Saturday, 19 November 2011

Through Immigrant's Eyes? Reading the Bible from Various Perspectives

Institute of Biblical Research is a premier biblical studies fellowship guided by evangelical principles. IBR sponsors morning devotions at the annual meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature, and an annual lecture.

This year's annual lecture was entitled "Reading the Bible through Other Lenses: New Perspectives and Challenging Vistas," and given by Denver Seminary professor M. Daniel Carroll. The premise was that we can discover valid new interpretations of the Bible if we look through the eyes of the diaspora community. By diaspora community, Prof. Carroll refers to those who migrate to other countries, such as Latinos crossing the border into the U.S. It was very stimulating, but ultimately I have some serious disagreements.

In recent decades, we've been challenged to look at the Bible from various perspectives. How would our interpretation of various passages change if we read the text from the perspective of a woman, of an African, or of a slave? No doubt our own experiences often prevent us from hearing the word of God from these other perspectives.

Prof. Carroll gave some examples. He suggested that Abraham's lie about his wife being his sister might be understood differently if we looked at it from the eyes of an "undocumented worker" (no doubt he meant to say "illegal immigrant”). Accordingly, Abraham was an immigrant who was responsible for feeding his clan, and so desperate to do so during the famine that he was willing to risk Sara. Such risks, Prof. Carroll said, must be taken during desperate times, as reflected in the plight of many immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexican border.

Prof. Carroll also pointed out to Joseph, Prince of Egypt, who adopted Egyptian customs, but still named his children with "Hebrew" names, retained his native language, and insisted on being buried in his home country. Prof. Carroll then asked if this might have implications for the requirement of learning English in the U.S.

A third example (although there were several more) was Ruth. He suggested that we might be able to understand the book of Ruth if we read it from the viewpoint of an immigrant.

Now for my disagreements.

Let me first pass on an urgency of Gordon Fee's, that we must do exegesis in the context of the Church. By exegesis, I refer to the process of interpretation whereby we ascertain the interpretation that the author meant to convey. Prof. Fee was saying that he, as a Pentecostal, desperately needs to hear what Presbyterians and Baptists and Methodists and Anglicans, etc. have to say about the text. As a Baptist, I spot things in the Bible that a Presbyterian might overlook. Since I'm not a Pentecostal, I might overlook a valid concern in the biblical text that a Pentecostal might see. So, Dr. Fee is right to say that we need each other to help hear the biblical text.

All this is true of the other perspectives as well. In a sermon series through 1 Timothy, I remember giving a short shrift treatment to the text of 1 Tim 5 dealing with widows. And then on the following Monday when re-thinking the Sunday service, I realized that a good portion of the church consisted of widows—I missed an important text simply because I made no attempt to understand it through someone else’s experience. Consequently, when we look at the biblical text, we should attempt to read it from multiple perspectives.

But ultimately, since exegesis is all about determining the author's original intention, the one set of glasses that is all important is that of the author. For the Pauline letters, we must put on the glasses of a first century Hellenistic Jew. For Micah, we must put on the glasses of an 8th century Israelite.

I think it is improbable that the book of Ruth was written from the viewpoint of an immigrant. Historically, reading Ruth with the eyes of an immigrant might help us understand how Ruth felt, but this does not help us understand how the author wanted us to understand the book. I suspect that the author’s perspective was that of a Hebrew living in Israel looking at the immigrant, which is quite different from the converse situation.

Likewise, the story of Abraham and his lie was not written to be read from the eyes of an immigrant. Consequently, it is all-together irrelevant for the interpretation of the story what the motive for Abraham’s lie was. The reality, according to the biblical author’s perspective, was that Abraham risked the Covenant Promise by giving the mother of his future progeny to the Egyptian king, and so failed in his faith. Reading the text from an immigrant’s perspective might make one more sympathetic with Abraham, but this was extraneous to the author’s intention.

If I may be capricious—for the sake of looking on the other side of the equation…, one of Dr. Carroll’s examples lends itself to be read from the perspective of an American capitalist. Joseph the immigrant came into Egypt, learned the Egyptian language, and adopted Egyptian customs, and achieved the highest possible success as an Egyptian. As the leader of his country, his first obligation was to protect his own citizenry. This is why he sold wheat to non-citizens for a profit, and did not indiscriminately allow foreigners to deplete Egypt’s resources.

Ultimately, Kenneth E. Bailey's works on understanding the Bible through Middle Eastern eyes is so much more valuable for interpreting the Bible.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Which Bible Translation Is the Best?

English is privileged above all other languages to have many excellent translations. In the Bible translations wars, it is embarrassing that we fight so vigorously over which one is the best, when in fact any of our top five translations are better than any Spanish or Chinese or Russian or Indian version. Few of the 4 million Nagas in the Himalayan foothills have access to a version in their native language. Thus, it is with some embarrassment that I dare give my opinion on English translations.

