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Chrysostom’s reference to translations of the Bible   2 comments

The fact that texts of the Bible exist in so many languages makes it a fascinating arena in which to study all sorts of philological phenomena. Research on these texts, in whatever language, may include the attempt to pinpoint when the biblical text comes into this or that language, by whom, &c. With much less specificity and altogether different concerns, in his second homily on the Gospel of John, on Jn 1:1 (text in PG 59: 29-38), John Chrysostom has a remark that touches on some of the languages within the purview of hmmlorientalia. At this place, the homilist is making the point that the apostle John, unlettered as he was, uttered teachings grander, more glorious, and more useful than those the learned Greeks might appreciate, including Pythagoras — who “set in motion ten thousand kinds of magic” (col. 32, γοητείας κινήσας εἴδη μυρία) — and Plato, the doctrines of them all, he says implausibly, being “extinguished and vanished” (col. 31, ἔσβεσται ἅπαντα καὶ ἠφάνισται)! The teaching of the unlearned John, however, has been spreading.

ἀλλὰ καὶ Σύροι καὶ Αἰγύπτιοι καὶ Ἰνδοὶ καὶ Πέρσαι καὶ Αἰθίοπες καὶ μυρία ἕτερα ἔθνη εἰς τὴν αὐτῶν μεταβαλόντες γλῶτταν τὰ παρὰ τούτου δόγματα εἰσαχθέντα ἔμαθον ἄνθρωποι βάρβαροι φιλοσοφεῖν. (col. 32)

But Syrians, Egyptians, Indians, Persians, Ethiopians, and ten thousand other peoples, translating into their own languages the doctrines introduced by him [John], barbarians learned to philosophize.

While we have and still use all of these gentilics, the identity of the peoples Chrysostom had in mind is not necessarily certain. Given his hyperbolic reference to “ten thousand other peoples,” he is not, in any case, aiming to be very specific. Whatever their identity, they’re still barbarians! (John, even without much learning, was not really a barbarian for Chrysostom because he used Greek.) Chrysostom is not being specific about the parts of the Bible he has in mind, either, but minimally he is thinking of the Gospel of John. One result of this vaguely mentioned translation activity is that hitherto non-philosophizing peoples have now learned to do just that. Combined with Chrysostom’s previous remarks in this homily, we come to his conclusion that the teachings of Plato and (especially) Pythagoras constitute bad philosophy, justly withering, while the simple, unlettered, and little-thought-of John the apostle is one means through which a higher and better philosophy, one that even non-Greeks can study and practice, has spread.

Avid Syriac readers will know about the appearance last year of the first part of the Syriac version of Chrysostom’s homilies on John (homilies 1-43) in CSCO 651/ScrSyr 250 by Jeff Childers. The Syriac part corresponding to the Greek text above is on p. 14, ll. 16-18. (Since the appearance of Syriac is still not always reliable on different machines, I’ve also given a transliteration. The accompanying ET in CSCO 652 is not immediately available to me, so the translation below is mine):

ܐܠܐ ܐܦ ܣܘܪ̈ܝܝܐ ܘܡܨܪ̈ܝܐ ܘܗܢܕ̈ܘܝܐ ܘܦܪ̈ܣܝܐ ܘܟܘܫ̈ܝܐ ܘܪ̈ܒܘܬܐ ܕܥܡ̈ܡܐ ܐܚܪ̈ܢܐ. ܝܘܠܦܢܗ ܕܗܢܐ ܒܠܫܢܝ̈ܗܘܢ ܦܫܩܘ. ܘܐܝܠܦܘ ܚܟܡܬܗ܀

ellā āp suryāyē w-meṣrāyē w-hendwāyē w-pārsāyē w-kušāyē w-rebbwātā d-ʕammē (ʔ)ḥrānē yulpānēh d-hānā b-leššānayhon paššeq(w) w-ilep(w) ḥekmtēh

But Syrians, Egyptians, Indians, Persians, Ethiopians (Cushites), and myriads of other peoples have translated this man’s doctrine into their own languages and have learned his wisdom.

Here are some of the Greek-Syriac correspondences with comments:

  • εἰς τὴν αὐτῶν … γλῶτταν b-leššānayhon. The pronominal elements are plural in both languages, but “language” is singular in Greek, plural in Syriac.
  • μεταβαλόντες paššeq(w). Greek aorist participle rendered by a Syriac perfect, a very common phenomenon in Greek-Syriac translations.
  • τὰ παρὰ τούτου δόγματα εἰσαχθέντα yulpānēh d-hānā. The noun is plural in Greek, singular in Syriac, and where the Greek has a participle (“introduced”) with prepositional phrase (“by him”), the Syriac merely has a pronominal element (“his”): the near demonstrative pronoun with an anticipatory pronominal suffix on the noun.
  • ἔμαθον w-ilep(w). The Greek μεταβαλόντες and ἔμαθον are in Syriac put as past verbs joined by a conjunction.
  • ἄνθρωποι βάρβαροι ∅. In the Greek text, μεταβαλόντες and ἔμαθον have distinct agents: for the participle it is the named nations, and for ἔμαθον it is ἄνθρωποι βάρβαροι. The latter noun and adjective indeed refer to those same nations, but they are grammatically separate. The Syriac has nothing to correspond to ἄνθρωποι βάρβαροι — perhaps to avoid calling their own people barbarians! — and thus the two verbs paššeq(w) w-ilep(w) have as their agent the list of peoples at the beginning of the sentence.
  • φιλοσοφεῖν ḥekmtēh. A notable translation, the Greek infinitive has become a noun, and one with a pronominal suffix referring to the apostle. Syriac has words derived from Greek φιλοσοφία, but here a native Aramaic word is used.


