Not by Cardboard and Plywood Alone

In recent weeks, I’ve immersed myself again in the Greek of the New Testament, and the Hebrew of the Old.  I do not claim to be an expert Hebraist. I do claim to be an expert in English, in languages generally, and in poetic meaning, and that is why I grind my teeth in exasperation whenever I go to Mass and hear the Word of God muffled, mangled, and bungled by the New American Bible version we in the United States suffer in the lectionary.

I have written here about the foolishness of using the indefinite pronoun “one” in place of “he,” even when the grammatical gender of the referent is not in question, as when we are talking about the Father or the Son. Consider these words from Shakespeare. An old man, pointedly named Adam, is begging to go with his good young master Orlando, who is fleeing from his home and his treacherous older brother. Adam offers his life’s savings to the lad:

Take that, and he that doth the ravens feed,
Yea, providently caters for the sparrow,
Be comfort to my age. Here is the gold;
All this I give you. Let me be your servant;
Though I look old, yet am I strong and lusty.

(As You Like It, II.iii.43-47)

Orlando agrees, with hearty gratitude and praise:

O good old man, how well in thee appears
The constant service of the antique world,
When service sweat for duty, not for meed!  (56-58)

So they will go forth, says Orlando, to find some humble living somewhere, and Adam replies:

Master, go on, and I will follow thee
To the last gasp with truth and loyalty.  (69-70)

He that doth the ravens feed is the provident Father, not some vague “One” or other. Says Jesus: “Consider the ravens: for they neither sow nor reap,” and yet God feeds them. (Lk. 12:24) He that providently caters for the sparrow, that insignificant bird, is that same Father: “Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God?” (Lk. 12:6)

He, the Father, God, He and no other looks out for the birds of the air. It is always modern man’s way to turn in embarrassment from the intense personal care and personal commands of God, to reduce Him to an idea, a divine generality, a notion, and not a He who can look you in the eye and say as He said to Cain, “What hast thou done?” (Gen. 4:10)

It is also modern man’s way to evade his personal responsibilities by appealing to a general and usually comfortably vague interest in humanity and the human race. He must be reminded again and again that his name is Adam. Man stole the fruit, but Christ must climb the tree. Who nailed him to the Cross? Adam did, and my name is Adam. Your name, reader, is Adam, or Eve, if we wish to emphasize the distinction of sex. Saint Paul reminds us: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Cor. 15:21)


The Hebrew name “Adam” was on the lips of Jesus all the time, whenever he had cause to draw a comparison between man and God. Consider the temptation in the desert. Jesus has been fasting for forty days and forty nights, just as Noah was shut up in the ark, and he is hungry. The devil comes to put him to the test, to make him reveal himself as the Son of God by a petty trick, turning stones into bread.

Whereupon Jesus quotes Scripture: “It is written: Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Mt. 4:4). That is exactly what the Greek says. Man here translates the Greek ho anthropos, itself a translation of the Hebrew ha adam, in the verse that Jesus cites. (Dt. 8:3)

Anthropos means man in its universal sense, embracing all men, women, and children, while it is also singular, concrete, and personal; and it can refer to a man, when the masculinity is not stressed: “A certain man had two sons.” (Lk. 15:11) It does all the work that Hebrew adam does, and a little bit besides. English man in the old translations is comparable.

What is not comparable, what does not get the work done, is what we hear in the lectionary: “One does not live by bread alone.” One does not, does one? Jesus sounds like a schoolmarm rapping her pointer on the devil’s head. A few verses later he will sound downright irritated, when he says, “Get away, Satan!”

But aside from the banality of it, what the translators have done, just to keep from saying that dirty word man, is to smother the meaning. Jesus is not simply saying that somebody or other does not live by bread alone. He says that man – you, me, the butler, the maid, the child, this country, that country, each man individually and all men taken together, mankind – does not live by bread alone.

Jesus is always making that contrast between man and God, and the lectionary translators always smother it. In every case, the contrast is essential to the meaning and the force of what he says. “Take heed that ye do not your alms before men,” says Jesus, “otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.” (Mt. 6:1).

Men – but the translators say “others,” as if the important point were that the audience was made up of other people, and not specifically men, and as if we ourselves did not make up our own most appreciative audience!

I could multiply the instances by fifty, if I had fifty times the space. Let the word of God speak, whether or not we like the way it speaks. You translators, learn to savor the things of God, and not of men.


*Image: The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise by Benjamin West, 1791 [Art Institute of Chicago]

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.