Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed


Translation Tribalism 2

posted by Scot McKnight


Translation.jpg
Translations are now officially and unofficially connected to tribes, and it is not a little bit humorous and also at times quite sad. 

Sometimes it sounds like culture wars, and that is sad. Today I want to make one point, draw a sweeping conclusion, and then offer a good illustration.
Here’s my point: the authority is the original text, not the translation. The original texts are in Hebrew and Aramaic (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament). The authoritative text is not in English, regardless of how accurate the translation. No matter which translation you prefer, it is not the authoritative text for determining which translation is best. Yes, we need more to devote more time to study of the original languages. 
The sweeping conclusion is this: unless you can read the original languages, you should avoid making public pronouncements about which translation is best. Instead, here’s my suggestion: if you don’t know the languages and can’t read them well enough to translate accurately on your own but you want to tell your congregation or your listeners which translate is best, you need to admit it by saying something like this: “On the basis of people I trust to make this decision, the ESV or the TNIV or the NRSV or the NLT is a reliable translation.”  

Here’s an example, and it’s a good one. The translations of James 3:1 translate in two ways:
NIV: “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers…”
NASB: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren…”
ESV: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers…”
NLT: “Dear brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers in the church…”
TNIV (same NRSV): “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers and sisters…”

Pretty obvious, isn’t it? NIV and NASB and ESV translate with “brothers” while the NLT and TNIV have “added” or “clarified” or “included” [women in the audience] by adding “and sisters.” This is not a debate about which of them has a better theology or about which one is more inclusive but about which one is more accurate to the original Greek. The fact is this: the Greek word behind this, adelphos or “brother,” sometimes refers to a congregation of Christians, including men and women, and sometimes refers only to males (but there is a Greek word for male and James did not use that; gender is not the most important thing in his mind; spiritual kinship is).

Sure, the NLT and the TNIV are more inclusive, but that’s not quite the point. The point is which one best represents the intent of the original Greek, which has the Greek word adelphos? Unless you know what adelphos means in Greek, in the broad swath of the New Testament’s use of adelphos and how it is used in the Greek-speaking (not to mention Hebrew-reading world) and about how James uses the word adelphos, any judgment is rooted in theology or theory but not in evidence. If you don’t know the Greek, avoid standing in judgment. I’m not trying to be a hard-guy or an elitist, but let’s be honest: only those who know Latin should be talking about which is the “best” translation of Virgil or only those who know Middle High German should be weighing in on the “best” translation of The Nibelungenlied. This isn’t elitist; it’s common sense.

We could get into the “intent” of translation, but that’s another post. Our intent today is simple: to press upon everyone that there is a distinction between the text and a translation of the text. The authority is with the former; those who know that text are informed enough to decide about translations.

I’ll tell you what I think here: there is no evidence in James that there were women teachers and that would favor the NIV and NASB and ESV; it is also likely that by “brothers” James is looking at the whole congregation (common enough usage of adelphos in James), favoring the NLT and TNIV. The Greek text has adelphos and the debate should revolve around what that word, in that world and in this context in James, means. [Other things can be discussed too, but my point is not to resolve the issue.] There is insufficient evidence to be dogmatic in this instance. If a translation wants to be “inclusive,” then a little note at the bottom of the text could give readers a tip that “brothers” is another translation. 


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Matthew Montonini

posted September 7, 2009 at 12:38 am


Hey, Scot.
I think your point is well taken and certainly not elitist. I have had the same discussions with my wife who works at a Christian bookstore. She runs into customers who swear that their translation is the ‘inspired’ translation. The problem can usually be traced back to what their pastor said, or rather, what they believe their pastor said. Unfortunately, many pastors themselves do not know the original languages and have nothing with which to gauge the various translations on the market.
A pastor who also happened to teach me Hebrew said something to the effect that all of the other main line faiths require their adherents to read their respective texts in the original languages, why should it be different for Christians, and most importanly, those who pastor churches?
Thanks for these posts, and my wife and I will see you in Ashland on the 26th and 27th.



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Michele McGinty

posted September 7, 2009 at 1:22 am


What do you do with the fact that both adelphos and didakitos are masculine plural? Doesn’t that have some bearing on the translation?



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Patrick

posted September 7, 2009 at 1:38 am


Actually, I was more struck by the difference between “presume to be” and “become.” What’s up with that?
The adelphoi problem can, as you say, be more easily solved by a translation footnote (as I believe NRSV often does).



