God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

The Curious Case of the Withered Hand: A Translation Dilemma

Matthew 12:9-14

The parable in Matthew 12:9-14 demonstrates so many key translation points (many of which have already come up recently, in posts too numerous to mention) that I think it’s worth taking a systematic look at that text and the issues it raises.

The Plot

As I understand it, the general plot of the episode goes something like this:

[9] Jesus enters a synagogue. [10] There’s a man there with a withered hand. The people there goad Jesus and ask him if it’s permissible to cure someone on the Sabbath. [11] Jesus addresses the group and tells them that if they had a sheep who had fallen into a pit on the Sabbath, surely they would rescue the sheep. [12] Because a man is worth more than a sheep, Jesus says it’s okay to heal the man on the Sabbath. [13] The man stretches out his hand and Jesus heals it. [14] The Pharisees leave and plot Jesus’ death.

Our first translation criterion is that the English convey the plot accurately and in a way that English speakers can understand.

The Rhetoric

The word anthropos is used throughout the parable. Here’s the paraphrase I just used, with the words for anthropos italicized:

[9] Jesus enters a synagogue. [10] There’s a man there with a withered hand. The people there goad Jesus and ask him if it’s permissible to cure someone on the Sabbath. [11] Jesus addresses the group and tells them that if they had a sheep who had fallen into a pit on the Sabbath, surely they would rescue the sheep. [12] Because a man is worth more than a sheep, Jesus says it’s okay to heal the man on the Sabbath. [13] The man stretches out his hand and Jesus heals it. [14] The Pharisees leave and plot Jesus’ death.

Our second translation criterion is that we make the rhetorical style of the Greek available to the English reader. A paraphrase like this does the trick:

[9] Jesus entered a synagogue. [10] There was a man inside with a withered hand. The people in the synagogue goaded Jesus and asked him if it’s permissible to cure someone on the Sabbath. [11] Jesus asked the group, “if one of you men had a sheep that had fallen into a pit on the Sabbath, wouldn’t you rescue it? [12] A man is worth more than a sheep. So it is permissible to heal someone on the Sabbath.” [13] The man stretched out his hand and Jesus healed it. [14] The Pharisees left and plotted Jesus’ death.

The Irony

In this particular case, the rhetorical repetition of anthropos to refer first to the man and then to the group is an interesting subtextual ironic message. The people don’t recognize how similar they (each being an anthropos) are to the man (anthropos) with the withered hand. This sub-theme meshes with the larger theme about the Sabbath.

One of the reasons the second translation criterion — capturing the rhetorical style — is important is that the irony in the story depends on it.

The Morals

The story has more than one moral. The most obvious seems to be that healing on the Sabbath is permissible. A second might be that we should identify with those in need of help. A third moral, from verse 12, is that people are more valuable than sheep. Because the Greek word anthropos means both “human” and “man,” it’s easy in Greek to shift seamlessly from using anthropos for “the man [with the withered hand]” to “all people.”

Our third translation criterion is that the English convey all of the morals of the story. It’s not hard to do that for verse 12 in isolation:

[12] …people are more valuable than sheep…

It’s particularly important to get verse 12 right because people want to be able to quote it out of context.

The Nuances

Even though the plot is straightforward, some nuances seem relevant. Jesus is asked if it’s permissible “to cure” someone on the Sabbath, while his answer is that it’s permissible “to do well” or “to do good” on the Sabbath. In answering the question, Jesus also shifts the focus of it.

Another nuance is lexical. Does the Greek word exestin mean “it is permissible” or “it is legal”? It’s an important distinction. There are times when it’s permissible to do what is not legal, and vice versa.

Similarly, does the Greek word xiros mean “withered” or something else? (The same adjective is used in Heb 11:29 to describe the condition of the Red Sea as the Israelites passed through it, suggesting that “dried up” or “withered” is right.)

A frequent translation error has the people asking Jesus if it’s permissible “to heal on the Sabbath.” At least in my dialect, “to heal on the Sabbath” could be sitting around passively. If I have the flu and I’m allowed to heal on the Sabbath, to me that means that I’m allowed to lie in bed all day and drink lots of liquids.

