Will the real translation please stand up? Considering John 11
Chapter 11 is a climactic moment in the gospel of John. It contains the last, and greatest, of the seven signs that Jesus performs in this gospel, the raising of Lazarus from the dead. It is also a literary masterpiece, constructed using metaphors (light and dark are but one example), considerable irony (vs 4 and vss 50-53 are particularly good examples) and a Jesus that again turns everything expected upside down on its head.
I suspect that we tolerate Jesus’ unexpected behaviour and implicit criticism of his society much better when it matches our own beliefs. It is this consideration which leads me to reflect on this week’s reading.
The first social problem Jesus creates is for Mary and Martha. They face a difficult predicament here, as their brother Lazarus is dying. Lazarus is the only male in the household in a culture in which a woman without a man was profoundly vulnerable to poverty and exploitation. Lazarus was not only a beloved brother, but was also the closest thing to social welfare that they had, and he was close to death.
Mary and Martha send word to Jesus, calling on him for help. After all, he is a close friend to Lazarus. They know he has extraordinary powers. They expect Jesus to behave in a manner in keeping with the society they live in. Jesus doesn't.
Jesus fails to come and see Lazarus as he lays dying. Jesus fails to attend his friend’s funeral. Jesus does not meet the sisters’ expectations of a close friend and protector. When they get word that Jesus is finally on his way, after the death and funeral, Martha goes out to meet him. She challenges him about his actions. Mary apparently is at home, perhaps unable to face him.
Jesus’ reaction is again socially unexpected. He does not attempt to comfort Martha, but instead gives her a lesson in doctrine and theology. Whatever we might think about Jesus’ words, especially as we know what Jesus is intending, this is not a particularly pastoral response.
But we can cope with this, as we know it all has a happy ending, and Jesus will restore Lazarus to life. We understand that Jesus’ unexpected social behaviour has a point to it, and this point is also part of God’s plan to give Jesus and God glory.
The story continues, and I am guessing that my next two sentences will probably reflect the bible translation you are reading. In verse 33, Mary, possibly Martha, and their friends are all weeping. This lamenting of the dead was what was expected in these times. The next thing that happens is perhaps a little surprising to us. Jesus is apparently moved by her weeping. By verse 35, Jesus himself begins to weep. Just to help you here, the NRSV reads:
30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see." 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, "See how he loved him!" 37 But some of them said, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?" 38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb.
But something is wrong. Jesus is behaving within the social convention, something he has consistently failed to do throughout the earlier part of the chapter, and indeed throughout much of this gospel. Quite some time ago, when I really tried to grapple with this text, I found this both odd and comforting. It was very moving to think of Jesus weeping with the bereaved people, having compassion on their grief. But I remained surprised that Jesus was behaving in an expected way. Where had the unexpected gone?
This continued to trouble me, and in preparing the Lenten bible study for this passage, I finally did what I should have done before. I looked at the Greek.
You will note that I have highlighted some words in verses 33, 35 and 38. If the blog removes the highlight, I am talking about “greatly disturbed” and “deeply moved” in verse 33, “weep” in verse 35 and “greatly disturbed” again in verse 38 in the NRSV passage reproduced above.
I have taught the Translation section of introductory biblical studies for many years at the college. I have also taught it as a bible study for people wanting to improve their understanding of scripture. I have discovered that the translators of our various bibles are thoughtful people, often adding in an extra word (or phrase in the case of “The Message” or the “Living Bible”) to the text to clarify things, especially theological things. I have found they put capital letters onto certain words to change the understanding, and that they ignore at times the real meaning of certain Greek and Hebrew words considered too contentious or difficult to translate.
On the whole, they do a wonderful job getting at times obscure words and ideas into understandable English. But at times they overstep the mark, and this is one of them.
There are three words I want to highlight. Let’s start with verse 33.
Have a look at the bible translation you have with you. In particular, note how your translation describes Jesus as feeling when he meets Mary for the first time. To remind you, the NRSV says:
33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.
