Tag Archives: Greek

What is the Sword of Damocles?

For some reason, I keep hearing the phrase “the sword of Damocles” over and over. I’m not sure if everyone in the world decided to brush off their Latin and read some classics during the Covid quarantine or what. But somehow, this particular classical reference is back in vogue and you’ve probably heard it too. So what is this famous sword?

Who is “Damocles” Anyway?

Here’s a short entry on him from The Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1870):

DAMOCLES (Δαμοκλῆς), a Syracusan, one of the companions and flatterers of the elder Dionysius, of whom a well-known anecdote is related by Cicero. Damocles having extolled the great felicity of Dionysius on account of his wealth and power, the tyrant invited him to try what his happiness really was, and placed him at a magnificent banquet, surrounded by every kind of luxury and enjoyment, in the midst of which Damocles saw a naked sword suspended over his head by a single horse-hair—a sight which quickly dispelled all his visions of happiness. (Cic. Tusc. v. 21.) The same story is also alluded to by Horace. (Carm. iii. 1.17.) Source: Edward Herbert Bunbury, “DAMOCLES (Δαμοκλῆς),” Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1870) 935.

Just so we all have our bearings: Syracuse (today Siracusa) is in Sicily, not upstate New York. Cicero is the extremely famous Roman orator and senator.

Wait – Who is Dionysus?

Dionysus I the Elder was tyrant of Syracuse, a Hellenistic ruler. He lived about 432 to 367 BC. Let’s just say he was not famous for his kindness. In fact, Dante places him in the River Phlegethon made of boiling blood in the Inferno:

“These are the souls of tyrants, who were given
To blood and rapine. Here they wail aloud
Their merciless wrongs. Here Alexander dwells,
And Dionysius fell, who many a year
Of woe wrought for fair Sicily. …” (Harvard Classics 1909)

But, at least in the afterlife, Dionysus gets to suffer forever with his tyrant buddies like Alexander the Great.

Tell us About the Sword

Ok, but we really want to know more about the sword hanging from a single horse hair over the head of Damocles. Damocles was a sycophant–a member of Dionysus’ court who flattered him and enjoyed his largess. Well, sort of. Dionysus was cartoonishly fearful of plotters and assassins–a typical tyrant perhaps. He wouldn’t even let a barber shave him for fear that the razor would “slip”, so he had his daughters burn off his beard with red-hot walnut shells. In order to keep his people on their toes, Dionysus did not take it lightly when Damocles the flatterer paid him some nice compliments about how great his life as tyrant must be. Dionysus, in order to teach Damocles a lesson decided to give him a taste of the tyrant’s life.

The Sword of Damocles by
Giuseppe Piattoli, Metropolitan Museum of Art, public domain

He had a huge feast prepared for Damocles, put him on a golden couch, surrounded him with all of the luxuries of the day. And while Damocles was enjoying himself immensely, Dionysus had a sword suspended over his neck, hanging from only a single horse hair. (You might wonder how the geometry works here since we sit in chairs while we eat so a sword could only be suspended over our heads, not necks. But the Greeks and Romans reclined on couches while they ate, so the neck could be an easy target for such a sword.) Needless to say, Damocles found the situation rather uncomfortable and asked to be released from the bizarre situation. Dionysus had the satisfaction of teaching Damocles the lesson of his life: “that there can be no happiness for him over whom some terror is always impending.” That’s the moral of the story.

Let’s Hear it From Cicero

Here is how Cicero himself tells the tale:

When Damocles, one of his flatterers, in talking with him, recounted his forces, his power, the majesty of his reign, the abundance of his possessions, the magnificence of his palace, and said that there had never been a happier man, he replied, ” Damocles, since this life charms you, do you want to taste it yourself, and to make trial of my fortune ? ” He answering in the affirmative, Dionysius commanded the man to be placed upon a golden couch with a covering most beautifully woven and magnificently embroidered, and furnished for him several sideboards with chased silver and gold. Then he ordered boys chosen for their surpassing beauty to stand at the table, and watching his nod, to serve him assiduously. There were ointments, garlands. Perfumes were burned. The tables were spread with the most exquisite viands. Damocles thought himself favored of Fortune. In the midst of this array Dionysius ordered a glittering sword attached to a horse-hair to be let down from the ceiling, so as to hang over the neck of the happy man. After this, Damocles had no eye for the beautiful servants nor for the silver richly wrought, nor did he reach forth his hand to the table. The gar- lands were already fading. At length he begged the tyrant to let him go; for he no longer wanted to be happy. Does not Dionysius seem thus to have declared that there can be no happiness for him over whom some terror is always impending? Yet it was no longer possible for him to return to justice, and to restore to the citizens their liberty and their rights. In his youth, at an improvident age, he had so ensnared himself by wrong-doings, and had committed them to such an extent, that he could not be safe if he began to behave reasonably. (Source: Andrew P. Peabody, trans., Cicero’s Tusculan disputations, [Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1886] Book V, 21, pp. 286-88)

Is the Sword of Damocles on the Rise?

