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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April 12, 2006

The Language of Athenian Democracy in the New Testament

So I've just given a presentation on the workings of the ancient Athenian ekklesia at the Pnyx, and I thought I'd use up a little precious time which I ought to use reading about Plato and Aristotle on the role of tragic theater in society discussing the appropriation of the language of the Athenian democracy by the early Church, including the authors of the New Testament.

There are two particular words I am thinking of here: ekklesia and kerux. It is unfortunate, in my opinion, that these words are consistently translated one way in 'Bible Greek' and another way in 'secular Greek' when Bible Greek and secular Greek are the same language! In secular Greek they are "assembly" and "herald" respectively, but in New Testament translations they are usually "church" and "preacher." Now, these are perfectly ordinary words in the Greek, but their usage by the Athenian democracy was so prominent in the literary tradition of Greece that I cannot imagine that the Greek speaking Christians in the first century who first began to use these words didn't have classical Athens in mind, so let's start from the beginning and have a brief discussion of the history of these words, and what the choice of these words might tell us about the early Church's self-understanding and its message to the world.

Ekklesia is a compound of the prefix ek, meaning 'out,' and the noun klesis, a calling. In ancient Athens, this term was applied to the democratic Assembly of the people: the adult male citizens were 'called out' from all over the city-state to attend the Assembly and determine how the city should be run. How were they called? By heralds (kerukes), naturally.

Now, there are obvious reasons for the early Church to choose this language to describe what happened. 'Heralds' (i.e., preachers) went throughout the world to call us together, into the 'Assembly' (i.e. Church) of the saints. This Assembly does not, of course, deliberate on matters of foreign policy, or anything of the sort. But it is 'political,' in an unusual, other-worldly sense. This Assembly is composed of the citizens of the Kingdom of God.

Furthermore, although the idea of the Church being governed democratically is a post-Reformation invention and does not seem to have occurred in the early Church, there is something inherently democratic, as the Greeks understood democracy, about the Church: everyone is invited. Now the Athenians and the other Greek democracies invited a very limited 'everyone' to their Assemblies - excluding women, children, slaves, and foreigners - but they nevertheless considered it to be everyone, and were very proud of this. They were especially proud of their inclusion of the poor, since these were the ones the oligarchic city-states excluded. The early Church was inclusive to a degree never seen before, including also slaves, women, children and even 'barbarians' (in this time period, this meant those who lived outside the realm of civilization, where civilization is synonymous with the Roman Empire).

Also, we know from the description of Church meetings in 1 Corinthians 14 that just as the herald stood before the Assembly and asked "who wants to speak?" at every meeting, so at the meetings of the early Church just any citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven was permitted to share his knowledge and experience of God. This too is very 'democratic.'

There are other words for gathering in Greek, but the New Testament uses them rarely, preferring this 'democratic' language, and I think it does this for a reason. I believe that that reason is connected with all of the similarities just listed, but above all with the idea of being 'called out' from among the world into the Kingdom of God. Paul writes, "But how can they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe without hearing about Him? And how can they hear without a preacher [kerux]? And how can they preach unless they are sent?" (Romans 10:14-15, HCSB) The Church (Assembly) has sent preachers (heralds) throughout the world to call everyone into the great Assembly (Church) of the citizens of the Kingdom of God.

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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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March 02, 2006

Wayne Leman on ESV and HCSB

A while ago I posted some preliminary thoughts on evaluating the Holman Christian Standard Bible. At the time I was only able to look at a few NT verses, and I compared it to the NKJV and the Greek. Recently, Wayne Leman at Better Bibles Blog has posted a comparison of the HCSB with the ESV. Wayne's conclusion is that the two translations are very similar in terms of their degre of literalness and consistency, but the ESV retains the stylistic conventions of the Tyndale-KJV tradition, whereas the HCSB substantially departs from it. This departure is one of my favorite features of the HCSB in the verses I've seen so far (I haven't actually bought one yet, I've just been looking at various passages online, so I haven't used it for study or devotional reading). On the other hand, the ESV has put great emphasis on its suitability for liturgical use, the ability to follow along in the ESV during a reading of the RSV or KJV, and so forth. These may indeed be useful features, but it is my view that they lead mostly to "Bible English" that is quite unnatural and is misleading as to what the Biblical text really looks like in the original language (there's no such thing as "Bible Greek"! It's the same plain old Hellenistic/Koine Greek spoken by everyone else). I also think that reading a translation that is less closely connected with this tradition can make the text fresh again when we've been reading it for years already. Still, I do believe the ESV's claim to be more suitable for liturgical use (in churches that have true liturgy, rather than less "religious" public reading of Scripture or preaching) than the HCSB. Of course it's not clear how much this means to me, since my church, Calvary Chapel, doesn't have anything even vaguely resembling a liturgy.

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February 14, 2006

J.I. Packer on the NIV

Better Bibles Blog has a segment from Suzanne McCarthy's recent interview with Dr. J. I. Packer regarding Bible translations. In it, Dr. Packer states quite nicely the problem that I have always had with the New International Version:

[The NIV] is an in and out version, when a literal translation is clear they give you a literal translation. When they think they are confronted with a form or words which, if literally translated, or should I say, directly translated, wouldn’t communicate very well, without warning of what they are doing they go off into paraphrase.

The NIV tends to give up on any attempt at literalness whenever things get difficult, and this can be quite misleading. The problem is that the degree of interpretation done by the translators (and translators must always do some interpretation) and the degree left to the readers is not consistent, and so the reader cannot distinguish what the text actually says from what the translator thinks it means, and therefore can't determine how broad the range of possible interpretations is.

Of course, the problem could be solved by reading the NIV and the NASB at the same time, but I would like to think that there are some translations that are both readable and consistent. The NKJV is quite readable (for me) and consistent in its translation, but it is traditional to a fault and difficult for people not familiar with "church English." What I've seen of the ESV makes me think that it is even more extreme in these matters (whcih I think is a bad thing). As regular readers of this blog will be aware, I am continuing to evaluate the Holmann Christian Standard Bible. I still haven't spent enough time with it to know for sure what I think, but so far I like pretty much everything I've seen. I discussed my first systematic look at it here.

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February 07, 2006

How Did Early Christians Interpret 1 Corinthians 11:10?

1 Corinthians 11:10 is a rather controversial verse. The classic KJV renders it "For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels," but the NKJV team seems to have determined, quite correctly, that this doesn't make any sense to modern speakers of English, and so gave the modern rendering, "For this reason the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels." HCSB, a translation I've recently been evaluating, gives the translation, "This is why a woman should have a symbol of authority on her head: because of the angels."

