May 14, 2005

How Old Bible Translations Affect New Ones

I'm a fan of the New King James Version. It's a solid, accurate, literal translation of the original languages into standard English as written by today's educated native speakers. It flows well, and it accurately represents the original. But it has a problem. The problem is that, as the name suggests, the NKJV is heavily influenced by the history of English language Bible translation. This doesn't sound so bad, but there are a couple of serious problems with it. The first is that the King James Version of the Bible (aka the Authorized Version of 1611) was one of the first major literary works in modern English (Shakespeare notwithstanding), and is perhaps the most widely read book in the English language. Before it, Wyclif, Tyndale, the Bishops' Bible, etc. were all widely circulated, and the KJV was based on all of these, just as the NKJV is based on the old one. I don't mean to insinuate that the original texts were not consulted; they were (with the exception of Wyclif, who didn't read Greek or Hebrew and translated from the Vulgate instead - we'll get to that later). What I do mean to say is this: these editions form a tradition of Bible translation which has a prevalent and lasting influence to this day. Furthermore, they have been so widely read that the decisions of translators have actually altered the English language. To understand this, think of the English word "soul." According to EtymOnline this word was in use with the meaning "person" or "individual" as early as 1320 (which is, incidentally, around the time Wyclif was making his translation). It had some connotations of immortality in its etymological history, but these were as much cultural background as part of the actual definition of the word. The translators decided (correctly) that this word was a fair parallel of the Greek ψυχη (or, in Wyclif's case, the Latin anima). Centuries later, this word has an almost exclusively religious meaning. It is no longer the "self" or "consciousness" (and as a result is no longer equivalent to the Greek), but has some "otherwordly" connotation. A friend of mine reported that a friend of his he had been witnessing to once complained to him, "you only care about my soul," as though there were some her distinct from her soul, a concept completely foreign to the meaning of the Greek word.

The second problem, is that Bible translation has become, in some cases, a rather "inbred" field, where scholars look at only the work of other Bible translators, ignoring the broader work of scholars of classical Greek. The occasion which precipitated this post was a word, οκνηρος, occuring in Matthew 25:26 which the NKJV translates as "lazy." According to LSJ, the standard lexicon for classical Greek used among secular scholars, the word means hesitant, timid, or "shrinking back from" doing something. The only example LSJ gives (and keep in mind that LSJ is based on the entire classical Greek corpus, including the NT) of a usage like the one in the NKJV is an obscure reference to a philosopher called Hieroclitus who wrote in the fifth century AD. In the context, hesitant or timid actually makes more sense than lazy. Why then this translation?

I checked other translations as well. Every one I had lying around (KJV, NAS, NIV, ESV) had something roughly equivalent to the NKJV rendering; none said anything about timidity or hesitancy. The same translation was suggested by my theological lexicons (Strong, Zodhiates, Moulton). I thought at first this error (if it was an error) might have propagated down from Wyclif, but it turns out it goes farther than that: it originates in the Latin Vulgate. The word used there, "piger," means precisely the same thing as these English translations, and, interestingly, Hieroclitus is pretty much contemporary with Jerome, so this may be Jerome imposing the Greek of his day upon an earlier text. I am slightly hesitant in this criticism, because all of the earlier uses of the word that I found are Attic, dating some 500 years before the NT, so whether the usage 500 years before or 400 years afterward is more representative is something of a quandary. However, every usage of this word in the NT (the other two noun uses are Romans 12:11 and Philippians 3:1; the verb form is used at Acts 9:38) is perfectly compatible with the classical definition, and so it is not clear why this departure was made, except for reasons of tradition.

All this is to say that I really want to see a translation of the NT that isn't afraid to part ways with the tradition of English language translation and find the closest English word possible, regardless of what Wyclif or Tyndale or the KJV or the NIV did, and regardless of what St. Jerome did. The way that the Bible has shaped the English language and the way that previous translations have shaped new translations and theological lexicons requires radical departures in order to make the text fresh and prevent us from bringing our theological prejudices with us in our reading.

Posted by Kenny at May 14, 2005 1:30 AM
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Comments

Well said, Kenny. I'm flying out today but will be back home tomorrow night. I want to link to this post in one of mine on the Better Bibles Blog. Well, maybe I have time to link now before we leave for the airport. --Wayne

Posted by: Wayne Leman at May 31, 2005 10:01 AM

I just started looking into the HCSB and stumbled across your pages. I think you are making too much of "οκνηρος" being translated "lazy". Strong says its from "okneō"; tardy, that is, indolent; (figuratively) irksome: - grievous, slothful. okneō=From oknos (hesitation); to be slow (figuratively loath): - delay.

I'm not a greek scholar, but even I can see based on the definitions and word roots, that there is definitely some connotation of laziness. You seem to favor timid/hesitant but I think those are merely offshoot type associations based on the word's origins (oknos). The word used in this verse means indolent which = "Disinclined to work or exertion" - this is another way of saying LAZY.

Personally I think the hundreds of independent scholars that have translated this verse over the centuries got this one right.

Posted by: Gordo at January 24, 2008 10:28 AM

You should not rely on Strong's for this purpose. Strong's lexicon simply contains a list of all the ways the word is translated in the KJV. Similarly, my point is precisely that it has not be translated by "hundreds of independent scholars" - nearly all of the scholars are relying on the traditional translations that have come down to them, which are influenced by the Vulgate, Wyclif, KJV, etc. Whether my interpretation is in fact correct and the NT meaning of the word is closer to the classical meaning than to the Byzantine meaning would require further research, but the considerations you raise contain nothing that is not already discussed in my post.

