Bible translations unto the pain of their translators

Each day I check on BBB hoping to see a new post by one of the other bloggers. I’ve been busy lately, not the least part of my busyness has been wrestling with a kidney stone for 1 1/2 weeks. I even got to take my first ride in an ambulance to go to an ER to lower my pain. I’ve never had pain that bad before. And if I weren’t taking pain pills, the pain would still be intense. We men are told that if we want to know what the pain of childbirth is like, get a kidney stone. But taking pain pills can decrease one’s ability to think as clearly as one would like!

Well, by now, many of you may be glad that I haven’t posted any other BBB essays recently! This is going to be one of those “throwaway” posts, done when I feel the necessity for a post but my brain isn’t working well enough (it’s hard to multitask with pain or fuzzy brain) to write something more interesting. But at least maybe I can write something which can tweak your interest a bit.

Was there any word in the title of this blog post which stood out to you as not being a word that you commonly use? If so, I suspect it was the word “unto.” We can all spell “unto.” Perhaps we can even recite some memorable phrase from the past which contains the word “unto.” But I suspect that it has been several years since most of us have read or written any sentence with the word “unto” in it.

I suggest that words like “unto” which are not commonly used by people who we hope to use our Bible translation should not be used in our translation. Such words may be accurate, if we determine accuracy by dictionary definitions without regard to usage. They may have been used commonly at some time in the past. But use of even a word as short and simple as “unto” can communicate to users of a translation a message that we may or may not intend to communicate, namely, that the message of the Bible itself is out-dated, irrelevant for issues we face today, that the Bible itself is a piece of classical literature, not intended to be written with words which are used by most elements of a society. Now at this point, let’s not get sidetracked by a common detour that often comes up at this point in many BBB blog posts that have to do with word usage in Bible versions. Please note that I am not suggesting that we avoid all “educated” or more difficult words of a language; I am now only addressing the issue of whether or not a word is used and understood by all levels of a society for whom we intend a translation to be used.

When is the last time that you composed a sentence with the word “unto”?

What are some words besides “unto” which are used in some English Bibles which you believe are not used by enough elements of English-speaking society to justify their use in a Bible version?

58 thoughts on “Bible translations unto the pain of their translators

  1. Bob MacDonald says:

    I will agree with you for once – in 1000 posts I have used it once (except where quoting the King James) – in this sentence

    The limited canon is not sufficient unto itself socially, historically, or scientifically. But it is sufficient within the context of its purpose: the effecting of salvation, the work of liberation, the confrontation of God with the children of dust, the engagement in the process of tikkun olam – healing the world.

    From March 2008 here

    Sufficient unto – of course comes to us as a phrase from the KJV concerning the day’s evil.

  2. Bob MacDonald says:

    And by the way – may you find a good book and relax in a comfortable position and not move for a while… (try Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and get the Reparo blessing of Mungo’s hospital)

  3. Theophrastus says:

    I hope you feel better soon, Wayne.

    Here’s the thing about the KJV: its language was archaic when when it was published in 1611. In other words, its archaism was a deliberate effect.

    You talk about negative effects of archaic language:

    Use of even a word as short and simple as “unto” can communicate to users of a translation a message that we may or may not intend to communicate, namely, that the message of the Bible itself is out-dated, irrelevant for issues we face today, that the Bible itself is a piece of classical literature, not intended to be written with words which are used by most elements of a society.

    But archaic language can also communicate a degree of seriousness, literary quality, majesty, and timeless message. I think that is why even a completely new translation, such as the NEB, may decide to use the second person singular.

    One thing I can say with some certainty is that many people appreciate archaic language in their Bibles. I notice that in the May 2009 CBA best selling Bible listings, the KJV and NKJV are the #2 and #3 (switching positions whether one uses unit sales or dollar sales). The only Spanish translation on the list, the RV1960, is also noted for archaic language.

    I wish to suggest that a very large fraction of Bible readers — perhaps even a majority — appreciate and prefer their Bibles to use a fuller range of language than the limited English of contemporary usage.

    PS: I think it is a widely held consensus that “that the Bible itself is a piece of classical literature” — I’m surprised to see you suggest that this is not correct!

  4. hypatia says:

    I rather agree with Theophrastus. My undergrad. supervisors constantly shook their heads at my translations muttering that they did not sound ‘natural’ before conceding that they were indeed accurate. But to me they WERE ‘natural’, because my ‘natural’ speech contains what some would deem archaisms e.g. I regularly use the word ‘lest’ as a form of ‘in case’, or ‘would that’ to express a wish. I’m not being deliberately precious: it’s how I speak and, I suppose, how my family – particularly my mother – speaks. Different people have different idiolects and that should be taken into consideration. One size does not fit all. For a vast number of people the KJV is irreplaceable BECAUSE its language lifts the spirit above the workaday and mundane (leaving aside for a moment its accuracy of translation).
    For such people archaic words like ‘unto’, ‘woe to’ or ‘rebuke’ precisely capture what is, for them, the spirit of a passage and make it feel (again, for them) dare I say it – sacred: ‘Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given….’ pick the bones out of that, ye modernisers!
    I know what bible-version I would prefer to be read at my funeral.
    By-the-by, may you soon feel better.

  5. Michael Nicholls says:

    Theophrastus wrote:
    Here’s the thing about the KJV: its language was archaic when when it was published in 1611.

    But the Bible wasn’t. I’m pretty sure Paul used normal Greek of the day. Possibly formal at times, but not archaic. But we could go in circles all day… 🙂

    hypatia wrote:
    ‘Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given….’ pick the bones out of that, ye modernisers!

    I have a hard time picking the meat out of that, let alone the bones. What does it mean? A child is born for our purpose? A child is born of our flesh, like a natural child? Or just leave it as ‘unto’ and keep the meaning somewhat veiled?

    In answer to Wayne’s question, I’d like to see ‘beseech’ smote from the Bible.

    Also, in Ephesians 6:5 the RSV has ‘singleness of heart’. Is that supposed to be a unified heart, or a singular heart in the Jane Austin use of the word? I just think it could be clearer. It’s not a term I hear today.

