Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Matthew's translation τὸ φῶς τοῦ κόσμου

In an earlier post today, I wrote too quickly many of my questions as they came to me. I have others as well (like "Did John copy Matthew's phrase τὸ φῶς τοῦ κόσμου from Matthew?" Where else does this phrase appear? Why not in any other gospel or New Testament text? Why not in the LXX? Why not anywhere else? Or was John translating directly the spoken words of Jesus? Were both John and Matthew coining something? And, more to the conversations around recently, how do second person personal pronouns relate to the phrase?).

What is fascinating is that translators can either try to lock down language, to follow and to fix The meaning of The original text when imagining The original intention of The author. Or translators make meanings also while illuminating some meanings of the original fragmented texts and the various possible meanings, intended and unintended, of the authors and speakers in the text. Doesn't this process get you asking questions?

In this post, I'd like to consider Matthew's phrase τὸ φῶς τοῦ κόσμου. He's almost certainly translating into Greek given the context.


The context is northern Israel in around 3790 on the Hebrew calendar (or approximately 1732162 on the Julian calendar). The speakers speak Hebrew Aramaic, read Hebrew in the synagogues, and perhaps read and write Greek also. Joshua (aka Jesus) is a rabbi teaching in synagogues that get overcrowded with people trying to listen. Matthew reports this rabbi's fame: εἰς ὅλην τὴν Συρίαν; ὄχλοι πολλοὶ ἀπὸ τῆς Γαλιλαίας καὶ Δεκαπόλεως καὶ Ἱεροσολύμων καὶ Ἰουδαίας καὶ πέραν τοῦ Ἰορδάνου; or fame "into the whole of Syria" . . . "crowds of many from Galil and Ten Cities and Jerusalem and Jewdea and beyond the Jordan." They're there to listen but also get healed and cured. Matthew describes them, with νόσον καὶ . . . μαλακίαν ἐν τῷ λαῷ, or "sicknesses and . . . weaknesses in the people." He gets more specific: τοὺς κακῶς ἔχοντας, ποικίλαις νόσοις καὶ βασάνοις συνεχομένους, καὶ δαιμονιζομένους, καὶ σεληνιαζομένους, καὶ παραλυτικούς, or "those having suffering, many sorts of sicknesses and sufferings had together, and plagues by deities, and plagues by the moon, those beside themselves from the detachment of paralysis."

When the crowds follow the rabbi up into the hills somewhere, he starts addressing them. He's healed and cured all of them. And Matthew starts translating what he says to them about them. (It's all creative poetry, according to English translator Willis Barnstone); here's my Englishings (not Barnstone's) to get at some of the lexical senses:

οἱ πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι
"the poor of breathing"

οἱ πενθοῦντες
"the mourners of the dead"

οἱ πρᾳεῖς
"the meekly gentle"

οἱ πεινῶντες καὶ διψῶντες τὴν δικαιοσύνην
"the hungry and thirsty for justice"

οἱ ἐλεήμονες
"the mercy givers"

οἱ καθαροὶ τῇ καρδίᾳ
"the clean of heart"

οἱ εἰρηνοποιοί
"the creators of peace"

οἱ δεδιωγμένοι ἕνεκεν δικαιοσύνης
"the persecuted on behalf of justice"

ὀνειδίσωσιν ὑμᾶς
καὶ διώξωσιν,
καὶ εἴπωσιν
πᾶν πονηρὸν ῥῆμα
καθ’ ὑμῶν ψευδόμενοι
ἕνεκεν ἐμοῦ

"you all disparaged
and persecuted,
and spoken at
with all evil words
about you all falsely
on behalf of me"

Ὑμεῖς ἐστε τὸ ἅλας τῆς γῆς
"You all are the salt of the ground of birth"

Ὑμεῖς ἐστε τὸ φῶς τοῦ κόσμου
"You all are the light of the ordered universe"

Somebody could write a dissertation on the creative things Joshua and his translator Matthew are doing so poetically. There is much rhetorical in the sophistic and even pre-Socratic sense of "rhetoric." For a number of reasons, Aristotle would have snarled while Sappho and Aspasia smiled in reading, in hearing Matthew's text. (Lest you've not guessed, or missed that I already tried to make it clear, the above is my English translating of Matthew's Greek translating of Joshua's Hebrew Aramaic rhetoric.)


