A few days ago we had this reading from Jeremias 17:
Thus says the LORD: Cursed is the man who trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in flesh, whose heart turns away from the LORD. He is like a barren bush in the desert that enjoys no change of season, But stands in a lava waste, a salt and empty earth. Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose hope is the LORD. He is like a tree planted beside the waters that stretches out its roots to the stream: It fears not the heat when it comes, its leaves stay green; In the year of drought it shows no distress, but still bears fruit. More tortuous than all else is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it? I, the LORD, alone probe the mind and test the heart, To reward everyone according to his ways, according to the merit of his deeds.
I sat up at the bolded verse, because it was familiar, except for one troubling detail. The word given in here as “tortuous” is rendered in the Douay as “deceitful”; I have also heard “wicked” and “perverse.” It was always a negative term; “tortuous” is more observational, innocuous, innocent. Usually I would shrug at an apparent example of the sort of “dumbing down” which troubles the depths of my literary and (I hope) spiritual soul. But in this case, for whatever reason, my curiosity was aroused; and I went on a long hunt to solve the mystery, even going to the length of conscripting my husband as a sounding board and linguistic/internet consultant. Spoiler alert: tortuous isn’t such a terrible translation after all.
First, I went to the Latin: “Pravum est cor omnium, et inscrutabile: quis cognoscet illud?” “Pravus” is connected to our “depraved”; according to Lewis & Short it means “crooked, distorted, misshapen, deformed.” So far, so sour.
I went next to the Greek: “βαθεῖα ἡ καρδία παρά πάντα, καὶ ἄνθρωπός ἐστι· καὶ τίς γνώσεται αὐτόν.” The word we’re looking for is βαθεῖα/batheia, related to our words “bathos” and “bathetic” (thank you, Alexander Pope; and thank you, Dr. Wheatley, for making us read that work). Bathetic literature (to put it crudely) tries to be awesome but totally flops.
In common speech we now use the word “pathetic” to refer to
much of what Pope called “bathetic”; if he used the word “pathetic,”
he would have probably intended to express actual sympathy
for something truly sad or sorrowful—
compare Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Pathétique.
Note, by the way, how far very little Greek gets me. I located
the relevant clause using only (1) the ability to transliterate and
(2) knowledge of Greek roots used in English words.
For the former, I have to thank a Politics class for which
I bought Aristotle’s work in the Loeb edition, which has
facing pages; for the former, I have my mother to thank,
who made sure that my siblings and I studied Greek
and Latin roots not once but twice between kindergarten and college.
This, by the by, is also one reason why, when Ben Jonson
says that Shakespeare had “little Latin and less Greek,”
I wouldn’t take it as meaning that Shakespeare was uneducated or
incapable of working his way around texts that came by his desk.
Basic skills and a wee bit of detective instinct can achieve βαθεῖα stuff.
βαθεῖα was where I started to become truly interested. The Vulgate has two words, “pravum” and “inscrutabile” where the Greek has only one: “batheia.” I will go out on a limb and guess that this is one of those cases where St. Jerome exercised editorial license. For some reason, he felt he needed two Latin words to convey one Greek word. That suggests that “batheia” is somewhat more complex than my meager knowledge of Greek roots would imply.
You can look up the full entry for “bathys/batheia” here (thank you, Perseus/Tufts!); but I’ll summarize my findings for convenience. The first meaning is “deep or high, acc. to one’s position”—it is thus akin to the Latin “altus”: both words convey a sense of distance from the viewer, without the context specifying whether that distance, up, down, or sideways.
The second meaning is “deep or thick in substance,” for example, a “deep” mist, “deep” ploughed land, “deep” woods; within this meaning, it can by analogy be applied to colors.
The third meaning is “of quality, strong, violent”; by extension, it can mean “generally, copious, abundant,” for example, the English phrases “a rich man,” “a heavy debt,” and “deep sleep” could all be rendered in Greek using the single adjective βαθύς.
The fourth meaning is specific to the mind; here βαθύς can refer to “the depths of the soul,” “a profound mind,” “more sedate natures,” “more recondite, i.e. civilized, manners,” and persons who are deep, crafty, or wise. (There is a final, fifth meaning: with reference to time, βαθύς can mean dim or late.)
This is the word the Vulgate renders as “pravum et inscrutabile,” that is, “crooked-distorted-misshapen-deformed” and “inscrutable.”
Crawling further out on my limb, I’ll once again guess the mind of the Vulgate translator (assuming he was working from the Greek, and not a Hebrew or Aramaic text). The ambiguity of βαθύς is perhaps why he chose to use two words to express it in Latin. In so doing, however, he concretized the meaning, making it seem obvious to the reader that the human heart is definitively both “pravum” and “inscrutabile.” Based on the various senses of βαθύς, it is possible that the human heart is neither. The context will tell more about its meaning than the particular Latin word choice.
