Monday, April 27, 2009

Reading Anointed in Greeky Hebrew

Yesterday our pastor preached a brilliant sermon (on the ways Moses changed and matured) the text of which was Hebrews 11:24-26:

24By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh's daughter. 25He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time. 26He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. (NIV)

Today I want to look at other things in and around the text:

--> especially the ways the early writers and / or editors and / or translators liberally (or "progressively") change this text to increase the play in it (and by "play" I mean both "playfulness" and also interpretive "wiggle room");

--> but how the Christian Bible translators seem to want to do the opposite.

Here's Greek for comparison:

24Πίστει Μωϋσῆς μέγας γενόμενος ἠρνήσατο λέγεσθαι υἱὸς θυγατρὸς Φαραώ, 25μᾶλλον ἑλόμενος συγκακουχεῖσθαι τῷ λαῷ τοῦ θεοῦ ἢ πρόσκαιρον ἔχειν ἁμαρτίας ἀπόλαυσιν, 26μείζονα πλοῦτον ἡγησάμενος τῶν Αἰγύπτου θησαυρῶν τὸν ὀνειδισμὸν τοῦ Χριστοῦ, ἀπέβλεπεν γὰρ εἰς τὴν μισθαποδοσίαν.

Immediately, the reader is transported back to Egypt to ask questions.

There's the daughter of Pharaoh (θυγάτηρ Φαραω) in Hebrews 11:24; and she's lifted right out of Exodus 2:5 & 2:6 & 2:7 & 2:8 & 2:10 in the Greek translation of the Hebrew. That is, this "Hebrews" text points in reverse to an earlier Jewish-Greek translation of the traditional masoret Hebrew text, playfully named "Exodus" (i.e., the Odyssey-like "Way Out of Egypt"), commissioned and completed in Egypt. In Egypt, professor Sylvie Honigman of Tel Aviv University points out, the commissioned Hebrew translators render their old text in the "Homeric paradigm." And, as we're looking back to how the writers and/ or editors and/ or translators of the "Epistle of Hebrews" writes in Greek, Jared Calaway, at his blog Antiquitopia, lets us see and hear the Homeric play - through the first or second century right up to our own.

What we're beginning to question is whether Christian Bible translators work in this paradigm (i.e., the paradigm of Homeric play of the Hebrews). Or is the paradigm of Christian Bible translators more typically aristotelian? Aristotle, by logic of course, wanted to avoid ambiguities in Greek. The text was to lock down the meaning and was to say the one thing that the original author intended and nothing else.

As the reader reads the text above in English translation, an initial question is whether the text points forward to the future. To a precise point. And how far forward into the future? And whom and what might the text be pointing forward to? The quick and precise and unambiguous and objectively obvious answer must be: "to the Christian Christ." But we may be resorting to aristotelianism again - as if that's "translation." And we're getting a little ahead of ourselves, aren't we? So back up from now. Let's back up from "Jerusalem, and all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" when such a remote spot focuses on a place such as bible-belt USA, where non-Hebrews here and now (the majority the population I dare guess) claim "The Book of Hebrews" as a text for Christians alone despite the fact that most Jews can rightly reply, "You can have it!"

Back in Egypt, there's this new King of Egypt (not necessarily Φαραω but certainly the monarch put there in Alexandria after the city is named after Alexander the Great who, we have to add, learned under Aristotle in the aristotelian paradigm). And there, but in the Homeric paradigm, in the Hebrew play with the Greek text in Egypt, this newer King is like the Pharaoh of old who interacted with Moses. Except he must interact with Hebrews who are translators of Moses. As the writer(s), or editor(s), or translator(s) of the epistle of Hebrews quote from these earliest translators, we wonder whether they sensed any fear in those first translators - but we have little doubt that they sensed anything but the proof of belief and the lack of fear in Moses. They write:

27Πίστει κατέλιπεν Αἴγυπτον, μὴ φοβηθεὶς τὸν θυμὸν τοῦ βασιλέως, τὸν γὰρ ἀόρατον ὡς ὁρῶν ἐκαρτέρησεν.
27By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king's anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible.

The reader immediately notices something and someone hidden. Perhaps more than one somebody missing. Yes, the invisible God. Yes also the hidden daughters. For all the repetition given to this daughter of Pharoah (Exodus 2:5 & 2:6 & 2:7 & 2:8 & 2:10) and for all of the recognition given to her, the text never gives her name. We know her because her name is invisible and unspoken and she acts like God: she saves the dying, the male, the Hebrew, the son. And she alone gives him his name. The name she gives translates into Hebrew wordplay: משה - the Egyptian Mosheh punning playfully on the agency of his Egyptian MaMa אם who Mercifully delivers him משה from the Muddy Ruddy Bloody Murderous waters מים - as if out of the womb and out of the lips of the Egyptian mother and midwife and princess christener and nurse provider.

