Category Archives: Language/Translation

The Limits of Freedom: A Short Post for International Septuagint Day 2020

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Scholars agree that some books are literal translations and others are paraphrases, much like the Living Bible. Given that Greek manuscripts are the earliest witnesses to the Hebrew Old Testament, a more literal manuscript can be helpful for textual criticism. The non-literal translations, however, may shed light on the theology, philosophy, or religious practices of the Jewish faith in the late Second Temple period.

Ryan Reeves, “What is the Septuagint?.”

The above-quoted statement is common in popular literature on the Septuagint (LXX). The idea is usually undergirded by a presupposition regarding the texts that the LXX translators had to work with, in many cases assuming something like the Masoretic Text (MT) as the exemplar. Take note of Reeves’ comment on the helpfulness of “a more literal manuscript” for textual criticism while the alleged “non-literal translations” shed light on things other than the text.

But what if these non-literal translations weren’t as non-literal as one might initially suspect? Could they then be helpful for textual criticism? In other words, rather than assuming that a supposedly non-literal rendering is an example of the translator assuming a certain freedom in their translation, why not ask if there might be another text serving as the foundation for their translation?

After referencing Rudolf Kittel’s comment that the “LXX is not a real translation but a theological commentary,” Natalio Fernández Marcos assures us that:

Once we get into the actual text, as a general rule the translation of the Pentateuch is faithful to the Hebrew text, more than was thought at the beginning of the century. And in the light of recent discov­eries at Qumran, the great divergences in the historical books between the LXX and the Hebrew have to be interpreted more as a witness of the pluralism of the Hebrew text before its consonantal fixation at the synod of Yamnia, c. 100 CE, than as the result of the exeget­ical preferences of the translators.

Natalio Fernández Marcos, The Septuagint in Context: Introduction to the Greek Versions of the Bible (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 23.

Laying aside the reference to the mythical council of Jamnia, this is an important point to note. We cannot presuppose that the LXX translators had something like the MT before them, nor can we assume that they were all working with the same text. We have to allow for divergent Vorlagen and then assess how strict or free they were in their translations.

James Barr has an instructive essay called “The Typology of Literalism in Ancient Biblical Translations” in which he expounds on what I’d call the limits of freedom. Around the same time that Marcos’ volume appeared in its original Spanish edition, Barr said:

Thus, in general, where new evidence has become available it has on the whole increased our conviction that, at least in many books, the LXX worked fairly literally and elements in their rendering stand for something that was actually there, rather than being free invention or fancy.

James Barr, “The Typology of Literalism in Ancient Biblical Translations,” (MSU XV, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1979), 286.

Barr follows these comments with a quick reference to Ben Sira, which contains a number of “Hebrew variants semantically grossly diverse from one another” (286). So where one thinks that the LXX translator is offering a free rendering of one variant, it is quite possible, even likely, that they are offering a literal rendering of another. But what of a case where there is no known textual variant? Barr uses Sir 5.1 as an example. The Hebrew reads:

אל תשען על חילך ואל תאמר יש לאל ידי

The LXX translates this to say:

Μὴ ἔπεχε ἐπὶ τοῖς χρήμασίν σου
καὶ μὴ εἴπῃς Αὐτάρκη μοί ἐστιν.

Barr says that this appears to be an “excellent free rendering” before asking whether or not it was possible that the final word in the Hebrew text was read as יד rather than ידי (see also W. Bacher, “The Hebrew Text of Ben Sira,” JQR 12/2 [1900], 283) in which case the LXX translator would have been translating quite literally. It is also noteworthy that the Syriac translation of Ben Sira understood the Hebrew in the same way (see W. Th. Van Peursen, Language and Interpretation in the Syriac Text of Ben Sira: A Comparative Linguistic and Literary Study [SSVBTCC 16; Leiden: Brill, 2007], 29, 42), which could indicate that the Syriac version is dependent on the LXX, or that the translators of the LXX and Syriac version had the same or a similar Hebrew text that has been lost, or finally “polygenesis,” that is, each translator read the Hebrew text in the same way independently of one another as Van Peursen suggests.

