“Exodus”: Luke is not León Uris

We all know how León Uris used Exodus for the title of a historical novel.  We know how “Exodus International” conceives of the homosexual lifestyle.  We know how the heavy metal rock band “Exodus” wants fans.  We know that Uris more than the others is bringing us, us readers, back to something else historical and literary.

Specifically, Uris uses the English word exodus in reference to another title.  That title is a Hebraic Greek one:  ᾠδὴ Μωυσέως ἐν τῇ ἐξόδῳ.  Transliterally, we get that in English as “The Ode of Moses in the Exodus.”  However this title has been appropriated by any particular Christian group, it was a title first written in Alexandria, Egypt, where (over a period of a century perhaps) the Hebrew scriptures were translated by Hellenistic Jews there into Greek.  “Exodus” since that time has referred mostly to the second book of the Pentateuch, or in Hebrew more to Shemot of the Torah.  Once these phrases are written, are translated, are transcribed and transliterated, then they gain the ability to serve as placeholders, as specific signs, pointers, referent markers.

I’m bringing this up to move forward from the two previous posts.  In the first, we looked together at very contemporary (if some old but current) uses of the English word exodus.  In the second post, we looked at what I said were the only three uses of the Greek word ἔξ·οδος in the “New Testament.” Now, I’m moving toward the Septuagint, which I referred to some in the previous paragraph above. And eventually, I want to get to what Aristotle and others before him did with the Greek word, before the LXX translators made it so Hebrew-Hebraic. I just want to backtrack a bit, nonetheless.

Luke is the only gospel writer to use the word ἔξ·οδος, and I remarked that this is only one use of three total in the whole NT. It’s special, then, right? Of course it is. Luke’s purportedly working his gospel out of various other gospels written. He alone inserts this word at a very key moment in his narrative. (And, on the one hand, this allows the writer of 2 Peter to mimic Luke with a similar sort of use of the Greek word. It allows Greek readers of the “book of Hebrews” in the NT to draw literary comparisons between the ἔξ·οδος of the people of Israel having made their way out of Egypt and the “way out” for Jesus, talking transfigured with Moses and with Elijah, and the “way out” for “Peter” who’s leaving readers behind some day, with strong reminders of key doctrines and practices. Luke, on the other hand, merely sets this up. He may not have intended such connections at all to later be made.) What has Luke done with ἔξ·οδος (that might be more to his purposes, to his literary purposes that is)?

What I want to focus on here is how Luke does not elaborate when he tells his Greek readers that Jesus and Moses and Elijah were talking about “τὴν ἔξ·οδον αὐτοῦ.” That is, even though the word is clearly special (because Luke knows the LXX history of the term, the Hebraic Hellene use of it), in this context, Luke leaves it to readers to make the connection. More than that, he does not make clear to his readers that he intends them to connect the word to the death of Jesus (although, as we’ll see when talking about how Greeks used the word, and how the LXX used the word too, it does often mean “death”). Luke does not do what the NLT translators have done (which is what Robert Alter calls the “heresy of explanation”); the NLT translators render the Greek into English for readers so that it’s a technical reference to “exodus” but a clearly unambiguous and closed meaning of “death” only: “And they were speaking about his exodus from this world, which was about to be fulfilled in Jerusalem.” (I’ve highlighted the explanation added into the translation.) So, to repeat, Luke is at once using a very special pointer word while also leaving its meanings open to his readers’ interpretation. This is wordplay. It’s playfulness; it performs like actors in a play; and it leaves much interpretive play (or hermeneutical wiggleroom, if you will).

What we need to do now is to let me backtrack on an earlier claim that this use of the Greek word by Luke is one of only three such uses in the NT. Luke has used the Greek phrase earlier when he translates the speech of Jesus. Jesus, in his context, is speaking a fable or a parable, given right after a sermon. Presumably, Jesus is speaking; that is, what Jesus “says” is not written down (until Luke writes it). Presumably, Jesus is talking in Hebrew Aramaic, given his audience. Presumably, then, Luke is translating what Jesus says aloud in speech, a sort of rhetorical teaching moment with the end interpretation dependent in large part on how the audience catches and attaches meaning to it.

As you read this other use of what we might call “exodus,” by Luke, please know I’m not making claims that Luke is doing anything particularly special with this. Rather, I’m only wanting to reinforce the idea that when he did do something special with “τὴν ἔξ·οδον αὐτοῦ” then readers are not forced to take “exodus” in the special instance in any particular or very technical way. So here it is:

Φίλε
χρῆσόν μοι τρεῖς ἄρτους
ἐπειδὴ φίλος [μου] παρεγένετο
ἐξ ὁδοῦ
πρός με
καὶ οὐκ ἔχω ὃ παραθήσω αὐτῷ·

You recognize this as Luke 11:5b-6. And it’s actually Luke’s writing what Jesus is saying that someone in a parable that Jesus is telling is saying. In other words, there’s a person talking with a friend (“it’s a friend of yours, and you yourself are doing the talking” Jesus is saying to his listeners; and Luke is telling his readers as if they, we now, were overhearing all of this). Here’s how that’s was translated into KJV English:

“Friend,
lend me three loaves;
For a friend of mine
in his journey
is come to me,
and I have nothing to set before him”

We see nothing really special about “in his journey.” And Luke’s readers practically journey right past his “ἐξ ὁδοῦ.” But does that mean there’s no allusion to, no possible play on, ᾠδὴ Μωυσέως ἐν τῇ ἐξ όδῳ?

