Thinking about Scripture

Last month I posted about trying to listen to Scourby reading the KJV , and how distracting it was working out what Elizabethan prose meant in expository texts (i.e., the epistles).

This morning one of our readers took me to task. He argued that just because the KJV is hard to understand is not a reason to say that it is a problematic translation. In fact, he thinks it is a virtue of the KJV. He argues — quite correctly — that there is great value to having to think about Scripture.

But I would argue his premises are flawed. There is a big difference between thinking as a part of processing unfamiliar language and thinking about what the language means. There is great spiritual value in the latter, but no spiritual value in the former.

The real question is how did Philippians sound to its intended audience. Did they have to think hard about the wording, or was it a natural way to talk?

Modern translation standards are that a translation should match the original, not just in reference, but also in tone and implication. If Paul or Luke used an ordinary word or expression, then the translation should use an ordinary word or expression. The example in the original post was ἀναστροφή in I Peter 2:12. Since ἀναστροφή is an ordinary word for referring to behavior or conducting one’s life in Koine, so the KJV’s conversation is the wrong word to use to translate it for the modern English speaker. Period. It doesn’t matter that modern English speakers can, by dint of effort, figure out what was intended.

In a backhanded way, the reader was making my point. We should be thinking about Scripture deeply, getting from the milk to the meat. But if we have to spend a lot of our mental capacity just getting to the starting line, we can mistakenly believe we’re chewing on the meat, when all we’ve done is taste the milk.


Part of LSJ’s entry for ἀναστροφή showing that it is an ordinary word for  ‘behavior’:

II  3 mode of life, behaviour, Plb.4.82.1, D.L.0.64; -φὴν ποιεῖσθαι IG2.477b12, cf. SIG491.5, LXX To.4.14, Ep.Gal.1.13, Ep.Eph.4.22, al.; ἀ. πολιτική PGiss.40ii29 (iii A.D.); ἐξημερωμένης -φῆς civilized life, Phld.Sto.Herc.339.19.

Hi-tech meets the KJV

So I haven’t been too anxious to post while I’m in the middle of teaching a class about English Bible translation because I don’t want the students reading my reactions online. I’ll have things to say next semester.

However, I got something for my birthday last month that has revolutionized my life — an iPhone.

My older son asked me if I wanted one, and since my Sprint contract had lapsed, and my Palm Treo was dying, I said yes — little expecting how much different the iPhone experience is from the Treo. Two things are of relevance to this audience.

No, not the one where you can watch the GPS blue dot follow you down the freeway on Google maps. (Don’t try this while driving.)

First, I don’t have to lug around Bibles anymore. They have a free app that brings you 21 versions. While listening to the sermon you can check what the other translations say. I don’t have to make notes and wait until I get home and get on the computer. Very, very handy.

Second, I get to listen to Scripture, instead of just reading it. And that’s what I want to talk about. It turns out that all the spoken Scripture that we had around the house was on old cassette tape collections (some more than 20 years old with missing tapes). Because of the inconvenience, we had long ago ceased listening. But a couple years back, I bought some CD’s of the NT on sale. They were on sale because they are Alexander Scourby reading the KJV.

In the 1940’s Scourby recorded the whole Bible for the blind. See the Wikipedia article here.

Now as you may well have surmised, I’m no fan of the KJV. I respect it for its place in history. I memorized from it, because that’s what we did in those days. But it is not suitable for everyday home use.

Nonetheless, I loaded it on my iPhone and started listening while I walk our dog, Pixie. I was amazed. Of course I know that Scourby had one of the most listenable voices in the history of recorded sound. But what surprised me was how easy it is to understand the gospels and how hard it is to understand the epistles.

And if I, as a linguistics professor who regularly teaches the English  vocabulary course, and has an extensive knowledge of the history of English, if I am having trouble understanding something, what about ordinary folk.

The problem seems to be that while I can work out what the author likely meant — for example, conversation in I Peter for behavior, lifestyle. It eats up too much of my attention to keep making the mental jumps. Even after hours of listening, the odd morphology (like –eth for –s: wanteth for wants) is the only thing that’s fully automatic. I still have to work to get

Having your conversation honest among the Gentiles … (I Pet. 2:12a)

to come out as

Live your life among non-believers honorably … (RAR)

(Compare this with some other contemporary translations:

… having you behavior seemly among the Gentiles … (ASV)

Always let others see you behaving properly … (CEV)

Keep you conduct honorable among the Gentiles … (ESV)

Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles … (HSCB)

… and maintain good conduct among the non-Christians … (NET)

Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles … (NASB)

Live such good lives among the pagans that, … (TNIV)

etc. )

That use of mental band width keeps me from simply hearing God. Listening to Scripture becomes an exercise in mental gymnastics, not an enterprise of the heart.

Since we at Berkeley Covenant are in the middle of a sermon series on I Peter, I decided I’d listen to it over and over because that’s a good way to get Scripture into your heart. But I find there is a problem. Because the language is so hard to process, I end up caught on particular wordings, and tuning out 5 or 10 seconds worth while I work out what a particular phrase is supposed to mean. Listening to a translation in Biblish, as beautiful as it sounds read by Scourby, just doesn’t work.

This is why I’m so passionate about getting a translation that speaks to the heart of English speakers.

Five works that changed how I read the Bible

Since no one over here at BBB is likely to get tagged by the theologically oriented Bible bloggers on the meme of books that influence how we read the Bible, I’m going to jump in on my own.

With some justification, literature types view us linguists as mere word-mechanics. We’re excited by the details of language: inflections, word order, and unexpected things like the fact that pronouns – which are inherently definite —can have indefinite readings under particular circumstances.

“They never tell you these things are important.”

(indefinite they OK, indefinite you OK)

The English majors yawn. Well, duh … of course that’s what it means.

