A Biblical Pet Peeve

It is one of the harshest responses Jesus is ever reported to have delivered to someone seeking his help; indeed, it’s arguably the only occasion recorded in the gospels where he responded to a sincere supplicant in a harsh manner. It is when, in initially rejecting her plea, he seems to compare a Gentile woman to a dog. As the old King James has it:

But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs. (Matthew 15:26)

To call someone a dog is generally understood as intending insult even in today’s super pooch-friendly Western society, but in the Middle East, and 2000 years ago, there could be no mistaking the implication. Them’s fightin’ words. Although, culturally, it wouldn’t have been so unusual for Jews of that time and place to react negatively to Gentiles, the gospels do not otherwise show Jesus comporting himself in this way. (Earlier in the same Gospel of Matthew, Jesus had answered the Roman Centurion’s plea to heal his sick servant without any hesitation.)

But what if there has long been an error or inadequacy in translation from the Greek that puts the episode in a significantly different light?

I am not a credentialed Bible scholar, but fortunately I do not come up with this all by my lonesome. Multiple important Biblical translators going back 500 years have taken the same view, as we’ll see; however, those translations have not become the dominant ones. Doubtless, also, many preachers, struggling to give a sermon on the passage, have looked more closely at the Greek for inspiration and have noted this issue for themselves and their congregants. Personally, however, I’ve never sat in a pew and heard it spoken of from the pulpit, although I’ve heard quite a few sermons on this story over my lifetime. So I think it is something that more people should be aware of, and I’d like to go at it in my own way. (It seems, in any case, that no one can stop me.)

Therefore, let’s get to the specifics. The story in question is recounted both in chapter 15 of the Gospel of Matthew and in chapter 7 of the Gospel of Mark. Jesus had traveled to the region of Tyre and Sidon and was staying in a house there.

From Matthew 15:22–28 (ESV):

 
22 And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

In Mark 7, the woman is described as being “a Syrophoenician by birth.” Mark also says of the house where Jesus was staying that Jesus “did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden.” The issue of translation, which relates to that word “dogs,” is common to both gospels.

To look at the Greek, one can these days utilize an interlinear translation. You can find one in a downloadable version for Windows at this link. They also provide PDFs. This is a link to Matthew 15.

You will be able to see there, in Matthew 15:26, that when Jesus speaks the fateful line about not casting the children’s bread to dogs, the word in Greek that he uses is kunariois. This is the diminutive form for dogs, and this passage (and the corresponding one in Mark 7) is the only time in the New Testament in which the diminutive form for dogs is used. Translated literally it means “little dogs;” it’s been suggested that alternative ways of rendering it would be puppies, house dogs, pets, or even, if you want to be cute, doggies.

Well! Does this not change everything? Instead of comparing the woman to a dirty and predacious beast in the street, Jesus is comparing her to a puppy or a little pet. Not exactly a compliment, I guess, but nowhere near the aggressive insult of the former translation. You could even make the case that it contains elements of affection. It also provides the Canaanite woman with her opening, because of-course where would you find these little pet dogs except under the table during meals, hoping for crumbs—and this is exactly what she expresses back to Jesus. Her answer shows her great faith, certainly; but it does not come after such a cruel put-down.

I am not a preacher, but I would speculate that this makes the story much easier to preach on. I’ve never heard anyone come up with a satisfactory answer as to why Jesus spoke so harshly in this instance. It turns out, he didn’t.

So how did this come to be mistranslated in the first place? Well, turns out, it didn’t—in the first place—if by the “first place” we consider the first time the New Testament was translated directly from the Greek text into English (as opposed to previous English renderings from the Latin Vulgate). This great task was accomplished by William Tyndale in 1525. And in translating Matthew 15 and Mark 7, Tyndale renders the word as “whelps,” a synonym for puppies. (I love the edition edited by David Daniell of Tyndale’s work, with modern spelling, a gift from my better half.)

So the first try at it got it right. One of the next major translations of the Bible into English was the Geneva Bible, which first emerged in 1560. In this case you can find it (the 1599 edition) online at Bible Gateway. Here is a link to Matthew 15; scroll down to verse 26 and there you are: whelps is the word, and the same in Mark 7.

