Sunday, March 2, 2008

Davenport and Urrutia: The Sayings of Jesus

Following are some paragraphs about Jesus from Guy Davenport's introduction to The Logia of Yeshua, a collection of Jesus' sayings edited and translated by Davenport and Benjamin Urrutia. Davenport's introductory portrait of the figure of Jesus is particularly poignant:
We do not yet know if Jesus spoke koine (common-market Greek) or Aramaic. The writers of the gospels thought that their best hope for disseminating the Good News was to write in Greek, so a Greek-speaking Jesus is what the world got.

There is a papyrus fragment of a lost gospel on which only a few sentences are legible. It was written in the first century and is therefore as close to Jesus' time as the canonical gospels. Jesus is on the banks of the Jordan, speaking to a crowd. Because of the tatters in the papyrus, the effect of trying to read it is like being present but being too far back to hear well. This must have happened often enough. "Blessed are the who? Did he say the swineherd was welcomed home?" Jesus says something about a dark and secret place, and about weighing things that are weightless. That sounds like him. But then we are told that he threw a handful of seeds into the Jordan and that they became trees bearing fruit in the twinkling of an eye, and floated away down the river.

This, too, is familiar in its unfamiliarity. If he could wither a tree, he could create one. If he could walk on water, he could make an orchard stand on it. If this gospel had been known before 1935, what wonderful paintings the Renaissance would have made of it--a Botticelli is easy to imagine. We also recognize the mythic accretion that had begun before the gospels were written. Jesus probably built a metaphor around the mystery of germination. In the retelling, and retelling, the metaphor turned into a magician's illusion.

His hearers understood hyperbole and parables as if by second nature. Faith should be so strong that it can move a mountain. Only a child would take that literally, and he kept asking us to become the kind of child who could believe it. He was remembered with this same kind of hyperbole that was native to the Hebraic imagination: They said he could magically multiply fish and bread (to praise his generosity), that he could walk on water, make the blind see and the dead come alive.

He wrote nothing. It is as if Heraclitus had not written a book but told his philosophy to grocers, fish-sellers, and housewives. True, like Socrates, who wrote nothing either, he was surrounded by disciples who understood that they were to carry on.

What they, or somebody, remembered were his sayings. When the gospels were written and by whom we do not know. "Matthew," "Mark," "Luke," and "John" are probably fictitious names. Jesus' life was already a myth (which can coincide with truth and be a more vivid and symmetrical presentation of truth). History, in a coup de theatre worthy of Beckett, swept away practically all traces of the historical Jesus. Our certainties are three: He joined as a man in his thirties a reform movement led by one John, called "the Dipper" as he had revived an ancient ritual of symbolically washing away sin by immersion in running water. He had a coherent and charismatic ethic that he preached along roads and in the open country for three years. He fell into the hands of the Roman colonial authorities, who reluctantly respected the charge against him that he was a revolutionary and disruptive presence. He was cruelly executed by being nailed alive to an upright stake with a crosspiece for the hands. Such a mode of execution is torture, not dispatch.

In the logia, we see only the eloquent, wry, amused, and angry Jesus; or, rather, we hear him. The falsest myth about him may be the Romantic and Sunday school pictures of him as a pious matinee idol with a woman's hair, neat beard, and flowing robes. History can tell us that he wore trousers of the kind we call Turkish, that he most certainly had oiled sidelocks and a full beard. A man so out-of-doors would have worn a wide-brimmed traveler's hat, a caftan, or coat. His sandals are mentioned by John [the Baptist]. We can guess a witty smile ("Behold an Hebrew in whom is no guile!") and eyes capable of extreme sternness and kindness. That he could hold an audience entranced goes without saying.

Jesus was the real ironist Kierkegaard conceals behind the face of Socrates in his doctoral thesis. Irony was his constant mode; it awakens the reflective faculties. A father loves his wayward better than his obedient son. Finding lost things pleases us more than knowing where they are. Adhering strictly to the law is strangely to disobey it. Riches are worth nothing. Heaven is not up but inside. His ironic paradoxes and his often mystifying parables replicate the strategies of Diogenes centuries before.

His paradox that stung worst was that religion anaesthetizes religion. Any two people, loving and agreeing with each other, was church enough, as it had been for Amos seven hundred years earlier. Identities aroused Swiftian satire in him, for "the kingdom of heaven" recognizes no identity but human. . . .

In the logia we can scarcely discern the metaphysics and eschatology that the church, beginning with Paul, built around the vision Jesus had of a redeemed humanity. . . .
These lines are some of the most evocative I know on Jesus the man. Though there are things here I don't agree with, the presentation of Jesus as teacher and ironist is convincing. Davenport stresses an aspect of Jesus that the churches have far too much ignored in their epoch-making debates over the metaphysics of redemption and the theology of grace. Too often the leaders of Christendom have ignored Jesus' own words, the subversive and liberating potential in those words. Davenport speaks directly to this tendency to obscure Jesus under layers of metaphysics and church politics.

In The Logia of Yeshua Davenport and Urrutia hope to prod readers toward a new evaluation of Jesus' words. The Jesus that concerns them is not the Christ of later Christian theology, that ultimate Sacrifice we read of in the Epistle to the Hebrews, but rather Jesus the wandering teacher, Jesus the weaver of existential riddles and paradoxes. The logia in the book's title means "sayings," and in their translations Davenport and Urrutia approach Jesus' sayings the way a trained classicist would approach the fragments that remain of the Greek pre-Socratics. The main concern in both cases is the quest for clarity. The guiding questions are: What do the Greek words of the original really mean? What did they mean in their historical context? How shall we render these words in our modern English without imposing our own concepts on them (concepts that only matured much later)?

