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Study Your Bible in English

Study Your Bible in English

Study Bibles Galore!
Despite My Dislike, All These Bibles were within Arm’s Reach of My Desk

That is, study it in English if English is your native language, and when your knowledge of biblical languages isn’t up to the task. Face it. For most people, even those who have some study of biblical languages. Different levels of study of the languages provide different levels of benefits. But for most people, the best idea is to study the Bible more carefully and thoroughly in the language they actually know.

There’s a sense among people in the pews that knowledge of Greek or Hebrew provides some sort of magic key. This even affects pastors, who want to look up a particular Greek or Hebrew word in order to spice up their sermons or  to find the real meaning of a text. The problem is that looking up a particular Greek or Hebrew word and then wielding that definition like an axe, chopping chips out of the text, more often misleads than enlightens.

For laypeople, the approach is often to find “the meaning of the Greek” through a commentary, or even worse through a concordance such as Strong’s. A correspondent once sent me a complete translation of a verse derived from glosses (single word or short phrase translations of a term) in Strong’s, in which not one single word was translated correctly in the context. One could, however, track the English words back through the concordance to a Greek word which did, in fact, occur in the verse.

Words do not have singular meanings. It is more accurate to say they have fields of meaning, sometimes called semantic ranges. I look out the window in front of me and I see a number of things that I would call “trees,” yet they are not identical. Some are larger, some are smaller. At some point there is the transition between “bush” and “tree,” and “bush,” again, covers a range of items. The actual boundary is set by usage. Now that I live in Florida, I have to realize that Floridians call things “hills” that northwesterners would call mounds or bumps, while there’s nothing in easy range of here that a northwesterner would call a mountain.

If you have the time and inclination to learn the biblical languages, by all means do so. But if you don’t, what can you do?

Here are some suggestions:

  1. Don’t just go to the most literal translation you can find. People often believe that by using the New American Standard Bible, the English Standard Version, the New Revised Standard Version, or something similar, they are getting closer to the source language. In one way, these versions do get you closer to the original, an I don’t have a problem with using any of them. Just don’t assume that they take care of getting you closer to the original.
  2. Instead of #1, choose 3 or more translations. Try to find translations that are committee translations and represent different theological backgrounds. For example, the NASB, NIV, and NLT are all done by evangelical translation committees. They represent three different approaches to translation, but their committees are all conservative. The NASB is formal, the NIV is a kind of compromise version, while the NLT is dynamic or functional. (There are many more differences in approach to translation. Check my site mybibleversion.com and/or my book What’s in a Version?.) On the other hand, the NRSV is quite formal/literal while the Revised English Bible is quite functional/dynamic, yet the committees involved are from mainline denominations and thus more liberal. I recommend choosing your three translations to represent different theological traditions and different styles of translating. For protestants, I’d recommend including the New American Bible or the New Jerusalem Bible, which are translated by Catholic committees. The NAB is probably a bit more literal/formal than the NIV and the NJB is dynamic/functional like the NLT or REB.
  3. Instead of spending your time looking for glosses to Greek words in a concordance like Strong’s, spend more time studying relevant passages in English. Don’t find a gloss and then force it into all the verses. Rather, study each passage and look for definitions from the context. I mean definitions of the English words provided by the English context in your English Bible. So if you want to know what the “church” is, don’t worry about the definition of ekklesia in Greek. (Dave Black wrote some good notes on this the other day. If you read what he wrote about the Greek words carefully, you will see some of the difficulties in doing this sort of study unless you are very well versed in the language.) Worry about the definition of “church” (and related terms like “body of Christ”)  in English verses. How does Paul view this in Ephesians 4, for example?
  4. In order to keep from getting stuck with the work of just one committee, compare those translations. While the formal translations may be closer to the form of the Greek or Hebrew, you may not correctly comprehend what that form means. Try the options in one of the dynamic/functional versions. Then listen to the context. Many, many misinterpretations are produced by deciding what a word in the original language is suppose to mean and then forcing the verse to fit that meaning. Ask instead whether the definition you have in mind truly fits. In English, for example, the word “car” might refer to an automobile, the part of an elevator you ride in, or one element of a train. You wouldn’t take the elevator-related definition and force it into a passage about automobiles, would you? Don’t do it to the biblical text either. Consider words like “salvation,” which may refer to a moment of new birth, a continuous process of God’s work in the believer, or the eventual salvation from final death, among other things.
  5. Don’t be afraid of surface reading. Surface reading is a good starting point for study. I like to read an entire book of the Bible through before focusing on a section. That’s harder to do if we’re talking Isaiah or Ezekiel, but for most of the New Testament it’s not that hard. It’s a bit like standing on a mountain looking across a forest before trying to hike through it. You can read rapidly and you don’t need to understand everything. That’s what your later study is for.
  6. Don’t be intimidated. Those of us who read the languages also make plenty of mistakes. We’re subject to all the same human biases. I thank the Lord for the opportunity I’ve had to learn and for the gift of reading the Bible in its original languages. But none of that work gave me the right to lord it over others or to demand that they accept my view because of my study.