And the larger context of the passage is undeniably condemnatory (we are, after all, in the book of Jeremias, from whose name comes jeremiad), which is perhaps one reason why the Vulgate translator gave us “pravum.” Chapter seventeen begins (Douay):
 The sin of Juda is written with a pen of iron, with the point of a diamond, it is graven upon the table of their heart, upon the horns of their altars.  When their children shall remember their altars, and their groves, and their green trees upon the high mountains,  Sacrificing in the field: I will give thy strength, and all thy treasures to the spoil, and thy high places for sin in all thy borders.  And thou shalt be left stripped of thy inheritance, which I gave thee: and I will make thee serve thy enemies in a land which thou knowest not: because thou hast kindled a fire in my wrath, it shall burn for ever.  Thus saith the Lord: Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from the Lord.  For he shall be like tamaric [“A barren shrub that grows in the driest parts of the wilderness”] in the desert, and he shall not see when good shall come: but he shall dwell in dryness in the desert in a salt land, and not inhabited.
But then, before we come to the passage in question, there is a change in tone.
 Blessed be the man that trusteth in the Lord, and the Lord shall be his confidence.  And he shall be as a tree that is planted by the waters, that spreadeth out its roots towards moisture: and it shall not fear when the heat cometh. And the leaf thereof shall be green, and in the time of drought it shall not be solicitous, neither shall it cease at any time to bring forth fruit.  The heart is perverse above all things, and unsearchable [i.e., pravum … et inscrutabile, i.e., βαθεῖα], who can know it?  I am the Lord who search the heart and prove the reins: who give to every one according to his way, and according to the fruit of his devices.
If anything, the immediate context of βαθεῖα suggests that it should be rendered in one of the more positive meanings available—at least a neutral one—remember, wise, profound, sedate, recondite, civilized, and deep are all available; the only remotely negative mental sense at hand is crafty, which comes nowhere near the Latin pravum. Credit where it is due—there may have been shadings to the word that a learned translator of a couple millennia ago knew which are not available to a half-baked scholar with the internet at her fingertips. Still, I’m going to crawl further out on my limb and give grudging praise to the USCCB’s translation choices by admitting that tortuous is probably a better rendering of the word in question than perverse, wicked, etc., etc.
So then, this. The passage changes from a meditation on mere human wickedness to something more interesting. The meditation on human wickedness is certainly there—some people, Jeremias suggests, are wicked: they trust in their own strength, their hearts depart from God; like the barren tamaric bush they “do not see when good shall come: but … dwell in dryness in the desert in a salt land, and not inhabited.” Could there be a more apt or terrifying description of the lonely individualist, who lacks the water of life, of grace, because he does not know how to recognize that it might come from anywhere but the depths of his soul? Yes, a person like that could survive without such water for a long time, just as the tamaric does in the desert—but what a life!
Then, Jeremias suggests, there is another sort of man, who “trusteth in the Lord, and the Lord shall be his confidence.” This man is like a tree that actually does look for water (if you will): it “spreadeth out its roots towards moisture”; its leaves are green; “and in the time of drought it shall not be solicitous” (is there a hint, here, of “Be not solicitous for the morrow”?). Again, could there be a better description of the soul that knows it is thirsty, not for anything human, not even for its self, but for God? or a better description of how such a soul luxuriates in God when its roots (what a metaphor!) first touch, and then flow to their fill with what comes from God?
Enough of the fancy-schmancy rhetorical questions. This is cool, neato, groovy … It’s one of those rare passages of spiritual writing that makes me actually, viscerally, want to be a saint.
So, having wound us all up like this, Jeremias goes on with the kicker verse.
βαθεῖα ἡ καρδία παρά πάντα, καὶ ἄνθρωπός ἐστι· καὶ τίς γνώσεται αὐτόν.
[Batheia e kardia para panta, kai anthropos esti, kai tis enousetai auton.]
[lit.:] Deep is the heart above all things, and is the man, and who can know him.
If we had hoped we were in the tree category, not with the tamaric, this verse is still a rude awakening. Essentially, Jeremias seems to say: “Look, there are these two types of people: the tamarics and the trees, the bad and the good, those who fail to look for God and those who seek God out. And you don’t know which one you are. You can’t know which one you are. You, your guts, your real self—‘the heart, the man’—is so deep and complex that no human being can really know which way a heart really tends.” (Inscrutabile, by the way, in contrast to pravum, is looking like a pretty good descriptor.)
No human being can know which way the heart tends. But “I am the Lord who search the heart and prove the reins …
[P]robans renes, “test/try/probe the kidneys” (cf. “renal disease”)—
an inner organ stands for the guts or viscera in general—and yes,
there could probably be another whole blog post on this word choice.
“I am the Lord who search the heart and prove the reins, who give to every one according to his way, and according to the fruit of his devices.”
I think I’m going to go chew on this for a while.
That’s all folks.