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Now on to the post…
Someone mentioned the squeezing of a rich man through the eye of a needle yesterday, and of course I started reflecting on mistranslation and the evocative power of language. The camel and the needle is one of my favorite examples of translation shenanigans, and is all the more delightful because no matter which way you translate or mistranslate it, the message of the metaphor remains roughly the same. For those not in the know, here’s what happened. Very probably, the rabbi Yeshua told his followers two thousand years ago that it is easier to thread a rope (like the big ropes used on fishing boats on the Sea of Galilee) through the eye of a sewing needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. But, in Aramaic – the language he was speaking and the language in which the source text for the synoptic gospels was probably written – “camel” and “rope” are spelled the same: “gml.” They do -sound- different, but written Aramaic doesn’t often represent vowels. So someone dutifully recorded, “gml.” Now this gets even funnier when the synoptic gospels come along and people are translating the words of Christ into Koine Greek. Because in Koine Greek “camel” and “rope” are ALSO the same word, distinguished in text by a single vowel but pronounced almost identically. Camel is “kamelon” and rope is “kamilon.” In Latin and English, of course, “camel” and “rope” are really easy to tell apart. But, in both Aramaic and Greek, they are not. So while it is frustrating enough to try jamming a knotted fishing rope through the eye of a sewing needle, now we are left with the image of a massive dromedary squeezing through a needle, hump and all, and the rich are not only in a proper mess, but comically so. For want of a vowel!
It’s an amusing case because the meaning comes out somewhat similar in either case. And “camel” fits Jesus’s teaching style, which often made humorous use of hyperbole.
Other mistranslations are more sinister, like the popular translation of “arsenokoites” as “homosexuals,” which is a stretch, as there is a separate Greek word for that. “Arsenokoite” is a compound of “man” and “bed” and no one knows what the word means because its usage is so rare and it only appears in lists, without context. It’s been suggested that it was a reference to gigolos, but that’s an equally unsupported guess. In one case the word occurs next to “malakoi” (the luxurious). The traditional interpretation that malakoi and arsenokoites are paired labels for ‘submissive’ and ‘dominant’ partners in sex acts remains guesswork, and other interpretations are just as, or more, plausible. For example, malakoi arsenokoites (“soft ones, man-beds”) could easily be a colorful reference to pleasure-loving rich men who loll about on bed eating grapes all day and ignore the suffering of their impoverished neighbors. That’s a type of vice that the New Testament lectures on frequently and at length, and to which the letters in which these words appear devote considerable attention. Jesus warns that it is not easy for the rich and avaricious to reach the kingdom of heaven (as difficult as threading either a camel or a very heavy fishing rope through a needle!), and in Paul’s second letter to Corinth, those who have wealth but are slow to contribute are taken repeatedly to task for abstaining from giving or for giving only sparingly when they see others in need. Rich, luxurious, gaudy living was also a vice that Greeks and Romans alike tended to scorn and treat with mockery. (They would have found Trump Tower hilarious.) Reading “malakoi arsenokoites” in this fashion is conjecture—but so is every other proposed reading of malakoi arsenokoites.
Other problematic cases include “ezer kenegdo” (which the West translated as “a helpmeet,” a word that meant sense in seventeenth-century English but that we often receive, four centuries later, as conveying a servile role; in Hebrew, ezer kenegdo simply means a helper partner and doesn’t imply hierarchy and is the same word used to describe God’s status toward humanity); or the transformation of the Proverbs 31 “eshet chayil,” the woman of valor, into the “virtuous woman” in many English translations (in seventeenth-century English, “virtue” still suggested the Italian “virtu” with its courage and boldness, and “virtuous woman” suggested something very different then than it does today); or the misinterpretation of “kephale” (head) to mean authority (authority is a different word), because of a Latin idiom we inherited that doesn’t exist in Greek (the Latin word for head also means leader, but in Greek “kephale” simply suggests origin, like the head of a spring or a river, and not authority) — someone asked for a link, so here you go, Marg Mowczko covers the research on “kephale” here.
— Or the mistranslation of “hupotassomenoi” as “submit,” as in, wives submit to your husbands, when “hupotassomenoi” doesn’t mean submit in Greek (there’s a different word for that). Hupotossomenoi is really hard to translate in English. It means “arrange yourselves under,” which may or may not imply what the Romans think it did. It is a military word for deployment in arranged, battle-ready formation, so the Romans jumped all over the possibility of hierarchy. Romans love hierarchy. But in context, in several places it is used in passages where Paul is talking either about the plight of Christian women with unChristian husbands and how to face the world together and speak your faith to a Greek or Roman husband who believes you’re property (this is the topic in the letters to Corinth), or following passages about putting on the armor of God and resisting the devil (in the letter to Ephesus). Remember that at the time, these letters were being written to challenge hierarchy, not support it, and to propose a radical egalitarianism in human relationships, and that most Christians in first-century Europe were women. The teaching that we are all one body in Christ was a harder pill to swallow for men in the Roman Empire than it was for women. The letters to Corinth speak of non-Christian husbands as vulnerable, still in bondage to old ways of thinking, half asleep and like soldiers blundering into enemy fire. In context, hupotossomai probably means to deploy yourself in support of your spouse against the enemy.
