A translation query in Augustine’s “Treatise against the Jews”

I received today an interesting query about an old post from 2015 in which I give an English translation of Augustine’s Adversus Judaeos.  This involves some looking up, so I thought I would blog about it.

Daniel Boyarin’s “Carnal Israel”  begins with a brief quote from Augustine’s Tractatus adversus Judaeos, (vii, 9)  which reads as follows:

‘Behold Israel according to the flesh’ (1 Cor. 10:18). This we know to be the carnal Israel; but the Jews do not grasp this meaning and as a result the prove themselves indisputably carnal.

You translate these verses differently:

‘Behold Israel according to the flesh,’ we know to be the natural Israel; but the Jews do not grasp this meaning and as a result they prove themselves indisputably natural.

I understand carnal and natural to be similar words, but with very different connotations.

The full title of the book is Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture, and there is a preview here.  I could not discover where Mr. Boyarin got his translation, but it appears at the very start of his book and he needs the meaning of “carnal” here.

The words that I reproduced in  my post are those of the Fathers of the Church series translator, p.402-3.  I modified this only to remove “thee” and “thou” in a couple of places.  Here it is, with a bit of context.

We know, of course, the spiritual Israel about which the Apostle says: ‘And whoever follows this rule, peace and mercy upon them, even upon the Israel of God.’ The Israel, however, about which the Apostle says: ‘Behold Israel according to the flesh,’ we know to be the natural Israel; but the Jews do not grasp this meaning and as a result they prove themselves indisputably natural.

The first place to start is with the Latin, which is online here.  The translation has altered the chapter divisions (drat them), but indicated the Patrologia Latina division, which is chapter 9.

Novimus quidem Israel spiritualem, de quo dicit Apostolus, Et quicumque hanc regulam sequuntur, pax super illos et misericordia, et super Israel Dei (Galal. vi, 16): istum autem Israel scimus esse carnalem, de quo idem dicit, Videte Israel secundum carnem (I Cor. x, 18). Sed ista isti non capiunt, et eo se ipsos carnales esse convincunt.

The next place to look is at the bible text referenced, in the Latin.  This is online here.  Augustine would most likely have used an Old Latin text rather than the Vulgate, but they probably did not differ here.

18 Videte Israel secundum carnem: nonne qui edunt hostias, participes sunt altaris?

18 Behold Israel according to the flesh: are not they, that eat of the sacrifices, partakers of the altar?

We may as well have the Greek also:

18 βλέπετε τὸν Ἰσραὴλ κατὰ σάρκα· [a]οὐχ οἱ ἐσθίοντες τὰς θυσίας κοινωνοὶ τοῦ θυσιαστηρίου εἰσίν;

It’s a little hard to translate that first phrase, especially without paraphrasing.   I was a little surprised to see that modern versions like the NIV, NRSV and even the ESV simply fail to translate κατὰ σάρκα.  The KJV (and of course the Douai) do translate it.  I confess that this omission seems worrying to me.

The passage in 1 Corinthians is talking about idolatry.  If you take part in a heathen sacrifice, you become part of the worship.  As part of this, Paul uses the analogy of an ordinary observant non-Christian Jew, sacrificing at the temple, who becomes part of that worship.  So the sense is about Jew versus Christian here.

Based on this, I can respond to the original query.  Both “natural” and “carnal” have the same meaning here – ordinary, worldly, not someone who has become a Christian and lives by the Holy Spirit and obeys His commandments.  But in our age of pornography, I think “carnal” today has gained a meaning which is not intended here, of worldly vices and indulgence.

So I can see why the 1950s translator decided to avoid it, to avoid that conclusion.  It may also be that in 1950s America it was difficult to use in print a word that might seem anti-semitic.


13 thoughts on “A translation query in Augustine’s “Treatise against the Jews”

  1. I constantly struggle with problems of “translation theory.” We want to say only what the original author said and all of it yet avoid a slavish “literal translation.” That goal is indeed elusive when the semantic fields of roughly equivalent words in the original and target languages differ enough to introduce unintended, new meaning into the translation. One doesn’t want to define every word in the body of a translation and produce a dictionary. A eureka solution does not present itself to me.

    You’ve, of course, hit this instance’s problem (carnal=sexual) squarely on the nailhead, a connotation neither the Latin nor the Greek has here. I wonder if the 1950s translator might have better used “earthly” and “of this earth” instead of “natural.” “Natural” has not worn particularly well in the last 70 years. It now also has the connotation of “pure and unsullied” even “better,” penumbras the Latin and Greek in no way connote. Nature was to the ancients savage, wild, uncivilized, frightening. That’s not what’s meant in the Augustine text either. It’s a conundrum, undoubtedly.

