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Saturday, December 31, 2005

E.V. Rieu & J.B. Phillips

Many essays on Bible translation today focus on the contrast between a formal and dynamic equivalence approach. However, that is only one aspect of translation. Here is a classic 1955 conversation to uplift our hearts. (Sorry Wayne, let me rephrase that as "to cheer us up") Throughout the dialogue one can see the two participants coming to a greater understanding of each other's translation method. Their mutual respect and openness impressed me.

A Discussion Between Dr. E.V. Rieu and the Rev. J.B. Phillips reprinted on the Bible Research Site.


Now, my personal reason for doing this was my own intense desire to satisfy myself as to the authenticity and the spiritual content of the Gospels and, if I received any new light by an intensive study of the Greek originals, to pass it on to others. I approached them in the same spirit as I would have approached them had they been presented to me as recently discovered Greek manuscripts, rather like the Old Testament manuscripts which a year or two ago were found in that cave in Palestine. That is the spirit in which I undertook my task, to find out new things.


My story goes back to the days of the blitz when I was in London and in charge of a fairly large youth group. I'd always found the Epistles particularly inspiring and full of spiritual help, but these young people quite plainly couldn't make head or tail of them in the Authorized Version; these were not for the most part church young people at all. And when during the blackout I attempted to while the time [152] away by reading to them from the Authorized Version, quite honestly they couldn't make any sense of it at all.

So in a very small and amateur sort of way I began to translate them from the Greek, simply in order that they might understand them. I think I began with Colossians. And then I had a bit of luck, because something prompted me to send a copy of Colossians to C.S. Lewis, whose works I at that time was greatly admiring. And he wrote back these most encouraging words: "It's like seeing an old picture that's been cleaned. Why don't you go on and do the lot?" Well, I took his advice, and I did eventually translate all the Epistles, and they were published as "Letters to Young Churches." ...

I do so agree, if I may put it in here, with what Doctor Rieu has said about disabusing one's mind of the Authorized Version or any other version that one has in mind. I also tried to forget about everything I'd ever read in the way of translating, or indeed of interpretation, and to read the Greek documents on their own merits, let them strike me with their impact, if they had any impact, as something I'd never seen before. Of course, one can't altogether succeed in this, but I did try to do it. Well, that very briefly is how it started with me
Rieu comments here on the use of the term 'paraphrase'.

The word is much misused, by the way; it is often used as a term of abuse for very good translation. I should put it in this way, that it is permissible only where literal translation is liable to obscure the original meaning. I would go further and say that on such occasions it is not only permissible, but it is imperative, and therefore it becomes good translation, and the word 'paraphrase' should disappear.


I sometimes wonder, Doctor Rieu, whether our critics realize what a very difficult task we set ourselves. They criticize this, that, and the other — but it means a good deal of headache for us, doesn't it? What I don't think some of them realize, you know, is that we have to come down on one side or the other. A critic or commentator may say this may mean A or B, or even C or D, but you and I have to come down one side or the other.

I would like to reiterate this point, i.e. that a translator, every translator, has to make a choice, a human choice, about how to translate the Greek text. There are no exceptions. A close reading of this discussion will show that these two men did make different translation choices, but they were able to talk amicably about these differences and come to a greater understanding of each other and the translation process.

Brian Russell's essay on English versions

Brian Russell's comment on one of our recent posts deserves to be promoted to a post so more blog visitors will read it. Brian said:
I wrote an essay "Moving through the Maze: Understanding Bible Translation" on my main blog:

Here is the address for the precise page on it:
Brian, thank you for this information. I have now read your post and it is good. It is fair and objective, noting that there is value in using different kinds of English Bible versions. I commend Brian's post for others to read.


Friday, December 30, 2005

Language and Gender

Thanks to Kenny, for his post Are Linguistic Facts Theologically Significant.

I was thinking today about how the Bible translates into French. There is certainly gender in French but it doesn't line up exactly with gender in English.

French vs. English

elle - she - singular pronoun fem.
il - he - singular pronoun masc.
elles - they - plural pronoun fem
ils - they- plural pronoun masc.
sa/son - her - sing possessive fem.
sa/son - his - sing possessive masc.

So for the singular pronoun there is no problem. For the plural pronoun French can indicate gender where English cannot. For the possessive, English can indicate gender where the French cannot. In this case gender in French reflects the gender of the object of the possessive not the subject.

Is truth to be variously distributed to the different nations depending on their language? What then should be done about Swahili which has the following 8 genders.

Human, tree, thing (diminutive) appendages, liquid, flora and fauna, round, abstract

The notion that gender in language has more than a superficial association with biological sex is simply due to the fact that the word 'gender' has come to be a euphemism for the word 'sex' in the English language among that part of the population which is squeamish about saying the three letter word out loud. I undertand why this would be on the internet because one should be wary of putting a three letter word in the title of a post.

However I think John Piper is right on this one point - He does not mince words.

Are Linguistic Facts Theologically Significant?

Kenny Pearce asks important questions in his blog post today.

Can anyone guess which side of this debate I would come down on?! :-)

(If you can't, see my response to Gerald, on his iustificare blog. Kenny's post is a response to Gerald's.)

Higgaion: Elkanah and Hannah's sex life in the TNIV

Translating Colossians 1:20

Bible translator Eddie Arthur blogged on a reading in church of Col. 1:20.

Unclear Message

Yesterday my wife and I read Psalm 114 as our after-breakfast Bible reading. We're reading through the Psalms again in The Message. Verses 1-2 read like this:
After Israel left Egypt, the clan of Jacob left those barbarians behind;
Judah became holy land for him, Israel the place of holy rule.
As we read that, neither of us could figure out who the referent of "him" is. Who is it for whom Judah became a holy land?

Today we read the beautiful opening verses of Psalm 115 (it's beautiful in any Bible version; take your pick). And we also harked back to the problem we had with "him" of yesterday's reading. Even after 24 hours we still cannot figure out who it is for whom Judah became a holy land. (Might you have an answer?)

It's not just literal or essentially literal translations that have translation issues. More natural English versions do, as well. We all know that natural English versions have passages about which we raise our eyebrows concerning translation accuracy. No translator or translation team is perfect, and language issues can appear in any Bible translation. That's why Bible translation needs to be part of the community of faith. We need each other helping the translation task. Translation teams need to reach out to others to get help checking their translations for adequate wordings, clarity, and, above all, accuracy.

Let us work together, as people who believe that the Bible is important, to help bring about greater awareness of translation issues and, ultimately, to contribute to the production of better Bibles. We have many good Bibles in English. All English Bibles have ministered to people. We are wealthy, indeed, when it comes to English Bible versions. Let's help each other understand how Bibles can be even better. And let's never forget the millions of people around the world who have no Bible in their languages.

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Is this an anti-ESV blog?

It is not too difficult for visitors to this blog to notice that we often point out problems with the ESV translation. Why do we do so? I hope that my reply to Rich Mansfield, a frequent visitor and good commenter on this blog, will help answer that question, as well as the broader question some might ask: "Is this an anti-ESV blog?"

Rich just commented, in part:

All that to say that I'm surprised that you give so much negative attention to the ESV, especially when the KJV, NKJV, and he NASB (all within the Tyndale/KJV tradition that you mentioned) far outsell the ESV.

