Monday, December 12, 2011

Are there mistakes in your Bible translation? Part 1

Over the weekend I came across the sensationally titled article Five Mistakes in Your Bible Translation on the Huffington Post website. It grabbed my attention and I decided that it was something that I must look into. So I read the article. I even read a number of the linked articles. And I have come to the conclusion that Dr. Joel Hoffman is really straining at gnats in order to make a name for himself.

The problem is that a headline like Five Mistakes in Your Bible Translation is, like most headlines, designed to grab your attention with a shocking statement. It is also not very often that the average person is going to read something about how translation work is done. So it seems to me that this particular headline was meant more to shake people's faith convictions than to convey the idea that every translation also includes some interpretation. This means that translation work is not merely a one for one word exchange. Rather it involves some judgments being made as to what a particular word or phrase means. Sometimes it is easy and other times it can be quite involved. This video is just a brief look at how it is not an easy process.

There are a few things that I would like to point out as it pertains to this particular article by Dr. Hoffman. The first thing that I must admit is that I know almost nothing about Dr. Hoffman. I have read his credentials but I am not familiar with his work or where he might fall into the overall picture when it comes to the Christian faith. The second thing is that I am in no way a Hebrew or Greek scholar. I studied each of the languages for a year in seminary and have a familiarity with the languages.

Dr. Hoffman gives five examples of these problems. There are two problems that he deals with most. The other three are merely examples of the trouble of translation work. In fact if you watch the video of the ESV translation team I linked above you will see examples of scholars doing exactly what Dr. Hoffman is saying that they don't do well enough. The problem isn't with Bible translation work rather the problem is that our language is slowly and subtlety changing. (Think about how the phrase "That is one cool cat" might be mistranslated.)

The two "mistakes" that he deals with most are also where I think he goes most astray. Let me deal with the second one first.

Dr Hoffman says:

Starting about 2,300 years ago, the Hebrew Bible was translated into a Greek version now known as the Septuagint. One shortcoming of that translation is its inattention to near synonyms. For instance, the Hebrew words for "love," "mercy" and "compassion" are frequently mixed up, because they mean nearly the same thing. Likewise, because most young women in antiquity were virgins and most virgins were young women, the Septuagint wasn't careful to distinguish the words for "virgin" and "young woman" in translation.

This is how the Hebrew in Isaiah 7:14 -- which describes a young woman giving birth to a boy who will be named Emmanuel -- ended up in Greek as a virgin giving birth. Though these facts about Greek and Hebrew are generally undisputed among scholars, the translation error remains, both because people are usually unwilling to give up familiar translations, and also perhaps because the Gospel of Matthew describes the virgin birth of Jesus by quoting the mistaken Greek translation of Isaiah 7:14.

Actually Matthew doesn't declare Mary a virgin based upon Isaiah 7:14. Matthew states that Mary was found to be with child before she had sex with Joseph and that the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit. What Matthew says is that Mary was a virgin and that it happened so that the prophecy given by Isaiah would be fulfilled. In fact, even if Isaiah did not mean to be explicit about the young girl being a virgin, it doesn't do anything to change what Matthew said. Both Matthew and Luke's telling of the events is what is important to our theology regarding the virgin birth of Christ. 

Matthew 1:18 says: 

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed (engaged) to Joseph, before they came together* she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.

And Luke 1:26-34 says: 

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!" But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."

And Mary said to the angel, "How will this be, since I am a virgin**?"

How would changing Isaiah 7:14 change the meanings of these two passages? 

In short it wouldn't change a thing. 

On top of that the word used in Isaiah does not explicitly preclude the meaning of virgin. In fact we see this word explicitly referring to a virgin in Genesis 24:43 in referring to Rebekah before she married Isaac. This "error" as Dr. Hoffman put it is completely over blown and seems intended to create a stir around Dr. Hoffman's work. It also seems as if it is intended to create doubt around the validity of Scripture. While this does not answer all challenges regarding Scripture, this particular charge should not create any consternation for Christians. 

Tomorrow I will tackle Dr. Hoffman's charge that the 10th Commandment should not read "Thou shalt not covet."

Further Reading:
John Frame has a good article on the Virgin Birth of Jesus

* "Came together" means "had sex." Might this change how you hear the lyrics to the Beatles song Come Together?

** The original actually say "How will this be, since I do not know a man" which also means "had sex."
Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. Mike,
    Once again you bring us some great insights. I don't know if have read Kevin DeYoung's booklet on why their congregation switched to the ESV but in it he addresses a number of the issues with translation, including over- and under-translating. Here is a link and I think you can get it for free:

    I only looked briefly at Dr. Hoffman's article but what jumps out at me whne reading your thoughts and his work is the perspective we come with when we read scripture. Are we coming to be taught by God, or perhaps to learn moral truth, or to learn the history of teh Hebrew people, or whatever?

    My bias is to see the unity of scripture from the standpoint of redemptive history, the history of one Hero who never fails to rescue his people. So the Song of Solomon is not, as Hoffman claims, a text about equality between males and females, but a text about the perfect love that Christ has for his church. And I know someone who would say to that "That'l preach!"