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Friday, April 25, 2008

SENT, and how the Bible uses words in the normal way

Dr Webb Mealy, a "biblical scholar, translator and theologian" and a regular contributor on the Bible Translation e-mail list, is working on a scholarly translation of the New Testament called SENT: The Spoken English New Testament. His current drafts are available for review here, and he welcomes comments. (I have his permission to mention this.)

I am very interested in this project because it is an attempt to create something which as far as I know no one else has made at least since the time when KJV was translated: a more or less formal correspondence translation of the Bible (well, for now just the New Testament) into good quality contemporary English - not an artificial literary dialect but English as currently spoken. It is also one of the very few English translations which have been field tested, at least among readers of the e-mail list.

Webb is explicitly translating into American English, but even in this less literary register the difference between this and my British English is small, apart from the well known spelling differences. Therefore his drafts are much more easily understood here in England than are traditional formal correspondence translations in the Tyndale tradition. I do criticise the unnecessary and confusing italics, and the excessive use of footnotes giving allegedly literal readings (by which Webb usually means Tyndale tradition glosses). I would also prefer to see section headings rather than prominent chapter numbers. Nevertheless the actual text of this version has the potential of being one of the best Bible translations I have seen.

I have known about this project for some time, although I don't think it has been mentioned before on this blog. The real reason I am posting about it now is that I want to present here some words which Webb wrote to someone else, with a copy to me, in a private e-mail, and which I got his permission to post here. In these words he is responding to a mention on the e-mail list of how Epictetus used the Greek word peripateo, literally "walk", about general conduct, apparently much as the Apostle Paul did. Webb wrote:
I cited Epictetus just because he was handy. If you’ve studied the history of philosophy, you’ll know that he was famous for talking in everyday, simple language. Yes, he was a heathen. But that doesn’t imply that he gave the word PERIPATEW any particular unusual meaning. He used it the same way as the average Joe on the street. And so did Paul. Paul could talk about conducting yourself well or about conducting yourself inappropriately, because the word PERIPATEW just meant conduct yourself sometimes, when it didn’t mean “walk along”. There was nothing uniquely “Christ-centered” about the word PERIPATEW itself in Paul’s vocabulary.

I get the feeling ... that you think words somehow become special, extra-significant containers, full to the brim with meaning built up of all the contexts around the several scriptural uses of them, whenever writers of the scripture use them. The TDNT and TDOT projects have been roundly criticized for that sort of thinking, which creates a fundamentally different hermeneutic for texts in the Bible than for any other kind of communication. But if we teach Christians that the Bible needs a special hermeneutic, fully understood only by those experts who have made the tens of thousands of minute connections between all the individual elements, then there is the danger that people will be able to get away with anything whatsoever in their teaching, and lead people astray. By having zillions of connections, and an extensive pool of possible contexts for every text, a teacher has the option of going in virtually any direction he or she wishes in order to arrive at an authoritative-sounding interpretation for the uninitiated. The irony is that the folks who subscribe to this sort of philosophy are deeply concerned about wrong doctrine and error—but by creating a massively flexible custom hermeneutic for the Bible, they teach their followers that you can’t critique somebody’s interpretation of the Bible by the ordinary rational tools we all hold in common—you have to take their word for it that this huge EVERYTHING-CONNECTS-TO-EVERYTHING system is required in order to understand any specific passage. Few lay people can stand up self-confidently against the presumed expertise of the person who claims to be able to connect every single verse in the Bible to every other single verse, so people typically lay down their God-given common sense and let themselves be spoon fed. The imposition of this kind of a system is practically guaranteed to result in error and deception, or at the very least, in massive distraction from the true weight of the holy text.
These are important observations which need to be remembered by all Bible translators and all exegetes. Some of the thoughts I have about this are off topic for this blog, so when I have time I will bring them up on my own blog. I will end this post simply with Webb's thoughts.


At Fri Apr 25, 07:06:00 PM, Blogger Paul Larson said...

Very interesting. How do you think the SENT compares to The Message Bible?

His essays, also on the same site, are incredible, and well reasoned.

I absolutely love it when theological approaches tend to start off looking like they are off the wall, and end up making perfect sense.

At Fri Apr 25, 10:50:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

How do you think the SENT compares to The Message Bible?

They are very different. SENT sticks closely to the Greek text, while trying to express the meaning in natural English. The Message is a paraphrase, a kind of translation but one which is much freer in translation.


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