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Sunday, March 26, 2006

2 Tim. 2:15: Orthotomeo

There have been a few posts here recently that would fall into the category of looking at the Bible with a telescope. For me that was reading and commenting about the Septuagint, and the nature of language and literacy in the ancient Mediterranean world. However, all along I have had a particular word under the microscope. (Thanks Lingamish for the image.) This study has also been a good exercise in looking for the OT in the NT.

While copying out 2 Timothy in January, I was using the time as a personal devotional study as I went along. After a few bumps in the road, I eventually got the idea that I would translate this book for myself. Most others on this blog are translators. Although I trained as a translator, for a variety of reasons I have never been involved in a translation project in more than a passing way. So this time I thought that I would work towards a finished product.

The verse that has proved the most ambiguous so far has been 2 Timothy 2:15. In particular the word 'orthotomeo' 'ορθοτομεω'. I have decided to write about my investigation of this word in two parts. First, I will follow how the word has been translated and suggest some reasons for the different versions; and then I will trace backwords the possible origins of the word. I will try to talk a little about the tools that I am using as I go along.

Let me clarify that I have been working on the entire epistle but I will only discuss this one phrase for now. I am not looking at the verse out of context but I can only write about so much at a time. Here is the verse which I have copied from the online Greek Bible . I prefer to use this rather than the Zhubert site for now, since I find the mouse over dictionary on Zhubert quite distracting.
    σπούδασον σεαυτὸν δόκιμον παραστῆσαι τῷ θεῷ, ἐργάτην ἀνεπαίσχυντον, ὀρθοτομοῦντα τὸν λόγον τῆς ἀληθείας
Next, I looked up the definition of ορθοτομεω in the LSJ lexicon on the Perseus Digital Library site. (Choose classics and then other tools and lexica to find the dictionaries.) The meaning for orthotomeo is given as 'cut in a straight line', or 'teach it aright'. So two slightly different translation traditions exist for this word, derived from either the literal or the figurative meaning of the word.

I also looked at the more extensive entry in the BAGD. I don't think this is available online anywhere. The first meaning in BAGD is 'cut a path in a straight direction.' with a reference to Proverbs 3:6 and 11:5. There is also mention of a synonymous expression οδους ευθειας τεμνω found in Thucydides and a few other places. This means to 'cut a road across country in a straight direction.' More about this later.

BAGD continues, "For such other meanings as 'teach the word aright, expound it soundly, shape rightly, and preach fearlessly see M-M." Apparently in M-M, which I found an oblique reference to somewhere, ορθοτομεω is compared by analogy to καινοτομεω, which means 'cut anew', but can also mean 'to innovate'. My overall impression of BAGD is that 'cut a straight path' is the preferred meaning for ορθοτομεω.

In any case, ορθοτομεω is only found elsewhere in Greek literature in Proverbs, as far as I can tell.

The most recognized and still occasionally quoted translation for ορθοτομεω is 'rightly dividing the word of truth' KJV. Using and Bible Gateway, I looked first at the major English translations for this verse and then a handful of other languages. Here is the list.

    'rightly dividing the word of truth' KJV
    'dividynge the worde of trueth iustly' Tyndale
    'accurately handling the word of truth' NAS
    'who correctly handles the word of truth' NIV
    'correctly explains the word of truth' NLT
    'who teaches only the true message' CEV
    'rightly handling the word of truth' ESV, RSV
    'rightly explaining the word of truth' NRSV
    'laying out the truth plain and simple' The Message
    'cut a direct path for the truthful word' The Source
    'deals straightforwardly with the Word of the Truth' Jewish Bible
    'cutting in a straight line the word of truth' Darby
    'rytli tretinge the word of treuthe' Wycliffe
    'recte tractantem (handle) verbum veritatis' Vulgate
    'recht teile das Wort der Wahrheit' Luther
    'dispense droitement la parole de la vérité' Louis Segond
I was surprised to see that 'rightly dividing the word of truth' first appeared in Tyndale's translation and that up until then 'rightly handle' was the usual understanding of the term.

Luther translates ορθοτομεω with 'teilen', which means 'share, apportion, split, divide'. It has occured to me that Tyndale may have misunderstood Luther's term. Possibly Luther meant 'share the word of truth', and Tyndale thought that he meant 'divide' the word of truth. The reason that I think Luther meant 'share' is that the French translation says 'dispense' the word of truth. However, Luther's choice of word is ambiguous. One problem with this is that I am not quite certain of the chronology of Luther and Tyndale's work. I was wondering if they shared some of their work before the published dates, but I don't know enough about it.

