This has been a crazy spring and summer — I’m involved in two book projects and I’m still working part time as a dean dealing with student issues. And the dog, sweetheart that she is, still takes up almost two hours of walking time a day. So I haven’t had a lot of time to devote to the blog at just the point I wanted to delve into some more complex matters.
For some time now I’ve been meaning to post on the commercial transaction frame in Koine. Sorry for the jargon laden announcement, but it’s worth talking about what a frame is and why it’s important for translation. And, because the language of money and commerce is all over in the Scripture, with both literal and figurative uses, it makes sense to use the frame(s) evoked by money as a place to learn about frames.
Let’s start by talking a little about money. First and foremost, the Scripture talks about money a lot. Go to Strong’s and you’ll find over 130 references to the word money and that doesn’t count the dozens upon dozens of references to buying, selling, spending, saving, borrowing, lending, interest, credit, and debt that don’t even mention money explicitly.
God has a lot more to say about money and how it should be used than you’d think by listening to preachers in the contemporary church — but that’s not for this blog.
The question of importance here is: how did I get to connect money to buy, sell, spend, save, borrow, lend, etc.? The answer is: when one uses a word, the thing that word refers to occurs in particular real world contexts. So the fact that money is spent or saved, borrowed or lent, is used in buying, selling, and so on, has a linguistic reflection. Say the word money, and people are primed to think about the things you do with money. Say save after you’ve said money and people will think about refraining from spending and not rescuing from danger.
This connection of ideas is called a frame. Frames arise from our experiences in the real world. It’s easiest to think of them as scenarios. Say restaurant and you can talk about waiters and tables and menus without further explanation. Say bus and you can talk about drivers and fares and routes without explanation.
When we talk about differences between Biblical times and modern times, it’s the frames that are most relevant. That was my point about chairs in my first post to this blog.
So now that we understand the basic concept of a frame, I have to remind you that most frames are pretty abstract. When I said restaurant and bus and started talking about the respective frames, I suspect many of you visualized a restaurant and a bus of some sort. This is what Plato was reaching for when he talked about idealized entities. But those entities aren’t really idealized, rather they are an abstraction from our experiences, real or vicarious. And in the case of restaurants and buses, the frames don’t just paint static scenes. Things happen in restaurants and in buses, so these particular frames include scripts.
A man walks into a restaurant, is shown to a table, is handed a menu, orders a meal. The meal is brought to his table, he eats it. He is offered some coffee and/or desert, and if he orders some it is brought to him. He consumes it. He is given a bill. He pays and leaves.
Notice the key parts of this script. Order, be served, consume. In the particular instantiation I just outlined that happens twice. This is what I mean about frames being abstract. There are several simplex frame scripts combined here. The twice repeated ordering script is embedding in a more encompassing script in which the man enters a place of business, partakes of the service offered, pays for the service, and leaves. Notice that description also covers what happens in a taxi. Enter, partake of the service, i.e., be transported, pay, leave. In a bus the order is different. Enter, pay, partake of the service (be transported), leave. What is in common among all these is that each involves a commercial transaction. One is buying a service. The internal order is irrelevant. Service rendered, payment rendered counts the same as payment rendered, service rendered. As in buying a commodity, money is exchanged for something, in this case a service. That’s what the basic commercial transaction frame is. One entity gives another money in consideration of a product or service. (Gold stars to anyone who recognizes that this applies to bribery and blackmail, too.) If you’re interested there’s a nice little pdf of an article on the basic commercial transaction frame here.
Pike talked about frames and scripts (in other words, to be sure) in his massive tome Language In Relation To A Unified Theory Of Structure Of Human Behavior, describing breakfast in the Pike household. The linguistic world at the time didn’t have a clue what he was getting at. Fifty some odd years later we’re just catching up.
So now we’re ready to talk about commercial transactions in Koine. It starts with money. In Roman times people thought about money somewhat differently from the way we do. The idea of a check or a bank transfer would have been mystifying to a first century person.
Money was concrete.