Aside from the whole "because of the angels" thing not making much sense, the word "symbol" is rather strange. The original KJV rendering is very literal (except that it says "power" whereas exousia is more properly translated "authority," as the modern translations do). As you can see, it just says the she ought to "have power on her head." There is no separate word for symbol, nor does the LSJ lexicon record any usage of exousia to mean a symbol of authority. It just means authority. It has been suggested that this means that the woman should have authority or control over her head (not that this helps us make sense of the "because of the angels" part, but it's not any worse than anything else). LSJ says that in ancient Greek it was standard to express this idea by putting the object of authority in the genitive case, rather than by using the preposition epi. However, it does record that epi is sometimes used with the verb form exousiazo in precisely this way, and the use of special cases for this sort of thing is a feature that was beginning to drop out of Greek in the first century (it has completely dropped out of modern Greek - there is no dative case, and the genitive is used only for possession), so it is only natural that we would begin to see things like this popping up. I would hazard a guess that this usage is quite common in Byzantine Greek, but I don't know where to even begin to look for evidence of that. So, this interpretation of the passage seems as good as any (indeed, it is better than most).

Now, to the occasion of this post: one way to arbitrate between different interpretations of passages in dead languages is to see if we can find out how native speakers of the language who lived near the time of writing understood them. This is, of course, not infallible, and not as good as evidence from the author himself, but clearly native speakers from near the time are in a better position to interpret the text than we are.

Today, I was reading the canons of the Council of Gangra (c. 340 AD) for my class on the Orthodox Church, and I came across Canon 17, which reads, "If a woman, from supposed asceticism, cuts of her hair which has been given her by God to remind her of her subjection, and thus renounces the command of subjection, let her be anathema." Now, I find this very interesting. The council of Grangra seems to have been concerned, as you can see even in this little snippet, with combating the excesses of asceticism. Whether this text is useful to us in interpreting and translating 1 Corinthians 11:10 will depend on a number of issues:

  1. Was the council's belief that a woman's hair was "given her by God to remind her of her subjection" based on an interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:10?
  2. Were the members of the council who made this interpretation native speakers of Greek?
  3. Had there been a substantial shift in the usage of these Greek words between the Paul's writing c. 40 AD, and the council c. 340 AD that might have led to a misinterpretation?
  4. Might the council have intentionally misrepresented the meaning of the text?
  5. How similar is the use of language in the discussion in this canon to the discussion in 1 Corinthians?

I'm sure there are more questions to be asked here, and I, in general, do not know the answers. However, this document may shed some light on the early church's understanding of the meaning of Paul's interpretation of head coverings. A far-reaching tradition like this may also be part of the reason for modern translations choosing the interpret it has "a symbol of authority on her head" rather than "authority over her head." Of course, the decision of one local council is my no means definitive. We must look at the NT language itself (as we have) and also at whether there are opposing interpretations, or whether the early church was in general agreement with the council's findings. It would also be nice to have the Greek text of the council's canons, but I haven't been able to locate it online. At any rate, I do think that the writings of early Christians who clearly understood the language better than we do can be quite useful in interpreting this difficult verse, but there is a great deal of additional research is needed before we can have an interpretation anywhere near definitive.

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January 14, 2006

Tying Up Some Loose Ends: Greek Musterion in the New Testament

I've been meaning for some time to write a post tying together two topics that I had previously discussed. The items in question are my discussion of translation and transliteration and my suggestion in this post that Pagan religion might have had an influence on the New Testament's mode of expression. The common tie? The word "mystery."

This word, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is first attested with the definition "A religious truth known or understood only by divine revelation; esp. a doctrine of faith involving difficulties which human reason is incapable of solving" in the Wyclif Bible of 1384. The same Bible introduces the meaning "A hidden or secret thing; something inexplicable or beyond human comprehension; a person or thing evoking awe or wonder but not well known or understood; an enigma." There does exist one usage of the word in poetry prior to this time, but it appears that the word has expanded to its present meaning primarily from this point; that is, it was transliterated into the language from the New Testament. You can see how much the meaning of the word has changed. It has virtually no religious connotation today. Now, there are two questions here that have a bearing on translation: first, do the OED's early definitions correspond to the meaning of the Greek word in the context of the New Testament? Second, does the present-day meaning of the word mystery correspond to its usage in the New Testament?

In fact, the original Greek word musterion is also a religious word (note that it is also the root of the word "mystic"), and it is here that we intercept the question of whether and how the New Testament's mode of communication was effected by Greek Paganism. In the previous post, I suggested that the resemblance of Luke's account of the Emmaus road to certain Greek myths may have been intentional, but I didn't have enough background to explain exactly how. Musterion is, in fact, a much better example. Let's look first at its usage in Greek Paganism.

A detailed discussion of this issue is found in the book A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (online edition at Perseus), under the heading mysteria. I recommend reading the article, but I will present the important core ideas. The Greeks had many "mystery cults," as classicists often call them. The closest modern equivalent to the mystery cults of which I am aware is Freemasonry (it is in fact a very close equivalent). The "initiates" of the mystery cults would watch a sort of ritual drama which was intended to reveal truth about the universe through allegory and symbolism. These were supposed to reveal divine truth directly from the relevant god. The truth could only be learned at a particular shrine (the most famous being that of Eleusis) and communicating it was forbidden. There were various mysteries at different shrines where people of different ages and genders went. For instance, at one shrine young girls, ages 5 to 12, I believe, "played the bear for Artemis." No, we don't really know what that means. Only a few, like Eleusis, were open to all Greeks. Some of the mystery cults had multiple levels, each of which had different "mysteries" (remember, these are rituals and/or dramas that are intended to reveal truth to the initiate) at different levels of initiation, as, indeed, the Freemasons do.

There are a handful of cases in classical Greek literature where the word is used to speak of "secrets" more generally, but these are so rare that they ought to be taken metaphorically. It may be that the metaphor was "dead" by the time of the NT so that no reference is intended. It may also be that a new definition cropped up in between. I simply don't have the information on which to judge this. However, the word musterion itself was a relatively late development in Greek religious language (at any rate, Homer uses different words for similar things). Furthermore, we know that the word was still in use in this meaning in the first century, so even if it had acquired a more general meaning, the phrase "I reveal to you a mystery," often used by Paul, said in a theological context, would almost certainly bring the Greek mystery cults to the minds of Greek readers, and all of Paul's epistles except Romans are addressed to Greek cities.

Now the question is: why? What is the meaning and purpose of this Pagan reference in the New Testament? To examine this, let's look at the New Testament's use of the word.

20 of the words 27 uses in the New Testament occur in the Pauline epistles; 3 are in parallel passages in the synoptic gospels (Matt. 13:11, Mark 4:11, Luke 8:10) where Jesus speaks of the "mysteries" of the kingdom of heaven being revealed to the disciples; the remaining 4 are in the Revelation. The usage in the gospels and Revelation are straightforward: in the gospels the word refers to special knowledge revealed only to Jesus' disciples, in the Revelation it refers to the interpretation of symbolic or allegorical content. Paul's usage, however, is slightly more complicated.