And some linguists (like me) read phone books and dictionaries, because the names and the words were interesting. But in high school I sat in confused silence through three years of English, not really understanding what all the fuss was about. Hamlet and The Red Badge of Courage made no sense. At the same time I thrived in the first two years of Latin. It was mostly about grammar. But I found the third year less interesting and the fourth year went seriously downhill when we started reading the bigger, longer stuff.

In college I took German until we got to the third year and started reading literature. It was bad enough that so much was about war, which I didn’t relate to at all, but when the professor went on for an entire lecture about why Bärlach’s overcoat had to be gray (Der Richter und Sein Henker), I fled in horror. (The irony is that I still enjoy reading Krimis.)

I started French, but before I got to literature my undergrad career was mercifully over.

For me the light didn’t go on until one day scanning through an Ojibwe text in hopes of serendipitously turning up a rare verb form, it dawned on me that the story in the text was really interesting in its own right.

Because I came to literature so late and with a heightened linguistic consciousness, the works that most deeply affect how I read the Bible are the same ones that shape how I read literature in general. They are as much about how language means as about what it means. And they are as much about seeing the assumptions implicit in the text as about seeing the deeper implications of the text.

J. L Austin, How to Do Things with Words. This was the start of our understanding of speech acts. Austin showed us how language has communicative dimensions beyond being true or false and that there are layers of communication beyond simple reference.

Paul Grice’s lectures on conversational implicature. Grice took Austin’s work to the next level, talking about how people choose what they will say in particular communicative situations.

These lectures were delivered at Harvard in 1967, but were never published in full. The notes made their way around linguistic circles the way those things did in the 60’s and 70’s. The best basic summary can be found in Levinson’s Pragmatics (pg 100ff).

C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image. Although this work is focused on understanding medieval literature, it opens up a world of understanding about how to read texts that are distant from us, separated by time or culture – even those which at first blush seem not to be so remote. It’s where I learned that you can misread a text and not know it.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By. This will open your eyes to see that metaphors are not just a matter of eloquence, but it goes to the heart of how people reason. It’s not an accident that Jesus teaches in metaphors. (OK, so we call them parables.)

Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind. If you want to learn about second order thinking, there is no better source. Much of the biology and psychology is outdated. Brilliant but outdated, so focus on the Metalogues.

If we were allowed more, I’d include books that tackle mythological issues from an anthropological perspective. Erich Auerbach, Mimesis and Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough. But then I don’t find such analyses threatening to my basic evangelical beliefs as many do.

What’s in a name?

If you’re anything like me, you shudder as you remember your parents yelling out your full name.

Richard Alan Rhodes, come here this very instant!

Vocatives—those expressions used to draw the attention of the intended addressee or to direct an utterance at a particular addressee—are not well understood by linguists. Vocatives can take the form of names:

Sarah, could you come over here a minute?


Excuse me, sir, can you tell me how to get to Coit Tower?

Your Honor, I had no idea that there was marijuana in the trunk of his car when I borrowed it.

or epithets:

Silly rascal, get out off my bed! (speaking to your pet)

There’s almost no literature about them. (The most comprehensive article was published in a volume of conference papers over thirty years ago, and it’s barely more than a catalog of kinds. It can be found here.) Vocatives are enormously complex semantically and pragmatically. And I’ve been thinking about them recently.

So when Pastor Andrew had John 21:15-18 read for his Sunday after Easter sermon. I sat bolt upright in my seat. I heard something there I’d never heard before. Jesus addresses Peter by his full name.

15When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

16Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18 I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” (John 21:15-18, NIV)

Jesus doesn’t normally address his disciples by their full name. Here he does it three times. If you know your pragmatics, it’s hard to miss that there is something significant going on here. When you say more than is conventional, it is by definition meaningful. Why does Jesus use Peter’s full name?  Exegetically, we don’t know enough about street-level Koine to know precisely what that meaning was. But given the context, it’s certain that it’s not scolding, the way full names are in English. Still it must have been arresting – demanding the full attention of the addressee.

No translation lets the English speaker hear this. Every version from the KJV on translates the vocative as Simon, son of John (or based on a weaker textual variant, son of Jonah). Such phrasing just doesn’t sound like a full name to English ear.  We can talk and talk about the significance of using full names as vocatives as part of a sermon or Bible study, but nothing beats hearing it.

So how do we make that part of Jesus communication come across? How do we make the Semitic father’s name sound like a last name?

Well, there are patronymics in English. Those based on John are Johnson or Jones and maybe Johns. Substitute one of these and suddenly you hear it the force of the passage.

15When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon (the one called Peter), “Simon Jones, do you love me more than they do?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

16Jesus asked again, “Simon Jones, do you love me?”
Peter answered, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

17 A third time Jesus asked, “Simon Jones, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked a third time. “Lord,” he said, “you know everything; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18 I’m telling you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and take you where you do not want to go.” (John 21:15-18, NIV, modified)

But … the objection will inevitably come that such a move makes the Scripture sound too much like Jesus, or at least Peter, was English. The Scripture should — the argument will go — retain its essential foreignness.

That’s the trade-off in translation. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Is it more important to have the message strike you where you live? Or is it more important to preserve as much of the original form as possible — and then study to reconstruct the impact of the passage? I, of course, favor the former approach.

Possibly, one could find a middle ground here, for example, using Barnstone’s idea of making the translation sound more Jewish, especially in the names, one could translate:

15When they had finished eating, Jeshua said to Simon (the one called Peter), “Simon Janowitz, do you love me more than they do?”
“Yes, Rabbi,” he said, “you know I love you.”
Jeshua said, “Feed my lambs.”

16Jeshua asked again, “Simon Janowitz, do you love me?”
Peter answered, “Yes,
Rabbi, you know  I love you.”
Jeshua said, “Take care of my sheep.”

