Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The Commentariat Speaks (16)

Done properly, Bible translation is really just the search for truth. It attempts to represent the original text in another language to the very best of expert ability to reconstruct it from the available manuscript evidence.

Some English versions are painstakingly literal, attempting as closely as possible to represent each original Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic word with an English equivalent (an impossible task, if you know anything about syntax and semantics). Others are more dynamic and literary, attempting to convey the overall feel and sense of the original as the translators understand it, rather than trying to force the receptor language to awkwardly mimic the sentence structure of the original language. Some Bible versions are based on a single, familiar text tradition. Others synthesize multiple traditions in an attempt to get at the most precise possible reading.

Either way, truth is usually the governing standard. It is rare that anyone deliberately sets out to produce a #fakebible.

#FakeBibles

There are bad translations, and not a few of them. There are misguided translations, where some political agenda has motivated translators to emphasize and highlight issues of particular concern to a myopic segment of the reading public. These serve to distort the Bible’s overall emphasis, drawing attention to minutiae useful only to obsessives and riders of hobby-horses. There are colloquial translations, in which attempts to make an ancient text accessible to modern readers mangle the original so comprehensively that it becomes almost unrecognizable, trite, and sometimes childishly embarrassing.

But even the most inferior attempts to translate scripture are usually made in good conscience by people trying to do what they believe is a necessary and valuable thing. The translators may be mistaken, but they are not generally wicked people. They are aspiring to offer readers valid options, not aspiring to wreck their faith. Apart from those versions used by quasi-Christian cults, few translations are riddled with deliberate attempts to deceive others about what the prophets and apostles intended to communicate, and most of those attempts fail miserably.

The Various King James Versions

The 1611 King James Version of the Bible is not the KJV of today. Its text has not only gone through several formal revisions, but it has also undergone thousands of informal corrections and alterations with nearly every printing. Each time they did this, the KJV retranslators were doing exactly what the translators of modern versions of the Bible are doing: trying to communicate more effectively while adhering as closely as possible to the content of the originals as they understood them to be at the time of translation. The only difference is that they were able to do it under the KJV brand, retaining the credibility and respect associated with that venerable translation.

There is actually a small group of Christians who insist the 1611 version of the KJV is the only truly accurate English translation. If they wished to, these purists could easily construct side-by-side verse comparisons that would make the 2020 version of the KJV appear almost as much a #fakebible as some of the modern translations they deplore.

Accusations, Accusations

That’s important to remember when we come across something like this in social media:
“I, Jesus, am the bright and morning star.”
“I, Jesus, am the bright morning star.”
— Revelation 22:16 KJV #bible, NIV #fakebible

“How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!”
“How you have fallen from heaven, MORNING STAR, son of the dawn!”
— Isaiah 14:12 KJV #bible, NIV #fakebible
The person who posted this meme was trying to tell the online world that the NIV cannot be trusted. More than that, he is convinced it is a counterfeit produced by Satan, a “perversion” that removes whole verses, and changes meanings and terms. The way the NIV renders Isaiah 14:12 particularly offends him because it translates one of the traditional KJV names of Satan (“Lucifer”) as “morning star”, a title we find given to Christ in Revelation. His conclusion: someone is trying to steal glory from the Son of God, and that person is acting under satanic influence. Who else would want to pass Satan off as Christ?

An Old Story

These are not new accusations. I first began hearing this sort of thing back in the early seventies, when modern versions of the English Bible were gradually becoming more popular. The evangelical world was treated to a sudden explosion of sensational exposés penned by sincere die-hard KJV-ers who believed the new translations were the worst thing ever: misleading, inaccurate, confusing and even diabolic. Speculations abounded about the motives and intentions of the translators and the men who were attempting to more accurately reconstruct the original Greek and Hebrews texts, many of these uninformed and not a few of which appeared quite mean-spirited.

