April 13, 2006

Translation v. Transliteration: Hypocrites!

A repeated issue on this blog has for some time been the difference between translation and transliteration and the way that the vast majority of Bible translations have failed to actually translate a large number of critical words, simply writing out the original Greek words instead. One such example that I've been thinking about recently is the word 'hypocrite.'

Unlike the other words I've been discussing, this one was not first introduced into English in a Bible translation, but it remains the fact (or so I am convinced) that the English word 'hypocrite' does not have the same meaning as the Greek upokrites and this at the very least kills a very good metaphor (compare my post on 'talents'), and possibly even distorts the meaning of the text.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines hypocrite as "One who falsely professes to be virtuously or religiously inclined; one who pretends to have feelings or beliefs of a higher order than his real ones; hence generally, a dissembler, pretender." Now, this isn't such a bad definition, but it's not exactly the one that I understand by hypocrite as a native speaker of English. I was always told a much simpler definition. "A hypocrite," I was told, "is a person who says one thing, and does another." Indeed, the dictionary on my computer defines hypocrisy as "the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which ones own behavior does not conform" and this is much more like the definition I am familiar with. Now, although this word was interoduced into English outside of the realm of Bible translation, it's English definition is taken directly from the Gospel of Matthew, and especially the Sermon on the Mount, and, as such, Jesus' words take on a certain emptiness in English. For instance, in Matthew 6:16, the HCSB reads "Whenever you fast, don’t be sad-faced like the hypocrites. For they make their faces unattractive so their fasting is obvious to people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward!" Now, why should Jesus say "don't be LIKE the hypocrites" in this matter? Isn't this the very definition of hypocrisy? Shouldn't he just be saying "don't be a hypocrite?" Well, no, actually, in the Greek that's not what hypocrisy is.

The Greek word upokrites means an actor in a play! Jesus is speaking here in a really powerful metaphor, which the transliteration all but totally destroys. Suppose we translate these verses like this:

"But whenever you fast, don't become like the sad-faced play-actors..." (Matt. 6:16)

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, play-actors! Because you travel around the sea and the land to make a single convert, and when he has become [converted] you make him twice as much a piece of junk* [as before]!" (Matt. 23:15)

* Lit. "son of Ge-henna," i.e. one who belongs to the Hinnom Valley, a garbage heap.

The list could continue. Perhaps the translation 'play-actors' could be made into smoother English, but I hope you get the point. Jesus' criticism in these verses doesn't have to do with the high moral standards professed but not lived up to, it has to do with general insincerity, and putting on a show. Jesus speaks in a vivid metaphor, saying that to the scribes and Pharisees "life is a stage." When we transliterate the work into English, we destroy this metaphor and, while we may get the general sense, we certainly miss the depth of what Jesus is getting at here.

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March 15, 2006

'Third Language' Idioms and the Goal of Translation

Wayne Leman is blogging on translation of Luke 1:34. He notes here that the ESV departs from strictly literal translation here and is more accurate as a result. What I find interesting in his note is that the idiom in the Greek of this verse is imported from Hebrew. Call this the use of a 'third language' idiom (Hebrew being a third language in addition to the source language - Greek - and the target language - English). In translations, should we treat third language idioms differently than source language idioms? I think that there is good reason to suppose that we should, for the same reasons I have argued previously that we should transliterate third language words, but this will depend on the details of our understanding of the purpose of translation.

Let me simply formulate my understanding of the purpose of translation, and if someone wants to dispute it I will defend it later. I take it that the purpose of translation is to reproduce as nearly as possible the total experience of native speakers of the original language for speakers of another language. Now there are many different aspects to the total experience of reading a text, and in practice a translator must often choose between them, because linguistic differences are such that reproducing one aspect more closely puts us farther away from another. The relative importance of the various aspects will depend on (a) the genre of the original work, and (b) the purpose and target audience of the translation. Now, what does this have to do with third language idioms?

The target audience of Luke is Greek and for the most part doesn't speak Hebrew. We can thus expect that to most of the target audience the use of this idiom sounded unnatural. According to LSJ this euphemism is used in three other Greek sources, one of which is Plutarch's Life of Galba, which is roughly contemporary. So it is safe to say that the idiom was well understood to Greek speakers, but was not part of their natural speech.