17 A third time Jeshua asked, “Simon Janowitz, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because
Jeshua asked a third time.Rabbi,” he said, “you know everything; you know that I love you.”

Jeshua said, “Feed my sheep. 18 I’m telling you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and take you where you do not want to go.” (John 21:15-18, NIV, modified)

This is beyond where I’m willing to go at this point, but it does illustrate that if you are willing to think outside the box you can marry foreignness and naturalness in a single passage — something that much of the argument about how to translate has not admitted is possible.

Seek ye first the kingdom of dog

The Rhodes family acquired a new dog about four months ago. It had been about a year and a half since Whiskey died and Mary declared it time.


Pixie is a 15 month old Lab mix. We got her from the Hayward Animal Shelter after a couple of weeks of to-ing and fro-ing.

It turns out you can’t just walk into the dog pound and ask for a dog anymore. Now you have to fill out a three page application and go through an interview of everyone in the house, and only then will they tell you whether you are allowed to rescue the dog or not. (Here I thought we were doing THEM a favor by rescuing a dog!)

Well, this dog, they said, is not suitable for small children, and it’s true. She’s a 75 lb. bundle of energy. We give her 2 hours of walks every day.  One of the places we take her to run is county owned land above Lake Chabot. lake-chabot1From the hills you can look out over the bay and see San Francisco.sf-in-the-fogIt’s positively gorgeous. There’s a lot of open land, and we let her run off the leash to burn off some of that energy.pixie-on-the-hill

Plenty of dog owners in the area use this same space, and the dogs romp and roughhouse and generally have a great time.

As I said, Pixie is a mix. She’s very much the Lab in looks. Beyond the body type, she has webbed feet and an otter tail, although the hair is a little shaggy on her tail. She certainly acts like a Lab in many respects. Birds engage her complete attention. She points. She has a “soft” mouth — she doesn’t clamp down hard when she carries things. But then she doesn’t instinctively retrieve, and she has ambivalence about water. So we wondered what the other part of Pixie is — which brings me to Thursday three weeks ago.

As I said the land above Lake Chabot where we run Pixie is county land. It’s open for agricultural use, so there are horses and cows that graze there from time to time. But if we get too close, Pixie will bark at them. The horses mostly just ignore her, but she can get to the cows. It isn’t pleasant and it takes a few minutes to get her attention back once she’s locked onto a large animal. So I don’t let her off leash unless we’re far away from them. (Besides, the park rangers can cite you for harassing the cows.)

However, two weeks ago she spotted cows on the other side of the creek, a good quarter mile away, and bolted down the hill, across the bridge, right to the cows. Pixie had discovered her inner collie. She rounded up the cows that were scattered across the hillside during the time it took me to run down the hill, across the creek, and up the other hill to get to her, and she then proceeded to herd them back and forth for about 10 minutes with me trying desperately to disengage her while avoiding being trampled by a moving herd of cows.

You can see the problem.

And we play in the house, too, sometimes for 30-45 minutes. It takes a lot to keep her interested and occupied. We can’t do anything nowadays without taking Pixie into the calculation — a fact which, in the wake of the previous Sunday’s sermon on Matthew 6:19-34, led Mary to observe that for us it has become: “Seek ye first the kingdom of dog.”

That got me to thinking. That phrase rolls off the tongue if you’re churched.  “Seek ye first the kingdom of God.” And if you were around in the right segment of the charismatic movement in the 70’s, there’s a Scripture song of that passage that has one of those too simple melodies you can’t get out of your head. It all makes the expression sound so natural, when, in fact, it’s hard-core Biblish. Without further reflection, it wasn’t entirely clear to me what it might mean to “seek first the kingdom of God”.

ζητεῖτε δὲ πρῶτον τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ τὴν δικαιοσύνην αὐτοῦ καὶ ταῦτα πάντα προστεθήσεται ὑμῖν (Matt. 6:33)

It turns out this is an non-trivial question. Even if you factor out the Elizabethan English word order there still is a problem, and it goes right to the heart of how trustworthy the various Greek lexicons are.

Long time readers may remember I have posted in the past that we cannot simply assume that lexicons have the correct translations for words in them. Even the most reliable lexicons, Bauer, Danker, Arndt and Gingerich(1) and Liddell, Scott, and Jones(2), are often 50 or a 100 years behind in English usage. But now, with the advent of internet access and extensive search capabilities, we can now do our own research into how words are used in context so we can work out for ourselves what they mean. So that’s what I’ve done for ζητέω and for seek— unfortunately, it has taken weeks.

There are two problems that my searches revealed. One is that the English word seek is an unusual and specialized word in today’s usage, but ζητέω was a common and ordinary word.

I regularly point out that meaning is more complex than we tend to think. Words not only refer, they also frame — direct you to look at a situation in particular ways.

Elizabeth I had her cousin Mary killed.

Elizabeth I had her cousin Mary murdered.

Elizabeth I had her cousin Mary executed.

Beyond that they can also have status as formal or informal words and more generally connect to the contexts they are used in, both linguistic and otherwise.

So it is with seek. Part of its meaning arises from the fact that it is used in special contexts. Google it and you get 10’s of millions of hits, but start looking at them and patterns appear immediately. For example, it is a headline word. It occurs in headlines, but not in the story, where a more general — or more specific  — expression is used.

Robber sought after failing to return
State police in Pittsburgh are looking for a convicted robber who escaped from a Braddock corrections center last night. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Monday, February 09, 2009)

Habitat protection sought for one of America’s most endangered: Woodland Caribou
Bush Administration Ignored Request to Identify Species’ Critical Habitat for 6 Years
SPOKANE, WA – Conservation groups filed a complaint today in the U.S. District Court in Spokane to compel a response to a 2002 petition for woodland caribou critical habitat which has been ignored for over six years by the Bush Administration. (Defenders of Wildlife, January 15, 2009)

It occurs very frequently in connection with lawbreakers on the lam.