“Hupakoe,” which we keep translating obey, and which is used for children, never for spouses, in the New Testament, doesn’t mean “obey,” either. It means “hear under.” Children are being advised to listen and learn, not blindly obey. Again, context. These are letters urging people not to return to the ways of their parents, to abandon oppressive systems and live in a radically new way that is different from how their parents live. What’s being urged will create a world of strife within multigenerational Greek families. Hence the urging in that letter for parents not to provoke their children to anger and for children to listen deeply in the midst of the strife.
And so on.
The text is beautiful and often more nuanced than it appears in translation, and we consistently mangle it because we treat it like a Latin/Roman text instead of a collection of Hebrew and Greek texts. (When you translate radical or subversive texts into the language of Empire, you eventually get Imperial texts).
And also because we insist on reading it as if the people writing it were writing it today, with our connotations, figures of speech, and cultural fears, when in fact their cultural fears and figures of speech were completely different ones, and things that we get hung up on wouldn’t even have occurred to them.
And this leads me to reflect on the power of writing. As a writer, I’m a bit biased in thinking about how powerful written language is. But, when we look at a holy book that has been translated and mistranslated and construed and misconstrued over the course of 2000-2,500 years (or, if you want to look at something more recent, of less than 250 years of age, and within our own language without the added complexities of translation, consider the U.S. Constitution), it’s hard not to conclude that sometimes the treatment of a single word can shape entire cultures and political systems. That’s a humbling thought.
ADDENDUM: This post, which began as informal amusement about camels and ropes, has turned out to wildly popular, which I didn’t expect. So I have edited it to provide a little more context on a couple of the words (mostly hupotassomai and hupakoe), in hope that the post will be more useful.
Want to read more? Get Lives of Unforgetting: What We Lose When We Read the Bible in Translation, and Way to Read the Bible as a Call to Adventure. You can order it directly from the author, or from Amazon:
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P.S. On threads sharing this post, several people have brought up the old hypothesis that first-century Jerusalem had a “needle gate” that was very narrow, where a merchant had to unload their camel in order to get through. It’s an elegant and fitting idea, but it’s not historical. It’s a folk etymology proposed by fifteenth century clergy to explain the “camel through the eye of a needle” verse. (In other words, it was made up to explain the verse.) There’s no evidence of narrow gates (either a specific one or generally) being called needle gates or eyes of the needle in the ancient Middle East.
32 thoughts on “A Camel Through the Eye of a Needle, and Other Wild Tales of Translation”
Ah, I so hope this is true!
Reblogged this on Randomat Omul and commented:
Fun and informative blog on language. Also great examples!
Good article! I had to laugh at the word hupakoe, because in Dutch we say ‘huppakee’ to get a child moving to do a chore, or just to listen
Ha! It delights me, knowing that.
You forgot Christopher Luxenberg’s work on the mistranslated Qu’ran: white grapes vs. virgins.
Follow-Up Post #1:
Ok. More on why translating “arsenokoite” as “homosexual” in the New Testament is problematic. “Arsenokoite” is a word that doesn’t exist (that we can see) prior to two occurrences in the New Testament (so we don’t have other cases to compare it to). What we have to do is educated guesswork. It is a compound of the Koine Greek words for “man” and “bed.” Now, I’ve been getting messages and comments from people to the effect that if you know the parts of the Greek word, the meaning is “transparent.” The idea being that everyone knows what “manbedders” means.
But here’s where translation is tricky, and not always as transparent as we think. “Bed” in English is both a noun AND a verb already. That is, you can lay down in a bed. And you can “bed” someone. But this isn’t the case in Koine Greek: “bed” and “copulate” are two -different- words. So trying to literally translate “manbedder” doesn’t work, because in English, “bed” has two meanings.
Here’s an analogy to explain. Let’s suppose we found a word composed of the two words “man” and “food.” With little context. So our literal translation might come out “manfooders.” Now the question is, what are manfooders? Are they chefs and cooks? Are they cannibals? Are they gluttons? Are they people who contaminate the local cuisine with foreign dishes? Are they people who appropriate dishes from other cultures? Are they people who steal food? Are they people who eat food meant for the gods and not for men?
Do you see the problem? Say you have a passage about how manfooders can’t see the kingdom of heaven. To figure out what on earth a manfooder is, we’re going to need to look for clues: look at what the source culture was concerned about (not what WE are concerned about! Not what our medieval or our Roman forebears were concerned about, either. What was the source culture concerned about: gluttony? the invasion of foreign ways? cannibalism? blasphemy? something else entirely?). We can also look at who the text was written TO, and we can look at the surrounding text for additional context clues.
It’s not as transparent as it looks.
