Thursday, April 20, 2006

bible translation

I spent some time tonight writing a response to a Friend on our World Gathering of Young Friends listserve, so I figured I might as well kill two birds with one stone (if I was John Woolman...heh heh) and post that here as well.

A question was asked about Galatians 2:15-16, which a Friend heard says in the Greek "faith OF Jesus Christ" rather than "faith IN Jesus Christ," which might seem to have the connotation of us needing to have faith of the callibre of Jesus' rather than faith in him as part of God. So here's my response, although it's just a preliminary analysis of the text.

Galatians 2 (Cherice's literal translation)
15 We ourselves [are] Jews and not out of ritually unclean nations [usually translated "Gentiles"]. 16 But we knew that a person is not justified/vindicated/acquitted out of works of a law if not through faith of Jesus Christ, and we believed in Christ Jesus, so that we were justified/acquitted/vindicated out of faith of Christ and not out of works of a law. 17 But if [when] we desired to be justified/acquitted/vindicated in Christ we were found also [to be] ritually unclean ones, then is Christ an agent/intermediary to sins? Certainly not!

There are several forms of the word usually translated "sinners." This one generally means "those who are ritually unclean," often associated with their occupation because they're required to touch unclean things and therefore become unclean (shepherds, tax collectors), those born with physical defects or who have diseases, women who are pregnant or on their period, and of course anyone who's not a full-blood Jew. The term in NT times generally refers to "outsiders," those who are not accepted by the Jewish elite community because of their designation as "unclean."

Likewise, the term translated "Gentiles" literally means "the nations," and it's where we get our word "ethnic." It's a specific kind of ritually unclean person--one that can never become clean short of conversion, circumcision, etc. The English of this makes it sound really elitist and self-righteous, but I think what the author means is that he and those he's writing to were born into Judaism, so although they can follow the law, following the law is not enough for them to be "justified."

The word "justified" is difficult because we don't use it anymore in common language, so it's been relegated to the position of an antiquated religious term along with "sanctified" and "unction"[except for Peggy!] and stuff like that. I think the Greek word basically means "to be made righteous." The word as a noun means "righteous." We can't be made right by following laws alone.

Then the Jesus f/Friend is right: it does say "through faith of Jesus Christ." But that's not all it says, because the very next line says "and we believed in Christ Jesus." The word for "in" here has a feeling of motion--we moved into faith in Christ, and then in verse 17 the word for "in" is a stationary word. We are fixed in our faith in Christ. The conditional clause (if-then) in 17 is more like "since now we're fixed in faith in Christ, if we're found to be ritually unclean, does that mean Christ is helping us sin? Of course not!" So he's actually making a case for not having to worry about who's "clean" and "unclean" anymore. But it's clear from the context that the author meant that people were to have faith IN Christ, not just faith like that of Christ.

But I do find it interesting to look at that phrasing and think about how watered down we (as Christians) sometimes make it--we just have to believe IN Christ, and that's enough. But this passage is also saying to have faith LIKE Christ.

One more thing: where it says "we were justified out of faith of Christ and not out of works of a law," the "out of" means "from the source of." So what it's basically saying here is that we are made right "from the source of" what made Jesus righteous, rather than from the source of the man-made law. We're not just clean because we follow some rules, but we're clean (whole, transformed, being perfected) "from of the source" that Christ was walking in, which is God. Pretty cool, eh?

This is a really interesting passage, pretty much summing up Christian belief.

It can be difficult to know who to believe when it comes to Bible translation, because things can be completely altered just because of someone's translation choices. Even as I'm learning Greek it's hard because the ways we're taught to translate various words can change the meaning, but that's the definition we're given. So unless we all want to become Greek scholars and learn all the nuances of the language, even having an introductory understanding of Greek doesn't always help a whole lot because I'm using someone else's definitions. (But if you're looking for a good English translation I suggest the New Revised Standard Version, because they try to make it as literal as possible, leaving ambiguity when it's in the text and trying not to make theological choices for the reader.)

But I think that's the beauty of it. There IS ambiguity. There IS room to think and wonder and explore. Greek is pretty ambiguous sometimes, and so we get to wonder, did the author mean A or B, or both? Plus when it was written down punctuation and spaces between words hadn't been invented yet so we're not even sure that we have that right. So we build off what scholars over the years have thought.

