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Saturday, November 12, 2005

Psalm 34:20: "their bones" or "his bones"

In the Comments to our post on Nov. 1, titled "Gundry responds to Grudem and Focus on the Family," a topic thread began concerning translation of Psalm 34:20. The TNIV is worded as:
[H]e protects all their bones, not one of them will be broken.
The TNIV wording is a revision of the NIV which translates with "his bones" rather than "their bones":
[H]e protects all his bones, not one of them will be broken.
Following the same claim made by Dr. Grudem in his recent appearances on the Focus On the Family radio broadcasts and elsewhere, blog visitor hollyhouse commented on our post:
If you [think] TNIV is all for accuracy then they missed it in Psalm 34:20. "He protects all their bones, not one of them will be broken." It should rightly state "his bones", since this is a reference to Christ, which is totally lost in the TNIV. So much for accuracy!
I responded in the Comments:
No, the TNIV did not miss it here. Check the Hebrew (not English translations of it) and you can see that "their bones" is accurate within its context of referring to how God protects righteous people. The New Testament quote adapts Ps. 34:20 to have application to a single person, Christ. Dr. Grudem misleads millions of people who heard his broadcast when he called this a TNIV inaccuracy.
Michael Marlowe (aka son of abraham) replied:
Wayne, the Hebrew text has masculine singular pronouns in Psalm 34:20. And the apostle John's Christological interpretation of the verse depends upon the number and gender of the pronouns. So, if Grudem has misled millions, then the apostle has misled billions in his quotation of this verse.

I will grant that "the righteous man" in the Psalm may stand for all the righteous, and so in the DE philosophy of translation it might be permissible to render the verse with plural forms, but this is a case where a New Testament interpretation depends upon a literal rendering of the verse, and the TNIV avoids the literal rendering for the sake of its "inclusive language." To them, it seemed more important to use "inclusive language" than to allow for John's Christological interpretation. That's what Grudem is saying.
Peter Kirk, a contributor to this blog, responded to Michael:
Michael, I agree with you that "the righteous man" in the Psalm may stand for all the righteous. Indeed I would say that the word sometimes translated "the righteous man" truly does "stand for" all the righteous, male and female, and does not refer only to Jesus. In the specific version of English spoken most widely by the explicitly stated target audience for TNIV, 18-35-year-olds, there is no gender generic singular personal pronoun except for the singular "they". It would be a mistranslation to use "his" here because in this dialect that would give the wrong teaching that the promises in this psalm are for males only. So, in accordance with its general practice in both NT and OT, TNIV renders with "they".

I am very glad that this psalm refers to all the righteous, and so that its wonderful promises apply to me, righteous in Christ. John the apostle is by no means denying this when he applies the general promise to one particular righteous man, Jesus. The verse continues to have a general applicability as well as referring to Jesus. The OT certainly should not be translated in a different way just because of this individual application of it.

By the way, I came across an example where ESV does exactly what TNIV is here criticised for, by using the plural where the original is singular: Deuteronomy 29:10 "all the men of Israel" rendering כֹּ֖ל אִ֥ישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל K.OL )IY$ YI&:RF)"L, literally "every man of Israel". Those who promote the ESV should look more carefully in their own eyes rather than searching for every speck in the TNIV eyes.
Michael replied:
Peter wrote: John the apostle ... applies the general promise to one particular righteous man, Jesus.

