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October 09, 2007

"Dionysius" on God-Talk

A collection of writings have come down to us under the name "Dionysius the Aereopagite" (after Acts 17:34) which effectively form the foundation of the tradition of Christian mysticism. Most scholars today believe the writer lived in Syria, c. 500 AD. The general consensus is that he couldn't have written earlier than this because he seems to have been influenced by 5th century Neo-Platonists. All this by way of background; I don't have any particular opinion as to when the writer lived or by whom he was influenced.

The principle work of "Dionysius" is only a few pages long and is called "On Mystical Theology." His surviving book-length works are The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, The Celestial Hierarchy, and The Divine Names. I read "On Mystical Theology" recently, first in the original Greek (available online), and then in the English translation included in Bernard McGinn's The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism. The work begins with a discussion of the divine darkness beyond understanding, i.e. of mystical, non-discursive knowledge of God. Predictably, this section is virtually incomprehensible (the English translation doesn't help that much, and if it followed the text more closely it would help even less). What is interesting to me, however, is the discussion of the different types of theologies - that is, of the types of "God-talk" that are possible while preserving God's status as beyond knowledge and intellect. This passage is interesting in and of itself, and when I read the Greek it was the part I felt I understood, so I was even more puzzled when I read the translation and found that the things I thought I understood weren't there! I'm going to first give the very beginning of the treatise in my translation and McGinn's for flavor (I should note that McGinn's translation is an adaptation of an anonymous one published in 1923), and then translations of a large chunk of chapter 3 to see if we can figure out what is going on.

1.1 Trinity beyond all essence, all divinity, all goodness! Guide of Christians to divine wisdom, direct our path to the ultimate summit of your mystical lore, most incomprehensible, most luminous, and most exalted, where the pure, absolute, and immutable mysteries of theology are veiled in the dazzling obscurity of the secret silence, outshining all brilliance with the intensity of their darkness, and surcharging our blinded intellects with the utterly impalpable and invisible fairness of glories surpassing all beauty. 1.1 Trinity beyond existence and beyond divinity and beyond goodness, guide of Christians to godly wisdom, direct us on [the way] of mystical discourses beyond ignorance and beyond assertions and at the highest peak; inside [of it] the pure, the uncorrupted, the unturning mysteries of theology according to that which is beyond light have been unveiled, a darkness of silent mystical secrets, in the darkest [place], that which is beyond appearance, beyond luminescence, and in the entirely impalpable and the unseen thing of the splendor beyond name, beyond filling the sightless mind.

The first thing you will notice is, of course, that the McGinn translation is rather more polished. Mine is more literal. (Well, actually, the first thing you might notice, is that I was serious about this being incomprehensible.) I had originally wanted to follow "Dionysius" literally and user the prefix "hyper-" where I have used the word "beyond," since he has the prefix huper in the Greek, but I couldn't get that to make sense in English. At any rate, keep in mind that this whole section is about hyper-this and hyper-that; later I will try to explain why that is and draw an interesting conclusion from it.

"Dionysius" goes on, as I have said, for a page or two in this fashion, before getting to chapter 3 which is, as I have said, what I'm interested in:

3 In the Theological Outlines [a lost work] we have set forth the principle affirmative expressions concerning God, and have shown in what sense God's holy nature is one, and in what sense three; what is within it which is called Paternity, what Filiation, and what is signified by the name Spirit; how from the uncreated and indivisible good, the blessed and perfect rays of its goodness proceed, and yet abide immutably, one both within their origin and within themselves and each other, co-eternal with the act by which they spring from it; how the super-essential Jesus enters an essential state in which the truth of human nature meets it; and other matters made known by the oracles [i.e. scripture] were expounded in the same place.

Again, in the treatise on Divine Names, we have considered the meaning, as concerning God, of the titles of Good, of Being, of Life, of Wisdom, of Power, and of such other names as are applied to him [Divine Names, chpaters 4-8]. Further, in the Symbolic Theology [another lost work] we have considered what are the metaphorical titles drawn from the world of sense and applied to the nature of God; what is meant by the material and intellectual images we form of him, or the functions and instruments of activity attributed to him; what are the places where he dwells and the raiment in which he is adorned; what is meant by God's anger, grief, and indignation, or the divine inebriation; what is meant by God's oaths and threats, by his slumber and waking; and all sacred and symbolical representations. And it will be observed how far more copious and diffused are the last terms than the first, for the Theological Outlines and the discussion of the divine names are necessarily more brief than the Symbolic Theology. (Brackets McGinn's)

3 Therefore, in the Theological Hypotyposes we praised the most dominant things of the cataphatic theology: how the divine and good nature is called 'simple' [i.e. 'one']; how [it is called] 'triune;' what [nature] is called 'paternal' and what 'filial;' what the theology of the Spirit wants to clarify; how the lights in the heart of the [nature] of goodness grow out of the immaterial and indivisible good, and [yet], subsisting in it and in themselves and in one another, remain alone without growth moving about; how Jesus, [though] beyond existence, took on existence with the truly human growths; and however many other things concerning the discourses have been made clear in the Theological Hypotyposes, were praised. But in On The Divine Names, how [the divine nature] is called 'good,' how [it is called] 'being,' how [it is called] 'life,' and 'wisdom,' and 'power,' and however many other things of the understanding are divine names, [were praised]. ['divine names' = Gr. 'theonyms' – what a nifty word!] And in the Symbolic Theology, certain metaphorical names [Gr. 'metonyms' – another nifty word] for the divine nature from sensible things, certain divine shapes, certain divine outlines and parts and tools, certain divine places and worlds, certain desires, certain sufferings and wraths, certain drunkennesses and carousings, certain oaths and imprecations, certain sleeps and certain wakings and however many other forms are holy falsehoods of symbolic God-patterns.

And I think you have seen how very many more words the last things take up than the first things: for also it was necessary that the Theological Hypotyposes and the exposition [lit. 'unfolding'] of the divine names should be a shorter discourse than the Symbolic Theology. The general view given by thought [must] account for [lit. 'set up'] as much as is denied of the opposite: just as even now when we were entering the darkness beyond thought we did not find a short discourse but, [rather, it was] entirely non-discursive and without understanding.

Now, I think that what I am about to say is compatible with the McGinn translation, so I'm not too worried about my interpretation being out to lunch, but I sure wouldn't have thought of this if I hadn't also read the Greek, and I didn't understand it very well, so I'm waiting to be corrected in terms of my interpretation of "Dionysius," but I'm nevertheless going to tell you what I think, if for no other reason than that it is independently interesting, regardless of historical accuracy.

Traditionally, especially in Eastern Christianity, theology is divided in apophatic and cataphatic forms. Apophatic theology says what God is not (he is infinite, atemporal, unlimited, immaterial, etc.), and cataphatic theology says what God is (he is good, loving, powerful, three, one, etc.). Now, it seems to me that Dionysius uses these terms rather differently (well, he actually doesn't, in this work, use the word apophatikos, but he uses some cognates). That is, traditionally the words are interpreted with the etymologies "affirming away from" and "affirming toward," whence saying what something is not vs. saying what it is. But there is reason in this passage to suppose that what Dionysius really means is not "affirming away from" but "away from affirming," and, similarly, "toward affirming" - that is, he means discursive and non-discursive knowledge of God. In my translation I consistently used "discourse" and its cognates for logos and its cognates, and transliterated the word "cataphatic" (and also "hypotyposis," but I'm coming to that).

This, then, is the first distinction in theology: the mystical theology in which we know the unknowable and speak the ineffable in the cloud of brilliant darkness beyond light, existence, understanding, and language (note that if this made too much sense, it would mean that I had actually succeeded in giving a discursive account of what can, according to "Dionysius," be known only non-discursively, and so his theory would be false, so you shouldn't get too upset if you didn't understand it), and the discursive theology of the understanding. In God's true nature he is understood to be beyond the understanding, and so only accessible to this non-discursive knowledge-beyond-knowing, insofar as he is accessible at all. We cannot speak literally of God. (The debate on whether we can speak literally of God continues to this day, with the majority of traditional monotheists on the side of "Dionysius" to date.)

This is where things get really interesting. Although we cannot speak literally of God, nevertheless not all ways of speaking of God are equivalent. This seems intuitively true: it is very different to say that God is good or loving than to say that God is our Father, or that Christ is the Bridegroom of the Church, or - in an even more extreme example - that "a mighty fortress is our God." But, if we deny that we can speak literally of God, then what is the distinction here? "Dionysius" actually gives an analysis of this, having written books on each of the three divisions.

The first division is that of the "Hypotyposes." This word usually means outlines or some such, and so McGinn has translated it as such, but I'm not sure that's what it means in "Dionysius," exactly, because I think there's reason to suppose that "Dionysius" is playing on the etymology. A tupos is a pattern, imprint, outline, or some such, and hupo is the opposite of "Dionysius'" favorite prefix, hyper. God, he says, is hyper-existent, hyper-good, and so forth. What then are existence and goodness? They are hypo-types of God! That is, God is, strictly speaking, beyond existence and goodness, but existence and goodness don't misdescribe God as the "holy falsehoods of symbolic God-patterns" strictly speaking do; rather, they fall short of describing him, which is, after all, what hupo means.

The next category is that of the divine names. I'm not totally certain what the difference between the divine names and the hypotyposes is supposed to be, so let's simply assume that they are items that fall on the boundary of the hypotyposes and the symbolic theology. Goodness and existence are actually among the examples of this category, so "Dionysius" must not think that they are strictly hypotyposes, the way threeness, oneness, Fatherhood, Sonhood, Spirithood, the "lights of goodness" (whatever that means), and Christ's humanity are, but I chose them above because they are among the examples of hyper-attributes in chapter 1.

The final category is the symbolic theology, which contains the truly metaphorical. These are cases where we describe God in terms of sensible things (but apparently Fatherhood and Sonhood are not sensible?), and succeed in saying something true about him by this means.

This, at any rate, is what I got out of it. I encourage all you Bible translation bloggers to try your hand at interpreting/translating "Dionysius" to stretch your Greek muscles a little more and to tell me if you come to the same conclusions (and critique my translation!). I'd also appreciate any comments on this account as either (1) an interpretation of Dionysius, or (2) an actual assertion about our knowledge of God from anyone who has anything to say about such things.

Posted by kpearce at 09:28 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

August 15, 2007

logikos Doesn't Mean "Spiritual"

John at Locusts and Honey is wondering where the NASB's translation of 1 Peter 2:2 ("long for the pure milk of the word") came from, as compared with the NRSV which has (like many other modern translations) "long for the pure, spiritual milk." The NASB translation led John to suppose correctly that some reference to logos was present in this verse, and I'm sure that's exactly what the NASB translators intended in translating logikos as "of the word." This is precisely what the Greek suffix ikos (from which we get "ic") does: it forms an adjective meaning "having to do with." Now, the thesis of this post is that that word doesn't mean "spiritual."