Above all, I encourage you to study the scriptures for yourself and listen for God to speak to you. It is the privilege of everyone, not just of clergy or scholars. Many people have given their time and some have even given their lives so that you can have that Bible in your own language. Make the most of it!


A Note on Translations and Commentaries

A Note on Translations and Commentaries

CBC based on the NLT
Are we veiling the commentary with the translation used?

As I’ve been reading a commentary based on the New Living Translation (NLT), it has been interesting to note how the commentators differ from the readings of the translation on which the commentary is ostensibly based.

For example, as I finished reading the section on Numbers today (pp. 217-443), written by Dale A. Brueggemann, I noted two important translation notes.

  1. 35:12, in which the NLT refers to “relatives” rather than to the singular “goel” or avenger/redeemer, a translation that the commentator says “… may be misleading” (p. 426n). Certainly potentially misleading and may cause one to miss connecting thoughts built on this concept.
  2. 35:20, in which two points are noted. First, the NLT adds “a dangerous object” which is not in the Hebrew source, and also omits “while lying in wait,” which is in the Hebrew. The latter omission the commentator calls “this telling qualification” (p. 427n).

It’s not surprising that a commentator will work for the source text, of course, but it’s interesting to note. You’ll find this sort of disagreement in almost any commentary where the author is required to use a particular translation. Sometimes one could almost say “with the ___ version included” rather than saying it’s a commentary on that version.

With a dynamic equivalence translation, however, the odds are greater that there will be a certain tension between commentator and English text. This is not really surprising. Is it problematic? For many, this disagreement is an argument in favor of more formal equivalence translations.

It seems to me, however, that a formal equivalence translation, besides allowing for misunderstanding, such as when it verbally translates some idioms, also simply leaves greater room for one to imagine the translation agrees with one’s own approach, even when it’s simply a bit ambiguous.

It’s valuable for lay persons who read scripture to become aware of the fact that there are differences in the way translations are done. That’s why I frequently recommend reading from more than one translation. For example, a good counterpoint to the NLT might be the New Revised Standard Version (which also provides from more theological diversity in the translation committee) or the English Standard Version (with an evangelical team similar to that of the NLT).

The Potential Arrogance of Critiquing Bible Translations

The Potential Arrogance of Critiquing Bible Translations

When I wrote yesterday about the HCSB introduction and its use of the label “optimal equivalence” I fully intended to write another post complaining about that introduction. And I will mention the other issue briefly in this post. But something else was drawn to my attention in the meantime.