Now as we come to what Joshua (aka Jesus) says about "light," we see a metaphor. A metaphor, of course, is fraught with problems, according to Aristotle, who can't help but use it himself. A meta-phor is a carrying to full term. A metaphor is a woman's delivery of her baby. Yes, I'm playing and not being very technical. But a metaphor, for Greeks, is a parable, an appositive, a translation. A metaphor is this before Matthew begins translating. A metaphor is a bringing together of two very separate, absolutely differentiatable, things. As Jean-Jacques Thomas, the linguist, would remind us (on page 119 of his co-authored Poeticized Language: The Foundations of Contemporary French Poetry): "Aristotle takes great care to differentiate. . . between parabolé and metaphora, or between comparison and metaphor." A metaphor is a comparison in the extreme. And we all know what Aristotle says about extremes. My point in bringing in Aristotle is that he never really left for many of us. Unless you see what Aristotle says, even if you think your favorite linguist or bible scholar said it first, you never really see how foul Jesus's language and Matthew's translating can be. The grammar is imprecise. The semantic range is atrocious. The sick dregs of humanity (which implies women too, perhaps weak females especially) are "the light of the world."

For the "tenor" of the metaphor, Matthew decides the Greek second person personal plural pronoun, the vocative address to the people (Ὑμεῖς "You all"), is good enough to begin to translate, to describe this vehicle of the metaphor, "light": "you all are the light." (Pardon my use of such technical terms of I. A. Richards's rhetoric.) The vehicle choice is enlightening, if you'll pardon my pun. In my earlier post today, I was trying to suggest that this vehicle - the Greek word Matthew choses for "light" - has been used several ways (metaphorically) with various meanings. These uses have meant the following: "man, not woman"; "human, not a god"; "the life of men," "the light of the eyes," "the light of a torch, lamp, fire, the sun, the moon, etc.," "a window," "deliverance, happiness, victory, glory, etc."; "illumination of the mind," and even, most startlingly and ironically, "the dark ring round the nipple."

Of course, it's pretty clear, from the parable that Matthew has Joshua telling right after the phrase, that the meaning is fairly focused on the kind of "light" (or τὸ φῶς) that is "shined" (or λαμψάτω) in a dark household so as to enable humans there to "see" (or ἴδωσιν). Matthew's "τὸ φῶς" - the vehicle of the metaphor - shouldn't be read (and really can't be easily read) as anything more or other than visual "light." Nonetheless, readers more familiar with uses of the Greek word in other context, although not confused in the least by Matthew's uses, may feel free to associate the word also with the earlier or different uses.

When we come to the genitive noun phrase τοῦ κόσμου, we begin to sense even more that Matthew is playing with language. Has anyone else in any extant text before Matthew's ever written τὸ φῶς τοῦ κόσμου? Certainly, κόσμος (or kosmos) is one of those overdetermined phrases by the time Matthew uses it. It has both technical cosmo-logical uses and a plethora of metaphorical uses. Even if a Bible translator feels compelled to lock down exactly the one thing that Matthew must surely mean by τοῦ κόσμου, there is the difficulty of knowing what Joshua (aka Jesus) meant. In fact, it's impossible to know at all what Jesus said that Matthew is translating by τοῦ κόσμου. Let's let Matthew speak for himself. But even if we do that, Matthew might have "second meanings," some of which he'd disagree with if another reader confronts him with them - and some of which Matthew would agree with, saying, "I didn't mean that when I wrote it, but I can really see how it brings out what I think Joshua's meanings were. And those other nuances of meanings sure help your later readers, doesn't they?" (C. S. Lewis has some wonderful examples of "second meanings" in his chapters "Second Meanings" and "Second Meanings in the Psalms" of the book Reflections on the Psalms.) The main thing I'm trying to say in this little paragraph is that Matthew may be coining a phrase that others after him (such as John the gospel writer) will use. And that Matthew may have many intended and unintended meanings by translating the vehicle of Joshua's metaphor (i.e., as τὸ φῶς τοῦ κόσμου).


