Exodus 20:13-A Translation Exercise (part 2)

In part one, you suggested:

  1. No murder.
  2. Don’t murder! (A use of the exclamation point! Many forget that punctuation is part of translation.)
  3. No killin’.
  4. You will not kill.
  5. Don’t break the law and kill.
  6. Don’t kill illegally.
  7. Do not kill!
  8. Do not kill.
  9. Do not commit homicide.
  10. Do not kill without proper authorisation.
  11. You are not to murder.
  12. Human life should be protected.
  13. Do not slay another person.
  14. Do not slaughter.
  15. punishable killing (Do not commit punishable killing.)
  16. justified killing (Only do justified killing.)

The commentors (hmmmm…is that a word?) have provided a wonderful segue into this second part. That, by the way, is my complimentary (or complementary) way of commending the readership for drifting ever so slightly off topic. 🙂 “Innocent lambs.” Really. Talk about off-topic!!! <chuckle>

I had asked, “How do you translate it?” There were many suggestions as noted above. But, the discussion quite naturally (and reasonably) took a path toward expressing the ‘why’ behind the choices. And that ‘why’ is the task before us now.

So the question now is: As a Bible translator, what does one consider as support for or against the various suggestions?

Since you’ve already provided many of these in part 1, I’ve listed them below. If you’re just joining us, or you’d like to review what you actually said, see part one.

What I’d like to do now is to expand the list below, if possible, and also to categorize and to summarize it. Perhaps some items could be combined. Some could be expanded. Maybe some could be clarified by juxtaposing against something which hasn’t been mentioned.

Here’s my gleaning of the considerations you’ve presented so far. I’ve grouped them; but, please don’t let my organization sway your thinking in one way or the other. And please don’t let this list limit you.

  1. Spelling. One suggestion used ‘authorization’ which is the British spelling.
  2. The English future can be used as command or promise.
  3. Negated future can act as a command.
  4. ‘Kill’ is too broad; ‘murder’ is too narrow. (Ratsach is in the middle.)
  5. No single verb to express the correct semantic range.
  6. Replicating from the original the pithiness and style of using one verb.
  7. Using an English technical word.
  8. Natural versus awkward English.
  9. Genre of the text.
  10. There is no attempt in the text before us to define what type of killing is illegal.
  11. The cognitive context of the reader will help the reader understand the specific use.
  12. Let the reader do the interpretation.
  13. The distinction between human killing and animal killing.
  14. Greek use of the LXX word in James 4:2
  15. The teaching in Matthew 5:21ff.
  16. Use of Greek word in dramatic plays (with specific connection to Matthew 5:21).
  17. The point or goal of the ten commandments.
  18. The illegality of related actions in modern English law.
  19. The immorality of the action and related actions.
  20. Differences between felonies, misdemeanors, etc.
  21. Differences between Biblical and secular law.
  22. How the word was used of (tribal) judicial killing by the Redeemer (“blood avenger” often in English).
  23. Discussion of related actions in the mitzvos and Shabbos.
  24. The use of the word ‘law’ in modern parlance.
  25. The use of modern categories when understanding the law.
  26. What most readers will think when reading it.
  27. People will define this word tightly or as loosely as necessary according to their feelings on “justified killing.”
  28. Pacifism.

So, how would you construct this list of things to consider? Can you make it more formal? Can you make it more complete?

Exodus 20:13-A Translation Exercise (part 1)

I’d like to try a translation exercise which will require everyone’s participation. So, please join in with your comments. This is the first posting in a multi-part posting.

What are the ways one can translate Exodus 20:13, the 6th commandment?

That’s a fairly opened ended question (as it is stated). There really are no wrong answers. What do you suggest?

“Ears to hear…”

For a general English audience, would it be better to translate the Greek normally translated as “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” into:

Let this be a word to the wise?

One thing going for it is that the original is an idiom and so is the translation. Is the meaning accurate? If not, in what ways is it not accurate? In what ways is “he who has ears to hear, let him hear” not accurate?

For reference, here are the places I found in which the phrase “ears to hear” appears in the rather literal NASB:

    Deuteronomy 29:4
    Ezekiel 12:2
    Matthew 11:15
    Mark 4:9
    Mark 4:23
    Mark 7:16
    Luke 8:8
    Luke 14:35
    Romans 11:8

What are your thoughts?