And I replied:
Thank you for your comment, Rich. I hear you. We have addressed this issue in the past on this blog and I have tried to be even more balanced after receiving feedback like yours. I do not enjoy criticizing any Bible version. I would rather overlook weaknesses of any Bible version and focus on the good that has come through every Bible version. But the unique purpose of this blog is to come up with ideas for improving English Bibles. In the last few years the ESV has been held up by some prominent pastors and by its proponents as the "answer" in the Bible translation debates over translation philosophy and inclusive language. Much misinformation about Bible translation has been propagated by well-intentioned, devout godly men such as Dr. Grudem and others. When there is misinformation, it is necessary for someone to try to correct it.

This is not an anti-ESV blog. But this is a blog where wrong claims about the ESV and wrong claims made by its translators about the ESV and against other Bible versions must be seriously examined for their truthfulness.

We do the same for any other Bible version. But other Bible versions are not in the spotlight right now, other than the TNIV and we address TNIV issues fairly frequently on this blog, as well.

Our desire on this blog, as I have stated before, is that we speak the truth lovingly (or, "in love" if you prefer the Greek-oriented way of saying it). I am serious when I include love here as well as truth. I try very hard not to say anything unloving about the ESV team or about claims made by its members attacking other English versions. If you find me saying anything in an unloving way, I request that you point it out, please.

So, the ESV is in focus much of the time on this blog because the ESV is in focus on other blogs and on the conservative church scene due to the focus placed on the issues by Dr. Grudem and those who make similar claims that he does. Dr. Grudem gets widespread national attention through his frequent radio interviews, published books, and support from some prominent Christian pastors. This little blog cannot compete with all that publicity. But we can do our part to try to help people examine the issues and correct misinformation where possible.

None of the other versions you mentioned, which are in the Tyndale-KJV tradition, currently have as high a publicity profile as the ESV. So it makes sense that this blog would give more time to addressing issues about a version which is currently prominent than for versions which are not as much in the spotlight.

If you will do searches on this blog, using the search tool in the upper left of the blog page, and if you will examine critiques of each English Bible version featured on this blog (the links to each of them are in the right margin), you will find that we do address translation issues in each English version.

There is no English version which is perfect. Each English version, however, has and will continue to be used of God to help people. And each version can be made better. Ideas for making them better is what this blog is about.

I would encourage you to chart the topics which have been on this blog to note that we often do not post about the ESV. But when there is misinformation about the ESV or any other version, it is, we believe, important to point it out, truthfully and lovingly.

Please do feel free to follow up if you can help us find better ways of carrying out the mission of this blog.

I think your comment and my response are important enough that they deserve to have a higher profile on this blog, so I will turn them into a post, as well as leaving my comments here in the comment section.

Happy New Year, Rich, and, again, thank you for sharing from your heart about this issue of concern to you.

And for all visitors to this blog, we invite you to share your concerns about blog posts as Rich has done. If you sense that we contributors have posted in ways that distort the truth, or are unloving, or unspiritual, or out of balance, please point them out. The purpose of this blog is not to "win" some Bible translation "war". This blog exists so that we might have better Bibles, not so that we might destructively criticize any Bibles. We blog contributors are part of the Christian community, the body of Christ, so we ask you to help us stay on track, each of us doing our part to help people hear the message of the Bible as accurately and clearly as possible.

Is this an anti-ESV blog? We hope not. We don't want it to be. We try not to have an undue focus on any one Bible version. But we are not the best judge of how our own intentions impact others. So you all help us, OK? Keep track of what we post about on this blog. Examine the topics. Examine the comments for each Bible version. And then you can answer for yourself if we are an anti-ESV blog or not.

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Thursday, December 29, 2005

ESV Outreach Edition

An outreach edition of the ESV will be available for purchase next month, according to the ESV blog. Crossway, the publisher, says of the outreach edition:
Its handy size makes it suitable for regular Bible readers, and its extra features and content will help newcomers discover the Bible for themselves and understand it better.
The language of the ESV is not at all the English which is spoken by "newcomers" to the Bible. In the ESV there is not only "non-newcomer" theological terms like "justification," "sanctify," "flesh," etc., but there are huge numbers of sentences which have strange English in them, which can give people the idea that the God of the Bible doesn't know how to speak our language very well. Notice some of these oddities in the ESV (emphasis added to highlight problem wordings):
Take the choicest one of the flock; pile the logs under it; boil it well; seethe also its bones in it. (Ezek. 24:5; noted by Rich Shields, frequent BBB commenter)

a wild donkey used to the wilderness, in her heat sniffing the wind! (Jer. 2:24)

you have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities (Is. 64:7)

you did not know the time of your visitation (Luke 19:44)

Let not oil be lacking on your head. (Eccl. 9:8)

As is the good, so is the sinner (Eccl. 9:2)

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear (Job 42:5)

For they drop trouble upon me (Ps. 55:3)

your lightnings lighted up the world (Ps. 77:18)
In my opinion it would be better to use Bible versions which are written in the language of the people we are trying to reach. It is possible for Bibles to be both accurate as well as written in the language of their users.

There are pastors and parishioners who love the ESV and its language, and I like to see people love their Bible version. But with its dated language of the Tyndale-KJV tradition, plus some strange English introduced by the RSV translators and retained by the ESV revisers of the RSV, I can't imagine that the ESV would be appropriate for use among "newcomers." Please tell me how I could be wrong, and how the ESV could be used appropriately as an outreach Bible. In this case, I really would like to be wrong, since my entire being groans when we communicate with our outreach language that God is foreign, unable or unwilling to reach out to us in our own language. Those of you would do outreach, how do you think people will react if they are introduced to the Bible through the English of the ESV?

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Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Scrambies: "Making Love" in the TNIV

Adrian's Blog: Blogspotting the ESV, interviews and other posts

Adrian's Blog: Blogspotting the ESV, interviews and other posts

I posted the following comment to Adrian's post:
Adrian, you said:

For me, I would rather have a bible that used masculine language where the bible uses masculine language even where the bible uses masculine language inclusively and our modern culture would not understand that language inclusively. Why? Quite simply because for my main translation I do not want one that does the work of interpretation for me. I want one that simply translates word for word, not concept for concept.

Adrian, I understand your motivation for your position, but you need to realize that this position leads to inaccurate translations. Even the ESV does not translate word for word when their translators recognize that doing so is not accurate.

Translating Greek adelphoi as English "brothers" is inaccurate when the Greek is referring to both brothers and sisters, which the ESV translators recognize is often the case in the New Testament.

Using the English word "brothers" when the Greek text actually means "siblings" ("brothers and sisters") is just as much of an "interpretation" as translating the actual meaning of the original text. In one case it is an accurate interpreation; in the other case it is an inaccurate one.

I think what your heart and mind are telling you to avoid are "interpretive" translations. These are translations which impose translators' opinions about what the biblical text means when there is no consensus that those opinions are the actual meaning of the text. The Living Bible paraphrase was an interpretive translation.

Every Bible translation, including the ESV, is an interpretation. Every time we find an English word to translate a Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek word in the Bible, we are interpreting. When your PM meets with the PM [sic, President] of Russia, there are always translators present. They perform a necessary service of "interpeting" for the two PMs, so they can understand each other when do don't speak each other's language.
(HT: Shane Reynor)

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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

A Non-Ecclesiastical Bible

Recently Peter responded to a remark I had made in the comment section with this,

"Suzanne, I'm sorry to say that you have fallen into the same fallacy as ... by claiming that Darby's translation of 1 Timothy 2:15 is somehow less interpretive than KJV or Tyndale. Darby chose to render the Greek verb σωθήσεται as "she shall be preserved". KJV chose to render this verb as "she shall be saved". These are both interpretive choices. It may be true that Darby's interpretive decision is correct and KJV's is incorrect in this case, or it may not be true, but that is not the point. One is no less interpretive or more literal than the other."

