Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Is dynamic equivalent translation acceptable?

While researching the ESV translation before deciding on a new Bible, I can across an article by Leland Ryken attacking the notion of "dynamic equivalence". The KJV and versions that share it's heritage insist on word-for-word translations. Apparently the committee that translated the King James Version coined words in English so that they could provide an equivalent to the original Greek and Hebrew terms. In contrast, dynamic equivalent translations concern themselves with translating the meaning of the original texts into language that can be understood without special religious or historical knowledge.

One example the article uses is John 6:27 which says the Father set His seal on the Son of Man. Now to a modern reader, the idea of setting a seal on a person will likely be obscure since we no longer rely on seals as a form of authentication, protection and preservation of documents. To make matters worse, it isn't entirely clear what point Jesus intends to convey, since the context of the passage is food, not a document. So translators have a range of less-than-ideal options:

  1. Leave the obscure reference obscure.
  2. Add words in English the explain the function of a seal in this context.
  3. Substitute a modern equivalent concept that gets across the meaning of the original Greek.

A literal translation has little choice but to use option #1. The majority of modern translations seem to prefer option #2: "seal of approval" or "seal of authority". And, of course, paraphrased translations chose option #3: "guaranteed", "sent for that purpose", etc. As you can see, the further down the list you go, the more choices the translator has available, but the fewer choices left open to the reader. By the time you get to option #3, there are any number of ways to express the idea, but the reader has no access to the other possible connotations of the word "seal" since the word itself has been removed by the translator.

For Bible study, there can be no question that an dynamic equivalent translation will not serve. The important questions a text raises are often answered or strongly influenced by the translators. If the text reads, "seal of approval", it will be difficult to interpret it as a "seal of protection" no matter what other evidence may exist.

But I think it's somewhat naive to assume a literal translation is the most direct communication of the original text. In this instance, the original Greek and Jewish audience would have had no difficulty with the image of a seal and what it represents. The more troubling image would be Jesus claiming to be the "bread of life" a few moments later. In fact we know this image was intended to clarify Jesus' status with the Father not obscure it. The paraphrase used by The Message, "He and what he does are guaranteed by God the Father to last", has a strong appeal in that light. The literal translation needlessly obscures what ought to be an obvious interpretation.

Now there is a danger to accepting dynamic equivalence, but the danger isn't we will have too many texts (become "destabilized"), but that we will have too few. For the last 20 years or so, the churches I've attended have been saturated with the NIV translation. It's an extremely good translation, in my opinion, but we have suffered because it has held a monopoly on English understanding of the Bible. Before the NIV came along, I believe we were in no better shape since the KJV and its descendants were dominant. Rather than being over-interpretive, the Bible was seen as overly-obscure and difficult. In both cases, the best response is to use a variety of translations for a variety of purposes so that translation difficulties of one can be corrected by others.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

An angry Jesus

On of Bart Ehrman's favorite examples (judging from how often he uses it) is Mark 1:41 (NASB):

Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, ``I am willing; be cleansed.''

The trouble is, one Greek manuscript reads: "Moved with anger". Normally, if the majority of manuscripts, including the very best, agree on a word, it's safe to ignore a variation. But in this case, the variation is also very difficult to explain unless it was part of the original text. Last night, I performed a quick experiment with my men's Bible study. I gave them a copy of the text with "anger" instead of "compassion" and told them they had the power to change one word. Each of them spotted the word "anger" very quickly and proposed: "pity", "compassion", "love", and "passion" to replace it. There's no doubt in my mind that ancient scribes would have had a difficult time resisting the temptation to alter the emotion that Mark ascribes to Jesus.

But if the hard reading is true (a good bet in most cases), what does that say about Jesus? To some, merely the thought of Jesus having a strong emotion, especially anger, seems to deny His deity. But surely the God of the Old Testament was angry at times, even (or maybe especially) with His righteous servants. And later in the gospel Jesus becomes angry with the Pharisees, at the temple, and perhaps the fig tree that He cursed. So the fact of His anger can't really be the problem.

More likely the problem the scribes had with the text was know why Jesus was angry. Perhaps our Lord was angry that the law required the leper to be isolated, that the leper interrupted His preaching, that the leper violated the law when he entered the town, that no one but He could cleanse the leper, or because he was tired of healing. In each case, it appears as if Jesus has momentarily succumbed to temptation in the heat of the moment. But we know that Jesus endured forty days of temptation and Mark begins his biography with a proclamation that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of God.
Therefore, if we read "anger", we can assume Jesus did not sin by that emotion.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Misquoting Jesus: a review

I just finished Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, and as I told a friend, my faith hasn't been shaken. The book contains a lot of interesting background on the task of reconstructing the original text of the New Testament, a discipline referred to as textual criticism. Anyone who has spent time with a modern Bible translation will be familiar with the footnotes that read like: "Many manuscripts ..." which explains that there is a question about what the passage originally said. One should also notice that these notes are fairly rare thanks to the progress textual criticism has made sorting through the variations.

