Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Translation is Interpretation

The late Eugene Peterson translated The Message directly from the original Greek without reference to other English versions of the New Testament in hope that he could capture the rhythms, idioms and subtleties of the original language for a modern audience. That’s a laudable goal, and if Peterson’s efforts help new Bible readers engage with the text and older readers hear it in a fresh way, then they will not have gone to waste. We use The Message from time to time in our weekly Bible study, and it almost never fails to provoke a reaction. When Peterson is “on”, he can be brilliant, and even when he’s off, he tends to get the conversation started with a bang.

We played the audio version yesterday before discussing 1 Corinthians 11-14, and it reminded me why the Bible translation you choose is so important to your understanding of God’s word: translation is a form of theological interpretation. It’s an impossible task to perform neutrally.

The Impossibility of Neutrality

This is true whether you are Eugene Peterson translating the entire Greek New Testament as a solo project or one of a team of translators working on, say, the ESV. Your theology is invariably going to sneak into your word and phrase choices. Purists will protest, “Not if you translate literally”, failing to grasp the sad truth that there is no such thing as a literal translation, if by that we mean a one-for-one correspondence between the words of any two languages. Differences in syntax and the semantic range of words make literal translation impossible. The closer you get to it, the more incomprehensible your efforts become — and that’s before we take figures of speech into account. The best translations of scripture are a combination of literal correspondence with judicious paraphrasing that strive to be as theologically neutral as possible, which is to say they avoid veering into editorial commentary. The more a translator is aware of and able to rein in his own theological biases, the more effective and helpful his translation will be.

Now, I’m not saying you have to be a Greek or Hebrew scholar to navigate your way through the word of God effectively. Not at all. Neither a 180 IQ nor five years of seminary study are necessary to understand your Bible. They may even be unhelpful in some ways. What matters most is a willingness to study to show yourself approved, as someone once wrote. It helps to be conscious of the potential distortions of meaning that can occur, and willing to take the time to compare Bible versions to find those that are most faithful to context.

A Few Concrete Examples

Here are some of the problems we ran into yesterday. I mention these not to trash Eugene Peterson or The Message, but simply to illustrate most vividly a problem that exists in all translations of the Bible to one degree or another.

1/ Defining Prophecy

ESV: “Every man who prays or prophesies”

The Message: “Any man who speaks with God or about God”

We get a whole four verses into our reading before encountering our first issue. I’m not sure it was necessary to attempt to try to explain either prayer or prophecy, but since Peterson has done so, we have to consider the aptness of his definitions.

To refer to prayer as speaking “with God” is adequate, but to define prophecy as speaking “about God” is not. Prophecy is speaking for God, not about him, and doing so in his own words. “No prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” This is true whether what they said was predictive or merely instructive. Unlike Bible teachers, who expound the scriptures in their own words, attempting to give the intended sense as they understand it, true prophets simply wrote down and repeated what God told them. They were essentially ancient tape recorders, and Peter tells us there were even times when the prophets themselves did not understand the messages the Lord tasked them with conveying. To redefine prophecy as “speaking about God”, while technically true in the most general sense, is wholly inadequate. It would have been better and more faithful to leave the word “prophesies” intact and let a Bible teacher explain it for those who don’t understand the concept. Peterson’s lame redefinition may leave you thinking prophets still exist today, expounding the word of God to you from the platform on Sunday morning, simply because they talk “about God”. Anyone looking for a genuine prophetic voice in that environment will find himself sorely disappointed.

2/ The Nature of the Offense

ESV: “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.”

The Message: “If you give no thought (or worse, don’t care) about the broken body of the Master when you eat and drink, you’re running the risk of serious consequences.”

Here again, Peterson is making decisions for the reader, and in my humble estimation, he’s making them incorrectly. The judgment encountered by some in Corinth had to do with their failure to “discern the body”. Peterson explicitly makes this “the broken body of the Master”. There’s a very good case to be made that he’s ignoring a double entendre in the Greek that is quite important to our understanding of the nature of the Corinthian offense. Perhaps they did fail to discern the body of their Master in the symbol of the bread broken. But what we definitely know from context is that they were failing to discern their relationship to one another as members of Christ’s body on earth in their day, a subject Paul will take up for the entire next chapter. Peterson’s unhelpful gloss thus diverts the reader from Paul’s primary message.

3/ Water Baptism and the Baptism of the Holy Spirit

ESV: “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.”

The Message: “This is what we proclaimed in word and action when we were baptized.”

Peterson obviously believes Paul is referring to water baptism. I believe Paul was speaking of the baptism of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, which incorporated Jews and Gentiles alike into the body of Christ. That is a much better fit in the context and by not editorializing, the ESV leaves open the possibility we will take that meaning from it. Peterson closes the door, in the process muddying the significance of water baptism, which has to do with our identification with Christ in his death and resurrection, rather than our identification with one another as members of his body, the church.

4/ Tongues as Prayer Language

ESV: “Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues …”

The Message: “Think, friends: If I come to you and all I do is pray privately to God in a way only he can understand.”

The idea that tongues are a prayer language in which Christians today may engage is peculiar to Charismatics and Pentecostals. Though Presbyterian by all accounts, Peterson apparently accepted the idea of tongues as a prayer language and imposed it on the text of chapter 14 repeatedly where it simply does not exist in the original language. The Greek word for “pray” doesn’t even appear until verse 13. In doing so, he manages to omit the apostle’s explanation of the biblical meaning of tongues, which were a temporary sign gift for unbelievers (particularly unbelieving Jews, who were a major problem in Corinth if we read the book of Acts). Peterson’s exceedingly broad re-rendering of 14:22 totally obscures this meaning and promotes the modern Charismatic interpretation of the passage without justification.

The Utility of Error

I’ve often pointed out in times past that I sometimes find erroneous teaching helpful, in that it jars me awake and makes me re-examine my own understanding of the word of God. It brings out the Berean in me. That doesn’t mean I’d like to see more of it, especially when it’s inflicted on young believers who may be impressionable in a way I’m not. To the degree that it accurately reflects the underlying Greek, The Message (and other paraphrastic translations) may be a useful tool to get mature Christians talking about the meaning of the text. To the degree that it obscures meaning by eliminating legitimate interpretive possibilities with unnecessary and inaccurate editorializing, one can only imagine Peterson’s translation could be a source of confusion to young believers. It’s hard to hear the Holy Spirit speak if we insist on shouting over him.

Translation is interpretation. Choose yours wisely.

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