Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Was Peter Fishing Naked? Does it Matter?

John 21:7 has posed problems for both Bible translators and commentary writers.  Here is the situation.  Peter and the other disciples are fishing on the Galilee and Jesus calls to them from the shore.  The beloved disciple recognizes his voice.  "It is the Lord," he says, and Peter hearing that statement "girded an outer garment about him, for he was naked…" (my translation).  Modern translators in general avoid the use of a bare "naked" and cover it up with a variety of euphemisms and avoid the issue of Peter's nakedness.

RSV—"he put on his clothes, for he was stripped for work."

Goodspeed—"he put on his clothes, for he had taken them off."

Jesus Seminar—"he tied his cloak around him, since he was stripped for work."

New English Bible—"he wrapped his coat about him (for he had stripped)."

TEV—"he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken his clothes off)."

Living Bible—"Peter put on his tunic (for he was stripped to the waist)."

New King James—"he put on his outer garment (for he was wearing only an undergarment)."

Older translators, on the other hand, do not seem to be bothered by the use of "naked."

King James—"he girt his fisher's coat unto him (for he was naked)."

Douay Version—"Peter girt his coat about him (for he was naked)."

Luther—"he girt his shirt [hemd] around him (for he was naked [nackt])."

Latin—"he girded himself with an undergarment [tunica] (for he was naked [nudus])."

French (1615)—"Peter put on his garment [habit], because he was naked [nud]."

Lexicographers agree that there are subtleties to how the word "naked' is used in Greek literature.  All agree, however, that the basic or literal sense of the word is naked, nude, bare, uncovered, etc.  But in some contexts the lexicographers aver that the word carries the idea that an individual is only improperly or poorly clothed (for example, James 2:15 [naked]; but cf. James 2:2), or wearing only an undergarment (for example, 1 Samuel 19:24 and Isa 20:2, both from the Septuagint, not the Hebrew).  As these latter two examples show, however, the parallel passages used to support this latter category (i.e., wearing an undergarment) must be carefully checked, since lexicographers assume that the writer is not speaking of literal nakedness, for nothing else in the context suggests the wearing of an undergarment (I only checked the parallels from biblical literature).

Two highly regarded authors of commentaries on John (Raymond E. Brown and Barnabas Lindars) in commenting on John 21:7 explain that Peter was fishing in a loin cloth or a small undergarment and girded his outer garment around himself (total nudity would offend Jewish sensibilities) before swimming to shore.  Without introducing the idea of an undergarment, however, the text seems to suggest that Peter was literally naked and girded (secured) his outer garment around him so that when he reached shore he could cover his nakedness.

In the final analysis, however, the image created in the reader's mind upon reading this verse (in the Greek text) may not matter.  What does matter, however, is that translators and interpreters of biblical texts influence the public's perception of the Bible when they resolve its ambiguities and other difficulties in the translation rather than in a note.  With ambiguities and awkward passages resolved by how the translator renders the text in a modern language, the biblical text becomes more polished and acceptable to modern sensibilities or at least it is less offensive than it might be when "unimproved."  That is to say, texts glossed by a modern translator's sense of decency will raise few questions in a reader's mind.

Such difficulties or awkward turns of expression as presented by John 21:7 are better left unresolved in the translation and discussed in a note rather than by manipulating the text into a preferred reading.  What we moderns may regard as defects in the texts of one sort or another constitute signatures of the ancient authors or editors, and they serve to remind us that our biblical texts share in the deficiencies of the human condition.

Another case on point is 1 Samuel 19:24 (Septuagint) where Saul prophesies before Samuel: "he stripped off his clothes…and lay naked all that day and all that night" (RSV).  But in the NIV the translation reads: "he stripped off his robes…He lay that way all day and night."

So it appears that "naked" does not always mean "naked."  Or does it?  What are your thoughts?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University


Anonymous said...

“Good eye, Charlie.” In baseball, that was a regular yell to the batter who had just wisely taken a pitch or swung at one, a yell seldom directed at umpires. Thanks for your “good eye” in taking note of the term here. In my own essay on “Naked” I had missed this usage since I had cut my teeth on the RSV as it was first coming out and continued to use it even after the New RSV came out (which went back to “naked”). To the spiritual eye, we are all “naked.” In the context of the 21st chapter of John it is hard to imagine how it could have been used otherwise. Both the risen Christ and the disciple whom Jesus loved were in the setting. Peter stood naked before them no matter how much clothing he wore. Peter’s girding himself seems more an expression of his discomfort with standing naked before these two than that he dressed himself. Hard for me to imagine the custom of fishing without any clothes on (“stripping for work” does not normally mean taking off all of one’s clothes). I think we are all guilty of trying to cover our nakedness in so many ways.

Anonymous said...

I personally would not consider fishing naked-- too many sharp things around. But I suppose that if I were just laying out nets on the beach i might. It isn't clear from your post why this is controversial? American prudishness? Is the symbolism significant?

Charles Hedrick said...

Thanks for posting! I wish that I had checked the NRSV, which reads: "he put on some clothes, for he was naked." This is a much more responsible translation, and is a subtle criticism of the RSV translation. I have a lot of quibbles with the NRSV (not the least of which is its gender-neutral practice), but in this case NRSV is better. Had I checked the NRSV I would have likely ended the post with it. But on these short essays you only show the tip of the iceberg! Send me an email and tell me where I can access your essay on "naked." Or if you like post it so that other readers can check it out.

Charles Hedrick said...

Actually, it is not controversial. Except for those writing in-depth studies in biblical texts, the guild tends to do quick reading in a modern language translation. As this example shows, what the text is saying isn't really known. Readers only know what the translator thinks the text is saying. Hence this mini essay is my (probably unsuccessful) attempt to make a controversy out of John 21:7.