Let me lay a foundation. Some years ago I was chatting about a particular Bible passage with a young person who was also a new Christian. We were discussing the best rendering of a particular verse in the Old Testament and when I defended the version we were looking at he said, “Wouldn’t ____ (naming a well-known figure) know best, since he reads Hebrew?” Now I didn’t point out that I read Hebrew as well, which was, perhaps, relevant! But I did point out that the translation we were examining had been made by a committee of several people, each of whom read Hebrew, and then it was reviewed by editorial committees, many of whom read Hebrew. They should get some credit!

This is one thing that concerns me when I hear pastors or teachers say, “This is how this text should be translated …” or “What the Greek text really means is ….” I’ve commented before that you’re generally about to be misinformed when someone says that. But even when an expert makes a comment about just what a translation should be, I have concerns. (Note that I’ve never heard someone say “what the Greek text really means” who was well-qualified in the language. They just don’t talk that way.)

My concern even when the linguistic information to follow is accurate is that this suggests to people that our Bible translations are carelessly put together by people with less language skills than the average pastor. Anyone with a few minutes and a reasonable pastor’s library can correct the work of the Bible translation committee! That’s simply not accurate. It also feeds a concern amongst many Christians that they cannot truly get to the meaning of scripture because so much is lost in translation, and they don’t have the time or talent to acquire facility with the source languages.

People like these come up to me in church hallways all the time. They’ve heard me introduced as knowing Greek and Hebrew, usually in exaggerated terms. “Reads Greek as well as you read English,” is one line that’s been used. I don’t know where they get that. No, most English readers exceed my speed at reading Greek. My main claim to fame is that I have kept my Greek and Hebrew up. I read my devotions in the original languages, so my comprehension is better than average, but I have not kept abreast of all the best linguistic scholarship. Nonetheless, people ask me what’s the best Bible translation. Can they trust the translation they’re using? What wonderful insights can I give them quickly that are missing from their Bible version?

These kinds of questions result, I think, from a profound ignorance about how Bible translations are made, who makes them, and the general quality of the work. I don’t want to diminish the value of knowing biblical languages. I wouldn’t trade that training for anything. But the best use to make of such knowledge is to deepen your own understanding of the scriptures, and then express that deeper understanding in words that people in the pews can understand. You don’t have to tell them with every insight how wonderfully smart you are because you know the languages.

The fact is that we have a very good set of translation options. Most—nearly all, I think—significant errors in interpretation can be avoided simply by carefully studying your text in context from your translation, and then comparing a few other translations to check your work. Properly using the linguistic comments of a few commentaries will help you even more. (May I recommend a book that I publish, “In the Original Text It Says …”?)

My point here is that Bible translators, in general, are a skilled and dedicated group of people who have provided a number of excellent translations for the English-speaking world.

Barring a couple of really troubling efforts, such as Jack Blanco’s Clear Word, any critique I offer relates to details and general approach. I don’t intend to call a translation bad unless I say it outright, for example, The Clear Word is a bad translation, if it can even properly be called a translation. So when I publish a couple of posts criticizing something in the HCSB introduction, I’m not trying to tell you it’s a bad translation. It’s not. It’s quite good. As with most translations, I disagree with some renderings.

Here’s some key points I try to remember in order to avoid the potential pitfalls. How successful am I?