Paul's "mysteries" seem to be doctrines of Christianity. He identifies the following as mysteries:

  • "that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fulness of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Istrael will be saved." (Romans 11:25-26)

  • the gospel (apparently as a whole - Romans 16:25-26 [those verses are located at 14:24-26 in some texts], Ephesians 6:19. See also the summary of the Gospel at 1 Timothy 3:16.)

  • "[God] purposed in Hmself that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ" (Ephesians 1:9-10)

  • "that the gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel." (Ephesians 3:3-7)

  • The "marriage" of Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:22-32)

  • "Lawlessness" (2 Thessalonians 2:7)

Only one of these (the "marriage" of Christ and the Church) has an obvious symbolic/allegorical interpretation, so Paul apparently does not, by musterion mean, generally speaking, the correct interprettation of religious symbols/allegories. Fortunately, Paul gives us substantial hints at his meaning in Ephesians 3 (see also Romans 16:25, Colossians 1:26) when he says (vv. 5) that the mystery "in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets." We see, then, that just as in the Greek religious context, Paul is talking about truth that is revealed supernaturally to certain people at certain times, but not part of general human knowledge. Is Christianity, then, a mystery cult? Certainly not! The mystery was not revealed in former times, but it has now been revealed by the Spirit, and Jesus gave us special instructions as to what to do with His secrets: "Whatever I tell you in the dark, speak in the light; and what you hear in the ear, preach on the housetops" (Matthew 10:27, cf. Luke 12:3). I conclude, therefore, that the New Testament's use of this word implicitly sets up a contrast between Christianity and the Pagan mystery cults: whereas the Pagans carefully guard their mysteries, the Christians are eager to announce them from the housetops! God's revelation, once given, is given to all mankind. All are welcome and invited to come and learn the mysteries of God. You need not go to any particular location or perform any particular ritual: we, the Church, will come to you to teach you the mysteries God has revealed to us.

This creates something of a difficulty for the translator, because modern audiences do not have familiarity with these kinds of religious "mysteries." As I mentioned, we have some secret societies that resemble the mystery cults, but modern religions tend not to work this way (although Mormonism does have some rituals that are open only to higher-level members of the church). As such, we do not have a term for this. The Eastern Orthodox Church continues to use the word "mystery" to refer to a mystical ritual, but this isn't quite right for Paul's usage either. Mystery is the word used in references to these things in writing about Greek culture and religion, so if the target audience of a translation is made up of hellenists, then keeping the word mystery is appropriate. Also, many "church people" have been taught the Pauline meanin of mystery as something that had never before been revealed to mankind, so this audience, although it doesn't catch the implicit contrast with Paganism, does get the correct meaning. But what about translations for more "mainstream" audiences? Is there a good translation of this word for that context, or is the best we can do something like the HCSB's "bullet notes?"

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January 09, 2006

The Holman Christian Standard Bible

I am considering switching my primary Bible translation. For some time, I have been using the New King James Version, which I favor for its formal equivalence translation philosophy and its English style. However, I am increasingly reevaluating my opinion of it as I begin to look more at the original Greek of the New Testament and to question some of the principles of translation theory that I had previously believed. The points on which I am becoming dissatisfied are as follows: (1) the NKJV is incredibly hidebound to the Tyndale tradition, so that mistakes made in translations long ago persist to the present (see here) and it has failed to keep up with the changing meaning of words over time, especially those words that were introduced to the English language by transliteration of Bible words (see here). (2) More literal can sometimes mean less accurate, and this does sometimes occur in the NKJV: phrases are translated literally from the original in ways that are ultimately misleading to modern readers. (3) The NKJV often uses words that are now technical terms of theology in places where the original uses everyday language (the original uses everyday language pretty much everywhere. The leading contender for a new Bible translation for me is presently the Holman Christian Standard Bible. In this post I intend to examine the HCSB's translation of three verses in which I believe most translations make mistakes due to their reliance on tradition. I will look at (a) whether the HCSB corrects the mistake, (b) the literary style and English grammar of the HCSB, and (c) whether the HCSB lives up to its "Optimal Equivalence" translation philosophy.

Matthew 25:26-27

NKJV: But his lord answered and said to him, "You wicked and lazy servant, you knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed. So you ought to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I would have received back my own with interest."

The problem: Greek okneros does not ordnarily mean "lazy." This translation is the result of a change in Latin leading to the Vulgate's translation, Latin piger meaning lazy. In fact, the original means timid or hesitant.

HCSB: But his master replied to him, "You evil, lazy slave! If you knew that I reap where I haven’t sown and gather where I haven’t scattered, then you should have deposited my money with the bankers. And when I returned I would have received my money back with interest"

Is the problem fixed? No. HCSB uses the same word as NKJV.

Does the HCSB render the passage in good English? Yes. I particularly like the use of contractions in this context, as it gives a less stilted sound to a passage that is definitely not stilted in the original. The langauge here is natural and flows well.

Does the HCSB follow its stated translation philosophy? Sort of. HCSB ignores the Greek idiom which uses two verbs for the master's response and is rendered in the NKJV by "answered and said." However, since this is just the standard idiom in Greek it may be appropriate to convert it to the standard idiom in English which uses only one verb. Still, the passage could have been rendered more literally without loss of accuracy or flow by a phrase like "in response, his master said." The HCSB makes the right decision in rendering kurios master rather than lord here. I also like the rendering of the phrase "You evil, lazy slave!" as an exclamation. The rendering of "if you knew that I reap ... with the bankers" as a single conditional is an unnecessary change in the structure of the Greek. Rather than "if you knew ... then you should have" it ought to say, "You knew that ... Therefore you should have," which is perfectly good English. I conclude that in this passage, contrary to its stated translation philosophy, the HCSB alters the structure of the original language text more than is necessary for purposes of accuracy and readability.

John 3:16

NKJV: For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

The Problem: The NKJV rendering suggests the reading "God loved the world so much that ..." whereas the most natural reading of the Greek is "God loved the world in such a way that ..." This was discussed on Better Bibles Blog last month.

HCSB: For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.

Is the problem fixed? Absolutely! The HCSB rendering is much more accurate than the NKJV.

Does the HCSB render the passage in good English? Sort of. The use of explanatory "for" is rather unusual in contemporary English. Other than that, the passage sounds good to me.

Does the HCSB follow its stated translation philosophy? Yes. The only difficulty is the phrase "one and only." The Greek monogenes, traditionally translated according to its etymology as "only begotten" is difficult in contemporary English, partially since we don't have the word "begotten." The most straightforward reading of this word in context is "unique," which is what the HCSB is trying to get at with "one and only." However, we know from the ancient creeds, particularly the Nicene Creed's "begotten, not made," that the early church read this etymology as having theological significance. However, I am content to leave this kind of significance in the hands of theologians and commentators who speak Greek. Based on these concerns the HCSB translators have included a "bullet note", but these notes don't seem to be included in the online version I'm working from, so I don't know what it says.

