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Thursday, August 05, 2004

JB15327-Jas #2: general considerations 

(15327) Jason BeDuhn [Thu Aug 5, 2004 1:31 pm ] (Re: John 8:58 - general considerations) [Jason #2]

Rob, Thank you for your thoughtful reply. You have wisely chosen the most foundational issues to address first. This allows our readers to see the differences in our respective approaches, which will in turn make what we say down the road more understandable.


You begin with

I. REVIEW OF ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS OF JOHN 8:58

This is related to your subsequent principles about burdens of proof. Leaving the latter aside for the moment, I want to explain why a numeration of how "translators have usually rendered" a biblical passage is not a valid argument. It falsely takes the form of a scientific principle of duplicated results. I say "falsely" because the history of English translation of the Bible is not a scientifically controlled experiment. As you well know, translators for the last four hundred years are influenced by two forces: (1) the dominant theological tradition, and (2) the dominant literary (in this case, KJV) tradition. While in theory all translators go back to the original and translate it afresh, in reality some of them (such as the author of the Living Bible) do not do even that, and the rest of them are deeply influenced both by the theological systems they carry in their heads and by the pressure of public expectation, especially in the case of favorite passages, such as John 8:58. One or both of these influences have been at work throughout the history of English Bible translation. Therefore there is no basis to conclude that what the majority prefer is more valid as a translation. On the other hand, it is true that, in both public and academic opinion, the burden of proof is always on the position that goes against the comfortable consensus. That is just the reality of argumentation. Nevertheless, the "burden of proof" argument has far too often become an all-too-easy escape, since one can always say the other has not made his or her case "enough" to satisfy us.

My point about the translations you cite in your very thorough survey is that they are not normal English syntax. We will no doubt have a separate discussion about whether the present tense is theologically important here. But leaving that aside for the moment, and looking at these various versions just as English sentences, they are not English sentences. That's true of the NW as well as of almost all of the others. The syntax is fractured, and the expected complementarity of verbal tenses is disrupted. It's ironic, isn't it, that in my book I am forced to conclude that the Living Bible is the best translation of this verse. That version as a whole is a travesty. The author didn't even consult the original Greek! What he did in this verse, however, is look at existing English translations and conclude, correctly, that it's bad English, and he simply completed the translation into correct English of what other translations had left incomplete. So I suppose my question to you here is, do you consider these versions to provide good English sentences, employing standard English syntax? If not, then they shouldn't be acceptable and we should get to work figuring out the best way to convey what we think the Greek means in English.

Next you discuss your view of

A. The Burden of Proof

In matters of the proper translation and interpretation of a sacred text, I put the burden of proof on those who advocate a minority or outside view in the history of the religion that regards that text as sacred.

After giving an example using the Qur'an within the Islamic tradition,
you go on

Moreover, the burden of proof increases if the scholar is not working as a member of that confessing community and yet advocates a view of the text at variance with the dominant understanding of that community.

As before, I acknowledge that the burden of proof, whether it be in matters of translation or science or politics, always lies with the novel or minority position against the majority or consensus. This is a fact of life, rather than a principle. Of course, every revolution of thought began as a novel or minority position. Christianity itself had the burden of proof against both Judaism and larger Greco-Roman religion. Protestantism had (and has, considering its minority position within world Christianity) the burden of proof against Catholicism. But you must excuse me, I am too much of a historian of religion to accept what you say as a principle of truth. I know too much of the political and social vicissitudes of history to assume that the consensus has it right. And I also know too well the difference of motive and purpose between the confessing community that, by definition, is motivated to advocate and defend already established truth, and the academic community that, at least in principle, is dedicated to constantly probing and testing established truth. This marks, I believe, a fundamental difference in our
perspectives. You add

After all, the scholars within the religious community of faith that views the text as sacred understand that text "from the inside." They tend to share the worldview of the sacred text more than do those outside the community. They generally have a richer and more thoroughly grounded understanding of the text than those who do not regard it as the primary text of their way of life.