  • Most “errors” reported in a Bible translation are not errors. Yes, I mean that. I have found very few translations for which I cannot find the justification. I may not agree with that justification, but it exists. For example, the following are not errors: Choosing a different textual variant than I prefer, translating a Greek genitive as a different type than I think appropriate, finding the English translation in a different part of the semantic range of a word, choosing a different option for what a clause modifies, using English words that I think are less than well-known by people in the pews. Each of those things can be annoying. I’ll criticize it in the translation. But that simply means that I would make another choice than the translation committee did. In general, there were more of them with higher level degrees. Read my arguments and make your choice. Reserve the word “error” for an error of fact, such as citing that reading incorrectly, proposing a meaning for a word that has no foundation at all, or using an English word that doesn’t fall in the semantic range of the word in the source language. You’ll find that translation committees make very few errors under this latter definition.
  • Say “I disagree” or I would prefer” rather than “this is wrong” or “the right way to translate this is.” It’s not a matter of uncertainty, or not caring about the truth. It’s a matter of giving credit to qualified people who disagree.
  • Don’t preach about translation differences. Preach about the text and the message of the text. You can almost always do this well in English without trotting out your Greek and Hebrew knowledge.
  • Say some good things about Bible translators. I have some concerns about the priority placed on providing more and more English translations as opposed to providing for those who have no translation, or even don’t have the quality we have in English. But these people are doing good work for the Lord and your congregation should know about them and be thankful for them.
  • When the foundation of your difference is theological, make sure people know it. Sometimes our theology influences our translation. It could hardly be otherwise. That overlaps closely with thoroughly studying the context. If I understand Paul’s theology in one way, I am going to be influenced away from a linguistically sustainable translation that has him teaching something else. The theology matters.

But this last point leads me to my other complaint from the HCSB introduction. It’s under the heading “The gender language policy in Bible translation.”

Some people today ignore the Bible’s teachings on distinctive roles of men and women in family and church and have an agenda to eliminate those distinctions in everhy arena of life. These people have begun a program to engineer the removal of a perceived male bias in the English language. The targets of this program have been such traditional linguistic practices as the generic use of “man” or “men,” as well as “he,” “him,” and “his.”

I resemble that remark. Well, not very much. You see, I prefer “people” to “men,” “humankind” to “mankind,” and “brothers and sisters” rather than “brothers” or “brethren.” I’ve found, in surveying folks I teach, that there is a bit of a generation gap on these terms. Younger people tend to hear “men” as referring just to male persons. Older folks understand it generically. So my approach in translation is to translate as I think my audience understands the term.

I was quite amused by a former pastor of mine who complained bitterly about the use of “brothers and sisters” to translate the Greek adelphoi. In the NRSV this is done when the translators thought the referrent was a group including both genders. He preferred the older RSV because of this issue. Yet when he read from the RSV in church and came to “brothers” he’d look up and say, “That means you sisters as well!” He complained about the translation, but he knew about the problem with understanding, and his pastor’s gift kicked in to make sure nobody felt left out.

But having said that, I don’t think I’m ignoring the Bible’s teaching on “distinctive roles of men and women.” I disagree on where lines should be drawn. You may think I’m wrong, but I assure you my motivation is not to avoid the teaching of scripture. I simply read it differently.

Could we not simply say something like, “We believe that gender distinctions should be maintained in the language and have translated according to the Colorado Springs guidelines? (The introduction references these in the next paragraph.)

The issue of gender roles and gender languages is a legitimate topic of debate. What I’m suggesting here is that we don’t make this kind of issue, on either side, a matter of questioning one’s commitment to scripture or the quality of one’s work on Bible translation.

In my little charting program (MyBibleVersion.com) I rate translations on such issues. The point is that you can use this information to pick a translation that you are comfortable with. Find the NRSV annoying because of gender language? The ESV handles the issue differently while otherwise following a similar translation philosophy. And so on …

 

Tabulated Lists in Translation

Tabulated Lists in Translation

Elements of formatting and layout can have a significant impact on the use of a Bible translation and even the way in which it will be read and understood. Examples of formatting choices that may be very significant include paragraph divisions (not to mention the more historical, though unoriginal, chapter and verse divisions), section headings, and the often overlooked capitalization choices for divine names and titles.

In reading Numbers 13 the other day I noticed another case, which I doubt will impact interpretation very much, though I do think it impacts readability–tabulated data. In the NLT, Numbers 13:4 introduces the list of those chosen to spy the land of Canaan. Here NLT breaks out, puts headers of “Tribe” and “Leader” and presents the content in tabular form. This doubtless makes it easier for a modern reader to scan through the list.

