Posts Tagged ‘translation’

Tools for Bible study

October 28th, 2011 No comments

I was puzzled about a verse I read this morning, and decided to write about it. I also thought it might be useful to share here some of the tools that are available for doing Bible study.

We live in the golden age of amateur Bible scholarship. Thanks to sites like Bible Gateway and Bible.CC, if you have an internet connection, you can compare dozens of translations with the click of a mouse. My church uses the NRSV, which is available online, but not in as many places as the ESV, which I find is a pretty reasonable substitute.

Sometimes, a quick comparison only leads to more questions about which translation “got it right.” There are two ways to answer that kind of question. First, you could ask an expert. If you don’t know any experts personally, you could go read one of their books instead. Those are called commentaries.

The problem with commentaries is that there’s almost always another scholar who takes a contrary position, and the ones who get their commentaries published are usually able to construct a pretty compelling argument. (Stop and consider: the people who make these competing translations are all experts, and the whole problem is that they don’t agree on how to translate something.) So, of the reading of commentaries there is no end: you have to keep reading until you find one that supports your presuppositions. (I kid.)

If the topic is about something important — grace vs. works, for example — you really do need to ask an expert. But a lot of the time, you just want make sure you’re not leaning too hard on what might be an idiosyncratic translation, or — especially with older translations like KJV — a word whose meaning has evolved over the years.

In those situations you can do a word search to see what the word appears to mean in other places where it appears. It’s best to search by the word used in the original biblical language, because translations don’t always translate one word uniformly, because it’s a poor word that has only one shade of meaning. (The word for “angel” is also the word for “messenger,” but not every messenger has wings and a halo. The word for “heaven” can be translated as “sky” and “air,” depending on the context. And so forth.)

Fortunately, you don’t have to know the biblical languages to do this kind of “casual” search. You can look the underlying words in Strong’s Concordance, which assigns each one a unique number.

I was looking for a word (sometimes translated “justice” or “what is right”) in Proverbs 28:5. The Blue Letter Bible has tagged Bibles that let you see the Strong’s number for each word. (It offers both the KJV and NASB, and, while I’m not a fan of either, the NASB at least offers somewhat more modern English usage.)

With the tagged verse in front of me, it was easy enough to pick my word. As it happens, what I wanted was a Hebrew word numbered 4941.

Clicking on 4941 brought me not only a definition but a list of search results showing me all the places the word appeared. There were 421 appearances all through the Hebrew scriptures, so I concentrated my search in the wisdom literature (Proverbs, Psalms, and Ecclesiastes).

My purpose in this article is to describe how I did my Bible study, rather than to tell you what it taught me. That’s for another article.

When I first began to read the Bible 20 years ago, I was frustrated by all the page-flipping. Today, you can flip through not just one translation but any number of them, as easily as clicking a mouse.

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Bible Translation

September 30th, 2011 No comments

Joel Hoffman has posted a series of articles about Bible translation at his “God Didn’t Say That” blog. A good place to get started is with this one about the false dichotomy between accuracy and readability.

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Mistakes in the Bible

June 23rd, 2011 No comments

The blog “God Didn’t Say That” has a useful discussion of three types of errors that occur in Biblical manuscripts.

We’re used to mass-produced Bibles printed by machines, so we forget the type of errors that are found in handwritten manuscripts. (Try, someday, to copy a page from the Bible by hand, and when you’re done, count the errors you made. Then take a moment to give thanks you only have to copy a single page.)

Generally speaking, these errors aren’t all that significant, because they occur in a few manuscripts (duplicates of an ancestral manuscript where the error first occurred) but not in others. The article is interesting, though, because it describes the different types of errors and discusses the different approaches that translators use to deal with them.

Bible Translations Keep Coming

June 2nd, 2011 No comments

This story in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel looks at two freshly-revised translations (the NAB and the NIV) and does a fair job of describing some of the issues involved in translating (or updating a translation of) the Bible. Consider, for example, the discussions that might have led to these decisions:

In the Catholic Bible, for example, “booty” becomes “spoils of war” and “cereal ” is now “grain.” The NIV substitutes “foreigner” for “alien” and, to describe those crucified alongside Christ, “rebels” instead of “robbers.”

Those word choices remind me how Bruce Metzger mentioned somewhere that the NRSV, which updated the 1950’s-era RSV, changed Paul’s comment in 2 Corinthians 11:25 from “I was stoned” to “I received a stoning.”

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Lost and Found in Translation

May 27th, 2011 No comments

N.T. Wright, a distinguished New Testament scholar, has an interesting article about the issues involved in translating the Bible. Well worth your time.

“A little help!”

August 4th, 2010 1 comment

The NRSV has a strangely bland translation of Romans 15:24:

when I go to Spain. For I do hope to see you on my journey and to be sent on by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a little while.

The bland part is where it says “to be sent on.” That’s a unfairly wooden translation of the Greek word propempto. Literally, the word means just that: pempto (“I send”) plus pro- (“forth”). But what it really means is to help someone go forth.

To send someone that way sometimes means to accompany them. That’s what it means in Acts 21:5, where Luke writes that “all of them, with wives and children, escorted us outside the city,” and Acts 20:38, when the Ephesian elders brought Paul to the ship.

But more typically, especially in the Epistles, to send someone forth means to provide them with material support for their journey. This is particularly clear in Titus 3:13, which tells the recipients to send on Zenas the Lawyer and Apollos, “and see that they lack nothing.” BDAG offers this definition: “to assist someone in making a journey, send on one’s way with food, money, by arranging for companions, means of travel, etc.”

ESV is better, if still a little awkward:

I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be helped on my journey there by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a while.

NIV is better still:

I plan to do so when I go to Spain. I hope to visit you while passing through and to have you assist me on my journey there, after I have enjoyed your company for a while.

The problem with the NRSV’s bland translation is it disguises what Paul is doing: asking for money. In Romans 15:24, Paul is saying he wants the Roman church to help him get to Spain. In 1 Corinthians 16:6, he says he doesn’t even know yet where he’ll be going.

By disguising what Paul is saying, this failure-to-translate hides the implicit teaching, that this is what churches do: provide support to people who are doing ministry beyond their immediate neighborhood. And worse, it fails to teach people (e.g., pastors and elders) to ask for such support, the way Paul used to.

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