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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

tabernacle vs tent

The discussion around how to translate John 1:14 is complicated by the fact that the Greek word σκηνη and the Latin tabernaculum were used to translate two different Hebrew words. In English 'tabernacle' and 'tent' have come down to us as two separate words, when in Hebrew there was more or less, 'dwelling' and 'tent . 'Tabernacle' is strictly speaking the Latin for 'tent' but these appear as two separate words now in English translations. It is all a bit muddled in my view. John 1:14 in Greek is,

    καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν καὶ ἐθεασάμεθα τὴν δόξαν αὐτοῦ δόξαν ὡς μονογενοῦς παρὰ πατρός πλήρης χάριτος καὶ ἀληθείας
and in Latin.

    et Verbum caro factum est et habitavit in nobis et vidimus gloriam eius gloriam quasi unigeniti a Patre plenum gratiae et veritatis
The TNIV is typical of English translations,

    The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only [Son], who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
The Latin habitare and the English 'dwell' or 'dwelling' reflects the meaning of the original Hebrew word sakan in Ex. 26:1. My question is whether it is better to stay with the traditional 'dwell' or chose either 'tabernacle' as Wesley, the ISV and some literal concordant translations do, or 'pitch a tent' which I have found so far only in Rotherham.

Here is a brief outline of the problem.
    הַמִּשְׁכָּן Ex. 26:1 dwelling or habitation

    ἡ σκηνη LXX

    tabernaculum Vulgate
      tabernacle JKV
      tabernacle TNIV

      אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד Ex. 27:21 tent of meeting

      ἡ σκηνη τοῦ μαρτυρίου
      tabernaculum testimonii
          tabernacle of the congregation KJV
          tent of meeting TNIV

        In addition the Greek in John 1 recalls not only the tent of meeting, but also the idea of a testimony. John 1:15 continues with the testimony in verse 15.

          Ἰωάννης μαρτυρεῖ περὶ αὐτοῦ καὶ κέκραγεν λέγων οὗτος ἦν ὃν εἶπον ὁ ὀπίσω μου ἐρχόμενος ἔμπροσθέν μου γέγονεν ὅτι πρῶτός μου ἦν
        This is only a very brief sketch of the difficulty.

        15 Comments:

        At Thu Mar 29, 09:06:00 AM, Blogger Beyond Words said...

        I'm a layperson and I've recently been studying John's gospel. I don't know Greek or Hebrew, and I'm at the mercy of other scholars to tell me what matters about Second Temple Judaism. But, if my understanding of John's Gospel is correct, John made it a point to progressivley reveal how Jesus was the living presence of God with us, superceding tent of meeting, temple, and torah. When I read "dwell" or "live" in English, I don't get the richness of the indwelling presence of God in those words unless there are footnotes and commentaries to explain it.

         
        At Thu Mar 29, 09:37:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

        I've always liked hearing this verse quoted with "tabernacled" as a verb. For me it highlights the co-text connections, the bringing of the Shekinah glory into the inter-testamental period which so very much needed that glory.

        I'm rather a fan of verbing nouns. The other day on the T.V. news I heard a journalist speak of something needing to be "truth squaded". Hmm, interesting new usage. I understood it well.

        Granted, "tabernacle" is a word not well known among the hoi polloi. I'm not suggesting that this is the best term to use in John 1:14, but it does work well for me. Perhaps this is a place where an uncommon term could be used in the text but have an explanatory footnote.

         
        At Thu Mar 29, 11:14:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

        Beyond Words, I take your point, but is "the richness of the indwelling presence of God in those words" in the original Greek? I suspect not, the concept has been introduced by preachers and commentators. Now there may be nothing wrong with their sermons and comments if intended to be an exposition of the overall biblical teaching on "how Jesus was the living presence of God with us". But it is wrong to read their theological conclusions back into a Greek word which probably just meant "pitched his tent" or "lived in a tent".

        Wayne, your point that "tabernacled" "highlights the co-text connections" seems to me like a more sophisticated way of saying the same as Beyond Words, and the same objection to it applies. Elsewhere you have criticised the way in which rare and poorly understood words like "propitiation" are used in Bible translations as pegs on which to hang theological constructions. Can't you see that the same applies here?

