Back on April 10 in my post on ὁρθοτομέω
I mentioned the Russian linguist Igor Mel'chuk. In addition to being very, very smart about language and linguistic matters, he has a lot of wise things to say about life in general. One of them came up in a discussion about having too much at stake. If something is too important, it can make it all but impossible to be able to perform well. His example was this: if you fill a glass of water just below the brim and tell someone to walk it across the room without spilling any, many people could do that. It's not easy, but it can be done. But if you offer someone $5,000,000 to do it, almost no one can. (He said $1,000,000 but that was over 25 years ago when that amount of money would make you independently wealthy, so I'm adjusting for inflation.) It's the same principle that lies behind the laws that prevent doctors from operating on their own family members. If it's too important to you, then you'll mess it up.
Bible translation is like that. Translators can be in awe of the fact that they are dealing with God's Word. They feel that if they are standing between God's Word and the Christian public, they've got to be sure they get it right. So they go looking for something safe. The traditional logic runs: Don't interpret the Word, just tell people what's actually there.
But there is a problem. Because no two languages are alike, telling people what's actually there can be every bit as misleading as putting something in that doesn't appear in the original. What looks the same can be mean something quite different.
The translation of Ἰουδαῖοι
is an example. Here is Packer's quote from Suzanne's interview
You know very well in Johns gospel it is just 'Judeans' or 'Jews'. 'Jewish leaders' is probably the right interpretation though it isn’t a grammatical. It can’t be said that 'Ioudaioi' means Jewish leaders - it doesn’t, it just means people who lived in Judea. John could have said 'chief Judeans' but he didn’t, he said 'Judeans'. There are various ways he could have said that. He only said 'oi Joudaioi'. The only safe way is to translate it 'the Jews' and explain that translation isn’t a matter of working in your own preferred interpretation of things. [emphasis mine]
How does he know Ἰουδαῖοι
Well, in Greek class they teach that it does.
OK. But, how do they
Well, because that's what the dictionaries say, BAGD, LSJ, etc.
OK. But, how do they
Because they had earlier dictionaries and wordlists (many of which can be traced ultimately back through -- horror of horrors -- Islamic scholarly sources in Spain). And because they compared those lexicographic sources with the texts and with older translations of the texts into other languages. (See the introduction to LSJ.) There's an important point here.
It is the body of original texts that is the ultimate authority, not the dictionaries, wordlists, translations, and the language lessons based on them.
When we treat the dictionaries as ultimately authoritative, we make a serious mistake. The general problem with dictionaries is that making a dictionary is essentially a task of decontextualizing words. Pull the words out of a text and list them in a standardized form. Mark them up to indicate their various word forms and something about their use in sentences, and give them a definition (BTW, definitions in the very best dictionaries run from barely adequate to completely terrible.) The loss of information in this process is mind-boggling. (I know. I've written a dictionary.)
Throw in that we know more about Greek grammar and much, much more about how language works than the best of the 19th century scholars whose modestly revised works we lean so heavily upon, and you can see that there is no excuse in the world for not going back to the texts for everything
The reason is simple. In actual communication context is everything. The essence of language is that it gives you just enough information to pick out of the context what it is that the speaker intends to communicate. Why do we call red hair red? If meanings were absolute we would call it orange. It's red because it has a reddish cast compared to blonde hair. We say red
because that's enough information to enable you to pick out the right class of hair colors. If you order a sandwich in a deli you're likely to say
A ham and cheese on rye, please. Hold the mayo.
I'd like to order a ham and cheese sandwich on rye bread, but don't put any mayonnaise on it.
(And, I should note, that meaning of hold
isn't in any of the big dictionaries, Webster's 3rd, Random House Unabridged, etc.)
OK, so I have the texts, now what?
Look at the word in question in the places it is used -- all the places it is used -- and ask how is it used? What is its syntax and what could it mean? What is the speaker trying to accomplish communicatively? (In effect, this is how children learn what words mean, but that's another whole story.)
So for Ἰουδαῖοι. What is the basic word? Ἰουδαίος. It's an adjective form referring to Ἰουδά. Like many a Greek modifier, it can, in the appropriate syntactic context, be used as a noun. (There's a long and interesting story here that I will pass over for now.)
By the standard sources, the word Ἰουδαίος is used in the NT 240 times. In those uses, four distinct senses can be seen.
Now wait a minute, some of you will say. Isn't the fourth sense a separate word? That's what the dictionary says.
