Wednesday, August 04, 2004

RB15326-Rob #2: general considerations 

(15326) Robert Bowman [Wed Aug 4, 2004 10:21pm] (general considerations) [Rob #1]


Thank you for agreeing to this discussion and for your thoughtful response to my treatment of John 8:58 in _Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jesus Christ, and the Gospel of John_. I have also read your chapter on John 8:58 in your book _Truth in Translation_.

In this opening post, I will review how English translations handle John 8:58 and make some preliminary, general observations about translation and interpretation. In subsequent posts, I will respond piecemeal to the specific arguments that you have presented in both your chapter and your post.


In John 8:58, the apostle John quotes Jesus as saying the following:


Translators have usually rendered the above statement into English something like this:

“Before Abraham came into existence, I am.”

Such translations include the KJV and NKJV, the Douay-Rheims, the ASV and NASB, the RSV and NRSV, the NAB (New American Bible—Catholic), the NEB and REB, the NIV, the ESV (English Standard Version), the TEV, the WEB (World English Bible), the NET Bible, and versions by independent translators such as Darby, Phillips, Weymouth, Young, and many others. The vast majority of translations render John 8:58 essentially as shown above.

This rendering has precedent running throughout church history in many languages. The Latin Vulgate translates the same words, “antequam Abraham fieret ego sum.” Martin Luther’s German Bible reads, “Ehe denn Abraham ward, bin ich.”

We should note one variation among the above English versions: a few render EGW EIMI as “I AM” (notably the NAB and NKJV) or “I Am” (TEV). As you have pointed out, the capitalization expresses the translators’ judgment that Jesus’ words here echo some of the words of God in Exodus 3:14.

Two alternative translations occur in some English versions, both of which use a form of the past tense in translating EIMI into English. Some use the simple past tense:

“Before Abraham came into existence, I was.”

The Scholars Version (produced by the Jesus Seminar) takes this approach. Other versions adopting this or essentially the same rendering include the International English Version, the Simple English Bible (SEB), and a number of other versions by independent translators, including the Living Bible (LB), the Cotton Patch Version (CPV), and versions by Beck, Goodspeed, Schonfield, Williams, and others. In your chapter on John 8:58, you argued that the LB rendering (“I was in existence before Abraham was ever born!”) is the best.[1]

One version with wide circulation uses a progressive perfect (grammarians give the form various names):

“Before Abraham came into existence, I have been.”

The New World Translation (NWT) is the only influential English version adopting this rendering. The NASB had “I have been” as an alternate translation in the margin until 1973. A few scholars have defended this rendering over the years, including K. L. McKay,[2] whom you cited in your chapter.

Finally, a few versions adopt something of a compromise, using both present and past forms of the verb “to be” to render EIMI:

Contemporary English Version (CEV): “even before Abraham was, I was, and I am.”

New Living Version (NLV): “before Abraham was born, I was and am and always will be!”

The CEV combines the traditional rendering with the most common alternative rendering. The NLT goes a step further, expressing a state of everlasting existence by adding “and always will be.”

The preceding review of the different ways translators have rendered EIMI in John 8:58 is not exhaustive, but it is representative.


Before discussing the details of the exegesis of the verse (in subsequent posts), I will make some general observations regarding translation and interpretation and apply them to this case.

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. We may illustrate the principle using a text other than the Bible. In seeking to understand the Qur’an, for the most part we should take the mainstream of Islamic interpretation as our guide. If someone claims that Muslims have historically mistranslated or misunderstood a particular passage in the Qur’an, the burden of proof rests on him. If he can make the case, well and good; but the translator or interpreter who wants to break with the dominant view within the confessing community must fully acknowledge and bear that the burden of proof.

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. 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. 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. Again, a scholar from outside the confessing community might be able to make a case for a minority or outside view of the text’s meaning, and if so, well and good. The burden of proof, though, will be on that alternative position.

Based on this principle, I put the burden of proof on those who would depart from the traditional translation of John 8:58. The overwhelmingly dominant view of the text throughout church history understands EIMI as a present tense set in contrast to the aorist GENESQAI. The vast majority of English translators for four centuries have rendered EIMI in John 8:58 with the word “am.” In doing so, they are in agreement with the most influential and accepted versions in other languages as well. Those who advocate a different view bear the burden of proof.

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.

B. Types of Translations

The controversy over the translation of John 8:58 often is conducted as if there were only one possibly correct or legitimate way of translating any given text into a particular “receptor” language. This presupposition is not above challenge. Different versions of the Bible reflect different translation goals; it is possible that more than one rendering of a particular verse like John 8:58 might be sound given the goals of the version in which it appears.

Translations range across a kind of spectrum from the interlinear to the paraphrase, from the rigidly word-for-word approach to the free thought-for-thought approach. I see no reason to insist that only one translation methodology is valid. An interlinear has its place; a translation that is predominantly word-for-word (like the NASB) has its place; a translation that is largely thought-for-thought (like the NLT) has its place; and a translation that fits somewhere between these two approaches (like the NIV) also has its place.

