Friday, October 17, 2008

Amenemope 4: "Excellent Things" or "Thirty?"

In the KJV, Prov 22:20 reads: Have I not written to thee excellent things in counsels and knowledge? The ASV, published in 1901, and the Jewish Publication Society translation published in 1917 say essentially the same thing, having "of" in the place of "in," but otherwise identical. The NASB and the NASB update read the same. The ESV, and most other modern versions, read something like: Have I not written for you thirty sayings of counsel and knowledge?

How do the translators get from "excellent things" to "thirty sayings," and is that move legitimated by the text itself? The first thing to recognize is that the word that is so variously rendered is itself something of a difficulty in the Hebrew text. The consonantal text, as inherited by the Masoretic scribes, reads shilshom, but the scribes themselves indicate that the word is to be read shalishim.

The word shilshom literally means "the day before yesterday," more loosely meaning "formerly." However, it always elsewhere occurs as part of the phrase tmol shilshom meaning "yesterday and the day before" but with the general sense of "formerly." One could thus assume that this is simply a case where tmol has been omitted, and translate it, "I have written to you previously." This is suggested by the Brown-Driver-Briggs (BDB) lexicon.

The word shalishim is the plural of shalish meaning an officer of some sort. This does not seem to fit the context, hence the BDB comment that this is impossible. The older versions seem to have taken the term "officer" as a figure for excellence, hence their renderings of this verse. (A fuller discussion of this view tracing the development of the thinking on the rendering can be found in the Keil & Delitzsch commentary on this verse.

The Septuagint is not helpful in clearing up the difficulty, because it renders the word by trissos, meaning "three times." This seems to be roughly equivalent to the meaning of shilshom. This is also the reading reflected in the Syriac Peshitta and the Targum.

How then, did the modern versions arrive at "thirty?" They arrived at this view under the influence of the supposition that this section of Proverbs was derived from Amenemope. None of the versions done prior to the discovery of Amenemope suggests taking the consonantal shlshwm as sheloshim. But virtually all of the modern versions do so.

One would think that if Prov 22:17-24:22 were in fact dependent on Amenemope that there would be stronger parallels in order and wording of content than there in fact are. One would also assume that one could easily find thirty "chapters" in the Proverbs material, matching the thirty chapters of Amenemope. But is that the case?

1 comment:

Ned said...

I read your analysis of this difficult translation with great interest.

Thirty is a problem because the Hebrew word for thirty does not appear in the text. Similarly, there are not 30 sayings, but rather fewer (27 or so). Excellent things is awkward at best, and might refer to the word "three" which often means the best, as in "three is a charm."

Neither "excellent things" nor "thirty" seem appropriate. Rather, the difficult is in interpreting the Hebrew word shaylish, which as you noted refers to a "captain of some sort." Actually, the context is quite different here; the reference to a "captain" is actually to the third and senior most person on a chariot. The first would be the driver (lowly, like a slave), the second the weapons servant, the third the officer or "captain." However, there is no context for chariot driving here.

The Vulgate translates shaylish as "tripliciter" which leads, in my opinion, toward the better translation which can be found in Young's literal translation, from St. Jerome's Vulate, and by Bernard McGinn, to wit: "Have I not written to thee three times with counsels and knowledge" (Young) and "ecce descripsi eam tibi tripliciter in cogitationibus et scientia" from St. Jerome. McGinn beautifully translates it as: "“Behold, have I not told it to you in a three-fold way [in reflection and knowledge]?”

The latter translation is preferable amongst all that are current in the various English bibles.

Why are these distinctions important? They are because of the emphasis on the number three. This number is sacred and reflects a ubiquitous leitmotif in the OT and NT: the three days of the resurrection, the three lands of the exodus (Egypt > Wilderness > Promised Land), the three sons of Adam and Eve, on and on. We could compile a very large list where the number 3 is dominant in a given narrative. Why? Because 3 represents the process of spiritual growth of any human soul, from animal like and murderous (Cain) to adolescent and willful but sinful (Abel) to fully resurrected and detached from the values of the materialist world (Seth).

In other words, Proverbs 22:20 is a commentary on the typology of 3 found ubiquitously.

Of course, this interpretation requires that one abandon and pretext to literality in understanding the meaning of the three days of the resurrection or the exodus account. They are edifying narratives with symbolic meaning, not historical recollections.