         
        At Thu Mar 29, 11:45:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Eddie Torr Leman said...

        Peter asked:

        Wayne, your point that "tabernacled" "highlights the co-text connections" seems to me like a more sophisticated way of saying the same as Beyond Words, and the same objection to it applies. Elsewhere you have criticised the way in which rare and poorly understood words like "propitiation" are used in Bible translations as pegs on which to hang theological constructions. Can't you see that the same applies here?

        Yes, I sure can. I tried to identify with this part of the issue in the final paragraph of my comment, but I probably didn't state it clearly enuf.

         
        At Thu Mar 29, 12:20:00 PM, Blogger Beyond Words said...

        Wayne, you are one of my translation heroes, so I don't know how to respond to your comment. Does it have to be "either or"?

        I've just finished a study of the gospel of John and the seven "I AM" statments Jesus made. A lot of John's stories seem to be written deliberately to correspond to festivals like Channukah, Passover, festival of booths, etc. So I'm wrestling with understanding which is more important, the plain meaning of the words in the orginal Greek or the concordant meaning they might have had to John's first readers. In other words, a Jew, even a Hellenistic one, would have recognized a tent is not just a tent when God lives in it. :) That's what I was trying to say, and I'm way out of my league on this blog.

         
        At Thu Mar 29, 12:31:00 PM, Blogger Damian said...

        Suzanne,

        I remain a bit confused as to why so much discussion has revolved around nouns when what we find in Jn 1:14 is a verb. The question should not be "what does skene mean?" but rather "what does skenow mean?" Greek experienced as many shifts in meaning with verbalized nouns as any other language.

        IMHO, the discussion needs to revolve around the verb found in John, not the noun from which it is derived.

        Damian

         
        At Thu Mar 29, 01:48:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Eddie Torr Leman said...

        Beyond Words wrote:

        Wayne, you are one of my translation heroes,

        Oh, I do like words of affirmation. Thanks a lot.

        so I don't know how to respond to your comment. Does it have to be "either or"?

        Could I ask what "it" is? (I did write "it" not "is"!)

        Are you asking if the translation needs to be either "tabernacled" or something different? Are you asking if somehow we can get translation readers to see more than one translation option? If so, I think the answer is yes. We can footnote, or even present alternatives within the text (as the Amplified Bible does), to focus on clarity, perhaps, with one word, and Jewish worship/tabernacle connections with another word.

        With computer technology we are not bound to single option texts. We can even click and get translation options that give us language in a higher register. We can click and get the Biblical Hebrew or Greek.

        Click, click, click!!

        :-)

         
        At Thu Mar 29, 02:07:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

        Beyond Words wrote: So I'm wrestling with understanding which is more important, the plain meaning of the words in the orginal Greek or the concordant meaning they might have had to John's first readers.

        You are wrestling here with important issues! The concordant meaning is indeed important for theologians and perhaps for preachers. But I'm not sure that it is for translators - and this is a blog on translation.

        Translators need to work primarily with the plain meaning of the original words. As far as it makes good sense in the target language, it is good to be concordant in the sense of translating the same original word group into the same target language word group. But often this simply cannot be done without violence to the target language or introducing all kinds of misunderstandings. In such cases translators need to translate the plain meaning, and leave commentators and preachers to find the wider links.

         
        At Thu Mar 29, 03:06:00 PM, Blogger Beyond Words said...

        Oops, I got confused between Wayne Leman and Peter Kirk. Sorry, Peter. You're my hero, too and I was responding to your first comment. Apparently you figured that out before I did.

        Let me ask another question. If we have trouble with the plain meaning of English in our Bibles because the word we're translating from Greek had a subtly different layer of meaning, is it possible that the Greek word 'tent' is a translation issue to the orginal Jewish audience? Even if they spoke Greek as their primary language, would the concept of tent be a Jewish concept of the Hebrew word for tent? Would translating a Hebrew word into Greek bring along the same problems of plain meaning as we have translating Greek into English?

        Aren't you glad I'm not on your translation team? :)

         
        At Thu Mar 29, 04:53:00 PM, Blogger Mike Sangrey said...

