More than one way to skin a cat

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

You would think that translating the Bible from the original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) into English would be a fairly straightforward task: Start with the original word, find the corresponding word in English, and voila, you’ve got your translation!  But there is more than one way to skin a cat, so to speak!  As English readers we are blessed to have dozens of solid Bible translations, many of them available online.  But that in itself begs the question, “Why, if Bible translation is a scientific exercise, are there so many different ones?”

Well, Bible translation is not so simple and scientific.  Of course, there are boundaries to how we translate; some go over the line from translation to wishful thinking.  But even if we try to stick to the source languages, there are a range of legitimate possibilities, and we need to draw on more than just the lexical meanings of words to communicate the Bible in our language.  There are basically three methods of translation: 1) formal equivalence, where preserving the form of the original language (words and syntax) are the primary concern; 2) dynamic equivalence, where communicating the original meaning of the text is paramount; and 3) a hybrid of the two that moves between “literal” and “periphrastic.” 

But in this post I want to examine one specific dynamic within that larger debate.  That is, how do we translate the Old Testament (OT) in light of what the New Testament (NT) says?  If there is an echo from the NT back to the OT, how does that affect our understanding of the OT?  I believe that how various Bible translations go about this says more about their translators’ general approach and theological framework than it does their ability to look up Hebrew words in a lexicon.

A couple of simple examples.

Psalm 51:11 says, “Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.” (New International Version)  And the phrase in question in this verse is “Holy Spirit”–that is, capital-H-capital-S Holy Spirit, as in the third person of the Trinity.  Reading this verse with capital letters makes perfect sense to all Christians: “Please God, because of your unfailing love, do not take your Spirit away from me, for it is life to me!”  Almost every English translation of the Bible follows this convention: the psalmist was talking about the Holy Spirit (yes, that Holy Spirit).

But, interestingly enough, not all English translations capitalize the H and S of Holy Spirit in this verse.  Most notably are the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the go-to Bible for mainline churches and seminaries, which was first published in 1989, and (surprisingly enough) the King James Version (KJV), the revered translation that first appeared in 1611 as an extension of William Tyndale’s earlier NT.  They both read, “holy spirit.”  Other translations go halfway: “holy Spirit” (Revised English Bible and Revised Standard Version).  So what is going on here?

The underlying Hebrew phrase is ruch qdsh, which, as most translations apprehend, means simply “HOLY SPIRIT” (or, possibly, “SPIRIT OF HOLINESS”).  This is where the simple, scientific process of translation reaches its limit, and a translator needs to address some theological questions in order to inform his or her translation process.

The fundamental question here is this: Is the Bible (the OT and NT together) a unified revelation of Jesus Christ from beginning to end?  Or is the Bible divided into two separate, discreet revelations–the Jewish Scriptures, which can stand alone (and are best understood in their own context), and the Christian Scriptures?  Another way to ask the latter question is, “Is the Bible a progressive revelation–that is, the earlier parts don’t know anything of the later parts?”  And maybe a deeper question gets at a translator’s personal belief: “Was God involved in the writing of the OT, putting words into the writers’ mouths, causing them to speak about deeper truths they were unaware of?”

How you answer those questions matters!  By not capitalizing “h” and “s,” the NRSV communicates that its producers do not see explicit NT revelation (where the Holy Spirit is clearly revealed as a separate entity; see John 14:26!) in the OT.  For them, the OT is a Jewish book that knows nothing other than the strict unity of God (Deuteronomy 6:4).  On the other hand, most other English translations see the Bible as one–the NT fills the OT, and the OT fills the NT.  And this affects translation, which, in turn, affects understanding on the part of the readers.

The other example:

In Genesis 12:7, the LORD appears to Abram and promises, “To your offspring I will give this land.” (English Standard Version)  Some translate the word “offspring” as “seed” or “descendants.”  The underlying Hebrew word is zro, which basically means “seed,” hinting at male procreation as a way of speaking about Abram’s children and the generations that would follow.  So which is the most accurate way to translate the Hebrew word that can easily connote any of those things?

We find a clue in Galatians 3:16 (in the NT!): “The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed.  Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds,’ meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed,’ meaning one person, who is Christ.” (Today’s New International Version)  For those who believe that the Bible is one unit, Genesis 12:7 (as well as 13:15; 17:8; and 24:7, which echo the promise) should definitely use “seed” or “offspring” in the singular, because it refers to Christ!  That is, the promise given to Abram found its fulfillment in Jesus Christ!  But to those who see the Bible as cleaved into two parts (or those who think “offspring” is too sophisticated a word for beginning readers), “descendants” is preferable, because it refers only to the Israelites who would indeed one day possess the land of Canaan.

From my perspective, the intertextual approach is most consistent with Christian tradition.  Excising Christ from the OT is a curious innovation of the past 200 years in the West.  To my knowledge, nearly all of the early church fathers read the OT christologically–that is, through Christian eyes, seeing shadows and types (see Hebrews 8:5) of Christ, the church, the Holy Spirit, the sacraments, and eternal life.

It is unfortunate that Christian translators have emphasized the disunity of the Bible in recent years.  It has led to a fragmenting of the church into those who read a Christian Bible unified by the work of the Holy Spirit, and those who read a book made up of various witnesses from various historical and theological viewpoints that may or may not be related to each other.

Certainly, when it comes to producing a Bible in English, there is more than one way to skin a cat.  But how we do the skinning comes with tremendous responsibility to not just translate words and phrases, but to be faithful in our presentation of God’s Word to the world.


4 thoughts on “More than one way to skin a cat

  1. Ray,
    Very interesting post.

    Related to that, a book I plan on purchasing in the near future is Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament edited by Beale and Carson. Are you familiar with that one?

  2. Ray,

    Another post with which I agree for the most part. But I firmly believe, based on my study, that, as you put it, the Bible is “a book made up of various witnesses from various historical and theological viewpoints that may or may not be related to each other.”

    I’ve enjoyed our past dialogues. I would be pleased to hear any further thoughts you might have.

  3. Fred,
    Well, I probably won’t change your mind, and you probably won’t change mine either, but at least we can learn from each other.
    You are absolutely entitled to your opinion. You can believe whatever you want; that’s the beauty of living in the United States, after all. However, just because we believe something firmly doesn’t mean that it is true, and just because we are convinced of something doesn’t mean that it is consistent with the consensus of Christian thought. This is a weakness of Protestantism in America: Our faith becomes wedded to individualism such that each person becomes his own ultimate authority (a little pope), deciding what is right and orthodox and what can be cast away.
    I have read the Bible 10 times through, in as many different translations. And each time I find some uncanny passages in the OT that remind me that the same Spirit was at work shaping the message of the whole corpus over time (See Genesis 49:10-11; 2 Samuel 7:12-16; Psalm 22; Isaiah 9:2-7; Isaiah 11:1-9; Micah 5:2-5; and Zechariah 12:10 for just a few of the many passages that point to Jesus.).
    In addition to that “inner witness of the Holy Spirit” (Calvin’s term), I am willing to submit to my Reformed forebears that the Bible (OT & NT) are the Word of God written, the ultimate rule of faith and practice.
    I don’t think that makes me a hack, and I don’t intend to squelch discussion, so I welcome your (and anyone else’s) input. Thanks!

  4. Pingback: More on the relationship between OT and NT at He is Sufficient

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