Our spaces don’t match their spaces

This under three minute TED talk called “Weird, or just different?” very quickly presents one of the major difficulties in Bible translation. What do you do when the two worlds are just different? That is, the metaphorical world (or mental world) of the original audience is substantially different than the one you want to translate text into.

It’s a knotty problem. While the main point of the video is not my point, it nonetheless does an excellent job at putting the viewer into a different space. Here’s the video.

The psychology of the ancient people is different from ours. That is probably not obvious to you. If you’re like most Biblish users, you’ve wrapped the psychological words into a religious framework. In fact, it’s somewhat startling, and not a little bit stretching, to think of certain words as psychological words. What’s worse–the psychology evident in the New Testament is just different.. For example, how does one translate σάρξ (SARC, flesh), or καρδία (KARDIA, heart)? The assumptions of how the psyche works are just very different. Our psychological models don’t use those terms, nor do the streets and blocks in our mental maps of those models line up with the ancient people’s maps. They’ve got streets where we’ve got blocks.

When a text deals with sin, the NIV translators (arguably theologically influenced, and I offer no opinion here of right or wrong) translate σάρξ by the phrase sinful nature. Their theology, however, prohibits them from following suit in 1 Peter 4:1ff. Why the difference? The theme of dealing with sin surrounds and is embedded in the entire Petrine text. Theology reinforces the translation as sinful nature in one set of cases. And yet, in another case, theology insists it not be translated as such. But (I object), the thematic material within each of those specific texts strongly suggests the mental models assumed by the texts are nearly identical. So, the respective readers would be expected to understand σάρξ in nearly identical ways.

The nature of that contrast between those two translation choices got me thinking. What if the psychology surrounding σάρξ was different from what we expect? (And, yes, my question was mainly motivated by my theological position of a sinless Christ).

My take on it is this: modern psychology doesn’t have the mental spaces and identifiers to allow for an easy explanation of what σάρξ means. Nor does our religious Biblish. The same can be said for καρδία. We’re Westerners next to a Japanese block asking, “Where the heck are we?”

For me, my understanding of σάρξ is it refers to a set of human desires, created by God, that nonetheless must always take second priority to higher priority desires. When this priority flips, sin exists. The priority always must be given to the desires where the spirit rules (joy for example). Ahhhh…there’s yet another mental object that doesn’t fit our modern psychology. What do we do with πνεῦμα (PNEUMA, spirit)? Without getting any further into the details, my mental picture of σάρξ works in a surprising number of cases. But, that mental picture I have has been built up through an extensive study of σάρξ. And that picture doesn’t fit modern psychological models very easily.

I’m not really being purposely vague here. The difficulty I have is how to spell out the mental details which don’t fit the mental world you have. I’d have to develop for you a fully fleshed out psychology (no pun intended). But, my intent is not to develop the meaning of σάρξ. My intent is to highlight the contrast between their world and ours. It’s a lot like when a Westerner asks directions in the Japanese city. The map doesn’t fit. I’d be thinking streets, They’d be talking blocks.

My hope in this post is to simply raise awareness of what translators are up against when our spaces don’t match their spaces. And I suggest that the psychological space is one such space.

Should translators be allowed to formulate a text that will accurately convey the original meaning to an audience whose mental model is rather dramatically different? That’s a huge question. Simplistically, should block 17 be translated as corner of Elm and Mulberry?

Fundamentally, in translation, all words present us with a degree of this type of mismatch. But, I’m not referring to the near hits. I’m talking about what should a translator do when the spaces don’t overlap?

A Call for Coherency Scholarship

David Frank posted Reflections on the nature of Bible translation. And I really like what he said. So, I thought I would interact with it a bit (and hopefully encourage him to post more).

What he said there is why my “hobby-horse” is coherency.

The underspecification of the text, and the resulting ambiguity, provides the fuel for us to rip apart the text. We’re then left with pieces of text that we typically reform into a theological quilt of our own making. The fault is ours; it’s not the text’s fault. In fact, the ‘text’ is a ‘fabric’ and ripping harms the text as a text (Latin: textere). But, the ripping is a single step across the two step chasm of interpretation. So, that first step is needed. More on that in a moment. Also, the fault certainly isn’t the author’s (or Author’s). Language is what language is. It is cohesive in its very nature. And communication follows the same maxim. We’re good at this ripping, also known as analysis.