Now, I confess to being biased by my background in classical philosophy: in Plato and Aristotle (and friends) the word certainly means "reasonable" or "rational" or "intellectual" or, occasionally, "linguistic," but never "spiritual." However, there is a good explanation of why logikos is often translated "spiritual" and that is given in BDAG (the big New Testament/ante-Nicene lexicon): BDAG (I'm working with the second edition; I don't have the third to compare) cites some examples, all of them questionable, for the reading "spiritual," and most of these rest on conflating the faculty of reason with the spirit - something Paul, at least, would never do (though other writers might). However, more importantly, BDAG says "it is to be borne in mind that logikos means spiritual ... also in contrast to 'literal' with the meaning 'metaphorical.'" I hope at some point to write a whole post on the contrast between logos (as in "the Word became flesh") and rhema (as in "the word spoken through the prophet"), but for now suffice it to say that rhema means a specific form of words, whereas logos means "the intelligible content of speech or writing" or some such. Mystical interpreters of Scripture, such as Origen, used the word logikos to describe the inner, mystical meaning found in the metaphorical content of a passage, as opposed to the literal, or rhematikos (I don't think they actually use that Greek word, but it is a real word) sense. Hence it means "spiritual" - that is, related to the deep, inner truth of a thing. I guess "spiritual" sort of means that...

Really, however, the word means "reasonable," "rational," "intellectual," or perhaps "linguistic." What the Origen example shows is that it also means "related to content" (as opposed to form). It simply doesn't mean "spiritual" in the sense I get from this English translation. It only means "spiritual" in the sense mentioned above which, I claim, is not a normal meaning of the English word "spiritual."

Two places where this is important are Romans 12:1 and 1 Peter 2:2, the verse John mentioned. In connection with Romans 12:1, BDAG does cite some previous examples of the phrase "reasonable act of service" (or "spiritual worship" in some translations), including Philo who says that God desires "the sacrifice of a rational spirit" rather than animal sacrifices. Perhaps the idea is that these other uses of logikos derive from that one?

At any rate, Romans 12:1 is correctly translated by the NKJV (following the original KJV), "your reasonable service." The central idea of that passage is that, when you consider the mercies of God, the only reasonable thing to do is to offer your body as a living sacrifice. Logikos. Reasonable.

In 1 Peter 2:2 things are somewhat more difficult, but my point still stands. The translations "of the Word," especially with a capital W, may be a bit much for St. Peter (if it was St. John I wouldn't hesitate), but "reasonable" or "rational" remains the correct translation: the milk we desire is milk for our reason as opposed to milk for our bodies. The translation "spiritual" also has the drawback that it conflates logikos with pneumatikos, which actually does mean "spiritual" and appears in v. 5.

These are, incidentally, the only NT occurences of this word.

Now, I must confess that I have departed somewhat here from the principles of humility and charity I normally try (with varying degrees of success) to follow in disagreeing with Bible translations by simply insisting that these translations are wrong, despite the fact that most modern translations agree, but I just can't see how logikos could possibly take this meaning. The evidence in BDAG mostly consists of these two references (the rest of the citations are either obscure, much later than the NT, or secondary articles, with the already mentioned exception of Philo). Furthermore, BDAG's arguments generally connect the meaning "spiritual" with the meaning "suitable to a creature endowed with reason" or some such, which makes it seem to me to be a misunderstanding of English rather than of Greek. ("Spiritual" doesn't mean that!) By contrast, the meaning I am talking about has dozens of citations in LSJ, from Plato and earlier to Plutarch (a contemporary of the New Testament) and later. Why invent new meanings when the most well-attested central meanings of the words can account for all the evidence?

On the other hand, it is only recent translations, for the most part, that have this translation, and they rely, I'm sure, mostly on BDAG3. Is there new evidence in BDAG3 that I'm missing?

So I suppose, John, that I'm in the opposite situation from you: I can't figure out where all the modern translations got the idea that it means "spiritual" instead of "of the word" (i.e. "rational"). Maybe if you tell me why you thought the NRSV's translation was closer to the Greek, then we'll both be able to figure out what's going on.

Posted by kpearce at 09:29 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

August 13, 2007

Original Sin-Original Guilt, Christ's Righteousness-Imputation of Righteousness

Peter Kirk has posted a discussion of the Latin text Augustine was familiar with and its effect on his doctrine of original sin. The claim is, effectively, this: Augustine believed in the doctrine of original guilt because of an ambiguity introduced by an excessively literal Latin Bible which persists in the Vulgate and later theologians have a propensity to read original guilt into the text of Scripture because Augustine did. The passage in question is the end of Romans 5:12. The English translations are pretty much all the same: "in this way death spread to all men, because all sinned." But Augustine's translation says "in whom all sinned." The English translations are certainly more accurate. It is true, however, that many theologians, following Augustine, have claimed that everyone sinned in Adam. For instance, Michael Rea's paper "The Metaphysics of Original Sin" (which I highly recommend, if for no other reason than because it's fun) discusses several Western accounts of original sin and finds it necessary to examine various accounts of personal identity, since some of these theories require that we actually each be identical with Adam at the time of his first sin, and not identical with him at his second sin, i.e. that in Adam's eating of the fruit we literally all sin in him.

Now, in the comments, Jeremy and others argue, and Peter concedes, that no contemporary Protestant theologian actually makes the argument Augustine makes and, in fact, have other arguments for this conclusion, but Peter nevertheless (plausibly) claims that we tend to be more inclined to accept this view because of Augustine's influence on the tradition.

Peter's claim is supported by the fact that in the Christian East, where Augustine's influence is considerably less (though he is still a canonized saint), theologians have generally accepted original sin while denying original guilt, which, if I read him correctly, is also Peter's view. I have been told that this view was also held by John Wesley who got it from the various Eastern Christian writers he read (he was particularly fond of the Macarian Homilies). The view is this: because of Adam's sin, human nature is corrupted so that none of us is able not to sin (Romans 3:23); however, contra Augustine, we are held guilty only for our own particular acts of sin (which we all necessarily commit due to the corruption of our natures) and not for Adam's sin.

Now, I see the doctrine of original sin as very strongly supported by Scripture, whereas I think the doctrine of original guilt is something that comes primarily out of systematic theology rather than the clear teaching of specific passages of Scripture. (Augustine, of course, had a specific passage teaching this view in his Bible, but that was due to a misleading translation.) In fact, Romans 5:12 seems rather supportive of the original-sin-without-original-guilt view under consideration as against the Augustinian view. For the record, I regard both views as plausible and orthodox, provided that those who deny original guilt make strong enough claims about depravity.

Throughout Romans 5, Paul sets up a parallel between Adam and Christ, the new Adam. "if by the one man's trespass the many died, how much more have the grace of God and the gift overflowed to the many by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ ... from one sin came the judgment, resulting in condemnation, but from the many trespasses came the gift, resulting in justification." (vv. 15 and 16) And the correspondance is real: indeed, there is a theological debate directly parallel to the debate about original guilt, and this is the debate about imputation of righteousness. "To impute" is a King James term for the Greek logizomai which can mean "to charge to one's account" (the word at Romans 5:13 is ellogeo, a cognate that means just exactly and only "to charge to one's account", whereas logizomai is a broader term and can also mean "to reckon," "to add up," "to consider," "to think," etc.). The doctrine of imputation of righteousness says that we are credited ("to credit" is a good translation of logizomai when used with a positive connotaton in some contexts) with Christ's righteousness; that is, in judging us, God considers Christ's righteous life as if it were ours and so acquits ("justifies" - Greek dikaioo) us, rather than condemning us for our sins.

(A brief note on this word: "justified" is often glossed as "declared righteous," and that's not so bad, except that "righteous" is also a technical theological term, and is also originally a legal term in the Greek, and we don't necessarily know what it means. To be righteous is to be on the right side of the law. To be justified means to have a judicial declaration state that you owe no (further) civil or criminal penalty. This can mean one of two things: either you have been found innocent or the penalty has been paid in full and you can now be released. I've used the translation "acquitted," which is footnoted in the HCSB, because it is easy to understand in this context, but I think Paul plays on the broader semantic range of the Greek word: on the one hand, we are acquitted because of Christ's innocence, but on the other hand, we were guilty and Christ paid our penalty for us. I think these are two different metaphors that Paul intentionally merges in his overally view of "justification.")

While Paul speaks of God "imputing" (or, rather, not imputing) sin in several places, the only talk of "imputing" righteousness in the New Testament centers around Genesis 15:6, which uses that wording in the Septuagint. The longest such discussion is Romans 4, immediately before our passage. This verse, as quoted by Paul at Romans 4:3, reads "But Abraham trusted God, and it was counted toward his [being] on the right side of the law" (my translation - traditionally, "Abraham believed God and it was credited to him for righteousness"). At 4:24-25, Paul connects this back to us and to Christ: "[Our trust] is about to be counted in our [favor], since we place our trust in the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead. [Jesus] was betrayed on account of our violations [of God's law] and raised on account of the full payment of our penalty [or 'on account of our acquittal']." (With the traditional theological vocabulary: "[Our faith] is about to be imputed to us [as righteousness], since we have faith in the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead. [Jesus] was betrayed on account of our transgressions and raised on account of our justification.")

This, as I said, leads directly into Romans 5, the first verse of which says, "Therefore, since our penalty has been declared 'paid in full' because we have trusted him [lit. 'from trust' or 'because of trust'], we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." (Side note: I'm beginning to understand why translators use the traditional theological vocabulary - translating into plain English is hard work, and I'm not sure I'm even succeeding!) The traditional Protestant view can be seen as a pretty straightforward inference from this passage: because we trust in Christ's rigtheousness rather than our own, God judges us on the basis of Christ's righteousness, rather than on the basis of our own. There is a lot of Biblical support for this kind of idea, especially in the prophetic books, often with the metaphor of clothing (e.g. Isaiah 61:10, 64:6, Zechariah 3) - I have no intention of tracking down every passage to this effect, because there are a lot of them. In fact, I think this is strongly enough supported that the parallel to imputation of righteousness can be used as an argument in favor of original guilt! Nevertheless, it remains an inference from the text, rather than the immediate teaching of the text. The immediate teaching of the text is something more vague and general, as original sin is more vague and general than original guilt. The text teaches that Adam's sin brought sin and death into the world for everyone, and Christ's righteousness brings life, peace, and justification into the world for everyone who believes.