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BenB

posted September 7, 2009 at 2:56 am


Michael #2,
“Padres” is masculine plural in Spanish, yet it is the only proper term for “parents,” that is, “Mother and Father.” It seems you’re reading a little bit too much into the “masculine” aspect. The fact is that most languages (especially in antiquity) use the masculine noun when speaking of male and female together in a singular unit (parents, teachers, elders, etc). English itself uses the term “mankind” when speaking about people as a whole – both male and female. Inclusive words and phrases are a more modern development. So Scot’s point remains the same, only someone with adequate knowledge of the Greek should speak to which translation is “best” here.



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Tim Gombis

posted September 7, 2009 at 6:31 am


There does indeed seem to be something tribal about the devotion/loyalty to certain translations among evangelicals. I have no idea why, except that there’s something in human nature, perhaps, that makes us want to be seen as having gotten a leg up on others. I see this among students with their ESVs, especially. I don’t think the NIV ever got like this, probably because it had such broad appeal.
It sort of goes along with the neo-Reformed impulse; to be orthodox is to read the ESV and listen to the right neo-Reformed preachers.



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Rob

posted September 7, 2009 at 6:40 am


Scot, this has prompted me to post the comment I was going to post to the original piece you wrote: by the time 2011 rolls around and the new NIV is out, could not your average high-school educated person, perhaps by spending an hour once or twice a week, acquire enough Greek to at least read with care from an interlinear, or at best straight from UBS4th with a dictionary?? Someone might say ‘oh but not everyone can invest that kind of time and effort’. Which I think is right, but then I would say that people who aren’t able or willing to make that effort obviously have other priorities – growing their business, raising their family etc- priorities for which the standard NIV will probably suffice for their entire life. For someone whose priority is solving all his exegetical anxieties, then two semesters learning Greek is entirely reasonable, considering we spend our entire lives reading the bible. Do I seem off the mark here?



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Rob

posted September 7, 2009 at 6:45 am


Actually, I’d like to bang this drum just a little bit more. Muslims learn to read Arabic for the recitation of their Scriptures, and it’s not uncommon for many people to learn at least one foreign language for travel. Add to this the fact that the Greek NT represents a limited and fixed vocabulary, and that every word has been analysed, declined, and whatever else, and also considering the unprecedented amount and quality of resources we have…. well, I think there’s never been a better time to make reading Greek more common.



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RJS

posted September 7, 2009 at 7:29 am


Rob,
I agree with your sentiment at one level. Several years ago I decided I wanted to have the skill to at least evaluate arguments about the Greek text and understand what was being said by the scholars. As a result I started to learn Greek with a couple of books and then the text of the NT.
But it didn’t take an hour or two a week for a year – it took half and hour or so a day for a couple of years.
Form experience I think it is a good exercise for anyone who is serious about studying scripture. For anyone who is teaching/preaching it should be required.
But without a more formal education system incorporating Greek I don’t think that we will see any kind of literacy in the church in general, and I don’t really think that it is important.



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Mark Traphagen

posted September 7, 2009 at 7:33 am


Excellent article; the tribalism of translation preference is an evangelical foible that deserves to be brought into the light.
One nit to pick: in the post you use the phrase “what the Greek intends.” we
should keep in mind that languages don’t “intend” anything; authors do. The only real answer to
the question you pose about your example is whatever the author of James had in mind when he wrote adelphos, and that is lost to us. That should cause us to have some humility both in
how we approach translation and church polity based on such passages. But biblicist American evangelicalism wants the pride of absolute certainty on everything. That there might be ambiguity or
unresolvable issues in their Bibles scared them to death.



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Mark Traphagen

posted September 7, 2009 at 7:37 am


And all typos in the previous comment are the fault of
my iPhone’s mistranslation of my typing ;-)



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Scot McKnight

posted September 7, 2009 at 7:39 am


Mark, fair enough. Greek does not intend — shorthand for the author intends in the Greek text. Because you use an iPhone you are particularly insightful.



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Peter

posted September 7, 2009 at 8:06 am


I have never studied Greek at university, but I am still allowed to teach Sunday School (sometimes for adults, sometimes for children) at my church. There are word issues that come up from time to time depending on the nature of the commentary that I might be using (the New Int’l Greek Testament Commentary discusses the language in more depth than some others, for example). I probably will never take time to learn Greek except for the very particular issue right in front of me. May I still teach?
Rob (#7) – Although I see validity to your point, I would not use Muslims and Arabic to make it: if my experience in Indonesia is representative of the rest of the non-Arabic speaking Muslim world, the Arabic was memorized, not learned and (like me and Greek!) very few words being recited were understood or could be translated by the devotee.