Translation aside, this matters because many people, from the Romans down to us today, have found in these texts justification and validation of what their culture is already afraid of (rather than letting these texts radically challenge their fears). Look, here are one or two verses you can take out of context to justify slavery (of black people specifically). It looks like one heck of a stretch to us now, but apparently those verses were a very big deal two centuries ago. So: I certainly think that if people are going to use a few scattered passages as justification for campaigns against entire groups of our neighbors (our LGBTQ+ neighbors in this case), they ought to be far more certain that they have it right before getting out the pitchforks. And we can’t just take traditional interpretations for granted, without examining them, not even after centuries of time. Why should we? Jesus didn’t. Paul didn’t. Those interpretations are fallible; they were articulated by human beings. They are not a substitution for an encounter with the living God and deep attention to his Word. And they certainly are the most tenuous and fragile platform on which to stand and harangue or oppress one’s fellow human beings.
In all cases, be wary of any teaching or interpretation or ideological treatise – whether religious or secular – that leads you closer to fearing and hating and failing to defend your neighbor. Do not be the robber who beats your neighbor, nor the priest who passes by on the far of the street, carefully not interfering while their neighbor bleeds. That is the road of hell, my friends. Because that old devil stalks the earth like a lion “looking for whom he may devour,” and that is how you end up in the lion’s jaws.
More to the point, though, it’s just not good humaning. In a world of violence and pain and broken lives and broken hearts and sin and cruelty and injustice, let’s at least do this: Let’s human well. That’s my verb for today, and there is my reflection for the evening. Let’s human well. Let’s love well. Peace be with you, friends.
Follow-Up Post #2:
Oh, dear. I see some people objecting to my reading of “arsenokoite” in the Greek text of the New Testament and to my suggestion (hardly one I’m alone in) that “homosexual” is a mistranslation of “arsenokoite” … by claiming that “koi-” is a root for “coitus” (sexual intercourse). But “coitus” is just a participle of the Latin verb “coire,” which is a compound made from “ire” (to go) and the prefix “co-” (with). To “go with” or “get together” in Latin means to get it on. It doesn’t have anything to do with Greek “koite,” which is the word for “bed.” Despite the fact that they sound the same, they come from completely different etymologies. Just because it -sounds- the same doesn’t mean it is actually connected.
From a little digging, though, I *am* seeing claims that “koite” (bed) was used elsewhere in the Greek New Testament as a metonymy in the way that we use it in English (in which case “koitehn” *might* mean “bedded” in the same sense that we would read “bedded”), so I will look into that more as time permits.
If that is the case, then early readers of New Testament in Greek may well have read an explicitly sexual connotation into “arsenokoite.” However, suppose that is so. If indeed “-koites” (which is literally the word “beds”) would or could have been read as “people having sex,” it still requires a leap to suggest that “arsenokoite” is specifically “gay man.” It would be *one* logical leap to make, which is why some Romans made that guess and others have since followed suit. But it would also be an equally logical leap to translate this peculiar word as “prostitutes.” Or “child molesters.” Or even “promiscuous players [of any gender] who seduce men,” since the “-koites” grammatical ending would include both men and women, and since the Greeks were normatively bisexual.
Because we don’t have any other attested occurrences of the word, if we were to determine that the word was specifically sexual, we would then need to:
(a) choose the leap of logic that appeared to best match both the context and the teachings and heart of Christ, and
(b) be humble about the fact that our choice remained a guess.
Our desire for absolute certainty on every point (which is a Western thing, and not a craving that the early, Semitic disciples of Yeshua would have shared) drives us to insist that our guesses must be right. We don’t like approaching God through the “cloud of unknowing.” We want all the answers. It’s a way of pinning God and the universe like a butterfly on a board so that God and the universe will no longer be scary to us and we’ll no longer have to worry about little things like doubt. But without the possibility of doubt, there is no possibility of faith, of trust. We don’t “trust” that the sky is blue. The kind of leap into the unknown that God requires when he calls us to cross a wilderness or walk across the water, when he asks us to have faith even the size of a mustard seed so that we can move mountains if he needs us to … that kind of leap is impossible for people who desire only certainties and clear proofs. We are a culture of Thomases. But God is not calling us to know -about- him; he calls us to -know- him, in a relational sense.
Our tendency to treat our guesses as absolute facts would be more amusing than worrisome, except that then we treat our neighbors cruelly on the basis of the guesses we’ve made. And that is evil. That is sin. That is the allegiance to the “letter” that Paul said kills and that Jesus said breaks God’s peoples with burdens God does not need them to bear. “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life.” Let us remember that, and read our holy texts looking for people to love, not excuses to hate or fear. Because the apostle John teaches us that “perfect love casts out fear.”
The word “perfect” there is a translation of a word that means “complete.” Complete and total love casts out fear. Let us read in complete and total love, and let us read for the -purpose- of allowing God to plant the vital growth of complete and total love in our hearts. That is my plea.
A commenter raising the koite/coitus connection (which is a happenstance, not an actual etymology) suggested that I am “a workman of the devil.” Well, it’s possible I may be wrong about some things, which is why I am offering educated guesses (and most of them not even my own guesses, but those of a fractious but earnest community of committed scholars) and not certainties.
