Five More Myths by Dan Wallace

Dan Wallace looks at five myths about Bible translations and textual criticism:

  1. The Bible has been translated so many times we can’t possibly get back to the original.
  2. Words in red indicate the exact words spoken by Jesus of Nazareth.
  3. Heretics have severely corrupted the text.
  4. Orthodox scribes have severely corrupted the text.
  5. The deity of Christ was invented by emperor Constantine.

Now hopefully none of the BBB readers have fallen for any of these, but you still might find his answers if you run into someone who has.

Was Paul hard to understand?

I’ve wondered for quite a long time whether 2 Peter 3:16 means what we think it means. The Greek word (“hard to understand”, δυσνόητος) is unusual; Peter, curiously enough, could have used a simpler to understand expression.

The verse is very often used to support an objection to clear translation. I’ve come to the opinion that this verse can’t be used to support such an objection.

The word only occurs once in the NT. It also occurs in Lucian’s “Alexander the Oracle-Monger” (Para 54).

I laid a good many traps of this kind for him; here is another: I asked only one question, but wrote outside the packet in the usual form, So-and-so’s eight Queries, giving a fictitious name and sending the 120 drachmas [~13.6 troy ounces of silver]. Satisfied with the payment of the money and the inscription on the packet, he gave me eight answers to my one question. This was, “When will Alexander’s imposture be detected?” The answers concerned nothing in heaven or earth, but were all silly and meaningless together.

The phrase of interest is the very last one. “Silly” translates δυσνόητος. The entire tone of this section, indeed, the entire book, will not allow for “unable to understand.” Lucian is making fun of Alexander. It’s not that Alexander’s reply was “hard to understand.” But, the answers were just stupid or infantile. It’s as if Lucian is saying, “Gosh, a person with a brain could have done better.” (if you think I’m overstating, go here ( and read the first paragraph.

Here’s what I’m thinking. The definition of δυσνόητος should be something like: “refusal to cognitively accept. The word does not refer to an inability caused by lack of intelligence or knowledge, or to the difficulty of the content, but has more to do with how one disparages the value of the content that actually is communicated.

2 Peter 3:16 (NIV) says:

He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.

Keep in mind that Peter refers to Paul to bolster the importance of what he himself writes. It seems odd to me that Peter would commend Paul for wisdom and do that in a context where he immediately adds, “Well, you can’t understand him half the time anyway.” And, furthermore, where then is the culpability for the “ignorant and unstable” if Paul is hard to understand to begin with?  Such “logic” doesn’t work for me.

I suggest:

“His letters contain content which some find silly, which the ignorant and unstable distort, …”

What are your thoughts?

Why (Bible) translation matters

I have been skimming descriptions and reviews of the book Why Translation Matters, by literary translator Edith Grossman. I hope I can read Grossman’s book someday, because many of the things she advocates about translation ring true for me as a Bible translator.

The first reviewer on the webpage for this book excerpts these lines from Grossman’s book:

[T]he most fundamental description of what translators do is that we write–or perhaps rewrite–in language B a work of literature originally composed in language A, hoping that readers of the [translation] will perceive the text, emotionally and artistically, in a manner that parallels and corresponds to the esthetic experience of its first readers.

“To my mind, a translator’s fidelity is not to lexical pairings but to context–the implications and echoes of the first author’s tone, intention, and level of discourse. Good translations are good because they are faithful to this contextual significance. They are not necessarily faithful to words or syntax, * * * because words do not `mean’ in isolation. Words `mean’ as indispensable parts of a contextual whole that includes the emotional tone and impact, the literary antecedents, the connotative nimbus as well as the denotations of each statement.

Anyone concerned about full-throated accuracy in Bible translation, including accuracy at literary levels, must take seriously the principles of translation that Grossman promotes and practices.

How far can we trust our translations?

LNE ends his many questions by asking:

Are some things in Scripture inverted simply to make them theologically correct? Are there places in Scripture which should, simply based on the Greek language and not on theology or Church history, be changed?

That is a legitimate question from a “humble layman”. When Greek scholars and theologians disagree among themselves, who can we trust? There is no simple answer, but I do not recommend trying to find a solution in individual words in Greek. That is a dangerous path for the layman, when even scholars stumble. It is much better to read the Bible in several translations, for instance a very literal one like the ESV, a modified literal one like the NIV and an idiomatic one like the NLT. The better we know the Bible the better prepared we are to evaluate questionable theology. As a rule of thumb, if there is a majority opinion among translations, that majority is almost always correct. As another guide, look to the context rather than individual words out of context. You can get the context well enough from a translation without having to dig into Greek yourself.