The Greek words are embrimaomai and tarasso respectively. The first is a favourite of mine. It literally means to snort like a horse. It is a verbal idiom for being angry and indignant. The second means agitated or troubled. Neither verb denotes compassion or sympathy.
Gail R O'Day, in the New Interpreter's Bible commentary, outlines the problem in John 11:33-35 extremely well, and her words are worth reproducing:
“From the earliest patristic interpreters of this text, commentators have struggled to interpret the words about Jesus' emotions in these verses. This difficulty has even influenced the way v. 33 is translated. The differences between the NIV and the NRSV translations are instructive in this regard. The NIV translates the verb enebrimesato as "deeply moved," the NRSV as "greatly disturbed." The NIV translates the verb etaraxen as "troubled," the NRSV as "deeply moved." The two translations suggest that the verbs are synonymous and that they have to do with the depths of Jesus' compassion (esp. "deeply moved"). However, they are more interpretation than translation, because the Greek verbs do not have these meanings. The first verb (embrimaomai) connotes anger and indignation, not compassion. In its LXX and other NT usages, it has this meaning consistently (e.g., Dan 11:30 LXX; Matt 9:30; Mark 1:43; 14:5). The primary meaning of the second verb is "agitated" or "troubled" (tarasso; the NIV is more accurate here) and is used here to underscore the intensity of Jesus' emotion.
The NIV and the NRSV thus tend to sentimentalize and play down Jesus' true emotions in v. 33, turning them from anger to compassion. … Interestingly, German translations of this text, following Luther's initial translation, tend to render the verbs as verbs of anger.” (NIB, IX:690)
Translating these verbs correctly actually has Jesus again behaving in an unexpected way, which is much more in keeping with the usual intentions of the author of the gospel of John. And the evidence of the Greek text is very clear about Jesus’ emotions, and he is being described as angry in v. 33.
So we have two problems here. The first is that in a situation that seems to call for sympathy, the author of John has Jesus clearly angry, something which causes problems for us 21st century Christians. It apparently makes us as readers so uncomfortable in our picture of Jesus, that many modern translators simply change the emotions to better suit our own views about Jesus. There are some that do accept the meaning of the Greek – the NLT and somewhat surprisingly, The Message, both use the word ‘angry’ in their translations but this is uncommon practice.
The second problem is why do the tears of Mary and her friends (the "Jews") arouse Jesus' anger and indignation?
Ah, I hear you cry at this point, but the text does say that Jesus weeps. Here it is:
35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, "See how he loved him!"
There are two problems with understanding Jesus’ tears as coming from the same emotion as the mourners, and as even the same tears. The first clue is that “the Jews” note that Jesus must have loved Lazarus greatly, and this is why he is weeping. Readers of John would know that if the character “the Jews” say it, then it is extremely likely to be false. So we can conclude this is not why Jesus weeps.
The verb translated ‘weep’ in verse 35, is dakruo, and it is a hapax legomena, meaning that is the only occurrence of this word in the NT. It is different to the word used of Mary or the Jews "weeping", which is klaio. It literally means to “shed tears”. So Mary and her friends weep; Jesus “sheds tears”. The use of this word, chosen deliberately by John, is likely meant to imply that Jesus' tears were somehow different than the weeping of the others, and not out of compassion or sympathy for Lazarus or his family.
The point of this exercise is not to now give you an interpretation of the passage in the light of this translation, though for what it is worth, I think Jesus, who is there to demonstrate a magnificent sign that shows his and God’s true glory (NRSV 11:4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, "This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God's glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.") is angry and indignant that the other characters in the story do not trust him or have faith enough to recognise this.
Rather, this exercise has been to demonstrate that a slip of a translator’s pencil has the capacity to change the whole meaning and tenor and interpretation of a passage. Rather than being allowed to explore the full depth and meaning John’s author wants us to experience, we find a sanitised version in many of our bibles that is apparently more palatable to us.
Myself, I would prefer the full meaning, warts and all. I want to make my own decisions about what a passage means, no matter how hard this might be. I want the real Jesus of the text, not the one someone thinks I should have. I want to take the risk associated with truly understanding this story.