But I hope I am not a “workman of the devil,” at least. :/
I rather think the devil’s work is shown in all the murders of LGBTQ+ youth, and the suicides of people whose Christian communities have taught them that they are unloved and unlovable and will never be welcome in the Body of Christ. I think the devil’s work can be seen clearly by its outcomes, even as a tree is known by its fruit.
I couldn’t agree more!
Those two follow-up comments (just above) were occasioned by vigorous conversation across Facebook when this post went viral, so I wanted to capture them here, as well, in case they prove useful to those who find this post through the blog.
Peace be with you.
I agree with you. Coitus and koite come from completely different roots.
Furthermore, ‘arsenokoite’ is not a noun indicating a person. It has the wrong kind of ending. As a speaker of Modern Greek and a student of classical Greek, I understand it as “place where men lie down”.
I can see how it would be read that way in isolation by itself, but in context, it definitely appears in a list of groups of people.
However, it’s guesswork which group of people are being referred to, and that’s where common translations get dangerous, because the way the NIV and a few other bibles translate this word is no way certain (and isn’t the likeliest of the possibilities), yet people use it to inflict harm by action or omission of action.
I posted a lot more on “arsenokoites” in these comments above because that’s what most people responded to on social media, and I wanted to make sure to provide more context for those who need it or want to dig further. (There are a lot of “debunking the debunker” comments that are just sheer nonsense.) No one really knows what he word means, so the best we can do is (a) make an educated guess, and (b) realize that because it’s a guess, it’s not the particular scripture we should hang a creed — or our neighbors — on.
I’m honestly much more interested in exploring words like “hupotassomai” where we have more context and the context is fascinating.
But “arsenokoites” seems to be what gets people riled up.
I don’t know the context, as you don’t include a reference. However, I am a linguist and no stranger to how interpretations work (check out my blog and you will see that this is right up my street.)
I might say in English “I will talk to the school” and mean the teachers, although I have used a word that refers to the place. The same sense transfer is also possible in Greek. (I live in Greece and speak Greek every day.) Can you give me the reference?
I think I misunderstood your first comment; I completely agree – the transference that is happening is from ‘beds’ to ‘people’ just as you might transfer ‘school’ to ‘teachers.’ I agree. And I agree that the translation as ‘homosexual’ is among the less likely.
The word appears twice in the NT – 1 Cor 6:9 and 1 Tim 1:9-10 – and there are no earlier attested cases.
And I look forward to exploring your blog!
[…] A Camel Through the Eye of a Needle, and Other Problematic Translations […]
You seem very learned on translations. What, in your opinion, is the current beat translation of the Bible (or even one for Old Testament and a different one for New Testament). I find myself distrusting all, so would really appreciate your input.
Hi Sarah, thank you for the inquiry. That’s a good question that deserves a good answer, but there aren’t very easy answers to it. The NRSV translation is widely considered the most technically accurate – and it is the preferred English version for use by academics – but, like all of our English translations, it is heavily influenced by centuries of study of the Bible in Latin. The NRSV (New Revised Standard) is especially Latinate in its vocabulary, which, while precise and technically accurate, often loses much of the nuance you find in Hebrew and Greek. Still, it is by far the best translation available.
The ESV (English Standard) provides some balance between accuracy and capturing a little more of the nuance and poetry of the original. Sometimes I find that the most recent revision of the NLT (New Living Translation), while being less literal, captures more of the spirit of the original language. It can often be useful to read the NLT side by side with a more literal translation; it can “wake up” some of the meaning in the text as you read.
Among the -least- accurate translations: the NIV (New International), which is very popular in American Protestant churches but which takes by far the most liberties in translation – and the Authorized King James Version, which is the most beautiful of our English translations and continues to shape both our language and our understanding of the Bible today, but which is frequently inaccurate.
However, these are all translations-by-committee, some of them better than others, all of them representing considerable thought and labor, of course, but by necessity presenting very traditional and consensus views.
If you are interested in seeking out more nuanced translations of individual books in the Bible, this can be done. Look for translations of individual biblical books by lone academics or by smaller translation teams. These books won’t appear in the back of a church pew because they aren’t a complete Bible. But many of them are thought-provoking and take advantage of the most up to date scholarship on biblical texts. Many also come with introductions that explain the translation choices and the philosophy behind the translation. Those introductions may cite sources, may point to recent discoveries about the source texts, or may make you aware of ongoing discussions of certain passages and what some of the perspectives are. One great example is Marcia Falk’s “Love Lyrics of the Bible.” This is a translation of the Song of Songs plus an 80-page study of what we find when we look at the Song of Songs closely in Hebrew, and in its literary and historical context. It’s absolutely gorgeous and stunningly researched, and a few decisions reached in it are even beginning to work into the way into recent “official” translations of the Bible. There are many other books like this out there – translation projects of specific parts of the Bible by lone academics who weren’t hindered by committee or by the requirements of producing a worship text. If nothing else, they can alert you to where there is opportunity for deeper discussion about a particular text. For example, if you search for “Job Translation,” say, on Amazon, you will find that many academics have published their own translations of the book of Job, with commentary. So, too, with many other texts from the Bible.