If we consider what Luke does with Part II of his gospel, then we might think again. Part II, of course, is the book of Acts or the Acts of the Apostles. There, Luke alone of all the gospel writers, of all the NT writers, gives this Jesus Journey a name. It’s τῆς ὁδοῦ, or as most English translation teams have rendered it, “The Way.” (See Acts 9:2; 18:25; 19:9; 19:23; 22:4; 24:14; and 24:22). What if Luke’s Greek readers read Part II of his gospel before they read part I? What if they saw him making a big technical deal out of naming the “Journey” or the “Way” so specifically? What if that sounded like something big, like ᾠδὴ Μωυσέως ἐν τῇ ἐξ όδῳ? What if then they read Part I and overheard Jesus having his listeners imagine themselves, in need, out of an exodus, appealing to a friend? What if they overheard Peter overhearing Jesus and Moses and Elijah then talking (in imagined Hebrew Aramaic, or was it Hebrew?) about “his exodus, his way out, his way through”?

As we work our way through our contemporary uses of exodus, the Heavily Semiticized (NT) Greek uses of a phrase, back towards earlier Hebraic appropriations and ancient Greek meanings of the word, I want to emphasize the literary skill of Luke. He’s no León Uris. But he does let readers read.

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5 responses to ““Exodus”: Luke is not León Uris

  1. Two things:

    We don’t all know who Leon Uris is. I don’t.

    I think the NLT is far more ambiguous than you think it is. It doesn’t mention death at all!

    • Dannii,

      First, you insist: “We don’t all know who Leon Uris is. I don’t.” So would you mind my asking, if “We all [do not] know how León Uris used Exodus for the title of a historical novel,” then might all of us reading my blog post consider that he did?

      Second, could you allow me to back off my statement a bit? Would you agree a little more with the following?

      The NLT translators render the Greek into English for readers so that it’s a technical reference to “exodus” which is less ambiguous than Luke’s Greek phrase and which suggests — with the added phrase “from this world,” — not so much (A) a national identification with Israeli’s historical “way out” of Egypt or (B) some generally open “journey through a vague somewhere” — but primarily (C) the meaning of “decease,” “departure from life in this world,” and/or “death” … “which was about to be fulfilled in Jerusalem”?

      Yes, I agree that, by this single phrase, the NLT “doesn’t mention death at all!” It primarily suggests death to me in the interpretive backdrop of Christian readings of this passage such as I noted in the previous post, quoting A.R. Fausset and then Francis Schaeffer.

      Nonetheless, would you read along with the NLT and the NLT Study Bible with me? More than assuming the backdrop of Christian commentaries, the NLT editors have actually provided some direction to what the NLT English means. The editors, for example, have provided headings within chapters; and, right at Luke 9:21, the editors put this in these CAPITAL LETTERS:

      “JESUS PREDICTS HIS DEATH”

      (The NLT Study Bible editors modify this heading as “Jesus First Predicts His Death”).

      Admittedly, this heading comes before the next where the phrase “his exodus from this world” is given. That header is “THE TRANSFIGURATION.’ But to help their NLT readers make the possible connection between “his death” and “his exodus from this world, which was about to be fulfilled in Jerusalem,” the NLT editors do something else.

      The NLT editors hint at the meaning of “death” by explaining (by English translation) how Peter seems to have viewed all of this. Here’s what Peter did in Luke 9:33 according to the New Living Translation:

      Peter “blurted out, ‘Master, it’s wonderful for us to be here! Let’s make three shelters as memorials*—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.'”

      The NLT footnote has how the English might have been different, with a less-clear allusion to a “memorial” of death: “[*] 9:33 Greek three tabernacles.”

      More than that, the NLT Study Bible actually does explain as fairly narrow and focused the translators’ intention of the English rendering, “his exodus from this world, which was about to be fulfilled in Jerusalem.” The study note is as follows for 9:31 (the NLT emphasis, with the following bolded and italicized text):

      his exodus from this world: The Greek word exodos means “departure.” As the exodus from Egypt was God’s great act of deliverance in the OT, so Jesus’ exodus from this world—his death, resurrection, and ascension—was God’s great act of deliverance in the NT. Jesus would accomplish a new and greater exodus.”

      Thanks for having me clarify some, Danniii! I confess, I sometimes write too quickly blogging, and then as so many different thoughts are strung together in one post I don’t always so carefully “nail down” really very clearly just what it is I’m thinking at the moment. What I was really hoping to do was to focus on the more open ambiguity in Luke’s Greek phrase (by some comparison with and contrast to the NLT’s use of “exodus from this world”).

