Saturday, November 14, 2009

Synoptic Solutions: Oral Tradition

Ok, The reason I started this blog in the first place was actually to get my theory on the compositions Synoptic Gospels out there, but I wanted to spend some time getting a few readers, make the posts a bit episodic so I didn't just drop the whole theory on you all at once, the theory I came up with shortly after finishing my BDiv. A year and a half ago.

Let's make a quick review:

June 7, 2009. I state my difficulties with the typical Q hypothesis; ie: no external evidence exists, but I go on to hint at another kind of Q, Hebrew Matthew.

June 15. I provide a small list of references to Hebrew Matthew found in the Church Fathers, The most interesting being the earliest, Papias, who says that Matthew published the sayings of the Lord in the language of the Hebrews, and that each interpreted them as they were able.

Oct. 9. I explain what kind of a document I think Hebrew Matthew was: similar to other rabbinic collections; the collected wisdom of a great teacher containing mostly sayings, occasionally with bits of narrative material to situate the sayings. In this case, I believe the the material was arranged topically in five sections, those we see reflected in our canonical gospel of Matthew. Of course, this is very tentative, and much more work must be done on the relevant texts before more can be said (and really, this is already too much).

So, let's begin to paint the historical portrait:

Jesus teaches his disciples and the crowds. This is the beginning of what we call the oral tradition. In an Eastern context, a great teacher teaches and says many of the same things over and over again, and people memorize it. Of course, his close followers will get the inside scoop on his total world-view simply by being with him, seeing how he lives and how he thinks. In all of the Synoptic gospel account we have Jesus, at one point or another (or more than once), sending out disciples to proclaim his message. We must assume that the core of Jesus' early message had begun to crystallize into distinct oral forms within his lifetime if he was already sending out his followers to preach it. This oral tradition must have been in Hebrew or Aramaic or both.*

Certainly shortly after his death, oral forms of the sayings would have been quite fixed. This represents the earliest forms of the sayings material in the Gospels. In the transmission of such material in an Eastern culture, there are also sometimes narratives, but the narrative material is not as closely controlled by the community as the sayings. This may be a partial explanation to why he have such close affinities in all the sayings material, and less continuity in the Gospel narratives (though they are obviously also in close relation).

I think Hebrew Matthew must have contained a direct record of these original sayings, probably composed in Hebrew, rather than Aramaic, if my intuition is correct. I don't want to make any bones about it at this point in my research, however (not to mention that my personal grasp of Aramaic is still in its infancy).

After the dispersion of the Apostles, at the beginning of the spread of the Gospels in the wider Roman world, the early preachers and teachers necessarily began to translate Jesus' teachings into Greek. The Greek oral tradition would necessarily be more free in early stages, but would still be controlled by the rigid underlying semitic tradition. Still, different forms of the sayings would have developed in different regions. There's more than one way to translate anything. That's just how it is.

Mark is probably our earliest example of this. I will accept the testimony of the early Church that Mark is a collected narrative based on Peter's preaching until I find a good reason not to do so. He probably wrote around the time of Peter's death in 64 AD, but who really knows? However, Mark is much more than a mere translation and recording of the primitive oral tradition. It contains eyewitness narratives. In addition, the arrangement of the material is a unique work of art, creating a narrative super-structure that is at once both cryptic and enticing. I can't get too heavily into this discussion, as I'm still something of a neophyte (aka: n00b) in Markan studies.

However, what I will say is that the publication of a Gospel in Greek must have had a tremendous impact on the stabilization of the Greek Oral tradition.

That's all I'm saying for now. Next post will deal with my theory on the composition of Luke and Matthew.

* Note concerning language: According both to the Mishnah and Josephus, all Jewish boys learned to read speak some level of Hebrew from the age of six onward. It is often said that Hebrew was the language of literature and religious discourse, and Aramaic was the everyday spoken dialect. Well, I'm not sure about that. At Qumran they were writing religious texts in Aramaic as well as Hebrew, and Josephus transliterates some direct speech of the soldiers during his defense of a Galilean outpost, and the soldiers are speaking Hebrew. Some have suggested that Hebrew was still a colloquial language in Galilee, but Aramaic was the language of the street in Judea. I honestly have no idea what language Jesus was teaching in, but probably a bit of both. He certainly would have been able to speak both, and it is not uncommon to find that rabbinic and Qumran texts are very much a sort of hybrid between the two.

