Jump to content

goyish garish Greek in the mouths of the Holiest Highest Chosen People


Recommended Posts

Matthew places in the mouths of the witnesses to the sentencing of the one alleging to be their Messiah the following Greek:



προφήτευσον ἡμῖν,


τίς ἐστιν ὁ παίσας σε;


It's ironic particularly because these men would have used Hebrew or a Hebraic Aramaic in conducting their holiest of proceedings.


And we readers of this Hellene gospel are stuck with hearing, and are struck by reading, very Greeky phrases.


Matthew starts by telling us they're using a logos, a point of utterance, a rhetorical oration - λέγοντες


What they say in the imperative is strange because of how they have to say it - προφήτευσον ἡμῖν, "prophesy" is something an oracle would do.


And they mock him not as Μεσσία but rather call him χριστέ. "Christ" is a strange translation.


And they ask him rhetorically, who παίσας you? This is a verb that a Greek playwright like Euripides and Aristophanes uses.

The Messianic Jewish "Orthodox Jewish Bible" translation would have Matthew having them say that this way:

Give us a dvar nevuah,
Rebbe, Melech HaMoshiach.
Who is the one who hit you?

But that loses the (unintended) irony, the funny language of the would be most holy priests of the chosen people of God. Matthew has us readers listening to them as if they were speaking with unholy lips and in a tarnished tainted tongue, as they pummel him with unholy hands.


Clarence Jordan's translation in "cotton patch" English gets us pretty close to the feel of Matthew's Greek:

Those beating him said,
"Tell us,

Mister Leader,
which one socked you?"

Here's how we might get even closer to the thug like, low life language:


They lunged at him with this Aristotelian logic -

Divine for us, show us your Muse, tap into your Demons
Oh "Oil Bathed One" all Odysseus like

So, got a punchline?
Which of us just sucker punched ya?


  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Why is Christ "is a strange translation"?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Why is Christ "is a strange translation"?


Thanks for asking, A. D.

For Jewish Cohenim and Jewish Talmidim too, who would not speak Greek, it's strange. No doubt these Judaic priests and Judaic disciples would be bilingual (multilingual in the Hebrew of their scriptures, the Aramaic of their homes, the Latin a bit of their Roman oppressors, and even the Greek of the former oppressors and of the Hellene diaspora). But they'd not speak Greek to one another. And in a Jewish Judaic religious court of law, where a Rabbi is on trial, their language would be Hebrew, perhaps an Aramaic that was Hebraic. They're not in Alexandria, Egypt, where the LXX was produced some two and a half centuries earlier. Rather they're in the Holy City of Jerusalem, the heart of Israel. Jews from Galilee are accented and othered. Samaritans are mixed breed and speak something noticeably different too. So the point is that for them to speak Greek (or Latin) in this context would defile them or make them sound just gentilely, merely goyish, absolutely garish.

Matthew, the gospel writer, has available to him the means to sound out what the priests and talmidim would have called Jesus. John, the gospel writer, has the disciples or talmidim of John the Baptist call Jesus 
μεσσίας. John the writer, then, explains to Greek readers what he means, which is "Christ." It's not a strange translation at that point. It's a translation for the reader.

I'm suggesting that it's strange to go the other way. 

There are two groups of translators who don't want it to go the other way. They make their English erase the Greekyness. They get their English sounding as Priestly as Hebrew can, in English. Let's consider the two sets of translators.

First, Messianic Jews, or Christians in the Messianic Jewish movement, such as Phillip E. Goble and David Stern, will invariablly substitute that Greek phrase (Χρίστος) with HaMoshiach or with Messiah. (We see this in their respective translations, the Orthodox Jewish Bible and the Complete Jewish Bible). They do this because they're interested, not in the Greek, but in the Jewish phrases of Judaism that are still spoken today. Never mind that the New Testament was written mostly with Greek (and never mind the LXX).

Second, non-Christian Jews translating the Greek New Testament don't always follow the motivation of the Messianic Jews. Nonetheless, they might have the same practice of translation of the Greek with a Hebraic-Anglified Jewish religious phrase. One such non-Christian is classicist and translator extraordinaire, Willis Barnstone. Barnstone's motivation is to restore the New Testament. He reads the Greek as if written by and /or edited by anti-Semitic Christians. The Greek, he claims, deraces the Jews in the NT. And so although a wonderful reader of Greek (check his translation of Sappho, for example), he's not happy with how the Greek of the New Testament reads. It's akin, he claims, to the Roman changes to Greek mythology. The Romans gave Latin names to all the Greek gods and goddesses, Zeus to Jupiter, for example. And that, to Barnstone, is what's happened with the New Testament. So he's restoring the race and the religion and the language of the Jews, robbed them by later Christians, who saw Jews as going to Hell and as Christ killers and so forth.

