A few days ago I was sitting in a Wal-Mart, waiting to get a tire replaced on my car.  I had my Kindle Fire with me so I’d have something to read.  Recently I posted here about The Gospel of Thomas.  Since I had the ebook version of The Gnostic Bible on my Fire, I decided to open it up and reread The Gospel of Thomas.  I got to the first page and stopped.  I remembered that I’d started to read this particular translation before, and stopped; and I remembered why I’d stopped.  The introduction to Thomas says,

The translation gives the Semitic forms of Semitic names, in order to highlight the Jewish identity of Jesus and his students and the Jewish context of the life of the historical Jesus.  For example, the name Yeshua is used for Jesus; the other names are identified in the notes.

Thus, the first line of the translation reads, “These are the hidden sayings that the living Yeshua spoke and Yehuda Toma the twin recorded.”  “Yehuda Toma” is the Aramaic for Judas Thomas–the disciple known as “Thomas”, literally “twin”, in the canonical gospels, and referred to also as Judas or Judah here and in other non-canonical sources.  This irritates the crap out of me, and the rest of this post will unpack the whys of this irritation.

First of all, we have The Gospel of Thomas in full only in Coptic, and in fragments in Greek (the Oxyrhynchus Papyri–see my post on Thomas linked above for details).  In the Greek fragments, the names are unsurprisingly in the Greek forms–Iēsous, Thōmas, and so on.  These are the forms from which, via Latin, we derive the usual English forms of Jesus, Thomas, and so on.  The Coptic version also uses the Greek forms of the names.  Actually, it doesn’t even spell out “Jesus” at all.  Rather, as with many ancient manuscripts, it abbreviates the nomina sacra (“sacred names”).  Thus, it has “IC” for “Jesus”, this being an iota followed by the late form of the sigma, abbreviating Ἰησοῦς, the Greek form of Jesus’ name.  As to the Apostles and others, the Coptic uses the usual Greek forms:  Thōmas, Ioudas, Didymos, and so on.  For those who are interested, you can see the original Coptic here with an interlinear English translation.  In any case, the point is that none of the original manuscripts use the Semitic forms of the names.  This is strictly a decision–and I’d argue, an ideological decision–by the translator.

Second, it’s worth noting that you don’t see this kind of thing with other historical characters, particularly religious figures.  No one uses “Alexandros ho Megas” for “Alexander the Great” to highlight his Greekness; or “Kong Fuzi” for “Confucius”, to highlight his Chineseness; or “Mosheh ben Maymon” for “Maimonides”, to highlight his Jewishness!  This phenomenon seems very narrow, applied specifically to Jesus of Nazareth and the people associated with him; and it seems to crop up in several places.  There’s a book about St. Paul that I read part of once that insisted on doing the same for him, using “Shaul” instead of “Paul” or even “Saul”.  What’s going on here?

I should say upfront that I have no problem at all acknowledging the Jewishness of Jesus, the disciples, and the other major figures of early Christianity.  I also have no problem at all with the Jewish people or Judaism as such.  None of that should need to be said, actually; but I say it to be explicit in where I’m coming from, since from this point I am going to argue against what could be called “Judaizing” tendencies in Christianity, and arguing that always rubs certain people the wrong way and opens oneself up to charges of being anti-Jewish or antisemitic or worse.  So, in brief:  Jews, yay!  Judaized Christianity, boo!  Let’s unpack that.

