Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Translating Adultery (Passive/Active verb)

 At the Wordpress blog, "God Didn't Say that!", Joel Hoffman recently posted the following, which has a pertinent bearing on the interpretation of John 8:1-11 (the Pericope Adultera):

Adultery in Matthew 5:32

Adultery and Matthew 5:32

According to Matthew 5:32, divorcing a woman causes her to commit adultery.
But Peter Kirk notices that the new NIV (“NIV 2011″) translation has a new take on the verse. Peter writes:
One rather odd change I noticed, which some might attribute to political correctness: in Matthew 5:32 the “adulteress” (1984, TNIV) is no longer a wrongdoer but has become “the victim of adultery” (2011).
More specifically, the NIV 2011 translates:
But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
It’s a fascinating and complicated issue.

What Victim?

At first glance, the introduction of “victim” seems uncalled for. The NRSV, for example, representing the usual translation of the verse, goes with (my emphasis):
I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife … causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
The usual translation makes the case look entirely parallel. A divorcee does the same thing as the man who marries a divorcee. They both “commit adultery.”
But the original is more nuanced.

Active and Passive Adultery

The original Greek uses the verb moicheuo (“commit adultery”) twice. It’s true that marrying a divorcee is moicheuo-ing, that is, committing adultery. But divorcing a woman is to cause her to be moicheuo-ed, or to have adultery committed against her. That is, the first verb is passive and the second is active. The man and the woman here do not do the same thing, according to the Greek.
We don’t have a convenient passive for “commit adultery” in English, but we can look at another verb to get one sense of the original Greek. “A man who cheats on his wife causes her to be deceived, and a man who cheats on another’s wife deceives her.” Whatever the merits of my new sentence, we see that replacing “to be deceived” with “deceives” changes the meaning. “A man who cheats on his wife causes her to deceive…” does not mean the same thing as “…causes her to be deceived….”
Similarly, the usual translation pair “causes her to commit adultery” / “[he] commits adultery” does not mean the same thing as “causes her to have adultery committed against her” / “[he] commits adultery.”
So far, the NRSV (representing the usual translation of the verse) seems wrong, because it doesn’t reflect the change from passive to active. And the NIV2011 is starting to look pretty good. Even though “makes her the victim of adultery” isn’t exactly the same thing as “causes her to have adultery committed against her,” the NIV’s rendition has the merit of being considerably less awkward.

What does the Passive Mean?

However, the matter is even more complicated, because when a man and woman both commit adultery in the Bible, the verb describing the man’s act is active, but the woman’s act is sometimes passive, even though many modern speakers of English would call what they are doing the same thing, and even though those same speakers of English would use an active verb in both places.
For instance, John 8:4 describes a woman who “was caught in the act of [committing] adultery.” But the Greek verb there is passive. Does John 8:4 really mean “a woman caught in the act of having adultery committed against her”?
Maybe not. Maybe moicheuo is similar to the English “widow” and “widower.” In that modern case, a man whose spouse had died is a “widower” (having done something), while a woman whose spouse has died is a “widow” (having had something done to her).
In other words, the passive/active distinction in the Greek of Matthew 5:32 may, like John 8:4, reflect the purely grammatical matter that moicheuo means for a “man to commit adultery against a woman,” just like “to widow” means for a “man to leave a woman spouseless.”
Hosea 4:13-14, however, works against this hypothesis and makes matters even more complex, because in Hosea, the active verb moicheuo is used for the women who commit adultery.

Another Active/Passive Example

In this regard, we might also consider the concept of a “foster” parent or child in English. When a child and a parent enter into a foster relationship, the child is a “foster” child and the parent is a “foster” parent. But in a very similar relationship, the child is adopted (passive) while the parent adopts (active). Is the passive/active distinction between “to adopt” and “to be adopted” merely grammatical, or does it represent our modern view that the parents have done something to the children?


One central question about Matthew 5:32 is whether the active/passive distinction in the Greek verb moicheuo represents a mere grammatical fact or a difference in the role of an adulterous man and an adulterous woman. I think it’s the latter.
Another central question is whether “commit adultery” in English works the same way. I think it does not. So sometimes we may need the active “commit adultery” for the passive of moicheuo.
A third question is how the different roles of the man and woman may have been seen.

An Answer

Returning to Matthew 5:32, it seems to me that both the NRSV (and similar translations) and the NIV2011 get it wrong. The NRSV wrongly suggests that what the man and woman are doing is the same thing, while the original assumption (like “adopt” and “be adopted”) was that they are doing different things. The NIV2011, however, wrongly suggests that the woman is a victim, while the original (as we see by comparing John 8:4) did not consider her to be (only?) a victim.
So we need a translation that shows that the man and woman do different things, even though they are both (equally?) culpable.
Any suggestions?

As a result, the poster ended up with a long list of hundreds of comments, many of them quite interesting and lively on their own, and dealing with all kinds of related issues, such as the interpretation of the Torah in the Talmud, the question of Greek versus Hebrew understanding of the teachings of Jesus,  the Jewishness of Jesus and His teaching, etc. etc.

Our suggestion is that after reading the original blog-post, you also read some of the many technical and interesting comments at the original site.

Here is the link:



No comments: