Squeamish Translating
Part 4: Unclothed Servants
by Matthew Neal

The Real Moral Issue:
Index | Cold Climate | Imposing Beliefs | Living As Christians
| A Kind of Fasting | Squeamish Translating

This is an article from Matthew Neal's blog, The Biblical Naturist:
External link - thebiblicalnaturist.blogspot.co.uk/ thebiblicalnaturist.blogspot.co.uk/

This is one part of a larger article, which can be found on Matthew's blog, or as a PDF here: Squeamish Translating


In this series of posts, I have been trying to document how modern translations seem to shy away from references to nakedness unless it is a negative context and/or we associate that nakedness with sin or improper behavior.

Sometimes it is not the Greek word gymnos ("naked") itself that is mistranslated, but a different word or phrase describing a context where nudity might have been present. In such cases, once again, I find that words or phrases have been chosen to mask or hide that possibility. Rather than translate the text as it appears in the Greek, we are given a modified translation that leads us to a mental image that does not include nudity.

If it were just a matter of my lack of knowledge of the Greek language, then this could be dismissed as only an unlearned man (me) spouting his linguistic ignorance. But the fact is that the KJV is not squeamish about the text and translates the Greek exactly as it is in the original text. If I am mistaken, then the KJV translators must be mistaken, also. [Comment: this sounds like a very weak claim, but bear with us. The argument is actually much stronger than this.]

Servants Coming In From The Field

Jesus is giving a variety of instructions for life in Luke 17. I want to draw our attention to Luke 17.7-8 where Jesus is teaching about faithful service to our Master. Verse 7 sets up the scenario, but it is verse 8 that I want to focus upon. Rather than quote verse 7 four times, I'm going to quote it once from the KJV, then examine the different renderings in the other translations in verse 8 only.

"But which of you, having a servant plowing or feeding cattle, will say unto him by and by, when he is come from the field, Go and sit down to meat?" (Luke 17.7, KJV).

This rhetorical question is clearly meant to indicate that none would say this to their servant. Jesus' next words describe how His listeners - in the role of the master - would respond instead:

Greek ἀλλ᾽ οὐχὶ ἐρεῖ αὐτῷ Ἑτοίμασον τί δειπνήσω καὶ περιζωσάμενος διακόνει μοι ἕως φάγω καὶ πίω καὶ μετὰ ταῦτα φάγεσαι καὶ πίεσαι σύ
KJV And will not rather say unto him, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink?
NASB But will he not say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat, and [properly] clothe yourself and serve me while I eat and drink; and afterward you may eat and drink’
NIV Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’?


As you can see from the Greek text above, Luke used the word perizonnymi for the command a master would give to his servant. As we saw in Part 2 of this series, this word is best translated "gird" in English; zonnymi indicates dressing oneself, and peri- means "around."

KJV: The KJV translates the word correctly. But consider the mental picture created by this rendering.

NASB: The NASB almost translates the word adequately, but they actually added a word to change the meaning.

NIV: The NIV doesn't even come close to an accurate rendering of the passage.

The KJV translators exhibit no squeamishness at all. The other two, however, seem to very intentionally render the passage so that we can imagine the scene as we would experience it today... with no nudity.

Did Servants In The Field Really Work Naked?

Clearly, the Greek text itself - and the KJV's rendering - imply (or at least allow) that the workers were unclothed while working in the field. But is that culturally accurate? Does the Bible ever imply that any other time?

Cultural practice of working nude.

Proving a cultural practice is pretty difficult, especially when the practice is so common and unremarkable that it never bears mentioning in historical accounts written at that time. I believe that is the case here, but I cannot prove it.

Scriptural evidence of working nude.

I can point to three or four passages in the New Testament that reflect the likelihood that workers with dirt and animals worked in the nude. The most logical reason for doing so would have been to keep the few garments they had from becoming soiled and smelly.

  1. As I already addressed in Part 1 of this series, John 21.7 strongly suggests that fishermen worked nude. Surely Peter was not the only naked fisherman in the boat.
  2. "And let him that is in the field not turn back again for to take up his garment." Mark 13.16 (KJV) confirms that, in an emergency, one of the things a person working in the field would wish to return to the house for would be a garment (the Greek is himation which could refer to a garment - KJV - or the coat - NASB).
  3. "Behold, I come as a thief. Blessed [is] he that watcheth, and keepeth his garments, lest he walk naked, and they see his shame." Revelation 16.15 (KJV).
    • This passage is about Jesus' return and our need to be ready for it. This instruction to be watchful and "keep our garments" makes no sense if people were never anywhere without their garments. The implication is that there are tasks performed naked, with no clothing nearby.
    • This is not a command to stay clothed while working, it is a warning to keep clothes close at hand rather than leaving them back at the house (this is in agreement with the implication of Mark 13.16 made in the point above).
    • Notably, none of the three English translations I'm reviewing were "squeamish" about translating gymnos as "naked" in this passage. I submit to you that this is because the nakedness seems to be associated with shame (I believe it this not the shame of nakedness, but of un-readiness... demonstrating that needs to be the topic of another article altogether).
  4. "Jesus said to her, 'Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?' Supposing Him to be the gardener, she said to Him, 'Sir, if you have carried Him away...'" John 20.15 (NASB) is a resurrection appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene. It is a mystery why she mistook Jesus for a gardener. However, the most reasonable explanation is that Jesus was "dressed" like a gardener at the moment.
    • Unless God supernaturally created garments for Jesus at His resurrection, He came out of the tomb naked. We know that Jesus' garments were taken from Him at the cross (John 19.23-24). We know that Jesus left all of the grave clothes in the tomb (John 20.6-7).
    • If Jesus had been given supernatural clothing by God at His resurrection, they most assuredly would not have looked like "gardener's" clothing... worn and soiled. Instead, they would have been fresh and clean!
    • This surprising event - if we really think it through - leads us to conclusion that gardeners actually did work naked. This is the only explanation which makes any sense of Mary's failure to identify Jesus.

While not conclusive, there certainly is both cultural and Biblical evidence that support the idea that servants worked in the fields without clothing. This means that the rendering of Scripture texts in ways that obscure that fact - or indicate that it was not the case - is inaccurate.

Squeamish Translating?

Why would the NASB and NIV translators be reticent to render Luke 17.8 as the KJV translators did? Could it be that they were uneasy with the mental image suggested by the Greek text?

I fear that it is.

There are a variety of passages where non-sexual, practical, or incidental nudity are evident (or possible) in the inspired Greek text. Yet, in each case, they are rendered to hide the idea of any nudity that is not shameful, unwarranted or condemned.

Once again, no one passage is evidence enough of a bias against nakedness on the part of the translators, but there is a pattern here. Collectively, they betray that the bias exists.

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The Real Moral Issue:
Index | Cold Climate | Imposing Beliefs | Living As Christians
| A Kind of Fasting | Squeamish Translating

Copyright © 2012 Matthew Neal
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