4 Maccabees 18:23 in Translation

There are some strange anomalies in the NRSV’s translation of 4 Maccabees considering its typical perspective on grammatical gender with words that refer to people and men in particular.

The Greek text is this:

οἱ δὲ Αβραμιαῖοι παῖδες σὺν τῇ ἀθλοφόρῳ μητρὶ εἰς πατέρων χορὸν συναγελάζονται ψυχὰς ἁγνὰς καὶ ἀθανάτους ἀπειληφότες παρὰ τοῦ θεοῦ.

And the NRSV provides this translation:

But the sons of Abraham with their victorious mother are gathered together into the chorus of the fathers, and have received pure and immortal souls from God…

I find this rather strange. The NRSV everywhere else is rather emphatic about its gender neutrality. But throughout 4 Maccabees there are numerous places where the translation “ancestors” or “forefathers” would be significantly more appropriate.

Now I’m fine with the translation maintain the gender here. The author of the book is extremely Aristotelian in his views of men and women. Men are far superior in his mind. So I have no problem with a translation maintaining that perspective, but even still, the translation “forefather” here and in other places simply makes greater sense. And there’s nothing wrong with “ancestor” or “ancestral” here either when we take into consideration that ancient Greece was culturally patralinear.

The NETS does the same thing here and again I don’t understand it.

My translation:

But the sons of Abraham with their victorious mother are gathered together into the choir of our forefathers, having received pure and immortal souls from God…

5 thoughts on “4 Maccabees 18:23 in Translation

  1. Mike,
    In such a close context, there seems to be a contrastive significance between the explicit mention of μητρὶ (mother, not parent) and the default usually-unmarked parent (i.e., the male word – πατέρων).

    I think what’s interesting here (looking only at the small context of this sentence) is the choice of παῖδες and not υιοι for the (male) offspring of Abraham.

    The sentence reminds me of the lines in Euripides’ “Iphigenia at Aulis” in which the daughter (θύγατερ) of Agamemnon asks if she’s to lead the chorus (i.e., the “dance”) around the altar. There’s lots of father-daughter conversation with allusions to mother too in the passage. It’s around her more famous question “What! hast thou found me a new home, father!” and his infamous reply: “Enough of this! ’tis not for girls to know such things.” (lines 655-675). My point is that discussions of chorus or dance leadership has explicitly involved gender, and fathers.

    1. Hm, that’s interesting, Kurk, though I still find it strange that a translation that generally neuters everything doesn’t here.

      I’ve now adapted my translation to use “forefathers” instead of “ancestral.”

  2. Surely since the mother, as well as the explicitly gender generic paides, become part of the khoros, then it is hardly a male voice only choir as NRSV implies! Why have you retained the inaccurate “sons”? Anyway, surely khoros does not mean “chorus” or “choir”, it’s more to do with a dance.

    1. Why have you retained the inaccurate “sons”?

      That’s quite simple. The story is about the death of seven sons. and παιδες refers to them. Were there any female children in the story, I would not have done so.

      I’ll go back and look at the text for khoros, every other translation I looked at said choir or chorus.

  3. Fair enough, Mike. I hadn’t seen the context, although I should have guessed that it was about those seven Maccabee brothers.

    Perhaps khoros had already shifted its meaning by the time 4 Maccabees was written.

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