The Garden of Oilpress

It’s somewhat surprising how sentences like the one in Matthew 26:36 arrive so quickly at the heart of some hard and yet simply stated translation questions. In Greek the original sentence is, τότε ἔρχεται μετ’ αὐτῶν ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἰς χωρίον λεγόμενον Γεθσημανί. In English it is, “then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsamane.”

Gethsamane means oil-press. Should one translate it? Or transliterate it?

The US, just like everywhere else, has place names which rarely, if ever, bring the “original” meaning to mind. The locals around here rarely, if ever, think of a person named Landis when we refer to Landisburg. The newness of a port does not come to mind when we talk about Newport. Actually, as far as we’re concerned, there’s no port there. The town certainly isn’t new.

And like everywhere else, we also have place names which excite associated meaning in the hearer even though when we use the word we don’t necessarily intend that other meaning.

I live in Pennsylvania. We have some unique names. Many years ago we moved from an apartment into a house, and I needed to notify a magazine of the change of address. So I called their offices located in California. An apparently young woman (her voice sounded young) answered the phone and I told her what I wanted to do. She replied that it would be easy and we proceeded.

“Name?” “Mike Sangrey”
“Can you spell your last name?” “Sure,” and I did.
“Street?” “Well, it’s actually mailed to a box number,” and I gave that to her.
“City?” “It’s a small town.”
I paused.


She giggled.

“Really?” she said. I replied, “Yep, that’s the name.”
“Ok. What’s your new address? I need the street first.” I gave her the street name.
“And having left Intercourse where did you move to?”

I could tell there was a smile behind the question. It was at this point in time I realized this was going to be a bit funny.

“Well, ummmmmm…”
I paused.


Her previous giggle was now laughter.

Now that I’m older and a bit more mature…well, maybe not…I’ve thought about what drives the best way to translate this conversation into non-English. Would it be best to translate the names or to simply transliterate them? I think the answer to that question is obvious. One would have to translate it, or the laughter makes no sense (and yet, even that isn’t perfect). But, the real question is: What is it in this conversational situation which drives the answer to the translate vis-a-vis transliterate question?

The locals don’t think there is anything odd about living in a town called Intercourse. Sometimes there were conversations about how it use to be named Crosskeys. In a previous life, it formed the intersection between two main thoroughfares—two courses—tying the “west” of that time to the east. One course went from Lancaster, to the West, to Philadelphia, in the East, and the other went from a major town in Delaware, to the South-East of Pennsylvania, to North-Western Pennsylvania and a city named Erie. These two “highways” intersected in Intercourse.

Today Intercourse is a popular tourist site (many Amish live in the area). The town sign, maybe 18 inches long and a foot high, sitting on a 8 foot pole at the edge of town is one of the more photographed spots in the area. I suppose you understand why it’s photographed so much, but the sign is hardly photographic. Reminds me of semiotics. Amateur photographers use semiotics; though they wouldn’t know that. Some professionals know. The sign signals meaning—well, multiple meanings as the case might be.

But, where is the meaning? We can see the sign. But, where’s the meaning? It is the answer to this question that ultimately decides whether or not we translate or transliterate.

Words are signs. For the locals, Intercourse signalled the place where they live. For many others it signalled…well, it signalled one of the other meanings. The one you’re thinking about. You are thinking about it aren’t you? You see, the meaning is in the mind. It is not in the text, not really.

Words do that. They signal, they don’t mean.

Though they only signal when used in context. And, they’re always in context. If I use a word seemingly all by itself, it still brings to mind a context within which it is interpreted. However, the vast majority of word usages, especially those used in text, are within a literary context. In other words, they are within a dynamic, author developed context. (Dynamic in the sense that the context develops as the reader reads through the text.)

This author developed context imperfectly causes the author intended, specific meaning to be selected within the reader’s mind. All of the raw meaning the author has to work with is in the mind of the audience member. He or she adds to it, manipulates it, grows it. But, it’s all there in the mind.

There’s other meanings, too, than just the one meaning typically selected by the word-context pair. These other meanings wait in the wings of the focal thought, apparently partly turned on. However, nearly always, meanings which are sometimes associated with the word are not even thought of when the word is used in a specific context. These associated meanings might be more readily accessible at the moment of use; but, generally they are not accessed. Unless forcefully brought to mind through analysis, they stay mute. After the word is used, these other meanings simply and quietly power down over a short span of time—never thought of. The author doesn’t make use of them; neither does the reader.