The point here is that it’s not always necessarily the case that the translator is offering a paraphrase of the source text even if there is no known variant to explain the difference. In this example, the translation itself could be thought to serve as a variant reading of sorts, which gives the reader pause to think about how this reading could have arisen. In this case it’s not difficult to imagine our translator missing the final י in the line. It is, after all, the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet.

So in closing, I want to say two things: First, the LXX translators should be given more credit than they sometimes are for the translations they provide. They’re not like those who produced the Targumim nor are they the Eugene Petersons of their day. There was a limit to the freedom they could exhibit. Second, Barr’s essay is brilliant and says much more than I’ve hinted at in this short post. It should be required reading for anyone working with the LXX.

Happy International Septuagint Day!

B”H

Ad Fontes

I recently purchased Brian E. Daley’s God Visible: Patristic Christology Reconsidered and while awaiting the physical copy have begun reading the early parts of the book in Kindle. Early on Daley mentions how he “critically edited, as [his] doctoral thesis ,the works of the sixth-century apologist for the Christology of Chalcedon, Leontius of Byzantium.” I have Daley’s critical edition of the Complete Works of Leontius of Byzantium in the Oxford Early Christian Texts series, which contains a Greek text, critical apparatus, translation on facing page, and an in-depth introduction not to mention some helpful back matter.

What strikes me is that this immensely helpful volume began as a doctoral thesis. It makes me wonder why there aren’t more doctoral theses being produced in this vein. I’m well aware that Daley’s work wasn’t the first and won’t be the last, but how many more people need to do a doctorate on the most minute matters of Pauline theology when there remains so many untranslated texts from antiquity? We need more critical editions and translations of primary source material. Period. And while we’re at it, we need all of the ones we have available in Accordance, Logos, and whatever other Bible software is available.

Ad fontes people, ad fontes.

B”H

The Greek-English New Testament (NA28/ESV)

The Greek-English New Testament: Nestle-Aland 28th Edition/English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012.

There are no shortage of Greek-English Bibles on offer in the world of modern publishing. I have a number of useful editions of the Greek New Testament with English translation on facing pages adorning my shelves. They each have their own particular strengths while some exhibit more weaknesses than others.

There is the NIV Greek and English New Testament, which features the Greek text underlying the NIV translation. This is a rather straightforward volume presenting mainly text with very little by way of notes. When a note appears on the English side it’s usually signaling a translational issue. When they appear on the Greek side it’s mostly to note differences between this text and the UBS/NA text.

I also have a NA27/RSV diglot, which is a real gem. This contains the full NA27 critical text with full textual apparatus alongside an RSV translation that has quite a substantial textual apparatus in its own right. For quite some time I considered this the gold standard by which I judged all other diglots.

The NA28 Greek-English New Testament was a departure from the one modeled a version before. This particular text gave the full NA28 with apparatus on one page and then on the facing page in double columns the NRSV and REB. The NRSV appears in standard print while the REB is italicized throughout. There are scant notes for the English translations.

The UBS5/NIV is more in line with the NA27/RSV in terms of appearance aside from a thicker white Bible paper of the UBS5/NIV to the thinner cream colored paper of the NA27/RSV. But once again we’re left with hardly any notes for the English edition accompanying the Greek text.

The NA27/NET diglot on the other hand provides more notes for the English translation than even the RSV. The RSV contained a critical apparatus but the NET is another animal altogether. While the regular NET Bible contains three types of notes, namely study notes, translator’s notes, and text critical notes, this edition has removed the study notes and opted to abbreviate the translator’s notes, and have placed many (though certainly not all) text critical notes in an appendix. Still, this is the most useful volume of the lot in terms of information provided and layout. It’s also the only large print version available.

But all of these diglots, useful as they are, lack one thing: ample room to take notes. This is where the NA28/ESV excels. Alongside the full NA28 critical text and apparatus is the ESV, which has become my English translation of choice over the past few years. Like many of the newer editions it has very little by way of notes for the ESV text, but the lack of notes and the absence of a textual apparatus creates a large void on every  page of English text that leaves a significant amount of space to write.

