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Monday, June 11, 2007

Well...It ain't gonna sell!

One of the great difficulties Bible translators have is marketing their translations. People are picky. People measure accuracy in terms of words, or, possibly, at best, verses. And if the translation says something different than they're use to, out comes the interlinear, and, after matching the words, the great "Aha!!" is heard throughout the land. So, what if the thing people are use to isn't accurate? How does a Bible translator improve the translation? How do we get to a Better Bible?

Let me give you a case in point that I recently tripped over. It was one of those, "I hate it when it's obvious" events. But, in any case, you're not going to like it.

Here is a very familiar passage to anyone who has spent a fair amount of time in the Greek. It's fairly simple Greek (which is not meant to demean anyone). But, there's something here that will surprise even most experts--few see it. I was surprised by it.
ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος. οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν. πάντα δι' αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν. ὃ γέγονεν ἐν αὐτῷ ζωὴ ἦν, καὶ ἡ ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶς τῶν ἀνθρώπων: καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει, καὶ ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν. (John 1:1-5).
John is the master of ambiguity. He uses it to fascinate, entertain, and snag his reader. He does so here.'re not going to like it.

In fact, 'it' is the whole problem.

You see, the word λόγος (LOGOS) is the subject of the first clause. In fact, literally rendering the text, we would have: "In the beginning the word was." (EIMI generally places the subject after the verb; even more so when it's articular. Also, I prefer 'message', thinking it is more accurate; and I will be using it for the rest of this posting.) So, John, in this gospel, immediately introduces the concept of 'message'. He then refers back to λόγος, quite a number of times, using a specific word, namely, αὐτός (AUTOS). OK, fine, so what's the big deal about that?

Well, αὐτός can be translated as 'he', 'she', or 'it', depending on whether its referent is masculine, feminine or neuter. Well, here it refers back to λόγος and λόγος is masculine. However, that's Greek. In English λόγος is translated as 'message' (or word), and 'message' is an 'it'; it's not a 'he'. In other words, to be accurate, the translator should translate all these αὐτός words as 'it'. You see, 'it' is the whole problem (pun intended). I told you you weren't going to like it (no pun intended). In fact, you've probably dismissed me at this point for promoting heresy.

Please give me a few more minutes of your time to rescue myself from the pit. Or, more correctly, I think, to let the message of God rescue me (as he has so many times before).

John, as I said, is a master of ambiguity. And these 5 verses must be read within their unit of interpretation since it is within the whole text that the ambiguity is resolved. However, we should not read the end back into the beginning while we are reading the beginning. To be accurate, we should let the text say what the text is saying. If John is going to fascinate, entertain, and snag, then we should let him.

This unit of interpretation continues through verse 18. And, even more importantly, these 18 verses form a chiasm. What that means, among much more I'm not going to develop, is that verse 18 completely disambiguates what the 'message' really is. John wants to make absolutely sure that no one walks away from this unit of interpretation with the wrong interpretation -- that somehow, the message is an 'it'. So, let me state it clearly: this 'message' is the very Son of God; and, in fact, it is God himself. (All discussions holed up in John 1:1 must battle the fact of John 1:18; since the one kisses the other like two halves of a folded hinge. That's how a chiasm works. And a whole other translation issue.)

Furthermore, verse 14 states quite clearly that this message became flesh: καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν. That is, "The message became flesh and entered a Temple-residence among us." (See the recent discussion regarding σκηνόω. My view is that here John is again purposely using double meaning to make a point. σκηνόω is an unusual word to be used here. Therefore it ends up referring to the Temple as well as referring to what one does when one resides somewhere. 'Temple-residence' is also an unusual word, so I've chosen it. In any case, only God could reside in the Temple.)

So, the ambiguity is completely resolved within the interpretive unit. To push this just one more time: John the Baptist also says so. I'll not develop that. It's there in the text.

Why then does John start off with this ambiguity?

He wants to emphasize what his gospel is about. It's a message about the Message. He is setting the stage for his whole gospel. The ambiguity raises the interest. The gentle movement from 'message' to 'person' pulls the reader into the text: it entertains, it fascinates, it snags.

The whole point of John's gospel is this message; but, it's a personified message; a God-human message. It's a message from God, about God, who, in fact, is God. But, the only way for God to communicate that message to human beings is to personify--that is, to enflesh--that very message. That is, God had to become a human being and thereby express in perfect accuracy who he is.

John is saying, "Let me introduce you to the message of God. He's living. He's breathing. And he walked among us. I'll provide you with signs as evidence to prove it."

Well, OK, I lied. Maybe, you do like it.

But, I bet many of you don't like how I got here. But, it seems to me, that is how John gets us here. He starts with some ambiguity. And then, through a masterful construction, resolves it. That focuses the attention on the resolution and yet, the reader wants to know more about this message. To me: That's brilliant!

You see what I mean.