As this is an inference, there is room for a view parallel to the original-sin-without-original-guilt view: the Christ's-righteousness-without-imputation view which, if I understand this article correctly, may be the view of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The author says "For a Christian, the beginning of eternal-life is the beginning of his belief in Jesus Christ. For him a promise has been given, a reward for eternity because, 'Who soever liveth and believeth in Me, shall never die' (John 11:26)." Later he also says, "Repentance is the exercise of the free will of man, without which there is no salvation ... Repentance is ... the human reaction to the appeal of Jesus Christ." Christ, his righteous life and sacrificial death, his promise, and our trust in him are thus all seen as essential ingredients in salvation. Later, however, judgment is said to be according to "faith and deeds on earth" and reference is made to "the moral progress of the soul." Now, this is admittedly a little vague, and I'm going to interpret it charitably, keeping in mind that the Orthodox theologians who say these things intend them to be compatible with Scripture, including Romans. What could this possibly mean that would be compatible? Well, first we note that repentance and faith are seen as the beginning of this process - no good deed or "moral progress" occurring before this can please God in such a way as to acheive salvation - and that repentance is seen as a "reaction to the appeal of Jesus Christ." We further note that Pelagianism - the view that man is capable of initiating and/or accomplishing his own salvation - is regarded as a heresy in the East just as in the West. The story of salvation begins with "the appeal of Jesus Christ." Only after Christ makes his appeal to us can there be good deeds and "moral progress." We can then understand this Christ's-righteousness-without-imputation view by comparison with the original-sin-without-original-guilt view. Remember that because of Romans 5 we ought to say that we have Christ's righteousness in the same way we once had Adam's sin. As a result of Adam's sin, "death spread to all men because all sinned." We now claim that because of Christ's righteousness life can spread to all who believe, because all can live righteous lives. After repentance and the new birth, the believer can say "I have been crucified with Christ; and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me." (Galatians 2:19-20) Christ in the believer now does what the believer could not do for himself - lives the life pleasing to God. On account of this life, the believer is judged to be righteous and acquitted of his sin. (Everyone who has begun the process - who has repented and believed - counts as "saved" in the Evangelical sense of that term. The Orthodox writer combines the "Great White Throne" judgment by which one enters heaven [Revelation 20:11-15] with the bema judgment for the heavenly reward [2 Corinthians 5:10].)

Now, what this theory needs, which is not mentioned in the article I linked, is an account of atonement. I don't necessarily mean penal substitution - I regard the doctrine of the atonement as an essential point of orthdoxy, but penal substitution as a probably correct but certainly incomplete account of the atonement. If this theory is to work, we cannot claim simply that the believer is "a new creation ... the new things have come;" we must also claim that "old things have passed away" (2 Corinthians 5:17), and the clear Biblical teaching is that, one way or another, it is the death of Christ that takes away our old sins (Romans 6:1-11, Ephesians 2:14-16, etc.).

By way of conclusion, let me say that I regard the traditional Protestant view as solidly Biblically and historically orthodox, whereas the view that I've been sketching here I say might be made to be both plausible and orthodox if sufficiently strong pictures of depravity and atonement can be annexed to it. This is far from an endorsement of this theory, but I present it for your consideration in the hope that it will cause you to reexamine your assumptions and think through the Biblical and rational grounds of your beliefs. Good luck!

Posted by kpearce at 07:13 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

April 11, 2007

Translating Revelation 11:15

In Revelation 11:15, a loud voice from heaven says something which the HCSB translates as "The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Messiah, and He will reign forever and ever!" The other translations I had handy (NKJV, NIV, NASB, KJV, RSV) were all very similar. The agreement of the translations makes me wonder if I'm missing something, because it appears to me that there is another reading, which actually seems to me to deal with the grammar better. I would translate this reading as: "The Kingdom of the Universe, [the Kingdom] of our Lord and of His Christ, has begun, and he will reign throughout the ages of ages." (Note: I heard the translation "unto the ages of ages" for eis tous aionas ton aionon in the liturgy of an English-speaking Greek Orthodox Church and liked it; it's more literal than the standard translations.)

In terms of interpretation, there is one reason, I think, for favoring the standard translation over mine: namely, that the world (kosmos) is normally seen as opposed to the Kingdom of God in the New Testament. However, this usage is not constant throughout the NT, and in the Johannine literature I don't think it's even very common (though it is certainly used that way in 1 John 2:15-17, and I haven't done a comprehensive study). Furthermore, the style of the Revelation is supposed to be substantially differen than that of the undisputed Johannine literature (I haven't done a comprehensive study of this either), and in the Revelation the word is used only three times and the other two (13:8 and 17:8) both use it in the phrase apo tes kataboles tou kosmo - "from the foundation of the world" - so there is no usage of this word in the Revelation which clearly has a sense of a world system opposed to the Kingdom of God, the way the word is often used in other NT literature. So this interpretive consideration doesn't seem to be that strong.

Grammatically, I think my translation has a stronger basis than the standard translation, for two reasons: (1) egeneto is placed at the beginning of the sentence. This construction is parallel to the existential use of esti(n) ("there is an x" as opp. "x is y"). Again, it is similar to the idiomatic use of the word without a subject to mean "it came about" (see, e.g., Luke 1:5). To say what the translations interpret it as saying, we would expect egeneto to come in between "of the universe" and "of our Lord and Christ," rather than at the beginning. (2) There is no explicit nominative in the predicate (you'll note that translations that mark such things will have the second usage of "the kingdom" marked as not existing in the Greek). This is not problematic in and of itself, but it is needed to make my translation possible, and it also seems unlikely that this series of genitives with nothing separating them should belong one half in the subject and the other half in the predicate. Rather, "of our Lord and of his Christ" should be interpreted as an appositive.

While none of the translations say this, the Majority Text does have it punctuated as an appositive (that is, a comma is inserted after tou kosmou). NA27 does not. It is curious that the Hodges and Farstad should punctuate it this way, since Farstad worked on both the NKJV and the HCSB (both of which were done after the Majority Text), neither of which translate the phrase as an appositive.

Am I missing anything here? Are there any considerations in favor of the standard translation that I'm missing? Do others think my translation is plausible?

Posted by kpearce at 03:22 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

February 28, 2007

Quote of the Day: Augustine on Reading the Bible in Translation

An important antidote to the ignorance of literal signs is the knowledge of languages. Users o the Latin language - and it is these that I have now undertaken to instruct - need two others, Hebrew and Greek, for an understanding of the divine scriptures, so that recourse may be had to the original versions if any uncertainty arises from the infinite variety of Latin translators ... There are certain words in particular languages which just cannot be translated into the idioms of another language. This is especially true of interjections, which signify emotion rather than an element of clearly conceived meaning: two such words, it is said, are raca, a word expressing anger, and hosanna, a word expressing joy. But it is not because of these few words, which it is easy enough to note down and ask other people about, but because of the aforementioned diversity of translators that a knowledge of languages is necessary. Translators of scripture from Hebrew into Greek can be easily counted, but not so translators into Latin, for in the early days of the faith any person who got hold of a Greek manuscript and fancied that he had some ability in the two langages went ahead and translated it.

This fact actually proves more of a help to interpretation than a hindrance, provided that readers are not too casual. Obscure passages are often clarified by the inspection of several manuscripts ...

Because the exact meaning which the various translators are trying to express, each according to his own ability and judgement, is not clear without an examination of the language being translated, and because a translator, unless very expert, often strays away from the author's meaning, we should aim either to acquire a knowledge of the languages from which the Latin scripture derives or to use the versions of those who keep excessively close to the literal meaning. Not that such translatations adequate, but they may be used to control the freedom or error of others who in their translations have chosen to follow the ideas rather than the words. Translators often meet not only individual words, but also whole phrases, which simply cannot be expressed in the idioms of the Latin language, at least not if one wants to maintain the usage of ancient speakers of Latin. Sometimes these translations lose nothing in intelligibility but trouble those people who take more delight when correct usage is observed in expressing the corresponding signs ... What then is correctness of speech but the maintenance of the practice of others, as established by the authority of ancient speakers?

- Augustine, On Christian Teaching, 2.34-45 (tr. R.P.H. Green)

There's a lot more stuff here that mirrors some of the Bible translation discussions that have been had on this blog and elsewhere in recent times, but I got tired of typing. The whole section is a recommended read.

Posted by kpearce at 02:33 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 11, 2007

Degrees of Literalness in Bible Translation

Jeremy Pierce's review of Leland Ryken's book Choosing a Bible, has me thinking about degrees of literalness in Bible translation, and I want to offer a few comments on that subject.

The first thing I want to say about degrees of literalness is that this is a spectrum. It is not a modal; that is, it is emphatically not the case the every Bible translation is either "essentially literal" or "dynamic equivalence" and all the translations within a category are the same. Let me illustrate. Let's pick a verse more or less at random - say Romans 12:1 - and I'll give some translations.

The Literal Extreme (my translation from the Greek): "I call alongside therefore you, brothers, through the mercies of God, to stand beside the bodies of you a sacrifice living, holy, pleasing to God, the logical service of you."

NASB (very literal): "I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship."

HCSB (moderate-literal): "Therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual worship."

NIV (moderate-dynamic): "Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God - this is your spiritual act of worship."

NLT (very dynamic): "And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice, the kind he will accept. When you think of what he has done for you, is this too much to ask?"

The Message (the dynamic extreme): "So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life - your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life - and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him."

(Note: some people might object to where I have placed the NIV, but this is all just a matter of where you draw the "center" of your spectrum and, since there is only a partial ordering of Bible translations, without a definite metric, where you draw the center is a rather subjective matter. It may indeed be true that I regard the NIV as "moderate-dynamic" simply because I prefer translations more literal than it for most purposes, so this may just be my bias. The moral is: don't read too much into labels.)

The first thing to notice here is that the translation I have labeled "The Literal Extreme" is not English. Furthermore, if you were trying to decipher it without having a real translation handy and didn't know Greek, you would probably be misled. This is not an accurate rendering of the verse in English because it isn't English (there is, however, one way in which it is more accurate than some of the other translations: the word logikos means "rational" or "reasonable" or perhaps "meaningful," but I'm quite skeptical about the accuracy of the translation "spiritual," so my near-transliteration "logical" may actually be closer to correct than the translations in this respect). If you got much more literal than this, it would be Greek.

On the other end, if you compare the quote from The Message with the more literal translations, you will see what happens on the other end: if you get much more dynamic than The Message, you become a commentary.

So what we see on this spectrum is that the farther to the literal side you get, the less natural your English becomes and, at the extreme, this can cause the text to be virtually incomprehensible. As we move to the dynamic side, the translator's interpretation of the text begins to overtake the text itself, until we have an exposition rather than a translation. On the one hand, it should be noted that even my "Literal Extreme" translation involves some interpretation on the part of the translator: I had to determine which English words to substitute for the Greek words, and this is dependent on my belief about what those Greek words "literally" mean (although I tried to minimize this by using etymological definitions of compound words like parakalo, even though it doesn't actually mean "call alongside" in contexts like this). On the other hand, it is the case that, as you go further to the literal side, more of the task of interpretation is left to the reader and, as you go further to the dynamic side more of the interpretation is done by the translator. These are the extremes of the spectrum because if you go past them you no longer have an English Bible translation: if you get more literal, you no longer have English, and if you get more dynamic you no longer have a Bible.

It is my opinion that the vast majority of the space on this spectrum is good and useful, and I am very glad that there are a wide variety of Bible translations in English to be used by different people for different purposes. However, there is one region of the spectrum that I think is essentially useless, and another that I find problematic. The useless region is the area occupied by my "Literal Extreme" translation, and indeed anything that is much to the literal side of NASB (though I personally use the NASB for study fairly regularly, and I think it is a good and useful translation). The reason this piece of spectrum is useless is that the only way to properly interpret a "translation" of this kind is to reconstruct the original language, which involves knowing the original language.