- Jewish/Judaean as an adjective -
- Τιμόθεος υἱὸς γυναικὸς Ἰουδαίας (Acts 16:1)
- μετὰ ταῦτα ἦλθεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς καὶ οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ εἰς τὴν Ἰουδαίαν γῆν (John 3:22)
- a person of the Jewish race -
- διὰ τὸ διατεταχέναι Κλαύδιον χωρίζεσθαι πάντας τοὺς Ἰουδαίους ἀπὸ τῆς Ῥώμης (Acts 18:2)
- a leader of the Jewish faith -
- οἱ οὖν Ἰουδαῖοι ἐζήτουν αὐτὸν ἐν τῇ ἑορτῇ καὶ ἔλεγον ποῦ ἐστιν ἐκεῖνος (Jn. 7:11)
- οὐδεὶς μέντοι παρρησίᾳ ἐλάλει περὶ αὐτοῦ διὰ τὸν φόβον τῶν Ἰουδαίων (Jn. 7:13)
- to refer to the Roman province of Judea -
- ἡγεμονεύοντος Ποντίου Πιλάτου τῆς Ἰουδαίας (Lk 3:1)
Not so fast. Look at the form of the word. It's the feminine form of the the adjective Ἰουδαίος. To say that ἡ Ἰουδαία means the province of Judea is an interpretation, in just the sense that the literalists are trying to avoid. It's short for ἡ Ἰουδαία γῆ,
which actually occurs in Jn 3:22 (cited above). LSJ are explicit about that interpretation (pg. 832). To make it make sense in English, you have to have a phrasing which makes explicit the part about the land -- the very thing that is specifically omitted in the Greek 44 of the 46 times this word is used to refer to the Roman province.
So when we turn to the question of whether οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι can mean 'the leaders of the Jewish faith', all we need do is look at the text. Jesus and his disciplines are Ἰουδαῖοι, but John's Gospel is full of confrontations between Jesus and οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι.
In the passage cited in 3. above, it makes no sense to say that it is Judeans that are seeking Jesus, or Judeans that are frightening Judeans. While these things are logically true in the way philosophers calculate truth, the only thing that makes sense to non-philosophers is that some specific group of Judeans are seeking to find Jesus, and some specific group of Judeans are frightening other Judeans into silence. What is the only thing that makes sense as a referent for οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι i
n this context? The Jewish leaders. There is no theology here, just making basic sense of the text. This is like the deli order example. You say ham and cheeese
and they understand ham and cheese sandwich
; you say rye
and they understand rye bread
. The writers of the Gospels were saying what was conventional to say in that same minimalist way. You, as a Palestinian Jew in the 1st century, refer to the leaders of the Jewish faith in Greek by the expression οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι
, just as you refer to the country you live in as ἡ Ἰουδαία.
In supplying the information conventionally missing in Greek we are performing no more or less interpretation with the former nominal use of the adjective Ἰουδαίος
than with the later.
To make the logical inconsistency of the position that Packer is articulating clear, consider the key fact. It's a complete accident of history where Greek and English happen to work somewhat alike. If you translate ἡ Ἰουδαία a
s 'the Jewish thing', then it makes no sense in English. ('when Pontius Pilate was governor of the Jewish thing') so adding the information contextually implicit in the Greek doesn't count as interpretation. But if you translate οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι
as 'the Jews' (= 'the Jewish ones'), then the passages all appear to make sense in English, so adding the information contextually implicit in the Greek that this term sometimes refers to a salient subgroup of Jews, namely the Jewish authorities, is committing the sin of interpreting God's Word?!?
Failing to grapple with the meaning in context is just as much an interpretation as adding information that is not fully explicit in Greek. And this has nothing to do with political correctness or hypersensitivity regarding the Holocaust. Or theology for that matter. This is a straight up question about author's intended reference.
The mid-twentieth century Spanish philosopher José
Ortega y Gasset had a lot to say about translation. While I deeply disagree with his conclusions about what a translation should be like, he has some of the deepest insights into the nature and problems of translation of anyone I've ever read on the subject. And on the point in question he hit the nail on the head.
The fact is that the stupendous reality, which is language, will not be understood at its root if one doesn't begin by noticing that speech is composed above all of silences. ... And each language is a different equation of statements and silences. (Ortega y Gassett: "The misery and splendor of translation" reprinted in Schulte and Biguenet Theories of Translation, University of Chicago, 1992, pg. 104)
If you fail to examine every form, even those that seem to be straightforward, you are interpreting by default. As I have said before, there is no place to hide
. You have to know where the silences are in both Greek and English. And where Greek is silent and English is not, you must
supply the implicit information or you've gotten it wrong. By blindly accepting what happens to sound like English, you are committing a worse sin than consciously "interpreting". You are interpreting by not acting. It is a sin of omission.
You've buried the talent in the ground.
You've spilled the water on the first step.