    1 Timothy 4:3 RSV “who forbid marriage and enjoin abstinence from foods…” Is that the past perfect of enjoy? 😉

    There are other words too that should be looked at, but not completely removed, such as ‘thus’ and ‘heed’. While they still have usage today, and they’re ok, there are usually better words that we can use.

    Consider Hebrews 6:9 RSV: “Though we speak thus, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure…” It’s not terrible by a long shot, but it could be better.

    But then in 6:15 we read “And thus Abraham, having patiently endured, obtained the promise.” I actually don’t mind the use of ‘thus’ here. I think it’s just an issue of ‘lexical balance’.

    Good topic Wayne. I would that your kidney stone be expelled without exceeding suffrage. 😉 And yes, I know what I said.

  6. Nathan says:

    Upon what base you such thoughts of the mind, that such words speak well no longer unto the ears of man?

    Hope you feel better, Wayne.

  7. J. K. Gayle says:

    We’ve missed you, Wayne, and now sympathize with you! Your thoughts are conveyed clearly enough unto me (but I do hope you get rid of the pain and the stone soon). I’m interested in this that you said:

    But use of even a word as short and simple as “unto” can communicate to users of a translation a message that we may or may not intend to communicate, namely, that the message of the Bible itself is out-dated, irrelevant for issues we face today, that the Bible itself is a piece of classical literature, not intended to be written with words which are used by most elements of a society.

    So I type into google news search “unto” to find these:

    news article titles such as “Reading: Once more unto the breach” and “Governor Schwarzenegger Restores unto Heirs 16th Century Venetian Pantings” and “Iraqi police a law unto themselves”

    and clauses such as “Truphone is a service unto itself, like Skype, with free calls between Truphone users, pay-as-you-go plans and monthly plans” and “but according to human rights workers, MPs and US officials, they are all too unto a law unto themselves” and “And, even on those occasions when President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have sought to distinguish current government policy from past practice they have done so cautiously, with half-measures, so as to save unto themselves for another day the option of reverting back to Bush-era doctrines” and “The White House also wisely agreed to end a stalemate over “executive privilege” by brokering a complicated deal that helps hand unto the House Judiciary Committee the hides of former Bush officials Karl Rove and Harriet Miers for testimony about their role in the still unresolved U.S. Attorney scandal.”

    That’s just among the first ten articles found (ignoring all the references to archaic bible language).

    So, just for grins (still sympathizing with you about your pain), I type unto google “unto” and “kidney stones,” and actually find someone who’s written this: “I believe that there are some ways in which a kidney stone is liken unto sin. 6. No one likes a kidney stone, nor should anyone like sin.”

    Which illustrates one of the fine points Theophrastus makes about the contemporary timelessness of archaic language.

    In reply to Michael, I’ll only add that reading Paul’s Greek makes me wonder how “normal” it really is. Peter in his own Greek warned other readers about it (2 Peter 3:15-16). C.S. Lewis, writing about “St. Paul,” likewise says “I cannot be the only reader who has wondered why God, having given him so many gifts, withheld from him (what would to us seem so necessary for the first Christian theologian [albeit a formidable Jew]) that of lucidity and orderly exposition.” George Steiner specifies that the Greek consists of “constantly polysemic, stratified techniques of semantic motions in the Pauline Epistles. . . indirect communications, at once more internalized and open-ended than are the codes of classical rhetoric, which beget the seeming contradiction of enigmatic clarity, the “comprehendit imcomprehensible esse” celebrated in Anselm’s Proslogion. That’s just writing. Steiner also notes how, in his public speech, “St.Paul cites Euripides,” and Luke even (in Acts 17) more or less directly quotes Paul who, in old spoken Greek poetry, in addition quotes not only Aratus but also Cleanthes. At one point, Paul concludes with his own comment: τοῦτο ἐγὼ καταγγέλλω ὑμῖν. And wouldn’t he have been aptly rhetorical if his contemporary audience heard it something like, “him declare I unto you”?

  8. J. K. Gayle says:

    Just to be clear, the “him declare I unto you” (at the end of my comment above) is the KJV translation of Paul’s rhetorical spoken Greek in the context of his quoting ancient Greek. Didn’t the KJV translators want Paul to sound as archaic in English, even in the early 1600s, as he does in Greek, in the early part of the first century?

  9. Mark says:

    Buckler is the word that drives me crazy. It’s used six times in the ESV and it strikes me as a strange, possibly british variant word that I’ve never heard in the U.S.

    The dictionary on my Mac defines it as: a small, round shield held by a handle or worn on the forearm.

    Psalm 35:2
    Take hold of shield and buckler and rise for my help!

    Psalm 91:4
    He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.

    Jeremiah 46:3
    “Prepare buckler and shield, and advance for battle!

    Ezekiel 23:24
    And they shall come against you from the north[1] with chariots and wagons and a host of peoples. They shall set themselves against you on every side with buckler, shield, and helmet; and I will commit the judgment to them, and they shall judge you according to their judgments.
    [1]Septuagint; the meaning of the Hebrew word is unknown

    Ezekiel 38:4
    And I will turn you about and put hooks into your jaws, and I will bring you out, and all your army, horses and horsemen, all of them clothed in full armor, a great host, all of them with buckler and shield, wielding swords.

    Ezekiel 39:9
    “Then those who dwell in the cities of Israel will go out and make fires of the weapons and burn them, shields and bucklers, bow and arrows, clubs[1] and spears; and they will make fires of them for seven years,
    [1]Or javelins

  10. Michael Nicholls says:

    J. K. Gayle wrote:
    reading Paul’s Greek makes me wonder how “normal” it really is. Peter in his own Greek warned other readers about it (2 Peter 3:15-16).

    I don’t think Peter was warning readers about Paul’s linguistic archaisms. I always took the comment to mean that Paul discusses some really difficult theological topics.

    It’s kind of like the discussion we recently had here on marked language (“Ask not what your country can do for you…”). There’s flavour in using archaisms. Paul uses it now and then for effect, or to quote someone. But if it’s used all the time as a replacement to normal language it’s just confusing.

  11. Theophrastus says:

    But the Bible wasn’t. I’m pretty sure Paul used normal Greek of the day. Possibly formal at times, but not archaic. But we could go in circles all day

    The presence of some 500-odd hapax legomena in the Bible, as well as the many non-standard grammatical uses of grammar (e.g., the many grammatical puzzles that Rashi considered; perhaps even the many tense changes in Mark) argues otherwise.

