Saturday, January 14, 2012

Squeamish Translating – Part 2 – An Unclothed Savior

Squeamish About Nudity…

In this series of posts, I intend to demonstrate how modern translations seem to be squeamish about nudity, at least when that nudity was a natural part of normal life.

If you have not yet read the Introduction and Part 1, please do so before reading this segment.

In Part 1, I noted the apparent reticence of modern translations to note that Peter was actually naked in John 21:7b. Instead, they use language which allow us to imagine the scene without any nudity.

In this next passage, we turn our attention to Jesus and His washing of His disciples’ feet.

Jesus Took His Clothes Off

This is a familiar story; Jesus washes His disciples’ feet. It comes from John 13:4-5. Here is exactly what the texts say. The word in green is the Greek word, himatia (G2440) which refers to Jesus’ garments. The words in red are two forms of the same Greek verb, diazōnnymi (G1241), which tells us how Jesus “put on” the towel which He used to dry the disciples’ feet.

Greek [Ἰησοῦς]… ἐγείρεται ἐκ τοῦ δείπνου καὶ τίθησιν τὰ ἱμάτια καὶ λαβὼν λέντιον διέζωσεν ἑαυτόν. εἶτα βάλλει ὕδωρ εἰς τὸν νιπτῆρα καὶ ἤρξατο νίπτειν τοὺς πόδας τῶν μαθητῶν καὶ ἐκμάσσειν τῷ λεντίῳ ᾧ ἦν διεζωσμένος  

He [Jesus] riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. After that he poureth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded.


[Jesus]… got up from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself. Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded.

NIV …so he [Jesus] got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.


The questions that I would like to raise with this passage are these:

  1. How much clothing did Jesus take off?
  2. How did Jesus wear the towel?

Interestingly, if we look at the NIV, we get a very different answer than the other two English translations. The NIV tells us that Jesus only took off His outer clothing, and the towel was worn specifically “around His waist.”

The other two translations are in agreement that it was His “garments” and that He used the towel to “gird” Himself. Without much question the KJV and NASB are more faithful to the Greek, but even there, I believe there are important things to look at as we consider our understanding of the passage.

Was It All His Clothes, or Just His Outer Garments?

The Greek word used for “garments” is actually the plural form of the word used for the outer garment common at the time. I assume that this is the reason that the NIV translators rendered it “outer” clothing. However, a wider review of the scriptural usage of that term in plural shows conclusively that the term when used in plural can (and may always) refer to the outer garment as well as the tunic worn beneath it.

  • A comparison of the four gospels’ description of Jesus at the cross shows that one of the writers (John, 19:23) tells us that the soldiers stripped Jesus of both His outer garment and His tunic (chiton G5509). But in all four gospels (Matthew 27:25, Mark 15:24, Luke 23:34, John 19:24 ), we are told that that they took His himatia – the same word used to describe what Jesus took off to wash the disciples’ feet.
  • Since we know from history that the Romans crucified criminals naked (How Did Jesus Die?), it can be understood that the use of the “outer garment” in plural can refer to all the clothing being worn.

This does not prove that Jesus stripped naked when He washed the disciples’ feet, but it certainly shows that it is a possibility, given the Greek word used. The English rendering by both the KJV and NASB correctly allows this understanding while the NIV clearly leads us away from it. This may be evidence of some squeamishness on the part of the NIV translators.

Was the towel around Jesus’ waist?

This question requires a more detailed analysis to answer.

The English word, “gird”—used by both the KJV and the NASB—leaves us with the impression that Jesus wrapped the towel around His waist. However, upon further examination of the Greek word used in this passage, there is evidence that calls that understanding into question.

I’d like to call your attention to three different Greek terms which refer to putting on clothing.

  1. ζώννυμι (zōnnymi G2224)
  2. περιζώννυμι (perizōnnymi – G4024)
  3. διαζώννυμι (diazōnnymi- G1241)

All three terms are related… The first term, zōnnymi, is the root word upon which the other two words are based, each including a prefix.

When they appear in the NT text, all three words are translated the same way (“gird”) by both the KJV and the NASB. But if all three words really mean the same thing, we have to wonder why they are different in the Greek. We should instead expect that the root word means one thing, and the added prefix modifies the root meaning in some way.

Let’s look at the words one at a time.

#1 - Zōnnymi is only found in one verse in the NT, John 21:18, where Jesus tells Peter that a time is coming when others will “dress” (NIV) or “gird” (NASB/KJV) him. From Jesus’ words to Peter, there’s nothing to indicate in what manner the “girding” or “dressing” would be done. Notably, the NIV does not use the same word as the other translations, but rather selects a neutral word that simply denotes the act of putting on clothes.

  • Because it is a root word and…
  • There is no indication in its NT usage as to how one is dressing…
  • I suggest that zōnnymi does not communicate any specific manner of dress. This means that the English word “gird”—which denotes the wrapping of clothing around a person—may actually communicate more than the Greek word actually means.

#2 – Of the three words, Perizōnnymi is the most commonly found in the Greek NT. Of the 7 times the word appears, three times the specific location of the clothing is mentioned. Two mention the loins (Luke 12:35 & Eph. 6:4) while one indicates that the wrapping happens around the chest (Rev. 1:13 - NIV and NASB). More precisely, however, the sash is around the “paps” (KJV) which actually refers to the nipples, albeit those of a man.

