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All flesh is grass

The discussion in comments here last week about attempts to read the entire Bible raised the question of English translations.

One of my favorite discussions of this comes from a Kathleen Norris piece written for The Christian Century in 1997. Norris argues for what she calls "incarnational language":

Incarnational language might be defined as ordinary words that resonate with the senses as they aim for the stars. This language goes against the modern tendency toward abstraction. For example, in Isaiah 40:6, the [King James Version] gives us one of the great lines of poetry in English — "All flesh is grass." This line of verse has spoken volumes both to poets and to illiterate people since the 17th century. Like many other passages from the KJV, it has entered literate and English idiom. Of the modern Bible translations I have consulted, only Oxford retains "all flesh is grass." The rest make a sorry litany:

All men are like grass (New International Version)

All mankind is grass (New American Bible)

All people are grass (New Revised Standard Version)

All humanity is grass (New Jerusalem)

The Good News Bible demotes the metaphor to a simile (and makes an ugly mouthful) with "All mankind is like the grass."

As the Psalms are ancient poetry, which tends toward the concrete and physical rather than the abstract, I suspected that the word being translated here, the "flesh" of the KJV, would correspond most closely to the literal meaning of the Hebrew. When I asked a Hebrew scholar about this, he told me that the word was basar, meaning meat, something one eats. He said that the word in this context also would refer to human beings. This make my point rather well: in the late 20th century, when referring to human beings, we prefer abstraction. But poets now, and poets thousands of years ago, choose the more physical word, the one with broader metaphorical resonance.

  • Jim

    Incarnational is a good word for this kind of diction for another reason – each incarnation will differ according to the DNA of each mother. Exact equivalences between lexical items inlanguages, “worda” are very, very rare, even when they refer to supposedly identical physical objects. You refernce to “flesh” is a good example. English has a separate word “meat” for flesh as food, and this is intrinsic to the etymology of “meat”. The earlier meaning wqs “food” and only later food derived form flesh. And so it goes. Then there are words like “virgin” that appear concrete but in fact refer to states or conditions that have social defintions – in essence designation for an abstraction. Different societies, different definitions. “Brother” means one thing in English, where in Chinese you have to specify older or younger brother, and both words include older and younger cousins. I am sure the closest equivalent in Arabic or Aramaic or Hebrew is slightly broader that the English word. So it is always one subjective artistic decision after another.

  • paperwight

    Hrm. Jerusalem Bible, Reader’s Edition, Doubleday 1968: All flesh is grass. Purchased this bible in college for an ancient lit survey course, and so all my notes are in it. Don’t know if it’s any better or worse than any other, but it seems to have retained a lot of the KJV poetry while eliminating at least the worst of the archaic language.

  • paperwight

    Hrm. Jerusalem Bible, Reader’s Edition, Doubleday 1968: All flesh is grass. Purchased this bible in college for an ancient lit survey course, and so all my notes are in it. Don’t know if it’s any better or worse than any other, but it seems to have retained a lot of the KJV poetry while eliminating at least the worst of the archaic language.

  • Peatey

    Latin Vulgate’s “omnis caro faenum” translates to “all flesh hay” (there is no verb).

  • Mark

    If anyone’s a comic book geek, “All Flesh is Grass” is one of the better stories of the Alan Moore run of Swamp Thing in the late 1980s. It has a strong spiritual, if not religious, theme of caring, sharing, and healing. Worth a look.

  • pharoute

    There is a remarkable parallel in the Tao Te Ching, chp 6: “Heaven and Earth are not humane. They regard all things as straw dogs” (“The Way of Lao Tzu” Wing-Tsit Chan, Bobbs-Merrill Co. 1963) The full verse for Isaiah 40:6-7 is “A voice says, “Cry out!” I answer, “What shall I cry out?” “All mankind is grass, and all their glory like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower wilts, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it” (The New American Bible” 1983)
    Straw dogs were used in sacrifices in ancient China and once used, lost any meaning.

