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.
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, 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.
but the LORD delivers them from them all;
20 he protects all their bones,
not one of them will be broken.
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.Categories: tniv, Bible translation, Wayne Grudem, hermeneutics, Christology, messianic interpretation