If that were the whole of the book, it would not have ended up on the best-seller lists or stirred up controversy. Ehrman did not write the book merely to popularize his subject, but as a result of his journey away from Christianity. In the introduction he explains that his faith was shaken to the core when he realized that Mark (or Jesus himself!) might have made a mistake in Mark 2:25-26: 'He answered, "Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions."' (TNIV) The mistake is that the high priest in the story was Ahimelech: 'David answered Ahimelek the priest, "The king sent me on a mission and said to me, 'No one is to know anything about the mission I am sending you on.' As for my men, I have told them to meet me at a certain place. Now then, what do you have on hand? Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever you can find."' (1st Samuel 21:2-3, TNIV) Interestingly, there are no textual variations in these passages, so someone made a mistake somewhere.

The bulk of the book explores variations that have come into various manuscript copies of the New Testament. Ehrman constructs plausible theories for why scribes failed to make perfect copies and even introduced variations for doctrinal purposes. Further, he explains how scholars have approached the variants had reconstructed the originals. The journey has many twists and turns, which might trouble people who assume the Bible has been handed down to us in an idealized process. But once you get used to the idea that people copied the texts, made mistakes and sometimes altered words or inserted whole stories for their own purposes, the history Ehrman presents is fascinating. At the end, I found myself wondering what the big deal was. There aren't nearly as many problem texts as it first appears, and modern techniques have solved most of the problems with some certainty. Only a handful of issues remain, and none of those seem terribly dire to the basic picture of Jesus.

Overall, I'd say this book is not an attack on Christianity in general, but on the inerrancy doctrine. Over and over, Ehrman points out that if scribes made mistakes, we don't know what the New Testament originally said and if we don't know the original words, we can't say they are from God. But then he turns around and says that textual criticism can recover the original for the most part. So what is the problem? As far as I can tell, he seems to think that God ought to have supernaturally preserved his word for all generations and that any mistake is a sign that He does not care about scripture. The fact that we have always had a New Testament that is almost identical to the original is of no solace to someone who demands perfection from God's word.

Here's what Paul has to say on the matter: 'All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that all God's people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.' (2nd Timothy 3:16-7, TNIV) It strikes me that Paul focuses on the Scripture's utility rather than its perfection. I get the feeling that if confronted with Mark 2:25, Paul would have been surprised but unconcerned with Abiathar being there. Instead, he would have praised the teaching of Jesus that "The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath." (Mark 2:27b, TNIV) In the same way, the Bible ought to be a benefit to us and not a stumbling block.

Bart Ehrman should be praised for his dedication to the truth, even when it doesn't provide the maximum support for his position. (Compare his books with those of Richard Dawkins, who seems to think any idea that helps make his case should be passed off as true if possible.) There are a variety of people for whom this work will be very troubling—especially those who believe the Bible ought to be perfect. But I found the evidence lacking that the Bible can not be trusted because of errors either in transmission or in the original. Certainly the work of copying and translating the Bible has been entrusted to human hands. Even the composition of the Bible was the responsibility of imperfect people. From the moment God inspired His word until today, it has been at risk of corruption. Incredibly, Misquoting Jesus can be read as the story of how the text of the Bible managed to survive at great odds. For those of us who place our trust on Him (and not merely on the Bible), this should be no surprise.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Aliens and atheists

Richard Dawkins is fighting back against a documentary (Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed) that he unwittingly provided material for. I've not seen the film, but I'm willing to bet it will be entertaining if Professor Dawkins said on camera what he's saying in print. I'd suggest he expand his education to philosophical considerations if he intends to grapple with the God question any further.

Theologians attempt two (mutually incompatible and pathetically inadequate) answers to this unanswerable point. Some say their God is not complex but simple. This obviously won't wash. No simple god could design bacterial flagellar motors or universes, let alone forgive sins or impregnate virgins. Presumably recognizing the justice of that, other theologians go to the opposite extreme. They admit that their god is complex but assert that he had no beginning: He was always there and always complex. But if you are going to resort to that facile cop-out, you might as well say flagellar motors were always there. You cannot have it both ways. Visitations from distant star systems are improbable enough to attract ridicule, not least from the advocates of intelligent design themselves. A creator god who had always existed would be far more improbable still.

