Residual claimancy in the tribal era

Here’s an interesting bit of social organizational wisdom reflected in Numbers 5:5-8 (RSV):

5 And the Lord said to Moses, 6 “Say to the people of Israel, When a man or woman commits any of the sins that men commit by breaking faith with the Lord, and that person is guilty, 7 he shall confess his sin which he has committed; and he shall make full restitution for his wrong, adding a fifth to it, and giving it to him to whom he did the wrong. 8 But if the man has no kinsman to whom restitution may be made for the wrong, the restitution for wrong shall go to the Lord for the priest, in addition to the ram of atonement with which atonement is made for him.

The most common form of keeping order for most of human history was to have tribal or clan groups avenge infractions of a known code of conduct done to their members. It’s more famous in the breach than in the observance, but the threat of having a small war over infractions was incentive not to commit them in the first place, making antisocial behavior less likely on the margin.

This threat is (obviously) less effective when the offended party has no kin to avenge him. This is the wisdom embodied in the passage: ensuring there will always be somebody interested in seeing the penalty exacted. As a bonus this system protects the most vulnerable, i.e. turns the juiciest targets into the least appealing.

Few would argue this system is ideal, true, but the ancients had far fewer feasible alternatives than we have. Given their constraints, this is a clever feature.

Excerpts from BeDuhn’s Truth in Translation

Here are a few passages I found interesting in Jason BeDuhn’s Truth in Translation. Overall I recommend it highly, especially for Christians but also for people who aren’t Christian but who are still interested in what the Bible says, e.g. people interested in the Western intellectual tradition, of which the Bible is an essential text.

I. The fundamental problem of Biblical translation:

Since the passages of the Bible can be fit together to form many different interpretations and theologies, we must be aware of how easy it is to reverse the process, and read those interpretations and theologies back into the individual passages. It is perfectly legitimate for those various interpretations to be made and maintained on the basis of a biblical text that does not preclude them. What is not legitimate is changing the Bible so that it agrees with only one interpretation, that is, changing it from the basis of interpretation into a product of interpretation. (pp. 61-62)

II. Sola scriptura has pros and cons:

Although a few Protestant biblical scholars participated in the [New American Bible] translation, it is largely the work of Catholic scholars and received the sanction of the Catholic church. One might assume a distinctly Catholic bias in the finished product. But ideologically the Catholic church is under less pressure to find all of its doctrines in the Bible than is the case with Protestant denominations, and this fact, combined with the vast resources of Catholic biblical scholarship, seems to have worked to the NAB’s advantage. (p. 34)

III. Hebrews 1:8 is rendered in the King James Version as “But unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: a sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of thy kingdom.” Many other translations follow this pattern. BeDuhn says it should rightly be translated with “…God is your throne, for ever and ever…” These two footnotes were interesting:

1. It should be noted that the author of Hebrews is familiar with, and does use, vocative forms of nouns, such as kurie, “O Lord,” just two verses later, in 1:10. So he or she could have used a vocative form of “God” in 1:8 to make direct address perfectly clear, if that is what was intended.

2. Rolf Furuli, in his book The Role of Theology and Bais in Bible Translation, reaches the same conclusion: “Thus, in this passage the theology of the translator is the decisive factor in the translation” (Furuli, page 47). (p. 101)

Note: “he or she” in footnote 1 is not mere courtesy. There is some inconclusive scholarly speculation that the unnamed author of the Letter to the Hebrews was a woman.

IV. The most controversial chapter of Truth in Translation concerns John 1:1, rendered in the KJV as “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” BeDuhn credits the New World Translation (the official translation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses) as the only one under review to translate it accurately: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.” [Emphasis is mine.] I’m not a Greek scholar so I am not equipped to judge the grammatical part of his argument, but his case is reasonable overall.

If John had wanted to say “the Word was God,” as so many English translations have it, he could have very easily done so by simply adding the definite article “the” (ho) to the word “god” (theos), making it “the god” and therefore “God.” He could simply have written ho logos ēn ho theos (word-for-word: “the word was the god”), or ho logos ho theos ēn (word-for-word: “the word the god was”). But he didn’t. If John didn’t, why do the translators?

The culprit appears to be the King James translators. As I said before, these translators were much more familiar and comfortable with their Latin Vulgate than they were with the Greek New Testament. They were used to understanding passages based on reading them in Latin, and this worked its way into their reading of the same passages in Greek. Latin has no articles, either definite or indefinite. So the definite noun “God” and the indefinite noun “god” look precisely the same in Latin, and in John 1:1-2 one would see three occurrences of what appeared to be the same word, rather than the two distinct forms used in Greek. Whether a Latin noun is definite or indefinite is determined solely by context, and that means it is open to interpretation. The interpretation of John 1:1-2 that is now found in most English translations was well entrenched in the thinking of the King James translators based on a millennium of reading only the Latin, and overpowered their close attention to the more subtle wording of the Greek. After the fact — after the King James translation was the dominant version and etched in the minds of English-speaking Bible readers — various arguments were put forward to support the KJV translation of John 1:1c as “the Word was God,” and to justify its repetition in more recent, and presumably more accurate translations. But none of these arguments withstands close scrutiny. (pp. 115-116)

BeDuhn later writes that he thinks the best translation would be “…and the Word was divine.” Perhaps this phrase will find its way onto the page at some point. Another sample from the same section:

