Friday, July 07, 2006

Psalm 34:20 in the TNIV

A student in the Fall of this past year was deeply troubled that our department was passing out the free TNIV's that Zondervan sent our way. You'll remember that Dobson, World Magazine, and others conducted a vigorous smear campaign against the TNIV several years ago, mostly over its use of what Zondervan called "gender accurate" translation ("brothers and sisters" for brothers, etc...).

I've mentioned some of these things before and suggested it is a matter of your personal taste rather than a right or wrong. I've recently asked how translating "brothers" in Romans 16:17 as "brothers and sisters" can be evil when Paul clearly meant the word to include the women in the list of greetings earlier in the chapter. The masculine was often used in Greek even when women were included, as an all inclusive category.

But the student in particular last Fall was upset over the TNIV's translation of Psalm 34:20: "he protects all their bones, not one of them will be broken." The student felt the TNIV was evil for making the verse sound like it wasn't about Christ. The NIV at this point reads, "he protects all his bones, not one of them will be broken."

And why the fuss? Because John 19:32-36 says (NIV), "The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man... and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs... These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled, 'Not one of his bones will be broken.'"

So the perception was that the "evil" TNIV had translated away a prophecy about Christ by using "their" instead of "his." Now that I think of it, I imagine anti-TNIV-ites thought that the TNIV did this to move to inclusive gender language. That is not the underlying reason, as we will now see.

The problem here is not the TNIV... or the other translations. The problem is not Psalm 34's, and I would even say that the problem is not John's. The problem is the often perpetuated idea that the scripture fulfillments of the New Testament correspond closely to the original meanings of the OT passages they are quoting.

Have you heard the argument? It's done with a good and commendable attitude. I affirm the spirit that zealously says, "Christianity is true."

The argument goes something like this, "It is mathematically impossible that all the predictions of the OT could coincidentally all come true in the life of the same man, Jesus. Therefore, Christianity must be true."

But this argument will never work on a Jewish scholar, especially one who knows Hebrew and the Old Testament contexts. The spirit of the statement is commendable, but a little embarrassing in the light of the facts. It bugs me because it sets up some for a potential crisis over something that shouldn't be a crisis.

The New Testament authors simply were not concerned to read the OT in context the way some are today. Virtually all the prophecies of the OT are prophecies when you take the words in a particular spiritual way. But to varying degrees, the New Testament authors read the words differently from the meaning the OT author originally intended. Prophecies thus tend toward the spiritual rather than the contextual (many aren't even worded as prophecies in context, like Hosea 11:1).

In this case, John takes a verse that in the original Hebrew is about the righteous, plural, throughout and applies them to the Righteous One par excellence, Jesus. I guarantee you that no human being ever understood Psalm 34 to be about the Messiah until after the crucifixion.

34:15: "The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous." This was not originally about the Messiah or a single individual. It is zaddiqim, with a plural ending, "righteous ones," not a singular righteous one. When they cry, the LORD hears (34:17). So when the text turns to the singular "righteous one" in 34:19, it was not thinking of any one righteous person in particular, but any one of the many righteous it has been discussing. The context leading up to the verse in question is consistently plural, referring to the fact that righteous people often suffer unjustly.

It is fine to suggest that the Holy Spirit at this point led the psalmist to switch to the singular, if you like, "keeping all his bones, one from them is not broken." I'm fine with the idea that God has impregnated many passages of Scripture with a sensus plenior, a "fuller sense" than the human authors would have realized. In the original context, however, it is clear that the psalmist was still talking about the plural righteous of the previous verses.

So John (or perhaps early Christian tradition) went well beyond anything suggested by the original meaning of Psalm 34 when, instead of it speaking of the general protection God gives to the righteous in general, he took it to relate to the fact that on April 7 in the year AD30, Jesus' bones were not broken. ;-)

John was reading the verse out of context--or at least mega-beyond the context--which I think is perfectly allowed when you are inspired by the Holy Spirit.

But don't fault the TNIV for translating the OT verse appropriately. They do change a singular masculine in the Hebrew (his bones) to a generic plural. But this is a matter of preference, not right and wrong. The context is plural and surely God guards righteous women as well as men.


::athada:: said...

Education has made me more skeptical.

I remember skimming over that smear campaign years ago and, then accepting all published word as true (especially Christian!), I simply filed "TNIV" with "not a good idea." So when I received my TNIV, I had skepticism in me before I even knew anything about it, and not remembering where it came from. Now I know that everybody has different things to say on every different issue, Bible translations being one of them.

Oh, academia... where are you taking me? I think I feel LESS sure about most things but MORE sure about just a few things...

Crusty Guy from Manitoba said...

Well, I'm a newcomer to Ken's blog. my brother ( put me on to it. Ken and I studied together in Durham, so I hope it's ok to jump in.

To the question, where is academia taking you?, I wonder whether the answer is both "anywhere you want" and "nowhere in particular."

Academia is a vehicle. You have to fuel it, steer it, maintain it, etc. With good mechanics (like Ken), hopefully, academia will lead you to "more confidence, less certainty."

Sorry, Ken, if I spoke out of turn.

Tim Perry

Ken Schenck said...

Hey Tim! Thanks for chiming in... We especially welcome people I have to behave around!

Ken Schenck said...

Well Tim, knowing an OT scholar was reading, I went back and double checked my Hebrew... a minor edit ensued :-)

Crusty Guy from MB said...

Geez. We've been out of touch for a long time if you're thinking I'm an OT scholar. Systematics, my boy. Systematics.


Ken Schenck said...

Sorry Tim!!! Maybe I'm just paranoid about my Hebrew ;-)

Keith.Drury said...

Adam, To be more certain about fewer things was the secret to long term faith for me. Indeed, the Apostle's Creed (or Nicene,for Bounds) is all about this--a small list of the core ("Dogma" for Bounds). The less sure I got about the many the more certainty arose for me about the few.

I'm afarid that setting up the battlefront on a thousand fronts only prompts the collapse of the whole house later for some students. Adam, defining the core clearly then sticking with it is a good thing... hold the rest, but hold it lightly.

[at this point Ken will probably go into his cake story].

Ken Schenck said...

Is that something like, the Apostle's Creed is the cake and the rest is just icing on the cake, a lot of icing, but still icing?

::athada:: said...

I guess getting married got me thinking about what I'm really committed to, instead of half-way interested in.

I guess now it's "Love God, Love Your Neighbor, Love Becky" for me...

Funny that our Christian university doesn't have a single class on "neighboring", if it's so important... (thought stolen from Bob Lupton)

Pastor Rod said...

I think being more and more certain about fewer and fewer things is the right idea.

In every field, you can tell the novices by how simplistic their answers are. Experts rarely give simple, straighforward answers. (I think this is one reason that fundamentalists distrust education and scholarship.)

Why should it be any different in theology?

I agree with Keith. If we try to defend too much, we are in danger of losing it all. (There is an application of this needed in the evolution-creation debate.)

This is also an argument against highly systematized theologies. They have everything fitting neatly together, but at what price?

I wonder how this same philosophy would apply to membership requirements? :-)