Semi Driver Sought After Bicyclist Run Over
Richmond County Bank Robbery Suspect Sought
Cop impersonator sought in York County

It’s also often used in reference to formal or official actions.

Major U.S. banks sought government permission to bring thousands of foreign workers into the country for high-paying jobs even as the system was melting down last year and Americans were getting laid off, according to an Associated Press review of visa applications. (Banks Sought Foreign Workers as System Crashed AP, 01 Feb 2009)

Paul Yetter of Houston, lead counsel for the Amegy claimants, says to his knowledge, Amegy Investments Inc., et al. v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Inc., et al. is the first arbitration that an “innocent downstream [local] broker” has sought against a national brokerage firm in the wake of the [auction rate securities] market’s collapse. (Arbitration Sought in Auction Rate Securities Fight,, Feb. 10, 2009.)

And then there’s the famous — and appropriately Jedi sounding:

“These are not the droids you seek.”

The point is that seek is not a good translation for ζητέω, even though it’s the standard gloss given. The problem is that the English word seek brings along baggage that isn’t there in ζητέω. It’s an example of something added in translation. Ironically, the very specialness of seek makes it sound so right for the Bible. It’s almost mystical. This is my ongoing complaint about Biblish. To the ears of the original audience, the Bible was not in Biblish. Sure, it contained passages in Biblish, but they were quotes. The bulk of it was plain speak.

If you want to get to the very ordinariness of the Greek of  Matthew 6:33, then you have to rephrase the whole thing.

Make God’s kingdom and the righteousness that comes from him the most important thing in your life, and all the rest will follow.


(1) Danker, Frederick W. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3d ed. Based on Walter Bauer’s Griechisch-deutsches Worterbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments und der fruhchristlichen Literatur, 6th ed., ed. Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, with Viktor Reichmann and on previous English editions by W. F. Arndt, F. W. Gingrich, and F. W. Danker. Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

(2) Liddell, H. R., R. Scott, and H. S. Jones, Greek-English Lexicon 9th edition. Oxford University Press. 1996

Lost in translation

A year ago I was sworn in as a county planning commissioner. It has been an adventure. I’ve had years of practice as a dean making decisions that affect people’s life options — decisions that can cost people thousands of dollars. But the kinds of decisions I have participated in as a member of the Planning Commission are another whole kettle of fish. The cost to the various parties when conditional use permits are granted or denied (at first approximation, allowing people to build or not) can run into the millions of dollars, especially here in the Bay Area where, even with the housing downturn, properties in the low rent district are still $250,000 or more.

I found myself in the position of being appointed to this position because of a dust-up in the summer of 2007 in which our section of Castro Valley was proposed to be moved from the Castro Valley planning area to the planning area immediately to our west. For any number of reasons our neighborhood was against the proposal and I ended up being one of the spokespersons. This put me on the political radar.

Castro Valley is wealthier and and has more desirable property than most of the area west of us — better schools, more businesses, better services, less crime, and, no surprise, higher property values.

But the point that is of interest to us here at BBB is how the political argument played out. Castro Valley is all hills and valleys while the land to our west is flat land out to the Bay. For planning purposes it makes little sense to group hill country with flat lands. The issues are entirely different. In spite of that, a key charge in the excessively emotional debate was that the folks in Castro Valley looked down on the the people of flat lands. The charge arose because the people involved took language too literally. The physical fact that the western ridge of Castro Valley looks down on the flat lands was taken as a figurative truth. While it’s literally true, it’s not figuratively true. The Castro Valley folks have nothing against the flat lands. Many in our neighborhood grew up in the flat lands.

So it was an offense taken, not one given. As a result it was very hard to counter.

Taking figurative language literally is a problem in thinking about translation as well.

We characterize the fact that languages don’t match exactly by saying that something is “lost in translation”, forgetting that that expression is only a metaphor. But the truth is that the underlying issue is one of mismatch. Meanings are both lost and gained. The Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset talked about this by saying that that every utterance is both “exuberant” and “deficient”. Every translation lacks some parts of the meaning that were in the original. But it likewise includes some meanings that weren’t there in the original.

Take just about any theologically loaded term, like ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ ‘the word of God’. We read such terms with the weight of two millenia of theology on them, and hear things in the passages containing them that aren’t there in the original.

So we hear ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ as synonymous with the Bible. Sometimes that isn’t much of a problem:

ἐκάθισεν δὲ ἐνιαυτὸν καὶ μῆνας ἓξ διδάσκων ἐν αὐτοῖς τὸν λόγον τοῦ θεοῦ

And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them. (Acts 18:11, NIV)

But sometimes that reading doesn’t make sense at all:

καὶ ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ ηὔξανεν καὶ ἐπληθύνετο ὁ ἀριθμὸς τῶν μαθητῶν ἐν Ἰερουσαλὴμ σφόδρα πολύς τε ὄχλος τῶν ἱερέων ὑπήκουον τῇ πίστει

And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:7, ESV)

Huh? How can the Bible increase?

Clearly in this case ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ ‘the word of God’ means something else — metonymically it refers to the effect of the preaching of the word of God. But then English phrase the word of God can’t mean that.

Translate conservatively and you get the wrong idea. This is exactly the kind of example that shows that you have to translate the meaning rather than the wording to avoid saying something that the original does not say.

To listen to the debate one would believe that formal equivalent translations lose little and add nothing, while dynamic equivalent translations lose much and add much. Ergo FE beats DE. (And that’s why you get to slam DE translations as less accurate.)

Gimme a break.

The dirty little secret is that FE translations add as much, and sometimes even more than good DE translations. Well, maybe add isn’t quite the right way to talk about how much one can get the wrong idea from the same wording.