First, in my view one of the most important characteristics of good writing, be it original or translation, is that it should never call attention to itself.  It should say what needs to be said, as clearly and unambiguously as possible, simple as that.  Now obviously poetry is going to be an exception here–I can even give e e cummings a pass on his weird style, because for him it works with the poems.  To a certain extent, prose fiction also allows a certain leeway for experimentation with style.  Beginning in the late 19th Century and continuing into the early to mid 20th Century, American prose particularly went in a very stripped-down direction, with spare, simple prose becoming the norm.  This went a bit too far, I think, and I believe some of the more experimental writing by people such as Faulkner in America and James Joyce in Europe was in part a reaction to the spare prose and naturalism that came before.  I therefore don’t have a problem with at least a modicum of stylistic virtuosity, particularly in fiction.  That said, I also don’t want to have to puzzle over what the writer is trying to say, either.  Especially with nonfiction, stylistic tics are out of place and should be dispensed with.  Even with fiction, stylistic quirks often get in the way of one’s immersion in the fictional world.  Like bumps in a smooth highway that rattle you as you drive along, such quirks jar you out of the fictional world you’re trying to enter, interfering with what should be an interesting journey.

This is why I don’t much like the style of Cormac McCarthy.  He’s a skilled writer, and better people than I have lauded his work.  To me, though, his minimalist use of punctuation, his eschewing of quotation marks, and his extremely simple sentences come off as saying, “Look at me!” and do not serve the story he’s trying to tell.  In other writers, purple prose and attempts at virtuosity also pull the reader out of the story–or at least that’s what happens to  me.  I tried to read the conceptually interesting Meddling Kids a few months ago, and the (to me) pretentious style led me to give up a few chapters in.  The prose style just got in the way and obnoxiously refused to step aside.

This is how I feel about unusual spellings of well-established names.  For better or worse, historically we use the Anglicized versions of the Latinized versions (sometimes with influence from French) of the Hellenized versions of the original Hebrew or Aramaic names of Biblical figures.  Under the influence of the King James Bible, some of the Old Testament names were slightly re-Hebraized–thus the earlier “Noe”, “Josue”, “Isaias”, “Jeremias”, and so on became “Noah”, “Joshua”, “Isaiah”, “Jeremiah”, and so forth.  Even then, this was only partial–you didn’t get “Noach”, “Yehoshua”, “Yeshayahu” and such.  The basic English forms, distant as they sometimes are from the originals, are firmly established.  When non-standard forms are used, the effect is the same as with quirky prose–it brings one up short and interferes with the reading process.

I have recently been reading the Douay-Rheims Bible; and it’s been going pretty well.  However, one aspect of it is that it was based not on the original language versions of the Old and New Testaments, but on the Latin Vulgate.  This is not surprising–it was, after all, a Catholic translation, and Catholic translators were mandated to translate from the Latin until the 1940’s.  This means, though, that the Greco-Latin form of the names was stubbornly preserved, Protestant translations be danged.  Thus, you have “Noe” for “Noah”, “Isaias” for “Isaiah”, and so on.  I knew this in advance; and I can mostly figure out what name is intended (for example “Bersabee” is obviously “Beersheba”).  Even then, though, I find it somewhat jarring, and it slows down my reading, even if for only a millisecond.

Now the Douay-Rheims version is as it is for historical reasons, and that’s fine.  For someone undertaking a translation now, though, be it of canonical or non-canonical scriptures, there needs to be an explicit rationale for using non-standard renderings of names (or any other non-standard approaches, for that matter).  In short, there has to be a reason that the use of non-standard approaches outweighs the disadvantages it causes in ease of reading by the intended audience.  A decision to translate in an unusual way that will inevitably call attention to itself and potentially confuse the reader should have a solid justification.  The justification given for using the Hebrew forms of names in the Gnostic Bible‘s version of The Gospel of Thomas is, as stated above, “to highlight the Jewish identity of Jesus and his students and the Jewish context of the life of the historical Jesus”.  This, I submit, is invalid, disingenuous, or both.

