God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Q&A: Who is Judas Iscariot and why is he called “Iscariot”?

From the about page:

Ooh, let me be number eleven! I’d like to formally ask about the possible meanings of Iscariot. Although I highly doubt it’s actually related to the Latin sicarius (assassin), I’ve heard that as an unlikely though interesting theory.

What explanation(s) of that surname/eponym do you find plausible?

As usual, I’ll start with a little background:

First, etymology is notoriously tricky, plagued by “folk etymology” that ignores the dissimilarities between two words and focuses only on what they have in common in order to validate a preconceived idea. For example, about a decade ago David Howard was fired for using the word “niggardly” — presumably because someone (wrongly) though it had something to do with an ethnic slur; the word actually comes from a completely different source. But Washington D.C. mayor Williams ignored the letter “d” in analyzing the word.

Secondly, the particular combination of Hebrew and Greek creates lots of potential ambiguity, for two reasons. The vowels in Hebrew are much less important than they are in Greek, and to a lesser degree the opposite is true of the consonants. And Greek spellings of Hebrew words conflate lots of letters, particularly the sibilants: so samech, sin, shin, and tzadi all end up as the same Greek sigma. Combined, these differences between Greek and Hebrew mean that it’s easy to find apparent connections between unrelated words.

Thirdly, we don’t know how ancient Hebrew was pronounced. A clear example is the Hebrew name rivka, which the LXX records as rebekka. The Hebrew as we now know it is a bisyllabic word, while the Greek points to a trisyllabic word, perhaps with a double letter.

With all of these caveats in mind, we can consider the Greek iskariot (“Iscariot” in English). I don’t think that iskariot is related to sicarius. The etymology I find most convincing is that the word comes from the Hebrew ish k’riot, a “man of k’riot.” The /sh/ in Hebrew becomes /s/ in Greek, as it usually does. The Greek /a/ between the /k/ and the /r/, lacking in the current vocalization of the Hebrew, could have been there originally, or it could have been a Greek addition. Iskariot is as close to ish k’riot as rebekka is to rivka.

K’riot (also spelled “kerioth”) is a city mentioned in Jeremiah 48:24, Jeremiah 48:41, Amos 2;2, and perhaps Joshua 15:25. The word is also the plural of kirya, “city.” So ish k’riot could mean “someone from K’riot” or “someone from the cities.” A similar example in Modern English is “twin cities,” which in most contexts means “Minneapolis and Saint Paul,” but could mean any two large cities near each other; another example is “tri-state area,” which for me means where I live (outside New York City), but I imagine there are others.

Furthermore, it’s common to use geographical terms not (only) to indicate place of origin but also for qualities stereotypically associated with that place. For example, k’na’anim (“Canaanites”) in Job 40:30 is almost universally translated as “merchants.” So ish k’riot could have meant “a guy from K’riot” or something roughly akin to “city boy,” with some connotation of what it meant to be from a city.

So even if iskariot comes from ish k’riot — and that’s my best guess — we still don’t know for sure why Judas was called that or what it signified.

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November 29, 2009 Posted by | Q&A, translation theory | , , , , | 6 Comments