The Hebrew text of Psalm 51:17, as pointed by the Masorites in the 6th century, reads “Sacrifice of God” rather than “My sacrifice.” While it is true that, in Hebrew, the only difference is in the vowel markings and those markings were not originally part of the text, early translations, like the Greek LXX (2nd Century B.C.), Aramaic Targums, 1 Century A.D.), and Latin Vulgate (4th Century A.D.), reflect a reading that is identical to the way that the Masorites pointed this text and, unlike the Hebrew text, the possessive form is not a “possible” reading in these early translations. I know of no ancient translation that supports the reading found in the updated NIV nor is this reading found in other modern translations. The 2011 revision offers a new reading of Psalms 51:17, but the textual evidence shows much stronger support for the reading found in the 1984 revision of the NIV.
There is a growing interest among many Christians to understand the Jewish/Hebrew roots of our faith and those who take the time to truly understand the roots of our faith will find that their understanding of Scripture is also enriched. Unfortunately, there is also a growing trend to simply adopt beliefs and practices from Jewish culture without really taking the time to understand them. Sometimes what has been adopted from Jewish culture actually places obstacles in our path that hinder us from understanding our Scripture.
One of the most tragic examples has been the acceptance of the idea that Hebrew is a “sacred” language. This belief has resulted in English “translations” of the bible that are nearly impossible to understand. Here are a few examples from modern English translations of Scripture that have arisen because of this belief.
“And concerning the Goyim coming to emunah, we have sent an iggeret with our decision that they avoid what is offered to elilim and dahm and what is strangled and zenut.”
“and he spoke with them and with all the mishpakhat bais avi imo”
“Are you willing to have da’as, O hollow man, that Emunah unharnessed to Ma’asim, stands idle?”
If you find it difficult to comprehend the meaning of these verses, you are not alone. Even the English speaking congregations that use these translations are often confused about what their own translations mean.
To understand how we have come to the point where translations of Scripture like these are being used in congregations today, it would be helpful to understand a little of the Jewish background from which these practices arose. Because Hebrew has been seen as a “sacred” language in Jewish culture, Jewish people have, for centuries, read the Scriptures in the synagogue and prayed their (memorized) daily prayers in Hebrew even though few understand what is being read or prayed. They have also mixed in significant amounts of Hebrew vocabulary into their native language to such an extend that other speakers of their language may have a difficult time following some of their conversations. The Yiddish language is an extreme example of this tendency, it is basically German written in Hebrew characters and includes a large amount of alternative Hebrew vocabulary; a spoken conversation is difficult for a German speaker to follow and written communication is completely unintelligible.
There is a growing trend in Hebrew roots communities to accept, even more zealously, the idea that Hebrew is a “sacred” language. Today the “Hebranglish” spoken in Hebrew roots communities may use an even more extensive list of Hebrew words compared to what is commonly used in Jewish communities and this vocabulary is being adopted into the “English” translations of Scripture that are being used every week in their congregations. These new translations, which are a mix of Hebrew and English, are difficult to understand because they use an extensive Hebrew vocabulary which is foreign to English speakers and they provide little value to person wanting to learn Hebrew because they frequently use these Hebrew words incorrectly.
One of the greatest blessings God has given His people is His word in a language they can truly understand. We need to remember that the original language of our Scripture is not Hebrew; our Scripture is a collection of books written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek! Jesus himself spoke Aramaic, his disciples wrote in Greek and frequently quoted from their Greek translation of Scriptures, and the leaders of the early church spoke Latin and quoted from their Latin translation; there is simply no one “sacred” language of Christianity. The most tragic misunderstandings of Scripture have arisen at times when some have elevated one language above all others and hindered God’s people from having access to a God’s word in a language they could understand. Scripture is no more sacred when it is written in Latin, Middle English, or Hebrew. Let us not again make the mistake of believing that any one language is God’s Holy language and instead thank him for giving us Scriptures in a language we can truly understand.
Increasingly ‘Allah’ is being used as a word for ‘God’ in non-Semitic language bible translations produced by organizations like Wycliffe, Frontiers, and others and this has raised concerns with the local churches where these translations are being introduced, missionaries who work with these churches, and other bible translators who are concerned about the legitimacy of these new translations. These new Muslim Idiom Translations (MIT’s) are being produced in languages like Amharic, Russian, Persian, etc… that have used other words for God for centuries. In these languages, the use of ‘Allah’ as a word for ‘God’ is a foreign concept ; in these cultures they understand ‘Allah’ much as we do in English i.e. as a name of the Islamic God. In many of these cultures the Christian community has had a very long history of bible translation in which the native word for ‘God’ in their language has been used for centuries. In these cultures, the introduction of a bible that replaces the word ‘God’ with ‘Allah’ is as offensive as it would be if the bibles we read in English made such a replacement. For more information on the use of ‘Allah’ as a name for ‘God’ please read this article.
Here is the Story told
Frequently missionaries who support the use of ‘Allah’ in non-Semitic languages will point to the Frontiers Turkish translation as an example of a non-Semitic language that legitimately uses the word ‘Allah’ as a translation for the word ‘God’. And they are right, Turkish is one of the unique cases where ‘Allah’ can legitimately be used in a non-Semitic bible translation. In the Missions Perspective coarse I took, the session that addressed the use of ‘Allah’ in Christian missions and bible translation presented such an argument. The story we were told in class went something like this:
Well meaning, but misguided, missionaries insisted that the Turkish word ‘Tanri’ be used in bible translations despite the fact that ‘Allah’ was the word that the culture understood as the legitimate word for ‘God.’ These misguided missionaries did not understood is that the word ‘Tanri’ was the word used by the Turkish people to describe a ‘little god’ and not the ‘Supreme God’ and their mistake in choosing the wrong word caused the bible to be misunderstood and largely rejected by the Turkish people. Frontiers came to the rescue with a new bible translation resolved this problem by introducing the word ‘Allah’ as a translation for the word ‘God’ allowing the non-Christian Turkish people to understand the message of the bible for the first time. Unfortunately the existing Christian church in Turkey, who no longer understood how ‘Tanri’ was understood by the larger culture, was angered by this new translation and its use of the word ‘Allah’ for ‘God’ and has been fighting against using the very terminology that allows the larger culture to finally be able to understand the message God intended.
