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Capitalization as a Translation Issue in the Hebrew Scriptures

In my ratings for the Bible Version Selection Tool, one of the areas on which I compare translations is capitalization of pronouns referring to God or to Jesus. The interesting thing about this is that the Hebrew text has no analog to capitalization of any kind, while edited Greek texts and some late manuscripts can mix majuscule and miniscule forms, the rules are hardly the same, and such capitalization cannot derive from the autographs which, like the Hebrew, did not use capitalization rules.

There are two reasons I rate this. The first is practical. I regularly encounter people who consider it disrespectful to write a pronoun referring to God in all lower case. This is a peculiarity, I think, and I certainly don’t capitalize pronouns referring to God any more than any other pronouns in my own writing. A number of modern versions, such as the NRSV, ESV, and CEV don’t use such capitalization.

Recently, while reading some texts in the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), I noted this capitalization in Isaiah 42, which illustrates some of the potential problems with this practice. (For those interested, Psalm 22 presents similar issues in the NKJV, but the HCSB does not follow the same practice there as in Isaiah 42.)

This is My Servant; I strengthen Him,
this is My Chosen One; I delight in Him;
He will bring justice to the nations. — Isaiah 42:1 (HCSB)

Notice that pronouns referring both to God and to the servant are capitalized. I found this practice in the NKJV and NASB as well for this passage. “Spirit” is a special case, which I have discussed elsewhere. Should the word “spirit” be capitalized in the Hebrew scriptures which do not teach the doctrine of the trinity? My personal answer would be “no,” and the REB and the NRSV follow that practice. The NLT and CEV, which do not capitalize the pronouns in this passage do capitalize the word “Spirit.”

The potential problem here is that the nature of the servant is somewhat controversial. Elsewhere (Isaiah 49:1-6 for example) the servant is identified as Israel. In Isaiah 53, Christians generally identify the servant with Jesus. There are those who would identify the servant as Jesus throughout the servant songs, dealing variously with passages identifying Israel in that role, while others would view Israel as the servant throughout. One option describes the servant as the remnant of Israel, taken into exile, and then redeemed, and sees Jesus as the ultimate representative of Israel, and thus the servant can be properly read as both Israel as a whole and the one individual, Jesus. Some would hold that different servant songs require a different identification of the servant.

I am in no way trying to cover all the options on interpreting the servant songs. I’m simply pointing out that there are a variety of views. I would say that the scholarly consensus is Israel (see notes in the Oxford Study Bible and the New Interpreter’s Study Bible for good summaries of the consensus view). Thus with something as simple as the choice to capitalize or not capitalize certain pronouns, the translators tip their hand as to how they would interpret the passages in question.

I doubt that most readers would notice this detail and make anything of it. The impression would be relatively subtle. And I would not automatically condemn translators for doing so. If the dialect into which they are translating the passage requires that pronouns referring to deity be capitalized, then they are subtly passing on their interpretation whether they capitalize or not. For what it’s worth, I believe that modern American usage tends against capitalizing. Readers who do not expect capitalization will probably simply think the text looks a bit odd.

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