In any case, the two languages are not very different, and it is not overly important. Most of the saying can be reconstructed into Hebrew or Aramaic with equal ease, as the syntax of Palestinian Hebrew and Aramaic had almost completely merged by that time, with only a few unique uses of the ancient Hebrew tense system being used for literary effect in an artificial way (very much as you still find some people praying in botched King James English today). The vocabulary in Aramaic and Hebrew is also quite similar, and the primary difference between using one language or the other (at least in Rabbinic writings) was changing some endings, using different roots for a few common words, and putting the article in front or behind the word. It's a bit like the difference between Danish and Swedish, as far as I can reckon (by contrast, pre-exilic Hebrew differs much more from Official Aramaic, the dialect of the Persian Empire)

It is also very possible that Jesus spoke Greek at times to gentiles, though he may have also spoken Aramaic to them. Difficult to say, really.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Gender Wars!!

In the comments on the last post (perhaps inevitably) the issue of gender language was raised, first by myself in passing, and again by somebody else. I think this problem is probably felt more sharply in English translation than in many other languages, because we have no grammatical gender, but only designate in pronouns according to natural gender (compare with el and la of Spanish, le and la of French, or der, die, and das of German; hopefully all of us Americans can relate to something in that list). In any case, the situation in Greek and Hebrew is different than English. In most languages, if you want to designate a mixed group of natural gender, it is normal to use a masculine plural (ie: los amigos/die Freunde = friends who may be male and female).

In English, however, we only have gender for people and certain animals, and it all lines up anatomically. This is very pleasant for the foreigner who wants to learn English, and quite problematic for the Bible translator, and has created a huge controversy in recent years. In the past, we could also use 'men' for 'people,' but the feminists have changed all that. It seems the feminist are also at work in other languages, and this begins to be a problem elsewhere as well. At least I am happy to report that it is not possible to translate the Bible in a way that will make it complementary to the feminist agenda. It still says that there are differences between men and women.

With these things in mind, I would say that I am generally in favor of these so called 'gender-neutral' translations, in as far as they are faithful to the original languages, which doesn't seem to be a issue in most of them. Anthrōpos (Gk. -person/man) is a fairly gender neutral word, and I think that's how it should be translated in most cases (same goes for adam [Hb. -human/man] and bnē adam [humankind]). Adelphos (Gk. -Brother) has to be translated according to context, I guess, since it could really be either. Same with enashīm (Hb. -men/people), and sometimes īsh [man/person] (Though īsh is usually better to translate as masculine except in some generic cases).

There are words in Hebrew and Greek to designate specifically groups of men, andres and gbarīm, as well as groups of women, gynaikes and nashīm. The very fact that words like this exist illustrate that native speakers did not feel the more general terms expressed biological gender adequately, and the translator needs to be sensitive to that.

At the same time, we must realize that in the ancient world (and today in the east), one would rarely address someone of another gender outside of their family. Gender roles were very clearly defined, and this is something that the exegete and faithful translator must come to terms with, no matter how strange it seems today. But, we still cannot leave it even at that, especially in the New Testament, where some cultural gender roles are clearly subverted, others appear to be upheld, and others are of little direct concern to the authors.

It's not as cut and dry as either side would like to make it. I think those who insist on rigidly translating masculine grammatical forms as masculine are clearly in error in many cases. However, to eliminate antiquated cultural gender distinctions is also a mistake. The Bible is a product of the ancient world, but it also challenges that world.

This is yet another case were a good translator must first be a good philologist, anthropologist, and exegete.

In fact, I think translation must always be guided by exegesis. It's not a sure path to correct understanding, but it's got to be better than translating each verse or clause in an atomistic way. I think this realization is the greatest advance in modern translations over older ones, but we still have a long way to go before it's fully implemented (though I will say that the translators of the NET Bible are quite astute in this area, and those of TNIV, NRSV, and NJPS have also made some good progress).

Anyway, I think next week I should really get back to writing about the Synoptic problem. Translation is BORING!

