Monday, October 25, 2010

English Translations Sanitize the Bible And Muddle Biting Imagery

When I first began to translate the Greek New Testament as a student, I was puzzled why English translations always seemed to translate the Greek word ἡ ἀκροβυστία with “the uncircumcised” when the word actually means “the foreskin” and when there is a Greek word that actually does mean “the uncircumcised.” The Greek word is ἀπερίτμητος, an adjective which, when used with the article, ἡ ἀπερίτμητος, may function as a noun. Paul never uses the adjective ἀπερίτμητος. In fact, it occurs only one time in the whole New Testament. It occurs in Stephen’s speech when he, like the prophets earlier, indicts Israel for “uncircumcised hearts and ears” (Acts 7:51).

The word that Paul consistently uses when he juxtaposes Jews as “the circumcised” (ἡ περιτομή) with Gentiles who are not circumcised, is not ἡ ἀπερίτμητος, “the uncircumcised,” a term used repeatedly in the LXX to depict Israel. Rather, Paul’s word of choice seems to be the contemptuous, even scornful term by which Jews of his day commonly referred to Gentiles. Paul uses ἡ ἀκροβυστία, “the foreskin,” the term of contempt, not to express scorn or disdain, but rather to feature the grace of God in the gospel which saves not only Jews who are circumcised, but also Gentiles who are “the foreskin,” a sure manifestation that they stand outside the covenant.

That English translators mollify the unpleasantry is understandable. However, lost is something of the richness and sting that Paul’s imagery evokes for Gentles as intended by Jews, which is captured well in the accusation put to Peter when he returned from being with Cornelius, “You went to men who have the foreskin and you ate with them” (εἰση̂λθες πρὸς ἄνδρας ἀκροβυστίαν ἔχοντας καὶ συνέφαγες αὐτοι̂ς; Acts 11:2). Paul's objective is not to be vulgar as course jokers are. His point is not even to be offensive to Gentiles, as he undoubtedly was as a Pharisee. Rather, as a Jew who formerly held contempt for the Gentiles as "the foreskin," now as Christ's apostle to the Gentiles, he purposely tweaks the sensibilities of fellow Jews who are loath to accept Gentiles believers as Abraham's seed.

Other portions within Paul’s letters that English translations tend to soften are Galatians 5:11 and Philippians 3:8.


  1. Thank you for an interesting post. I have to ask, though, what do you make of Philippians 3:2f?

    I translate it like this: "See the dogs! See the evildoers! See the concision! For we are the circumcision..."

    Although circumcision is an archaic word, it gets the pun across. What I cannot figure out is what exactly Paul is doing with this quote. I remember a professor in college saying this sounds almost like a stereotypical exchange of insults between Jews and Romans, but even if that's true, I don't quite understand what Paul is getting at.

  2. Gary,

    I think your translation is about right for Phil. 3:2-3a (Βλέπετε τοὺς κύνας, βλέπετε τοὺς κακοὺς ἐργάτας, βλέπετε τὴν κατατομήν. ἡμεῖς γάρ ἐσμεν ἡ περιτομή). My concern with the muddling of imagery is not over the translation of περιτομή, since the word means circumcision. My concern is only over how we translate ἀκροβυστία.

    In Phil. 3:2, it seems to me that Paul is taking the designation that Jews take exclusively for themselves and owning as a Christian, and at the same time giving the Jews a term more fitting, since they had become enamored with the sign but failed miserably to lay hold of the thing signified by circumcision of the flesh, namely, the true circumcision, which is the circumcision of the heart.

  3. Thank you, sir. What I meant to say is "although concision is an archaic word..." The proper translation of peritome was not something I was questioning.

    I realize that my entire question was a tangent to the actual post. Sorry about that. Still, thank you for your response!

  4. Just had akrobustia on my greek quiz today. Thanks Dr. Caneday, you sure know how to make a vocab word stick in my head. :)

  5. I'm glad it worked. I dare say that you will never forget the meaning of ἀκοβυστία either. Right?


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