Can we reproduce this in English? Well, for those familiar with 'Bible English,' the literal translation "I do not know a man" does just this, but it would be unfortunate if those unfamiliar with "Bible English" didn't understand our translation. The HCSB's "I have not been intimate with a man," which one of the commentators brought up, has a similar effect on me, at least. It sounds slightly strange, and perhaps excessively modest, but is clearly understandable. The ESV's translation probably souds more natural to English speakers than the original did to Greek speakers.

Of course, because we are in the genre of history and what we are translating is a Bible which will be used for making doctrinal derivations, clarity/factual accuracy is the trump suit, and the proper feel is icing on the cake. (Please pardon my mixed metaphors - and be sure to use them to confuse your audience when writing in French so we can debate how to translate your third language idioms into German!) Treating third language idioms the same as source language idioms does not undermine the clarity/factual accuracy of a translation, but it does produce a substantially different total experience for the reader of the translation than the reader of the original, and this might be important in, for instance, translating poetry.

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December 25, 2005

Meditations on the Incarnation

It is officially Christmas in the Eastern timezone! (We'll conveniently ignore, for the moment, the fact that I am currently at my parents' house in the Pacific timezone.) This being as it is, and since I have no classes and therefore time for blogging, I thought it would be appropriate to post some thoughts on the miracle of the Incarnation.

We will all, I'm sure, be hearing the story of the birth of Christ read from Matthew's or Luke's Gospel in the near future (most likely, in fact, we'll all be hearing Luke's account of the birth of Christ and the events preceding it, and Matthew's account of the visit from the Magi). These stories are wonderful, traditional, and inspirational (and also, importantly, TRUE). However, these are, in important ways historical accounts of the coming of Christ, and as such, at least for me, they fail to impart the true magnitude of the event. They are tip-of-the-iceberg Ernest Hemingway types of accounts and it requires long hard consideration for us to even begin to understand their import. On the surface, Matthew and Mark tell a simple story of a peasant girl giving birth to her peasant son in a barn in a backwater province of the Roman Empire in the first century AD. Other children have been born in barns in backwater provinces. Sure, Matthew and Luke record various signs and portents surrounding the birth, but history claims the same for such figures as Alexander the Great. What is so special about the birth of this Jesus of Nazareth fellow?

For years, I believed that Christmas was greatly overemphasized in the church. I often stated quite explicitly that Christmas was important only insofar as it was a necessary prerequisite for Easter. I no longer believe this; I believe that this event of the Incarnation is deeply meaningful in its own right, independent of the further important events in the life of Christ. This realization could, I'm sure, have been made by a deeper reading of Matthew and Luke in the broader context of Scripture, but, for me, it came through John's account. He writes:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and that life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, but the darkness did not comprehend it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own did not receive him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word become flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-14)

As often in the Johannine literature, we have a beautiful glimpse of what is really happening behind the scenes. Matthew and Luke give us neat factual narratives of events that took place in Roman Judea 2,000 years ago, but here, here in John, is where we find the meat of the matter. The Word became flesh.

There is something very unusual about God, logically. John expresses this in his bold statement, "The logos was God." Logos, "word," in Greek is the intelligible content of speech. A proposition, if you will. A statement, a truth, a story, a message. It is the content, the meaning. The Meaning was God. And the Meaning became flesh. Huh?

The Scholastics expressed something like this when they said of God things like, "his essence includes existence." Or they sometimes explained that you and I represent the instantiations of essences, but God - God is His essence. God is something deep, something logical. He has His existence in the realm of logical truth, God exists the way 2+2=4. And yet ... personal. He is no mere abstraction. He is at once the Deep Truth of the universe and a person (or three), a living entity actually existing in the world, existing as you and I do, only infinitely more so. The logos was God.

Here is a highly exalted picture of eternal glory that is positively unimaginable! "He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him." And so the Word, the logos, the Meaning, the Rational Principle brought the world into existence, and brought the world to order. Christ was that Word God spoke in the beginning when He commanded, "let there be light!" And the Word of God is effective, it is potent, it is irresistable. And there was light. "And the Light shines in the darkness, but the darkness did not comprehend it."