And we certainly need the analysis. In fact we need more of it. As Richard mentions, we haven’t yet analysed the pragmatics (ie. contextual connections where ‘context’ is the original interpretive environment) of the original Koine (let alone the Hebrew of the OT). Richard, we’ll get there–we’re good at analysis. I don’t want to oversimplify, but all we have do is to rip into the soil and unearth the data. We have, we really have, the analytical capability–we just have to do it.

But, we’re astoundingly poor at synthesis. In fact, I suggest that whenever a synthesis of the data is presented, people from all their different factions, whip out their ripped textual fabrics quilted into various theological wall hangings. They hang them up, and they point to chapter and verse, and then claim they have held back the fall of “orthodoxy.” I wish the mere existance of pragmatic data would not only foster, but determine synthetic expertise. It won’t. We have to develop our capability to process the data toward a coherent understanding (ie. comprehension) of the text. We are no good at comprehension.

We need the data that pragmatic analysis will bring; but, we absolutely must gain appreciation of coherency. Without coherency, we simply have more ripped pieces of cloth to sew into our factional quilts (as beautiful as they might appear to each of us).

David, your concern for the current state of factionalism is, in my opinion, well founded. And I believe the only solution is to develop our synthetic capability. We have to learn what it means to practice coherent interpretation. We have to learn what it means to have a text not only cohere with the text around it (cf information flow), but also how that text coheres with its greater context (cf pragmatics). We’re no good at either of these today. But, if we do it, then we will witness the fall of factionalism. We’re really talking about one and the same thing–coherent text, coherent community. I believe these two are joined at the hip.

If I’m right in my epistemological assumptions that truth is inherently coherent, and that truth practised results in godly growth, then the maturation of our capability to comprehend the text will unavoidably defeat factionalism. But, to do that, we not only need the analysed contextual data (so, we need to do the ripping), but we need to develop our capability to synthesize the data into a meaningful wholes. We don’t understand the wholes. We don’t know how to understand the wholes. We can sew our own theological quilts; but, we don’t know how to let the texts as wholes be the fabric as it has been given to us. We don’t know how to interpret the text within its original context. We don’t know how to follow the flow of the text.

This is a deeply philosophical posting. I admit that. So, the connection to Bible translation might not be immediately obvious. So, let me be more explicit. We need scholarship around coherency development so that we have such scholarship supporting translation decisions.

We’re making those translation decisions now without the benefit of such coherency capability. And so our translations jerk and stutter. The text is not coherency informed. And the factionalism is simply more evidence of such uninformed decisions.

Our translations are not inaccurate (sorry for the double negative) as if they are drunken men meandering around in sloshed stupors. It’s not that they aren’t on the right path. They are more like an unoiled tin-man, jerking with stuttering movements as he tries to walk the road laid with gold. With coherency scholarship we could make much more informed translation decisions. We would oil the translated text for the reader. The result would be linguistically smooth renderings, accurately capturing the intended meaning in the language of the audience. This incarnation of the intended meaning would produce godly growth as the Spirit fills the soul. It would fan the flames of unity because people would comprehend the Biblical text.

This is what I believe. I wish I could do it. But the only thing I can muster right now is to call for it to be done. May this little piece be part of the whole.

Different Languages Wear Different Formal Attire

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?

If Copyright is Right, then how do we improve what is Left?

Under Open Scriptures, Rob makes the following thought provoking comment:

I’ve long wondered about the concept of copyrighting the Bible, as this seems to serve as a barrier to sharing the gospel. Plus since the authorship is truly of the Holy Spirit, can the work of the Holy Spirit be copywritten[sic]?

While not a lawyer and therefore not giving legal advice, Stan Gundry gives some informed insight into this issue in a comment under The production of the TNIV/NIV Bible–the Standard of Integrity.

I’ve wondered, too, about how copyright fits with a message that ultimately comes from God. For example, the whole idea of copyrighting the “original text” seems an impossible conundrum to me. If the text is understood to be quite accurate, then it captures what can’t be copyrighted–it being ancient and in the public domain. The opposite would also be true, but the text would hardly be worth anything–not being accurate. A well done analysis producing a highly accurate “original text” is at best a labor of love and an offering of worship. Perhaps the best the copyright holder may hope for is to lay claim to any errors proved out in the court of textual analysis. What can I say: may verdicts in the holder’s favor be few, but proved.

