I’m preaching from the Revised Common Lectionary again after a break when I used passages selected following other disciplines. This means that as I approach the second Sunday in Lent I’m looking at the first passion prediction in Mark (chapter 8:31-38), although having reflected on that Gospel reading I decided that I didn’t want to use the other RCL readings and took my own from Job and Galatians instead. As sometimes happens, when I looked at the Greek and studied the commentaries I became dissatisfied with the translations available to me, In particular the rendering of three words came to seem to me to radically dilute and even to distort the sense of what the author of Mark wrote.
The Greek words in question are:
first, “psychen” (usually translated either as “life” – as in the RSV – or as “soul” or worst of all – as in the NIV, ESV and NAS – first as one then as the other);
second, “apolesei” (almost always translated as “lose”);
third, “zemiothenai” (sometimes “forfeit” – as in the NIV, ESV and NAS, sometimes “lose” as in the KJV and RSV).
My problems with the existing translations are:
1) the translation of psychen as soul encourages us to remain with a picture of the human being as composed of a mixture of separable body and soul that is quite alien, in my view, to the Biblical image. In particular it allows the pagan or gnostic idea of an eternal soul that is the real self and can subsist apart from the body (perhaps in a non-material “heaven”);
2) the translation of psychen sometimes as “life” (in verse 35) and sometimes as “soul” (in verse 36) accentuates this by hiding that the same word is being used in both cases, that the paradoxical claim is being made that the attempt to preserve the “psychen” is what dooms it and its destruction is what saves it, in any case it is the same “thing” that is at stake – the soul cannot be counter-posed to life;
3) the translation of apolesei as “lose” fails to do justice to the sense of destruction that word denotes – that which has been subject to apolosei hasn’t just been misplaced or hidden, it has been made ruin, furthermore this isn’t something that happens by accident, it is something that is done;
4) translating both apolosei and zemiothenai by the same word (“lose”) seriously distorts the relationship between the two verses, already disrupted if psychen is translated differently in the two cases – in verse 35 we have the counter-position of “save” and “destroy”, in verse 36 that of “gain” and “forfeit” – this matters because in verse 35 the focus is on the relationship between a person and his or her “self”, in 36 the shift to the language of exchange indicates the correct focus as on the relationship between a person and God with the self at stake.
This discussion of questions of translation is a preamble. The main point is that this critical passage on discipleship has a very serious and disturbing message for us, as sinners in need of salvation. The message is that our efforts at saving ourselves will always be not just useless but actually destructive, like the person in quicksand trying to find a way to stand we will simply intensify and accelerate our doom. Only by actively working against our established self-hood, our asserted independence of God, only by following and obeying rather than leading and deciding will we be saved.
This strikes to the heart of our sinfulness, which is basically our desire to be sovereigns of ourselves not subjects of the divine sovereign. Entering into the kingdom of God means we have to surrender our independence, destroy our selves.