John gives us a Christological interpretation of the Psalm, Peter, not just a particular application of something that he sees as a general promise. He sees a reference to Christ there, as the one true and ideal "righteous man." And he sees the literally unbroken bones of Christ as a literal fulfillment of the promise given concerning this "righteous man." This kind of Christological interpretation, where the interpretation depends upon the exact form of the Hebrew text, is frequent in the New Testament. It really ought to be represented in a translation, because it is important for an understanding of the apostolic interpretation of the OT.
A blog visitor named Adam then quoted from the TNIV website where the translation of Psalm 34:20 is discussed. Adam quoted, in part:
Note, for example, how NT writers occasionally change OT singular references to plurals (compare Isa. 52:7 with Rom. 10:15; Ps. 36:1 with Rom. 3:10,18; Ps. 32:1 with Rom. 4:6-7). Do such changes "obscure" the connections between the OT and NT passages? Of course not. Moreover, entirely apart from the gender issue, the shift from singular to plural in this verse is actually a gain in that it makes clearer to the reader that the reference in Ps. 34:20 is generic rather than particular, and that in John 19:36 the author of the Gospel was applying this generic statement about "the righteous" to Jesus as the supreme Righteous One.
On Nov. 5 I posted to the Bible Translation email discussion list the first blog comment on Ps. 34:20 and my reply to it. To maintain confidentiality I did not identify the first commenter in any way. I wanted to give the subscribers to the Bible Translation list an opportunity to deal with the question of translating with "their bones" or "his bones" in Ps. 34:20. A topic thread began on the BT list. One of those posting in the BT list topic thread was Harold Holmyard, one of the translators of the HCSB, who we have previously interviewed on this blog. Harold suggested that I add his BT list comments and replies from Peter Kirk to a blog post on Ps. 34:20. I think that is a good idea, so here is that post.

Harold agrees with Wayne Grudem that the TNIV would be better translated with "his bones" in Ps. 34:20. Peter Kirk points out that were the TNIV translators to do so, the "his" pronoun would obscure for the TNIV's target audience the generic meaning of the pronouns in Ps. 34:20 and throughout that psalm. But let's let them explain in their own words. Harold said:
I have to agree with Wayne Grudem here. The referent is a single righteous person in Ps. 34:19. It is not talking about a gang of righteous people but the righteous person as an individual, though of course the singular speaks of a category of persons. When translations change the number like this, they are tampering with the text needlessly. By the way, there is no emphasis put on masculinity in the Hebrew, though the masculine adjectival form is used. HCSB considered this type of word as fair game for rendering in a more gender neutral way. The HCSB translated in verse 19: "the one who is righteous," and used the generic "his," which seems quite similar to the Hebrew structure. Here is the TNIV for the two verses:
19 The righteous may have many troubles,
but the LORD delivers them from them all;

20 he protects all their bones,
not one of them will be broken.
But, you see, it is not plural but singular in the Hebrew. There are parts of Psalm 34 that speak of a plurality of people and parts that speak about the individual. It is good to preserve the style and expression of the author. Who knows, he may have meant the individual. I am being facetious.

Beyond that, an issue raised about this verse is the fact that the words are quoted in the NT of Jesus (John 19:36). So putting them in the plural here makes it harder for the NT quotation, which is in the singular, to be referred back to this passage. The TNIV editors say that the quote might be from other passages (Ex 12:46; 9:12), but that if it is from here, the connection is clear anyway. That is certainly debatable if you change the number. The form of John 19:46 is closer to the form of the Ex 12:46 and Num 9:12 passages, but there is reason to consider that Ps 34:20 could draw on these passages. Therefore, it helps to keep the number singular to obtain a clearer linkage.

Here is a comment by Delitzsch on the righteous person of Ps 34:19-20:
He is under the most special providence, "He keepeth all his bones, not one of them (NE UNUM QUIDEM) is broken"--a pictorial representation of the thought that God does not suffer the righteous to come to the extremity, that He does not suffer him to be severed from His almighty protecting love, nor to become the sport of oppressors. Nevertheless we call to mind the literal fulfilment which these words of the psalmist received in the Crucified One; for the Old Testament prophecy, which is quoted in John 19:33-37, may be just as well referred to our psalm as to Exod 12:46. Not only the Paschal lamb, but in a comparative sense even every affliction of the righteous, is a type.
Peter Kirk responds, explaining two translation principles, one having to do with the language of a translation matching the language of its target audience (in this case using the English generic that is used by the majority of the TNIV target audience of 18-34 year olds), and the other having to do with whether or not Bible translators should translate the Old Testament to harmonize with New Testament interpretations of Old Testment quotes:
[T]his psalm refers generally to all righteous people, and not only to Jesus Christ. This is clear from the indefinite noun forms, contrast with the specific "this poor man" in v.6 which of course refers to the author David. If Grudem indeed claims that this "A righteous man" refers specifically to Christ, he is wrong. I note that Delitzsch does not think this, for he interprets this as "God does not suffer the righteous to come to the extremity", with "the righteous" as a plural with a small "r" so not referring specifically to Christ.