  2. These are very valid points. The difficulty in choosing a meaning is why old choices for the meaning get copied forward by translators – the old choice may not be the best, but at least everyone is used to it.

    “Earthly” is an interesting choice. I agree about “natural”!

    Once you start to try to think of a better word, the difficulty really becomes obvious.

  3. FYI, The New American Bible rev. ed. reads thus: “Look at Israel according to the flesh; are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar?” “According to the flesh” doesn’t seem to elucidate the meaning of κατὰ σἀρκα very well. The problem of a literal translation like this is having to understand and explain the ambiguity of the translation as well as the theological argument. Still, it’s better than “carnal.” One doesn’t want to introduce interpretation if at all possible while still clarifying the text’s meaning. It’s indeed tricky.

  4. I don’t know much Greek, but maybe the punctuation is weird?

    “Look at Israel. According to the flesh, are not those who eat the sacrifices, communicants in the altar?”

    Or maybe, “part of the company of the altar”, or “members of the fellowship of the altar”, given that very noticeable word?

    Honestly, “kata sarka” is probably something like “as far as meat goes” or “strictly from a meat point of view” in this case, although not in other uses in Paul.

    The problem may also be that Augustine is quoting part of the quote, and expecting the reader to fill in the rest?

    Anyway, I guess “eat the victims” was not going to happen, and there’s no easy English language way to show how “hostias” fits the communion theme.

  5. For what it’s worth: Boyarin’s 1993 book seems to be a reworking of at least two articles of his published the previous year:

    “Behold Israel According to the Flesh”: On Anthropology and Sexuality in Late Antique Judaisms (Yale Journal of Criticism 5.2)
    “This We Know to Be the Carnal Israel”: Circumcision and the Erotic Life of God and Israel (Critical Inquiry 18)

    Both begin quoting Augustine’s passage in the same form. One of them states “All biblical and midrashic quotations are mine unless otherwise noted”. Nothing is said about the Latin, but since Google, Hathi or Internet Archive don’t yield any previous results of “Israel According to the Flesh” I would guess it is Boyarin’s literal rendering of ‘carnalis’. The fact is that, as far as I can see, this is the only bit of Augustine quoted in any of these works: the author does not engage directly with the argument in Adversus Judaeos. So perhaps it is taken a bit out of context, just (as you suspect) a sentence that translated in a certain way helps him make his point, because from what I gather from Augustine’s text the sense “fleshly, sensual; sexual” does not enter into it at any point. But of course one should read Boyarin more carefully before concluding that.

  6. Thank you – that’s really helpful!

    I did wonder if he was jazzing it up a bit for the benefit of, or at the request of, the publishers. He seems to be making an interesting point underneath all that.

  7. Uh, that should have been “All biblical and midrashic *translations* are mine unless otherwise noted” of course.

    Happy New Year!

  8. It is probably time to go alternate word hunting in the OED and Roget’s for something along the lines of :innate:, :inherrent:, ;of this time and place:.

  9. A kind correspondent sends this:

    Happy New Year, Roger!

    I can no longer use the comment box on your blog, probably because I’m still using Windows XP. But I’m very likely in a minority of one, so don’t bother about it.

    However, I did want to comment on suburbanbanshee’s idea about the meaning of kata sarka, a couple of posts back. Any standard NT dictionary would tell her that its most usual meaning is “of natural origin and relationship” (nothing to do with meat!); many OT and NT references. So the spiritual Israel (i.e. the church of many nations founded by Christ) is being contrasted with genetically related Israel, the physical descendants of Abraham.

  10. A perfect example of the old adage that the best commentary on Scripture is Scripture, the point being that κατὰ σάρκα at I Cor. x 18 is not an isolated usage, and, as indicated in the previous comment, any comparison with the other instances leaves no doubt of what it means. (And it is not confined to the NT; one can find in later Greek writings expressions such as “two brethren after the flesh”, meaning that they were brothers in the sense of being sons of the same parents, not in the sense of both being monks.) Anyone accustomed to reading the Bible in Greek, or in Latin, like Augustine and his readers (or in KJV!) will be used to this sense, and, when reading Augustine, recognise it immediately. But perhaps Mr Boyarin was not; and certainly the subject of his book invites an understanding of the English “carnal” in a sense that the Latin will not bear, even though there was a time, long ago, when the sense of the English word was similar to that of the Latin (e.g. the “curious and carnal persons” of the 17th of the 39 Articles.

  11. That’s a very good point.

    I read the opening page of his book and it swiftly drifted away from his opening gambit into something more cautious. I couldn’t shake the feeling that perhaps he was playing up to his title.

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