Friday, June 5, 2009

a Jewish understanding of the text

Peter Kirk follows up Suzanne's posts on the gendered translation of a pronoun with "The Word: he, she or it?" Among his other fantastic insights, Peter gets at (1) what John is doing by artfully telling the story and (2) what English translators do to spoil it.

Now I want to reconsider more carefully what Suzanne says about "a Jewish understanding of the text." Isn't John's story-telling Jewish? And isn't Willis Barnstone's translating Jewish as well? Aren't they both (1) not only keeping their readers momentarily in suspense but also (2) retelling and reminding readers of the parallels to another Jewish story already told? Aren't parallels in Hebrew stories Jewish? Furthermore, isn't it interesting how Barnstone goes so far as to say that, in the Jewish stories, the Jewish "God translates divine sound into matter and being. . . through the word"?

Here's from Barnstone's (Jewish) English translation of John's (Jewish) Greek. I've italicized the translator's text below to distinguish it from two of his footnotes, which I've also included and indicated by the asterisks:

In the beginning was the word*
and the word was with God,
and God was the word.
2 The word was in the beginning with God.
3 Through it everything came about
and without it not a thing came about.
What came to be 4 in the world was life
and the life was the light of people
5 and the light in the darkness shines
and the darkness could not comprehend it.

14 And the word became flesh
and lived among us.**
And we gazed on his glory,
the glory of the only son born of the father,
who is filled with grace and truth.

*John informs us in "In the beginning was the word," Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος (En arhe en ho logos) (John 1.1). God created through the word, ὁ λόγος. With that utterance God translates divine sound into matter and being, thereby bringing the cosmos, the earth, and the earth's inhabitants, great and small, into temporal existence. The creation through the word in John parallels the creation in Genesis 1.1 of the Hebrew Bible: "In the beginning when God created the heavens and earth": בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ (bereshit bara elohim et hashamayim veet ha-aretz). God in Genesis uses "the word" to speak the world into being through his order, "Let there be light," יְהִי אוֹר (yehi or), while in John "the word" of creation may be spoken or written, but it also is the initial cause of creation. And as in the Hebrew Bible, that word is immediately comingled with light. It has been observed that in John's prologue, the use of the logos offers a link between the divine mind and the human mind, which is rational and apprehends the word through reason, reason being another meaning of "logos." This beginning is often presumed to be a separate [Greek rhetorical, Greek literary] poem added or adapted to the gospel. . . . The logical sequence of this poem also suggests the syllogistic reasoning of the Sophists as well as the Cynics to whom leading theologians sometimes compare Yeshua. . . . More broadly, "logos" may be given multiple meanings: the word of God, knowledge, science, the Greek principle of reason ordering the universe, and a Kabbalist principle of the primacy of creating words and, before words, an alphabet of letters, so that God has the means of speaking the universe into being.

**God's word became human flesh in the person of Yeshua.

[UPDATE: It may be worth noting that Barnstone has a two-page prologue to his translation of the gospel of John, much on the "Prologue of the Gospel of John." There he gets into (what I call) the Greekiness of John's language. For example, Barnstone says, "The word in Greek is logos, and logos was a familiar philosophical term, already in Greek currency through its usage by the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus and by the Stoics. John uses logos to convey a specific message...." Barnstone has an extensive bibliography for his entire work, including the works of Elaine Pagels, from which Suzanne has quoted. I would also refer anyone interested in the Greek logos per se to Edward Schiappa's Protagoras and Logos: A Study in Greek Philosophy and Rhetoric.]

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