The story presented in my Missions Perspective class is a great story and one that is often repeated but, unfortunately, it is mostly smoke, mirrors, and misdirection intended to deceive. Prior to taking the Missions Perspectives course I had had a number of discussions with bible translators about the Frontiers Turkish bible translation and because of those discussions I had taken a little time to study the history of Turkish bible translation. Because of this background I knew that the dispute in Turkey in regards to the new Turkish bible produced by Frontiers has never been about the use of ‘Allah’ as the word for ‘God.’ What troubled the Turkish church were the terms used for familial language i.e. calling Jesus the “representative of God” instead of the “Son of God” and calling God “Guardian” rather than “Father.” In Turkish ‘Allah’ and ‘Tanri’ are truly considered synonymous word for ‘God.’ Within the Christian church today, older bibles use ‘Allah’ and newer bibles, because of the language reforms, use ‘Tanri’ and the use of ‘Allah’ has never been a significant issue within the Turkish church. The dispute has been entirely about the translation of familial language which until the introduction of the Frontiers version, has been translated consistently in every bible translation including the original Muslim produced translations from the 17th and 18th century. Here is the responses to the Frontiers Translation from the Turkish alliance of Protestant Churches and the response from Thomas Cosmades (One of the most respected scholars in Turkey and translator of a Turkish NT). Note that in neither letter is the use of Allah in Turkish in dispute.
Here is what really happened
Because Turkish (which was originally written in the Arabic Script) was very heavily influenced by Arabic and Islamic culture, the Turkish language presents an unusual case where a non-Semitic language has truly adopted ‘allah’ as a generic word for ‘god.’ The first Turkish translations of the bible were produced by Muslims in the 17th century and were produced for Muslim audiences; these translations used the word ‘Allah’ for ‘God.’ Christians began using these translations centuries ago and continued to use them until new terminology was adopted as a result of the Turkish language reforms of the 1920’s and 1930’s. These language reforms were not driven by Christian missionaries but by the predominantly Muslim Turkish Government. In the late 1920’s Mustafa Kemal, a secular Turkish president, began a campaign of language reforms that replaced the Arabic Script with the current Latin Script and attempted to create a pure Turkish language free from its Arabic influences. As part of this language reform he insisted that many Arabic words be purged from the Turkish language and that Turkish words be used in their place. One of the most controversial mandates was his insistence that the Turkish word ‘Tranri’ be used by Turks as the name for a divine being in every religious context (even Muslims were required to make this change). The adoption of ‘Tanri’ in Christian bible translations was the result of these language reforms and not a result of a movement within the church initiated by well meaning but misguided missionaries as is claimed by some MIT proponents. The following is a quote from a Time Magazine article written Feb 20, 1933 that speaks about this issue. “A hard father to his people, Mustafa Kemal told his Turks last December that they must forget God in the Arabic language (Allah), learn Him in Turkish (Tanri). Admitting the delicacy of renaming a 1300-year-old god, Kemal gave the muezzins a time allowance to learn the Koran in Turkish. Last week in pious Brusa, the “green* city,” a muezzin halloed “Tanri Ulndur” from one of the minarets whence Brusans had heard “Allah Akbar” since the 14th Century.”
The story told about the Frontiers Turkish translation has become part of missionary folklore and is one of the many fictitious that are being repeated by far too many missionaries. Some repeat these stories because they too have been deceived but, sadly, some repeat these stories with the intent to deceive both their supporters and their fellow missionaries.
For several decades some missionaries[i] from organizations like Frontiers, Wycliffe, SIL, YWAM, and others have adopted a form of contextualization known as C-5 contextualization (or “Insider Movements”). These missionaries believe that followers of Christ should remain in the religion of their birth i.e. a Muslim should remain a Muslim, a Hindu should remain a Hindu, etc… Many of these missionaries suggest that asking someone to convert to Christianity is wrong. In Muslim contexts, “C-5 believers” frequently hold views about Christ that mirror the beliefs of the general Muslim population. They may continue to identify themselves as Muslims, continue to affirm Mohammad as God’s prophet, continue to affirm the Qu’ran as God’s word, and reject a belief in the divinity of Christ. Western missionary organizations promoting C-5 contextualization have produced new translations of the bible that harmonize the place and people names with those used and the Qu’ran and replace terms like Father, Son, Baptism, etc.. with alternative language that Muslim audiences find “less offensive.”
For more than a decade the Turkish church has expressed its serious concerns about the methods used and translations produced by these western missionaries. In 2007, Thomas Cosmades[ii] (one of the leading biblical scholars and translators in Turkey), in an open letter, expressed his concerns about a translation being produced by Frontiers. When those concerns were ignored, the Alliance of Protestant Churches wrote a warning letter to the churches in regards to the later published “Muslim friendly” translation.
Today, the pleas of the Turkish church remain unheeded and now leaders (mostly Muslim) in the Turkish government have taken notice of these practices and issued a warning about these missionaries, their practices, and their bible translations. The following is an excerpt from an article that appeared in the Turkish news yesterday (January 19, 2014).
TURKEY’S CiA (MIT) warns government (Prime Minister and Ministry of Religious Affairs) about foreign Christian undercover missionaries posing as Muslims operating under a branch named C-5 in a mission agency called Frontiers. Also mentioned by name are Jeff Carvey in Bursa and Bruce Privatsky in Tekirdag. The article also mentions the attempts of creating a Muslim-friendly Bible translation to entice Muslims.
The complete article (in Turkish) can be found here.
The news article (in English) is now available here
C-5 contextualization and its accompanying translations are hindering the evangelistic work of our brothers and sisters in Christ in many parts of the world because it is angering the Muslims they are trying to reach; Muslims who believe Christians are trying to deceive them. When Muslims react in anger to the deceptive methods that our western missionaries have employed, it is our brothers and sisters in Christ who live among them that suffer. Please listen to the pleas of our brothers and sisters in Christ and make sure the money you give to missionaries is not being used to promote the deceptive practices of C-5 contextualization, practices that hinder the Gospel and endanger our brothers and sisters in Christ. More information on this issue can be found on the Biblical Missiology website.
In his book “In The Beginnings” Steven E. Dill presents his arguments for adopting the “Gap theory” interpretation of the Creation account given in Geneses 1. While I personally do not see the “Gap theory” as the best explanation for the account given in Genesis 1, my criticisms of Dill’s books are unrelated to my rejection of the Gap theory. There are good scholars that present reasonable arguments for the “Gap Theory” and while I would also disagree with their conclusions, I do respect their work. On the other hand, Dill’s book is one that I could not recommend. Dill rarely provides references for the claims he makes, some of which are quite absurd. He often tries to bolster his position by claiming that Hebrew scholars (frequently unidentified) do agree with him and yet he subsequently spends four pages (pages 128-131) trying to explain why all of the leading Hebrew scholars have misunderstood the text of Genesis 1 and why he (without any knowledge of the Hebrew language) was able to determine what they had failed to see. The suggestion is clear, if Hebrew scholars disagree with him, it is because they just didn’t understand the text, but if they do agree with his position then their status as Hebrew scholars adds credibility to his argument. It is a “heads I win, tails you lose” kind of argument. There are many factual errors in the text of this book (both scientific and linguistic). I have highlighted a few of the linguistic errors below.