The problematic piece of spectrum is on the far dynamic side, definitely including The Message and anything to the dynamic side of it (if, indeed, there is anything more dynamic than the Message - perhaps The Cotton Patch Bible?), and probably also including the NLT, at least in its most dynamic places. The problem with this region of spectrum is that it's difficult to determine how one should treat the book in question. Like a Bible? Like a commentary? Like a devotional? A sermon? It's pretty clear that by the time Eugene Peterson (author of The Message) has rendered the word soma, which literally means "body", as "your everyday, ordinary life - your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life" we are no longer dealing with what Paul actually said in any meaningful sense, but only with what one particular person thinks Paul intended. (Note the implicit assumption, which some people might wish to challenge: I am assuming that there are some cases where we can read something in English and meaningfully assert that it is what Paul said, as opposed to merely an interpretation of what he said.)

This is not to say that The Message is bad. On the contrary, while I haven't used it too extensively, my overall impression of it is very positive. The important thing to remember about The Message is its purpose. Eugene Peterson, explaining what he was doing when he wrote The Message, said,

Writing straight from the original text, I began to attempt to bring into English the rhythms and idioms of the original language. I knew that the early readers of the New Testament were captured and engaged by these writings and I wanted my congregation to be impacted in the same way. I hoped to bring the New Testament to life for two different types of people: those who hadn't read the Bible because it seemed too distant and irrelevant and those who had read the Bible so much that it had become 'old hat.'

The introduction to The Message also comments, "This is not a study Bible, but rather 'a reading Bible.'" From the limited exposure I have had, it seems to me that The Message has accomplished its purpose and I think that's great, but, as I said, I'm not sure it's really a Bible, per se.

This brings us to the next point. I've said already that I think almost the entire spectrum is good and useful, and I'm glad that Bible translations exist all along it. What parts of the spectrum are good for what people, and for what purposes? One consideration is that highly literal translations will often use an obsolete or technical term for a word that has no exact equivalent in everyday English in order not to lose the meaning, even though the original is nearly always a very common, easily understandable word. A literal translation will also generally preserve metaphors and idioms, and there are terms like "redeem" (which means something like "to purchase a slave in order to set him or her free") that have fallen out of normal English and/or taken on different meaning because we now lack the cultural context to give the word its original meaning (in this example, we no longer have slaves), and these will tend to be used. What this means is that a child or a person with little background in theology and ancient Roman/near Eastern culture will tend to be better with a more dynamic translation until he or she picks up the requisite background to study with a more literal translation. Also, for devotional reading, it is important to have a translation that "speaks your language" in a very meaningful way. Depending on how far your grammar differs from that of the original languages, it may not be possible to write a very literal translation that speaks to you this way. Certainly no translation can be as consistently literal as the NASB and use normal English phrasings as consistently as The Message at the same time. I personally have used the NKJV (which I would place between NASB and HCSB on the spectrum) for devotional reading, and now use HCSB. I find that both of these, despite being very literal, speak to me meaningfully most of the time, but that the HCSB does this better than NKJV. Note that these are pretty literal translations, and I don't think my dialect is any more more similar to the original languages in its grammar than most other dialects of English, so I do think that it is possible to have a literal translation that speaks naturally. On the other hand, both these translations (the NKJV much more so than the HCSB) have an unfortunate habit of writing in a much higher linguistic register (that is, they use fancier language) than the original of any New Testament book, with the possible exception of the Epistle to the Hebrews.

For a study Bible, anyone with significant background should definitely use something pretty far to the literal end, but if the text becomes confusing, consulting a dynamic translation is often helpful. I use the NASB fairly regularly for studying the Old Testament (I study the New Testament almost entirely in Greek). The reason for this is that, while all translation involves some interpretation, in more literal translations more of the intepretation is left to the reader and you do, in that sense, get closer to the original text. On the other hand, it is very important to know when you have reached the end of your expertise. If you don't read the original languages (and even if you do!) the translators of (nearly?) every Bible translation will be more expert than you at interpretation. For this reason, if you come to an interpretation of a very literal translation (or the original language text) which you cannot find in any more dynamic translation or commentary, you should be suspicious of your conclusion (which is not to say that it is certain you are wrong, but only that it is highly likely).

To this, let me add one more point: I personally place a high value on the consistency of a translation. That is, I think translations that "stay put" on the spectrum (especially if they state their translation principles in an introduction in such a way as to make it clear where on the spectrum they are) are simply better than those that do not. Of course, perfection in this area is impossible, because the degree of similarity between the structure and vocabulary of the original language and the target language is not constant from one construction or word to another, but its an ideal to shoot for. In cases where a translation is forced to go more dynamic than its norm, footnotes are highly appreciated. It is my subjective impression (if someone has developed an objective metric for this, I would be very interested) that the NASB and HCSB do very well in this respect. The NASB introduction says "When it was felt that word-for-word literalness was unacceptable to the modern reader, a change was made in the direction of a more current English idiom. In the instances where this has been done, the more literal reading has been indicated in the notes." Note that the NASB departs from "word-for-word literalness" only when such a reading is "unacceptable." Based on my experience with the NASB, I would say that by "unacceptable" they mean something like "is complete nonsense," and they follow this rule pretty consistently. (It should be noted, however, that the first edition of the NASB, which is the one I have, makes, in my opinion, one of the worst translation policy decisions in the history of Bible translation - it renders prayers and divine quotations, and nothing else, in archaic language. This was changed in the NASB Update.) The HCSB introduction says "form cannot be neatly separated from meaning and should not be changed ... unless comprehension demands it. The primary goal of translation is to convey the sense of the original with as much clarity as the original text and the translation language permit ... When a literal translation meets these criteria, it is used. When clarity and readability demand an idiomatic translation, the reader can still access the form of the original text by means of a footnote ..." Note the lack of the phrase "word-for-word" included in the NASB. The HCSB practices, in general, a less rigorous literalism than the NASB. Also, whereas the NASB departs from its literalism only when the literal reading is "unacceptable," the HCSB is willing to depart whenever "clarity and readability demand" it. The HCSB does, unfortunately, move further to the literal side than its norm in its use of words like "propitiation," but this too is explained in the introduction ("Traditional theological vocabulary ... has been retained in the HCSB, since such terms have no translation equivalent that adequately communicates their exact meaning"). The NKJV has the same problem as the HCSB to a larger degree: it allows a certain amount of inconsistency in its degree of literalness for the sake of tradition. This, however, is a part of the goal of the NKJV and not an error. One of the selling points of the NKJV is that an NKJV user can easily read along with a pastor preaching from the original KJV. This is a useful thing, but it has reduced the overall quality of the NKJV as a translation. I suspect that most of the more dynamic translations (NLT, The Message, and those in between) are fairly consistent, but I don't have enough experience with them to judge.

It is, again, my subjective impression that the NIV is singularly bad on this point, and I therefore neither use nor recommend it for any purpose. (It is, however, rumored that the TNIV, which I have never used, is better about this.) What sort of relationship obtains between an NIV rendering and the original Greek text varies significantly from verse to verse and its footnotes are rarely useful in this respect. This is not to say that the NIV is useless or does not contain the Word of God, but simply that I think all of the other translations mentioned in this post are better than it (though I'm sure there are some translations I haven't mentioned which are worse).

In sum, what I am trying to say is the following:

  • There is a spectrum between literal and dynamic translation, and not simply a modal classification.

  • Nearly all of the space on the spectrum is good for some audience for some purpose.

  • All translations involve some interpretation of the text by the translator, but literal translations put more interpretation in the hands of the reader, while dynamic translations put more in the hands of the translator.

  • More dynamic translations can be very useful when one finds literal ones difficult to understand due to lack of background or the difficulty of a particular verse, or any other reason. They are also able to render the text more naturally, since they have fewer constraints, which may make them useful devotionally.

  • More literal translations are generally the right choice for someone who has significant background and is undertaking a serious study of Scripture (and all Christians should strive to get to this point), but this does not mean that once one is sufficiently educated dynamic translations cease to be useful.

  • Consistency in degree of literalness is a trait to be valued in a translation.

I think that's all.

Posted by kpearce at 06:06 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 22, 2006

Philosophical Language in Hebrews 11:1

Over at Better Bibles Blog, Wayne Leman is discussing the difficulties involved in producting coherent English from Hebrews 11:1. I want here to produce some considerations on the use of a couple of unusual (in the NT) words in this verse that will hopefully help us to produce a better translation of the word. Wayne made it clear that his post was primarily about the coherence of the English. However, I think part of the reason we have difficulty rendering this verse in English is that we're not totally clear on what we are trying to communicate, so I will try to deal with both at once here. I am unfortunately suffering from two handicaps in this task at the moment: (1) I am at my parents' house for the holidays and don't have all my books with me - most importantly, I am missing BDAG and my Greek concordance of the NT, so I will have to make due with online resources. (2) I had my wisdom teeth removed this morning and am on pain medication, so I may be slightly less lucid than normal. Still, I have thought about this verse quite a lot, particularly in the last 4 or so months since I finished reading through Hebrews in Greek, so hopefully I can share some thoughts I had back when I was thinking more clearly, and hopefully I can successfully communicate them. I'll look back over this post and see if it makes sense (and fix it if it doesn't) in a couple days when I'm off the meds. In the meantime, please bear with me.

Hebrews is widely acknowledged to be written on a significantly higher linguistic register than the rest of the NT. The author of Hebrews apparently had a strong education, both Greek and Jewish, and the epistle is actually consdidered by many experts to contain the best Greek prose in all of the Koine dialect. To put it more simply, the language of the epistle is rather fancy and often highly rhetorical. His grammatical constructions are more complex than is common in other NT writers (though Paul and Luke use enough sophisticated grammatical constructs to show a strong grasp of the language - Luke, for instance, makes frequent use of the articular infinitive, and Paul uses large numbers of circumsantial participles in complicated ways), and its vocabulary is wider.

Hebrews 11:1 is an excellent illustration of the latter. It contains two terms which are very rare in the rest of the NT and are definitely words which are at a high linguistic register. What is interesting to me, is that both of these words have technical uses in Greek philosophy. They also have non-technical uses but, as I will show below, the most straightforward non-technical uses (at least the ones listed in LSJ) don't make nearly as much sense of the passage as the philosophical ones. Since they are uncommon terms, and since the author of Hebrews is highly educated and writing in a high linguistic register, I see no reason why they couldn't be used in their philosophical significations.

Now, if we believed these words were used in their philosophical significations, and were creating a New Testament translation intended for use by students and scholars fo ancient philosophy who would be familiar with these terms, it might make sense for us to transliterate the words, and come up with the following very literal translation (I have included v. 10:39 to get it to make better sense, but haven't looked at that verse too closely since it isn't the focus):

But we will not be the ones who fearfully shrink back [so that we are] destroyed, but the ones who trust [him so that our] souls [are] preserved. There is a trust [which is] the hypostasis of what is hoped for and the elenchus of the things that are not seen.

