Friday, October 27, 2006

Some Hebrew Phrases in the Qumran Texts

I've just recently run across an article by Phillip Davies, "Death, Resurrection and Life after Death in the Qumran Scrolls" (in Judaism in Late Antiquity, Vol. IV, Leiden, 2000). Davies is always worth reading, even when one disagrees with him.

However, this notice is just to gratefully acknowledge that, on. p. 197, Davies refers to my translation of raz nihyeh in the Dead Sea Scrolls, i.e., "The Secret of the Way Things Are," as "perhaps the most felicitous" of modern attempts to render the phrase in English. While we were revising our various sections for the second edition, I gave serious thought to doing away with "the secret of the way things are," but in the end I decided not to change it (although I did revise the work given that title, and divided it up differently).

Not everyone has been positive about our original renderings. Other phrases that I gave another long, hard look at are "Leader of the Nation" for nesi ha-edah (conventionally translated "Prince of the Congregation") and "Flattery-Seekers" for dorshe halaqot (usually "seekers after smooth things"). Both of these came from a dissatisfaction with the conventional renderings, and in the end, they were retained in the revised edition.

Nesi ha-edah, a messianic designation, is based on a biblical phrase (in Num. 31:13, Josh. 9:15, etc.) that older translators rendered as "princes of the congregation," but which more modern ones give as "leaders of the community/assembly." "Prince" is not a happy equivalent for nasi, and, at Qumran at least, edah in general designates the whole of Israel (and not just the sectarians). Therefore > "Leader of the Nation."

My problem with "seekers after smooth things" is that in modern English the phrase conveys no clear meaning. However, Hebrew halaqot is often used in the bible to denote "flatteries" or perhaps "pleasant untruths" (a key background text for this is Isa. 30:10); hence, "flattery seekers," a derogatory reference to an opposing sect, probably the Pharisees. It might be that halaqot was chosen as a dig at the opponent's love of halakhot (legal rulings), but this is not proven, since the latter word is not attested in the Hebrew of this period.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

James Barr

James Barr died on October 14, according to a report on the Agade list. Barr was the author of many important works in biblical studies, most notably The Semantics of Biblical Language (1961), Comparative Philology and the Text of the Old Testament (1968), Fundamentalism (1978), History and Ideology in the Old Testament (2000), and others too numerous to mention. All of them are marked by keen intelligence, vigor of thought, and a clear prose style.

I had lunch with Barr once, years ago, at the UCLA faculty club, with Stanislav Segert and Vinton Dearing. I don't remember what was talked of, though I am sure that, callow grad student that I was, my own tongue remained tied throughout the course of the meal. I do remember that Dearing asked me some question about translation technique, which I dodged by passing the buck to Barr. Of the four of us who ate together that day, I am the only one still living.

After lunch Barr spoke to Segert's graduate seminar on Genesis 2-3. His thoughts on this subject were later to be published as The Garden of Eden and the Hope of Immortality (1993). His own immortality in the field of biblical studies is guaranteed, and it is to be hoped that the new generation of students will not neglect his writings either as a source or as a model.