Perhaps a couple of formal pictures should go with this posting: A Three-piece Suit, a Grand Boubou, a Hakama. They are all radically different–foreign to one another. And yet they all mean about the same thing.
Structured text has form. And ancient languages utilize forms that are quite foreign to us. Just like a foreign word is not understood by someone, larger linguistic structures are also not understood. Or, sometimes, it’s worse. Sometimes they are misunderstood.
We use indentation and space between our paragraph units. It’s the form we use. People who lived and breathed the original languages were different. They used no space—even between words. They tie their paragraphing more tightly to the semantics of the paragraph. We rely more heavily on syntax. One such paragraphing technique they used was the chiasmus. I’ll use this specific formal structure to illustrate a point in just a moment.
Rarely do our translations translate these forms. They leave the larger formal structures largely untouched. When dealing at the word level, translations replace the original forms with ones appropriate to the destination language. But with the larger linguistic structures, at best, we do this replacement poorly.
The results are many: general misunderstanding of what the text says, a sense the text has a special, even secret, meaning, an unfounded assumption that the reason the text can be trusted is because it sounds special (in a novel way), the reader is not impacted by the text because he or she simply can’t understand it, the reader deems the text as irrelevant, they are frustrated, or they may even feel guilty. I think we could come up with more unwanted results.
The text of John 3:31 illustrates this. I’ve explicitly formatted it to show the original, formal structure.
ὁ ἄνωθεν ἐρχόμενος ἐπάνω πάντων ἐστίν
ὁ ὢν ἐκ τῆς γῆς ἐκ τῆς γῆς ἐστιν
ἐκ τῆς γῆς λαλεῖ
ὁ ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ ἐρχόμενος ἐπάνω πάντων ἐστίν
ASV (I pick this translation since it provides for easier analysis to the English reader):
He that cometh from above is above all:
he that is of the earth is of the earth,
of the earth he speaketh:
he that cometh from heaven is above all.
As many of our readers will readily see, the structure is a chiasmus. Even those who do not know Greek, with a little effort, can pick out the repetition of various phrases. I’ll also point out that each Greek line ends with a verb. This is a very structured text. It reads quite nicely if you put in your Greek brain. It’s even quite amenable to analysis, even in literal English translation. However, to the English mind, it doesn’t read well.
While English has a form of chiastic structure, it is more stylistic than semantic. In the Greek New Testament and the Hebrew Bible the authors use chiasm to convey characteristics of meaning such as emphasis, contrast, conjunction, and even to explicitly state the topic of a paragraph (or larger) unit of text. They utilize the symmetry to convey meaning. I’ve seen cases where the main referent of a paragraph can be easily seen in the central, hinge-point of the chiasmus which formed the immediately preceding paragraph. It’s as if the apex of the paragraph forms the jumping off point for the next paragraph. With our more linear processing of the Biblical text, I think we too often miss these observations. The English formal structures don’t use symmetry for semantic effect. So, we quite naturally don’t “see” the semantics of the larger text.
In the above example, as it folds around the middle, we can see that οὐρανός (“heaven”) makes more explicit the ἄνωθεν (“from above”). The first and last clauses form a strong and explicit statement that there is someone who has come from heaven. The folding of the text is as if the repeated text overlaps the text it repeats, and it therefore becomes bold.
The middle clause—in fact, two clauses joined with the conjunction καὶ (“and”)—appear to be in contrast to its wrapper. This contrast becomes much clearer when the bolded “from heaven” statement is placed along side the truism in the text: “that which is from the earth from the earth is.”
This structure forms a common chiasm with its semantic symmetry, in this case, a contrast. The semantic symmetry focuses the attention on the meaning intended by the author. In this case, the paragraph talks about one person who is both from heaven and from earth, but the one from earth speaks. The formal structure intertwines the contrastive concepts into one holistic statement. A statement which is both coherent and dialectic at the same time. It’s clever how John has formed it–even elegant.
Recently, I was somewhat surprised by the incarnational meaning of the text. I hadn’t seen it before. A small group of us men were going over the above text. And I saw the chiasmus. When that happened the incarnation jumped from the page. I suddenly realized that the next sentence, when connected with the chiasm just read, should be understood as saying, “What He [the one who is of the earth] has seen and heard [which can only be seen and heard by one who is from heaven], of that [these heavenly things] He testifies; and no one [on the earth] receives His testimony” (NASB). So, it turns out that John 3:31-36 is a recapitulation of John 3:11-18 and also, somewhat more abstractly, to John 1:1-18 and John 1:51. And note that the first “he” naturally refers back to the subject at the center of the chaismus–“he, the of-the-earth one” is the one who testifies.
Why was I surprised? I hadn’t seen it before, that’s why. You would think the meaning would have been obvious. In fact, I’m now a bit embarrassed to admit I hadn’t seen it before. And yet, that is unfair of me to judge myself like that. The formal structure in all of our translations is not an English form. How could I readily understand it? It takes quite a bit of processing until one arrives at the obvious. And then I went through this halting, second-guessing routine since the formal structure sounds so special. Well, it is special to the English mind–it’s Greek, it’s not English. The syntax sounded profound. But it’s the semantics which was (indeed, is) profound. Something that is so profound can’t sound simple! Can it? Sure it can!
Why does profound truth have to sound like I can’t understand it? What if profound truth really is simple? What if the profound beauty of heaven can be stated in simple “of this earth” language? Following Christ as our example, I think it not only must be done, but it can be done. That’s Jesus’ point, isn’t it? He speaks plain, human language and people just don’t get the concepts. There’s something profoundly broken about we human beings when we miss the concepts plainly stated. But what if our translations obscure the meaning by using non-English forms? Should we not make the profound clear?
So, how should we translate this text? Why don’t we replace the original form with a form suitable for the English reader?
I think the chiasmus needs unwrapped in order to bring it over into English. The formal structure of the original needs replaced with an English formal structure which accurately conveys the meaning. The meaning needs gently lifted from the original and masterfully molded into English.
I make no claims of master craftsmanship; but, might I suggest something like:
Even though the one who comes from above is from heaven and is above all, he is also of the earth and so speaks as one from the earth.
What a beautifully simple verse! And such power! The one who is from heaven speaks to me as if he were from earth. He takes what is beyond and packages it for me here. He speaks human.
Shouldn’t a good translation be characterized by the same?