Friday, February 6, 2009

Popular (Mis)Depictions of Bible stories, part 3

1.) Jesus' name was Jesus H. Christ.

Jesus' real name was NOT Jesus H. Christ, despite what many swearers and popular culture might tell you. Christ was not a last name, but rather a title: a Greek translation of the Hebrew מֹשִׁיַּח, meshiakh or the Aramaic משיחא, meshiha, both meaning "the anointed" - this refers to an ancient Jewish ritual of anointing and consecrating someone or something with oil. This term was translated in Greek as χριστος, christos. Thus, Jesus Christ (Iesous Christos in Greek) actually stands for "Jesus the messiah", or, more literally, "Jesus the anointed".

The spelling Christ in English itself only became more common in the 17th century, when spellings of certain words were changed to reflect their Greek or Latin origins more. Prior to this, the word was usually spelled Crist in Old and Middle English, the i being pronounced either as /iː/ (as in fEEt or bEAn) or or as /ɪ/, which survives today in the modern pronunciation of Christmas.

As for the H, there are many varying theories about it, ranging from explaining the H as an abbreviation for a certain word (usually explained as being either 'holy', 'Hebrew', or even 'haploid' or 'hebe') to tracing it to the IHS-IHC abbreviation of Jesus' name commonly encountered in Christianity.

2.) The giving of the Commandments to Moses was a private event of sorts, unwitnessed by the Israelites.

In The Ten Commandments (both the 1923 and 1956 DeMille versions), Moses climbs up the mountain of Sinai where - apparently - he alone hears God giving out the commandments while the people are busy creating the Golden Calf at the foot of the mountain, ignorant of the "Thou shalt not"s the Lord is talking about at the moment. However, Exodus 19:16-25 to 20:1-21 shows us that the giving of the commandments is a (semi-)public affair and that it was a separate event from the giving of the Tablets of the Law:

And it was on the third day in the morning there was thunder and lightning and a heavy cloud on the mountain, and the sound of a strong horn so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their place at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was completely in smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire, and its smoke went up like the smoke of a great furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently. When the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses was speaking and God was answering him with a voice. And the LORD came down upon Mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain, and the LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.

And the LORD said to Moses, "Go down and charge the people, lest they force their way through to the LORD to look, and many of them fall. Let the priests also, who approach the LORD, sanctify themselves, lest the LORD break out against them."
But Moses said to the LORD, "The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai; because you – you charged us, saying, ‘Set bounds around the mountain and sanctify it.’"

And the LORD said to him, "Go, get down, and come up, you and Aaron with you, but do not let the priests and the people break through to come up to the LORD, lest He break out against them." So Moses went down to the people and spoke to them. And God spoke all these words, saying: "I, the LORD, am your God, who brought you from the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves..."

Some verses later, the text describes the peoples' reaction:
...All the people were seeing the thundering and the lightning, and the sound of the horn, and the mountain smoking – and when the people saw it they trembled with fear and they stood from a distance. And they said to Moses, "You speak to us and we will listen, but do not let God speak with us or we will die." And Moses said to the people, "Do not fear, for God has come to test you, and that the fear of Him may be before you so that you may not sin." And they stood from a distance, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was.
It was only after loads of instructions and commands - such as blueprints for building the Tabernacle and its necessary furnishings - and eleven chapters later (!!!) that God finally grants the tablets to Moses (31:18) and the Israelites decided to build the Golden Calf (32:1-35):
...And when He had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, He gave Moses two tablets of testimony, tablets of stone written by the finger of God. When the people saw that Moses delayed in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, "Get up, make us a god that will go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him!"
3.) Joseph wore a technicolor rainbow coat.

Notwithstanding the title of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical, the actual meaning of the Hebrew phrase commonly translated as "coat of many colors" is ambiguous and unclear.

While the Hebrew term ketonet pasim (כתנת פסים) could mean "coat of many colors" since some of the possible meanings of pasim are "colorful," "embroidered" or "striped" - and indeed the translators of the Septuagint understood it thus and rendered the phrase as chitōna poikilon, meaning "garment of many kinds" or "multi[-colored] garment" - and since the use of clothing with differently-colored patterns or stripes is attested amongst Asiatic nomads in Canaan during the 2nd millenium BC (for example, see wall painting from the tomb of Khnumhotep II, located in Beni Hasan on the left [another detail here]; also see the detail of a mural fresco from the palace of Zimrilim at Mari in Syria, ca. 18th century BC), the word also allows for a long garment, coming down to the the hands and feet since another meaning of pasim is "the flat [palms] of the hands/the flat [soles] of the feet". Indeed, the 2nd-century Jewish proselyte Aquila of Sinope seems to have understood it thus and rendered pasim as astragalōn, "reaching to the ankles" in his translation of the Old Testament into Greek. Interestingly, the same phrase is used in 2 Samuel 13:18 to describe Tamar's clothing. In this case the Septuagint actually renders ketonet pasim as chitōn karpōtos, perhaps meaning "a garment reaching to the wrists".

Yet another interpretation of ketonet pasim is a garment made of fine material, such as silk or fine wool: the rabbis of the Talmud, in fact, understood Joseph's coat to be a silken garment. Still others connect it with the Akkadian phrase kitu pishannu, a Babylonian ceremonial robe studded with gold ornaments (usually with figures of deities), the Phoenician ps "tablet, piece" (suggesting a garment made of patches of material sewn together), or even the Akkadian paspasu "brightly colored bird."

Jerome, meanwhile, translates the instance of ketonet pasim in Genesis 37 as tunicam polymitam, which could mean "garment woven with many threads", "garment made of fine fabric" or "garment woven with different colored threads", and the one in 2 Samuel 13 as talari tunica, "garment reaching to the ankles".

If we'll look into early artworks, such as those depicting the brothers showing the (bloodstained) coat to Jacob, a number of them usually depict Joseph's coat as being of one color (such as here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), or apparently made of fine material.

Rendering the coat with all seven colors of the rainbow only became in vogue recently, perhaps somewhere around the 19th-20th century (see Horace Vernet's 1853 painting); on the other hand, this depiction, made in 1867, still depicts the coat as being of one color, yet adds multicolored designs at the lower hem and at the sleeves (personally, I actually find this depiction closer to reality than the full-fledged "rainbow coat" we so commonly see today).

So how did we come by with the "coat of many colors"?

Translating ketonet pasim as "coat of many colors" is an old tradition in the art of translating Bibles into English - John Wycliff and his associates, one of the first (but not exactly THE first) people to translate the Bible into English, already used the term in the late 14th century even before the King James Version of 1611, and its subsequent revisions, used it. Because the KJV was very influential - and because for some people it served as the Bible - many translations have followed the King James in understanding ketonet pasim as "coat of many colors".

One of the first translations to break this long-standing custom was the Revised Standard Version (1952), which translated the phrase as "long robe with sleeves"; since then many English Bibles have opted follow suit and to either render the phrase somewhere along the lines of "a richly ornamented robe" (New International Version) or "a long tunic" (New American Bible) or, in cases where the traditional rendering is used, have started to include footnotes which give either background detail on the phrase in question in the original Hebrew or alternate possible renderings.

Even if we can't know for certain what the word actually meant - whether the coat was actually colorful or made of fine material or was very long, we can still conclude that this piece of clothing is a very special gift, as Joseph was given the coat by his father Jacob (who favored him); as a result, he was envied by his brothers, who saw it as indicating that Joseph would assume family leadership (Genesis 37:3-4):
Now Israel (Jacob) loved Joseph more than all his sons, because he was a son of old age to him, and he had made him a ketonet pasim. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peaceably to him.

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