I'm not reading as a Messianic Jew or as a non-Christian Jew or even as a Christian with an anti-Semitic agenda. Rather, I'm just listening to really religious leaders of the Jews spew out, in Matthew's rendering, the language of the Greek Homeric epics and the language of the ancient Greek playwrights. It just sounds funny. It's a strange translation. This is why, in English, I was starting with Clarence Jordan's Cotton Patch gospel version of Matthew and taking it further into an Anglified Hellene that suggests Aristotle and Aristophanes and Homer. I'm trying to retain the Greekyness of Matthew's Greek in my English translation. (If you're familiar with David Bentley Hart's new translation, then know I'm not exactly interested in his project either, since he seems only to retain the Greek transliteration when the translations into English have been in dispute. He gets off easy, then, with the bit I'm considering in our reading. He has this:

Saying, “Prophesy for us, Anointed One, who is it who has slapped you?”) This doesn't convey the influence of Greek on Matthew's readers in my opinion. 

I do hope that's clear. Clearly this is a bit complex (if not meant to be overly complicated).

Do you think I'm being fair in my observations and readings here? 


Edited by jkgayle
Link to comment
Share on other sites

χριστός can mean to anoint, so it seems like a fine translation for מָשִׁיחַ, but you said "Christ is a strange translation."


It sounds like what you meant by that was the very act of translating into Greek at all was strange. That was all.



Link to comment
Share on other sites

Thanks again, A.D. 

My long response to your short question is just to nuance. And I only agree with you that 


"χριστός can mean to anoint, so it seems like a fine translation for מָשִׁיחַ, "


What we will see as we read the Greek gospel of John is this fine translation exactly. It's Andrew that brother of Simon, both followers of John the Baptist, who declares they'd found the Anointed. Coming out of Andrew's mouth, the Greek translation (of מָשִׁיחַ with χριστός) works just fine. John the writer, then, uses Greek letters to sound out the Hebrew phrase, to leave no doubt what he the writer and he the character in the story mean by the use of this Greek phrase. We know that Simon, later named Peter or "Rock" or "Stone" or Kep(h)a, speaks not Greek but some sort of low Aramaic, with his Galilean accent. Andrew talks just like he does. These are not speakers of High Hebrew, the sort the Priests would prefer in Jerusalem, to speak.

So it doesn't startle us Greek readers to hear a Galilean telling his brother and friends they'd found "The Anointed (which means 'MESHIACH')." Nor are we particularly surprised to hear an unnamed woman, a wife of many men including a man now not her husband, from a village of mixed race illegitimates, talking with the Jewish Rabbi at the well about "The Anointed (which means 'MESHIACH')." Reading that in Greek is not so startling. Because Galilean peasants and slutty girls who sleep around with bastards aren't exactly concerned with clean lips and pure tongues uttering the Holiest of phrases about the Holy Messiah.

It just sounds funny when we hear the priests talking in Greek, when the Anointed Greek Odysseus was a naked guy bathed by women on his journey. Instead of having the priests beating up Jesus mocking him with "Anointed" it would seem better to put in their mouths "Mr. Messiah," and this is exactly what the Messianic Jewish Bible and Barnstone's Restored New Testament have them saying to him. It's a strange translation when we readers have to hear these Hebrew speakers of such purity using such impure language. It's not entirely a bad translation, and it does work in Matthew. And we chuckle then. That was all I was trying to say. 

Edited by jkgayle
Link to comment
Share on other sites

A bit of an aside... One of my Greek professors recounted an instance where students who were primarily trained in classical Greek were reading a biblical text and came upon χριστος. The student didn't catch that it could be functioning as a title, so the prof asked him what he thought it meant. The student replied, "A wrestler?"  :P  He was thinking of how in the gymnasium you would oil down before starting to wrestle!

  • Like 3
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Please sign in to comment

You will be able to leave a comment after signing in

Sign In Now
  • Create New...