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Like the NA27/NET diglot this one is also large print. And like the UBS5/NIV this one has a seemingly thicker white paper than the standard cream colored paper of other versions. This makes things quite easy on the eyes. However, this is the only volume of the Nestle-Aland lot that doesn’t contain the standard leaflet of witnesses, signs, and abbreviations. Sure, there are appendices in the back matter (1581-1674) that contain this information but it is an unnecessary burden to have to flip back and forth between the back of the Bible and the page that you’re studying in order to decipher the textual apparatus. We’re not all textual critics who have this thing committed to memory.

And while this is a beautifully bound volumes in blue cloth-over-board there is regrettably no ribbon marker (something missing in the NA27/NET as well). This was an easy enough fix but you’d think that by this point in that Bible publishers would include such things of necessity. I shouldn’t have to modify my Bibles to meet basic needs.

Lastly, because this is the large print version of the NA28 it follows the same page layout as the standard edition. This is fine as far as it goes but it creates a strange flow when dealing with the facing English page. Remember, there is no textual apparatus or significant amount of space dedicated to notes on the English page. So if the Greek page begins a new verse and there is only room for one or a few words of that verse at the bottom of the page it creates an awkward look and feel on the English page. For example, on p. 980 Romans 5:15 being with “Ἀλλ᾿” which looks fine. On the facing English page (981) we have “But” just floating there by itself.

On p. 1022 Romans 15:8 has “λέγω γὰρ Χρι-” with the facing English page (1023) having “For I tell you that Christ” but this signals another awkward type of break in the text. The beginning of Χριστὸν appears on p. 1022 but we don’t see the rest of the word until p. 1024. The English translation opted to not break the word up (how could they?) but there’s something unsettling about this kind of break. I don’t know how much work would be involved in the removing little things like this, nor do I know if anyone other than me would be bothered by it, but in a perfect world they wouldn’t exist.

These are rather minor complaints though and the strengths of this particular diglot outweigh its weaknesses considerably. Those readers of the ESV who would like the reference the Greek text without a separate volume would do well to pick this one up. Honestly, anyone who likes to take notes other either the Greek or the English text of the New Testament would do well to pick this up. There’s more than enough room to do so and this is its major benefit in my opinion.

B”H

My Mike Brown Moment

Dr. Michael Brown often shares his testimony of God saving him as a teen from a life of drug abuse and rebellion. He talks of how he would voraciously read the Bible and memorize verse after verse in order to evangelize and apologize (in the sense of defend) but when some Jewish counter-missionaries showed up at his house they’d tell him that his knowledge of the Scriptures in English just wouldn’t do. This led Dr. Brown to studying Near Eastern languages and literature at NYU and eventually earning a PhD in the field. Now he can speak to the counter-missionaries with as much knowledge of the language as they have, and in many cases more because he can appeal to the languages that influenced Hebrew.

I share this to say that I had a moment like this yesterday as I stood in my barbershop. A nice Sephardic Jew came in and complemented us on the shop and its name (Zebulun Jesus is Lord Barber Shop) and shared a bit about what the Scriptures say about Zebulun. He told us that he’s a descendent of Judah and that the Syriac Jews have kept meticulous genealogies for over two millennia. Then he asked if we knew the Bible well enough to discuss it. My pastor (who owns the place) and I said yes and then our discussion began.

As my pastor, who has been working in the midst of the Jewish community in Lakewood, NJ for over 20 years began to share the gospel and why we believe that Jesus is the Messiah this man kept interjecting and telling us why he didn’t think so. There came a point in the conversation where he said, “Listen, I couldn’t care less what you believe because it doesn’t effect me, just like what I believe doesn’t effect you.” He continued to say, “You have your interpretations, and that’s nice, I’ll listen, but this is my book. I know the language and I read it in the original so trust me when I say that I know it better than you.”

At that very moment I decided to take the study of Hebrew seriously. I’ve been dabbling for years but I’ve never devoted the time or attention to the language to be able to say that I “know” it. I can read the words, sure, but I don’t know what most of them mean. I couldn’t tell you hardly anything about rules of Hebrew grammar or syntax. I know how to use a lexicon and all the resources at my disposal but put a Hebrew Bible in front of me and there’s very little I can do. I can’t stomach this any longer.

