In the beginning midrash/bilingualism

From: yochanan bitan (
Date: Wed Feb 23 2000 - 08:09:49 EST

shalom Greek list--I am a little surprised that in an ancient Jewish
you do not raise the question of midrash and what seems to me
quite obvious, skillful wordplay. [update: I just saw that Larry Swain has
at least mentioned targum and Carl Conrad brought in Jewish 'wisdom'
connections. The following still holds.]

John is written in Greek, no question for me.
But he is very conscious of BOTH Jewish and Hellenistic background, writing
in Greek and very aware of Jewish background.
For example, in verses 1.2-4 the gospel appropriates and builds
on the ancient Jewish "all-purpose" blessing:
"that everything has come into being through his word"
she-hakol nihya bidvaro (See Mishna Beraxot)
(this is somewhat distinctive Hebrew, which makes it hard to miss, even in
Of course, John relates this terminology to the Messiah as a Hidush

Now the targums are a post-70 phenomenon, as Qumran's silence testifies
(except for the prolific Job targum, of course. Cf. LXX Job 42.17, Qumran
11 and 4, Gamaliel story.).
But the targums are a window back into the world of midrash and that world
was pre-Christian.
(Cf. Paul's reference to the "following" rock, or the joining of "and you
shall love God" with "and you shall love your friend" Luke 10.27, or
'Jannes and Jambres', etc.)
The targums testify to an old practice of midrashic development and
circumlocutions using 'word', 'presence' and 'glory', among others, for
'Word' in turn goes back to a midrashic connection between Proverbs 8,
"wisdom and beginning" with Genesis 1 "speaking [cf. 'and he said'] and
This rabbinic link itself between wisdom, speaking and creation was
probably enhanced during Hellenistic times because of the Greek discussions
about logos (cf. Philo for the Jewish connection).

John has very obviously tapped-in on a complex web of relationships that
have strong ties to both Hellenistic and Jewish terminology.
His skill becomes clear at 1.14 where 'word', 'glory' and shexina/presence
are mirrored in his Greek words, even a bilingual "homonym" eschenesen

A bilingual wordplay, now that's skill. He did it phonetically at 1.14, but
conceptually, he did it throughout 1.1-18.

An aside for translation: wordplays, in translation theory, are
acknowledged to be untranslatable. You pick the piece(s) you want and live
with it. (Actually, that is true for all translation, but I won't belabor
the point.)
If you want full communication then you are committed to 'study bibles'.
Welcome aboard.

Maybe the day will come when the Church rediscovers a Synagogue practice:
relationship between source and translation is never forgotten or
obliterated. For example, in the English world a synagogue will probably
provide worshippers with a bi-lingual Hebrew-English edition of the tora
that includes study notes in English, too. [The synagogue practice presents
a middle-road between 'translation-only' (the Church) and 'source only'
I would be happy with bilingual Greek-XXX(e.g.English) study Bibles (NT)
and Hebrew-XXX (e.g.English) study Bibles (OT). For precedents, see the
Socino Hebrew-English readers, or the miqraot gedolot (rabbinic bibles,
maybe too heavy on commentary).

Randall Buth

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