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Never Cite out of Context

Context is important in translating the ancient Church writers. Translating just a small portion without knowing the big picture can be dangerous.

A Bible professor once warned all us fledgling students to never cite Biblical passages out of context.

Here I am almost 30 years later and that voice still resounds, and yet the urge to do that still exists. The English translation development of I Corinthians 12-14 of the Ambrosiaster Manuscript is testimony to that.

In an earlier Post (which I have deleted)I was given the translation:

“But in the Church,” it is said, “I wish to speak five words according to the law that I may also build up others than ten thousand words in a tongue.” He [Paul] says it to be more useful speaking in small words in the making of a speech in order that everyone should understand than to have a lengthy speech in obscurity. These were from the Hebrews who at length in the Syrian language and for the most part in Hebrew who were indulging in homilies or presentations for approval. For they were boasting calling themselves Jews according to the right of Abraham, that the same apostle held this to no account teaching, “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

This translation was based on a Latin manuscript from Migne Patrologia Latina. However, at the time, I did not deeply delve nor translate any other passage from this text. This just seemed from cursory glance the only passage relevant to the gift of tongues.

As I was in the process of translating three chapters of Ambrosiaster on I Corinthians, it became clear the above translation was not correct. It should read:

(Vers. 19) “But in the Church,” it is said, “I wish to speak five words according to the law that I may also build up others than ten thousand words in a tongue.” He [Paul] says it to be more useful speaking in small words in the making of a speech in order that everyone should understand than to have a lengthy speech in obscurity. [Col. 270] These were from the Hebrew who at length in the Syrian language and for the most part by Hebrew women who were indulging in homilies or presentations for approval. For they were boasting calling themselves Jews according to the right of Abraham, that the same apostle held this to no account teaching, “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14). Indeed these ones who are mimicking, they prefer to speak in their unknown language to the people in the Church which belongs to them.

The bolded section in English is from the Latin: “Hi ex Hebraeis erant, qui aliquando Syra lingua, plerumque Hebraea, in tractatibus aut oblationibus utebantur ad commendationem.”

The key here is in understanding the foreign loanword Hebraea. It is difficult to translate this loanword because Latin authors do not consistently write this Hebrew word the same. Googling the word did not bring any closure, The Perseus dictionary had no results and Whitaker’s Words provided two definitions: the first one was “Hebrew, Jewish” and the second one was reserved for medieval usage, “Hebrew/Jewish woman.”

At first, I thought the Ambrosiaster manuscript was written by St. Ambrose and was traced back to the 4th century, so the choice of the word Hebrew with no reference to gender seemed the logical and most non-controversial translation to make.

As I went on translating the chapters, this assumption got tossed out the window. First of all, Ambrose never wrote it. It doesn’t even come close to his style or interests. Ambrosiaster is a name given to the mysterious writer(s) much later.

Secondly, the manuscript has all sorts of redactions. Most of them can be traced to around the 11th or 12th century. The Latin text seems to predominantly align better stylistically with this period, though there are pieces that are earlier.

One cannot easily see these things when only translating a small passage.

Also later on in his commentary there is a slight nuance with the tongues problem to women wanting to speak out in Church when they are not supposed to. The wording appears the same, though this is a connection more by observation than by fact.

The bottom line on the whole thing is that one should read all literature within context. By neglecting to do so can lead to some erroneous conclusions.