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.

Posted by Kenny at August 21, 2006 09:30 PM
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Your trackback throttling system seems to like me recently. I couldn't send a trackback, so I'm letting you know that Christian Carnival CXXXVI is now up and includes this post.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce at August 23, 2006 07:49 AM
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