1 Corinthians 11:10

NKJV: For this reason the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.

The problem: The most natural reading of exousian echein epi tes kephales, here translated "have a symbol of authority on her head" is "have authority over her head," as Peter Kirk pointed out in the comments on this Better Bibles Blog post.

HCSB: This is why a woman should have [a symbol of] authority on her head: because of the angels.

Is the problem fixed? No. HCSB takes the same unnatural interpretation as the NKJV.

Does the HCSB render the passage in good English? Yes. The sentence is perfectly natural English with good grammar and style. It is difficult to interpret, but so is the Greek, in this case.

Does the HCSB follow its stated translation philosophy? Yes. The HCSB's interpretation of the touto at the beginning of the passage as looking ahead to tous aggelos is well supported by the grammar, and I can't think of a better way to render that relationship in English. I am quite satisfied with the structure of the English sentence here. I believe an interpretive mistake is made with regard to the exousia phrase, but if we grant the HCSB translators their interpretation, then they have rendered the passage correctly according to their translation philosophy.


Out of 3 points:
HCSB scores 1 for correcting mistakes of traditional translations.
HCSB scores 2.5 for English style and grammar.
HCSB scores 2.5 for following its stated translation philosophy.

I conclude that my informal and unscientific survey of these three passages is not enough to justify a switch from NKJV to HCSB at this time, but the HCSB continues to look like a fairly good overall translation. I agree with the HCSB's stated translation philosophy, and my survey does indicate that HCSB does an overall good job following it. Does anyone have suggestions for other verses that should be considered in this way, or other translations I should perhaps be looking at?

Posted by kpearce at 12:04 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

December 30, 2005

Are Linguistic Facts Theologically Significant?

Gerald at iustificare has recently been doing a series on the theological consequences of "gender neutral" Bible translations. Gerald holds that the use of "male-representative language" - that is, the use of male terms to designate mixed gender groups - is significant to the Bible's view of God. Commentors (primarily the authors of Better Bibles Blog) have repeatedly pointed out that the male-representative language found in the Bible is simply the normal way of saying things in Greek and Hebrew. Gerald acknowledges this, but continues to believe that male-representative language is theologically significant, and therefore should continue to be used, at least in Bible translations intended for the "Biblically literate." In his final post on the subject, he says,

It is best to translate the original language’s idiom into something that makes sense in the target audience’s language, even if the original idiom is not preserved, as long as the original idiom does not have inherent theological significance that would be otherwise lost.

The question I am interested in here is, does the original idiom ever have "inherent theological significance"? Is it possible that the ordinary way of expressing things in Greek or Hebrew - something the original author would not have given a second thought to - could have theological significance? I am initially inclined to answer that it does not have any significance, but let's take a moment to examine the reasons why it might.

Firstly, according to the theory of inspiration I hold, God has designed the entire course of history in such a way as to bring it about that the individuals who wrote down the Scriptures would write down the Living Word of God. Might this extend also to the very languages in which the Scriptures were communicated? That is, might God have acted in such a way as to bring it about that the grammar and idiomatic language of Greek and Hebrew were such as to communicate theological truth?

This position is in fact not uncommon with regard to the Hebrew text. Orthodox Jews, especially Kabbalists, believe that even the decorations on the pages of the Torah (as opposed to the Nevi'im or the Ketuvim, which are at lower levels of inspiration) have theological significance, and Jesus seems to endorse this view at Matthew 5:18. I have also seen material claiming that the shapes of the letters and the pictograms they developed from may be important. Furthermore, Kabbalists attach a great deal of importance to the Hebrew number system, which uses the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, claiming that some kind of knowledge can be gained by interpreting the letters as numbers. Some commentators have claimed that this is what John is referring to at Revelation 13:18. Perhaps the most common claim of this kind on the part of Christians is that the fact that the Hebrew word elohim looks like a plural presages the later revelaton of the Trinity.

It is rare to see claims quite so strong as these about Greek. However, I have often made the similar claim myself that one of the reasons God chose to become incarnate at the specific point in history he did was the usage of Koine Greek as a universal language. Greek is a spectacular language for discussing abstract truth with great precision, and Koine retains much of the precision of Attic while being far more accessible to ordinary people (as opposed to only Athenian aristocrats with a great deal of education).

Experienced translators will often say that a person who reads too much into the structure of a statement, a dead metaphor, or a word whose meaning has changed over time so that it is no longer related to its etymology commits the etymological fallacy. In these cases, the author and his intended audience may not even aware of the information the translator or interpreter is reading into the text, and so it is incorrect to attribute the view to them. I am particularly prone to this fallacy in interpretation, because I have made formal study only of Attic and Homeric Greek and come to the New Testament from this background of language hundreds of years older. However, it is important to note that reading information into etymologies is not always fallacious. For instance, Plato, especially in his later works, is always aware of the etymologies of the words and dead metaphors he uses, and will nearly always play on them later, so it pays for translators and intepreters to pay attention to this kind of information in reading Plato. However, this is not the case with ordinary language. For instance, most contemporary English speakers do not consider what a word or phrase means in the Shakespearian corpus before they utter it. Most English speakers neither know nor care what the word meant to Shakespeare, and so it would be incorrect to use information about that to interpret a speaker's words.

There are few, if any, cases in the Bible where an author appears to make intentional use of etymology. In fact, the only one I personally am aware of is Ephesians 3:14-15 where Paul makes reference to "the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ from whom the whole family ... is named" (the Greek for father is pater; family is patria).

But if God was active in the structuring of the Greek and Hebrew (and also Aramaic, I suppose) languages to communicate his truth, mightn't there be some etymological significance of which even the authors were not aware?

Secondly, might some of the things we take for mere linguistic facts reflect assumptions of the author which are actually part of the message of Scripture? I recently discussed the difficulty of separating linguistic facts from cultural assumptions here. (See also the Better Bibles Blog discussion here.) Gerald's claim seems to be of this sort: he thinks that the authors of Scripture had some substantive beliefs about gender roles which caused them to use the male-representative language they use, and that if we translate these assumptions out, we will be lose some important content.

Thirdly, the authors might be more aware of the lingusitic facts than we give them credit for, and they might intend our reading to be informed by the etymologies of the words and idioms and the structures of the phrases. I find this hard to believe from an author like Matthew who doesn't seem to me to have a very good grasp of the Greek language, but it wouldn't surprise me in Paul or John.

What are we to conclude from these thoughts? Well, the first thing I would say is the response I give to the "Bible code" guys: it may be that there are deeper levels of meaning, but we can be more certain about the surface meaning of the Biblical language, interpreted in a simple and straightforward way. This is definitely a source of theological truth. Furthermore, there is enough material just in that to occupy us for the rest of our lives. It is absolutely imperative that this message - the meaning that is immediately present on a basic reading of Scripture - be available to all people in such a way that it doesn't require them to learn a language different from their vernacular.