When I used the signal Intercourse on the phone, I had an entire context within which the word obtained its meaning. There was an entire history surrounding the term. So, for me, this otherwise highly energetic (cognito-linguisticly speaking, of course) signal was simply the name of a place. To the California girl, there was no placeness associated within her mind for this signal to trigger. For her it signalled…well, you know what it signalled. It’s that meaning in your mind that was just signalled (and, interestingly, signalled again even without the use of the word! You really should be more careful. Authors can do this to you and you’re relatively helpless to prevent them).

So, in order to accurately communicate meaning, where is the place within which an author should be interacting? It’s in the audience’s mind, isn’t it? Well, then, let me rephrase that question: in order to accurately communicate meaning, where is the place within which a Bible translator should be interacting?

The reader’s mind provides the canvas and the colors with which the author can paint his or her painting. In the case of the Bible, the Author uses the reader’s canvas and colors to paint a self-portrait. But, I digress to the true purpose of Bible translation.

If the meanings an author has to use are in the mind of the reader, then shouldn’t the author use the naturally occurring lexis and grammar that is within the mind of that reader?

I think so. And I think that makes a much Better Bible. It makes it effective because it communicates to that reader in ways that persuade, that grab, that speak authoritatively. It gets the reader to think the way the reader needs to think. That’s the beauty of good, high quality English in Bible translations.

So, back to the original question. For Matthew 26:36, should we select Gethsamane or Oilpress?

The originally intended meaning has little if anything to do with pressing oil. So, Gethsamane seems quite adequate. However, when you put the word into an expression such as, “to a place called…” the possibilities open up a bit. The fact that the expression has the word “place” gives “oil press” a placeness it would not normally have. Additionally, capitalizing and concatenating the expression “oil press” into one word further turns it into a place name.

So, why not, ”then Jesus went with them to a place called Oilpress”? It seems to me that is quite accurate. And, it communicates well.

But, perhaps the answer to the “why not” is because the modern English audience expects Gethsamane. It’s just as accurate. And the sentence is good English. It’s really just the name of a place, isn’t it?

And, isn’t that what your mind was thinking it meant?

18 thoughts on “The Garden of Oilpress

  1. Peter Kirk says:

    Mike, I appreciate this discussion, but I think in this case the answer is clear. The Greek text contains a transliterated foreign, Hebrew or Aramaic word. If the Greek author did not see fit to translate it into Greek, then I don’t see any good argument for translating it into English.

    The position is of course different in 27:33, where the Greek text offers a translation as well as a transliteration, and translations should, and do, also offer both.

    The more difficult cases are when the name is meaningful in the language of the surrounding text, i.e. Greek names in the New Testament and Hebrew names in the Old.

  2. Mike Sangrey says:

    Yes, of course. However, I don’t think that really changes anything. I’d rather this discussion not devolve into a highly complex one dealing with “how well did the people speak Aramaic or Hebrew?” coupled with “who was the actual audience of Matthew (and Mark)?” We’re not going to resolve that mess. Nor do we need to in the Gethsamane case.

    It should be clear from the last few paragraphs that I think the people HEARD a place name. But, the particular choice for Gethsamane isn’t really the point. I could have used many other illustrations and made the posting more complex. I chose Gethsamane to keep it simple. For example, translating the names of the people in Matthew 1:12-15 is quite revealing. The place names in Micah 1:8-16 are another good example.

    The point of the posting is that the location of meaning (the mind of the recipient) directly implies the requirement for good quality English that will therefore communicate well. The question of translating versus transliterating focuses that discussion.

  3. J. K. Gayle says:

    Hilarious story and wonderfully thought-provoking post! I agree with Peter about the transliteration (the Greek writer-translator recognizing, likely, that readers would more recognize this name by Hebrew/Aramaic sound than by a translation). We hear pastors today calling Philadelphia the “City of Brotherly Love” but the sounds /fIl^delfi^/ and the spelling above are more meaningful.