According to Google nGram, peak “sword of Damocles” usage was in 1996. Perhaps I’ve just heard it a lot recently. Maybe if we check back in a few years, we’ll see a new spike in usage of the term. Anyway, there you have it. Now you know what the Sword of Damocles is all about.

Ephesians 5:19 – Silent Songs?

singing1

When reading Paul’s encouragements to come together for prayer, you might expect him to recommend speaking aloud. Yet if you read the King James Version or the New American Bible, you would be envisioning something different, a silent experience of communal heart-song. With translation, as always, the devil is in the details, so let’s take a look at them.

The Greek says:

λαλοῦντες ἑαυτοῖς [ἐν] ψαλμοῖς καὶ ὕμνοις καὶ ᾠδαῖς πνευματικαῖς, ᾄδοντες καὶ ψάλλοντες τῇ καρδίᾳ ὑμῶν τῷ κυρίῳ, (Eph 5:19)

I’ve bolded the relevant “te kardia” which is translated differently by different translators. Here are the seemingly silent versions:

Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; (Eph 5:19 KJV)
Speaking to yourselves in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual canticles, singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord; (Eph 5:19 DRA)
addressing one another (in) psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and playing to the Lord in your hearts, (Eph 5:19 NAB)
Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, (Eph 5:19 NIV)
speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music in your hearts to the Lord, (Eph 5:19 NET)

The last time I checked, when you speak or sing “in your heart,” it’s a silent activity. You’ll also notice in the older KJV and DRA that one could take the English “speaking to yourselves” as reflexive and singular, as in “I was talking to myself.” Now both of these concepts are possible: te kardia can mean “in your heart” and heautois can mean “yourselves” in a reflexive way. Yet it seems highly unlikely that Paul would summon the Christian community to speak, sing and make melody in a completely silent fashion, as if we all came together only to inaudibly hum to ourselves. To back me up, I’ll quote Muddiman’s commentary here:

“If pressed, a true reflexive would mean ‘speaking to yourselves’ and the maxim would then be recommending inward praise during the daily life of believers (as, probably, 1 Thess. 5:16f. and Phil. 4:4–6). But the larger context implies corporate worship and interaction with other Christians (and this must be the sense at Col. 3:16, with its ‘teaching and admonishing each other’).” Muddiman, J. (2001). The Epistle to the Ephesians (p. 248). London: Continuum.

Beyond this point, it is important to note that Paul’s conception of the Christian community as the body of Christ (e.g. 1 Cor 12) would cause him to talk about it as a communal entity. That means, when one members speaks to another member, it would really be the “body” talking to itself. Thus he uses the reflexive heautois and not the expected reciprocal pronoun allelon.

Translations with Audible Singing

Some of the more recent translations do a better job here:

addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, (Eph 5:19 RSV)
addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, (Eph 5:19 ESV)
speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; (Eph 5:19 NASB)

If you read the RSV, ESV or NASB, you might decide to speak up in church—that is, here Paul recommends speaking, singing and making melody “with your heart” rather than simply “in your heart.” Similarly, the UBS Translation Handbook expresses the confusing array of translations and simply throws up its literary hands:

What follows in Greek is simply “in your heart,” which TEV understands to mean with praise in your hearts. But some translate “in your hearts” (NEB, TNT, NIV, JB), which can only mean inaudible singing; so Westcott: “the outward music was to be accompanied by the inner music of the heart.” But it seems difficult to believe that the writer was telling them to have the strains and choruses of songs and psalms running through their minds. Others translate “from the heart,” “heartily,” “with all your hearts” (Brc, Mft, Gdsp, and others). Abbott, however, notes that the normal way to say this is “from the heart” (see the synonymous “from the soul” in verse 6:6). TEV understands the Greek phrase here to mean “with praise in your heart,” but it may be preferable to take the phrase to mean “with all your heart” (RSV), that is, heartily, enthusiastically. (Bratcher, R. G., & Nida, E. A. [1993]. A handbook on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians [p. 136]. New York: United Bible Societies.)

Paul could either be recommending silent but quasi-musical praise of God in your mind or active, out-loud, enthusiastic, musical praise of God with your mouth and vocal chords. That’s a big difference! But what does that difference depend on?

