Saturday, December 03, 2005

Paul the Punster Compared to Harold Bloom and Diogenes

In the New York Times recently, a reviewer of Harold Bloom's latest book remembers the Yale professor's hostility to Christianity:

I never thought I would hear a professor publicly proclaim - at Yale, no less - the great, private Jewish gripe that in layman's terms might be expressed: Christianity stole our watch and has spent 2,000 years telling us what time it is. Bloom punningly referred to the New Testament in Hebrew as "Brit haHalasha" ("weak covenant"), instead of "Brit haHadasha" ("new covenant").
Bloom's pun — not a terribly good one — falls into a long line of reciprocal Jewish-Christian insults, although Christians, as the majority religion, have no doubt committed far more.

One of the oldest comes from the Apostle Paul, in the letter to the Philippians (3:2), where he says, "Beware of the katatomé." This is a play on the word peritomé, "circumcision," which, in Paul, often refers not to Judaism as such, but to the Jewish-Christian party that insisted on circumcision as necessary to Christianity. Katatomé comes from katatemno, "to cut into pieces, gash, slice up." This pun is perhaps more hostile than Bloom's, but they are both working out of the same tradition.

I'm always interested in seeing how wordplay is translated. In this case, a good translation would make it plain that circumcise, circumcision is being punned upon. The results over the years have been mixed. The Peshitta translated as pesaq besra, "the cutting of the flesh," which may have the additional overtone of "castration." The Vulgate has videte concisionem, which makes it into the King James as "Beware the concision." Unfortunately no one knows any more what "concision" means.

The NEB loses the pun but keeps the meaning: "Beware those who insist on mutilation — 'circumcision' I will not call it." The NAS has "Beware of the false circumcision," which is weak, I think, while the NRSV has "Beware of those who mutilate the flesh," which loses the verbal connection with circumcision completely (the NIV is similar). The Jerusalem Bible has "watch out for the cutters." My own clumsy suggestion would be something like: "Beware of the 'circumslicers.' "

By the way, the BAGD lexicon (s.v. katatomé) cites as a parallel to Paul a saying of Diogenes preserved in Diogenes Laertius : "He called the scholé (school) of Euklides cholé (gall) and the diatribé (lectures) of Plato katatribé (waste of time)." In my opinion, the old Cynic, as a punster, had it all over the apostle and the professor.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ed -- "circumslicers" beats both Paul and Diogenes, since it is easy to change a verb prefix, while you found a similar-sounding Germanic word to replace a Latin one. It is at least equal to Bloom.

Wonder whether Paul intended the "downward" as well as "destructive" sense of "kata," i.e., the Judaizers requiring circumcision were "cutting down" Christianity by treating it as merely a form of Judaism. If so, no idea how you could get that across as well.

Maybe there should be a JAP (Journal of Academic Puns) or JAW (Journal of Academic Wordplays).

And happy belated Blogday. Please keep it up.