Friday, October 31, 2008

Jesus S(L)aves

Jesus S(L)aves is a bad pun for a title to continue a series of posts. At the end, here, I'll link to the previous posts. But I'm trying to say a few things about how language and translation can foster slavery or can help to free slaves. I mean that both metaphorically and literally. (I mean no disrespect whatsoever to those who love Jesus. But "what's in a name," I'll ask here below.)


cartoon caption: "'Slave Market. Buy One, Set One Free!' Apparently it's some sort of humanitarian special offer."

Sexism goes hand in hand with racism and race-based slavery. In the Jewish Bible and the Christian Bible, sexism and slavery hardly give way to egalitarianism or to abolitionism (until the bibles are read richly with various "second meanings" and not just The logical intention of some presumed singular author--such as God, who is male or neutered like the Wizard of Oz). And, in the United Kingdom and the USA, slavery (up through the 19th century) and sexism have been quite compatible (with Western-culture defenders of race separations and of female subjugations often arguing from the Bible). And in ancient Greece and ancient Rome (through the collapse of their empires), slavery and sexism are, together, the status quo.

Why? Well. Likely, it's the force of masculinist logic.

Aristotle not only gives his stamp of approval to slavery and to sexism (by owning people and by silencing women) but he also develops slavery and sexism out of his phallic logic of ethnocentrism, his purist logic. By logic, Aristotle perpetuates (1) misogyny and gynophobia; perpetuates (2) suspicion of rhetoric and hate of punning; and, of course, perpetuates (3) the denigration of the impure and lesser races as natural-born slaves out of his deep fear of darker-skinned peoples.

The fairly simple game of logic is this: define by the binary; classify by the hierarchy. The straight and rigid syllogistic process starts with the cold, objective, obvious "given" of nature, and moves, orderly through the sequenced premised statements, to the invariable conclusion. Aristotle, by logic, excludes the middle: there must be either the right answer, or what is NOT right (i.e., therefore "wrong"). Whatever is NOT the conclusion is ILLogical. Whatever is of "nature" (i.e. "physics") is supreme--the facts of nature always derive everything that must come "after nature" (i.e., "metaphysics"). Logic is all very thought through; it's very rationale; it can be taught in an undergraduate course in the UK and in the USA. I know, I took such a course. I learned logic under the very same professor who taught my father logic years before.

By his logic, Aristotle concludes:
that females are botched males, and that some humans are natural born slaves;
that logic itself is better hierarchically than poetry and rhetoric and parable and hyperbole and the super-natural and dialectic; and
that his elite Athenian Greek language is the central language for the world.

By logic, it is not extreme, then, for Aristotle's student Alexander the Great to conquer the world. (Aristotle's students are only males and only of the Greek race and only of the elite class). In fact, world domination by educated Greek men is logical. It is not extreme, by logic, to call for the major texts of the world to be brought to Alexandria to be translated into Greek.

cartoon caption: "Dog / Cat Dictionary. Not too difficult, says the one dog to the other, trying to find 1:1 correlations between pictured cat words : pictured dog words"

Translators today use Aristotle's logic, especially translators of the Bible who want its ostensibly-singular meaning to be pure.

So when someone like Mike Sangrey at the Better Bibles Blog concedes that the biblical texts are polysemous, he says something like this: "So, yes, the original pun adds significantly to the understanding of the text." But his logical conclusion is this: "it is better to understand the meaning of the text" or, in other words, "In any case, the fact of a pun in the original doesn’t mean we have to come up with a pun in English. The goal is to bring over the meaning from the original and into the English." What Sangrey means by "meaning" is that the text has one and only one (main) intention. And to translate is to map (in "dynamic equivalence") that singular meaning from Greek (or Hebrew) into English. In the event of a pun, which Aristotle also detests, Sangrey concludes that the goal of the translator is still singular. Hierarchically, the one and only certain meaning of the text (as the translator puts it in the "target" language) is "better" than reproducing a pun (in that "target" language). Before any of us protests "How fun is that?," we may want to recognize that Bible translation by Aristotle's logic is pretty serious business.

Ironically, human language and what we do with it is not like logic. For the ancient Greeks, human language practice is λόγος (or “logos”); in contrast, Aristotle names his observational procedure λογική (or “logic”). Logos is a pun with many meanings. Logic, in contrast, forces one reasonable meaning, the only meaning allowed.

Ironically, the texts of the authors of the Hebrew bible and the Greek-written bible is written in human language, not in logic. Ironically, as Willis Barnstone recognizes, "Much of the Old and most of the New Testament is disguised translation, and so the Bible passes uniformly as a sacred original."