Our fourth translation criterion is get the details and nuances right.

The Conflicts

So here are the translation criteria:

1. Convey the plot.

2. Convey the rhetorical style, including the irony.

3. Convey all the morals.

4. Get the details right.

The problem, of course, is that they conflict. (2) requires the repetition of a word — probably “man” but maybe something else — first in verse 10 and then again in 11 and 12; it’s particularly important in 10 and 11 to get the irony right. But (3) requires “people” in verse 12 and, if I’m right about the Greek, (4) requires “man” in verse 10. Bit it’s hard to get “man” to work in verse 11 without sacrificing fluidity in English (“If any man among you…” barely sounds like English.)

We can’t use “person” in verse 10 because it’s less specific than (how I understand) the Greek, and we want to get the details right. Substituting “person” for “man” when a specific man is involved is like substituting “animal” for “sheep.” Even if I’m wrong about the Greek, “a person” won’t work in verse 10 because it’s awkward in English. We don’t usually start stories with “there was a person with a withered hand.” We use “there was someone with a withered hand.”

In fact, “someone” in verse 10 would be great for criteria (1) and (4), but then we get stuck on (2) and part of (3).

Solutions?

Any suggestions for a successful translation?

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September 16, 2009 - Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , ,

18 Comments »

  1. […] My follow-up to this post The value of men, women and sheep Of sheep and men: overlooking wordplay in translation Aner: […]

    Pingback by On Anthropos: Men, Women, and People « God Didn't Say That | September 16, 2009 | Reply

  2. beautifully put – given your arguments, I would keep the particularity of the implied male and males and stick with men/man for the sake of irony and let women read themselves into the text via a footnote.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | September 16, 2009 | Reply

  3. Hmmm. I don’t think I like the idea of relegating women to footnotes. I’m still hoping for a better translation.

    Comment by Joel | September 16, 2009 | Reply

  4. Yours is a fantastic analysis! Now I have a couple of questions:

    (How) would beginning your review of the text be any different if you started in v8? Isn’t Matthew having Jesus make claims about himself with a particular idiomatic title (with the word anthropos in the title?

    And what would change in your review if you knew that Matthew’s referent was not a man but a woman? Does his text really specify the gender of this healed individual?

    Comment by J. K. Gayle | September 16, 2009 | Reply

    • (How) would beginning your review of the text be any different if you started in v8? Isn’t Matthew having Jesus make claims about himself with a particular idiomatic title (with the word anthropos in the title?

      It’s an interesting question. (To be clear: verse 8 includes the well-known title “the Son of Man,” the Son of the anthropos.) The correct translation of verse 8 depends on what we do with “the Son of Man,” which is surely a topic unto itself.

      You’re right that in the context of “Son of Man,” the translation of anthropos becomes even more difficult. And as Jason point out, even if the two passages (the one ending in verse 8 and the other beginning with 9) are distinct, they are still part of the same text and therefore part of the same context.

      And what would change in your review if you knew that Matthew’s referent was not a man but a woman? Does his text really specify the gender of this healed individual?

      I think it does, yes. (Others disagree.) I think that for a woman the text would have another word, probably gune.

      Comment by Joel | September 17, 2009 | Reply

  5. Use one? Not looking at the Greek, but maybe something like this…

    Departing from there, he went into the synagogue. And someone was there with a withered hand. They questioned Jesus asking whether it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath, hoping to accuse him. He said to them, Which one of you has a sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the sabbath, would not take hold of it and lift it out? And anyone is more valuable than a sheep. So, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath. Then he said, “Stretch out your hand;” and that person stretched it out, and it was restored to normal, just like the other. But the Pharisees went out to conspire against him as to how they might destroy him.