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Scot McKnight

posted September 7, 2009 at 8:26 am


Peter, please observe that I didn’t say anything about the absolute necessity of knowing Greek (or Hebrew or Aramaic) for teaching in the Church. (If we required that, Augustine would be excluded.)
The point was about the need for knowledge of the original languages to render public judgment about translations. To judge a translation requires expertise in languages.



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Jim

posted September 7, 2009 at 8:26 am


Not long ago I was having a discussion with a person who does not believe. Part of her rationale was that the Bible was the word of man and not the word of God BECAUSE the Bible had gone through so many translations. One mistake she made was to think that translations are simply translations of translations. She saw it as making copies of copies of copies…as in Xeroxing. The latter gets more and more faded.
I corrected that view by pointing out that her assumptions was incorrect. However, she still maintained that any translation was bound to “lose something” and therefore could not be trusted to be the authoritative word of God.
I pointed out that while there may be issues (such as you mention) here Scot that on the whole it’s not a “difference that makes a difference” to the broader message of what God has done in Christ.
Our discussion is ongoing. However, I was wondering how others of you (including you, Scott) address this issue that “the translations of humans obstruct the underlying word of God.” (i.e. if I can’t trust this version to get it right on this precise word, how can I trust this version to get it right on THE word?)



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Scot McKnight

posted September 7, 2009 at 8:33 am


Jim,
Good one. I will deal with this eventually, but for now we have to talk about “adequacy” and “reliability” instead of locking ourselves into something like “absolute accuracy.” Furthermore, there are often a few good ways to translate with rendering bringing out something and another one bringing out something else.
How does one translate “gird up the loins of your mind” in 1 Peter 1:13? Does one render woodenly, as I have already? Or does one render it “get your minds ready for action”? I like having a few options available, some more wooden to bring out original idiom and one that focuses on reception of the language in our language.



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Scot McKnight

posted September 7, 2009 at 8:36 am


Jim, what I’m saying is that we should not look to any translation as “right” and the others “wrong.” Yes, to be sure, on most of it most of the translations get it right but what we really need to say is that they render the original reliably or adequately.



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RJS

posted September 7, 2009 at 8:38 am


Peter,
But if one is in fact teaching on a regular basis at a relatively high level, shouldn’t one wish or feel compelled to obtain some mastery of the material? This isn’t about a degree or even about formal education. I’ve not taken Greek at University either.
I struggle with attending any kind of adult SS or bible study these days though – because there is often a large element of loose wishy washy garbage. There is a prevalent view that reading the English and talking about it is better than any in depth understanding.
One can certainly teach without knowing much if any Greek or Hebrew – but a professional approach would require reading many and varied commentaries to have a view of the issues.
Just using an English translation is really a problem – because all translations interpret, and many interpret through theological ideology.



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LD

posted September 7, 2009 at 8:41 am


And even if one can read the original languages there is still significant room for interpretation, otherwise we wouldn’t have more than one translated version. The implication is that if you can read Greek and Hebrew it will resolve all the issues – but that is clearly not true as the various Bible versions we have that rub against each other at times were all produced by people who can read the original languages.
The authority may be the original text, but that doesn’t mean we can simply access the original meaning and intent by studying the languages.
That being said, I can’t fluently read in Greek and Hebrew but my study of those languages has significantly helped me in my approach to and (I think) interpretation of our sacred texts. As others have said, if nothing else it should produce humility.



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Joel Frederick

posted September 7, 2009 at 8:44 am


Years ago, a cousin was telling me that the KJV was the only “inspired:” Bible because it was the first one translated into English. I proceeded to tell him about John Bunyon and Tynsdale who beat the KJV by years… I was never bothered with that logic again.
Lately, however, my concern has been less about the translation but the tools I use. If I use a Stong’s Concordance, does it come along with the theological baggage of Strong? If so, can I trust it? Can the same be said about the other available tools as well?



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RJS

posted September 7, 2009 at 8:58 am


Jim,
This is an important issue isn’t it? What is even more troubling to some is the fact that translations too often have an “agenda.” I think that this is why Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus” is so popular – and embraced – in some circles.
I don’t trust the ESV because they had an agenda and I am not sure where the agenda distorts the text. The agenda is clear in the translation of Romans 16:7 where the translators felt compelled on ideological grounds to translate “??t???? e?s?? ?p?s???? ?? t??? ?p?st?????” as “They are well known to the apostles.” Now this is a possible, but not likely, translation of the meaning of the text. It is used in the ESV because women cannot be apostles.
I am also wary of “gender inclusive” translations because they often have an agenda – and I am not sure, without a bit of research, where the agenda distorts the translation.
The bottom line these days is that I approach the reading of scripture with an underlying skepticism and distrust that just isn’t healthy – or conducive to faith.
I don’t know the solution though.