  12. David Ker says:

    Wayne, I hope you feel better soon. I’d like to crack a kidney stone joke here to make you laugh but what you’re going through is too painful for that so I’ll tell a different joke.

    The doctor looks in the ear of the old man and says, “No wonder your ear hurts, you’ve got a suppository in there.”

    “Aha!” said the old man, “So, that’s where I put my hearing aid.”

  13. Dru says:

    All my sympathy. I hope the stone clears soon without your needing anything invasive.

    I agree that most of us don’t use ‘unto’ much these days. It can occasionally be useful metrically. I can’t though imagine any context where anyone would use the construction ‘unto the pain of ….’.

    I’m not sure I agree with some of the other comments though. I’m puzzled by ‘squall’. What’s the context where it is odd? To me it’s a normal word meaning a short violent storm, particularly at sea. It crops up in weather forecasts. It could perhaps be used metaphorically to describe a violent but short temper. But I don’t know any other normal use.

    ‘Buckler’ is a different problem. It isn’t normal UK English either, because it’s something that is itself obsolete. But if the Hebrew means ‘a small, round shield held by a handle or worn on the forearm’ then I think ‘buckler’ is unfortunately the correct translation, even though the meaning is opaque to modern users because people don’t use bucklers any more. It is inadequate though to translate it as shield, particularly not when it is regularly coupled with another word which also means ‘shield’.

    Compare this. The custom died out more recently than soldiers stopping using bucklers, but people don’t glean any more either. Nevertheless, that also has a precise meaning, and I do not think a translation should abstain from using the word.

    On the hapax legomena point, are there not likely to be words in classical Hebrew that have got completely lost simply because the writers of the scriptures didn’t happen to be interested in the sort of subject matter where the words were used? What sort of range of understanding of English would people have in the future if the only books that had come down to them were on theology – or for that matter were car maintenance manuals.

  14. Mark says:

    So Dru,

    Do you think that the TNIV rendering of Jeremiah 46:3 (“Prepare your shields, both large and small, and march out for battle!”) doesn’t correctly convey the original meaning?

  15. Michael Nicholls says:

    J. K. Gayle wrote:
    At one point, Paul concludes with his own comment: τοῦτο ἐγὼ καταγγέλλω ὑμῖν. And wouldn’t he have been aptly rhetorical if his contemporary audience heard it something like, “him declare I unto you”?

    I don’t know why the KJV translators translated “τοῦτο ἐγὼ καταγγέλλω ὑμῖν” (Acts 17:23) as “him declare I unto you.”

    It should say “this”, not “him” (unless it’s a ‘free’ translation). Also, “declare I” unnecessarily switches constituents which is rough on English ears and wasn’t even written that way in Greek. And “unto” or a near-equivalent preposition also isn’t there in the Greek.

    The NASB does a decent literal job just by making it “this I proclaim to you.”

    It’s the same construction as Acts 17:3 “ὃν ἐγὼ καταγγέλλω ὑμῖν” (“whom I proclaim to you”). I don’t think it sounds like a Greek archaism. But I’m not a first-century Greek speaker, so I could be wrong.

    My point is, I think that “This declare I unto you” can communicate to users of a translation a message that we may or may not intend to communicate, namely, that the message of the Bible itself is out-dated, irrelevant for issues we face today, that the Bible itself is a piece of classical literature, not intended to be written with words which are used by most elements of a society. (from Wayne’s post).

    Think not I Paul that awkward sounded.

  16. Wayne Leman says:

    Theo. ended:

    PS: I think it is a widely held consensus that “that the Bible itself is a piece of classical literature” — I’m surprised to see you suggest that this is not correct!

    I probably unnecessarily opened a can of worms when I wrote that. Fortunately for you (and others) my brain continues to be fuzzy, so I can’t write much. But let me say that I don’t think there were many parts of the Bible which were written as classical literature, yet our translations of the Bible often make the Bible sound like it must have been archaic to start with.

    I’m sure that literary scholars have wrestled with the question of what literary parameters define whether a piece of literature is classical or not. Is it something in the intentions of the original author? Or does it have to do with the timelessness of the concepts the author wrote? If it is the latter, then surely the Bible is one of the greatest pieces of classical literature ever written. If, however, the Bible is classical because it often sounds classical in translation, then I suggest that we have committed circular reasoning where we define something as classical because it sounds classical. But the original biblical texts, for the most part, did not sound classical. So we are defining classical from the perspective of whether or not archaic syntax and lexical combinations are used in a translation of the original document. If this is how we define classical literature, then many of us could compose classical literature for contemporary audiences, as long as we use archaic expressions and other literary devices (rhythm, etc.) which we perceive to be characteristic of classical literature.

    You do raise an important point, one which needs to be follow up and discussed further. As so often is the case, I’d like to start by trying to agree on definitions, in particular, how can we tell that a piece of literature is classical or not?

    For those interested, I spent the morning with the medical people and they were able to work me in for a non-invasive procedure (lithotripsy) which will occur tomorrow. I will be at the hospital most of tomorrow. After that, everything should come out all right.

    I can take some comfort knowing that I am being biblical. A number of people were stoned in the Bible. One of the most famous was a younger man named Stephen.

    Furthermore, we can take additional comfort from what is said repeatedly in the Bible that many English speakers know best: It says “it came to pass”; it did not say “it came to say.” My wife and I were sent a letter once from a well-intentioned lady who reminded us of this biblical factoid. Or if it isn’t a biblical factoid, at least it is a Bible translation factoid! 🙂

  17. Mike Sangrey says:

    Michael Nicholls wrote:
    I would that your kidney stone be expelled without exceeding suffrage.

    I’d vote for that. LOL!

    Though I also sincerely hope the good laugh doesn’t hurt.

  18. Mike Sangrey says:

    Theophrastus wrote:
    The presence of some 500-odd hapax legomena in the Bible, as well as the many non-standard grammatical uses of grammar (e.g., the many grammatical puzzles that Rashi considered; perhaps even the many tense changes in Mark) argues otherwise.

