September 13, 2009

Beggars before the Spirit - 2

Matthew consistently uses the word SPIRIT as something that is supernatural, experiential, personal, dynamic, physically inhabiting (and/or inhabitable), and capable of both desire and possibly even resentment. Therefore, typical translations of the first beatitude seem inconsistent in the way they render this very same word. The best interpretations may lean towards a consistent truth, but the typical translation itself (I think, to most readers) effectively replaces the metaphysical nature of what SPIRIT is with a purely metaphorical meaning, which chiefly serves to modify the meaning of a different, connecting word.

The phrase "poor in spirit" is actually vague three times over. First, "the poor" is itself an abstract, metaphoricaly collective singular term, whereas the original greek is an dynamically picturesque plural. Homer, Herodotus and Hesiod all would have recognized a meaning much closer to "beggars". Third, "spirit" has no practical meaning at all in the rendering other than to clarify that the beggars themselves aren't after material wealth. So what, precisely, are they after? (For that matter, why choose the editorial lowercase "s"? Why not a capital "S"?) But secondly, this particular "in" is purely metaphorical, which the English word "in" can sometimes be, but this particular "in" doesen't even appear as part of the greek.

The "poor" part really isn't so bad. That's the part we do get, I think. But I strongly suspect this editorial, metaphorical "in spirit" has a subliminally undermining effect against the other "in spirit" references of Matthew's gospel. For example, somebody reading post #1 probably argued with me to their screen that David wasn't physically "in" the spirit and God's voice wasn't physically "in" the disciples. Oh, really? Well. Why do you think that way? Hmm.

It's pretty clear what I think. But I strongly suggest we should all at least consider a translation of Jesus' first 'beatitude' that is consistent with the supernatural reality conveyed by the bulk of Matthew's regular uses of this word, SPIRIT.

Naturally, since I'm bringing it up, I have a suggestion.

To be continued...


Peter Kirk said...

Sorry to quibble, but technically in English "the poor" is plural, not singular. Compare "*The poor is always with you" with "The poor are always with you". But you are in the fairly good company of the ESV translators who have abused "the" + adjective in English as a singular when it is plural.

Bill said...

Peter, you know I love it when we quibble. :-)

I admit the singular/plural category blurs a bit sometimes. I did call it a 'collective singular'. But the greek is clearly plural and my point was that I think we lose something important when it disappears from the rendering. Plurals are very important in Paul's letters, too, but I digress.

By the way, Liddell & Scott (p.1550) list 'ptoxos' primarily as a noun. On the 8th line, "2. metaph." (with a citation of Mt.5:3). On the 9th line, "II. as Adj., beggarly"

I haven't really looked at the ESV yet, but thanks for the compliment, except I don't think I've "abused" any adjectives. ;-)

[cue music]
Don't know much about the ESV
Don't know much bi-ol-o-gie
La-da-da-da-da-da-daaaa da...
[fade music]

Anonymous said...

I strongly agreed with Kirk's assertion about "the + adjective" being plural in good English. I have myself blamed Bible translations that accept it in the singular.

But I just read the KJV Ps. 10:9 "He doth catch the poor, when he draweth him into his net" (similar in Coverdale), and now I'm having anxious doubts about my old certainty. I can't find any clear discussion about whether this is solecism, obsolete English, or just good English...

Bill Heroman said...

Wow, most intelligent anonymous comment, ever.

I think my better point was about the vagueness, and maybe I shouldn't have italicized/emphasized the sing/pl thing. I agree 'are the poor' is a plural reference. But 'beggars' would be more clearly a plural.

My far bigger gripe is the meaninglessness of the metaphorical 'in spirit'. This post would have been better if I'd left out the words singular and plural.

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