In which I don’t understand

At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.

At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’ ‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’

But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. Later the others also came. ‘Sir! Sir!’ they said. ‘Open the door for us!’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’

(Matthew 25:1-12, TNIV)

I have to admit, I don’t think I’ve ever understood this parable. In my two decades of church attendance and learning from the Bible, no one has ever explained this one to me in a way I’ll actually comprehend. I suspect that’s because the next verse tells us the meaning of it (unlike many of the parables which come with no explanation and so must be taught and explained.)

But Jesus said more than verse 13 alone, and Matthew thought this story worth including. For this reason I think it’s important that we too ensure we can understand the story, both in the way we teach it, and in our Bibles themselves.

I can’t understand this parable not because of the words it uses, but because it describes something that is so culturally foreign to me. I went to two weddings on the weekend and at one of them this passage was read out. But neither of those weddings had the slightest resemblance to this parable, other than that they both had grooms.

I don’t know how to solve this problem. For sure this is something where study bible notes would be very helpful, and this blog is about “better Bibles” and that includes study notes! But there are a lot of times when notes won’t be available; most Bibles aren’t study Bibles after all, and then there are the times when the story will be copied into something like the wedding programme I read on the weekend. So I think the Bible texts themselves need to somehow bridge this huge cultural gap.

I don’t know how to do that. But I can leave you with some of the questions I’ve been wondering:

  • Who are these virgins? And is their sexual history actually important? Should we instead be thinking of their marital state (ie, they are unaccompanied), or their young age? Some translations just say “girls”, but others say “bridesmaids.” Guys, which is it?!
  • What does the groom want with ten virgins? There should only be one virgin on his mind… his wife! If instead they are bridesmaids then why aren’t they with the bride?
  • Why are they waiting outside? What’s their role in the wedding and what obligations do they have? Why do they need to be there (outside) when the groom comes, and why do they need lamps?
  • Finally, what kind of girl would sleep outside in her prettiest wedding outfit??

Your blood be on your own head

In 2 Sam. 1 a young Amalekite comes upon the wounded king Saul who is near death. Saul asks the young man to finish him off. The young man complies. Then he goes to David’s camp and tells David what happened. David orders one of his men to kill that Amalekite for having killed God’s anointed king. David then says to his corpse (I had added boldfacing):

Your blood be on your own head! Your own mouth has testified against you, saying ‘I have put the LORD’s anointed to death.’ (2 Sam. 1:16 NET)

In Acts 18:6 Paul tells people at Corinth who opposed the message he was preaching:

Your blood be on your own heads! I am guiltless! From now on I will go to the Gentiles! (NET)

The idiom, “Your blood be on your own head,” was commonly used and understood within the cultural contexts of these two episodes. Field testing can determine how many English speakers understand the figurative meaning of this idiom.

When translating the Bible there are two main solutions for communicating the figurative meaning of an idiom, as well as its literal meaning, to people who do not understand the idiom from their own cultural and language background:

  1. Translate the biblical idiom literally and footnote its figurative meaning.
  2. Translate the figurative meaning of the biblical idiom and footnote its literal meaning.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach. English Bible versions illustrate both solutions. Translators must weigh a number of factors for each translation audience to come up with a solution which works well for them at a particular time in their knowledge of the Bible.

But I would like us to discuss possible wordings for both translation solutions.

As I was thinking upon this issue yesterday, I realized that Cheyenne, the language which my wife and I helped translate scripture for, already has a word which is a translation equivalent for the figurative meaning of the biblical idiom. It is: Netaomenêhešehahtseme! We used it many times in the Cheyenne Bible translation. It literally means ‘You (plural) did it to yourselves.’

If you were translating the Bible to English and chose solution #1, how might you word the footnote to explain the meaning of the biblical idiom?

If you were translating and chose solution #2, how might you word the figurative meaning of the biblical idiom in your English translation?

NOTE: In this post and comments on it, we ask that we limit our comments to address these two questions. This time let’s not open the floor to all possible comments, especially any attempt to say that either translation solution, in general, is better than the other. And we ask that no one denigrate any solution chosen by translators or those who comment here.