Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Thoughts on Translation & Interpretation

Scripture must be interpreted, and this activity is always shaped by the theological and cultural context within which interpreters participate. It is simply not possible to step back from the influence of tradition in the act of interpretation or in the ascription of meaning. Interpretive communities that deny the reality of this situation and seek an interpretation unencumbered by the “distorting” influence of fallible “human traditions” are in fact enslaved by interpretive patterns that are allowed to function uncritically precisely because they are unacknowledged (Franke, 2001, p. 201).

A lot can be gleaned from the above insightful reading, and as I have been reflecting a lot recently on the epistemology of special revelation, I found this to nicely summarize my thoughts on the relationship between interpretive matrices and translations.

In my recent posts, I have made a deliberate distinction between the terms “interpretation” and “translation.” These words contain overlapping semantic ranges, and, depending on the use, are highly interchangeable. In my recent use, I have reserved the term translation for the act of moving linguistic communication from one language into another. I have similarly limited my use of the term interpretation to the act of constructing meaning from a text. I have emphasized recently in both my posts and responses that the act of moving linguistic communication from one language to another (translation) is inherently an act of constructing meaning from or applying meaning (interpretation) to a text. To state this in simpler terms: Translation is an act of interpretation.

Franke here acknowledges the indebtedness of the interpreter to her interpretive matrix. One’s interpretive matrix is inherently limited by her propriospect. Propriospect is the totality of one’s experience (and knowledge) of the world as used to communicate and to interpret the communication cues of others. Franke here asserts that it is impossible to divorce one’s propriospect from an interpretive community, and to refuse to acknowledge the ideological influences that inhere to one’s reading of the Bible is to allow the same to operate unrestricted, unacknowledged, and unregulated.

Unacknowledged matrices are unregulated matrices. The act of metacognition is to practice awareness of one’s mental processes and to self-regulate the same. Acceptance of the Bible as special revelation does not eliminate the need to pass the same through the interpretive matrices of one’s propriospect. Uncritical interpretation ensues when one is unable or unwilling to assert metacognitive awareness.

The use of the Bible by English readers is encumbered by two significant interpretive trappings. First, the use of English itself limits, obfuscates, and creates unwarranted trajectories in a reading. These limitations, obfuscations, and trajectories are created by the biases of the translator(s), and the reader must acknowledge the indebtedness of the translation to the same. Second, the reader is encumbered by her own propriospect and metacognition.

It disappoints me to observe how many Bible readers take their reading of the Bible as the infallible message of God. Ironically, in so doing, they are asserting that their propriospective matrices and the final interpretations themselves are infallible. Special revelation in the form of a written text is useless when the horizons of understanding are recognized and applied.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Genderless King James

English is largely unique for its generally genderless grammar. Neither nouns, verbs, nor adjectives in the English language are expressive of gender. This contrasts greatly with the biblical languages which are highly expressive of gender agreement between articles, nouns, verbs, and adjectives.

A non-English language that many readers may have a cursory or close familiarity with is Spanish. Spanish is an example of a language that uses gender agreement. For example, the Spanish word for book is “libro” and it is a masculine or “male” word. Articles or adjectives that modify the masculine word libro are then also masculine hence the following phrase, “un libro blanco” (a white book). The article “un” is masculine, and the adjective “blanco” is also masculine. Now introduce the Spanish word for “chair” which is the feminine or “female” word “silla.” The previous phrase becomes, “una silla blanca” (a white chair). Notice, to agree with the feminine noun “silla,” the article and the adjective had to be feminized.

The biblical languages use similar and often much more complex gender agreements in articles, nouns, adjectives, and verbs. Gender agreements assist the reader in understanding how a text is to be read; however, English translations are unable to convey this important device. We briefly exegete Psalm 12 with reference to gender agreements and then compare the KJV translation of verses 6 and 7 with a superior Spanish translation of the same.

Psalm 12 (KJV) reads:

1Help, LORD; for the godly man ceaseth; for the faithful fail from among the children of men. 2They speak vanity every one with his neighbour: with flattering lips and with a double heart do they speak. 3The LORD shall cut off all flattering lips, and the tongue that speaketh proud things: 4Who have said, With our tongue will we prevail; our lips are our own: who is lord over us? 5For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy, now will I arise, saith the LORD; I will set him in safety from him that puffeth at him. 6The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. 7Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever. 8The wicked walk on every side, when the vilest men are exalted.