Note that I have translated pistis as 'trust' rather than the traditional 'faith,' simply because I think it is more accurated. Also note that the position of esti at the beginning of the sentence probably intdicates that it is the "existentical is" (i.e. "there is" or "there exists") rather than the "predicative is" (i.e. "x is y"), even though there is a predicate nominative in the sentence.

But what do these words, "hypostasis" and "elenchus" mean? Well, the NKJV gives hypostsasis as "substance" for a reason: it often means 'substance' in the sense in which that word is used in metaphysics. However, the HCSB's rendering "reality" is probably more accurate since the word 'substance' in English now has a variety of popular uses, not to mention its unrelated use in chemistry. Interestingly, the word is etymologically equivalent to John Locke's word "substratum" (which, in Locke's philosophy means the thing that has properties, which I believe, though I'm not entirely certain, is how Aristotle uses our word hypostasis). Both have the etymological meaning "to stand under." As such, LSJ lists a number of literal meanings, which obviously cannot be applicable here (neither trust, nor things hoped for, are physical objects located in space, so faith cannot literally stand under things hoped for).

A more promising idea might be LSJ's B.II.2: "ground-work, subject-matter, argument." Trust, one might think, is the ground-work or foundation for our belief in what we hope for: that is, we can believe in things that we hope for because we trust God (presumably, we trust him ot fulfill his promises).

LSJ does also produce some references in favor of the translation "confidence" (including our verse). These include Polybius 4.50: "At first the Byzantines entered upon the war with energy, in full confidence of receiving the assistance of Achaeus..." That writing is somewhere in the neighborhood of 250 years before the writing of Hebrews. The word can also mean "undertaking" or "promise."

However, the philosophical meaning seems to be primary, and here it means something like "substance," "essence," "reality," or "essential nature." In philosophical terms, the hypostasis of a thing "stands under it" in the sense of being its ontological basis. The hypostasis is the underlying reality, the ontological ground floor.

Elenchus is, as I have said, another term of interest in ancient philosophy. Famously, it is the Socratic method of refutation by cross-examination. That is, in the early dialogs of Plato, a pattern is followed: Socrates meets someone who is supposed to be some kind of expert, begins asking that persons questions related to his expertise, and by his questions leads the person into contradiction and general confusion. This process is called elenchus. However, it is not a purely negative process. It is a piece of the search for positive truth. The hope is that eventually we will find a foundation that cannot be torn down in that way. If we interpret the verse according to this usage, we would say that our trust in God is this foundation when it comes to our belief in unseen things. That is, trust allows us to examine our beliefs in things unseen and rightly come to the conclusion that they are indeed real. It is in this sense that it is evidence. The Socratic example is the famous one, but this particular word is almost always used in this sort of way in Greek literature.

Before trying to produce a 'plain English' translation, we should take a final step of examining the usage of these words elsewhere in the NT.

Hypostasis is used five time sin the NT: twice in 2 Corinthians, and three times in Hebrews. In some manuscripts, both of the 2 Corinthians uses, at 9:4 and 11:17, occur in precisely the same phrase: en te hupostasis tes kuacheseos, which translates literally as "in the hypostasis of our boasting" (the Nestle-Aland/United Bible Sociteties texts lack the tes kaucheseos in 9:4, but the vast majority of manuscripts contain it and, even if it isn't original, it is probably part of the implied meaning of the phrase). In this case, hypostasis as confidence makes a lot of sense, and, given the precedent in Polybius, is probably the correct translation.

However, the uses in Hebrews are quite different and, while Hebrews is certainly 'Pauline' in its content and use of theological language, there are many reasons to suppose that someone other than Paul was its author (we can by studying the letter come to a number of conclusions about the characteristics of the author, and it is my opinion that the description of Apollos at Acts 18 and 19 shows that he had all of these characteristics, but it is still all speculation), so that the author of Hebrews should use this word somewhat differently (remembering also the higher linguistic register) is unsurprising.

Hebrews 1:3 says that Christ is "the character of [God's] hypostasis," where character is the transliteration of a Greek term that can mean 'character' in the sense of a type of person, but also has numerous other meanings. This remark is, in my opinion, more confusing than 11:1, and so 11:1 should be shedding light on it, rather than the other way around! If, however, hypostasis is given its philosophical meaning, then character might take the meaning "image" or "distinctive mark" so that Christ is the means by which we are able to recognize and understand the fundamental essence of deity. (That sounds pretty good in the context, doesn't it?) Hence we get the HCSB's rendering "the exact expression of His nature."

Hebrews 3:14 also, in my view, makes good sense with the philosophical understanding of hypostasis. It may also be relevant that it is juxtaposed with metochoi, the noun form of metecho which is one of two roughly synonymous technical terms for the participation relation in Platonist metaphysics - the word literally means "to have a share of," but having a share of Christ doesn't work literally, since Christ is not divided (cp. Plato, Parmenides 365b-d for a related metaphysical problem). Christ would then be conceived of as a sort of Platonic form of the new humanity (cp. Romans 5:12-21, 1 Corinthians 15:45). This cannot, of course, be too literal, as Christ is a person and took on a body, etc., but the analogy may be useful to consider, and may even have been intended by the author (though this is a bit speculative). On this view Hebrews 3:14 would read as:

"For we have become participants in Christ[1], if we hold the fundamental principle of the hypostasis firmly until the end."

[1] i.e., by being related to Christ Himself in a particular way we have become Christ-like in our own finite and imperfect way; see Plato, Phaedo 100c-e.

(I have italicized the word 'if' to communicate the emphasis indicated by the use of eanper rather than just ean.)

Here, the context makes the "fundamental principle of the hypostasis" "the boldness and boasting of hope," which we are also told to "hold firmly" to earlier in the same chapter (v. 6). Both these phrases must, in the context, refer to absolute trust in God's promise to bring us into his rest. We can see then that the philosophical meaning of hypostasis is quite likely to be the correct one in all three uses in the book of Hebrews.

What about elenchus? This word has only one other NT usage, and that is 2 Timothy 3:16, in the list of purposes for which "every Scripture" (or "every divinely inspired writing," depending on where you put the implicit copula, and whether you see the word graphe here as having its ordinary sense of 'writing' or its "proper noun" sense within Judaism of "Scripture") is useful. Fortunately, this word's philosophical usage is not unusual - LSJ doesn't really cite any other usage than that one.

To return to our initial question, how can we create a 'plain English' translation of this verse? Well, first, let me comment that I believe that an ideal translation would reflect the difference in register between, say, Matthew and Hebrews, and so the language in Hebrews can be a little fancy, but that doesn't mean it should be confusing or archaic, and it especially doesn't mean it should contain 'category mistakes' or anything of that nature. So, based on my above exposition, here is my attempt at a (somewhate loose) translation of Hebews 10:39-11:1:

But we will not be the ones who shrink back in fear so that we are destroyed, but the ones who trust him so that our souls are preserved. There is a trust which provides the foundation for the existence of that which is hoped for and makes the critical examination of invisible things possible.

The English could be cleaned up some more, and it could be made to follow the text a little more literally, and, of course, my interpretation is subject to dispute, but my purpose here is to spark discussion, and not to publish a professional Bible translation, so I will leave it as it is. The biggest problem, as I see it, is probably that in many English dialects, the term "a trust" refers primarily to "a trust fund" or something of the sort, but hopefully context would take care of that in a longer translation (or we could go back to 'faith' if we thought our target audience would understand that correctly).

I rather like these philosophical definitions, and I wouldn't put it past the author of Hebrews to use them, but I should perhaps be a bit cautious as my own background in ancient philosophy probably biases me. What does anyone else think?

Posted by kpearce at 12:32 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

November 01, 2006

Quote of the Day

ALCIPHRON: ... But what apology can be made for nonsense, crude nonsense? ... Look here, said he, opening a Bible, in the forty-ninth Psalm : ... "Wherefore should I fear in the days of evil, when the wickedness of my heels shall compass me about?" The iniquity of my heels! What nonsense after such a solemn introduction!
EUPHRANOR: For my own part, I have naturally weak eyes, and know there are many things that I cannot see, which are nevertheless distinctly seen by others. I do not therefore conclude a thing to be absolutely invisible, because it is so to me. And since it is possible it may be with my understanding as it is with my eyes, I dare not pronounce a thing to nonsense because I do not understand it. Of this passage many interpretations are given. The word rendered heels may signify fraud or supplantation: by some it is translated "past wickedness," the heel being the hinder part of the foot; by others "iniquity in the end of my days," the heel being one extremity of the body; by some "the iniquity of my enemies that may supplant me;" by others "my own faults or iniquities which I have passed over as light matters, and trampled under my feet." Some render it "the iniquity of my ways;" others, "my transgressions, which are like slips and slidings of the heel." And after all, might not this expression, so harsh and odd to English ears, have been very natural and obvious in the Hebrew tongue, which, as every other language, had its idioms? the force and propriety whereof may as easily be conceived lost in a long tract of time, as the signification of divers Hebrew words which are not now intelligible, though nobody doubts they had once a meaning as well as the other words of that langauge. Granting, therefore, that certain passages in the Holy Scripture may not be understood, it will not thence follow that its penman wrote nonsense; for I conceive nonsense to be one thing, and unintelligible another.

    - George Berkeley, Alciphron 6.7

[Note: the verse in question is Psalm 49:5. Alciphron's quotation is one word different from the KJV in print today (which has "wickedness" instead of "iniquity"), but the KJV was edited a few times after the writing of this dialog in 1732. Of modern translations, NKJV has "the iniquity at my heels," and NASB and HCSB both read "the iniquity of my foes." LXX uses the Greek pterna meaning heel.]

Posted by kpearce at 03:03 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 29, 2006

Preserving Ambiguity in Translation

I'm studying Plato's Parmenides in a graduate seminar this semester. It is rather a baffling text, and there is a wealth of secondary literature which contains little consensus on anything. Today, as I was reading Constance Meinwald's guidebook to the dialog, I came across an issue in the translation of the text which I think is relevant to a number of discussion about Bible translation that I've had on-blog, and thought I would share. The issue is one of preserving a (probably intentional) ambiguity in the original in translation, and thus with the degree of interpretation done by translators, and the degree left up to readers of the translation.

What is usually referred to as "part 2" of the Parmenides consists of a series of deductions from contradictory hypotheses. The hypotheses in question are stated in the Greek as hen estin (137c4, etc.) and hen me estin (160c1-2, etc.). The 'standard' translation (that is, the one included in the Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper) by Mary Louise Gill gives two very literal translations. For the first hypothesis, in the main text Gill has "it is one" and in a footnote gives the alternate translation "one is." For the second hypothesis, Gill has "one is not" and doesn't give an alternate translation. This ambiguity applies to a huge number of statements throughout the dialog and seems to be intentional (more on that in a moment). Meinwald, citing Jowett, suggests (p. 30) that we can preserve that ambiguity if, instead of translations of the form "if the one is" we give translations of the form "on the hypothesis of the being of the one."

