thief

The Greek that is translated as “thief” in English in Matthew 24:43 was translated as “raider” in the translation into Samo, a language in Papua New-Guinea of a people who traditionally conducted raids on other communities and were in turn raided by other groups. Daniel Shaw (in Cannibals, Kiaps, and Magistrates: Three Eras Impacting Samo Spatiality, Interpersonal Relationships, and Bible Translation) explains:

“When translating for the Samo, we came to the parable of the wise householder: ‘But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. Therefore, you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect’ (Matthew 24:43f.). Interestingly, Samo is a language with no word for ‘thief.’ In asking about this, I learned that an assumption within a household is common ownership — everyone shares. As individuals move beyond the household, their allies, and friends — and ultimately those across a river in enemy territory — represent increasingly less trust as well as ownership. Taking something from an enemy is not regarded as stealing, but rather simply as trading or raiding. Whatever they take (including bodies) is regarded as theirs. Such a rationale for behavior, then, is predicated on the degree of trust, so within a household everything is held in common and there is no such thing as stealing. Taking the ‘spoils’ of an enemy raid is not stealing, but rather the reciprocal result of procuring that which has been hard won. As a translator, I was faced with the task of communicating God’s intent in this passage from Matthew and moving beyond Jesus’ specific use of the term ‘thief’ in order to ensure Samo understanding. I asked, ‘What in the Samo cognitive environment accounts for the element of surprise and requires vigil?’ Clearly the schema surrounding raiding fills this semantic domain. The ayo, ‘old man of the house’ instructs the young, unmarried men who sleep on the open porch to take turns keeping watch against the surprise of a raid. With a longhouse positioned at the top of a sloping ridge, which intruders would need to traverse, the household warriors were able to sound an alarm while raining arrows down on their assailants and thus warding off a raid. Jesus makes his intent clear, ‘always be ready!’ As the householder always posts a guard because he never knows when a raiding party may attack, so the Samo also must carefully watch for Jesus’ unexpected return. This moves the translation into a dramatic cognitive sphere that conveys the intent of the passage with which every Samo householder resonates and every warrior bristles with anticipation. They receive this message with understanding and there is no need for an explanation regarding what a thief does, how that happens and who is involved. The Samo would not understand such an inappropriate focus on something beyond their experience. However, placed in the context of raiding, they immediately understood and were able to appropriate the intent of Jesus’ words to their understanding of the raiding experience and apply the message to appropriate action, an attitude of careful anticipation for that which is unexpected — never be caught unaware.”

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