  • pharoute

    hmmm in rereading the quote from Kathleen Norris I don’t agree. All flesh is grass is definitely more poetic but may not be more accurate choice to convey the meaning. Most people don’t think of themselves as “flesh = meat” ie “I could be eaten today by some animal” and the more flippent might go “flesh is grass, you are what you eat.” Also Isaiah 40 is not a Psalm. It might technically be considered one but you say “Psalm” I think “Book of Psalms”

  • Kirala

    I love the poetry and feel of the KJV, but I have to say, I get more out of the NIV. Sometimes it’s good to have the stumbling block of difficult language, to be forced to stop and ponder the meaning of each line of text. But sometimes it’s better to have the way made smooth, to be able to run and grasp the shape of the entire text.
    This particular line is a good case in point. Taken out of context, the first thing that came to my mind was an image of a straw ox. Don’t ask me why. “All men are like grass” takes me immediately back to the NIV translation used so often in the Psalms. The KJV on further reflection yields images of the insubstantiality of flesh, its perishability, how brittle it is… all useful things to take from the passage. Still, though, the images are flesh-specific – the spirit may still be virtuous. Whereas the NIV condemns the whole man. Now, which is the more accurate impression, I wonder?

  • pharoute

    Argh! sorry, chapter 5 not 6 (so does that make me a Do’h-ist?)

  • jan

    Ahh, yes. Great line. The german translations usually use the simile instead of the direct metaphor. Nevertheless, this line makes for one of the greates moments in sacral music – the “Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras”-sequence in Brahms’ “German Requiem”.

  • Shag from Brookline

    “All flesh is grass” gives new meaning to the film (and book?) “Splendor in the Grass”.
    What we need is an originalist movement for the Bible: both original meaning and original intent. Then we can count on the textualists to promote their views. The hell with hermeneutics! This is fundamentalism. The movement can be called “Restoring the Lost Bible”. Perhaps Justice Scalia can lead the way.

  • Peatey

    Shag from Brookline, but the Constitution was originally written in english… Are you advocating that we all learn Hebrew and Greek?

  • James

    This gets even more irritating in the NT, for the following reason:
    The use of bsr as representing the natural person was an established Hebrew (I believe, generally Semitic — or at least also Aramaic) use. But the use of sarx was not so established in Greek. Paul and I Peter, however, introduce the idiom into Greek — I Peter basically just quotes Isaiah, but Paul uses the term in a number of extended arguments. This usage would have been as unusual on first hearing to Paul’s Greek audience as it is to a modern English speaker (probably more so, since the Biblical idiom has more thoroughly permeated our culture).
    Nevertheless, more modern translations like the NRSV paraphrase and avoid using the term “flesh” or an equivalent. This makes me gring my teeth when it comes up during the liturgy, since the text is read from the NRSV and I follow it from my Koine New Testament. And it’s just one of a whole set of equally pointless paraphrases.

  • wvmcl

    For those who want to read the Bible but can’t face plowing through every word, I recommend the “Dartmouth Bible,” published in 1950 and out-of-print (but used copies available on the internet starting at around $30).
    It is an abridgement based on the KJV which reorganizes the books logically, leaves out repetitive and superfluous material, and conentrates on the most significant and rewarding passages. The prefaces and notes are very helpful without being overwhelming. It makes for a fluent and enjoyable read, and will give you a better understanding of what the Bible really says than most people ever achieve.

  • Jeremy Osner

    I’m not getting how the use of “flesh” to mean “people” would be unfamiliar to a modern English speaker — it seems like a common enough usage. “The way of all flesh” is the first thing that springs to mind when I hear it. Not sure I can think of any other examples right off the bat but when I read the sentence “All flesh is grass”, what confuses me is “grass”, not “flesh”. And it’s good that I should be confused by “grass” since that metaphor is what the next couple of verses explain. I certainly don’t think the author is talking about hamburger meat.

