Of Strawmen and Bible Translations

Most people who interact with the biblical texts may or may not know anything about the matter of translation, especially Americans. 

Most Americans only speak one language (American English) and because of that simple fact there seems to be a tendency towards resistance in matters of language or texts translated from other languages. 

Even if an American has studied a foreign language in school, most of that study has been around vocabulary and simple phrases. It’s a rare segment of those who go on to actually study a language and learn it to be able to at least have a coherent conversation with a native speaker. 

I have taken some rather advanced classes in German, and I can read German with some difficulty; however I still have trouble actually speaking it. Further, as I have engaged in biblical studies, specifically in studying the original languages of the texts, I have had to learn the grammatical rules of the language. One thing that has really popped as a matter of studying these languages, whether its a modern language like German or an ancient language like the original Hebrew and koine Greek of the Bible, there is no one-to-one correspondence in any language.

Let me explain.

While you can learn vocabulary, for example the English word “dog” is “hund” in German, it’s where we get the English word “hound” in reference to several particular breeds of dogs. So there is a measure of correspondence. The problem is that mere vocabulary is not the language. The language is worked out in its use of grammar and syntax. Context then becomes the basis for understanding a language. It’s in understanding the use of nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions, cases, voice, number, and gender (German, like Hebrew and Greek, is a gendered language) and their relationship to one another determines how words are to be understood. English, among all of the world’s language, is a fairly simple language when compared to other languages, in regard to its rules of grammar. We speak in a specific order (subject, verb, modifying prepositional phrase). Other languages often do not have the constraints that we do as when it comes to order, or the order can serve to modify specific elements of the statement. 

A further example of this is that in writing a language—like this blog post—in English, we use indicators like ALL CAPS, bold, italics, underline, or a COMBINATION of them. Other languages, especially ancient, handwritten languages, often expressed these emphases through word order. 

Another fact that we miss is that English is not a gendered language. Most languages use gender, often expressed as masculine, feminine, and neuter, to aid in subject-verb agreement. The best example of this is seen in the German language where the word for a young girl (madchen) is a gendered neuter, so that all verbs and modifiers have to be inflected with the neuter associated suffixes or prefixes in order for the sentence to make sense to a German in German. What makes this confusing for most English speaking people is that gendered languages often have no correlation to the physical attributes of the subject in the sentence. For example a geranium is gendered as feminine in German, I don’t think that English speakers would confuse a geranium with a woman.

Why is is all this important? 

Well…Keith Giles is at it again. In this post over at Patheos titled, “Why Certain Words Are Left Out Of Our English Bibles” Keith plays on the ignorance of his audience in order to further his aims.

Keith begins,

“The more I study the Bible, the more concerned I am with how translators have altered the texts to serve their own agendas. 

Lets’ be clear: he’s coming out of the gates with both barrels blazing. This is a serious accusation that requires evidence, hard evidence. Most Christians, the average church-goer who isn’t really concerned with matters of translation, who just wants to read their Bible and be content, would read that first line and ask, “what?!”

This is not to say that people haven’t done this, with the best examples being the New World Translation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the King James Bible used by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons). Both of these “translations” have used ambiguity or deliberate obfuscation to forward and support their theology. But let’s examine Keith’s accusations and measure his evidence, which he offers in writing,

“For example: For several hundred years Bible translators obscured the true identity of Junia in the New Testament because Paul called Junia “outstanding among the Apostles” and they werenʼt happy with the fact that Junia was a female. So, to hide this from the masses, the Scriptures were used to give Junia a sex change and turn her into a male. 

Is this true though?

Well, no. And let’s also consider that his first example is a case where a word is left out; rather it’s a question of interpretation in translating another language. Let me explain. 

The passage in question is Romans 16:7 where Paul, in his closing of his epistle to the Romans is sending greetings and recommendations to various people. The problem of translating this passage, as Joseph Fitzmeyer notes in Romans: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary,

Paul writes Iounian, which could be the [accusative singular] of the [feminine] name Iounía, –as, “Junia,” or the [accusative singular] of the [masculine] name Iouniâs, , “Junias.” MS P46 and some versions (Vg, Bohairic, Ethiopic) read instead Ioulian, “Julia” (influenced by 16:15?).