Let’s take a look at some of the claims Dill makes:
Dill claims that some Hebrew scholars believe that “yom” when modified by a number ALWAYS refers to a literal day. The truth is that Hebrew scholars are divided on the question about whether the word “yom” in Genesis 1 refers to a literal 24 hour day or something else; however, no legitimate scholar would make the claim that every instance of “yom” when combined with a numerical modifier ALWAYS refers to a literal 24 hour day. They don’t make this claim because there are existent texts in both the OT and other Hebrew literature that demonstrate the fallacy of this claim.
“In my studies of the biblical account of creation, I have discovered that it doesn’t take much effort to find conflicting opinions among the scholars. There are Hebrew scholars who will agree with what I just said. They agree that when one of these numerical modifiers is added to YOWM, it always refers to a literal day.” pg 67
And he then continues with:
“How do I explain the fact that I think they [Hebrew scholars] are absolutely wonderful but absolutely wrong? I can only assume that they base their opinion on extra-biblical Hebrew writings. Apparently YOWM plus a number doesn’t have to mean a twenty-four hour day when you look at the entire history of the Hebrew language. While this may be true in other writings, I still insist that in the bible, YOWM plus a number always refers to a literal day”, pg 67
On page page 68 lists a number of verses beginning in which a number and the word ‘yom’ are used where he claims the meaning is a literal 24 hour day. A quick glance at his list revealed that he had included Zach. 14:7. However, Zach. 14:7 refers to an eschatological day that is unending i.e. this verse actually disproves the very thing he is trying to prove. I did not bother to check the rest of the list, so there may be other equally inaccurate citations included. Included below is the verse in question, in context, and a couple of other biblical references that refer to this same day. Additionally, I have included part of the description of this day given in the New American Commentary on Zachariah.
“On that day there will be no light, no cold or frost. It will be a unique day without daytime or nighttime–a day known to the LORD. When evening comes, there will be light. On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half to the eastern sea and half to the western sea, in summer and in winter. The LORD will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one LORD, and his name the only name”. Zec 14:6-9 NIV (a “unique day” is Lit. “yom echad” exactly as it is in Genesis 1:5)
“The sun will no more be your light by day, nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you, for the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory. Your sun will never set again, and your moon will wane no more; the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end. Then will all your people be righteous and they will possess the land forever. They are the shoot I have planted, the work of my hands, for the display of my splendor.” Isa 60:19-21 NIV
“There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign forever and ever” Rev 22:5 NIV
“The statement that this unique day will know neither “daytime nor nighttime” continues the thought from v.6 that there will no longer be any light. This absence of light, as stated above, does not necessarily suggest darkness. Rather, any light visible to the people would emanate from the Lord himself. More to the point, no longer would people mark time by the movement of the earth around d various heavenly bodies. The changes in physical phenomena that have delineated days since the very beginning of time could not possibly describe the scope of the changes the Lord will accomplish in his new creation.” New American Commentary, Zachariah.
When trying to describe the function of the conjunctive vav, Dill says that
“Genesis 1:2 begins with the Hebrew word WAW (Sometimes written as VAV)”, In The Beginnings, Steven E. Dill, pg 134.
Here, he did not even get the facts about the conjunction itself correct. The “vav” is a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, it is not a Hebrew word and the letter itself is used many different ways. In its use as a prefixed conjunction it most commonly carries a sense of “and”, but it can carry a sense of “or,” “but.” Additionally, it can mean “now” in a stylistic sense but not in a sense of immediacy i.e. in English we prefer not to begin sentences with the word “and” but this is quite common in Hebrew. English stylists will often exchange “and” for “now” in English translations to reflect better English style. Below I have included the Hebrew text of Ge. 1:2., beginning right to left, the first letter of the first word is the conjunctive vav, the second letter (also a prefix) is the definite article, and the last three letters form the word “eretz” (land, or earth). In other words, the first “word” of the text doesn’t read “and” it reads “and the earth”
והארץ היתה תהו ובהו וחשׁך על־פני תהום ורוח אלהים מרחפת על־פני המים
On page 133 Dills states that:
“”The earth” pretty much means “the earth” as far as I can tell from the scholars.”
However, most scholars translate this as “the earth” not because the word generally means “the earth” (it doesn’t) but because it is part of the complete phrase “את השׁמים ואת הארץ” (the heavens and the earth). In this context it refers to the whole earth i.e. the globe on which we live. When these Hebrew words appear alone they are typically translated as “sky” and “land” and take on the expanded meaning of “the whole earth” only when the context itself demands.
On page 75 Dill states that:
“The creation account in Genesis cannot be subjected to twisted interpretations. “Night” always means “night.” “Morning” always means “morning.” “Evening” always means “evening”. All of these words refer to portions of the normal twenty-four [hour?] day.”
Unfortunately Dill didn’t bother even looking at a Hebrew lexicon before making this absurd claim. Even my pocket lexicon includes several definitions for בקר (translated as morning in Genesis 1) i.e. morning, morning-time, dawn; the next morning, tomorrow, early, soon, etc…, and a reference like HALOT provide a great deal more. In Hebrew, context and grammar must drive meaning because most Hebrew roots have a much broader semantic range than do the words used in English translation.
On page 184, he states that:
“Often a special Hebrew construction using the imperfect form of the verb asserts that something came to pass (cf. Gen. 1:7, 9). Less often, the construction is used with the perfect form of the verb to refer to something coming to pass in the future. (Isa. 7:18, 21; Hos. 2:16).”
The “special Hebrew construction” to which Dill refers is called a “vav consecutive” or “vav conversive” and it is frequently used (i.e. thousands of times) in OT narratives with both perfect and imperfect verb forms. When a conjunctive vav is prefixed to a verb (any verb not just HYH) in ancient Hebrew narratives, it changes the sense of that verb from the perfect to the imperfect or from the imperfect to the perfect. The vav consecutive demonstrates a continuance in the flow of the narrative rather and not a change to the action of the verb aside from the shift between perfect/imperfect or imperfect/perfect. The perfect and imperfect sense of Biblical Hebrew verbs very loosely correlates to our past and future verb tenses but should be thought of as complete (perfect) or incomplete (imperfect) actions rather than simple “past” and “future” actions. With or without the prefixed conjunction, biblical Hebrew verbs may be used to communicate a variety of perfect/imperfect tenses and context alone is what determines which tense is best used in translation.
The foundation of Dill’s argument is based on his interpretation of the Hebrew language of Genesis 1. However, Dill clearly does not read Hebrew and, throughout his book, he repeatedly demonstrates very significant misunderstandings of the Hebrew language. Unfortunately his misunderstandings of the Hebrew language frequently lead to grossly inaccurate conclusions. For those who do read Hebrew, this book will often leave you cringing. For example, the section headings for the days of Genesis (in great big bold letters) read “ECHAD YOM,” “SHENI YOM,” etc… (OUCH!). For those who don’t read Hebrew, these should have been “YOM ECHAD,” “YOM SHENI,” etc… This is the equivalent of writing Daymon, Daytues, etc… instead of Monday, Tuesday. If we saw this in a text, we would be pretty sure that the author didn’t speak English. There is very little that is said about the language that can be trusted. This is a book that provides very little value to anyone trying to understand the text of Genesis 1.