If you are working with authorized translations of the entire Bible, then I would recommend:
1. Get a good parallel Bible or just keep a dynamic and a literal translation open side by side when you read, and compare. (For example, the ESV and the NLT, or the NRSV and the NLT.)
2. When you are curious (or skeptical) about a passage, there are some ways that you can start digging using free resources – this post walks through what to do: https://stantlitore.com/2018/06/11/digging-into-the-bible-in-translation-a-laymans-guide/ <- I wrote this post specifically for people who can't read Hebrew and Greek but would like to find out more about the original text.
Forgive me, because this is probably a much longer answer than you were looking for! I hope it helps.
I’ll add one additional thought. Some of the challenge in reading the Bible in translation is also simply how we package it: chopping the text into chapters and verses that were of course not present in the original and represent arbitrary divisions that reflect a long-ago Roman interpretation of the text. And of course, long Greek sentences are often subdivided and punctuated into smaller English ones, so that the logic of the text is altered. For some thoughts on how that can easily lead to misunderstandings, read this post: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unfundamentalistchristians/2015/09/the-punctuation-mark-that-might-change-how-you-read-romans/
This also means that where, for example, the letter to the Ephesians was meant to be read as one stream of text in one sitting – as an intimate letter, in fact, – we’ve chopped it up. That’s very useful for reference purposes, but we risk losing the sense of it as a letter while we’re reading it. If you look up “Bibliotheca” – http://www.bibliotheca.co/ – you will find a not-very-cheap but very admirable project from just the last couple of years. It is a printed several-volume set of the Bible that:
1. Allows you to see the Bible as a library of texts rather than a single text
2. Removes all chapter and verse headings, so that you are reading the Bible without anachronistic divisions. This means that if you’re reading The Book of Samuel, for example, you can get lost in the story — which is a very different reading experience! Ditto, a book of poetry or a New Testament letter. It’s quite an experience reading the Gospel of Matthew and realizing that an hour has passed while you just read the story and the collected teachings.
Bibliotheca is a slightly modernized RSV translation. It’s the seamless reading experience that fascinates me. While you can get a very similar translation in a traditional Bible format, the reading experience — and therefore the meaning — is often quite different in Bibliotheca.
[…] post “A Camel Through the Eye of a Needle, and Other Wild Tales of Translation,” when viral, and now a lot of people are sending questions over email or Facebook, asking: […]
Ok, so this post is laced with linguistic/philological problems (among others) and I’m going to go ahead and try to clear some of them up. (N.B., since I can’t format text in this comment, ALL CAPS are used for italics, not yelling.)
The first thing I’m going to say is CITATION NEEDED. You’ve said a lot and cited nothing. Not a lick of secondary scholarship—commentaries, articles, books, etc. You make some pretty big claims (e.g., that the Synoptics are based on an Aramaic *Urtext*, but this is really only a theory that people have cited for the Gospel of Mark, not all the Synoptics). There are plenty of commentaries that have stuff that would support your ultimate conclusion with better, fact-based argumentation.
1. There is no such Aramaic root √g-m-l that means “rope.” You’re welcome to peruse the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon (http://cal.huc.edu/) to search for it, but it is not there. I have also consulted The _Dictionary of Northwest Semitic Inscriptions_ edited by Hoftijzer and Jongeling. There is no √gml that means “rope” in Semitic at all, really. The following Aramaic words mean “rope”: ḥbl (prevalent in Hebrew as well, the most common word for rope or cord), ʾešel (generic rope), ʾspmng (hemp cords for horses, probably a loan word), znq (nose rope or fetter for the head of an animal), ṭwnbʾ (rope, primarily in Syriac, probably cognate with Arabic)…but there is no √gml that means “rope.”
2. First, you’re adding the masculine accusative singular case endings to words that are first declension. Second, Camel in Greek is καμηλος (that vowel before lambda is actually [ē] not [i]), “rope” is καμιλος. So, your “transliteration” is…not conventional. The difference is really *kamelos* vis-à-vis *kamilos*. They’re similar, but I don’t think that they are nearly as phonetically equivalent as you’ve made it seem. Either way, it’s highly unlikely that there was confusion here in the first place if the *Urtext* was really Aramaic.
3. You’re not using the word “cognate” correctly. You stated, “‘Arsenokoite’ is a cognate of ‘man’ and ‘bed’ and no one knows what the word means because its usage is so rare.”