But might there be a use for translations that maintain these idioms and uses more strictly, creating, in a sense, a new dialect of English that exists in between standard English and the original language ("Bible English")? This, in my opinion, happens to some degree in the NASB, and I can imagine more extreme versions. (Note that this is distinct from what is called "Church English" or "Chistianese," dialects that are commonly spoken by Christians to one another.) The only problem I see with this idea is that it may ultimately be misleading to people who are not familiar with the original languages. Because the idioms and metaphors used do not make sense to the readers, they may take the wrong meaning from them. This problem could be fixed by including extensive footnotes that look something like a background commentary. At some point, however, people who see deeper meanings in the etymology and grammatical structure of the original languages just need to learn the original languages, because English is not equivalent to them in these areas, and translations that reflect these linguistic facts while at the same time accurately rendering the surface-level meaning of the text become impossible.

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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.

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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 21, 2005

Funny Story...

I was checking my blog status on technorati and found a link to my post on Transliteration vs. Translation from a site in a language I couldn't even identify! It looked Germanic to me (but what do I know), so I tried to plug it into the Google translator for German to English and it didn't work. According to the author's blogger profile, he is a theology student in Sweden, so I guess the blog must be in Swedish. How fun! Only I can't read it, and I can't find a web-site with automated translation from Swedish. Amazing how the internet spreads ideas even to people in other countries with languages I can't understand. Just for the sake of my curiosity, can anyone tell me what he's saying about me?

Posted by kpearce at 10:28 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

November 13, 2005

Translation vs. Transliteration

Note about this post: it's long, and the interesting stuff is at the end, so feel free to skip ahead. The beginning of the interesting part, which is not as long as the (comparatively) boring part, is marked with a boldface note like this one.

Transliteration is the practice of taking words from one language, written in one alphabet, and putting them in another language with another alphabet. Bible translators often choose to transliterate words and thus create new words in English, instead of using existing English words with equivalent or nearly equivalent meanings (sometimes because they don't think English has a nearly equivalent word). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the following words entered the English language through (or at least are first attested in) translations of part or all of the Bible in the years indicated:

  • Angel - 950
  • Apostle - 950
  • Christ - 950
  • Evangelize - 1382
  • Evangelist as agency noun of evangelize (it was previously used only to refer to the authors of the four Gospels) - 1535
  • Messiah - First appears in the West Saxon Gospels, date unknown

These are just a handful of words I thought to look up.

Transliteration is often a good thing, depending on the word, the intended audience, etc. In particular, when translating a technical term whose meaning is given almost entirely by the context, and not by any pre-conceived meaning the audience has, transliteration may be a good idea. On the other hand, the word does have some pre-conceived meaning, either because it already existed, or because it has a recognizable etymology (people don't just make words up from nowhere!) and if that can be duplicated in the translation it's generally a good idea. Then there's the question of the purpose of a translation. If, for instance, one is translating the fragments of Heraclitus, and the intended audience is academic philosophers/philosophy students, then transliterating words like logos, kosmos, etc. may be a good idea. Another alternative is to do what the Irwin and Fine volume of selections from Aristotle that I have do and indicate the word by a subscript (for instance, when ousia is translated "being" or "essence", the word is followed by a subscripted o). Yet another alternative is to pick an English word that is a close equivalent of the original language and use the word always and only to translate the one single original language word, and note it in an introduction.

Of these, only the last is appropriate for a translation intended for casual reading by non-scholars (in my opinion). Of course one might argue that in the case of the Bible we (Christians) should all be "scholars," not in the sense of going to school for it, but in the sense of studying it seriously, and I would agree. However, there is a need for more casual Bible reading as well; for devotional reading, and reading aloud in a church service, for instance. Now the last option, the one appropriate for casual readers, is not always possible. Imagine, for instance, if the English "word" was only used to translate logos. How many other terms for "word" does English have? Do we then (over-)translate rhema as "thing said?" What about epos? What about all the cases (there are a lot of them) where the translation "word" doesn't make sense to an untrained English speaker, as when logos actually means argument, speech, story, etc.? You can mark it off as a technical term with some type of capitalization or typeface, but that won't come across when read aloud.

So what do we do? We translate logos all sorts of different ways, depending on what is most appropriate in the context, to convey the same meaning to English speakers. Now, in a serious study Bible we might write transliterate logos in the first place (I believe there exists a translation that does this, but I don't remember which one), or we might affix a subscript l to indicate the word (or you could memorize the Strong's numbers for all your favorite words, and get a Bible that has those).

Now, in the case of something that was a coinage at the time of writing, as euangelistes (announcer of good news, aka evangelist) seems to have been in the NT, or agape (love) seems to have been in the Septuagint (in both cases the verb form already existed), it might be good to transliterate - but we're still not creating the effect that the original readers experienced, so it might be better to coin a new English word with a similar etymology (as Peter Meinek's translation of Aristophanes' Clouds, a play parodying Socrates which was written and perofmred within Socrates' lifetime, coins the term "Pondertorium," and another translation, I'm not sure which one, coins the term "Thinkery").

There are two cases where I am an enthusiastic supporter of transliteration: the case where the original author transliterated a word from a language different than that of the text, and the case of proper nouns. You would think both of these would be followed by translators almost all the time, but they are not. For instance, the words hAidos (=Hades) and geena (=Gehenna) are both translated "Hell" (with or without capitalization) in most New Testament translations, which is confusing because Hades is not the same as Hell in the New Testament (rather, it is equivalent to OT Sheol, another proper name normally translated "the pit" or various other strange things instead of transliterated). As for the second case, most New Testament translations translate Aramaic words like maranatha and raca instead of transliterating (the NASB is an exception to these - it transliterates a lot).

Note: the interesting stuff starts here.

Several of the words mentioned above are NOT technical terms in the original language, but ordinary words used with more or less ordinary meanings. They may have developed technical meanings, but these meanings were not contradictory to their original meanings. Almost all of them had English equivalents to begin with (the exceptions are of course Christ and Messiah, which could be translated "anointed one" or "chosen one," but are not really equivalent and were definitely theological terms). The word for "angel" was just the normal everyday word "messenger." The word "apostle" meant "ambassador," or "emmissary." Now in the introduction to The Source New Testament (which I did finally get my hands on, although not the version with the lexical notes), Ann Nyland says she has "chosen to translate rather than transliterate many words, not following the usual tradition of Bible translation." This, I think, is a good idea, as words like angel have become technical terms in English when they were not in Greek. However, I can't imagine her justification for deciding to translate christos while still transliterating apostolos into apostle. Today, we think of the word "apostle" as referring specifically to the Twelve, and only after Pentecost (before that they are usually called "disciples"). In fact, the word means, according to LSJ, "a messenger, ambassador, envoy." I have never seen this word translated. It is always transliterated (of course, before The Source I had never seen aggelos (angel) translated either, so a step in the right direction). I don't understand the reason why not. I suppose tradition/habit is one reason - if you talked about Jesus' twelve ambassadors no one would know what you meant - but Dr. Nyland doesn't care about that part, and she still didn't translate apostolos. Is there something I'm not getting here? Why is apostolos a better candidate for transliteration than logos - or, in Dr. Nyland's case, even a better candidate than christos? How many non-Greek speakers read the word "apostle" and know that it means, literally, "one sent forth?"