  • Jeff Keezel

    I tell people that if they ever get tagged to do a Call to Worship or something similar, just grab a KJV and open it pretty much anywhere in the Psalms and have at it. You’ll find something poetic and powerful and appropriate in very short order. But beyond that, I’m not a big KJV fan…thekeez

  • Jeff Keezel

    I tell people that if they ever get tagged to do a Call to Worship or something similar, just grab a KJV and open it pretty much anywhere in the Psalms and have at it. You’ll find something poetic and powerful and appropriate in very short order. But beyond that, I’m not a big KJV fan…thekeez

  • the other michael

    Jan already mentioned it, but thanks so much Fred for putting Brahms in my head this morning.
    The German is so gorgeous (Brahms actually cites 1 Peter 1:24, which may explain the change to simile–the same shift happens in KJV)
    Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras
    und alle Herrlichkeit des Menschen
    wie des Grases Blumen
    [enter sopranos; now in the Major, and we can hear the flowers floating away as the "spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it"]
    Das Gras ist verdorret
    und die Blume abgefallen
    the other freaky thing about the passage in Isaiah is that it follows immediately after the happysunny passage (which I can’t help thinking of as Recitativ-Aria-Chorus from Messiah) “Comfort ye my people”–”Every valley shall be exalted”–”And the Glory of the Lord shall be reveal-ed”
    I assume the Brahms uses some standard Luther or Lutheran translation, tho Brahms I think was actually raised Catholic…
    m

  • the other michael

    shit. looked it up, and I got that exactly backwards–Brahms was a Lutheran by background, though more or less an agnostic humanist in adulthood. The text is, though, apparently from the standard 19th Century Lutheran translation.

  • Tim

    There was an episode of the British series “Cracker” that featured a religious cult murder. The phrase, “all flesh is grass” was one of the clues that led them to the murderers. thought I’d mention that reference. I’m glad I learned more about the origins of this phrase here. Thanks for posting it.

  • Beth

    Interesting post Fred. Somehow I had the impression that the KJV had been “prettied up” and the modern versions were more literal.
    I’d be a little more careful if I were you though, about tossing around such potentially controversial passages. How long will it be before fundies start protesting the ‘flesh theory’ that’s taught in public schools? Our kids are being taught that flesh is made of blood and muscle and fat and so forth in direct contradiction of biblical truth. At the very least, they should be exposed to the alternate theory that flesh is in fact vegetable matter.

  • Emma Goldman

    Okay, you people seem to know whereof you speak: were I to buy a bible, what should I get? I probably have somebody’s old KJV around, but I’d be more interested in something that does a good translation of the original language(s) of the texts. I’d also be curious to know the history of the various versions, and I figure you people are good sources for that, too.

  • jwhook

    I’m surprised Kathleen Norris didn’t look at the New American Standard when consulting translations. The translation philosophy used in the production of both the King James and the NASB is to be as literal as possible, both in words and grammar. This particular use of language seems to have more to do with the differences between expression in Hebrew and English, not necessarily a change to more abstract expression in English. The NASB uses the same phrase exactly.
    As I was reading this, I couldn’t help but think of the beginning of “The Bridge” by Hart Crane, “Macadam, gun-gray as the tunny’s belt, leaps from Far Rockaway to Golden Gate.” While admittedly an early 20th century poem, there’s nothing abstract in its expression.

  • Maximus

    The newer translations often suffer from plodding literalism. I think the deafness to the poetry of the scriptures is a symptom of Protestant obsession with textual meaning above all else.
    The KJV and other older translations were done in times and places where the Bible, important as it was to the translators, was merely one part of a broad Christian cultural tradition. Evangelicals have by and large thrown away most of that tradition, maintaining that the Bible alone can serve as an all-purpose “instruction manual” for the Christian life. Forget the interpretive context provided by the church… which (however imperfectly) was there in the past to help with poetic but potentially confusing passages.
    This, of course, leads to many of the worst distortions of fundamentalism and literalism: hatred of science, fixation on Levitical laws, cockamie End Times theories. All are the fruits of reading a diverse collection of difficult, millennia-old texts from a variety of cultures than CANNOT be fully understood without a sophisticated interpretive context.
    This idea of the Bible being the root of all Christian activity, and of the church itself, is precisely backward. The church created the Bible, not the other way around.