Thank you, Peter, for challenging me to think this over. I was brought up hearing the KJV read aloud in church, but the Darby translation was often used for personal Bible study. I have thought of the Darby translation as being more 'literal' than the KJV, but it may be that there is another word to describe the difference between these translations. If, in fact, they are both 'literal' translations, and there is a consistent difference in the pattern of translation, how should one describe this?

The tradition to which the Darby Bible belongs has been called 'non-ecclesiastical.' In this kind of translation ecclesiastical words like 'church' 'bishop' and 'deacon' do not appear. It is a deliberate attempt to avoid 'church' English in some domains. While this is not a black and white categorization, it is worth examining different translations to see how they appear in light of this criteria.

The cornerstone of a non-ecclesiastical translation is the absence of the word 'church' for εκκλεσια, which appears first in Matthew 16:18.

KJV And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

Here is how the early translations compare.

Vulgate et ego dico tibi quia tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam et portae inferi non praevalebunt adversum eam

Wycliffe And Y seie to thee, that thou art Petre, and on this stoon Y schal bilde my chirche, and the yatis of helle schulen not haue miyt ayens it.

Tyndale And I saye also vnto the yt thou arte Peter: and apon this rocke I wyll bylde my congregacion. And the gates of hell shall not prevayle ageynst it.

Coverdale And I saie to ye: Thou art Peter, & vpo this rocke wil I builde my cogregacion: and ye gates of hell shal not preuayle agaynst it.

The Bishop's Bible And I say also vnto thee, that thou art Peter, and vpon this rocke I wyll buylde my congregation: And the gates of hell shall not preuayle agaynst it

Geneva Bible And I say also vnto thee, that thou art Peter, and vpon this rocke I will builde my Church: and ye gates of hel shal not ouercome it.

After the KJV all of the better-known translations use the word church. However, the following do not.

Darby And *I* also, I say unto thee that *thou* art Peter, and on this rock I will build my assembly, and hades' gates shall not prevail against it.

Young's Literal Translation `And I also say to thee, that thou art a rock, and upon this rock I will build my assembly, and gates of Hades shall not prevail against it;

Hebrew Names Translation I also tell you that you are Kefa, and on this rock I will build my assembly, and the gates of She'ol will not prevail against it.

A Non-Ecclesiastical New Testament Now I am also telling you that you are 'Peter,' and on this 'rock' I will construct my assembly, and the gates of Hades will not prevail over it.

This last translation was completed in 1995 and comes with this comment in the introduction, which is worthy of reflection.

"Every translation follows the opinions of the translators and is therefore an opinion. This is not, therefore, "the Word of God;" it is a translation, an opinion, a mere human viewpoint of an ordinary human being. The value of this translation rests not in its authoritative nature but in the examination of the different paradigm which it may be found to contain."

About his translation in general, he states,

"There are no apostles, angels, deacons or ministers, bishops, devils, demons, or preachers in this edition; rather, the reader will find envoys (those who are sent out as representatives), messengers, servants, overseers, accusers, spirit beings, and heralds. The term "church" has also been dropped in favor of "assembly," which is the meaning of the Greek word. Here, this translator has followed certain former translators who refused to retain the "old ecclesiastical words."

I undertook this research in order to define or provide an example of translations that are less influenced by the culture of the institutional church than the KJV, and the many translations that inherit its ecclesiastical vocabulary. These other translations are nontheless influenced by their own 'non-conformist' culture.

My purpose here is not to favour one translation or tradition over another but to demonstrate how very difficult it is to have a translation that is 'transparent to the original text.' Can any translation enable us to understand the original on its own terms rather than on the terms of 2000 years of accumulated church culture? Certainly not the KJV, NIV, TNIV, RSV and ESV. They all are alike in this - that to some extent they use words whose meanings were established after the New Testament era by a church hierarchy. What impresses me about the Non-Ecclesiatical translation is that the translator presents his translation as "mere human viewpoint.'

Note: Quotes from the translations in todays post are from and A Non-Ecclesiastical New Testament. These links are found in the link Online Translations of the Bible located in the sidebar.

John 1:14 -- fleshing it out

I am awed by John's literary skill evident in the prologue to his gospel, as he introduces us to a new way of thinking about the Logos, the Greek abstract philosophical force holding the universe together, then moves us along to understand that the Logos he wants us to know was a real person. The first clause of John 1:14, kai ho logos sarx egeneto, in Greek, may be John's condensed version of the nativity story which we have been celebrating at Christmas time.

In the traditional, beautiful translation wordings of John 1:14, those unfamiliar with Bible English can stumble on the words "flesh," "dwelt," "beheld," "glory," and "grace." That's a lot to deal with if you are not familiar with theological language. I have tried to translate John 1:14 to the kind of English which I blog about so often, English which communicates the original message accurately and only uses words and syntax that are familiar to all fluent English speakers:
The Word became a human being and lived with us humans. He was the godliest person we've ever seen, like father like son. He was so generous and always told the truth.
What do you think? How might this translation be improved?

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Monday, December 26, 2005

Where is the culture/language boundary for translation?

Kenny Pierce responds to my recent post on Luke 2:40 and raises the important issue of how much of the cultural conditioning of the language of the Bible should be retained in translation. Following is my comment on Kenny's post, slightly revised to be a post on this blog.

Kenny is dealing with an important issue which has seldom been addressed as clearly as he has. He is thinking there are probably statements in the biblical language texts which are even more culture-bound than those in Luke 2:40. I agree. I think this one is a candidate: 2 Cor. 12:2 where Paul spoke of a "third" heaven. Multiple "heavens" was part of his cultural worldview. It is not part of ours. So do we keep Paul's wording and footnote about the worldview difference? Or do we try to find a way of expressing the "underlying" meaning (culture-free?) of what Paul said, to enable readers of our translations to understand more immediately what Paul was saying.

Here's another: How many days went by after the birth of Jesus, or any other Jewish boy, before he was circumcised. The biblical texts say 8 days, but that is based on Jewish reckoning of time. We English speakers count days differently from the Jews and the time between birth and circumcision for us is 7 days. We can choose to "literally" retain their time counting, which results in inaccurate understanding for readers of English translations of how many days actually went by, we can footnote or teach that the number of days in the translation is not actually the number of days for us, but the number of days for the Jews, or we can convert Jews days to our days. One good translation solution is to say "one week" rather than either 8 days or 7 days, since 8 days was one week for the Jews and one week for us.

I think it all largely comes down to some basic questions about what are the most important reasons for translating the Bible to other languages. I suspect that the answers will largely depend on who our audience is for a specific translation. We can be glad that there are different kinds of translations in English (not all people groups have such a wealth of different translations), ones for seekers who know little about biblical cultures and others for biblically literate people who know much more and can convert culturally conditioned wordings to something close to how we, in our language and from our worldview, would express it.

I would never want to remove the historical and cultural context of the biblical texts. But which ones are so "significant" that we risk changing the text improperly if we transculturate them, and which ones are culturally insignificant, such as many of the biblical metaphors. "Bowels and mercies" (Phil. 2:1), is one which Bible translators today, including essential literalists, seem comfortable converting to an English equivalent, even though bowels were viewed as having an important emotional function within the Hebraic worldview reflected in the Hebrew Bible and the Greek of the Jewish authors of the New Testament.