As I was reading through Psalms 139, I realized that one of the verses I knew well in English didn’t quite read the same way in Hebrew. The Hebrew was a bit broken and the translators had to smooth it out a little in order for it to make sense in English. In the English of the KJV, and similar to most English translations, Psalms 139:14 reads “I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.” but the Hebrew text reads “I will thank you because fearfully, I was wonderful. Wonderful [are] your works and my spirit knows [it] well (or “you know well my spirit”).” Sometimes, these kinds of textual difficulties are resolved when we look at another Hebrew text, like the text of the Dead Sea Scrolls, where a variant reading might read a little more smoothly, but in the case of Ps. 139:14 it only deepened the questions. In the primary Psalms scroll from the DSS (11Qpsa) there is a shift from the first person to the second person making this verse more about God and less about me. The text from the Dead Sea reads “I will thank you because you are magnificent. Wonderful and amazing [are] your works and you know well my spirit.” In my quest to understand which reading was original, I began by looking at some of the Ancient translations, beginning with the Greek Septuagint (2nd Century BC) and the Latin Vulgate (4th Century AD). These two texts were the primary texts used by the church during the first sixteen centuries and both texts followed the reading found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In translations of the Psalms the current reading of Ps. 139:14 doesn’t seem to have appeared until the Reformation period.
So why did the text change?
For centuries leading up to the reformation period, the primary text used by the church was the Latin Vulgate (a text that few understood). Often even the priests who were teaching the text could not read the text of the bible themselves. This opened the door to serious abuses of Scripture because few could challenge the claims made about its contents. In the 16th century, some of the few men, like Luther, Calvin, etc…, who could read the Scriptures became increasingly concerned with the disparity between what the church was teaching and what the Scriptures really said. In their quest to truly understand the Scriptures they began looking at the original Hebrew and Greek texts as well as the Latin text of the Vulgate. And they began to produce new translations for the people from these Greek and Hebrew texts in much the same way as St. Jerome had produced a Latin version in the common language of the people many centuries earlier based on the Hebrew and Greek texts he had.
The Hebrew text
In the 16th century, the earliest Hebrew manuscripts came from the 9th century; however, because of the strict controls the Jewish scribes who were producing these scrolls had developed, copies of the Hebrew text were remarkably accurate. Scholars generally considered variant readings of the Hebrew text in Greek and Latin translations to reflect mistranslations by earlier translators and readings from the Greek or Latin were usually only considered when the Hebrew text was difficult or vague. The translations produced in the 16th century reflect a reasonably accurate translation of the Hebrew texts that scholars had access to at that time. For centuries, very little changed with respect to the Hebrew texts to which scholars had access and the opinion that the LXX was a poor translation of the Hebrew prevailed. As we entered the 20th century, we began to discover ancient texts, like those found near the Dead Sea but it was not until the late 20th before these new discoveries began having an impact on bible translations. As scholars began to examine the Dead Sea scrolls, they began to have a deeper respect for the translation work of translators of the LXX because these scrolls revealed a Hebrew base text for many of its variant readings, like those in Ps. 139:14. In many cases these were not mistranslations but accurate translations of a variant text.
Is it “My spirit knows” or “You know my Spirit”
One of the translation differences in this verse doesn’t reflect any “textual variant” but only a change in vocalization. Hebrew was originally written without vowels and vowels were added to the text many, many centuries later. These are the dots and dashes that can be seen in the text of the MT below. The Masorites (who added these vowels) did so in a way that kept the parallelism from the first half the verse i.e. “I have been fearfully and wonderfully made” and “My soul knows it.” However, if we accept the authenticity of the earlier text then we would expect the vocalization to reflect the 2nd person i.e. “You are fearful and your works are wonderful” and “You know my soul.” Letter for letter, the text of this ending phrase is the identical, it is only the pronunciation that changes.
Does this mean that our bibles are unreliable?
Sometimes it is claimed that our bibles today reflect a text that has been translated from a translation of a translation of a translation, etc… and that the texts we have today no longer reflect the writings of the original authors. However, despite the variant readings found in these ancient witnesses, the overall picture we see in these ancient texts demonstrates that the text of Scripture has been remarkably well preserved. In fact the text of Scripture has been so well preserved that many scholars doubted the authenticity of these ancient witnesses for decades. To accept the authenticity of these ancient manuscripts meant these scholars had to abandon their theories about how Scripture had developed because these ancient manuscripts demonstrated that the text was far better preserved than their theories would permit. While there are occasions, like this one, where we need to re-evaluate our understanding of a verse, these are the exceptions and not the rule. And while some variants like this one do introduce slight nuances into the text, the overall message of the whole passage remains unchanged.
NET Notes (Psa 139:14)
22 tc Heb “because awesome things, I am distinct, amazing [are] your works.” The text as it stands is syntactically problematic and makes little, if any, sense. The Niphal of פָּלָה (pala’) occurs elsewhere only in Exod 33:16. Many take the form from פָלָא (pala’; see GKC 216 §75.qq), which in the Niphal perfect means “to be amazing” (see 2 Sam 1:26; Ps 118:23; Prov 30:18). Some, following the LXX and some other ancient witnesses, also prefer to emend the verb from first to second person, “you are amazing” (see L. C. Allen, Psalms 101–150 [WBC], 249, 251). The present translation assumes the text conflates two variants: נפלאים, the otherwise unattested masculine plural participle of פָלָא, and נִפְלָאוֹת (nifla’ot), the usual (feminine) plural form of the Niphal participle. The latter has been changed to a verb by later scribes in an attempt to accommodate it syntactically. The original text likely read, נפלאותים מעשׂיך נוראות (“your works [are] awesome [and] amazing”).
23 tc Heb “and my being knows very much.” Better parallelism is achieved (see v. 15a) if one emends יֹדַעַת (yoda’at), a Qal active participle, feminine singular form, to יָדַעְתָּ (yada’ta), a Qal perfect second masculine singular perfect. See L. C. Allen, Psalms 101–150 (WBC), 252.
