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Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Christianizing the Old Testament

Dynamic Equivalent translations have often been criticized for wordings based on what their translators believe to be the meaning of the biblical source text forms, rather than just being translated according to "what the Bible says." This sounds good, in principle, and has been repeated many times in conservative Christian literature and throughout the Internet when Bible translation theory is discussed. But those who raise this criticism do not always practice what they preach.

One area where this translation inconsistency is seen is in the practice of "Christianizing" the Old Testament, that is, translating New Testament messianic applications of Old Testament passages back into those "quoted" O.T. passages. Rather than letting these O.T. passages be translated simply on the basis of what they "say," they are typically Christianized to harmonize with the N.T. application of those quoted passages. Bible scholars (including those who are theologically conservative) have increasingly criticized this practice of Christianizing the O.T. The NIV has often been criticized for doing so (the TNIV has been revised to reflect less of this Christianization of the O.T.). Yet several recently published English versions continue this practice of Christianizing the Old Testament. It is believed proper to do so on the basis of our theology.

Christian Bible translators (I am one of them) believe that Jesus is our messiah, the messiah longed for in the Hebrew Bible. We believe this so strongly that some of us want to make sure translation of Hebrew (or Septuagint) Bible passages reflect New Testament Christology, rather than allowing the Old Testament passages simply to be translated on the basis of what they "say" and then allowing for a subsequent application in the New Testament. In this case, theology trumps the basic principle of "essentially literal" translation which stresses translating the "words" of the Bible more than their "meanings."

There are a number of Hebrew Bible passages for which several English translation teams go beyond translating what their words "say" and, instead, translate what they believe the words "mean" when it comes to the important theology of the Christology of our Savior, Jesus, our Messiah. Among such passages are:
Psalm 2:12
Do homage to the Son, that He not become angry (NASB: capitalized "Son" to indicate deity; no ambiguity of interpretation allowed)

Kiss the Son, lest he be angry (NIV; ESV)

Kiss his son, or he will be angry (TNIV: allows for ambiguity about who the "son" is)

Submit to God's royal son, or he will become angry (NLT)
Hosea 11:1
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. (NIV)

Hosea writes about God referring to the Israelites as "my son." In the New Testament (Matt. 2:15), the quotation of Hosea is messianically applied to God's Son, Jesus. If we consistently follow the practice of using capitalized "Son," as in Ps. 2:12 to indicate deity, we should also capitalize "Son" in Hosea 11:1, regardless of Hosea's intended meaning. The principle of New Testament interpretation of an Old Testament passage can, according to some, translationally over-ride the original meaning of that O.T. passage.
Isaiah 7:14
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (RSV)

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (ESV)

Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel. (NASB)
For this reason the sovereign master himself will give you a confirming sign. Look, this young woman is about to conceive and will give birth to a son. You, young woman, will name him Immanuel. (NET)
NET footnote on "young woman": Traditionally, “virgin.” Because this verse from Isaiah is quoted in Matt 1:23 in connection with Jesus’ birth, the Isaiah passage has been regarded since the earliest Christian times as a prophecy of Christ’s virgin birth. Much debate has taken place over the best way to translate this Hebrew term, although ultimately one’s view of the doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ is unaffected. Though the Hebrew word used here, hm*l=u^ (u^lm*h), can sometimes refer to a woman who is a virgin (Gen 24:43), it does not carry this meaning inherently. The word is simply the feminine form of the corresponding masculine noun (u#l#<, “young man”; cf. 1 Sam 17:56; 20:22). The Aramaic and Ugaritic cognate terms are both used of women who are not virgins. The word seems to pertain to age, not sexual experience, and would normally be translated “young woman.” The LXX translator(s) who later translated the Book of Isaiah into Greek sometime between the second and first century b.c., however, rendered the Hebrew term by the more specific Greek word parqevno" (parqenos), which does mean “virgin” in a technical sense. This is the Greek term that also appears in the citation of Isa 7:14 in Matt 1:23. Therefore, regardless of the meaning of the term in the OT context, in the NT Matthew’s usage of the Greek term parqevno" (parqenos) clearly indicates that from his perspective a virgin birth has taken place.)
Whether or not to translate Isaiah 7:14 with the word "virgin" has been a point of great contention for decades. I was raised to believe that any Bible version which did not use the word "virgin" in this verse was "liberal." This issue was a particular focus of conservative opposition to the RSV in the 1950s (I well remember those days; there was as much opposition to the RSV as there is in some circles today against the TNIV). But note that biblical scholars (including a number of conservative ones) have in more recent times pointed out that the local context of this verse calls for this prophecy to be fulfilled with the destruction of the two foreign kings, Rezin and Pekah, contemporaries of Isaiah. That sets the timetable for the prophecy as Isaiah uttered it. If the word "virgin" is required in Is. 7:14, whose prophecy was fulfilled not long after it was given by Isaiah, we can ask: "Does the Bible speak of two virgin births, one in Is. 7:14 and the other in Matthew 1:23?"

Which points of theology are so important that they justify departing from the principle of translating what the Bible "says" to what it "means" (or, what we believe it means)? Can we trust translating authorial intent in the Hebrew Bible when the New Testament subsequently provides a different application of that original message? Is it as appropriate to call for the Bible teachers to explain differences between Old Testament passages and their New Testament quotations as we call for them to explain "technical terms" and other examples of "Bible English" which we sometimes insist should remain in our translations?

Finally, lest anyone suspect my comments to reflect less than conservative theological positions, let me assure you that I am a Christian who believes in Jesus Christ as the historical virgin born Messiah, the divine Son of God, and Savior of the world, I believe in his historical and real death and resurrection, and I believe that the biblical autographs are theopneustos (2 Tim. 3:16) requiring the utmost care on the part of us translators to respect that theopneustos.

And, finally, finally, there has been much written on this difficult topic of the hermeneutics of New Testament quotations of Old Testament passages. For anyone wanting an easily accessible introduction to this topic, I recommend the article "Hints, Allegories, and Mysteries: The New Testament Quotes the Old" by Donald E. Curtis on the Biblical Studies Foundation website.

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