Lecture 04: Hermeneutical Issues (Part 2)
Course: Biblical Hermeneutics
Lecture: Hermeneutical Issues (Part 2)
2. be based on the latest knowledge of language and culture
Second issue: We want the translation to be based on the latest knowledge of the languages and culture. Since 1611, the date of King James, there has been considerable knowledge that has increased with regard to various translations. We know, for instance, that a lot of the Bible consists of poetry and we can recognize that poetry. Up to the 1700s, no-one knew Biblical poetry. They didn’t understand or talk about poetry and how we interpret poetry different than other works. But we have learned a lot since that time. We want to be careful about what we have learned during that time and apply all of that knowledge t o our particular text. We want a translation that is accurate and we can say, “Of course that is true.” Sometimes people take liberties in translation, like the Living Bible. In John 21:2 they translated, “A group of us were there, Simon Peter, Thomas the twin, Nathaniel from Cana and Gallilee, my brother James and I and two other disciples.” The Greek text doesn’t say “James and I.” It says, “The sons of Zebedee.” The translator of the Living Bible thought, and he may be right, that John was the writer of this Gospel. But even if he is right, that is not what the text is saying, it says “the sons of Zebedee.” So you should put in “the sons of Zebedee.” You want an accurate translation .
3. be accurate
You have to realize too that just producing an accurate translation in manuscript form does not mean that it comes out accurate in printed form. There are some notorious goofs this way. For instance, in 1631 Barker and Lewis who were printers, printed the King James version. It was a nice translation, a nice copy of the King James version. A little problem: In the seventh commandment they left out a word, and so it read, “Thou shalt commit adultery.” They were taken to court, fined, went out of business. In 1653, Paul asked the question, “Know ye not that” and they had a little word change, “the unrighteous shall enter the kingdom of God,” rather than “righteous.” In 1716 in Ireland, 8,000 copies of a Bible were printed and they discovered no word was left out, nor incorrect word, no letters added, just two letters were reversed. So in the story of the woman taken in adultery, Jesus says to her, “Sin on more” instead of “Sin no more.” You have the famous printers’ Bible where David in Psalm 119 complains , “Princes have persecuted me without a cause” and it came out, “Printers have persecuted me without a cause.” In 1682 in Deuteronomy 24:3 it talks about if the latter husband hate his wife and the “h” dropped out. If the latter husband “ate” his wife… In 1795, Mark 7:27: “Let the children first be killed” instead of “filled”… You can have all sorts of interesting problems. Before the New American Standard came into our pew Bibles at the seminary, we had a King James pew Bible. Some guy, I don’t remember which pastor, preached on 1 Timothy 6, and a lot of people used the pew Bible and they did not realize that it read a little differently. Instead of reading, “There is great gain in godliness with contentment.” Everybody who had the pew Bible had “There is great pain in godliness with contentment.” He was preaching on that verse and there were chuckles going on, and I felt so sorry for the guy. You had to laugh. Here was a Bible that said a very negative thing about godliness and he was preaching on it. On the other hand, you can be very accurate and not have a very readable Bible. For instance, I think the New American Standard Bible is probably the most useful Bible for verse-by-verse reading and analysis in English. But it is a miserable Bible to try to read large sections. It has accuracy, but very, very awkward reading. In the American Standard Bible, 2 Cor 10:13 is very awkward, whatever it might mean. You want a translation that is understandable.
4. be understandable
Understandable sometimes does not mean accurate. If you look at the Living Bible, it is always understandable. Even when the Biblical writer is not clear, the Living Bible will be clear. There is no question about it. And it will always be orthodox, so that makes people very happy in many ways. But you sometimes have a compromise here of whether you sacrifice understandability for accuracy or vice versa. It should be contemporary.