The word "comprehend" here is like the English word "grasp." We speak of "grasping" a message or a truth, to mean that we understand it, but this use is figurative. Really the word means to grab hold of something, and so here. The word here also possesses a definitely hostile sense. This is expressed by the NKJV footnote which gives the alternative translation, "overcome." The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. It completely fails to grasp the situation taking place around it. It can't get a grip. It has no way to work against, to react to, this light. The darkness is baffled.

Long lay the world
In sin and error pining
'Til He appeared
And the soul felt its worth

The thrill of hope!
The weary world rejoices!
For yonder breaks
A new and glorious morn!

The word became flesh, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father. And the darkness was baffled.

In the beginning the Word was God. In Him was life and that life was the Light of men. And the Word became flesh. And the darkness was baffled.

Not only is the Eternal Word - this logical construct, this eternal truth, this deep organizing principle of the universe, the meaning of all things - not only is this Word a Person, but this Person became a Man. And we beheld His glory. Not just glanced at, but beheld, gazed upon, stared at. John writes as an old man, remembering. "We, my fellow disciples and I, we for three years were looking, gazing intently, at His glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth!" The Eternal Word became human, and moved in with us. The darkness was baffled.

I once heard a pastor giving a Christmas message refer to something Robert Lewis Stevenson said as a child. The story is that the young Stevenson saw the lamp-lighter out the window of a home in London and exlaimed, "Look! A man poking holes in the darkness!" The darkness was baffled. The glory of God came down to earth and rested upon a Man, a Man full of grace and truth, a Man who, little did we know, was the Eternal Word of God - God Himself. What could the darkness do? How to react? How much darkness does it take to extinguish the light of a single lamp? And here, not a lamp, not a hole poked in the darkness, but a tear, a rip, and suddenly, all heaven breaks loose upon the earth. "And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, goodwill toward men!'" And the darkness trembled, quivered, and gave way.

And so the Light was born into the world. "He was in the world, and the world was made through Him." Suddenly, in that instant, the Creator, the Sustainer of the world, the Eternal Word, the Meaning of it all, was here, among us, in the form of ... What? A baby? In a barn? In a backwater province of the ancient Roman Empire? The illegitimate son of a poor carpenter from Galilee?

And so the story has its meaning. And what a meaning it is! "The thrill of hope" indeed. The God who saves, here among us, humbling Himself to be the least among us, although He was before us and is eternally, completely, necessarily. And one day that baby would be the sacrifice for us, that sin might be punished to fulfill the righteous requirement of the Law. He bled and died. And so, once for all, the darkness perished.

Merry Chrismas.

Posted by kpearce at 01:34 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

December 24, 2005

Where Do Languages End and Cultural Assumptions Begin?

Better Bibles Blog has a discussion of the wording of Luke 2:40 in various Bible translations. The NKJV, the translation I normally use for devotional reading, etc., reads, "And the Child grew and became strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him."

The BBB discussion centers on the fact that "filled with wisdom" is not very natural English (neither is "strong in spirit," for that matter, but the translations being discussed are all from the Alexandrian text family, which omits "in spirit"). "The grace of God was upon him" is not very natural English either.

I agree with all of these statements, but some of the discussion in the comments has me asking a new question: where do languages end and cultural assumptions begin? Peter Kirk suggests that we get rid of the word grace, replacing it with favour (or favor, as we Americans usually spell it), because the word grace in English has come to be defined by Pauline theology, and the meaning here is not the same. There's also some discussion (in the main post, not the comments) about the CEV rendering "the grace of God was upon him" as "God blessed him." This is not necessarily wholly accurate, as Tim pointed out. Furthermore, "blessed" is still church English.

At some point, I think, we are no longer translating from one language to another; instead, we are transposing the content from one set of cultural assumptions to another. Now, I hold that this kind of transposition is good, but clearly not the job of a translator. Richard Swinburne argues, in his book Revelation, that if a speaker of another language says something that translates as "animals must breathe deforeonated air to live," and he says this because he believes that oxygen is air with the "foron" removed (when in fact there is no such things as foron), his sentence is still true, provided that there's some way we can pick out the referent of "deforeonated air" as being identical with the referent of our word "oxygen." The same will hold for the Bible - it's statements may be expressed in terms of false cultural assumptions and nevertheless be true, so long as the cultural assumptions are the means of communication, and not its content. This means that interpreters of the Bible must attempt to separate the text from its cultural assumptions. But should translators?