1) a FE translation ALWAYS loses more than a serious DE translation, especially in places where it is possible to lose almost nothing, and

2) for most of the Scripture it is possible to lose almost nothing.

3) For most of the cases in which people complain the loudest about the lost associations of DE, the communicative value of such secondary meanings is so much less important than the primary meaning that the cost of trying to keep the associations at the expense of a phrasing that distorts the primary meanings is too high to be acceptable.

and 4) the notion of the “foreignness” of Scripture that is currently being bandied about unscrutinized is one of those things added in translation. None of Scripture was foreign in any way to its original audience. It shouldn’t be to us.

Do we need Biblish?

As everyone knows, I’m against Biblish in Bible translations — with one exception which I will address here.

It has always been my contention that all English translations, from at least the KJV on, are monotonic. It doesn’t matter if they are essentially literal, dynamic equivalent, or paraphrase. By monotonic I mean that a single kind of English used is the same from cover to cover; the style is uniform.

But that’s a mistake. That’s not how the NT reads in the original. Most of it is unpretentious, plain talk — not too formal, not slangy at all. (Very unlike Biblish on the one hand and The Message on the other.) Paul’s letters are downright colloquial. Hebrews is literary. Luke is conscious of what good written Greek should sound like. John speaks a simplified second language speaker’s Greek. And the whole NT is also peppered with quotes from the OT in an Attic Greek more archaic than Koine.

This is a good reason to think that a fully accurate translation would reflect such differences. The quotes in the NT are mostly from the LXX. But in this post I’ll talk about Jude 1:9, which is a quote from an older religious work, just not from the LXX. But it has the advantage that it is one of the places where you can easily prove you need a contrast between ordinary Koine and LXX era Attic.

The passage in question is this.

ὁ δὲ Μιχαὴλ ὁ ἀρχάγγελος ὅτε τῷ διαβόλῳ διακρινόμενος διελέγετο περὶ τοῦ Μωϋσέως σώματος οὐκ ἐτόλμησεν κρίσιν ἐπενεγκεῖν βλασφημίας ἀλλὰ εἶπεν ἐπιτιμήσαι σοι κύριος (Jude 1:9)

But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not himself dare to condemn him for slander but said, “The Lord rebuke you!” (TNIV)

According to Origen, the quote is from the apocryphal Assumption of Moses although the surviving (partial) manuscript doesn’t contain the passage.

Ignoring the theological question of an apocryphal source being quoted in the Biblical canon, what’s interesting here is the use of ἐπιτιμάω. As I have shown in great detail in a series of posts a couple years back (here, here, here, here, and here), the Koine meaning of ἐπιτιμάω is

‘ask (or tell) [someone] to stop [doing something], esp. ask (or tell) [someone] to stop talking [about something]’.

That sense is unambiguous in 27 of the 28 places it occurs in the NT. A good example is

καί τινες τῶν Φαρισαίων ἀπὸ τοῦ ὄχλου εἶπαν πρὸς αὐτόν διδάσκαλε ἐπιτίμησον τοῖς μαθηταῖς σου (Luke 19:39)

Then some of the Pharisees in the crowd spoke to Jesus. “Teacher,” they said, “command your disciples to be quiet!” (GNB)

(Notice that the Greek does not have anything corresponding to “be quiet”.)

The fact that the dictionaries gloss ἐπιτιμάω ‘rebuke’ only means that they didn’t notice that it had changed meaning from the early Attic use, when it did mean ‘yell at’ (or in Biblish ‘rebuke’), i.e. ‘say something negative to [someone] harshly’. That usage is well attested in the LXX: Gen. 37:10, Ps. 9:5, Ps. 118(119):21, Zech. 3:2. (All glosses TNIV.)

καὶ ἐπετίμησεν αὐτῷ ὁ πατὴρ αὐτοῦ καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ τί τὸ ἐνύπνιον τοῦτο ὃ ἐνυπνιάσθης ἆρά γε ἐλθόντες ἐλευσόμεθα ἐγώ τε καὶ ἡ μήτηρ σου καὶ οἱ ἀδελφοί σου προσκυνῆσαί σοι ἐπὶ τὴν γῆν (Gen 37:10)

[When he told his father as well as his brothers,] his father rebuked him and said, “What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?”

ὅτι ἐποίησας τὴν κρίσιν μου καὶ τὴν δίκην μου ἐκάθισας ἐπὶ θρόνου ὁ κρίνων δικαιοσύνην (Ps. 9:5)

You have rebuked the nations and destroyed the wicked;
you have blotted out their name for ever and ever.

ἐπετίμησας ὑπερηφάνοις ἐπικατάρατοι οἱ ἐκκλίνοντες ἀπὸ τῶν ἐντολῶν σου (Ps. 118:21)

You rebuke the arrogant, who are accursed,
those who stray from your commands.

καὶ εἶπεν κύριος πρὸς τὸν διάβολον ἐπιτιμήσαι κύριος ἐν σοί διάβολε καὶ ἐπιτιμήσαι κύριος ἐν σοὶ ὁ ἐκλεξάμενος τὴν Ιερουσαλημ οὐκ ἰδοὺ τοῦτο ὡς δαλὸς ἐξεσπασμένος ἐκ πυρός (Zech. 3:2)

The LORD said to Satan, “The LORD rebuke you, Satan! The LORD, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?”

As I pointed out in the ἐπιτιμάω series, ἐπιτιμάω is pragmatically neutral in Koine usage. That means that, although in most cases getting someone to stop doing something is inherently negative, there are two good cases in the NT that show that the word itself must not be a pragmatically negative word.

First, the disciples are unfailingly deferential to Jesus, but Peter is described as doing this to Jesus.

