Monday, September 10, 2018

Can All Bible Translations be Trusted?

Perhaps; it depends on what goes on in the translation process before the translation is published. Let's take one example.

One Sunday morning in Baptist Bible study our study group encountered a problem with the translation of 2nd Samuel 22:27. When the instructor read the passage in the NIV translation, it was:

To the pure you [i.e., the LORD] show yourself pure, but to the crooked you show yourself shrewd.

I objected that my translation, in the RSV, read differently:

With the pure thou dost show thyself pure and with the crooked thou dost show thyself perverse.

Surely there is some mistake here! Shrewd and perverse are about as far apart in content as words can be. There are several dictionary meanings of shrewd, but the one we generally think of is the following: shrewd is "marked by clever discerning awareness and hard-headed acumen." Perverse carries the idea of the following: "obstinate in opposing what is right, reasonable, or accepted." So why are the two translations so different and opposed to one another?

In the Hebrew text of the passage the first italicized word in the translations of 1 Sam 22:27 above is 'qsh and the root of the second italicized word is thought to be a corrupted verbal form of ptl. What actually appears in the Hebrew text for this second word, however, is described by the Hebrew Lexicon1 as an impossible Hebrew verbal form, and the lexicon adopts the parallel reading in Psalm 18:27 to replace the corrupted verbal form in 1 Sam 22:27, whose root is ptl.2

For the first word crooked (an adjective) the Hebrew lexicon provides a translation of "twisted or perverted." Oddly the Kittel edition of the Hebrew Bible leaves the corrupted form of the second word (a verb) in the text rather than emending it, and in a footnote gives the supposed correct reading (a form of ptl) taken from Psalm 18:27.3 The Hebrew Lexicon translates ptl as "to twist" and offers this translation for 2nd Sam 22:27: "with the twisted thou dost deal tortuously." Proverbs 8:8 uses both words: "All the words of my mouth [says the LORD] are righteous; there is nothing twisted (ptl ) or crooked ('qsh) in them."

The earliest translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, translates the verse this way: "and with the crooked you are perverse" (strebloũ/ streblōthēsē).

Here are a few of some other modern translations to demonstrate how differently the two words have been translated into English:

Translation                          1st word 'qsh            2nd word ptl
New American Bible:          1. crooked         2. you are astute
An American Translation:  1. crooked         2. you act craftily
Moffatt:                                  1. treacherous  2. you prove treacherous
New World Translation:     1. crooked        2. you act silly
New English Bible:              1. perverse       2. you show self tortuous
KJV:                                        1. froward       2. you show self unsavory
                                                 (perverse)  
Douay:                                   1. perverse      2. you will be perverted
Masoretic Text:                     1. crooked       2. you show self subtle
Living Bible:4                        1. evil               2. you destroy the evil
New Living Translation:5   1. wicked        2. you show self hostile
American Standard:            1. perverse      2. you show self froward
                                                                                      (perverse)
Today's English Version:   1. wicked         2. you are hostile

            The problem of corrupted verbal forms in biblical texts is one of those niggling difficulties in the Bible of which most people are unaware. It is an annoying little thread that if pulled at persistently enough, along with the Bible's many other loose threads, tends to unravel any personal authority that the Bible may have once held. The particular little thread of 2nd Sam 22:27 is one of those things that may reasonably be described as one of the aspects of the Bible's "infrastructure."6 Infrastructure issues deal with such things as the ancient languages in which the biblical texts were originally written, the theory and practice of translation, early fragmentary papyrus and vellum manuscripts on which biblical texts were first written, scribal practices and proclivities of a particular scribal hand, the linguistic instability of ancient texts in transmission, textual criticism issues surrounding the identification of the earliest reliable form of a text and how that text might relate to the original author's copy. It is little wonder that most readers are not familiar with such issues, since they require specialized knowledge. The resolution of infrastructure problems is one of the things that must be resolved before Bible translations are published. The personal cost of being able to work competently with infrastructure issues is high indeed, in terms of numbers of years of study required and experience.

