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An Example of Archaic Words – 1 Samuel 9:9

An Example of Archaic Words – 1 Samuel 9:9

In a comment to a previous post, someone brought up the case of Saul and the seer. In this passage we have the parenthetical note following the reference by one of the characters to a seer, indicating that a prophet was formerly called a seer. This was provided as an example of how to handle archaic words in the KJV–just explain them, or as this commenter suggested, look them up in an 1828 Noah Webster’s!

In my response I indicated that I didn’t see anything new and referred readers to my Bible Translations FAQ, but it turns out that in this case while I have responded to someone on this issue before, probably on the Compuserve Religion Forum, I failed to include the answer in my FAQ file. In addition, I wanted to comment on an exegetical point. You can get the full context of the story by reading 1 Samuel 9:1-14.

My exegetical point is a simple one. Any principle of interpretation you use should be one that can be applied consistently. The application of a principle–I’ll hold off trying to express it–that we see here is the observation that a Bible writer took a particular action, so that action is normative for similar circumstances. I would guess that the best way to express this principle would be that in comparable circumstances, one should consider the actions of a Biblical writer to be normative.

Now here’s where I tend to annoy KJV-Only advocates and other extreme Biblical literalists. I would ask how they would apply that principle in other cases. For example, should we take the literary forms of the Bible as normative for the way in which we should write other material? It’s hard to respond precisely, because I have never seen anyone try to express this as a principle. Whenever I ask someone to express it that way or to apply it to other circumstances, they say I’m not staying on the subject. But I think that when interpreting the Bible, principles of interpretation are always relevant.

A related approach is often used for other Bible stories. If a Bible character, normally limited to one of the good guys, did it, then it’s a good idea. Of course, until it isn’t. Because this “story” approach to Biblical norms is very rarely applied with any consistency.

Can we get information from Bible stories? Indeed we can. For example, I believe that God calls women to leadership. One Biblical support for that position is the call of Deborah. But in that case I’m working with a clear statement that Deborah was a prophetess, and the blessing of God on her action. Further, I use the story not to create a common practice directly, as in “God called Deborah, a woman, to be a prophetess, so all women are called to be prophetesses.” Rather, I use the story to establish that any claim that God excludes women from his call runs up against this clear counter-example.

Interpreting stories requires a good deal of thought and effort, and it is useful to be consistent. I have an essay on interpreting stories for those who are interested in some basic ideas.

But let’s look at this specific case. There are several important points that I would note.

  1. The parenthetical comment provides historical information to the reader that is relevant to the story. Archaic words in the KJV provide knowledge of 17th century English, but provide no knowledge relevant to the story. The actual word used by the ancient Hebrews does not appear in the KJV here or elsewhere. I would suggest that if one consistently used this principle, one should enter in the translation every term with any technical element, and then explain it in a parenthetical comment. (The Complete Jewish Bible heads in this direction.)
  2. This type of comment is extremely rare in scripture. It doesn’t involve the relearning of an entire dialect so that people can have the privilege of using archaic language.
  3. While I’m sure using an 1828 dictionary is exciting to someone, I don’t plan on recommending purchase of such a dictionary to go with any Bible purchase. That is simply another barrier to hearing the word.
  4. In the New Testament we see Hebrew ideas primarily presented in Greek words. The very occasional transliterations (with translation) are for specific purposes.
  5. Finally, any argument in favor of forcing people to learn the language of the KJV applies with greater force to urging them to learn Greek and Hebrew.

The problem here is an ad hoc interpretation desperately grabbed and applied to the KJV. The foundation of such an argument is the assumption that the KJV must be right, therefore we must find the way to preserve it. But other than as a great artifact of English language and literature, I fail to see any reason to try to do that.

The Bible wasn’t written in English. It was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. KJV-Only advocates seem to have trouble understanding that, but it remains a fact.

Some CJB Terminology in Romans

Some CJB Terminology in Romans

I did my lectionary reading today from the Complete Jewish Bible. Each day I read two sets of lectionary texts, one from the current week, and one from the week following. I try to choose a different version each day, and also read them at least once from the original languages.

