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Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Translating non sequiturs of Jesus

I like Jesus. But sometimes I find his responses to people baffling. This last Sunday the minister preached from Luke 18:18-25:
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: , , ,


At Wed Feb 08, 04:57:00 PM, Blogger KAT said...

I can't find much within the gospel of Luke or Matthew itself that would help alleviate the trouble posed by this text, so the best I've come up with (at least for myself) is to interpret Luke's passage in light of certain statements that Jesus makes in the Johannine tradition:

"My teaching is not my own but is from the one who sent me." [John 7.16]

"Whoever speaks on his own seeks his own glory, but whoever seeks the glory of the one who sent him is truthful, and there is no wrong in him." [John 7.18]

Perhaps Jesus' response to the rich man's flattery must be interpreted in light of Jesus' words in the gospel of John: That his "goodness" was not his, but his Father's alone. Even Jesus is not "good" in and of himself.

Or perhaps it was even less complicated than that. Perhaps Jesus was simply saying, "Look....I don't have time for your flattery. You know the commandments."


Not meant as a derail, but I have a quick question that is sort of related. Perhaps someone can address it in a new post (I only post it here because I was just reminded of it).

Romans 5.7

Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.

I understand that Paul's letter to the Romans doesn't necessarily have anything to do with Jesus' words in the original topic, but this has always been a passage that has puzzled me. Can anyone explain this?

What are the Greek words behind the words "good" and "righteous"? And why would someone be willing to die for a "good" person, but not willing to die for a "righteous" person? Shouldn't it be the other way around? What exactly is the 1st century difference between "good" and "righteous"? In a 21st century context, someone would die for a "righteous" person before they would ever die for a "good" person. Or so I think.

At Wed Feb 08, 05:17:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Straylight, I have always wondered the same thing as you about Rom. 5.7. It just doesn't make sense to me as it is traditionally worded in English Bibles. Of course, preachers and Bible teachers have tried to explain what it really means, but I think that Paul originally intended it to make sense, so it seems to me that a translation of what Paul said should also make sense, as least as much sense as it meant originally in Greek. I hope that isn't begging the question.

As you say, that would be a good verse to post on, and I hope one of us on BBB can do that one of these days. Unfortunately, right now I am under great work pressure. I need to check the translation of 2 Cor. in a tribal translation, as well as complete final stages of work in the translation project with which we have been working for many years.

At Wed Feb 08, 05:24:00 PM, Blogger KAT said...

I overlooked something.

In the synoptic gospels, Jesus condemns Pharisees and scribes for their general attitude towards common folk, as we all know.

"When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward."

"All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation 'Rabbi.'"

Point being, Jesus wasn't going to let the same treatment other Rabbis were used to having fall on himself, even inadvertently. Even if he was "Good", as the rich man called him, Jesus still wasn't going to acknowledge that kind of superficial approval.

The only time that I can recall Jesus ever really acknowledging someone who treated him with great respect was when the two women annointed his feet -- one did it with her tears, and another with expensive oil ("for my burial", he said).

Most of the time, however, Jesus was interested in displaying what "goodness" was through service. He didn't need the testimony and words of men (John 2.24-25), and he would have none of their special treatment either. He even went so far as to strip down to nothing but a loincloth and scrub his disciples' feet on Passover. That was his form of "goodness". He was "good" because he became everyone's servant.

At Wed Feb 08, 06:11:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Hi Straylight,

Maybe it is because good can have the connotation of kind and generous in Greek. It has a slightly stronger sense than in English. Or maybe it is only recently that 'good' has lost its force.

Good is the ultimate. Being just or righteous is only a part of being 'good'. I would venture that a 'good' person is both just and kind, whereas a just person is only that - just. However, like Wayne I am a little tied up right now. But it is an appealing topic.

At Wed Feb 08, 06:51:00 PM, Blogger Funky Dung said...

It has always seemed to me that Jesus was cutting to the chase regarding His divinity. Christ was getting the man to admit (or deny by silence) His divinity. I think dispensing with meaningless flattery is another plausible explaination. In most cases, I think Jesus seems to be speaking in non sequiturs because He knew what was in men's minds and we don't (and neither did His disciples). If a psychic (if there are/were such things) responded to an unspoken question or statement, hearers would be quite baffled. Notice, though, that the rich man takes it in stride. He knew that Jesus heard his thoughts.

At Wed Feb 08, 06:59:00 PM, Blogger KAT said...

"I would venture that a 'good' person is both just and kind, whereas a just person is only that - just. However, like Wayne I am a little tied up right now. But it is an appealing topic.

I notice that you use the word "just" instead of "righteous". Why is that?

If that's what the Greek word that's translated as "righteous" actually means, then that would clear up everything for me.

The word "just" connotates "fairness" and "even-handedness", and if that's all Paul was saying, then the passage would make more sense.

At Wed Feb 08, 07:43:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

There is only the one word in Greek dikaios to be fair, observant of what is right, lawful, innocent, and so on. When the thief on the cross spoke of Jesus as a just man, he meant that Jesus was innocent. I am not sure how there came to be both 'just' and 'righteous' in English.

At Wed Feb 08, 08:40:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I am not sure how there came to be both 'just' and 'righteous' in English.

It just isn't right!


At Thu Feb 09, 09:28:00 AM, Blogger R. Mansfield said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At Thu Feb 09, 09:32:00 AM, Blogger R. Mansfield said...

Just/justice is a loanword from Latin.

Righteous comes from the Middle English "rightwise" (note my quote from the Wycliffe NT in the comments of the previous blog entry) which came from the Old English rihtwös (right + wise).

It would be interesting to see at what point they began to both appear for δίκαιος in English translations. My guess is that since just/justice and righteous are synonyms, they were used for sytlistic purposes.


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