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Thursday, September 01, 2005

Did the biblical authors write ambiguously?

I have felt for a number of years that the claim of ambiguity in the biblical texts is misleading. The claim is sometimes made to justify literal translations which leave ambiguous English in Bible translations. Sometimes the claim is made because, from an analytical point of view, it is unclear which of several possible syntactic or semantic options the biblical author intended. I personally believe that most biblical ambiguity is in the mind of the exegete, not the biblical author. Let me explain.

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.

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13 Comments:

At Thu Sep 01, 07:48:00 AM, Blogger Mike Sangrey said...

Cool, Wayne!

Your comment, "I think we should translate authorial intent, rather than exegetical options" is a way of expressing the difference I see in the two different translation types I see we need. I've mentioned them before: analytic and synthetic. The first would lean toward giving exegetical options while that latter would strive for authorial intent.

In a related note, you might want to click on over to Exegetitor and take a peak at my recent posting. It talks about how important it is to enter into the original audience's context in order to be able to exegete authorial intent.

 
At Thu Sep 01, 09:37:00 AM, Blogger Nick Steffen said...

Great thoughts.

Just a quick question: What should we do in situations where Paul might quote something from the Old Testament and it does not exactly match up to the text we have? Now obviously, he was not intending a quotation to be different. Should that be translated as he might have intended or as the a precise translation might show? Or perhaps a middle ground could be struck where the text would sound like he's saying it off the cuff instead of him reading it directly from a scroll.

As ambiguous as all this might sound, I guess I'm really asking how we differentiate between when and where a precise translation (which in my mind is one that's more literal in nature) is more or less appropriate than an intention-based translation. Just speculation, but perhaps the problem is not with the translation, but with the way we read it: some texts are written with more intensity and must be savored whereas others are meant to move along like a good mystery novel. Then again, it's still the translation's responsibility to communicate this. Anyway...

Sidenote: Wayne, thanks for your work. It really helps to reinvigorate my reading time.

 
At Thu Sep 01, 11:33:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

big asked:

What should we do in situations where Paul might quote something from the Old Testament and it does not exactly match up to the text we have? Now obviously, he was not intending a quotation to be different. Should that be translated as he might have intended or as the a precise translation might show?

I think we should always translate the biblical author as he wrote. If he quotes the Septuagint instead of the Hebrew text, we need to translate the Septuagint rendering. If he alters the quotation (sometimes done in the N.T.), we need to translate the altered quotation. It is not the job of a Bible translator to harmonize parts of the Bible with each other. It is only the job of a Bible translator to accurately translate what each author said and meant by what he said. It is not the job of a translator to translate an application of what the original author said. It is not the job of a translator to make the original text clearer (or less clear) that the original text was. A translator's job is simply to translate accurately what the original author said, and what he meant by what he said. If the original author used figurative language, we need to translate the figurative meaning.

 
At Thu Sep 01, 02:04:00 PM, Blogger Trevor Jenkins said...

I agree with you, Wayne, that the original authors were intent upon unambigious communication. However, I wonder how many of us readers of English translations are actually dealing with an unambigous text.

With the changes in English grammar and vocabulary over the years and, it seems to me, so many modern translations are firmly wedded to instances of a grammar from earlier times. In Chomskian terms the s-structure of contemporary English is diffent enough from the s-structure of the English of formal equivalent translations that ambiguity is subtley introduced into the English that was not there in the original languages.

Perhaps more a research question than a comment but it is an issue that has concerned me for a number of years too.

 
At Thu Sep 01, 03:12:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Yes, Trevor, language change can introduce ambiguities into the text of a translation which might not have been there previously. It can also bring along other things which decrease accuracy of a translation. That's why it is good for there to be a revision of a translation every so many years when there has been a significant amount of language change. But you already know these things.

 
At Thu Sep 01, 04:14:00 PM, Blogger exegete77 said...

Hmmmmm... ambiguity ... that could be ambiguous LOL

It seems that some texts are naturally ambiguous in the original language text. I suspect that is how subtle textual variations arose - I think in particular of John 20:31 πιστεύσητε or Romans 5:1 ἔχομεν. Another one is in Genesis 4:1 אִ֖ישׁ אֶת־יְהוָֽה in which the word prior to Yahweh can be either the preposition ("with the help of") or a direct object marker. I think it unfortunate that NET has a note that dismisses the second not based on evidence, but theological position. This particular issue was discussed on the B-transl list about 18 months ago (relative to William Beck's translation). To me, this is a classic case of ambiguity in the text.

To me this is an area where the FE and MB translations can complement one another. If there is significant difference, it might be worthwhile to investigate why the translators came to such different translations. It may very well be that it is an ambiguous text... and the differences are not necessarily "right or wrong" but help illuminate the original language text.

 
At Thu Sep 01, 05:00:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Rich wrote:

Another one is in Genesis 4:1 אִ֖ישׁ אֶת־יְהוָֽה in which the word prior to Yahweh can be either the preposition ("with the help of") or a direct object marker.

Rich, I take your point, and I remember something of the list discussion you refer to. But it seems to me that this case is a classic example of where we really don't understand the author's intention. Neither explanation, neither the preposition (which means "with", not "with the help of") nor the object marker really fits. Perhaps the text is corrupt. So, it seems to me, you are making a logical leap from "we don't understand this", perhaps via "the author was deliberately obscure", to "the author was deliberately ambiguous". But that just does not follow.

However, this does bring up a slight caution I have about Wayne's generally excellent comments. There is language in the Bible which, while not usually exactly deliberately ambiguous, is probably deliberately not entirely clear. In some cases we know this from the original audience's puzzlement. So, while we should not make a translation less clear than the original, we should also seek to avoid making it more clear. Thus, we should not normally explain parables or metaphors. But finding the exact borders of what is right to do here is very difficult, and deserves a full posting and not just a comment. Now whether I will have time to write the full posting, I don't know yet!

