Bible in the Raw

After 23 years service with the global Bible translation community I have become accustomed to encountering the question, “Which is the best/most accurate English translation of the Bible?”. I have developed a number of strategies to try and turn this enquiry into something more helpful. The very fact that the question is asked, and asked so often, is indicative of our resource-rich western world view. We are accustomed to picking and choosing from amongst a vast wealth of resources. I have to confess that whenever the question is posed I groan inwardly.

Lurking behind the enquiry is so often an attempt to solicit support for a favourite translation. Often this translation will be one associated with a particular expression of church. The correct answer is expected and I learnt a long time ago that the wrong answer resulted in judgements being made. Mention of a favourite translation of mine often invokes a snort of disgust and the comment “but that’s a paraphrase”. I have news - every translation is a paraphrase! We tend to judge translations more on the basis of whether they fulfil our expectations of the text rather than on how well they render the original texts in our language.

Translations can be formative for churches and nations. The degree to which the Authorised Version has captured the English speaking soul is clear evidence for this[1]. I do not want to suggest that our many English translations are not a wonderful resource to have but I do think a translation can limit our sense of who God is. RS Thomas understood this: “History showed us / He was too big to be nailed to the wall / Of a stone chapel, yet still we crammed him / Between the boards of a black book” [Thomas 2000, 117][2].

Nowadays the boards may not be black but the problem remains.

To translate is, to a degree, to assimilate and inculturate; it has to be so, but both reader and translator must always be aware of the degree of strangeness which inhabits the original texts. Modern translations tend to smooth over strangeness in search of accessibility, placing the narratives as neatly as possible into our world. And they are right to do this. But we must not lose sight of the distance between us and the original texts. The gospels are not only linguistically distant, they are culturally distant as well.

We inhabit a world of democratically elected governments, personal choice and individual autonomy. The world of the gospels was one of itinerant Rabbis and their wandering schools of disciples, client kings and imperial governors, where choice and autonomy were only for the rich and powerful. Shot through this weave of poets, prophets, priests and kings is the growing recognition of a loving God. That revelation remains as strange to our world as it was to the ancient world.

Human beings are innately conservative. Most of us like to know our place in the world around us. We know what we like and we like what we know. Social customs root us in our heritage and shape our lives. Churches are no different. We read our scripture through 2,000 years of theology. In the West we read the gospel narratives through the spectacles of the great teachers of the Western church. Augustine, Aquinas, Luther and so many others shape our expectations and guide our understanding. We read our Bibles in the confident expectation that they will conform to our theology. And by and large they do, not least because part of a translator’s task is to have a deep understanding of the culture for which a translation is made and to make the translation as accessible to that culture as possible.

This sense of familiarity with the narrative, style and vocabulary of our favourite translations can obscure their strangeness. Christians (at least in the West) expect to encounter God in Scripture in their own language and sharing the same preoccupations. It is good that we have such wonderful resources and so many translations from which to choose but there is much to be learnt from the original texts. We need a little strangeness.

An excellent way of introducing strangeness is to read Scripture in the original languages. Even if opportunity is limited, learning a little about the original texts and the world which produced them helps us avoid the temptation of subsuming the gospel within our own little world. One example will suffice: much has been written in recent years about the pistis tou Christou debate[3]. Proponents suggest that many texts traditionally translated “faith in Jesus” might be equally reasonably rendered “faith/faithfulness of Jesus”. How the traditional rendering came to be the norm is an interesting question in itself. Given that the significant antecedents of our modern English translations emerged during the Reformation era we might wonder if Reformation theologies drove translation.

Whichever side of the debate we favour there is no denying that the outcome of the discussion has been a wealth of new insights into Paul’s letters, Romans and Galatians in particular[4]. Modern translations still tend to follow the traditional rendering but are increasingly beginning to footnote their texts with the alternative (so Romans 3.22 in NRSV footnote k). And there we have an important point. These are alternative readings. Scripture is, in fact, full of opportunities for alternative readings. But we do like to know where we stand! Preserving such ambiguities in the text is not popular yet so often it is exactly such moments which broaden our understanding and give us a glimpse of a God who is bigger than our own ideas.

All of which brings me back to the text. Engaging with Scripture in its original languages can transform our understanding of the gospel if only we can find the time. Although New Testament Greek appears on the curriculum of most full time Theology, Mission & Ministry (TMM) courses it has disappeared from the part-time training syllabus almost entirely. Hebrew has for many years been an optional extra taken only by those with an interest in ancient languages. There are good reasons for this, particularly for part-time students. The breadth of material that candidates have to cover is vast and it is hard to see what can be omitted in order to allow more time to be given to exploring the world and languages which shaped the original witness of Scripture.