This week’s epistles passage is Romans 5:12-19, and next week’s is Romans 4:1-5, 13-17. I’m going to stick to some terms in those to give a flavor of the use of terminology. I will work through these in the order in which they appear in Romans. Note also that I would not criticize all of these renderings. I’m just trying to provide a flavor for those who have never worked with this version. Some of these are not bad, in fact, though they will sound very unusual to the ears of one who is accustomed to one of the more standard English versions.

Romans 4:1 Avraham replaces the familiar Abraham. In the CJB all names are replaced with something close to their Hebrew equivalents, even when translating Greek.

Greek kata sarka (according to the flesh) translated “by his own efforts.”

Romans 4:2 Greek ergon (works) translated “legalistic observances.”
Romans 4:3 Greek graphe (scripture) translated “Tanak.”
Romans 4:13 Greek dia nomou (through the law) translated “through legalism”
Romans 4:14 Greek ek nomou (from the law) translated “by legalism”

Greek pistis (faith) translated “trust”

Romans 4:16 Greek to ek tou nomou monon (to one who holds to the law) translated “those who live within the framework of the Torah
Romans 5:13 Greek me ontos nomou (when there is no law) translated “when there is no Torah
Romans 5:15 Greek Iesou Christou (Jesus Christ) translated “Yeshua the Messian.”

Again, as I mention in my notes on this version, the literary style and quality is quite variable as the translator makes an effort to clarify his understanding of Jewish concepts in the text. He may be hyper-literal or ultra-paraphrastic in order to accomplish that goal.

Isaiah 64:6 – Menstrual Cloth

Isaiah 64:6 – Menstrual Cloth

I was planning to leave my comparisons with just Isaiah 63, as I believe that continued comparison charts will largely show the same thing. I’m still reading the translations side by side, and if something seems different I will bring it up.

But today in reading Isaiah 64 in several translations I came across Isaiah 64:6 (5 in Hebrew) in which the phrase “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (KJV) occurs. Now having just read this in Hebrew I was reminded that the literal translation of this is “menstrual cloths” or something similar. These cloths would be unclean, as was the woman in her menstrual period. One extended discussion of the issue of uncleanness can be found in Leviticus 15:19-33.

In the passage, there is clearly meaning in the fact that these are not merely dirty pieces of cloth. For example, had someone washed their hands and dried them on these cloths after digging ditches all day, by modern standards we might call them dirty. If I repair the car and then wipe the grease on a rag, we would escalate that to filthy rag. But the menstrual cloth implied ritual impurity, however odd that might seem to us today.

So having read the TNIV translation:

All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away. — Isaiah 64:6 (TNIV)

Now this doesn’t disturb me much. In the course of the verse they have gotten in the words “unclean” and “filthy” and I would assume that the TNIV translators, along with all the modern versions I checked (quite a number), simply don’t think that “menstrual cloth” is going to be meaningful to modern translators.

But when I turn to a translation that prides itself on word for word renderings, that “seeks as far as possible to catpure the precise wording of the original text” (ESV Preface), I thought perhaps things would be different. But here the desire for literal translation escaped the ESV translators:

We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. — Isaiah 64:6 (ESV)

Now I definitely think “polluted” is better than “filthy” in the context. But we have still replaced one metaphor in Hebrew with a completely different English expression. The Message carries this the furthest, using “grease-stained rags,” which does not reflect the basic idea all that well, but has the advantage of conjuring an immediate image in English.

Though I found only one modern version, the Complete Jewish Bible, that uses any word referring to menstrual cloths (menstrual rags), I did find that ancient translators used that. The LXX, Vulgate, and the Peshitta, all translate with something that includes the original literal meaning in its semantic range. Interestingly enough, the Isaiah Targum, according to the text I have available, uses an even better euphemism than any of the English versions, “cast off garment” or I might prefer the translation “garment thrown far away” (Stenning, The Targum of Isaiah, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1949).

So is there an element of meaning in the actual Biblical wording here or not? Is it possible to convey that meaning accurately in a literal translation? Such a literal translation does not appear common in modern translations.