Thursday, September 30, 2010

Joseph Smith Translation Hebrews 11:23: Beautiful Baby Moses

What follows is a peek into the ways of scriptural translation.

I focus on a single word in the Hebrew Bible, tov. When used to describe Moses as a baby, tov has been rendered in various ways by the Greek, Latin, German, English, and other translators. The word also caught the attention of the Prophet Joseph Smith in preparing the New Translation of the Holy Bible: Moses, the proper child of the Authorised Version, becomes the peculiar child. Now that's peculiar--and just how does tov become peculiar?

At the outset, let's remember that the Prophet's wrote his New Translation under inspiration and without reference to the original languages of the Bible. Brother Joseph would later study Hebrew, German (Luther's Bible), and even Greek, but in 1832-3, when the New Translation was being prepared, he knew nothing of these. The New Translation, therefore, primarily corrects the reading of the English of the Authorised Version, though it may also sometimes reflect the original text of the Bible in surprising ways.

In the Authorised Translation of Hebrews 11:23 (which borrows from the martyr-translator, William Tyndale) we find the following:

By faith Moses, when he was born, was hid three months of his parents, because they saw he was a proper child, and they were not afraid of the king's commandments.

Again, the New Translation changes one word: because they saw he was a peculiar child. So let's begin with the word proper and learn how just one word in the Bible carries with it an amazing costume of historical and etymological meaning.

According to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, proper comes from the Latin proprius: "one's own, special, peculiar, probably from pro priuo: private or peculiar thing." Proper, at the time the word entered the English language in the 13th century, means: "pertaining to oneself or itself, to a person or thing particularly." By the 14th century the word means: "strictly pertaining; thorough, complete; excellent, fine." What we today consider to be another word, propriety, arises from proper, and comes to mean (from the 15th to the 17th century), as does proper, the quality of a thing, fitness, appropriateness.

When Tyndale translated "be cause they saw he was a proper chylde," he was following good idiomatic usage. He meant Moses's parents saw he was an excellent child! Yes, yes, a remarkable child! a fine child! a proper child!

Still, a "proper child" is, admittedly, archaic (and British). No modern translator would stick with that--and the Prophet Joseph did not.

Tyndale was deeply influenced by Luther's Bible, yet it's interesting how Tyndale chooses English idiomatic usage for describing superior babies, rather than Luther's simple and correct idiom for describing exceptional German Kinder (and Luther also follows the Hebrew for Exodus 2:2 in translating Hebrews 11:23): wie er ein schoenes Kind war. Ein schoenes Kind: beautiful child! lovely child!

That earliest of all English translators, John Wycliffe, followed the Latin Vulgate, yet note the difference between Wycliffe:

for that thei seiyen the yonge child fair

and the Vulgate:


elegantem infantem: an elegant infant!


Elegant seems over the top today, but St. Jerome simply meant, when the word is put back into ordinary English, choice or elect: What a choice baby! Now that's choice, i.e., stupid in modern Cynicalese.

On to the Greek: that should straighten things out in a hurry. The word for little Moses, found in both the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible, and thus in the original text of Hebrews, is asteion (asteios). It's worthwhile to consider the etymology. An asteios is someone of the astu, or of the town--had baby Moses already been out on the town?--rather than a hayseed (an agroikos). An asteios is polite, accomplished, cultivated, urbane (Latin, urbanus, urbs). Forget the cigars, that baby needs a pipe!

Taken to its etymological extreme, should we suppose Paul sees in Moses a city-folk rather than country-cousin? Here's the right sort of baby: a quality child, a fine baby--finesse, refinement. Putting the high-falutin' etymology aside, asteios matches well the later elegantem, schoenes, and proper. Wycliffe's fair seems a bit off somehow. Where does it come from?

We turn now to Exodus 2:2 (the Septuagint and ultimately the Hebrew), which St. Paul was simply quoting. What does the Hebrew say? It "simply" says that the parents regarded baby Moses ki-tov, or as (kitov, and for that reason (reason enough) chose to hide him from Pharaoh. Now everybody knows what tov means: Matsel Tov! Good Luck! Elegant Luck! It's the simplest of all Hebrew words next to shalom.

But note how the Authorised Translation renders the word: "and when they saw him that he was a goodly child."

Alas! goodly is one of those words that, however simple seeming, defies simplicity. The Prophet Joseph had his try with goodly in the very first verse of the Book of Mormon, and Latter-day Saints have been puzzling over it ever since: I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents. What does that mean? For the many, goodly means simply "righteous parents"; think it through a bit, and goodly seems contextually related to what Nephi goes on to say about Father Lehi, the founder of a race. Lehi is an educated, wealthy estate holder, with possibly a second house in the city(?), who is able to train his sons in both the language of the Egyptians and the learning of the Jews, even a "model sheikh" (as Hugh Nibley says). So there you have it: Lehi, the urbane, the asteios, the cultivated, a man definitely above-the-cut. No wonder they laughed: here is no nutcase out with a revelation, but a man of the goodly class, a gentleman, the last person you would suspect of impropriety (the im-proper). Lehi, like Paul, is a standing insult to his own educated class. No wonder Lehi found that the mocking all too soon turned to murderous intent--here was a serious challenge to the elites.

But let's not lose sight of "goodly Moses." He wasn't cultivated, educated, or well-behaved--though all that would come--"O my prophetic soul." Tov speaks knowingly of "good things to come," but "just for tonight" the baby was simply beautiful: a fair child. And aren't they all?

If we say that Moses was tov, and that tov is fair, then any ol' baby could be Moses. So how shall we render tov in this case? Why, that Moses was an exceptional baby, out-of-the-ordinary, purtty as a picture! He was Special! (In the Mountain West everything is special or a (real) treat.)

Which brings us back to peculiar. Because, you see, peculiar and special bring us back to nothing at all in modern parlance, since both words usually mean nothing more nor less than bizarre, different, weird, plum loco.

How words change! But Moses was a baby with a difference: He was remarkable, proper, peculiar, fair, elegant, of cultivated mien (a prince), goodly, schoenes, and just "plain" beautiful.

And how hard it is to fit words to true praise! Given our thoughtless, even cynical ways, no single word at our command does the job. For us, elegantem infantum would be a joke. We need the specific and peculiar to properly express things. We need a touch of finesse, a bit of cultivation (we need to read Jacques Barzun).

Any babe is beautiful--but Moses was peculiarly so. Besides, he was God's own: even his peculiar possession around whom God would call into being his chosen and royal priesthood and his peculiar people. Nuances vary, yet resonating within that broader, scriptural sense, peculiar is just the word for our little prophet.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.