Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Translating Genesis 1:1: Aristotle or the Big Bang?

Dr. Hugh Henry and Mr. Daniel J. Dyke, respectively a retired physicist and a professor of Old Testament, have taken on Rashi, Robert Young, and several other Bible translators. In fact, the two have taken on (what they say is) Aristotle's view of the universe and the resultant (liberal, unscientific, outdated) translation methods of the Bible.

Their essay "Translating Genesis 1:1: Aristotle or the Big Bang?" is posted as a two parter here and here.

They're claiming that "it is intellectually satisfying that modern science now affirms the traditional translation of Genesis 1:1."  They're saying that "the rationale for Rashi’s own retranslation is discredited Aristotelian physics—not the opinions of his rabbinic predecessors."  They're asserting that Robert "Young followed Rashi in his translation of Genesis 1:1" and speculating that "he may have been seeking to make his Young’s Literal Translation consistent with [then] contemporary science."

In contrast, Henry and Dyke like this sort of "traditional" translation as more scientific:
1In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
 2And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
 3And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
Young's Literal, which Henry and Dyke don't quote, goes like this:
 1In the beginning of God's preparing the heavens and the earth --
 2the earth hath existed waste and void, and darkness [is] on the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God fluttering on the face of the waters,
 3and God saith, `Let light be;' and light is.
But Henry and Dyke do give the following two translations and critique them:
  • “When God began to create heaven and earth—the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light” (Gen 1:1–3, NJPS).
  • “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:1–2, NRSV).
The most troubling thing about what Henry and Dyke do is to miscredit Aristotle for Rashi's and Young's and the NJPS and NRSV translation teams' translations.

In other words, Henry and Dyke don't refer readers to Aristotle's Cosmos, Physics, or Metaphysics, in which he clearly outlines his cosmology against, for example, Hesiod's.  Neither do Henry and Dyke discuss Hesiod's Theogony, which forms the backdrop of much of what the Greeks and the Jewish Septuagint translators worked with and against.

Moreover, Henry and Dyke quote Rashi some, but they hardly know how he so carefully works through Genesis, not following Aristotle (if working against Aristotle's sort misogyny and gynophobia -- see Suzanne's post here linking to Rashi's "feminist" commentary on Genesis 1" which is followed by notes on "Rashi's "feminist" commentary on Genesis 3").

I only have a bit more time to say a couple of more things.  Then, I'd welcome anyone else's comments.

First, we'd do well to read Hesiod's Theogony when reading Moses's Genesis.  The Septuagint translation (which Henry and Dyke praise ironically) seems very aware of the old Greek text.  Second, Robert Alter, who by no means is following either Aristotle or Rashi (or Robert Young for that matter), produces a translation of the Hebrew that sounds very much like the non-traditional ones that Henry and Dyke are trying to disparage as neo-Aristotelian.  So take a look at some of that, in light of Henry and Dykes sweeping and erroneous logic and conclusions.  And then, we can avoid the sort of Aristotelian binary that Henry and Dykes propose with either "Aristotle or the Big Bang."

Here's Hesiod, then the LXX, then Alter:
First of all chaos [Chaos, Χάος] came into existence, thereafter however / Broad-bosomed earth [Gai', Γαῖ'] took form, the forever immovable seat of  / All of the deathless gods who inhabit the heights of Olympus, / And murky Tartarus, tucked in a cleft of extensively travelled / Earth [Gai', Γαῖ'], also Eros [Ἔρος], most beautiful god among all the immortals, / Loosening limbs, dominating the hearts and the minds and the well-laid / Plans both of all the immortals and all of susceptible mankind.
      --Hesiod, Theogony 116-22 (translated by Daryl Hine)

In the beginning God made the heaven and the earth [Gen, Γῆν].  Yet the earth [Gen, Γῆν] was invisible [a-oratos, ἀ-όρατος] and unformed [a-kataskeuastos, ἀ-κατασκεύαστος], and darkness was over the abyss [ἀβύσσου], and a divine wind [pneuma theou, πνεῦμα θεοῦ] was being carried along over the water.  And God said [eipen ho theos, εἶπεν ὁ θεός], "Let light come into being [Genetheto, Γενηθήτω]," And light came into being.
      --Moses, Genesis 1:1-3, translated by unnamed Jewish translators from his Hebrew into their Hellene (further translated into English by Robert J. V. Hiebert, NETS)

When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God's breath hovering over the waters, God said "Let there be light." And there was light.
      --Moses, Bereishit (בְּרֵאשִׁית, "in the beginning") Genesis 1:1-3, (translated by Robert Alter)

Now, what do you think?

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