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Scot McKnight

posted September 7, 2009 at 9:00 am


Larry, yes, you’re right. Some think they will find nothing but clarity when they learn Greek (or Hebrew or Aramaic) and that’s not so. Sometimes the ambiguity of a Greek genitive can multiply ambiguity. I don’t want to suggest the languages resolve all issues, but translation is a kind of judgment: a judgment about how reliable or adequate a given translation is of an original language.



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Peter

posted September 7, 2009 at 9:05 am


Thanks for the responses, friends. I will continue to try to learn (Greek, and other things as well) as I accept the responsibility to teach. Regarding “human” error in translation (I am not sure if these are my thoughts or learned elsewhere): we are not Muslims, nor are we Mormons in the way that we approach our Scriptures. Just as there is a tendency toward docetism in the attitude of many evangelicals toward Jesus (unable/unwilling to acknowledge that some of what he said/thought/believed was what any 1st century Palestinian Jew would have believed vs the assumption that all that he said was a perfect articulation from the perspective of the Second Person of the Trinity), there is a “docetism” in evangelicals’ reading of Scripture: unwilling or unable to wrestle with the significance of the fact that, though inspired, these texts were written by people like you and me, not automatons and not the finger of God on a stone in a cave.



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John

posted September 7, 2009 at 9:26 am


I’m taken with that phrase about translations being connected to tribes.
Of course, it was also so. The Bible is – in some ways – created by the tribe that needs it. Indeed, was not the canon first established because the church had so much material flying around and needed to settle what was and what was not actual scripture?
The King James, if I understand my history, was translated in part because the royals did not like some of the anti-monarchical commentary in popular Protestant translations.
My point? Tribes create scripture. Or if you are a Hauerwasian, scripture creates tribes.
Scot’s point about modesty in our claims for the authority of translations is a good one. I’m just not convinced we should be saddened by the tribal Bible behavior. It seems inevitable. It is part of something deeper that is not likely to be resolved by setting our language straight.



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Scott W

posted September 7, 2009 at 9:38 am


Scot,
One thing I think is the theological backdrop to a lot of the Evangelical anxiety about translation is thethe bad theology os Scripture which undergirds talk about “accuracy” of Scripture texts,original autographs.
The truth of the matter is thatwe don’t have originals in the original languages. What we have is copies of copies of copies…which have scribal errors and other variants attempting to clarify words or phrases for exegetical/theological purposes.And this phenomenon is even more complex for the OT because for many or most books probably was an original “autograph”; there were probably multiple editions from the beginning. We’ve done a poor job of talking about Scripture theologically from an historical perspective and as an cultural product of the community of faith,the place where the authority of YHWH and Jesus is particularly manifested in the rough and tumble of history and everyday life.



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Paul D.

posted September 7, 2009 at 10:05 am


Scot to Jim (#15) “I like having a few options available, some more wooden to bring out original idiom and one that focuses on reception of the language in our language.”
I agree and regularly consult both “formal equivalent” and “functional equivalent” translations along with the original languages (and with any significant textual variances.
God did such a good job of confusing language after Babel that no two languages have an exact correspondence. The Italians have it right: “Traddutore traditore.” (“A translator is a traitor.”) That said, we can be assured that most current transalations are generally reliable and accurate, though precision varies. That is another reason to read the whole Bible, and whole books, before parsing individual verses.



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Jim

posted September 7, 2009 at 10:45 am


Thank you all so much for assisting me in my discussions about this issue. I will continue to read them as they come in and look forward to seeing how Scot develops the conversation.



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RJS

posted September 7, 2009 at 10:50 am


Scot (#21)
Greek (and presumably Hebrew as well) leave an ambiguity in interpretation – but all language has a level of ambiguity.
I think that what bothers me most about some translations into English is the desire to remove ambiguity and apparent conflict. This is part of the text we have – and if we believe the text to be the Word of God – we should let it stand and wrestle with it, not mold it into a shape that fits our ideas and sensibilities.
Many scribal alterations that impact the text we have before us were also the result of attempts to mold the text.
We need to read the various voices in scripture and let God speak – not look for a foundation of absolute authoritative certainty.