    Is this in reference to the NT Greek? I find it hard to believe that there still exists that many hapax legomena. I know that many of these single uses have gone by the wayside in the last 30 years or so. I recall reading that some are now thought of as common words of the day.

    Also, as far as the grammar difficulties, I would also seriously question this. We now know that the amenuensis was for all intents and purposes a professional writer employed (though frequently a slave to someone wealthy) because of his knowledge of the language and audience. I would tend to believe it is we who have the lack of grammar understanding.

    Paul made a concerted effort to speak/write the language of the people. He says as much in 2 Cor. 1:13. The grammar “difficulties” are likely the result of the differences between the more refined professional presentation by the SOPHOI and that of the normal Greek speaker/listener. I’m thinking of the difference between (say) Billy Graham speaking and a Douglas Moo writing. The later would be quite polished. The former is just plain English and still quite well done.

    Lastly, I think shall has turned the corner away from its usefulness in Bible translation.

  19. Theophrastus says:

    Wayne, my continued wishes for your speedy recovery.

    Using the standard definition of the term classical (e.g., in Western civilization, the Greco-Roman period; in Hebrew civilization, the pre-Mishnaic period), the Bible is clearly classical. Shakespeare is not classical, but Aristophanes is. Milton is not classical, but Ovid is. Chaucer is not classical, but Homer is.

    Is the Bible literature? I argue yes, it is. Especially in the Hebrew Bible, large stretches of the Bible are viewed as literary masterpieces: e.g., Job, Song of Songs, Samuel, Genesis, Ecclesiastes, and Psalms. In the New Testament, I will gladly defend the point of view that Mark is one of the highlights of Greek writing.

    Job in particular is often mentioned as one of the most literary and important works in the classical repertoire.

    More to the point, the Bible has been viewed as literature. I can’t include links (because then my message will end up in comment-purgatory) so I will include ISBN number for books that I cite.

    The standard history of the Bible as Literature is David Norton’s magisterial A History of the Bible as Literature published by Oxford University Press (volume 1: 0521617006; volume 2: ISBN 0521617014; condensed volume: 0521778077).

    A standard college textbook on the Bible as Literature is Robert Alter and Frank Kermode’s Harvard University Press volume The Literary Guide to the Bible (ISBN 0674875311). (See also Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative (ISBN 046500427X) and The Art of Biblical Poetry (ISBN 0465004318)

    Evangelical textbooks on the Bible as Literature include Leyland Ryken’s How to Read the Bible as Literature (ISBN 0310390214), Ryken’s Literary Introduction to the Bible (ISBN 0801077699), and Ryken’s and Tremper Longman’s Complete Literary Guide to the Bible (ISBN 0310230780). [Note, I cannot recommend Ryken’s books — I do recommend Norton, Alter, and Kermode’s books cited above].

    Wayne, you strongly advocated teaching high school Bible as Literature classes in this post. You advocated for a group that advertises on its home page a textbook “The Bible and Its Influence, the first and only student textbook created for public high school literature or social studies electives about the Bible.”

    Significant artists who viewed the Bible as a literary source for their art and music include names as revered as Caravaggio, Gustave Dore, Fra Angelico, El Greco, Giotto, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Rembrandt, Rubens, Titian, and Vermeer. Of course, this is only a tiny fraction, but a full listing would take days to compile.

    Authors who make literary reference to the Bible include Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, John Donne, Milton, Dostoevsky, William Blake, Melville, Faulkner, and T.S. Eliot. Again this is only a partial listing.

    Now, of course, it is possible to read the Bible in other ways as well. But I think its status as being from the classical period, as being literature, and as being classical literature is unchallengeable.

  20. Theophrastus says:

    Mike, I was referring to the Hebrew Bible. I hope I don’t step on too many toes if I state my personal opinion that the Hebrew Bible is far more literary than the Greek scriptures; although, as I state above, the best of the Greek scriptures (e.g., Mark) stand on their own as literary masterpieces.

    The Bible of Paul, the Septuagint (it is debatable whether Paul could even read Hebrew), of course is written in anything but natural Greek — it is written in heavily affected, Hebraized Greek.

    Paul is less literary, but he is not without literary effect. He certainly is given to rhetorical excess (e.g., the outrageous exaggeration in Romans 2:17-22) and he uses assonances, although in a precious way (e.g., in Romans phthonou/phonou, asynetous/asynthetous. Note in Romans 8:28-37, the catena of clauses (in the KJV) “foreknow”, “predestinate”, “call”, “justify”, “gorify”, the sequence of seven ascending rhetorical questions (with occasional staccato replies), then the accumulated trials with the climax at death; a Scripture to prove it all; and finally, the apostle’s cry of a defiant triumph. This is a call to Christians — and inspires those Christians to follow him to his martyrdom.

    Now this is only one example from the Pauline epistles (which again, I view as the least literary part of the Bible) — I claim not that Paul’s writings are literature in the grand sense, but they do use literary effect and are hardly expressed in common everyday speech.

  21. Demas says:

    Heh, not only do I know what the word ‘buckler’ means but I also own one and have used one. They’re very effective in their context.

    Anyway, the problem with the word ‘buckler’ in the KJV is not that it is a technical term not now widely known, but that it is a technical term not now widely known *used anachronistically*. Have a look at Wikipedia on bucklers: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buckler

    Whatever type of small shield the armies in Ezekiel were armed with it wasn’t a buckler – the word was just translated as a buckler in the KJV because the audience knew what a buckler was.

  22. J. K. Gayle says:

    Michael said:

    “My point is, I think that ‘This declare I unto you’ can communicate . . . that the message of the Bible itself is out-dated, irrelevant . . . a piece of classical literature, not intended to be written with words which are used by most elements of a society. (from Wayne’s post).

    Think not I Paul that awkward sounded.”

    LOL! Point well made!

    (and so in the words of Sir Thomas Browne, who too often quoted the Bible as, well, as literature:

    “what prince can promise such diuturnity unto his relicks,
    or might not gladly say,

    Sic ego componi versus in ossa velim?

    Time, which antiquates antiquities, and hath an art to
    make dust of all things, hath yet spared these minor
    monuments.”