I thought I’d check a few other translations that I had close at hand, just for fun. (This selection is neither carefully selected nor exhaustive. These are Bibles that are on my ready-reading shelves.) Providing a tabulated list are the NLT, JPS, NIV, and REB. Breaking these verses out into separate lines, while maintaining paragraph format otherwise are the NJB, CEV, HCSB, and NAB. I’m skipping any versions that do not include paragraphing, as each leader would automatically start on a new line due to verse breaks. Finally, both the NRSV and the ESV include the names in a paragraph, not broken onto separate lines. (I’m not certain if this might change by edition or if this part of formatting is protected.

This is doubtless a trivial point, but when all aspects of formatting and page layout are combined, the overall impact can be considerable. It is a good idea for the serious Bible student to be aware of the choices that are being made by translators.

 

Subjectively Evaluating, Well, Stuff

Subjectively Evaluating, Well, Stuff

J. K. Gayle links to me in a post regarding the notion of “canon.” There’s a good discussion going in the comments as well. Let me note in passing that the label “personal canon” grates on me a bit. Let me be clear that I’m not saying it’s bad; I’m referring to my reaction to it. I observe that it is often quite descriptive.

In the same post, he refers also to a canon of essays, and to the biblical canon(s), besides my sort of personal canon of Bible translations. I have dabbled in both of those areas myself, though I’m much less qualified (by virtue of reading) to comment on a canon of essays for educational reading than I am on the canon of scripture.

In fact, I have made a bit of a personal journey regarding the biblical (and extra-biblical) canon. I grew up Seventh-day Adventist, and the SDA church affirms 66 books of the Old and New Testaments as do most protestant organizations. But SDAs, in addition, grant authority to the writings of Ellen G. White.

Many SDAs will likely object to this characterization and make the claim that they base all their beliefs on the Bible, but in my own experience, I encountered many people who placed Ellen White’s writings above the Bible. If there was a dispute about the interpretation of a Bible passage, Ellen White’s interpretation settled it for them. In cases where Ellen White was clearly wrong, they would insist that what Ellen White said was, in fact, what the Bible meant.

In addition, in areas on which the Bible is silent, they would accept Ellen White’s word as final in many areas, just as much as if they had read it in the Bible. So in practice, Ellen White’s writings became part of the canon of scripture.

So why don’t Seventh-day Adventists want to admit just how they use the writings of Ellen White? It’s this matter of canon. People in other organizations who make lists don’t include Ellen White, and if you want to be included by those people, you can’t violate the list. Other groups depart from Christian orthodoxy more than do SDAs, but they also claim to adhere to the lists.

When I returned to a Christian denomination some years after I left Adventism, it was  United Methodist congregation. Now Methodists affirm the same 66 books that SDAs affirm, but in general their theology is much more friendly to the extra-canonical books, and I personally tend to use a canon that includes the apocrypha. For what it’s worth, this is much easier to do if you are not too much of a literalist.

So whether I like the sound of “personal canon” all that much, it applies to me in some ways.

Similarly, while not dealing with essays, I have previously argued (here and here) that lists of great literature may not be as great as their advocates suggest. So I’m on this subjectivity bandwagon in all three of those areas. All of which leads people to trot out phrases like “post-modern morass of subjectivity.” So do I see any standards at all?

Let me go back to Bible translations. I maintain that different translation approaches convey different information from the source to the receptor language, or my help to communicate different things between the author of the source and the reader of the receptor. So there are aspects of the source texts of the Bible I can get from a formal translation such as the NRSV, but at the same time there are things that this misses. There are other things I can get from the CEV or even from The Message.

Enter the term “paraphrase.” Now to translation theorists, “paraphrase” has a rather precise meaning, but in common discussions it has become a pejorative for translations that are considered too loose to even be considered real translations. Thus someone might say: “The Message is not a translation, it’s a paraphrase.” I’ve heard this sentence or its equivalent regarding any of the dynamic or functional equivalence translations, in which case the speaker defines “translation” as something like a formal equivalence translation.