That’s not what “cognate” means. Words that are cognates with one another are words that are practically identical phonetically and mean essentially the same thing in DIFFERENT LANGUAGES. Beer in English is COGNATE WITH Bier in German. Shalom in Hebrew is COGNATE WITH Salaam in Arabic. I think the word you are looking for is PORTMANTEAU—i.e., a combination of two words to form a new singular word. You’d do well to consult BDAG on this lexeme. Regardless, you can’t say that “no one knows what the word means.” I’m sitting here looking at a decent sized entry for the word in BDAG, with references to other occurrences outside of NT you need to consider. You need to do more legwork here before you claim that it “doesn’t exist…prior to two occurrences in the New Testament.” You’ve gotta deal with LXX evidence, which you haven’t. Further, your discussion in the comments about disparate lexemes for “bed” and “copulate” is belied by the semantic domain of κοιτη—you’ve gotta run down the uses of that noun before you make the claims you have. You do mention this in a second follow up comment. I think the rest of your discussion on this in your follow up comment is thinly argued and not terribly convincing at all. Better to turn to discussions in the commentaries on this particular issue. Milgrom’s commentary on Leviticus is quite good as a starting point. Basically, your discussion here kind of devolved into baseless gesticulating of theory.
4. You’re flattening too quickly, without proper discussion, the meaning of μαλακος. It has a semantic domain that you have to address and you haven’t. It does not simply mean “luxury-loving.” BDAG glosses the adjective as “pertaining to being yielding to touch, soft.” But it’s the second entry in BDAG that really poses a problem for your explanation: “pertaining to being passive in a same-sex relationship, effeminate esp. of catamites, of men and boys who are sodomized by other males in such a relationship, opp. αρσενοκοιτης (Dionys. Hal. 7, 2, 4; Dio Chrys. 49 , 25; Ptolem., Apotel. 3, 15, 10; Vett. Val. 113, 22; Diog. L. 7, 173…”
While you’re correct to observe that Greece =\= Rome, you fail to point out that pederasty was a pretty regular thing in the Hellenistic world.
5. You’ve misunderstood what “helpmeet” means. “Helpmeet” does not mean “servant-companion” as you’ve implied. You here exhibit a poor understanding of Elizabethan English: “meet” means “suitable.” “Helpmeet,” then, means “suitable helper.” The Hebrew (עזר כנגדו), of course, literally means “a helper like his opposite.”
6. You’re correct about κεφαλη. This is one of my favorites.
7. I’m not on board with your translation of υποτασσομαι. The verb is actually υποτασσω, but it’s in the middle/passive voice, hence the suffix -μαι. It really means “to be obedient.” Let’s not make things up, please, about what words mean and don’t mean. The better argument here is to suggest that the majority of occurrences people marshal in the Epistles to subordinate women to men are deutero-Pauline, if that. Ultimately, your discussion here is seriously lacking in citations of supporting evidence and secondary literature. This harms your post and credibility the most. Because when you say things like “In context, hupotossomai probably means to deploy yourself in support of your spouse against the enemy” without supporting a shred of actual evidence…I’m sure you can see what I’m getting at here.
8. Υπακουω means “to listen, give ear.” I generally think you’re overstating the case here. Better to critique specific translations. What does “hear under” mean, anyways? It’s not good English.
9. When you say “we insist on reading it…” Who is this editorial “we”? Surely not biblical scholars.
10. I think you’re right to suggest that the biblical text should be treated with more caution than it tends to be. The trouble is that I also think your blog post exemplifies that very problem. I think there are stronger, fact based arguments to make that support your ultimate conclusion (viz., that the Bible cannot and should not be used as a proof text for evil and oppression).
11. I don’t think you’re a “workman of the devil.” I just think you need more tools in your bag.
Thank you. I may return to respond to this more when I have time, as it was a very thoughtful response. A few quick notes:
G-m-l: the 10th-century lexicographer Mar Bahlul lists gamla as a heavy rope used to bind ships, in one of the oldest available Aramaic lexicons. This has led many scholars to suggest that gamla was a metonymy (camelhair rope). You can find discussions of this and related issues in scholarship on the Peshitta and in Casey’s _An Aramaic Approach to Q_ and _The Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel_; Zimmermann’s _The Aramaic Origin of the Four Gospel_; and others. You are right; this post would benefit from citations. But this post was never intended as a work of scholarship. The point of the post isn’t to critique specific translations in isolation but to suggest for a popular audience, in an entertaining way, that how we translate terms in sacred texts can have a dramatic and lasting impact on our culture.
I apologize for “cognate.” What I was attempting to type was, of course, “compound.”
“Helpmeet” does not carry the modern connotation of a servant in Elizabethan English, any more than “charity,” “damnation,” or “condescend” mean today what they did four hundred years ago. All of these have acquired connotations that they did not originally have, and the translation – while it was appropriate in 1611 – is misleading today. This is important because people continue to use it.
“We” doesn’t refer biblical scholars, of course, but the popular world of pundits, pastors, and everyday readers. This post is not written for an academic audience.
υποτασσομαι is middle/passive, yes. It is the middle/passive of τασσο, the verb for placing/arranging/setting/deploying (originally a military term) with the prefix υπο (-under). “Submit” or “be obedient to” is an attempt to render “deploy oneself under” or “arrange oneself under” in passive English, but it requires a bit of a leap of interpretation. The derivation in modern Greek does now carry the general meaning of obedience, but that is not sufficient evidence that it was read that way nearly 2,000 years ago.
