A Sample Process of Translating Alexandrian Greek

A sample of the trials, struggles, and success with translating Alexandrian Greek into English.

Third to fifth century Alexandrian Greek is often difficult to translate. This difficulty is for three reasons. It is a melting pot of many different Greek dialects, their own linguistic oddities, and the lack of a specialized dictionary or grammar on Alexandrian Greek. This distinct nuance of the Alexandrian writers during the early centuries has not been clearly documented. Therefore when one approaches these writers, it is a big challenge. And if one likes challenges, this can be fun, but frustrating as well.

For example the word, ἐνηνθρωπηκότος found in the following sentence of Cyril of Alexandria’s Commentary on I Corinthians:

Ἐνηνθρωπηκότος γὰρ ἅπαξ τοῦ Μονογενοῦς, παθόντος τε καὶ ἐγηγερμένου1

A search for ἐνηνθρωπηκότος, or even a resemblance of a root, cannot be found in Lampe’s Patristic Lexicon, Perseus’ online dictionary, Sophocles Greek dictionary, or even in the massive Stephanus Lexicon. Sometimes one can simply omit a word because it is unimportant, but that doesn’t apply in this situation. Another approach would be to leave the word untranslated which would render it as:

The Enenthropekotos exclusively of the Only Begotten, of whom had suffered and also arose

It is not sufficient.

The only place that has given any real clues is the Latin which translates the word as incarnato. Translated into English it means incarnation, in flesh, or something similar. Therefore the translation should read:

For the once only incarnation of the Only Begotten who suffered and also rose from the dead

It makes good sense that Ἐνηνθρωπηκότος should be translated as incarnation, but there is nothing outside of the Latin translation to justify such a rendering. How did the translator know this? It is part of the oral Church traditions passed down through the centuries. This tradition has largely been forgotten, and one has to hope the Latin translator was correct.

But there is more. The complete sentence in the Greek is this:

Ἐνηνθρωπηκότος γὰρ ἅπαξ τοῦ Μονογενοῦς, παθόντος τε καὶ ἐγηγερμένου, καὶ τῆς καθ’ ἡμᾶς οἰκονομίας ἐκπεπερασμένης, ποίας ἦν ἔτι προφητίας καιρὸς, ἥ ποίων ἔσται πραγμάτων ἡ προαγόρευσις ;2

For the once only incarnation of the Only Begotten who suffered and also rose from the dead, and of whose ministry has been brought to perfection among us, of such was yet the precise time of prophecy, surely the [function of] prophecy will be about such things?

There are three words that are difficult to translate here—οἰκονομίας ἐκπεπερασμένης, and προαγόρευσις. The first one, οἰκονομίας, because of its rich theological history, and the second, ἐκπεπερασμένης, because it is takes some serious word-sleuthing to find the definition, and the third, προαγόρευσις, because of its rare usage.

Οἰκονομία is a prominent ecclesiastical word but a difficult one to express in English. It has a rich history that has evolved through a number of definitions over the centuries. It is hardly used in the Greek Old Testament. The use of this word in the New Testament simply relates to stewardship, management, administration, or authority. By the third century the word was extended to also mean “special considerations.” It began to become the keyword in ecclesiastical doctrine relating to ministry, especially concerning appointment of deacons to assist bishops.3 The Eastern Christian Church prefers to translate it as economia because it is a “discretionary deviation from the letter of the law in order to adhere to the spirit of the law and charity. This is in contrast to legalism, or akribia (Greek: ακριβεια)—strict adherence to the letter of the law of the church.”4

Later Latin translators used dispensatio as the equivalent. This Latin word became the basis for an important Church position on the powers of Church authority rendering legal opinion. The Catholic-based New Advent website describes it as, “an act whereby in a particular case a lawful superior grants relaxation from an existing law.”5

This Latin word became the basis for translating οἰκονομία into English. Protestant theology took this word and structured a theology called dispensationalism around it. It is a system that describes human world history in epochs according to findings in the Bible. Daniel J. Fabricatore recognized a problem with the Protestant rendering:

In this progress of revelation, it is clear that God has dealt differently with man in different times. Dispensationalists see these times as “dispensations” and then load up the term οἰκονομία with temporal significance beyond what is inherent in the term.6

As a translator one is forced to ask an important question—what did Cyril of Alexandria intend the word to mean here? The word hadn’t become a doctrinal standard by his time, but evolved enough to mean ministry. The Latin translator of Cyril has used dispensatione as the Latin equivalent here in Cyril’s commentary. This, however, has too much theological history to translate into English simply as dispensation. Ministry is a safer alternative.

Ἐκπεπερασμένης is the second difficult word to explain, not for its theological significance, but because it was hard to find. It was not found in the normal places such as Perseus’ website, Sophocles Greek Dictionary, and Lampe’s Patristic Lexicon. It could not be located in any English-based work. The definition was located in a Greek-French dictionary7 and in the old Greek-Latin Stephanus Lexicon8—to lead to maturity, or ripeness. The Latin has consummata which relates to something being brought to perfection. The Latin here follows the spirit of the Greek and is a good basis for the English translation.

The word προαγόρευσις is an odd one that is found nowhere else. This is another word for prophecy. Perhaps it is a regionalism utilized by Cyril. It is more likely Cyril borrowing an old word as a synonym to prophecy. Cyril was a good writer and it wouldn’t be surprising if he did this. The Latin translator senses that this is slightly distinct from prophecy and translates it as preadictio which has an emphasis on foretelling or predicting the future. I am hesitant to translate this way, as the word prophecy has a much wider semantic range than this. If Cyril is using an old word as a synonym perhaps seer would be an equivalent. However, this term, slightly used in the Old Testament, is not common knowledge to most readers and therefore is not a good alternative. There are no good alternative synonyms in the English language that define prophecy as something beyond knowing the future. Therefore prophecy has to be used for προαγόρευσις.

This article is a small sample of translating ancient Alexandrian Greek for anyone interested. Hopefully this will not dissuade any attempts, but instead provides a framework to begin and improve on. These articles may help as well:

  1. MPG. Vol. 74. S. Cyrilli Alexandrini. In Epistolam I ad Corinthios. Col. 889
  2. MPG. Vol. 74. S. Cyrilli Alexandrini. In Epistolam I ad Corinthios. Col. 889
  3. G.H. Lampe. A Patristic Greek Lexicon. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Pg. 940-942
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_(Eastern_Christianity)
  5. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05041a.htm
  6. http://www.bbc.edu/council/documents/2010/Fabricatore.pdf
  7. Dictionnaire Grec-Français, C. Alexandre. Paris: Libraire de l’Universitê Royale de France. Pg. 401
  8. Thesaurus Graecae Linguae ab Henrico Stephano. Volume 3 Paris: Excudebat, Ambrosius, Firmin, Didot. 1835. Col. 519

1 thought on “A Sample Process of Translating Alexandrian Greek”

  1. Ἐνηνθρωπηκότος – I believe the verb here is ένανθρωπέω, the same one found in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed – “And for us and for our salvation he came down from heaven and was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man (ἐνανθρωπήσαντα).”  It can mean incarnato, as the Latin translator has it, but it really means something like ‘inhominatio,’ because it has the full sense of the Word becoming Man, not just flesh (carne, σάρξ)  This form is a bit confusing because the α has morphed into an η because of the perfect tense. 


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