Friday, November 6, 2009


As someone with a degree of proficiency in Biblical languages (by no means an expert), I sometimes get asked about which English translations I would most recommend. This is kind of a funny question for several reasons. The first being that the moment you acquire enough skill in biblical languages that you could seriously evaluate the translations, the question of 'which translation?' itself becomes much less meaningful. When I read through the First John in Greek, my collection of bible translations stopped growing. The other thing that immediately comes to mind is exactly how much pain it causes to recommend a translation when you know that they are all fail to communicate in so many ways the riches of the original. For this, I must refer you to my disclaimer in the post below.

Putting aside the fact that all Bible translations are horrible, desolating abominations of corruption against the original sacred text, allow me to recommend a few. I'm only discussing those which I have used a fair amount.

First of all, let's just get the best one out there on the table. If you really want to get in touch with the original text without actually studying Greek and Hebrew, the best thing you can get, hands down, is the New English Translation (NET Bible). The translation is very good and original, and furthermore has a vast number of notes about the translation and original languages (over 60,000). Notes are really the only way get close to the original text. They've been working on it for years, and it's constantly being subject to peer review and improved. You can get it in print, for Kindle, for various Bible programs, and you can study it online. If you can't use the original languages, this is an indispensable tool (and it still helps even if you know them). You can also get text only editions that don't include the notes. The translation itself is very good. Similar style to the NIV, but a bit more modern, and much better decisions. However, the notes are what make this THE bible to have among all what's out there. I have it on my computer, and I am remorselessly lusting after a print edition.

As for other translations, there are a couple to be careful with. Aside from the obvious, like the New World Translation (the Jehovah's Witness translation), there are some very popular bibles out there that have major problems. Let's start: The Message. It's not a translation. It's hardly even a paraphrase. It's a commentary. There are whole sentences that are not based on anything in the original text, but are instead explanations of the author. As a commentary, it's not very detailed, but it is very readable, and there is good stuff there. I would recommend this only if one views it as devotional literature. It is one man's reflections on the Biblical text. It's not bad, but it's not a Bible. The Living Bible also falls into this camp, though it is not quite as free as the The Message.

Next, on the absolute opposite side of the spectrum, the American Standard Version (ASV). This is an extremely literal translation from the end of the 19th century that gave many people a lot of funny ideas and ended up starting a bunch of cults. It's not bad in itself, and is nice if you know biblical languages, but it isn't much use in actually discovering the meaning of the text. The modern descended of this translation is the New American Standard Bible (NASB). It's been edited to provide better English syntax, and to avoid the the heresies that some people read into the ASV. However, the NASB fails on several counts. It sometimes is so literal that obscures meanings that are clear in the original. When decisions about the meaning of the text have to be made, it seems that the interpretation is based upon whichever understanding allows preservation of the original syntax, and it almost never takes into account the argument of the books as a whole. Sometimes it translates quite brilliantly, but other times there are serious problems. I must question it's value in giving a genuine understanding of the text. Furthermore, it's a bit weak in terms of textual decisions. There are good literal translations (which I will get to), but ASV and NASB are not among them. You might want to have an NASB on your shelf for comparison, but you have to know where it's weak. It's kinda like Google Translator. Google might be better.

NIV and New Living Translation (NLT) are somewhere in the middle. decent, but not great. There are much better translations out there. NIV has nice English style, but the translators of the Old Testament don't seem to have been awake at their work. There is a lot of rubbish in the Old Testament. The New Testament is better, and there seems to be some kind of logic in their interpretative decisions but it seems to be more in order to support traditional interpretation rather than to make sense of the argument of the author. They also follow the vocabulary of the King James a lot where the meaning has changed drastically. The New Living Translation is similar, but they do make some nice modern translations, and at least the style is excellent for just sitting down and reading. The main problem in this one is over interpretation. Sometimes they make the meaning much more precise and "clear" where the original is somewhat cryptic or vague. Not totally a bad thing, but you have to realize that this is what's being done.