The most precise translator of Matthew's Greek (a translation of Joshua's Aramaic Hebrew) is Ann Nyland. If you know her work, then you know she's translating for very specific purposes. Moreover, she says that "Matthew is more an accountant" than other New Testament writers and translators, and she may share his exactness. Nyland herself is "a Classical Greek scholar formally trained in all Greek dialects," who has "avoided the Biblish dialect." Nyland notes that many "Bibles [in translation] are, quite bluntly, wrong" because there has been a "deliberate ignoring of the scholarship along with censorship . . . and [a theological] tradition and reading [of a narrowly-focused] English translation back into the text, notably in the case of gender (mis)translation and anything pertaining to women." In her interview with Wayne Leman (from which I'm quoting here), Nyland actually gives one example of her more careful, more correct translating of Matthew.

Nyland is not trying to be creative or to play with words. And yet there is creative wordplay. (You could check your favorite English translation for such [unintended] creativity too).

So here is how Nyland translates a bit of Matthew 5:

14 You are the light to light up the world. A city on a hill can't be hidden!
15 And who puts a bucket over a light? Instead, they put a light somewhere where it will shine light on everything in the house.
16 So see to it that your light shines, that people see the good things you do and they will realize that the reason is God, your Father in the heavenly places.

Notice how Nyland uses "the light to light up" for τὸ φῶς. Her translation, then, emphasizes a purposeful personal verbal aspect in the noun as the vehicle of Joshua's metaphor, as translated by Matthew. This is important because Nyland is able to provide a strong parallel between (A) the tenor and vehicle of the metaphor and (B) the instruction of Jesus in v 16. The instruction is the only other place where Matthew uses τὸ φῶς. Nyland's translation there is "your light shines" which brings listeners and readers back to the parallel "You are the light to light up" (my italics). (See how Nyland's English parallels Matthew's bookend words, λαμψάτω AND ὑμῶν, around τὸ φῶς, in verse 16. See how the English in 14 and 16, around τὸ φῶς or "light", is also parallel)

Now look at Matthew's translation into Greek with Nyland's English interpolated, an interlating. See where "light" shows up on verby nouns. Watch "light" light the verbs also as well.

14 Ὑμεῖς ἐστε τὸ φῶς [to phos] the light to light up τοῦ κόσμου· οὐ δύναται πόλις κρυβῆναι ἐπάνω ὄρους κειμένη·

15 οὐδὲ καίουσιν λύχνον [luxnon] a light καὶ τιθέασιν αὐτὸν ὑπὸ τὸν μόδιον, ἀλλ’ ἐπὶ τὴν λυχνίαν [ten luxnian] a light, καὶ λάμπει [lampei] it will shine light πᾶσιν τοῖς ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ.

16 Οὕτως λαμψάτω τὸ φῶς ὑμῶν [lampsato to phos humon] your light shines ἔμπροσθεν τῶν ἀνθρώπων, ὅπως ἴδωσιν ὑμῶν τὰ καλὰ ἔργα, καὶ δοξάσωσιν τὸν πατέρα ὑμῶν τὸν ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς.

Nyland is not trying to be creative or to play with words. Matthew, an accountant type with his Greek perhaps, is not trying to be creative or to play with words. And yet there is creative wordplay here. You could check your favorite English translation for such (unintended) creativity too. (It may be a safe thing to do because Matthew's language of τὸ φῶς τοῦ κόσμου is not so much theological or phallogocentric darkness in the realm of the Bible as "light" - in all its open, creative meanings.)

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