Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Good, the Baad, and the Translation of Psalm 23

I need some help here. Aristotle didn't translate, and he didn't use the word ψαλμὸς. But consistently, those who knew them well rendered תהילים (i.e., Tehilim, or the "praises") as Ψαλμοί (i.e., the Psalms, or the "strummings"). And today, Mr. Benyamin Pilant, who maintains the copyright for the Jewish Publication Society's English language TEHILIM, calls them the Book of Psalms.

The translation of this word seems good, and since the Septuagint it has seemed good enough.

But some time after the translation of the Jewish scriptures of all sorts into Greek, problems ensued. And now we all have a few questions in English. What answers can we find?

1. The disciple Ιωάννης (i.e., John or יָנִיב?) translated the Hebrew Aramaic words of his רַב (i.e., his rabbi, his teacher) into Greek this way:

Ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ποιμὴν ὁ καλός
(or, in English: "I am the good shepherd")

But why?

Was John's a good translation or was it (as sheep might translate that) a baaad one?

2. Was Rabbi Joshua (i.e., יְהוֹשֻׁעַ or Ἰησους or Jesus) paraphrasing David's praise to God, when the shepherd boy after God's heart was singing this?

יְהוָה רֹעִי
(or "HaShem is my shepherd" / "'I am' / 'He is' / 'The Name' is my shepherd")?

And if Jesus adds "good" when it's not in the original is that baad (for sheep)?

3. Or was John looking at the Septuagint (as he seems to do when he begins his gospel of Jesus, giving a nod to the LXX beginning of Genesis)?

In other words, did John add "good" or ὁ καλός when translating what Jesus said?

And, if John was reading the LXX, is it baad that the Jewish translators (from Hebrew into Greek) lose "good" in the last verse of Psalm 23:

טוֹב וָחֶסֶד


καὶ τὸ ἔλεός σου

(or "Surely goodness and mercy"


"and your mercy")

And when losing "goodness," the baad Greek gains "you," a very personal (vocative, 2nd person personal pronoun) reference to "master my shepherd" that the Hebrew has lost in verse 6. Why?

4. What if John and his rav Jesus (or יָנִיב and יְהוֹשֻׁעַ / or Ιωάννης and Ἰησους) could read David's תהילים / Ψαλμοί both in Hebrew and in Greek? Would the differences they surely would have noticed have been ugly? Or is what gets lost and found in translation both good and bad?


Peter Kirk said...

Baaad jokes!

Jesus and John could not have read the LXX as we now know it because that was a later, Christian era construction. They might have known earlier Greek translations. On the other hand, there is no real evidence that they did. John 1:1 is by no means certainly an allusion to Genesis 1:1 LXX as it is such an obvious rendering of the Hebrew.

J. K. Gayle said...

You've kept me laaaughing like a lamb, Peter.

I wonder if John (1:1) or the LXX translators were reading Sappho's Hymn to Aprohdite instead of "Genesis"? I've asked the question (and given some evidence) in comments over at John Hobbin's excellent "Literary Translation of Genesis 1".

As for your speculation that the LXX didn't exist (for Jesus and John to read) before 200BCE, I'll let you take that up with Sylvie Honigman, Noah Hacham, and Moshe Simon-Shoshan. The latter says , "Scholarly consensus dates this work [i.e., the first historiography on LXX] to some point during the last two centuries BCE though, in theory, it could have been written as late as the first century CE" (page 3); then (on page 33 in a footnote), he adds, "For a more thorough survey of the positions regarding the date of Aristeas, see Sidney Jellicoe, The Septuagint and Modern Study (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), 47-52.

Peter Kirk said...

I didn't mean to imply that there was no Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible around in Jesus' and John's time. My point was that it was probably not very like what we now call LXX.

I don't honestly think it is likely that John read Sappho. Would 600 year old risque love poetry in what must already have been incomprehensible ancient Greek really have been in wide circulation in prudish Palestine?

J. K. Gayle said...

Thanks, Peter, for clarifying. My baad (jokes) again on John reading Sappho (at least not in public). I do think the concept of land/ ground/ earth that John is trying to establish ("in the beginning") is terra firma also because of the ancient Greek poets (Homer and Hesiod included). And it seems (the point you make) that John avoided or didn't comprehend such poetry. The silence on "eros" and on "rhetoric" in the LXX and the NT is quite curious when there's global "agape" (often erotic senses of it) and "rhema," "piteis," "enthymeme," "kairos," "logoi," "arete," and many other key terms of Aristotelian rhetoric throughout the Greek scriptures of the (Christia) Jews.