Now let me state that I don't think there are any false cultural assumptions in this verse. (What would those be?) What I'm saying is simply that language and cultural assumptions, and in particular standard cultural thought patterns, have enormous influence on one another (in both directions!). As a result, it may not always be possible to render a phrase in natural English while remaining accurate simply because English speakers don't think that way. One example, I think, may be this phrase "the grace of God was upon Him." We can't eliminate grace/favor from the translation of this verse, but English speakers simply don't think that way. We don't think of grace being upon someone. We might say, "and God favored him," but, as Wayne pointed out, this sounds to English speakers as though God favored him over someone else, which is not the point of the verse. I think the "natural English" way to render this phrase is simply "God was pleased with him," but this rendering is, in my opinion, shallow by comparison to the Greek (but then, it is my opinion that English, despite the enormity of its lexicon, is a shallow language compared to Greek). Even though God's favor toward Jesus is not undeserved, as the standard definition of grace would have it, there is definitely a deep meaning to the use of the word grace here. It implies that God the Father isn't merely pleased with Jesus, but is actively benefiting ("blessing") him. Evidently, Greek speakers thought of favor or grace as something one bestows upon others, approving of them and deciding to benefit them. English cannot actually render this full meaning, but only explain it, and to render only part of the meaning is inadequate.

Does Greek have an underlying cultural assumption or thought patter to do with "grace" being something substantive that rests upon a person? Or is this merely empty idiom? Is any idiom really empty, or do they come from tacit assumptions of the culture that develops them? If idioms come from tacit cultural assumptions, it is indisputable that they continue to be in use after those cultural assumptions die. Does that mean we should ignore the literal content of idioms, or might there still be some significance? Personally, I love finding cases where we are able to come up with a good idiomatic English translation that has both the same meaning and the same etymology as the original, but these cases are few and far between. In most cases, rendering idioms literally makes the translation not merely difficult to understand, but positively misleading.

The big question in the present case, however, is at what point these sorts of things cease to be merely linguistic differences and become substantive differences in content. Does a person reading a Bible translation devotionally or liturgically need to know that Greek phrases this in such a way as to imply that something substantive was given to Jesus (indeed, were Greek speakers even consciously aware of this?), or is this something needed only at deeper levels of interpretation? Clearly this phrasing in the language does lead speakers to think in this way. Is this type of thinking integral to the New Testament's mode of communication, or can we abstract away from it?

I don't necessarily have the answers, but I'm sure more extreme cases for this question could be found. These things begin to make me a little nervous at this point, because I fear that translations seeking to eliminate these kinds of underlying assumptions in order to communicate more naturally to English speakers may alter the text to an unacceptably great degree. It is very difficult to distinguish content from cultural assumptions and cultural assumptions from linguistic apparatus, and I would hate to have any actual substantive content removed from a translation due to its being mistaken for a mere linguistic difference.

One last note on this verse: I would like to see the first clause (before the participle) translated more literally; I think the progressive/repeated aspect of the two verbs and the passive voice of the second verb may be significant. This more literal rendering would be something like, "The child was growing and being strengthened." I don't know whether the original text would have left Greek speakers asking "being strengthened by whom?" as this translation would leave me asking (although in this case the answer is obvious), and I actually kind of doubt that it would, since this seems based on the limited degree of "feel" I have for the Greek language to be simply the most natural way to say what is being said, but I think the implication (whether it was on the surface or only a kind of underlying assumption for Greek speakers) that Jesus was strengthened by some agency outside himself may be important to our interpretation. Again, is this merely linguistic, is it a tacit cultural assumption, or is it part of the substantive content of the verse? I don't know, but in this case I'm pretty sure it would be better to preserve it in the translation. So, in light of that, here's my proposed (amateur, in a few minutes) translation of the whole verse: "The child was growing and being strengthened [spiritually], and gaining wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him." My Greek professor would chide me for leaving that participle as "general circumstance." I actually think that if the word pneumati is legitimate then the participle could be of means: he "was growing and being strengthened spiritually by gaining wisdom." However, if pneumati is not legitimate that wouldn't make as much sense to me. It could be temporal, since the participle is in the present, and we could give it a reading like "and all the while he was gaining wisdom," which I think sounds pretty good in English: "The child was growing and being strengthened, and all the while he was gaining in wisdom." But then maybe I just like phrases like "all the while" for the same reason I like to use whence as a relative pronoun: because too much of the stuff I read is either old or stilted or both, and besides, things like that just sound neat. At any rate, the point is that there are many factors to balance in translation, and it requires a lot of work in all cases, and is impossible in some cases, to get them all right at once.