  2. One issue here that is lying below the surface is the role of annotation (prefaces, marginal notes, alternative translations, etc.) in the translation process.

    We could easily trace this tradition back to Origen’s Hexapla (which allowed parallel translations to comment on each other), but even if we restrict look at early English translations (Tyndale, Geneva, Rheims-Douai) we see extensive annotation, accounting for up to half of the text in the actual Bible. This is also evident in Luther’s translation (remember, Luther was a professor of Bible at Wittenberg and commentaries account for the majority of his writing; certainly his original translation features extensive marginal notes and prefaces).

    In the Jewish tradition, in the early modern period Chumashim (Pentateuchs) were printed with extensive medieval commentary (usually Rashi and Onkelos, but with up to 20 commentators in “Rabbinic Bibles.”)

    King James, in his famous charter to the translators of the Authorized Version, explicitly forbade commentary — a reaction to the anti-monarch notes of the Geneva (although there is little doubt — we know it from their notes — that the KJV translators heavily relied on the commentary of both earlier Jewish and Christian Bibles). Since then, at least in Protestant translations, commentary has been shunned; “let the reader decide for himself” the meaning. As a result, commentary — which in earlier versions was made explicit and annotated — has become integrated with the translation itself. While this is perhaps unavoidable, it seems to me that in “dynamic translations” (e.g., the Pauline letters in the NIV) the translation is almost always very much from a particular point of view.

    You will notice that translators you often mention (Alter, Barnstone, Fox) have reverted to earlier modes of extensive annotation — this is part of their genius. They have biases, but at least they argue for those biases in their notes. And doubtlessly it makes their works easier to read; even for Protestants belonging to Bible-based churches, the rise of the “study Bible” (from its origins in works ranging from the Scofield Bible to the Oxford Annotated Bible) seems also an acknowledgment that for many readers, access to an ancient idiosyncratic text can be eased by a bit of commentary.

    It is thus certainly true that our words carry tremendous baggage — even more so since we expect our English Bibles to be perfectly understood by a lay reader with no commentary — a concept that appears to have arrived only in the seventeenth century.

    • Alter, Barnstone, Fox… have reverted to earlier modes of extensive annotation — this is part of their genius. They have biases, but at least they argue for those biases in their notes. And doubtlessly it makes their works easier to read

      Thank you, Theophrastus! Your comment here, as usual, is very helpful. I had no idea of all the variation of annotations and do really like how you, in your last paragraph, bring it home to where we seem to be now, with our general current-century expectations of English Bibles. (Makes me wonder with new technologies for texts developing how much hyperlinking will be tolerated and/ or expected, especially as writing and reading goes more digital.)

      On a side note, not so unrelated I suppose, I wonder if you’re familiar with George Steiner’s essay “On Difficulty” in his book On Difficulty and Other Essays? The first “difficulty” he says many readers expect to overcome might be (and, of course, really in some cases just must be) solved and met with commentary, with dictionaries, with encyclopedias, and such. This, despite our general expectation since the seventeen century, as you point out:

      “we expect our English Bibles to be perfectly understood by a lay reader with no commentary”

      Steiner labels this sort of difficulty “contingency” or “epiphenomenal” and never himself says we should expect a poem (much less the English Bible) to inherently overcome it.

      FWIW, my own quick and brief summary of Steiner’s categories is here:

      http://speakeristic.blogspot.com/2007/10/on-difficulty.html

      and here are two more (for anyone not able easily to find Steiner’s book):

      http://www.noroomtomove.com/2009/07/george-steiner-on-difficulty.html

      http://sites.google.com/a/laughingbone.com/www/ondifficulty

  3. Nice sequence in these posts and some good comments – thanks. I have recently been enjoying the fine grained reasoning of Shillebeeckx.
    1. the unique ‘exodus’ in Luke in the transfiguration (compared with the parallels in Mt and Mk) suggests to me that we get to escape by participation in his death and resurrection. I was surprised Schaffer did not put it in such Pauline terms. I think it should be translated to reference the exit from Egypt in some way.
    2. Study Bibles seem to me too much of an attempt to nail down the faith in words. I guess we are uncomfortable with uncertainty. But I no longer expect to ‘understand’ any bit of Scripture on one reading. The words don’t work that way. Reading alone or in company, the same verses always suggest more – especially more than can be contained in many confessional notes. Historical, poetic, and linguistic, even genre notes I might find helpful. But every commentator and every note has multifarious problems as well. The worst aspect of such explanations to me is the sense that ‘if I memorize this and the answers I will have it all together’.

    But if I thought it was important to have a note, I would point out that this aspect of the transfiguration narrative is unique to Luke. I liked notes like this because the variations in the synoptic accounts pose a set of important questions. (Like these stories may not be ‘verbatim’. Does that concern you? Is such harmonization important? Why not or why?)

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