In the Middle Ages, when most people were illiterate and probably only vaguely aware of the Bible through stories told in the stained glass window or by priests in homilies, and when anti-Semitism was rife, it’s quite likely that many or most people didn’t grasp that Jesus and his associates were, in fact, themselves Jewish.  Even after that, his Jewishness was not often emphasized.  In this day and age, though, it’s hard to imagine that any Christian who knows anything at all about her faith can be ignorant of the Jewishness of Christ and the Apostles.  Heck, it’s not uncommon in Christian book stores to see pendants of a Star of David intertwined with a cross, or bumper stickers proclaiming “My Boss is a Jewish carpenter.”  Many books have been published, both for specialists and the general reader, which discuss the Jewish context of Jesus and the early Christians in extensive detail.  It’s not uncommon in Christian churches, both Protestant and Catholic, to have community seders (the Jewish ritual Passover meal), sometimes even presided over by a rabbi, as a way of understanding the background of the Eucharist better.  I think there is widespread understanding and appreciation of the Jewish context of Jesus.  It’s hard to see how using “Yeshua” instead of “Jesus” can make an improvement on that.  And for the rare reader who maybe doesn’t know that Jesus was Jewish, or doesn’t understand the Jewish context of his life, wouldn’t an essay or even a book on such matters be much more helpful to him than replacing familiar names with names that both look and sound odd?

This is especially odd in the context at hand, a translation of a possibly Gnostic gospel.  Gnosticism, though possibly having origins in a Jewish context of some sort, generally is more hostile to many basic Jewish concepts than is orthodox Christianity.  After all, the Gnostic idea that the god of the Old Testament is essentially in imposter is about as far from normative Judaism as you can get!  True, the Gnostic mythos is absent from the Gospel of Thomas, and it’s still up for debate as to whether it can be properly considered Gnostic at all.  Nevertheless, having read the entire Bible, both Testaments, twice through from beginning to end, the Gospels many times, and Thomas quite a few times, I’m prepared to say that Thomas doesn’t strike me as somehow more Jewish in teaching, tone, or context, than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  In fact, both Thomas and the canonical Gospel of John strike me as less Jewish in tone than the Synoptic Gospels in particular or other parts of the Bible in general.  It’s hard to see how using the Hebrew forms of names is supposed to clarify the Jewishness of a book that’s not really very Jewish to begin with!

It seems to me that using the Hebrew and/or Aramaic forms of the names of Jesus and other New Testament worthies occurs mostly in two contexts.  One is in the writings of Messianic Jews.  The other is in contexts in which I’d assert there to be an implicit (or occasionally explicit) intention to de-Hellenize Christ and/or Christianity.  The former case is understandable.  Jews have suffered all too much at the hands of Christians over the centuries, and for a Jew to convert to Christianity could psychologically seem to be the ultimate betrayal.  It’s not too hard to see how it would be attractive to emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus, including use of his Hebrew name, as well as emphasizing the similarities and continuities between Judaism and its daughter religion Christianity.  On one level, it would be assuaging one’s guilt at converting from Judaism to its longtime foe; and it would offer assurances that such a conversion is not, after all, a renunciation of Judaism.

That’s understandable, as I said, but it seems to me on one level to be pulling a mind-trick on oneself.  Christianity is indeed descended from Judaism; but as Rabbi Jacob Neusner was fond of pointing out, Christianity makes claims about Jesus of Nazareth that no interpretation of normative Judaism as it’s been understood since the formation of the Talmud could accept; and the two religions say different things to different groups of people.  As I discussed some time ago, some form of supersessionism seems baked into the cake of Christian theology.  Any attempt to do a Jewish take on Christianity, or a Judaized Christianity seems to me ultimately to fall apart by its own internal contradictions–something I discussed at length here.  If I were to convert to Islam, it would be ultimately futile to try to argue that I was really embracing the inner implications of Christianity by so doing, or trying to argue for some continuity between Christianity and Islam, or to argue that I was more fully Christian by becoming Muslim.  It would be most honest in the long run to say, “Yeah, there are similarities, but they’re different religions, and I’m leaving one for the other.”  Likewise, while I can understand the reluctance of Messianic Jews to admit that they’re leaving Judaism (which orthodox rabbis would certainly assert that they’re doing), it would be better for a Jew who accepts Christ to just convert to Christianity, full stop, and admit it.