Even with all the ambiguity, I trust God to speak through this text. It has its flaws, and sometimes it's frustrating because we don't know what is culture and what is meant for all, and it's hard to understand. But I learned a lot just by looking at this passage for a half hour or so, and I think it helped me grow in my faith because of it. So thanks, Friend, for bringing up this topic, and giving me a chance to show how nerdy I am! =)


Paul said...

I probably won't ever take the high road Greek classes, even though I did take a Greek-English intro. class years back, very basic, so what I do with confusing passages is pull out a lot of different translations and do some comparing. I usually find a sense of the passage that brings clarity for me. What do you think of this approach? Strengths? Weaknesses?

cherice said...

I think that's a great way of going about it, Paul. It also works pretty well to use an amplified version, which uses several words to translate ones that don't come across in English with only one word.

With a very basic knowledge of Greek I think it's even helpful to use an interlinear (Greek with word-for-word English right below it), because then you can see what it's saying more literally. Then if there's a word you want to know more about you could look it up in a Greek dictionary.

The problem with any translation is that it's really hard to get a full sense of what's going on from one language into another language. It's even harder because we're almost 2000 years distant from when these works were written, and we have the same amount of years of other people's translations telling us what they think it means. The long history of translations is good in some ways--we can look at the earlier ones and get more of a feel for what the original meant. But it's also difficult in that there is a tendency to translate based on one's theology, so subsequent translations and theologies end up being based on the earlier ones whether they agree (or even know there's a theological bias there) or not.

So no translation is perfect, we all have our biases, but it's good to look at several translations so you can at least understand what it might be that is being changed based on a certain group's theological bent.

Anonymous said...

Semantics are confounding. A lot of the time I feel sad about the cultural historical background to it so that it couldn't have been ancient Chinese the language in which it all developed, that would have shown how void is to see beyond the concept of what it is said and it would also spare us all the unnecessary translations which are many past the two line: original, most accurate edition of original, otherwise it's void theology we are given and not real content but deconstruction(i.e. "analysis") reading the original translation and most literal translation of the tao te ching shows the greater quality of abstraction, to include more than one's thoughts in reading what according to itself should be an account of events and revelations is erratic, like having someone read for you and have this person stopping every so often to tell you what thoughts he has about the text, what metaphores are brought to mind and what he or she personally thinks it actually means. The colour green is greener as seen than as shared in agreeing that the word for it is green, only one can perceive colors and they don't rely on agreement or group uniformity, that's why the blind can't say green without lying, it's the same with the bible.
A person who reads 300 translations of the old testament is very bellow in thinking to someone who learns hebrew to read the tanakh in the closest to original form.

Mark Wutka said...

There was some discussion about this on the b-greek list last year, and I am basically parroting that info here, I am still learning it myself. For people that don't know Greek, there is really no "in" or "of" word in the text, but the word "faith" is in the genitive form. The Greek does support translating it as either "faith of" or "faith in", it is a matter for the translator to determine what the author most likely meant.

I used to think that the more literal a translation was, the better it was, or the more accurate it was. Since I have been reading, however, I have begun to understand some of the downsides of a more literal translation. For example, if you are translating something from German and read that something "has neither hand nor foot", do you say exactly that, or do you relay the underlying meaning that "it makes no sense"?

There is more to reading a text than just understanding the vocabulary and syntax. I'm not sure I completely agree with Anonymous' assertion that someone who reads 300 translations of the old testament is below someone who learns hebrew to read the tanakh. If you want to really understand what that text meant to the original readers, you also need to learn the cultural background, and all the euphemisms and idioms. A couple of different English translations coupled with some commentaries might give you a better understanding than just learning Hebrew and/or Greek alone. I'm not arguing against learning those languages, I'm just saying that knowing Greek or Hebrew doesn't guarantee you have a better understanding.

Mark Wutka said...

Just to correct one thing I said, in the question of whether it is faith in Jesus or of Jesus I said that the word for "faith" was in the genitive form. It is, but it has no bearing on the "in vs. of" discussion. It is that name Jesus is in the genitive that makes "of Jesus" a possible interpretation.