Now, if we did the latter in a Bible translation, many people who, like me, favor highly literal translations, would be up in arms about all the words we're adding. However, what I want to point out is that the more litaral translations are more interpretive than the looser ones. That is, because there are multiple possible literal translations of this particular phrase which have substantial differences in meaning, a literal translation requires the translator to pick one of those as the correct interpretation for inclusion in the main text, and thereby leaves fewer readings open in the English than are available in the Greek. That translator is here doing the interpreting and not leaving it to the reader.

To make matters worse, this probably isn't a case where we're simply not sure what Plato means, but a place where he is being ambiguous on purpose. The reason seems to be that the actual thesis of the historical Parmenides was simply "it is." He denied that "it" (that which is) was divided (DK28B8 line 22), and therefore, by implication, that it was plural. So the real hypothesis of Parmenides is that "that which is, is one," or, to put it in better English, "only one thing exists." But Plato's dialog is concerned with the theory of forms, and therefore he seems to use the phrase to mean "Oneness Itself exists." Thus the ambiguity seems to be necessary in order for the phrase to meet both the dramatic needs of the dialog (i.e. to be spoken by Parmenides) and the needs of Plato's philosophical purpose. This seems to be precisely the reason Meinwald embraces Jowett's translation.

To return to the question of the literalness and degree of interpretation of translations, it seems here that the less literal translation turns out to be more accurate. This result will be unsurprising to regular readers of the Better Bibles Blog, where such cases are on display regularly. What I really want to call attention to, though, is that the less literal translation actually involves less interpretation on the part of the translator and leaves more to the reader. This, as I understand it, is the main reason for those (again including myself) who favor more literal Bible translations. You will hear us say "I want a translator to tell me what it says, not what it means." While a certain degree of interpretation on the part of a translator is absolutely necessary, I do agree with that statement. However, as it turns out, there are some cases, such as this one, where that principle ought to cause us to lean toward a less literal translation. How about that?

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September 17, 2006

A Quick Note on the Particle de in Titus 1:1

I'm quite busy right now and haven't had much time for blogging, but I wanted to give a quick note about an issue I found that troubled me today.

The first line of the book of Titus reads Paulos, doulos theou, apostolos de Iesou Christou kata pistin kai epignosin aletheias tes kat' eusebeian ep' elpidi zoes aioniou. The particle de is a bit troubling, as it ordinarily has at least a slight adversative meaning. That is, it sets up at least some slight opposition between what comes before and what comes after. It is true that Matthew and many other writers, particularly those whose Greek is not so good, begin almost every sentence with de, even if there is no apparent connection with the previous sentence, and so we often translate it "and," and Smyth's Greek Grammar says that it is "the ordinary particle used in connecting successive clauses or sentences which add something new or different, but not opposed, to what proceeds" (sect. 2836). However, here we have it apparently in the middle of a sentence, and it wasn't clear to me at first why. If one wanted to say in Greek what the HCSB says - "Paul, a slave of God, and an apostles of Jesus Christ..." - I, at least, would expect to see kai for "and," not de.

One would expect to see de if there was some contrast between the two, and would therefore translate it "Paul, a slave of God, but an apostle of Jesus Christ according to the faith of the elect of God and [according to] the hope of eternal life," thus setting up a conrast between being the slave of God, but being the apostle of Christ, as if perhaps contrasting the low position of slave, but the high position of apostle. This doesn't seem to me to make very good theological sense, compared to Paul's other writings. What's going on? Smyth may just have the answer: he says that de is sometimes used "where a second relationship is added" (loc. cit.) and cites Aeschylus (Persians 151) and Thucydides (4.7) in support. Both cases describe a single object's relationships to other objects, and the de separates the two relations without contrasting. Thus here, "a slave of God, and an apostle of Jesus Christ" may not be contrasting points, it may merely be an also. Still, it is troubling to be crediting Paul with a usage Smyth can cite only from Aeschylus and Thucydides. Does anyone know a reference closer to the New Testament that does this? Or do we really think that Paul would just use de in place of kai here? Or does a slight contrast make sense in this context in a way I don't see?

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August 21, 2006

Dealing With Old Testament Quotations in New Testament Translation

One of the great difficulties in translating ancient and Medieval works is dealing with quotations. The rules and conventions of quotation we have today were developed relatively recently, so it is sometimes difficult to say what is and isn't a quote, and it is even more difficult to figure out how to mark these in a modern translation with modern punctuation.

In New Testament translation, the issue gets even more complicated, because New Testament translations are generally bound together with Old Testament translations, and one must decide whether to harmonize them (that is, whether to translate quoted passages identically, even if they are not quite the same). Furthermore, people sometimes hang theological arguments on how often the NT directly quotes the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible made about 200 years before the NT was written. Finally, the handling of Scripture by the New Testament authors is relevant to us today, if we really believe, as most Evangelicals say they do, that the best way to interpret the Bible is to let it interpret itself. The only place we can see the Bible doing this in direct and obvious ways is when the New Testament quotes the Old.

This summer I have been leading a Bible study on the Epistle to the Hebrews. One of the things I have been trying to address is the use of the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX) by the author of Hebrews. The handling of Scripture in this particular book - and, in fact, the whole style of argument - is far more familiar to us than most of the rest of the NT. It is written in a very western/Greek dialectic (pattern of discussion/conversation/reasoning), whereas most of the Bible is written in a Semitic dialectic which is unnatural to westerners, and even the primarily (culturally) Greek Pauline epistles and Johannine literature still contain confusing Hebrew-isms from time to time. Ironically, the Epistle to the Hebrews is probably the least Hebrew (and most western/Greek) in style of any NT book, although it is the most Hebrew in content, audience, and, of course, title.

The author of Hebrews quotes the LXX quite consistently, and virtually always quotes it verbatim, especially when he explicitly identifies what he is saying as a quote, or draws an argument from it. For this reason, it is especially interesting to compare his usage of Scripture to ours.

There is, however, a problem: most translations do not clearly distinguish between direct quotations and mere references. Generally, they lump them all together. Furthermore, they don't distinguish between quotations from the LXX and places where the author appears to have translated from the Hebrew himself. In the study, I came to Hebrews 10:35-39, a passage which makes very interesting use of a section of Habbakuk. However, it is rather difficult to get across just exactly what it going on with the quotations to people looking at an English translation, since most are set up for simply noting the OT references, and aren't necessarily translated with this kind of quotation-marking in mind. This got me thinking about how to convey in a translation what was going on with the quotes here in a way that would be natural to native speakers.

I began by thinking through what the closest modern English equivalent to the LXX was. That wasn't very hard: the KJV wins hands-down. It is more archaic to us than the LXX was to the author of Hebrews (the KJV is nearly 400 years old, the LXX was only 200), but, like the LXX, the KJV is the 'old standard' of English Bible translation. So I proceeded to splice together the Hebrews passage and the Habakkuk passage in the KJV, filling in the blanks with some translation of my own from the LXX (feel free to correct my Elizabethan grammar and style), to create this KJV-LXX translation of Habakkuk 2:2-5:

And the Lord answered me, and said, “Write the vision, and make it plain upon tablets, that he may run that knoweth it. For the vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall rise, and not be in vain; though it cometh late, wait for it; because he that shall come will come – see that ye tarry not! If any man draw back my soul shall have no pleasure in him: but the just shall live by faith in me. He that thinketh contempt and despiseth is a proud man, he completeth nothing, who enlargeth his soul as hell, and is as death, and cannot be satisfied, but gathereth unto him all nations and heapeth unto him all peoples.”

Next, I tried to produce a translation of Hebrews 10:35-39 that was modern enough to make a strong contrast and that used verbatim quotes from my KJV-LXX edition in only those places where the author quoted the LXX verbatim, and marked those quotes according to modern conventions. I have bolded the quotes in addition to marking them with quotation marks for emphasis:
Therefore, don't throw away your boldness – it has a great reward! You [will also] need patience so that when you have done the will of God you may receive the promise. There is still such a very short[1] [time until] “he that shall come will come” (and he will not tarry), “but the just[2] shall live by faith,” and “if any man draw back my soul shall have no pleasure in him.” But we are not among those who draw back[3] toward destruction, but those who trust[4] [God] for the safe-keeping of our souls.[5]

[1]Lit. “so so short”
[2]Synaiticus, Alexandrinus, and at least one early papyrus read “my just one” (source: The Greek New Testament According to the Majority Text, second edition, ed. Zane C. Hodges and Arthur L Farstad)
[3]Lit. “the drawing back”
[4]Lit. “of the trust” (or “belief,” or “faith”)
[5]Lit. “soul”

I believe that the author is expecting his audience to be familiar with Habakkuk (which is of course, is quite a lofty expectation), and to understand what he is doing with it. My hope was that by putting things this way, the people in my Bible study would also see what was going on here. What I find interesting, is that this does, indeed, look a lot like the way the Bible is used by many modern preachers, especially if they expect the congregation to have the text in front of them and follow along. It strikes me as a Baptist style of Biblical preaching. Of the juxtaposition between the original text's "see that ye tarry not" and the NT's "and he will not tarry" (I used the archaism 'tarry' in the NT to emphasis the word-play with the original).

Is this KJV thing a good idea? Well it has some downsides: first, the KJV is not always the most accurate to the original (I corrected it in one or two places in the above). Second, the KJV is not the most readable translation either. Third, most NT translations are packaged with OT translations, but if we do this then the OT we're quoting is not the same as the OT we're packaging. Finally, although it might be fun, it doesn't make sense in a real translation to just arbitrarily pick some date as 'now' and adjust the level of archaism in the rest of the language around that. Every passage needs to be natural and intelligible. However, we need to mark quotations better somehow, and if one is just translating the NT I think this kind of approach might work. At any rate, I believe it worked well in this particular instance, as we were trying to understand how the author of Hebrews is treating and interpreting Scripture in this passage.

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July 22, 2006

Ekklesia and the Etymological Fallacy

Not long ago, I wrote a post suggesting that the New Testament may have consciously made use of the language of Athenian democracy, especially in its usage of the words ekklesia and kerux. JollyBlogger has now posted on the etymological fallacy in our understanding of the ekklesia (HT: Parableman). The etymological fallacy occurs when an interpreter uses a piece of information about the history of a word which was unknown to the author or, at least, which the author was not thinking about in his usage of the word. For instance, although I am aware that the word 'gay' originally meant happy, if you use that piece of information to interpret me as somehow asserting that all homosexuals are happy, you commit the etymological fallacy.

In my post on ekklesia, I pointed out that ekklesia is derived from ek plus klesis and thus has the etymological definition of "those who are called out." What JollyBlogger wants to draw our attention to (and what I hope was apparent in my original post) is that when the authors of the NT used the word ekklesia, the definitions going through their minds was not "those who are called out," but something else. What I suggested in my post is not that we should translate the word as "those who are called out," but that at least some of the NT writers (and the other early Christians who used the term) may have (and, in my view, probably did) self-consciously adopt the term from the socio-political arrangements of pre-Roman Greece.