Next, let's get to the good literal translations. You can't talk about good literal translations without mentioning the King James. It sets the bar, and it sets it high. KJV is undoubtedly the most beautiful English translation ever produced. It generally preserves ambiguity where the original is ambiguous, and it is not afraid to bend English syntax here and there when it can be done. The Translators worked long and hard, going through multiple levels of peer review, and the result is a monument of Anglican scholarship. There are some problems, however. English has changed a great deal. Words mean different things now. I'm not just talking about 'thee' and 'thou.' I'm talking about 'rest' and 'conscience' and 'justification.' We think we understand these words, so much that the modern translators usually continue to use the same, but they meant something different 400 years ago. The King James translators were very right to use them where they did, and the modern translators are very wrong. In addition, there are places were our understanding of this or that Hebrew idiom (including those found in the New Testament) have improved over the years, as has the approach to translation. It is occasionally hard to follow the authors train of thought in the King James. Finally, perhaps the greatest problem is that we have discovered Greek manuscripts of the New Testament that are much older and generally believe to be more reliable than those available to the the KJV translators. My Greek teacher always would say that it was an excellent translation of bad manuscripts. However, the Old Testament is still useful, as is the New when compared with modern translations and a good dictionary may be helpful for getting at those antiquated meanings. I don't particularly recommend the NKJV, by the way, as it basically just diminishes the beauty of the King James without really addressing the weaknesses of the translation.

The other good literal translations are revisions of the King James (in fact... I think most of the bad ones are too). I can speak about three of them: Revised Standard Version (RSV), New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), and English Standard Version (ESV); The latter two being revisions of the first. The ESV being branded as "Conservative," and the NRSV being labled "Liberal." It would be more correct to say that ESV is traditional and NRSV is academic. First off, None of these are quite as literal as the KJV, NASB, or NKJV, but they still follow the original languages quite closely and often also preserve the vocabulary of the King James (unfortunately, in some cases). The RSV is from the 50's, and I think it is the most beautiful translation into modern English. I haven't used it so much, so I'm not in a place to comment on it's strengths and weaknesses further. The ESV very nice in terms of style. It's literal, but it reads smoothly, and preserves the traditional interpretations very well. I have also notices that this is one of the best at avoiding the temptation to over-translate something. If they original is cryptic, they translate it as cryptic in English. The NRSV is also excellent. I prefer it to the ESV because it's interpretative decisions are based more on a thorough understanding of the text as a whole, as opposed to a rewording of traditional interpretation (which is what most of the modern translations amount to). This is also the one of two translation in English that I'm aware of that takes the science of Old Testament textual Criticism seriously (the other is the NET Bible, mentioned above). I can't go into what that means right now, but believe me that it is one of the best if not the best translation of the Old Testament out there. The New Testament is also great. The NRSV is the standard in the academic world as well. The NRSV is also an Ecumenical work, with scholars from all branches of the church including Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Mainline Protestant, Evangelical, Pentecostal, and so forth. They even had a Jewish guy working on the Old Testament. It has been approved for use by more denominations than any other. Evangelicals don't like it because it says "young woman" instead of "virgin" in Isaiah 7. To that, I say who cares?

One literal translation that I haven't checked out too much yet is the NAB, New American Bible. It's Catholic, and I hear that it's very good, but it does suffer slightly from the fact that it necessarily must uphold Catholic doctrine. Still need to get my hands on this one and see how it is.

Finally there are the idiomatic translations that I like; TNIV (revision of the NIV), HCSB (Holman Christian Standard Bible), and New JPS (Jewish Publication Society). The TNIV is what I generally use for my devotions. It is awesome. Very similar to the NIV, but improves upon all the weaknesses. Tends not to over-translate as much. Makes decisions in light of the argument of the book, and re-evaluates the value of traditional vocabulary at certain key points. Great. There are still a few dodgy bits in the Old Testament, but it's a lot better. HCSB is a Baptist translation. It likes Baptist doctrine. I realize this sounds awful, but it's not. They have made good use of their lexicons and come out with some brilliant translations. Not as strong as the TNIV, but very useful for comparison. It's actually also quite literal, come to think of it, but it still feels smooth and modern to read. Good translation there. Occasionally some senseless interpretive decisions, but what the heck, they're Baptists. The New JPS is a Jewish Translation. As you might guess, it's only the Old Testament. It gives a very good sense of the Hebrew in very readable English. It competes with NRSV and NET as best translation Old Testament, though it sticks to the traditional Jewish text, and doesn't touch textual criticism. Of course, they do their best to translate in such a way that would obscure the Messiahship of Jesus, but it's still pretty obvious if you ask me.

