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The Ψαλμος and Aristotle: Ps. 33(34)

October 19, 2013

When I read Psalm 34 in the Greek (aka the Septuagint’s Psalm 33), I have lots of questions. For example, does the psalmist have a possibly-pregnant female soul? Aristotle would not have gone for that, even if Plato might have.

And does this particular Hellene translation of the Hebrew add any literary sparks and the interpretive spins?

There are at least four peculiar changes from the Semitic text to the Greek:

1. In the very first part, the prelude, where David’s relationship with Abimelech is mentioned, there’s an added emphasis on τὸ πρόσωπον, or “the face,” which the Hebrew does not have. This seems to stress how David acts like God, when he does not favor Abimelech with his face as God does not shame the faces of those who draw near to him (in Hebrew verse 5, which is Greek verse 6: τὰ πρόσωπα ὑμῶν). Likewise, David is turning his face against Abimelech the way the LORD turns his face away from evil and evil doers (in Hebrew verse 16, which in Greek 17 has this: πρόσωπον δὲ κυρίου ἐπὶ ποιοῦντας κακὰ).

2. There’s an odd pause, a διάψαλμα /dia-psalma/, a “strum through” line, usually indicating the Hebrew Selah. This comes after the Greek verse numbered 11, but it’s absent from the original Hebrew or at least the Masoretic Text.

3. What is Greek verse 10 (Hebrew v 9) seems to add a phrase that is gendered. Let me bold it and transliterate it:

φοβήθητε τὸν κύριον, οἱ ἅγιοι αὐτοῦ,
ὅτι οὐκ ἔστιν ὑστέρημα τοῖς φοβουμένοις αὐτόν.

It’s in English letters hysterma.

This makes us recall Aristotle’s explication of the uterus or the womb in his copious notes on animal copulation. He mentions the male penis as the present penetrating organ, and he suggests the female hysteria is the complement, the counterpart, the lack.

What is unusual is that the Hebrew verse 9 does not really require such a Greek construction. And the translator also had other Greek words to choose from. And, as we see in Greek verse 11 (Hebrew 10) there’s ἐλαττωθήσονται / elattothesontai/ which suggests lack and want.

4. Finally, Greek verse 11 removes the young hungry lions from the Hebrew (v 10) and replaces it with πλούσιοι ἐπτώχευσαν καὶ ἐπείνασαν, or “rich people who are poor and hungry.” We may recall that in Aristotle’s writings about lions, he makes this observation: “The lion, while he is eating, is most ferocious; but when he is not hungry and has had a good meal, he is quite gentle.” Is there some sort of motivation by the LXX translator to remove the explicit Hebrew reference to the hungry lions?

To compare the Hebrew and the Greek side by side, with the RSV and the Brenton English translations, you can visit Paul Ingram’s great website Kata Pi which produces this page here.

The only other interesting thing about this Greek translation called Psalm that I want to say is this: It seems to have had some reception in the reading and the writing and editing of Matthew’s gospel. At least, the Greek phrase τοὺς ταπεινοὺς τῷ πνεύματι “the lowly in spirit” seems to be part of Jesus’s beatitudes: οἱ πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι “the poor in spirit.”

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 19, 2013 2:20 pm

    Your comment on the lowly of spirit is interesting. I did not find this resonance when I went backwards from Greek to Hebrew over the last 3 weeks. The Hebrew וְאֶת־דַּכְּאֵי־רוּחַ does not get picked up by either translation I noted here. I associate the word here more with contrition – or the crushed.

    What these translations both have for οἱ πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι is עֲנִיֵּי הָרוּחַ. The ani’im are scarcely distinguishable from the anavim – there being only a vav or a yod between them. It was curious to me that neither translation from Greek to Hebrew used ebionim.

  2. October 19, 2013 5:45 pm

    Bob,
    I like how you’ve reconstructed the Hebrew back from the Greek sermon! You’ve made a good case to use אשר.

    The variant forms of the Greek Μακάρι*, as you’ve shown, start both the beatitudes of Matthew’s Jesus and Luke’s Jesus.

    And Luke has Mary saying Ἰδοὺ γάρ, ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν μακαριοῦσίν με πᾶσαι αἱ γενεαί.

    This is important, to me anyways. David is saying:

    “My soul shall make her boast in the LORD: the humble shall hear thereof, and be glad.” KJV

    “My soul shall make her boast in the LORD: the meek shall hear thereof, and be glad.” English Revised Version

    “In Jehovah doth my soul boast herself, Hear do the humble and rejoice.” Robert Young

    “My soul shall boast herselfin the Lord: let the meek hear and rejoice.” Brenton, translating not the Hebrew but the Greek!

    So there’s the “meek” / πραεῖς / of Matthew’s Jesus’s beatitudes again.

    These themes of Psalm 33(34) are Mary’s of Luke. She and David (in Greek and in Hebrew) share the themes of blessedness, lowliness, meekness, hunger, thirst, and so forth and so on. You have for οἱ πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι is עֲנִיֵּי הָרוּחַ. That seems just fine. It’s just this entire context seems, to me, to have the beatitudes of Jesus of two Greek gospels drawing on David’s Ψαλμος and Mary’s Μεγαλύνει ἡ ψυχή μου τὸν κύριον.

    And the femininity of one’s soul comes through, whether David’s or Mary’s or her son’s or the psyke of his תלמידה

  3. October 25, 2013 12:26 am

    hysterma – in this context, where it’s being used as a synonym for want or lack, this word choice doesn’t connote a possibly-pregnant soul to me at all, but rather suggests a feminine soul that is aching with desire for the LORD her Beloved. Like the deer that longs for running streams, or the sentry that longs for break of day, there is only one thing that satisfies, that fills, this soul.

  4. October 26, 2013 8:00 am

    Victoria,
    I like how you manage to reclaim the Greek word in a feminist act. In Aristotle’s writings, of course, hysterma / ovaries-and-uterus-and-womb-and-womany stuff, was hysteria / hysterical, an aberration from and mutation of the default normal male.

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