The translators of the KJV, NRSV, NIV, NAB, NASB, AB, TEV, and LB all approached the text of John 1:1 already believing certain things about the Word, certain creedal simplifications of John’s characterization of the Word, and made sure that the translation came out in accordance with their beliefs. Their bias was strengthened by the cultural dominance of the familiar KJV translation which, ringing in their ears, caused them to see “God” where John was speaking more subtly of “a god” or “a divine being.” Ironically, some of these same scholars are quick to charge the NW translation with “doctrinal bias” for translating the verse literally, free of KJV influence, following the most obvious sense of the Greek. It may very well be that the NW translators came to the task of translating John 1:1 with as much bias as the other translators did. It just so happens that their bias corresponds in this case to a more accurate translation of the Greek. (pp. 124-125)

One last sample from this chapter, and possibly the only time in the book where BeDuhn waxes interpretive:

When one says “the Word was divine” a qualitative statement is being made, as Harner suggests. The Word has the character appropriate to a divine being, in other words, it is assigned to the god category. Of course, once you make the move of saying the Word belongs to that categeory, you have to count up how many gods Christians are willing to have, and start to do some philosophical hair-splitting about what exactly you mean by “god.” As Christians chewed on this problem in the decades and centuries after John, some of them developed the idea of the Trinity, and you can see how a line can be drawn from John 1:1 to the later Trinity explanation as a logical development. But John himself has not formulated a Trinity concept in his gospel. Instead, he uses more fluid, ambiguous, mystical language of oneness, without letting himself get held down to technical definitions. (p. 130)

V. In the chapter on “the Holy Spirit”, which he cautions should several times be translated “a holy spirit”, he writes:

…Some things that would be handled with “which” in English, because they are not persons, are referred to with the equivalent of “who/whom” in Greek because the nouns that name them are either “masculine” or “feminine.” But even though the ‘personal” category is larger in Greek than in English, the “Holy Spirit” is referred to be a “neuter” noun in Greek. Consequently, it is never spoken of with personal pronouns in Greek. It is a “which,” not a “who.” It is an “it,” not a “he.”

This is a case, then, where the importance of the principle of following the primary, ordinary, generally recognized meaning of the Greek when translating becomes clear. To take a word that everywhere else would be translated “which” or “that,” and arbitrarily change it to “who” or “whom” when it happens to be used of “the holy spirit,” is a kind of special pleading. In other words, it is a biased way to translate. And because this arbitrary change cannot be justified linguistically, it is also inaccurate. (p. 140)

And further:

…Since the KJV program followed by most modern translations capitalizes “Spirit” only when a reference to the “Holy Spirit” is understood, any appearch of a capitalized “Spirit” implies “Holy Spirit.” An issue of accuracy, therefore, is whether the original Greek suggests that the “Holy Spirit” is meant when the word “spirit” appears. The decision to capitalize “Spirit” when the references is thought to be to the “Holy Spirit” gives license to the biased insertion of the “Holy Spirit” into dozens of passages of the Bible where it does not belong. (pp. 143-144)

VI. After commending the New World Translation and the New American Bible as the most accurate of the translations compared:

I have pondered why these two translations, of all those considered, turned out to be the least biased. … [A]t the risk of greatly oversimplifying things, I think one common element the two denominations behind these translations share is their freedom from what I call the Protestant’s Burden. By coining this phrase, I don’t mean to be critical of Protestantism. … I use this expression simply to make an observation about one aspect of Protestantism that puts added pressure on translators from its ranks.

You see, Protestant forms of Christianity, following the motto of sola scriptura, insist that all legitimate Christian beliefs (and practices) must be found in, or at least based on, the Bible. That’s a very clear and admirable principle. The problem is that Protestant Christianity was not born in a historical vacuum, and does not go back directly to the time that the Bible was written. Protestantism was and is a reformation of an already fully developed form of Christianity: Catholicism. When the Protestant Reformation occurred just five hundred years ago, it did not reinvent Christianity from scratch, but carried over many of the doctrines that had developed within Catholicism over the course of the previous thousand years and more. In this sense, one might argue that the Protestant Reformation is incomplete, that it did not fully realize the high ideals that were set for it.

For the doctrines that Protestantism inherited to be considered true, they had to be found in the Bible. And precisely because they were considered true already, there was and is tremendous pressure to read those truths back into the Bible, whether or not they are actually there. Translation and interpretation are seen as working hand in hand, and as practically indistinguishable, because Protestant Christians don’t like to imagine themselves building too much beyond what the Bible spells out for itself. So even if most if not all of the ideas and concepts held by modern Protestant Christians can be found, at least implied, somewhere in the Bible, there is a pressure (conscious or unconscious) to build up those ideas and concepts within the biblical text, to paraphrase or expand on what the Bible does say in the direction of what modern readers want and need it to say. (pp. 163-164)

Catholicism avoids this pressure by accepting church tradition as legitimate, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses avoid this pressure by representing a more radical break from previous traditions, allowing them to take “a fresh approach to the text, with far less presumption than that found in many of the Protestant translations” (p. 165) There is, of course, their use of “Jehovah” 237 times in the New Testament—where the Greek has it zero times—but that at least is jarringly obvious to the reader.

VII. Only at the end does BeDuhn explain why he chose the passages he did:

I could only consider a small number of samples in this book. Another set of samples might yield some different configuration of results. But the selection of passages has not been arbitrary. It has been driven mostly by an idea of where one is most likely to find bias, namely, those passages which are frequently cited as having great theological importance, the verses that are claimed as key foundations for the commitments of belief held by the very people making the translations. Choosing precisely those passages where theology has most at stake might seem deliberately provocative and controversial. But that is exactly where bias is most likely to interfere with translation. Biblical passages that make statements about the nature and character of Jesus or the Holy Spirit are much more likely to have beliefs read into them than are the passages that mention what Jesus and his disciples had for lunch. (p. 166)