So there are four clusters of meaning, 'divide', 'share', 'handle', and 'cut a path for'. The Gothic translation, uses 'present' which will be clumped with 'share' for the purposes of this study.

Ann Nyland's The Source uses 'cut a direct path for the truthful word'. This is the only translation that uses the interpretation favoured by the BAGD, and it is one which directly mirrors Proverbs 3:6 in the KJV, 'he shall direct thy paths'. If this NT translation were intended to be read with the OT in the KJV then this would be, hands down, the only correct translation for this phrase.

At this point I decided to eliminate the meaning 'divide' as an aberration and share/dispense as unlikely and examine more closely 'cut a straight/direct path for.' Personally I rather liked 'rightly divide'. I thought that it meant 'parse correctly'. However, over time, I came to see that Paul probably would have considered such an understanding as one of those 'childish ways.' Much as I like it, it is time to move on.

There is nothing wrong with the translation 'handle correctly' other than the fact that it doesn't reflect the use of the term in Proverbs. Surely that is what Paul was thinking of and the translation should represent that if possible. I will write more about this later.


At Sun Mar 26, 09:36:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

I would be almost certain that Luther translated this verse before Tyndale started work. Luther translated the whole New Testament during his stay at the Wartburg Castle near Eisenach (I have visited the room where he did this work), and this was already in 1521-22. This version of his work was published in 1522. Tyndale doesn't seem to have started work until after that.

On the general exegetical issue here, it seems to me that we need to decide first the semantic role of "the word of truth" in the sentence. This is in the accusative, in Greek. Should it be understood as the object or material which is cut, the instrument with which it is cut, or the beneficiary for which the path is cut? Basic Greek grammar would tend to suggest that the accusative indicates the object or material, but against this there is the objection that Paul can hardly have wanted the word to be divided! In principle the word could the instrument, although for this I would expect a dative, or the beneficiary. I think the accusative could be used of a beneficiary, which would justify "cut a direct path for the truthful word" in The Source - in her notes Ann Nyland calls this accusative " one of specification", but I don't know what she means by that.

I would like to explore this further, but I must run out to church now.

At Sun Mar 26, 09:51:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...


Thanks for confirming my guess about Luther. I have at least seen the recent movie, but I couldn't remember the exact date of his stay in Warburg castle.

Yes, I have been thinking all along about whether the word of truth is the object or instrument. I have tried it out both ways, but haven't come to a conclusion on that yet.

I think this study will run to several more posts.

At Sun Mar 26, 10:58:00 AM, Blogger lingamish said...


I love this kind of "microscopic" word study! The tools you have mentioned have really opened my eyes to some aspects of this passage. It's great to know about the use of this word in Proverbs, esp. chapter 3 where it is also a passage addressed to "my son." I can't help but imagine Paul being consciously or unconsciously influenced by this passage. Fascinating!

I was unable to find the LSJ that you mentioned. Could you explain that a bit more? I followed the link but was unsure what link to follow after that.

One frustration of studying orthotomeo is that it only occurs once in the New Testament. So when you look it up in Louw & Nida you get the definition "to give accurate instruction." Now in this case, that definition gives me no helpful information. It's a translation really (and dynamic at that!). I'd like to know the etymology of orthotomeo. With a bit of effort I can discover that ortho means "straight" but there's no help in Louw & Nida for tomeo apparently since it doesn't exist in the NT.

A similar example would be orthopodeo which one might expect to mean something like "walk straight." Again Louw & Nida give us a translation of sorts, "to live a life of moral correctness."

All this to say, I think the BAGD and a lexicon for the Septuagint ought to be far superior tools to Louw & Nida for getting to the roots of words and how they were used idiomatically. (Etymology can certainly lead you astray at times...) "Definitions" from Bible dictionaries should be regarded with suspicion.

At Sun Mar 26, 01:36:00 PM, Blogger Ian Myles Slater said...

LSJ in "Liddell-Scott-Jones," the standard, but cryptic, abbreviation for the Oxford University Press "A Greek-English Lexicon." This is a massive work compiled by Henry George Liddell (1811–1898, Dean of Christ Church, and father of, inter alia, Alice Pleasance Liddell, the friend of "Lewis Carroll") and Robert Scott (1811–1887) -- as "Revised and Augmented throughout" by Sir Henry Stuart Jones (1867–1939) and others, 1925-1940, and since supplemented.

Perseus has a digital version as "Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon," which can be found by either scrolling down the screen or doing a "Find" for "Liddell" after clicking "Classics" in the left hand column.

Note that Perseus is usually slow, and sometimes glacial; and navigation can be frustrating.

