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.

24 comments:

  1. I have quite a few translations to check against each other. I primarily use “The Scholars Bible” for Mark, Luke and Matt, usually McReynolds’ “Word Study Greek-English New Testament,” which is the UBS 3 paired with the NRSV (and a Greek concordance) for the remainder. In those copies I have of various books of the Tanakh by Robert Alter, I use those with “The Jewish Study Bible,” JPS Tanakh for the Tanakh. Here is how 2 Sam. 22.27 is translated by those two.
    Robert Alter: “With the pure You show Your pureness, with the perverse you twist and turn. (His note: The English phrase represents a single reflexive verb in Hebrew. It is the sole instance in this series of four versets in which the verb describing God’s action has a root different from the adjective characterizing the kind of person to whom God responds, though there is still a manifest semantic connection between the two turns here, and this works quite nicely as a small variation on the pattern to conclude the series.”
    JPS: “With the pure You act in purity, and with the perverse You are wily.” There is no note specific to v. 27.
    Dennis Dean Carpenter
    Dahlonega, Ga.

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    1. Thanks for adding a couple of more translations, Dennis!
      I wish all would follow your good example.
      Charlie

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  2. Hi Charlie,

    It seems to me that the main difficulty in 2 Sam 22:27 is the inability of many to associate deity with perversity. It's as if one's emotional cringe and predispositions replace objectivity with regard to the structure of the passage.

    The context is vss. 26-27 which contains the following humanity/deity parallels: loyal/loyal, blameless/blameless, pure/pure, and crooked/perverse (NSV). In other words, God returns in kind what he receives. It seems perfectly consistent to me with no angst over translation required.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

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    1. Thanks Gene,
      I agree, but nonetheless God showing perverseness to the crooked is a problem for those who expect God always to act graciously. Showing perverseness is not a gracious act, it would seem to me.
      Cordially,
      Charlie
      PS: I gather that the version you are using is the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), right?

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    2. I think the figure of God is more or less consistent in the poem and the preceding stories of David found in 2 Samuel. David commits a moral sin or more, God punishes in kind.

      It might be helpful in this case, to compare the version of the poem in 2. Sam. 22 to its “twin” in Psalm 18. The verses are translated identically in my Tanakh, with negligible differences (deal/ pure, purely/pureness) in Alter’s versions. Both of my sources state that linguistically, 2 Sam. 22 antedates Psalm 18 and was either incorporated as a Psalm from Samuel or came from a common source. (In my “perfect world,” I would have wanted it to be the other way around, since the ending of Samuel (21-24) are appendices from different sources, and because of my thought below.

      My thought is that the verse, 22.27, is pertinent to Samuel, though part of the appendices at the end of Samuel, since it could point the reader back to the story of God’s punishment of David after the Uriah & Bathsheba incident, and the figure of David in 1 Kings I, as a decrepit old man who ironically was given an attendant who was an “exceedingly beautiful” virgin. If I (heaven forbid) taught that, this would be the way I would approach it. (But, I’m more interested in what the authors were doing with the text than the historicity or the actions of “God,” except as a “character” in the story, a construct of the author.)

      Dennis Dean Carpenter
      Dahlonega, Ga.

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  3. Good Evening Charlie,

    Thank you for another thought provoking article- it's a lot to unpack. I must admit that until fairly recently, I never gave bible translations much thought. They all seemed pretty much the same to me. In fact, I think most church goers just read the translation that their denomination promotes and uses. It's like picking a phone or a car- whatever style suits your tastes and preferences is fine.

    1) Have you ever heard of the "Law of Best Evidence?" It states that in a court of law, the best evidence is written in the original language- not a translation thereof. (That's a gross over-generalization, but you get the gist)

    2) Are you aware that the true, original "Septuagint" only pertains to the first five books of Moses? And that the subsequent Septuagint translations were not translated by Jews? The true authentic Septuagint that was translated by Jewish scholars is no longer in existence because it burned in a library fire in Alexandria... did you know that?

    3) The book of Samuel that you quoted was translated by either Jerome or Origen (or some such Catholic church father)- neither of whom is Jewish. Does that matter to you? It does to me.

    4) Are you aware of the extreme hatred of and bias toward "the Jews" and the "Judiazers" that was held by the early church fathers? In other words, have you read any of their writings entitled "Adversus Judaeus?" Doesn't that influence the reliability of their "translation" of the book of Samuel??? Or the OT in general??? These Jew-haters had quite a bit of say so with regard to the OT. Does that matter to you?

