Friday, January 9, 2009

Who is Judas? Who can say?

In Genesis 27 to 29, we outsiders read of the family that has become known by the name of the son יהודה (Yĕhuwdah). They tell us that means "Praised." Late translators in this same family of his call him Ιουδα, in Greek, when living in Egypt again, after Egypt had been conquered by the ethnics called Greeks. In English, the name has variations, especially for Christian Bible translators for whom the Aristotelian distinctions are most important: Jew, Judean, Jude, Judas, and Judah.

I could digress a bit to say that Christian Bible translators seem to distinguish these names as if there are (a) theological reasons to keep them separate; or (b) "natural English" equivalents (field tested ones of course) for each different person (as similar names really don't matter); or (c) presumptions by the translators about "what was [surely] meant" so as now in English translation to force on readers precisely and only now "what is said." But if I did so digress, then I might end up suggesting that (a) theo-logic is often dogma; that (b) dynamic (or even formal) equivalence is often propaganda; and that (c) the main relevance is the message of the translator himself. One self-proclaimed Christian once proclaimed that "“Es ist immer der gleiche Jude. . . ist freilich auch selbstverständlich.” And his American DE translator said, only focusing on the text, that that's equal to “He is always the same Jew. . . is also a self-evident and natural fact.” We shouldn't digress. On to the text. . .

Instead of making my pronouncements, don't I have to ask questions?

Why does Jacob love Esau? Why does he love Rachel and not Leah? Why does Leah think that having Judah (and her other boys) will make Jacob love Leah?
Why does Jacob love hunted-game meat?

Why do the Jewish translators using Hellene use
ἠγάπησεν (AGAPE verb) and then φιλεῖ (PHILEO verb) so differently? Or do they use them in the same ways interchangeably?

(See 27:4, 9, 14 and 29:32 and so forth for the "contrasts").

Why do the Jewish translators use φίλησό* for loving "kiss"?

Why do the Jewish translators use different Greek words for the family sons, words with no Hebrew dynamic or formal equivalents? Words like υἱοῦ but τέκνον, and different discriptive words like τὸν ἐλάσσω but τὸν νεώτερον, but self-proclaiming notions like ὁ πρωτότοκος for something lost (as if in translation) like πρωτοτόκιά?

Such dys-function in this family. Such dys-function in this translation. Shall we (outsiders) make it our own (as if we can "fix" it in a "loving" Christian way, and thereby make it our own)?

The Greeks want villians to make the play work, to show the epic conflict between gods and humans. Aristotle says it's mere rhetoric, trickery. And with Rebekka and Jakob and Laban and Rachel (speaking Greek) is there that? What are the translators avoiding, as if to keep us ethnics, especially Greeks like Plato, his Socrates, his student Aristotle, and Aristotle's student Alexander out of this story?

Dare we push our way in, we Westerners with German or with English? with a cross in our hands? and a villian in our story? Our contemporary Jewish translator Willis Barnstone asks "But which of Jesus' associates should retain his association with the Jews?" And he answers what he overhears as our answer: "The traitor Judas Iscariot, of course."


Some time back, Suzanne asked what the Jewish writer John was doing in translating a dialogue between two Jews (i.e., Yeshua or Joshua, and the one he named Rock); was it his different words, or was it the conversants two words? I think we then looked at Homer's Odyssey and Richmond Lattimore's fine translation:

τίπτε δέ τοι, φίλε τέκνον, ἐνὶ φρεσὶ τοῦτο νόημα
ἔπλετο; πῇ δ' ἐθέλεις ἰέναι πολλὴν ἐπὶ γαῖαν
μοῦνος ἐὼν ἀγαπητός;

Why, my beloved child, has this intention come into
your mind? Why do you wish to wander over much country,
you, an only and loved son?

Now, in John 21, neither Lattimore nor Barnstone have a difference between AGAPEO and PHILEO in their English translations. Nor does literal translator Julia E. Smith. But Ann Nyland, J. B. Phillips, David H. Stern, and Michael Paul Johnson show differences. Why? How? What do you say?


  1. I see little difference between agapeo and phileo. More difference between love and like when used in reference to relationships. How about love and cherish?

  2. I tend to see phileo used for affection (maybe like cherish but much more demonstrative too), for buddies, for kissers, for moms & her kids, and so forth. Agapeo seems much broader--and in the case of the LXX and NT--as a complete substitute for Eros, almost a silencing of the god and all he represents.

    When Suzanne posted on John 21, she opined wonderfully that the gospel writer was doing something stylistically. I think she's right! The author / translator may play with words for effect. Semantic differences and overlaps of meanings need not interfere with such meaning making. For example, my loved one can say to me, "I love you." And with exactly the same words, I can reply: "I LOVE you." In print the caps show. In oral communication, I may use a different pitch or volume or tone shape on the verb to tell her what I mean. If (unintentionally) I cough while trying to get the words out in the sentence, then we both laugh. She might say, "Freudian slip." We might laugh again. If we have to analyze it, then we become etic (outsiders). C. S. Lewis used to call this the difference between Enjoyment and Contemplation. To make the utterance call the text something in itself without any Enjoyment... is, aptly, very unlike love.

    But we linguists (and us awfully logical linguists more) sometime act like we prefer Contemplation. How exacting. How lonely.


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