From παλαιστή to πῆχυς (Psalm 39:5, Matt 6:27, Luke 12:25)

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Brian Gould
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From παλαιστή to πῆχυς (Psalm 39:5, Matt 6:27, Luke 12:25)

Post by Brian Gould » September 15th, 2019, 2:50 pm

Before I start, allow me to say that I hope this post is in order, in accordance with B-Greek house rules, and that this is the right forum for it. If not, please feel free to move it or delete it.

NT translators and editors find it difficult to make up their minds about Jesus’ saying reported in Matt 6:27 and Luke 12:25:

τίς δὲ ἐξ ὑμῶν μεριμνῶν δύναται προσθεῖναι ἐπὶ τὴν ἡλικίαν αὐτοῦ πῆχυν ἕνα;

τίς δὲ ἐξ ὑμῶν μεριμνῶν δύναται ἐπὶ τὴν ἡλικίαν αὐτοῦ προσθεῖναι πῆχυν;

Adding a “cubit” to a “lifespan” evidently strikes them as a mixed metaphor to be avoided. Instead, they opt either for two periods of time, e.g. “Who can add an hour to his lifespan?” or two measurements of length, “Who can add a cubit to his stature?”

In this saying, however, there is a detectable echo of Psalm 39:5 (39:6 LXX): ἰδοὺ παλαιστὰς ἔθου τὰς ἡμέρας μου …
translating the Hebrew, הִנֵּה טְפָחוֹת נָתַתָּה יָמַי, “Behold, thou hast made my days a few handbreadths” (RSV).

The handbreadth, טפח (tefach) or παλαιστή, was one-sixth of a cubit, אמה (amah) or πῆχυς, at least in the Hellenistic period, though it may have been different in the Psalmist’s day, before the Hebrew weights and measures became aligned with those of Greece and Rome.

Two questions follow from this.
1. Is it reasonable to detect an echo of the Psalmist’s words in this saying of Jesus, or is that merely an illusion, a mirage?
2. If so, what can have happened to turn the Psalmist’s παλαιστή into the Evangelists’ πῆχυς ?

I feel reasonably confident that the answer to the first question is Yes, there is a connection, based on the fact that in the BSI Hebrew New Testament, the translators changed Jesus’ “cubit” to “handbreadth” (טפח ). I don’t know whether the BSI translators ever explained why they made that change, but I assume that their purpose can only have been to point to a connection between Jesus’ saying and the Psalmist’s words. (The older, nineteenth-century Delitzsch translation left the Evangelists’ “cubit” unchanged as אמה .)

Which brings us to the second question. How is the transformation to be explained? Needless to say, there are no variant readings of the Gospels in which παλαιστή appears in place of πῆχυς. So what linguistic or literary process can have been at work?
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Jacob Rhoden
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Re: From παλαιστή to πῆχυς (Psalm 39:5, Matt 6:27, Luke 12:25)

Post by Jacob Rhoden » October 8th, 2019, 5:01 pm

1. Is it reasonable to detect an echo of the Psalmist’s words in this saying of Jesus, or is that merely an illusion, a mirage?
I think this requires an assessment of how likely the original audience would have made the connection. Would it have been obvious to the original audience. If you can make a strong case for that then great. If its difficult to suggest that the original audience would have made the connection, then the case is more difficult to make.
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Daniel Semler
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Re: From παλαιστή to πῆχυς (Psalm 39:5, Matt 6:27, Luke 12:25)

Post by Daniel Semler » October 8th, 2019, 7:35 pm

I remember puzzling over this and looking up a few things when I read this post first a few weeks back. It may perhaps be a stretch to suggest that the that the gospel texts derived their form, though altered from the Psalmist very directly, but ... perhaps the length for time mixaphor was perhaps common to their way of thinking. Something similar occurs I might add in English - ' to beat/thrash someone within an inch of their life' is one example, I think. I'd have to work on it a while to turn that into a theory but ...

The thing that struck me about the examples below is that the passage appears to want a small amount, of which even that no person is capable of adding to their life through worry. A cubit is about a quarter of the body length 6ft man. That seems a lot for a comparison of this type.

Thx
D
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Brian Gould
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Re: From παλαιστή to πῆχυς (Psalm 39:5, Matt 6:27, Luke 12:25)

Post by Brian Gould » October 14th, 2019, 8:06 pm

Jacob Rhoden wrote:
October 8th, 2019, 5:01 pm
I think this requires an assessment of how likely the original audience would have made the connection.
Hi Jacob. Thank you for your reply. I agree it would be helpful to find out how well known Psalm 39 was among the population at large in first-century Judea, but I have no idea how to set about discovering that information. The only possibility that occurs to me would be to start off from the list of all the OT quotations, references, and allusions that have been identified in the 27 books of the NT, to see which OT books were quoted most frequently, on the assumption that this would serve as an indicator of people’s familiarity with them.

It turns out that Psalms is the most frequently quoted OT book in the NT, according to a list on Fr. Felix Just’s website (link below). The table at the end of the list shows that recognizable quotations from Psalms are found in no fewer than 79 different places, accounting for over 20 percent of all the OT quotations or allusions that have been identified in the NT. This would seem to suggest, on the one hand, that the Psalms, by and large, were at least as well known among the population at large as Isaiah and the other books that are frequently referenced in the NT.

On the other hand, some of the Psalms must obviously have been better known than others. Verses from Psalm 118, for instance, are referenced in seven different books: all four Gospels plus Acts, Hebrews, and 1 Peter. Out of the total 150 Psalms, forty appear at least once on Fr. Just’s list, leaving 110 that don’t appear at all. Psalm 39, in case you were wondering, is one of the 110. Where does that leave us? I really don’t know. Nowhere, I guess.

http://catholic-resources.org/Bible/Quo ... -OT-NT.htm
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Brian Gould
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Re: From παλαιστή to πῆχυς (Psalm 39:5, Matt 6:27, Luke 12:25)

Post by Brian Gould » October 14th, 2019, 8:10 pm

Daniel Semler wrote:
October 8th, 2019, 7:35 pm
The thing that struck me about the examples below is that the passage appears to want a small amount, of which even that no person is capable of adding to their life through worry. A cubit is about a quarter of the body length 6ft man. That seems a lot for a comparison of this type.
Yes, the shorter the better, I think. Rhetorically, παλαιστή is surely more effective than πῆχυς, and it would seem reasonable to suppose that δάκτυλος, which was one-quarter of a παλαιστή, would have been more effective still. The table of weights and measures at the back of the Jerusalem Bible lists the *esba* or finger as one-twenty-fourth of a cubit, equivalent to 0.8 inches or 2 centimetres. I think I have looked at every occurrence of δάκτυλος in the Bible. There aren’t very many, about forty in the LXX and only eight in the NT. As far as I can see, in almost every case the term refers to fingers or (less often) toes, and only one single time in the whole Bible to a unit of measurement:

καὶ οἱ στῦλοι τριάκοντα πέντε πηχῶν ὕψος τοῦ στύλου τοῦ ἑνός καὶ σπαρτίον δώδεκα πήχεων περιεκύκλου αὐτόν καὶ τὸ πάχος αὐτοῦ δακτύλων τεσσάρων κύκλῳ (Jer 52:21).

This would seem to suggest that the δάκτυλος or *esba* (אֶצְבַּע ) was not, in practice, a widely used unit of measurement in Judea, at any period. I wonder why not.
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