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Scot McKnight

posted September 7, 2009 at 10:52 am


RJS, good point. I used to say that at times in classes when I was teaching Greek: if the Greek text is ambiguous, it doesn’t need our help to make it less so!



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Clay Knick

posted September 7, 2009 at 11:26 am


Spot on, as usual.



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Dave Leigh

posted September 7, 2009 at 11:56 am


The inclusive language debate is not just about the ancient languages. It is about current English as well. Translators and people who know the ancient languages don’t always agree on what things mean or how things should be translated. But when you run into something like the Colorado Springs Guidelines for Bible Translation, for example, you find there are presuppositions at work that have less to do with what the original text meant and more to do with how those meanings can or should be expressed in the postmodern English-speaking world. Those who oppose an inclusive rendering of adlelphos, for example, often do so, not because they think women were not present, but because they do not want, in their own daily conversational language, to have to be inclusive. Many want to be able to use masculine laden language in daily life, with phrases like “brotherly love,” “mankind,” “man” (for humanity), etc. And this is why we are debating English and not just ancient meanings.



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Mark Baker-Wright

posted September 7, 2009 at 12:06 pm


Quick comment:
“there is no evidence in James that there were women teachers”
Don’t confuse absence of evidence with evidence of absence.



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Mark Baker-Wright

posted September 7, 2009 at 12:19 pm


Dave in #30,
“Those who oppose an inclusive rendering of adlelphos, for example, often do so, not because they think women were not present, but because they do not want, in their own daily conversational language, to have to be inclusive.”
Well said. To this, I might add (maybe only a slight shade of addition) that many of these folks, even if they think that women may have been present in the original context, that adding words like “and sisters” to a Greek word that (they assert) literally means “brothers” is to add an interpretive layer to the text. That is to say, the modern reader (who presumably does not know Greek) does not have the option of making up his/her own mind about the matter, because the translation has made that interpretive decision ahead of time. Wayne Grudem has written on this fairly extensively (in particular, I’m thinking of a little pamphlet called “What’s Wrong with Gender-Neutral Bible Translations?”, copyright 1997 by CBMW).
I probably disagree with Grudem on almost every significant point on this issue, but I want to try to be fair to his argument.



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John W Frye

posted September 7, 2009 at 12:27 pm


I appreciate the honesty that English translations, no matter the agenda, do not carry authority, and even proficiency with the original languages introduces the translator/reader with massive amounts of exegetical decisions (hot current example “the faith of Christ” in the Greek text). I think it is a Protestant mistake to invest “authority” in the text and not in the Spirit Who produced the texts through human authors. Do complementarians think they have a more authoritative text in the ESV or do egalitarians think the TNIV/NIV 2011 is/will be more authoritative? I like Scot’s distinction between accuracy to the originals languages in our translations and authority which is another discussion altogether. I think is unhealthy hubris to attach authority to a translation.



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Mark Baker-Wright

posted September 7, 2009 at 12:29 pm


Fairness where its due, Grudem actually does not oppose “brothers and sisters” for adelphoi in all instances. Indeed, in some he actually agrees that “accuracy is improved” by its usage. I probably should have used another example in #32 above.



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Nick Mackison

posted September 7, 2009 at 1:55 pm


Scot, would it be fair to say that a little Greek is even more dangerous than none at all?



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Scot McKnight

posted September 7, 2009 at 2:02 pm


Claiming more than one knows is the issue, Nick.



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Chris Ridgeway

posted September 7, 2009 at 2:58 pm


(I tend to think the same as Nick (35) – a little greek seems more dangerous than none.)
Scot – your phrasing that the original languages hold the locus of authority more than translations maybe bugs me theologically.
First, it sounds like the inerrancy conversation explaining textual criticism by referencing the error-free original manuscripts. Though you aren’t saying this exactly, the dualistic distinction by some always seems to wind up sounding like our ideal is Joseph Smith staring into a glowing hat.
But second, it’s hard theologically for me to separate talk of “authority” of the text from its action in the world. Luke Timothy Johnson speaks of three-fold authority in text authoring us (identify-function), authorizing (exempla for interpretation/hermneutical moves), and making authoritative mandates on subjects (though diverse and to be taken canonically). Maybe all that to say: it’s hard to speak of authority without speaking of the community of people who understand the text. And if they understand English and not Koine Greek, well… the authority is in the English, isn’t it?
Of course, never tell a Biblical scholar that you prefer a theological formulation. Just makes them cranky at you. :)
- chris



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Brian

posted September 7, 2009 at 5:56 pm


Michelle (comment #2) – from Rod Decker’s website: Please remember that gender and sex are two very different categories; gender is strictly a grammatical category and does not reflect anything regarding the sex of the referent!