Are some things inverted to make them theologically correct? A few things, maybe, especially where the original is not very clear. I think the ISV claims about a few passages where they disagree with the majority, is a good example of that. The problem is that when you have two theological camps with opposite interpretations of the same text, both will accuse the other of having changed the meaning of the text to fit their own theology. Both will claim that the other group has misunderstood the text and we know better.

Let me comment on the following from LNE:

Romans 2:3 – It’s made into a question in most Bibles it seems, but I see no indicators for such. If it is a declarative statement, then the “n” in Romans 2:4 negates the idea that the people will not come under judgement.

Romans 11:2 – Starts with “ouk” like many interrogative sentences from Paul, but it’s translated as a statement instead of a question here… and I don’t know why. If it was a question (the first half of the verse before the “n”), then the “n” would be negating “Has not God thrust away His own People who He foreknew?”

There is no doubt that Rom 2:3 is meant to be a question. There is a strong focus on “you”: “Do you really think, you (Jewish) fellow who condemn those who do such things (as described in chapter 1) and (at the same time) are doing them that you will escape the judgment of God?” It is clear judgment of the hypocrite.

The Greek word ἤ (H) which introduces verse 4 simply means “or”. It does not negate anything, but it indicates another step in the argumentation, another rhetorical question.

In Romans 11:2 we read “God has not pushed away his people whom he has known (and been with) from ancient time.” This is a restatement of what we read in verse 1: “Surely, God has not pushed aside his own people, has he?” A rhetorical question which demands the answer “No, of course he hasn’t!” The ἤ in the next sentence again does not negate anything, but simply introduces another step in the argumentation, this time with a rhetorical question: “Don’t you know what God said to Elijah in the following Scripture passage…?” What God said comes in verse 4, so we really must read the whole context and preferably the whole chapter if we want to understand individual words and sentences as they were intended.

A question in 1 Cor 11:14-15?

LNE asked on the SHARE page whether the question in these verses could be understood as a statement. The ISV translation takes it as a statement, but everybody else take it as a question. (The Wycliffe Bible is unclear, the only other contender to the statement option.)

It is quite true that it can be difficult at times to decide whether a Greek sentence is to be interpreted as a question or a statement. Question marks were not used, so it is a matter of context and common sense. It is theoretically possible that ISV is correct and all other translators are wrong, but I am always sceptical of people who claim to have discovered that everybody else is mistaken. At least, they must have very strong arguments for their position and some new insight that others have so far missed.

I am not familiar with the ISV, but thanks to LNE for the link to their website. I listened to how they praise their own translation. They claim to have discovered a new way of translating which they call literal-idiomatic. I have worked with both literal and idiomatic translations for 30 years, and I am familiar with the benefits and weaknesses of each of these two classical approaches to translation. Most translations are in the middle somewhere between the extremes, but some can be said to belong to the mostly literal camp while others belong to the mostly idiomatic camp. This new literal-idiomatic approach belongs to the literal camp, but it is claimed to have the benefits of the other approaches and none of the weaknesses. My reaction to that is the same as it would be to an architect who wants to build a round square. The ISV prouds itself of being original, and 1 Cor 11:14-15 is not the only place where they claim that they are right and more or less everybody else are mistaken.

ISV renders 1 Cor 11:14-15a as follows: “Nature itself teaches you neither that it is disgraceful for a man to have long hair nor that hair is a woman’s glory…” Is that a reasonable and accurate translation of the Greek text? I am afraid not.

The Greek OUDE is made up of two parts, the negative particle OU (meaning not) and the discourse particle DE which can mean “but”, “or” or “and”, but often there is no direct English equivalent word for it. One has to look at the whole context. OUDE can also mean “not even”. Paul is here using a rhetorical question where the answer is assumed to be obvious: “And is it not the case that the nature of things teaches you that on the one hand if a man wears long hair it is a dishonor to him and/but on the other hand if a woman wears long hair, it is an honor to her?” Expected answer: Yes, it is obvious from the nature of how things are (we might call it current culture of that time and place).

