On Tuesday I’ll be turning back the first drafts of the semester-long paper project in my ethnohistory class. The biggest teaching point associated with that assignment is getting the students to evaluate their sources critically. It’s a history class — don’t ask why a linguist is teaching this class, it’s a long story — so the students have to be taught to ask the most basic question: how do they know that they can trust a source. Is the writer a witness to the events? That would make it a primary source, which is as good as we can do. But sometimes you can’t find anything from the eyewitnesses and you have to settle for the newspaper accounts. But being careful only to use primary sources or contemporary news accounts, you still have to worry about how to read past the prejudices, opinions, and worldview of the writer.
The trouble is most of the time most of us don’t have the time or the access to documents to enable us to assemble and read the primary sources for ourselves. So we look to authorities, to the folks who have read the primary sources. What they write, however, are secondary sources. Of course, secondary sources, too, have prejudices and opinions, but the problem is that their opinions are even harder to sort out from the facts than those of the primary sources. That’s because we ask of the authorities that they synthesize the primary sources into a story. Much of the time we take the stories of the secondary sources as gospel truth and don’t ask the hard questions: how does he/she know that? Can we trust that his/her story is the real story?
Wait. What does all this have to do Bible translation?
Well, when we get into arguments about what words mean, we don’t much pay attention to the difference between primary and secondary sources, and that gets us into trouble.
Let me explain.
In the case of translation, what constitutes a primary source?
Ideally, a natively bilingual speaker. But unfortunately for us, there never were any natively bilingual speakers for Roman era Koine and 21st century English.
So if we can’t get such a person, what’s the next best thing? What’s the primary source in that case.
Interestingly enough, it’s the text itself. Combine the text with early translations as a way to triangulate on the original meaning and you’re well more than halfway there. (This makes dealing with ancient texts the analogue of doing oral history, not a trivial task, but most definitely do-able.)
Oh, you say, that sounds all very approximate. Can we have any confidence in such a source?
Actually, yes we can, because of one thing — language is highly redundant — the standard figure is 50%. It’s redundancy that enables children to learn language by observing how people use language in context. That same redundancy allows me to mimic what children do in learning a language when I approach a body of ancient texts. Give me a large enough corpus (a collection of texts in a single language) with a translation that simply gets me to a close approximation of what the text means, and I can, by dint of great effort, tell you what all but the rarest expressions in the corpus mean with great precision and confidence.
The NT plus Roman era writers and the Roman era papyrii constitute a big enough corpus to work with. Throw in that we have a very similar, but more archaic variety of Greek in the LXX and that there is a lot known about the older (but much different) forms of Greek from 500 BC on, and we are in a very, very good place to use this corpus as a primary source for figuring out what words and expressions in the NT mean to a high degree of accuracy. (You can find an example of me doing this in a series of earlier posts regarding the word ἐπιτιμάω
But wait! you say, wouldn’t it just be simpler to use the dictionary? After all, the dictionary makers did what I just described. They’re the experts. They poured through the corpus and figured out what the words mean.
True, but we have to remember that their work still has the status of a secondary source. The problem for us is that almost all of that work, reading the texts and assembling examples of distinct senses, was done in 19th century.
You see, for us to use those dictionaries properly, we have to take into account the fact that even if they got the translations right for 19th century English, those translations might not be right for 21st century English.
A good word study in the original texts, carefully done trumps the dictionary every time.
ἄνθρωπος is a case in point.
There is much ink spilt in this blog about the meaning of ἄνθρωπος and its Hebrew equivalent adam (אדם), most recently relating to an unnecessary neologism, adamkind. It’s a topic that comes up over and over when one talks about accuracy in translation.
Reading the texts, one finds absolutely convincing examples which make it clear that from Homeric Greek on, ἄνθρωπος refers to humans without explicit reference to maleness. Some key examples and discussion can be found here
particularly in the comments.
So why does the ESV insist on translating both adam (אדם) or ἄνθρωπος ‘man’?
Because its translators don’t recognize that English has changed.
In Liddell and Scott’s time one did not say human being, one said man. (Liddell and Scott is the standard reference dictionary for Greek.) Liddell and Scott’s entry for ἄνθρωπος begins:
ἄνθρωπος, ἡ, Att. crasis ἄνθρωπος, Ion. ὥνθρωπος, for ὁ ἄνθρ-:–
A. man, both as a generic term and of individuals, Hom. etc., opp. gods, ἀθανάτων τε θεῶν χαμαὶ ἐρχομένων τ’ ἀνθρώπων Il.5.442 , etc.; πρὸς ἠοίων ἢ ἑσπερίων ἀνθρώπων the men of the east or of the west, Od.8.29; even of the dead in the Isles of the Blest, ib.4.565; κόμπος οὐ κατ’ ἄνθρωπον A.Th.425 , cf. S.Aj.761.
2. Pl. uses it both with and without the Art. to denote man generically, ὁ ἄ. θείας μετέσχε μοίρας Prt.322a ; οὓτω . . εὐδαιμονέστατος γίγνεται ἄ. R.619b , al.; ὁ ἄ. the ideal man, humanity, ἀπώλεσας τὸν ἄ., οὐκ ἐπλήρωσας τὴν ἐπαγγελίαν Arr.Epict.2.9.3.
3. in pl., mankind, ἀνθρώπων . . ἀνδρῶν ἠδὲ γυναικῶν Il.9.134 ; ἐν τῷ μακρῷ . . ἀνθρώπων χρόνψ S.Ph.306 ; ἐξἀνθρώπων γίγνεσθαι depart this life, Paus.4.26.5, cf. Philostr.VA8.31.
But if you look through all of the glosses of compounds of ἄνθρωπος in Liddell and Scott, when the gloss is adjectival it is given as human, not male, as in the examples below.
ἀνθρωπο-πᾰθής , ές,
A. with human feelings, ib.182, al. Adv. –θῶς, λέγεσθαι, of the gods, Hermog. Id.2.10.
ἀνθρωπό-νοος , ον, contr. ἀνθρωπό-νους , ουν,
A. with human understanding, intelligent, πίθηκοι Ael.NA16.10 : Sup. -νούστατος Str.15.1.29.
Not surprisingly, Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker, the standard reference for the Koine of Christian literature, which was revised in the middle of the 20th century (1958-1979) has the more modern usage in its gloss:
ἄνθρωπος, ου, ὁ (Hom. + inscr., pap., LXX, EN., EP. Arist., Philo, Joseph., Test. 12 Patr.; loanw. in rabb.) human being, man [pg. 68].
(It probably doesn’t hurt either that this lexicon was developed starting with a translation from the German. German has a word Mensch with the primary sense meaning exactly what ἄνθρωπος in its primary sense means, namely, ‘human being’.)
It isn’t until you get down to BAGD’s sense group 2: “in special combinations and meanings” that you get
b. the context requires such mngs. as—a. man, adult male [a list of citations follows, pg. 68]
If the complementarians really understood what shaky ground textual ground they stand on, the whole debate would be different.