The problem for the TNIV translators is that they are translating into a form of English (that of their explicitly defined target audience) which does not have a gender generic third person pronoun. When you say that "there is no emphasis put on masculinity in the Hebrew", I presume that you are recognising that the original text has a gender generic sense, i.e. that the promises in this psalm apply to both men and women. It would therefore be a mistranslation to use a male specific pronoun like "his" when the meaning is gender generic. Now I can understand that "He protects all of his or her bones" would be in some ways a more precise translation than changing this to the plural. But presumably this was ruled out as stylistically unacceptable. So the choice was between gender inaccuracy and number "inaccuracy". But I think the translators realised that here, as in many other places, there is no real inaccuracy introduced by changing to the plural, although there are some slight changes in connotation. However, to use a male specific pronoun where the original is gender generic is to introduce a real change of meaning, that this promise is for males only and not for females. Therefore, I presume, the Committee chose the alternative which compromised the meaning less. This is of course precisely the same choice as they have made in countless other places in the NT and the OT. (Well, maybe not countless as Grudem et al have attempted to count them - was it 904 choices of this kind that they found?)

The issue with this verse is slightly confused by the allegation that it refers specifically to Jesus. It does not, although it was correctly applied to Christ in John 19:36 because Jesus was one of those righteous people to whom the original promise referred. Well, yes, he was THE righteous person par excellence, but different degrees of righteousness are irrelevant if we can agree that the psalm applies to all righteous people.
The question before us now is: Is Dr. Grudem correct in claiming that the TNIV is in error to translate Ps. 34:20 with "their bones" instead of "his bones." I conclude that we cannot say that the TNIV has translated inaccurately here. But Dr. Grudem's points are well made and must be studied seriously. Dr. Grudem is referring to the grammatically masculine singular third person possessive pronominal suffix of the Hebrew of Ps. 34:20.

Those translators who match forms of one language with forms in another will typically translate the Hebrew suffix on the word for 'bones' as English "his." But this misses the fact that that the Hebrew suffix is generic in reference. There is no male adult mentioned in Ps. 34:19-20. The possessive suffix on 'bones' can refer to any righteous individual, whether female or male. We could, as Peter Kirk states, accurately translate the possessive suffix as English "his or her." But that is cumbersome. The TNIV translation team apparently chose to use the historical singular "they" in Ps. 34:20. This is accurate translation for those English speakers who understand the generic meaning of English singular "they." And, to be fair, we should note that translating with "his bones" is accurate for those who understand the "his" of Ps. 34:20 to be generic.

The other point is that it is not the job of any Bible translator to Christianize the Old Testament (see our previous blog post on this topic). Every Bible translator must translate the Old Testament on its own terms, with the meanings intended by the Old Testament authors. The authors of the New Testament often interpret a passage from the Old Testament messianically, following traditional Jewish hermeneutics where prooftexting is commonly used. Typical rabbinical hermeneutics permits almost any words from the Hebrew Bible (or Septuagint) to be used as a prooftext to support an argument.

