Sunday, October 18, 2009

Would Jesus Discriminate?

This is the question posed by a controversial campaign of the Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) Metropolitan Community Churches. Some of my local friends who are all (presumably) straight have been arguing about it on Facebook. And Rod (who also lives here in DFW) wrote at his blog (Political Jesus) a helpful post (a questionable interpretation of Matthew 8:5-13?) to get at the issues. Last time I linked to Rodney's post, he made a couple of additional, useful comments - especially noting this: "There is a failure I think to examine all power dynamics present in the Matthew passage if Matthew 8:5-13 is just about Jesus affirming a relationship."

I think examining the power dynamics is always helpful. But I want to examine the power dynamics in the silences here. Aristotle would discriminate, and his logic does. Jesus's methods tend to do things very very differently. When you read Cheryl Glenn's careful research about the rhetorics of silence (Unspoken: A Rhetoric of Silence), you tend to think of Jesus also. When you read Krista Ratcliffe's recovery of rhetorical listening (in Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness and in other articles), you see how Aristotle explicitly left listening out of the methods of rhetorics that were common among Greeks before his famous formulation of the "science." So I think there's a contrast in power dynamics from the get-go, when one sets out to ask "Would Jesus Discriminate"? It's a rhetorical question followed up with "Then why should we?" The point is Jesus listened, and he was silent, at least as Matthew writes of and translates him. (Aristotle insisted on discrimination, and he insisted on authoring without a translator).

So let's come back to the text of Matthew 8:5-13 and to the question of interpretation of Greek words there. Three of the most interesting English translators of the New Testament are also classical Greek scholars, who hear the echoes of the ancients in the first century texts. I'm talking about Ann Nyland, Richmond Lattimore, and Willis Barnstone. (Nyland has actually worked with her publisher to package her translation and lexical commentary as a Study New Testament For Lesbians, Gays, Bi, And Transgender: With Extensive Notes On Greek Word Meaning And Context). So, it's interesting to see how Nyland, Lattimore, and Barnstone translate the word παῖς (pais) into English from Matthew 5. They all translate the word as "servant." Lattimore actually hears echoes of intimacy and in one sentence has the Roman officer saying, "my son."

The thing I want to stress is that Matthew is translating! Perhaps the Roman officer is speaking Greek in this bit of history; but even if he is, Matthew's Jesus doesn't typically speak Greek aloud but rather speaks Hebrew Aramaic which Matthew renders for readers into Greek. The phrase "ὁ παῖς μου" (in 8:6 and 8:8) is a quotation of the Roman officer by Matthew, a likely translation - with Matthew making his own story teller's note (in 8:13) with his conclusion (to what Jesus affirmed) that "his servant" (i.e., "ὁ παῖς αὐτοῦ") was healed then.

The important thing to note in Matthew's translating is that he, the Greek-language storyteller and translator, does not discriminate. Matthew is rather like Anne Carson when she translates the poetry fragments of Sappho into English from Greek. Carson first notes how much so many have made discriminations about the sexual orientation of the one whom Plato called the "tenth muse"; Carson says (on page xi of the Preface to If not, winter):
Controversies about her personal ethics and way of life have taken up a lot of people's time throughout the history of Sapphic scholarship. It seems that she knew and loved women as deeply as she did music. Can we leave the matter there? As Gertrude Stein says:
She ought to be a very happy woman. Now we are able to recognize a photograph. We are able to get what we want."
The translator, Carson says, does not discriminate. And she goes on (on page xii) to acknowledge her translator "principle that Walter Benjamin calls 'the intention toward language' of the original'." She says that he says:
The task of the translator consists in finding that intended effect upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original. . . . Unlike a work of literature, translation does not find itself in the center of the language forest but on the outside; it calls into it without entering, aiming at that single spot where the echo is able to give, in its own language, the reverberation of the work in the alien one.
The translator, Carson says, does not discriminate but reverberates.

Matthew translating reverberates. He echoes the sentiments of the Roman officer of the first century. He echoes Jesus's own reverberations of the original sentiments of this man and his servant, his son.


Jane said...

Thanks so much for this which has been my sermon for today - i did make it to an airport chapel but there were lots of icons and no preaching ...
brilliant - I must get around to buying some of these translations

Rod said...

Well done. Thank you for this discussion. I enjoyed the post. And I know Aristotle discriminated! hahahaha.

John Radcliffe said...


Personally, I don't think we should overlook that in his version Luke uses doulos in 7:2, 3, 10 i.e. in his own narrative, but pais in v7 where he quotes the Centurion. So it would seem that Matthew may be using the Centurion's own term, while Luke uses a term that clarifies things for his readers (Matthew's account could have referred to the Centurion's own child).

I also suspect that the doulos the Centurion refers to in Mt 8:9 may be the same person, although there I might be putting too much weight on the Greek article (taking it to mean "I say to my one personal slave" rather than "I say to a slave" or "I say to one of my slaves"); the soldiers mentioned in v9 are referred to in more general terms.

We also shouldn't miss the approbation from the Jewish elders in Luke's version. They were willing to make the appeal on the Centurion's behalf, but I'll let others draw what conclusions they think appropriate from that.

J. L. Watts said...

JK, you must stop making us think. I'll wrestle with this for a while.