  23. Mike Aubrey says:

    Theophrastus wrote: The Bible of Paul, the Septuagint (it is debatable whether Paul could even read Hebrew), of course is written in anything but natural Greek — it is written in heavily affected, Hebraized Greek.

    I’d say that its “debated” rather than debatable. Debatable makes it sound unlikely, which is not the case. Some believe Paul was at least tri-lingual – if not Quad. And then there’s a difference between reading and understanding, even if Paul couldn’t read it, he likely could understand it when he heard it – and considering that reading out loud was the norm, its likely that he had parts memorized orally as well.

    As for the LXX itself, well, you speak as if its some monolithic book. Its not. The quality of the Greek varies significantly from book to book. Thackeray showed that quite well, as have Silva & Jobes more recently. It also depends on what translation we’re talking about. LXX is a cover term for multiple Greek translations of the OT, some of which are significantly worse or significantly better than others. A significantly better term than “heavily affected, Hebraized Greek” would be “translation Greek,” i.e., parts of the LXX is to the Hebrew what the NASB is to the Greek and Hebrew.

    Significant artists who viewed the Bible as a literary source for their art and music include names . . . . Of course, this is only a tiny fraction, but a full listing would take days to compile.

    Check A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature.

    As for the rest of your statements about Paul, well, I honestly don’t know what to do with them… I find them a bit outrageous.

  24. Theophrastus says:

    Mike, I agree with almost everything you said about the Septuagint. Space prevented me from presenting the case in full detail.

    I’m not sure which part of my statements about Paul you found outrageous — (a) that Paul used literary effects (and thus did not write in common Greek) or (b) that his writing is less literary than acknowledged masterpieces such as Job (which I pretty clearly marked as a personal opinion). If you disagree with (a), I can give more examples if you wish. If you disagree with (b), then that only makes my case stronger that the Bible is literature

    In either case, it is reasonable that many people wish to translate the Bible as literature — with no less care than we translate Homer or Dante or Cervantes or Tolstoy.

  25. Michael Nicholls says:

    It sounds a bit like we’ve swung from discussing “Do our Bible translations unnecessarily use archaisms?” to “Is the Bible classical literature?” to “Is the Bible literature at all?”

    I can’t speak for everyone, but I definitely agree that the Bible is literature. But I don’t agree that the authors always used a marked form of archaic language that was highly uncommon to the general public of the day. But such is the KJV.

  26. Mike Aubrey says:

    If you disagree with (b), then that only makes my case stronger that the Bible is literature

    Well, I don’t really think I was arguing against your case for the Bible as literature (though I also have little patience for Ryken – Longman I can handle)

    I might have misunderstood you too. Were you saying that Paul was less literary than the OT? Or less literary than the rest of the New Testament?

    I could agree with the first, just not the second. I’d say that 2 Peter less than amazing, as is Mark at times. Revelation, well, who really knows what to do with it in terms of quality – granted its an excellent apocalyse, just with poor Greek.

  27. Theophrastus says:

    Mike A.: We are in agreement that Paul is less literary than (most) of the Hebrew Bible.

    I continue to be struck by the original nature of the Gospels, which truly marked something new in Greek literature — something that shares many qualities with the Hebrew Bible while at the same time creating a new distinctive genre. To call this mere “common talk” is to close one’s eyes to the literary and mysterious quality of these unique works of sublime art.

    I will not express an opinion as to the relative literary merits and novelty of genre here.

    Finally, I do not at all accept an assumption pushed by some that “Koine” = “not literary”. By that logic, Hemingway should not have won the 1954 Nobel Prize in literature.

  28. Theophrastus says:

    Sorry, that should have said:

    I will not express an opinion as to the relative literary merits and novelty of genre here of the Gospels vs. the Episltes.

  29. Mike Aubrey says:

    I think we’re in general agreement. I agree about Koine, Epictutus wrote in Koine, as did Josephus and history deemed both of them worth remembering.

    As for Hemmingway, well, I really can’t stand him – other than “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” I don’t mind the existentialism, its his writing style that I find irritating.

  30. Rich Rhodes says:

    OK. Here’s what I have trouble with. There are two things that every linguist knows and no Biblical scholar seems fully to comprehend. First, languages are changing all the time. The way our grandparents talked is not the way we talk. Over stretches of centuries the changes can be dramatic. Second, language is not one-dimensional. Just because a usage is in a literary work does not mean it is not colloquial as well. (Ask Hemingway.) And there are plenty of educated people who have literary usages in their conversation. Somehow neither of these facts ever figures in these discussions.

    The reason there are 500 or so hapax legomena in Biblical Hebrew is that it isn’t really one language, it’s about 4 or 5 dialects which would probably not be exactly mutually intelligible. If you could have put Moses, David, and Jeremiah in the same room, they’d have as much trouble talking to one another as we would have talking to the Venerable Bede and Chaucer. And, what’s worse, each of these dialects is only attested by a few thousand words of text, so we can only guess half the time what is intended. We’re fooled by the fact that there are many words that run through two or more of the dialects. Like, say, drink, say, nail, etc. which are the same in Old English, Middle English, and Modern English (modulo the endings and the different orthographies). And we’re fooled by the fact that there is a consistent orthography in Hebrew that runs through 1500 years and that hides the fact that many words change meaning, but not so much that an outsider would notice, like Old English fugol ‘bird’, Middle English and Modern English fowl. Imagine if We retained Old English spelling, a second language speaker could get away with believing fugol means ‘bird’ and not ‘fowl’ in modern English.

    (This comment has gotten long enough. So I’ll save my piece on the multi-dimensionality of language and literary language for a separate comment, maybe even for a post.)

  31. Peter Kirk says:

    Michael, there is a textual issue in Acts 17:23. The critical text, based on the oldest surviving manuscripts, has ho … touto “which … this” i.e. a pair of neuter pronouns, but the Majority Text and presumably the Textus Receptus on which KJV was based has hon … touton “whom … him” i.e. a pair of masculine pronouns. That explains why KJV doesn’t match the Greek text you quoted.

