March 30, 2010


This essay was later published in revised form as “Satyrs or Wild Goats. The Politics of Translating the Bible” in the Fourth R 25.6 (November-December 2012): 21-22, 24.
Read/Post Comments (4)

The Great God Pan, a lesser deity in ancient Greek Religion, was born in the region of Arcadia (in the central Peloponnese) with the upper body of a man and lower body of a goat—horns, a beard, a tail, and goat hind legs with hooves. He was a god of the woodlands who lived in caves and wandered through mountains and valleys. In appearance he resembled Greek satyrs and Roman fauns, who were similarly portrayed in early art. Today in western culture we regard these figures as mythical. But were they? In the latter part of the nineteenth century satyrs survived in popular belief in the Greek islands of the central Aegean Sea.

     Satyrs even appear in some Bibles. Passages that mention these figures are: Isaiah 13:21 and 34:14 where they are portrayed as dancing among ruined cities and crying out to each other. In 2 Chronicles 11:15 Jeroboam appoints priests to serve satyrs and in Leviticus 17:7 the Israelites are forbidden any longer to sacrifice to them. The Hebrew word (sa’ir) receives a range of translations—satyr, wild goat, he goat, shaggy goat, field spirit, demon, goat-demon, shaggy goat, devil.

     Such a wide array of translations, suggesting different figures, does not seem justified by Hebrew Lexicons, which uniformly identify this figure as a satyr. The standard Hebrew Lexicon by Brown, Driver, and Briggs (1968) describes this figure as “Satyr, demon (with he-goat’s form or feet),” and the 1810 German Hebrew Lexicon of Wilhelm Gesenius identifies sa’ir as a goat-shaped forest figure that appears in legends and fairy tales.

     The ancient Greek Septuagint translates sa’irim in Isa 13:21 and 34:14 as a “donkey-like” centaur. Centaurs were creatures with the lower body of a horse, including tail and the upper torso of a man—similar to a satyr but a completely different mythical species. In 2 Chron 11:15 the sa’irim are “idols” and in Lev 17:7 they are rendered “vain (things).” In Isa 13:21 Jerome’s Latin Vulgate translates se’irim as hairy shaggy creatures (especially satyrs), but renders Isa 34:14 as “ass-centaurs.” In 2 Chron 11:15 and Lev 17:7 they are “demons.” Jerome says these shaggy creatures, who dance among the ruins, are incubones (the demon incubus, or another spirit), or satyrs or fauns or certain figures regarded as deities of the fields or forests.

     Martin Luther renders sa’ir as “field spirits,” and Smith-Goodspeed (1964) renders it as “satyr,” as does the Bible of the Jewish Publication Society of 1945. The New International Version (1970) renders both Isaiah passages as “wild goats” and Leviticus and 2 Chronicles as “goat idols.” The New American Bible (1970) translates in all four cases as “satyr.” The New English Bible (1970) renders both Isaiah passages as “he-goat” and Leviticus and 2 Chronicles as “demon.” The New Revised Standard Version (1991) renders all four passages as “goat-demons.”

     So how should sa’ir be translated? The root idea of the word is hairy or shaggy, and because the contexts suggest that these figures are human-like but other than human—not simply wild animals, the Hebrew lexicons have quite reasonably associated sa’ir with the widespread ancient belief in satyrs. Apparently some modern translators, however, prefer to avoid attributing a mythical character to the text and render sa’ir as he-goat, wild goat, shaggy goat or goat idol and/or demon, which avoids having the Bible affirm the existence of mythical figures.