Posted by kpearce at 02:23 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

December 06, 2005

"Talents" in Matthew 25

Peter Kirk has a post on Better Bibles Blog concerning the TNIV's decision to render the Greek word talanton as "bag of gold," instead of the traditional "talent." This is another translation vs. transliteration issue, so let's go back to the Oxford English Dictionary and look at some more etymology.

The word talent is first attested in 893, in the usage which is the proper interpretation of this verse: that is, it was transliterated (not in a Bible translation!) apparently from the Latin talentum, to mean a certain measurement of weight. Most of the cultures of the ancient eastern Mediterranean world had a measurement of weight known as the talent, and from very early times large sums of currency was measured in talents of gold or silver (as early as Homer we have discussion of a talent of gold). Unfortunately, in many cases we don't know how much a talent weighed (as in the Homeric case). Eventually, the word came to be used as a sum of money far more often than a measure of weight (as the use of "pound" in England, for instance). The usage of talent as a sum of money in the ancient world is first attested in the same work that has its first use as a weight, in 893.

Now, ordinarily, it is perfectly correct, and better than any alternatives, to use the ancient names of weights, measures, and sums of money, footnoting some equivalent. This is especially true with sums of money, since the value of our currency fluctuates so much, and so no estimate can remain correct for long. As a result it is common, for instance, to see the Greek word drachme transliterated (usually spelled "drachma" in English), with a footnote that this was one day's wages for manual labor. In classical Athens (c. 5th cent.), the drachma was worth 6 obols, and the talent was worth 6000 drachma (yes, that's over 16 years' wages - the lowest paid full-time employees in our society make around $20,000/year, so we can think of the Attic talent as nearly $330,000). That was 57.75 pounds of silver. (The above information on the Attic talent is from the Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek lexicon.)

Now, as I said, ordinarily, for a translation, rather than a paraphrase or "transculturation" (like the Cotton Patch Bible), I would support transliterating and footnoting, because we're never going to get it just right. But in this case something funny happened: the usage of this word in the Bible altered it's every day meaning. I've discussed this phenomenon before. The Bible is (or at least was) so widely read and refered to by English speakers, that it's usage of words has sometimes altered their meaning, and this has sometimes had the effect of importing interpretations and/or theological assumptions into Bible translations. In this particular case, around 1450, the word talent began, according to OED, to develop the meaning "Power or ability of mind or body viewed as something divinely entrusted to a person for use and improvement: considered either as one organic whole or as consisting of a number of distinct faculties; (with pl.) any one of such faculties." This meaning developed out of an interpretation of this passage! Today, this etymology is not something English speakers think of when they hear the word "talent." It is, in fact, a "dead metaphor." What I mean by that is that, centuries ago, the actual meaning of the English word "talent" was "about 60 pounds of silver," or something along those lines, and a metaphorical sense of the word developed based on Jesus' parable. Today, this metaphorical sense is the only definition of the word talent for English speakers who are not students of ancient history and/or literature. As a result, transliterating in this case can be misleading to those who are new to studying the ancient world.

The solution may be simply to footnote and, because the word comes up so often, hope everyone will figure it out. I'm not completely satisfied with this solution, because it ruins the immediate effect. Given the context, one cannot help but think about talents in the everyday sense, and this is not what Jesus is saying at all (or rather, it is not part of the story of the parable - it certainly is part of the meaning of the parable).

Another solution might just be to write "6000 drachmas." I think this is the one I'm in favor of. This isn't anachronistic, and it won't be misinterpreted. Some people might not know what a drachma is (we'll give them a footnote), but they will not be likely to think it means something it doesn't, or to lose the meaning of the parable. This is also a good translation because there wasn't a 1 talent coin (have you ever seen a coin that was 60 pounds? Would you like to carry that around in your pocket?). If you wanted to give someone a talent, you would coin it out as 6000 drachmas.