  • Dan Lewis

    I found a Bible version flowchart (pdf) here.
    Another question is how literal you want your Bible to be; should you translate the texts by word, sentence, or paragraph? For literal meaning or metaphorical meaning? Is it in an English idiom, or a Hebrew, Greek, etc. idiom?
    From a Catholic site, on these issues:
    Toward the literal end of the spectrum are translations such as the King James Version (KJV), the New King James Version (NKJV), the New American Standard (NAS), and the Douay-Rheims Version.
    Next come slightly less literal translations, such as the Revised Standard Version (RSV), and the Confraternity Version.
    Then there are mostly dynamic translations such as the New International Version (NIV) and the New American Bible (NAB).
    And finally, toward the very dynamic end of the spectrum are translations such as the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB), the New English Bible (NEB), the Revised English Bible (REB), the Contemporary English Version (CEV), and the “Good News Bible,” whose translation is called Today’s English Version (TEV).
    One translation that is hard to place on the spectrum is the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). The basic text of the NRSV is rendered literally, following the RSV, but it uses “gender inclusive language,” which tries to translate the original text into a modern “gender neutral” cultural equivalent. When you read the NRSV you will often encounter “friends,” “beloved,” and “brothers and sisters,” and then see a footnote stating “Gk brothers.” The NRSV also shows a preference for using “God” and “Christ” when the original text says “he.”
    I think “all flesh is grass” is more like Perl: highly-compressed language packed with meaning, but sometimes difficult to read.

  • jwhook

    Emma -
    You asked about versions, and said that ” does a good translation of the original language(s) of the texts” was important to you. Just to flesh out what Dan Lewis said, translators make a first decision about the philosophy to use in translation from a continuum that has at the extremes, “word for word” versus “thought for thought.” There are hundreds of other decisions to be made, like deciding whether or not to always translate a word or phrase exactly the same way when it occurs.
    What this means is that your criterion of a good translation is somewhat dependent on what you think a good translation should be. The list that Dan provided reflects where different translations fall on the translation philosophy continuum. The King James is, in fact, a good translation, and as has been noted above, one which was made with special attention to the aesthetic of the language itself. However, English has changed quite a bit over the last 400 years, and there will be times when you’ll need help translating what it says into present day English. Modern translations are also based on a larger number (and older versions) of manuscripts, that have been uncovered since the 1600s.
    So you’ll want to make that same decision the translators make — do I want a translation that adheres to the words as closely as possible, or one where the translators reflected on the thought expressed in the original language, and what would be the equivalent in language today. Once you’ve done that, then you’ll know where to start. After that, you can look at secondary items, such as reading level of the translation or elegance in the language.
    Here’s a link to an excellent diagram of the various translations. http://www.zondervanbibles.com/translations.htm
    One translation not mentioned in Dan’s list is the English Standard Version (ESV). One of the goals of its translators was to retain the flavor of the King James, but update the language for today. It’s classified very far on the word for word side of the continuum.
    Hope this helps.

  • James

    The big problem with the AV is that (1) the text on which it was based is significantly different (although not in any way which would affect doctrine) from that which would now be considered a good text (Nestle-Aland, for example); (2) as far as the Hebrew Bible goes, we have better understanding of Biblical Hebrew now as a result of comparative studies of other Near Eastern languages. The Textus Receptus (the Greek NT with which the translators worked and that which Erasmus published — was a late and relatively poor example of a single tradition. Where these are not a problem — in many NT passages, for example — it can still be considered a good translation.
    I’m not sure that one can pin the plodding literalism of new translations on Protestantism. Both the AV and the Douay-Rheims translations, Protestant and Catholic, are about equally literal, and they’re the archetypes of Protestant and Catholic translations (and not all that different, except for a limited number of terms where the Douay-Rheims chose latinate terms as reflecting the Vulgate interpretation more closely — these being legitimate but different choices at a similar level of literalism). I think that they have to do with the state of prose in the 20th century: we’ve lost the model of multiple registers of language — high, middle, and low styles — and are left with a relatively impoverished set of tools for translating texts which assumed a much richer set of possibiltiies. The same problems affect literary and liturgical translations and new literary and liturgical compositions as well.