However, it seems to me that copyrighting a sacred text–a Bible–more than any other type of text, should serve the same purpose as intended by the U.S. Constitutional Copyright Clause (see the U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8, Clause 8). Or, as it is sometimes referred to, the Progress Clause. In other words, the purpose and intent of copyright is to promote progress. If there is anything that would promote progress more fully than any other endeavor, it is the translation of the message from God. Constitutional statement or not, I think that statement stands tall and true.

That gets a bit tricky, however. Can, through progress, the Bible be made better? Can it itself be improved?

That question, worded in that way, results in a quick, and I believe accurate, answer: “No! Of course not!” μὴ γένοιτο springs to mind.

However, when we refer to the Bible, we’re really referring to a translation. And translations can be improved. And this is where it gets a bit awkward. I think it’s important to realize the original meaning hasn’t changed–μὴ γένοιτο again. And I also think it’s important, though rather obvious, to observe that a specific translation hasn’t changed. The issue is not with either of those areas. So, what’s driving the desire for improvement? The issue is we’ve changed. And change will continue.

So, what needs improved? Do we seek to unchange us? Is it somehow that we’ve decayed, become less the image of God, less able to understand heavenly things (John 3)? Do we need to go back to the “good ‘ole days?” I don’t really think so (though I disagree with the evolutionist’s presupposition that we are inherently better than we once were.) Humans are inherently the progeny of fallen Adam. And that’s the way it has been almost since the beginning of time. So, I think the focus of real improvement lies with committing to improving the translation for the intended audience?

If the audience seeks a translation which bridges a mental gap between the original language and the modern one, then a translation needs to provide more than just a resulting text. It also needs to provide tools to help the reader bring the literal nature of that bridging text more fully into clear and natural English. Otherwise the uninformed user of the text, even with the best of intentions, will falter when dealing with all the intertwined ambiguities inherent in a literal text. They need a community (a body) of helpers (I’ll talk more of this in a moment). The way through this is to provide additional tools as well as educational helps to promote the needed skill. I suggest to Bible publishers that they market integrated sets of books which meet these needs. The idea is for the user to start with a literal translation and use the provided tools, packaged together, to develop a resulting clear and natural translation in their own language.

If the audience seeks a translation which is already rendered in clear and natural language, then my questions are:

  • How does one know the rendered text is in this clear and natural language?
  • Why did the translators decide to render the original in the way they did? In other words, what’s the connection between the “clear and natural” and the “original meaning.” Can we expose that and thereby not only enable a deeper understanding, but get past the so common misunderstanding that a non-literal translation “does not ‘say’ what the Greek says.”
  • Since language changes over time, is there a way, using modern technology, to promote continuous improvement?
  • How does one balance ‘continuous improvement’ (of translations) with the ongoing need of education (by teachers).

And, furthermore, I think with both these audiences, the following questions are appropriate:

  • Should continuous, broadly represented, respectful, translation-focused discussion be the norm and therefore the real solution?
  • Should such discussion be encouraged and therefore leveraged so that it feeds into new and better Bible translations?
  • How could that be done?

In any case, nothing is ever a true barrier to sharing the gospel. It seems that God has so ordered things such that the strongest of barriers only strengthen the message all the more.

The idea of a barrier to the gospel reminds me of an old story, probably apocryphal, of Caligula interrogating a common, ordinary man that refused to recant from preaching about Jesus. As the interrogation proceeded, Caligula became ever more frustrated. In anger and in clear finality he said something like, “Do you not fear me? Do you not know I have power over your life and death? What do you say? I have spoken. My name is Caligula.”

The lowly man replied–calmly and with great poise–“You are indeed powerful, most honorable Caligula. But I have no fear. Not of you or any other. For I do not fear death. You see, I have known death and now I live. I live because of Jesus. He has spoken my name. My name is Lazarus.”

Doesn’t the resurrection speak clearly of our yet future, final improvement?

So, as I’ve worked through this complex copyright issue, I’ve come to the conclusion that the seeming incongruity of copyrighting God’s Book is not the big issue. Nor is it a fundamental one.

The real issue is how do we improve translations?

The Garden of Oilpress

It’s somewhat surprising how sentences like the one in Matthew 26:36 arrive so quickly at the heart of some hard and yet simply stated translation questions. In Greek the original sentence is, τότε ἔρχεται μετ’ αὐτῶν ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἰς χωρίον λεγόμενον Γεθσημανί. In English it is, “then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsamane.”