  32. Peter Kirk says:

    Theophrastus, Paul himself wrote that he was a “Hebrew of Hebrews”, probably implying a knowledge of the language, and that he studied with Gamaliel, one of the best known scholars of the Hebrew Bible of his day. He is also recorded in Acts 21:40, 22:2 as speaking Hebrew. So I don’t think there is any real doubt that Paul read Hebrew. If you doubt the veracity of all the records we have of his life, then you might as well doubt his very existence. Of course it is a separate issue of what language Bible he used on an everyday basis.

  33. J. K. Gayle says:

    Rich Rhodes says:

    “If you could have put Moses, David, and Jeremiah in the same room, they’d have as much trouble talking to one another as we would have talking to the Venerable Bede and Chaucer.”

    But Hebrew Bible scholars such as Angel Sáenz-Badillos, Abba ben David, and Robert Alter say it doesn’t matter what the speakers spoke because there is, what Alter calls, “the relative paucity of vocabulary in biblical literature.”

    Alter cites Sáenz-Badillos as providing evidence that “the biblical lexicon is so restricted that it is hard to believe it could have served all the purposes of quotidian existences in a highly developed society” – he’s referring to a society such as that of Moses in Egypt, David in Israel, and Jeremiah in Jerusalem or Babylon or Mizpah. Alter asks: “Did, for example, the citizens of Judea in the time of Jeremiah speak in a parallel syntax, using the waw consecutive, and employing roughly the same vocabulary that we find in his prophecies, or in Deuteronomy and Genesis?”

    Alter goes on to answer with further specificity:

    “vernacular syntax and grammar probably differed in some ways from their literary counterparts. . . . The plausible conclusion is that the Hebrew of the Bible is a conventionally delimited language, roughly analogous in this respect to the French of the neoclassical theater: it was understood by writers and their audiences, at least in the case of narrative, that only certain words were appropriate for the literary rendering of events.”

    Ben David explains (what Alter calls “one of the great mysteries of the Hebrew language”):

    “the emergence, toward the end of the pre-Christian era, of a new kind of Hebrew, which became the language of the early rabbis. . . [which] uses a good many indigenous hebrew terms that are absent from the biblical corpus, or reflected only in rare and marginal biblical cognates. . . . For the purposes of legal and homilectic exegesis, they naturally would have used a vernacular Hebrew rather than the literary language. . . . [T]he language of the canonical texts was not identical with the vernacular. . . . [T]he language of biblical narrative in its own time was stylized, decorous, dignified, and readily identified by its audiences as a language of literature, in certain ways distinct from the language of quotidian reality.”
    –“The Bible in English and the Heresy of Explanation,” pages xxviii – xxxi of The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary

    And now I’ve gone on too long in a comment. But there’s more to discuss about what Wayne argues in the post. If what these biblical Hebrew scholars demonstrate is true, then there are implications for translation into English, whether it’s to mirror the literary nature of the Hebrew text and how. You can imagine that Alter himself teases these consequences out both in commentary on translation and in his own English translation.

  34. Wayne Leman says:

    Kurk wrote:

    If what these biblical Hebrew scholars demonstrate is true, then there are implications for translation into English, whether it’s to mirror the literary nature of the Hebrew text and how.

    Right (Write?!) on!

    For me, one of the key things you said was the last word “how”. Very few English Bible versions were translated by scholars who have training in English literary patterns to know which of them would be translationally equivalent to the Hebrew patterns. For instance, what is the English discourse/literary equivalent to Hebrew narrative waw consecutive structure. That structure is key to structuring of Hebrew Bible narratives that it is crucial that we get the equivalent pattern for English, so that the meaning of the original function of consecutive waw is accurately preserved in translation. Too often in translation exegetes preserve the forms of biblical text discourses without understanding *how* those forms function, and what the English equivalents would be. Bible translation teams need to have not only good exegetes but also scholars in biblical literary patterns and scholars in English literary and other linguistic patterns.

  35. Jay Wermuth says:

    Peter,

    You write: “He is also recorded in Acts 21:40, 22:2 as speaking Hebrew.”

    While I agree that Paul likely spoke and read Hebrew, most scholars that I have read argue that both of these passages refer to Aramaic (cf. van Unnik, Tarsus or Jerusalem; Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free; Hengel, The Pre-Christian Paul). Now it could be argued that if he spoke Aramaic, it is highly probable that he also spoke Hebrew since they are related. But I am not sure that these two verses make a compelling case that he did indeed speak, read and write Hebrew. The “Hebrew of Hebrew’s” comment is a more convincing place to start.

  36. Theophrastus says:

    I’m going to take a pass in the issue of whether Paul read Hebrew or not — I have an opinion, but it takes us too far from the direction of this thread, and I reject bringing it up. My point was simply to argue that Paul used the Septuagint, and to argue that it represented the “Bible” of the first century of the Christian Church.

  37. Theophrastus says:

    J. K.’s comments are quite perceptive — and there are, in fact, a number of scholars who are experimenting with the best way to represent some of the literary effects of the Bible into English (Alter is perhaps the best known on this board, but he is by no means the only one.)

    I do think that the Jacobean translators of the Authorized Version, in part because of the nature of training of their day, were far better writers than the typical academic of our day. For better or worse, the KJV is the version associated with literary excellence. I think that Alter and Kermode put the issue succinctly in their Literary Guide:

    We have as a rule used the King James Version in translations, and our reasons for doing so must be obvious: it is the version that most English readers associate with the literary qualities of the Bible, and it is still arguably the version that best preserves the literary effects of the original language. But it has serious philological deficiencies, and its archaism may at times be misleading…. There are two typographic departures from the King James Version. Italics are not used for words merely implied in the original, because the convention is more confusing than helpful to modern readers. When poetry is quoted, the text has been set as lines of verse.

    Thus, for example, when T. S. Eliot was asked to serve on the NEB translation team, he declined, famously saying that he saw no literary deficiency in the Authorized Version, except in those areas where there were mistranslations.

    (I must say that many of the KJV’s mistranslations — Joseph’s coat of many colors, Moses’ horns — have entered our popular culture and done harm.)

    I regard it as a great pity that in the great interest in new Bible translations there have been few writers interested in the Bible as Literature.

    ****

    To those who doubt that the Bible is great literature (and difficult literature) I once again turn you to books such as Job or the Song of Songs or Ecclesiastes — these books defy easy analysis, and yet they touch something deep in our soul — just like great literature.