English often indicates the statement/question dichotomy by word order, so if we were to change the question above to a statement, it would become: “And it is not the case that the nature of things teaches you that on the one hand if a man wears long hair it is a dishonor to him and/but on the other hand if a woman wears long hair, it is an honor to her.” Does that make sense to you? I cannot figure out what that is supposed to mean. Since the ISV translators apparently find the question option to go against their theology and culture, they have a problem. In order to make some sense out of the statement option, ISV moves the “and/or/even not” from the beginning of the main clause to the beginning of the dependent clause. They also introduce a “nor” to connect the two contrastively coordinated dependent clauses, but there is no “nor” in the Greek text, only the bare DE (and/or/but) without the “not” part. The DE here is the counterpart to the MEN in a common Greek contruction: “Man on one hand, woman on the other hand.”

So, to answer LNE’s question: No, based on what the Greek text is actually saying, you are not on the right track, and it is pity if ISV has led you and others to get off track.

Out of the mouth of babes

A friend asked me about these two verses, and I don’t believe that we’ve looked at them before:

Out of the mouth of babies and infants, you have established strength because of your foes (Psalm 8:2a, ESV)

And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, “‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?” (Matthew 21:16b, ESV)

Now as your Bible’s footnotes probably tell you, this is another example where the New Testament has followed the Greek Septuagint rather than the Hebrew text.

Why though did the authors of the Septuagint translate this verse as they did? I don’t know, but maybe you do, and can help explain these strange verses.

It is also worth noting that our many English translations vary quite widely on these verses. Which do you think conveys the meaning best?

Hearts and minds

Mark 6:45-52 is the familiar story of Jesus walking on the water, which comes right after the story of the feeding of the five thousand. The narrator in v. 52 concludes that the disciples might have understood how Jesus could walk on the water if they had been able to really understand that he was able to feed the five thousand. In the Authorized Version, verse 52 reads, “For they considered not [the miracle] of the loaves: for their heart was hardened.” Is that a good translation? Well, we all know the language of the KJV is archaic, so let’s look at the RSV: “For they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” Okay, we know that the RSV is a faithfully literal translation, so we can be assured that the original really does say here something about hearts and about hardness. (A look at the wording of the Greek original confirms that fact.) That must be a good translation, right? Because it reflects what the original says. The NIV (both the 1984  and 2011 versions) says, “For they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.” Looking also at the New Living Translation, we see “For they still didn’t understand the significance of the miracle of the loaves. Their hearts were too hard to take it in.”

So, what does that mean? My understanding of the expression “hard-hearted” is that it means that someone is callous toward other people’s feelings. Huh? Is this saying that the disciples were insensitive to Jesus’ feelings? Or was it someone else, to whom their insensitivity was directed? To confirm my understanding of the expression, I looked it up, and according to the Random House Dictionary, hard-hearted means unfeeling, unmerciful, pitiless, heartless, merciless, mean, unforgiving, from Middle English hard herted. This means that the disciples couldn’t accept what was going on because they were pitiless, mean, and insensitive. Right?

Compare this with a set of other English Bible translations that do not use the word “heart” in Mark 6:52. Is it possible that these could be correct, accurate, even if they are missing a word that is in the original?

TEV: “because they had not understood the real meaning of the feeding of the five thousand; their minds could not grasp it.”

CEV: “Their minds were closed, and they could not understand the true meaning of the loaves of bread.”

GW: “They didn’t understand what had happened with the loaves of bread. Instead, their minds were closed.”

JB: “because they had not seen what the miracle of the loaves meant; their minds were closed.”

Here is what one commentary says about this expression: “This hardness of heart is something quite different from our use of the same words, denoting blunted feelings and moral sensiblities. The Biblical καρδία denotes the general inner man, and here especially the mind, which is represented as so calloused as to be incapable of receiving mental impressions.” If this commenary is right, and I believe it is, based on my own studies, then it is possible that a translation that translates καρδία into English as “mind(s)” is more accurate than a translation of “heart(s)” in this context. Or maybe an analogous idiom like “thick-headed” would be appropriate. Along those lines, we translated this verse into Saint Lucian French Creole (1999) as “paski yo p’òkò té konpwann miwak-la Jézi té fè èk sé pen-an. Tèt yo té wèd toujou.” (I’ll leave it to you to figure out that one.)

The problem, of course, is that in different cultures, different qualities are attributed to different body parts. That’s a simple way of putting it. The translation problem is cultural and linguistic. In this case, it might not be so bad if the resulting translation resulted in no meaning, such that the reader/listener might realize that a proper understanding is lacking and go looking for it. But what is worse here is that a literal translation involving “hardness of heart” would prompt a wrong interpretation without the reader/listener being aware of it. This may be debatable, but I believe that a translation cannot be accurate if does not prompt, or at least allow, a proper interpretation in the mind/heart of the reader.