In Hebrew, like in English, the meaning of the word ‘day’ is dependent on the context in which it is used. It can refer to a 24 hour period of time, it can refer to a period of daylight, or it can refer to a long undefined period of time. In English here are some examples: “There are 30 days (24 hour periods) in June,” “The park is open only during the day (period of daylight),” “They didn’t use computers in his day (an undefined period of time).” The word ‘yom/day’ in Hebrew is used with the same broad range of meaning and in Genesis 1:1-2:4 we have all three different meanings for the word ‘day’ being used. Genesis 1:5 “God called the light, ‘day’“ and Genesis 1:14 “let there be lights in the firmament of heaven to divide between the day and the night” are both clearly references to daylight; also in vs. 14 we also have a reference to 24 hour periods of time “they will be signs for the seasons, and for the days, and for the years.” In Genesis 2:4 “in the day the Lord God made the earth and the heavens” is clearly a reference to a period of time longer than 24 hours. The question that remains is what was the intended in remaining eight occurrences? There are significant textual issues that make the interpretation of these remaining ‘days’ in Genesis 1 difficult. While some of these issues are glossed over in our English translations, they shouldn’t be ignored by those trying to understand the meaning of the ‘days’ in Genesis 1. These issues have always been a factor in interpreting this text and are some of the reasons that questions about the proper understanding of the ‘days’ of creation have always been a point of contention. Let’s take a look at a few of the textual issues found in this text that have puzzled people for thousands of years.
יום אחד – one day
While most translations translate ‘yom echad’ as “the first day,” there are several significant issues with this translation. First, “first day” in Hebrew is “יום ראשון” (yom rishon) and not “יום אחד” (yom echad). In every other place, except one, we find that “יום אחד” has been translated into English with phrases like “one day,” “a single day,” etc…, the other exception is a reference to “the first day of the first month” in Ezra. Second, while the definite article (the) is included in most English translations, it is not included in the Hebrew text of the first five days.
Note: For those who would like to see how “יום אחד” is translated in other places in the bible, here is a list of the other places where this phrase appears: Gen. 1:5, Gen. 27:45, Gen. 33:13, Num. 11:19, 1 Sam. 9:15, 1 Sam. 27:1, Ezr. 10:17, Isa. 9:13, Jon. 3:4, Zech. 14:7.
יום שׁני – a second day
The definite article (the) is absent in the Hebrew text but included in many English translations.
יום שׁלישׁי – a third day
The definite article (the) is absent in the Hebrew text but included in many English translations.
יום רביעי – a forth day
The definite article (the) is absent in the Hebrew text but included in many English translations.
יום חמישׁי – a fifth day
The definite article (the) is absent in the Hebrew text but included in many English translations.
יום השׁשׁי – day of the sixth
This is the first time that the definite article (the) was included in the Hebrew text. This difference shows that the author understood how to use the definite article and raises many questions about its absence in the first five days. One must wonder why the author chose to use a construct form only in this verse i.e. “day of the sixth” rather than “the sixth day.”
ויכל אלהים ביום השׁביעי מלאכתו – In the seventh day, God finish his work.
וישׁבת ביום השׁביעי מכל־מלאכתו – And he rested in the seventh day from all his work.
Twice we have the phrase “in the seventh day,” a phrase that includes both the definite article (the) and the preposition “in”; glaringly absent is any reference to the phrase “there was an evening and there was a morning” that closed each of the prior days. Both the author of the book of Hebrews and leaders of the early church recognized that these grammatical features implied that the seventh day has not yet ended.
ביום עשׂות יהוה אלהים ארץ ושׁמים – in the day the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.
Here the text implies that God made the heavens and earth in a single day (note the exact same word ‘yom’ is used). If ‘yom’ should only be understood as a only a literal 24 hour period of time, then we have a significant conflict with the account of creation given in the prior 6 days.
- Why is the first day called “one day” and not “the first day?” Is this a clue that another day may have proceeded this day? Could there have been a “gap” between the real first day and the first day described in the account given in Genesis 1?
- Why is the definite article missing in the account of the first five days? Is this a clue that these days were not consecutive?
- If the missing definite article is insignificant then why is it included in the account of the last two days?
- What was the author trying to communicate by using the construct form in day 6?
- Does the lack of the closing phrase “there was an evening and there was a morning” in the account of the “seventh day” imply that day has not yet ended?
- If the all days in Genesis 1:1-2:3 are literal 24 hour days, why would the ‘day’ in Genesis 2:4 be figurative?
Interpreting the length and sequence of the days in Genesis 1 is not nearly as easy as some believe. There are many more issues involved than the few I have mentioned here. There is room for a number of different interpretations but no single interpretation is entirely without difficulties. It is important to remember that questions about the length of days in Genesis 1 have been raised long before questions about geology, evolution, or modern science ever entered this debate.Those who insist that the text of Genesis 1 clearly supports their view to the exclusion of all others, whether literal or figurative, have simply not done their homework.
“And the people of Dan set up the carved image for themselves, and Jonathan the son of Gershom, son of Moses, and his sons were priests to the tribe of the Danites until the day of the captivity of the land.” (Jdg 18:30 ESV)
“Then the children of Dan set up for themselves the carved image; and Jonathan the son of Gershom, the son of Manasseh, and his sons were priests to the tribe of Dan until the day of the captivity of the land.” (Jdg 18:30 NKJV)
In Judges 18:30, bible versions are divided on the question of the identity of Jonathan’s grandfather. Many versions, like the ESV, NIV, NLT, NRSV, HCSB, and others have translated this as Moses but a few versions, like the NJKV, KJV, JPS, Geneva, have translated this as Manasseh. When we look at the Hebrew text, the question becomes more perplexing because the Hebrew text clearly says Manasseh but the majority of translations say Moses. What’s going on?
In order to understand what is happening here, it will be helpful to look at the Hebrew text. While these names are spelled very differently in English, in Hebrew there is only a one letter difference between these names. This can clearly be seen in Figure 1. There are several theories about why the nun might have been inserted into the name. Tov, in “Textual Criticism, 57” suggests that “the insertion of the nun not only resolves a difficult theological issue but also links this account specifically with the name of a person who, more than any other, sponsored and promoted apostasy in Israel/Judah (c.f. 2 Kgs 21:1-18).” While this is a creative resolution, I do not think it is the best resolution to this problem.
Where do we begin?
When we seek to resolve textual questions like this, the first question we must ask is “Is there evidence to support the idea that the spelling has changed?” In this case we have several pieces of evidence that suggest that that the nun is likely an addition to the text. Let’s take a look at some of those pieces of evidence.
- In two other genealogies (Exodus 2 and 18) we are told that Moses is the father of Gershom.
In several Hebrew Manuscripts, including the Leningrad Codex, the nun is super-scripted. This is reproduced in the text of the BHS which uses the Leningrad codex as its base text. (Here is the a photo of this portion of the BHS text). Super-scripting letters (fig. 2), like was done here, is very unusual and indicates that there was some doubt about the legitimacy of the nun in this name.
- While most ancient manuscripts have the name Manasseh, the BHS identifies a copy of the LXX and a copy of the Vulgate that that use the name Moses rather than Manasseh, indicating that questions about the spelling of this name have a very early origin.
A possible resolution to this problem.
