Saturday, January 14, 2012

Squeamish Translating – Part 4 – Unclothed Servants

In this series of posts, I have been trying to document how modern translations seem to be shy away from references to nakedness unless it is a negative context and/or we associate that nakedness with sin or improper behavior.

Sometimes it is not the Greek word gymnos (“naked” G1131) itself that is mistranslated, but a different word or phrase describes a context where nudity might have been present. In such cases, once again, I find that words or phrases have been chosen to mask or hide that possibility. Rather than translate the text as it appears in the Greek, we are given a modified translation that leads us to a mental image that does not include nudity.

If it were just a matter of my lack of knowledge of the Greek language, then this could be dismissed as only an unlearned man (me) spouting his linguistic ignorance. But the fact is that the KJV is not squeamish about the text and translates the Greek exactly as it is in the original text. If I am mistaken, then the KJV translators must be mistaken also.

Servants Coming In from the Field.

Jesus is giving a variety of instructions for life in Luke 17. I want to draw our attention to Luke 17:7-8 where Jesus is teaching about faithful service to our Master. Verse 7 sets up the scenario, but it is verse 8 that I want to focus upon. Rather than quote verse 7 four times, I’m going to quote it once from the KJV, then examine the different renderings in the other translations in verse 8 only.

But which of you, having a servant plowing or feeding cattle, will say unto him by and by, when he is come from the field, “Go and sit down to meat?”  - Luke 17:7 (KJV)

This rhetorical question is clearly meant to indicate that none would say this to their servant. Jesus’ next words describe how his listeners—in the role of the master—would respond instead:

Greek ἀλλ᾽ οὐχὶ ἐρεῖ αὐτῷ Ἑτοίμασον τί δειπνήσω καὶ περιζωσάμενος διακόνει μοι ἕως φάγω καὶ πίω καὶ μετὰ ταῦτα φάγεσαι καὶ πίεσαι σύ

And will not rather say unto him, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink?;

NASB “But will he not say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat, and [properly] clothe yourself and serve me while I eat and drink; and afterward you may eat and drink’?”
NIV “Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’?”


As you can see from the Greek text above, Luke used the word perizōnnymi for the command a Master would give to his servant. As we saw in Part 2 of this series, this word is best translated “gird” in English; zōnnymi indicates dressing oneself, and peri- means “around.”

  • KJV — The KJV translates the word correctly. But consider the mental picture created by this rendering…
    • If the master needed to tell his servant to gird himself, it implies that a servant has been plowing or tending animals unclothed.
    • When his duties now required handling the master’s food, he was expected—and ordered—to get dressed.
  • NASB — The NASB almost translates the word adequately, but they actually added a word to change the meaning.
    • The word “properly” does not appear in the Greek text. To their credit, the translators acknowledge that fact by rendering that word in italics in printed or online versions of the text (I’ve placed it in brackets for the same reason).
    • If the word “properly” were removed from this translation, then the implication would be essentially the same as found in the KJV, that is, that the servants were not clothed out in the field.
    • The addition of the word “properly” specifically denies that implication and leads us to a mental image that matches our own cultural experience… we have one set of clothes for working with dirt and animals, and a different set of clothes for serving meals. 
  • NIV — The NIV doesn’t even come close to an accurate rendering of the passage.
    • The Greek word perizōnnymi is a word about getting dressed. This is indisputable. Yet the translators instead rendered the word in a very general sense of “getting ready.”
    • This leaves us with absolutely no mental image that the servant might have been unclothed and leads us to think of all sorts of other ways we might “get ready” for the task of serving a meal.
    • I’m not saying that other preparations would not have been required in this scenario; I’m just saying that this is not a faithful rendering of the original text! Isn’t that the first priority of translators?

The KJV translators exhibit no squeamishness at all. The other two, however, seem to very intentionally render the passage so that we can imagine the scene as we would experience it today… with no nudity.

Did Servants in the Field Really Work Naked?

Clearly, the Greek text itself—and the KJV’s rendering—imply (or at least allow) that the workers were unclothed while working in the field. But is that culturally accurate? Does the Bible ever imply that any other time?