    Comment by Will Fitzgerald | September 16, 2009 | Reply

  6. A good analysis. Sometimes we can’t get everything we want in translation, and have to make compromises. Personally I would prefer to compromise on the rhetorical style, rather than the plot, the morals or the details. So, unless someone can come up with a good idea for getting all four of these correct, I think we may have to lose some of the coherence of anthropos – or else go for the stylistic awkwardness of using “person”.

    Comment by Peter Kirk | September 16, 2009 | Reply

  7. I think the irony is more important in this case that the moral or politically correct translation. If indeed the person was a man and the crowd were men then the exclusiveness to men is historically appropriate and not necessarily exclusive of anyone.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | September 16, 2009 | Reply

  8. I think the simplest solution is to go with [10]”there was someone inside with a withered hand,” [11] “if anyone among you,” [12] “a person is worth more than a sheep,” and [13] “the man stretched out his hand.”

    This maintains the play between 10 and 11, while preserving a general sense in 12 (my thinking is that the English reader will have no difficulty making the connection in context; “one” is “a person”), while 13 doesn’t necessarily need to maintain the connection because most of the plays are in the earlier verses.

    Tough call, though.

    Comment by Jason A. Staples | September 17, 2009 | Reply

  9. If indeed … the crowd were men …

    Very unlikely, Bob. The scene is a sabbath meeting at a synagogue. Women may have sat separately in synagogues, but they were present.

    Anyway, no one is talking about a politically correct translation. But what I insist on is a translation which correctly reflects the “moral” i.e. the ethical teaching of Jesus. It is quite wrong to misrepresent the content of his teaching for the sake of rhetoric.

    Comment by Peter Kirk | September 17, 2009 | Reply

  10. Compare with Luke 13, It seems that women were present in the synagogue. I think that thw word anthropos has been misunderstood.

    Comment by Sue | September 17, 2009 | Reply

  11. I’ve just tried my withered hand at a translation into English which, like Matthew’s Greek, doesn’t really “explain” the gender of the one with the withered hand:

    http://speakeristic.blogspot.com/2009/09/when-sheep-dont-need-sex-more-wordplay.html

    Comment by J. K. Gayle | September 17, 2009 | Reply

    • I’m not sure I agree with your conclusion about Matthew’s Greek.

      You certainly chose a cute title for the post.

      Comment by Joel | September 17, 2009 | Reply

  12. […] 12:12, generated quite a lot of discussion on this blog and elsewhere. Suzanne, in a comment on one of Joel Hoffman’s posts, raised the issue of the rather similar passage in Luke […]

    Pingback by Gentle Wisdom» Blog Archive » The value of women, oxen and cows | September 18, 2009 | Reply

  13. Joel – thanks for framing these problems and tensions –
    Peter – I cannot put morality first as if it could be insisted on. Grace precedes law and so gives rise to walk. Spirit transforms flesh and so gives life to body. I do not decide what is right and then translate. The prejudged moral priority is not to be trusted.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | September 19, 2009 | Reply

  14. […] Matthew 12:10-13 (which is tricky, as I describe here), we find “person” in verse 12 for anthropos, (the TNIV had “human being”; […]

    Pingback by Gender in the Updated NIV « God Didn't Say That | November 1, 2010 | Reply

  15. […] concrete example will demonstrate. In describing Matthew 12:9-14 (“The Curious Case of the Withered Hand: A Translation Dilemma“), I wrote that a good […]

    Pingback by The Value of a Paraphrase instead of a Translation « God Didn't Say That | June 1, 2011 | Reply

  16. /9/ He went on from there and entered a synagogue. /10/ There was someone inside with a withered hand. The Pharisees in the synagogue pestered Jesus and asked him if it’s allowed to make someone well on the Sabbath. /11/ Jesus asked them: “If some one of you had a sheep that had fallen into a pit on the Sabbath, wouldn’t you rescue it? /12/ A person is worth much more than a sheep. So it is allowed to make someone well on the Sabbath.” /13/ The man stretched out his hand and Jesus made it well. /13/ The Pharisees left and plotted Jesus’ death.

    Comment by Kate Gladstone | June 1, 2011 | Reply


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