Words of a Fether

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Translation and Interpretation, Pt. 2

This is a continuation of a series of articles purporting to analyze “the Bible Versions Debate”. The second part is presently in the form of a PDF and will be examined below.

Part Two

Introduction– This part begins of course with an appeal to arguments made in the first, namely, that only a word-for-word translation can be called ’scripture’. And while all would agree that interpreting a text depends first of all upon that text being accurate, the fact remains that in some instances word-for-word translations have more interpretation than some paraphrases. The question is not whether to interpret the words of the text, but to what degree, and the line between “accurate” and “not-accurate” is not clearly drawn. And keep in mind we are still talking about the text itself at this point, not on a commentary about it.

Anyone familiar with translation knows that the translator can insert a high degree of bias into a text without technically violating any rules. If the semantic range of a word is wide enough, the meaning of a phrase can turn completely on which choice the translator makes. This can also be accomplished by arbitrarily choosing where to break a sentence. For example, Eph. 5 begins a list of ways in which believers can serve each other and be “filled with the Spirit”. The last item in the list (which is much more apparent in the Greek) is vs. 21: submit to one another. This last item introduces a sub-list, made of sentence fragments that all point to vs. 21. But vs. 22 has no verb of its own; it gets it from 21. Yet English translations break the sentence completely and add a verb to the next. That is, they render it this way:

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit to your own husbands...

instead of how it is in the Greek:

... submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ, wives, to your own husbands...

See the huge difference in meaning? The first makes a break from the mutual submission of vs. 21, inserts a verb into 22, and thus makes the reader think that only wives are being told to submit. But if we leave the text alone, it tells us that what wives do to husbands is merely a subset of what all believers do to all other believers. And it’s all legitimate according to the rules of translation. Misleading, but technically permissible. So one still wonders what it is about word-for-word translations that make them inherently more “scriptural” than those that strive above all to get the meaning of the original across.

And while it is commendable for the author to ask the reader to be emotionally self-controlled in such studies, one must remember that bias is a universal human trait, even among translators. Offense over disagreement is unavoidable, with some being all too eager to assert their opinions as facts, and others as being so thin-skinned that the slightest disagreement is regarded as a hostile attack. If, as the author recommends, we are to treat this material as we would if in a court of law, let us use the full force of cross-examination upon it, for a solid argument fears no such scrutiny.

Background– The author admits that we have none of the original manuscripts of the Bible, and makes an excursion into the realm of textual criticism. But I see another false dilemma here: that there are still only two primary “families” of New Testament manuscripts (MS). More recent scholarship recognizes a much more complex history of transmission, and many alleged cases of omission are being shown to be cases of addition; that is, where some MS were thought to have left off a verse or two, it is now known that other MS added them instead. One’s preconceptions often have more to do with which MS they prefer than the actual science of textual criticism.

The author goes on to compare the two “families” on the basis of agreement (how alike they are) and quantity (how many there are). But again, these are only two of many factors to consider, and scholars still debate over which basic group is more likely to be faithful to the originals. I recommend The Origin of the Bible (edited by Philip Comfort) for a concise but fair overview of the matter of textual families. The consensus of the scholars cited therein differs from the claims of this author, in that the significance of discrepancies is not held to be nearly as fatal as he would like the reader to believe.

How did we get here?– In saying “we’ll see how this situation arose, and crucially, where the truth of the matter lies”, the author proposes to solve and settle that which has been unsolvable among scholars for generations. But his account of the history of MS transmission needs to be held up to peer review by acknowledged Greek scholars, such as those in the book I mentioned, so I will only highlight a few things.

Under Step 1... Burgon’s Side, he is quoted with the same opinion Mr. Peterson holds: that the usual rules of textual criticism can be set aside for the Bible, simply because it’s the Bible. Yet it is those very standards that show us the divine authorship of scripture, for no matter how powerful the microscope that has been set upon it, the integrity of the Bible as ancient literature is a witness all its own. We need not engage in “special pleading” to bolster this fact. One of the strongest apologetic planks upon which the Bible stands is how well it holds up under standard analysis, a fact which sets it apart among all religious texts and even many ancient classical works.

