Monthly Archives: January 2010

English Bibles

Here’s a very quick guide to the evolution and diversity of bible translations that I’m aware of. Hopefully I’ll get to expand and correct this post, because I’m aware I’m not an expert on history of translations, so I’d appreciate corrections.

The Oxford Annotated Bible - Cover

The Oxford Annotated Bible - The english translation of the bible I most often use. Its 4th edition is due out in March.

Formal Versions

In the beginning was the King James Version (also called the Authorized Version, because it was Authorized for use in the British state church). Actually this isn’t true, there were various bibles before this, and the KJV was based on a number of them, as well as texts in Latin. Still, the KJV is the earliest version still in significant use today, and it is the most important English translation of all time.

The KJV is a masterwork of english literature, and surely ranks alongside Shakespeare as the greatest achievements of english speaking culture. Its translation style is sometimes called ‘formal equivalence’ or ‘literal’ (although both terms have their problems). It tries as much as possible to translate a word directly into its nearest english sense. This isn’t always useful, of course. Sometimes the original word was an idiom or turn-of-phrase that doesn’t make as much sense in english. My favorite is ‘those that pisseth against the wall’ (1 Sam 25:22 KJV) meaning grown men.

The KJV was altered and tweaked through the centuries in a rather ad-hoc basis. More recently modifications have typically borne their own names. In the last 150 years its legacy has been taken up by two main families of translation.

The first are modifications of the KJV text designed to update its 17th century language, or correct egregious errors in the original version. I’m thinking here of texts such as the New King James Version.

The second are texts that use the same broad translation approach, but use up to date scholarship and textual criticism, correcting the elements (like the Johannine Comma) which the authors of the KJV didn’t know about. The most important of these is the Standard Version, which became the Revised Standard Version, and the New Revised Standard Version (which in my experience is the version most used in secular bible studies classes). Each iteration of these texts is less formal, leaving us with the situation that the NRSV is indistinguishable in approach from some ‘dynamic’ translations.

An important 19th century formal translation which is substantially different in character from the KJV is Young’s Literal Translation.

Dynamic Versions

Another family of bible translations abandons the literal translation approach and aims for ‘dynamic equivalence’ – trying to express what the original text probably meant. Of course, this covers a wide variety of literalness, from those almost indistinguishable from formal translations, through to re-tellings of the story that you’d not identify as a bible translation at all. Most of this class of bibles aren’t much use for bible study because the translators embrace, rather than resisting, their own theological bias. No translation is without bias, of course, but its best to at least try to minimize it!

Popular translations in the dynamic equivalence class are the New International Version (and its offspring such as the Today’s NIV), the New English Bible, the Living Bible and the Good News Bible. In fact, the vast majority of modern translations fit firmly into this category. The NIV is interesting because it was designed to split the difference between texts such as the KJV and SV and informal texts such as the Living Bible. It is on the formal end of the dynamic group and you’d be hard pressed to distinguish its approach from ‘formal’ versions such as the NRSV.

Paraphrase

And finally there has been a recent explosion of ‘paraphrase’ translations that are so informal as to have no pretence at being equivalent to the original text. The Message is a very popular paraphrase, for example, which retells and reinterprets text in a wholly conservative evangelical theology. I have a feeling that texts such as this are one reason that many fundamentalists think their theology is so biblical, when in fact it is their bible that is so theological!

Other Issues

There are a few other formal style issues around translation. Each of which gives rise to its own micro-tradition of translations

One that has been important over the last few decades, is the use of inclusive language. Even translations that aspire to be more formal, use inclusive language in places. So if the bible says ‘all men …’ they might say ‘all people …’. This is, of course, a highly dynamic translation decision – we’re assuming that the authors used the gender in a generic rather than a specific way. But that, surely, is the job of the biblical student to decide! So I find myself stuck with the otherwise excellent translations of the recent RSV family, consistently frustrated that they feel the political correct need to change the gender all over the place.