  • James

    The big problem with the AV is that (1) the text on which it was based is significantly different (although not in any way which would affect doctrine) from that which would now be considered a good text (Nestle-Aland, for example); (2) as far as the Hebrew Bible goes, we have better understanding of Biblical Hebrew now as a result of comparative studies of other Near Eastern languages. The Textus Receptus (the Greek NT with which the translators worked and that which Erasmus published — was a late and relatively poor example of a single tradition. Where these are not a problem — in many NT passages, for example — it can still be considered a good translation.
    I’m not sure that one can pin the plodding literalism of new translations on Protestantism. Both the AV and the Douay-Rheims translations, Protestant and Catholic, are about equally literal, and they’re the archetypes of Protestant and Catholic translations (and not all that different, except for a limited number of terms where the Douay-Rheims chose latinate terms as reflecting the Vulgate interpretation more closely — these being legitimate but different choices at a similar level of literalism). I think that they have to do with the state of prose in the 20th century: we’ve lost the model of multiple registers of language — high, middle, and low styles — and are left with a relatively impoverished set of tools for translating texts which assumed a much richer set of possibiltiies. The same problems affect literary and liturgical translations and new literary and liturgical compositions as well.

  • James

    The big problem with the AV is that (1) the text on which it was based is significantly different (although not in any way which would affect doctrine) from that which would now be considered a good text (Nestle-Aland, for example); (2) as far as the Hebrew Bible goes, we have better understanding of Biblical Hebrew now as a result of comparative studies of other Near Eastern languages. The Textus Receptus (the Greek NT with which the translators worked and that which Erasmus published — was a late and relatively poor example of a single tradition. Where these are not a problem — in many NT passages, for example — it can still be considered a good translation.
    I’m not sure that one can pin the plodding literalism of new translations on Protestantism. Both the AV and the Douay-Rheims translations, Protestant and Catholic, are about equally literal, and they’re the archetypes of Protestant and Catholic translations (and not all that different, except for a limited number of terms where the Douay-Rheims chose latinate terms as reflecting the Vulgate interpretation more closely — these being legitimate but different choices at a similar level of literalism). I think that they have to do with the state of prose in the 20th century: we’ve lost the model of multiple registers of language — high, middle, and low styles — and are left with a relatively impoverished set of tools for translating texts which assumed a much richer set of possibiltiies. The same problems affect literary and liturgical translations and new literary and liturgical compositions as well.

  • James

    The big problem with the AV is that (1) the text on which it was based is significantly different (although not in any way which would affect doctrine) from that which would now be considered a good text (Nestle-Aland, for example); (2) as far as the Hebrew Bible goes, we have better understanding of Biblical Hebrew now as a result of comparative studies of other Near Eastern languages. The Textus Receptus (the Greek NT with which the translators worked and that which Erasmus published — was a late and relatively poor example of a single tradition. Where these are not a problem — in many NT passages, for example — it can still be considered a good translation.
    I’m not sure that one can pin the plodding literalism of new translations on Protestantism. Both the AV and the Douay-Rheims translations, Protestant and Catholic, are about equally literal, and they’re the archetypes of Protestant and Catholic translations (and not all that different, except for a limited number of terms where the Douay-Rheims chose latinate terms as reflecting the Vulgate interpretation more closely — these being legitimate but different choices at a similar level of literalism). I think that they have to do with the state of prose in the 20th century: we’ve lost the model of multiple registers of language — high, middle, and low styles — and are left with a relatively impoverished set of tools for translating texts which assumed a much richer set of possibiltiies. The same problems affect literary and liturgical translations and new literary and liturgical compositions as well.

  • JRoth

    As is often noted, the vernacular holds a certain poetry of its own, hence the common use of the expression “Your ass is grass.”
    I had no idea it was a sermon….

  • Peatey

    LOL Jroth, is that the US Army Version (USAV)? : “Your ass is grass and the Lord is the mower.”