At the same time, it was becoming more and more evident to Bible teachers that the new versions were meeting a need the King James could not address, not only in the third world, where lower average IQs and poor education made the archaisms and imagery of the KJV near-impenetrable, but in the West, where young men and women were less and less familiar with Shakespeare and other older classics of English literature. Whatever deficiencies of translation may have existed in them (and these were far less common than was being alleged by the die-hards), each new version of the English Bible opened up the word of God to some new generational demographic in a powerful and effective way. My parents gave all their children NIVs as teenagers, and my father switched to using the NASB from the platform, generating more than a little concern from older members of some congregations.

Perversions and Pocket Monsters

Over the years, the intensity and frequency of pushback against modern translations has gradually diminished, but you still come across things like the #fakebible meme from time to time.

So here’s where I’m coming from: on my list of favorite versions the NIV doesn’t even make Top 5, so the following is not so much an endorsement of the NIV as a plea to make Christian criticisms of translations — any translation — well-researched, rational, unhysterical, and most importantly ... your own.

You will certainly find the occasional deficiency in modern translations, but most often these terrifying examples of “false doctrine” and “lies of the devil” turn out to be nothing more than overheated reactions to linguistic issues the KJV reader has been exposed to by someone else, and simply doesn’t understand. The same three or four dozen “perversions” of familiar verses are swapped around by devout KJV enthusiasts much the way my kids used to trade Pokémon cards, when five minutes with a Strong’s concordance shows most of them to be entirely toothless. The problem is, nobody stops to check before posting their #fakebible meme to social media.

Legitimate Scholarship Under Fire

As it turns out, in the example above, the NIV’s Isaiah 14 rendering of “Lucifer” as “morning star” is perfectly legitimate translation. The word “Lucifer” is neither Hebrew nor Greek; it is actually the Latin name for the planet Venus. Why the 1611 KJV translators thought it the best possible English rendering is a mystery: it is more likely a figure of speech than a proper name. The Hebrew is heylel, which (the KJV-based) Strong’s concordance says means “light-bearer”, “shining one” or “morning star”. Infogalactic adds “bringer of dawn”. Even the New King James Version lists “day star” as an alternate rendering.

Moreover, the NIV’s rendering of “Lucifer” as “morning star” is contextually, theologically and thematically appropriate. In context, when Isaiah uses “morning star” as a picture of the spiritual being who has become the great deceiver of nations, he is describing Satan in his unfallen state. His point is that the one who was once as glorious as the morning star has been “cast down to the earth”. Far from attempting to pass off Satan as a counterfeit Christ, the Isaiah passage is lamenting Satan’s self-destruction: “You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to the heavens’ ... but you are brought down to the realm of the dead, to the depths of the pit.”

The Morning Star

When we come to the Revelation passage, Jesus is said to be the “morning star”, this time with two words in Greek, orthrinos astēr. Like the Hebrew heylel, orthrinos was also used by the Greeks of the planet Venus, and relates to the dawn. The word astēr is simply “star”. The word “and” [Greek: kai] in the KJV’s “bright and morning star” has gone missing in the NIV, which may or may not be optimal literal translation but does not impact the meaning of the phrase in any material way. John is quoting the glorified Christ directly here (he refers to himself as “I, Jesus”), and, as the single most accomplished student of the Old Testament in human history, it is quite impossible our Lord is doing anything else but affirming that he is the one true “morning star” to which Isaiah first made reference. Satan may have had the name at one point, but Jesus is the real deal.

This is the sort of statement that we find repeatedly made of Christ: he is the true and perfect realization of every flawed or partial attempt made in and through created beings. He is the true Lamb of whom Abraham’s sacrifice was only a shadow, the true Son of whom the nation of Israel was only a rough sketch, the last Adam; the true man who did not fall. To find that Jesus is also the true Morning Star, of whom Lucifer at his most glorious was never more than a pallid imitation, is both unsurprising and highly appropriate.

In Much-Disputed Conclusion ...

A few minute’s research demonstrates that the phrase “morning star” in Isaiah did not originate with the NIV translation team, who were only doing their job, but with the Holy Spirit himself, who used the exact same phrase in both Isaiah and Revelation, and did so quite deliberately.

Make of that what you will.

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