In practice, again, what takes a translation across the line, or puts it beyond the pale, may be quite variable. For example, is converting measures to modern units translation, paraphrase, or commentary? If you think that’s an easy issue, consider the measurements for Ezekiel’s temple (start in Ezekiel 40) and consider how that passage would read with precisely converted measurements. In that case one would substitute conveying an accurate idea of the distances involved for potentially conveying the symbolic meaning of the numbers (if any), or the fact that the numbers are round numbers.

What I’m trying to illustrate here is that there is a range of different translation options, and while we might what to define what is and what is not translation, there is a range of activities that may be called translation, and what we’re doing is setting boundaries. There are things we can definitely say are not translation. For example, I am not now translating any text. I’ve seen efforts by Greek students that could not be regarded as translations.

It’s not that just anything is a translation. Rather, there are many different methods that fall into the loose category “translation” and many different needs that might be fulfilled by those various approaches.

I think we have way to great a tendency to make the claim, inadequately supported, that a certain translation is wrong and should be something else. I hear it from the pulpit quite often, and generally my opinion is that the claim is incorrect. Sometimes the translation is disputed, and there is good evidence, and good names, on both sides. In many cases, the preacher is just plain wrong. (If I might say what I have said many times before: If you don’t actually know Greek or Hebrew don’t base your sermon on making claims about how verses should be translated.)

But having used the phrase “just plain wrong” regarding a translation, you now know that I think a translation can be wrong. Frequently, however, the just plain wrong translation is actually an alternative with substantial support.

Being subjective about that which is subjective, such as people’s preferences or how people understand something, is just realistic. Trying to pretend objectivity when the topic is subjective just results in silliness. Or it could result in domination of others, as in the claim that everyone “ought” to use a particular Bible version, be that the KJV, ESV, or any other personal choice.

Literature is even more subjective. I loathe lists of books that I really must read in order to be truly literate or truly educated. In general, I’ve read quite a lot of the names on them, but that doesn’t make me like them any better. The most interesting thing about those lists is the good books that aren’t on them. That’s sort of like the things that aren’t conveyed by the favorite translation of the folks who like to advocate just one style.

Want my subjective advice? Read stuff from different lists. Use different lists. Read Bible books that aren’t in your personal or your church’s canon. Use the literature lists to find more stuff that interests you. And if you’re like me, and can’t stand certain pieces of “great” literature read something else.

It’s fun.

 

Preserving Literary Quality?

Preserving Literary Quality?

Bryon’s Weblog has a quote from Leland Ryken and some commentary, followed by some rather silly comments by an obvious troll.

What I found interesting here, however, was the idea of preserving the literary qualities of the Bible.  Let me reproduce the quote Bryon used:

“If your essentially literal translation is the RSV, the ESV, or the NKJV—in other words, if your essentially literal translation rides the literary coattails of the matchless KJV—you can trust it to preserve the literary qualities of the Bible that the KJV gave to the English-speaking world for nearly four centuries.” [I did different emphasis than Bryon–HN]

My hope here is that he means that the KJV passed on literary qualities of the Bible to the English speaking word, though I think he would still be wrong.  Since I don’t have the book I can’t check the context, but is it possible he’s praising literary qualities introduced by the KJV?  There was a time when I would have dismissed such an interpretation out of hand, but now I don’t know.

Let me assume the best, however.  Even so, there seems to be a very strong tendency to regard representing something like the literal forms of the source language in words in a new language as somehow reproducing those literary qualities.  But that is not correct.  A similar combination of grammatical forms in one language need not, and in fact likely does not, mean the same thing to a reader.  And if the reader doesn’t read or hear the form in the way it would have been read or heard in the source language, has it been passed on?

Creating some new literary quality that pleases certain academics or people of particular literary tastes is easy.  Actually producing a form that has a similar impact is much harder.  To support the value of literal translation over dynamic or functional, other than as a sort of crib sheet for the source language, requires more than finding badly done dynamic translations of which there are plenty.  It requires demonstrating that the nuances and literary features presented by the literal translation both occur in the source language, and are conveyed to the target audience by the literal translation.