    5) Isn't it better to read the OT in its original language, biblical Hebrew? In other words, did God give the ten commandments to Moses in Greek... or in Hebrew? Therefore, why should I trust any translation made by the Catholic church fathers who hated the Jews??

    Many thanks!! Elizabeth

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    1. Hi Elizabeth,
      Para #1: I had never heard it stated as a "law," but if you are talking translations then I agree that one should go to the language of the original source.
      Para #2: I knew that we do not have original authors' copies of both LXX and Hebrew Bible. I also knew that the earliest complete Hebrew Bible dates from 1008 while the earliest Septuagint dates in the 4th century.
      Para#3: No it does not. In my view what counts in Bible translation is knowledge, skill, and objectivity rather than religion and ethnic background.
      Para #4: Yes of course it matters to me personally but no more than the racial hostility that we currently find among some in our own country against people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds.
      Para #5 Yes, of course! If the content matters one should read the text in the original language. That way you avoid having to access the content without a translator and his/her possible prejudices and errors. My answer in the blog was that if you cannot read the text in the original and are not motivated to learn the language, then at least read the text in several different translations.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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    2. My second sentence in Para #5 should have read: "That way you avoid having to access the content by means of a translator and can avoid being exposed to his/her possible prejudices and errors."
      Sorry about that!
      Charlie

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    3. Thank you for your answers, Charlie... My question is this: I'm not sure what difference it makes to read several translations of the OT if they were all translated by Jew-haters. When it comes to the Greek NT, yes, the more translations you read the better because they weren't translating anything from Hebrew into Greek. Racial hostility is one thing in politics and social justice reform- but it's quite another when it comes to religious texts... Whoever translated the Hebrew bible into Greek made certain texts appear "Christological" so as to foreshadow the coming birth of Christ, no matter what translation you read. So in general, yes, I agree that it is best to read as many different translations as possible if you are unable to read the text in its original language. But when it comes to Messianic passages in the OT, all the translations are tainted by the Jew-haters who wrote them. Elizabeth

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    4. Good afternoon Elizabeth,
      I was speaking of modern translations made from the Hebrew text. Such opprobrious language (i.e. Jew hater) is scarcely appropriate for the modern scholars who translate the text into modern languages.
      Can you give me some references in the Septuagint where the translators "made certain texts appear Christological so as to foreshadow the coming birth of Christ"? In other words you are saying the Greek translation is different from the Hebrew.
      When you say that "Messianic passages in the OT are tainted" are you speaking of the Hebrew or Septuagint? Please give me some examples.
      Thanks.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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  4. Hey very interesting blog!

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  5. Here are a few quotes and paraphrases from "Jewish Translations of the Bible," Leonard J. Greenspoon, from the Jewish Publication Society copy of the Tanakh. The LXX is "fairly literal reflection of its Hebrew Vorlage..." In the second century Aquila, Theodotion and Symmachus, all translators of the Hebrew text to Greek "displayed their acceptance of the subservience of the Greek to the Hebrew when they 'corrected' older Greek texts..." Two of these were Jewish proselytes (from Eusebius) who produced texts that, for instance, were used by Origen (third century) and undoubtedly others. I don't think these translators could be called "Jew-haters," since the first two had converted to Judaism and the third, according to Eusebius, was an Ebionite, who also wrote a pamphlet detailing his "problems" with Matthew. (There is a little about them in Church History by Eusebius.)

    "If we examine the Septuagint version of the Torah, we find a fairly literal reflection of its Hebrew Vorlage," Greenspoon tells us. He also points out that the Greek was generally seen as inferior, except by writers like Philo, who couldn't read Hebrew. One must also realize that the Tanakh was also translated into Syriac and Latin, as part of the Christian scripture. (There was one version pre-dating Jerome's Vulgate. Very few Christian scholars could read Hebrew, but Jerome translated from the Hebrew, and Origen earlier, who also knew Hebrew published variant copies (using the three above and an earlier Septuagint) of the Septuagint, calling it the "Tetrapla," also seven versions of the Psalms, called the "Hexapla," according to Eusebius. While there was a large anti-Jewish tenor to the writings of the Patristic writers, I'm not sure how much of it would have been present in the Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible.
    Dennis Dean Carpenter
    Dahlonega, Ga.