A brief excursus in the Faithlife Study Bible (FSB) notes on the passage,

“The spelling of “Junia” in Greek (Iounian) can point to either a man or a woman. The writer would indicate which gender was appropriate by adding an accent mark. However, the earliest [New Testament] manuscripts were written in a Greek script that did not include accents. (emphasis added)

So, one simply must ask the question, given the scholarly information, were those instances where the name is translated in the masculine form because the translators “…werenʼt happy with the fact that Junia was a female…,” thereby attributing malice to the translators, or because the translators were simply following the common grammar rules of the language (per the Fitzmeyer quote), which tended toward ambiguity which would simply mean that the translators were ignorant? I prefer to consider the latter to be the case rather than the former, although the FSB does note that there are a number of later manuscripts that accent the name as being feminine, but the earliest manuscripts are simply ambiguous from our historical perspective. It would seem that Keith would rather assert and attribute malice than actually prove his case. This seems to be simple dishonesty playing on ignorance. Let’s keep in mind that a thinking person could potentially make an argument here that a later scribe accented the text to make Junias—a man—into a woman, given the grammatical and textual evidence. 

Keith turns his attention to 1 Timothy 3:11, where he writes,

“Most English translations render the sentence like this: 

“Even so must their wives be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things.” 

Written this way, the passage appears to be providing a guideline for how the wife of the Deacon should behave. However, the word here is not the usual word for “wife” in the Greek. Itʼs actually the word for “women” which means the passage is more accurately translated as: 

In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything. 

Well, is this true?

The problem is with the statement, “the word here is not the usual word for “wife” in the Greek.” (emphasis added)

In order to substantiate this claim, Keith should have first given his audience the “usual” word for “wife” in Greek, then done a word search in the New Testament text for contextual uses for this word, so that he could prove his claim. If one uses LOGOS or Accordance Bible software, this is a rather simple task which I did, which is how I know that Keith is simply being dishonest with his audience, playing on their ignorance.

Of the occurrences in the English Standard Bible of the translated word as “wife” is the Greek word γυνή (gynē). This is the exact same word in the passage in question. So, what is Keith doing here? 

First, he’s choosing one translation (NIV) over another (KJV) and saying that the other is wrong. Guess what, a King James Onliest would tell him that he’s wrong simply because he’s using the New International Version. So, this is not an argument against the rightness or wrongness of the translation.

Second, Keith’s silence in making his accusation is telling. He’s simply arguing by assertion.

Third, he’s confusing application of a text with interpretation (ie translation) of the text. These are related, but different things. If he wants to argue about how the text should be interpreted in order to make application, he needs to make that argument using textual evidence and the context of the passage, not by asserting his preferred translation.

Another passage where Keith makes a similar contention is in regard to 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, where he writes,

“Another example of how certain words were either left out of our Bibles or changed to serve an agenda, is found in 1 Cor. 14:34-35 where Paul appears to say that “women should be silent in the church” and that “women should not be allowed to speak as the Law says” and worse yet, that “it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.” 

Now, I want to be fair to Keith, because he does say something worth considering, but we need to pause on this passage for a moment because, as is noted in the Augsburg commentary, there is a technical issue with this passage: namely a textual issue. Some manuscripts place vv34-35 later in the chapter after v40. And since this is a verse where there is serious, large scale textual variation, it should be considered carefully else we misinterpret and then misapply it. 

The Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: 1 Corinthians gives 3 possible solutions to the problem of the passage.