It's often not easy to know where a proper balance is when trying to be true to the cultural conditioning of the language of the Bible and how much of that conditioning needs to be retained for a translation to cultures which have different worldviews, especially if doing do will communicate inaccurately without footnotes or added teaching beyond the translation. I think much more discussion of the topic Kenny has raised is needed. And the discussion needs to enter biblical academia so that the profile of this issue will be raised higher and more people will understand the issues. There also needs to be tolerance expressed toward those who will choose different points on the culture/language continuum in a specific translation.

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Sunday, December 25, 2005

Jesus paid the debt

Immanuel: Matt. 1:23; Luke 2:7; 2 Cor. 5:21

He took the (w)rap.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Jim West's favorite Bible version

Theologian Jim West's favorite English Bible version is the Revised English Bible (REB). Jim says of the REB, "The language is simply unsurpassed and the scholarship is second to none."

It's good to hear a clear opinion like that from someone about an English version. The REB does have rather good quality literary English. That appeals to biblical scholars like Jim West. I would still claim that the original biblical texts were not written in as high a register of language as the REB, and so neither should a translation of those texts.

I suspect that many American readers of this Better Bibles blog have never read any of the REB (its translation team was British). Here is the familiar Luke 2 Christmas passage from the REB:
1. In those days a decree was issued by the emperor Augustus for a census to be taken throughout the Roman world. 2. This was the first registration of its kind; it took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3. Everyone made his way to his own town to be registered. 4-5. Joseph went up to Judaea from the town of Nazareth in Galilee, to register in the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was of the house of David by descent; and with him went Mary, his betrothed, who was expecting her child. 6. While they were there the time came for her to have her baby, 7. and she gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn.

8. Now in this same district there were shepherds out in the fields, keeping watch through the night over their flock. 9. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone round them. They were terrified, 10. but the angel said, ‘Do not be afraid; I bring you good news, news of great joy for the whole nation. 11. Today there has been born to you in the city of David a deliverer — the Messiah, the Lord. 12. This will be the sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.’ 13. All at once there was with the angel a great company of the heavenly host, singing praise to God:

14. ‘Glory to God in highest heaven,
and on earth peace to all in whom he delights.’

15. After the angels had left them and returned to heaven the shepherds said to one another, ‘Come, let us go straight to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16. They hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. 17. When they saw the child, they related what they had been told about him; 18. and all who heard were astonished at what the shepherds said. 19. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered over them. 20.The shepherds returned glorifying and praising God for what they had heard and seen; it had all happened as they had been told.
Merry Christmas, everyone. It has been a privilege to have you as contributors, visitors, commenters, and poll takers for this blog.

And let us each be people in whom God takes delight (Luke 2:14), this Christmas and all through the New Year.

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What are you filled with?

A few days ago we received a Christmas email letter from one of the administrators of our Bible translation organization. It began with this verse:
And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him. Luke 2:40
I don't know what Bible version this wording was taken from, and hat doesn't really matter. Here's what matters: I read this familiar verse and realized that there are wordings in it which are not true English, and which should be if we are going to have better Bibles which communicate biblical text meanings more clearly and accurately.

In English no fluent speaker would ever say that someone was "filled with wisdom." For that matter, there are very few things that anyone would ever say someone was filled with. I believe it is natural English to say that someone is full of anger. If a person is very happy at some point in time, they might say, "I'm full of joy" although I'm not sure how natural this actually is. We would need to study large corpuses of English to determine what "full of" phrases people actually write and speak.

There are a some epithets which are in use, such as "He's full of prunes" and, maybe, "He's full of wind." There is a derogatory expletive, "He's full of s___."

But, again, no one would ever say "He's full of wisdom" or "He was filled with wisdom." Could it be said? Sure. But it wouldn't be said because that is not how good, fluent speakers or writers of English express the meaning behind the Greek words of Luke 2:40:
pleroumenon sophia
The problem is that the translators of this verse literally translated the participle pleroumenon to English as "filled with" without regard to whether or not English "filled with" collocates with the noun "wisdom."

It is important when translating the Bible to constantly monitor one's translation to determine if it is being expressed with the lexical combinations and syntax of the target language, in this case English.

The second problem with this translation of Luke 2:40 is the un-English wording "the grace of God was upon him." Again, no fluent speaker of any standard dialect of English would ever say or write this. Grace cannot be "upon" someone, according to the lexical rules of English. You don't have to believe me about this. Check with others, especially those who you regard to be good speakers and authors and who are able to tell whether something is expressed in good standard English.

Are there any translations of Luke 2:40 which are both accurate and natural, using only English of standard dialects? I find at least one which does:
The child Jesus grew. He became strong and wise, and God blessed him. (CEV)
The translation of Luke 2:40 which began our administrator's letter is written in church English, or Biblish, as it is sometimes called. Many Bible users have become accustomed to such English in their Bibles. But Bibles written in the non-standard Biblish dialect create several barriers for the millions of people who speak standard dialects of English but are not familiar with Biblish. Church English translations help affirm the perception that many people already have that God is not relevant for us. If he were, he would be able to speak English better. He would be able to speak the English that we speak, our heart language just as he was able to speak the Hebrew and Greek of the people to whom the Bible was originally written.

At worst, there are passages in some English Bibles which not only sound odd because they are not expressed the way speakers of standard dialects of English speak and write, but these passages also prevent people from accurately understanding the biblical meaning. And that is another way of saying that such non-standard English wordings are inaccurate. Anything is inaccurate if it does not reflect its original adequately.

Better Bibles will be both natural and accurate. We need not hang on the horns of a dilemma (as blog commenter Tim expressed it so well) with a choice between Bibles which are natural or ones which are accurate. Professional translators are trained and work hard to translate both naturally and accurately. Bible translators can do so as well.

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Thursday, December 22, 2005

4 god so luvd da world

I was reading up on shorthand last month and came on Tim Bulkeley's conversation with Kim White on If:Book about the Australian shorthand text messaging Bible SMS Bible.

Each verse is translated into 'SMS Language' - the full Contemporary English Version (CEV) with a modern twist! True meaning and order of words retained - 100% faithful to original text.

Is nothing sacred?

Kim White:

"A few weeks ago, Ben posted about The Bible Society of Australia's new "transl8tion" of the Bible into SMS--a shorthand system used primarily for sending text messages through mobile phones. Interesting to note that an organization like the Australian Bible Society, which believes the text of the Bible to be the very word of God, does not seem have a problem with the fact that the SMS version changes the voice of god from that of a wizened poet to that of a text-messaging teenager. Here's an example:

4 god so luvd da world

I'm all for reading on cellphones and other portable devices, and I understand using a shorthand language for keying in messages, but why does the published book need to look like an electronic stenographer's notepad? I realize that the form of the electronic "page" is changing the way we write, I'll be more than a little disappointed if this is the direction we are going —toward a cutesy-looking shorthand that compromises the integrity of the text for the sake of expediency."

Tim Bulkely:

"Actually no, I disagree, the original text (at least of the New Testament - from which your examples come) was written in language forms more like TXT than literary English! Koine Greek they call it, the language of the streets and everyday, not the language of literature! See my post TXT: Bible as koine..."

Kim White:

"but SMS isn't really a language of the streets. It's not a language at all. It is a shorthand system for writing English rapidly. Similar to the shorthand used before recording devices were inventedThese notes were always transcribed back into plain English, never published as shorthand. I guess my beef has something to do with privileging speed over quality (or at least what I perceive as quality). That said, it's also really interesting that SMS, like ancient Hebrew, leaves out vowels. So maybe, in some respects, we are coming full circle."