The question here is, "from the inside" of what? Do they exist inside a world wholly constructed by the text, or do they understand the text from inside of a developed theological tradition that colors their reading of the text? Of course I understand your point about sharing the worldview of the text. I know the public sometimes views academics as attacking and tearing down the text, and so hardly someone to be accepted easily as a valid interpreter of it. Sometimes that view of academics is justified, and other times it is not. Of course, the majority of academics belong to a community of faith, and that membership is not the essential question, but rather how honestly and self-conscously they employ their academic training and skills. I cannot agree that someone by the mere fact of being within a religious community of faith (you say "the" community of faith, which is probably an issue we would best leave aside here) in the 21st century necessarily has a "richer and more thoroughly grounded understanding of the text," or even that they are in closer contact with its worldview. As an academic, I read the text in the original language, I familiarize myself with the whole body of early Christian interpretation, I study the surrounding culture to understand the worldview within which the Bible communicates. That puts me closer to the text, with a richer understanding of its worldview, than any modern person who reads a derivative translation and has no familiarity with the society and culture and language within which the Bible was created. Any scholar, whether working overtly within or without a modern community of faith, would have these same academic advantages. I presume you mean those scholars who wear their faith on their sleeve, as part of their public role as interpreter of the text. The question to be asked of such people is always whether their commitment to a tradition of faith supercedes any facts they may chance upon in their research, whether in practice their faith is so vulnerable that it must obscure facts to defend itself. I have frankly found many self-professed "scholars" acting as authorities in this field who would be more accurately designated apologists.

I often find in my students the view you express that

Thus, we may generally expect Muslims to understand the Qur'an more accurately and fully than non-Muslims; and we may likewise expect Mormons to understand the Mormon scriptures more accurately than non-Mormons.

That sounds good, but my experience is that most people, of any faith, are poor students of it. You should stand in my shoes sometime, in front of a class made up mostly of modern American Christians, reviewing the basic concepts of Christianity. Not to mention my Bible classes. They have grown up in Christian families, go to church every week . . . and haven't got a clue what I'm talking about. It's very, very sad. But suppose you mean the experts within a faith, that they necessarily have a better understanding of part of their tradition than any outsider. In that case, you are ignoring the historical development of religion, the fact that a community of faith represents the current culmination of hundreds or thousands of years of trends, influences, orthodoxies, responses to competition, etc. The myth that religions are timeless and changeless is just that – a myth. A contemporary authority within a community of faith is an excellent source on that community of faith as it exists today: what it reflects on a daily basis as the chief tenets of faith, the main practices, how it views itself, its history, its sacred scripture. But to what degree that reflects what the community or any part of it was 500, 1000, or 2000 years ago is a matter to be investigated, not presumed. Of course communities of faith have the ideal of reflecting the faith as it was first created and intended. But the conditioning of the modern world, and the baggage of generations of transformation within the faith, separates them from being able to fully realize this ideal. Just as it is possible for a scholar of 7th century Arabia to fully immerse him or herself in the culture, society, expectations and assumptions of that time more fully than most modern adherents of Islam, and in this way grasp essential things about what the Qur'an says that are harder for the average believer to grasp, so too with Christianity and the Bible. The biblical scholar, even from the "outside," understands many things that the typical minister does not about the sacred text.

You conclude

Based on this principle, I put the burden of proof on those who would depart from the traditional translation of John 8:58.

Accepted. But if the "traditional translation" is not a translation at all, because it is not English? There are traditional editions of Shakespeare, copied over and over through the centuries, where certain lines of speech are gibberish. Are we wrong to correct them when we have better, albeit minority witnesses to the correct reading? Likewise in the text of the Bible: it is widely recognized how inferior the vast majority of manuscripts are to a handful of good ones. Do we ignore that? And my next question to you is, what exactly is at stake in preserving either the present tense or the broken syntax of this sentence? What is lost that is preciouse to you by translating it as "I have been since before Abraham was born"?

You next go on to say

Moreover, the burden of proof increases dramatically the more dogmatic the stance taken in favor of the alternate rendering and against the traditional one. It is one thing to suggest an alternate rendering; it is quite another to assert that the traditional rendering is flat wrong, religiously biased, or poor scholarship. It is possible such claims are true, but those making them bear an enormous burden of proof.

I point this out, of course, because you have made such claims. For example, in your chapter on John 8:58, you write: "It is natural to assume that the majority are correct and the odd ones at fault. It is only when translations are checked against the original Greek, as they should be, that a fair assessment can be made, and the initial assumption can be seen to be wrong."[3] One would think from such a statement that nearly all of the English translators of the Bible for the past four centuries have failed to check the original Greek, or that they were such poor or biased translators that they checked the Greek and still managed to get it wrong. I believe such a claim bears a heavy burden of proof indeed.