On a side note, I very much appreciate Dr. Nyland's translation in Matthew 5:22, where the NKJV's "hell fire" becomes "Burning Garbage Pit Gehenna" (capitalization original).

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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.

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August 14, 2005

The Cotton Patch Bible, Online

I first heard of The Cotton Patch Bible years ago from a pastor who found it most entertaining, but I had never been able to look at it until today. Better Bibles Blog has a link to where the Cotton Patch Bible is now available online! For those of you who are not familiar with it, the Cotton Patch Bible is a paraphrase written in Souther (US) English vernacular. Jerusalem has been replaced by Atlanta, Bethlehem by Gainesville, GA. Tons of fun. Enjoy!

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August 13, 2005

2 Timothy 2:2 - Conclusions (or Lack Thereof)

Last week, I posted on the translation of the prepositon dia in 2 Timothy 2:2. I want to thank everyone for all the responses and the links (particularly the links from Better Bibles Blog and PastoralEpistles.com). Thanks to lengthy email discussions with commenters John Kendall and Stephen C. Carlson, (which I apologize for my limited participation in and late response to), I think that a basic understanding has been reached on which both translations can be seen to be justified (which is what I had hoped for; I didn't particularly want all of the major translations to be wrong). The usage of dia to mean "in the midst of" does in fact have other evidence, but all of that evidence is questionable. About five sources are routinely cited (including notably Philo's epistle to Gaius, 187, and Plutarchs Moralia 338F), and several important lexica (including a tiny note that I missed in LSJ at the end of A.I.3 of the entry) do list this meaning.

That said, I must still favor the interpretation of dia here meaning "through" because of two points. (1) Occam's Razor. The existence of the "with" meaning of dia is an unecessary postulate based on all the evidence that I can see, so we are justified in throwing it out. (2) The Vulgate. The Latin Vulgate translation, which was written at a time when there were still native speakers of the language walking around, translated the relevant portion "quae audisti a me per multos testes," and the Latin per also normally means "through." However, we are in much the same position with the Latin, as, according the Lewis and Short, per does occasionally mean "with," and again I suspect the references they cite are questionable and this is one of them.

In sum, the "with" interpretation makes sense in the context, but the lexicographic evidence for it is weak. It seems likely to me that this was a questionable decision made by the Geneva Bible (which, by the way, renders it "among many witnesses") and accepted without enough questioning by future generations of translators.

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August 06, 2005

Translation of 2 Timothy 2:2

This summer, I've been leading a weekly Bible study here at Penn. Two of us in the study read classical Greek (the other one is a senior majoring in linguistics and reads a truly absurd number of languages for someone still in undergrad - or, indeed, for anyone), and we often take time to pick apart the original text, and compare the various translations that people bring (mostly NIV, NKJV, ESV, and occasionally NLT). This past week, Steven and I were rather perplexed by the way in which the standard translations have chosen to render 2 Timothy 2:2, and had some difficulty connecting the translations to the Greek. NKJV renders this verse, "And the things you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also." The relevant portion, "the things you have heard from me among many witnesses," is rendered almost identically by the other translations. NIV: "the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses," ESV: "what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses." The trouble is that the Greek seems to suggest a reading more like "the things which you have heard from me through many witnesses." That is, the Greek appears to say that Timothy heard these teachings from many witnesses who came from Paul, rather than that he heard them from Paul himself. The following is my (mostly failed) attempt to make sense of this. Because some technical discussion concerning Greek grammar and the meanings of the two prepositions is necessary in the discussion, the non-technical portions, excluding this introductory paragraph, are in bold print to facilitate easy skimming to help those who are not familiar with Greek grammar understand the basics of the translational issue without getting lost. Also, for those who don't know Greek (yet) but nevertheless care about the technical details (and have some time on their hands) I have tried to give some basic definitions of the terms that should hopefully be enough for you to follow.

There are two prepositions in this phrase, para and dia which are translated "from" and "among", respectively, in the NKJV. The basic meaning of para is beside, and with a noun or pronoun in the genitive case, as here, it would ordinarily mean "from the side of," however, LSJ notes an idiomatic usage with the verb akouo, as here, in which it sometimes specifies the person from whom a thing was heard (see LSJ s.v. "akouo". This usage is not noted in the entry for "para" as far as I can see). No difference in meaning is noted. However, para, because it means "from the side (i.e. the general vicinity) of" is clearly weaker than the other prepositions listed as far as the assertion of the origin of the thing heard. The phrase ha ekousas par' emou alone would clearly be properly translated "the things which you heard from me" (i.e. "the things which you heard me say"); the trouble comes in interpreting dia in a way that makes sense.

The object of dia is also in the genitive, which would ordinarily mean "through" in the sense of space or time, but is also used fairly frequently with the meaning "by means of," so the most obvious interpretation of this fragment in isolation is "the things which you heard from me through (i.e. by means of) many witnesses," with the implication that witnesses came to Timothy bringing Paul's words. These may have been the messengers that Paul sent bringing letters such as the present one, or other travelling preachers (there were a lot of these in the Christian community of the first century) who had heard Paul preach and reported his doctrine. The relative weakness of the preposition is an argument, albeit not a very strong one, in favor of this interpretation.

Some commentaries do note this as an alternative rendering. For instance, John Gill suggests the interpretation above. He also suggests a second alternative reading, which also interprets the preposition as meaning "by means of," on which the many witnesses are Moses and the prophets and these were the means by which Paul exposited the things that Timothy heard, so that the witnesses are indirectly the means of Timothy's hearing. Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown suggest that the literal reading should be "through many witnesses," to be interpreted as "with the attestation (or intervention) of many witnesses." The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge also briefly notes this as a possible interpretation.

This is all lovely, but the question remains, where does the standard translation come from? Steven and I at first thought it might just be a paraphrase: that someone (possibly the Geneva Bible, which seems to have this interpretation) had decided that "through many witnesses" didn't make sense in English and decided that what was meant was "among many witnesses." But how does one get "among" from "through"? My next guess was that, in order to make sense of the passage, some translator had decided to ignore the prepositon. In the absence of the preposition dia, pollon marturon would probably be best interpreted as a partitive genitive. This would yield the reading "the things which you have heard from me, being just one out of many witnesses," which might be rendered into better English with the NKJV's reading. However, this does not explain the NIV/ESV "in the presence of," and besides, where does a translator get off just ignoring a word, even if it is only three letters?

