tribulation, thlipsis

Some people talk a great show about facing tribulation. They declare themselves willing to face the greatest hardship. They give condescending advice on resilience to others who are facing hardships. And when any little cross-breeze ruffles the feathers on their hats, they proclaim loudly that they are being persecuted – often using it as a pretext for inflicting true tribulations on those who are not of their tribe. And yet when there is any true pressure – any existential threat that they need to endure or do something about, any cause for the greater good for which they must make moderate sacrifice, any of the true pressure that they so loudly proclaim creates diamonds – they… cannot handle pressure.

Does it seem reasonable to equate tribulation with pressure? As though the kind of deadline stress or financial disruption we all face from time to time is of the same kind (if not degree) as the great sufferings of the ages? Well, hey, don’t blame me if you think it is. I’m not the one who used the word tribulation to translate the word θλῖψις, nor have I been an avid participant in the modern development of the sense of tribulation.

We know, of course, that tribulation is a word with a Biblical tone. People don’t use it all that much in reference to great hardships in modern times, let alone to the travails of daily life. In the Authorized (King James) translation of the Bible, it is used mainly in reference to persecutions and physical hardships that will be faced in latter days or end times – here, have a look at the results of a concordance search for tribulation and tribulations.

We also know, or we damn well ought to, that the King James Version is a translation produced 400 years ago by people who (a) were writing in the language of their own time and not ours, (b) were aiming to make it lofty and poetic, not overly vernacular, and (c) knew little about the cultural realities and understandings of the time and place the text originated. The King James Bible matches our ideas of “classic,” “elegant,” “elevated” English not because it is intrinsically so but because it is what those ideas were based on in the first place. So when we see a word like tribulation, which we rarely see outside of a context with some reference to the Bible – and which is in that version of the Bible because the translators thought it fitting – we assume that it is a great word for great things, not merely a historic word but an historic word. But what we should do is look and see what the translators saw.

And the translators, when translating the text of the New Testament, saw a Greek word, because all their primary sources were Greek – because Greek was the lingua franca of that place and time, and while the people in the gospels may have originally been speaking Aramaic, the surviving texts are in Koine Greek. And they also saw a Latin word, because along with the Greek original they also had a Latin translation to refer to – the one universally authorized and accepted Latin translation, made mainly in the late AD 300s.

So what was the Greek word they saw? It was, as I mentioned above, θλῖψις (thlipsis). It literally means ‘pressure’; it is also used figuratively to mean ‘oppression’ or ‘affliction’ – really rather like what we use pressure to mean, though there does seem to be an upper limit on how bad things we call pressure can be, since we have other words we can also draw on. This word thlipsis has also made it into English, though it’s not much used, no doubt in part because it’s so weird-looking to us. It has been used in the past in a medical sense, notably for external compression of veins; it is still used occasionally in a figurative sense by Biblical scholars in place of tribulation, because some Biblical scholars really love them some Greek-derived lexical oddities.

And what was the Latin word that translated the Greek word? Why, tribulatio, of course. The sense of tribulatio was ‘affliction, trouble, distress’; it came from a literal sense of tribulare meaning ‘press’ or ‘thresh grain’, likely by way of tribulum, which was a wooden block with sharp teeth used for threshing grain – no word on whether that was also used for torture, as was the trepalium, an unpleasant cross-like device the name of which has descended to us as both travail and travel. But speaking of fun with etymology, tribulare came from a root for ‘rub’ that has descended to us in such diverse words as triturate, trite, and tribe.

This word tribulation had been in English for a couple of centuries at the time King James commissioned the translation; it came by way of French and the church. Chaucer used it in Troilus and Criseyde: “Myn herte is now in tribulacion.” But it has always been a classic polysyllabic word with lofty and momentous tones. Meanwhile, the Greek source pressed a much more everyday word into service.

And that seems reasonable enough. The daily grind rubs us down; we all have our pressures, some greater than others, and some eras are times of greater pressure for everyone. Those who talk a great show about how much tribulation they are putting up with – and are willing to put up with – are not necessarily dealing with any more or less than others who are too busy surviving to expend syllables at leisure. We are already, and always have been, in times of tribulation. Ay, there’s the rub! So what do we do? Give ourselves one more chance, perhaps, and give love…

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