Category Archives: translation issues

“Cistern” or “Well”? Getting John 4:11 Right

Translation of the Greek New Testament into contemporary English is always an unfinished business. Preparing a homily on John 4, “The Samaritan Woman at the Well,” I was confronted, once again, with the NAB rendering of phrear in verses 11-12 as “cistern” Given the context as well as the lexical meaning of phrear, I find this a misleading translation. The water source has already been called a pege (translated “well”) twice in the narrative (v. 6), where it clearly means a spring-fed source. And when the Samaritan woman asks Jesus how he is going to draw his offered gift of “living  water,” since “the phrear is deep,” she has obviously heard Jesus’ “living water” in the conventional sense of spring-fed water–an unfounded inference if the phrear were indeed a cistern (i.e. a catchment for rain water, which would be stagnant, not “living”). If the author of the Fourth Gospel had intended to say the equivalent of “cistern,” there is a Greek word for that–lakkos. Absent from the NT, lakkos appears in the Septuagint at least 60  times. A particularly pertinent instance is LXX Jer 2:13–“For my people has committed two faults, and evil ones; they have forsaken me, the fountain of water of life [pegen hydatos zoes], and hewn out for themselves broken cisterns [lakkous], which will not be able to hold water.”

It seems to me that phrear in John 4:11-12 should be rendered “well”–joining a long tradition including the KJV, the Douay-Rheims, the NIV and the NRSV. To suddenly call the well a “cistern” in verses 11-12 is a distraction from the very point the text is making. It removes the foundation for her misunderstanding of Jesus’ surprising new meaning for “living water” (Holy Spirit, as made clear in 7:38-39).

I find encouraging support in the Septuagint’s rendering of the narrative about Abraham’s servant’s recruitment of Rebekah as a wife for Isaac in LXX Gen 24. Here the text refers to the same water source sometimes as pege and sometimes as phrear. The synonymous pairing of these two words for the same well in a famous Old Testament story about an encounter at a well may well have inspired the author of the Fourth Gospel to do the same.

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Filed under Dennis Hamm SJ, Gospel of John, translation issues, Uncategorized