Hebrew originally had almost no indication of vowels (and even today it is most frequently written without vowels). Without vowels, correctly pronouncing Hebrew words requires one to understand the grammar and context so that the reader can insert the correct vowel sounds when reading aloud. The pronunciation of a Hebrew word does affect its meaning. After the captivity, the Jewish people began to adopt Aramaic as their primary spoken language and the knowledge of correct Hebrew pronunciation began to be lost. To help resolve this issue, two Hebrew letters that frequently double as vowels, i.e. yohd for ‘ee’ sounds, and vav for the long ‘o’ sound, began to be inserted into words to aid in their pronunciation. It is common to see two different manuscripts where the insertion of these letters is present in one manuscript and absent in another (or even in different instances of the same word in the same manuscript). The addition of these letters into the spelling of a word does not change its meaning or pronunciation but it does enable the reader to more easily identify the correct pronunciation.
In Ecclesiastes, we have an example that demonstrates this kind of spelling change. Looking at figure 3, we can see that in vs. 8:5 shomer (in red) is spelled with addition of the vav, and in Eccl. 11:4 we see shomer spelled without the vav. Both of these words are pronounced identically but the long ‘o’ sound is much more easily identified by the presence of the vav in vs. 8:5. Expanding the spelling of words in Hebrew to aid in their pronunciation is a very common feature of the language.
Hebrew was not always written in the script that is used today. Prior to the captivity, Hebrew was written in a Paleo Hebraic script, but after the captivity the Jewish people adopted both the language and the script that had been used by their captors. It is very possible that the same scribes who were transcribing Hebrew from its original script to the Aramaic script used today, were the same scribes that were also expanding the spellings of words to aid in their pronunciation. It just so happens that the shape of vav that is frequently inserted into words to indicate the long ‘o’ sound is very similar to the shape of nun that is questioned in the spelling of this name. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how a transcription error, or just the slightest slip of the pen, could create the spelling error that we see in the text today (see figure 4).
After publishing my review of “One Bible, Many Versions,” David Brunn (the author) contacted me and agreed to answer any questions I might have about his book. I have found David to be very open and have really enjoyed the opportunity to dialog with him and value the opportunity I have had to get to know him a little bit. Through this dialog I have found that David and I share very similar views about bible translation and I am truly thankful for his commitment to accurately translating the Word of God. As I said in my review, “the most common difficulty [in the content of David’s book] arises from what he has not said rather than what he has said” and while I do wish more had been said in some places, I do believe that David’s responses help to bring some understanding about why these omissions in his book exist, what he was trying to accomplish, and how he would respond to questions that are raised because of these omissions. David has very graciously allowed me to publish some of our dialog.
Question: You allude to the idea that there are boundaries to Dynamic Equivalency and even give one extreme example that goes too far but you don’t really draw any clear lines and never suggest that any well-known version has gone too far (even if only in a single passage). Where do you see the lines?
Answer: One problem I see with the books and articles that address the question of “which Bible version is best” is that most authors start by stating their philosophical position (i.e., their personal opinion) and then they cherry-pick examples from Scripture that support their position, totally ignoring every example that might negate or even weaken their stated opinion. For that reason, my strategy in writing One Bible, Many Versions was to avoid expressing my personal opinion as much as possible. That doesn’t mean I have no opinion. But I didn’t want the book to be about my opinion. My aim was to present objective evidence as in a court of law. In that context, my personal opinion is really quite irrelevant. If the evidence I presented seemed weighted in one direction, that is because I tried to include a significant sampling of the evidence that has largely been left out of the discussion.
There is one area where I DID feel I needed to reveal my personal opinion: that is my belief in the “infallibility of the inspired Word of God.” Some authors have attempted to draw an artificial link between “word-for-word translation” and “verbal-plenary inspiration”—suggesting that anyone who would accept a “non-literal” translation certainly must NOT believe in “verbal inspiration.” So in order to make sure I didn’t lose a huge segment of my intended target audience, I needed to make it very clear that “I fully embrace the verbal, plenary, wholly infallible and inerrant inspiration of the Bible” (p. 100).
You acknowledged in your review that I had said that “no translation is perfect.” There are a couple other places where I make similar statements. Here are two (both on p. 191):
- “I have never found a Bible version I agree with 100 percent; but at the same time, I have never found a version I disagree with 100%.”
- “As we compare the various English translations of the Bible, we will find that some versions have translated certain verses in a way that may be unduly free.”
I agree with you that I probably should have given greater emphasis to this point. It is a bit buried under a lot of other material. But even if I had emphasized this point more, I still would NOT have given specific examples of where I think a certain version has “stepped across the line,” since that would simply be my personal opinion. I DO agree that some renderings in idiomatic versions went farther than necessary—injecting more interpretation into the text than they needed to (again, my personal opinion). Along with not pointing out those places, I also did not point out places in the “literal” versions where my personal opinion is that they “stepped across the line into highly literal territory—producing zero meaning for some readers” (p. 191).
Question: In your book you seem to imply that ALL English versions are essentially the same, is this really what you intended?
Answer: My intention was to state that ALL English versions (used by evangelical Christians) have value—not that they are all the same. By the way, I had nothing to do with the title of the book, including the sub-title, “Are All Translations Created Equal?”. One of the first things my editor told me when I contacted him was that the publisher always has final say on a book’s title. I had tossed around several possible titles myself, but this is the one they chose to use.
Question: You don’t really address the philosophical differences between different translation theories, what are your opinions in regards to some of the philosophical presuppositions held by Nida, Kraft, etc… that have played a significant part in shaping modern translation theory itself?
Answer: As I stated above, I intentionally stayed away from expressing my personal opinions in the book. (I actually have a second book underway, and having laid some of the groundwork in the first book, I believe I WILL be able to express more of my own personal philosophy in the sequel.) When it comes to translation philosophy, I would like to think that I take a “balanced” view. Maybe we ALL view ourselves as “balanced.” As a translation consultant, I have worked with translators who produced material that was so excessively literal that when I conducted a comprehension check, the target-language hearers had no idea what it was supposed to mean. Obviously, if there is no apparent meaning in a translation, the Holy Spirit cannot use it to transform lives. At the same time, I have worked with translators who, in my opinion, recklessly injected an inordinate amount of interpretation into their translations. (Of course, ALL translations must include some interpretation.) In both scenarios—excessively literal and excessively interpretive—I believe my job as a consultant is to help the translators move toward the appropriate place of balance.
There’s one more point that you mentioned in your review, but not here in your questions, so I thought I would comment on it briefly: my example of the Hebrew word barak (pp. 121-22). I am not unaware of the issues surrounding this word. Early on, I considered eliminating this example altogether because I knew it was one of my weakest. However, I also knew that IVP would contract with outside readers (anonymous to me) who are well-published, recognized scholars in the original languages, so I decided to wait to see what they thought of the example. Since they didn’t comment on that point (they made plenty of other comments), I decided to leave the example in. Maybe that was a mistake.