One of the great difficulties Bible translators have is marketing their translations. People are picky. People measure accuracy in terms of words, or, possibly, at best, verses. And if the translation says something different than they're use to, out comes the interlinear, and the great "Aha!!" is heard throughout the land.

Who would accept:
"In the beginning was the message; the message was with God; the message was purely divine. It was in the beginning with God. It created everything, and apart from it not one thing came into being. In it there exists life and this life has continued to provide light to human beings. And the light lit up the darkness and the darkness did not withstand it."
Maybe we should stop picking disagreements over words (or even the case endings) and start dancing with whole interpretive units. Maybe more and Better Bibles would be bought with the very living lives of people.

I'd like that. Even if some of what I said here is totally ridiculous, I think many of you would like that result, too.


At Mon Jun 11, 07:21:00 PM, Blogger ElShaddai Edwards said...

Mike, I really like this post - thank you for taking the time to put that together.

One of my most memorable lightbulb moments occured in a Bible study a few years back when our teacher was explaining that each time Genesis 1 says "And God said... and it was so", we should be thinking of a dynamic where the realization of God's creative design was carried out through Logos, the same Logos as in John 1 and the sharp sword in Revelation 19. Yet who would accept a translation that said:

"And God said, 'Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear,' and the Word made it so. God called the dry ground 'land,' and the gathered waters he called 'seas.' And God saw that what the Word had created was good." Genesis 1:9-10 (with apologies to the TNIV)

Genesis 1 as a whole is one of those "can't change the text" passages. I love reading the NEB accont just for vv. 1-2 because they dared to be different from the plodding "In the beginning God created..." found in almost every other Bible.

At Mon Jun 11, 10:22:00 PM, Blogger Bob MacDonald said...

I agree with you about the chiasm - it disambiguates. I am not working on John at present - am doing Psalms - it's a good place to be. But I recently read Bauckham's new book and noted his claim of triangular numbers in the prologue and epilogue of John. The prologue works - 496 syllables, but the epilogue is 6 too many _words_ 502. Have you come across this claim before? It is almost like an encrypted signature. (see the image at where I began colouring.)

At Tue Jun 12, 05:43:00 AM, Blogger John Radcliffe said...

As I see it Mike, John can be ambiguous here in Greek, but translators can't be in English (unless, perhaps, they avoid pronouns by repeating the noun). Put "it", and you're later shown to have been wrong ("it" was a "he" all along); but (as you say, but in other words) putting "he" lets the cat out of the bag too soon, and steals John's thunder. Of course we aren't reading the passage for the first time: we already know the ending, and so miss / forget what John is doing. (Wouldn't it be nice to be able to re-read the Bible for the first time? But unless we have a really bad memory, each of us can only do that once.)

I certainly agree with you that, "we should not read the end back into the beginning while we are reading the beginning." That's one reason why, when I start to study a biblical book, I like to just jump in and try to let it unfold as it was written, rather than reading it through half a dozen times and/or reading pages and pages of "introduction" first. If something is unclear, I'll try to wait to see if / how the writer clarifies it later. (Of course, another reason may be that I'm just lazy.)

This, of course, is another benefit of the wealth of English translations. Stick to just one, and you may become too familiar with the text (or at least with how those translators understood it). Try another and you may be surprised, as other translators may have understood the passage somewhat differently, or even just give it a different emphasis. (Or again, perhaps I'm just trying to justify having so many different versions.)

["Disambiguate"! Surely even brevity is no excuse for that kind of language. Words like that should have been put down at birth. Or as they say, "never write a sentence where one word will do."]

At Tue Jun 12, 03:43:00 PM, Blogger Mike Sangrey said...

John Radcliffe wrote:
As I see it Mike, John can be ambiguous here in Greek, but translators can't be in English (unless, perhaps, they avoid pronouns by repeating the noun). Put "it", and you're later shown to have been wrong ("it" was a "he" all along)

Let me challenge that.

A person reading the text would not have analyzed it to that depth. He or she would have been thinking in terms of message and not in terms of the gender of the referent. So, yes, there's ambiguity (and I made that point); however, the ambiguity wasn't a slap in the face obvious ambiguity. It was the type of ambiguity that was gently resolved with statements of near absolute clarity.

However, the difficulty we have today, and one point I was making, is when we come to the text, we bring to the text a certain framework through which we interpret it. So, when we read (pun intended) jumps out like a sore thumb.

Having said that, there is an element of truth that you're tapping against. And that is that the accuracy of the specifics has to be compromised.

However, that was another point I was making. That is, readers (and critical thinkers) need to give proper weight to the interpretive unit and allow it to dictate how important the specifics really are.

At Sun Jun 17, 09:34:00 AM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

There was a German ad recently, aimed at women, which used this same kind of gender sensitive pronominal reference.

He should be supportive but not constraining. He should make you feel comfortable.

etc., etc.

Then at the end it is revealed that the "he" is a bra (masculine in German).

The point is that speakers of languages with extensive gender systems use them to good communicative effect.

John could have written some good copy.


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