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How (non-) Jewish the Ψαλμοὶ?

April 15, 2015

First of all, this must be noted:

  1. The very shortest of all the Hebrew Tehillim is the one that seems to include all peoples, Jewish and not.

And then let’s note three other things:

  1. The Hebraic Hellene of the Septuagint version called the Psalmoi includes what Albert Pietersma might see as “literary sparks” and “interpretive spins.”
  2. Paul writing an Epistle — to fellow Jews first and then to Greeks (if also to Roman Barbarians) in Rome — quotes the 2 and 1/2 century old Septuagint version of this very short Ψαλμος, and he quotes it with a bit of a syntactic twist.
  3. Finally, English language translators are consistently inconsistent in translating the Hebraic phrase we might transliterate as Goyim (and its Hebraic Hellene counterpart transliterated Ethnē).

1. Now, more on that first point.

Robert Alter very succinctly brings into English this 117th “Psalm.” As he translates, he often refers to the Greek rendering called the Septuagint to correct and/or to clarify the ostensible original Hebrew from the so called Masoretic Text. And as he translates, he avoids what he notes to be “the heresy of explanation,” or “the use of translation as a vehicle for explaining the Bible instead of representing it in another language, and in the most egregious instances… explaining away the Bible.” Alter refuses to join most other “translators in their zeal to uncover the meanings of the biblical text for the instruction of a modern readership”; thus, he does not (as they tend to do) “lose sight of how the text imitates its meanings — the distinctive, artfully deployed features of ancient Hebrew prose and poetry that are instruments for the articulation of all meaning, message, insight, and vision.” That said, he does provide helpful, explanatory footnotes. The following, for example, is both a distinctive, artful deployment of Hebraic features of “meaning, message, insight, and vision” in English and also a clear set of notes on the initial clause and the final phrase of the first line:



I’d like us to focus initially on “all nations.” In his footnote, Alter explains that the reference is to “not Israel but all nations.” He does not say whether “nations” is his English rendering of the Hebrew Goyim or of the Hebraic Hellene concordant phrase of the Septuagint Ethnē. Alter does not need to say. Both the Hebrew and its Jewish-Greek translation say the same thing: “nations.” That brings us to the Jewish-Greek, or what I’ve been calling the Hebraic Hellene.

2. Let’s look at the original text and its original translation:


Pardon my formatting (above). I’m trying to illustrate some of the changes made (below).



One of the changes, most obvious, is in the syntax. I’m using this word syntax loosely or broadly and liberally to suggest that the translator(s) in Alexandria, Egypt decided to start this Psalm with a Greek-alphabetic transliteration of the final Hebrew phrase. In other words, the הַלְלוּ-יָהּ that ends the original is the αλληλουια that begins the translation.

This Hebraic Greek allows the readers to sing the Hebrew. And those Hebrew sounds resonate, then, alliteratively and meaningfully through the short Hellene Psalm.

αλληλουια αἰνεῖτε αὐτόν αὐτοῦ λήθεια αἰῶνα

The opening Alpha (α) matches the opening (ה) of the Hebrew and vocalizes that opening with the most open of all human vowel sounds. It’s the sound that we all make as babies when first calling for our Mama. It’s the sound of a baby nursing. It’s the sound physicians and medical practitioners around the globe ask patients to make when trying to get the tongue out of the way to look down the throat. It’s the sound symbolized by the International Phonetic Alphabet’s /a/.

And the very next Hebraic phrase is the Hellenic command that is also as vocalic: αἰνεῖτε. This second word, in the Greek, is the translation of that first phrase, in the Hebrew. It means “Praise” or “Speak openly and aloud.” The shape of the mouth in speaking the word is the meaning of that word. /aineite/.

The next Hebraic alpha word, repeated, is the pronoun for Him: αὐτόν αὐτοῦ. Again the mouth is open initially, open in reference to the one spoken aloud about and given open praise to.

The final Hebraic alpha-Hellene phrases both begin and end as does the Hebrew Hellene, αλληλουιαThe phrase λήθεια is a word for truth, for an un-covering or a dis-closing or an un-veiling; it is a phrase that both starts and stops with the speaker’s mouth open:  /a-lethei-a/.

And the final word is for forever, the endless age, the eon that goes on and on and on and does not stop; it also leaves the singers of the Psalm with their opened mouths open: αἰῶνα. /a-ion-a/.

So the first and the last thing to notice is that the Hebraic Hellene translator(s) punctuates the beginning of the Psalm and its end with spoken Hebrew (or is it Hellene?) praise.

A second thing to see is how two other Greek letters, one consonant and another vowel, run through the Psalm. The consonant is π (Pi) as in πάντα and παινέσατε and πάντες. The sound is the one we English speakers use to say “purple” and “pappa.” Our lips purse and pucker together to form this sound: /p/. The repeated Hellene word roughly means The Complete, Comprehensive Plurality. Translators usually use “all.” Pan-Hellenic stands for all that is Greek, for example. The other word with this sound is a repetition and prepositioned paraphrase of the translated word for Praise: αἰνεῖτε = π-αινέσατε. The other vowel sound that runs through this Hellenic/Hebraic Psalm is ε (Eta). I’m not going to say as much about it. Please only just see how it starts the critical, inclusive word in question: (“Ethnē”θνη

And that brings us to how Paul writes the Psalm in what we call Romans 15:11.