Other than amongst the advocates of these literal versions, I don’t see that happening.  In fact, most of the people who “get” the literary nuances do so not because they were actually conveyed by the translation, but because that person knows enough of the source languages to recognize the construction and thereby reads that literary quality into the English.

Revisiting Acts 17:26

Revisiting Acts 17:26

Yesterday I blogged about the HCSB of Acts 17:26, and in particular the portion that reads something like “made of one ______”. The KJV reads “blood” which is one of the textual variants, while the HCSB says “man” which apparently does not occur in any of the ancient manuscripts.

Since I read these lectionary texts daily for two weeks, today I encountered it in a different version, this time the TNIV, surely not one that could be accused of supporting anything like “male representation”, and it also read “man” in this case.

I’m not at home right now, so just looking at the immediately available Bible versions, I see the following:

  • REB reads “from one stock”
  • NRSV reads “from one ancestor”
  • CEV reads “from one person”
  • ESV reads “from one man”
  • TEV reads “from one human being”
  • God’s Word (GW) reads “from one man”
  • ISV reads “from one man”

I think that’s enough to see that most of the versions break where I would expect, with the exception of the TNIV. I wonder what their justification is here. It seems to me that since a number of ancient scribes appear to have provided options, but none thought of “man” here, it is unlikely that ancient readers would have understood this to refer specifically to the one man as human ancestor.

I’d be interested in comments on the reasoning behind the use of “man” in this verse.

Acts 2:45 – A Short and Simple Lesson in Gender Accuracy

Acts 2:45 – A Short and Simple Lesson in Gender Accuracy

This passage in the KJV reads:

And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. [italics in original]

Note that the italicized “men” is an indication from the KJV translators that this was an addition of a word not reflected in the Greek. But the adjective here, “all (pasin)” is masculine in form (it could be neuter, but in context doubtless is not), and thus is translated “men” by the KJV.

As a side note, the use of italics to indicate added words is questionable, because since there are no words in the English text that are also in the Greek text, it is difficult to draw the line. What exactly is reflected in the Greek text, and what is added by the translators? Note the second word “man,” which is not italicized in my edition of the KJV. (Not all KJV editions are identical.) It is reflected in the Greek text just as little, or just as much, as is the first “men,” but it is not italicized. It is probably impossible for someone to be perfectly consistent on this point.

Now note a couple of modern versions that normally try to reflect the masculine in their translations, at least where those represent words like “adelfoi (brothers)” or “anthropos (human being).”

And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. (ESV)

and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. (NKJV)

I haven’t searched exhaustively, but I haven’t found any of the translations that avoid gender neutral language that reflect the masculine form here. And of course they should not. They should refer to its referent by the appropriate English form for referring to a referent that doubtlessly included both men and women. One is conveniently available in this case, “all” which is not specified as to gender in English. So we don’t hear about “male representation” in this case.

But I believe a similar argument could be made for dozens of cases at least of occurrences of “anthropos” or “adelfoi” in the Greek text where those terms refer to groups of mixed gender.

In general, this whole debate is more about modern culture and language usage, I suspect, than it is about reflecting the actual meaning of the Biblical writers.

Textual Emendation in Isaiah 49:7

Textual Emendation in Isaiah 49:7

The JPS Tanakh of Isaiah 49:7 reads, in part:

Thus said the LORD,
The Redeemer of Israel, his Holy One,
b-To the despised one,
To the abhorred nations,-b . . .

Note b reads: Meaning of Heb. uncertain. Emendation yields “Whose being is despised / Whose body is detested”; cf. 51.23.

I noticed this first when I read this in Hebrew, and found that I was not able to produce a translation that I found satisfactory. I remained in doubt. So I looked it up in a few translations. Note also that the reading adopted in the JPS text is itself an emendation.