The Dative Difference

The way we translate either “in” or “with” in this case zeroes on the usage of the dative case. (Definition from Robertson’s grammar: “The dative is the case of personal interest [denoting advantage or disadvantage], corresponding to the English to or for, or indirect object.”) In this particular case we are dealing with the fine distinction between the “dative of manner” and the “dative of means/instrument” (using Daniel Wallace’s categories). The dative of manner describes the way in which an action is performed—as in “whether in pretense or in truth” in Phil 1:18. The dative of means/instrument, however, describes the instrument through which the action of the verb is performed—as in “she wiped his feet with her hair” (John 11:2). I would argue that here in Ephesians 5:19, we are not looking at a dative of manner, where all the singing words are internal and trapped in your heart. Rather, Paul is looking at the heart as a musical instrument of sorts, through which all songs and hymns must go in order to come out of our mouths. This usage would be a dative of means/instrument. He is not envisioning a crowd of Christians speaking to themselves quietly and humming tunes soundlessly, but of Christians gathered together and speaking and singing out loud. So next time you come together with other Christians for worship, make sure to open your mouth and sing!

Akeldama – Aramaic in the New Testament (Post #6)

Over time, I’ve been doing a little series of posts on Aramaic in the New Testament. This is the sixth post.

This week, I came across an Aramaic term that I just couldn’t pass up. In Acts 1, we get a rather gruesome description of Judas’ suicide after his betrayal of Jesus. We’re told that the horrific hanging happened in a particular places called “Akeldama.” Here’s the passage:

18 (Now this man bought a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out.
19 And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) (Act 1:18-19 RSV)

Note on the Location

You can go look up the location, but basically it was and is a field of red clay dirt that was used by artisans in antiquity as a natural resource for making clay pots. In Matthew 27, 7, 10, the place is referred to as the “Potter’s Field” (Greek: τὸν ἀγρὸν τοῦ κεραμέως), hence the notion that the clay dirt was used for making clay pots. When it is called “field of blood” in Acts 1, the origin of the term might not be Judas’ suicide, but rather the red color of the dirt. The other thing to say is that Matthew and Acts differ on who purchased the field. In Acts, Judas bought the field, but in Matthew 27:7, the priests who paid Judas to betray Jesus bought the field to bury him. Either way, the location is still around and orthodox Christians have built a monastery on the place creatively nicknamed “Aceldama Monastery.” The field has also been used as a burial place.

Note on the Aramaic Word “Akeldama”

Simply, the word Akeldama transliterates the Greek “Ἁκελδαμάχ” (transliterated more precisely, Hakeldamach, note the appropriate rough breathing) which transliterates a combination of two Aramaic words: חֲקָל דְּמָא (chaqal dema). Some Greek manuscripts have a better spelling: Ἁκελδαμά (Act 1:19). Oddly, the English eliminates the Greek rough breathing which aims to transliterate the consonant chet. The word, dema or dma, means “blood” and appears many times in various combinations in Aramaic texts, as listed in the online Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon. Here is the entry from Jastrow’s dictionary:

dma_Jastrow

 

So the word, dam or dema, normally means blood, but can also refer to other fluids. The other word is chaqal, which means field. Again, CAL has a great listing and here’s Jastrow:

chaqal_Jastrow

The word “Akeldama” represents then, the construct chain חֲקָל דְּמָא (chaqal dema). In which the first word, chaqal  is masculine singular construct and dema is masculine singular emphatic. The construct chain is definite since it is a proper noun–like “the king of Persia” in Ezra 4:24–hence “the Field of (the) Blood” is the best translation. Note that Luke refers to “their own dialect” (ta idia dialekto auton), which indicates both he and his intended reader, Theophilus, are not part of the group of native Aramaic speakers, but native Greek speakers.

Conclusion

I suppose there’s no rocket science involved in explaining Akeldama. I think the only thing to say is that the English could do a better job transliterating it – perhaps as Halkeldema. The word simply means what Luke says it means “field of blood.”

Is Christ All? How to Translate Colossians 3:11

Colossians 3:11 gives us one of Paul’s lists of formerly-significant people boundaries to indicate that now in Christ, we are all one and these boundaries no longer matter. The text reads:

 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Col 3:11 ESV)

ὅπου οὐκ ἔνι Ἕλλην καὶ Ἰουδαῖος, περιτομὴ καὶ ἀκροβυστία, βάρβαρος, Σκύθης, δοῦλος, ἐλεύθερος, ἀλλὰ [τὰ] πάντα καὶ ἐν πᾶσιν Χριστός.