We can see that Kim herself was also coming full circle in her evaluation of TXT. However, certain concepts occur here that have come up often enough in the comment section of the BBB. They are 'hold sacred' " reverence' and 'respect.' I thought I would enter the discussion about whether the form of the written text is sacred and what then do we say about shorthand or TXT. The following are examples of Bible texts in shorthand throughout the centuries. There was also shorthand during the time of the New Testament but we don't know many specifics.

The first image here is the Greek text from a sixth century wax tablet for 2 Cor. 1:3. It is a practice exercise in shorthand. (Halle)

The second image is of Psalm 12:6-7 in Latin from a ninth century manuscript.

In the 17th century John Willis published a shorthand system and there is a Bible in this script at University College London. It has 'contemporary gold-tooled calf binding'. Here is an example of this script.

Pitman is a shorthand system that we are more likely to recognize if not read. The third image is a page of the Pitman Bible, 1850.

Somebody really needs to talk to these ancients about their "cutesy-looking shorthand that compromises the integrity of the text for the sake of expediency".

Notes: Image 1 and 2 are from "Du Charactère Sténographique de Toute Écriture." Yves Duhoux. Studia Minora Facultatis Philosophicae Universitatis Brunensis N 6-7, 2001-2002. Unfortunately Duhoux does not give the location for the Latin manuscript but it was also mentioned in M. Proux. 1910. Manuel de paléographie latine et française. Album. Paris.

Update: Tim posted about this coversation here.

ESV moves into top ten for sales

Periodically I check to see if there have been changes in the monthly rankings of Bible version sales. I just noticed that the ESV has now moved into the top ten for sales of Bible versions at Christian bookstores. Congratulations to the ESV team.

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Which Bible versions are in church English?

New blog visitor, Tim, has been raising good questions about church English in comments on a recent post. I thought it would be helpful to answer Tim's latest question in a blog post, so here goes.

Tim asked:

Could you identify for us the different 'dialects' of English associated in your mind with the different Bible translations available?

From the standpoint of English 'dialects' I see two basic categories of English Bible versions:
  1. Versions which are translated into one of the standard dialects of English, that is, ordinary, good quality English spoken by people in Australia, Canada, the U.K., the U.S., etc. It is English which is recognized as good quality by a wide range of people, including those who are not so well educated as well as those who have a number of years of formal education beyond high school. The English of any Bible translated into one of these dialects can be understood by all speakers of one of these dialects. There are no jargon or speciality dialect words or syntax in such a "standard dialect" translation, by definition.
  2. Versions which are translated into a speciality dialect, such as street English, Cotton Patch English, rap English, church English, Biblish, etc. These translations can be understood only by a subset of speakers of standard dialects of English. Not all speakers of standard Midwest American English, for instance, can understand an English Bible written in church English. But all speakers of Midwest American English can understand a Bible written in Midwest American English.
English Bible versions can be fairly easily categorized as to whether or not they are translated into a standard dialect of English.

The TEV (Good News Bible) was intentionally translated into standard American English (with an adaptation for British English).

The CEV, NCV, and GW (God's Word) are in standard English.

The NLT has a fairly high degree of standard English, but it also has more church English in it than the Living Bible from which it is a revision.

J.B. Phillips translation is written in a standard British dialect.

The Better Life Bible (see it under the Versions section in the right margin of this blog) is written in standard English. The BLB is the smoothest reading and most natural Bible translation I have ever read. I disagree with a few of the exegetical decisions of its translator, who is my longtime friend, Dan Sindlinger, a contributor to this blog. Others, however, will agree with Dan's exegetical decisions. Dan is clearly gifted at being able to express the meaning of the biblical text, as he understands it, in very smooth, ordinary, natural English. Dan's target audience for the BLB are people who are not familiar with the Bible and don't have much time to try to read and understand English Bibles which are not written in standard English.

From my study of Bible versions, and as an English editor and linguist, I conclude that all other English versions are written, to varying degrees, in non-standard English. There are different degrees to which each translation conforms to the syntax and lexicon of standard dialects of English. Hence, the NIV (and TNIV) has much more standard English in it than, say, the NASB.

Bibles written in church English, or Biblish, as it is sometimes called, by definition are not written in a standard dialect of English. Church English is a speciality dialect. It is understood by a subset of speakers of standard dialects of English, not by all speakers of a standard dialect of English. Church English imports a large amount of syntax and non-standard lexical patterns from the biblical languages. Such syntax and lexicon are not part of the syntax or lexicon of English. They are, however, part of the syntax and lexicon of those who understand and, often, speak church English.

Please note that whether or not a Bible version is written only in a standard dialect of English is not the same as whether or not that version is literal, essentially literal, or a more idiomatic (dynamic equivalent) translation. Degree of use of standard English is a different translation parameter from degree of literalness, although there is a close correlation between these two parameters. [UDATE: And degree of translation naturalness is different from translation accuracy. A translation can be natural but inaccurate. A translation can be unnatural but accurate. A translation can be both unnatural and inaccurate. The ideal translation is one which is accurate, natural, and clear.]

Please note that I am not making any value judgement about any English version when I categorize it as being written in a standard dialect of English or not. I personally prefer to read English versions which are written in standard dialects of English. Such Bibles are in my heart language and therefore I understand them better and they impact me more effectively than do Bibles not written close to the standard English dialect which I speak (West Coast American English).

There are many church people who prefer to use Bibles which are written in church English. Such Bibles sound more holy to them than Bibles written in Koine or standard English. Such Bibles seem to them more accurate than Bibles written in standard dialects. It is not for me to judge anyone as to which version of the Bible they use. I can point out the implications for use of standard or non-standard English language Bibles, and then people can decide for themselves how they will relate to these implications. Any Bible written in a non-standard dialect of English will not be very effective in evangelism, since the syntax and lexicon of that version will sound strange to those we are attempting to evangelize.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Birth of the Child

1 Timothy 2 is a difficult chapter and a great deal of commentary has been written on it. I thought I would compare several translations to see how they have handled it.

KJV Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.

D-R Yet she shall be saved through childbearing; if she continue in faith, and love, and sanctification, with sobriety.

ESV Yet she will be saved through childbearing--if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

RSV Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty

NRSV Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

NIV But women [Greek she] will be saved [restored] through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

But women will be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint.

The Message
On the other hand, her childbearing brought about salvation, reversing Eve. But this salvation only comes to those who continue in faith, love, and holiness, gathering it all into maturity. You can depend on this.

CEV But women will be saved by having children, if they stay faithful, loving, holy, and modest.
Or "brought safely through childbirth" or "saved by the birth of a child" (that is, by the birth of Jesus) or "saved by being good mothers."

But she shall be preserved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and love and holiness with discretion.

TNIV But women [ Greek she] will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

The Source And she will be saved by means of the Birth of the Child, if they continue to be trustworthy, loving and holy and have good sense.

Footnote: she Eve (see link for full notes)

The major grammatical difficulty with this verse is that the first half has a singular subject 'she' and the second half has a plural 'they'. I have marked in red the translations that modify the subject away from what is written in the Greek in order to reconcile the two halves of the verse and give them the same subject, women.

It is interesting to note that the NRSV is closer to the original than the RSV. The D-R, RSV, NASB, NIV, TNIV, and CEV have all made the subjects agree by changing the subject in either the first or second half.

The Darby translation is literal, choosing to go with the plain language meaning 'preserved' instead of the theological meaning of 'saved'.

