Genealogy of ideas

I am trying to be more reflective about my posts and the direction they are taking. It seems to me that if we are going to discuss a topic together on which we know beforehand we will disagree, then we would do well to set a reasonable goal. This goal should not be to convince those with a differing opinion to change their mind. Neither will we be able, in many cases, to arbitrate on which is the most accurate translation . We cannot usually – by quoting a lexicon, a commentary or an article – prove that one translation is correct and another is wrong.

What we can do is understand better how certain translations come about. We can become more aware of the origin and history of certain translation decisions and see how they are positioned within an interpretive tradition.

The following may be a gross oversimplification, but in looking back, I see that our posts break down into three main categories.

First, there is the examination of the textual, grammatical and lexical infomation. This is extended to exploring the relationship between the language of origin, the source language; and the target language, in our case English. The lexical studies on aner and anthropos fall into this category. Wayne’s analysis of the stylistic elements of the English language are also part of this.

Another area which I always love to research is the history of traditions. Where did a certain translation tradition come from? What is its origin and subsequent use? I could write about this kind of thing forever. (Oh! That reminds me! I never did finish my Lindisfarne series. Oh well.)

But we should also look at the communities in which certain translations originated, and become aware of their interpretive traditions. We can become better informed with regard to the beliefs of the community which created a translation, as well as the community for which the translation is intended.

While I mention the translators and their translation choices, in the domain of hermeneutics, one would refer rather to the ‘readers’ of the text and their ‘understanding’ of the Bible. This is how Larry, who blogs at This Lamp, explains it,

    There are many ways to read the Bible. One way is to attempt to understand the “original authorial intent” of the Bible – often called a historical-critical reading. A related, but distinct approach is to attempt to chart the way that various readers have understood the Bible. Both of these methods have value, but in the complex portions of Scripture, we may never have a clear consensus of the meaning of Scripture, so the most we can hope for is to understand how different groups have read it.

In the wake of the recent discussion about how to translate Psalm 2:12, Doug at Metacatholic, reflects on a similar note,

    It is inevitable that the way the Bible is translated will be affected by the traditions of the translator. There’s recently been a lively exchange of views relating to the translation of Psalm 2:12 on e.g. Kethuvim, Higgaion and Codex among others. In this particular instance, however, the difficulty of the Hebrew, and the obvious potential of the text for either christological or non-christological interpretation, means that the translator tends to be fully aware of the amount of interpretation that goes into the translation. As a corollary, translators are willing to argue for, and defend, their choices.

    Generally in contemporary translations, both the individual translators and the translation committees are well aware of a whole host of such disputed cruces, and often take particular care with their quite self-aware biases. More interesting are the instances where the tradition is so strong that the translators may not be aware of their own particular bias, and are unaware of the extent to which their translation conforms to their interpretative tradition.

Chris Heard at Higgaion succintly expresses a related thought. The focus here as well is on understanding the tradition, not on arriving at one correct answer,

    Citations in an academic paper should not be used to try to establish the correctness of ideas. Rather, citations in an academic paper trace the genealogy of the ideas considered in the paper.

So … I am giving notice … we don’t actually believe that we are parceling out hitherto undisclosed and now guaranteed “from the very mouth of God” translations. The best we can do is comment on the all too human histories, the all too variable traditions, and the all too fallible communities which play a part in the major translations which serve as our canon and rule of faith today.

Update: This was written before Anonymous posted his recent contribution on Alter’s literary approach to the Bible. These indepth insights into the poetic and narrative structure of the Hebrew scriptures add an entirely new aesthetic dimension to my understanding of the Bible, although perhaps orthogonal to the interests of some faith communities.

However, we should respond not only in an intellectual way but also in an affective way to the scriptures. I enjoy this opportunity to become more informed on an approach to the Bible that is outside of my own tradition and look forward to reviews of other works by Alter.

Update #2 Metacatholic continues the discussion here.

    2 thoughts on “Genealogy of ideas

    1. Tim says:

      Susanne, you write in the appendix:
      These indepth insights into the poetic and narrative structure of the Hebrew scriptures add an entirely new aesthetic dimension to my understanding of the Bible, although perhaps orthogonal to the interests of some faith communities.
      I think this misunderstands what (at least) some of us are doing when we investigate the artistry of the Bible. Attention paid to this “how of telling” can also draw one’s attention more firmly to the “what” of the text. I tell my students that the/one goal of studying a biblical passage is to understand/see/hear what it is “about” – by which I mean what it is doing/saying to its hearers. Attention paid to the artistry of the telling helps us discern this “aboutness” with less personal subjectivity and more open discussability. Instead of saying “the Spirit of God revealed to me”, to which you can only reply “Well, not to me, mate!” we can give reasons for these perceptions, reasons that can be discussed sensibly with others.

      This is surely precisely what reading the Bible is about in faith communities as well as academies. The difference lies in the faith community adding that it is what God is “about” in this text that really matters…

    2. Suzanne McCarthy says:


      I meant *some* faith communities and I didn’t mean it *should* be orthogonal to their interests. I meant that there do exist some Christian communities who seem not to care as much about the literary aspects of the Bible. I have that feeling about my own fundamentalist upbringing and the Darby Bible. But I could be wrong.

      I agree entirely with your comment.

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