  • Cultural Practice of Working Nude
    • Proving a cultural practice is pretty difficult, especially when the practice is so common and unremarkable that it never bears mentioning in historical accounts written at that time. I believe that is the case here, but I cannot prove it.
    • Some ancient art displays workers in the nude, but not much art focused on the common people. Such evidence is weak, however, and only shows that it is possible or likely.
    • Those that deny that workers worked nude have only historical silence to build their case upon, which is weaker yet.
    • Consequently, I will not try to “make the case” here.
  • Scriptural Evidence of Working Nude
    • I can point to three or four passages in the New Testament that reflect the likelihood that workers with dirt and animals worked in the nude. The most logical reason for doing so would have been to keep the few garments they had from becoming soiled and smelly.
      1. As I already addressed in Part 1 of this series, John 21:7 strongly suggests that fishermen worked nude. Surely Peter was not the only naked fisherman in the boat.
      2. “And let him that is in the field not turn back again for to take up his garment.” Mark 13:16 (KJV) confirms that, in an emergency, one of the things a person working in the field would wish to return to the house for would be a garment (the Greek is himation which could refer to a garment {KJV} or the coat {NASB}).
      3. “Behold, I come as a thief. Blessed [is] he that watcheth, and keepeth his garments, lest he walk naked, and they see his shame.” Rev 16:15 (KJV). This passage is about Jesus’ return and our need to be ready for it.
        • This instruction to be watchful and “keep our garments” makes no sense if people were never anywhere without their garments. The implication is that there are tasks performed naked, with no clothing nearby.
        • This is not a command to stay clothed while working, it is a warning to keep clothes close at hand rather than leaving them back at the house (this is in agreement with the implication of Mark 13:16 made in the point above).
        • Notably, none of the three English translations I’m reviewing were “squeamish” about translating gymnos as “naked” in this passage. I submit to you that this is because the nakedness seems to be associated with shame (I believe it this not the shame of nakedness, but of un-readiness… demonstrating that needs to be the topic of another article altogether).
      4. “Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?’ Supposing Him to be the gardener, she said to Him, ‘Sir, if you have carried Him away…’” John 20:15 (NASB) is a resurrection appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene. It is a mystery why she mistook Jesus for a gardener. However, the most reasonable explanation is that Jesus was “dressed” like a gardener at the moment.
        • Unless God supernaturally created garments for Jesus at His resurrection, He came out of the tomb naked.
          • We know that Jesus’ garments were taken from Him at the cross (John 19:23-24).
          • We know that Jesus left all of the grave clothes in the tomb (John 20:6-7).  
        • Agnolo_Bronzino_Noli_Me_Tangere_1561If Jesus had been given supernatural clothing by God at His resurrection, they most assuredly would not have looked like “gardener’s” clothing… worn and soiled. Instead, they would have been fresh and clean!
        • This surprising event—if we really think it through—leads us to conclusion that gardeners actually did work naked. This is the only explanation which makes any sense of Mary’s failure to identify Jesus.

While not conclusive, there certainly is both cultural and biblical evidence that support the idea that servants worked in the fields without clothing. This means that the rendering of Scripture texts in ways that obscure that fact—or indicate that it was not the case—is inaccurate.

(The picture above-right was painted by Agnolo Bronzino in 1561. While it does not portray Christ as completely naked, it’s clear that the artist knew that He had left His grave clothes behind in the tomb. Click the picture to see it full size.)

Squeamish Translating?

Why would the NASB and NIV translators be reticent to render Luke 17:8 as the KJV translators did? Could it be that they were uneasy with the mental image suggested by the Greek text?

I fear that it is.

There are a variety of passages where non-sexual, practical, or incidental nudity are evident (or possible) in the inspired Greek text. Yet, in each case, they are rendered to hide the idea of any nudity that is not shameful, unwarranted, or condemned.

Once again, no one passage is evidence enough of a bias against nakedness on the part of the translators, but there is a pattern here. Collectively, they betray that the bias exists.

— 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)

1 comment:

Daniel ben Yishia said...

Let us consider a certain reflective "Menorah" pattern. Messiah is call "the Last Adam" (1 Cor 15:45) - so let us compare with the "First Adam".

The First Adam was created from dust (outside the Garden) and was then placed inside the Garden (Gen 2:8). The First Adam was put there to "Guard the Garden" (Gen 2:15)- the First Adam was the original "Guardener". (Is there really an English link between the two words?) The First Adam sinned by eating of the Tree (most likely on the 3rd day of the week, Yom Kippur in future years) and then attempted to create his own KIPPURAH (translated as both "covering" and "atonement") by using fig leaves. (Incidentally, both Adam & Eve wore the same covering - this is the first example of transvestites, males and females dressing alike, that we find in Scripture.) For this the First Adam was cast out of the Garden.

The Last Adam was created within the womb of a woman, lived a sinless life and then was stripped naked, hung on a Tree, shedding His Blood, creating a KIPPURAH for all of us. His body was then wrapped in linen, buried in the earth (from which the First Adam was taken). He rose on the 3rd day, leaving the garments buried in the earth. He then went into the Garden where He was mistaken to be a naked Gardner.

The Last Adam is a reverse parallel to the First Adam.