Thursday, February 19, 2009


Ear Wax

James 1.19b-21 (tr. Ralph P. Martin):
19b Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to get angry, 20 for human anger does not promote divine righteousness. 21 Therefore, get rid of all [moral] filth and every trace of evil, and humbly receive the word that is implanted by which you may be saved.

19 ἔστω δὲ πᾶς ἄνθρωπος ταχὺς εἰς τὸ ἀκοῦσαι, βραδὺς εἰς τὸ λαλῆσαι, βραδὺς εἰς ὀργήν· 20 ὀργὴ γὰρ ἀνδρὸς δικαιοσύνην θεοῦ οὐκ ἐργάζεται. 21 διὸ ἀποθέμενοι πᾶσαν ῥυπαρίαν καὶ περισσείαν κακίας ἐν πραΰτητι δέξασθε τὸν ἔμφυτον λόγον τὸν δυνάμενον σῶσαι τὰς ψυχὰς ὑμῶν.
Martin in his commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1988 = Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 48) on James 1.21 (p. 48), writes:
James' concern is with a renunciation of all moral evil, expressed by πᾶσαν ῥυπαρίαν, which could refer to soiled and dirty garments (2:2) or could be construed in a specialized sense attested in Artimedorus (second century A.D., BGD, 738) as a medical term (ῥύπος) for earwax that must be washed away to give good hearing. The second sense fits the context nicely.
John P. Keenan, The Wisdom of James: Parallels with Mahāyāna Buddhism (Newman Press, 2005), p. 147, follows Martin, even in the incorrect spelling Artimedorus (should be Artemidorus).

Here is the cited passage (Artemidorus, Interpretation of Dreams 1.24, tr. Robert J. White):
To clean ears that are filled with dirt or pus signifies that one will receive good news from somewhere, whereas to be cuffed on the ears signifies bad news from somewhere.

ὦτα καθαίρειν μεστὰ ῥύπου ἢ ἰχῶρος ἀγγελίας σημαίνει ἀκούσεσθαί ποθεν ἀγαθάς, μαστιγοῦσθαι δὲ τὰ ὦτα κακὰς ἀγγελίας ἀκούσεσθαί ποθεν σημαίνει.
What White translates as "ears filled with dirt" could be translated "ears filled with wax."

"BGD, 738" in Martin's commentary is a reference to Bauer-Gingrich-Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 738, where the first definition of ῥύπος is "lit., of a greasy-viscous juice (e.g. ear-wax, Artem. 1, 24; PGM 36, 332)."

Liddell-Scott-Jones (LSJ), s.v. ῥύπος, cite two of BGD's passages and add a third: "ὁ ἐν τοῖς ὠσὶ ῥ. Arist. Pr.960b18, cf. Artem.1.24, PMag.Osl.1.332." The passage from pseudo-Aristotle, Problemata, means "the filth in the ears," i.e. ear wax.

John B. Mayor, in his commentary on James, 2nd ed. (1897; rpt. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978), p. 64, writes:
Strictly speaking, the word ῥύπος is used of the wax of the ear, as Hippocrates and Clem. Al. Paed. ii p. 222 P. quoted by Heisen, who suggests that there may be an allusion to the purged ear, aurium removendae sordes sunt quae audiendi celeritatem impedire queunt; but it cannot be assumed without evidence that the derivative retained the force of the original word.
Heisen is Heinrich Heisen, Novae hypotheses interpretandae felicius epistolae Jacobi (Bremen, 1739), which is unavailable to me. The sentence quoted by Mayor means, "The ears' filth, which can hinder the swiftness to hear, must be removed."

I have only a few things to add.

First, see Hippocrates, Epidemics 6.5.1 (Loeb Hippocrates, vol. VII, pp. 254-255), where the phrase ὠτὸς ῥύπος appears with the meaning ear wax. There are supposedly other examples in Josef-Hans Kühn and Ulrich Fleischer, Index Hippocraticus, but that work is unavailable to me.

Second, see LSJ s.v. ῥυπάω (a cognate word): "II. Pass., to be filled with wax, of the ear, prob. in S.Fr. 858." The fragment of Sophocles is illuminating (tr. Hugh Lloyd-Jones):
The impact of the words comes slowly, and has difficulty in getting through an ear that is blocked; a man who can see from far off is altogether blind close up.

βραδεῖα μὲν γὰρ ἐν λόγοισι προσβολὴ
μόλις δι᾽ ὠτὸς ἔρχεται ῥυπωμένου·
πόρρω δὲ λεύσσων, ἐγγύθεν δὲ πᾶς τυφλός
Here ῥυπωμένου (blocked by wax) is Meineke's conjecture for τρυπημένου (pierced).

Third, there is another ancient Greek word for ear wax — κυψέλη (also κυψελίς), which originally meant "any hollow vessel, chest, box," then the "hollow of the ear," and finally "that which fills the hollow of the ear," or "ear wax." One of the quotations in LSJ s.v. κυψέλη is "κυψέλην ..ἔχεις ..ἐν τοῖς ὠσίν, prov. of stupid men, Com.Adesp.620," i.e. "you have wax in your ears," further confirmation that, to the ancients, ear wax was a barrier to hearing and thus also to understanding.

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