  • David K. M. Klaus

    Worlds grow old
    And suns grow cold
    And Death we never can doubt
    Time’s cold wind wailing down the past
    Reminds us that all flesh is grass
    And History’s lamps blow out.
    But the Eagle has landed.
    Tell your children when
    Time won’t drive us down to dust again.
    – “Hope Eyrie (The Eagle Has Landed)” by Leslie Fish

  • Emma Goldman

    Thanks, people; I knew you’d be able to help. I think what I’d like is a version that retains as much of the original wording as possible, but also provides some guidance as to how that wording can/should be understood, or even provides arguments about how the wording can/should be understood. Is there an edition of KJV or New American Standard Revised that has those add-ons? I realize this is a complex issue–meaning is not static in time, place, or culture–and what troubles me most is not just the notion of inerrancy of scripture but the notion that the meaning of said scripture is obvious. I’m also interested in what was left out, and why, but that’s probably a story for another day. In addition to my own interest in this, my stepson is about to make his first holy communion (after announcing repeatedly to his 2nd grade catholic school class that “Emma doesn’t believe in god,” just so there’s no doubt about that). I’ve introduced him to other people’s gods–Hindu, mostly, and some Buddhism thrown in for good measure–but it would be interesting to engage him on the meaning of his bible, too, as he gets a little older. Nothing like making them think . . .

  • ol cranky

    The Ramban’s preface to Genesis says it all: “the Torah is written with no punctuation, no sentences, just letters in a row, and therefore could, in theory, be divided up into words and sentences in a way other than the way we traditionally divide it up. The Torah would then be read in a way that is substantially different from the way in which it is traditionally read, communicating other meanings, other messages, other truths.” I’d be willing to be the rest of the old testament is written the same way. Add this to the order of the OT being different in the Jewish OT vs the Christian one as well as translational issues and you’ve got one heck of an argument against the bible as complete and inerrant (without bringing up the fact the information was passed down verbally for years prior to it becoming scripture).
    But then, what do I know. ..I wasn’t there to take dictation from G-d like the fundagelicals were.

  • jwhook

    Emma -
    From what you’re asking, my recommendation would be that you look at the New English Translation, the NET Bible. It was originally intended for electronic distribution – internet and CD. You can use it all you want on the web to decide whether it’s what you’re looking for. There are printed versions available at the usual costs. It’s a work in progress and is at a 2nd release with more than 60,000 translator notes. Here’s the link: http://www.bible.org/category.asp?Category_ID=1&Parent_ID=35.

  • Ol Cranky

    I’d be more interested in something that does a good translation of the original language(s) of the texts. I’d also be curious to know the history of the various versions, and I figure you people are good sources for that, too.
    Emma:
    Robert Alter released a new translation of the first 5 books last year that got great reviews and is pretty much what you say you want. The down side is he’s only done the first 5 books and doesn’t plan to do the same for the rest of the OT or the NT.

  • Ol Cranky

    I’d be more interested in something that does a good translation of the original language(s) of the texts. I’d also be curious to know the history of the various versions, and I figure you people are good sources for that, too.
    Emma:
    Robert Alter released a new translation of the first 5 books last year that got great reviews and is pretty much what you say you want. The down side is he’s only done the first 5 books and doesn’t plan to do the same for the rest of the OT or the NT.

  • Emma Goldman

    Wow–I took a look at the link that jwhook posted, and at Cranky’s link, too, and those are exactly the kind of thing I want–thanks, people! I knew you’d come through. I probably won’t have to get to the inerrancy thing with the Kid for awhile yet; Catholics aren’t as big on that, so far as I can tell, and don’t seem to be that big on the bible, proper, for that matter. And this summer I think we’re going to visit a synagogue and a b’hai temple and a hindu temple, too. Just to bend his brain a little more.

  • ol cranky

    Emma:
    Be prepared to be blown away at the Baha’i religion (active political involvement like running for office is specifically proscribed by the religion) – very interesting and very intellectual.
    I have the Alter bible (unfortunately, it doesn’t have an index which would make it supreme. . . but I just refer to one of the other bibles I have access to to figure out where specific passages are).


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