Thursday, February 16, 2006

Basic Words and the Translation of ωφθη, part 1

I've had some linguistic thoughts recently set off by the question of the proper translation of ωφθη in I Corinthians 15:5.

ωφθη is the first aorist passive for οραω, which has the base sense "to see". In I Cor 15:5, Paul is in the middle of giving a sort of basic confession of faith; he had just finished saying that Christ had died, was buried and rose again on the third day. He then goes on that "και οτι ωφθη κηφα επειτα τοις δωδεκα". κηφα here is in the dative (I can't seem to do an iota subscript here). Hence, this might be translated rather obviously "and that he was seen by Kephas, and then by the Twelve". Now, this was essentially the translation a fellow student gave for this passage, but our teacher (actually a well known expert in Koine Greek) objected to this translation on the following grounds: οραω, he said, can mean "to see" in the normal way with your eyes, but it also has a broader sense. It can be used, for example, for things like mystical visions or intellectual intuitions. Therefore, since the word is not restricted to the simply visual dimension, he would prefer that it be translated in such a way as to leave open the non-visual possibilities of the word οραω: St. Paul might be refering to some sort of mystical vision or a "faith experience," and not to an actual seeing of a risen Christ with the eyes. So his choice was: "and that he appeared to Kephas, and then to the Twelve".

Now, I have a problem with this logic. Granted that οραω can be used in all these non-visual ways, isn't the same true of the English verb "to see"? One might experience some revelation and "see the light", or perhaps "see the error" of one's ways. In fact, "see" can be used in so general a way as to refer to almost any type of knowing or experiencing something: "Come and see for yourself", "I see now that the sum of the interior angles of a triangle must be 180 degrees." So if the English verb "to see" can express as wide a range of meanings as the Greek verb οραω, why not use the one to translate the other?

This begs another question, however: if the English verb "to see" can have such a range of meanings, why is it that the phrase "and that he was seen by Kephas, and then by the Twelve" seems so clearly to indicate something visual, as opposed to some purely mental apparition? I think this merits some attention, so I intend to do a small series of posts looking at this question. I think it is significant that οραω and "to see", in fact, are both what might be called "basic" words: they are both words learned at the Mother's knee, describing a very basic and very universal phenomenon. This indicates to me that one must understand the wide range of dictionary meanings for these words in a special way. In other words, the fact that there are multiple options that can translate the word οραω means something different from the fact that there are multiple options that can translate, say, the word μορφη, which also has a wide range of meanings but is an abstract word even at root.

So, I'll be pursuing this line of thought over the course of some days. In the end, I'll come back to the question of the translation at stake and make my choice.


Derek the Ænglican said...

Hmmm. Sounds like a fudge to me. My immediate thought was to grab my Bible and check out 1 John 1:1... There you have a concrete statement in the explicit context of providing eyewitness. Guess what--it uses ewrakamen. Furthermore, it doesn't leave anything to interpretive chance but immediately adds ofqalmois further secured by eqeasameqa kai ai xeires. Then in v. 2 you get the "appeared" concept with efanerwqh which is then backed up with the more concrete ewrakamen.

Clearly this has to do with Johannine usage rather than Pauline. *However* I think that parallel evidence from the same time/movement and dealing with the same topic is pretty key... The best way to procede as far as I'm concerned would be to whip out Moulton and see how else Paul uses wraw--and maybe even fanerow...

Ok--how'd you get the Greek in with Blogger?

Also--are the rumors true that you're a Syriac scholar as well?

gaetanus said...

Yes, I think the context in 1 Cor does pull one to a "was seen by" interpretation, given that Paul's listing of people to whom Christ appeared after the resurrection really seems meant to provide a list of witnesses, and the important thing about witnesses is that they, you know, witness things.

Frankly, at the moment I'm not as interested in the translation of this one Scripture passage as much as I'm interested in the characteristics of 'basic' words, as I'm calling them.

For instance, is the methodology you suggest, of trying to do a word-study of Paul's use of οραω, even valid for such a basic word? I've seen how such word studies can be useful, showing how particular words take on predictable and consistent meanings within certain authors (random example: MNTNA in Coptic means, generaly, mercy or forgivingness. In Manichaean texts, however, it pretty much always refers to a specific kind of alms-giving ritually performed by Manichees). However, do people come to have such idiosyncratic or technical uses of a word which is as basic as οραω? To put a parallel case, is there ever any English author whose use to the verb "to see" takes on so predictable a pattern of usage as to eccllipse the common usage of the verb? I think not. I think even if one were to read a treatise all about the spirituality of "seeing", which constantly uses the verb "to see" in a very significant way, one would still be quite unsurprised if the verb were also used very casually in a very non-significant way such as "so you see, my point has been proved . . .".

You can get Greek letters into blogger by copy and pasting unicode characters from, for example, the character map application. I have a little applet that sits on toolbar that makes this easier, but it only works on Linux.

And yes, I am a Syriac scholar, or at least I have pretensions of being so.

caelestis said...

Sometimes, seeing is seeing is seeing. I have a suspicion that your prof thinks that basic vocabulary is susceptible to literal interpretation, so he is overcompensating.

Derek the Ænglican said...

Ok--I see where you're coming from. But I'd still want to do a quick scan of a contextual concordance. This can be very helpful for identifying idomatic/formulaic constructs that utilize basic words. Like, say, "cut" in Hebrew... Sometimes a cut is just a cut. When a covenant's involved, it's an entirely different story...

My wife uses Syriac a bit in her stuff. Fun langauge.

Duncan Sutherland said...

You all are going to laugh me off the conversation--and I don't claim to be a scholar of anything in particular (except maybe the history of so-called information technology) but I have been frustrated trying to track down the etymological roots of the words μόρφα and μορφή. Specifically, I am interested in the early ontological status of the words: representing things in the world (e.g., as we tend to use the word information today) or representing the idea of feeling informed? Any thoughts or pointers? Thanks in advance for your tolerance of my off-topic question!