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Nelson Study Bible Note Problems

Nelson Study Bible Note Problems

I’m not going to link to a specific edition on this, because there is no ISBN in the edition from which I’m working. It appears to be a match for this item on Amazon.com, and to be essentially the same notes as this item, though I cannot be absolutely certain. If you have a similar version, you can simply check your notes to see if they say the same thing as mine.

First, of course, I’m a bit prejudiced because I think the NKJV is one of the less useful translations. It is literal, but less readable than the ESV or the HCSB. I don’t call any of the major modern versions bad Bibles, but the NKJV is fairly low on my list.

What I want to comment on today, however, is the notes, part of Nelson’s Complete Study System. I used this Bible today for my lectionary reading. Each morning I read both the current week’s lectionary passages and the next week’s, thus giving me 14 opportunities to meditate on them. I use different Bible versions and also read the notes if I’m using an edition that has notes.

In my reading on Isaiah 42:1-9 today, I noticed this note in a “wordfocus” block:

. . .While ‘ebed can mean slave (Gen. 43:18), slavery in Israel was different than in most places in the ancient Middle East. Slavery was regulated by the Law of Moses, which prohibited indefinite slavery and required that slaves be freed on the Sabbath (seventh) year (Ex. 21:2)–and the Year of Jubilee–the fiftieth year (Lev. 25:25-28). . . .

Now there is certainly value in pointing out the slavery laws in Israel, and comparing them to those in the ancient near east. Notice, however, that if one reads on in Leviticus 25, there is something that is not mentioned in this little note, and it is significant.

44But as for your male slave or your female slave who are yours, from among the nations who are around you you may acquire both male slave and female slave. 45And also from among those who are [foreigners] living in your land and from those who are sojourning among you you may acquire them and from their clan that is with them which they bring forth in your land, and they will be your possession, 46and you may leave them to your sons after you to possess; they may enslave them permanently. Only with your brethren, the children of Israel, each person must not make his brother labor harshly.

The problem here is that the note implies that somehow Israel’s form of slavery was entirely benign, without mentioning the exception to the rule. Anyone from the nations around or from foreigners who were in their land could be bought and possessed permanently.

This is important because there are two ways of handling slavery passages in the Bible. The first is to try to deny the similarity between the slavery practices in the Bible and that in other countries or in more recent times, such as slavery in the United States. The second is to view the rules of slavery as a cultural accommodation, i.e. slavery was not good, but was not yet forbidden.

I take the second approach. My point about this note is that that the editors of these notes presumably take the opposite one, but that they gloss over a substantial element of the Israelite rules for slavery. This is one of the ways in which study notes can be deceptive, even unintentionally.

The second note comes on Psalm 40:1, in which it discusses the words translated “waited patiently” in the NKJV:

The Hebrew translated I waited patiently is literally “waiting I waited.” The emphasis of this phrase is not really on patience but on the fact that David waited solely on the Lord. . . .

I have to wonder where they got this interpretation. The phrase “waiting I waited” is simply not good English. It is formally equivalent to the Hebrew, but this is one of those cases where the literal translation does not suggest the right set of options to English ears. It is a Hebrew idiom of intensification. I WAITED! Now you may think of a few options, such as the intensity of the expectation, or the length of the wait, but the verbal structure itself does not specify who is waited on, or anything about how this person is the sole person on whom the Psalmist waits.

The context suggests that YHWH was the sole one in whom the Psalmist placed his hope, but the verb form suggests only the intensity of the experience. For modern American English, I don’t even like the word “waited” here, though the REB and the NRSV both use “waited patiently.” I would prefer the JPS Tanakh’s “I put my hope in the LORD.” They lose the intensification, but I think they catch the essence of the verb more clearly.

What I would hope to show from these examples is the danger of depending on notes, along with the value of looking at more than one translation. Looking at more than one set of notes is also a valuable hedge against incomplete or misleading notes.