Robertson's Word Pictures gives us a much better hint. It suggests that this is a legal idiom meaning "supported by many witnesses". For this usage of dia, Robertson cites Plutarch, but he does not give a specific reference, and this usage is not listed in LSJ under either dia or martus, nor is it listed in Moulton's "Analytical Greek Lexicon Revised" (a NT specific reference) or any other lexicon I have access to. Somewhat more helpfully, Robertson lists other references in the Pauline epistles where he says the word is used in this same sense. These are 1 Thessalonians 4:2, 2 Corinthians 2:4, Romans 2:27, and Romans 14:20. The 1 Thessalonians reference does not appear to be related to the issue at hand. In 2 Corinthians 2:4 NKJV translates dia as "with," however, I think that the text is better interpreted as saying that Paul was writing "through many tears," and I don't understand why it has not been rendered in this way, as the very literal rendering "out of much afflication and anguish of heart I wrote to you through my tears" is perfectly idiomatic English (though note that the text says "many tears," not "my tears." I have taking this slight liberty with the passage because I'm trying to make a point that good idiomatic English could have kept the word "through" very easily, and I don't think that "through many tears" sounds like something produced by a vernacular speaker of contemporary English, while I think that "through my tears" does). Once again, all three translations are united on this questionable interpretation that is not supported by the standard lexica (although in this case the reading is supported at least by Moulton). In Romans 2:27 the word is again translated "with," and again I think "through" is a better rendering ("will he not judge you [to be] a transgressor of the law through [i.e. according to] the written [law] and the [covenant of] circumcision?"). In Romans 14:20 "with" is probably a good translation of dia, but I think the literal meaning "through" still stands. The idea, I think, is that the man continues eating it right through offense, i.e. he doesn't stop because of it.

As you can see, Robertson does little to support the standard translation, and we are back where we started, and I still don't understand why this verse is translated the way it is. Kenny's Excruciatingly Literal Amateur Translation Attempt (KELATA) on this verse is the following: "The very things which you heard from me through many witnesses, these things commit to faithful people, whatever people will be competent to teach even others." Does anyone out there know why he major translations render it the way they do?

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July 27, 2005

The Source New Testament on Gender Roles

Better Bibles Blog now has more excerpts from The Source New Testament, this time on the contentious subject of gender roles. Dr. Nyland's last book was subtitled "The Campaign to Control Gender Translation in Bibles," and in her BBB interview she asserted that "most people do not want to know what the Greek .... really says" in "the women passages." These comments, combined with her background as a lexicographer, and the new archaeological research she has access to, made me very interested in what she had to say here.

Before I dive into an examination of these passages, a word about my (lack of) qualifications: I am entering my third year of undergraduate education at Penn. I am majoring in computer science, philosophy, and classical studies, the latter with emphasis in Greek language and literature. As such, I have had three semesters of Attic prose (the Greek of classical Athens - Koine, the Greek of the New Testament, is generally seen as a much simplified form of this dialect), one semester of Homer, and one semester of formal linguistics (syntax). I've also been reading the NT in the Greek on my own time (when I have any) for the last two years. I've covered most of Matthew, all of Ephesians, and most of 1 Timothy so far (I expect to finish Matthew and 1 Timothy and get through 2 Timothy by the end of the summer). Other relevant areas of study include Roman history (I'll be taking Greek history this semester) and ancient philosophy. The reason I bring this up is that I think it is relevant to how the things I am going to say should be interpreted: I do read Greek, and I hope I have something to contribute to this discussion, but I am at least ten years of study away from being anything like an authority in the field. I have spent a few minutes comparing Dr. Nyland's translations to the Greek; she, in addition to having a Ph.D. in this area, spent six years, and most other modern translations involve teams of Ph.Ds, DDs and Th.Ds and periods of study that long or longer. That's my disclaimer. If you are still interested in my analysis, read on.

One of the general trends of Dr. Nyland's translation of these passages is her use of the term "be supportive" for hupotasso, traditionally translated "submit." This word is from the prefix hupo (which often means under - this is where we get the English prefix hypo, as in hypothermia, being "under" healthy body temperature) and the verb tasso, "to array troops for battle." Accordingly, the original meaning of this word, according to LSJ, the standard Greek lexicon in classical studies departments, "to place, or arrange, under." This is used in the Greek historians in a military sense, as the root word suggests: "to arrange troops under [a commander]." In the interview Dr. Nyland commented that interpreting word based on their etymology is "a big mistake in Greek." While many Greek words have meanings which are not obvious from their etymology (for instance, virtually ever Greek prefix can in some cases be used to make a word emphatic, rather than to actually change its meaning, and sometimes the totality of a compound word has a meaning which is completely unrelated to the meaning of its parts), I have to disagree with her. Here it is clear that the early usage of the word was related directly to its etymological components, and Plutarch, who was contemporary with the NT (he lived from 46 to 120AD) continued to use the word in its military sense (I don't have access to the Greek text of Plutarch, but LSJ cites Life of Pompey 64, and I assume they mean the phrase which my English translation renders "[Brutus] put himself under [Pompey's] command"), so this usage was not wholly obsolete. This fits perfectly with Paul's ongoing military metaphor, to form a picture of the family as a "platoon" in God's army, in which the husband is the commanding officer. In the middle voice (the middle voice is a quirk of Greek - different words mean different things in the middle which are not necessarily related to their meanings in the active and passive voices in the same way in all cases. Every use of hupotasso in the passages cited is in the present, and in the present tense the middle and passive forms are homonymous, so we have no way of knowing which is which), tasso, the root, can mean "to fall in order of battle." So if the military metaphor were to be preserved, and the word was interpreted as being in the middle voice, the passages could be rendered "wives, organize yourselves for battle under your husbands;" or, if passive, "wives be commanded by your husbands." These translations are probably too strong and may overemphasize a metaphor that Paul may not intend here (though I think he does, since he uses it repeatedly, and this section of Ephesians feeds into the "whole armor of God" section). In light of Ephesians 5:21, which instructs believers to "submit to one another in the fear of the Lord" (the next section of the book is, I think, intended to address the obvious questions, "how does that work? What kind of army has every soldier commanded by every other soldier?), and based on the types of relationships this word is applied to, translators decided on the weaker "submit." One virtue of Dr. Nyland's translation is that it emphasizes the purpose of the submission: the husband does not dominate the wife as though this, domination, were the objective. Rather, the wife (and the rest of the family; see Eph. 6:1, etc.) submits to the husband in order that the whole family might have clear leadership as it goes through the "battle" of life, and in order that the husband might have support from his "soldiers" in the "military operations" he chooses to undertake. I kind of like the differing perspective, and I think she makes a good point but, to someone who was not familiar with the more traditional translations, I think Dr. Nyland's rendering could be misleading.