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Mark Baker-Wright

posted September 7, 2009 at 6:09 pm


“…unless you can read the original languages, you should avoid making public pronouncements about which translation is best.”
I’ve been sitting on this one for a while, because while I basically agree, there’s something about it that’s been nagging at me, and I think I can give it voice now.
As a (former) seminary student, I’ve had several years of language studies and exegetical work under my belt, and I’ve always scored fairly highly on these matters. It’s not that I “don’t know” the languages. Indeed, I’m clearly more proficient in them than the average church-goer. Yet, obviously, I could not with any integrity say that I know, say, Greek, better than a scholar like Wayne Grudem (I hope he’ll forgive me for singling him out in these discussions, and hope that I’ve been fair to his position). Does that mean that I’m unqualified to suggest that a “gender-neutral” translation is better than a “non-gender-neutral” one, even though he consistently opposes the concept of “gender-neutral” translations on principle?



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BenB

posted September 7, 2009 at 6:48 pm


I need to ammend a previous comment. It was late and I was tired. I rendered *Michelle* from comment #2 as “Michael.”
My apologies Michelle. My comment (#4) is directed in response to your comment #2. Not to some phantom “Michael.” I also in no way meant to call you a male or refer to you with an incorrect name. It was just too late for my brain to function properly I guess. I’m sorry.



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Kim Mark Lewis

posted September 7, 2009 at 7:17 pm


1 Corinthians 5:5
The TNIV and NIV for example have no clue on how to translate the Greek word ‘Sarx’, in the below example they translate it as ‘Sinful Nature.’ There is not a piece of literature written at the same time period or hundreds of years later that would translate ‘Sarx’ as ‘Sinful Nature’ This is nothing more then a translation pushing a theology, which is not the business of any translator.
TNIV: hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the sinful nature so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord
NASBU: I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.
KJV: To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.
NRSV: you are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
NET: turn this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved8 in the day of the Lord.
ESV: you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.



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chaplain mike

posted September 7, 2009 at 7:30 pm


Scot, one of the biggest problems I have had in teaching the NIV over the years (I’ve never used the TNIV, but I assume it still applies), is its tendency to break up long sentences in the Greek and leave out the connecting words. I know we favor shorter sentences in English, but it seems to me that Paul (especially) needs to be read with the prepositions intact.
What do you think about this, and how do you deal with it in teaching the NT, especially in a congregation?



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Scot McKnight

posted September 7, 2009 at 7:44 pm


Mark, we should not render judgment in public on such matters if it is not our judgment. If we are not skilled enough, we rely on others.
Now, how much knowledge is necessary to render judgment? I’d put it this way: Enough to know whether or not the translation is good. How much is that? I’d say an ability to sit down with the Greek New Testament and, apart from one’s ability to read from sight Acts or Hebrews, flat out read the text with very little help. This is how one knows if one knows other languages. Why not the NT?



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Scot McKnight

posted September 7, 2009 at 7:46 pm


Mike, we’ll get to this but it has to do with the “intent” of a translation. NIV has an intent of rendering the Bible into an English that is not misunderstood in its public reading, and that means dropping some of the “periodic” length sentences of Paul. That was Paul’s style, not ours. Keeping his syntax does violence to English as it is understood and written today.



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RJS

posted September 7, 2009 at 8:08 pm


Scot,
Often one isn’t evaluating “from scratch” but rather evaluating the relative merits of arguments from experts who disagree. This requires some familiarity – but perhaps not the same level of fluency? And in an age where it is difficult for anyone to be expert at everything we often need to make decisions in teaching on the basis of evaluation of the arguments of experts.



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RJS

posted September 7, 2009 at 8:16 pm


To continue … Of course in the post you specify:
you need to admit it by saying something like this: “On the basis of people I trust to make this decision, the ESV or the TNIV or the NRSV or the NLT is a reliable translation.”
The real problem for many comes in having any ground to evaluate the arguments of experts. And we are surrounded by a cacophony of competing voices.