So what happened to send it all to the dogs? Well, I’m not sure what happened, but I know when it happened, and that was in 1611. The inestimable treasure that is the King James Bible, repository of so much beautiful language, still read by millions today, and which borrowed much from Tyndale’s earlier work, instead renders the word in Matthew 15:26 and the related verses (including in Mark 7) as just plain ol’ dogs. Why? I can only assume that it is impossible now to know. (Please drop me a line if you are more knowledgeable.) However, the overwhelming dominance of the King James, and its influence on later translations, basically put paid to the poor little puppies.

Still, if that was some kind of sin, there exists something of a story of redemption. The only English translation in anything like popular use today which renders the words in Matthew 15 and Mark 7 as “little dogs” instead of “dogs” is none other than the New King James Version (NKJV), first published in 1982 (and not to be confused with the 21st Century King James Version). As for the Revised Standard, the New Revised Standard, the English Standard, the New American Standard, the New International, and the (Catholic) New American versions: all of these, and more—just dogs.

An honorable mention must be given to Young’s Literal Translation, of 1898, which lives up to its name, translating the Greek literally as “little dogs.”

So far we’ve focused on the Bibles of reformers and Protestants, but our dogged pursuit of the matter cannot leave out the Roman Catholic Church. And I think this is quite interesting. In the fourth century (Saint) Jerome translated the Hebrew and Greek scriptures into Latin. This became the Latin Vulgate, and was the definitive Bible text of the Western church for centuries. How did Jerome handle the issue, translating from Greek to Latin? You can find his Mark 7 at this link. When Jesus speaks, the word is rendered as “canibus,” or dogs; when the woman replies, the word is rendered as “catelli,” or whelps. The same is true for Matthew 15. You could say Jerome split the difference; but, then, there wasn’t really a difference to split, in the Greek. I guess he just liked it that way. Yet it leaves Jesus using the harsher word, and that after all is the key point which has made the story unnecessarily difficult.

The Douay-Rheims was at first a Roman Catholic translation from the Latin Vulgate to English in the 16th century, but apparently it then went through multiple substantial revisions without changing its name. The 1899 American Edition is accessible via Bible Gateway, and it does follow the Vulgate on the question at hand. In Matthew 15, Jesus says dogs, and the woman says whelps.

The American Roman Catholic Confraternity Version (my mother’s old copy having the Imprimatur of Francis Cardinal Spellman in 1961) dispenses entirely with the whelps, and has both Jesus and the woman, in both Mark 7 and Matthew 15, speaking only of dogs. The current Roman Catholic New American Bible, as noted earlier, does the same.

So, why? Why any of it? Well, we can’t go back and ask those long dead translators for their reasoning. We can, however, and more relevantly, wonder why modern and indeed contemporary translators have not corrected the text (outside of the NKJV folks).

What is certainly true with regard to new Bible translations is that the the notion of correction is often relative. One man’s correction is another man’s destruction or vandalism. That has to be one of the main reasons why we have so many competing translations in English these days. Where is the line drawn?

In this case, I submit that the line should be drawn with those poor, long-neglected little dogs, by including them in. I believe it would have the triple advantage of being more accurate, more beautiful and more edifying.

Compare it, for example, to another instance, where a “correction” has been made in most translations, but it arguably does not satisfy the above criteria. (And there are undoubtedly many more such.)

Who—Christian or otherwise—has not heard the phrase, “[i]n my father’s house are many mansions”? This is a line that is referenced in vast swathes of English literature, and frequently invoked to this day, whether in a strictly religious context or simply as a matter of allusion.

From chapter 14 of the Gospel of John, the second verse, the King James Version (and likewise how Tyndale had rendered it):

In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.

It seems to me that what makes these words so very memorable and powerful is exactly the incongruity of having mansions contained within a house. Mansions themselves are very big houses, no? But Jesus is talking about the house of God here, and what He has waiting for us therein. It fires the imagination, and has fueled countless encouraging, eloquent and fortifying sermons over the centuries, as well as innumerable hymns.

But is it actually an accurate rendering of the Greek text, and in particular for modern readers? Harrumph. The modern translators don’t seem to think so. As early as the Revised Standard Version of 1946, it had been changed to rooms. “In my Father’s house are many rooms.” Other translators say “dwelling places.” Phooey! I know it’s the same fundamental point, but it’s been stripped of its poetry, and to what end? What has been gained, versus what has been lost?