The lexicon entry JollyBlogger cites does point to this usage, which would have been well-known at least to Greeks (would it have been well-known to Jews?) in NT times. However, the lexicon goes on to point out that "it is important to understand the meaning of ekklesia as 'an assembly of God's people.'" I agree that this is the correct interpretation, but I don't think it is right to treat this as a separate definition and translate the "of God's people" part. The intended audience of the New Testament books would probably have seen ekklesia and thought "assembly" or "meeting" or "gathering," and known only from context that we were talking about the Church. Sometimes the context is such that in order for English speakers to understand, we must add information that isn't part of lexicography strictly speaking, but additional contextual information. However, I don't think this is such a case. I don't think that if Paul writes "to the Assembly of God at Corinth" there will be any confusion with the Athenian Assembly (though there may be some confusion with the Assemblies of God denomination, which presumably got its name from this verse or a similar one). Even if it doesn't say "of God" in the text, I think Assembly with a capital A is enough for most readers to figure it out from context. The lexicon rightly points out that "a translator must beware of using a term which refers primarily to a building rather than to a congregation of believers" - in other words, the traditional translation "church" is a little questionable (linguistic research would be needed to determine if people interpret its use to refer to the building or the people - to assume that it refers only to the building in modern English based on its germanic root would be, again, the etymological fallacy).

Some people have suggested that the word already had some religious overtones due to its usage in the Septuagint (I don't know a lot about that). If this is so, then "congregation" might actually be a good translation.

At any rate, the important point JollyBlogger is making is that in all likelihood, the connection between ekklesia ('church') and eklektos ('elect') is nothing more than a pun, despite all the theological emphasis some Christians place on it. (Note that eklektos has only one kappa where ekklesia has two: LSJ says eklektos isn't even from the same root as ekklesia; it's from eklego.) I like to think it is an intentional pun, but I do not have strong evidence for this. A quick glance at my concordance shows that the two words never appear in the same verse. We ought not, on the basis of this etymology alone to connect the Church with the Elect. The etymology doesn't prove that, and the etymology of ekklesia is not necessarily the best place to start in building an ecclesiology. Of course, the Church is connected with the Elect, but we need to look at the text, and not just the etymology to show that.

Moral of the story: beware the etymological fallacy! Words today don't always mean what they meant in Shakespeare's day, and words in the NT don't always mean what they meant in Plato's day. Just because we can take a word apart and show what words it is derived from, doesn't mean we know what it means: the fact that conscience comes (I imagine) from the Latin 'con' meaning with and 'scientia' meaning knowledge has nothing to do with the meaning of the word. This, of course, is a fallacy that we classicists (especially those who do not yet own a copy of BDAG and work from LSJ when reading the NT) are particularly prone to. On the other hand, there is a great benefit in having the classical background as the original authors may have also had that background and it may have influenced their word usage (a favorite example of mine is that there is good reason to believe that Paul was familiar with Plato, directly or indirectly, and especially his Republic). However, it requires a lot of argument to show that, and it can't just be assumed that because the word came into usage in such-and-such a way (hundreds of years before the time of writing) it has a certain meaning.

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July 11, 2006

The Wall Street Journal on the Influence of the KJV

The Wall Street Journal recently published an editorial on the cultural and linguistic influence of the King James Version. It's a very interesting read and a topic I've been writing about for some time now. In addition to the transliterated words that I've looked at on this blog, the author points out some more commonplace words and phrases which have entered the English language through the Tyndale-KJV tradition of Bible translation. His examples include 'clear as crystal,' 'powers that be,' 'root of the matter,' 'arguments,' 'city,' 'conflict,' 'humanity,' 'legacy,' and 'network.' (Yes, I did just say that the word 'network' originates from the KJV - I had to look that one up. It occurs no less than seven times in the KJV Old Testament, and seems to be used to mean something like a lattice.) The article is brief, well-written, and highly recommended.

(HT: Reformation 21)

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June 18, 2006

Hebrews 2:2

I'm leading a Bible study this summer on the book of Hebrews, and I've just switched to using the HCSB as my primary Bible translation, so right now I'm studying Hebrews in preparation, and comparing the HCSB (and some other translations) with the Greek. There will probably be more posts related to the translation of Hebrews over the course of the summer. Today, I want to deal with Hebrews 2:2, and maybe some of you can help me figure out what it means!

The HCSB renders vv. 2-3a as "For if the message spoken through angels was legally binding, and every transgression and disobedience received just punishment, how will we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?" NKJV says, "For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedeince received a just reward, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?" An ultra-literal translation might be, "For if the message, having been spoken through angels, became certain, and every departure [from it] and [every] disobedience received just wages, how will we escape, [when we are] neglecting so great a salvation?"

The HCSB and NKJV have two problems in common: first, neither of them makes sense of the use of ginomai: it is sometimes ok to translate ginomai as "is," but usually in the perfect tense (gegona), remembering that it literally means "has become." However, in this case, ginomai is in the aorist (simple past), and it should mean "became." So, on the HCSB's translation, where it is translated "is," it should read "if the message spoken by angels became legally binding..." I guess that makes sense. Perhaps it became binding by virtue of having been spoken by angels? The NKJV rendering should be "the word spoken through angels became steadfast," but their translation of "proved" is probably ok: bebaios (the word for "legally binding" or "steadfast" or "certain," which we will get to next) has epistemic ideas attached to it, so the idea would then be that the hearers became certain about the word, even though bebaios technically matches case with the word.

The second problem is the word bebaios itself. In modern Greek, the adverb is very common and means "of course" (the adverb is spelled with an omega and pronounced veh-VAY-ohs). The adjective generally means "certain" in ancient Greek, for which the NKJV's "steadfast" is ok (that is another meaning of the word, and the meaning "certain" probably began as a metaphor based on this). The HCSB's "legally binding" seems to be based on the parallel text Hebrews 9:17 about the legal force of wills. This meaning is not found in LSJ (I don't have access to BDAG - does anyone know if that lexicon has citations for this meaning?), and I can't find any other parallel text for it, so we should probably try to interpret the more normal meaning into both passages, even though that is difficult in 9:17. In 9:17 the word "reliable" might work.

Of course, there is another level of interpretive difficulty. What on earth is the message "spoken through the angels?"

To solve all of these problems, I propose that we might take egeneto and elaben as "gnomic aorists" (Smyth 1931 - "[the gnomic] aorist simply states a past occurence and leaves the reader to draw the inference from a concrete case that what has occurred once is typical of what often occurs: pathon de te nepios egno 'a fool learns by experience' Hesiod, Works and Days, 218") or something along those lines. This would treat this clause as a sort of proverb (which is where the term "gnomic" comes from). In this way we can successfully deal with the above difficulties, leading to an 'essentially literal' translation like this: "For if a message spoken by angels becomes certain, and every departure [from it] and disobedience [to it] receives [its] just wages, how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?" or a looser translation like this: "no one doubts the truth of something he's been told by angels, and if anyone disobeys messages from angels, he will be justly punished. If this is so, how can we expect to escape punishment if we ignore the message of salvation?"

This translation also makes a lot of sense in the context, since the author has just been talking about Jesus (who is later identified as the bringer of salvation) being greater than the angels. One objection will be that the gnomic aorist is a rare construction even in classical Greek, and Smyth's examples come from Hesiod, some 800 years before the writing of the New Testament. This does indeed concern me, and I would like to know how many other examples of gnomic aorists there are out there, and when they date from. It seems likely that, even if there were a lot of them, because they relate to proverbs Smyth would be likely to cite Hesiod as his prime example of Greek proverbs.

Alternative interpretations: All the commentaries I looked at, including John Wesley, the Geneva Bible, and John Gill, think that the word spoken by angels is the Mosaic Law. They cross-reference Acts 7:53 and Galatians 3:19 for support.

The only problem I see with this interpretation is that we don't start really talking about the Law in earnest until significantly later in Hebrews. This makes the big question, "when Greek-speaking Jews in the first century saw the phrase 'the word spoken by angels,' did they immediately connect that with the Law?" and this is a question I can't answer. If the answer is yes then the standard interpretation is definitely better than mine, since it uses the plain and simple grammar which is the norm in the NT, but if this phrase wasn't common as a reference to the Law, then my gnomic aorist idea may be better, depending on whether there are, in fact, many gnomic aorists after Hesiod. I have more questions than answers. Any help?

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June 17, 2006

"He did not consider it robbery..."

In the New King James Version, Philippians 2:6 says that Jesus, "being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God." Because of having seen the NIV translation, which says that he "did not consider equality with God something to be grasped," and because of the relations of the clauses in my English translations, I always thought that the idea here was that Jesus, even though he was "in the form of God" did not try to take advantage of his inherent equality with the father, but instead took on a subordinate role while on earth and "made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross." (NKJV) This interpretation is more explicit in the HCSB: "who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage. Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men. And when He had come as a man in His external form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death - even to death on a cross."

Today I was reading the commentary notes in Spiros Zodhiates' Hebrew-Greek Keyword Study Bible and his note on Philippians 2:6-8 gives a different interpretation. He explains, "Jesus did not regard it as an act of injustice to the Father for Him to exert His miraculous powers demonstrating His deity on proper occasions as deemed by Himself." Now, I don't particularly like this interpretation theologically, because I think that if Jesus exercised divine power while on earth then he didn't live a truly human life, and it is critically important to the Christian understanding of salvation that Jesus lived a fully human life. Instead, I tend to attribute Christ's miracles to the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit, and to argue that a Christian indwelt by the Holy Spirit can, at least in principle, do miracles in precisely the same way (cf. John 14:12). This seems to have been part of Satan's temptation of Christ in the wilderness: Christ was encouraged to exert omnipotent power while on earth, which would have undermined the true humanity of his life (Matt. 4:3). Nevertheless, the question is not what theology I am comfortable with, but what does the text actually say.

The difficulty seems to be with the participle uparchon ("being" in the NKJV or, better, "existing," as the HCSB has it) and its relation to the other clauses of this sentence (my Greek text has vv. 5-7 as a single sentence, but I think that v. 8 should probably be included as the same sentence in the Greek as well). My intro Greek professor always taught us that Greek participles could be related to the main clause of their sentence in any of 8 ways, to be remembered by the mnemonic "The Mild-Mannered Crack Pot Constantly Called California" (he was quite insistent that this was the most important thing we would ever learn about Greek grammar). This stands for: time, manner, means, cause, purpose, condition, concession, or general circumstance. His point was that 'general circumstance,' which is generally what the English participle (which is how the NKJV and HCSB both render this word) does, with the Greek participle this is a last resort interpretation. Ordinarily, one of the other relations is intended. In this case, the translations I am looking at all make the participle look concessive to me: "who, although he existed in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something he should take for himself; instead, he emptied himself..." etc., while Zodhiates takes it as causal: "because he existed in the form of God, he did not consider [claiming] to be equal with God to be seizing something unjustly." Zodhiates' interpretation has to deal with the alla ("but") in the next clause, which expresses a contrast. However, Greek alla is not quite identical to English "but." It can be used, according to LSJ, "to oppose whole sentences." That is, rather than contrasting "he did not consider equality with God as something he should take for himself" with "he emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave," it may contrast larger syntactic units, so that the passage could be translated (a bit loosely), "even though, since he existed in the form of God, he did not think he would be seizing something unjustly by claiming equality with God, he emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave." The whole first part, including "since he existed in the form of God" is then contrasted with Christ's decision to humble himself, which he does even though he has every right to claim equality with God. It should be noted that this interpretation of the Greek needn't support the theological conclusion of Zodhiates with which I am uncomfortable, namely that Jesus exercised his own omnipotent power while on earth, since, even on this interpretation, it is more natural to read the text as contrasting Jesus' pre-incarnate glory with his emptying of himself, which began when he "took on the form of a slave, becoming like human beings."