  • The prefix is peri-, and it is a prefix which we are familiar with in English. It means “around” and we see it with that meaning in the word “perimeter.”
  • The contextual usage of the word in the Scriptures point to a meaning that indicates the wrapping of a garment around a person’s body.
  • I suggest that of the three terms, perizōnnymi has the best evidence that it really means “gird” as we think about it in English.

#3 – Finally, διαζώννυμι appears in only two verses in the NT. One instance (John 21:7)—already noted in Part 1 of this series—describes the manner in which Peter put on the his ependytēs. The other instance is the one we are looking at above.

  • The prefix is dia-, and it is also a prefix which we are familiar with in English. It means “through” and we see it with that meaning in the word “diameter.”
  • Both verses in which this word appears in the NT offer little or no indication as to how a garment is put on since both verses describe the wearing of an uncommon garment.
  • Because the prefix dia- means something very different than the prefix peri- we should expect that diazōnnymi describes a different manner of dressing oneself as compared to perizōnnymi.
  • Based on the meaning of the prefix, I suggest that the we should consider this Greek word as describing the act of putting on clothing by passing a body part through an opening in the garment, much like we put on a sweater or T-shirt today.

But Does it Fit?

If the etymology of the word diazōnnymi leads us to consider a different manner of dressing oneself than “wrapping” with a garment, can we find that it makes sense with the context?

Looking first at Peters dressing himself with the ependytēs, we can’t really tell if he passed his head “through” the garment simply because we don’t know much about that type of garment. Still, it is certainly possible that it is a garment with a hole for the head; therefore, we cannot rule out this understanding of diazōnnymi idea based on its usage in John 21:7.

Looking at Jesus and his towel, let’s start with this question: how is a towel generally worn? Well, many times we take a towel and wrap it “around” us. But if that’s what Christ did, why didn’t the author of the text use perizōnnymi (peri- = “around”) instead of diazōnnymi? Couldn’t it be that Jesus didn’t actually wrap the towel “around” Himself?

Wrapping a towel around the body is not the only way that a towel may be worn; it also may be draped across the shoulder, or behind the neck and across both shoulders. We’ve all done this ourselves… if you grab a towel by its ends to flip it over your head, you would literally be creating a loop of the towel through (dia-) which you would pass your head. If this is what Jesus did, it would explain why diazōnnymi is used instead of perizōnnymi.

In other words, judging from the Greek text, it is conceivable—even probable—that Jesus did not wear the towel around his waist, but rather draped on His neck/shoulders.

Where Would You Keep a Towel for Drying Feet?

Thinking about it further, if you intend to wash someone’s feet and you want to keep a towel handy for the purpose of drying those feet, you would not wrap that towel around your waist… rather, you would drape it over your neck so that it is literally hanging inches from the feet you were washing.

I remember having a Sunday School teacher tell this story when I was a kid. She suggested that it “must have been a very long towel.” Why? Well, because a short towel would not have been long enough to keep Jesus “girded” when He used it to dry His disciples’ feet. But that’s just an assumption about the story that is simply not found in the text.

The Towel Wasn’t Around His Waist.

The Greek term used to describe how Jesus wore the towel was not the Greek word that describes “wrapping” or “girding.” The word used in this passage, diazōnnymi, actually supports the idea that the towel was worn across the shoulders instead of around the waist. Simple reason and practicality says that the best place to “wear” that towel is across the shoulders.

I don’t believe Jesus wore the towel around His waist at all.

In Review…

I’ve examined two questions in reference to John 13:4-5.

  1. Did Jesus take off all of His clothes to wash the disciples’ feet?
  2. Did Jesus wear the towel around His waist?

Neither of these questions can be conclusively answered from the Greek text. However, the textual evidence actually points to a “yes” for question #1, and a “no” for question #2.

However, if we answer the questions that way, it leaves the story wide open for us to imagine the scene with Jesus completely naked, save a towel across His shoulders… and the thought of a voluntarily naked Savior is not one that we are very willing to entertain today.

What do we find in the English translations, though? NASB and KJV both do well with Question #1, but with the use of the word “gird,” they tend to lead us away from the answer “no” on Question #2.

The NIV is another story altogether. On both questions, we are clearly led away from the answers that I have suggested are the most accurate.

Was Jesus Actually Naked While Washing the Disciples’ Feet?

There is evidence that in ancient times, those who did manual labor as slaves/servants often performed their work unclothed. If that is true, then being unclothed was literally one of the signs of servant status. Within such a cultural context, Jesus’ act of stripping naked would have very poignantly communicated His intent to take the role of a servant before His disciples.

While the Scriptural text does not lead us to a firm conclusion that Jesus was naked, it absolutely does not contradict the idea. Instead, it actually leans towards it.

Squeamish Translating?

What we find in the English translations definitely leads us away from the understanding that Jesus may have been naked before His disciples. This is most clearly in evidence in the NIV’s rendering. There simply is no textual reason to slant the English rendering that way.

Is it a reflection of our cultural squeamishness about nakedness?

Perhaps it is. One passage cannot make that case by itself. However, as we continue to examine other examples, the combined weight of evidence from several different passages may make the case more compelling than one passage can.

— 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)

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