Love takes a long thyme

There has been discussion on several blogs in the last day or so, not all of it entirely serious, about how to translate the first clause in 1 Corinthians 13:4. Those involved include Lingalinga, Mike and Suzanne, first here and now here.

I think I was the first in this discussion, in a comment on the Lingamish post, to point out the link between this clause and the description of the Lord in Exodus 34:6 (there I wrote in error 34:7) and several other places in the Old Testament as “slow to anger”. As I pointed out in one of my first blog posts ever, the Hebrew phrase used for this in Exodus literally means “length of nose” or “length of nostrils”; but the word meaning “nose” or “nostrils” also has the metaphorical sense “anger”, and understanding “length” in a temporal sense leads to the understanding “slow to anger”.

The link between 1 Corinthians 13:4 and Exodus 34:6 is with the Septuagint Greek wording of the latter, makrothumos. This adjective is a compound word of makros “long” and thumos, which has a variety of meanings, including “anger”. So the Septuagint translator clearly chose it, or coined it, as a loan-translation of the Hebrew phrase understood as “length of anger”.

In 1 Corinthians 13:4 the Greek of the first clause is he agape makrothumei, the last word being the verb derived from makrothumos. This verb and a related noun and adverb (although oddly not the adjective itself) are used several times in the New Testament. In modern translations these are usually rendered with the “patient” word group. The KJV translation of them was “long-suffering”, which is a good reflection of the Greek compound word if the “suffer” part is correctly understood in its older sense of “allow” or perhaps “forbear”. But this rendering obscures the significant link with the Exodus passage.

So how should we render the clause? Some advocates of formal equivalence translation argue that words should be rendered according to their most concrete literal sense. The most concrete literal sense of thumos is “thyme”, the herb whose English name is derived from this Greek word. So makrothumos should be “long thyme”. Hence the tongue in cheek rendering in this post title:

Love takes a long thyme.

Suzanne took this same approach even further by reading the Hebrew idiom into the Greek word. I’m not sure this is a legitimate approach, but then she was not being as serious as I first thought she was. What she came up with was

The scripture truth that “love is long in both nostrils at once”.

But this sounds a bit like the Pinocchio approach to Scripture: the more you misrepresent it, the longer your nose and so the greater your love!

But in her later post Suzanne looked more seriously at this passage, and came up with the best rendering I have seen, which preserves the link with Exodus 34:6 and fits well into 1 Corinthians 13:

Love is slow to anger.

May we all remember to live in this kind of love, including Doug who this evening rants at me (with good cause), and above all myself.

8 thoughts on “Love takes a long thyme

  1. Pingback: Pseudo-Polymath » Blog Archive » Friday Highlights

  2. The less literal renderings are good. But I do wonder if all the conceptual connections between the languages are really dead. Somewhere between the concepts of “nostril” and “anger” may be something related to breathing. (Maybe I found this out listening to a radio host’s reaction to a frustrating caller. A blast of anger left the nostrils and hit the microphone.) Whether or not it was the direct intention, I wonder if slow, steady breathing is an image that captures what love is. Not that I can imagine how to say that in a verse without still requiring some explanation.

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