An obviously hypothetical, personal, interactive dialogue with Paul about his use of the word ὑπηρέτας | hupēretas in 1Cor 4:1. . . .
Me: Hi, Paul. Nice to see you. Haven’t met up in a while.
Paul: You, too. And it’s OK. We’re both busy.
Me: [smiles embarrasedly]
Paul: And don’t give me that “your work is so much more important than mine” stuff. We are both doing things for the Lord.
Me: I’ll try. So, I have this question. . . .
Me: Do you remember writing to the Corinthians about your role, and Apollos’s, and theirs? It was in a context of sort-of sizing things up and assessing things.
Paul: I think I remember what you mean, yes. Crispus & Gaius & Co. needed to know more about what I was doing and why, and how it all was working under Christ.
Me: You used the word hupēretas.
Paul: Hmm. An uncommon word. I think I remember. What about it?
Me: Well, I’m trying to figure out what it meant, and then to translate it for a new English version.
Paul: [furrows] English. I hear that’s a difficult language!
Me: Yep. And the language has a lot of influence and circulation, so I want to do a good job, no matter how far this little translated passage goes. . . . I’ve been back and forth on this one word, changing it to this and that, trying to satisfy multiple people and goals. Some people — good people with good goals and more devotion than I have — seem to think it’s all about using the best, most well-attested lexicons to make a translation choice. I get that, but in considering this text and this particular word, it gets a little squirrel-y.
Paul: What’s a squirrel?
Me: Oh, sorry. It’s just a figure of speech.
[We interrupt this non-scheduled, hypothetical conversation for a non-commercial, instructive message. . . .
The “squirrel” thing came out as I wrote, without thinking. I actually laughed out loud — not only at the possibility of talking about a squirrel with Paul, but also, about how this ended up being an illustration of the whole “figure of speech” thing. I hadn’t mentioned squirrels in this post, or in this series, or in this month-long focus on scripture, or in the whole 6-7 years of blogging. (Relate those, respectively, to this small 4:1-5 text block in 1Corinthians, the sub-context of chapters 3-6ish, the whole letter, or the whole New Testament.) But the squirrel image might still be used, and it might still communicate something. One might have to research what a squirrel was, which subspecies were in the author’s experiences, and how the cognate adjective “squirrel-y” might relate.
The mention of squirrels was a completely serendipitous thing here. But a beautiful thing it was, since part of the problem in translating hupēretas has been the fact that the word is used only this once in Paul’s letters, so it’s impossible to conclude with any finality what he meant by the word. And now, back to our conversation.]
Me: Apparently, the word can have all sorts of nuanced meanings, all relating to working for an authority figure like a king or a master helmsman.
Paul: In this case, working for our Lord Christ!
Me: Yes! And I’m trying to figure out how to communicate the idea in English, without direct knowledge of what was in your head as you wrote for God’s kingdom back then. I figured, why not use an image that emanates from the literal components? When there’s not much to go on, and/or when lexicons emphasize different things, maybe this kind of paraphrase can be useful. Or can it?
One of my chief instructors believes etymology is pretty low on the totem pole as you translate. I’m still thinking that through and recently read something about Hebrew’s being more subject (more so than Greek) to this kind of meaning-based-on-semantic-development process. On the other hand, I wonder if, sometimes, factors other than word usage — like poetic effect and etymology — might be helpful in getting the sense of the original. Along with the context, of course. Anyway, I don’t meant to bore you, but I got pretty overwrought about this. No one has any idea what all this did to me internally, although I showed a trifle of my feelings in a couple of things I wrote, all the while trying to be a part of a group effort.
All I wanted to do was use one likely, or possible, or whatever, image that could have been in your mind as I said in English what I think you were saying, overall, in Greek. The word “servants” is inadequate since two other, common Greek words are translated “servants” in a whole covey of English versions. The New English Bible from, like, 50 years ago has “underlings,” and that at least makes one notice the expression, but the Revised English Bible from 25 years ago has a somewhat less potent word — “subordinates.” Seemed like a regression to me.
I figured, why not do a little more in a paraphrase? I also noticed that you used of a form of symbasileuo — another uncommon word — in 4:8. Maybe you were extending the idea of being both under and with Christ there by saying something like “reigning with.” Just because Christian workers aren’t referred to in this manner anywhere else in the NT doesn’t mean you didn’t want the wording to stand out as a figure of speech, right? It seems plausible — although obviously not the only possible reading — to say that ὑπηρέτας could mean “oarsmen who are subordinate to, and rowing with, Christ our captain.” Am I right? I’m only trying to do something meaningful here. What I got was critique that was mostly helpful, but it brought on some other background stuff that was anything but helpful. It got to me.
Paul: Brian, don’t let all this steal your spirit. I don’t honestly remember if I had the ship image in mind with hupēretas, but there’s a good possibility I did. And you’re right, at least, that the word stands out since it’s so uncommon. That mere fact means it’s more squirrel-ly, as you say, to try to translate it. All I can say now is that I do remember how I felt when I left Corinth by sea, headed back toward Caesarea. I might very well have been recalling my voyage when I wrote to them a couple years later. You know, now that I think about it, I remember sitting on that ship and thinking about whether the Corinthians would be fulfilling their own missions with, and under, Christ.
Me: Thank you so much. This really helps.
Paul: [pauses] You know, it’s not really a big deal how you translate that one word. It’s more important that you understand how I was working for, and with, Christ. There are several ways you could say that. You made one good choice by writing “an oarsman rowing with, and subordinate to, Christ,” and since I’m a “word guy” kind of like you, I might have even been thinking about the etymology of hupēretas — “under-rower,” or “one who steers under a master helmsan,” something like that. But there are other options when translating that into another language.
Me: Yeah, I know. And I know one word isn’t a big deal, but the whole thing required so much of me. I spent way too many hours on this comparatively tiny translation project. And it all became a big deal because of relationship dynamics . . . related communications led to all sorts of hurtful stuff. I probably shouldn’t go into that more here.
Paul: Understood. And what is it those later Italians started saying? Que sera, sera? Anyway, see you again soon?
Me: Maybe sooner, yeah. I think I’ll have more time in the near future. I think I should probably read some OT history now, along with studying Mark, but I’ll try to stay in what we call 1Corinthians, too.
Paul: Sounds good!
Me: And may I just say that I love your letter to Philemon so much. I think I have a better understanding of that (and your relationships with Philemon and Onesimus) than I have of 1Corinthians.
Paul: [winks] I loved both those Colossian guys so much. Grace and peace to you.