Many have lifted verses six and seven out of the above liturgical piece as proof texts to evidence the position that the doctrine of biblical inspiration entails the doctrine of biblical preservation. That is, if God inspired the Bible, then God will also preserve the same down to the smallest detail. We will call this position biblical preservationism. These two verses (6 and 7) are read and quoted as proof texts for this position. The relevant construction of these verses read:

The words of the LORD are pure words… Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever.

Again, this is understood by biblical preservationists as a promise of God to preserve the Bible. To the extreme, it is considered impossible that even the slightest fault could then have crept into the Bible, and any maculation of the biblical text would be considered a fault on the part of God. To another extreme, some posit that this promise applies to translations (a form of “double inspiration”). In every contemporary case of this position that I have encountered of translation inspiration, it has related to the King James Version also known as the Authorized Version (AV).

In verse seven the psalmist states that God will preserve “them” twice. The verse does not disambiguate the pronoun, so the reader must look to context to identify the antecedent. Being that the pronoun is plural (“them” not “him” or “her”), the reader must find a plural antecedent. Verse six provides a likely candidate in the word “words” (“The words of the LORD”). However, other possibilities exist such as the collective nouns “poor” and “needy” in verse five. These two nouns are singular; however, they are collective groupings and might alone or together be the antecedent(s) of the “them” in verse seven. The near context would suggest, though, that the word “words” is the more likely antecedent. This would agree with the biblical preservationist reading. However, though there are structural clues in this passage as to the verse 7 “them” antecedent(s), there is a clear gender agreement determinant.

“The words (אִמְרוֹת) of the LORD” The word translated “words” is the Hebrew imrot which is a feminine plural form of Hebrew amar (“speech, word, promise”). This does not agree with the verbs for “keep” and “preserve” in verse seven which are decidedly masculine. Hence, the text, in Hebrew, requires the reader to source a masculine, plural antecedent for the “them” of verse seven. The only referents are the “poor” and “needy” of verse 5. Based on this textual cue alone, the preservation promise of verse 7 cannot refer to the Bible—it must refer to the poor and needy.

It is extremely interesting and telling to compare the King James (or any English) translations of verses six and seven with a Spanish or other language that uses grammatical gender. Notice the following translation into Spanish:

6 Las palabras (femine, plural) de Jehová, palabras limpias; Plata refinada en horno de tierra, Purificada siete veces.

7 Tú, Jehová, los(masculine, plural) guardarás; Guárdalos (masculine, plural) para siempre de aquesta generación.

For the aid of the non-Spanish reader, I have added designations of the gender into the texts. Notice that this Spanish translation provides clear gender distinctions that are not clear in English translations. The Spanish translation makes it obvious that the “words” of verse six (feminine plural) cannot be the antecedent of the “them” of verse seven (masculine plural).

In this brief analysis of Psalm 12, we have found that the biblical preservationist pericope of verses six and seven does not retain its salience to the idea of biblical preservation in the Hebrew (or Spanish). Let me comment briefly on how this relates to the King-James “word of God” position.

It should be apparent to the reader that the English language is incapable of capturing gender grammar; however, gender grammar is a very important part of reading biblical languages. It should be obvious that the King James or any English translation is inferior in its ability to capture gender grammar (not to mention other untranslated grammatical devices and nuances) by nature of English use. This makes English a very poor language in which to read biblical languages and precludes the possibility of an double-inspiration translation. Relative to gender grammar, a language like Spanish would be a better carrier of such critically important interpretive cues. Additionally, if the KJV is the English base text “word of God” for translation into foreign languages, then how is one to construct gender when translating form the sexless English to a gender-sensitive language? These are serious challenges to the King-James inspiration position.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Daniels Loves King James More than Jesus!

Daniels’ internet article entitled “What is the Septuagint” (available at makes the following assertions about the Septuagint (LXX): it was composed sometime after the New Testament, it is not referenced by the New Testament, and it should not be referred to for critical studies. According to Daniels’ website, he believes that the KJV is the inspired Word of God and should be heralded exclusively as such to the preclusion of any other translation. This post seeks to redress some of Daniels’ dishonest and misinformed supporting evidences and conclusions.