Posted by: Kenny at January 24, 2008 10:37 AM

To add to what I said about the translation "lazy". It just wouldn't make sense in the context to translate this they way you think it should be translated. Would the master be yelling at the slave, 'You hesitate too much!!' or 'You're TOO timid!'? Not likely. Put yourself in his shoes. If you gave money to be invested, to a bunch of your relatives for example, and you came back a long time later and found out one of them had just put it under his mattress, you probably wouldn't say "You're too timid!" You might not say it, being a kind person, but you'd probably be thinking "Man this guy is so lazy, all he had to do was stick it in a bank for me at a minimum and he couldn't even do that!"

Posted by: Gordo at January 24, 2008 10:38 AM

No. It makes equal sense to say, "are you so timid that you don't trust even the bank?!" Furthermore, the translation "timid" makes more sense of the servant's comments. Finally, Jesus' parables often contain surprising portions, where characters don't act in the expected fashion or say the expected thing. If you were more inclined to expect him to say "lazy," that doesn't show that he's not going to say something else you don't expect.

Posted by: Kenny at January 24, 2008 10:43 AM

OK, no strong's. How about Thayer's Greek dictionary? Definition:
1) sluggish, slothful, backward

You said "nearly all of the scholars are relying on the traditional translations that have come down to them". Considering other translations is important and expected, and of course influential, but that does not mean a given translator is bound to any given rendering. Obviously they all strive to produce the best and most accurate translation. In general they are going to carefully study manuscript evidence and the original languages which should have greater importance than renderings in prior translations. The fact that nearly all of them translate this as "lazy" is not evidence of a conspiracy, its evidence that they probably have it right.

Posted by: Gordo at January 24, 2008 10:55 AM

Thayer's is somewhat better, though my understanding is that it is primarily a theological dictionary intended for people who don't know Greek, and a theological dictionary is different than a lexicon.

The manuscript evidence for the NT is not relevant to our present discussion, which is a question of lexicography, and not of textual criticism.

I never said anything about conspiracy, I simply said that scholars generally (and correctly) rely on the work of their predecessors. I then attempted to use this to explain why the translations I found, all of which were fairly traditional translations (the NKJV and ESV do this sort of thing INTENTIONALLY - that is, they usually stick with the traditional rendering, even if the weight of evidence is against it, unless its been conclusively or nearly conclusively proven that it's wrong), render it in a way that is not supported by the evidence that was available to me at the time I wrote this post.

I do, however, mention in my post that because of the broad agreement I am hesitant about my conclusion. The broad agreement suggests that there may be another explanation: perhaps these scholars have other evidence which I didn't have access to.

This post is, as you can see, a few years old. When I get home, I will remember to check BDAG, which is the REAL New Testament Greek lexicon, and see if it cites sources that are near-contemporary with the NT to show that this is the correct rendering. That could well be the piece of information I was missing (LSJ is generally pretty light on Koine citations outside the NT). On the other hand, I can almost guarantee that the KJV did it because Wyclif did it, and Wyclif did it because the Vulgate did it. The reason I can almost guarantee that is that it is a fairly rare word, and there would have been little evidence outside the context of this passage and the traditional renderings for the KJV translators to draw on. However, it is entirely possible that, as you suggest, modern translators have better reasons for retaining this rendering than simply the weight of the tradition.

Posted by: Kenny at January 24, 2008 12:09 PM

"the translation "timid" makes more sense of the servant's comments."

I can understand how you might work it in, but I definitely don't think it makes more sense.

Was the master mad at the servant for being timid, or mad at the servant for using this fear as a lame excuse for not doing what he should have done? Obviously the master thinks it is just a bad excuse because, as he explains, if the servant was so afraid of the master then he should have known that the master would be angry with him for doing nothing with the talent given to him (i.e. inaction, or slothfulness, or laziness).

In the greater context, looking into the meaning of the parable - is it wrong to fear God? No, but that can't be an excuse for failing to serve Him. God isn't likely to scold you for being timid, but he will scold you for doing nothing for Him when you've been given talents you need to put to work.

Posted by: Gordo at January 24, 2008 12:29 PM

What you keep pointing out is that "lazy" makes more sense of the master's comments. If you look at the servant's comments, he doesn't sound lazy, he sounds like he is afraid of what will happen if he loses the money, and the master can then be read as balking at the idea that the servant should be so afraid that he buried it in a hole, just to make sure nothing went wrong, when he could easily have put it in the bank with little or no risk. The servant can thus be read as being scolded for being timid or hesitant.

Certainly, regardless of which is the better translation, the core idea has to do with shrinking back from action.

Posted by: Kenny at January 24, 2008 1:14 PM

I haven't had much time to look closely, but BDAG's only citations for "idle, lazy, indolent" are Matt. 25:26, Prov. 6:6 (Septuagint), and Romans 12:20. It seems to prefer "indolent" as a more generic word than "idle" or "lazy." However, Prov. 6:6 is as good as anything could be in terms of showing that it can sometimes mean "lazy."

However, the very first definition BDAG gives, of which this is simply an explication, is "possessing oknos." oknos, however, is not defined in BDAG as it (apparently) does not occur in the NT or other early Christian literature. There is a definition for okneo: "hesitate, delay."

In other words, BDAG thinks that the answer is somewhere in between the two discussed here: it thinks that the word means hesitating to act or simply not acting without reference to the specific cause.

It should also be noted that there is a second definition of okneros: "causing oknos, causing fear or reluctance" for which BDAG cites Philippians 3:1 and also some extra-biblical sources with which I am not familiar.

Posted by: Kenny at January 25, 2008 8:46 AM

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