Thoughts on Bible Translation

Lord willing, I will preach this Sunday on Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. Before I studied the story in context, I would have told you that it was found in John 3:1-21. Now I prefer to connect the end of chapter 2 to this story, so that the Nicodemus episode actually begins at 2:23 and finishes at 3:21. Notice the connection between chapters 2 and 3 (from the English Standard Version):

2:23Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. 24But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man. 3:1Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2This man came to Jesus by night . . .

The connecting point between the two chapters is the word “man” (Greek anthropos, used in both 2:25 and 3:1). Jesus did not entrust himself to those who were attracted to the spectacle of his miracles but failed to understand their true significance. Their belief was spurious, which is a common theme in John’s Gospel (See Jesus’ conversation with “the Jews who had believed in him” in 8:31-58; by the end of that conversation, he has called them children of the Devil, and they have picked up stones to execute him on the spot. I think it is safe to assume, then, that there is such a thing as false faith, and that this is the kind of faith that arose during the Passover of chapter 2). The reason he did not entrust himself to them is because “he himself knew what was in man.” He knew the reality of darkened, rebellious, sinful human nature.

Right on the heels of that statement, John writes, “Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus. . .” He wants his readers to draw a connection, namely, that Nicodemus belongs to this class of sinners. He is not coming to Jesus in faith, but as an example of one who was merely intrigued by his signs (see his statement in 3:2). There is dispute about whether or not Nicodemus is presented as gradually coming to faith in John’s Gospel. I don’t think that question matters so much for the present narrative, which lays emphasis on his misunderstanding. Although he displayed more openness to Jesus than most of his colleagues, the narrative gives many indications that he came in a state of spiritual darkness, and John ultimately leaves unanswered the question of how Nicodemus responded to Jesus’ words.

This is important to realize because Nicodemus was Mr. Religion. He was not only a Pharisee, zealous for the Law and for ritual and national purity; he was also a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. Jesus identifies him as the teacher of Israel (v. 10), which likely indicates that he was a very prominent teacher of the Mosaic Law. And yet, here he was, unable to understand the first thing about entrance into the Kingdom of God (vv. 10-12). He was lost in sin, an individual man who belonged to the class “man,” the inner darkness of which Jesus was well aware (2:25). If Nicodemus was lost in sin, then we can draw two important conclusions: (1) everyone is lost in sin and in need of new birth; (2) human distinctions do not commend us to God; only God’s grace in Christ makes a difference. John invites us to these conclusions by the way he frames the narrative.

I am thankful that we have a multitude of English Bible translations. A handful of them stand out as my favorites, and certainly some are better than others. But I am thankful that even the worst English translation contains enough gospel to bring someone to the saving knowledge of Christ, and I would rather have too many translations (with a few of them not suiting my taste) than not enough. I applaud the motive of translators to make the Bible accessible to 21st century people, and I believe the task of providing up-to-date translations will be a necessary one until the end of time.

It is for this reason that I want to ponder this question: to what degree should Bible translations reflect the language of their own world, and to what degree should they shape it? I have written about this before, but I believe gender-neutral Bibles primarily take the first track while more traditional Bibles tend toward the second. When I preach on the Nicodemus story on Sunday, I am going to have to step over the NRSV’s mistranslation of the text at a point where I want to bring out its signficance (the NRSV is our pew Bible). Here are the verses cited above according to the New Revised Standard Version, a gender-neutral translation:

2:24But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone. 3:1Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.

This translation misses John’s subtle connections. Twice John uses the word “man,” first to refer to a class of fallen sinners to whom Jesus cannot entrust himself, and then to refer to an individual man who belongs to this class. Interestingly, the NRSV even avoids using the word “man” in 3:1 when it actually does refer to an individual male adult! Perhaps they were going for economy of words there (“a Pharisee” is shorter than “a man of the Pharisees”), but it looks like they set out on a mission to eliminate the word “man” in as many instances as possible, even when the subject being spoken of is, in fact, a man. Or maybe they decided never to translate anthropos (which often means “humanity” in general) with the word “man,” and they realized that “a person of the Pharisees” just sounded awkward. Either way, they allowed their translation philosophy to obscure a connection in the text, a connection that readers of the NRSV will never see. How many more connections or exegetical insights hinge on differences in translation philosophy?

I believe the church has the responsibility to preserve Scripture as best we can, meaning that we should not allow the winds of political correctness to blow us away from the meaning of the text. I have heard reputable scholars say that William Tyndale so influenced the development of the English language, that if there had been no Tyndale, there would have been no Shakespeare. It is well-known that the King James Bible (which stands in the tradition of Tyndale) continues to affect the way people talk and pray even today. I believe it is important for the church to hold on to terminology that best reflects the meaning of the Bible, not smooth out biblical terminology in order to make it more palatable to a political agenda. More often than we realize, there is a good bit of theology bound up with the gender language that Scripture uses. If you believe in verbal plenary inspiration, namely, that every word in Scripture is inspired by God, then you will naturally be more reluctant to making little changes here and there. They do add up, and the end result is a translation that misses quite a bit of what the Greek and Hebrew actually means.

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4 Responses to “Thoughts on Bible Translation”

  1. Adam Phelan Says:

    I agree totally, but I think it can go both ways. I’m not much of a greek man, but I love Hebrew. There’s a great poetry in the word choice of most OT narratives. Unfortunately most translations don’t reflect that. The most glaring to me is the creation of humankind in the Genesis accounts. In traditional translations, man comes from the dust of the ground. Many newer translations make it humankind. I think both translations lose both the poetry of word choice and the theology of our connectedness to the earth. Man, or humankind, is adam and ground is adamah. I know it would be a break from tradition that no one would make, but I almost wish that in the Genesis acounts we could call humankind earthlings, or even groundlings. There’s a perfectly good Hebrew word for man, ish, used elsewhere to refer to men in the narratives.

    I hope I’ve made my point somewhat clear. I don’t like making my comments too long-winded.

  2. Ali Says:

    Adam,

    I am not much of a Hebrew man (I only got a B- in my second and final Hebrew class…though I blame that on my now wife who was distracting me :)), but I seem to recall that scholars agree that adamah and adam don’t come from the same root. Is that right?

    If it is, are you saying that the connection was through the “cosmetic” similarities, or would you dispute the contention that they don’t come from the same root?

  3. Doctor Clockwork Says:

    Two points of particular interest:

    1. The word “spurious.” Nice job with the vocab, homeboy.

    2. The fact that you use gender-neutral NRSV Bibles in your pew at the church you’re pastoring due to the fact that the church had them before you arrived cracks me up. HAAA! …It’s actually our pew Bible too, here at U-Pres.

    Great to talk to you today!

  4. Adam Phelan Says:

    Ali-

    I checked today with my Hebrew prof. We couldn’t find in the BDB that adam and adamah come from the same or different roots. I’ll check the theological dictionary of the OT next. I would definitely contend that the author of Genesis understood the two words to be linked.

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