Unfortunately, the very last part of the verse always sounds weird. I mean, “Christ is all”–what does that mean? The translations do not deviate much from this line. I’m sure that lots of translators have toiled over this verse, so I don’t mean to scoff at their hard work or claim any sort of omniscience. I merely want to make a suggestion. The copula, the verb of being, is absent in the Greek and therefore always inserted in the translations. Latin can follow the Greek without an “is”: “…sed omnia et in omnibus Christus.” If all I had was that snippet and no context, I’d be very tempted to translate either the Latin or Greek as “…but all and in all, Christ” or “…but all and Christ in all.” So, why not translate the verse that way?

To me it seems that list of divisions Paul rattles off between Greek and Jew, slave and free and so one simply terminates at panta, all. Let’s try another sentence with the same structure to see if this could work: “Here there is no longer short and tall, big and small, serious and silly, but everybody and in everybody is ice cream.” Doesn’t it seem that the final term in my list, everybody, could function as the terminus of the list rather than as a predicate nominative of “ice cream”? “Everybody is ice cream” sounds strange.

To me it seems that the drive to translate our phrase as “Christ is all and in all” comes from the context and the idea of putting on Christ and especially “Christ who is your life” in verse 4. But it really seems like an unnecessary stretch. Why does the adversative, alla, but, have to create a new independent clause, couldn’t it just be Paul’s way of punctuating the turning point in the comparison?: Before, we had all kinds of divisions that divided us, but now we are one. Lastly again, it comes back to trying to make sense of the “Christ is all” statement. What does that even mean? Paul is certainly not pantheist or something, so what could such a statement convey, that every Christian is in some mysterious way, Christ?? I’d prefer that Paul is simply saying in Christ, the divisions fall away and only “all/everybody” is left and in everybody dwells Christ. That seems to fit the grammatical demands and Paul’s theology. Inserting an “is” to me seems an overly creative translation twist.

(Of course, perhaps I’m overlooking something important, so please comment if you can explain why “Christ is all” is the best translation here.)

Anathema in the New Testament

Anathema shows up five times as a noun in the New Testament (Rom 9:3; 1 Cor 12:3, 16:22; Gal 1:8, 9) and oddly, one time as a verb (Acts 23:14). It is a strange, foreign-sounding word that has an oddly long life. For example, if you read the canons of the Council of Trent, each stated idea condemned by the Council is followed by “…anathema sit” or “let him be anathema [if he holds this view]. See the section on justification, for example. There’s even a joke about a Catholic monsignor who named his dog “Anathema,” so that he could yell at the dog, “Anathema sit!”

Often, the New Testament examples of “anathema” are translated as “accursed.” So, for example, in Gal 1:9 Paul teaches, “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one your received, let him be accursed” (ESV). The word there really is “anathema.”

The word does show up in the Septuagint 26 times (Lev 27:28 twice; Num 21:3; Deut 7:26 twice, 13:16, 13:18, 20:17; Josh 6:17, 6:18 thrice, 7:1 twice, 7:11, 7:12 twice, 7:13 twice, 22:20; Judg 1:17; 1 Chr 2:7; Judith 16:19; 2 Macc 2:13, 9:16; Zech 14:11). In these Old Testament references, “anathema” often refers to something “devoted” to the Lord (Lev 27:28; Josh 6:17), but it can refer to things that are cursed (Deut 7:26). Oddly, the word is used as a proper noun for a place name in Hebrew, “Hormah,” but in Greek, “Anathema” (Num 21:3; Judg 1:17). However, this is more a translation than a transliteration. The word “Hormah” is derived from the Hebrew verb hrm which means to devote something.

Ok, so what does anathema mean? Well, it comes from the Greek verb, anatithemi, which means to “lay upon” and therefore “refer, attribute, ascribe, entrust, commit, set up, set forth, declare.” The idea is that you might put an offering of some kind before a person or god, laying it upon an altar or perhaps at the feet of another.This verb actually shows up in Acts 25:14 and Gal 2:2, where a person “lays” a matter before another; in one case Festus lays Paul’s case before Felix, in the other, Paul lays his views before the apostles. So “anathema” means a “thing laid before” or a “thing devoted.” It translates the Hebrew word herem in the Old Testament, which as we saw above could refer to something devoted to God or something devoted “to destruction,” an abominable thing. So in light of the Septuagint, the New Testament uses of anathema follow in the second track, using “anathema” to mean “accursed” or “abominable.” The Liddell-Scott-Jones Lexicon does not offer a lot of help. Moulton-Miligan’s Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament (p. 33) expound on the Megara inscription mentioned by LSJ, which actually reads “anethema”, and they explain the spelling difference but translate the word as “curse!” The Thesaurus Linguae Graecae shows 1753 results for “anathema”, but most are post-New Testament. It seems to be a word that came into its own in the Septuagint and then used in the NT with it’s “septuagintal” sense of “accursed.”