It’s more mystifying to me why Christians want to Judaize their practices.  Actually, I can understand aspects of this.  Over the past century or so, for reasons I’ve discussed here and here, there has come to be a distaste for the Hellenic aspects of Christianity and a concurrent drive to recapture its Jewish roots.  In the specific case of Protestants, I think the lack of liturgy and sacraments may contribute to a fascination with the liturgical acts and rites of Judaism.  Another factor is probably a poor understanding of the Bible, which often results in a tendency to put the Old Testament and New Testament on equal footing.  Of course, from the traditional Catholic and Orthodox perspective, the main function of the Old Testament for Christians is to point to Christ, not to serve as a normative law in and of itself.

Another assertion you often hear is that many aspects of paganism have accreted like barnacles around the Jewish roots of Christianity, and that these layers should be scraped off to return the Christian faith to its pristine purity.  To that notion, I’d cite this post which I reblogged from the Thavma blog.  Some relevant selections (emphasis in original):

The problem is that while Catholicism – along with Christianity in general – may have founded itself on a historical Jewish preacher and reads the Hebrew Scriptures, the fact is that Christianity’s connection to Judaism ends at the crossroads of the liberal wing of Pharaseism (the “House of Hillel”) and Noahide Monotheism. Even though Jesus founded Catholicism (Matt 16:18) within the context of a sub-sect of Judaism, both religions parted ways early on as attested both in the Book of Acts and other contemporary sources….

Objectively speaking, Catholicism parted from Judaism the moment it declared Jesus the Messiah. Or declared circumcision optional (Acts 19). Or declared no foods as forbidden (Acts 10). Or declared Jesus to be God (John 1:1). Or equated him with the Logos (also John 1:1 – Logos is the “rational principle of the universe” in Pagan philosophy). Or declared God to be triune (1 John 5:7). Or declared the existence of a place of eternal torment (entire NT, especially Apocalypse). Even the Tanakh both religions read in common, both religions interpret the text in radically different ways.

Christianity is not Judaism. Judaism is not Christianity. My experience is that we’re perfectly capable of being friends without giving up either religion’s distinctives.

The original Protestants recognized this even if a number their descendants do not. When Protestants (i.e. anybody who’s not Catholic, Orthodox, or Gnostic) attempt to shame historic Christianity for being “Pagan” and try to cover themselves with a layer of “Jewishness” to justify it, they do themselves no favors; in fact I’ve had Jewish friends who point at them and laugh.

The whole tactic is based on the presupposition that the word “Pagan” is automatically “bad” and “more Jewish” equals “more pure.” The reality, however, is that the word “Pagan” is neither good nor bad, pure nor impure – ditto for the word “Jew.”

We are Gentiles. We are the descendants of Gentiles. We worship in a religion reasoned and debated by Gentiles over twenty centuries. Whatever Jewish content lies at the religion’s foundation relates largely to first-century theories of how a non-Jew could find salvation (i.e. Noahidism), and becomes dwarfed by distinctly un-Jewish claims of Jesus’ Messiahship and godhood coupled with claims that the Godhead is Trinitarian.

I could hardly put it better than that.  As I often say, the Hellenization of Christianity is a feature, not a bug.

Thus, I’d conclude by saying that however good the motives of the translator of the edition of The Gospel of Thomas that got this long post started, it’s useless at best and counterproductive at worst to change the names from Greek to Hebrew.  If the goal is to get more in touch with the Jewish roots of Christianity, orthodox or heterodox, then I think the whole enterprise is misguided from the start, for reasons I’ve just described.  While we should have goodwill and respect towards the Jewish people, we should also not try to make Christianity something it’s not.  Changing the names does that–and thus we should leave them alone in their traditional Greco-Roman forms.  To do so is another example of rectification of names.

Hopefully this name-switching is a fad that will eventually pass.  Meanwhile, I’m going to get one of the other copies of The Gospel of Thomas which I own, wherein Jesus is “Jesus” and Thomas is “Thomas”, and read that!

Part of “Religious Miscellany








Posted on 02/06/2018, in Christianity, Gnosticism, language, religion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

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