Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Why Does Your Bible Say What It Says?

You should know something about your Bible. Yes, it's more important to know what your Bible says, but you should also know something about why your Bible says what it says.

Read the preface. Know something about who translated your Bible and what principles guided their translation. Will you find something that leads to a profound spiritual experience? Probably not, but here's the point.

You Never Read Your Bible Alone

Whenever we read an English Bible, someone has made decisions for us. These decisions determine our starting point for trying to understand the Word of God. So, let's at least have some awareness of who made these decisions and what their decision-making philosophy is.

I said all of the above because it's the main takeaway from everything I'm about to say. Most of you will find the rest of this post pretty uninteresting. Whenever you decide to bail, just please remember to read the preface to your Bible. OK, now let's look at one example why we need to know something about our Bibles.

At Least They Didn't Wait til 2020

In last week's post I mentioned my inclination to mark 52 words in my Bible. The 52 words in question are the changes to the 2016 ESV text edition from the 2011 edition. Why would I want to note these?

I had assumed the 2016 edition was inferior to the 2011 edition. I based this assumption only on the changes to Genesis 3:16 and 4:7. I guessed that these changes were representative of a philosophy change that led the translators astray elsewhere as well. More on that in a moment. But first, what is going on Genesis? Here are the verses in question.

Genesis 3:16 (2011)
To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”

Genesis 3:16 (2016)
To the woman he said,
“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be contrary to your husband,
but he shall rule over you.”

God's statement to Cain in Genesis 4:7 on sin desiring him also uses contrary to instead of for. Now, is this a clear-cut matter of one translation being better than another? Maybe, but that's not the point.

Nuance in the Notes

Translation is always an act of interpretation. All the same, when we translate our goal must be to represent what the text says rather than what we think it means. Granted, these principles always require caveats. We want to represent what the text says so long as that's meaningful to the reader. The 2016 rendering contrary to reflects what the translators—or the ESV editorial team—think the text means. They can make an argument for that, but the translation is not the place to make that argument.

The ESV Study Bible includes a note that explains how contrary to supposedly fits the context—and that's where interpretation belongs. For more on the translation-theory issues in the 2016 ESV's use of contrary to, see Denny Burk's post, Five Quick Points on the ESV's Rendering of Genesis 3:16.

Regarding the rest of the changes to the ESV 2016, however, I've read enough to now think marking all the changes probably isn't necessary. Contrary to seems to be the only instance where the cultural momentor maybe a response to the cultural moment—led the translators to theologize in the text.

Responsibly and Regularly

Again, translation is always an act of interpretation. So is reading. We are not perfect readers, and the translators are not perfect translators. We can, however, follow principles for responsible translating and reading. One of those is to know something about who translated your Bible. So, read the preface. Also read what someone else has to say about the translation you usually use, and then get back to reading your Bible!


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