Task Oriented Translations

Preliminarily, I deny that there is such a thing as the BEST English translation. The issue for English versions is which one is best for the particular job. We have to ask, Which version is best for…

  • Evangelism or new converts? (New Living Translation)
  • Detailed word-for-word study? (English Standard Version, New American Standard Bible, American Standard Version 1901)
  • Public reading? (New International Version)
  • Intensive reading programs such as read-the-Bible-in-a-year programs? (New Living Translation)
  • Children? (New International readers’ Version—NIrV)
  • Adults with reading disabilities or difficulties? (New International readers’ Version—NIrV)
  • Solemn or stately occasions? (KJV; New King James Version)
  • The most powerful vocabulary to convey difficult concepts found in the Greek? (New English Bible)
  • Memorization? (New International Version)
  • Artistic, high impact rendering (The Message)

While Bible users should settle on one primary version, they should recognize that some translations are more effective for certain tasks.

Formal Equivalent vs. Dynamic Equivalence

Translations can be placed between two extremes. On the far left are those versions which attempt a word-for-word equivalence. This is called “formal equivalence.” This approach attempts to give exact representation to the Greek and Hebrew syntax, and to reduce vocabulary down to its most common meaning (not nuanced meaning). So, if the Greek has five words, it will try to use five English words in translation. Greek idiomatic expressions are represented literally, instead of idiomatically. Word order and order of clauses are retained as much as possible. English style is not prioritized. The most extreme examples of formal equivalence yield an English text which sounds like “translation English,” much as a foreign diplomat with poor English skills would talk. (King James Version does have some archaic elements in it, but much of its peculiarity derives from its formal translation of the Greek and Hebrew—it is translation English!)

On the far right are those versions which attempt to convey accurately the meaning of the Greek and Hebrew, without being slavish to the syntax of the original languages. This is called “dynamic equivalence.” There is no concern for exact representation of syntax, and biblical idioms are put into natural English language. Priority is given to English style so that there is no hint of the awkward elements in the original language which might otherwise adversely affect the translation.

Here are some contrasting examples between formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence (the two lists correspond to each other):

Formal Equivalence

  1. he lifted up his eyes to Jesus
  2. bowels and mercies
  3. Jesus said to him, saying
  4. And the LORD said to Abram
  5. And they, having heard the king, went
  6. And opening his mouth, he taught them saying
  7. And it came to pass, sitting at meat, he spoke

Dynamic Equivalence

  1. he looked at Jesus
  2. compassion and mercies
  3. Jesus said to him
  4. Now, the LORD said to Abram
  5. After hearing the king’s instructions, they went
  6. He began to teach them. He said
  7. Later, while eating, he said

The advantage of formal equivalence is that it gives the Bible student a good idea of the exact wording of the original language. This approach is excellent for careful, detailed analysis of the text. Conversely, the advantage of dynamic equivalence is that it is easy to read, for it conveys the message in natural English.

Specific Versions

Of the standard English versions, the most formal equivalent translation is American Standard Version 1901 (widely available on-line and in most Bible software). Less rigid formal equivalent versions are English Standard Version and New American Standard Bible (1995 update).

Today’s most popular and best dynamic equivalent version is New Living Translation. Additionally, Today’s English Version (= Good News Bible) was widely popular in the last quarter century, and remains useful. Since these versions prioritize English style, they are excellent for those who might spend an hour or longer of (non-contemplative) straight-through Bible reading. They are also useful for evangelism, or to introduce the Bible to people who are unfamiliar with biblical lingo.

There are several versions which are in between the two extremes. Preeminent of these is New International Version. It attempts to serve two masters equally—one master being the Greek and Hebrew syntax, the other master being English style. Thus, NIV attempts to mirror the Greek and Hebrew as much as possible, while keeping good English style. This balanced approach makes NIV an excellent translation for memorization and for public reading. As such, it would serve well as anyone’s primary Bible translation. NIV is produced by evangelical translators.

New Revised Standard Version also attempts to be balanced between formal and dynamic equivalent. It is slightly more formal than NIV, and is popular among mainline (less conservative and liberal) denominations. The New American Bible, which was produced by Catholic scholars, also takes a balanced approach.

Comparing Versions

Those researching a given biblical passage should compare several versions for differences in meaning. If only four translations can be used, I recommend using New King James Version, American Standard Version, New International Version, and New Living Translation. If eight translations can be used, I recommend using these four plus English Standard Version (or New American Standard Bible), New Revised Standard Version, Revised English Bible, and Holman Christian Standard Bible.