John 19:36 clearly refers to some passage in the Old Testament (perhaps Psalm 34:20) as being messianic. The gospel writer used typical Jewish rules of interpretation to apply the Old Testament passage to Jesus Christ. It is not for us to say that the New Testament writers were right or wrong in using the kind of heremeneutics that they, as Jews, were familiar with. The NET Bible footnote for its translation words "not one of them is broken" is appropriate here:
The author of the Gospel of John saw a fulfillment of these words in Jesus’ experience on the cross (see John 19:31-37), for the Roman soldiers, when they saw that Jesus was already dead, did not break his legs as was customarily done to speed the death of crucified individuals. John’s use of the psalm seems strange, for the statement in its original context suggests that the Lord protects the godly from physical harm. Jesus’ legs may have remained unbroken, but he was brutally and unjustly executed by his enemies. John seems to give the statement a literal sense that is foreign to its original literary context by applying a promise of divine protection to a man who was seemingly not saved by God. However, John saw in this incident a foreshadowing of Jesus’ ultimate deliverance and vindication. His unbroken bones were a reminder of God’s commitment to the godly and a sign of things to come. Jesus’ death on the cross was not the end of the story; God vindicated him, as John goes on to explain in the following context (John 19:38-20:18).
For those of us who believe that God himself inspired all scripture, including the New Testament, we accept prooftexting within the biblical canon as divinely inspired, even though many of us do not favor it as a good hermeneutical practice today. I gladly accept the messianic affirmation of John 19:36. Jesus Christ is my messiah and savior. I firmly believe that Christ fulfills Old Testament law, longings, and prophecies, even when the prophecies were not originally intended by their human authors to be prophecies. But, as a translator, I cannot change the meanings of passages in the Old Testament to be more messianic than they originally were. I believe that intellectual integrity calls for Bible translators not to Christianize the Old Testament. It is appropriate, in my opinion, for Bible translators to include footnotes to Old Testament texts, pointing out where the New Testament quotes those passages, and, often, puts a messianic interpretation upon them that may not have been there originally.

Is the TNIV wrong to translate "their bones" in Psalm 34:20? I believe that if we take all the data into consideration, which we have tried to do with this blog post, we can conclude that the TNIV wording is not in error. It is unfortunate that TNIV opponents accuse the TNIV translators of translating "inaccurately" in passages where there are differences of opinion about translation philosophy, target audiences, and what wordings are best to use for which target audiences, as well as differences of opinion about the degree to which Bible translators should word Old Testament passages to be as close as possible to their New Testament interpretation.

We would all do well to speak to each other as objectively and scholarly as possible, as Harold Holmyard does, irenically presenting support for his position, a position which has been held for a long time by many Christian exegetes. Such an objective approach to translation differences is in stark contrast to those who feel they can call so many translation differences "errors" and also feel that they can divine the motives of Bible translators for translating as they have.

For me, unless there is firm evidence to the contrary, I believe I need to take the TNIV translators at their word when they explain why they translated Ps. 34:20 as they did. Not everyone else agrees with me in taking people at their word like this. Some believe that the TNIV translators are either acting and speaking in self-delusion or are deliberately distorting the truth. I have had enough interaction with members of the TNIV team to believe that they truly are trying to translate as accurately as possible in each passage of scripture. I have to leave judgments about motives up to God himself who is the only one who truly knows our motives, even better than we ourselves know our own motives.

Is it accurate to translate Ps. 34:20 with "their bones" as it is in the TNIV (as well as the TEV, CEV, NCV, and NLT)? Yes, it is, if we understand the issues surrounding the generic meaning of the Hebrew possessive suffix, and what linguistic forms the target audience of the TNIV use to express that meaning.

Is it accurate to translate Psalm 34:20 with "his bones" instead of "their bones"? I believe it is for target audiences who understand that "his" in this verse is a generic possessive pronoun referring to any righteous individual, regardless of biological gender. As we have tried to stress on this blog, we must always take into account translation audiences of Bible versions when we are addressing matters of translation accuracy (as well as other language issues such as linguistic register, naturalness, and stylistics).

I have tried to be as open-minded as possible in this blog post. I believe in being fair to all sides and permitting, even inviting, all sides to present evidence for their opinions. With God's help, we will continue doing so on this blog. And should I be wrong in my conclusions about the translation of Ps. 34:20, I am willing to change them. I have changed my opinions in the past when the weight of evidence requires it, and I am willing to do so again in the future.

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At Sun Nov 13, 12:39:00 AM, Blogger Tyler F. Williams said...

I see no problem with the translation as it faithfully represents the context. The "righteous" (צדיק) noted in the psalm is generic -- it refers to the righteou -- both men and women. The notion of reading the New Testament back into the Hebrew Bible during the translation process is quite tendentious. The NT authors were not necessarily using the same Hebrew Bible that we do, in fact, they often used the LXX or quoted freely from memory.

