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Monday, December 05, 2005

The parable of the bags of gold

The reading in my church yesterday morning was from Matthew 25:14-30, and was followed by my pastor's excellent sermon (temporary link) on this passage. I was surprised when this was read out from TNIV, our church Bible, because the familiar "talents" (as in NIV) had become "bags of gold", even in the section heading which is also the title of this posting.

After some thought I realised that this is a real improvement. The average reader of this passage knows exactly what a talent is, not a bag of gold but a special personal ability. In fact probably the modern English word "talent" derives its meaning from the parable. Therefore, when we first hear this parable read out we are already thinking in terms of its interpretation - or one possible interpretation. It is the same with the parable of the Good Samaritan, for our concept of a Samaritan is derived from the parable, and quite opposite to the original hearers' concept.

The rendering "bags of gold" has several advantages. It means that the impact of the parable on the modern reader is much closer to that on the original hearers - preferable to dynamic equivalence supporters. It avoids pre-empting the interpretation as applying only to personal abilities, when it may also be applicable to all kinds of resources (one of my pastor's points) - and therefore it should also be considered an improvement by those who are concerned about over-interpretive translations. The only real disadvantage which I can see is that it breaks with tradition. But maybe others have other comments on this.


At Mon Dec 05, 07:13:00 AM, Blogger Funky Dung said...

I find "bags of gold" VERY problematic. A talent was a very large sum of money. Jesus deliberately used values well beyond the reach of any ordinary person to show both the wealth and the generousity of God. "Bags of gold" doesn't come even close to expressing that a talent would be worth around $500,000. In sum, the master left his servants in charge of around $4,000,000! Though estimates of a talent's worth vary, and the exchange rates I gave may be inaccurate, there seems to be agreement that a talent would take many years of work for a man to earn. A single talent would be an amazing amount of money, let alone 5.

At Mon Dec 05, 09:40:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Well, how much is a bag of gold worth? How long is a piece of string? Currently a kilogram of gold costs $16,000, so $500,000 of gold would weigh about 30 kg and fit into a large bag. So I don't see any mismatch with your estimated values unless there is an assumption that the bags are really small ones.

At Mon Dec 05, 10:24:00 AM, Blogger Ted Gossard said...

From my own past research on it, the TNIV footnote on "bags of gold" jives well (or within the boundaries set) with the thought that a talent expressed an amount of silver and/or gold. See the TNIV footnote on that (I don't have that page handy).

At Mon Dec 05, 10:38:00 AM, Blogger Funky Dung said...

Borrowing an argument from Wayne...

For those with some bibilical literacy, bags of gold might convey the intended meaning. However, for the average modern reader, gold is a substance not experienced in greater quantity than a few ounces (in a ring, for instance). In order for "bags of gold" to express great wealth, it's important that the weight and purity of the gold be mentioned in some way. I'm not saying "talent" fully conveys the meaning to readers, just that "bags of gold" doesn't, either. BTW, the comment about footnotes brings up a good point. If those verses are read aloud, the listeners probably won't have access to the footnotes at the time. A lector or minister reading those verses should be sure to explain the great wealth regardless of chosen translation.

At Mon Dec 05, 01:09:00 PM, Blogger R. Mansfield said...

"Bags of gold" may not be perfect, but for a modern audience, it says more than mere "talents." Back when I used to teach high school students, I was often amazed to find how many of them thought that the master described in the story magically gave his servants special abilities ("talents"), despite the monetary context at the end of the parable.

At Mon Dec 05, 02:33:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

For reference, here is the TNIV (UK edition) footnote at Matthew 24:15: "Greek five talents... two talents... one talent; also throughout this parable; a talent was worth about 20 years of a day labourer's wage."

Funky, if you really think that "the average modern reader" would not understand "bags of gold" as expressing great wealth (and I disagree here), can you suggest how this idea might better be expressed, without too much anachronism?

At Mon Dec 05, 09:46:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I had never thought of it before, but "bags of gold" strikes me as communicating the idea that there was great value to it. FWIW, my great grandfather, my grandfather, and my father all mined for gold. In those days gold had a fixed value. I remember when the value of gold was allowed to move off the "gold standard" in the U.S.

At Tue Dec 06, 11:53:00 AM, Blogger Funky Dung said...

Would it been bad translation form to put in a parenthetical explanation? For either talent or bag of gold, "(worth about 20 years' wages to a day labourer)" could be added. I think "day labourer" needs to be clarified a bit for modern readers, though. Perhaps "manual laborer" might work better.

At Tue Dec 06, 04:59:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At Tue Dec 06, 05:02:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At Tue Dec 06, 05:04:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

This is an interesting suggestion, Funky. I presume that no one would object to putting such an explanation in a footnote, as TNIV does. But should such explanations be put into the text? Should the implicit background information, known to the original audience but not to modern readers, be made explicit in a translation? There are some people who strongly believe that this is wrong in principle, for example Ernst-August Gutt, who wrote (as quoted in my draft paper Holy Communicative?):

“Our reverence for the integrity of the biblical texts and our concern for the authenticity of Bible translations require us to abandon this practice as quickly as possible and to solve the problems by other, more acceptable means”.

Now I disagree with Gutt on this general principle, as explained in the rest of my paper (now published in "Translation and Religion"). But I don't accept that such information should be added into the Bible text without restrictions. The important point which I see here is that this parable of Jesus should read as a parable of Jesus, and should not include material which Jesus would not have said. Jesus would surely never have used expressions like "worth about 20 years' wages to a day labourer", and so we should not put such words on his lips. No, the place for this kind of explanation is in a footnote - or, when the passage is read out in church without the footnote, it should be explained by the preacher.

I would accept an explanation in the text something like "a vast sum of money". The problem here is, can you speak about "five vast sums of money", and is "ten vast sums of money" (cf. v.28) necessarily twice as much? Perhaps an explanation can be added just once in v.15, something like "To one he gave five bags of gold, each a vast sum of money, to another two such bags, and to another one bag..." This kind of small one-off addition, which does not much distort the style and balance of the passage, is in my opinion acceptable and proper - if we really think the audience will not understand that a bag of gold is extremely valuable.

At Tue Dec 06, 05:59:00 PM, Blogger exegete77 said...

Howdy. I have been out of the loop for a little while.

How about: "To one he gave money worth 100 years of wages, to another money worth 40 years of wages, and to another money worth 20 years of wages."

This has some contemporary relevance, since in our technological age, we often equate money with time investment. And this retains the relative value of each "gift" of the Greek text.

At Wed Dec 07, 04:47:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Rich (a good name in this context!), I take your point. But it seems that this has contemporary relevance but not relevance to Jesus' context, for I don't think he would have thought in terms of years of wages. So it sounds to me too like an anachronism to be suitable for a general purpose translation. It might work in a version like The Message which is deliberately written with a contemporary flavour and not too worried about anachronism.

In fact The Message reads "To one he gave five thousand dollars, to another two thousand, to a third one thousand". This kind of solution also works, but is also anachronistic - and in danger of rapid obsolescence because of inflation etc. But $1000 is probably far too little for a talent, as to many Western people today this is just part of their monthly income rather than many years' wages. It might have been better to make each talent a million!


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