In summery, the best translation by far for study of the text is the NET Bible. Other favorites translations are NRSV, TNIV, JPS. I also like KJV and ESV because they are quite beautiful, though they have problems (the modern reader will probably get more millage out of the ESV, by the way).

Of course, nothing beats the originals in terms of beauty and clarity... (but the notes in the NET Bible still rock...)

Translations Disclaimer!!

I'm in an Old Testament class here were someone asked the professor, Dr. Baruch Schwartz, which translation he recommended for those not using Hebrew. He recommended the JPS, a modern Jewish translation that has a similar translation philosophy to the NIV, but almost always gives much better renderings of the Hebrew text, and of course, slants the translation in a way that is more harmonious with Jewish belief. He also mentioned that, in the class, he would like to get as many different translations as possible. Another student wanted to clarify and said, “So, the JPS is a good translation?” to which the professor replied, “No, it's terrible. They're all terrible. You can't capture the richness of the Hebrew in any language except Hebrew. If you need a translation, just bring whatever is the easiest for you to understand, and we'll discuss the text in class.” It's like the old saying, “There is no error in translation. Translation itself is an error.”

But, this is just how we talk in the Academy. If everyone read Hebrew and Greek, that would be wonderful, and we wouldn't have to walk around with these rubbish translations. In fact, I'd recommend that any Christian learn the languages of the Bible even if you only have the least bit of time or inclination. Just don't stop half way and start using these interlinears...

However the study of Greek and Hebrew does not become a reality for most people. Some people don't have the time, or the aptitude, or the finances, or the motivation. Motivation is kinda a lame excuse, since we're talking the words of God here (what could be more important?), but the others may at times be valid.

In any case, there are more important things for understanding the text than the original languages. On of these things is a good understanding of the Ancient world. If you have to pick whether to learn Greek and Hebrew, or to read Josephus, Hammurabi, and Gilgamesh (a question facing most of us every day), go with Josephus and friends. I can highly recommend the recent “Archaeological Study Bible” for help in this area. The text comes alive in context. Another important thing, perhaps the most important thing of all for understanding the bible is to look at each book as a whole. If you understand the flow of thought and internal logic in an entire book, the individual verses will almost always fall logically into place. Some of the larger prophetic books and the Psalms are more of collections than “books”, and require a different approach, but that's another matter. “How to Read the Bible for All its Worth” is an excellent book to explain this idea in detail. They have their own discussion of English translations there as well.

Anyway, back to translation. Before getting on to discuss any of the individual translations, I just want to mention what some of the difficulties are with translation and various methodologies.

Literal translations are great if you know Biblical languages. They can give you a pretty clear idea of the words and syntax of the original, and are very handy for study when you can't lug around a dictionary. However, this raises the question of why you are studying a translation if you know the original languages. If you don't know Greek and Hebrew syntax or semantics, the important question comes up of what can actually be gained from seeing a translation that follows it. If you don't understand things like Greek cases, tenses, and moods, and how all those things fit together to create meaning, there is really no point at all to have literal translations of them. There is a German translation that I love called Elberfelder. It is extremely literal. It's almost like reading Greek in German words. The only problem is that it's not quite German. I don't know how Germans that haven't studied Greek get along with it. It's great for preaching because it gives you a lot of opportunities to explain Greek idioms, but for a normal person to read, I don't know. Of course, my grasp of German syntax isn't perfect either, so I may be missing something there.

Furthermore, in the Old Testament, I'm going to go ahead and say that it is absolutely impossible to make a literal translation of the Hebrew in many cases into any modern western language. The verb system and syntax of classical Hebrew, translated literally has no sense in English. Greek is usually somewhat intelligible when translated literally. Hebrew is not. Let's make a literal translation of the most famous passage in the Old Testament (and one of my favorites) for a little demonstration. The dashes indicate where a single word in Hebrew contains all the semantic information joined together in English.