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    1. Yes, to be clear- the Adversus Judaeos writings were not done by Eusebius or Origen or Jerome (at least that I am aware of)... They were started by John Chyrsotom (sp?) in the fourth century.... And the worst one of all was Martin Luther "On the Jews and Their Lies." Of course, Luther had nothing to do with the translation of the Tanach. The non-Jews who translated the Hebrew scriptures (revisions made by Hesychius for the Egyptians) the Syrian recension of Lucian, third century edition by Origen... These revisions and translations were tailor made by the church in order to produce an "Old Testament" that was consistent with Christian teachings. I've never read Leonard Greenspoon, but I wonder if he addresses the question "Why don't the Jewish people use the Septuagint in their worship or religious studies today? If the LXX so reliable?" It's hard for some Christians like myself to stomach what was done to the Hebrew bible in order to make it appear Christological. Elizabeth

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    2. Hi Dennis,
      Thank you for your brief overview of Septuagint origins.
      Charlie

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    3. Hi Elizabeth,
      Two minor points: Luther did translate the Bible into 16th century German but those books that were in Hebrew he translated directly from the Hebrew. All books that were in Greek (the Septuagint has a number of books not found in Hebrew OT) he also translated but moved these to the end of the Hebrew books.
      I would imagine that synagogues use modern English language translations made from the Hebrew in their services, since the Hebrew is historically the earliest text.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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    4. Elizabeth, it seems the onus would be on one to show where these differences occur, what makes them "anti-Jewish," and whether this was intentional to promote Christianity, in the Greek as opposed to the Hebrew text. That's a tall order. Of course, Luther was translating from Hebrew to German, so he is irrelevant in the claim of Greek adulteration, as is Chrysostom, who didn't translate. We'll probably never know what Lucian's recension contained, since it is no longer extant. The closest is the "received text." According to what I have read, he was a stickler for the literal Hebrew text.

      When I read second and third century writers, I note nothing but respect shown the scriptures, sacred literature, to use Polycarp. Any logic that people who based their religion on texts would deliberately "deform" the texts they considered "sacred" escapes me. What I see, and what I can show (and am, in an essay I started yesterday), in the Apostolic and Apologetic authors, and what for instance Chrysostom did in his homilies was eisegesis, making what was already there fit the theological views of the eisegete. And, that has been both a feature of Christian and Jewish interpretation and commentary since the beginning, the earliest we have direct evidence of being the Dead Sea Scrolls, though I think Jubilees is a good place also to look at this phenomenon. Justin, the Epistle of Barnabas and others worked with what was there, saying the Jews misinterpreted it.

      I'd never heard the claims you made, of purposeful adulteration for the purpose of making the texts "anti-Jewish." I will stick to the comments of Greenspoon, who is chair of Jewish civilization at Creighton. He knows far more than I.
      Dennis Dean Carpenter
      Dahlonega, Ga.

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    5. Anyone with an interest or concern about Jews being targeted by Christian evangelists (Jews for Jesus being the worst) is familiar with the usual passages in the OT that were changed to foreshadow the coming of Jesus. (Isaiah 7:14 for example) Perhaps you are unaware of this scheme being perpetrated upon Jews by organizations such as Jews for Jesus. My familiarity with this debate is why I do not trust the OT translations of certain Messianic passages. I have nothing against Jesuit universities- in fact our son attends a Jesuit high school in St Louis and we are extremely pleased with the education he is receiving there. However I am unsure why a rabbi would choose to teach at a Jesuit university, unless Dr Greenspoon isn't a rabbi. Although I am glad to see Jewish scholars educating students about the history of Judaism, I give more weight to the opinions of Jewish rabbis who have cross examined the OT and found many mistranslations. (anyone with a shred of intellectual curiosity could easily find them out on the internet) However most Christians dismiss the research and interpretation of Jewish rabbis out of hand entirely and have no interest in their point of view... They label them "anti-missionaries" and never bother to read their findings. Again I am not familiar with Dr Greenspoon but I am familiar with Rabbi Singer and Rabbi Skboac as I've stated in previous blogs. Elizabeth

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    6. Hi Elizabeth,

      You wrote: "Anyone with an interest or concern about Jews being targeted by Christian evangelists (Jews for Jesus being the worst) is familiar with the usual passages in the OT that were changed to foreshadow the coming of Jesus. (Isaiah 7:14 for example)."