Translators of the Bible are only human. The quality of their product is defined and/or limited by their years of training, technical knowledge, and practiced skill. Throughout the process, however, the translation is subtly influenced by the intensity of a translator's personal religious allegiances and the objectivity with which they work. Can we trust Bible translators? Perhaps; but if you do you should always verify—that is, if you cannot read Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, always read the biblical text in several different translations. That practice may cast light on the reliability of your preferred translation.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Brown, Driver, and Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon (reprint with corrections, 1968), 786, 836.
2Second Samuel 22:2-51 is also preserved in Psalm 18.
3R. Kittel, Biblia Hebraica, 495.
4The Living Bible is not a translation but a paraphrase that was made from the American Standard Version of 1901 by Kenneth N. Taylor, an American publisher and author.
5This translation began as a revision of the Living Bible but became instead another translation from the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.
6That is to say "the underlying foundation or basic framework" of the Bible.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Meier's Third Crucial Blunder*

Meier rejects the critical history of the parables tradition written by J. Jeremias in 1947.1 Jeremias demonstrated that “the primitive church related the parables to its own concrete situation and by doing so produced a shift of emphasis” in the parables.2 Thus the church reshaped the character of the parables by allegorizing them3 even to the extent of introducing allegorical features into the narratives to insure ecclesial interpretations.4 The critical distinction between parable and allegory was established in 1888 by A. Jülicher in his two volume work Die Gleichnisreden Jesu.5 N. Perrin summarized the distinction that Jülicher established between parable and allegory in this way: “parable means what it says, using pictures to express its meaning. Allegory, on the other hand…does not mean what it says, but hides its meaning in symbol.”6 Since these two pivotal studies on the parables (Jülicher and Jeremias) critical scholarship has regarded the allegorical flourishes in the parables like barnacles on a clam—the clam is not defined by the barnacle, rather the barnacle by the clam. In short Jeremias found that “most of the allegorical traits in the present form of the parables are not original.”7

Meier defines parables as “comparisons…that have been ‘stretched out’ into short stories with at least an implicit beginning, middle, and end—in other words, a mini-narrative with at least an implicit plot line.”8 But since allegorical narrative is used in ancient Israelite texts and in the synoptic parables “one must come to each Synoptic parable with an open mind rather than a rigid grid” (p. 87) as to the presence of allegory in the parables.9

            Nevertheless Meier regards the narrative parables as “riddle speech” when compared to Jesus’ “legal teachings” (p.4, 34). The parables require a context. Without a context the parables are open to multiple meanings (p. 32-33). He works out his understanding of the historical context of the parables in the career of Jesus in his first three volumes, summarized for the reader in the volume on parables (p. 3). This “historical context” is heavily indebted to the synoptic reconstructions of the career of Jesus. Hence a reliable interpretation of a parable of Jesus requires that it be analyzed in “its redactional context in a Gospel and its historical context in the ministry of Jesus” (p. 5) in order for an exegete to have any hope of recovering the “intention” of Jesus.10 Both requirements, therefore, ensure the continuing influence of allegorical analysis in the interpretation of the parables of Jesus.

At the end of his chapter on allegory (pp. 85-87) it becomes clear that allegorical motifs in the parables will be regarded as legitimate parts of the parables’ tradition, and such is the case with his discussion of the four parables he finds to be authentic (pp. 230-362). Interpreting the parables allegorically, however, is a denial of the inherent nature of the parables as realistic fictitious narratives about everyday life in Palestinian peasant villages.11 Meier’s view is that while some of the parables might be realistic, not all are (pp. 42-43). The basic realism of the parables, however, challenges Meier’s allegorical method of parables’ interpretation. On the other hand, acknowledging their realism disfranchises allegory thus freeing the parables to come into their own as ancient texts un-encumbered by early Christian theology and rhetoric.12

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*Meier uses the word “blunder” to describe a position with which he disagrees (40).
1This is the date of the first German edition of Jeremias, Parables of Jesus (first English translation, 1954); see N. Perrin, Rediscovering the Teachings of Jesus, (1967), 258. Perrin was a student of Jeremias.
2Parables of Jesus (revised edition, 1963), 48.
3Ibid., 66.
4Ibid., 68-69.
5Jülicher’s two volume work has never been translated.
6Perrin, Rediscovering, 257.
7Jeremias, Parables, 89.
8Meier, Probing the Authenticity of the Parables, 37.
9Ibid., 87. See his brief discussion of allegory pages 82-88.
10Meier’s goal in interpreting the parables is the following: “our quest concerns what the historical Jesus intended when he decided to use parables in general and to speak this or that parable in particular,” p. 33. From my perspective, however, one never really knows what people intend; one only knows what they tell us they intended.
11Meier specifically rejects the idea that parables are inherently realistic fictions that draw upon everyday life in Palestinian villages (42-43).
12Hedrick, Many Things in Parables, 36-44.