A third solution is to do what the TNIV does and give it meaning in terms of weights of metal. I think that by just saying "bags of gold" we may be losing a lot of the meaning. For one thing, when Jesus' audience hears "talent," they probably think "more money than I have," rather than "lots of shiny metal." We are no longer used to using precious metals as currency, so we see these as two separate things.

Finally, one could give a dollar amount. A talent was a nice round sum that was well beyond the reach of most of the audience, and in the context just exactly how many days' labor would earn you a talent is not very relevant, so I would propose rounding it off and translating "one talent" as "one million dollars." This would leave the sense very well intact, and produce much the same effect that Jesus' words would have had on the original audience. The cons of this approach are that it is terribly anachronistic and America-centric, and for these reasons may not come off as very serious.

What does anyone else think? Which of these is best? Or should we use something else altogether?

Posted by kpearce at 03:07 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

November 28, 2005

Can The New Testament Be Both Influenced By Plato and Inspired by God?

The God Or Not Blog Carnival is a cool idea. It happens once or twice a month. For each carnival, there is a theme and the carnival host selects an approximately equal number of posts on that theme by atheists and theists for inclusion. The theme of the December 12 carnival is miracles. I have dealt substantially with miracles on this blog in a general way already, and so I've decided to post on applying my views to one very specific miracle which is central to the claims of Christianity and especially Evangelicalism: the inspiration of Scripture.

The story so far: nearly a year ago, I posted on what I referred to as "Christian naturalism". In this post I argued for a view that I continue to hold quite strongly: the view that traditional monotheists should not believe in exceptions to the laws of nature, as this would undermine the constancy of God. This, of course, creates a problem for miracles. I addressed that problem briefly in that post, but dealt with it more precisely in a recent post on Leibniz's discussion of efficient and final causes. In that post, I showed how the efficient/final cause distinction could be used to differentiate the miraculous from the mundane. I argued that the distinction was purely subjective, so that every event could be viewed as either miraculous or mundane depending on the disposition of the observer.

In the latter of these two posts, I briefly mentioned that fellow Christians, especially Evangelicals, with whom I have discussed this tend to be especially uneasy with my application of this theory to the inspiration of Scripture. This is the issue I intend to discuss here.

In Donald Bloesch's book, The Essentials of Evangelical Theology, he says, "the Bible is not partly the Word of God and partly the word of man: it is in its entirety the very Word of God and the very word of man" (vol. 1, p. 52). He goes on to say that, "inspiration is both conceptual and verbal, since it signifies that the Spirit was active both in shaping the thoughts and imagination of the biblical writers and also in guiding them in their actual writing ... The divine activity does not supersed the human but works confluently with the human so that the Scriptures are the joint product of both God and man. The writers are not to be thought of as simply the pens of the Holy Spirit ... but as partners with the Spirit so that the end product can be attributed to coauthorship" (p. 55).

Like Bloesch, I believe that, from one perspective, it is the case that the writings which came to be included in the Christian Bible came about in precisely the same fashion as any other books: that is, human authors sat down and wrote, and when they wrote they had particular views, thoughts, current issues, and so forth in mind which they wished to address. Their thoughts were influenced by those that came before them. I think, for instance, that it is clear that the theory of the self contained in the Pauline epistles must have been influenced by Plato's Republic (compare Paul's division into pneuma [spirit], psuche [soul], and sarx [flesh] with Plato's division into the philosophos [wisdom-loving], philotimos [honor-loving], and philochrematos [money-loving] psuchai [souls]), and the Johannine literature must have been influenced by Heraclitus (compare the use of logos [word]), although this influence may have been indirect (it has been suggested that it may have come through Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish philosopher who lived from about 20 BC to about 40 AD). However, this does not undermine inspiration. The Holy Spirit was active in shaping their life experiences so that their beliefs, ideas, thoughts, intentions, etc. would be such as to write down the Word of God, and also in imparting ideas to them at the time of writing.