The psalm, first and foremost is about the righteous. That the verse is applied to Jesus in the New Testament doesn't nullify the original contextual meaning. Rather, it adds to it.

At Sun Nov 13, 06:38:00 AM, Blogger LawyerDad said...

The Tanakh / JPS1985 (or is it 1986?) renders it "his bones." Given that translations tendency to err on the side of "not Christian," does that suggest that the "his bones" translation is better? (If they were equally accurate, JPS would've gone plural?) Sorry, I know it's weak evidence, but this topic has almost been exhausted. Thanks for the blogging.

At Sun Nov 13, 08:24:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

lawyerdad asked:

The Tanakh / JPS1985 (or is it 1986?) renders it "his bones." Given that translations tendency to err on the side of "not Christian," does that suggest that the "his bones" translation is better?

Not necessarily. The Tanakh is a fairly literal translation, so "his bones" is not surprising. And I want to say again what I tried to say in my post, that "his bones" is an appropriate translation IF translation users understand "his" to be generic in this context. Until we consider which audience (with their understanding of generic forms) we are translating for, I don't think we can necessarily say that one of the translations is "better" than the other one. My overall point in the post is that it is not accurate to say that the TNIV translation is inaccurate. It is not inaccurate if we consider that the TNIV team was trying to makee the generic meaning clear for its target audience.

(If they were equally accurate, JPS would've gone plural?)

I don't think the JPS translators would have done so because they stay closer to matching linguistic forms of the original with English forms.

At Mon Nov 14, 06:13:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Wayne, many thanks for your detailed discussion of this topic. I have just one point to add. In this verse in TNIV, "their" is not strictly the historical singular "they", for it refers back to the plural "The righteous" in verse 19. Now these verses could have been translated with singular "they", which would have come out something like "A righteous person may have..." with the rest as printed in TNIV (cf. NIV but with "person" replacing "man"). But the TNIV team preferred to make this into an explicit plural, as indicated by "The righteous", which is always plural in good English (although not in ESV if I remember correctly), as in verse 17 where this is made explicit by the plural verb "cry".

At Wed Nov 16, 08:14:00 AM, Blogger SingingOwl said...

I am glad that you are seeking to be as informative and as fair as possible. That is clearly not the case for Focus on the Family as regards this issue. I wrote to them expressing concern about the TNVV broadcast, and I recieved a reply which makes it QUITE clear that Dobson has no intention of considering both sides of the issue. I will be posting the letter on my blog.

At Wed Nov 16, 09:02:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I recieved a reply which makes it QUITE clear that Dobson has no intention of considering both sides of the issue.

Today I received that same reply. I am saddened by it. It sounds like a case of "My mind is made up; don't confuse me with facts."

At Wed Nov 16, 06:37:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

They haven't even had the courtesy to reply to my similar comments, yet at least.

At Wed Nov 16, 06:54:00 PM, Blogger Ted Gossard said...

It's amazing how many people of influence have "signed on" with Dobson in this anti-TNIV seige.

They mean very well. It's all part of the culture war they are in.

Translations in the heart language of people are bound to win out, I believe. The staggering success of the Living Bible in the 60's/70's (not to mention TEV, "Good News for Modern Man") said this, I believe- and paved the way for the NIV to come as a standard translation for so many.

We have to "go our way" and just be faithful to our callings.

You guys by nature of your calling are more in the heat of Bible translation war.

Keep up the great work. It is very informative and helpful (as well as supportive) to people like me.

At Fri Nov 18, 07:37:00 PM, Blogger son of abraham said...

Wayne wrote: "It is not for us to say that the New Testament writers were right or wrong in using the kind of heremeneutics that they, as Jews, were familiar with."

That's a pretty controversial statement, Wayne. It's not for us to say that the New Testament writers were right? And their interpretations of the OT were just an application of Jewish hermeneutics? How does this square with the orthodx doctrine of plenary and verbal inspiration?

At Fri Nov 18, 08:00:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

How does this square with the orthodox doctrine of plenary and verbal inspiration?

