The Law of Leasts
Why September 25th?
Because it’s the fourth anniversary of the death of my best friend.
Fred and I met in graduate school in January of 1971. We had Linguistics 471 together with George Lakoff. I was literally fresh off the plane from Vietnam. Fred had come to grad school in the fall just back from a stint in the Army in Korea. We had a lot of other things in common. We had both been undergrad chemistry majors. We both liked sports. We spent the summer as roommates attending a linguistics institute at UC Santa Cruz that summer. I got married the next spring, but that fall, Fred started to have some strange pains in his legs. In January of 1974, just before my wife and I were to leave for a short term stint with SIL in Mexico, he was, at long last, diagnosed. It was a spinal tumor and he was whipped into the hospital for immediate surgery. The tumor was benign, but that doesn’t mean it was harmless. They couldn’t get it all surgically and had to use radiation to kill the rest. This meant that in the long run he would lose the use of his legs. He knew it was coming.
When I came to Berkeley in 1986 I left my tenured wife and my children behind in Ann Arbor for the academic year while we figured out whether we were going to move to California or stay in Michigan. Fred came along to be my roommate for that year. His legs were already greatly weakened, but he came because his maternal grandmother had lived in Berkeley and he knew that if you have to be disabled somewhere, Berkeley is possibly the best place in the world to be. When the nerves in his legs finally gave out completely in 1994, he got himself a power chair. Still it took more than a few years for him to get past the frustration and anger at the unfairness of life. He only started to re-emerge around 2000 – mostly in the form of becoming politically active in Berkeley. He loved the Berkeley library. On September 18th, he was on his way to a meeting where he was to discuss an Environmental Impact Report regarding the construction of a new apartment building which would ruin the view from the library reading room. He had earlier confided in me that he had evidence that a crucial section of the report had been fudged by the contractor. Just after he turned to go down Ashby, he was struck by a car, thrown from his chair, and landed on his head. He was medivac-ed to immediate surgery but he never woke up. He was in a coma for a week on life support when it became clear that his brain was shutting down. We were with him when he breathed his last.
How is this relevant to Bible translation?
Because Fred’s PhD work was interrupted by his tumor. He left a fair amount of unfinished work behind that contains no few brilliant linguistic insights which have never been published (or never been properly credited to him). One of them is of pinpoint relevance to the debate about the need to translate literally and stick to structure.
Fred noticed that when you want to talk about all (or none) of something, you tend to want to do so in emphatic ways. He further observed that languages achieve this emphasis by referring to the smallest amount of the stuff. (Or more accurately the conventionally smallest amount of the stuff.)
It’s good to the last drop. (= all of it)
A drop is the smallest amount of a liquid.
He doesn’t have a penny to his name. (= no money)
A penny is the smallest amount of money.
She was gone in an instant. (= in no time)
An instant is the smallest amount of time.
I didn’t hear a word she said. (= no communication)
A word is the smallest amount of language.
καὶ ἰάθη ὁ παῖς αὐτοῦ ἐν τῇ ὥρᾳ ἐκείνῃ (Mat. 8:13)
... And his servant was healed in the selfsame hour. (KJV)
... And the servant was healed that very moment. (NASB)
ὅταν δὲ παραδῶσιν ὑμᾶς μὴ μεριμνήσητε πῶς ἢ τί λαλήσητε δοθήσεται γὰρ ὑμῖν ἐν ἐκείνῃ τῇ ὥρᾳ τί λαλήσητε (Matt. 10:19)
But when they hand you over, do not worry about how or what you are to say; for it will be given you in that hour what you are to say. (NASB)
When they bring you to trial, do not worry about what you are going to say or how you will say it, when the time comes, you will be given what you will say. (TEV) [marginally better: at that moment]
καὶ ἐζήτησαν οἱ γραμματεῖς καὶ οἱ ἀρχιερεῖς ἐπιβαλεῖν ἐπ' αὐτὸν τὰς χεῖρας ἐν αὐτῇ τῇ ὥρᾳ ... (Lk. 20:19)
The scribes and the chief priests tried to lay hands on Him that very hour, ... (NASB)
The teachers of the Law and the chief priests tried to arrest Jesus on the spot, ... (TEV) [more literal but still a dynamic equivalent: right then or then and there]
καὶ ἀναστάντες αὐτῇ τῇ ὥρᾳ ὑπέστρεψαν εἰς Ἰερουσαλήμ (Lk. 24:33)
And they got up that very hour and returned to Jerusalem, ... (NASB)
They got up at once and returned to Jerusalem, ... (TEV)
οἷς οὐδὲ πρὸς ὥραν εἴξαμεν τῇ ὑποταγῇ ἵνα ἡ ἀλήθεια τοῦ εὐαγγελίου διαμείνῃ πρὸς ὑμᾶς (Gal. 2:5)
But we did not yield in subjection to them for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel would remain with you. (NASB)
... but in order to keep the truth of the gospel safe for you, we did not give in to them for a minute. (TEV)
... ἵνα παραστήσῃ αὐτὸς ἑαυτῷ ἔνδοξον τὴν ἐκκλησίαν μὴ ἔχουσαν σπίλον ἢ ῥυτίδα ἤ τι τῶν τοιούτων ἀλλ' ἵνα ᾖ ἁγία καὶ ἄμωμος (Eph. 5:27)
... that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. (NASB)
He has an unblemished record.
ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν γέγραπται οὐκ ἐπ' ἄρτῳ μόνῳ ζήσεται ὁ ἄνθρωπος ἀλλ' ἐπὶ παντὶ ῥήματι ἐκπορευομένῳ διὰ στόματος θεοῦ (Mat. 4:4)In Matt. 5:18 it says:
But He answered and said, "It is written, ''MAN SHALL NOT LIVE ON BREAD ALONE, BUT ON EVERY WORD THAT PROCEEDS OUT OF THE MOUTH OF GOD.'' " (NASB)
ἀμὴν γὰρ λέγω ὑμῖν ἕως ἂν παρέλθῃ ὁ οὐρανὸς καὶ ἡ γῆ ἰῶτα ἓν ἢ μία κεραία οὐ μὴ παρέλθῃ ἀπὸ τοῦ νόμου ἕως ἂν πάντα γένηται (Matt. 5:18)In the Old Testament there is Prov. 30:5:
For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (NASB)
ה כָּל-אִמְרַת אֱלוֹהַּ צְרוּפָה; מָגֵן הוּא, לַחֹסִים בּוֹ. (Prov. 30:5)
Every word of God is tested; He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him. (NASB)
These are just instances of the Law of Leasts. They don’t say anything to privilege words theologically. Those who think they do simply don’t understand how language works. In fact, understood like this, it seems to me that a proper understanding of the Law of Leasts strengthens the doctrine of plenary inspiration, it just doesn't say anything about translation principles.
This is what makes us linguists want to tear our hair out when theologians like Robert L. Thomas smugly affirm that 18th century approaches to understanding Scripture are so much safer than an understanding of how language works that linguists shouldn’t be allowed say anything about Scripture.
But the way I read John 1, it implies that there is no higher calling than to study language. If He is the Word, then we should want to study every thing about words to know Him better. Theologians who ignore a deep study of the phenomenon of language do so at significant spiritual risk.
 Wayne Grudem, Translating the Word of God. Chapter 1 “Are Only Some of the Words of God Inspired?”.
 “Modern Linguistics versus Traditional Hermaneutics” The Master Seminary Journal 14/1 (Spring 2003) 23-45.