The sort of complexity theologians argue against when they call God simple is philosophical complexity. God is not difficult to explain: He isn't merely powerful—He's all-powerful. He isn't merely intelligent—He's all-knowing. God, if He exists at all, must be simple to the extreme. One argument for God's existence, suggests that if He is possible, He must exist in all logically possible universes. This might be difficult to understand, but it's simple to describe. Bertrand Russel noted of that argument, "it is easier to feel convinced that it must be fallacious than to find out precisely where the fallacy lies."

Further, as any Darwinian would be fully aware, complexity arises from simplicity all the time. The elegance of Darwin's theory is that a relatively small and simple set of rules could explain a mind-boggling variety of species. One of the joys of reading Richard Dawkins' non-religious books is the detailed descriptions of extraordinary species and conjectures about their origin. To cite another example, the mathematics of fractal geometry shows how simple rules produce the most amazingly complex, almost organic, shapes.

On the other part of his argument, Professor Dawkins seems even more out of touch with the subject he expounds upon. Surely he can't be unaware that philosophers from pre-history until this very day have known that the simplest and most probable explanation of an entity's origin is that it has always existed? Until forced by the evidence discovered nearly 100 years ago, secular philosophers have universally taken the universe to be eternal. God, if He exists, can have no origin with a probability of 1.

This technique of arguing against a theory by setting up its most plausible version and dismissing it is commonly used in science and philosophy. The late, great evolutionist John Maynard Smith used it in his 1964 attack on the then-popular theory of "group selection." He set himself the task of devising the best possible argument for group selection. The details don't matter; he called it the Haystack Model. He then proceeded to show that the assumptions that the Haystack Model needed to make were highly unrealistic.

I must claim ignorance of John Maynard Smith's work, but it sounds an awful lot like a straw man argument (oddly enough). Generally, the technique of building your opponent's position so that you can knock it down is considered a fallacy. Again, I can scarcely believe Professor Dawkins could be unaware of this. Only if one earnestly creates the strongest possible argument would it be valid to claim victory when the argument is refuted. So I struggle to see how the "alien theory" could be considered by anyone to be the best Intelligent Design theory unless God is ruled out a priori.

And that, of course, is the problem Professor Dawkins has. He isn't defending himself against people who believe Intelligent Design (there are much worthier opponents) but against other atheists. It would appear that he was caught making fairly ridiculous claims in the documentary and is now attempting to right his ship with somewhat less ridiculous claims in the opinion section of the LA Times. Unless he can correct his delusion that he is a philosopher, I doubt that he will succeed.

Friday, March 28, 2008

The Bible Experience: a review

I've long been looking for a good audio Bible that met my criteria:

  1. It must be a modern translation (i.e., post Dead Sea Scrolls).
  2. It must be unabridged.
  3. It must be in a modern format.
  4. It must be well produced.
  5. And relatively inexpensive.

For a long time the search didn't go well. It seemed the market was split between well-produced, expensive recordings of the King James Bible and incomplete, free recordings of slightly newer translations. Looking around now I see things have changed somewhat, but I sort of gave up after a while.

Then I purchased an iPod shuffle. This little device has revolutionized my listening habits since I no longer need to a) carry around CDs or b) hope something on the radio is interesting. Instead, I load up the iPod each day at work and listen to what I scheduled in my car, on my bike, or while I wash dishes. In essence, I create my own radio station that can be paused at any time. For the last year, I've been raiding the library for every book on CD that looks interesting and I now have listening material to last quite a while. But almost all of it is secular and I have not been able to maintain discipline in meditating on God's word. When I saw The Bible Experience at Costco, it seemed like something I needed to add to my play list.

The best news is that The Bible Experience meets each of my criteria. The audio book is 1. the TNIV translation, 2. complete (including genealogies and other minutia, 3. available in CD or MP3 formats, 4. expertly produced, and 5. less than $100 at Costco or in MP3 format.

After years of using and listening to the NIV, I have become bored with the translation—especially familiar passages. Although Today's New International Version (TNIV) shares many commonalities with its predecessor, it sounds fresh and new to me. One reason is that the language seems to be tightened up and modernized. I think the other reason must be a result of the incredible voice talent employed by
The Bible Experience. The story of Ruth, for instance, seems more engaging and relevant because you can hear the emotion of the characters as they interact.