So I’ve pulled out my Basics of Biblical Hebrew Grammar, Workbook, Flash Cards, and DVDs and I’m going to give this a real go. The plan is to wake up early every day and devote at least one hour in the morning to it. I am more than willing to accept any and all help that any of my dear readers want to offer. But the bottom line is that I need to become well versed in the language.

B”H

Home Library/Office Tour

I wanted to do this for a while. I had some time today. One day I’ll get a good camera and give this thing some real production value.

B”H

A Brief Word about Comfort’s A Commentary on the Manuscripts and Text of the New Testament

Comfort, Philip Wesley. A Commentary on the Manuscripts and Text of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2015. Pp. 443. Hardcover. $29.99.

I’ve had Philip Comfort’s A Commentary on the Manuscripts and Text of the New Testament for a few weeks now (I seem to have forgotten to do an “In the Mail” post when it arrived). In many ways it’s similar to Metzger’s volume, which has been a standard for quite some time. Aside from the physical similarities of the two volumes, Comfort, like Metzger, offers mostly pithy notes on variant readings that span anywhere from a sentence to a paragraph. The long notes can cover anywhere from a half page to a page and a half. I’ve not come across Comfort disagreeing with the decisions made by the UBS committee yet, but I’ve only skimmed the commentary at this point. I hope to find Comfort going in different directions at certain points and am interested to see his reasoning for doing so if he does.

The differences I’ve noted off the bat are in the introductions. Metzger’s volume has a brief introduction that talks about the history and transmission of the NT text, the criteria used in determining the best readings, and a list of some of the more important manuscript witnesses delineated according to text type. Comfort’s introductory material on the other hand spans two chapters. The first discusses the NT papyri, significant uncial manuscripts, a primer on assessing manuscripts in order to determine the text, a brief discussion of the canons (11 noted by Comfort) of NT textual criticism, and a healthy discussion of the Nomina Sacra in the NT (Comfort is quite interested in the Nomina Sacra as he mentions in the introduction and is evident throughout the commentary). The second chapter is a helpful annotated list of the manuscripts of the NT.

The most significant difference, however, is that Comfort’s commentary is on actual manuscripts rather than on an eclectic text. He says, “Most commentaries usually adhere to a certain English translation, and the commentators refer to an edition of the Greek New Testament (such as Novum Testamentum Graece or the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament), diverging from it when they deem it necessary. These two Greek editions (which have the same text) were compiled according to the eclectic method, which means that various readings from various manuscripts were selected for the text on a verse-by-verse basis. In this commentary readers will be reading commentary on actual manuscripts, such as P75 for most of the Gospel of Luke, P66 and P75 for the Gospel of John, P46 for nearly all of Paul’s Epistles and Hebrews, and so on” (7).

I was quite pleased to find him disagreeing with the Alands’ categorizations of some of the papyri, not because I necessarily disagree myself, but because it shows that Comfort is an independent and critical voice in the field. I did note that he doesn’t treat certain variants that Metzger did (e.g., Acts 8:24, 35), while commenting on some that Metzger didn’t (e.g., John 17:5, 16). I suppose this could be explained by Comfort’s focus on individual manuscripts and it seems that a lot of Comfort’s unique discussions are related to the Nomina Sacra whereas Metzger doesn’t focus on these at all. I’ve also noticed that after nearly every used of the phrase “nomen sacrum” Comfort puts the English translation “sacred name” in parentheses. It’s a curious and wholly unnecessary practice.

I’m also more than slightly perturbed by the lack of citations of the variants in Greek. Metzger’s commentary, for example, shows “Χριστου [υιου θεου] {C}” at Mark 1:1 and then proceeds to use the Greek term under discussion throughout the note. Comfort’s merely has “Jesus Christ” and then proceeds with the discussion using English translations (which are Comfort’s own) of the variant readings. I can’t understand the reasoning behind this decision through. Presumably this is a reference source intended for students of the Greek New Testament. It would be nice to have some Greek to read throughout the discussions.

But in all I think this will serve as a useful tool to supplement Metzger’s commentary rather than something that can replace it. They each serve a purpose and can be used in conjunction, which is what I plan to do.

B”H