And certainly, if that kind of strictness is going to be applied in cases where so much is lost in the name of gaining some supposed superior accuracy, then how much more should it be applied in the case of the little dogs of Matthew 15 and Mark 7, who are neither hurting anyone nor robbing the world of its poetry, but are merely waiting, tails humbly wagging, to receive our crumbs?

* * *

In loving memory of all of those good dogs, both the little and the large.


Billie (2004 – 2018)

William Tyndale’s Easter

Tyndale Easter
William Tyndale (1494–1536) was the first person to translate the Bible directly from the Hebrew and Greek texts into English. His translation also formed the basis for the King James version, completed roughly 80 years later by multiple committees of translators. It’s been estimated that over 80% of the KJV New Testament is from Tyndale, and over 70% of the Old Testament. And since the King James Bible has been such an incomparably massive influence on the English language (almost a center of gravity since its publication) you could make the argument that no single individual has had more influence on the English language than William Tyndale. For his efforts, he was burned at the stake, as making the Bible available in the language of the common people was not a healthy occupation to be engaged in at the time. (Some may well be wondering whether it will be déjà vu all over again before very long, but that’s an altogether different kettle of fish.)

If Tyndale had set out to have an impact on the English language for centuries to come, he doubtless would have had no idea how to achieve it, and perhaps would have sat frozen at his desk, quill in hand, until his landlady threw him out on the street for being behind on his rent. No one could achieve a task so great by deliberately attempting it. The task he took on was monumental in itself, but at least specific: to put the Holy Scriptures into words that any English speaking person could understand. By performing this task to such a high standard, he simultaneously achieved things of which he couldn’t possibly have conceived.

It’s just a pity he missed out on all the royalties.

Tyndale’s original translations are available in the public domain, but the different spellings in common usage at that time make them laborious for the modern reader to get through. Fortunately, a scholar named David Daniell completed modern spelling editions of Tyndale’s Old and New Testaments some years ago, and here is a passage from the Gospel of Luke, chapter twenty-four:

On the morrow after the sabbath, early in the morning, they came unto the tomb and brought the odours which they had prepared and other women with them. And they found the stone rolled away from the sepulchre, and went in: but found not the body of the Lord Jesus. And it happened, as they were amazed thereat, behold two men stood by them in shining vestures. And as they were afraid, and bowed down their faces to the earth, they said to them: why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here: but is risen. Remember how he spake unto you, when he was yet with you in Galilee, saying: that the son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.

And they remembered his words, and returned from the sepulchre, and told all these things unto the eleven, and to all the remnant. It was Mary Magdalene and Joanna, and Mary Jacobi, and other that were with them, which told these things unto the apostles, and their words seemed unto them feigned things, neither believed they them. Then arose Peter and ran unto the sepulchre, and stooped in and saw the linen clothes laid by themself, and departed wondering in himself at that which had happened.

Happy Easter.

The First and the Last in Phillipsburg, New Jersey

The Cinch Review

The last will be first and first will be lastA substitute teacher was terminated by a vote of the Board of Education in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, this past Monday, apparently for violating the district’s “religion and distribution” policies.

The Phillipsburg Board of Education has refused to release full details on the case, but multiple reports in the media tell the story this way: The teacher, Walter Tutka, had remarked to a student who was last in line when leaving a classroom, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” The student asked him where that saying was from, and Tutka told him that it was from the Bible, but he couldn’t recall the exact passage. The student asked him several more times, and finally, during a lunch-break, Tutka pulled out his own copy of the New Testament and found the quote for the student. The student said he didn’t have any Bible of his own, and so Tutka gave him his own copy. It’s not clear how the interaction came to the attention of the powers-that-be, but the student did apparently return that copy of the New Testament to the teacher at a later time.

