Towards the Origenal

That title isn’t a mispelling. See if you can figure it out. I bet Stu will.

Several years ago, while going through an intense Nietzsche phase (from which I still haven’t fully recovered) the thought occurred to me to go back and reread the Bible with more open eyes than those I employed in my earlier readings when I considered myself a devout Christian. I never acted on that impulse, but it recurred to me (how Nietzschesque) as I recently read H.G. Wells’ The Outline of History. By now, my religiously-inclined readers are probably grunting in disapproval of my perspective, but bear with me. After finishing Wells’ somewhat outdated but still worthy Outline, I nearly picked up my Oxford Annotated RSV — but having read through the Bible several times already I knew what a large project that is (1189 chapters plus Apocrypha), and I wanted to read some other things on my shelf, so I put it off.

My son John, who is now teaching English in Korea, corresponds with me by email. Not knowing of my half-baked intentions, he suggested out of the blue that we read the Bible together. John recently discovered a more meaningful connection with Christianity, and if that were all I knew about John I probably would have politely declined. But I also know that John has explored Buddhism and other alternatives, and that he’s intelligent and has a great sense of humor. I enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to spend more time conversing with my son, as well as to revisit an old passion of mine with someone who is likely to contribute to a most interesting discussion.

I don’t think that either of us intends to convert the other. We’re probably both expecting that the text itself will do that. It will be interesting to observe the results. Although I take a critical perspective on the text and I’m a tenacious agnostic, I don’t rule out the idea that I can be changed by this experience. In fact, I embrace it. If Fitzgerald and Henry James can transform me, then it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I might find some personal benefit in the collection of human insights and inspirations known as the Bible as well.

John chose the New Internation Version for his reading. That’s a fine translation, despite it’s somewhat conservative associations — two of my college professors contributed to it. But I chose to use the Oxford Annotated RSV instead, because unlike the NIV I’ve never read through the entire RSV, and I appreciate the notes in the Oxford Annotated volume. Besides, I always think it’s a good idea to compare translations, if for no other reason than to avoid projecting too much into the translator’s choice of specific English words. The RSV is a more literal translation than the NIV, but the latter often conveys the original sense better — so comparing and contrasting them yields food for thought.

Additionally, I dug up my Hebrew text of the Old Testament and my Hebrew lexicon so I could dig deeper whenever questions arose about the text.

John and I began corresponding, and so far our discussion has not disappointed me — although I’ve probably been doing too much of the talking. John has a busy life, so we’ve had to take it very slowly. We’re just through chapter 14 of Genesis now (a fascinating chapter, that). But I don’t mind taking my time. In fact, I decided (after catching myself in a couple of mistaken assumptions about the Hebrew text) to use the opportunity afforded by John’s preferred pace to fulfill a desire from more than thirty years ago: I will simultaneously read the entire Hebrew text in parallel with the RSV.

Last night it occurred to me that while I’m at it I might as well also make use of another volume that’s been collecting dust on my shelf for the last thirty years. As the oldest known translation of the Old Testament into any other language, and because of its influence on the New Testament and later Christianity, I will also read the Septuagint in Greek at the same time. I have already observed many interesting details of this translation — both extremes of cases in which the Greek has been bent into a literalist Hebraism on the one hand, and cases in which the Greek obliterates the Hebrew meaning on the other.

For an example of the former, in Genesis 2 when Yahweh (or Kurios in Greek) instructs Adam not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge for “on the day you eat it, you shall surely die,” the Hebrew for “surely die” is mot tamut, literally “die by dying” — the reiteration is for intensive effect. The Greek translates this literally as thanato apothaneisthe.

On the other hand, the word play of that same chapter becomes lost in the Greek. “Adam” is Hebrew for man, so the term is used interchangeably in the chapter as a name and as a noun. The Greek chooses to render it as “anthropos” exclusively until the injunction against eating the fruit, in which it is translated as “Adam,” then switches between the two afterwards. The whole pun on dust (adamah in Hebrew) is also lost in the Greek chous.

Even more striking, and rather funny, is the phrase “she shall be called woman, for she was taken out of man.” In Hebrew, woman is ishah and man is ish. The -ah suffix can be used for a feminine as it is here, or it can mean “towards” or “from” — thus the pun. It almost works in English, if you can invent some suitable meaning for “wo-” (it actually comes from the Old English wif “wife, or woman”), but the Greek murders it: she shall be called gune because she was taken out of andros. That must have left a lot of Greek readers scratching their heads.

By reading the Greek also, I’ll make a smooth transition into the New Testament when we get there. At the rate we’re going, that should be in about the year 2017.


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