The very real problem is that the verse cries out for interpretation. Are women to be 'saved' by childbearing? Darby and others could not agree to justification by childbearing, so they read it as 'preserved.' Many women today, especially advocates of natural childbirth, prefer this reading. Some do not. However, it does not resolve the problem of deciding who is the subject of the verse, woman or women?

The KJV, NRSV and the ESV have let the verse stand as is without interpretation.

The Message and the Source provide the only translations that both give meaning to the verse and show how the first and second half of the verse have a different subject - in the first half, 'Eve', and in the second half 'women' or 'Adam and Eve'. The footnotes of the CEV also provide excellent information.

If the translation of the Message and the Source are used, then this verse parallels 1 Cor. 15:35.

"And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit." (KJV)

"But the woman made a mistake as she was beguiled and she will be saved by means of the Birth of the Child" (The Source)

And it reflects Gen 3:15.

And I will put enmity between thee and the woman,
and between thy seed and her seed;
it shall bruise thy head,
and thou shalt bruise his heel. (KJV)

I have written about this in the the Seed of the Woman here. This is a difficult verse and I appreciate the intent of the KJV, ESV and NRSV. It is also good to see the footnotes of the CEV.

However, ideally a meaningful plain English translation should be found. The Source is worth considering as a straightforward word for word translation. The 'birth of the child' might well be one way to translate τεκνογονια. However, this word, τεκνογονια, does not mean 'childrearing' or 'motherhood' per se.

I wonder if there is a related Hebrew expression that might shed further light on this. Ann Nyland's notes on 1 Timothy are online here.

Let us celebrate together the Birth of the Child.

The Source online

I just discovered from a link on Suzanne's blog, Powerscourt, that The Source (New Testament), translated by Dr. Ann Nyland, can now be viewed online without charge. Click here to do so.

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How to translate

Books have been written on how to translate, and well they should be. Debate occurs over how to translate and well it should. Sometimes I find it helpful--at least for myself--to condense large amounts of information, such as what can be said about translation, to just a few key concepts.

Following are the four steps which I think are necessary for adequate translation, including translation of the Bible to any language. There is room within these steps for different kinds of translation, but there is not room for any kinds of translation which use linguistic forms which are not part of the target language.

Translation steps:
  1. What did the original author say?
  2. What did he or she intend to communicate by what they said?
  3. How do fluent speakers of the target language communicate #2?
  4. Check with a variety of fluent speakers to find out if the translation (#3) agrees with #2.
If any of you have seen a similar statement of translation steps from me in the past, there is one important difference with today's wording: #2 now refers to what an original author intended to communicate. Previously I would have expressed this as: "What was meant by what was said?" It now seems to me that my previous wording too narrowly limits communication just to the original words that were said or written. But as we have all experienced, much of what we communicate is unspoken or not explicitly written. We expect our readers or hearers to understand more from what we say or write than just the meaning of our words connected to each other according to the syntax of our language.

The total communication package includes the meaning of what is explicitly said or written as well as the meanings intended by what is not said. It includes everything which speakers or authors hope that their hearers or listeners will understand from listening to or reading what was said including what they can reasonably be expected to infer from what was said.

I might say only two words to my wife: "The news." But there can be a number of different things which I intend to communicate by these two words. I will almost always intend only one thing in any specific situation. By saying "The news" I could be communicating to my wife:
  1. It's time for me to turn on the news on television.
  2. I hope it's OK with you that I turn on the news.
  3. Turn on the news (please).
  4. Something very newsworthy has just occurred.
  5. I learned what I just said to you from some news medium.
  6. The information we've been waiting to arrive is about to be given to us; I see a police car has just entered our driveway. A policeman is getting out along with a police chaplain. Both are walking toward our door.
It is not necessary for every word of any of these five (or other) intended communications to be translated into a target language. But it is necessary that a translation supply enough clues so that users of the translation can be reasonably expected to understand what original authors intend to communicate by what they say or write.

Can you think of any ways that the wordings of my four steps for translation should be modified to better summarize the translation process?

Can you think of passages in Bible versions whose words do not adequately communicate in translation what the biblical author intended to communicate?

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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Word for the Gullahs (and the rest of us, too)

Another exciting article about the recently published New Testament for the Gullah speakers in the Sea Islands of Georgia and the Carolinas appears in the latest issue of Christianity Today online. There is, I believe, an important lesson for all English users of the Bible to be learned from the effect that this New Testament in the heart language has upon Gullah speakers.

Gullah is an English creole language, with many words originally from English. But Gullah has a grammar distinct from that of English. The lesson for those of us whose heart language is English can be drawn from these lines from the C.T. article:
Most Gullah speakers know English, but reading the Bible in the language they first learned changes their experience. Ravenell [a middle-school teacher from South Carolina] says, "For me, it was like I had come home to the Word of God when I heard it in Gullah."
Now, listen carefully to the effect that the Gullah translation is having even on Gullah speakers with college degrees, people who can speak English well (as their second language):
Along with the emotional appeal, the Gullah translation also brings clarity. "[Gullah speakers] are accustomed to thinking that the Scriptures are not meant to be understood," Frank [the linguist who helped the Gullah translators] says. "They're pleasantly surprised to find that the translation into Gullah speaks clearly, and it helps reinforce their culture instead of having to go through another language like English in order to understand God's message."

"Even I, who have a graduate degree and have read the Bible in English all my life, can better understand the Bible now," says Emory Campbell, another translator. "It makes a whole lot more sense to me."
Have you ever sensed this effect upon you when you have read a translation of the Bible that was written in the form of English that is your heart language, rather than a special church English? If not, I encourage you to find a Bible which is written in your English, your heart language. Read it. Listen to your mind and heart as they process that translation. You need not use that Bible as your study Bible, if you already have a preference for a different dialect of English for study. But I think it is a very special thing for anyone to experience the power of the written Word of God in their own heart language, including English speakers who may have have only read or heard the Bible in a speciality dialect different from the English they learned at their mother's knee.

Try it! You might like it. You might even find your heart warmed by hearing God's Word written in language that speaks most directly to your mind and heart, since it was your first language.

"And the Word became human and dwelled among us." And the written Word has also been incarnated in our own words and is dwelling among us. Will we listen? Dare we listen? If we do, it can change us.

Update: Heart language, as used in this post, is usually a person's first language.

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Monday, December 19, 2005

The Lesser of Two Weevils

I don't believe that Talmida's blog, The Lesser of Two Weevils, has been mentioned yet. She has been writing about learning Biblical Hebrew for a couple of years now. This is from her post,

Why Hebrew and How?

I started online at a place called Starting with Aleph. You can still learn the first lesson for free, but 2 years ago, all 4 of the lessons were available gratis. I learned a little midrash, and the letters and sounds of all the consonants and the vowels. I learned a simple vocabulary of about 50 words. It is an excellent course.

I loved it. After 2 or 3 months, my Beloved wandered down to our local University and bought me a beginner's Biblical Hebrew textbook which he gave me for Christmas. I started the lessons, slowly acquiring lexicons, and grammars, and Hebrew Bibles. And I learned how to read Biblical Hebrew. I struggled through loading the Hebrew package into my Windows XP and into MS Office. I learned a new keyboard. I discovered Hebrew fonts.

Recently I have read a few of her posts that compare Bible translations including the LXX, Latin Vulgate, Douay-Rheims and the Judaic Press Complete Tanach among others. I would like to mention the following posts and cannot do them justice by quoting bits and pieces. However, the titles speak for themselves.

Mary and Hannah - Exultation and Magnification

Genesis 3:15: who is crushing the snake?
Isaiah 40:3, a voice cries out... and my personal favourite
The power of the Word

Since my husband and I are Patrick O'Brien fans, I like the title of your blog, Talmida. You have some great resources in your sidebar as well.