Gethsamane means oil-press. Should one translate it? Or transliterate it?

The US, just like everywhere else, has place names which rarely, if ever, bring the “original” meaning to mind. The locals around here rarely, if ever, think of a person named Landis when we refer to Landisburg. The newness of a port does not come to mind when we talk about Newport. Actually, as far as we’re concerned, there’s no port there. The town certainly isn’t new.

And like everywhere else, we also have place names which excite associated meaning in the hearer even though when we use the word we don’t necessarily intend that other meaning.

I live in Pennsylvania. We have some unique names. Many years ago we moved from an apartment into a house, and I needed to notify a magazine of the change of address. So I called their offices located in California. An apparently young woman (her voice sounded young) answered the phone and I told her what I wanted to do. She replied that it would be easy and we proceeded.

“Name?” “Mike Sangrey”
“Can you spell your last name?” “Sure,” and I did.
“Street?” “Well, it’s actually mailed to a box number,” and I gave that to her.
“City?” “It’s a small town.”
I paused.


She giggled.

“Really?” she said. I replied, “Yep, that’s the name.”
“Ok. What’s your new address? I need the street first.” I gave her the street name.
“And having left Intercourse where did you move to?”

I could tell there was a smile behind the question. It was at this point in time I realized this was going to be a bit funny.

“Well, ummmmmm…”
I paused.


Her previous giggle was now laughter.

Now that I’m older and a bit more mature…well, maybe not…I’ve thought about what drives the best way to translate this conversation into non-English. Would it be best to translate the names or to simply transliterate them? I think the answer to that question is obvious. One would have to translate it, or the laughter makes no sense (and yet, even that isn’t perfect). But, the real question is: What is it in this conversational situation which drives the answer to the translate vis-a-vis transliterate question?

The locals don’t think there is anything odd about living in a town called Intercourse. Sometimes there were conversations about how it use to be named Crosskeys. In a previous life, it formed the intersection between two main thoroughfares—two courses—tying the “west” of that time to the east. One course went from Lancaster, to the West, to Philadelphia, in the East, and the other went from a major town in Delaware, to the South-East of Pennsylvania, to North-Western Pennsylvania and a city named Erie. These two “highways” intersected in Intercourse.

Today Intercourse is a popular tourist site (many Amish live in the area). The town sign, maybe 18 inches long and a foot high, sitting on a 8 foot pole at the edge of town is one of the more photographed spots in the area. I suppose you understand why it’s photographed so much, but the sign is hardly photographic. Reminds me of semiotics. Amateur photographers use semiotics; though they wouldn’t know that. Some professionals know. The sign signals meaning—well, multiple meanings as the case might be.

But, where is the meaning? We can see the sign. But, where’s the meaning? It is the answer to this question that ultimately decides whether or not we translate or transliterate.

Words are signs. For the locals, Intercourse signalled the place where they live. For many others it signalled…well, it signalled one of the other meanings. The one you’re thinking about. You are thinking about it aren’t you? You see, the meaning is in the mind. It is not in the text, not really.

Words do that. They signal, they don’t mean.

Though they only signal when used in context. And, they’re always in context. If I use a word seemingly all by itself, it still brings to mind a context within which it is interpreted. However, the vast majority of word usages, especially those used in text, are within a literary context. In other words, they are within a dynamic, author developed context. (Dynamic in the sense that the context develops as the reader reads through the text.)

This author developed context imperfectly causes the author intended, specific meaning to be selected within the reader’s mind. All of the raw meaning the author has to work with is in the mind of the audience member. He or she adds to it, manipulates it, grows it. But, it’s all there in the mind.

There’s other meanings, too, than just the one meaning typically selected by the word-context pair. These other meanings wait in the wings of the focal thought, apparently partly turned on. However, nearly always, meanings which are sometimes associated with the word are not even thought of when the word is used in a specific context. These associated meanings might be more readily accessible at the moment of use; but, generally they are not accessed. Unless forcefully brought to mind through analysis, they stay mute. After the word is used, these other meanings simply and quietly power down over a short span of time—never thought of. The author doesn’t make use of them; neither does the reader.

When I used the signal Intercourse on the phone, I had an entire context within which the word obtained its meaning. There was an entire history surrounding the term. So, for me, this otherwise highly energetic (cognito-linguisticly speaking, of course) signal was simply the name of a place. To the California girl, there was no placeness associated within her mind for this signal to trigger. For her it signalled…well, you know what it signalled. It’s that meaning in your mind that was just signalled (and, interestingly, signalled again even without the use of the word! You really should be more careful. Authors can do this to you and you’re relatively helpless to prevent them).