καὶ προσλαβόμενος αὐτὸν ὁ Πέτρος ἤρξατο ἐπιτιμᾶν αὐτῷ λέγων ἵλεώς σοι κύριε οὐ μὴ ἔσται σοι τοῦτο (Matt . 16:22)

Peter took him aside and began to [ἐπιτιμᾶν] him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”

Second, Paul used ἐπιτιμάω speaking to Timothy in a verse so familiar that we fail to recognize that it makes no sense with ἐπιτιμάω translated as ‘rebuke’.

κήρυξον τὸν λόγον ἐπίστηθι εὐκαίρως ἀκαίρως ἔλεγξον ἐπιτίμησον παρακάλεσον ἐν πάσῃ μακροθυμίᾳ καὶ διδαχῇ (2 Tim. 4:2)

Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.

While one can correct and encourage with great patience, one can’t rebuke with great patience, but one can patiently ask someone to stop behaving a certain way. (Later in this post I’ll provide a proposal for how this verse should read.)

So it is clear that the Jude 1:9 use of ἐπιτιμάω matches LXX usage in contrast to the use of ἐπιτιμάω elsewhere in the NT. I would argue that that constitutes Biblish usage in Koine, so the appropriate translation should have the quote in Biblish as compared to the norm of the NT.

ὁ δὲ Μιχαὴλ ὁ ἀρχάγγελος ὅτε τῷ διαβόλῳ διακρινόμενος διελέγετο περὶ τοῦ Μωϋσέως σώματος οὐκ ἐτόλμησεν κρίσιν ἐπενεγκεῖν βλασφημίας ἀλλὰ εἶπεν ἐπιτιμήσαι σοι κύριος (Jude 1:9)

But the archangel Michael, when he was arguing with the devil over Moses’ body, didn’t dare condemn him for blasphemy himself but said, “The LORD rebuke you!”

The point of this post is simple. If the whole NT is translated into Biblish, then there’s no contrastive Biblish available when you need it.


2 Tim. 4:2 should read something like the following, taking into account the Koine (as opposed to Attic) meanings of ἐλέγχω and ἐπιτιμάω:

κήρυξον τὸν λόγον ἐπίστηθι εὐκαίρως ἀκαίρως ἔλεγξον ἐπιτίμησον παρακάλεσον ἐν πάσῃ μακροθυμίᾳ καὶ διδαχῇ (2 Tim. 4:2)

Preach the Word; be prepared to do so no matter how inconvenient; with the utmost patience and care teach  people what they are doing wrong and get them to stop and encourage them.

The difference in translation here is important because pastors have long used this verse a license to yell at their congregations, forgetting that Jesus, who did a lot of yelling at folks, yelled at religious leaders, not at ordinary folks.

Date and time

In a post reacting to Wayne’s Eye Opening post, Wezlo comments:

It caught my interest because I mentioned the phrase, “No one knows the day or the hour”  of the Son of Man’s return in my sermon yesterday, and how people mistakenly believe that this means the year is still open for us to figure out (oh the headaches).

In my darker moments I think all literalism in the evangelical world could be eliminated simply by getting rid of Biblish. (But that would be a mistake of the kind Orwell made in his essay, Politics and the English Language, which I pointed out in a post last year.)

Still, dealing up front with Biblish is a worthy undertaking.

In some places even DE translations succumb to the inclusion of Biblish. In this post I’ll pick on the Holman Christian Standard Bible. That’s not because I think it’s bad. In fact, I think it gets a lot spang on referentially. But no one gets this baby right. I could just as well go after the TNIV, CEV, or NLT.

The phrase at issue is the juxtapostion of ἡμέρα and ὥρα. The key passages are:

περὶ δὲ τῆς ἡμέρας ἐκείνης καὶ ὥρας οὐδεὶς οἶδεν οὐδὲ οἱ ἄγγελοι τῶν οὐρανῶν οὐδὲ ὁ υἱός εἰ μὴ ὁ πατὴρ μόνος
Now concerning that day and hour no one knows — neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son — except the Father only. (Mat. 24:36)

… ἥξει ὁ κύριος τοῦ δούλου ἐκείνου ἐν ἡμέρᾳ ᾗ οὐ προσδοκᾷ καὶ ἐν ὥρᾳ ᾗ οὐ γινώσκει
… that slave’s master will come on a day he does not expect and at an hour he does not know. (Mat. 24:50)

γρηγορεῖτε οὖν ὅτι οὐκ οἴδατε τὴν ἡμέραν οὐδὲ τὴν ὥραν
Therefore be alert, because you don’t know either the day or the hour. (Mat. 25:13)

περὶ δὲ τῆς ἡμέρας ἐκείνης ἢ τῆς ὥρας οὐδεὶς οἶδεν οὐδὲ οἱ ἄγγελοι ἐν οὐρανῷ οὐδὲ ὁ υἱός εἰ μὴ ὁ πατήρ
Now concerning that day or hour no one knows — neither the angels in heaven nor the Son — except the Father. (Mk. 13:32)

… ἥξει ὁ κύριος τοῦ δούλου ἐκείνου ἐν ἡμέρᾳ ᾗ οὐ προσδοκᾷ καὶ ἐν ὥρᾳ ᾗ οὐ γινώσκει
… that slave’s master will come on a day he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know. (Lk. 12:46a)

and possibly also:

καὶ ἐλύθησαν οἱ τέσσαρες ἄγγελοι οἱ ἡτοιμασμένοι εἰς τὴν ὥραν καὶ ἡμέραν καὶ μῆνα καὶ ἐνιαυτόν ἵνα ἀποκτείνωσιν τὸ τρίτον τῶν ἀνθρώπων
So the four angels who were prepared for the hour, day, month, and year were released to kill a third of the human race. (Rev. 9:15)

The Biblish word hour and the English word hour differ. In Biblish (as in Latin and Greek) hour (hōra, ὥρα) is ambiguous between referring to a point in time and a period of time. (I posted on ὥρα as a point of time here.)