     The issue raised by sa’ir is not whether figures of Greek mythology ever existed. They did not—and neither did demons! The issue raised is the politics of translating the Bible. Unless modern readers of the Bible know the ancient languages, they are always at the mercy of translators. The Bible is a very “human” book. It is always subject to its many users—whether scribes who recopy and inevitably change the texts by error or deliberately, or lexicographers who rescue the vocabulary of its ancient languages, or translators who convert the ancient text into modern linguistic equivalents, or ministers who purport to explain the meaning of the ancient texts. If you only know the Bible in modern translations, you really don’t know it—you know what the translator wants you to know. Given the ambiguity of ancient languages, room exists for great variety in translation, and how they are translated depends on the bias (both admitted and unrecognized) of translators. English-only readers are best advised to read several translations, which may reveal problems a single translation conceals—either inadvertently or deliberately.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 10:03am

Dear Dr. Hedrick,

You indicate that it may be too late to change anything much about your Thomas book, but I would urge that you give more thought to Rick Hubbard's point about the lack of attestation of XRHSTHS. You say that it is "equally possible", but that is true only insofar as it fits the lacuna. As far as frequency of use, it is in fact quite improbable. This is an issue which I have not seen addressed by Kloppenborg or any else who has adopted XRHSTHS. They assume, I'm afraid, that any Greek word at all might appear in a Coptic text. Actually, I believe that the evidence indicates that Coptic employed a rather limited set of Greek words, and that the word XRHSTHS, unusual even in Greek, was not in that lexicon.

- Mike Grondin (list-owner GThomas)
Posted by Michael Grondin on 4/8/2010 at 11:52am

Hi Mike,

How in the world did you find my humble blog in such an out of the way galaxy so distant from the ethereal center of the universe of academic discussions?

You are quite correct in what you say about the absence of XRHCTHC (money lender) in Coptic texts. After reading your statement I failed to find an instance of its use in Coptic texts checking all the usual places (but have not checked Dehandshutter—perhaps you did?). And you are quite correct that either form will fill the lacuna. Therefore either is possible. You are arguing for the most probable word. XRHCTOC (good) is more probable, you argue, because it is clearly attested in Coptic texts (as indeed it is). Kloppenborg, however, argues that XRHCTHC (lender, money lender) is “clearly” the preferred reading because the Tenants parable belongs with the two previous sayings (parables) where a wealthy protagonist is criticized for a desire for status. XRHCTOC (good) clearly does not fit that context, he argues. Your argument that we have only a limited cadre of Greek words that could be used in Coptic and XRHCTHC is not one of those is not convincing to me. I would make that point a little differently: I would say (at our present level of knowledge about Coptic texts and the Coptic language) some Greek words are regularly used in Coptic as Greek loan words (Greco-Coptic). But we do find new usages almost with each manuscript discovery (particularly in early texts). So I would not want to say that XRHCTHC (lender) is either impossible or improbable (or for that matter, probable). In my case what I have done in the commentary is flag the problem for the reader by leaving that space blank in the translation and addressing the situation in the commentary. To restore the word at this state of the discussion gives it a certainty that I think is not warranted. And reserving judgment in a sense depoliticizes my translation (to evoke my original blog). But in any case I am not writing this book for the guild; rather I am writing for the general public, who, I hope, will expect a balance on issues when the solution is debatable.

Thanks for blogging.


Posted by Charles Hedrick on 4/8/2010 at 7:46pm

These are interesting observations. I might suggest that “politicizing” textual interpretation and translation is not a phenomenon exclusive to **canonical** Christian writings.

A case in point is a fairly recent rendering of the Parable of the Tenants in the Vineyard as it appears in the Coptic Gospel of Thomas (Logion 65). The canonical versions of this parable are well known (appearing in Mt 21.28-46, Mk 12.1-12 and Lk 20.9-19). The version of this parable that appears in GTh is shorter than any of the synoptic accounts, but follows them closely enough to leave no doubt that the four are related (just how is another question, however).

