Thursday, June 4, 2009

Of Paul and Pooh, Language and Logic

Yesterday's post left this suggestion that Paul borrowed his nasty word skubala (σκύβαλα) from Jesus. What do you think? Did Paul write using language that was not entirely politically correct? A few things should be clarified and carefully noticed about skubala before looking at an even more startling word that Paul borrowed.

First, the Jesus (or Joshua) whose writings Paul may be reading is the ostensible son of Sirach ( בן סירא). And the son of Jesus, the grandson of Sirach, is the self-identified translator of the writings of Sirach. All of the synoptic gospel translators (Mark, Matthew, and Luke - writing about that other Jesus) quote from this translated LXX Book of Sirach even if none quotes the word Paul appropriates. So we'd do well to see what the first translated Jesus supposedly says in Hebrew (even if the texts are lost) and how his son translates (and purports to translate) that into Greek while living in Egypt more than 100 years before Paul was born.

Second, it's not just the Greek word skubala (σκύβαλα) but how and why that particular word renders the Hebrew in a place like post-slavery Egypt that is fascinating. The word occurs nowhere prior to this use by the son of Jesus. Sylvie Honigman at the University of Tel Aviv in reading one history of the LXX suggests the Jewish translators didn't follow either the Exodus paradigm or the Alexandrian (a neo-aristotelian) paradigm but rather the Homeric paradigm when translating. Maybe Jesus's son, in translating, is coining the word from some of Homer's works. Paradigms aside, there seems enough extant lexical material to suggest this. For example, in the Odyssey, Agamemnon recounts his betrayal and murder by his wife Clytemnestra: "I threw (ballon, βάλλον) my hands around the sword as I died, but the dog-eyed (kunopis, κυνῶπις) one turned away, and, though I was on my way to the house of Hades, she didn't dare close my eyes or shut my mouth with her hands. So nothing else is more dreadful or more dog-like [kunteron, κύντερον] than a woman...." And in the Iliad, Zeus says to his wife "Nothing's more disgustingly doglike than you." [Ou seokunteron allo, οὐ σέοκύντερον ἄλλο]). And Helen has already mourned, "Slutty bitch that I am!" [eskekunopidos, ἔσκεκυνώπιδος]). If the Greek word is a translator's neologism, an awakening of dogged sexism, then a hint to its meaning as "pooh" comes from a counterpart word in the proverb of Jesus. The entire proverb (27:4) reads: Ἑν σείσματι κοσκίνου διαμένει κοπρία, οὕτως σκύβαλα ἀνθρώπου ἐν λογισμῷ αὐτοῦ. This has been translated into English by the Revised Standard Version committee as follows: "When a sieve is shaken, the refuse remains; so a man's filth remains in his thoughts." The word σκύβαλα is translated "filth," and the word kopia (κοπρία) "refuse." The two words work parabolically or appositively in comparison, in interlation, to define and refine one another analogically. It's sort of like what the Miller Analogies Test measures, except the proverbial parallels are to be extended, personally, to the reader's own life. The language is to be profound. What is lost in the RSV translation is the bitch-female-dog connotations of the former word (when just looking at Homeric cognates); alas, as mentioned, the Hebrew original is completely gone. We can, however, measure whether the RSV "refuse" gains much in English translation by comparing how other LXX translators have rendered Hebrew with the Greek kopia (κοπρία). The Hebrew words so translated into Greek are domen (דמן ) and 'ashpoth (אשפת) with meanings of "dung" and "piles of poo." I think Benjamin G. Wright's English (NETS) translation of the Greek of the son of Jesus is not bad: "With the shaking of a sieve, refuse remains--so a person' offal in his reasoning." But the Greek sounds more like this to me (in English): "In a shaken sifter remains a pile of crap--so does that scooped puppy poop, you mortal humans, in your own statements."

Third, then, when Paul uses skubala (σκύβαλα) in his letter to readers in Philippoi, he's already called out "the dogs" or perhaps "the bitches" (touS KUnas, τοὺς κύνας) to distinguish himself from his fellow Jews who were insisting on male (penis) circumcision as a necessary mark on the body. So he plays on this derogatory term by downplaying his own personal, physical heritage as "dog throw-up" if not "bitch shit" (SKUbala, σκύβαλα). To see the gendered issues here is not too much of a stretch. (It's not, I'm saying, much at all like Sigmund Freud, as the-rapist, discussing penis envy that isn't really there.) The language Paul chooses is dirty on purpose.

Fourth, Paul seems extremely interested as Jesus was in adult human conversion, in personal transformation. I'm talking now about the Jesus to whom Paul was committed, the one whose opening word for Mark, his first translator, was metanoeite (μετανοεῖτε). It means something like "change your mind, re-think everything!" This brings us to a second, perhaps more startling word that Paul borrowed. He borrowed a word that Aristotle coined when human language and when a human statement (i.e. logos, λόγος) was, for Aristotle, not enough. The word is "logic" (or logike, λογικὴ).

(I've gone on elsewhere about how the -ic (-ικὴ) suffix is dirty and sexist. It was so dirty that LXX translators seemed to avoid it as politically incorrect. And so when tiptoeing around words like "log-ic," "rhetor-ic," and "erot-ic" and therefore even "eros," they only slipped twice.)

So what do you think? Why does Paul slip in "logic" (or logike, λογικὴ) in his letter to Roma? It's in Romans 12:1-2, where Paul is talking about the mind, change, and re-thinking everything. Here's the text:

Παρακαλῶ οὖν ὑμᾶς ἀδελφοί διὰ τῶν οἰκτιρμῶν τοῦ θεοῦ παραστῆσαι τὰ σώματα ὑμῶν θυσίαν ζῶσαν ἁγίαν εὐάρεστον τῷ θεῷ τὴν λογικὴν (i.e. "logical") λατρείαν ὑμῶν. Καὶ μὴ συσχηματίζεσθαι [OR συσχηματίζεσθε] τῷ αἰῶνι τούτῳ, ἀλλὰ μεταμορφοῦσθαι [OR μεταμορφοῦσθε] τῇ ἀνακαινώσει τοῦ νοὸς [ὑμῶν] εἰς τὸ δοκιμάζειν ὑμᾶς τί τὸ θέλημα τοῦ θεοῦ τὸ ἀγαθὸν καὶ εὐάρεστον καὶ τέλειον.

Here's the RSV English for comparison:

I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual [λογικὴν] worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Do you think "spiritual" renders "logic" well? Is it really a politically incorrect word? Or does the RSV (or your favorite translation) make it otherwise? What's Paul doing with language and logic?

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