So, in order to accurately communicate meaning, where is the place within which an author should be interacting? It’s in the audience’s mind, isn’t it? Well, then, let me rephrase that question: in order to accurately communicate meaning, where is the place within which a Bible translator should be interacting?

The reader’s mind provides the canvas and the colors with which the author can paint his or her painting. In the case of the Bible, the Author uses the reader’s canvas and colors to paint a self-portrait. But, I digress to the true purpose of Bible translation.

If the meanings an author has to use are in the mind of the reader, then shouldn’t the author use the naturally occurring lexis and grammar that is within the mind of that reader?

I think so. And I think that makes a much Better Bible. It makes it effective because it communicates to that reader in ways that persuade, that grab, that speak authoritatively. It gets the reader to think the way the reader needs to think. That’s the beauty of good, high quality English in Bible translations.

So, back to the original question. For Matthew 26:36, should we select Gethsamane or Oilpress?

The originally intended meaning has little if anything to do with pressing oil. So, Gethsamane seems quite adequate. However, when you put the word into an expression such as, “to a place called…” the possibilities open up a bit. The fact that the expression has the word “place” gives “oil press” a placeness it would not normally have. Additionally, capitalizing and concatenating the expression “oil press” into one word further turns it into a place name.

So, why not, ”then Jesus went with them to a place called Oilpress”? It seems to me that is quite accurate. And, it communicates well.

But, perhaps the answer to the “why not” is because the modern English audience expects Gethsamane. It’s just as accurate. And the sentence is good English. It’s really just the name of a place, isn’t it?

And, isn’t that what your mind was thinking it meant?

The production of the TNIV/NIV Bible–the Standard of Integrity

In a recent posting Open Scriptures I made a comment regarding the relationships between the three organizations (actually four) involved in the production and publishing of the NIV and TNIV. I believed, and still do, that the legal and contractual obligations between these partners has placed them above reproach. There were some comments which in effect questioned this. So, I contacted the Executive Vice President of Publishing and Editorial Operations at Zondervan, Stan Gundry, for his input.

The following is his reply published in its entirety with his permission. I have withheld his contact information for obvious reasons. However, he will be reading the comments to this posting. Also, if you wish to contact him directly, please contact me, and I’ll be glad to let you know how to contact him.


The Committee on Bible Translation (CBT) is an independent body of OT and NT scholars, generally representative of the denominational and theological diversity represented in English-speaking, international, evangelical (broadly defined) Christianity. Their remuneration and reimbursement for expenses comes from the International Bible Society (IBS, but recently they changed their name to Biblica; I will refer to it as IBS in this message). I have no reason to believe that they receive any kind of royalty or ongoing payment on the sale of either the NIV or the TNIV, and I am confident they do not. In fact, I have every reason to believe their pay would be considered by most people to be very modest–it is largely a labor of love and mission on their part.

By contract with IBS, the CBT controls the text of the NIV and the TNIV. This means that no one can revise, correct, update, or otherwise change these texts other than the CBT itself. In fact, the CBT itself cannot make any such changes to the NIV text as originally published without a quorum of the CBT present, and without at least a 75% majority of those present. The CBT is a self-perpetuating body and operates under its own very clearly defined rules. Even though I have known most CBT members for years, including many who have retired, even I do not know most of the rules or inner workings of the CBT. I do know there is a mandatory retirement age from the CBT, but retirees may attend and participate in their deliberations but they do not have a vote.

IBS holds the actual copyright to the NIV and TNIV, though they have no control over the text itself (that resides with the CBT as stated above). IBS in turn licenses the commercial publishing rights to commercial publishers–currently the primary publishers are Zondervan and Hodder (UK). The publishers must publish the text exactly as delivered by the CBT, including all footnotes, paragraph headings, etc. Publishers’ royalties are paid to IBS, and these funds support IBS’s Bible distribution and translation projects around the world. IBS does do a very limited amount of commercial publishing and/or distribution of these texts, but it is so small as to be inconsequential.