You are not being fair, here, Rob. Read the quote again, and in context, please. I am arguing against the public ASSUMPTION that simply counting up the versions that have one reading against those that have another reading identifies who is right and who is wrong. And I am arguing for checking the original Greek as the more valid test of accuracy. There are times, then, when one finds that the majority of versions are in the wrong (because there are relations of interdependence that generate a plethora of versions that copy each other's poor readings). I am talking about the PUBLIC's habit of just comparing English translations, and accepting the reading found in most of them against the minority, not the work of translators. The fact remains, however, that in the examples I discuss in my book, the translators soemtimes, as you say, "still managed to get it wrong." Please don't blame the messenger. Do you accept the NIV, even though in many verses it diverges from the KJV? Is it possible that the KJV translators got some things wrong? Would it be an indictment of the KJV translators to say so? We have new translations all the time because we can improve on the work of the past. I don't think you really object to that in principle, or that you consider it rude to correct the work of earlier translators.

You then take up

B. Types of Translations

This is very valid to cover, as I have also in my book, and I'm sure it is useful to our readers. You are quite right that for any given verse there may be a range of possible translations depending on the type of rendering intended. And I say this repeatedly in my book. I am always careful to talk about the range of possible translation, and the "better" translation when other renderings are still possible. I would only criticize your inclusion of "interlinear" as a kind of translation. An interlinear rendering is not a translation, it is a translation aid or a study aid. You cannot read an interlinear sequentially as a meaningful English rendering of a passage. The point I have made about most translations of John 8:58 is that they have, in effect, left things at the stage of the interlinear, and not completed the translation process. What they do cannot even be called literal translation. I think you and I agree that the only reason for the broken syntax -- having "I am" at the end of the sentence – is the mistaken notion that Jesus is quoting Exodus. So at least can we agree that the main subject and verb should stand at the beginning of any English translation ("I am before Abraham was born") before we go on to debate the proper rendering of the tense of the main verb?

You conclude

If I am right to take this "pluralistic" approach to translation methodology, then it is entirely possible to conclude that one rendering of John 8:58 is appropriate in some versions while another rendering is appropriate in other versions.

You and I completely agree on this "pluralistic" approach. For me it applies as well when there is more than one possible meaning of a verse, not just more than one possible way to render the same meaning.

You then add

It turns out that there is some empirical evidence to support the contention that differences in translation methodology are responsible, at least to a considerable extent, for the different ways in which English versions render John 8:58.

You discuss the goal of readability shaping some of the more paraphrastic versions. My point about John 8:58 is that most renderings of it are UNREADABLE. They are not English. We would not accept such a sentence from students in their papers, but would correct it. Now many of these same versions range far and wide on your scale from literal to paraphrase. Suddenly in 8:58 they drop below the spectrum into the interlinear range. Why here? Because of the mistaken notion that Jesus is quoting Exodus 3:14, and so the separation of the "I am" to the end of the sentence and the awkward resort to the present tense, to bolster the notion that it is such a quote. Since you agree with me that this interpretation of the verse is invalid, you understand with me the bias at work in the traditional translation, and you should be able to see how without that bias the verse doesn't work as an English sentence. The NW is also defective in this verse because, while rendering tense complementarity correctly, it has followed the KJV tradition in putting the main clause at the end of the sentence. You say about this

The translators state that the NWT is "as literal as possible" giving "an almost word-for-word statement of the original." They expressly deny producing a paraphrase and warn readers that they have rendered many Hebrew and Greek idioms literally. They also state that when possible they have rendered each "major word" in the Bible with the same English word in all of its occurrences.[4] Given the stated translation methodology of the NWT, one might expect the NWT to translate John 8:58 in the same way that essentially all other versions do that lean toward a similar word-for-word methodology. Yet, it does not.

Your expectation that adhering to its stated principles would mean the NWT would render John 8:58 in the same way as other versions is a straw man. The main verb in the verse is the Greek be-verb, and the NWT has translated it with the English be-verb, thus following its stated "word-for-word" and consistent-rendering-of-a-word principles ("have been" is every bit as much the same English verb as "am"). Moreover, by translating it as "have been," the NWT has correctly adhered to the Greek idiom, the so-called PPA, employed here. The NWT frequently renders formally present-tense verbs in the past tense, either as PPAs or as historical presents, and this is correct to do. This is actually literal translation, because the Greek verb means what the English verb means exactly, even though Greek and English use different forms of the verb to achieve that identical meaning. Your argument here is, I think, a bit misleading to our readers, because it implies that "am" is the only word-for-word and idiomatic rendering of eimi, which is simply false. The NWT does not claim to be an interlinear, and nothing it does in this verse can be called paraphrase.