καὶ ἰάθη ὁ παῖς αὐτοῦ ἐν τῇ ὥρᾳ ἐκείνῃ
… And his servant was cured that very moment. (Mat. 8:13b)

In modern English hour is a (shortish) period of time. You can do something for an hour. You can complete it in an hour. But you can’t say that it is the hour to do something. In modern English we mostly use the word time for point of time meanings.

It’s time to go.
I have been looking for a new car since that time.
At the time he left, I was still asleep.

In Shakespeare’s day the word hour was ambiguous.

I have served him from the hour of my
nativity to this instant (The Comedy of Errors Act IV Scene IV)

But give me leave to try success, I’ld venture
The well-lost life of mine on his grace’s cure
By such a day and hour. (All’s Well That Ends Well Act I Scene III)

In modern English there are only a few remnant constructions in which hour can refer to a point in time, mostly as the object of at and referring to the time of day (or night).

What are you doing up at this hour?

He works on his car at all hours of the night.

It’s interesting (but not surprising) that there are few limited expressions left over from an earlier time, but not sounding archaic — a phenomenon well known by linguists. But the fact remains that in 21th century English, all non-idiomatic uses of hour as a point in time are Biblish. This is not limited to Protestants, by the way. The English Ave Maria also has this mistake (compounded by the odd use of in). (1)

Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum.
Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus.
Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc, et in hora mortis nostrae.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now, and in the hour of our death.

A similar argument can be made for day – it generally refers to a period of time in modern English. but the situation is a little more complex than with hour. There are a number of regular usages with day as a point in time, for example on a day. Nonetheless, the normative point in time word that corresponds to day is date.

So translations of the two different texts with parallels above should read as follows:

περὶ δὲ τῆς ἡμέρας ἐκείνης καὶ ὥρας οὐδεὶς οἶδεν οὐδὲ οἱ ἄγγελοι τῶν οὐρανῶν οὐδὲ ὁ υἱός εἰ μὴ ὁ πατὴρ μόνος
No one knows the date and time — not the angels in heaven, not even the Son — just the Father. (Mat. 24:36)

… ἥξει ὁ κύριος τοῦ δούλου ἐκείνου ἐν ἡμέρᾳ ᾗ οὐ προσδοκᾷ καὶ ἐν ὥρᾳ ᾗ οὐ γινώσκει
… that slave’s master will return on a day he doesn’t expect and at a time he doesn’t know. (Mat. 24:50)

There is the temptation to simplify the whole thing (including moving information up from the following verse).

No one knows just when the Son of Man will return – not the angels in heaven, not even the Son himself – just the Father. It will be like it was in Noah’s time. (Mat. 24:36-37)

As a final note, the usages I’ve talked about here are subtle. When does it sound OK to say at that hour? What’s the difference between at [modifier] time and at [modifier] hour? — to which I plead ignorance.

OK: What are you doing up at this hour?
Odd: What are you doing up at this time?

Bad: He was eating at the hour.
OK: He was eating at the time.

By comparison with real English Biblish is flat. And for my money that’s a crucial reason to avoid Biblish — especially for those who claim they want literary quality translations.

(1) In my wife’s Catholic family, they said at the hour of our death.

The Lord’s Prayer (reprise)

Last Sunday the sermon at Berkeley Covenant was on the Lord’s Prayer. (Find it here.) Pastor Andrew has been working through Matthew, pretty much verse by verse, and it’s been very profitable. From time to time he hands off a passage to one or another of the church leaders when he or she has something worth saying on a particular topic, or when there is a need for is attention to be elsewhere in a given week.

This week it was Jeremy, who a former BCC youth leader. Jeremy had a lot of good points, but he bit off more than he could chew. Actually I suspect he fell prey to the problem that Pascal famously summarized in a letter to a friend:

Je n’ai fait cette lettre-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.
I have written this letter longer than I should, because I didn’t have the time to make it shorter.

(This quote is often wrongly attributed to Mark Twain.)

But I was struck because I have my own opinions about how the Lord’s Prayer is to be interpreted, as I’ve discussed in this blog before. But it was one of those God moments, because I’ve been mucking around in 19th century Ottawa texts. (That’s the Ottawa dialect of the Ojibwe language, a Native American language and my area of academic specialization.) The text I’m working on is a Shorter Catechism published in 1864/1869 and available online here and in a well-processed version here.  Not surprisingly, the Lord’s Prayer is featured prominently. (It’s presented here with the original spelling in bold, the modern spelling in italics, and a back translation from Ottawa into English. (I’ve revised it from the one on the web where I disagree with Kees’ interpretation.)

Odanamihewin awi Debenjiged.

Nosina wakwing ebiian,
Noosinaa waakwiing ebiyan.
Our Father, who is in heaven.

apegish kitchitwawendaming kidanosowin,
Apegish gichitwaawendaming gidanoozowin.
May your name be sacred.

apegish bidagwishinomagak, kidogimawiwin,
Apegish bi-dagwishinoomagak gidoogimaawiwin.
May your kingship arrive.

enendaman apegish ijiwebak, tibishko wakwing, migo gaie aking.
Enendaman apegish izhiwebak dibishkoo waakwiing mii go gaye akiing.
What you think [should be], may it happen the same on earth as in heaven.

Mijishinang nongo agijigak nin pagwejiganimina minik eioiang memeshigo gijig,
Miizhishinaang noongo a-giizhigak nimbakwezhiganiminaa minik eyooyaang

Give us our bread today, as much as we use every day.

bonigitedawishinang gaie ga iji nishkiinangi,
Boonigidetawishinaang gaye gaa-izhi-nishki’inaangi,
And forgive us who have angered you,

eji bonigitedawangidwa ga iji nishkiiiamindjig,
ezhi-boonigidetawangidwaa gaa-izhi-nishki’iyaminjig.
in the way we forgive those who angered us.

kego gaie ijiwijishikange gagwedibeningewining,
Gego gaye izhiwizhishikaange gagwe-dibeningewining,
Do not lead us into a trial.

atchitchaii dash ininamowishinang maianadak.
ajijayi’ii dash ininamawishinaang mayaanaadak.
and put what is bad far from us.


