Violent translators take Luke 7:24ff by force

Posted: January 24, 2012 by J in Bible

I don’t like it when people get up in church gatherings and criticise bible translations. However there need to be forums where the successes and failures of our translations can be discussed, and I think that fits within The Grit‘s (admitted broad) brief (see our tagline!).

I’ve been trying to write a sermon on Luke 7: 24ff, where Jesus teaches about John the Baptist. It’s been hard going. For one thing, few of the commentators makes any sense of it, and also they all disagree with each other. Especially problematic is v.31-35. Here they are in NRSV (a generally excellent translation, I think):

“To what then will I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like?  32 They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another,

‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not weep.’ 

33 For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon’;  34 the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’  35 Nevertheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children.” 

Hardly anyone seems to get this. (Bill Dumbrell’s commentary I would say is an exception, his reading seems coherent, but his comment is very brief.)

I think the cause of the trouble starts back in the preceding verses:

28 I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”  29 (And all the people who heard this, including the tax collectors, acknowledged the justice of God, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism.  30 But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves.) 

This is where things start to go wrong, I think. The King James translators decided to make 29-30 a narrator’s insertion, a kind of parenthesis interrupting the story.  And every translation since the seems to have followed suit.

Having spent the past three years immersed in Luke-Acts, when I get to that bit, it jars. It just sounds so un-Lukan. Luke doesn’t do that sort of thing, inserting lengthy theological explanations of people’s attitudes. My feeling is, if he’s doing that here, it’s unique in his writing. So that gets me off-balance to start with.

Then, of course, greek has no brackets, nothing sets v.29-30 apart from its cotext. So that’s been added in. Also, when it says ‘And all the people who heard this’, it makes the thing they’re hearing to be the previous words of Jesus. But ‘this’ is not in the greek, it just says, ‘And all the people, hearing, justified God.’ ‘This’ has been added. Nothing wrong with that, but the ‘this’ is the main word which makes 29-30 sound like a narrator’s insertion. Without the ‘this’, it could be a continuation of Jesus’ teaching.

Also the complex grammar of ‘they had been baptised’ and ‘they had not been baptised’ is not required. The aorist participles here could just as easily read ‘they were baptised’ and ‘they were not baptised.’

Now also, there’s this thing about the pharisees and lawyers hearing Jesus teahcing about John and rejecting God’s purpose for themselves. For one thing, we didn’t even know there were pharisees present in this scene. Strange (almost unheard-of) to introduce them in this way! But worse, how on earth do they manage to reject God’s will for them at this point. What will? Jesus isn’t talking about God’s will for Pharisees: he’s talking about John the Baptist, and his greatness. How they can hear this message and reject something quite different is beyond me. The comment about the Pharisees seems quite out of place here, if it’s refering to Jesus’ audience.

Another disturbing feature of the translations is the way they make Jesus pick up on the terminology of Luke’s insertion, in v.34-35. “All the people” becomes “All her children”. “Justify God” becomes “justify Wisdom” (a figure standing for God in Jewish thought). “Tax-collectors” are mentioned in both places. These two paragraphs are clearly interacting with each other, and the impression given is that the second (Jesus in 34-35) is responding to the first (narrator in 29-30). But it’s a bit weird when a character in the story starts interacting with the narrator! Shades of Sophie’s World?

Tomorrow I’ll suggest a different translation, and argue that it helps make simple sense out of the whole passage.

  1. Having done a lot of work on Luke for my own preaching last year it is great to have someone who has both better knowledge of the Lucan material and better exegetical skills than me giving insights on the text. I must confess to having fallen into traditional errors in my own exegesis. I look forward to your better translation.

    I will quibble with your point about the doubt as to whether the Pharisees were present at this event. I think there are two reasons for assuming that they were present.

    First, I believe that there is good warrant for assuming that the Pharisees and their supporters are generally included in “the crowd” (at least in this part of Luke’s narrative). Those gathered around Jesus at this point are I believe meant to be identified as the same group who gathered around him for the sermon on the plain in Luke 6, an obviously mixed group in terms of their allegiance to Jesus and his message. In fact, Lk 6:37-49 is a stinging rebuke of the Pharisaic mindset. The question at the end of that sermon is how will the world respond to Jesus’ call, and we then see various examples in chapters 7-8 through the eyes of the crowd. I think it makes more sense to assume that the Pharisees were present (as they had been since 5:17) rather than assuming Jesus was speaking to an entirely Pharisee-free group.

    Second, the Pharisees put in an appearance in v.36 when one of them, who lived in the same city where Jesus had been preaching, invited him to dinner. The implication is that at least some local Pharisees (and possibly others who came in with the crowd) have heard the speech that Jesus has just given.

    Circumstantial evidence perhaps, but I think worthy of consideration.

    • Jonathan says:

      Luke, you are entirely too kind to me. I also agree with your point and the first bit of your reasoning.

      I’m pretty sure there would have been reps from the establishment parties present, if only to spy on Jesus’ activities.

      As usual, I just need to be clearer in what I intended to say. My point was not a historical but a narrative one: that Luke usually introduces characters into a scene before he has them do anything. He usually signals the present of the scribes etc, and then says how they reacted to Jesus or whatever. In this case, they are not introduced.

      So in the story as Luke is telling it (which is of course narrower than the historical scene he is describing) no Pharisees have appeared. They are not in view in the narrative at this point. So it’s a bit weird for Luke to say how they reacted to Jesus words here. That’s all I meant to say.

      As for the links between the sermon in Luke 6 and this passage and the Pharisee’s dinner scene that follows: I don’t think we can assume these events are closely connected in time, or even in chronological order. Luke signals in a number of ways that he has other priorities besides chronological historiography in how he arranges his material.

      In particular, 7:18-19 signals a break in the temporal flow. Presumably it occurs on a different day from 7:16. And the Pharisee’s dinner, as far as I can see, could have happened at a completely different time and in another region: there’s nothing linking it to what came before, in time or location. Unless I’ve missed something.

      So I don’t think Luke has Pharisees much in view in the crowds of 7:24ff. But no doubt they were there.

  2. OK, I see where you’re coming from. I’m still not sure that we can assume a time/location break at v.36 as there don’t appear to be any textual markers there to indicate a break (the ‘de’ seems a bit weak for that in Luke’s usage up to this point), but I admit that it is not out of the realms of possibility.

    BTW, what do you think of the Luke Collings Version (LCV) of 7:25a:

    “Also, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in drag?”

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