    When we come to “paradise,” things get a little dicier for the Greek reader. No doubt the LXX translators of Genesis took the phrase τῷ παραδείσῳ (in 2:15) from Xenophon, who used it to mean an animal and plant park (in Anabases, Cyropaedia, and Economics). By the time Luke (23:43), John (in Revelation 2:7), and Paul (to Corinthians, 12:4) write the word, it’s taken on the meaning of a place above Eden. (And Luke and John are actually using a bilingual quotation of Jesus speaking Greek-from-Aramaic). I don’t know of any English Bible translators of the LXX or the NT who use “park.” And yet the English translators of Xenophon do (with some exceptions–the unusual translator calls it “paradise,” usually in “Economics,” in bilingual quotation of Socrates speaking English-from-Greek).

    Given your “Intercourse” to “Paradise” conversation, there’s something else funny. Here is Xenophon’s narrator speaking of Cyrus:

    “So he became more quiet, to be sure, but in social intercourse ἐν δὲ ταῖς συνουσίαις altogether charming. The boys liked him; for in all the contests in which those of the same age are wont often to engage with one another he did not challenge his mates to those in which he knew he was superior, but he proposed precisely those exercises in which he knew he was not their equal, saying that he would do better than they; and he would at once take the lead, jumping up upon the horses to contend on horseback either in archery or in throwing the spear, although he was not yet a good rider, and when he was beaten he laughed at himself most heartily. And as he did not shirk being beaten and take refuge in refusing to do that in which he was beaten, but persevered in attempting to do better next time, he speedily became the equal of his fellows in horsemanship and soon on account of his love for the sport he surpassed them; and before long he had exhausted the supply of animals in the park ἐν τῷ παραδείσῳ /paradeiso/ by hunting and shooting and killing them, so that Astyages was no longer able to collect animals for him.” Cyropaedia 1.4.4-5

  4. David Ker says:

    Interesting that Matthew, Mark and John explain that Golgotha is Aramaic for Place of the Skull. They wanted to bring attention to the meaning. Is there any literary allusion here to olives being pressed as a symbol of suffering? (Nothing comes to mind for me).

    The real reason you wrote this post is so you could share that racy story! In southern Zimbabwe there is a Bubi River and a lot of pictures are taken next to that sign as well.

    I may be missing the point here but this makes me think about loaded key terms that mean a lot to theologians and seminary students but not to the average bloke. So translators can be reluctant to use an explanatory phrase (atoning sacrifice for propitiation, etc.) because their personal mental schema is very richly tied to many cross references, theological commentaries, etc.

  5. sinaiticus says:

    David said, “Is there any literary allusion here to olives being pressed as a symbol of suffering?”

    When I went on a study tour of Israel, our leader explained to us that when ripe black olives are pressed in an oil press, it looks like drops of blood squirting out. Pair this agricultural observation with a disputed passage from Luke 22:44: “In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground” (NRSV).

    Is there a deeper meaning here, or was 22:44 added because of the oil press/Gethsemane allusion?

  6. Iris says:

    In the Old Testament study of the Tabernacle, the oil produced from “bruised” (some translations say “pressed”) olives used for the oil in the lampstand, are symbolic of the suffering of the Christ. So, as a Bible teacher this bit of information about the meaning of Gethsemane is very meaningful indeed. Thank you.

  7. Wandering Friar says:

    Perfect example of what you suggest is “baptizo”.
    Dip? Pour? Immerse? Wash?

    Which one do we use, considering all the theological baggage hanging on it?
    Even the Latin Vulgate transliterated.


  8. J. K. Gayle says:

    Perfect example of what you suggest is “baptizo”.
    Dip? Pour? Immerse? Wash?

    There are others too, with baggage:

    “Adam” Ruddy? Dusty?
    “Eve” Life?
    “Isaac” Laughter?
    “Jezebel” Unchaste?
    “Moses” Delivered? Pulled?
    “Rahab” Ample? Spacious? Wide?
    “Christ” Anointed?
    “Jesus” Joshua?
    “Talitha” Girl? Damsel?
    “Dorcas / Tabitha” Gazelle?
    “Mary” Mariam?
    “Judas” Judah? Jude?
    “Timothy” God-Respecter?
    “Lois” Agreeable?
    “Onesimus” Profitable? Useful?
    “Philemon” Affectionate? Loving?
    “Andrew” Manly?
    “Philip” Horseman? Horse-Lover?
    “Peter” Rock?
    “Prisca/ Priscilla” Ancient?
    “Barabbas” Son-of-Father? Daddy’s Boy?
    “Bible” book?
    “demon” deity? god?
    “angel” messenger? emissary?
    “parable” story? fable?
    “barbarian” stuttering foreigner? a non-Greek?