Back translation is an interesting exercise. It is a regular part of the the translation process for modern Bible translations into minority languages.

From the back translation, one can see that the Ottawa translator got a lot of things right, and some things wrong, including one glaringly wrong. (Gagwe-dibeningwewin is a legal trial, not a metaphorical reference to a test of our moral fiber.)

But the back translation also highlights what happens in translation when there is no history of translation practice to cast a long shadow over the contemporary translator’s product.

What I mean is that this particular passage bears a lot of emotional weight for us. We don’t want to mess with the translation of this passage so much so that even the TNIV says something fairly archaic sounding:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,

your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.

That’s because if we translate into natural, contemporary English, the meaning of the Greek original like the New Living Bible does:

Our Father in heaven, may your name be honored.

May your Kingdom come soon.
May your will be done here on earth, just as it is in heaven.

Give us our food for today, and forgive us our sins, just as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us.
And don’t let us yield to temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.

then we feel like it’s somehow not really the Lord’s prayer.

On The Message

As Wayne pointed out yesterday, El Shaddai Edwards has blogged about the significance of The Message here. I will not quibble about its impact at all. There is a parallel NIV/Message version sitting on my night table. It makes great reading.

And as anyone who has read this blog regularly knows, I’m a great cheerleader for translations that speak contemporary English. Peterson’s English is great. He has the writer’s ear. But still I have some big problems with the Message.

First, The Message is monotonic.

When you read Peterson there is a single colloquial — even slangy — voice. It’s very engaging, true. But read the Greek and the NT has many voices writing in multiple genres. Paul is erudite, like a rabbi. He’s writing letters that go from colloquial to literary. The writer of Hebrews is eloquent. He writes beautiful Greek in an essay on theology. John has flashes of poetry, but it’s in the spare voice of a second language speaker. Mark and Matthew also have the undertone that Greek is not their native language. Luke, an educated Greek, is self-consciously writing history.

Secondly, half the NT is written by second language speakers and second language speakers don’t do slang.

Both of these objections come down to the fact that The Message just doesn’t fall on the English ear the way the original fell on the Greek ear, and to me that’s as much of a problem as the sacred-sounding archaisms of the KJV.

Getting that right is actually point of accuracy.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean accuracy in terms of literalism. I mean that Peterson misses things that a Greek speaker would hear (or not hear) in the text — things that can readily be captured in modern English.

Let’s take an old chestnut of mistranslation, John 3:16-18.

Here’s The Message:

This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. Anyone who trusts in him is acquitted; anyone who refuses to trust him has long since been under the death sentence without knowing it. And why? Because of that person’s failure to believe in the one-of-a-kind Son of God when introduced to him.

and here’s the Greek:

3:16 οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ’ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον 17 οὐ γὰρ ἀπέστειλεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν υἱὸν εἰς τὸν κόσμον ἵνα κρίνῃ τὸν κόσμον ἀλλ’ ἵνα σωθῇ ὁ κόσμος δι’ αὐτοῦ 18 ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν οὐ κρίνεται ὁ δὲ μὴ πιστεύων ἤδη κέκριται ὅτι μὴ πεπίστευκεν εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ μονογενοῦς υἱοῦ τοῦ θεοῦ

But … the Greek doesn’t say

This is how much God loved the world: …

it says literally

This is the way God loved the world: …

or with the information implied in Greek but required for normal English

This is how God showed that he loved the world: …

Looking further down in the passage, the Greek doesn’t have anything that suggests the slanginess of “go to all the trouble” or “point an accusing finger”. In fact, just from the point of view of referential accuracy, both these phrases are too weak.

“Go to all the trouble” is rather namby pamby when you think that the reference is to sending one’s child to be executed in the most excruciating way.

“Point an accusing finger” is what disapproving grandmothers do. Somehow it doesn’t measure up to the judgment that awaits everyone outside of the saving work of Jesus.

I don’t have a problem at all with translations that are more explicit in English, than the Greek appears at first blush to be. In comparison to the contemporary standards of English communication, Greek is painful terse. This is especially true of John and Mark. There’s no spiritual or theological value to following the terseness. It can even be misleading.

It is well known in anthropological circles that the norms of explicitness can vary widely from culture to culture. Roman era Levantine cultures, like most of their descendant cultures, are HIGH CONTEXT. That means that they put the barest necessities into words and expect the hearer to fill in the blanks.

In contrast northern European cultures, especially Germanic cultures, are LOW CONTEXT. They want everything to be spelled out in language.

For example, I have a friend who owns an apartment in Berlin in a building that was built around the turn of the last century. The elevator is the meticulously maintained original. You know, with wooden doors that open in and out, locked with an old fashioned skeleton key and a cabin entirely of wood.
By the buttons that control the thing is a little sign that spells out what is legal and illegal in the elevator. It includes sentences about it being illegal for humans to ride in freight elevators. For months, I was completely puzzled by this sign. The elevator in which it is posted is not a freight elevator. But did it mean that if I used this elevator to move, say, furniture, that I wasn’t allowed to ride in it as well. When I finally asked about it, my friend laughed. It was obvious to her German way of thinking that if you are going to say anything about the laws governing this elevator, you have to give the whole
elevator law. The fact that I had expections about being told only what is relevant, caused me to misinterpret what was said.

So it’s not a problem to me if there are more words in the English low context translation than in the Greek high context original. That doesn’t make it a paraphrase. But it is a problem if those extra words aren’t warranted by the reference and context of the passage.

And that’s where The Message fails.