Richard Rhodes is a linguist who teaches at the University of California-Berkeley. He blogs at Better Bibles. His last BBB post touches on a number of great topics: representation of gender in Greek and English; differences in style across the components of the New Testament; “natural English” as the way to go if we are to have better Bibles in English. Though this post is just an excuse for me to link to Johnny Cash singing “give me that old time religion,” before I offer the link, I will take issue with some of Rich’s claims.
I concur with the following comment by Rich in the thread pursuant to his post:
I just want to get to the point of being able to talk about how to make Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, and the writer of Hebrews sound as different in English as they do in Greek. And step one is to talk about subtle differences in usage. In this case, what linguists call markedness.
Fine. Here is a feature of usage in the gospel of Matthew. The author likes to conform to Biblish diction and cite in Biblish for the sake of his LXX literate readership. He also likes to calque non-Biblish phraseology, like "the kingdom of heaven" and “our Father who is in heaven,” phraseology Jesus shared with the Pharisees. Hence the occurrence in Matthew of a relatively large number of Hebrew and Jewish Aramaic > Jewish Hellenistic Greek turns-of-phrase.
In Matt 15:9, that's why we find the wording we do, per LXX Isa 29:13. For example: ἐντάλματα ἀνθρώπων “commandments of men” (not an exact calque of the Hebrew מִצְוַת אֲנָשִׁי; the collective singular "command" is pluralized).
It is true of course that “men” in this phrase, in Hebrew and Greek, is not gender-specific. Neither is “men” gender-specific in comparable English phraseology of a literary register, for example: “The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men/ gang aft agley,/ an' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain.” (a reading of the whole wonderful poem).
I would argue that “a commandment of men” in Isa 29:13 is a fine literary translation of a component of a literary text. Isa 29:9-14 (with the exception perhaps of 29:11b-12) is a tautly composed diatribe blistering with a high density of patterned poetic language.
To be sure, “a commandment of men” might not qualify as a politically correct translation. That, of course, might be considered a feature, not a bug. It *is* the translation of the Jewish Publication Society (NJPSV).
The salient contrast in Isa 29:13 depends on a “before God/before men” binary: heartfelt worship in response to God’s invitation versus lip service in response to a commandment of men drilled into a faux believer. A similar binary underlies Jer 31:34. Isa 29:13:
יַעַן כִּי נִגַּשׁ הָעָם הַזֶּה בְּפִיו
וְלִבּוֹ רִחַק מִמֶּנִּי
וַתְּהִי יִרְאָתָם אֹתִי
מִצְוַת אֲנָשִׁים מְלֻמָּדָה
Because this people drew near with their mouth
and honored Me with their lips
while their heart was far from Me,
their worship of Me became
a commandment of men learned by rote.
[NJPSV somewhat modified]
It makes sense to incorporate a parallel set of translation choices into a rendering of Matt 15:19 even if the latter’s distinctive features must also be respected:
Ὁ λαὸς οὗτος τοῖς χείλεσίν με τιμᾷ,
ἡ δὲ καρδία αὐτῶν πόρρω ἀπέχει ἀπʼ ἐμοῦ·
μάτην δὲ σέβονταί με,
διδάσκοντες διδασκαλίας ἐντάλματα ἀνθρώπων.
This people honors me with their lips
while their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship Me,
teaching as doctrine the commandments of men.
[RSV=ESV slightly modified].
I'm not sure there is a better way to capture the Biblishness and Rabbinicness of the style of Matthew than to preserve agreement in matters of detail across registers Matthew wished to conjoin: biblical Greek understood from within, and acting as an indictment of, Greek literate Pharisaic Judaism. I note in passing that the love-hate relationship with the Pharisees the gospel of Matthew reflects is unlikely to be an innovation of Matthew. It is best attributed to Jesus himself.
One rephrases "commandment(s) of men" at considerable peril - though Mark does, after the original is reproduced, in a similar context: “commandment of God” versus "the tradition of men" (Mark 7:8).
NT authors demonstrate a strong commitment to the Biblish of their day. If you naturalize the NT’s Biblish too much – Biblish as in Hebrew Bible > Septuagint Biblish - you remove a component of its markedness.
To calque or not to calque: that is the question. An exact calque is not necessary. An approximate calque seems preferable - across both passages. Viewed from this standpoint, RSV=ESV, as often, has a great deal in its favor.
The chief error of RSV=ESV is not getting the grammar of Isa 29:13 right: the narrative past tense of the Hebrew – “[their worship of me] became” - conveys an essential semantic feature: the apodosis of a condition.
HCSB cannot be recommended across the passages, with its Matthew still speaking in Biblish even though its Isaiah speaks in more natural English.
Because these people approach Me with their mouths
to honor Me with lip-service—
yet their hearts are far from Me,
and their worship consists of man-made rules
learned by rote—
These people honor Me with their lips,
but their heart is far from Me.
They worship Me in vain,
teaching as doctrines the commands of men.
NIV 1984 is superior to NIV 2011 at Matt 15:9. NIV 2011 truncates the text; "the teachings they teach" would have been appropriate.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.
If there is an alternative method of retaining the stylistic choices of Matt 15:9 to the one suggested here, a method which retains agreement across text and subtext, with Matthew quoting the KJV of his day with little modification - I would love to hear it. In the meantime, give me that old time religion.