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Wayne Leman

posted September 7, 2009 at 8:31 pm


if the Greek text is ambiguous, it doesn’t need our help to make it less so!”
This is true, but usually the ambiguity in the Greek text is in the minds of us, who are attempting to understand that text. The ambiguity seldom was intended by the biblical author. If ambiguity were as intended by the biblical authors as some claim for the amount of ambiguity in the original texts, then human communication via language would break down. The English language has ambiguities also, but most of the time (except for some of us incurable punsters) we don’t intend the English ambiguities which linguists enjoy pointing out in English texts. (I know; I’m one of these linguists.)
Of course, some may point out that recognizing that the biblical authors did not usually intend the ambiguity which we can find in what they wrote just removes the problem by one degree. But the issue is not unimportant. It is similar to the main point you are making, Scot, that the authoritative text is the original, not translations of it. We can say that the authoritative meaning was authorial intent, not our interpretations of possible authorial intent. We are *not* left helpless when it comes to possible ambiguities in the biblical texts. There are many clues from context and co-texts that help disambiguate our analyses and move us, we hope and pray and trust, closer to authorial intent.



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RJS

posted September 7, 2009 at 9:09 pm


Wayne,
Excellent point.
But in those cases where there is serious dispute on meaning I would still rather see honest ambiguity in a translation than dishonest certainty.



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Scot McKnight

posted September 7, 2009 at 9:21 pm


Wayne, fair enough. What was in my mind was a genitive. It speaks of relationship; but the sort of relationship is open to dispute and sometimes the reader has to say “relationship” — yes — but more than this is simply not clear. “Faith in Christ” or “Faith of Christ [himself]“; “love for God” or “God’s love for me.” That sort of ambiguity is what I had in mind. We fool ourselves into thinking we know with certainty sometimes.



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Wayne Leman

posted September 7, 2009 at 9:52 pm


I understood you to be referring to genitives, Scot. And they can truly be difficult to figure out, for us analysts, anyway. My point is that the biblical author knew which meaning of the genitive he intended. Yes, we can fool ourselves if we think we knew which meaning the author intended. But sometimes we fool ourselves by being too analytical, not allowing the context to guide us closer to what the author most likely intended. Greek genitives in the N.T. do not stand alone. They are part of an author’s flow of logic. Recognizing this does not guarantee that we know what was in the author’s mind. But not recognizing contextual clues for sure will keep us from getting closer to what was authorial intent. When there is honest uncertainty about whether a subjective or objective genitive was intended, I recommend footnoting. I think that all Bible versions would be better if we had better footnotes for legitimate translation options. It’s part of being honest with the text and I hope that our congregations could mature enough to cope with not knowing everything for certain. We do know so much for certain (the Jesus Creed itself, for instance) that we are not hopelessly flailing about with uncertain understandings of an original text filled with uncertainties.



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Travis Hutchinson

posted September 8, 2009 at 12:02 am


Scot, re: 43…
While I concede the prevailing circumstance of pastors making myriads of uninformed statements about Greek and Hebrew which would be better left unsaid, this post bothers me a little. Just because someone doesn’t know a particular language very well, doesn’t mean that he or she can’t have a reasonable opinion on translational philosophy.
When I heard the chairman of the OT translation committee of the NIV say that “uncircumcised ears” should be rendered “closed ears” because English speakers were confused by the language and it “just means closed”, I thought, “What a terrible idea. ‘Uncircumcised’ means a lot more than ‘closed’.” My Hebrew is pretty poor, but I think I have a reasonable opinion regarding this kind of method.
Likewise, a pastor with no knowledge of Greek or Hebrew can recommend to his congregation an essentially literal translation (I just gave away my preference) so that they can more easily follow key terms. Someone may disagree with his opinion, but it is not unreasonable.
I DO think your post is subtly elitist. Those of us who teach, and especially those who teach teachers, must always consider carefully whether our reserving authority for ourselves is self-serving…or even valid.



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joanne

posted September 8, 2009 at 9:35 am


what gets me about the term “brothers” is that sometimes women are included and sometimes we are not. And it is very frustrating for the average female reader to know when they are indeed included.
It appears that we are included only when it pertains to areas in which role differientaiation is not needed. So there is an interpretive criteria that is assumed by some and not by others.
What about that is clear.???