    ****

    Finally, I want to repeat that reading the Bible as literature is not at all the only way to read the Bible. One the one hand, it requires great attentiveness, and is in that way demanding; on the other, it is less specialized than most academic ways of reading the Bible and is thus more widely accessible. It has been a way of reading the Bible that has been (and continues to be) enormously influential on literature, art, and music. It is a method that Bible translators should be acutely aware of — perhaps not every translation will be designed to be read as literature, but those that are have the potential to have great impact with an especially significant and influential segment of society.

  38. Rich Rhodes says:

    Let me repeat. If Biblical scholars understood some of the basic implications of nature of language, we wouldn’t be in this dilemma. Of course, the limited vocabulary we find in the Tanakh is not sufficient to the demands of quotidian communication, but that doesn’t mean that that tip of the Hebrew iceberg isn’t tied to language as it was used on the street (or in the tents).

    If all you had of English was Chaucer, a Shakespeare play, some Longfellow poems, and a Hemingway novel, how much would you know about English? None of these writers in English is far from the colloquial varieties of their day. Good literature is just upgraded ordinary language.

    I’ll bet the farm on two things. 1) Moses was using ordinary Hebrew for his day. 2) David wasn’t using anything far from his ordinary language when he was pouring his heart out to God.

    Were these men good writers?
    Absolutely.

    Did Moses’ language cast a long shadow across later varieties of Hebrew?
    Most certainly.

    Does that mean that there was literary diglossia?
    The burden of proof is on supporters of that assertion, for reasons like the following:

    – When you pour your heart out to someone, you talk the way you talk. That’s the null hypothesis for the psalms. This is David (and some others), pouring their hearts out. They just happen to be good poets, but that doesn’t mean their language is unnatural Hebrew for their day. Actually, it probably means just the opposite.

    – When the prophets spoke, they made people mad enough to stone and kill them. That’s not the reaction of people to language they barely understand.

  39. Mike Aubrey says:

    Good literature is just upgraded ordinary language.

    And sometimes, good literature is just plain ordinary language – Mark Twain didn’t become famous for writing in the Queen’s English – he’s as ordinary as they come and is often banned from elementary school libraries because of it.

    Theophrastus: I read your comments and I cannot help but think, “Who is he actually arguing with?”

    Rich: The language change issue goes both ways. Perhaps in the OT its an issue that language change hasn’t been recognized enough, but I’d say that for the NT, its been recognized too much. The majority of existing reference grammars are based on comparing the NT with Classical Greek. And there has also been an unfortunate lack of interest in comparing it with the Byzantine Greek of the 2nd & 3rd centuries AD.

  40. Theophastrus says:

    Mike A. — I am arguing with Wayne’s contention that we should not think of the Bible as “classical literature.” I think the Bible is classical literature, and that we gain greatly from reading it as such.

    Rich — It is clear that the language of the Hebrew Bible used a variety of literary designed with a variety of literary effects, including such basic items as strong rhythm, assonance, puns, etc. When translations ignore these, they are less faithful. As to the consideration of hapax legemona, this goes both to the question of the register of language and our degree to correctly understand it. Most translations speculatively reconstruct meaning in places, but are not always conscientious about marking it.

  41. J. K. Gayle says:

    Rich Rhodes says:

    “If all you had of English was Chaucer, a Shakespeare play, some Longfellow poems, and a Hemingway novel, how much would you know about English? None of these writers in English is far from the colloquial varieties of their day. Good literature is just upgraded ordinary language.”

    Robert Alter says:

    “It is well known that in biblical dialogue all the characters speak proper literary Hebrew, with no intimations of slang, dialect, or idiolect. The single striking exception is . . . . This is the sole occurrence of this [colloquial] verb in the biblical corpus, but in the Talmud it is a commonly used term with the specific meaning of . . . “

  42. Theophastrus says:

    I don’t know why J.K. put the ellipses in his quote of Alter — suggesting a word that was a bit untoward. The full quote is

    It is sufficient for our effort to gauge the level of style of the Bible’s literary prose merely to grant the very high likelihood that the language of the canonical texts was not identical with the vernacular, that it reflected a specialized or elevated vocabulary, and perhaps even a distinct grammar and syntax. Let me cite a momentary exception to the rule of biblical usage that may give us a glimpse into this excluded vernacular background of a more formal literary language. It is well known that in biblical dialogue all the characters speak proper literary Hebrew, with no intimations of slang, dialect, or idiolect. The single striking exception is impatient Esau’s first speech to Jacob in Genesis 25: “Let me gulp down some of this red red stuff.” In articulate with hunger, he cannot come up with ordinary Hebrew term for “stew”, so he makes do with ha’adom ha’adom hazeh — literally “this red red.” But what is more interesting for our purpse is the verb Esau uses for “feeding,” hal`iteini. This is the sole use of this verb in the biblical corpus, but in the Talmud it is a commonly used term with the specific meaning of stuffing food into the mouth of an animal. One cannot be certain this was its precise meaning in the biblical period because words do, after all, undergo semantic shifts in a period of considerably more than a thousand years. But it seems safe to assume, minimally, that even a millennium before the rabbis hal`it would have been a cruder term for feeding than the standard biblical ha’akhil. What I think happened at this point in Genesis is that the author, in the writerly zest with which he sought to characterize Esau’s crudeness, allowed himself, quite exceptionally, to introduce a vernacular term for coarse eating or animal feeding into the dialogue that would jibe nicely with his phrase, “this red red stuff.” After the close of the biblical era, this otherwise excluded term would surface in the legal pronouncements of the rabbis on animal husbandry, together with a host of vernacular words used in the ancient period but never permitted to enter the canonical texts.

    All this strongly suggests that the language of biblical narrative in its own time was stylized, decorous, dignified, and readily identified by its audience as a language of literature, in certain ways distinct from the language of quotidian reality. (emphasis added)

  43. Rich Rhodes says:

    Mike: I didn’t go into the Greek situation, which I actually know a lot more about. (After all, I sat in on Anna Murporgo-Davies History of Greek class a couple years back and have a ton of notes. And it’s of pinpoint relevance to my work on language spread.)

