Did the biblical authors write ambiguously?
It is a good exegetical exercise to note possible ambiguity in the biblical texts. I’m a linguist and I torture people finding ambiguity in English sentences all the time. But in both cases, whether finding ambiguity in the biblical texts or linguists finding it elsewhere, the ambiguity in almost all cases is in the mind of the analyst. Speakers and writers seldom intend ambiguity, except, of course, for the usual suspects, politicians and lawyers, who sometimes mislead through intended ambiguity.
Ordinary speakers and writers, however, do normally do not communicate with ambiguity (puns are one of my addictions and are another exception to the normal communicative rule). If people intended ambiguity often, then communication would break down. We would not have much of an idea what people mean by what we say.
The biblical authors were trying to communicate important messages. We don’t always understand exactly what they meant, but we should not usually not assume intended ambiguity in any of their writings. (There are probably notable exceptions in some apocalyptic literature.) I think we should translate authorial intent, rather than exegetical options. If we translate ambiguously because we can spot a possible ambiguity in the original text, we have not translated accurately (because the biblical author did not intend an ambiguity and our translation needs to be faithful to authorial intent).
When we spot a potential exegetical ambiguity in the biblical text (and there are quite a few of these--but they are different from intended ambituities by the authors), we should somehow make clear to translation users that we are unable to decide which of two or more options was the one that the biblical author intended. And this should be done by biblical scholars who should understand the text better than anyone else. Trying to figure out what the original author meant should not be left to Bible readers who usually have far less background to be able to make reasonable choices among translation ambiguities.
It is no sin to translate unambiguously even when we note a perceived ambiguity in the text. The burden of proof should be upon those who believe there is ambiguity in intention of the biblical author, rather than upon those who believe the author intended lack of ambiguity and translate so.
To be honest with our readers, we need to footnote whenever we are not sure that the exegetical option we have chosen for the translation text is what the biblial author intended. This is one of the things I like best about the NET Bible, its translators' openness about the translation choices they faced, and footnoting evidence for other options.
Now, I realize that my claim in this post opens us up to a number of hermeneutical and epistemological difficulties, not the least of which is that it is often difficult to determine authorial intent. We only have the text before us. We are unable to go back in time to ask biblical authors what they intended when we spot a potential ambiguity in what they wrote. But I think the basic principle stands that the most accurate Bible translation is one which translates what each biblical author intended to communicate, which was almost never intentionally ambiguous. We introduce inaccuracy to translation readers when we translate in a way that implies that the biblical authors did translate ambiguously.
(This post is condensed and revised from comments I left on a post yesterday on Scot McKnight's blog.
Categories: authorial intent, ambiguity, translation accuracy