Thursday, May 21, 2009

Splitting Bible Words Into Two

Today, [in English,] “zealous” and “jealous” mean different things, and while there are zealots, there are no jealots. In Hebrew, on the other hand, the word never split into two, and to this day, a kana’i can be a jealous husband just as well as a Zealot. He still cannot, however, be a Canaanite, the Hebrew word for which is k’na’ani, not kana’i.

--Philologos, "Yes We Kana’i: On Language," The Jewish Daily Forward
The pseudonymous Philologos is answering a reader's question: "Zelotes is a Greek word used by Josephus that has made its way into English. Is there a Hebrew equivalent for it in the Talmud or Midrash?" And the answer points to "an amusing error in the Greek New Testament."

The error is revealed:
In the Gospels, one of Jesus’ 12 disciples is in several places referred to as Simon ho Zelotes, “Simon the Zealot”; yet in the third chapter of the Gospel of Mark, he is called Simon ho Kananaios — or, as the King James Version has it, “Simon the Canaanite.” On the face of it, this is absurd, since not only was Canaan no longer a term for Palestine in Jesus’ time, but all of Jesus’ other disciples were no less Palestinian Jews than Simon the Zealot. The epithet makes sense only if we assume that the original Greek text read Simon ho Kanaios, or “Simon the Kana’i,” and that a later Christian scribe who never had encountered the Hebrew word changed it to the more familiar though senseless Kananaios.
Would a Christian Bible reader or translator respond? How about a linguist or a Greek scholar or a theologian? Is this an "error"? Does Mark's Greek "split" a Hebrew word by mistranslation? Is our English more equal to this problematic binary Greek than it is to the original language of the Bible?

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