Now let me back up and qualify that a little. There are different kinds of translations. There are what I consider normal, good translations, suitable for lectionary or devotional purposes or personal reading, and then there are special purpose translations, such as quite literal ones. A literal translation has a purpose of giving a word-for-word rendering, and if this results in an incomplete or inaccurate understanding, that is not their problem. The RSV falls into this category, and I appreciate the RSV a great deal. It is very dependable for certain purposes. I use it for study purposes, to get at the forms of the underlying original texts. But it is a special purpose kind of translation that I would use for study but not for general use. So I am not criticizing the RSV, considering its special purpose, and when it first came out, it was one of the few Bibles available that did not use the archaic language of the King James. What I am saying is that a normal translation is not so tied to the words of the original that it does not take responsibility for accuracy of understanding on the part of the reader, and that accuracy in a translation is tied to an accurate understanding on the part of the reader/hearer. Of course, no translation is perfect.

doves or pigeons?

A commenter from The Wuggy Chronicles just asked in our Share section:

I have been wondering why in many translations, “peristera” is translated as “dove” in John 1:32, but rendered “pigeon” in 2:14,16. An important layer of poetry is lost by using a different word there, so I’m curious about what tradeoffs motivated that (pretty common) decision.

I enjoy answering this kind of question since it involves looking at a number of different English Bible versions which I like doing.

First, I can’t speak to tradeoffs that motivated the decision not to use the same bird name in the two passages in John. I seldom have any idea what motivates a translation team to translate as they have unless they explicitly say what their motivation is. I agree with you: I see no reason to use a different bird name in the two passages. I believe that the versions that use the same English bird name to translate the same Greek New Testament bird name are clearer for English readers that the same bird is referred to.

Now, to the first part of your comment, the versions I have viewed which use the words “dove” and “pigeons” in the two passages are RSV, ESV (essentially the RSV with doctrinal revisions of a few verses), REB, GNT, and GW.  I cannot think of anything these versions have in common that are different from other versions.

Versions which use “dove” and “doves” are: KJV, Douay-Rheims, NASB, NWT, NKJV, NIV, NRSV, CEV, NJB, NAB, NLT, NCV, TM, NET, HCSB, ISV, and CEB.

By my count, the score is 4 versions (5 if ESV is counted as a different version from RSV) that use “dove” and “pigeons” and 17 versions which use “dove” and “doves.”

theopneustos or theo pneustos?

A BBB visitor has asked:

Question: didn’t early Greek manuscripts eschew spaces between words?

Yes, that Greek was written without spaces between words.

How do we know that 2 Timothy 3:16 says “pasa graphe theopneustos” instead of “pasa graphe theo pneustos”? That last one would make the English translation something like “God inflates every writing”.

It’s interesting to think of alternate meanings for the biblical text if the word breaks were different. But in each case the alternate must be possible according to Greek grammar. In this case the alternate is not possible because it is ungrammatical in Greek. The word for ‘God’ would need to be in the nominative case which is spelled “theos”. There is no Greek word spelled just as “theo”, even though there are some Internet webpages which erroneously state that “theopneustos” is made up of two words, “theo” meaning ‘God’ and “pneustos” meaning ‘breathed.’ What these webpages are trying to say is that “theo-” can appear as part (a bound morpheme) of a compound word. (This is another warning not to believe everything claimed on the Internet. We have to check out our sources to see if they are reliable, credible.)

“Pneustos” would be a word but it would not mean ‘inflated’ but, rather, ‘breathed.’

Hebrews 2:6 – A Response to Rick Shields

I have been working for a couple of weeks on a response to John Hobbins’ response to my previous post. There I will talk about  differences in usage between, Xenophon, the LXX, and the NT to argue that the NT is not ALL in Biblish. But then Rick Shields posted on Hebrews 2:6 which touches on a key issue and my comment to him was turning into a whole post, so I’m responding to Rick here, and postpone the trickier discussion of John’s points till later.

We linguists wince at the treatments of the gender “problem” in Bible translation, because it’s one of the key places in which people argue from a complete misunderstanding of the nature of language. Grammatical gender is simply not referential, it is classificatory.

The belief that grammatical gender is referential, in turn, triggers a theological feedback loop, in which people fight tooth and nail for interpretations that simply aren’t warranted by the text, as if their salvation depended on it. But that’s another matter.

At least three dimensions are in play in translation, Bible or otherwise. One is the referential intent of the writer. Another is the norms of usage in the respective languages, and the third is the intertextuality within the larger conversation that the particular text was written as part of.