Where NKJV differs from the other versions, it may be due to textual issues rather than translational issues.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Southern Baptists, Bible Translations, and the Condemnation of the NIV

A majority of the men at the Southern Baptist Convention today condemned the New International Version on the basis that it is not a faithful translation of the word of God.

At issue is whether men must translate with something like “goodwill to men” rather than “goodwill to people,” or whether men must translate that God wants all men to be saved rather than all people, or whether we must always refer to the Israelites as the “sons of Israel” instead of “children of Israel.”

In formal Greek linguistic categories, the nouns and pronouns in question are in the masculine, but nonetheless convey the inclusion of women. The NIV does not always render these nouns and pronouns with their corresponding masculine forms, but rather with English words which convey the same meaning as the Greek.

Because of NIV’s tendency to render the meaning of the Greek rather than slavishly reproducing formal masculine linguistic categories, certain influential men brought their case against the NIV before the Southern Baptist brethren. The resolution narrowly passed by the votes of a few men.

Ironically, the version most closely associated with Southern Baptist is the HCSB which translates many of these same passages similarly as NIV.

The fault lies with a handful of men, sometimes scholarly ones, who innocently say, “I prefer a more literal version such as the ESV.” Well intentioned laymen and pastors combine this innocent statement with their rightly placed belief in inerrancy, and conclude, mistakenly, that literal versions are theologically preferable, while anything less is liberal.

Let those men who study these issues be more cautious about how they promote certain Bible versions. There’s no such thing as the one best version. There is, however, such a thing as the best version for a particular need:

  • literal versions are to be preferred for exact and detailed study involving vocabulary and syntax (ESV ASV NASU)
  • dynamic equivalent versions are to be preferred for lengthy or protracted or speed reading, such as reading-the-Bible-in-a-year programs, or for evangelizing men (NLT TEV)
  • middle-of-the-road translations for Bible memorization or for public reading (NIV NRSV)

We men who teach the Bible need to stop saying that “literal translations are best for those men who believe in inerrancy.”

Scholarly men need to stop providing fodder for the demagoguery of translation theory, because what they say will produce misguided resolutions such as what was passed at the Southern Baptist Convention today. This is so unfortunate because misguided resolutions trivialize other resolutions that good men might pass at the convention. For example, the men of the Southern Baptist Convention rightly reaffirmed their belief in hell, but they did so while condemning the NIV. How can men take one resolution seriously when the other is so unfounded?

Another unintended consequence of this misguided resolution is to reinforce the KJV-only laymen and churches in their suspicion against “untrustworthy” versions. The resolution sets back churches at least a year or two in the effort to get into the hands of our churchmen a more accurate translation than the 400 year old linguistically outdated KJV.

Just for clarification, all of my aforementioned references to “men” are meant to imply women as well and are included to illustrate that men don’t talk the way that the authors of the resolution expect men to translate.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

The Problem with the English Standard Version (ESV) and Theological Demagoguery

The problem with the English Standard Version (ESV) is not with the translation itself, but with the theological demagoguery that its advocates use to promote it and to discredit its competition.
This demagoguery involves thoughtless assertions that the more literal a translation is the better. Accordingly, dynamic equivalence is made suspect as the invention of liberal scholars. The intended conclusion of such demagoguery is that people who believe the Bible should stick with formal equivalent versions such as the ESV. These claims are faulty in so many ways, but in this post, I’ll just point out one.
ESV is marketed as having an eighth grade reading level. This in itself shows that ESV fails in its intended purpose to be formal equivalent. It intends to render all of the Bible at the same reading level, even though the Greek (and Hebrew) of some of the individual books and authors of the Bible are easier to read than others.
In the New Testament, the Greek style and vocabulary of John’s Gospel is so simple that an intermediate Greek reader can just about speed read it, while the Greek style and vocabulary of Luke-Acts and Hebrews is so complex that advanced Greek readers struggle mightily therein.
If ESV really felt that formal equivalency were a theological tenet rather than a pragmatic tool, the translators would have translated the easy to read Greek into easy to read English, while those Greek books which are more difficult to read would be translated into more advanced English. As it turns out, the reading levels for the ESV are about the same throughout the Bible. Thus, readers get no sense of the level of difficulty of the Greek behind the English translation.
Of course, the only reason why the publishers cast aside formal equivalence in regard to readability levels is because difficult-to-read Bibles don’t sell. A case in point would be the short-lived New English Bible which, for example, translated the lofty prose of Heb 1:3 as referring to Christ as the effulgence of God’s glory, the impress of his substance. Stuff like this doesn’t sell.
Ultimately, we need to cast aside the notion that translation methods reflect theological commitments. Rather, we should take advantage of the availability of so many very excellent translations, and use the best translation according to the occasion: use the right tool for the job.