Because this post is written for readers outside the academy and without a background in biblical languages, I followed it up with a post on where everyday laypeople can go about finding out what’s being discussed currently in biblical scholarship – or in researching a point they find of interest.
Thank you for the thoughtful response.
“in passive English” should read “in passable English,” above. Alas, responding to a comment by phone is like stepping into a typo generator.
The biggest issue here is the utilization of seriously outdated or non-authoritative resources which is driving your faulty conclusions. 10th c. Lexicography is not a sound basis for making philological claims about 1st–2nd c. texts. There’s simply no evidence that √gml existed in Aramaic as an operative root. Additionally, you’ve got some grave chronology issues when it comes to the use of the Peshiṭta. Heavily influenced by the Greek, P wasn’t translated for a few centuries *after* the New Testament was penned. So you’re retrojecting things on to a *hypothetical* *Urtext.* That’s some pretty fatally flawed methodology. Not even to mention that Lamsa’s Peshiṭta is not the current critical standard. Basically, you need better resources because the one’s you’re using are leading you astray. This is the problem with armchair philology. Doctoral study teaches you what resources are reliable and what resources are not.
I think you’ve missed the point of what I said about “helpmeet.” The word, in Elizabethan English, simply means “suitable helper.” “Meet” in Elizabethan English means “suitable.” You said, “…which the West translated as “a helpmeet” or servant-companion” and drew a rather direct equivalence between the two. The issue here is two-fold: (1) misogyny and (2) people don’t know Elizabethan English. “Helpmeet” is a fine translation of עזר כנגדו. It’s just dated English. Your original post, however, made it seem like “helpmeet” means “servant helper,” which it never has.
Ultimately, one of my gravest concerns (and here I echo Bart Ehrman’s sentiments from his 2010 SBL plenary session presentation) is that untrained folks putting together posts for other untrained folks is like the blind leading the blind. Presenting technical biblical issues to an audience that does not have advanced training is a very difficult task. Ehrman went so far as to suggest that maybe the production of biblical studies literature for lay people should be restricted to those who have made substantive contributions to the field with original research even beyond that of the dissertation. “Armchair philology” just winds up being misleading and makes our jobs as biblical scholars that much more difficult when we have to correct misconceptions that “go viral.” I don’t blog about cardio-thoracic surgery because I’m not a cardio-thoracic surgeon. I’m a specialist in Bible and Northwest Semitics. (Also, just because it’s for a “lay audience” does not mean that sources should not be cited. In fact, it is perhaps all the more important that sources be cited for these kinds of things.) I did see the follow up post, and there’s a great deal I disagree with there, as well.
(Edited for brevity)
Thank you for your attention to the post and the care taken with your comments. My own Ph.D. is in English and a lot of my early work revolved around translation theory, post-structuralism, and epistemology. I am a deconstructionist. I write about translation with some entertainment because I have done translation, though not of the texts I am talking about here.
I understand why you are concerned about “armchair philology,” and I am at least sympathetic to Ehrman’s point (and yours), but I am not sure I agree entirely with how you’re applying it. The Bible is a literary artifact subject to study in a great many disciplines. As one of the most influential texts in or on the English language, it has been a key area of study for me either personally or professionally for decades. My interests have more to do with poetics, ethics, and theology than with philology.
In this social media post (copied here to my blog when readers asked for a permalink), I was speaking as a storyteller (swiftly, and as you noted, with several typos and malapropisms) on the topic of how translation, especially of abstract concepts, drives and limits how we tell sacred stories in our culture. I see that you feel I have trespassed on your field, and I apologize for that and wish you all luck in your dissertation. How biblical texts are translated and how those translations get understood in new cultural and social contexts, and how the denotations and connotations of the terms we use slip and change, is deeply relevant and integral to my field, too. I am hardly the “untrained leading the untrained,” though my training does differ from yours. For my part, I can’t fathom why someone would stop at checking a dictionary definition without considering the etymology or examining the textual evidence of the passages in which a given phrase appears (or other passages in which it does), but our methodologies likely differ.
Regarding my one reference to Aramaic: I understand from you that gamla does not appear in any current Aramaic lexicons, though I would like to go look for it later if I have time. I appreciate you pointing it out, though the manner in which you did suggests that you think I made this up, or that I’m the only one to suggest it except for, presumably, people whose holy text is the Peshitta. I would suggest that a search, say, for “camel,” through academic databases relevant to biblical studies might serve you, here. This is a very old discussion. And kamelos/kamilos is certainly a conundrum that students of Koine Greek run into frequently. (Gill refuted an earlier version of this controversy in the 17th century, and the question was revived in the twentieth century.)
I do think that any time we can arouse curiosity in a public that is already (often) using these texts in translation unthinkingly and uncritically … that is a good thing. Getting everyday people to join pastors, theologians, seminarians, and scholars in questioning and investigating how we have received revered texts is also a good thing, particularly in this cultural climate that we find ourselves in now. My goal is always to entertain and move readers with stories (the original audience of this post was a group of science fiction fans) and to invite speculation. As an author of speculative fiction, I wish our reading public would speculate a great deal more, and not take so much that they read – whether in religion or history or journalism – for granted. (Though I intended the post as primarily an entertainment for myself, I am delighted that it provoked a lot of people to ask a lot of questions. Which is what I would also like my fiction to do, and which is one thing I think entertainment -should- do.)