Based on the outline above, it looks like a pretty good case of zero tolerance for Christianity. The initial remark about the first being last and the last being first seems far more jocular in nature than proselytory, given the context. It happened to stimulate this student’s curiosity. If Walter Tutka had attributed the quote to Bob Dylan, and brought in a copy of “The Times They Are A-Changin'” (a song which does include that line) then there no doubt would have been no problem. The Bible is indeed a book of Jewish and Christian Scripture, but it is also literature, and quotes of that kind are at least as important to be familiar with as great quotes from Shakespeare. They are infused in our culture and themselves inspire more literature, poetry and music. Is the original source to be banned from being viewed or mentioned in schools? Well, I ask the question, but I know that it’s rather like asking whether we should consider maybe pushing the barn door closed after the horse has already run down the road and gotten hit by a truck. Continue reading “The First and the Last in Phillipsburg, New Jersey”

No God, But New York City Public School Students Have “KARMA”

Below are two very recent headlines I grabbed:

“School shut down by Board of Ed for teaching secular Bible course.”

“Court says teacher must take down patriotic banners mentioning God.”

You see these kinds of stories all the time, with schools or teachers running afoul of what is characterized as “the separation of church and state” (which is a phrase some people mistakenly believe resides in the U.S. Constitution, but no matter that now). God doesn’t belong in a public school classroom, we are told, and that goes double for the Bible, which is a manifestation of that specific Judeo-Christian God.

Although I’m not personally an advocate of this idea of actively expunging religious concepts from the natural life and thought that would take place in schools, I do understand the concept. It’s why, when passing a public school in my New York City neighborhood, I’ve raised my eyebrow at a sign that has long hung over the main entrance. It says: “Robert F. Kennedy Students Have KARMA.” That’s PS 169, of the New York City Public School system.

KARMA 1

The students have KARMA? I think most of us know what the word means, but let’s go to Merriam-Webster for an official definition: It is “the force generated by a person’s actions held in Hinduism and Buddhism to perpetuate transmigration and in its ethical consequences to determine the nature of the person’s next existence.”

PS 169 is neither a Hindu nor a Buddhist school, but is, as mentioned, a New York City public school. So this is why my eyebrow was raised. Still and all, you see a lot of things in New York City, and you learn to keep walking. It was only one poster.

Recently, however, I had occasion to visit the same school on other business (voting). Walking through the lobby and hallways, I couldn’t help but notice that this “KARMA” concept was repeated. Again and again. It seemed to be all over the place, in fact, and in a myriad of different incarnations.

One posting says “GOOD KARMA,” with a picture of a scale, and the exhortation, “BALANCE OUT THOSE NEGATIVE VIBES.” We’re assured that “P169 HAS GOOD KARMA.”

KARMA 3

Another (my favorite) says that “STUDENTS WITH KARMA REMOVE HATS GIVE ALL CELLPHONES, IPODS, ETC. TO MR. REEVES.”

KARMA 2

Another sign—this one quite elaborately constructed in three dimensions—presents each letter of KARMA as the first letter of another word: Kind, Appropriate, Responsible, Mature, Accountable. There’s a big smiling sun perched alongside.

KARMA 4

So, that’s the root of this. Further research found evaluations of the school on an official New York City government website, and documentation regarding the “KARMA” behavior modification program, which has apparently been in place since at least 2006. As in this report (.pdf):

The school’s philosophy is that achievement is inextricably linked to behavior, so to that end the school has implemented the ‘KARMA’ initiative in school, standing for kindness, appropriacy, responsibility, maturity, accountability. All activity in the school is linked to ‘KARMA,’ from clarity about which behaviors are expected in which location in the school, to a rewards and sanctions system, in which students can “buy” such things as leisure time on the computer, book bags and pencils with the rewards of good behavior. This is reinforced in every lesson, every classroom and by every member of staff.

“KARMA” is an acronym for these behaviors and attitudes that the school wishes to encourage. Clearly, though, the use of the term also plays on the original Hindu/Buddhist concept of consequences for ethical choices. In all, it’s really very clever.

However, imagine if instead of “Robert F. Kennedy students have KARMA,” the signs said, “Robert F. Kennedy students are filled with the Holy Spirit.” Maybe someone could come up with qualities worth promoting which corresponded with those letters; let me see … HOLY: Happiness; Orderliness; Levelheadedness; Youthfulness; SPIRIT: Sensitivity; Patience; Irony; Readiness; Imperturbability; Tolerance. (I make no claim to be an expert at this but you can get one for the right price.)