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James

posted September 8, 2009 at 12:30 pm


Joanne,
There are a number of languages that work fluidly in terms of designation for gender specific or mixed gender groups. I usually give the french example, becuase I’ve studied it, but if you’ve studied any romantic language, I believe it holds. In french, he = il, she = elle, a group of males = ils, a group of females = elles, and a mixed group = ils. Context must rule.
English common usage has a clear presentation of the same idea. If I say, “you gals”, then you can quickly surmise I’m talking to a female group. If I say, “you guys”, then you are left to wonder if it is a male or mixed gender group.
Adelphos works the same way in greek. It’s meaning is ruled by context. It means either “brothers” or “brothers and sisters” depending on the context. As far as I know, the most ardent opponents of “gender inclusive” translation changes don’t object to this sort of use. Scot points out that James does not use the specifically male term available, andros. Some people who are pushing for “gender inclusiveness” want to make interpretive changes terms like that which have a clear and precise meaning in the original language. So to your point, what’s clear about that?
It’s not a simple agenda driven issue, either… there’s good reason to believe that wisdom literature about “sons” really does apply to daughters as well, even though the word choice really is “son” and not “child” (a viable option there ARE greek and hebrew words available to make the distinction). There are passages that are addressed to male or female which hold broader principles than are confined to gender. We need to be intelligent, awe-filled, and fearfully careful with how we approach the bible.
Which ultimately, and I hope, loops back to Scot’s point. It’s important that those who are teaching the bible take the time to learn the original language so that you can discuss these types of problems on their own terms.



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RJS

posted September 8, 2009 at 12:37 pm


James,
Except where I grew up, “you gals” was never to my recollection used. (We would have known it meant a group of all girls though.) You guys was used for everything – whether the group was all male, all female, or mixed.
I have gotten strange looks for my use of the term in other parts of the country though.
Which, in the context of this post, adds another element to our uncertainty – language use is not always consistent even in a similar country at a similar time. Broad brush is relatively easy, legal specificity is not.



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James

posted September 8, 2009 at 12:44 pm


Too true. I bet you drink “pop”, too, don’t you! /glare
My favorite local use of odd pronoun, was in San Antonio, where some people use y’all in the singular.



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Bob Brague

posted September 8, 2009 at 12:49 pm


I may say “brothers and sisters” but it is truly a moot point and a personal opinion until the day Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, becomes “The City of Brotherly and Sisterly Love.” That will be the day the rubber meets the road.
My own personal struggle is usually with the little connecting words, for example, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” So simple sounding. Everybody knows what it means, right? Well, I don’t. It might mean “since” or “because” or “for” or “to the same extent that” or “at the exact moment that” or “in the same way that” or a number of other things. It’s not only Greek that trips up a person; so does English. Should I stop forgiving because I’m still scratching my head about the real meaning? No. Neither should the least among us stop teaching Sunday School if that’s what you are called to do and gifted at.



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James

posted September 8, 2009 at 4:00 pm


“Neither should the least among us stop teaching Sunday School if that’s what you are called to do and gifted at.”
That’s well recieved and true. I would go so far as to encourage people to do as you’ve done above… recognize and admit difficulty, rather than glossing over it, and submit yourself under the authority of a church leader who can address such things as they come up.



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RJS

posted September 8, 2009 at 4:14 pm


James (#55),
Pop of course, what else would you call it?
We also played duck, duck, gray duck. Why would anybody introduce a goose into this fine old game?



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Bill Crawford

posted September 8, 2009 at 6:05 pm


Occasionally, the ESV footnotes the translation “brothers” as “Or ‘brothers and sisters’”.
Interestingly it does this for James 3:10 and 12 but not James 3:1….



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Brian Jones

posted September 8, 2009 at 6:52 pm


“Here’s my point: the authority is the original text, not the translation.”
Wouldn’t it be better to say that God has authority through the text? I just think it is really God who has the authority. If we were to separate God from the book, it would just be a book made of paper with ink.



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Scot McKnight

posted September 8, 2009 at 7:09 pm


Brian, you are not alone in raising this point. By “authority” I was not thinking of “Scripture’s or God’s authority” but of which text we go to determine what was said. The authority lies in the original-language text.



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Mark B

posted September 8, 2009 at 10:48 pm


I’m a layman, don’t know Greek and trying to determine what “brothers – adelphos” means in Matthew 13:55. In my limited study, I find that “adelphos” can range in spectrum from a blood brother/half-brother to kinsman or even all of mankind. Matthew knew exactly what he meant when he wrote his gospel but how do I ascertain what he meant? There are vastly differing opinions of what brothers means in this context. Is it important for us to know with certainty what this passage means? Are we to take this scripture and compare it with other scriptures to determine what it means?



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Scot McKnight

posted September 9, 2009 at 7:13 am


Mark B, that text refers to Jesus’ physical brothers, his brothers (and sisters are mentioned too) who were born to Mary. To be sure, many in the Church think Mary remained virgin after the birth of Christ. What tips the scales for me in this context is what when the term “brother” means something other than physical brother, something in the context provides a clue. There are no clues in this context.



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