A second axis of difference centers around the communities that the bibles are designed to serve.

Catholic communities have a slightly different and more nuanced canon (the books that make up the bible) than protestants. There are certain bible translations that are aimed at catholic readers (such as the Jerusalem Bible, and its offspring the NJB) and other translations that have editions aimed at catholic readers (such as the NRSV). [Thanks to CRL in the comments for pointing out this egregious omission, I must confess I have a protestant bias in what I know of translations because of the highly protestant nature of the culture in which I have studied].

There are also bibles translated by non-orthodox Christian groups. Such as the New World Translation of the Jehovah’s witnesses (which is a pretty good translation, I have to say).

And there is an excellent body of OT translation coming out of Jewish communities, both messianic and non-messianic. The Jewish Publication Society’s translation of the Tanakh (the OT) is particularly excellent, I think, with a moderately formal equivalent style  (more RSV than Young’s) and a distinct lack of some of the biases of Christian translation normally found in the OT. The JPS translation of Gen 1:1 is definitely non-fundie-friendly, and worthy of its own post!

A third feature of differentiation is in the translation of the names given to God. The word normally translated LORD in the OT is a personal name for God. Which in English is probably best transliterated ‘Yahweh’, but could also be rendered ‘Jehovah’. Many translations are otherwise mainstream, but use one of these transliterated names for God rather than LORD. Similarly some translations use the most likely Aramaic name of Jesus ‘Jeshua’ rather than the Greek version we’re more used to.

And one final, crucially important, factor is the supporting material printed with the bible. Most people buy bibles that have additional content in them. This can range from maps to detailed footnotes and cross references, through to ‘subject summaries’ and book introductions. These apparatus are often highly theologically colored, and in some cases downright deceitful. This is another reason that many Christians have a poor understanding of their bibles: when passages that show genuine difference or difficulty appear, they are often accompanied by a piece of apologetics that shows what the reader should believe.

So I hope that gives some sense of the diversity as I understand it. I’m not an expert in translations, and while I have probably 15-20, I don’t collect them. I’m more interested in improving my skills with the original languages, so I tend not to do exhaustive comparative studies between English translations.

If you’re looking for a good bible, I recommend the Oxford Annotated Bible (a NRSV text with a passable set of footnotes and introductions – they are highly biased towards orthodox Christianity, but at least they avoid lying to you!). The 4th edition is out soon.

Edits

2009-02-01: A couple of minor clarifications and typos. Added section on Catholic bibles, based on CRL’s comment. Reordered the ‘other issues’ section.

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A Brief Delay

I’ve been unexpectedly out for three days, so apologies to the commenters who had to wait for approval! Regular service (hopefully) resumes forthwith.

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Iconoclasm

An icon of Christ the Savior

A pre-iconoclasm orthodox icon from the 6th century. This was preserved at St Catherine's monastery in the Sinai peninsula, one of the only major collections of icons of the preiod to survive. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I’m reading some catholic theology at the moment, and I came across discussion of the 10 commandments. Which reminded me of the interesting story of the first orthodox iconoclasm.

Even though Christian theology broke early from its Jewish parent, there were things that remained important to Christian communities. Most of the Jewish law was rejected, but the ten commandments were (and still are) considered to be important for Christians. Unfortunately, the second commandment, in the traditional Jewish way of counting them, was a little inconvenient. It says:

you shall not make a graven image or any likeness of anything that is in the heavens above, the earth below, or the waters under the earth; you shall not bow down to them and worship them.

- Deut 5:8-9a

It was inconvenient because in both Catholic and Orthodox Christian practice representations became a very important part of worship. This tension didn’t go unnoticed. Possibly motivated in part by this, Augustine (354-430) redivided the 10 commandments from their traditional Jewish division to fold number 2 into number 1, which commands us to have no other Gods (allowing the interpretation that representations are fine, as long as they aren’t of other gods or objects of worship). To make this combination fit, Augustine had to divide the last commandment, on coveting, into two. Augustine’s approach was adopted by the catholic church.

