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JACK SMITH

Biblical Palindromes and Other Conundrums

February 19, 1990|JACK SMITH

Not being a biblical scholar, I tend to go crashing into blasphemy and error when I write of biblical matters. I assure my Christian readers that this is not irreverence but simply ignorance.

Recently, for example, I took the Bible to task for the phrase "tinkling cymbals" (1 Corinthians 13:1). I suggested that "clanging" cymbals would have been more appropriate (a complaint that is echoed in the "International Bible Dictionary").

But many readers have written to point out that cymbals are not only the large brass plates I had in mind, but also a tiny ancient Middle Eastern instrument worn on the fingers (especially by belly dancers); they tinkle.

In his tireless missionary journeys over the world of AD 1, Paul, the Apostle, must surely have encountered belly dancers, and I have no doubt that it was their tinkling cymbals he had in mind when he wrote to the Corinthians. (However, in later translations of the Bible, the word appears as "clanging.")

More difficult to resolve are questions that arise from my observation that "we do know that Adam's and Eve's first words (and thus history's) were perfect palindromes: When Adam said, 'Madam, I'm Adam,' Eve replied, 'Eve.' "

James N. Angelo wants to know how I know that these were the first words exchanged by Adam and Eve, since they are not quoted in Genesis. That's easy. I simply take it on faith.

A thornier problem is pointed out by Christopher Purcell, who argues that palindromes cannot be qualified as "perfect." A palindrome is either a palindrome or it is not.

Furthermore, he observes, if one can qualify a palindrome, then "Madam, I'm Adam" is not perfect, since the apostrophe takes the place of the elliptical a in "Madam, I am Adam."

I agree with Purcell that a palindrome is either a palindrome or it is not, although some palindromes are certainly better than others. (The best ever was "A man, a plan, a canal--Panama"; Napoleon's "Able was I ere I saw Elba" is a close second.)

However, I do not think the presence of an apostrophe and the absence of the a keep "Madam, I'm Adam" from being a palindrome. They do mar it a teensy bit, though, which, one might argue, makes it less than perfect.

Meanwhile, Harry Cimring questions my statement that it was Eve who named the animals, and my curiosity about how she came up with "hippopotamus" and "platypus."

"With all due respect to Mark Twain," he writes, "I contend that Eve . . . named neither the hippopotamus nor the platypus, unless she spoke Greco-Roman (which I doubt very much).

" Hippo derives from Greek-Latin for horse, potamus for river ; ergo: river horse . Likewise, platypus from flat and foot . It could have been a duck or an Army reject just as well."

In paying his respects to Mark Twain, Cimring, of course, refers to Twain's translation of Adam's diary, which was my source for the fact that Eve named the animals, not Adam, as we are told in Genesis.

Let me point out that Twain is a revered American journalist and author, widely admired for his novels and iconoclastic essays. From his translation we know that he had access to Adam's diary, which can not be said, for sure, of the author of Genesis. Although Genesis may have been divinely inspired, as Christians maintain, we may assume that God, not being a journalist, would have respected the privacy of Adam's diary.

Robert M. Gorden notes: "You say, 'Eve herself, who spoke God-knows-what language' in one sentence and then, forgetful, you say in the next that Adam spoke English, namely, 'Madam, I'm Adam.' "

He adds: "I do not know what language Eve spoke; many, perhaps. Eve is Eve. Her one-word reply to Adam may have been in Latin or Greek. Who is to say?"

Exactly. And if Eve spoke Latin and Greek, that accounts for her naming the hippopotamus and the platypus.

Angelo argues that Adam more likely would have said, "Eve, I'm Adam," but if he had said, "Madam, I'm Adam," Eve's reply would have been "Even am I, man, Eve."

No way. If Adam had introduced himself with a palindrome--even an imperfect one--Eve certainly would not have responded with a longer one, knowing what egotists men are.

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