In the old Greek text (that Hebrew translation done back in Egypt as "Exit Odyssey" or Exodus 2:11), Moses grows up: μέγας γενόμενος Μωϋσῆς. In the new Greek text (as Hebrews 11:24), the transition seems as abrupt: Μωϋσῆς μέγας γενόμενος. By the new text, the reader is carried back but is simultaneously thrust forward to a midrash-like analysis of an entire episode of the old story. An entire complex narrative turns on one little clause: ἠρνήσατο λέγεσθαι refused to be known. In the old story, the grown boy becomes a witness to injustice and murder and flees the scene. In the new text, he becomes the son of a mother no longer and is faithful to another.

At least this is how most English Christian translations of this text lock down the story.

It never moves forward from that.

There's the rejection of the female, a rejection of the faithful salvation by a woman of a male as if she were his very own mother and as she collaborates with other women braver than fathers and brothers (either Hebrew or Egyptian) - the baby's very own mother and sister collaborating with the princess - the incredible mix of Egyptians and Hebrews, faithful language and rhetorical naming and playful translation and ancient feminisms.

The Christian text in English rejects the feminism. So let's read more closely. Let's ask questions so that the apparent male dominance and Christian dominance of the text doesn't make it always only one thing and never ever anything else. (Yes, I know - such dominance sounds like Aristotle not necessarily anything like the Septuagint translators or the writers of Hebrews of a far different, absolutely more different in play.)

How different might the text (i.e., the Greek translation of the Greek translation of the Hebrew in the Homeric paradigm) be?

The identity "υἱὸς θυγατρὸς Φαραώ" in Greek might be translated in English as "a son of a daughter of Pharaoh." The collocation of son and daughter does not suggest an easy dominance of one over the other or even of the one purely different from the other. The collocation, in fact, syntactically mirrors an appositive - which is just a fancy way of saying that both nouns translate one another in what Mikhail Epstein might, rightly, see as an inter-lation as much as a trans-lation. And both, then, are related together to the proper noun "Pharoah" in a sense. This reading (which English translators tend to lose with "the son of the daughter of the Pharaoh") makes the contrast in the next verse very compelling.

There's more feminism (more gender inclusivity) than unmarked male-dominant sexism in Hebrews 11:25. (Long before the English bible gender debates in Chrsitianity especially, we get this inclusiveness in the Greek text of Hebrews). The identity "τῷ λαῷ τοῦ θεοῦ" in Greek is definite even in translated English: "the people of the god." The contrast of identities for the Hebrew around Πίστει is from indefinite son-daughter of Pharaoh to definite people of the Divine One. There's no necessary rejection of females or of the participation of a foreign Egyptian female. Moses, of faith (and prior to Jesus Christ and faith in him), does not lose his sonship with respect to the daughtership of the princess of Egypt. Moses is not even renouncing his lineage in the least - as Paul seems to when calling himself a Hebrew of Hebrews (of a particular tribe of the nation of Israel with a baby's circumcision to boot) while renouncing this identity "
for the sake of Christ" as we read that in English. No - Moses "a son" who is in many ways like "a daughter" of Pharaoh is also one of "the people of God." And "a daughter" like that, we read in the old text and say again, is like "the God" who saves the son. If it we're not for her, he would not have the name Moses, the wordplay name, the feminist name of a princess collaborating in translation with a few slave women.

Which brings us to another verse:

26μείζονα πλοῦτον ἡγησάμενος τῶν Αἰγύπτου θησαυρῶν τὸν ὀνειδισμὸν τοῦ Χριστοῦ, ἀπέβλεπεν γὰρ εἰς τὴν μισθαποδοσίαν.

Christians who translate tend to make the "τοῦ Χριστοῦ" here refer to "Christ Jesus" only and obviously, quite objectively and logically, to no one else. (In another post, we've wondered why the English translation has to commit what Robert Alter calls "the heresy of explanation" when referring in Greek to Ἰησοῦς - who must always and only be explained by the translator to the reader as either "Jesus" or the other guy "Joshua.") So now again the English translator finds useful Aristotle's convenient logic boxes. "Christ" is the real (if abstract) category for the "Christian" - and nothing else fits.

But the text of Hebrews pushes readers back again to the Septuagint. First, we go back to Egypt and to daughters and a son being rescued. But then the translation brings us to lyric and poetic Hebrew beyond the epic narrative "Exodus."