Notula on some Greek terminology for “translate”

The expression μεταβάλλειν εἰς γλῶτταν is used in the passage above for “translate”. Josephus also uses this verb in the same meaning:

Ant. Jud. 1.10
Εὗρον τοίνυν, ὅτι Πτολεμαίων μὲν ὁ δεύτερος μάλιστα δὴ βασιλεὺς περὶ παιδείαν καὶ βιβλίων συναγωγὴν σπουδάσας ἐξαιρέτως ἐφιλοτιμήθη τὸν ἡμέτερον νόμον καὶ τὴν κατ᾽ αὐτὸν διάταξιν τῆς πολιτείας εἰς τὴν Ἑλλάδα φωνὴν μεταβαλεῖν

Ant. Jud. 12.14-15
μεμηνῦσθαι δ᾽ ἔλεγεν αὐτῷ πολλὰ εἶναι καὶ παρὰ Ἰουδαίοις τῶν παρ᾽ αὐτοῖς νομίμων συγγράμματα σπουδῆς ἄξια καὶ τῆς βασιλέως βιβλιοθήκης, ἃ τοῖς ἐκείνων χαρακτῆρσιν καὶ τῇ διαλέκτῳ γεγραμμένα πόνον αὐτοῖς οὐκ ὀλίγον παρέξειν εἰς τὴν Ἑλληνικὴν μεταβαλλόμενα γλῶτταν. …  οὐδὲν οὖν ἔλεγεν κωλύειν καὶ ταῦτα μεταβαλόντα, δύνασθαι γὰρ τῆς εἰς αὐτὸ χορηγίας εὐποροῦντα, ἔχειν ἐν τῇ βιβλιοθήκῃ καὶ τὰ παρ᾽ ἐκείνοις.

In Ant. Jud. 1.7 he uses μεταφέρειν:

ὄκνος μοι καὶ μέλλησις ἐγίνετο τηλικαύτην μετενεγκεῖν ὑπόθεσιν εἰς ἀλλοδαπὴν ἡμῖν καὶ ξένην διαλέκτου συνήθειαν.

Now for a few other terms (but this is certainly not a complete list!). In a famous part of the Prol. to Ben Sira, we see μετάγειν used for translation: μεταχθῇ εἰς ἑτέραν γλῶσσαν. One Greek text that often refers to translation is, of course, the Letter of Aristeas (ET here; see recent discussion in T.M. Law, When God Spoke Greek, 35-39). Here are the places (probably not exhaustive) that I quickly picked out where translation, either as a noun or a verb, is mentioned. Words built on herm- are the favorite, and it does not seem that μεταβάλλειν appears there with reference to translation.

  • 11 Ἑρμηνείας προσδεῖται
  • 15 ἣν [sc. τὴν τῶν Ἰουδαίων νομοθεσίαν] ἡμεῖς οὐ μόνον μεταγράψαι ἐπινοοῦμεν, ἀλλὰ καὶ διερμηνεῦσαι (“…not only to copy, but also to translate” — μεταγράφειν can mean both “copy” and “translate”; cf. μεταγραφή in §§ 45 and 46)
  • 32 τὸ κατὰ τὴν ἑρμηνείαν ἀκριβές
  • 38 τὸν νόμον ὑμῶν μεθερμηνευθῆναι γράμμασιν Ἑλληνικοῖς ἐκ τῶν παρ᾽ ὑμῶν λεγομένων Ἑβραϊκῶν γραμμάτων
  • 45 ἡ τοῦ ἁγίου νόμου μεταγραφή (again in § 46)
  • 120 τὰ δὲ τῆς ἑρμηνείας (similarly again in § 308; cf. from § 307 below)
  • 301 παρεκάλει τοὺς ἄνδρας τὰ τῆς ἑρμηνείας ἐπιτελεῖν
  • 305 ἐτρέποντο πρὸς τὴν ἀνάγνωσιν καὶ τὴν ἑκάστου διασάφησιν (διασάφησις here might mean “translation”, but it could also be “explanation”, i.e. each person’s explanation of what had had been read. For another place where the word occurs, twice, certainly not meaning “translation”, see Acta Petri et Andreae § 15, p. 124.5, 124.7 in the ed. of Bonnet and Lipsius.)
  • 307 τὰ τῆς μεταγραφῆς (“the work of the translation”)
  • 308 παρόντων καὶ τῶν διερμηνευσάντων (the translators); in 310 we find τῶν ἑρμηνέων οἱ πρεσβύτεροι, and in 318 τοὺς ἑρμηνεῖς
  • 310 Ἐπεὶ καλῶς καὶ ὁσίως διηρμήνευται καὶ κατὰ πᾶν ἠκριβωμένος
  • 314 τινὰ τῶν προηρμηνευμένων ἐπισφαλέστερον ἐκ τοῦ νόμου προσιστορεῖν (“to tell in addition some parts from the earlier, less reliable, translations of the law”)


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