 
At Thu Sep 01, 05:28:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Peter, you raise a good point. By no means is all of the Bible clear, whether in translation or in the original. But lack of clarity is not the issue I was addressing in this post. I was thinking of things like whether a genitive was intended to be subjective or objective. In some cases, ISTM, it must be one or the other. The author intended one or the author. But because exegetes aren't sure which one the original author intended, they translate literally, inserting an ambiguity into the translation which was not there in the original.

Sometimes Jesus did not speak clearly. His speaking with parables was sometimes a choice to be less clear than he could have been at that time. Fortunately, he often explained the meaning of his parables to his disciples so that we have access to the meanings he intended for them.

 
At Thu Sep 01, 06:36:00 PM, Blogger exegete77 said...

Wayne wrote:

I was thinking of things like whether a genitive was intended to be subjective or objective. In some cases, ISTM, it must be one or the other.

This reminds me of a footnote in The Source, in which Anne puts this cryptic note with no explanation for Matt. 1:18 ("she was pregnant from the Holy Spirit"): Genitive of source, not of agent. Now the question arises: Can we be that certain about what kind of genitive that is used? I don't think so.

Peter wrote:

So, it seems to me, you are making a logical leap from "we don't understand this", perhaps via "the author was deliberately obscure", to "the author was deliberately ambiguous". But that just does not follow.

No, that wasn't my intention. I intended to say that we can't dismiss the idea of ambiguity even in prose because we don't have full understanding. But if a text is difficult (as in Gen 4:1), we must at least consider the possibility of ambiguity - not that it is true, but that it could be.

I hope that I am ambiguously clear to the point of partially understanding the obscurity of the text. LOL

Rich Shields

 
At Thu Sep 01, 07:59:00 PM, Blogger Kenny said...

There is also the concern of genre. I've just finished reading Swinburne's Revelation so this is on my mind. The socio-linguistic conventions of genre should effect our reading of the text. The reason this is relevant to the topic at hand is that classical Jewish interpreters of the Hebrew Bible believed that where the Bible (and especially the Torah) was ambiguous, both meanings were intended. This was probably not the intention of the author of the Torah, but is likely to have later become part of the conventions of genre for Jewish religious literature, and so may be corrrect in all of the later portions of the Hebrew Bible (probably excluding the purely historical portions), not just the apocalyptic literature.

PS - having to use a blogger account is kind of a pain. Isn't the word verification enough by itself?

 
At Thu Sep 01, 09:11:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Yes, Kenny, genre definitely affects interpretation. We must approach the poetic literature of the Bible differently from how we approach historical accounts in the book of Acts, for instance.

But each author still had some intention for how he wrote. That is true, regardless of genre.

As for multiple interpretations of biblical texts, well, I think that is a largely a matter for subsequent interpretation, not translation. Of course, basic interpretation is required before one can even translate. But translation can still be done, even if, later, those who read the translation believe they find multiple interpretations in the text. I don't think the fact that most people communicate most often with single intentions, including, I claim, the biblical authors, is opposed to the fact that there have been a variety of interpretations of Bible passages over the past millenia.

I appreciate your comments on this, Kenny. I'll see what I can do about the other matter you mentioned, having to do with security against blog spam.

 
At Fri Sep 02, 04:58:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Rich mentioned a footnote in The Source:

... Matt. 1:18 ("she was pregnant from the Holy Spirit"): Genitive of source, not of agent. Now the question arises: Can we be that certain about what kind of genitive that is used? I don't think so.

I agree that we cannot be certain about sub-classifications of genitives. But I think Ann's point was a bit different. The genitive does not usually indicate an agent, but (with a verb) usually indicates a source. In this verse the preposition ἐκ ek "from" more or less forces an interpretation as source. Now what "source" means in this context I don't know; I would want to research this further by discovering if ἐκ ek with the genitive is anywhere else used in connection with pregnancy, e.g. to refer to the father or to the act of intercourse. Perhaps Ann has done this research; if so, it is sad that her note here is so brief.

 
At Fri Sep 02, 05:14:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Rich suggests that Genesis 4:1 may have been deliberately ambiguous, and Kenny that deliberate ambiguity may be widespread in the Bible. Well, of course a priori this may be true, but it does need to be demonstrated.

Genesis 4:1 is simply obscure. We don't understand enough about it to decide whether it is ambiguous or not. About the best we can do is to work on probabilities. Perhaps at most one verse in 100 in the narrative of Genesis is truly ambiguous (in fact I would suggest more like one in 1000). That tends to suggest a maximum 1% probability that any one verse which is not properly understood is in fact deliberately ambiguous. I'm not saying that that statistic proves anything, only that that is the true implication of "we can't dismiss the idea of ambiguity even in prose because we don't have full understanding": we can't dismiss a possibility, but we can show that it is rather improbable.

As for Kenny's idea that there is a lot of intended ambiguity in the Bible, his evidence for this seems to be based on "classical Jewish interpreters", but what is the time period for these interpreters? I accept that there is some kind of intended ambiguity in apocalyptic literature, but this ambiguity is in the higher levels of interpretation (e.g. who does this beast symbolise?) rather than at the linguistic level relevant to translation (it is clear enough how to translate "beast"). But how far beyond Revelation and a few OT passages such intentions are relevant seems to me highly debatable. I think we should assume a priori, according to the normal rules of human communication, that at least at the linguistic level there is very rarely intended ambiguity, and so avoid attributing intended ambiguity unless there is clear evidence for it.

 

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