Or imagine if the signs said (God forbid!): “Robert F. Kennedy students follow the Ten Commandments.” Think of the heads that would explode. Picture, if you will, the ACLU helicopters swooping in to rescue the students before their helpless and innocent minds could be contaminated by such thoughts.

KARMA is assuredly a concept that has entered the common lingo, especially since John Lennon’s big hit record, but the same can certainly be said of concepts like the Holy Spirit and the Ten Commandments, which have been around for 2000 years and more. “Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Yet these words are proscribed in the public schools, while KARMA may be promoted?

It also needs to be noted that to the same degree as KARMA is a concept born of Hinduism and Buddhism it conflicts with Judeo-Christian beliefs. KARMA presumes a cycle of existence, of incarnation and reincarnation, that just doesn’t square with the Judeo-Christian belief in reckoning and justice from a particular God: the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God Jesus called “Father.” The idea of reincarnation and KARMA appeals to New-Agey kinds of Westerners who are more comfortable worshiping an impersonal creation rather than a personal Creator, but for believing Christians and Jews it is plainly unbiblical.

Therefore plastering the idea of KARMA all over a public school is not a neutral act. It displaces Judeo-Christian thought and symbology (although those thoughts and symbols have already effectively been banned).




So, where does this all lead? Am I writing this because I want KARMA stripped from this school and any other school that might use it? No. Personally, I’m not greatly incensed by the cutesy use of this term in a program intended to improve student behavior. Maybe the program works. It’s not the use of the Hindu/Buddhist concept that bothers me, but rather the zero tolerance afforded to the Judeo-Christian God and related concepts. It’s the double-standard.

Another posting I came across in the school was a quote from Malcolm X: “If you don’t stand for something you will fall for anything.”

If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything

No big argument here. But it also brought to my mind another old aphorism (often attributed to G.K. Chesterton but apparently from a Belgian writer named Emile Cammaerts):

“When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing. They believe in anything.”

It’s merely my fantasy, of-course but I sure would like to see that posted prominently in the school. I think it might balance out a little of their KARMA.

……

More Abraham Joshua Heschel: on the Law, God’s Timing and Man’s Readiness

Abraham Joshua Heschel Who Is Man?

From his book God in Search of Man:

Man had to be expelled from the Garden of Eden; he had to witness the murder of half of the human species by Cain out of envy; experience the catastrophe of the Flood; the confusion of the languages; slavery in Egypt and the wonder of the Exodus, to be ready to accept the law.

Continue reading “More Abraham Joshua Heschel: on the Law, God’s Timing and Man’s Readiness”

Abraham Joshua Heschel on the Bible

I was reading an essay by Abraham Joshua Heschel in his book The Insecurity of Freedom and was struck by this paragraph:

Into his studies of the Bible the modern scholar brings his total personality, his increased knowledge of the ancient Near East, his power of analysis, his historic sense, his honest commitment to truth—as well as inherent skepticism of biblical claims and tradition. In consequence, we have so much to say about the Bible that we are not prepared to hear what the Bible has to say about us. We are not in love with the Bible; we are in love with our own power of critical acumen, with our theories about the Bible. Intellectual narcissism is a disease to which some of us are not always immune. The sense of the mystery and transcendence of what is at stake in the Bible is lost in the process of analysis. As a result, we have brought about the desanctification of the Bible.

Similar things have no doubt been said in many different ways, but I think that is extraordinarily well put. Those words were written in 1963. They struck me when I read them more on a personal level than as a societal or institutional criticism, although the “desanctification” of the Bible surely has had plenty to do with the rotting away of the mainline Protestant churches in America. Continue reading “Abraham Joshua Heschel on the Bible”

Good Friday, via William Tyndale

William Tyndale's New Testament

William Tyndale was the first to translate the Bible directly from Hebrew and Greek texts into English, in the name of making Scripture available to the common folk. It was he who first looked at the Greek and rendered such ageless phrases as, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26); at the Hebrew and rendered, “And God said, Let there be light, and there was light” (Genesis 1). And likewise with so many other familiar and beloved phrases beyond listing. His translations of the Old and New Testaments are now estimated as forming the basis of about 80% of the later and greatly revered King James Bible. His work also formed the basis of the earlier Geneva Bible, which was the Bible in English that a fellow named William Shakespeare would have read. Continue reading “Good Friday, via William Tyndale”