In his introduction Davenport reminds us that the earliest writings about Jesus were most likely collections of his sayings. Such collections were later used by the gospel writers when they came to write their stories of Jesus' life. It is because of this priority of sayings collections that scholars have long considered certain core sayings to be the most reliable parts of the gospels. Jesus' own words as recorded in the gospels have more chance of being accurate than any other words about him in those books: about what he did or where he went, for instance; about what others said of him. This relative reliability is a good thing for Christians: it means that when we read Jesus' sayings there is at least some likelihood we are reading his authentic words rather than words invented by oral tradition or the gospel writers themselves.

Anyone with a copy of The Logia of Yeshua will see that I've modified Davenport's above-quoted lines a bit. Everywhere in Davenport's book Jesus is referred to as Yeshua, the Semitic version of his name. It is the same in the introductory paragraphs I've quoted above. In reproducing these paragraphs here, however, I decided to replace Davenport's "Yeshua" with "Jesus," just as I've replaced his "Yohannan" with "John."

The reason Davenport and Urrutia chose to use the more correct Semitic versions of names in their book is not only that of scholarly accuracy. It's clear that one of the goals of their translations is to force the reader to appreciate the sayings of Jesus as if reading them for the first time. For in reading them as something new, it is thought, readers will find in Jesus' words things they hadn't noticed before. Davenport and Urrutia thus strive to defamiliarize Jesus' sayings: to make them new.

The Semitic rendering of proper names is just one strategy in this project of defamiliarization. Jesus is not to be the familiar figure we take for granted but rather "Yeshua," a man we perhaps don't really know. John the Baptist is in fact "Yohannan the Dipper," Jerusalem is "Yerushalayim." The mild shock of these more foreign versions of the names is intended to put an extra step between the reader and that all-too-easy familiarity with things known since Sunday school that Davenport and Urrutia see as the enemy of a more just appreciation of Jesus and his teachings.

I think much in Davenport and Urrutia's project is effective. In particular the notes show care in the work of isolating and reconstructing the sayings. Also they seek to translate Jesus' words in a clear and direct manner according to what the Greek actually says rather than according to later theological interpretations of what it should mean. The Semitic versions of names, however--their Yeshua and Yirmiahu and Yerushalayim--this I feel is unfortunate. It draws too much attention to itself and is no help whatever in interpreting the logia. Take the following logion for example, number 95 in their collection:
[Entering the temple, ordering the merchants to leave, folding up the tables of the money-lenders, driving out the sellers of doves, sheep, and oxen] Take all these things away! It is written in the book of the prophet Yeshayahu, My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations. And it was prophesied through Yirmiahu, Has this house, which is called by my name, become a cave for robbers? And the father has spoken through Zechariah: There shall be no more merchants in the house of the Lord of Hosts in that day.
I suspect that many readers will be too busy grappling with the novel versions of the names Isaiah and Jeremiah to dwell much on other aspects of the translators' rendering of this logion. The translation presents an unnecessary encumbrance. Notice too how the narrative framework of the gospels is creeping in: Davenport and Urrutia provide the context between brackets. One cannot blame them for doing so in this case, but one wonders then to what extent others of the logia might not be separable from their context in narrative.

Regarding the question of proper names, Davenport and Urrutia are certainly part of a trend among contemporary literary translators. But I am against this movement toward faithful transcription of names. In reading the Iliad I don't care to learn of the sulking of Akhilleus or the exploits of Aias. The heroes that I know are Achilles and Ajax. It's unfortunate that our best translator of Homer, Robert Fitzgerald, saw fit to ignore the tradition we have in English for the names of Homer's characters. And here before me on my desk I've a copy of The Cambridge Companion to Dostoevskii. The writer that the editor of this volume has in mind is known in my language as Dostoyevsky, or, at the very least, Dostoevsky. If one really wants to write of Aias or Dostoevskii or Kayin brother of Hevel and first fratricide, then one ought to do it in the languages in which these names were forged: Greek, Russian and Hebrew respectively. When translating into English one should show respect for traditional usage.

The semitically correct names in The Logia of Yeshua are not as much of a drawback as one might think given my carping. Thankfully the majority of the logia have no proper names mentioned. And the book is good too in its use of extra-biblical sources such as The Gospel of Thomas. The editors have shown a balanced approach to the question of what Jesus may actually have said. We are not given a discernibly gnostic Jesus, nor on the other hand an overly canonical Jesus. In their notes Davenport and Urrutia justify their decisions with a scholarly moderation. All except for note 98 that is.

In writing these lines I'm reminded of driving through the farmland of Wisconsin where I grew up. Every handful of miles one would come across a big red barn on the side of which would be painted in huge white capitals "JESUS SAVES." I'm wondering if Guy Davenport's barn down in his neck of the woods in Tennessee might not have huge white letters on the side reading "YESHUA IRONIZES." And I'm wondering too just what this slogan might mean, and if it can offer the world a notion of Jesus anywhere near as appropriate to him as that on our Wisconsin barns.

1 comment:

Jeffrey Davis said...

Kentucky. Not Tennessee.