The orthodox church stuck with the original formulation however. But they took it very literally. They avoided making any ‘graven’ (engraved) images. They instead developed the art of the icon – painted on a flat surface – the iconic (!) artform of the orthodox church. At the same time they developed a complex theological structure of three different ‘levels’ of worship. So they could understand that when they worshipped an icon, for example, it wasn’t the same ‘kind’ of worship as the worship of God, and therefore wasn’t covered by the commandment.

This long standing tension about representation was further reinforced when the capital of the orthodox world, Constantinople (modern Istanbul) began to be buffeted by successive waves of Muslim conquest in the  7th and early 8th century. The Muslims forbade all representation, and developed a beautiful artistic grammar based on geometry and calligraphy. Faced with successive defeats and losses of territory, the orthodox church must have wondered why God had forsaken them in favor of this new religion. Those orthodox areas that were captured undoubtedly put pressure on the mother church over the iconography that so enraged their new overlords.

And so in 730, Emperor Leo III began a program of iconoclasm: the deliberate removal, destruction and whitewashing of sacred art. This was so extraordinarily successful that we know of only a few works pre-dating this campaign.

The end of the iconoclasm involved one of the most interesting women in orthodox history. Empress Irene, a woman of seemingly un-notable birth who was chosen in a beauty pageant to marry the emperor (Leo IV), and after his death became the regent of their son. She continued to pull the strings after her son became old enough to govern in his own right, and after he began to assert his authority, she had him blinded. He died of his wounds and Irene declared herself ‘emperor’ (rather than the female form empress). She had no truck with the Iconoclasm, possibly motivated by the unpopularity of the new blank and austere worship, she repudiated Leo’s orders and brought the iconoclasm to an end.

Its a fascinating story, which I’ve only just touched on. But what is interesting about it is the tension between Christian practice, and biblical commands. Between what a church practices and what it preaches. That tension hasn’t gone away, of course. It is present in every church you care to name. And while it rarely erupts into the wholesale destruction and violence of the Iconoclasm, the dissonance of action and belief is always a potent destabilizing factor.

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The story of how a bible verse is read — 1 John 5:7-8

Annotated exceprt from the Codex Sinaiticus

1 John 5:7-8 highlighted in the text of the Codex Sinaiticus, with various textual features signified.

Following on from yesterday’s post on the Johannine Comma, I was enjoying looking again through the online copy of the Codex Sinaiticus. It is both more difficult, and more rewarding than reading the reprinted greek critical text. I thought it would be interesting, for those who don’t know greek, ancient texts, or have never used their greek on primary documents, to point out a few interesting features. There’s loads I could say, and far far more I’m ignorant of, but I’ll limit myself to the text I posted yesterday, the text surrounding the Comma in 1 John 5:7-8.

As a brief reminder, an english translation would be:

For there are three that bear witness: the Spirit, and the water, and the blood, and these three agree.

- 1 John 5:7-8

I’ve indicated five things in the document.

  1. ΟΙ (“oi” – a form of “the” or “these”) here is unusual and isn’t in other versions of the text. It is probably a mistake, because later in the highlighted section we get ΟΙ ΤΡΕΙΣ again (“oi treis” – these three). When copying, it is very easy to have your eye drawn to the wrong occurrence of a word and write what comes before or after. So the extra ΟΙ before this first use of ΤΡΕΙΣ is considered a copying error.
  2. A pair of characters (ΣΕ) gets added into a small gap. Maybe there was not enough room? The two letters mark the end of the previous word and the start of the next, respectively.
  3. We’re missing an Ν from this word (ΜΑΡΤΥΡΟΥΝΤΕΣ “marturountes”- bear witness to). The overbar indicates this abbreviation, it can also be seen in the same word in the Codex Vaticanus, below.
  4. This is the word for ‘spirit’ (ΠΝΕΥΜΑ ,”pneuma”, spirit is also the word for breath, and this is where we get the word pneumonia). It was conventional from very early on to write certain words as acronyms. We call these ‘nomina sacra’* – sacred names, because most commonly they are names (although words like ‘cross’ are also abbreviated in this way). Here we get it written ΠΝΑ. The bar over the top of the word is often used to indicate abbreviation.
1 John 5:7-8 in the Codex Vaticanus

