Monday, June 28, 2021

Anonymous Asks (151)

“Why do some Bible translations not capitalize pronouns referring to God?”

Much like personal choice of Bible translation and no small number of doctrinal issues, this is a question hotly debated among believers. People are rarely neutral about deity pronouns. The reasons for choosing to capitalize or not capitalize them may vary from publisher to publisher, but these three reasons provided by the publishers of the relatively recent English Standard Version are probably the most common.

Three Reasons

The Translation Oversight Committee for the ESV offers this explanation for their choice:

“First, there is nothing in the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts that corresponds to such capitalization; second, the practice of capitalizing deity pronouns in English Bible translations is a recent innovation, which began only in the mid-twentieth century; and, third, such capitalization is absent from the KJV Bible and the whole stream of Bible translations that the ESV seeks to carry forward.”

This first point is indisputable. In addition to a total absence of punctuation, with only a single form for each letter of its alphabet, koine Greek didn’t have capital letters. Biblical Hebrew doesn’t even have vowels, let alone capital letter forms. Those who capitalize deity pronouns are introducing a convention notably absent from the original languages of the Bible. That doesn’t make it evil, obviously, but it is a distinctly human invention with no particular biblical authority behind it.

Two Further Thoughts

A blogger named Mark has two additional thoughts:

“Capitalizing pronouns referring to God builds interpretation into the text. There is no ambiguity as to whom the text is referring to.

Here is the real issue for me: th[ere] is no biblical mandate to capitalize deity. It seem legalistic to add something that God doesn’t command.”

With regard to capitals as an interpretative device, the argument can be made both ways. On the “pro” side, translators interpret all the time. It’s part of their job. Bible literalists are often shocked to discover the degree to which syntax, idioms and other features of the various languages of the world make a certain basic amount of interpretation by language experts absolutely necessary to reader comprehension. Even the punctuation of our English versions of the Bible is a product of translation savvy rather than one-for-one correspondence with the originals as we have been able to reconstruct them. In fact, a word-for-word literal rendering in English of either Greek or Hebrew that followed all the conventions of the original language — assuming such a thing were even possible — would be utterly incomprehensible. So the NASB “interpreting” by capitalizing deity pronouns is not shocking. This is only one of many ways in which they and all other translators are interpreting for the reader.

On the “con” side, capitalizing pronouns thought to refer to God does indeed remove ambiguity, which is not always desirable. I am unaware of cases in which doing so is either demonstrably erroneous or introduces unwarranted controversy, but that doesn’t mean there is no potential for error when one sets about to interpret for others. Where there is nothing in the text to clarify to whom a particular pronoun is intended to apply, my personal preference is for translators to avoid trying to remove any existing ambiguity for the reader, leaving us to solve the problem, if possible, from context.

As to the question of legalism, this only becomes a problem when one side of a debate insists on imposing their preference on everyone else. To the extent that we can respect the reasons other Christians give for their choices, I believe we are acting consistently with the teaching of the New Testament (Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 8) concerning how believers ought to deal with disputable matters.

Two Non-Reasons for Capitalizing

Several commenters at the Bowman Community Church blog offer what I consider to be non‑reasons for introducing capital letters. Jane Welch, for example, writes:

“Today, we capitalize words such as President and King, when they precede the person’s name, because of honor.”

We do this in English with any title, and we do it in scripture already with “Lord” and “God”. But this perfectly normal and acceptable convention is not the same thing as capitalizing pronouns at all. Capitalizing pronouns for presidents or kings would look like this:

“In his memoir Dreams from My Father (1995), Obama describes the complexities of discovering His identity in adolescence. After two years at Occidental College in Los Angeles, He transferred to Columbia University, where He studied political science and international relations.”

This is self-evidently not what we generally observe in the biographies of the famous and influential.

Jane adds:

“If we are going to stop capitalizing pronouns for God based on the reasoning that they didn’t when the Bible was written, then why does ESV continue to capitalize other words, such as ‘Scripture’ in John 7:38 and in 2 Timothy 3:16, out of honor for God’s Word?”

Good question. Honoring God’s word is quite appropriate, but we hardly need a capital letter to do that. The word “scripture” came into Middle English from the Latin scriptura, which simply means “writings”. The English form was originally capitalized so as to distinguish the word of God from ordinary secular writ, a legitimate potential source of confusion for readers of the day. Today, since nobody in the universe uses the word “scripture” to describe perfectly ordinary secular literary works, that potential source of confusion no longer exists. That’s the reason I no longer capitalize it: it’s entirely unambiguous as it stands. Capitalizing it is as useful as capitalizing “Mallet” to distinguish it from “hammer”.

Moral Authority

One more from Jane:

“It is dishonorable in our day not to capitalize pronouns for God.”

Well, no. That is why the question is being asked: because some people feel strongly one way, and others feel strongly that the opposite is true. The popularity of translations which do not capitalize deity pronouns (NIV, 1st in Bible sales, 2020; KJV, 2nd; New Living Translation, 3rd; ESV, 4th) considerably exceeds that of translations which capitalize them (NKJV, which dropped to 5th place in 2020 sales from 3rd in 2011; NASB, which fell from 7th to 10th over the same period).

Now, moral authority is obviously not the byproduct of sales numbers, but the 2020 figures suggest those who feel strongly enough about the necessity of capitalization for it to factor into their choice of Bible are a shrinking minority, which makes it difficult to understand why, absent scriptural evidence for their position, the pro-capitalizers should be allowed to define for the rest of Christians what may be considered honorable or dishonorable.

Basically, the objections of capitalizers to non-capitalizing amount to something along the lines of “I just like it, and you should too.” That’s certainly an opinion, but it’s not world’s strongest argument.

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