I hope this helps answer at least some of your questions.
Thank you David for your openness, trust, and your commitment to faithfully translating the Scriptures.
Many of issues addressed in Dave Brunn’s new book are things that I wish every Christian knew about bible translation and at points I found myself almost cheering for Brunn as he began his explanation of the bible translation process. He does a wonderful job explaining many of the challenges bible translators face and masterfully demonstrates how similar answers to those challenges have often been chosen by translators who have embraced very different translation philosophies. Before reading Brunn’s book, I had already read several reviews which admittedly had shaped my expectations and so I was surprised to find that I was initially agreeing with him far more than I had anticipated. However, as I continued to read, I soon realized that my original expectations were not as far off as I had thought. While Brunn explores aspects of bible translation that I wish every Christian understood, too often he stops short in his explanations and leaves the reader with an impression that is not entirely accurate. I would like to explore some of the places were I believe Brunn’s explanation falls short.
The meaning or words
Brunn does an excellent job explaining how a single word in the biblical languages can have many different meanings in English, he explains how the meaning of words in different languages are almost never identical and how words used in translation seldom perfectly convey the meaning of the original language. One of the myths held by many Christians is that the bible they use is a “word for word” translation and Brunn does an excellent job illustrating why a true “word for word” translation would be impossible to produce. Unfortunately, Brunn also significantly overstates the ambiguities that bible translators face when determining the meaning of a given Hebrew or Greek word. One of the ways in which these ambiguities are amplified in his book results from his failure to explain the difference between lexical meaning (the meaning of a word as defined in the dictionary) and actual meaning (the meaning of a word in real a sentence). In every language, grammar, context, and form almost always limit the meaning of a word to a small subset of the possible meanings found in the dictionary. For example, if we look at the lexical meaning of the English word “saw” we find multiple meanings.
saw – noun, a tool used for cutting; noun, a proverb; verb, to cut; verb (past tense of) to see; verb, to move back and forth.
But if I were to use this word in the following sentence:
“I saw a man using a saw to saw wood.”
I would find that each instance of the word “saw” in this sentence is limited to exactly one meaning. Grammar and context prevent any misunderstandings about what meaning was intended in each of the three specific instances where this word is used. While the lexical meaning of the word “saw” has at least five different possible meanings, the actual meaning of each instance of “saw” in this sentence has exactly one possible meaning. While context and grammar do not always eliminate all but one choice, as they did in this example, a word’s actual meaning is almost always limited to a small subset of its lexical meaning.
The limits of dynamic equivalency
After demonstrating why “word for word” translations are impossible, Brunn does a good job of showing why every translator must adopt a “meaning for meaning” methodology to some extent. However, he fails to adequately explain the boundaries that should constrain the translator. One of the stated translation goals of many English translations has been to leave interpretation, as much as possible, in the hands of the reader. By striving to interpret as little as possible, the translator avoids introducing his own sectarian biases into the text. Brunn rightly points out that in some circumstances this goal is truly unattainable (which is something every translators understands) but he then concludes, wrongly in my opinion, that if it can be shown that an interpretive choice must be made for the reader in any circumstance then it is acceptable to do so in every circumstance. Rather than cautioning the translator to avoid introducing their own interpretations into the text, he opens the door wide open for this practice with very little being said about practical boundaries. While I am sure that, in practice, Brunn recognizes that there are boundaries that should not be crossed, he does a very poor job communicating those boundaries in his book. To illustrate why it is important for a translator to avoid overly interpretive translations, I offer the following “translations” of Hebrews 6:4-6. The first interpreted according to Reformed theology and the second interpreted according to Arminian theology.
The Reformed version
It is impossible for those who appeared to have once been enlightened, who have pretended to taste the heavenly gift, who have fooled us into believing that they have shared in the Holy Spirit, who may even have themselves thought they had tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. (Heb 6:4-6)
The Arminian version
It is difficult for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who are now falling away, to be brought back to repentance. While they continue to rebel, they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. (Heb 6:4-6)
While these “translations” might legitimately reflect the interpretations offered in commentaries, neither of these “translations” belongs in any bible. Both of these translations are overly interpretive and resolve theological debates that are not resolved in the text itself. While either of these interpretations might reflect the meaning of the text as it is understood by the translator, offering either of these translations in a version of the bible would be crossing lines that should offend us all; it should offend us even if we happen to agree with the interpretation offered.
Brunn makes almost no mention of the philosophical differences related to understanding language itself that have shaped the different translation theories he explores. While it is true, as Brunn aptly demonstrates, that people who hold very different philosophies about language can come to the same conclusions about the meaning of a particular text, understanding those philosophical differences helps one understand why they frequently come to very different conclusions about meaning. At the heart of this difference are questions about the beginning of language itself i.e. did language originate with God and are there common ideas expressed through language that transcend culture or did language originate with man and is every idea constrained by the experiences of the culture and/or individual? Eugene Nida, considered the father of the Dynamic Equivalent translation theory holds strongly to the latter position. According to Nida, words do not have any inherent meaning, they are simply symbols used to communicate ideas and no two speakers associate the exact same ideas with the same symbols. Nida says that he does “not believe in truth apart from experience and cultural experience.” Here is an excerpt from Nida’s lecture where he attempts to explain the process of communication to his students.
“Now he [i.e. the source, or initiator of communication] has to, in order to express that, to communicate it, to select from his own background, mind you, he selects from his background, those particular symbols which to him best represent that experience and he then puts them together in the way in which he has learned to put them together. Now this is a very important point because his use of symbols depends entirely upon his experience and background with those symbols. No two people ever have the same background; therefore, no two people ever mean exactly the same by the same symbols! This is discouraging for communication, isn’t it? Nevertheless, this is really the way it operates and unless we’re aware of this fact we can get tied up in all kinds of misunderstandings.”, lecture that Nida gave in 1962.
And in a lecture at Asbury Theological Seminary in 1994, Nida suggests that there are no absolute truths that can be determined from Scripture. His position is typical of many evangelical postmodern theologians who accept the existence of an absolute truth but reject the idea that anyone other than God can know anything at all about that truth.The assumption is that if one does not have an infinitely perfect understanding of truth then they cannot have any assurance that anything they believe is true and because none of us can have infinite and perfect knowledge, we are all left without any hope of being able to determine truth at all. While Nida, in theory, affirms the existence of an absolute truth, in practice he leaves us with nothing more than theological and moral relativism. Here is an excerpt from his lecture at Asbury.
Yeah, but if you, you cannot define God how can you then have an absolute? Only God himself is absolute. I’ve had people say to me, “God couldn’t have done that because it’s contrary to Scripture” meaning, contrary to their interpretation of the Scriptures. And God is the only absolute. And once we try to get an absolute out of a variety of cultures we’re just kidding ourselves because all of those are contained within culture and therefore, every one of them is limited. And if you’re going to put a bunch of limited things together you’re not going to come out with something that is unlimited – an absolute. So, add up as many as you like. But it’s not going to be completely supracultural.