  9. David Ker says:

    Thanks to both Sinaiticus and Iris for your insights.

    “In the Old Testament study of the Tabernacle” What are you referring to? In my quick survey of references to pressing olives seemed to be metaphorically neutral. Wine press is another thing…

  10. Dru says:

    Two others, Bethlehem – house of bread, and Peter – rock. The Peter one still works in most Latin languages. Pierre, for example , still means ‘stone’ in French. But English has always spoken of St Peter, and not changed this to St Rock. Nor does Peter Kirk post as Rock Kirk, or standardise/southernise his surname to Peter Church.

    So I’d stay, stick with the names as they are normally used but if the name has a meaning, put in a footnote.

    I’m grateful to this post. I hadn’t realised before that Gethsemane meant ‘oilpress’. I feel a sermon coming on!

  11. Amado Vento says:

    I worry that too many new translations contribute to a widening “generation gap” which discourages Bible interaction between youth and elders. One generation quotes/recites the king’s English and fails to connect with the youth who cringe at every “thee” and “thou”. What’s wrong with challenging our young people to familiarize themselves with older time-honored versions? Don’t we do as much when we give them Shakespeare as a reading assignment? I suppose the converse could be argued, but my question would then be, which came first? Which has been around longer? Which version do we find quoted in great literary works? What happens when our youth encounter the king’s English while reading the classics?

  12. Dru says:

    That’s a great idea, and works. I have to admit though that if you’d chosen Rock Kirk, it would sound more like a bass guitarist or a biker for Jesus.

  13. Mike Sangrey says:

    Davis asked:
    So the meaning is not in the author but in the mind of the recipient?

    It’s more complicated than that. It’s called commune – ication for a reason. So, it’s a meeting of the minds around a commonly accepted, but imperfectly understood grammar and lexicon.

    The text is a highly cohesive, woven fabric of symbol-triggers which–to the best of the author’s ability–adhere to the grammar and lexicon of the perceived audience. This cohesive fabric of triggers is constructed by the author with the intent of impacting the mind of the reader.[1]

    So, no, there is meaning in the author. There’s also meaning in the reader. And the text, as it adheres to a tacitly agreed upon grammar and lexicon, performs the marriage. This marriage is somewhat authoritatively guided by the author. I use the word ‘somewhat’ to refer to the fact that the recipient can reject or accept the recipient’s understanding of the author’s intention.[2] It’s authoritative in the sense that the author intends his meaning to impact the reader.

    There’s a communication theory called Coding Theory which assumes the meaning is somehow in the text (or even simply in the words of the text). I don’t think that is an accurate enough theory of how communication works (at least, between people).

    A better theory explains how a specific statement can be understood to mean two completely opposite things (ie. irony), depending on context. An example is “yeah, right” which is two positives that mean a strengthened negative. is “I like rain.” It should also be able to explain how a person can construct a text that when taken propositionally and at face value means one thing. However, the intent is obviously something else (ie. hints). For example, “It’s a bit chilly sitting by this window” is actually a question and means “Would you please close the window?” (notice the word please that renders the indirection of the original statement!)

    Good question!

    [1] For what it’s worth: I believe the Bible is an incarnational rendering of God’s mind (at least to the extent he intended). That is, he has spoken his meaning in human language. He is the ultimate translator.

    [2] To the extent the text adheres to the lexicon and grammar of the recipient is the extent the recipient will perceive the intention of the author. Obviously, a translated text brings added complexity to this whole process. Also, your understanding of how much God influenced the original text plays into the dynamics of this, too. For me, I believe the Biblical text is designed such that it can be communicated over time and diverse people groups through the process of translation.

  14. Peter Kirk says:

    Hmm! “Rock Kirk”? I like the sound of that. Not quite my current image, but perhaps it’s time for a makeover, to get some leathers and tattoos!

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