Now whether or not this one scholar Peterson seems to rely upon heavily is breaking any rules is not the point. Instead, I challenge the inference that non-Bible texts are handled any differently. What he seems to think is special treatment for the Bible, really isn’t special at all but standard. A competent scholar in modern times would not tamper with an ancient text or they’d quickly be exposed as a fraud by their peers, and as I will show later, an unbeliever is far less motivated to alter the Bible than a believer would be. There are also many more eyes on these studies today than ever before in history, but Peterson keeps trying to steer the reader to think that unbelieving scholars are not to be trusted; i.e., they are unprofessional.

It is clear by the time we get into Step 2 that Peterson has already decided that “Hort’s Side” was wrong because it viewed textual criticism as equally valid for scripture as for any other book. This, Peterson implies, is evidence of a low view of scripture. In the conclusion of this section he even quotes Stalin (“quantity has a quality all its own”) in support of his favorite source, Burgon.

Before moving on to step 3 Peterson asks the reader to “allow the possibility that your current position on this topic is mistaken to some extent”. This is quite bold, to say the least. Why say it unless one is already convinced his argument cannot be refuted? The reader will surely have noticed as I have that Peterson has quoted one person’s opinion extensively, and on a topic like this, such narrowness is not giving the reader a great deal of confidence in his claims.

The pages following go into more arguments based upon these two “families”, and under c) we are told that “omission is what enemies of God would mostly employ”. But I would again challenge this assertion. For example, the Roman Catholic Church would surely have seen to it that many portions of scripture which stand in judgment of some of their teachings be excised, but instead, they added the Apocrypha. Peterson is thus slanting the reader away from any text “family” that tends to have more omissions. And though I would of course defer to recognized scholarship to say for sure, I question the objectivity with which Peterson has been portraying Hort’s arguments.

Under Step 5 we are told in point a) that “no true Christian would alter the Bible”. I have challenged this claim many times (ref. again the Pharisee series); in fact, the likelihood of alteration is much greater for those at least professing the faith, since others would have no interest in it. Why would a Hindu for example try to alter Christian sacred writings? For what gain? Do Christians try to omit parts of the Quran? This charge is groundless on its face. This isn’t a matter of whether the early believers knew they were handling scripture, but whether they would be so bold as to alter any text at all for sinister reasons. (Of course Peterson would emphasize that he said true Christian, but here again we’re talking about fallible humans who can think they are doing a faithful service to God by, for example, adding descriptive phrases to tell us what was significant about the Pool of Salome.)

And if history tells us anything, it is that the people most respected as guarding a sacred text have the most opportunity and motivation to alter it to suit them, since they would be above suspicion. So the best-preserved ancient MS would thus be more likely to come from the “official” line, and thus carry a higher risk of deliberate tampering. As I document in the Pharisee articles here, even respected evangelicals have been caught altering the Greek text of the United Bible Societies to suit a preconceived bias.

But Peterson’s insinuation in c) that “this [Hort’s] rule is a dream for Satan and his Bible corrupters” smacks of typical “King James Only” abusive rhetoric. In a relatively brief span in this paper, Hort has been transformed from one of two representative viewpoints into an evil minion of the devil. This is un-emotional and dispassionate scholarship? Perhaps Mr. Peterson had this caustic remark in mind when he first cautioned the reader to hold back.

Finally, Peterson asks Where do these steps lead?, and the reader by this time has already figured it out. As I mentioned in my analysis of Part One, it matters not how elaborate the house that may be built upon a foundation of sand. But even in this secondary structure we see additional flaws and a determination to vilify the Hort approach as not only inferior but dastardly. He further smears all who disagree with his conclusions as “deliberate counterfeiting by people opposed to the truth”. And in following papers he promises to malign Hort even more.

Peterson’s last page goes on to judge the motives of “people who employ this line of reasoning” by asking, “How much blatant corruption to [sic] the very Word of God is acceptable?”. Then he adds, “I say the following with all humility... the key arguments in this article seem inescapable”, and that “only false brothers and those incapable of grasping the truth would reject the main conclusions in this document”.

Reader, I don’t know about you, but I must question the intentions of one so arrogant as to declare that any and all who disagree with him are “false” and “incapable of grasping truth”. Even the editor of the paper piles on, adding that “ I anticipate this material will provoke a heated reaction from the enemy and his minions”. Wow. And the final insult is in the little box at the end: “Dusty welcomes your comments”. I think not.

Seriously, now I’m done with this guy. I won’t read any more of his diatribes.

(Part One)

Posted 2010-07-08 under Bible, translation