I believe it is important to understand the philosophical assumptions held by the leading proponents of this translation theory and to understand how those assumptions have affected the underlying tenets of the theory itself. By recognizing the underlying philosophical assumptions, we can better understand why there are frequently very different choices made in translations produced by those who have adopted these principles compared to those who have not.The practical rejection of absolute truth combined with a belief that words are merely “symbols” that are associated with ideas only in the mind of the speaker/author has opened the door to translation practices that have begun to challenge Christian orthodoxy itself. The recent Turkish translation which translates “Father” as guardian and “Son of God” as “God’s representative” or the Malay translation that translates “Yahweh” as “Allah” are good examples of how far astray a translation can go when we accept the philosophical propositions that are foundational to the Dynamic Equivalent theory of translation. To be clear, I am not suggesting that everything encompassed in Dynamic Equivalent theory is itself wrong or that every translator who has adopted Dynamic Equivalent translation practices has accepted these underlying philosophical assumptions. Much of what is called Dynamic Equivalency today has been a part of translation for as long as their has been translation and, as Brunn points out, it would be impossible to translate without accepting the validity of some of these ideas. Unfortunately, he does not address any of the underlying philosophical questions that are wrapped up inside the modern theory of Dynamic Equivalency and that is where the biggest disagreements exist.
Are all versions equal?
One of the areas where Brunn and I most strongly agree is in regards to the wealth that English speakers posses because we have been so richly blessed by having access to so many good English bible translations. One of the questions I am frequently asked is “Do you need to know Hebrew and Greek in order to understand Scripture?” and my answer is always, absolutely not! Because there is such a wealth of bible translations available in English, English speakers can gain valuable insights into the text just by comparing a number of good English translations. Unfortunately, this is also where I think Brunn and I disagree most. Brunn leaves the impression that each translation is an equally valid representation of the original text and that is a proposition I do not accept. While I agree with Brunn that there is no such thing as a perfect translation and that each translation has its strengths and weaknesses. I also recognize that the original authors of Scripture intended to communicate specific meanings in the words they chose and a translation that communicates that intended meaning more accurately is better than one that does not. When two translations communicate very different meanings for the same text, at least one has miscommunicated the meaning intended by the author. By using multiple English translations, an English reader can more easily identify texts that presented challenges to the translators but this does not mean that an English reader should accept every meaning found in each bible translation as valid, rather these differences should indicate areas where more study is needed when seeking to understand the biblical text. When we compare multiple bible translations, we usually find that there is general agreement about the meaning of the text. When one version diverges from that general agreement far more frequently than do others, it should be treated with much more caution. If one version presents a very different meaning for a given passage in Scripture, then the translators of that version should be able to articulate a very strong objective argument that explains why so many other translators have misunderstood the text that they alone have understood. In the absence of that explanation, it is typically best to assume that the meaning conveyed by the majority of translations is the meaning the author intended.
One additional area where English speakers are truly blessed comes from the accountability translators face because there are so many English speakers that read the biblical languages. If the translator of an English version of the bible veers to far from the original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek texts, there will many people who understand these languages that will begin to raise the alarm. Unfortunately, people groups that have only one translation of the bible also seldom have this kind of accountability. There are seldom any text books available in these languages for students wishing to learn the biblical languages and even the translators themselves seldom have sufficient training in the biblical languages that would enable them to work directly from the original texts. Often the barriers preventing the kind of accountability we have for our English translations are almost insurmountable. When the translators of bibles intended for these remote people groups accept the underlying tenets of Dynamic Equivalent translation theories (as most have been taught to do) it sets up the perfect storm for potential abuses in translation with almost no accountability when a translator goes astray. Frightening translation choices, that would have raised alarms long ago if any English translator had ever attempted them, have survived almost completely undetected for many years in some languages. When comparing translation theories, I believe it is helpful to understand what is being produced in languages that lack the accountability that typically keeps the English language translator in check. There, more than in English, the fruit of each theory is revealed.
How accurate are Brunn’s examples
Most of the time Brunn’s examples are very accurate but occasionally his examples demonstrate his own misunderstanding of the biblical languages. For example, when he argues that the Hebrew word BRK means both “bless” and “curse,” he fails to recognize that there is much more involved in this example than just simply the meaning of the word; the challenges in this passage have been the subject of many articles in journals of the Biblical languages. Ironically, the verse he chooses to illustrate his point is the one verse (out of the four in the beginning of Job) where the meaning of “curse” is most frequently disputed by Hebrew scholars, some believe that Job’s wife may have gotten a “bad rap.” Sometimes his examples are a little bit of a reach. For example when he argues that one “word” in another language can often mean much more than an English word, he fails to mention that one “word” in many languages is frequently the equivalent of an entire phrase in English because pronouns, prepositions, verb conjugations, etc.. are prefixed, suffixed, and/or infixed together to form what appears to be one word to those who do not understand the language. Some of his examples really demonstrate the structural differences between languages rather than the idea that a single “word” in these languages really means much more than words do in English. On the whole, most of Brunn’s examples are very good and the most common difficulty arises from what he has not said rather than what he has said.
Brunn’s book has a wealth of good information that would be helpful to anyone wanting to understand more about the process of bible translation and it has an abundance of examples that help illustrate the points he is making. Unfortunately, his book overemphasizes the ambiguities that translators face and provides almost no information that describes how these issues are typically resolved. Because information about bible translation that would bring balance to the topic is frequently not discussed, this book often leaves the impression that the meaning of the original text is almost unknowable and that every attempted translation is equally valid. At times, Brunn hints at the idea that there are boundaries that translators should not cross but unfortunately he never really discusses these boundaries and ends up leaving the impression that, if these boundaries exist, the line is very, very blurry. I do wonder whether Brunn would accept the legitimacy of the translation practices of many who see his book as an endorsement of the troubling translation choices that have made?
Addendum 8/3/2013: After publishing my review, I have had the opportunity to dialog with David Brunn and he graciously answered many of the questions I have raised. His responses can be found here. I would encourage all to read his response.
- “Dynamic Equivalency” is an older term and most recent discussions about translation use the term “Functional Equivalency” in its place; however, “Dynamic Equivalency” is the term understood most easily by those who don’t frequently read about translation practices.
- Finding translators who are willing to invest their life learning the languages of the many people groups that do not yet have a bible, often under primitive conditions in remote locations is a huge task. Requiring these translators to also learn Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew would make this task nearly impossible. My statement about the lack of language skills was only a statement of fact and not itself a criticism. I am concerned about the methodology that is used by many of these translators because it does allow for a little too much latitude in translation and when combined with limited knowledge of the original languages and, as is too frequently the case, a limited understanding of Christian theology and history, it has opened the door to some very troubling translation practices.