First, that it is an interpolation, a wholesale insertion by a copyist, noting that “Intrinsic evidence weighs heavily in making this textual judgment,” because, “…these instructions…interrupt the flow of Paul’s thought in dealing with [the issue] of tongues and prophesy.”(1) The problem with this is that it is simply a “viable solution” to a disagreeable passage.(2) Second, It this could be a Corinthian quotation, similar to what is found in chapter 7, meant to bar women from speaking, and that Paul is merely being sarcastic, repudiating them with “two rhetorical questions”.(3) The problem with such and explanation is that this breaks with the theme of the letter where, “Paul seeks to curb the Corinthian’s unruly and wayward expressions of freedom rather than encourage them.”(4) The third is out of concern for accord in married relationships. Paul is concerned with social appropriateness of certain discussions.(5) As such, this would be simply a matter of the particular culture and meant to engender respect between spouses in their historical and cultural context, noting that, “Juvenal…castigates the intellectual woman who shows up her husband or other men at a dinner party,” as such, “Paul does not contradict what he says in 11:5 but imposes silence in matters other than praying and prophesying.”(6)

The Augsburg Commentary adds some light to this being a specifc, cultural issue by citation of a Jewish source: “One Jewish writer states that v. 34 is understood properly when the frequent inappropriate disturbance in the women’s section of orthodox synagogues is kept in mind, that Paul is thus referring to women who disturb the worship by talking, evidently to glean information regarding the liturgical events.”(7)

But, back to Keith, to give credit where credit is due, he writes,

“Whatʼs more, Paul appears to appeal to the Law for instruction – something he spends a lot of time arguing against in his other letters – and even more concerning is the fact that the Law NEVER says that “women should not be allowed to speak”. 

This is something that is noted in several commentaries as to the authenticity in regard to whether this is an interpolation is the use of the term. But then there’s a problem with Keith’s claim here because Paul doesn’t argue against the law, I mean he cites it a number of times in support of his positions, for example in 1 Corinthians 9:9 where he cites Deuteronomy 25:4. So the question is, what “law” is he referring to because the vagueness of the term it is difficult to, “…determine whether or not Paul (or the scribe) has in mind the “Law of Moses” or a single passage from it, the Pentateuch, or the Old Testament as a whole.”(8) Keith goes on,

“So, what is actually going on here is that Paul is quoting something the Corinthians had written to him in a previous letter (which Paul alludes to in this same epistle), and is responding negatively to their statements – not expressing his own views. 

Again, it depends on where the text appears in the passage and what is being referred to by “the Law.”  Contextually, vv34-35 could fit after v40, as it appears in some manuscripts. The question is how should we understand the text? Again, Keith makes assertions that he simply doesn’t back up. He  quotes Talmudic traditions, traditions that arise after the time of Paul. Keith is trying to argue that this is an interpolation when the fact is that there’s no evidence that it is in the manuscript tradition of 1 Corinthians, rather a question as to where it fits in the text.

Keith then goes to Philippians 2:10-11, which he quotes from the King James, and writes,

“Now, many of us are well-acquainted with this verse of scripture. But what most of us donʼt know – because our English translations leave something out – is that the word “gladly” is omitted from the passage. 

But, is this true? Well, yes and no.

Alright, let’s look at a reverse interlinear of the underlying Greek text.

Philippians text

Having highlighted the word in question, let’s look it up in the Greek lexicon.

philippians lexicon

Now, while “gladly confess” is a potential translation of the verb exomologeo in v11, Moises Silva, in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on Philippians notes, “One additional problem needs to be considered in connection with the twofold purpose clause in verses 10-11, namely, whether the homage spoken of is voluntary or involuntary.”(9) This is important because of Keith’s take, which is,

‘[If] you leave off the “joyful” and “open” part of the statement, you make it easier to suggest that God will eventually burn some of His children in the Lake of Fire for all eternity. Otherwise, you have to wrestle with the fact that this verse says that one day EVERY knee will bow, and EVERY tongue will JOYFULLY confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” and when paired with Paulʼs other statement in Romans 10:9 that all who confess Jesus as Lord will be saved, you have quite a problem on your hands if you hope to drive home your doctrine of Eternal Suffering. 

