I have been working for a couple of weeks on a response to John Hobbins’ response to my previous post. There I will talk about differences in usage between, Xenophon, the LXX, and the NT to argue that the NT is not ALL in Biblish. But then Rick Shields posted on Hebrews 2:6 which touches on a key issue and my comment to him was turning into a whole post, so I’m responding to Rick here, and postpone the trickier discussion of John’s points till later.
We linguists wince at the treatments of the gender “problem” in Bible translation, because it’s one of the key places in which people argue from a complete misunderstanding of the nature of language. Grammatical gender is simply not referential, it is classificatory.
The belief that grammatical gender is referential, in turn, triggers a theological feedback loop, in which people fight tooth and nail for interpretations that simply aren’t warranted by the text, as if their salvation depended on it. But that’s another matter.
At least three dimensions are in play in translation, Bible or otherwise. One is the referential intent of the writer. Another is the norms of usage in the respective languages, and the third is the intertextuality within the larger conversation that the particular text was written as part of.
I tried to tease out the second of these dimensions, the usage one, in my post a couple of weeks ago. But it didn’t work very well, because it got overrun by a discussion that was driven by questions of intertextuality. Then Rick Shields posted on a topic that goes to the heart of intertextuality, and I couldn’t resist.
In garden variety translation, including literary translation, the priorities are (in order):
1) Get the reference right.
2) Make the usage natural.
3) Then work in whatever intertextuality you can without damaging the previous two priorities.
There are, of course, complications. Sometimes the “real” reference is implied in some way, rather than stated, and you may have to wiggle some to get it to come out. For example, you may have to undo a metaphor that doesn’t work in the target language. Knowing just when to do that kind of thing is what makes translation an art form.
But in Bible translation, usage somehow seems always to end up at the bottom of the priority list. And for some people, intertextuality is at the very top. That is, they are willing to sacrifice even clarity of reference to maintain the intertextuality of the original.
While I personally don’t agree with devaluing usage, I understand that it is easy for us to accept the distortions of weird usage because we’ve heard so much Scripture in some or other distortion of Elizabethan/Jacobian English, that we think natural usage just isn’t what Scripture should sound like.
I could go on for days about that.
But overvaluing intertextuality is a real problem for me. And Rick Shields has landed smack dab in the middle of one of the most difficult cases. (He posts about it here. He says he’s talking about gender, but that’s not the real problem with the passage he cites.)
Let me set up the case.
The OT uses the trope man (אֱנ֥וֹשׁ enosh)/son of man (בֶן־אָ֝דָ֗ם ben-adam) in repetitions/elaborations for emphatic reasons. There are many examples. I’ll cite just one.
Blessed is the one (אֱנ֥וֹשׁ enosh) who does these things
and the person (בֶן־אָ֝דָ֗ם ben-adam) who holds on to them.
Blessed is the one who keeps the day of worship from becoming unholy
and his hands from doing anything wrong. (Is. 56:2) (GW)
This is the device being used in Ps. 8:4.
what is man (אֱנ֥וֹשׁ enosh) that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man (בֶן־אָ֝דָ֗ם ben-adam ‘son of man’) that you care for him? (Ps. 8:4) (ESV)
Now here’s the problem.
Jesus frequently uses the very non-Greek phrase υἰὸς ἀνθρώπου (= בֶן־אָ֝דָ֗ם ben-adam, ‘son of man’) to refer to himself. He follows in the OT tradition of Ezekiel in what one could and probably should interpret as a claim to be a prophet. It’s probably something that you don’t even try to translate, you just calque it. (And that’s OK, because it’s as weird in Greek as it is in English, and the writers of the NT simply calqued it from the Aramaic, rather than making the pragmatic substitution.)
But in the end Jesus turns that phrase into a reference to Daniel 7:13 and a claim to being the Messiah, (Matt 24:30, 26:64, Mark 13:26, 14:62, and Luke 21:27). The writer of Hebrews knows this, so he’s reading the Messianic claim back into Psalm 8, and the translator is forced to give the intertextuality high priority here, just to maintain the intended reference.
The result is a minimum requirement that the form of the two noun phrases in question must be both singular and indefinite. That traps you in awkward English, since we prefer our generic references to be plural or definite.
Sheep are docile animals.
The sheep is a docile animal.
are both more natural than
A sheep is a docile animal.
An attempt to preserve the singular definite might read like this:
what is the mortal that you pay any attention to him,
or the son of mortals that you care about him?
That doesn’t quite work. But I have another kind of solution.
I have long argued that OT quotes in the NT are in Biblish Koine as opposed to the rest of the NT Koine. If you take that position then the OT quotes should generally be set off in KJV-like language.
Here’s a larger excerpt from Hebrews 2, using existing translations to show the kind of approach, I favor.
4 God himself showed that his message was true by working all kinds of powerful miracles and wonders. He also gave his Holy Spirit to anyone he chose to. 5 We know that God did not put the future world under the power of angels. 6 Somewhere in the Scriptures someone says to God,
“What is man, that Thou art mindful of him,
or the son of man, that Thou carest for him?
7 For a little while Thou madest him lower than the angels;
Thou crownedst him with glory and honor,
and didst set him over the works of thy hands:
8 Thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet.
God has put everything under our power and has not left anything out of our power. But we still don’t see it all under our power. 9 What we do see is Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels. Because of God’s wonderful kindness, Jesus died for everyone. And now that Jesus has suffered and died, he is crowned with glory and honor! (vss 4-6a, 8b-9 CEV, vss 6b-8a ESV/KJV mash up)