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Were the Rabbis Riffing on Corinthians?

Why is a phrase from a tractate in the Talmud so similar to one in Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians?

June 28 2023
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Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.

Cole Aronson writes:

Do you know what the story is with the phrase “through a glass darkly” from Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians in the New Testament? I ask because in the Talmud, in the tractate of Y’vamot 49b, the phrase aspaklaria she’einah me’irah, “a mirror that is not bright” is used in a similar way. Could this just have been a common expression? Presumably, the rabbis were not riffing on Corinthians.

The resemblance between the two passages is indeed striking, both for how they do and how they do not resemble one another. Here, in the King James Bible’s translation from the Greek, are Paul’s words in the first of his two letters to the Christians of Corinth:

For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass darkly, but then [we shall see] face to face. Now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

The parallel passage in Y’vamot consists of only one sentence, which concludes a fanciful account of how the prophet Isaiah was put to death by the 7th-century Judean king Menashe for blasphemously contradicting the words of Moses—one of the charges against him being that whereas Moses says in God’s name in the book of Exodus, “No man shall see me and live,” the famous epiphany in Chapter 6 of Isaiah begins, “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne.” The account in Y’vamot ends by exonerating Isaiah by explaining that he and Moses were describing two different kinds of experiences, since “the prophets saw in a mirror that was not bright [b’aspaklariya she’einah me’irah] while Moses saw in a mirror that was bright [b’aspaklariya ha-me’irah].”

Mr. Aronson asks whether these two passages might be related. They clearly are, since both use a similar figure of speech, that of a clear or cloudy mirror (the King James’s “glass” is short for “looking glass,” an archaic term for a mirror), to refer to a similar phenomenon, that of human perception of the divinity or divine truth. Yet how they are related is something else. Although Paul’s epistle dates to the mid-1st century CE and the Babylonian Talmud was redacted over 400 years later, this does not mean that “through a glass darkly” influenced, or is even appreciably older than, “a mirror that was not bright.” Much of the material in the Talmud represents oral traditions going back centuries, and both expressions, as Mr. Aronson suggests, could conceivably derive from a shared source in popular speech or imagery.

Here’s an example of this. The reader of a version of the near-sacrifice of Isaac in the midrashic collection of Genesis Rabbah, compiled in Roman-governed Palestine in the early centuries of the Common Era, is at first startled to find in it the statement, “Abraham took the wood for the sacrifice like a man shouldering his cross.” How could a Jewish story about Abraham have resorted to such a blatantly Christian image? But crucifixion, when one considers it, was hardly a fate reserved by the Roman authorities for Jesus or persecuted Christians. It was a common punishment for a wide range of crimes, and being made to carry the heavy wooden cross one would be crucified on to one’s own agonizingly painful execution was an added sadistic touch. Already in the 2nd or 3rd century BCE we find a character in a play by the Roman comedian Plautus saying of someone he would like to see dead, “Patibulum ferat per urbem, deinde affigatur cruci”—“Let him carry a cross through the city and then be nailed to it.” The author of our midrash wasn’t necessarily comparing Abraham to Jesus.

Can we point to a similarly shared origin for our two expressions about mirrors? As a matter of fact, we can, though it doesn’t derive from ordinary experience. It comes from the realm of philosophy and takes us back even further than Plautus, all the way to Plato.

First, though, we must begin by avoiding a false trail. If there are Plato lovers among you, one of your favorite dialogues is probably the Phaedo, which tells of Socrates’ last day in prison, spent with his disciples and admirers before he is made to drink the hemlock, and of the long conversation he has with them regarding the immortality of the soul. Moreover, if you have read the Phaedo, it may well have been in Benjamin Jowett’s marvelous Victorian-age English translation—and if this is so, you may remember the passage in which Socrates says, relating his struggles to philosophize when young:

I thought that as I had failed in the contemplation of true existence, I ought to be careful that I did not lose the eye of my soul, as people may injure their bodily eyes by observing and gazing on the sun during an eclipse, unless they take the precaution of only looking at the image reflected in water, or in some similar medium. . . . And so I thought that I had better have recourse to the world of mind and seek there the truth of existence. I dare say that the simile is not perfect—for I am very far from admitting that he who contemplates existences through the medium of thought see them only “through a glass darkly,” any more than he who considers them in action and operation.

Before saying, “Eureka! So this is where 1Corinthians 13:12 comes from,” we had better pay attention to the quotation marks that Jowett put around “through a glass darkly.” He did this to let us know that, far from Paul’s having quoted Plato, it is he, Plato’s translator, who is quoting Paul in his translation. What Plato actually wrote was more like the Loeb Classical Library’s translation of the paragraph, the end of which goes:

Now perhaps my metaphor is not quite so accurate; for I do not grant in the least that he who studies realities by means of conceptions is looking at them in images [en ekosi] any more than he who studies them in daily life [en tois ergois].

Why did Jowett, a superb translator, choose to depart so far from the literal meaning in rendering a 4th-century BCE. Greek text with the aid of a 17th-century English phrase (the King James was published in 1611) used to translate a 1st-century CE Christian epistle? Our next column will start with this question.