Pilate’s reluctance in the Gothic Bible

The Gothic Bible is noted for its rather conservative translation, both technically and theologically. Technically, the translation’s almost word by word representation of the Greek Vorlage is enough to have led some scholars of yesterday to understate its authentic Gothic qualities by referring to it not as a translation but as an interlinear gloss. Theologically, although it is known that its translator, the Bishop Wulfila, was an Arian Christian, none have produced any plausible (if any at all) examples of such theologically tinted translation choices. In short, it’s pretty straight-laced as translations go.

But a close observer will notice an occasional liberty taken by the translator, whether consciously or not (those questions are the stuff dissertations are made of — mine included). If my conjecture is right, I rather think that the following case must have resulted from a somewhat conscious choice, undertaken for narrative/theological reasons rather than merely a result of linguistic (lexical) variation.

John 19.6

þaruh biþe sehvun ina þai maistans gudjans jah andbahtos, hropidedun qiþandans: ushramei, ushramei ina! qaþ im Peilatus: nimiþ ina jus jah hramjiþ. iþ ik fairina in imma ni bigita.

ὅτε οὖν εἶδον αὐτὸν οἱ ἀρχιερεῖς καὶ οἱ ὑπηρέται ἐκραύγασαν λέγοντες, σταύρωσον σταύρωσον. λέγει αὐτοῖς ὁ πιλᾶτος, λάβετε αὐτὸν ὑμεῖς καὶ σταυρώσατε, ἐγὼ γὰρ οὐχ εὑρίσκω ἐν αὐτῷ αἰτίαν.

When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’ Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.’

(source: the fantastic Project Wulfila)

As a preliminary, it’s hard to get at the rationale of Wulfila in his choice of the words relating to the crucifixion. Because the Goths were surely familiar with — as they were doubtless the occasional victims of — crucifixion, if they did not borrow either the Latin or Greek words for the practice, a native calque or substitute would have to be coined or appropriated to fill the lexical gap in Gothic. As it happens, it appears that neither the Greek nor Latin word was borrowed: ushramjan is the standard word for ‘crucify’ in attested Gothic. It may have been the regular idiomatic verb used in coordination with galga ‘gallows’, the noun by which Wulfila exceptionlessly translated ‘cross’ (this is itself interesting, but a different question). But interestingly, the verb must etymologically mean not ‘hang’ or ‘impale’, but ‘overpower, rule over’. This terminological obscurement of the mechanics of the brutal process may have been euphemistic or a result of taboo avoidance, indicating the utter humiliation and abasement suffered by recipients of this brutal form of punishment. Another option is that ushramjan is a neologism created by Wulfila, a choice that may have been contextually informed by a theology of the scandalous cross event.1 Yet although the following observation is certainly compatible with this last possibility, my hunch is that the crucifixion terminology in the Gothic Bible predates Wulfila.

As noted above, the standard word for ‘crucify’ is ushramjan, obtaining in 25 of the 26 attested instances of the verbal root (much text is missing from the Gothic New Testament, unfortunately). The above quoted verse, John 19.6, contains the only instance of the Gothic word without the preverb ut. Now, as an adposition, ut is essentially spatial and cognate with English out, but in conjunction with the verbal element hramjan ‘rule, force’ functions as something of an intensifier, so something akin to ‘ rule over, put under force’ (cf. certain uses of the cognate German aus-). Removing this element, as done here in Pilate’s mouth, would seem to have had the effect of softening the blow, euphemizing the word ever so slightly in contrast to the angry Jews’ demand, “Ushramei, ushramei ina!”

My modest suggestion is that Wulfila’s choice here may be intended to highlight Pilate’s somewhat sympathetic, laissez-faire attitude toward Jesus’ treatment as presented in the Gospels for his Gothic readers, whereas the full blunt force of the word is everywhere else throughout our corpus on full display. When the Jews demanded to grind Jesus under foot, Pilate conceded that they could indeed stomp on him. Perhaps Wulfila saw, as most Christians seem to have, that Pilate is painted by the evangelist to have been reluctant about Jesus’ punishment or at least that he wished to distance himself from the grisly results of the Jews’ cruel intentions for Jesus.

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1 We must avoid the temptation to explain ‘overpower, rule over’ as an Arian emphasis on Christ’s human fallibility and defeat, especially considering that non-Arianism was already fully kenotic and that the scandal of a crucified Messiah was certainly felt by all Christians.

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