Christians often seem to assume that if they Bible is inspired by God it must have come from nowhere - that is, it must have fallen from the sky (in the King James Version, of course), or the human authors must have experienced a sort of divine possession in which they did not write anything that they wanted to write or that they would have thought of, but merely "channeled" God's word in a highly supernatural way. Now, clergy, theologians, and others who have devoted a great deal of time to serious study of Scripture, tend not to take views that are so extreme as all of this (and I'm exaggerating even the popular view here), but they still seem to think that if the New Testament was influenced by Greek Pagans this would undermine its spiritual authority. But why should it?

Those who believe in the truth of the Christian Scriptures believe that Pauline Christianity is an accurate representation of Christ's intentions for the Church. What is the chief thrust of Pauline Christianity? It is nothing other than the God of the Hebrews reaching out to the Gentile (in that time, primarily Hellenistic) world. I do not mean to say that this is the only thing Christianity is about, or even the core of the message, but the idea that God has taken action to reach the whole world and not only Israel is certainly the thing that Paul was most surprised by and continued to be most excited about. We often talk about, for instance, Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey as being a symbolic action based on prophecy in the Hebrew Bible in which Jesus declared himself to be Messiah. Now, in light of the thrust toward reaching the Greeks, consider the story of the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). Remind you of Greek mythology? How often do Greek gods disguise themselves as mortals, enter a home, and make their identities known only after eating dinner? The meaning of this story in light of Greek myth is outisde the scope of this post (and really beyond my knowledge - I don't know my mythology very well), but my point is, doesn't it make perfect sense that in the same way Jesus takes symbolic actions to reveal himself to the Jews, he would take symbolic actions to reveal himself to the Greeks?

If, then, Christianity can be influenced by Greek Pagan religion in this way, why should it not be influenced by the likes of Plato? If Plato is right about something (and can someone as smart as Plato possibly be wrong about absolutely everything?), or provides a good vocabulary for speaking in very precise terms about an issue important to Christianity, why shouldn't God use Plato's writings to form the views of the authors of Scripture in order to bring it about that they write down his word?

The objection that Scripture can't be inspired if it has outside influcences is essentially the same as the objection that the parting of the Red Sea wasn't a miracle if it had a naturalistic explanation, and this is simply false. A world in which physical laws were broken ad hoc would be a world unworthy of the Christian God. Why should the miracle of inspiration of Scripture be any different? Are there not "laws" about the ways human beings come to knowledge and form opinions, just as there are laws about how physical objects behave? Couldn't God construct the circumstances in the lives of the authors of Scripture in such a way that their words would coincide with his? And wouldn't this be a much greater miracle than his using his unlimited power to override the free will and individuality of the Biblical authors in order to "channel" his thoughts through them?

According to the definition I gave previously, if the Bible is the living word of God it should be easy for those who have been affected by it to see the miraculous nature of its inspirtation: its effect on us is clearly miraculous, in so far as it changes our lives by drawing us into relationship with God. This is its final cause, and it is immediately apparent to those who have had this experience. It's efficient causes, however, require extensive historical research and literary study to ascertain. In this sense, the Bible is a very miraculous collection of literature.

Finally, a word on use of miracles as proof of the existence of God: David Hume argued that we are never justified in believing a miracle has occurred. I'm undecided as to whether his reasoning is valid, but it is based on his (in my view, flawed) conception of miracles as exceptions to the laws of nature. Suppose we concede Hume this point. On my view, no such miracles occur anyway. But "miraculous" (in my teleological sense) events can still be accepted as proof of the existence of God. When the world seems to manifest purpose where humans have none, there may be a miracle. If many such events occur, such that the world appears to have a direction, a purpose, an intention, this may be evidence for God. Furthermore, as to the miracle of the inspiration of Scripture, we can be justified in believing it is inspired and hence miraculous because of a strange series of coincidences surrounding it (consider, for instance, the detailed discussion of the conflict between the Ptolemy and Seleucid dynasties at the end of Daniel, and consider the fact that the book of Daniel was translated from Hebrew into Greek decades before said conflict occurred. Consider also the events surrounding the foundation of the Christian church, and the various miracles reported in that connection). But all of these things require detailed historical analysis and there is a great deal of uncertainty about them. More immediately there is, along the lines of the argument from "religious experience," the fact that the text of the Bible has impacted the lives of millions in ways that are in line with the effects the God depicted in the Bible would want to bring about. There is a sort of inherent purposiveness to the Christian Scriptures that exceeds the purpose and planning of the original authors and compilers and reaches forward to present day circumstances the authors and compilers could not have had any knowledge of. This, above all, is evidence for the miraculous nature of Scripture, and if it is miraculous then it serves as an argument for God. Don't understand what I'm talking about? Go read it.