Accounts were just inventories of physical money. If you owed a hundred denarii, you had to hand over a hundred actual denarii. When Rome got really rich, they had to mint the money to keep up, which means that by the end of the Empire there was a LOT of physical money around. Archeologists are digging up Roman (and Greek) coins all the time. There are so many that you can purchase actual Roman coins today for a few dollars. Museum quality coins are more expensive, but they’re out there — and most are not valued in 5 or 6 figures.
My point is that people in the Roman era thought of money as physical stuff. So there is no proper word for money. Instead money is most often called ἀργύριον properly ‘silver piece’. This is a case of one kind of common metaphor:
The best example of a type stands for the type.
That’s the linguistic logic that turns Kleenex and Scotch Tape (both brand names) into kleenex (= facial tissue) and scotch tape (= cellophane tape), and — feminists should probably cover their eyes at this point — that is responsible for turning proto-Germanic *man ‘person’ into English man ‘adult male human’. (And why ἀνήρ can be used to mean ‘human’, as discussed before in this blog here.)
By the way, this kind of metaphor confuses the heck out of literalists.
Anyway, the most basic things you can do with ἀργύριον are: buy and sell.
buy — ἀγοράζω
sell — πωλέω
Look in the dictionary and that’s what you’ll find. But we’re interested in the whole frame, so here’s how the different players and props are expressed.
|person relinquishing the money||subject (τίς)||indirect object (τινί)|
|person providing the goods||παρά τινος||subject (τίς)|
|the goods||object (τί)||object (τί)|
|the price||τιμῆς /genitive of money word||τιμῆς /genitive of money word|
There are other wrinkles. For example, the classical word for ‘buy’ was ὠνέομαι, but by the time of the LXX, ἀγοράζω had become the normal word. Nonetheless, Luke knew the old word and used it in Acts 7:16.
καὶ ἐτέθησαν ἐν τῷ μνήματι ᾧ ὠνήσατο Ἀβραὰμ τιμῆς ἀργυρίου παρὰ τῶν υἱῶν Ἑμμὼρ ἐν Συχέμ.
and [their bones] were laid in the tomb that Abraham bought from Hamor in Shechem for a large sum of money.
Notice the παρὰ phrase for the sellers (παρὰ τῶν υἱῶν Ἑμμὼρ) and the genitive of price (τιμῆς ἀργυρίου), which brings up an important point. The word τιμή ‘honor; value, worth, price’ isn’t well understood by the lexicographers. They fail to recognize that it belongs to a class of words like smell in English and schmecken in German. These words don’t mean just ‘smell’ and ‘taste’. Unmodified they mean ‘smell bad’ and ‘taste good’.
It smells. = ‘It smells bad.’
Das schmeckt. = ‘It tastes good.’
Linguists say such words bear defeasible presuppositions. That is, such words imply a particular characteristic in their referent, but that characteristic can be overridden by an explicit modifier.
It smells good.
Das schmeckt faul. ‘It tastes rotten.’
So τιμή really means ‘honor; (high) value, (high) price’, hence the translation for Acts 7:16 I snuck by you, ‘for a large sum of money’.
So where in Scripture would knowing this make any difference in translation? Well, how about I Cor. 6:20a.
ἠγοράσθητε γὰρ τιμῆς
For you were bought at a price. [NIV]
For ye are bought with a price [KJV]
for you were bought with a price [ESV]
for you were bought at a price [HSCB]
For you were bought with a price! [The Source]
Nobody talks like that.
?*This Ming vase was bought for a price.
In fact, even if you make the adjustment for the implication, it’s awkward to say it in the passive. It doesn’t sound natural.
This Ming vase was bought for a high price.
To say it naturally you have to say something like:
This Ming vase cost a lot.
This Ming vase didn’t come cheap.
Because I Cor. 6:20 is figurative language, not about literal money, I’d be hesitant to head in too colloquial a direction.
You are not your own. You cost God a lot. So honor Him in what you do with your body.
So once again — as I keep pointing out — the CEV beats the rest for translational accuracy and they got the style question right, too — that you can’t do it in the passive.
You are no longer your own. God paid a great price for you. So use your body to honor God. [CEV]
More on the commercial transaction frame in future posts, including how you get from buy to cost or pay in the CEV translation.