Most sections have some sort of background music or noise (sheep bleating, swords drawn, crowds mumbling and so on). Other sound effects accompany significant actions such as the cry of a man in the throws of death and the cries of a woman giving birth. Although some might be distracted by the extra sounds, I find the effect reinforces the text. Very long (and boring) sections such as genealogies and administrative lists are made bearable with the addition of background music. Some sections repeat on a loop, which has been a mild annoyance to me, but this does not seem common. The introduction and conclusion tracks on each disk seem unnecessary, but they are easily skipped.

I still intend to read my Bible the old-fashioned way, but listening to it has become the primary way for me to consume the word of God. In some ways, this is a throwback to the pre-Gutenberg world and is not all unwelcome. In others, it is a thoroughly modern experience taking full advantage of technological advance. In either case, I'm grateful I can hear God's message more often and more easily than ever.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Modifying the inductive method for the Old Testament

Thinking about how to do an inductive study on Jonah, I've come to the conclusion that I need to modify the steps a bit in order to keep from getting over extended. The basic steps I usually follow are:

  1. Observation
  2. Questions
  3. Interpretation
  4. Application

These steps are fine, but it becomes difficult to study a book like Jonah that has two levels of interpretation. In particular, before Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for us, the story of the great fish has no deep significance. God could have saved Jonah any number of ways and served His purpose equally as well. But as Christians, we know the "Sign of Jonah" so we need to be able to interpret the story in light of new information. This can be done in Application, but it really is part of Interpretation. So I'm going to try using these steps instead:

  1. Observation
  2. Questions
  3. Interpretation
  4. Christology
  5. Application

In general, I think it will be useful to add an extra layer of interpretation to a whole range of "special" texts. Prophesy, for instance can become quite confusing when the question of what does such and such a passage mean on a symbolic level and what does it mean in terms of the future. They are separate questions, though the later depends on the answer to the first. Similarly for parables, poetry, and proverbs, the literal or face meaning must be addressed before the deeper meaning may be tackled.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Jonah: history, biography or parable?

I'm starting a study of Jonah with the Men's Inductive Bible Study next week and I have started thinking about what genre it might be. Traditionally, it has been included in the "Minor Prophets", but that is more of a historical accident, since the book contains very little in the way of prophesy. This classification arose because it was grouped with eleven books about or by prophets which could be written on a single scroll. Instead, the book of Jonah contains the story of what a particular prophet did at a particular time. Many would say that the genre of Jonah is obvious on its face: history. But I'd like to look at two other genres that have merit: biography and parable.


Most of us have an intuitive understanding of the history genre. It serves in a way to take us back in time so that we can observe what happened at a particular time and place. In the Old Testament the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles serve as clear examples of the history genre. In those cases the history spanned several generations and covered the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, not a portion of a single man's life as in Jonah. Unlike those texts, there is no evidence that Jonah's author relied on archives or other written sources, but either had access to a witness of these events or some oral tradition.


Perhaps a more likely candidate for a story of one man would be biography. Modern biographies aren't all that different from history or journalism in that they focus on accurate and complete details. Ancient biographies were less concerned about strict accuracy—often they included clearly apocryphal stories that illustrated some personal characteristic of the subject. For instance, one of our prime sources for early Roman emperors, Suetonius's On the Life of the Caesars, includes a number of omens and dreams that seem fairly unlikely. But in either era, biographies attempt to draw out the meaning of their subject's lives and selects details that illustrate that meaning. Ruth, Esther, and sections of other books such as the lives of David, Joshua, Daniel, and Joseph are Biblical examples of biography.


Perhaps a more controversial theory is that Jonah is a parable, or at least is told in the form of an extended parable. Although characters in parables are usually unnamed, Jesus christens one of his protagonists "Lazarus". The introduction and conclusion of Job may be regarded as two halves of a parable as well. The key to identifying the genre is to recognize lesson or point of the story and notice that all details emphasize that point. The other genres tend to include details that would seem extraneous to reason for telling the story. Jonah is notably light on extra detail.

Selecting the parable genre does not mean finding Jonah to be fiction, but it does indicate whether historical accuracy was held sacred by the author. Though we aren't used to this way of thinking, miracles such as living in a whale for three days, increase the odds that a parable is based on reality. The reason is that parables were constructed as simple, everyday stories that an audience could easily grasp so that the hidden, more complex meaning would be more clear. In Jonah, the story of the whale adds little to the deeper meaning and would not have been familiar to intended audience. Even today, we see that the "fish story" element tends to swamp the ultimate meaning in the text. An author starting the story from scratch would probably found some other way to turn Jonah back to Nineveh. A simple solution would be for the sea to become calm as soon as the sailors began to return to shore.

Of course God did not do things that way because the story of the whale becomes the "Sign of Jonah" for Jesus many years later.