3. Paul is a Roman, by citizenship. He is literate and proficient in both written and rhetorical Greek. He is an expert in the Bible, a Hebrew of Hebrews by his own actions, his body, his confession. He does not write in the official language of the Empire, not in Latin. He writes to fellow Jews first and then to Greeks – Ἰουδαίῳ τε πρῶτον καὶ Ἕλληνι – He is in debt, he writes as a Jew first, both to the Greeks and also to the Romans (quite transliterally “to the Hellenes and to the Barbarians”) – Ἕλλησίν τε καὶ Βαρβάροις. His audience is rather universal. His distinctions, his classes of humans, are these three national or ethnic or religiously and linguistically distinctive groups. His own Greek language, or Hellene writing, is decidedly a nod to all three sets of peoples. It alphabetizes Latin names, proper nouns like Romae, Iuniam, Iuliam, Gaius, and Quartus, transliterating them (perhaps as Greek loans) with Hellene letters. Likewise, it makes Hebrew names written in the Greek alphabet and generally follows the Greek language of the Hebraic Hellene translation (i.e., lexicon, syntax, referents, meanings) when it comes to the Christo-Judaism propagated by Paul.

When he excerpts Psalm 117:1, here is how the Jewish Paul does it for his Hellene readers in Romae:

αἰνεῖτε – πάντα τὰ ἔθνη – τὸν κύριον


ἐπαινεσάτωσαν – αὐτὸν – πάντες οἱ λαοί

His syntax, his ordering of the phrases, places those who are addressed by the Psalm – πάντα τὰ ἔθνη – before the Person to be worshiped – τὸν κύριον. This is not the rendered Hellene reading out of Alexandria, Egypt by a Jewish translator of the Hebrew Tehillim some centuries earlier. Rather, it is saying that “all nations” or “all ethnicked groups” or “all goyim” or “all gentiles” or “all non-Jews” are the ones commanded here to speak open praises to Kyrios, The Master, The Lord (aka YHWH or HaShem or Adonai or G-d), and by all means not to Lord Caesar. The emphasis, made by the syntax fronting this phrase, is clear. What is not as clear is which of these meanings does Paul intend his readers to mean?

And that brings us to our final observation of how English translators interpret, and whether or not they commit any heresy of explanation in their interpretative English translations of both the Hebraic (Hellene) Psalm and the Hebraic Hellene Epistle.

4. Most Bible translation teams have “nations” for Goyim (and/or for Ethnē) in the Psalm. Some, like the Holman Christian Standard Bible translator(s) even tip the reader off with a heading to signal that this particular Psalm – presumably because of the Hebrew (or Hebraic Hellene) phrase – is a clear “Universal Call to Praise.”

Inconsistently, the same Bibles will then have “Gentiles” for what Paul writes in the 15th chapter of Romans. Click here to start comparing some of these. Even those that have “nations” for what Paul quotes of the Hebraic Hellene Psalm will resort to “Gentiles” or to “non-Jews” or “non-Jewish people” later in the chapter. It’s as if Paul is more discriminating of classes of ethnicity and of religion and so forth. Is that really his emphasis in the text?

Some of my favorite, and individual, translators will do what The Names of God Bible editors do with, say the GOD’S WORD® Translation. For the Psalm, they write the unspeakable Hebrew name transliterating with their English letters Yahweh or YHWH or Jehovah as the Person to be praised by the “nations.” For the Greek Epistle quoting or directly paraphrasing the Psalm in Greek, they use “the Lord” or “God.” I’m thinking of Ann Nyland, who’s translated both the Psalms [from both the Hebrew and the Greek versions] and the New Testament; and of Craig R. Smith, who’s translated the Inclusive Bible; and of Julia E. Smith, who’s translated the complete Christian Bible.

Smith and Smith both use “nations” for the Goyim in Psalm 117:1 and for Ethnē in Romans 15:11. Nyland does what most translation teams have done with this, inconsistently translating the former phrase as “nations” and the latter as quoted by Paul as “non-Jews.” And even Craig Smith has the “Gentiles” for Paul’s Greek word in Romans 15:16 (whereas Julia Smith retains “nations”).

The question is whether Paul’s writing changes the Septuagint translating sufficiently.

And Just How (non-) Jewish are the Ψαλμοὶ in this instance?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 16, 2015 1:02 pm

    Thank you for the reminder of this short psalm. I enjoyed the letter emphases – Ah open your mouth wide. I will remember to continue in praise next time I need a tongue depressor.

    For the word אמם BDB suggests a relationship to אם, mother. It seems to be a rarely used word, differing from the common עם people. I rendered it as ‘clan’. My Hebrew Latin concordance gives the same three instances in TNK, Ps 117, Nb 25:15 and Gn 25:16. They gloss it as populus, also one of several glosses for עם, populus, gens, tribus, familia, vulgus, agmen, genus humanum, concio, δομος.

  2. April 17, 2015 9:59 am

    Thank you so very much for your comment. And I most appreciate your advising us of the possible relationship of the one Hebrew phrase to the other suggesting “mother.” Interesting that it’s rare; I would take that to mean that here somehow it is a marked instance, something unusual, if abberant then extra ordinary. That last Greek phrase you give us comes to us in English as domain and domicile, words for the places of mother, for some.

    Your musings about the inter-relationships of these phrases across languages got me trying to read the Greeked Hebrew in English. It’s a mashup for sure, an attempt, an essay, a trial of sorts; but that’s here now, strange and furious.


  1. The Psalm Rendered by the Strange, Furious Tongues of the Goyim | BLT

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