Luke 11:2 -- Translation and context

Today Scot McKnight blogs about translating the beginning of the Lord's Prayer in Luke 11:2. It's a stimulating post.

Scot prefers that the translation begin with "whenever" rather than "when" and explains why. It happens that in my ideolect one of the senses of "when" is essentially identical to the meaning of "whenever." So, it is possible for me to get the meaning Scot prefers from the traditional wording with "when," although the preferred meaning is arguably clearer with "whenever."

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Saturday, December 17, 2005

John 3:16 - How "so"?

The best known verse in the Bible is probably John 3:16. The new blog Lingamish discusses the translation of the Greek word outos of John 3:16. This Greek adverb more often refers to manner than to degree, so in John 3:16 it probably refers more to the manner of God's love than its intensity.

But the NET Bible, with its extensive translation footnotes, tells us that both ideas are probably present in this verse:
... The Greek adverb οὕτως (Joutws) can refer (1) to the degree to which God loved the world, that is, to such an extent or so much that he gave his own Son (see R. E. Brown, John [AB], 1:133-34; D. A. Carson, John, 204) or (2) simply to the manner in which God loved the world, i.e., by sending his own son (see R. H. Gundry and R. W. Howell, “The Sense and Syntax of John 3:14-17 with Special Reference to the Use of Οὕτως…ὥστε in John 3:16,” NovT 41 [1999]: 24-39). Though the term more frequently refers to the manner in which something is done (see BDAG 741-42 s.v. οὕτω/οὕτως), the following clause involving ὥστε (Jwste) plus the indicative (which stresses actual, but [usually] unexpected result) emphasizes the greatness of the gift God has given. With this in mind, then, it is likely (3) that John is emphasizing both the degree to which God loved the world as well as the manner in which He chose to express that love. This is in keeping with John’s style of using double entendre or double meaning. Thus, the focus of the Greek construction here is on the nature of God's love, addressing its mode, intensity, and extent.
If I thought about it, I guess I assumed, from the time I was a child reciting John 3:16, that 'so' referred to the degree of God's love. Indeed, it is the degree meaning that is emphasized in several recent English versions:
For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life. (TEV)

God loved the people of this world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who has faith in him will have eternal life and never really die. (CEV)

God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son so that whoever believes in him may not be lost, but have eternal life. (NCV)
It is unclear from traditional translations of outos as simply 'so' whether it is intended to refer to the degree or manner of God's love. Perhaps their translators intended both the manner and degree meanings.

Ann Nyland translates with 'so' in her new translation, The Source:
God loved the world so he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes him will not die but would at that point have eternal life.
Ann clarifies the first 'so' with this footnote:
Not “loved the world so much that he gave…”, a common mistranslation in many English translations. The term refers to the manner in which something is done.
The following English Bible versions make clear the manner idea of outos:
For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. (NET)

God loved the world this way: He gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him will not die but will have eternal life. (GW)

For this is how God loved the world: he gave his unique son so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life. (ISV)

For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son,so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. (HCSB)
I am thankful for translators who have shone new light for me on the meaning of outos in John 3:16. Most of all, I am thankful that God sent his son so that I could have eternal life. That is the real meaning of this Christmas season.

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Friday, December 16, 2005

"he" vs. "they" as generic pronouns in Bible translation

Mark Bertrand, author, blogger, and a careful thinker, notes in a comment to a recent BBB post:
At 35, I'm not exactly an old man, but whenever I hear someone substitute "their" for "his" in a sentence -- and I concede that it's done -- I can't escape the feeling that a mistake has been made.
Mark's feeling is legitimate for him, one which is grounded in how he (and I) were taught "proper" English. I would quibble with Mark's saying that someone substitutes "their" for "his." For those who use the singular "they" there is no such substitution. "He" is not the original generic form in the mind of speakers for which they substitute singular "they." There is simply use of the singular "they". But that's a minor point. (I'm now finished responding to Mark.) Now let's move on to more important points, for everyone.

We've addressed the issue of English generic pronouns on this blog a number of times, but I'd like to address this issue from a little different angle this time.

Unlike French, with its generic pronoun on, in English there is no generic pronoun used to refer to singular entities which is without a problem of one kind or another. The long-used generic pronoun "he" is grammatically masculine. To use it generically an English speaker must convert it from a masculine to a generic. English speakers have been taught--in "grammar school"--to do so for centuries and have proven quite capable of making the conversion unconciously. But any time a mental conversion is required to convert a linguist form from which is called, in lay terms, it's "literal" meaning, a greater processing burden is required. Speakers of all languages can handle processing burdens fairly easily, but they are a burden nonetheless.

Generic singular "they" is grammatically plural. To use it generically an English speaker must convert it from a plural to a singular. Again, there is an additional process burden, just as there is with the generic "he." As with generic "he," there have been many centuries of usage of singular "they" in English, including by some of well respected authors. Singular "they" was used by the translators of the KJV (emphasis added):
Then the tabernacle of the congregation shall set forward with the camp of the Levites in the midst of the camp: as they encamp, so shall they set forward, every man in his place by their standards. (Numbers 2:17)

And the children of Israel did according to all that the LORD commanded Moses: so they pitched by their standards, and so they set forward, every one after their families, according to the house of their fathers. (Numbers 2:34)

According to the number that ye shall prepare, so shall ye do to every one according to their number. (Numbers 15:12)

And Judah was put to the worse before Israel; and they fled every man to their tents. (2 Kings 14:12)

So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses. (Matthew 18:35)

[Let] nothing [be done] through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. (Philippians 2:3)
Among those speakers and writers who naturally use "he" as their generic pronoun many never think of the fact that it is grammatically masculine. They are so accustomed to using "he" as a generic that their brains simply give them the generic meaning in a generic linguistic context. For many of these speakers there is absolutely no intent to be linguistic reactionaries, misogynists, or any of the other claims which have been made by those who believe that it is socially improper to use a grammatically masculine pronoun to refer to either a male or a female.

Among those speakers and writers who naturally use singular "they" as their generic pronoun many never think of the fact that it is grammatically plural. They are so accustomed to using "they" as a generic that their brains simply give them the generic meaning in a generic linguistic context. I happen to use the singular "they" myself, most of the time, even though it was drilled into my brain by my "grammar school" teachers that I should only use "he" as a generic pronoun. For me, and many other English speakers, it simply sounds better to use "they," rather than "he" in a sentence such as:
If everyone turns in their term paper on time, I'll treat the class to pizza for lunch on Friday.
For many who use singular "they" the idea of being politically correct by using non-gendered pronoun as a generic never crosses their minds. They are just using a generic pronoun that sounds most natural to them. Singular "they" has been in use in the English language for centuries, as has generic "he," and both have sounded natural to those who regularly use them as generics.

Is there any theological reason why a grammatically masculine generic "he" should be used in English rather than singular "they"? Of course not, in spite of claims by Grudem and Poythress to the contrary. Language is language. There is nothing theological about grammatical systems of languages. There is nothing sacred about the fact that pistis 'faith' is of the feminine gender in Greek, but nomos 'law' is of the masculine gender. There is nothing sacred about the fact that Greek uses grammatically masculine forms for generics. Nor is there anything sacred, or un-sacred, for that matter, about the fact that Cheyenne, which is my language of research, lacks gendered forms for generics. In Cheyenne any third person singular is referred to by a pronominal prefix e- which has no gender. It can refer to a male, female, or biologically genderless object such as a stick.

