Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Holier than Thou

   I just finished 'Eat This Book' by Eugene Peterson, translator of 'The Message' version of the bible. What a stunning piece of work! As I've already said in my Amazon review, Peterson is a writer at the peak of his craft, such that 'I found myself re-reading lines and phrases just for the sheer pleasure of letting the words dance again through my mind'.
  The final chapter of the book was particularly fascinating as in it he deals with the whole subject of translation and interpretation. This immediately intrigued me as it offered insights into why on earth anybody in their right mind would want to use the King James version as their daily bible of choice. Take it's history for starters, the old King James version, dating back to 1611, was largely produced to trump the 1526 English New Testament that was in general circulation after being painstaking translated by William Tyndale in such a way that 'the boy that driveth the plough' would be able to comprehend it. King James has other ideas about religion - and social cohesion. His team of translators worked hard to ensure that their work gathered unto itself a majestic aloof-ness from the dirt of daily life.
   Now then, there's more to delve into here. As you ought to know, the New Testament is written in Greek. But there's more than one version of Greek. The Greek spoken 2000 years ago is not the Greek spoken today. It's similar, but different. The Greek written 2000 years ago is not the Greek written today, it's different again, in various ways. The key difference we need to pay attention to is not the difference between then and now but the difference between spoken and written Greek 2000 years ago. The Greeks loved literature and philosophy, and they reflected their esteem for it in the highly polished form of writing they used to record and communicate their ideas on paper. And here's the twist, for countless centuries the New Testament text was understood by means of translation using the language of classical (attic) Greek - that was the only written form of Greek that could be found in the libraries of the Roman world and the societies that followed after the great Empire's collapse. But there was a big problem for the translators. Of the 5000 words used in the New Testament's, about 500 could not be found anywhere in classical written Greek. What were these strange words. Well of course, they must be special 'holy' words, the language of angels, the special communications of the Spirit. Or so 'inspired' translators speculated. After all, how could the Word Of God be penned in anything other than the finest of vocabularies?
   Time passed and eventually Archaeology came into vogue and intrepid diggers set off on globe-trotting endeavours bringing to light all manner of artifacts that shed new light on the ancient world of the bible. One such discovery was made in 1897 by a couple of Brits underneath a rubbish dump on the outskirts of an unassuming village called Oxyrhynchus, 160 miles upstream along the Nile from Cairo. They brought up, preserved and intact, 27 papyrus documents that would revolutionize bible translation. 27 pieces of utterly ancient Greek text - but far from classical library Greek. Closer inspection would reveal this to be the greatest ever find of common street Greek (koine) from the time of Jesus. And guess what. Those 500 missing words in the New Testament. Koine. Common street Greek. Far from being the language of angels or special holy words God had entrusted his sacred revelation to the language of the marketplace and the fields, not the language of the temples and the academies. 

   So why should we join the company of William Tyndale, J.B. Phillips and Eugene Peterson in ensuring that scripture is always available in the language of the plough-boy? Because that's exactly what you'd expect of the true and living Word who 'became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood.' 

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Dev said...

I loved this, it made me wonder how many concepts or I suppose conceptions of God are based on slightly odd angles such as those the KJV brings out. I'm not entirely against it, but interestingly most people who are off on one in a religious way are 'KJV or death' types... my favourite quote being 'if your original Hebrew matches my original KJV, then it's right - otherwise your original Hebrew is wrong.' Classic.

Also loved the genius title of this post.


Glen Marshall said...

"... why on earth [woudl] anybody in their right mind want to use the King James version as their daily bible of choice."

Perhaps this might give a us clue ...

"... for the sheer pleasure of letting the words dance again through my mind'."

The NIV doesn't quite do that (let alone, yes please let alone, the GNB)

Does this justify the use of the AV? Not really, but it does remind us that language shld be more than just functional. We need poetry.

It's there in the koine - check out Jn 1, Col 1 and 1Co 13 (of course) and Revelation.

Language of the street? - absolutely, but with poetry please.

Perhaps we should commission Jay-z to do a translation or (staying true to my roots) Ian MacMillan.

No, I know, let's ask Eugene Perterson. Damn! Once again another good idea but someone beat me to it.

Ancient Modern Roots said...

Where do you think that we position our pivot point on this issue?

On one hand I applaud the works of Peterson in the Message (although I'm not sure the Message is 'plough-boy' language - it's quite elegant and wordy really) in his attempt to recapture the poetry of certain scriptures and enhance the readability.

However, on the other hand, I think he's liable to let you down with a bump when it comes to what the Bible writers are actually saying.

So I find myself wondering where to we balance the issue of 'readability v. accuracy'? Are we happy to sacrifice, for example, the depths of what st Paul said, for a more readable version, or should we accept a more awkward text that requires (like Jacob with his visitor) a bit of wrestling with before blessing?

I'm probably overly biased here, as a fan of Paul, who I think we've made more difficult to understand than we needed to, I find it increasingly difficult to be a fan of the Message (incidentally, also the NIV amongst others) due to Petersen's noticable individualistic approach to translating Paul - Texts such as 2 Cor 5:17 and Romans 1:16-17 are minimised to a distressing level.

It is worth noting also that Koine Greek may correctly be identified as 'common' greek, but I wouldn't want to overplay the 'market place' imagery. Koine was the language of the Roman empire and is used in most of its literature for a period of several hundred years. A good student of koine will find themselves equipped to read far more than just the NT.

Of course, the point still stands - why would anyone stick to a translation such as KJV? It's a good question - for not only is it written in an english no longer in use, the manuscript it was translated from is now known to be not as early and accurate as manuscripts now available to us.

I think we stuggle sometimes with the idea that the language of the Bible should be as distant as we imagine God to be. However, I feel our role as translators is to ensure that the big ideas of scripture are portrayed in a language easily understood by the average person.

Matt Wilson said...

Hi folks,
The brevity of my post on this subject meant that I was rather one-sided. I very much enjoy occasional reading of the KJV and there are many nuggets within that I haven't found surpassed in any other translation. The point of the post really was to counter the 'KJV Only' brigade. I'm glad we have a plurality of translations and use at least 3 regularly. We'd be just as stuck if we only had Peterson as we would if we only had the King James.

spuious said...

Does the deliberate usage of 'market place' language in the Bible account for the conundrum that God created Shakespeare a better writer then He is?

An objective, neutral investigation into Biblical textual criticism reveals the real problem with the KJV: it's a translation of the first published Greek New Testament by a guy called Desiderius Erasmus, rushed into publication to beat the imminent publication Complutensian Polyglot (the first printed Greek NT). There's not time to go into it here, but the translation was extremely problematic and the resulting translation a bit of a botch job, including some passages (the woman taken in adultery and the last twelve verses of Mark, for example) that simply weren't in the older and more superior manuscripts of the Greek New Testament.

Biblical revisions and (mis)translations are riddled with examples of scribal errors, accidental and intentional changes, theologically motivated textual alterations and so on. Whether God inspired what was first penned is secondary to the more pertinent issue that we simply don't have anything even remotely similar to what was first written so many centuries ago. The closest we've got to 'original texts' are error-riddled copies, separated by centuries from the originals and evidently different from them in thousands of ways

It's a truly fascinating area, and I'd recommend anyone interested, no matter what side of the fence you occupy, to start with Bart Ehrman, whose books are an excellent introduction to the subject.