Translating non sequiturs of Jesus
18. Now a certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19. Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 20. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false witness, honor your father and mother.’ ” 21. The man replied, “I have kept all these things since my youth.” 22. When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 23. But when the man heard this he became very sad, for he was very rich. 24. When Jesus saw that he was sad, he said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!s 25. In fact, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God!” (NET)I wonder how that ruler felt when Jesus answered his question with a question (so far, so good, since this is typical Semitic rhetoric), but that question was, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” The ruler may have been sincere in calling Jesus a good teacher. But Jesus' response calls into question the honorable way the man was addressing Jesus. Or at least that is how it seems to me when I just read the words as they are translated to English--and it's no better reading them in Greek.
Now I may be wrong, but I don't think Jesus ever intended to be rude. But he didn't mince words and he always got right to the point as he understood it. So I suspect that Jesus knew very well what he was trying to accomplish with his immediate question back to the ruler. Biblical scholars, of course, have wrestled with this passage and several others like it where it seems, to us, at least, that there is a kind of non sequitur. Jesus often seems, at first glance, anyway, not to give a relevant response to people. And relevance is at the heart of successful human communication, so says Relevance Theory, an important relatively new branch of linguistics.
The more time I have spent translating the Bible, and paid careful attention to the biblical text, the more baffling I have found many of Jesus' answers to people. I used to think that the apostle Paul was difficult to understand, but I think the rabbi, Jesus, had Paul beat.
Now, for those of you who revere Jesus and his words (as I do, BTW), if you haven't given up on me by this point in this post, I'm going to tell you a secret. Whenever I come across something in the Bible, especially in Jesus' exchanges with people, which doesn't seem to logically follow, I now stop and think: "There must be something here that I am missing. There is surely more than meets the eye. There must be some implicit information which I am not privy to which can explain why Jesus said something which strikes me as baffling."
I have read the scholars enough on Jesus' answer to the Lukan ruler and some of his responses elsewhere in the gospels to know that there are some quite reasonable hypotheses for why Jesus said these things which initially sound like non sequiturs. In this case, I am convinced that Jesus was trying to tell the Lukan ruler something before he answered the ruler's question more directly. I'm not convinced that I know exactly what that something was, although I have a strong hunch or two. But it won't accomplish too much on this translation blog for me to mention them in this post. What I really want to do here is prod us to think about things that somehow don't sound quite right in the Bible. I hope I've done that so far.
And then, as you can imagine, I want to ask us what the implications are for translation. If biblical scholars are fairly united in what they believe to be the implied rhetorical message in the purported "non sequitur" passages, should we provide enough clues in a translation so that implied meaning will be correctly inferred by those who use our translations? I lean toward a yes to that question, at this point in my life and translation career.
This does not mean that I believe that everything Jesus said was clear to his hearers originally. But I do think that there was more that was clear to them than it is to us, because we do not share as much of the cultural and rhetorical background as they did with Jesus. At a minimum, I think our translation users deserve footnotes which give us reasonable options for the real meanings of what appear to be non sequiturs of a great teacher. I happen to think Jesus was a master teacher. And master teachers do not simply spoonfeed their students. Sometimes good teachers (Hmm, why do I call them good? Only God is good!) do not give answers directly but require their students to think deeply. Good teachers, like Jesus, get to the core of an issue. And like Jesus they often call on us to make some kind of decision, as Jesus did to the ruler:
“One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven. Then come, follow me.”Ouch! That stings. Hmm, maybe it is supposed to.
Categories: Bible translation, non sequitur, rhetorical meaning, implicit.information