Does a singular "they" distort singulars and plurals in the minds of English speakers, as is claimed by Grudem and the CBMW, for instance, in their discussion of Rev. 3:20 in the TNIV (boldface emphasis is in the CBMW text, not the TNIV itself):
NIV Revelation 3:20 I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.
TNIV Revelation 3:20 I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they with me.

Comment: Mistranslates Greek masculine singular pronoun autos ("he, him"). Loses the teaching of fellowship between Jesus and an individual believer. The plural pronoun “them” naturally refers to “those whom I love” in the church of Laodicea in the previous verse. So in the TNIV, if any one person in the church opens the door, Jesus will come in and eat with a group, with the whole church. What is lost is the teaching that Jesus will fellowship with one person individually and personally.
(Note on generic masculine singulars: In order to avoid this kind of generic use of “he,” the TNIV has to change hundreds of verses in similar ways, and the cumulative effect is a loss of the Bible’s emphasis on individual responsibility and individual relationship with God. The TNIV preface says the changes include “the elimination of most instances of the generic use of masculine nouns and pronouns.”)
Is there a loss of "individual responsibility and individual relationship with God,", as claimed? Of course not. The CBMW text confuses semantic reference with grammatical form. No one who uses the singular "they"--which will be the majority of the target audience of the TNIV--confuses grammatical number in TNIV Rev. 3:20. The TNIV wording does not "drain" this verse of its focus on an individual, as claimed by Grudem and repeated many times by those who follow him. Those who use singular "they" use it to refer to a single person and they know they are doing so; they are not confused about this and there is no loss of a focus on a single invidual.

Can we allow people to speak as they normally do without making judgements about their speech? I think we can and I think we should. Even though I naturally use a singular "they," it would be improper of me to judge others who use a generic "he." And the converse is true.

Paul addressed a parallel issue in Romans 14. Some Christians felt free in their consciences to eat meat which had previously been offered to idols but was later sold for human consumption. Others did not. Paul recognized that there was nothing wrong with eating meat offered to idols. But if someone truly felt in their conscience that there was something wrong with it, he said we should be sensitive to their concerns and not cause them to "stumble" by eating idol meat. There are many such issues for believers and the spiritual principles drawn from Romans 14 apply to such issues. When I was growing up the church I attended had a list of several "deadly sins": smoking, going to movies, dancing, playing cards, and drinking. Today there are many Christians who do each of these things and do not consider it sinful.

It is not sinful or "inaccurate" to use a singular "they" in a Bible translation targeted to today's speakers of English. Several recent English versions use singular "they" or some other generics because they are more natural for today's speakers than generic "he." The claim that such translations (or those who do not use generic "he") are conscious or unconscious followers of a feminist agenda does not reflect the centuries long tradition of the use of singular "they" in English (from long before there ever was a feminist movement). And it does not adequately take into account language change which occurs naturally in languages, for whatever reason. And think about it, what if someone did, at some point, stop using generic "he" out of respect to those that generic "he" offended? Would such respect be wrong? Or sinful? It seems to me that the principle of respecting differences of opinion, which Paul promoted in Romans 14, would suggest that avoiding use of generic "he" when it offends would be a sign of love, not of carnal compromise or theological error. Of course, we cannot live our lives constantly concerned about whether someone else will be offended by anything we do. Paul himself offended Judaizers by eating with Gentiles and not insisting that Gentiles be circumcised in order to become part of the Jesus movement of his day.

Let's give each other some linguistic slack. It is appropriate to debate these issues. It is important to state our opinions. It is important for Dr. Grudem to state what he believes, including that he believes that singular "they" distorts grammtical number. It is also appropriate for others to respond to him, pointing out where they disagree with him. But these issues do not rise to the level of any Bible version of being "inaccurate". Something is not linguistically "inaccurate" if it is worded with language forms which are used by a majority of the speakers who are the target audience of a Bible translation. There is nothing sacred about any linguistic forms in any language. There is something sacred about what God wants us to know, and much of what he wants us to know is found in the Bible. Its teachings are found in its propositions (statements), not in grammatical forms which may or may not have any connection to the "real world."

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Thursday, December 15, 2005

Jim Packer and TNIV

I have long respected J.I. (Jim) Packer as an evangelical teacher. His "Knowing God" helped to establish me in the Christian faith, and has been on my bookshelf for nearly 30 years. I also heard him speak nearly 30 years ago, and he was not a young man then, so he must be old now.

And so it has come as a surprise and a sadness to me to find Jim Packer regularly listed as one of the Christian leaders who has joined in the intemperate public campaign against the TNIV. So I decided to investigate further Packer's position on such issues.

I found that Packer is indeed a complementarian, and a member of the Board of Reference of CBMW (the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood). But then many of the TNIV translation team are complementarians.

Recently Packer has written a preface to the book "Translating Truth", to which Wayne Grudem is a major contributor. In this preface he criticises dynamic equivalence translation, but he does not mention gender related language.

So, it seems that Packer is a complementarian with a preference for formal equivalent translations. And so it is no surprise to find him also listed as the General Editor of the ESV Bible. But this does not imply that he would be an opponent of TNIV. Some members of the ESV team have been accused of opposing TNIV out of rivalry, but I respect Packer too much to suggest that.

Here I repeat in edited form some remarks which I first posted as a comment on the posting Grudem on choosing a faithful Bible translation, in response to a previous comment in which Packer had been named as a leading opponent of TNIV.

I found the following extract from an article from 2002 quoting Packer, whom I greatly respect, in which his criticism of TNIV is rather muted:
Another leading theologian, J.I. Packer, did not add his name to the signatories, but told Baptist Press: "This [TNIV] is a retrograde move that the translators have made. I have read a text of a statement by Wayne Grudem and others, and I find myself in sympathy with it. I find it to be a passing modern fad, frankly, to object to the inclusive masculine pronoun. To change the shape of biblical verses to fit this fad leads to a good bit of under-translation. The masculine pronoun belongs in almost every language of the world. The gains that this translation seeks to achieve are far outweighed by the loss. I appreciate the NIV, and I think they have taken a wrong turn."
In other words, Packer has no strong objections to TNIV on principle. He refused to sign a statement of opposition to it. Rather, he seems to show just an old man's failure to recognise that English really has changed, and probably permanently, since he was young. He also demonstrates his ignorance concerning "almost every language of the world", for there are very many which have no masculine pronoun, and none that I know of other than English which have one which primarily agrees with real world rather than grammatical gender. (End of adapted comment.)

It seems to me that Packer's opposition to TNIV is fundamentally different from Grudem's. Firstly, he has not joined in the campaign of vilification or signed the statement condemning its alleged errors. More importantly, his reasons for opposition seem to be fundamentally different from Grudem's. Grudem insists that all masculine pronouns in the Bible have a real male orientation, on the principle of "male representation", and so must be translated by explicitly masculine pronouns like "he". Packer's position, however, seems to be that masculine pronouns in Greek and Hebrew can be gender generic, the general scholarly view, but should be translated by "he" because this word is gender generic in English, except as "a passing modern fad". The result is the same, and so both Grudem and Packer can accept ESV, but their understanding of the issues is totally different. Packer's position is the traditional evangelical one, but Grudem's theology of male representation is novel. I am sure that Packer has recognised this and so has distanced himself from Grudem's criticisms.

Packer is certainly a prominent figure, but he has not joined in the intemperate campaign against TNIV. So I would conclude that it is wrong to list him as a leading opponent of TNIV.