I tried to tease out the second of these dimensions, the usage one, in my post a couple of weeks ago. But it didn’t work very well, because it got overrun by a discussion that was driven by questions of intertextuality. Then Rick Shields posted on a topic that goes to the heart of intertextuality, and I couldn’t resist.

In garden variety translation, including literary translation, the priorities are (in order):

1) Get the reference right.
2) Make the usage natural.
3) Then work in whatever intertextuality you can without damaging the previous two priorities.

There are, of course, complications. Sometimes the “real” reference is implied in some way, rather than stated, and you may have to wiggle some to get it to come out. For example, you may have to undo a metaphor that doesn’t work in the target language. Knowing just when to do that kind of thing is what makes translation an art form.

But in Bible translation, usage somehow seems always to end up at the bottom of the priority list. And for some people, intertextuality is at the very top. That is, they are willing to sacrifice even clarity of reference to maintain the intertextuality of the original.

While I personally don’t agree with devaluing usage, I understand that it is easy for us to accept the distortions of weird usage because we’ve heard so much Scripture in some or other distortion of Elizabethan/Jacobian English, that we think natural usage just isn’t what Scripture should sound like.

I could go on for days about that.

But overvaluing intertextuality is a real problem for me. And Rick Shields has landed smack dab in the middle of one of the most difficult cases. (He posts about it here. He says he’s talking about gender, but that’s not the real problem with the passage he cites.)

Let me set up the case.

The OT uses the trope man (אֱנ֥וֹשׁ  enosh)/son of man (בֶן־אָ֝דָ֗ם ben-adam) in repetitions/elaborations for emphatic reasons. There are many examples. I’ll cite just one.

Blessed is the one (אֱנ֥וֹשׁ  enosh) who does these things
and the person (בֶן־אָ֝דָ֗ם ben-adam) who holds on to them.
Blessed is the one who keeps the day of worship from becoming unholy
and his hands from doing anything wrong. (Is. 56:2) (GW)

This is the device being used in Ps. 8:4.

what is man (אֱנ֥וֹשׁ  enosh) that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man (בֶן־אָ֝דָ֗ם ben-adam ‘son of man’) that you care for him? (Ps. 8:4) (ESV)

Now here’s the problem.

Jesus frequently uses the very non-Greek phrase υἰὸς ἀνθρώπου (= בֶן־אָ֝דָ֗ם ben-adam, ‘son of man’) to refer to himself.  He follows in the OT tradition of Ezekiel in what one could and probably should interpret as a claim to be a prophet. It’s probably something that you don’t even try to translate, you just calque it. (And that’s OK, because it’s as weird in Greek as it is in English, and the writers of the NT simply calqued it from the Aramaic, rather than making the pragmatic substitution.)

But in the end Jesus turns that phrase into a reference to Daniel 7:13 and a claim to being the Messiah, (Matt 24:30, 26:64, Mark 13:26, 14:62, and Luke 21:27). The writer of Hebrews knows this, so he’s reading the Messianic claim back into Psalm 8, and the translator is forced to give the intertextuality high priority here, just to maintain the intended reference.

The result is a minimum requirement that the form of the two noun phrases in question must be both singular and indefinite. That traps you in awkward English, since we prefer our generic references to be plural or definite.

Sheep are docile animals.
The sheep is a docile animal.

are both more natural than

A sheep is a docile animal.

An attempt to preserve the singular definite might read like this:

what is the mortal that you pay any attention to him,
or the son of mortals that you care about him?

That doesn’t quite work. But I have another kind of solution.

I have long argued that OT quotes in the NT are in Biblish Koine as opposed to the rest of the NT Koine. If you take that position then the OT quotes should generally be set off in KJV-like language.

Here’s a larger excerpt from Hebrews 2, using existing translations to show the kind of approach, I favor.

4 God himself showed that his message was true by working all kinds of powerful miracles and wonders. He also gave his Holy Spirit to anyone he chose to. We know that God did not put the future world under the power of angels. Somewhere in the Scriptures someone says to God,

“What is man, that Thou art mindful of him,
or the son of man, that Thou carest for him?
7 For a little while Thou madest him lower than the angels;
Thou crownedst him with glory and honor,
and didst set him over the works of thy hands:
8 Thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet.

God has put everything under our power and has not left anything out of our power. But we still don’t see it all under our power. What we do see is Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels. Because of God’s wonderful kindness, Jesus died for everyone. And now that Jesus has suffered and died, he is crowned with glory and honor!  (vss 4-6a, 8b-9 CEV, vss 6b-8a ESV/KJV mash up)


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