First, from the phrase "τὸν ὀνειδισμὸν τοῦ Χριστοῦ" to Exodus 2:3 in Greek translation and a similar clause:

ἐπεὶ δὲ οὐκ ἠδύναντο αὐτὸ ἔτι κρύπτειν, ἔλαβεν αὐτῷ ἡ μήτηρ αὐτοῦ θῖβιν καὶ κατέχρισεν αὐτὴν ἀσφαλτοπίσσῃ καὶ ἐνέβαλεν τὸ παιδίον εἰς αὐτὴν καὶ ἔθηκεν αὐτὴν εἰς τὸ ἕλος παρὰ τὸν ποταμόν.

Notice the verb, κατέχρισεν - it's what the Hebrew daughter is doing. She's anointing the basket, she's "besmearing" says translator Lancelot Brenton, and she's "plastering" it says translator Larry Perkins. And those who read Homer's epic Odyssey remember hearing this at least four times as women are doing things on behalf of others in need:

τὰρ ἐπεὶ λοῦσέν τε καὶ ἔχρισεν λίπ’ ἐλαίῳ,
ἀμφὶ δέ μιν φᾶρος καλὸν βάλεν ἠδὲ χιτῶνα,

In another post at another blog, we've read the wordplay of Hebrews into Greek. But the point we want to make here is that such play is Homeric not aristotelian. The very idea of the Greek translation that "Christ" the English word comes from is from early ancient Greek feminism. It's messy stuff of lyric of epic of women of poetics of rhetorics that Aristotle tried to avoid. It's the messy stuff that Christ-ian translators today still try to avoid.

But it's the very stuff that Hebrews writing and translating their own scriptures embraced and produced.

So, in Hebrews 11:26, the writers-translators have Greek readers turning. Turning first back to the Homeric translating of Exodus 2:3 - a daughter translating a basket into a womb. We are taken back again to the Christ-verbs (to things women do and do again) in the Odyssey. Next, Hebrews 11:26 takes us back but forward a bit.

We are now turned to and turning in the "Strummings of Strings" in the "Psalms." The salient sounds of "τὸν ὀνειδισμὸν τοῦ Χριστοῦ" have their reverberations in Psalm 89.

(The Psalm in Hebrew is more "A Maskil [מַשְׂכִּיל "wise, nationalistic song"] of Ethan [איתן 'the Enduring'] the Ezrahite [אזרחי "Native Son"]-- notice the wordplay of the Hebrew names lost but found anew in the Greek a wise, nationalistic song which in Greek is by Αιθαν τῷ Ισραηλίτῃ or literally, "Shining / Blazing, the Israelite." Bacchylides loves the word αἰθᾶν in speaking of Apollo - so why not use it for איתן, the play on אזרחי?).

Listen to the reverberations from Hebrews 11:26 in the lyric Greek, in the Greek Psalm that is of Αιθαν τῷ Ισραηλίτῃ the "Shining Israelite." Here's the song in responsive dialogue with the Lord in Greek (Psalm 89:52, echoing 89:38, echoing 89:20). Listen:

οὗ ὠνείδισαν οἱ ἐχθροί σου, Κύριε,
οὗ ὠνείδισαν τὸ ἀντάλλαγμα τοῦ χριστοῦ σου

σὺ δὲ ἀπώσω καὶ ἐξουδένωσας,
ἀνεβάλου τὸν χριστόν σου·

εὗρον Δαυιδ τὸν δοῦλόν μου,
ἐν ἐλαίῳ ἁγίῳ μου ἔχρισα αὐτόν.

Who Anoints as a Greek woman might (verse 20)? And whom is Anointed (mashach משח)? Isn't God anointing his son David?

Why is the psalmist complaining? What good is the anointing if it seems the Lord is casting it off (verse 38)?

When the enemies reproach the anointed one, won't there be remembering (verse 52)?

משיח mashiyach חרף charaph

ὠνείδισαν oneidisan τοῦ χριστοῦ tou christou

Or will all be lost in translation? In the aristotelian paradigm of "translation" that separates:

"male" from "female"
"the son" from "the daughter"
"peasant women" from "a princess"
"Moses" from "Egyptian lips"
"Hebrews" from "the kingdom of Egypt"
"Jesus" from "Joshua"
"Christ" from "feminine anointing"
"Christ" from "David"
and finally
"Christian Hebrews" from "Jewish Hebrews"

In this post, I know I'm using hyperbole, exaggeration for effect. I'm not trying to overwhelm anyone with the exhaustive possibilities of wordplay. I am wanting to show some of the unaddressed power of Aristotle's method. And to show how separating and silencing Christian translation, by its limited logic, has tended to be. And to show that aristotelianism is not what Hebrew translators (including women as agents in Hebrew narrative) tend to use. And to reassure all of us that logic is okay as long as logic is not our only human tool or our only personal language.

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