It seems, then, that the text can bear either of these interpretations. I think these are the only two real possibilities for this participle. Does anyone see any other ways of taking this? Do any translations take the Zodhiates interpretation, or do they all take either the concession track or leave it ambiguous?

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May 31, 2006

HCSB Review at This LAMP

Rich Mansfield of This LAMP has finally begun his long awaited series on his top ten Bible versions with a thoughtful and detailed review of the Holmann Christian Standard Bible. It's a good read. Something I didn't know: the HCSB began as a personal project of Arthur Farstad, who was involved in two of my other favorite Bible projects, the New King James Version and The Greek New Testament According to the Majority Text. (A digression on the majority text: most of the textual criticism articles I've seen have been from a pro-Byzantine perspective, and I got the impression that the Alexandrian texts were generally accepted only because they were the oldest and for no other reason - given the enormous number of scholars who accept the Alexandrian text family as the correct New Testament, it is quite probable that I'm wrong and that there are better reasons to favor the Alexandrian. That said, I still think the arguments of Hodges and Farstad are pretty compelling).

At any rate, the review is highly recommended, and I'm looking forward to the rest of the series!

(HT: Better Bibles Blog)

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May 21, 2006

Translating epieikes in the New Testament

I went today to the evening service at Tenth Presbyterian Church here in Philadelphia (not my normal church), and one of the evening's readings included Philippians 4:5. Tenth Pres. uses the ESV, which renders the beginning of this verse as "let your reasonableness be known to everyone." Now, I've definitely read Philippians several times, and never came across anything about letting your 'reasonableness' be known, so this immediately stuck out to me, and I looked it up in the NKJV New Testament I had with me. NKJV reads "let your gentleness be known to all men." Are gentleness and reasonableness the same concept? Are they even related? How can a verse which has no textual discrepancies associated with it result in such a wide variance between translations?

So, of course, now that I'm at home I've pulled my Greek out and discovered that the offending word is epieikes which, according to LSJ, is derived from eikos and has a very similar meaning: "fitting, meet, suitable." (Note that it's actually an adjective, but Paul uses it as a substantive in the neuter, so the meaning would be "your [fitting/suitable/meek] thing."), so the most literal possible translation of this text would be something like, "let your suitable thing be known to all people." That doesn't make any sense in the context (or out of it!). It seems that both translation teams have in mind instead of the primary definition LSJ definition 2.2a: "after Hom., ... of persons, ... in moral sense, reasonable, fair, kind, gentle, good." (Strangely, the word 'gentle' doesn't appear in the Perseus edition of the Great Scott - I'm quoting from my print edition of Middle Liddell.) LSJ cites James 3:17 in this connection: "but the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy" (NKJV - epieikes is translated 'gentle' again). This passage isn't much help, since it's a list of traits of wisdom, and any number of definitions of epieikes could make sense of it.

The grammatical usage is, as has been mentioned, strange. LSJ does mention it's usage as a substantive in the neuter in its moral sense at one place: Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus line 1127. The Richard Jebb commentary argues that this should be taken to mean "an equitable and humane disposition," citing Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and a fragment of a lost Sophocles play. At Plato's Laws, 6.757e, there is a similar usage of the word, where it seems to be intended to be synonymous with sugnomon, which means "disposed to pardon." So, it seems that when this word is used as substantive in the neuter, the implied thing is a 'disposition.' But what should the word be taken to mean? A thread running through several of the LSJ definitions fits very well with Paul's overall view of what Christians ought to be known for: not demanding the letter of the law. This is within the possible range of interpretations for either the ESV or the NKJV translation, I think, but neither of them says it very clearly. HCSB does substantially better with its word 'graciousness,' but there is still room for improvement. I think the ISV's 'forbearing spirit' is also very good, though I'm not sure I like the use of the word 'spirit' here. Perhaps we could say something like "let your forgiving character be known to all people." I'm not sure that's the best English, but I think it clearly communicates the meaning I'm looking for. Improvements, anyone? Objections to my interpretation? Koine citations to supplement my classical ones?

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May 10, 2006

Opheilema in Matthew 6:12

Wayne Leman is aksing the question should we forgive our debtors? As those of you who have spent some time in different churches will have noticed, there are a wide variety of translations of Matthew 6:12 used in the Lord's Prayer as recited in various congregations and traditions. The most common seem to be "debt" (from KJV), "trespass" (from Tyndale), and "sin" (some more recent translations). Which of these is correct? Well, as usual in Bible translation debates, none of the major translations is flat out wrong, but some are more accurate than others. Which should we use?

Well, to start with, opheilema does (or at least can) mean "debt" in just precisely the English meaning of the word, but there are two issues with this 'literal' (in scare-quotes) translation. It seems to me that the two issues are separate, but the Better Bibles Blog discussion has so far confused them:

  1. Opheilema in its literal meaning, even in classical Greek, had a broader semantic range than the English word 'debt' (at least in the English Wayne and I speak).
  2. The use of opheilema for sin, i.e. for some kind of moral deficiency, may well have been a dead metaphor by the time the New Testament was written.

I'll deal with each of these in turn.

In ordinary contemporary English, as Wayne points out repeatedly in the post and comments, the noun 'debt' refers almost exclusively to money. The only exceptions I can think of are a few stock phrases that have become for us dead metaphors (I'll explain about dead metaphors in connection with point two). For instance, in the phrase "he has paid his debt to society" of an ex-convict released from prision, I don't think we are talking metaphorically about financial debt. Likewise with the verb 'owe,' we can say "I owe you an apology," and that certainly isn't a 'live' metaphor. In classical Greek, however, the noun opheilema refers literally, not metaphorically, to any obligation whatsoever. In fact, the verb form, opheilo, can even be used to mean "ought" in sentences like "I ought to be actually studying for my ancient Greek final, which is tomorrow morning, right now, rather than writing about things that are only tangentially related and calling it studying." That example was longer and more complicated than it needed to be, but you get the idea. So, it is often better, in classical Greek, to translate opheilema as 'obligation' or something of this nature, because it has a broader semantic range (range of meanings) than English 'debt.'

Concerning the second issue: while (live) metaphors are difficult to translate across cultures, they are easy to translate across languages. While it is difficult to find the boundary between cultural facts and linguistic facts, it seems to me that the interpretation of (live) metaphors are clear examples of cultural facts, and we can't make what is metaphorical in the original literal in translation without seriously altering the content of the original. If differing cultural background makes it difficult for modern readers to understand the metaphor, we ought to include a footnote explaining about shepherds, or ancient kings, or whatever the material of the metaphor is.

That said, when metaphors are used repeatedly over a long period of time, they become 'dead.' What this means is that native speakers of the language no longer notice the metaphor. There are many particularly colorful examples of this in English. For instance, when was the last time you thought about the literal meaning of the phrase "I've got a frog in my throat?" Most of the time, native speakers don't even notice. If the use of opheilema to mean "sin" is like this, that is, if Matthew and his readers never thought about the fact that the word normally meant 'debt,' then it may be misleading to translate it as 'debt' in English, especially since this is not a familiar metaphor to English speakers (excluding some variants of "church English"). I don't have the Koine resources to determine whether this metaphor was 'dead' in the first century - in fact, I wouldn't be surprised if someone could write a dissertation on this subject, as much work as it might take! - but it's an important question to consider, I think.

The context makes opheilema synonymous with paraptoma (see vv. 14-15), which does indeed mean 'trespass.' The question is, does Matthew think these words are actually synonymous, or is this an example of Hebrew parallelism? If the latter, then Matthew/Jesus (but remember Jesus was speaking Aramaic) might think that these are two not-quite-syonymous words, and be using them in tension with one another to get at the core concept he means (but I don't understand Hebrew parallelism very well, so I'm not sure what to do with this).

So, in the end, what do we do? Well, it would be nice to translate opheilema and paraptoma differently, to reproduce the original effect, but Wayne is right that we shouldn't translate opheilema as 'debt,' because the two words are not really equivalent in this context.

I would say that if the metaphor is dead, we might go with 'sin' for opheilema and 'trespass' or 'violation' for paraptoma or something along those lines. 'Transgression' has been used in the past, but that word is kind of archaic now. ISV has 'sins' and 'offenses' which is not bad if the metaphor is dead.

If, on the other hand, this is a 'live' metaphor, so that the original readers are thinking of the normal meaning of opheilema when they see this, then we need to work in the concept of obligation some how. To 'forgive' an obligation is to not demand that the one obligated fulfill it (the Greek word for 'forgive' is also metaphorical - it literally means 'to send away,' but that metaphor is almost certainly dead).

How do we work this into good English? One way to go is "and forgive us [for our failure to fulfill] our obligations, as we also forgive those who have obligations to us ... for if you forgive people for their violations [against you], your heavenly father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive people for their violations, your heavenly father will not forgive your violations." (vv. 12, 14-15) That's pretty clunky, in my opinion. It's just not quite natural. Furthermore, "forgive us for our failure to fulfill our obligations" is not quite accurate. In the context of the whole of Scripture, I would say the meaning is that we are asking God not to demand that we fulfill our obligations because we are unable to fulfill them. If this interpretation is right, perhaps we should actually put that in our translation of verse 12, along with a hint of the literal meaning of aphiemi ('forgive'): "and release us from our obligations, as we also release those who have obligations toward us." That sounds a bit antinomian, but I think that this verse without the context of the whole Scripture could be interpreted in an antinomian way, so it's probably ok for the translation to have that property as well. It's only the broader context, I think, that will tell us what obligations we are asking to be released from.

I'd never really examined this verse closely and had no idea it was so difficult! It always looked so simple in English... Thanks, Wayne, for bringing this up!

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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?"

Posted by kpearce at 04:15 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

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 (5) | 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.

Posted by kpearce at 05:37 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

December 24, 2005

Where Do Languages End and Cultural Assumptions Begin?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 06, 2005

"Talents" in Matthew 25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by kpearce at 03:07 PM | Comments (8) | 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 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 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.

Posted by kpearce at 08:58 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

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.

Posted by kpearce at 01:15 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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