Well, since we already know what Keith’s position is on substitutionary atonement, we now know that he doesn’t believe in eternal conscious punishment either, much less that anyone will be punished for their open rebellion against God. The question is, does the text support his claim? 

No.

Why is his claim not supported? For one thing, if Paul wanted to reinforce the verb, especially with the idea that Keith insists on, he had an adverb freely available to him: ἡδέως (hedeos). Further, since this is a case of the repurposing of an Old Testament text, the original context of the citation must be taken into consideration in order to find the appropriate application. 

Back to Silva,

“Calvin rightly comments that the devils, for example, “are not, and never will be subject of their own accord and by cheerful submission; but Paul is not speaking here of voluntary obedience.”…[These] Statements that point to the eschatological purposes of God are always characterized by firmness and certainty. Of particular importance here is Paul’s affirmation that all powers will be abolished and all things subjected to Christ.(10)

Silva notes that Paul seems to lifting a portion of the phrase from Isaiah 45:23 in the Septuagint. Indeed the “confession” could be one that is “gladly” made, indeed there will be some who bow the knee out of gladness, because of what Christ has done to redeem them but there will be some who make the confession as defeated enemies who will not be making that confession gladly. But more interesting, if one goes to Isaiah, what those who bow will confess,

Only in the Lord, it shall be said of me, 

are righteousness and strength; 

to him shall come and be ashamed 

all who were incensed against him. 

In the Lord all the offspring of Israel 

shall be justified and shall glory. (Isaiah 45:24-25,ESV)

Hmmm, those who were “incensed against him” will “be ashamed”, while the “offspring of Israel” shall “glory” or “boast”, or “praise”. Looks like two different groups are in view. This is worth considering since the phrase “all who were incensed against him” (45:24), is linked to an earlier passage, 41:11, where those who are opposed to God’s servant “perish”.

Keith here is simply picking the definition he wants and not considering the context.

The question is, what’s the point? Thankfully, Keith lays it out for us in black and white:

“[The] point I want to make is that we cannot simply open our English Bibles and point to a verse and say “The Bible clearly says…” because our Bibles are not as honest or as accurate as we might want them to be. 

Well, for that matter, neither is Keith. And it’s simply not true. Our English translations are as accurate as they can possibly be when one factor’s in matters such as manuscript tradition and philosophy of translation. 

Are our English translations perfect? No, but no translation is perfect. Every translation is dependent on a number of factors including, but not limited to:

  1. The particular manuscript tradition being rendered. Not all manuscript traditions are equal.
  2. The method of translation: word-for-word (formal equivalence) or thought-for-thought (dynamic equivalence). These are not the same methods and do different things, as discussed, here. Further, I go into deeper discussion in this lecture.

https://youtu.be/4S-EO3mpsVo

This brings is full circle back to Keith’s opening statement,

“The more I study the Bible, the more concerned I am with how translators have altered the texts to serve their own agendas.

Now, what I hope that I’ve demonstrated is that Keith has his own agenda. He arbitrarily picked one translation over another because it fits his aims. He has to editorialize in order to hide the fact that he’s trying to critique a textual variant, which he is either ignorant of or being dishonest about. Lastly, he simply argues by authority, making assertions that he doesn’t back up with evidence from either textual scholarship or logical argumentation, what a word should be translated as based upon a potential definition of a word. 

Keith is not a translator. Keith shows no ability to interact with the original language beyond the lexical source.  Keith is one of two things: either a blatant false teacher or woefully, pitifully ignorant person.

Notes

  1. David E. Garland. 1 Corinthians: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Baker Academic Publishing. Grand Rapids, MI. 2003. p.1086
  2. Ibid. p.1087
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid. p.1088
  5. Ibid. p.1089
  6. Ibid. p.1089-90
  7. Harrisville, Roy A. I Corinthians:Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament. Augsburg Publishing House. Minneapolis, MN. 1987. p. 242
  8. Ibid.
  9. Moisés Silva. Philippians: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Baker Academic Publishing. Grand Rapids, MI. 2005. p.212
  10. Ibid. p.212-3

 

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