April 12, 2017

From Amenemope to St. Augustine - reflections for Holy Week

By Charles Mercier *
St. Augustine in his Study / Credit: Vittore Carpaccio
St. Augustine in his Study / Credit: Vittore Carpaccio

“As Christ laid down his life for us, so we too ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” The Office of Readings for Wednesday of Holy Week (April 12 this year) has us meditate on 1 John 3.16, as commented on by St. Augustine in his Tractates on John

To this verse Augustine imaginatively applies Proverbs 23.1-2, as he knew it: “If you sit down to eat at the table of a ruler, observe carefully what is set before you; then stretch out your hand, knowing that you must provide the same kind of meal yourself.” If at the Lord’s Eucharistic table we receive as food the body and blood of him who laid down his life for us, we must reciprocate the dinner invitation and lay down our lives in return.

The text of Proverbs that Augustine cites here, however, is different from what we read in our Bibles, including the Vulgate. To work through why that is so teaches us something about how deeply God has implicated himself with the realities of the human condition, not only in his suffering and dying but also in the revealing of his Word. 
The story of these verses of Proverbs begins with the Egyptian wisdom writer Amenemope, who sometime in the period 1300-1000 BC wrote a book of Instruction, in which he says:

Do not eat bread before a ruler 
and lunge not with your mouth before a governor. 
If you satisfy yourself with false chewings,
they are a delight only to your spittle. 
Look at the cup that is before you 
and let that alone serve your needs. (chapter 23, translation Pritchard, changed)

The teacher here recommends diplomatic and polite behavior at a banquet: eat cautiously what’s on your plate, not on someone else’s, and be content with what you’re served. But in this he also finds wider moral application: be at peace, untempted by luxuries above your station.

The sacred author of the Biblical book of Proverbs in an inspired way adapted the Instruction of Amenemope for his Jewish audience, particularly in a stretch in chapters 22-24, something we have been able to know and consider only since the first publication of Amenemope in 1923. The Hebrew original of Proverbs 23.1-3, as represented by the translation of the Jewish Publication Society, goes:

1 When you sit down to eat with a ruler,
consider well who is before you.
2 Thrust a knife into your gullet,
if you have a large appetite.
3 Do not crave for his dainties.
for they are counterfeit food.

Proverbs here counsels us stick a knife in our throat before giving in to the gluttony that deceives, the appetites that cause us to overvalue the luxuries that the powerful enjoy. The wise do not envy sinners, but live rather in the fear of the Lord.

Onward from the third century BC the Hebrew Scripture was turned into Greek for dispersed Jewish readers. A close translation of the Greek, Septuagint, version of Proverbs 23.1-3 goes:

1 If ever you sit to dine at the table of rulers,
consider well the things placed before you
2 And cast your hand
knowing that you must prepare such things.
3 And if you are insatiable, do not desire his food
for these are held of a false life.

The Septuagint translation of the Hebrew into Greek often diverges from literal accuracy. This is sometimes due to the translator’s lack of sufficient knowledge of language and style and sometimes the result of the translator’s feeling it responsible and proper to make creative adaptations necessary to convey the Hebrew original intelligibly to those of Greek language and culture. Here, perhaps for both reasons, the translator has not conveyed with perfect accuracy the meaning of the Hebrew original.

Difficulty with verse two is understandable. It begins, “Thrust a sakin belo‘ekha.” Both sakin (‘knife,’ mistranslated as kheira, ‘hand’) and belo‘ekha (‘into your gullet,’ simply omitted) are rare words, occurring only here in the Old Testament, and together make an unusual metaphor: “thrust a knife in your gullet” means “decidedly restrain yourself from gluttony.” “Knowing that you must prepare such things” is an addition to the original. 

In this way does the Septuagint both spare the Greek reader an unpleasantly blunt metaphor and emphasize, appropriately to a Greek culture in which hospitality and reciprocity were important social norms, the dangers of getting in over your head when accepting a dinner invitation too expensive, both monetarily and morally, to reciprocate, even if the food is tasty and the company glamorous.

This is the version that Augustine knew around 400 AD and quoted, in a literal translation of the Greek Septuagint into Latin, verse two of which goes: “et sic pone manum tuam sciens quia talia te oportet praeparare.” (“and so place your hand, knowing that you must prepare such things.”). The regularized Vulgate would have a version closer to the original Hebrew, but that was not the text that Augustine used here.

Augustine then allegorizes the text he received. Allegorical interpretation is, most broadly, to read something in a way other than literally and it was a mode of interpretation characteristic of his time.

The original warning in Greek Proverbs had meant literally something like: “don’t involve yourself in the allurements of the king’s bread and banquet. They are a “counterfeit food,” (“panis mendacii” in the Vulgate), “of a false life,” because you will be ruined, indebted for reciprocity to the falsehoods of wealth and power.” Augustine here takes that out of context, creatively sets it next to the words “we too ought to lay down our lives” from 1 John, and reinterprets it in a positive way: “involve yourself most fully in the bread and banquet of the Holy Eucharist by the fullest reciprocity of the Lord’s gift of his life.”

The rereading is so creative that Augustine has turned the verse into its opposite. Yet Augustine’s non-literal reading of a non-literal translation has paradoxically yielded an interpretation that is true and nourishing: “we in our turn ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.”

The chain that links Amenemope to inspired literary adaptation in Proverbs, to non-literal Greek translation in the Septuagint, to the Latin translation read by Augustine that literally translates the non-literalness, to Augustine’s allegorizing, to us who in 2017 are inspired by Augustine’s powerful words in modern English enshrined in the liturgy of Holy Week, is a rich example of the depth of God’s respect and love for humanity and the complexity of his providence in revealing himself.

When he is lifted up Jesus draws all to himself, including Egyptian wisdom sayings. Linguistic contradiction, inevitably a part of translation, is assimilated by the one who has reconciled all things to himself, making peace through the blood of his cross.

If we recognize that in all truth the word of God did not come to us antiseptically but through processes imbued with human limitation, we should not be disturbed, but keep in mind another saying of St. Augustine about the Lord’s passion, read in the church on Wednesday of the fifth week of Lent, that applies also to the way he reveals himself: “When something is said about the Lord Jesus Christ that seems to belong to a condition of lowliness unworthy of God, we must not hesitate to ascribe this condition to one who did not hesitate to unite himself to us.

Charles Mercier writes from Connecticut.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.