Thursday, January 22, 2015

Paradigm shifts about translations

Paradigm shifts with the Bible are always hard and sometimes involve anger. The Bible is so central to faith that making adjustments is often scary and painful. Today I want to talk about paradigm shifts in relation to Bible translations.

I posted some of these a few years back in relation to Mark Driscoll's seeming lack of education on these issues. Here is a paradigm shift I would like to see on this part of the Bible journey:

Pre-modern starting point: Unreflectively, many pastors and Christians do not realize that we do not have any of the original copies of any book of the Bible. So there is an assumption that the Hebrew and Greek of the Bible is a fixed entity in every detail. A second common assumption is that there is just one right way to translate from one language to another.

This creates a climate where too much can be staked on the detailed wording of some English translation.

Modernist education: When one becomes aware of these issues, the first instinct is to "get back to the originals." It is no surprise that textual criticism is a big deal among individuals making the transition from fundamentalism to broader evangelicalism. Wait, if we don't have the original manuscripts, then we had better figure out what the exact original wording was. It is no surprise that Bart Ehrman, who started off fundamentalist, ended up studying textual criticism at Princeton on his journey. That is the natural progression for a fundamentalist who gets a little education.

Even the smallest amount of biblical education makes it clear that there is no one way to translate from one language to another. The sentence structures are different. Words do not map from one language to another in a one-to-one fashion. All translation involves interpretation. None of this is debatable in the slightest. It is simply a question of whether you know anything about language or not.

For the overwhelming majority of experts on the text of the Bible, there is also no real debate that the text behind the King James is not likely to be based on the most likely original wording of the books of the Bible. There are some really smart people who disagree, but they are mostly driven, IMO, by philosophical factors rather than evidentiary ones, even if they can pack a wallop in an evidentiary discussion.

As you will see below, I don't have a problem with still using the KJV tradition because I don't think God is concerned with the detailed wording. He is concerned with the message. Indeed, ironically, while I don't think that the Greek and Hebrew text behind the KJV is most original, it may actually be clearer in terms of orthodox Christian theology! This is, IMO, an enlightened position, to be open to the New King James as a good translation to use in teaching and worship even though you recognize it is not based on the most original Greek text! I don't do it, but if you get what I'm saying, then you have reached what I am calling a second naivete.

Second naivete
I think the endpoint is the realization that God has always been concerned with the message rather than the details of wording. There is a pragmatic argument here. If the detailed wording is so important, then the vast majority of Christians throughout the ages, including the vast majority of pastors who don't know Greek and Hebrew very well, are sunk. So there's your choice, either the details are important and the Bible has largely been useless to Christians throughout history or the message is what is important and the Bible has been useful.

This, by the way, is supported by what we find in history. The majority of manuscripts, according to most scholars and anyone who uses any version other than the KJV, are not worded exactly the same as the first copies. Most scholars believe that the early copying of the New Testament was somewhat fluid--think The Message more than the ESV. So God himself apparently was not concerned throughout most of church history to make sure that Christians were using the precise wording that was in the originals!

Similarly, the fun stories about the care with which scribes copied the OT come from the Middle Ages, not from the time of the Bible itself. If you look at the way Paul paraphrases the OT, if you look at the Aramaic Targum (which are again more like The Message), if you look at the Dead Sea Scrolls, the overwhelming impression we get is that copying and translation was always more about the message than the details. Early transmission of the text--and I'm not even talking about translation here--often had a certain paraphrase quality.

So use whichever version seems to convey the message the best to you or your congregation. Don't fight over translations. God apparently never has.


Robert Diamond said...


This is one of your statements in your blog. "I think the endpoint is the realization that God has always been concerned with the message rather than the details of wording."

Proverbs 30:5,6 says, Every word of God is pure: he is a shield unto them that put their trust in him. Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar.
Luke 4:4 says, And Jesus answered him, saying, It is written, That man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.

My question is, "Does not the phrase "every word" literally mean "every word" (details of wording as you put it) and not just "the message"?

Rob Diamond

Ken Schenck said...

In an oral culture, a "word" often does not refer to what literary cultures think of as a word. If you ask an oral person to repeat the last word you said, they will repeat the last thought, in my understanding. If every word is what is important, then it is wrong for us even to read the Bible in translation.