An Example of Historical Distance & Difference: Πειρασμός, Historical Drift, and Reappropriating a Mutation as the Original

In an earlier post, we looked at the Greek word “χάρις“, namely, the way that the historical sense of this word is bound up in a very stratified social setting, and how translating it almost always ends up becoming a proxy war for different confessional agendas (I should add that it is difficult it is to think past these agendas, because they are rooted in a history of interpretation generated by reflection on the original word through various cultural contexts and historical epochs).

Perhaps I should also add: ignoring this history-of-interpretation ignores some of the latter fallout of this word, ignores at least part of the history of its effects, and so neglects to treat properly the word itself.

Here we shall look at another Greek word: “πειρασμός”, nearly ubiquitously mistranslated as “temptation”.

When we use the word “temptation” it is almost always to indicate something that is attractive, but which carries a sense of disaster on the other end, or a sense of unintended (and undesired) consequences in the enjoyment, or else a sense of prohibition (vi&, the attractive pleasure carries a sense of public opprobrium, shame or at least mild disapproval to it, like eating too much chocolate). Marketers have fallen in love with this word, as rehabilitating it –or rather, using it to validate— allows them to suggest that inhibitions should be ignored for the sake of self-actualization, for removing the restraints that limit consumer indulgence helps their bottom line.

The English word “temptation” comes straight from the Latin word “temptationis”; Modern English developed from Middle English, which was, somewhat roughly speaking, a bastard of Old English (echo in Modern English: “the green grass grows up”) and Late Medieval Latin (echo in Modern English: “I pontificate [with] circumspect locution”). (The Old English word used to render the Greek “πειρασμόν” is “costnunge”, which I’m told has the sense of “to taste” or “to try” — a much closer analogue to the original sense, but, if true, this is not surprising, given the honor-based nature of Anglo-Saxon warrior culture.)

Most people in the West have at least heard the Lord’s Prayer (a prayer allegedly –and I think most likely– originating with Jesus of Nazareth, and perpetuated in the oral tradition that is variously deposited in both the Gospel According to Luke and the Gospel According to Matthew) once or twice in their lives, so they know the phrase:

and lead us not into temptation

even if they don’t know the context. The prayer in full I won’t look at here: it’s really butchered in English-language translations, its rhythm and structure significantly obscured by a number of factors and choices. Suffice it to say, however, that the prayer is a chiastic structure that begins, thematically, with unity, fractaling out into harmonious multiplicity, until it reaches the total breakdown of harmony in “πειρασμόν” and “evil”.

“Πειρασμός” is largely a term for an ordeal, an affliction, a trial, a test. It is the word used for gladiators who are thrown into the arena. Such individuals are going through what Liam Neeson’s character went through in The Grey: a testing, and most certainly not a “temptation” in the sense of a dangerous seduction.  The challenge a gladiator goes through is not to resist an appetite for a forbidden pleasure; there is no apple he is drawn to, no lust drawing him away. What he is going through is the squeeze, is a challenge. If there is a “temptation”, it’s to give up, but that usually doesn’t hold any attraction during a time of “πειρασμός”. This word belongs in the honor-based combat culture of the Klingons, not in the lurid fantasies of Eyes Wide Shut.

A moment of “πειρασμός” holds no harmony, no present-at-hand victory, and no unity: it is conflict, violence, dissonance, breakdown: the unity it offers is basically the unity had at the top of a pile of corpses — even if it is spiritualized (as it is in the texts here), and the enemies are events and powers and thoughts and feelings and choices, and not weapons, people, bodies.

This sense of the word “πειρασμός” seems to have held to its rough semantic range throughout the life of the Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantium. So the late 11th/early 12th century A.D. author Ilias (Elijah) the Presbyter (Elder — as far as I can tell, the word morphs and migrates: Presbyteros-Presbyter-Prester-Prest-Priest) could write:

I.1. No Christian believing rightly in God should ever be off his guard. He should always be on the look-out for temptation, so that when it comes he will not be surprised or disturbed, but will gladly endure the toil and affliction it causes, and so will understand what he is saying when he chants with the prophet: ‘Prove me, O Lord, and try me’ (Ps. 26:2, LXX). For the prophet did not say, ‘Thy correction has destroyed me’, but ‘it has upheld me to the end’ (Ps. 18:35, LXX) [Ilias the Presbyter, “Gnomic Anthology” I.1, in The Philokalia: The Complete Textvol.3 transl. & ed. G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, & Kallistos Ware (London: Faber & Faber, 1984), 34] (Boldfacing my own.)

Note that the form of “πειρασμός” that almost certainly lies in the Greek original is here translated as “temptation”. If one tries to interpret the passage with our sense of the word “temptation” in mind, it makes much, much less sense than if either the phrase “time of testing” or “time of trial” were used to translate what was presumably a form of “πειρασμός”. This is an ascetical warrior’s chest-thumping song before battle, not the distress of a sweet-deprived chocolate-lover. The words chosen for translation should reflect the sense of the text translated.

If I might advance a suspicion with more confidence than is warranted: our changed notion of “temptation” has been projected back into the original texts, and has become the central idea in our culture, and in the self-understanding of the religious communities that employ this language. The cultural shifts for Western nations at large, and for religious communities specifically, are significant: they have, on the whole, mutated, likely through several stages, and then projected the most recent mutation past all the intervening historical-cultural mediations as being the original sense. It is not necessarily difficult for us to think the actual original, but it is difficult for many to identify with it as their own, as it requires a fresh cultural import.

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