Last week, following a reading plan of reading through the Harvard Classics, I was reading Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, where he tells of the last days of Socrates, and, characteristically, Socrates talks a lot, explaining why he is not afraid of death, to which he has been sentenced by the authorities of Athens for “corrupting” youth by teaching them to think. Frankly, I found it pretty dry reading.
But my attention was grabbed when I read the phrase Socrates/Plato uses when he is talking about the realities that lie behind all that we see. He said that we see true realities “through a glass darkly”. It was there with the quotation marks too, as if Plato/Socrates (it’s hard to say how much Plato is quoting Socrates or simply writing his own teaching) was quoting some other source. What struck me was that this phrase is from Paul, the Apostle, in 1 Corinthians 13:12. Was Paul quoting Socrates, or were Paul and Plato quoting a common source? I was in a seminary library at the time so I hit the shelves to see if I could figure it out.
But first, of course, I Googled it. I only found some blog posts that were written by people who had noticed the same thing. No one seemed to know where the phrase was from besides the New Testament, which was written well after Plato’s dialogue. Some suggested that the phrase was added by later Christian copyists who preserved Plato’s writings. Others assumed some unknown, unnamed source that both writers were quoting, or maybe that Paul was quoting Plato. A few found in this odd phrase reason to question the entire concept of revealed writing or the existence of God. I was unconvinced.
So I hit the commentaries. After looking in about dozen commentaries on First Corinthians, I was surprised that none of them addressed my question. A few of them delved into the possible Platonic background of Paul’s thought in 13:12, but did not even mention Phaedo among the references.
Confused about why I could find no scholarly source that addresses this shared language of Socrates and Paul, I decided to go to the Greek. I pulled out the Loeb Classics copy of Phaedo and…my question was answered. The reason I could find no scholarly source to explain the shared language, “through a glass darkly”, was that there was no shared language. Shared idea? Perhaps. Identical wording? Not at all.
Here is what Plato wrote, literally:
“he who studied realities by means of conceptions is looking at them in images“. This is the Loeb translation, by Harold North Fowler.
Here is the Harvard Classics translation, by Benjamin Jowett: “He who contemplates existence through the medium of ideas sees them only ‘through a glass darkly’“.
The emphasized words are the translating the same Greek words.
And what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:12 is, literally, “For now we see through a mirror indirectly.”
The “through the glass darkly” wording is from the King James Version of the Bible, which apparently was prominent in Mr. Jowett’s mind. “Through a glass darkly” is a nice image to express a similar idea that Socrates had, that we do not see the realities directly but indirectly, but the choice of importing a quote from the New Testament into an Ancient Greek writing causes a lot of confusion, especially in the blogosphere.
So why does this matter? This odd translation choice, when simply accepted for what it appears to be, has misled people in some big ways, revealed by my brief Google search. Simply reading another translation would have indicated that something fishy was going on, but I only knew what was going on by being able to read the Greek well enough to verify what was actually written by Plato. And this is why we bother to learn the original languages. In the Presbyterian church we learn the original languages so that we can read the Bible in the original, rather than being wholly dependent on translators. It makes a difference, and not only with the Bible.