I likely won’t have much chance to respond further for a while, as I am on deadline and am getting ready for a lot of conventions, conferences, and travel over the next few weeks.
A note on υποτασσομαι in Ephesians 5:22-23 — I did not “make things up.” In this case, I was drawing on two pieces of evidence, both of which I alluded to in the post. I didn’t cite because anyone interested can do a little easy digging beginning with Strong’s or with a New Testament lexicon, and because the larger context within the letter to which I alluded is one of the most iconic passages in the New Testament (“full armor of God”).
But I will give the appropriate references here, below.
1. The first item of evidence is etymological: For example, Strong’s concordance (#5021) for τάσσω references several authorities who cite the Greek origins of the verb as “primarily military”: and specifically, “meaning ‘to draw up in order, arrange in place, assign, appoint, order…'”
(Tangentially, it’s worth noting that “submit” also didn’t mean exactly “obey” in 1611, anymore than “helpmeet” meant servant in 1611. It’s an Elizabethan/Stuart-English borrowing from Latin sub + mitto: “to send oneself under” – from Latin mittere (the same verb that, in participial form, gives us the root for “mission”). The quasi-military metaphor is honored in the Latin text better than in 20th/21st-c. English ones, where we have lost that original denotative sense of “submit.”)
2. The other evidence is textual: the line in which the KJV and some modern translations give “submit” for this verb is embedded within a passage that provides an extended military metaphor, building toward the closing argument of the letter, a few lines later: “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm…” etc. (Eph 6:10-12ff., NRSV). The passage goes on to describe the armor of God, in which each piece of armor metaphorically represents a particular skill or attribute that the early Christian must “put on.” Whether that early Christian is whether male, female, or child, or whether master or servant (all are addressed in the preceding lines), all are invited by the author to put on the full armor of God and deploy themselves against the spiritual enemy that is imagined as “the powers over this present darkness, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
I also alluded, tangentially, to the first letter to Corinth, where – in 1 Corinthians 7 – there is a passage about how Christian women might best support their spouses (and potentially aid in their spiritual liberation) when those spouses are not themselves Christians. I was offering that as additional context for how Greek-speaking communities may have received the passages on wives and husbands that are sprinkled throughout these letters. For more textual evidence on the gender dynamics of the early church, refer to _God’s Self-Confident Daughters_ by Anne Jensen.
So, when I say that “In context, υποτασσομαι probably means to deploy yourself in support of your spouse against the enemy,” I am referencing the military tone and etymology of the word, and the fact that it is embedded within an explicitly military metaphor. And I am additionally reading it in the context of a larger body of epistolary literature in which women in the early Church are repeatedly asked to support and/or help liberate husbands who are described as living in bondage to a spiritual enemy.
Thank you! This is a simple explanation that is readable, with enough examples to make people listen.
[…] en “A CAMEL THROUGH THE EYE OF A NEEDLE, AND OTHER WILD TALES OF TRANSLATION“, por Stant […]
Great to hear your thoughts. Question for you – Do you think Ephesians is a Pauline letter? I was reading a scholar Bart D Ehrman and he seems to believe it isn’t but partly because of its discussion on hierarchy which seems like it could have been a mistranslation. Do you have thoughts on that? Best –
P.s. The discussion of a woman’s place in the church wasn’t the only reason he doubted it, just curious how you come down on that since you may be one of the few other people I’ve read who know Ancient Greek. Also – Do you think the texts were some written in Hebrew and translated or Greek?
[…] couple of days ago, a friend asked me to read a post written by Stant Litore (which you can read here): the crux of the article is that there are an incredible number of mistranslations in the Bible, […]
[…] scholarly knowledge of ancient Greek to a progressive dissection of the holy book), for example, notes that the Greek word arsenokoites is generally translated as “homosexual” in the context […]
[…] Each version was composed by humans, designed for a particular culture. The words were passed on, in some cases orally for many hundreds of years, and even those written down were copied by hand until the invention of printing. This led to inevitable mistakes and false translations. Just one example: you know the bit about a camel going through the eye of a needle? In Aramaic, writing only represented consonants. Vowels were signalled with dots above and below. Well, the Aramaic word for “camel” and the one for “rope” have the same consonants: gml. Here is an interesting, amusing and well-researched essay about this by Stant Litore. […]
I have always liked the translation “cable” rather than “rope.” Besides sounding closer to “camel,” it suggests a heavy-duty hawser even less likely to fit through ANY needle’s eye, even one designed for repairing nets, which tend to use rope even thicker than fishing lines. I also recall one camel-based explanation that said that the “eye of the needle” was a well-known small gate in Old Jerusalem’s wall, so the image of a fully-laden camel trying to squeeze through this tiny opening would be both compelling and memorable to contemporaries.