If you are familiar with the Oxford English Dictionary, the apparently "historical" arrangement of meanings in the entries should look familiar. In fact, as in the OED, the arrangement is often "logical," and not based on dated developments, the surviving information not being adequate for such a reconstruction. However, it remains the first place to look; and is an absolutely esssential tool.

At Sun Mar 26, 02:21:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Interestingly, there is no Greek verb (and not just in the NT) τομέω tomeō, only compounds like ὀρθοτομέω orthotomeō. ὀρθοτομέω should in fact be derived from the adjective ὀρθός orthos "straight" and the noun τόμος tomos "cut, slice" (also "volume (of a book), tome"). Or the second element might be the adjective τομός - also tomos but with a different accent, meaning "cutting, sharp". τόμος and τομός are themselves derived from the verb τέμνω temnō "cut".

The consequence of this is that it is the meaning of the compound is not necessarily as simple as the verb "cut" with an adverbial modifier "straight". If the second element is derived from the adjective τομός, I wonder if the meaning of ὀρθοτομέω could be understood as something like "make to be cutting straight". On this understanding, Paul is commanding Timothy to use the word of God as an instrument which cuts straight. This seems to me to fit the context rather well.

But I would have to qualify this by saying that any argument like this based on etymology must be extremely uncertain.

At Sun Mar 26, 02:30:00 PM, Blogger lingamish said...

Thanks ian and peter for clarification. I agree with your comments on etymology, Peter, but don't you agree that L&N obscures more than it illuminates with "to give accurate instruction?"

At Sun Mar 26, 02:51:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Orthotomeo does come from orthos and tomos and originally from temno, to cut. I was going to go into the etymology in a second post but no time like the present.
I think that the etymology would have been quite clear in Greek that it was from temno.

However, I have to disagree that it could mean to 'make something to cut straight', or in effect, sharpen. I cannot see that the Greek allows that at all. However, all things have to be considered. More later.

At Sun Mar 26, 03:03:00 PM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

Rats! I was hoping something like this would come up, but not when I'm on my way out the door to a conference.

I have plenty to say about how to figure out what Greek words mean, and this would be a perfect place to start. If the thread is still going in April when I get back, I'll put up a couple of posts showing you what I do -- and it only partly involves looking in Louw & Nida (which I give high marks to, BTW), BAGD, and the "Great Scott".

(I wondered why no one called me on my definition for οιομαι, which I got slightly wrong. Or at least asked me how I can know what the lexicographers don't about what οιομαι means. The correct definition should include that the speaker knows or believes strongly that the content of the complement proposition is false.)

See y'all when I get back from Leipzig.

At Sun Mar 26, 04:26:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Hi Richard,

Tell me when in April you expect to be back and I'll try to drag this out a while. I'm not familiar with the Louw-Nida so I would like to hear more about that and your other ideas.

I did use the UBS Handbook, 20 vol. set and Kittel's Worterbuch when I was a student.

At Mon Mar 27, 01:30:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Since Lingamish has asked me for my opinion of Louw and Nida's rendering, and others have discussed this, here is my answer: In general I don't trust lexicons very much, especially those focused on NT Greek which very often do little more than list the glosses used in traditional translations. Better to look at the translations themselves. Louw and Nida is certainly an improvement over older lexicons, in its arrangement by semantic domains and in its attempt to give proper definitions rather than glosses. But with this particular word, the definition "to give accurate instruction" again seems to be taken from a translation, perhaps TEV "correctly teaches", rather than based on proper lexical research. This rendering certainly begs a lot of questions.

At Mon Mar 27, 05:36:00 AM, Blogger lingamish said...

Thanks Peter for the 2 cents worth on this subject. It is important for the professional as well as the layman to have a realistic appraisal of the tools that are out there and their relative merits.

In this case Suzanne's analysis seems to highlight three facts:

1. The lexicons aren't in agreement on what this term means.
2. A comparison of translations seems to show that recent translations are based on inaccurate readings of older translations.
3. There's not a lot of help available through cross-referencing.

So where do you turn when these three tools fail you? I think Suzanne is answering that question very well. By the way, Richard seems eager to share ideas on this as well so everyone should try to type verrrry slowwwly so we don't finish before he gets back!

By the way, my cold is better. Thanks for praying. Still waiting for results on the lung problem.

At Mon Mar 27, 12:53:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At Mon Mar 27, 12:56:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Thanks, Peter, for your comments on the lexicons. I don't think I realized how blatant this practice is until you articulated it.

Lingamish, I agree with your first and second point, but not #3. More about that. There will be many mini posts. I have stacks of research yet. Glad you are feeling better.


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