Violent translators take Luke 7:24ff by force – Part 2

Posted: January 25, 2012 by J in Bible

So I’ve found a problem: can I give a solution?

To start with here’s an alternative translation that I’ll argue is better:

“I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John (though the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he!).  And when all the people heard [John], including the tax collectors, they took God’s side by being baptised with his baptism.  30 But the Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God’s plan for themselves, by not getting baptised by John. 
31 “So then, to what should I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like?  32 They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to each other: “We played the flute for you, but you didn’t dance;we sang a lament, but you didn’t weep!”  33   For [the children of this generation are complaining to one another other] “John the Baptist did not come eating bread or drinking wine, and you lot say, ‘He has a demon!’ But now when the Son of Man comes eating and drinking, you lot say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”35 [In this way] all Wisdom’s children take her side.

A few things to notice about this translation. The whole passage is Jesus’ teaching, no parenthetic interruptions. This is in itself a good sign – interruptions are often a sign that the translators haven’t been able to follow the flow of thought.

The stuff about John’s baptism forms part of Jesus’ argument. It speaks of a division in Israel – exactly what the rest of his teaching here is about. So we’re getting coherence.

Also, for Jesus to introduce Pharisees and lawyers into the discussion at this point is natural, even though Luke hasn’t mentioned their presence here, because they had interacted with John, and people’s varied reactions to John is what Jesus is talking about.

And with that hint that division is the theme, the rest of the passage falls out fairly simply.

The ‘So then’ of 31 is responding to Jesus’ comment in 29-30 that the pharisees and the people took opposing sides over John. ‘So then, what can we say about this division?’ In other translations, this ‘So then’ is a bit out of place.

The children in the market place are ‘this generation’, i.e. everyone in Israel at that time. The two groups of kids represent the two groups split over John’s baptism. The point here is  that they have also split along the same lines over Jesus’ ministry. The children complain that no matter what tune they play their friends are not content to join in. This corresponds to the complaint that the Pharisees and their lot rejected John for his ascetism, and yet rejected Jesus for not being ascetic! They wouldn’t join in no matter what the tune. The other children of this generation did join in both times – being baptised and also following Jesus –  and so they are the ones in a position to make this complaint of hypocrisy or double-standards.

So it’s most natural to take 33-34 as the decoding of the parable about the children calling out. Jesus is picturing the people of Israel complaining to their leaders.

It’s worth noting that at this time, literally thousands of people were flocking to Jesus to hear and see him. The common people were firmly on his side at this point, in spite of their leaders (Read Luke 6 and 7, you’ll get the idea).

Jesus’ concluding comment is a summary of what has just been described. Wisdom (= God’s purposes) is justified (defended, argued for) by her children. They stand up and take God’s and wisdom’s side, embracing both John and Jesus over against their inconsistent leaders. This concluding comment  forms an inclusio (or envelope) with v.29, where all the people take God’s side. But in this version, both comments come from Jesus – he’s not interacting with the narrator!

So the theme of the passage is the division that has ocurred between the common people (especially the outcasts like tax-collectors) and the respectable religious establishment types, a division over their response to John and Jesus. Everything Jesus says here about his generation is about that one thing. It’s pretty simple in content, actually.

And this theme of division will continue to develop through Luke-Acts.

I reckon it’s an extreme measure to introduce an authorial insertion anywhere in Luke’s writing. You’d need to have a really good reason to do it. Here, there’s a good argument for leaving it out. So why do all the translations stick it in there and muddy up the sense of the passage?

I’ve seen enough of how the world of bible scholarship functions, to have a pretty good guess why they all do it. It’s a bit shocking though.

They do it because the previous translation did it.


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