Zondervan does not have a representative who sits in CBT translation sessions, who participates in their discussions, or who has a vote at the table. When the CBT meets in West Michigan in working sessions, we do generally take them out to dinner once, but it is purely a social occasion and an opportunity for us to express our appreciation to them. We do occasionally correspond with or meet with the CBT chair or other members of the CBT, but these are never occasions where we attempt to tell them how they should be revising or updating the text, and if we were to attempt to do so, I can guarantee you it would be counter-productive. Such contacts with CBT members are opportunities for them to tell us what they are doing and what they wish we would do differently. The CBT is jealous of its scholarly independence and it protects itself from pressure groups who have an agenda. (Note how the 75% majority rule protects that as well.)

One of the bloggers expressed the view that Zondervan exercised considerable influence over the CBT, and he cited Bruce Ryskamp’s (Zondervan’s president at the time) participation in the meeting where the Colorado Springs Guidelines were initially framed as evidence of this. But here is the actual situation. Bruce is a business man and not a Bible scholar–he would be the first to tell you that. He attended as an observer. At the conclusion of the meeting, he was asked to sign the CSG. Initially he said, “No, Zondervan cannot abide by these guidelines because it publishes at least two translations that do not abide by these guidelines and it is not going to stop publishing them.” Eventually, Bruce did sign the original CSG, with the caveat to those present that he signed only as an observer. (BTW, in my files I have a communication from Wayne Grudem where he acknowledged to Bruce that this was indeed the case). Later that summer, when the CSG were reissued in a revised form (I trust your blogger friends do remember that within days of the original version it was pointed out that this original version had a serious error in it as it related to the translation of adelphoi), Bruce refused to sign the revised version and asked that his name no longer be associated with the CSG. He realized that his signature of the original version had been misunderstood and perhaps misused.

I know less about the inner workings of the RSV/NRSV translation committee and its relation to the NCC and its publishers. But I suspect it is quite close to the model I have described above for the CBT/IBS/publishers. I do know considerably more about the inner workings of other Bible translation committees and their relationship to the publishers, having been given this information first-hand by scholars who have worked on those committees. I regret to have to say that some of those committees not only have at least one publisher representative present and voting, but the sometimes the publisher even has the power of veto over committee decisions.  And of course, when the Southern Baptists announced their plan for the Holman Christian Standard Bible, who could ever forget Al Mohler’s famous (or infamous) statement that the SBC would have a translation it could “control”? In many cases, the copyright to the translation is held by the commercial Bible publisher or the foundation with which the publisher is closely linked.

Even though I work for Zondervan, a commercial publisher, I strongly believe that the model that exists between the CBT, IBS, and the commercial publishers is the best way to protect the integrity of any translation. I know too much about what can and has happened in other situations to believe otherwise, even though it puts Zondervan at a commercial disadvantage relative to publishers who own the copyright to their translation.

Stan Gundry
Executive Vice President, Publishing and Editorial Operations

…be strong in the Lord…

In Ephesians 6:10 (TNIV) we have:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.

My two youngest children are memorizing this verse.  My wife uses a series of questions to aid in comprehension so they don’t just stream the words together, but get the meaning, too.  One of the questions is:  “Where does this strength come from?”

When I read that question and glanced at the sentence, I thought, “But, the sentence isn’t talking about the strength coming from anywhere.  It is talking about the strength being somewhere.”  And, yet, we know intuitively from the literary context that Paul is talking about obtaining our spiritual strength from somewhere outside of ourselves.  That is, from the Lord.  At this point in my thinking process the word ‘in‘ appeared quite strange to me.  It turns out that be strong in the Lord isn’t good English.  Are we ever strong in someone else?  If Lord is a title and we replace it with another title, does the English work?  Are we ever strong in the President?  Can we be strong in the Constable?

So, some questions come to my mind:

  1. Are the exegetical assumptions wrong that lie behind the question of where the strength comes from?  The strength actually does reside in the Lord?  If so, then how does the imperative work?
  2. Can we–should we–garner deep theological truths from lowly little prepositions?  The argument goes something like this: “This is talking about how spiritual strength works.  One can only really understand it, if one has spiritual discernment.”  But, then what does the word understand actually mean when we’re talking about spiritual understanding?  Can such understanding be conveyed in any language (including the original)?  And, the point in this question is whether or not it is ever exegetically correct to obtain deep theological truths from a use of a preposition.
  3. Or, how do we improve the English?

What are your thoughts?  I’m essentially asking:  What is the exegesis?  And, how does one say the meaning resulting from the exegesis?