The study of the textual development of the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament reveals that the presence of textual variation or variant readings actually increases the further back one examines a manuscript. Hence, an Old Testament (OT) manuscript from 200 BCE will have more variation (viz., a greater diversity of readings) than a text from 500 CE or later. This contrasts with the cataloguing of New Testament (NT) textual diversity as the NT manuscripts (mss) actually display a decrease in variation the further back in time one sampels and a corresponding increase in variation the later from which a manuscript is sampled from. When one samples from the available 2nd Temple mss, one finds an incredibly diverse range of readings when compared to readings present in the post 10th century standardized Masoretic Text (MT).

None of the extant OT mss samplings form the 2nd Temple era match the modern MT. Instead of displaying absolute textual continuity, the mss tend to fall into categories that are generally labeled as “proto-Masoretic” or LXX. Further adding to the diversity of textual groupings, there appears to have been at least three textual families identified by geographical provenance: Egyptian, Palestinian/Judean, and Babylonian. The Babylonian is the deemed the closest to today’s MT. The Egyptian is identified with the LXX, and the Palestinian/Judean family is evidenced by readings in the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS). All of these texts are Hebrew groupings, though some of the variant readings are only preserved in translation in such sources as the Samaritan Pentateuch or the LXX.

Before scholarly acquaintance with the Samaritan Pentateuch began, it was believed that the LXX demonstrated the existence of a Hebrew text that differed from the MT. The cataloguing of the unique readings of the Samaritan Pentateuch provided Hebrew correspondences between many of the unique Greek Pentateuchal readings of the LXX. However, with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, there was an immediate proliferation of Hebrew readings that agreed with the LXX. One of these readings is that in Psalm 22:16.

“For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet” (Psalm 22:16, KJV).

Christologically, this passage is derived from the same where Jesus states, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me? (Psalm 22:1), and many Christians have considered the reference to the piercing of hands and feet an explicit foretelling of the crucifixion. Of interest, only two mss of the modern, standardized MT contain the reading “they pierced my hands and my feet,” and these mss (of hundreds sampled) have only been identified in the last one-hundred years. Hence MT itself did not contain this Christological reading as it is translated in the KJV. The only mss that contained this reading was the LXX! The KJV translators deferred to the LXX for this translation! They jettisoned the MT text that they apparently love so much.

The Hebrew MT reading of this verse is as follows:

ורגלי ידי כארי

This reading can be translated as it is in Jewish translations as: a lion, they are at my hands and my feet

Before the uncovering of the DSS (Dead Sea Scrolls), there were virtually no authoritative mss with a Hebrew basis for this reading. The only textual foundation for this reading was the LXX. However, the DSS display a preference for the “Christological reading” of “they have pierced.” Yet, again, it must be emphasized, that the KJV translators allowed the LXX to influence their translation.

The DSS not only evidence a Hebrew mss preference for the “pierced reading” they also contain Greek translations of the OT that fall within the LXX family of texts. Additionally, there are Hebrew mss among the DSS that fall both into the proto-Masoretic (Babylonian), Palestinian, and Egyptian-LXX families of textual variance. To argue that the LXX did not exist before the completion of the NT is to ignore this evidence.

The NT itself quotes frequently, though not exclusively, from the LXX textual family. Examples of this can be found by comparing, in the KJV, the readings of Isaiah 40:3 compared with Matthew 3:3 where the NT agrees with the LXX. Additional examples of the same can be found in Isaiah 61:1 and Luke 4:18; Isaiah 29:13 and Mark 7:8; et. al. in which the NT Greek quotation of the OT differs from the Hebrew in favor of the LXX reading.

The example of Psalm 22:16 is interesting as it pertains to a single-letter variation that can be easily corrected. The difference is between a yod (“jot”) and a waw (or vav). If the interpretation of Jesus that Daniels’ makes regarding the preservation of the each “jot” is correct, then Jesus’ statement is wrong, and Jesus is either a lunatic or a liar (to use popular parlance, though I prefer to not to be so polarized). The KJV prefers the LXX reading here (and elsewhere) despite the reading of the MT.

I conclude: textually critical consideration of the LXX was good enough for King James, and it is good enough for me!