    I keep pointing out that there are no small number of usage differences over the span from the LXX to the NT, and that the writers of the NT use those differences in OT and other religious source quotes. (My favorite example being the use of επιτιμαω in Jude 1, for a variety of reasons.) By implication, that means that they are writing something closer to the colloquial usage.

    And you’re right that late Greek sheds significant light on NT usage.

    Part of the problem is that the Biblical Greek experts tend get to be experts because they are good a parsing, not because they are good at semantics. Even those who are good at semantics (Moises Silva, Louw and Nida e.g.) are about 20 years behind, lacking, in particular, advances in pragmatics, grammaticalization theory, and corpus linguistics.

  44. Bob MacDonald says:

    “It is well known that in biblical dialogue all the characters speak proper literary Hebrew, with no intimations of slang, dialect, or idiolect.”

    Dust Wind and Agony, by Michael Cheney is a helpful summary of characterization in Job. He suggests that a part of the characterization is achieved through dialect.

  45. Mike Aubrey says:

    Rich, could I e-mail you privately? I have a question for you about Greek linguistics. I think I have your e-mail from a mass e-mail Wayne sent out last fall.

  46. Theophrastus says:

    You are misreading Cheney by mixing uses of the word dialect. As Carol Newsom writes in The Book of Job: A Contest of Moral Imagination, “the voice the author has given to this utterance […] has its own recognizable ‘dialect,’ not in the narrowly linguistic sense but in the metalinguistic sense Bakhtin referred to as heteroglossia.” Job uses a broader vocabulary than most books in the Hebrew Bible, which leads some (e.g., John Hartley) to speculate that it was from a different dialect (in the sense of Alter); but even Hartley admits his theory founders because he is unable to find any corresponding Northwest Semitic works in the supposed dialect. A more plausible reading is that Job is written in elevated language.

  47. Bob MacDonald says:

    TheoPhrastus: I am not sure what you mean by my misreading – perhaps you mean I am not using dialect as Alter is. I am quite capable of misreading and miswriting. I skimmed Cheney and found this (his index is limited): … the literary traditions of the ANE use dialect, sociolect, idiolect, and even archaism to provide “colour” for their characterizations… (p 212). There is lots more including the warning that since we don’t have access to the BH vernacular, it is difficult to know when these techniques are being used.

    My only point is that Alter’s sentence is about a ‘well known’ opinion. And it seems to me that Cheney is questioning this. And in doing so attributing the possibility of greater literary merit to the writer of these characters than previously thought.

    I cannot yet make up my mind on this – for my mind is still in the making, perhaps not even being mine to make. And it forgets sometimes what it was as it becomes. I am in the middle of learning BH and translating Job. I doubt I will ever escape either learning curve.

  48. Rich S says:

    Hope you are doing better, Wayne. I have had 11 kidneys stones over the past 35 years. Not one of them has been fun.

  49. Theophrastus says:

    My reading of him was quite different. I don’t have his volume right in front of me, but I’ll dig it out of the archives.

    Of course, we can’t ask Cheney himself anymore because he died in 2007. Prior to that Cheney taught correspondence courses from a place called “Athabasca University.” I can and will ask Alter what he meant — he’s still alive and on the facuty at UC Berkeley.

  50. Wayne Leman says:

    Rich wrote:

    Hope you are doing better, Wayne. I have had 11 kidneys stones over the past 35 years. Not one of them has been fun.

    My wife and I got just back home, Rich. The doctor told my wife that the procedure went well. I hope I don’t ever catch up with you. Now, for numbers of grandchildren I don’t mind being in a race!! 🙂

    Thanks to everyone who prayed for me today.

  51. Peter Kirk says:

    Theophrastus, thanks for the Alter quote. This tends to confirm my low opinion of “scholars” of literature, who could never get away with their kind of thinking in science, in history, or even in theology. Watch what he does. He wants to establish the truth of proposition X. So he starts with “It is sufficient for our effort … merely to grant the very high likelihood” of X. Then he takes an example which in fact tends to disprove his hypothesis and presents it as an exception, when in fact there is no evidence at all that this is anything exceptional. He then argues on the basis only of this exception that “All this strongly suggests” the truth of X, and he seems to take this “strongly suggests” as if it were proof – despite the fact that the ONLY piece of evidence examined in fact tends to disprove X!

  52. Rich S says:

    Peter, your comment reminds me of college math professors (40+ years ago!) who would say: “It is intuitively obvious that…” Ah, yeah, right.

    Or as Martin Scharlemann used to say, “An exegete should never say ‘Of course, …’ “

  53. J. K. Gayle says:

    Theophrastus says:

    “I don’t know why J.K. put the ellipses in his quote of Alter — suggesting a word that was a bit untoward.”

    Yes, thank you for providing the full quotation! Here I add Alter’s fn to Genesis 25:30:

    Let me gulp down some of this red red stuff. Although the Hebrew of the dialogues in the Bible reflects the same level of normative literary language as the surrounding narration, here the writer comes close to assigning substandard Hebrew to the rude Esau. The famished brother cannot even come up with the ordinary Hebrew word for “stew” (nazid) and instead points to the bubbling pot impatiently as (literally [NOT literarily]) ‘this red red.’ The verb he uses for gulping down occurs nowhere else in the Bible, but in rabbinic Hebrew it is reserved for the feeding of animals. This may be evidence for Abba ben David’s contention that rabbinic Hebrew developed from a biblical vernacular which was excluded from literary usage: in this instance, the writer would have exceptionally allowed himself to introduce the vernacular term for animal feeding in order to suggest Esau’s coarsely appetitive character. And even if one allows for semantic evolution of this particular verb over the millennium between the first articulation of our text and the Mishnah, it is safe to assume it was always a cruder term for eating than the standard [i.e., literary] biblical one. Edom. The pun, which forever associates crude impatient appetite with Israel’s perennial enemy, is on ‘adom-‘adom, ‘this red red stuff.'”

    The most important thing Alter says is (not necessarily that there is a great – nearly absolute – contrast between the Esau phrase and the surrounding text but) that the writer of Genesis offers a huge “pun,” and Israel really feels the implications “forever.”

    Peter Kirk, now, with his comment on Alter makes me want to post “But Esau I hated”
    http://speakeristic.blogspot.com/2009/05/but-esau-i-hated.html

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