Ironically, linguists who are bible translators resort to Aristotle's logic rather than to the kind of logos practices of the first translators of the bible. The first translators were the Jews who were forced to translate their scriptures from Hebrew into Greek by conqueror Alexander's lackey Egyptian king in Alexandria. The later translators were the Jews who used Greek to write the letters and prophecies and histories called the "new testament." These translators of the bible texts used logos principles in defiance of Aristotle's logic.

Ironically, linguists who use Aristotle's logic read the text univocally. Wayne Leman of the Better Bibles Blog has said, "I don't think that Paul wrote ambiguously. I am suggesting that we today do not always understand what Paul meant by what he wrote. (Lack of clarity is technically different from ambiguity.)" And Leman has said to me (I just can't find the quotation now) that he thinks it doesn't matter what translation methods were used by the first Jewish translators of the Hebrew scriptures. Dynamic equivalence the preferred logic today, assuming the original text has its meaning and the target the equivalent meaning.

(To be clear, neither Sangrey nor Leman is either sexist or pro-slavery! All I'm saying is they, like Aristotle, reduce logos to logic; and they reduce pun to one, and translation to "the equivalence" of the one meaning.)

Since Leman brings up Paul, I think it's fair to look at just how ambiguous Paul could be.

But first, let me say how different Jesus is from Aristotle. Jesus is the one his student John calls the "logos" (not the "logic"); and Jesus uses methods of ambiguous puns, dangerous extremes (hyperbole), of subjective comparisons (parable, or fable), of the supernatural (and not just nature and meta-nature), of graceful poetry (not always prose), of rhetoric (as in his preaching and teaching), and of dialectic (which sounds a lot like Socrates and Aspasia, a woman). Since I mention a woman, Jesus was womanly and treated females with the utmost respect (not just in contrast to the Jewish and Greek and Roman men around him). Jesus also confused the categories of "teacher" and "learner" and "friend," and "master" and "slave," and Paul says he actually became a slave. Before we look at Paul more, I should say that Barnstone thinks that the logical translation of the English "Jesus" is actually a Christian-racist move. To make him "Jesus" and not (ambiguously) "Joshua" (or "Yeshua"), and to make his mother "Mary" and not (ambiguously) "Mariam," is to rob them of their Jewish identities. The common Jewish names tended to have meaning(s). Saul, for instance, connotes the first failed king whose name means, roughly, "prayed for." But Paul, in Greek, also means something like "small," or little.

Paul, some say, makes a big deal out of this. Paul changes Jewish sects from the "Pharisees" (or Barnstone says from the "Prushim") to the learners of "Yeshua," and this seems a lot more lowly and less kingly, hence the name change from Saul to Paul.

Now a couple of other bibliobloggers have called one little text by Paul particularly radical. It was his subtle-antislavery text. Unfortunately, Christians in the UK and in the USA who read it translated logically and unambiguously also fail to read it in all it's fullness.

Here's how David Ker describes the text of punchy puns by Paul:
We talked a bit about Paul’s teaching on men, especially the idea of the pater-familias who ruled his house in New Testament times with a heavy hand. The little book of Philemon seems pretty dull to us today, but it must have been dynamite in Colossae. It would be hard to imagine a master taking back a runaway slave without punishment and even being asked to call him brother.
Here's how Ben Witherington III, getting into rhetoric a bit, describes Paul's text:
C. Beyond the Basics—Cultural Scripts and Ancient Persuasion The psychological dynamics of any given culture are not only unique and particular, they are often difficult to assess. For example, what is considered humorous in one culture may well seem offensive in another, and likewise what is considered persuasive in one culture may seem unconvincing in another. It’s not just a matter of trotting out ironclad rules of universal logic. The issue is culture specific. I say this now because a fair bit of the rhetoric of the NT, will seem manipulative to us in our post-modern situation. It will look like emotive arm twisting, as we shall see when we examine in some detail Paul’s tour de force argument in Philemon.

If the text is "dynamite" and is "not just a matter of trotting out ironclad rules of universal logic" but is exhibit A for a "fair bit of the rhetoric" and "emotive arm twisting," then the logical translation fails to show that. Paul is small. Philemon is the affectionate loving one who owns a slave. The runaway slave is Onesimus, who's name is a pun on "useful." "Useful" is a pun on what we have come to know as the word "Christ" or "Christian" or "little Christ." The belly ache for Paul is love for other people. And there's so much more to get here that logic does not get.

Paul's Greek is punny and liberating literally. Some time back, I tried to show some of that too, in literary English also. By logic in the USA, there's something different from the pun. By logic, there's slavery, even in the "translation" of the "new testament" and the "old testament." By logic, there's "separate but equal" between former slaves and their owners.

So what I'm trying to show now, through this series of posts, and lots of words, is how puns mirror good translation, and good translation mirrors feminist rhetorical discourse.

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