With respect to the Thomas version, the issue at hand is how the owner of the vineyard is identified. The earliest English translations of Thomas read simply that he was a “good man” (a translation also adopted in the primary critical edition of the text). As it turns out, however, the place is damaged in the original manuscript where the Coptic word translated as “good man” appears. In this place in the manuscript one letter of that Greco-Coptic word is missing and another is only partially visible. Most scholars have agreed for decades that the missing and damaged letters form the word XRHSTOS (“cray-stos”) which can indeed be translated as a “good man” or “good person”. Sometime prior to 1993, however, a few scholars began to argue that the missing/damaged letters formed not the word XRHSTOS but XRHSTHS (cray-stays). What a difference a letter or two makes! Now, if that reading is accepted, instead of the vineyard owner being identified as a “good man” he instead becomes “a usurer” (ethically, 180 degrees opposite a “good man”).

But here is the real rub: The amended reading (XRHSTHS “cray-stays” instead of XRHSTOS “cray-stos”) means accepting into the text a word that exists nowhere else in the Gospel of Thomas, in any of the Nag Hammadi texts and nowhere in either the Coptic or the Greek New Testament. I should point out, however, that XRHSTHS is a “real word” that can be found in a lexicon (although not a Coptic one) and that does appear outside early Christian writings in Greek classical literature, but even there it is exceeding rare, occurring only around 40 times in texts that have a total of over 800,000 words.

This proposed change in the identity of the owner sets up for the reader a radically different scenario against which the parable’s “meaning” can be extracted. This is, in my mind at least, a case of certain presuppositions about the fundamental nature of the Gospel of Thomas being allowed to influence the reading of the text. Generically speaking, this is not a far cry from denying that the authors of the literature contained in the Hebrew Bible knew about satyrs by refusing to correctly translate sa’ir.

Rick Hubbard
Posted by Richard Hubbard on 4/6/2010 at 7:48am

I agree with you: politics in translation are not limited to the canonical texts; it is endemic to the process of translating. The example you offer is a good one, I think. The most recent argument for “userer” (or money lender) being the correct translation was made (so far as I know) by John Kloppenborg (The Tenants in the Vineyard, 249). I am inclined to think that Kloppenborg is probably correct that userer is to be preferred to “good.” But I am leaving the word un-translated in my Gospel of Thomas Commentary (Wipf and Stock; I am engaged in making final corrections as I write this). The reason I leave it blank is: either restoration is equally possible and “either restoration will slant the narrative in a particular direction.” I wanted to signal the problem for my reader but avoid as much “politics” as possible. But I should also add that there is nothing intrinsically wrong about being a userer (money lender). Under certain community attitudes it can be seen as an ignoble profession, but in our society it plays a helpful role, unless of course we are talking about payday loans at exorbitant rates of interest. So I would see the designation userer as more neutral than good. Another thing perhaps worthy of note is that the three canonical versions do not label the vineyard owner in any way. In fact the narrative voice of the parables generally refrains from making moral or ethical judgments on the protagonists in the narrative—something the evangelists do quite regularly. Interesting exchange! Thanks for blogging.

Charles W. Hedrick
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 4/7/2010 at 1:29pm

This reminds me of a wonderful poster I once saw:

“All the great thoughts in the world were not written in one language.”
Posted by Marcia Morriset on 3/31/2010 at 10:58am

Hi, Dr. Hedrick,

Just thought I'd add a few comments here and there to your article about Bible translations. The Douay-Rheims, an English translation of the Latin Vulgate, translates Isaiah 13:21 as "But wild beasts shall rest there, and their houses shall be filled with serpents, and ostriches shall dwell there, and the hairy ones shall dance there."

Still, you're right, and it's something that I've told my students, when Judaism and Christianity is discussed. I will often give my students a sentence in German and translate it literally, and I show them how it can be interpreted three different ways in English--since the original language loses some of its meaning, when it's translated into another language (the example above from the Latin to English can support that). And truthfully, if I wanted to, they would be at my mercy for how I choose to translate it, unless they know German as well. That's why it's good to try and look at various sources, and different versions of the Bible, before making a decision.

Cody Hayes
Posted by Cody Hayes on 3/30/2010 at 3:37pm