blood guilt

The concept of “blood guilt” that is referred to in Matt 27:24-25 and Acts 5:28 is translated in Gbaya and other languages of Central Africa with familiar terms that denote concepts relating to Hebrew thought in a way that English, for instance, does not have.

Philip Noss reports (in The Bible Translator 119, p. 139ff.):

“In the Musey language of western Chad it is called tògòrò, in Sara-Madjingai of southeastern Chad it is known as mōsēyō, in Gbaya as spoken in central Cameroon and in the Central African Republic it is called simbò. (…). Strangely, perhaps, standard English does not have an equivalent word, at least not in contemporary speech. The closest functional equivalent may be the English reference to ‘the stain of blood’ or the expression ‘to have blood on one’s hands.’ These various words and expressions all express the result of shedding blood.

“A person who is guilty of shedding blood becomes the victim of his/her deed. The consequence of the act of killing will inevitably fall upon the killer and potentially upon anyone who comes in contact with the killer, unless the killer is purified.

“In Gbaya a simbò thing is anything that causes someone to become a simbò person, including killing certain animals (incl. leopards, elands and bongos) and humans. (…) The spilling of human blood brought the curse of simbò upon the person who was responsible for the death of a fellow human being. From this curse there was no escape for the guilty person and his family and his village without purification by another person who himself had been purified from simbò.

“For the translator of the Bible the question that must be asked is whether the concept associated with the spilling of blood by these central African cultures is similar to the concepts reflected in the Old and New Testaments or whether it is too culture-specific to be applied within the context of Hebrew and Jewish religious thought and expression.

“When Pilate washes his hands before the people and says, ‘I am not responsible for this man’s death.’ and the mob responds. ‘Let the punishment for his death fall on us and on our children’ (Matt 27:24-25, Good News Bible), the Gbaya understand this to refer to simbò. Pilate attempts to cleanse himself from the consequence of his responsibility in the death of Jesus while the people call for that very consequence to fall upon themselves. In the Gbaya understanding of the shedding of blood, no amount of self-cleansing can remove the curse of spilled blood which will surely fall upon Pilate and the people and their descendants.

“In Acts 5:28 the Jews express an implied fear of simbò when the High Priest says to the apostles, “you want to make us responsible for this man’s death” (Good News Bible). The New International Version of the Bible renders this statement, ‘you are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.’ The Gbaya would say, ‘you want this man’s simbò to take us.’

“The Greek text of these verses reflects the Hebrew underlying thought, for in each of the three sentences quoted, explicit reference is made to blood. (…)

“Although there does not seem to be a specific word that expresses the concept of simbò in Hebrew, in Greek we do come very close to an explicit expression of the result of the shedding of blood. The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible cites the Greek word miasma which it defines as the ‘slain, pollution” of homicide, “an automatic, objective state” for which purification was required. The early Greek verb miainō meant “to stain, to dye.’ A specialized meaning of this verb resulted from its use with blood where it came to mean ‘to defile, to sully.’ The stain or defilement was known as miasma, the person who was defiled was miaros. For the Gbaya this was simbò. for the Sar speaker it was möseyö which is literally, ‘the blood of death,’ that is, ‘the stain/defilement of the spilling of human blood.’ (…)

“In conclusion, the components that are central to the Old Testament concept of dam/damim and the New Testament miasma are widely recognized in the cultures of central Africa. The implications of this fact need to be considered by translator and theologian alike.”