5. be contemporary
There are a lot of changes happening in the English language since the King James version. The King James has all sorts of words that don’t mean the same or we don’t know what in the world they mean anymore. For instance, in the King James we come to 1 Corinthians 13: “The greatest of these is charity.” Now most people who read English today do not think that that word means love. It is a synonym for it. They think of alms for the poor or something like that. Charity has a different connotation 400 years or so after the King James version. How many of you know what a besom is in Isaiah 14:23 is. They did in King James’ day. It is a broom. I don’t have any problem with that. In Nehemiah 13:26 it refers to an outlandish woman. What they mean is a foreigner. We don’t use the word “outlandish” in that way. In Acts 13:34, respecting persons is very positive in some ways, or it can be negative, it is not always clear. I trow not, I believe, Luke 17:9, one that always drove me crazy as a young Christian. I had just come to know the Lord and was a baby Christian. After a few months I read in Romans 1:13 where Paul says to the Romans, “I would have come to you sooner, but I was let hitherto.” I said, “If he was let, why didn’t he go?” I could not figure it out. In 1611 the word “let” meant to hinder, just the opposite of what we understand . We only understand the word “let” in this sense when you play tennis and someone serves and there is a “let” that hinders the game from proceeding. Other than that, it is totally different. You can’t have a translation use words that no-one understands or understands differently than they do now. “He waxed strong.” What kind of car wax were they using? “He wist not to wit or to know. The word “ghost” has negative connotations , so when we talk about the Holy Ghost, it brings up something different in American minds instead of the Holy Spirit. “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” Let those little rascals suffer a little before they come to me. It means to allow. Words have changed. If somebody comes into your church (James 2:3) “in gay clothing.” In the last 50 years that word has been used totally differently, we don’t use it like that anymore.
The result is that since there is changing words, we have to recognize that language has to be brought up. For many centuries the English language was quite stable. It was controlled by two things: The Bible and Shakespeare. Now the language has no great issues that are controlling it. And language is changing drastically and so quickly. So words mean the opposite before you know it. My father, when you want to talk about somebody as being a really good person, he’s a real square guy. All sorts of differences. The fact that language changes so quickly means that translations will continually have to be revised. The fact that language changes so slowly allowed the King James version to continue on for many, many, many decades and centuries, in fact.
6. be universal
To understand this, let me point out that if you get to the universal language, when you do a translation, you have to understand what your target group is and be careful. The New English Bible, when it first came out, I liked to read it. It reads very smoothly. If I had to read through the Old Testament quickly, I think I would use the New English Bible. It reads well. But the problem with the New English Bible is that it is too British. So in your church Sunday, if you were reading something like this, people would not understand it. I Cor 16:5+. Paul says “I shall come to Corinth after passing through Macedonia, for I am traveling by way of Macedonia, and I may stay with you, perhaps even for the whole winter. Then you could help me on my way wherever I go next. I do not want this to be a flying visit. I hope to spend some time with you if the Lord permits.” Stated beautifully. Then he goes on, “But I shall remain at Ephesus until whitsuntide.” The New English Bible has changed that: “I shall stay in Ephesus until Pentecost.” That is more universal, people can understand that.
You have to also realize that in Mark 2:23 again we have a misunderstanding that takes place in American culture. “One Sabbath, he, Jesus, was going through the cornfield s. And his disciples as they went began to pluck ears of corn. “ The average American, what is he thinking of? He is thinking of maze. But for the British it is barley or wheat. Corn means grain. The American looks at it, going through the cornfields of Iowa, shucking ears. It is totally misunderstood in the American culture. You have different kinds of weights, pounds, a farthling and my favorite is the Mary Poppins translation of Luke 12:6:”Are not sparrows five for 2-pence?” I can’t handle it. But my favorite one would be to read this in the middle of Eastern Kentucky or somewhere like that and reading the story in John 21:6. “Sometime later Jesus showed himself to his disciples once again by the Sea of Tiberius and in this way, Simon Peter and Thomas the twin were together with Nathaniel of Cana and Galilee. The sons of Zebedee and two other disciples were also there. Simon Peter said, “I’m going out fishing. “We will go with you” said the others. So they got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Morning came and there stood Jesus on the beach. But the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. He called out to them, “Friends, have you caught anything? They said, “No.” He said, “Shoot the nets to starboard and you will make a catch.” The British know what “starboard” is, whether it is right or left probably, or something, backwards or forwards, something like that. It is a very British type of translation. The revision of this subsequently removes some of that to make it more accessible.
