sober mind.

Or else I would not have addressed you, an underling.

It seems you will answer nothing that the Father demands.

[985] Yes, truly, I am his debtor and I should repay favor to him.

You taunt me as though, indeed, I were a child.

And are you not a child and even more witless than a child if you expect to learn anything from me? There is no torment or device by which [990] Zeus shall induce me to utter this until these injurious fetters are loosed. So then, let his blazing lightning be hurled, and with the white wings of the snow and thunders of earthquake let him confound the reeling world. [995] For nothing of this shall bend my will even to tell at whose hands he is fated to be hurled from his sovereignty.

In several of the plays by Aeschylus, the role of the Herald (or the one bearing news like an Angel) is important.  Likewise, the gods are important.  The agency of mortal humans to speak and the question of whether children in a family’s hierarchy have any agency is a minor part of the lines of the play I’ve quoted above.  And the Greek phrases for enemies [ἐχθροὺς] and for wrongfully [ἐκδίκως, out of Justice] are chosen both by Aeschylus’s Prometheus and by the Septuagint translators’ David.

Now, before anyone too strongly objects that the LXX translator(s) couldn’t possibly have been thinking of the play(s) of Aeschylus, I’m just going to say again that very little of certainty is known yet of this Psalm, either in Hebrew or in its Hellene counterpart here.  If nothing else seems obvious, then there does seem to be wordplay and poetry and literary nuggets and sparks and spins.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 1, 2013 11:03 am

    Oh goody, another Ψαλμοὶ post!

    Those instructions for musical instruments (elusive or otherwise) is one of the reasons I think of the book of psalms primarily as a hymnal: being a (presently-inactive) church musician myself, that gives it great meaning for me.

    Thanks for pointing out the rhymes — so much we miss when we can’t read the original! — and for the translation. You said that

    If the English of mine sounds a little forced, then please imagine that the Hellene representing the Hebrew sounds this way a bit too.

    Do you mean to say that the Greek is a bit forced? Does the Hebrew rhyme as well, or use other literary techniques to accent the same words?

    The connection to Aeschylus doesn’t seem very compelling to me, but reading that scrap of the play made me think of the book of Job. I wonder if there are any connections there?

  2. June 1, 2013 2:00 pm

    The connection to Aeschylus doesn’t seem very compelling to me, … reading that scrap of the play

    You’re right to see more of a connection with Job especially since both it and Promethius Bound are comprised of dialogue. The literary genres of Hebrew Tehillim and of Greek theatre don’t always necessarily go together, so how would I this late in human history hear the one’s translation as influenced by the other? Let me confess that I listen for this sort of thing; I am influenced much by Eric Havelock’s readings of Plato’s writings as the Greek scholar has his teacher, Socrates, disparaging the rhetoric of the playwrights, even Aeschylus. I just looked at what Plato writes about him in the Symposium (180a.4) and in the Republic (380a.1), the work that is Havelock’s real focus in his Preface to Plato. But I’ve also be affected by Naomi Seidman’s reading of the Talmud’s reading of the Septuagint translation as a trickster text. And Sylvie Honigman’s history of the Letter of Aristaeus and her speculation that the Hebraic translators working in the Hellene were following, not an Alexandrian (or Aristotelian or Platonic or Socratic) paradigm, but a Homeric one is a fresh, and compelling, possibility. Then there’s what Albert Pietersma asserts, but does not show, of the creator of the Greek Psalms translation from time to time exhibiting an uncanny knowledge of the Greek, with literary sparks and spins, as departures from the Hebrew and suggestions of a worldly culture of the empire. I think the empire, as much as Alexander and the Alexandrian cosmopolitans would prefer, was not canonical. There were this battle over what was good Greek. Aristotle taught his students (including Alexander), for example, to avoid ambiguities.

    Aeschylus hardly avoids ambiguities. How would his plays be interesting and audience influencing (almost sophistry, vs. sophistication) if there was no ambiguity. The same hold for this particular Hebrew Psalm. Yes the Semitic lyrics are difficult and are full of wordplay and of poetry, ambiguities. This particular Psalm 8 may be one of the most difficult for translators because it has so many layers of meanings and obscured meanings in the phrasings and literary allusions. The best English renderings to date are Alter’s and Nyland’s, since both translators — albeit in varied ways — are attuned to the plays of phrases and words.

    The Greek rendering is forced. (And I’m so happy that you commented on my English translation of that Hellene translation of the Hebrew.) The rhyme and meter scheme of the Greek are not here matching the lines of Hebrew in all cases. The listener to the Hellene gets that the translation is supposed to be poetic, but why that way, why those phrasings, if meanings are to be paired across the languages? It’s not just that there may be translationese going on. It’s also, I believe, a hint at larger worldly cultural issues. I think the translator is using Greek in what we might today call un-Politically Correct ways in the empire. The bits of Aeschylus, these scraps :), would not be overtly obvious but would be hinted at. This is an insider’s game, something perhaps more important to the Jewish translators using Greek while living in Egypt in somewhat of an exile than to anybody else. As Evelyn Underhill would put it:

    “Because he has surrendered himself to it, ‘united’ with it, the patriot knows his country, the artist knows the subject of his art, the lover his beloved, the saint his God, in a manner which is inconceivable as well as unattainable by the looker-on.”

    Well, I hope this makes some sense. Thank you again for reading and for commenting. I’m tempted to try to translate the whole of Psalm 8, but I’m very frustrated that not all of the Hebrew has come across in the Greek and would be equally annoyed at how my English couldn’t bring out more of that playful Hellene.


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