Saturday, January 14, 2012

Squeamish Translating – Part 1 – Naked Disciple(s)

In this series of posts, I intend to demonstrate how modern translations seem to be squeamish about how nudity, particularly when that nudity was a natural part of normal life.
Peter was Naked…
The first example might be a familiar one… it comes from John 21:7b. Here are the texts… the word in red is the Greek word gymnos (G1131) which means “naked.”
Greek οὖν Πέτρος ἀκούσας ὅτι ὁ κύριός ἐστιν τὸν ἐπενδύτην διεζώσατο ἦν γὰρ γυμνός καὶ ἔβαλεν ἑαυτὸν εἰς τὴν θάλασσαν
KJV Now when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he girt [his] fisher's coat [unto him], (for he was naked,) and did cast himself into the sea.
NASB So when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put his outer garment on (for he was stripped for work), and threw himself into the sea.
NIV As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water.

There are several important things to note in this passage, but let’s start with that which is easiest to see.

The simple reading of the various versions demonstrates quite clearly that the KJV uses the English word “naked” because that’s the word found in the Greek text. However, in both the NASB and the NIV, different words are used. They do not require the reader to face the word “naked.” Instead, the wording is such that common usage might employ either phrase to describe someone who was not, in fact, completely naked.

Was Peter fully naked? Well, that’s the word used in the Greek. Perhaps the word gymnos could describe someone who was not completely naked, but there’s no other word in Greek to describe anyone who is any more naked than gymnos.

In any case, the Greek word used by the author is not in question. It would seem that the best approach to translating it would be to use the English word that most closely matches the root Greek word that God chose to use. That way, the reader can take in the words as God inspired them, studying the passage more closely if needed to discern its true meaning.

Yet, for some reason, the modern translations do not allow us to see it that way. I suggest that this is an example of squeamish translating.

Allow me to discuss a few additional thoughts in support of this claim.
Was Peter Alone?
First of all, the fact that Peter was uncritically described in the text as gymnos means that we have no basis in this passage to criticize him ourselves. If we ask why he was gymnos, the text itself provides the answer; he was naked to do his work… he was fishing.

But Peter was not fishing alone. There were six other disciples that went with him and the text tells us the names of all but two of them (the “sons of Zebedee” were James and John). Could Peter have been the only one who was gymnos? I find that highly unlikely. If Peter was naked because he was fishing, surely those who shared his task also matched his “attire.”

Peter, James and John had all been professional fishermen before they met Christ. This fishing trip was not a casual outing with a can of worms and a hook on a string to pass the time; it was a return to their previous profession, complete with a fishing boat and nets. They worked all night long, intending to catch a boatload of fish to sell, earning some money.

Fishing with nets on a boat is a dirty, wet, and smelly activity. Clothing was valuable and had to be hand washed every time the laundry needed to be done. Taking off clothes to avoid soiling them was a very sensible strategy to keep clothing in wearable condition. Going naked on a boat, particularly while fishing, was most likely the standard practice at the time (see the ancient stone relief image below… the men in the boat are all naked).

I found the picture above in a Bible-History book in my church library. It is a 2nd or 3rd century stone relief showing three boats and their sailors battling a rough sea. Note that all of the sailors are completely nude. Click the picture to see it full size.
I don’t believe that Peter was naked alone. I suspect that the only reason we were told that he was naked was because he took the time to grab his garment before jumping in the water to swim ashore. The narrative focuses on Peter and he was the only one who acted, so he’s the only one whose attire—or lack thereof—was mentioned.
A Boat Full of Naked Disciples?
The logical path I have just trod is not difficult to traverse, nor is the conclusion at all unlikely. But if I am correct in that conclusion, it means that there were seven naked guys in the boat… and all disciples of Jesus at that!

That’s not a mental movie clip that plays well in the modern Christian mind. Most people—including, perhaps, the translators—would simply say, “well, surely they weren’t all naked….” The next thought, of course… Peter probably wasn’t really naked either…

As it turns out, the translators had the opportunity to soften the blow—to “protect” us from having to think about a boat full of naked fishermen. So… Peter was “stripped for work” (NASB). Or even more palatable, Peter was just putting on the “outer garment” that he had “taken… off” (NIV). Now we don’t even have to visualize Peter naked, either.

Is that squeamish translating? Maybe… it sure smells fishy to me (pardon the pun). But for sure, the words the NASB and NIV translators used are different than the natural meaning of the Greek word. I would prefer that they gave us the real word, then trusted us to seek God’s enlightenment as to its true meaning.
But There’s More…
My study of this passage has revealed a couple of other oddities that bear examination. The first has to do with the garment that Peter grabbed before he jumped into the water.
The Greek word is ἐπενδύτην (ependytēs - G1903).
  • This is the only place this word is used in the Bible.
  • It is not the same word used in the NT to describe the tunic or robe typically worn in that day.
  • The KJV translators acknowledged this by calling it a “fisher’s coat,” but evidently this was something of a guess, since other translations do not render it that way.
  • The precise type of garment Peter had is not known for sure. Extrabiblical sources mention the garment, but generally as something of an ornamental garment worn over other clothes (and it has no specific relation to fishing).
  • Consequently, while it is probably accurate to call it an “outer garment” of some sort, it would be a mistake to conclude from that translation that it was just a robe.
These observations have more significance when we also look at the verb used to describe how Peter put on the garment.

The Greek word is διαζώννυμι (diazōnnymi- G1241).

This is one of the only two places this word is used in the Bible, the other being when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. It is not the same word typically used for “girding” oneself, which is περιζώννυμι (perizōnnymi – G4024).

I will address this word more fully in Part 2, but for now, suffice it to observe that not only was the garment Peter put on an unusual garment, the word used to describe how he put it on is unusual. This means that the precise definitions of diazōnnymi is impossible to determine from its contextual usage alone.
My points here are these:
  • The original text describes Peter as gymnos, “naked.”
  • Simple reason concludes that he was probably not the only one.
  • There is no compelling textual or historical reason to avoid the the word “naked” in the modern translations.
  • Our knowledge of the garment Peter had and how he put it on is very minimal, so even this provides no justification for altering the English rendering of the Greek word, gymnos.
This may be evidence of an intentional avoidance of the word “naked” in a Scripture text where the nakedness was normal, natural, and not condemned.

— Matthew Neal
Squeamish Translating
Part 1 – Naked Disciples
Part 2 – An Unclothed Savior
Part 3 – Writing Scripture Naked
Part 4 – Unclothed Servants
Part 5 – Speaking of Genitals
Squeamish Translating (PDF of the entire series)


Anonymous said...

I've used this argument before about Peter being naked in the boat, but people just say "He must have had something else underneath and this "naked" doesn't actually mean naked. Your image of the stone relief depicting boats full of naked fishermen is sound evidence of your point! Can you please provide reference info about that book?? Title, author, etc?? Thanks!!

Matthew Neal said...

In other words, they insist on defining a 1st century NT word according to the expectations and mores of the 21st century culture. Oh, well... par for the course, I suppose.

I am no longer at the church where I found that book and image. Let me see if I can get a friend there to look it up. If I find it, I'll post the details.

Thanks for writing.