The same text 1 John 5:7-8 highlighted in the Codex Vaticanus, for comparison. Vaticanus is a very similar text to Sinaiticus, from the same text family. But still there are thousands of differrences. See if you can spot the differences in just this passage. Apologies for the quality of this scan, I'm using the Vatican's own published scans, which are pretty low quality.

And finally you notice that the words are all written into one another. There are no word spacings and words are free to continue over the end of the line without this being indicated. The red squares show word boundaries.

[Quick note, in my modern greek font, the capital sigma appears as Σ, but you'll notice in the text it looks more like a C - letter forms change over time and between regions]

I know that’s a very short passage, but I hope it gives the sense of how dense these texts are, and how much effort it takes to engage with them as a textual critic. I don’t have the patience to do this kind of work, although I do love the manuscripts themselves. I’m very much glad I can just buy a critical copy of the NT and have the hard work done for me!

* A challenge for anyone who knows a bit of greek: You can see two more ΠΝΑ abbreviations on the same page – one on the top line (overbar is half-clipped off the image) and one at the start of the third line. There is another nomina sacra at the bottom of the page: ΘΥ for “God”. But 10 points for any readers who can spot the other two in the image.

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The Johannine Comma – The story of how a bible verse was written — 1 John 5:7-8

The Johannine Comma in the Codex Sinaiticus

A version of the greek text (The Codex Sinaiticus - part of the Alexandrine text tradition) without the comma in place. The highlighted area shows 1 John 5:7-8. The small text above the following line shows a correction to a scribal error. The full photographic facsimile of this text is available online.

One of the hard things about studying the bible is working out what version of the bible to study. There are thousands of copies, all written by hand, and all different. Reconstructing what might have been the original text is the job of ‘textual criticism’, and it isn’t an easy job.

One example (which is much easier to figure out than many) is the so-called Johannine Comma. In the first epistle of John, chapter 5, there is a suspect phrase spanning the end of verse 7 and the start of verse 8. Those two verses say:

For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.

- 1 John 5:7-8

This section seems to read pretty well, and the two parallel sections fit together. In wider context, however, the passage does jar a little. And it becomes really suspicious when you realise that it seems to be slam-dunk evidence of the doctrine of the trinity, but that doctrine wasn’t formulated for more than a century after 1 John was composed. The trail is even more intriguing when you look at the earliest manuscripts we have, and the textual traditions from those early manuscripts.

[An aside - a textual tradition is what we call the set of copies that are made in one community or region from an initial set of texts. So we have an 'Alexandrine' textual tradition which is the set of texts copied in Alexandria, derived ultimately from some original set of texts (original for Alexandria, not necessarily first copies of the original works). Because of the copying within a textual tradition, you get consistent errors showing up through the family of copies, and conversely by looking at what is consistent and what is different within a tradition, you can reconstruct what the original texts in that tradition might have looked like.]

We find that the section about the trinity (the section in italics, above) doesn’t exist in early manuscripts. In fact it only appears in one textual tradition. That textual tradition is a tradition built on an early Latin translation of the Greek text.