And that, Michael, is why it is not right for me to question their hermeneutics. I will not do so.

At Fri Nov 18, 08:01:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

How does this square with the orthodox doctrine of plenary and verbal inspiration?

And that, Michael, is why it is not right for me to question their hermeneutics. I will not do so because I do hold to the orthodox doctrine of verbal plenary inspiration.

At Fri Nov 18, 09:13:00 PM, Blogger son of abraham said...

You are playing with fire now, Wayne, when you suggest that the apostle was "putting" a meaning on the Psalm that doesn't really belong there, and that we should translate otherwise (with gender-inclusive language), because John's Christological interpretation can be set aside, as an example of the "Jewish hermeneutics" of his day. I know there are scholars out there in some historically evangelical seminaries who are saying things like this now -- and unfortunately the editors of the NET Bible seem to have adopted this view of the apostolic interpretations. But it's a pretty dangerous idea, and it's not clear to me how it can be reconciled with a high view of inspiration. This is what killed the RSV's chances in conservative churches -- its rejection of the apostolic interpretations of the OT. So it's no small thing, and you can't expect theological conservatives to go along with it just because a few "evangelicals" are on this path now. It's not enough for you to declare that you are orthodox in your doctrine of Scripture, while holding this view. You have to explain how the view can be reconciled with orthodox bibliology. Others have tried to do this, without much success.

At Sat Nov 19, 08:34:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Michael, you are critiquing a straw man here, a position which I do not hold to nor did I advocate in my blog post. I believe that honoring authorial intent best fits with a high view of scripture, including affirming verbal plenary inspiration. John beautifully made a messianic application of Ps. 34:20. A high view of scripture can affirm authorial intent (messianic application) and each word of John 19:36. The same high view of scripture can affirm authorial intent of all of Ps. 34, including 34:20. As you know, the issue of N.T. quotations of the O.T. is complex. Probably you studied this in seminary. But complexity does not weaken the orthodox doctrine of inspiration. N.T. Messianic applications of O.T. passages are just as inspired as were the O.T. passages themselves. Let us always keep before us 2 Tim. 3:16 which begins "All scripture ..."

I am not going to discuss this matter further with you for the reasons I have given you in private email discussions when exchanges between us take such a turn as they have here. You are free to believe about me what you wish. I know what I actually believe. I have stated what I believe about inspiration as best as I can. That's where it must end.

At Sat Nov 19, 09:08:00 AM, Blogger son of abraham said...

Wayne wrote: You are free to believe about me what you wish. I know what I actually believe.

Well, here's what you wrote in your blog post: It is not for us to say that the New Testament writers were right or wrong in using the kind of heremeneutics that they, as Jews, were familiar with.

I'm not saying that you have a low view of Scripture, Wayne. I just think you haven't thought this through very well. And so you have ended up making a very objectionable statement, without being aware of its implications.

It would not be good for you to drop this subject without re-examining it, just because the "issue of N.T. quotations of the O.T. is complex."

At Sat Nov 19, 02:43:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Well, here's what you wrote in your blog post: It is not for us to say that the New Testament writers were right or wrong in using the kind of heremeneutics that they, as Jews, were familiar with.

I'm not saying that you have a low view of Scripture, Wayne. I just think you haven't thought this through very well.

Michael, I can see that I have not succeeded in making my position clear in my previous two tries so here is my third and last try, and if this doesn't work, we need to try a different kind of exchange so we can understand each other. I suspect that my original wording ("It is not for us ...") is what has given you reason for pause. I was not intending by my original wording any questioning of the inspirational status of any O.T. passage or any N.T. quote of it, no matter how that quote is applied. I tried to make that very clear in my second response to you. I should have been more direct in my original statement, rather than using the rhetorical device I did. If there is anything else you need to know, I think it would be best for you to ask it next in the form of a question, since I am not clear about what it is about my statements that you don't understand and when I don't know what you don't know, it is difficult for me to figure out tell you what you want to know. Again, my apologies for not being clearer. If you need further clarification after this message, please ask it in the form of a question or questions, such as "Do you believe ...?" etc.


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