A Plea for Linguistic Honesty in Biblical Translation

A recent discussion concerning the proper understanding of a handful of “proof-texts” which are loudly trumpeted as normative to “Christian doctrine” (see study #47) motivated me to offer in a more organized form several principles of translation which are vital to the discipline of linguistics, quite apart from anyone’s “systematic theology.”

As noted in an earlier essay, “The Task of a Translator”, honest, responsible translation requires the rendering of the intent of the original writer or speaker as precisely as possible, into the “target language”. This is requisite in business and political contexts: why, then, is such precision not required of Biblical translators?
Accurate translation has (or should have) absolutely NO room for influence by the political, sociological, philosophical, or theological perspective of the translator. An honest translator of ANY text, is NOT an editor. He must make every effort to serve only as a conduit of what has been said or written by another.

This assignment becomes more difficult as the distance – whether of language, culture, or history – between the original text and the target audience increases. Consequently, when the text of the New Testament writings is the translation in question, there are a number of essential historical and cultural details that are usually ignored, much to the detriment of accurate results. Here are a few:

1.The earliest New Testament manuscripts are uniformly written in Greek. There are “scholars” who insist upon Aramaic, but they have produced NO manuscript evidence prior to the third or fourth centuries. I have been privileged to see fragments of New Testament manuscripts in legible Greek that have been dated to the first century. In the words of a dear brother / teacher / mentor years ago, “the closer you are to the source, the clearer and better is the water.”

2.There are those who insist that the “theological” words in the New Testament Greek manuscripts must be traced back to their Hebrew antecedents in the LXX. These well-meaning people forget (or ignore) the historical fact that the LXX was commissioned because the Jews of the Diaspora, after many generations away from their homeland, no longer understood or spoke Hebrew! They had become acculturated to the Greek world in which they lived.

3.A corollary to the foregoing is the observation that most Old Testament quotations in the New Testament documents correspond more closely to the LXX than to the Old Testament as we know it. The LXX was the “Scripture” that most first century folks knew.

4.Most of the New Testament was written to individuals or churches composed largely of Gentile converts – at least Luke/Acts, most of Paul’s letters, and the churches mentioned by John in the Revelation. These folks would have had Greek background, and consequently a classical Greek understanding of the vocabulary and grammar. Any trained linguist is aware that usage, both historical and contemporary, is the key to understanding both vocabulary and grammar in any language, and this is no exception.

5.Perhaps the most obvious, and certainly the most accessible evidence lies in the Acts 15 record of the Jerusalem conference, which was convened to figure out how (or whether) to incorporate Gentile converts into the Christian brotherhood. NOBODY – even the most ardent of the “Judaizers” – is recorded to have insisted that these “alien” brethren learn Hebrew, study the Law and/or the Prophets, or adopt any of the other trappings of the Old Ways (except circumcision, which was voted down). They were required ONLY to abandon all of their former idolatrous practices: blood or strangled sacrifices and various sexual perversions were inherent in idol worship. They were assured, “If you keep yourselves from these things, you do well.” (Ac.15:29). If an understanding of the intricacies and assumptions of the Old Covenant (many of which had been copied from pagan neighbors) had been essential, surely these would have been imposed upon the newcomers. But they were not.

Moving to more recent history, one must also be aware of the basic error (mentioned in #2) of assuming even the existence of “theological words.” To be sure, “theology” has developed its own very precise and highly defined vocabulary: but the source of that vocabulary is NOT the New Testament!

Please remember that the vast majority of New Testament writings are devoted to the effort to encourage and teach committed followers of the Lord Jesus “the Way” of life together as citizens of his Kingdom. They WERE NOT, and ARE NOT, a list of principles that anyone was required to”believe”, or with whose veracity one was required to argue or to agree.

That all happened later, as in the second and third centuries, a hierarchy (which Jesus himself had flatly forbidden – Mt.23:8-10) emerged, and with it the need to force “ordinary” (“lay”) people into subjection to their authority. You need a codified “doctrine” if you are going to exclude (or execute!) heretics for deviation! But you CAN’T FIND THAT IN THE NEW TESTAMENT!!!
There are instructions for restoring someone whose behavior has necessitated discipline, but NONE for regulating thought. That all came later.

Officially codified and proof-tested “doctrines” came much later, by more than a thousand years, as Councils, Reformers, Counter-reformers, and heresy-hunters of various stripes threw the brotherly attitude of the Jerusalem Conference to the winds and angrily consigned one another to the flames – both figuratively and literally.

With similar (although usually less violent) attitudes, virtually every “official” translation into a “modern” language has been done in the last few hundred years by a person or group whose purpose was to advocate or challenge a particular “theological” perspective. Read the introduction (called the “Epistle Dedicatory” ) of the venerable King James Version, if you doubt this – a treatise on royalty and its privilege!

Others carefully specify the “theological pedigrees” of those chosen to do the “translating” (so that you may be sure their work is “safe”) – see introductions to the NAS and NIV.

Some, to their credit, at least admit that they have made changes to cater to a particular bias (new RSV).

Still others fail even to distinguish between paraphrase and translation (Amplified, Living, Good News, Message), and end up being quoted as if they were equivalent to translations. They are NOT.

It is entirely in order that people should write, for the benefit of others, the insight they have derived from their study of Scripture, and the life to which we have all been graciously invited.

It is NOT appropriate, however, to represent the insight or observation as if it were an integral part of the New Testament text, and certainly not to require assent to such conclusions as a test of faithfulness.

Our favorite teacher’s favorite question is still the only one that really matters:
But what does the TEXT say?”
We must find out, if we are to follow faithfully.


2 Responses to A Plea for Linguistic Honesty in Biblical Translation

  1. john5. dunn says:

    Many thanks for latest – please change my email address to j.dunn419@btinternet.com. Very many thanks. Would not like to miss what you send. Always a great pleasure to read and ponder what you say.

    Best wishes.

    Yours aye John Dunn

  2. ruthpmartin says:

    Thank you, John. We all need to keep trying!

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