Thursday, December 24, 2009

Δόξα: Mary the mother, Helen the beauty

There's been much blogging this Christmastime around the angels' singing, as Luke translates it to Greek (i.e. Luke 2:14):

ἐν ὑψίστοις θεῷ
καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς
ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐ-

And there has been a lot of translating of that Hellene into our Englishes.  I'm interested in the translating (Luke's and my blogger friends' renderings too).  Can our eavesdropping on and overhearing of the singing of angels help us listen in to and work out the meaningfulness of their song?  Or does translation box up and box in the song to what the original author surely originally intended?  As if the original author was no translator.  And as if a translator (somewhat pretentiously) has no intentions of his or her own.

I start this post with Luke's word δόξα (transliterated dóksa or doxa).  The translator places the word at the end and the beginning of the song of the angels.  What do they mean?  But what meanings might the translators' word have?  Why this word in relation to a woman (i.e., Mary) at this time?

Few English Bible translators, with respect to δόξα, look at the agonistic wordplay of Greek men.  However, likewise, few rhetoricians and scholars of ancient philosophy consider the entry of the word into bible translation.  And none really has looked carefully at how men dance around δόξα as they tiptoe around the supposedly questionable place of women in the order of things.

So let's look.

Here's a really strange paragraph that someone has entered into wikipedia.  It's strange because of the unsubstantiated and very compelling claim that bible translation, once upon a time, changed everything.   So let's listen:
The word doxa picked up a new meaning between the 3rd and 1st centuries BC when the "Seventy" (evdomikonta) Hebrew scholars in Alexandria translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. In this translation of the Scriptures, called the Septuagint, the scholars rendered the Hebrew word for "glory" (כבוד, kavod) as doxa. This translation of the Hebrew Scriptures was used by the early church and is quoted frequently by the New Testament authors. The effects of this new meaning of doxa as "glory" is evidenced by the ubiquitous use of the word throughout the New Testament and in the worship services of the Greek Orthodox Church which reflects behavior or practice more so than personal opinion.
If we go back to the beginning of the entry, we read about the old meaning of the Greek word.  "Doxa (δόξα) is a Greek word meaning common belief or popular opinion,..."

But really there are old meanings.  And these meanings have formed the ways that we in the Western world tend to think.  We tend to box in meanings.  We tend to follow our father Aristotle in pretending to view fixed nature objectively and working out our logic from there in premises that follow tightly constructed rules to a necessary conclusion (what he called syllogisms.  We, in effect, map nature (i.e., the nature of things) by separating each thing (like the certain and necessary meaning of "doxa") from what it is not.  You can read the wikipedia entry to begin to get a little idea of what Aristotle thought of "doxa," of how it scared him a bit (like women and weird rhetoric and wild translation scared him a good bit). What the wikipedeists don't yet show in the entry on "doxa" is how a goddess (yes, "female") gave to a man named Parmenides a poem (which he translated from goddess-speak to man-talk, of course).  In the poem now by Parmenides, "doxa" or mere opinion is separated from "aletheia" or (we might say) absolute truth.  So lots of Greek men (like Isocrates and Gorgias) run with the whole idea.

Isocrates and Gorgias give their own opinion of what the truth is by writing about Helen, praising her.  Yes, the woman Helen.  Greek historian Bettany Hughes (who wrote Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore) takes us back when she recalls to us:
When, in Ancient Greece, the rhetorician Gorgias stood up and delivered his 'Encomium of Helen' (a defence of Helen of Troy's indefensible character) - this was a great joke. How can you laud the most sluttish femme fatale of all time? But the rhetoric also got people thinking - maybe, just maybe the skilled speaker had a point.
If we read what Isocrates wrote and listen to what Gorgias said, then we see how they play with the ideas of "doxa" and "aletheia" (or opinion AND truth), mixing the two as if mixing them up.  So along comes Plato (who forms his whole philosophy of Idealism around this very Parmenidian separation).  And Aristotle, the master of separating out and boxing up, puts on the finishing touches.  Helen, the woman, has no part of truth (i.e., "aletheia"); she is, in contrast, a perpetuater and product of slick and slippery sophist opinions.