If you are ever in the market simply for the British people, you can do that. But if you want an English translation that is universal for all English-speaking people in the world, you have to make sure that there are on that committee Canadian translators, American translators, British translators, South African translators, Australian translators. Because something that may seem perfectly good English may be a horrendous idiom in the other culture. So, to be universal, you want to take all that involved. A lot of the translations are sensitive to that. The Revised English is somewhat suprising. Again, it reads wonderfully in many ways, including all of a sudden getting across something like coinage or different weights and the like.
7. be dignified
I think another thing you want in a translation is that it should be dignified. I don’t mean that you remove things for political correct ness that some people don’t like. But I think you don’t want to be unnecessarily harsh simply for the effect it may take. For instance, in the earliest translations of the Living Bible, there is a story about how David fled from Saul and Saul is asking Jonathan about David and Jonathan says to Saul, “David asked me if he could go to Bethlehem to take part in a family celebration” Jonathan replied. “His brother demanded that he be there, so I told him he could go ahead.” Saul boiled with rage. “You son of a bitch” he yelled at him. Grandma and Grandpa are gone for the rest of the hour. There is no way you are going to get over that. The message is lost. Meanwhile, Johnny from junior high says, “Mom, I like that translation. Could you get that Bible for me” or something like that. You don’t want to be crude simply for shock effect or something like that. Another example of that is the cotton patch version of the New Testament . That is a really nice, nitty gritty, down-to-earth Southern translation. There are a number of places where Paul is asked in a dialogue with a hypothetical appointment: “Shall we sin that grace may abound? God forbid. Let it not be.” Here you would read, “Shall we continue in sin that Grace may abound? Hell, no!” Johnny has another translation he wants, making him a Bible student or something like that.
8. avoid a theological bias
Avoiding a theological bias is maybe more easily said than done. There are some notorious biased translations. I think for instance of the Jehovah’s Witness Bible that just avoids translating things in order to maintain its anti-acceptance of Jesus as deity. When I got the New Testament version of the Jerusalem Bible, I liked it very much. I read lots and lots of Paul’s letters, really fine translations. It is a Roman Catholic translation and I thought, I wonder how they translate Matthew 1:25 where the Greek text says, “And Joseph did as the angel of the Lord said and took Mary his wife, but knew her not until she brought forth her first born son.” The word “know” is a beautiful Biblical word that the Bible uses to describe the sexual relationship. In other words, Joseph marries Mary, but they have no sexual consummation of that until the birth of Jesus. The implication of course is that the birth of Jesus, they live a normal husband and wife relationship. When you read then of the brothers and sisters of the Lord, they are the sons and daughters of Joseph and Mary. But there are Roman Catholics saying, “Are you for the perpetual virginity of Mary” which by the way is not simply a Roman Catholic view. I remember reading in the synoptic Gospel commentary of Calvin where he argues fairly strongly for that. In this particular translation, it read, “He did what the angel of the Lord said and though he knew not Mary, she brought forth her firstborn son.” If you can find a place where that particular construction in Greek is translated , “though he knew her not” even though he knew her not until…, I can show you 10,000 on the other side for every one. It is not the normal way, it is theological bias that came in there.
When I was in Minnesota , one of the big mega churches in the area was doing a study as to what Bible they wanted to have for their pews. They asked me to be part of the study, and I was. They compared the RSV, the New International version and some of the others that they compared. The King James was one and the Life. They asked a number of questions and one of the questions they asked was this: Which translation has the highest Christology? What does that have to do with the translation? Translation is which translates the Christological passages best? Suppose you have the Stein translation, which translates this way: “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and laid him in a manger. He was very God of very God, the second person of the Trinity, pre-existent for all eternity.” That is a high Christology. It is a false translation, though. God does not need our help, by the way. Just let the Bible say what it says, and we will be alright. We do not have to help the Bible. What you want to say is, which translates those passages most accurately? And that is the most important.