I think her rendering of Colossians 3:18 is interesting. LSJ does give the traditional meaning of "to be fit or proper", but cites ONLY THE NEW TESTAMENT as authority on this. The Septuagint uses the word to mean "to belong, appertain." However, Dr. Nyland's translation, "to be connected" is by far a more common usage of the word in the classical Greek corpus. Very interesting.

Her translation of 1 Timothy 2:11-14 is a paraphrase. The meaning she gives may very well be correct. However, she is giving the MEANING. It is my belief that wherever it is possible a translation should have exactly the same degree of ambiguity and confusion as the original text would have had to the original readers. Here, context was necessary in order to get a precise understanding of the meaning. This context, where it comes from outside Scripture and is not part of our modern cultural context, could be included in a footnote. The phrase "I most certainly do not grant a woman to teach that she is the originator of man" is very interesting, but I can't see it in the text. The text says "I do not permit a woman to teach, nor to tyrannically dominate a man" (yes, the word traditionally translated "usurp authority" literally means "to be a tyrant"), and unless there is some funny grammar going on here that I don't understand, it just can't be read her way. The NT typically uses very simple grammar, and the simplest, most obvious reading of the grammar is the one above. Paul does not specify the content of what the woman in question is teaching.

I strongly agree with her rendering the text in 1 Timothy 3:11 as "the female deacons." There is no possessive pronoun there, nor even an article, so an interpretation as "likewise the women also," meaning the women who are deacons, is much more likely than "likewise the wives also," meaning the wives who are deacons. Plus, Romans 16:1 uses the female form of the word deacon (Greek masc. diakonos, fem. diakona) in reference to a woman named Phoebe. The NT appears in many places, particularly in the earlier writings, to use the word loosely, refering to all who serve in the church and not just those who fulfill some specific office for which there are requirements, but I nevertheless strongly favor the position that, in light of these considerations, 1 Timothy 3:11 is a reference to female deacons.

1 Corinthians 11:4-12 is translated very similar to traditional versions.

I really want to get my hands on a copy of this book, but it's pretty expensive and there are other things higher on my list of desired Bible study tools. I may break down and buy it soon, but for now I put in a request to the Penn library to buy it. If anyone reading this is affiliated with Penn, do me a favor and put in a request for this book here. The information you need for the request is available at the publisher's web-site here.

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July 26, 2005

More on The Source New Testament

A list of verses, with comparison to the TNIV (apparently chosen as a point of comparison because both eschew the use of gender-indefinite masculine pronouns and sometimes use singular "they"), is now available from Better Bibles Blog here. A few short reactions: The Source translates less literally than the English translations that I ordinarily use (NKJV and NASB), which attempt to go so far as even to reproduce the sentence structure of the original language (this attempt sometimes fails completely due to differences between Greek and English grammar and sometimes, especially in the NASB, leads to sentences that can be misleading and bear little or no resemblance to English as written by educated native speakers). This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the passages posted generally convey the meaning well. Particularly in Rev. 3:20 she does MUCH better than TNIV, although she is forced to depart from the Greek (literally "I will dine with him, and he with me") in order to do it. The translation "we will have dinner together" is much more idiomatic English and is both gender inclusive (which the original language text is, because Greek indisputably DOES have a gender-indefinite masculine pronoun) and avoids the singular "they" (which I hate, despite linguists' insistence that it's been around for some 700 years - English is already faced with a paucity of pronouns without confusing the singular and plural in gender indefinite cases, as we have already reduced ourselves to a single second person pronoun. It's getting increasingly difficult to communicate with any precision in this blasted language!) She does lose a little of the strength of the emphasis on mutuality, but one cannot possibly convey the feel of the Greek perfectly in an English translation. If a single translation of a passage conveys the entire meaning of every word, as the Amplified Bible attempts to, it will lose the flow, as the Amplified Bible does (the Amplified Bible is a good tool if you need a quick look at the different possible meanings of a verse - not so good for casual reading).

Her modification of Hebrews 2:6 is probably unnecessary and is not so concise as the more traditional renderings (it also uses the abstract noun "humanity" whereas the Greek literally says "what is a man"). The reason I say it is unnecessary is that when defining Greek words we very often say that anthropos (the word here) is "man as opposed to a god or an animal" and aner (the other Greek word for man, which also means husband) is "man as opposed to woman," and everyone seems to understand what we mean (as far as I can tell), so using man in the context doesn't seem to me to be at all misleading. But this is splitting hairs (ha! watch me start a sentence with a conjunction in the middle of a discussion of grammar!).

I also really like her use of more standard translations of Greek words, as in the use of paideuo in Heb. 12:7, although I am interested to know how she renders elencho (reprove, censure - NKJV renders it as rebuke) and mastigoo (whip, scourge) to ensure that the idea of discipline remains intact (paideuo, unlike didasko, very frequently has a moral component; it is not instruction in some particular field of knowledge but comprehensive education in order to make you a complete person. Here this moral education is clearly intended in the context, hence the traditional translation). As for rendering adelphoi, brothers (or siblings, if you prefer; it is the same word that would be used for a group of siblings of mixed genders, although it would not be used for an entirely female group), as "fellow believers," I'm undecided. That's obviously what it means, and using brothers in that way sounds awefully "Christianese" today, but I'm still not sure, I guess because it is reporting what the Bible means rather than what the Bible says.

In sum, I remain intrigued by this translation, and will be looking into it further.

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Breaking Translation Traditions

I blogged earlier on how the tradition of English language Bible translation has sometimes led to inaccurate renderings of the Greek New Testament (I assume this affects the Hebrew Bible as well, but I don't read Hebrew). Wayne Leman of Better Bibles Blog has been talking recently about a new translation called The Source New Testament which was made by a sole translator, Greek lexicographer Dr. Ann Nyland of the University of New England, Australia. Today, Wayne has an interview with Dr. Nyland in which she makes an argument similar to mine, though much more compelling. Where I happened across a single case of a word translated in the New Testament in a way that departs strikingly from its meaning in all other classical texts, including even Josephus, Dr. Nyland argues that the entire field of NT lexicography is some hundred years out of date, and has refused to incorporate the information garnered from the latest archaeological finds.

I must confess to some skepticism as to her interpretive conclusions. I don't happen to have my Greek handy at the moment or the time to go over it, but I certainly plan on looking closely at the passages she references in the interview to compare my NT lexicons with LSJ and whatever else I can find in search of support for her conclusions. Of course, I don't have access to all these unpublished papyrii and her conclusions are based on six years of work whereas I intend to spend maybe an hour or two.

Whatever the case, I am very excited about the possibility of a NT translation by a classical Greek lexicographer, and would very much like to get my hands on it. Unfortunately, it is rather expensive and has to be shipped from Australia (alternatively, there is an electronic download available with lots of DRM that costs almost as much as the paper edition). I suspect, however that the lexical aids included make the buy worthwhile and I may be ordering soon. I am in fact far more interested in the new lexicon she says is in progress, but it appears to be a few years off still.

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