What we think happened is this:

  1. The original text looks like it has a trinity in it (spirit, water and blood). But after the doctrine of the trinity was decided upon, some scholar felt that this alternative trinity needed explanation. So they wrote a marginal note in their copy of the latin version of the text, showing the parallel between John’s trinity and the trinity of God: one heavenly, one earthly.
  2. Some later point this text was copied. A scribe seeing this marginal note mistook it for an omitted part of the text (it wasn’t uncommon to add accidentally omitted parts of the text as marginal notes, much as we’d insert a bit more content into a handwritten text by writing it in the margin and adding a line, arrow or caret). He merged it into the text as best he could.
  3. At a later date again, a translation into Greek was made of this Latin text, and so the appropriate section was then turned into greek along with its surrounds.
  4. The textual tradition that grew out of these texts is the one that ultimately was used in the writing of the King James Version of the bible. So it ended up in the KJV.

Most recent bibles will omit the Johannine comma, with the text placed in a footnote. The evidence is so clear  that you might think it would be worth removing entirely. It is testimony to the great weight of the KJV of the text in English that most bible editors won’t do this. They think (rightly, I say) that people will compare their translation against the KJV and wonder why they are missing chunks out. So the footnote has to be there to explain.

This chunk of text is just representative of thousands upon thousands of variations in the early text. Almost every verse in the New Testament has several alternate renderings. Some are obviously incorrect (such as spelling mistakes), others dramatically change theological implications, and others (like this one) invent evidence for things that the New Testament writers knew nothing about.

It is that texture: interdependent, complex and contingent, that makes it such a fascinating text, I think.

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Grrr. Engines.

This week, one of the world’s top chess tournaments is happening. Unless you’re dutch (where it is hosted) or into chess, you’ve probably not seen a lot of press coverage!

I’ve been following some of the interesting games.

In the day two action between world champion (and world ranked #2) Vishy Anand and erstwhile British hopeful for the World Championship, Nigel Short, Vishy held up nicely under onslaught from Short and at one point conjured up a possible win, before strong defending forced a draw. Through a good chunk of the late opening and middle game ‘the engines’ (various pieces of chess playing software running on fast computers) were saying that Anand was in trouble. A commentator pointed this out to Garry Kasparov (who’s not playing – he’s advising world number #1, Magnus Carlsen). Kasparov disagreed, and saw the logic in what Anand was attempting. He is said to have replied ‘Grrr. Engines.’

The Deep Blue Chess Computer. Credit: IBM

Great quote. But it made me think about the changes to chess since I started playing nearly 30 years ago. In the last few years it has become the game of the digital nerds. Now a geek with a $100 program can stand shoulder to shoulder with the C20 greatest chess player (imho) and chat about strategic possibilities, about opening variations, and about likely outcomes. A few thousand bucks will buy you databases of every professional game on record, of more opening variations that can possibly be learned, of GM and possibly World Champion beating analysis.

I’m not sure how this makes me feel. On one hand as a nerd, I’m proud that through teamwork, ingenuity and hard work, other nerds have won their place standing and kibitzing with the world’s best players.

On the other hand I’m sad. It feels wrong that some software and a mediocre playing history should be enough to let you stand shoulder to shoulder with the chess gods. I find it hard to shake the awe and authority that these players held, towering over my chess playing youth.

I’m learning Go at the moment. One thing I’ve learned is that there is a huge amount more cultural depth in Go than chess. It resonates and informs various eastern cultures in ways that the relatively young game of chess doesn’t for us in the west. When Go falls to the nerds (and it will, though not for a while), and geeks like me can talk tactics as peers with the top pros. I suspect their culture won’t let it pass without comment and without conspicuity, as it has in chess.

I’m sure there’s a theological analogy there somewhere, but I’m blown if I can find it!

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When did Elite become an Insult?

Its been an insult among conservatives for a while. But now it seems like even sane people are using it pejoratively.

Wouldn’t you rather have an elite surgeon operate on you?

Wouldn’t you rather have an elite engineer design the airplane you fly on?

Wouldn’t you rather have an elite teacher teaching the next generation of surgeons or aerospace engineers?

Wouldn’t you rather have an elite bureaucrat running a vital government department?

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