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Biblical Translation and a Clean Conscience

by Stephen Hebert on Tuesday - 17 April 2007

in Biblical Studies

Wayne Leman over at the Better Bibles Blog drew my attention to an incredible translation of James 5:11 from the KJV:

“Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy.”

Who knew that the awesome, almighty God of the universe is actually quite pitiful?

Wayne’s primary purpose was to show that the English language is an evolving beast, and while pitiful might have really meant “full of pity” (whether this is a good translation of πολύσπλαγχνος is a different animal…) to Elizabethan types, that penny has lost its shine over the years. So, we don’t call God “pitiful” anymore. We refer to him as “compassionate” (I think Nietzsche might say they are the same thing!).

Wayne’s secondary purpose was to draw attention to a post by David Ker over at Lingamish. Ker confesses his method, making most transparent his heinous crimes:

  1. I picked a passage from a version I don’t like.
  2. I showed the same passage in a version I did like.
  3. I “proved” how my preferred version is superior.

I would actually go a step farther than Lingamish, and say that this particular behavior is present not just in arguments about which translation is to be preferred. This was basically my modus operandi for 6 years as I made my way around the scholarly circles of the University of Texas and Harvard.

  1. Look at how crappy this is.
  2. My solution is clearly better.
  3. I have proven my solution.

The reality is that we’re dealing in opinions here. For this logic to work, we have to say that opinions carry some kind of truth value—and we all know they don’t.

I would add another little portion to Lingamish’s list. If you read his post carefully he goes on to point out a weakness in the translation of Matthew 21:9 in the CEV. He derides the use of “hooray” as a translation for “hosanna.” In the next paragraph, he admits that the CEV is one of his preferred translations. This kind of self-deprecation is genius! Here’s how his revised method should flow:

  1. I picked a passage from a version I don’t like.
  2. I showed the same passage in a version I did like.
  3. I “proved” how my preferred version is superior.
  4. I came clean about the faults in my method.
  5. I even found something negative in my own preferred translation and pointed it out for all to see!
  6. Now, I have “proven” my moral and logical superiority. Mission accomplished.

Thanks to David and Wayne for coming clean. Confession is good for the soul!

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