Posted by kpearce at 11:29 AM | Comments (12) | TrackBack

August 29, 2005

Christos as a Proper Name in Matthew

So I was looking at the Greek text of Matthew 27 today (for those of you who have not read my posts on these subjects before, I have been studying classical Greek at Penn for two years now and have been taking some time on my own to look at the text of the NT), and I noticd that Pilate twice (vv. 17, 22) identifies Jesus of Nazareth with the phrase, Iesous hos legomenos Christos, "Jesus, who is called 'Christ.'" The reason I thought this was curious is that it lacks the article (equivalent of the English word "the"). My first intuition was that if the article was added, that is, if the phrase was Iesous hos legomenos hos Christos, then the phrase would be "Jesus, who they say is the Appointed One," and I wondered, at first, if perhaps Pilate, being Roman, didn't really understand what all this "Messiah" stuff was, and was using christos not substantively, but simply as an adjective attributed to Jesus, in which case the correct translation would be "Jesus, who is called 'anointed,'" with a "whatever the heck that means" implied by the context. However, my intuition may very well have been based on English rather than Greek (English "Anointed" vs. "the anointed one"). To research this point, I used the crosswalk.com Greek Lexicon to find all the occurences of christos in Matthew (I ignored occurrences of the phrase "Jesus Christ", assuming that that was a different case than the one I was interested in). The result was somewhat surprising. Christos occurs without the article and without the name Iesous immediately preceding or following it only four times, and three are in the phrase Iesous hos legomenos Christos (two of these are uttered by Pilate in chapter 27, the third is at 1:16, in the genealogy). The fourth usage is in 26:68 where Jesus is addressed as Christe, the vocative case of Christos. The surprising conclusion that I have come to is that Matthew is using Christos (in his own mouth in 1:16, and in the mouths of Romans in the other three cases) as a proper name of Jesus.

Perhaps this is not surprising to some people. The reason it surprises me is that I was always taught that Christ was not part of Jesus' name, but rather a title.
In fact, Matthew does not seem to use the word always this way, but sometimes seems to treat it as a surname, just as Peter was a surname of Simon Bar-Jonah. Surnames in the ancient world were primarily meaningful (in the Bible, usually very deeply meaningful) nicknames used to distinguish between people with the same first name. For instance, in a few texts of 27:16, Barabbas's first name seems to be Jesus as well, so that Pilate is asking, "which Jesus do you want me to release - the one who is called 'Barabbas', or the one who is called 'Christ?'" (As for the significance of the name "Barabbas", it happens to look suspiciously similar to the Aramaic for "son of my daddy." I don't read Aramaic, but it has been guessed that this may have been a name this bandit/insurrectionist went by to hide his identity.)

What effect does this have on translation? Well, I would suggest, first, that where Christos is used as a proper name it should always be transliterated (i.e., rendered as a proper name, "Christ" with a capital C, in English translations). Second, it seems that we can identify some cases where it is not used as a proper noun. For instance, both Matthew 22:42 and 24:5 are obvious cases where it is not a name, but a title. In these cases we should probably NOT transliterate, but render the word as "the Appointed One" (a rendering I was convinced of by my interaction with The New Testament in Plain English Blog) or something similar. Of course, the meaning of the name Christ should be footnoted at its first use in a given book. Note also that, since this is a blog post and not a dissertation, I haven't looked at the uses of the word in the rest of the NT, let alone all of early Christian literature, so I couldn't say just yet whether this should be extended to the rest of NT translation, or if it only applies to Matthew.

Anyway, for those of you who read this far in expectation of some kind of theological point, I don't really have one, I just ran across this today and thought it was interesting. I also thought that if I posted it and I happened to be greatly mistaken in this matter, someone would be good enough to tell me.

Posted by kpearce at 08:56 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack