Original Languages: Why Bother?

This post isn’t about biblical theology, but about language.

Do you read texts in their original langauges? Most people don’t. I understand why—it takes a long time to get reading competency in a language. Not as long as you think, but longer than you’re probably prepared to study. But, if you do, treasures are revealed to you.

Today in some churches is the Sunday of Zacchaeus, the short tax collector who climbs a tree to see Jesus as he passes by. Jesus has dinner with him, and everybody complains because he is a sinner, etc.

But Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.”

This is the translation approved by the US Catholic bishops. After this, Jesus says that salvation has come to his house. Seems straightforward, right? Bad guy repents and gets saved.

But let’s look at the Greek for verse 8:

Ἰδοὺ τὰ ἡμίσειά μου τῶν ὑπαρχόντων, κύριε, τοῖς πτωχοῖς δίδωμι, καὶ εἴ τινός τι ἐσυκοφάντησα ἀποδίδωμι τετραπλοῦν.

The verbs are bolded for you convenience. The first one (pronounced something like “didomi”) means “I give”. It’s present active indicative, not future or subjunctive as the New American Bible has it. “Behold I give half my possessions to the poor. . .” It’s the same with the second verb, “apodidomi”, “I restore” or “I repay”. Zacchaeus is literally saying that right now, this very moment, that’s what he does, not that he will do it in the future.

So, it could be interpreted differently, not that he was a bad man who repented, but that he was a good man. What to make of “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham?” It could be his eagerness to climb the tree that is the key, couldn’t it?

I don’t know the answer. As I said, this post isn’t about the Bible as theology. But because I can read a little Greek, I can see that the text itself is not the same as the translations. The translation is an interpretation. At Online Great Books, we encourage people to read the original texts (in translation) rather than commentaries on the text, because we want you to interpret it for yourself. Translations often contain hidden interpretations, and if you can read something in the original langauge, you probably should.

I know it takes time and effort, but imagine how many languages you could learn if you quit Netflix.

The will of Zeus is being accomlished

The imperfect tense. If you think of verb tenses as determining just the time of an action (future, past, presesnt) you are missing something important. Tense tells also the way in which the action happens. The most common distinction is between a perfect tense and an imperfect tense. The perfect tense tells you that the action has been completed. Imperfect means that the action has not been completed, generally in the past. Let me give you an example.
Iliad line 5:

Διὸς δ’ ἐτελείετο βουλή

“And the will of God was being accomplished.”

Look at the word τελέω: it is pronounced “teleo” and means “fulfill, accomplish, execute, perform.” If you read Aristotle, you see him talk of the telos, which is the good toward which actions are directed. Here it is the verb whose subject is the word “will.” But it’s not present or simple past. It is the imperfect tense. So, it means that while everything else happens, the rage of Achilles, the heroes being thrust into Hades, the will of Zeus is not yet accomplished, but is in process of being accomplished.

So, when you read the Iliad, the whole thing is the working out of Zeus’ will. He wants it all to happen. Troy must fall, but so must the Acheans who die in front of the city. Zeus wants it all, and is continuing to want it.

About heroes

A continuation of our tour through Homer.

So who are these heroes? The rage itself (not Achilles) sets many pains to the Achaeans, and thrusts down strong souls to Hades, of heroes. What is a hero? Let’s take a look at the lexicon. “Hero” is given as a translation, but what is that? There is an intriguing reference to Hesiod, to the “Fourth age of men” between δαίμονες and ἄνθρωποι. The heroes aren’t the same as you and me. Hesiod says that they are demigods, that fought before Thebes, that died at Troy. “But they received, apart from other humans, a life and a place to live from Zeus the son of Kronos, who translated them to the edges of the earth, far away from the imortal gods. And Kronos is king over them.” Hesiod Works and Days

The poet Hesiod laments that he is born too late, that his is not the time of heroes:

If only I did not have to be in the company of the Fifth Generation of men, and if only I had died before it [= the Fifth Generation] or been born after it, since now is the time of the Iron Generation. What will now happen is that men will not even have a day or night free from toil and suffering.

Heroes are greater men than we are. Perhaps they love more, feel more, suffer more? They certainly seem more real to me in Homer’s works. When you sit down to read the story or listen to it, you are entering a god-haunted time where the stories are not about mere men, about common mortals. These are giants and kin to the gods. These are Heroes.

Let’s read the Iliad

I have a little Greek. Not very much, enough to know the letters, some grammar, some vocabulary. I can poke my way through the text and figure out what it means, generally. It seems to me a shame, however, that I have not read my favorite author in his original words. I’m going to rectify this. Would you like to read along?

If so, you can get the Greek text at the Perseus Project. Here’s the first line:

μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος

It starts with a command to the goddess. Sing! (ἄειδε) It’s an imperative. Sing what? The wrath of Achilles. But Achilles isn’t seen until the last word of the first line. Literally (with a weird word order)

Wrath sing! Goddess Peleus’s Achilles’

Wrath and Achilles contain the whole singing, the whole epic, between them.

Let’s dig into the word μῆνις/wrath for a bit. The LSJ (Liddell Scott James) lexicon says it means the wrath of the gods. This is an interesting twist. Achilles isn’t just angry or wrathful, he’s angry with the specific wrath of gods. See Iliad 5:34 where Athena says to Ares “Let Zeus give glory to either side he chooses. We’ll stay clear and escape the Father’s rage.” (Διὸς δ’ ἀλεώμεθα μῆνιν;) (Fagles trans.) It’s the same word, but is used there to refer specifically to the anger of Zeus. Achilles is godlike in his wrath.

Right in the first line we are given hints that Achilles is not just an angry petulant soldier. His mania/wrath is different. As Ajax will say to him later, anyone else would take Agamemmnon’s money and let bygones be bygones, but not Achilles. I don’t think you’re reading this book right if you don’t realize this.

What makes it different? The fact that Achilles is half-divine, that he can taste an immortality that he can’t actually share. Doomed to die but knowing immortality. It makes it different. It’s harder for the human to die than it is for the antelope. We, being on the border of eternity, know what we’re losing.

Shall we keep going? At this rate I’ll be done in about fifty years.