We are trying to address this here in Sherborne. Fitting language study into TMM courses is hard to do but short intensive courses offer a way to deliver language tuition which is both affordable and effective. During 2015 we will be offering intensive study weeks in both New Testament Greek and Biblical Hebrew in association with STETS and Sarum College. Courses are focussed towards reading Scripture rather than formal language study. A residential Learn to Read Biblical Hebrew is planned for Tuesday 7th April until Sunday 12th April inclusive alongside the STETS Easter School in Wiltshire. Learn to Read NT Greek (designed to take the student from zero to being ready to begin reading St Mark) is planned for Sarum College in Salisbury from 27th July – 1st August. We are always glad to respond to requests to run courses elsewhere for local groups, whether intensive courses for beginners or guided readings of gospels or letters. You can contact us at www.learnbiblang.org.uk.

When a translation team completes a Bible or New Testament in a language which has until then had no Scripture a common response from the people for whom the translation is prepared is “now we know that God understands us”. Equally, the translation process can show the translators things about God which were less apparent in the languages and translations which shaped their study. Learning to read just the New Testament  in Greek is well worth the effort. It reminds us of how strange and radical the gospel really is and by challenging our expectations of the text it can show us new things about God.

Perhaps it is time to return to the Bible in the Raw.

 

[1]     Crystal, D, The influence of the Bible on the English language, Newman Lecture, London, 2011

[2]     Thomas, R S, Collected Poems: 1945-1990, Orbis, London, 2000.

[3]     Bird, M F & Sprinkle, P M (eds), The Faith of Jesus Christ, Paternoster, 2009.

[4]     Hays, R B, The Faith of Jesus Christ, Eerdmans, 2002

Jon Riding is now semi-retired after 23 years service at the Bible Society. He has taught New Testament Greek and Biblical Hebrew in the UK and overseas and spent many fascinating hours working with Bible translation teams all over the world. He teaches Greek, Hebrew and Biblical Studies for various institutions and is Director of the Sherborne Abbey Insight Programme (www.insight.sherborneabbey.com) and Research Director for 7000++ (www.7000plus.org)

2 thoughts on “Bible in the Raw

  1. This article begs the question, which Greek Bible? A question which seems as complex as which English Bible?

    Although I admire those fluent in these languages, I do wonder how much you need to know before you get the benefits when reading. The computer enables me to see a word which may be interesting, find the Greek and trace it to a dictionary and not get lost in commentaries. This is rather different from a richer reading experience.

    When it comes to the NT, perhaps we need to change our guide sometimes. The official guides or committee translations can be rather bland. Perhaps we should trust an individual. My favourite is still J B Phillips but also William Barclay, Tom Wright Colin Urquhart and Weymouth. Perhaps it is time to look at E V Rieu

  2. I have appreciated this. I always think that the translation of the bible we read can actually stunt our growth, but just like the time contraints of learning Hebrew or Greek and in my case welsh, time is also limited for reading several translations for the original meaning. I tend to only go to the original translation if I am sharing it with someone else but not for my own use. For my own use I use my tried and trusted insight bible even though I know there are probably some which may include more cross references, I like my bible because it has the boxes which gives me the original context of it and it explains the things I cannot remember. However I had an experience in a tabernacle recently where all of a sudden the true meaning of something was before me as clear as day in the Good News bible, The good news bible is often seen as the simplified version but sometimes things are just that simple, we tend to have a need to make it more complicated than it is. Our excuse for such behaviour is that we live in different times , do we ? people are still trying to dominate by killing , people are still living lives which are not wholesome there is still poverty and there is still unequal distribution of wealth and some still worship leaders rather than God. I like the simplified version as a stepping stone then I like to journey deeper into the bible but I don’t want to lose the true meaning of the text , and I realize that not to lose the true meaning of the text is not just about reading the bible its about living it, that is why most of us are not whole. Some are not whole because they read the bible, several bibles even but they do not relate, so they miss the interactive part which alters the context , others interact but don’t read the bible they do not understand where the other is coming from .Some get both of these right but resent it creating awkwardness. My favourite translation of the bible is the one I read which makes me feel like I am part of Gods Kingdom. It has many books and many ways of being read ,heard and enacted. Sometimes seen sometimes unseen sometimes a friend and sometimes a stranger but always clear .You don’t get any more of an original translation than that.

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