So when you say

Arguably, the rendering "I have been" in John 8:58 is an example of a verse in which the translators' antipathy toward the traditional Christian understanding of the text took precedence over their stated methodology of a literal, word-for-word rendering that reflects the idiom of the original.

I would have to say that's an argument you should now, in light of my comments above, withdraw. There may or may not have been "antipathy toward the traditional Christian understanding of the text" in the mind of the NW translators, but you cannot prove this with the accurate translation they produced. As I say in my book, you can only start to suggest bias in a translation when there is some anomaly, some visible inaccuracy that is otherwise unaccountable. The NW rendering of John 8:58 has only the anomaly of broken syntax (the main clause at the end of the sentence), which it shares with almost all the other versions, and that's just a residue of the English translation tradition of the verse as far as I can see. It's a weakness in the translation, just as having "am" is a weakness in the other translations. In itself, either weakness does not cry out "bias." It could just be lame translating. But when there is inconsistency (do the translations usually follow Greek word order in violation of standard English? do the translations usually render PPAs as simple presents in violation of standard English?), and the weaknesses begin to pile up in a single verse, and there are other clues (such as capitalizing "I Am") to the translators' thinking, then one starts to have grounds for suspecting bias.

Finally, you address

C. Translation and Interpretation

Where you state

When I said that "translation should reflect interpretation and be guided by it," I was referring to interpretation in your first sense-what is often called exegesis. Where I think you may have misunderstood me here is that I include the biblical writers' own "theological" context as part of what interpreters must consider in interpreting their meanings. You spoke of "linguistic, literary, and cultural context"; well, one must also include the biblical writers' intellectual context, including their theological context.

Thank you for clarifying what you mean. I absolutely agree with you. So, now, where do we go to look for "the biblical writers' intellectual context"? It is not to be found in 21st century Christianity, because we cannot assume that the latter fulfills its aspirations to perfectly emulate its 1st century form. It is to be found in the time and place of the writer. I did not list intellectual and theological context separately in my book because these are entirely subsumed in the "linguistic, literary, and cultural context" as regards our access to them. That is, we turn first to the biblical writers' own writings to tell us what they were thinking and how they expressed it. The meaning of their terms will become more clear to us as we reference Greek linguistics, literary traditions, and cultural references, as well as considering the other works produced at the time by other writers within the general community of which the individual author was a part. So I suppose where I want to draw a caution in where you may or may not be going with this, is that we cannot assume we know the mind or worldview of the writer independently of what the writer says. The writer must supply the reference points for us to have any confidence of knowing what he is thinking. And these are reference points within the world of two thousand years ago, not of our own time and thinking. I don't assume you disagree.

You then add

My point was that the task of translation cannot be conducted adequately without paying attention to the larger questions of what the biblical authors *meant* by what they wrote. If we conclude that John meant one thing, it would be irresponsible to translate his text in such a way as to say something else. The translator is not merely a parsing machine; his task is to grasp the meaning of the text and then convey that meaning in his own language.

Again, we agree completely. You cannot translate each word, or each sentence, as an isolated fragment with no reference to the full literary context within which it has meaning. And to not be "merely a parsing machine" in John 8:58, a translator must recognize that ego eimi does not stand by itself, in isolation from the rest of the sentence, that the rest of the sentence provides the necessary information to render the meaning of the sentence as a whole, including ego eimi as a part of it, into a meaningful English sentence. The majority of English translations precisely fail to do that.

You conclude this part by saying

That a discussion of translation is incomplete without also discussing the "theological" significance of the text is evident from your own chapter on John 8:58. At one point you state, "It is Jesus' claim to be superior to Abraham, and to have a superhuman longevity, not a claim to a divine self-designation, that enrages his audience."[7] You may be right, but in any case you are doing here what all translators must do: You are considering the implications of the statement in its broader context as an integral part of the task of deciding on the best translation. That's all I was advocating.

I understand now what you mean. In each chapter of my book, which is strictly speaking on translation alone, I stop at some point to explain the sentence in context, as to its meaning within the surrounding verses, to show how the accurate translation makes sense. This is part of that "burden of proof" you mention, to support the claim that a certain translation is the one that works best to convey what the author says in the original Greek. You are quite right that such interpretation, or exegesis, is part of the research and translation process, to check for oneself that one's results actually work in their context. You can be perfectly satisfied that the Greek of an isolated clause reads, "Run faster, James." But if you then read it in context and find, "And tasting the wine, Nathaniel exlaimed, 'Run faster, James,'" you know you probably have a problem in your translation. So we agree that this is part of the work.

I look forward to your further discussion.

best wishes,

Jason B.


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