      I would suggest that a much more pervasive problem is the attitude of the entire Christian testament that the entire Jewish testament is a representation and predictor of the entire life of Jesus, beginning with the very first verse of the first gospel: "The good news of Jesus the Annointed begins with something Isaiah the prophet wrote, "Here is my messenger, whom I send on ahead of your to prepare your way! A voice of someone shouting in the desert, 'Make ready the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.' So, John the Baptizer appeared in the desert... (Mark (1:1-4a)." (Scholars' Version)

      And, of course, the letters of Paul are even earlier. "Abraham put his trust in God, and God counted that the right thing to do...scripture anticipated what is happening right now...that the nations (Gentiles) are right to put their trust in God...those who put their confidence in God are blessed just like Abraham...(but) whoever relies on traditional (Old Testament) religious practices is under a curse...God's anointed freed us from the curse of subjection to the law. (Galatians 3:6-13a).

      The Christian testament in this sense does not see itself as distinctive. It is Judaism 2 to the Jewish testament's Judaism 1.


      Gene Stecher
      Chambersburg, Pa.

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    7. Thank you for pointing that out Gene... As the rabbi's put it- Christianity needs Judaism, but Judaism doesn't necessarily need Christianity. I had never read the Hebrew bible as just that- as the Tanach. I had always looked at it as the Old Testament. Reading it through the perspective of a rabbi opened my eyes. For one thing, I did not know the Gospels were written in Greek rather than Aramaic. Do you know if any of the disciples spoke Greek? Also- did Josephus or Philo speak/write in Greek? I am confused about whether either of them mentioned Jesus in their writings because there is so much debate about the authenticity of the mentioning of Jesus among scholars. I don't know who to believe. Do you? I've read somewhere that Eusebius interpolated the Jesus story in Josephus's Antiquities (Book 18) around 324 CE. I also read that the first mention of Jesus by a non-Christian was by Pliny the Younger in 112 CE. You mentioned Paul... if Paul were indeed a student of Gamliel and was a Pharisee, why didn't he write his letters in Aramaic and quote the Tanach in it's original language? In fact, how was Paul even able to quote the Tanach? Did he carry a copy of it around with him? Perhaps he quoted it from memory and this is why there are so many mistakes in his references to the Hebrew scriptures. Again, it took a Jewish rabbi to point out this glaring oversight to me... Jewish teachers know the NT better than most pastors do, I can tell you that. (Deut. 30:14 and Rom. 10:8 for example) I never noticed how Paul purposefully left out a key phrase that contradicts the concept of "Sola Fide." A favorite joke I've heard repeated from certain rabbis goes something like this: "Why did God invent Mormonism?" "I don't know..." Answer: "So Christians can understand how the Jews feel." I agree with your assessment that Christianity does not see itself as distinctive in any way but as Judaism 2.0. Elizabeth

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    8. Hi Elizabeth,

      I'm not an expert in the questions you've asked. Maybe Charlie could help. I think that Josephus and Philo wrote in Greek.

      My summary thought about this subject is that all Christians are followers of a Jew; therefore, all Christians are Jews. Judaism is the legitimate parent of the Jesus movement, and the Jesus movement is the legitimate child of Judaism. It's beyond stupidity and tragedy that in the 21st century the rift between the two groups seems stronger than ever.

      Gene Stecher
      Chambersburg, Pa.

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    9. Hi Gene and Elizabeth,
      Here are, I think, answers to most of the questions.
      1. There is no primary source information on the language capability of Jesus and his disciples that I know of. It is all speculation.
      2.Josephus and Philo wrote in Greek.
      3. Josephus refers to Jesus (Antiquities 18.63f.) that surely in part is interpolated. So far as I am aware the identity of the interpolator is unknown.
      4. Pliny does not mention Jesus as a person in his own right. Pliny describes followers of Jesus in a letter to Emperor Trajan.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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  6. When I teach courses over the Bible, be it the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament or the New Testament, I mention to my students that no translation is perfect, but some are better than others. I also inform them to read as many different translations as they can, because unless they know the original languages (Hebrew and Greek), they are at the mercy of a translator.

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    1. Thanks for weighing in, Cody. I could not have said it better myself!
      Charlie

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