So we fast-forward to the story of the first Bible translators.  They're in the city of Aristotle's most famous student, Alexander the Great.  They're in Alexandria, Egypt, where the new project is to force the world to read in Greek.  So they agree to translate.  But these barbarians (i.e., the Jews) don't use Aristotle's method of logic.  They start sounding like those Greek poets and women-appreciating sophists.  They actually mix up the meanings of things, actually leave open the possibility that the God of the Jews would have opinions.  That he would have "doxa," as brilliant and as shiny as he is.  And the implication of such opinion (of the translators) is that this has rubbed off on their parents and grandparents so long ago.  Here, for example, is a bit from their "psalms" in their Hellene translation from their old Hebrew:

πλὴν ἐγγὺς τῶν φοβουμένων αὐτὸν τὸ σωτήριον αὐτοῦ τοῦ κατασκηνῶσαι δόξαν ἐν τῇ γῇ ἡμῶν

It's a rendering of Psalm 85:9 (renumbered 84:10 in the Greek version) that roughly gets at getting "glory or brilliance or good reputation and opinion in our land, our ground down here."

So we fast forward a bit more to this ground, this land, over which angels are singing.  Then Luke chooses Greek for translation of that song.  His Greek isn't Aristotle's and Plato's and Parmenides's (that keeps separate "aletheia" form "doxa" and the gods from the humans and men from women).  No, Luke's Greek is playful.  Luke's translation opens up and doesn't shut down.  Luke's translating is like the first Bible translating.  We overhear angels giving "doxa" to God at the highest peak and, on the ground, to humans "blessed doxa."  And why are they singing?  Because of a woman, a mother.  They're praising God and they're praising a woman as the Greek sophists praised a woman and gave her glory.

(I wish I could just stop the post there.  "God's in his Heaven, all's right with the world."  But Aristotle has dramatically influenced our world.  Here's what he says in his Metaphysics (with Hugh Tredennick translating):
A tradition has been handed down by the ancient thinkers of very early times, and bequeathed to posterity in the form of a myth, to the effect that these heavenly bodies are gods, and that the Divine pervades the whole of nature. The rest of their tradition has been added later in a mythological form to influence the vulgar and as a constitutional and utilitarian expedient; they say that these gods are human in shape or are like certain other animals, and make other statements consequent upon and similar to those which we have mentioned. Now if we separate these statements and accept only the first, that they supposed the primary substances to be gods, we must regard it as an inspired saying and reflect that whereas every art and philosophy has probably been repeatedly developed to the utmost and has perished again, these beliefs of theirs have been preserved as a relic of former knowledge. To this extent only, then, are the views [mere δόξα] of our forefathers and of the earliest thinkers intelligible to us.
And (with H. Rackham translating), Aristotle says in his Politics:
temperance and courage are different in a man and in a woman (for a man would be thought a coward if he were only as brave as a brave woman, and a woman a chatterer if she were only as modest as a good man; since even the household functions of a man and of a woman are different--his business is to get and hers to keep).
And somehow Paul, following Aristotle's pure separations, says later to Greeks (and Jews) in Corinth Greece the following (as "I Corinthians 11" rendered tightly by the ESV team of men translating his pure intention):
7For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory [δόξα] of God, but woman is the glory [δόξα] of man. 8For man was not made from woman, but woman from man.
So is all right?  Doesn't it somehow depend on the glory, the δόξα of women like Helen and Mary?)


Bob MacDonald said...

Thanks JK for these posts - the structure is clear in the vertical form. And I had not noticed psalm 85:9 and the clear allusion here. You pose a good question and leave us with "all hell opening beneath our feet." (James Mcauley - Jesus)

J. K. Gayle said...

Bob, I always love it when you stop by and comment! The structure of Luke's translation of the angels' verse is fascinating for an English translator like me. I meant to make very clear that "man (i.e., Jesus) was made from woman (i.e., Mary)" in reverse to how ESV translates Paul's statement. First adam, second adam stuff. That's also very intriguing in the Hebrewish Greek.

Thanks for Mcauley's "Jesus"! What a wonderful line: "He thanked the messenger and let it go"

Bob MacDonald said...

I trust you saw John's post on Sarah Coakley's Is there a Future for Gender and Theology? This article is well worth reading - she makes many of the points concerning Aristotle that you have introduced me to.

Blessings to you and your family on this long celebratory weekend.