Word-for-Word translations

St. Rollin Weeks writes:

As an FMC member, I have attended two of your sessions.

I am interested in the prospect of time "before" the Big Bang, Time and Eternity, God's foreknowledge and man's free will, the Arrow of Time (Roger Penrose), Time Reborn (lee Smolin), and the books and papers on 'time' by William Craig Lane and J P Moreland of the Apologetics Dept. in Talbot Theol. Seminary at Biola.

But what I am really into right now is writing a paper on the King James Only (KJO) controversy. I have narrowed it down to 3 essential issues: (1 which are the best manuscripts (Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic) to use--the issue of Textual Criticism'? (2 if God preserved His Word perfectly throughout the ages, what mechanisms did He use, and where in the Scriptures do we find evidence that He would use these mechanisms?, and (3 how do we deal with the very intractable problem of translation from the original languages?

I have an MA in Linguistics, and I have done field work in Brazil with an indigenous tribal people. Some translation issues I have become aware of are:
~ ancient historical translations ((Coptic, Syriac, Septuigint) have used slightly different source texts. Were these the genuine Word of God?
~ Greek-to-English translation works fairly well, because both have highly developed vocabularies, but this is not the case when translating into a language with vastly different cultural emphases and interests, and
~ Greek and English are both members of the Indo-European Families. Ancient Hebrew to English is not so good a fit. When one gets into other wildly different languages, word for word translations become impossible.

I hope to join in again in one of your classes.

In Christ,
Rollin Weeks

Hi Rollin, I'm glad you enjoyed the classes.  That's a nice grab bag of issues you mention there, but since you highlight King-James-only-ism, I think I'll focus on that. I find it difficult to even take the KJO view seriously, for a variety of reasons.

There is simply no such thing as a perfect translation.  Even from Greek to English, word-for-word translation is not always the most accurate or faithful way to translate. I assume you know that Greek is a case language, meaning that (unlike English) it is the endings of the words, rather than their position in the sentence, which determines their grammatical role in the sentence (subject, object, possessor, etc.).  Instead they used word order for purposes of emphasis.  The first and last words in a sentence are the ones which are being emphasized.

Another issue is particles.  In a normal Greek sentence, there are a few two or three letter words called "particles" which normally appear right after the first word. When you are first learning how to translate Greek, you simply leave these words out since they don't seem to affect the basic meaning.  For Greek experts (as I am not!) they show how the ideas in the sentence are connected to the ideas which have gone before.

There are various tricks which can be used to render these meanings into English, but they usually involve departing from the word-for-word ordering.  In these respects, "paraphrases" like the New Living Version or St. Phillips' translation can sometimes actually be more accurate than a more "literal" translation, since they have the freedom to signal emphasis and connection-between-ideas in other ways.

In the absence of a specific divine revelation, it is simply hubris to say that God specially favors one particular English translation, given the existence of numerous good translations both before and after the KJV. That being said, given the time and the lesser degree of scholarly knowledge, the KJV was a remarkably good translation, combining literalness with style in a skilled way (partly with the help of archaic English "particles" such as "lo!").  Another very nice feature is that when the original language is ambiguous, they tried to translate into English in a way which reflects that ambiguity, instead of just picking one possibility.

I said it was a good translation: since the meanings of many English words have changed over 400 years, and many passages now convey an incorrect meaning to modern readers.  To use the KJV today, especially with uneducated readers, is to guarantee that they walk away with wrong ideas about what the Bible says.

Regarding issues of Textual Criticism, the Textus Receptus differs from the accepted scholarly text in numerous places.  This has a lot to do with the fact that St. Erasmus's Greek text was based on only 7 relatively late Greek manuscripts, each including only parts of the New Testament, and all but one from a single textual tradition.  And we are supposed to believe that this is more accurate than all other more carefully compiled texts?  That God miraculously preserved his word through Erasmus, while allowing all other scholars everywhere else to fall into error? Because of his special desire for later English-speaking people (but apparently not people in other cultures) to have a perfect translation?  Ridiculous!

Regarding the Old Testament textual issues, you are right that the Septuagint seems to have been based on a somewhat different version of the Hebrew text than the Masoretic, which is used by almost all modern translations.  Which text is more accurate in a given place is anyone's guess, but the Dead Sea Scrolls are more similar to the Masoretic text.  There are many instances in which we know that the Septuagint was poorly translated (sometimes they even left out large chunks which they didn't know what to do with!), although in other cases we have to defer to them because the meaning of the Hebrew words is otherwise unknown, or in when the Masoretic text is corrupt (e.g. 1 Samuel 13:1, which in the Masoretic text says that Saul was one year old when he became king, and that he reigned for two years!)

I believe that God has promised this about his word:

For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater:

So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)

This, however, is not a promise about every word being preserved perfectly in some static sense.  It's a promise about God getting the results which he intended to get: namely a harvest of righteousness and justice in the lives of those who are transformed by God's word.

The belief that this transformation will somehow be inhibited if we don't have 100% certainty about every word (or even 100% certainty about which books should be in the Old Testament!) is a Fundamentalist notion which has little connection to actual progress in holiness.  Yes, God's word is fully inspired and should be treated with respect, down to the last "jot and title"—at least when we know what they are—but we can't lose sight of why he gave us his word.

I believe that God is very unscrupulous in how he reaches people.  His Spirit can sometimes even use translation mistakes to bring people closer to him (and in that sense, they may be God's word to that particular individual), but we should still do our best to avoid making them.

There's a very important word which is missing from this post so far.  That word is "Jesus".  Muslims believe that the highest revelation from God is a Holy Book, dictated to a prophet without any human contamination, and perfectly preserved from error through the centuries.   We also have a Holy Book, but we believe that God's final revelation is a Person.  That's why God chose to use the human personalities of the biblical authors as a means to communicate to us the personality of Jesus.

What we need is not a word-for-word translation onto paper, but a "Word-for-Word" translation onto our hearts and minds.  Remember what St. Paul says:

Do we begin again to commend ourselves? or need we, as some others, epistles of commendation to you, or letters of commendation from you?  Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart. 

And such trust have we through Christ to God-ward: Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God; Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.  (2 Cor 3:1-6)

About Aron Wall

I am a Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
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