“Hear Israel, Yhwh Gods-us Yhwh one.
And-you-loved (untranslatable word) Yhwh Gods-you, in-all heart-you and-in-all soul-you and-in-all strength-you.
And were the-words the-these which I commanding-you the-day over heart-you.
And-you-pierced-them to-sons-you and you-spoke in-them, in-to-sit-you in-house-you and-in-to-walk-you in-the-way and-in-to-lay-you and-in-to-rise-you.”

This doesn't make any sense at all. In fact, in this case, as in most cases, a literal translation of the verb form in Hebrew absolutely does not mean what the Hebrew means. You see a lot of past tense forms, but that's not what the Hebrew means at all. In Hebrew, you only understand a verb form by it's relationship to all the other verbs. Strange but true. As for what I have written, I don't even understand it myself. It's senseless. In any case, for several of the words, I still had a few semantic options for how to translate because no English word means exactly the same thing as a Hebrew word. There is still, even in this extremely literal translation, interpretation. This translation is not helpful in any way, literal though it may be.

Just to rectify the situation, let's translate this into what I believe to be the meaning in English. I say that because there is necessarily more interpretation being done with this kind of a translation. This is still quite literal, but it makes sense in English. I use a lot of vocabulary that isn't in the transitional translation because it provides a closer semantic correspondence between the English and Hebrew, I believe.

“Listen Israel, Yahweh is our God, only Yahweh. Love Yahweh, your God, with your whole mind, with your whole being, and with your whole ability. These things that I'm charging you with today must be on your mind. Impress them on your kids, and talk about them... when you sit in your house, when you walk on the road, when you lay down, and when you get up.”

This is very different, you see. I can't guarantee you that this is exactly what Moses meant (or “D”, or whoever), but I will promise that it's infinitely closer than the meaningless gibberish in the previous translation.

Why can't I guarantee it? Because to translate it at all, even in this relatively literal format, I have to interpret some words. The number “one” in Hebrew can also mean “only.” It can mean “alone” or “each.” Some people think it can mean “first,” (though I have my doubts about this). The word “soul”... we don't have a word that means exactly this in English. It can mean, as I have translated “being.” It could also mean “life-force,” “person,” “inner being,” “spirit,” “identity,” “self,” etc... This words can mean any of these things (though it never exactly corresponds), but in any given case, it only means one thing. You have to figure it out based on the context. Another word in this verse, the one I first translated as “pierced,” and again as “impress,” only appears with this form once in the Bible. It's impossible to know exactly what the meaning is, aside from that it is in some way related to “sharpen” on one hand, and "tooth" on the other, but it is difficult to say exactly how. The point is clear: the text is supposed to become part of who your children are. It is instrumental in their formation. How exactly to say this in English while remaining semantically faithful to the original is difficult.

No matter how literal a translation is, the translator must make a subjective judgment about the meaning of the text. That's one of the reasons the King James translators said “a variety of translations is useful for discerning the meaning of the scriptures.” and included in the margins a healthy complement of translation notes, which have unfortunately been removed from most print editions (Hendrickson Publishers has a nice facsimile of the 1611 edition that retains them, and a good many other helpful features present in the original, not to mention the delightful archaic spellings, soe saithe vnto thee ye olde translation).

Now, there are good ways and bad ways to make these decisions about the meaning when you translate. Ideally, you leave same ambiguity when the original is ambiguous (however, ambiguity that gives options of meaning impossible in the original text are a very bad thing), and you make the meaning clear when the meaning is clear. It is the unfortunate reality that occasionally a literal translation will obscure a meaning that is very clear in the original language simply by being literal. The other way to make good decisions in translation is by study of the whole text. You understand the argument of the whole book, and make your decisions based on the message of the book. In this way a translator nearly becomes a commentator. There is also the important role that the translator plays in choosing the proper base text, but I don't want to get into that at the moment, as it is at least as complex as the act of translation itself.

It's not at all bad that there is interpretation in a translation. We have to interpret the text to live it out. I only say all this to demonstrate that you can't take any particular translation too seriously in terms of being “authoritative.” They are all interpretations. They all have strengths and weaknesses as interpretations, and those are not necessarily tied to being “literal” or not. There are good and bad literal translations, just as there are good and bad idiomatic translations. There are several translations that I like very much, and most of them fall somewhere in the middle of literal and idiomatic.