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“Biblical Hebrew developed as a desert language, and it exhibits the economy of desert people. The very opposite of Victorian English, which never uses fewer words if it can use more, Hebrew will not use three words if two will do. It will not use two words if one will do. If it can get away with silence instead of words, it will do so — and much of the meaning of the Hebrew Bible is to be found in its silences. This is because in the desert every movement is dehydrating; and desert people learn to think before they move and think before they speak. They are elegant conservers of energy.

When Amos, the great prophet of the Northern Kingdom, tries to move the people to abandon their trivial pursuit of economic status and to take account of the poor, he says most beautifully:

Ve-yigal ka-maim mishpat, ve-tsedaka k’nachal eytahn,

which I would translate, ‘Let your justice flow like water, and your compassion like a never-failing stream.’ The English takes twenty syllables, the Hebrew only fifteen — and this is Hebrew at its most expansive…

If the misplaced reverence of translators can make the people of the Bible sound as they never did in life, no one brings on attacks of reverence more often than Jesus, who was actually humorous, affectionate, and down-to-earth, who spoke to his friends and followers in a clear and bracing manner, was often blunt, sometimes vulgar, and always arresting. Never did he employ the dreary, self-righteous, even priggish sound that some of his admirers would wish for him. Despite the popularity of the King James Version, Jesus was not a 17th-century Englishman…

In Mark’s Gospel, the most primitive of the four gospels, the first words that Jesus speaks are: ‘The Time has come. The Kingdom of God draws near…’ The next word is almost always translated as ‘repent’ or ‘convert’ — which makes Jesus sound like a sidewalk freak with a placard in his hands. But the word Mark uses is metanoiete, which means literally in Greek ‘change your minds.’ For the Greeks, the mind was considerably more than it is for us. It was the core of the person, the center of his being. The word we would use is ‘heart.’ So… I have translated the Greek as ‘Open your hearts’ — a far cry from ‘repent!'”


Excerpted from Thomas Cahill’s speech “Close Encounters with the People of the Past”.

Cahill, who has written some of the most enjoyable and broadly accessible popular history out there, has published a few books that hover around the ancient Greeks and early Christian church. I recommend starting with Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus.

The image: a section of Caravaggio’s 1599 masterpiece The Calling of Saint Matthew.

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