Some versions put a premium on readability, even to the point of limiting the translation to a set number of vocabulary words or setting the grade level quite low. Those who produce such versions may be targeting the young, those with little education or limited reading ability, or readers whose native language is not English. A version with these goals may sacrifice nuances, allusions, and subtleties that other versions do not. These other versions may sacrifice some measure of ease of readability in the interest of conveying more of the fine details of the meaning that the original text expresses. Again, versions range across a spectrum; readability concerns dominate at one end of the spectrum while precision concerns dominate at the other end.





(I hope the above chart comes through all right!)

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. 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. The Simple English Bible epitomizes the extreme end of the spectrum in which ease of readability takes precedence. In their own more idiosyncratic ways, the same is true with respect to the Living Bible and the Cotton Patch Version. Schonfield’s translation and the Scholars Version both have the dual purpose of readability and “freshness”—giving them a heavy preference for unusual or alternative renderings of familiar biblical expressions and statements. (Both Schonfield and the Jesus Seminar also have theological reasons to favor such revisionist renderings.) The CEV and NLV, which clearly belong on the paraphrase end of the spectrum, offer more wordy renderings in an attempt to capture more of the import of Jesus’ statement. On the other hand, versions that range toward the other extreme end of the spectrum in which precision takes precedence almost uniformly render EGW EIMI as “I am.”

The NWT presents an unusual case. The front matter of the various editions of the NWT explains the goals and principles that readers are to understand guide the translation choices of the NWT. The NWT purports to adhere to an essentially word-for-word translation methodology. 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. Why is this? The answer lies in another aspect of the NWT approach to translation. The NWT front matter decries the religious bias, traditionalism, and pagan influence in all preceding versions and promises “a fresh translation” in which “the pure truth of God’s word may shine forth.”[5] Given such a stance, one expects the NWT to favor revisionist renderings, just as Schonfield’s translation and the Scholars Version do. Such is in fact often the case. The result is that the NWT is in some places woodenly literal and in other places decidedly not.

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.

Although a plurality of translation methodologies may be valid, we must still assess translations to determine if they have successfully carried out their stated goals according to a consistent methodology. Thus, the position I am espousing is a kind of “principled pluralism” in which different kinds of translations are valid and worthwhile, yet each translation is subject to evaluation and critique.

C. Translation and Interpretation

In your post, you discussed two different meanings of the word “interpretation.” In one sense, interpretation has to do with “getting at the meaning of a passage, within its linguistic, literary, and cultural context.” In this sense, you say that you would agree with me when I said in my book that “translation should reflect interpretation and be guided by it.”[6] In another sense, though, you say that interpretation means the task of fitting biblical passages “into larger Christological and theological doctrines.” In this sense, you say that translation must precede interpretation. You then comment, “In that meaning of interpretation, I cannot agree with Rob about interpretation dictating translation.”

Regrettably, you have misconstrued what I had written. First, 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. I certainly did not say, suggest, or mean that postbiblical theological systems should govern translation. Second, I spoke of interpretation *guiding* translation, not “dictating” it, as you put it. 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.

Still, translators can use different methods to fulfill that task, as I have already explained. Let me return to my spectrum of translation methodologies and translations, from the literal, word-for-word, precision-oriented extreme to the paraphrase, thought-for-thought, readability-oriented extreme. Translations on the “literal” end of the spectrum have as their purpose to minimize the role of the translators’ own understanding in the final product. They cannot eliminate all “interpretation” from their work, but they seek to minimize the extent to which their own interpretation comes across in the text. Where the text is arguably ambiguous, they seek to leave it so. At the other, “readability” end of the spectrum, translators seek to make the meaning of the text as clear and easy to grasp as possible, and so clear up possible ambiguities by rendering the text in light of their interpretive judgments. In this respect, “interpretation” justifiably plays a larger role in versions designed to be easy to read than in the more conventional “literal” translations.

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.

In subsequent posts, I will address the specific issues pertaining to the translation of John 8:58.


[1] Jason BeDuhn, _Truth in Translation: Accuracy and Bias in English Translations of the New Testament_ (University Press of America, 2003), 111.

[2] Kenneth L. McKay, “‘I Am’ in John’s Gospel,” _ExpositoryTimes_ 107 (1996): 302-303.

[3] BeDuhn, _Truth in Translation_, 111-12.

[3] _New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures_, 2d ed. (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1951), 9-10 (hereafter NWTCGS); _New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures: With References_ (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1984), 7 (hereafter NWT [1984]); _The Kingdom Interlinear Translation of the Greek Scriptures_ (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1985), 9-10 (hereafter KIT).

[4] NWTCGS, 5-7; KIT, 7-8.

[5] Robert M. Bowman, Jr., _Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jesus Christ, and the Gospel of John_ (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), 90.

[6] BeDuhn, _Truth in Translation_, 111.

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