        John is the master at using ambiguity to clarify meaning. Saying that in that way sounds odd to us, doesn't it? But, it's only odd to us since the word ambiguity is .... ummmmm ... ambiguous. It can mean: more than one meaning which confuses the real intention. However, ambiguity can also refer to a quite intentional double meaning--the pun is a good example. John does this. And he is a master at doing it.

        What about a translation like:

        The Message became flesh and took up residence among us like the Shekinah glory in a tent.

        Is that a translation or a commentary? Good question, IMO. It depends on whether or not you believe John is purposely using ambiguity to clarify the intent of his words. If you do, then you need to bring both meanings across in as precise way as possible. You need to clarify the meanings as John clarifies the meanings, but use a different form. That's what translation does. That's what it's suppose to do. Thankfully, this suggested translation doesn't empty the text of it's beauty; though it's awfully hard to beat the terse beauty of a good pun.

        I really like what beyond words said: When I read "dwell" or "live" in English, I don't get the richness of the indwelling presence of God in those words. I agree. The pun forces on the reader both the clarity and the complexity of the meaning--complexity embodied in one form. Wonderful. Really wonderful. The form itself expresses the meaning. It's like it's ... well ... beyond beyond words.

        Sorry. I couldn't refuse. :-)

         
        At Thu Mar 29, 08:31:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

        Damian,

        IMHO, the discussion needs to revolve around the verb found in John, not the noun from which it is derived.

        σκηνοω is not used elsewhere for live or dwell in John's gospel. In chap.1 verse 38 the verb is μενω.

        οικεω or κατοικεω would also be common choices. σκηνοω is a marked usage.

        On the other hand, John does use σκηνοω in Rev. 7:15, 12:12, 13:6, 21:3.

        But on balance, σκηνοω is less common than other words for live/dwell and therefore must be looked at carefully. Why was this word used?

         
        At Thu Mar 29, 10:30:00 PM, Blogger Damian said...

        Suzanne,

        Thanks for your response. It is interesting that John does not use here the verb menw, which appears so frequently throughout the Gospel. It is more interesting (to me) that he does not use kataskenew, which is the very common form for "to tabernacle" / "to dwell" in the LXX.

        skanow is a marked usage - but not in terms of menew, rather in terms of kataskenow. Jn is either clearly ambiguous here, deliberatley avoiding the most common verb in the LXX tradition to refer to God's dwelling/tabernacling among his people, or he is using a verb which in common parlance meant simply "to pitch a tent"/ "to dwell." I thing the latter holds.

         
        At Thu Mar 29, 11:01:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

        σκηνοω is still a fairly uncommon verb in comparison with οικεω, for example, less than 10% frequency.

        But you imply that you do not think that an allusion to the Hebrew tabernacle is intended by John here and there is no need to allude to it in the English translation.

        I see that the major translations do not make the connection - the majority decision is to go with dwell. However, I am just trying to understand this better and feel confident that allusion to the tabernacle is not important.

        I am not, so far, convinced. But I don't feel strongly about this either way.

         
        At Fri Mar 30, 08:07:00 AM, Blogger Damian said...

        Suzanne,

        I'm not saying that there is no allusion. That would be presumptuous on my behalf. I also believe that there is the "vaguest" of allusions.

        What is significant, to repeat myself, is that John chose a very rare verb - not used with reference to the tent of meeting (!) - instead of the much more common verb kataskenow.

        Either way, for the point of translation I sway between "pitch a tent" (so wonderfully concrete) and "dwell."

        Damian

         
        At Sat Mar 31, 11:07:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

        Beyond Words, thanks for calling me your hero. I appreciate that! I have only just got round to reading these comments. But your follow-up question is indeed a difficult one. I suppose I would say that things are so complicated that in a translation we can't hope to capture all the Hebrew and other Jewish nuances as well as all the Greek ones, so the best thing we can do is use a plain and simple English word like "tent", and let the commentators and preachers take things further.

        Damian, thank you for your comments, which seem to me to put this allusion to the tabernacle into its proper perspective, an allusion rather than the central meaning of the word which must be brought out in translation.

         

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