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.

Posted by Kenny at December 30, 2005 5:37 PM
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Are Linguistic Facts Theologically Significant?
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Comments

Here's some seemingly unconnected thoughts in response to your excellent and thought provoking blog post.

It is a fundamental fact of linguistics that the more common a language feature is the less salient it is. So, 'male representative' advocates can't have it both ways. Language doesn't work that way.

Regarding the preeminence of koine Greek...Recall that as Luke relates the Pentecost event in Acts the people experienced what I would call a perfect translation of what Peter was saying. (I assume a view of inspiration very likely similar to yours.)

However, to balance this somewhat: God DID choose the Greek language to bring the NT to the world through 20 centuries. Perhaps it is the best language to translate FROM! Acts 2, IMO, significantly supports the need to translate into the heart language of people. And, in fact, strongly suggests it is possible.

Also, little itty-bitty pieces of a text do not hold large theological truths. Something of the size of 'male representation' would need to be built at the level of paragraph or above. That paragraph isn't easily found. Or, the other alternative, that little pieces of text DO hold theological truth, you're left with 'male representation' being relatively unimportant. Again, this can't be had both ways.

It's a dangerous thing to argue that we should hold to a specific theological truth because the culture of the time of writing of the NT might have held to the same truth. Ironically, that doesn't give Scripture its due weight of authority.

Lastly, I think it valuable to have two types of translations: what I call an analytic (the type you refer to above when you mention the NASB) and a synthetic (which, ideally, has fully synthesized the original meaning into the target language).

Good post, Kenny. I appreciate your analytical prowess. Please keep up the good work.

Posted by: Mike Sangrey at December 30, 2005 7:53 PM

Mike, I'm not sure I'd want to say that Pentecost was a perfect translation except in that it was the translation God wanted them to hear. Do we have to conclude that since God did the translation it must be perfect at capturing every nuance of the original? If you believe God was behind the translations in the NT of the OT that aren't perfect translations, then should you believe this?

Also, little itty-bitty pieces of a text do not hold large theological truths.

Paul would disagree. He makes a lot of the singular 'seed' of Abraham. Maybe there's something right that you're getting at, but you'll need more precision if you want to state it and not be saying something false.

As for Greek, of course it's the best language to translation from when the original documents in are Greek! I really doubt that Greek is the best language to translate from when the original language is Hebrew, Aramaic, German, Turkish, Hindi, English, or Tagalog.

I also think your account of what a synthetic (or dynamic) translation does seems too strong. It doesn't fully synthesize every aspect of the original meaning into the target language. It aims (and sometimes fails) to synthesize as much of the original sense of the original unit of language into the target language. Sense isn't all of meaning, and sometimes important elements of meaning aren't captured with that sort of translation but are better captured with what you're calling a synthetic translation. Sometimes a translation can't at all translate the original meaning if the receptor language doesn't have the resources to capture an idiom or something like that. It's as misleading to say that a dynamic or synthetic language fully captures the original meaning as it is to say that an analytic or essentially literal translation is the most accurate. Both claims rely on part of the picture of what translation is.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce at December 31, 2005 8:42 PM

I tried to send you a trackback, but it kept getting throttled. I've referenced your post favorably here.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce at January 3, 2006 1:29 PM

Thanks for the link, Jeremy. I'll look into the trackback issue.

Posted by: Kenny at January 3, 2006 3:03 PM

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