Sunday, October 23, 2005

Literal or Non-Literal Translations

I used to be a fan of the more literal translations and dislike the paraphrased translations of the bible. I used to think that with literal translations you got more accuracy, and less of the translator's own bias.

I have now come to hold the opposite opinion. Why? Because even a literal translation has to engage in interpretation. Many Greek words have more than one meaning, you have to decide which meaning is being used. The particular English grammar used can imply things about what the sentence can and cannot mean. Thus even to perform even the process of simply changing the words in English and putting them into a coherent English sentence you have to have already decided the overall meaning of the words. Even the simplest most basic literal translations are going to have this problem. In order to translate you have to first interpret.

In other words, the translators have to do interpretation. But if they have to do interpretation, what really is the point of leaving you with something relatively difficult to understand and follow (like literal translations of the Bible often are)? They might as well be a bit less stilted and convey as clearly and unambiguously as possible what they think the author's meaning is. I don't mean they should be like the Message and pack a sermon into each verse, but rather that they should recognise that what they are writing their interpretation of the words, and write that interpretation as clear and simply as possible.

Sure, often their interpretations will be wrong, but so what? Just as often the literal interpretations are wrong too. At least the readers of paraphrase translations know that what they are reading is the translator's interpretation, whereas the readers of literal translations are often mislead into thinking they are reading now the translator's opinions but rather the direct and accurate truth. So move over the NASB, NRSV etc, and bring on the Good News, New Living Translation etc!

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

And the light of understanding did break forth... 1 Pet 3:18-4:6

It's funny how a totally confusing passage can become so clear as one thing after another falls into place once you get the key thought.

After seeing this post on Scott's blog it inspired me to go read that portion of 1 Peter.

It's a confusing passage involving Jesus descending into the world of the dead and preaching the gospel to the souls imprisoned since the days of Noah. I've always gone "uh?" when I come to this passage. It just seem so completely random and weird.

However, I've spent a lot of time recently studying Paul's use of the Platonic Spirit/Flesh distinction (I've just realised I haven't blogged on this before - an oversight I will correct soon!), and my mind being tuned accordingly, and seeing the same terminology crop up in this passage, I thought "hold on, is Peter using the same distinction?!?". Yup. He certainly is, no doubt about it. If you know what to look for then it's about as subtle as a flashing neon sign on top of a ton of bricks. So Reuben and I sat down and puzzled out carefully the meanings of these verses.

So what's going on? Well, Christ's not descending to hades and preaching the gospel to those who died in the time of Noah at all. Actually he's teaching sinners how to be godly. Christ came to show us the way to God, and he lived a godly life (vs 18) and taught virtue to the unvirtuous(19). Back in the days of the flood God smited the unvirtuous and saved Noah (20). This is kind of analogous to baptism (since both involve saving and water), which is a declaration of our intentions to live a godly life (21). So put to death your earthly desires (4:1-2). Evildoers are surprised you don't join them in their evil any longer, but that's fine as it's the aim of the gospel is that you do not join them, and they will be judged for their evil. (4-6)

Nothing to do with preaching in the underworld, nor with souls imprisoned since the days of Noah, nor with salvation by baptism. It is in fact all about dying to the "old self" and putting on the "new self" that is Christ-like.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Fide = pistis = faith

An interesting idea I came across recently concerns the Latin influence on the meaning of "faith" in the NT.

The Greek word for "faith"/"faithfulness" is pistis. The Latin word for it is fide. (Hence for example "sola fide" = salvation by "faith alone") Fide means "allegiance", and it was a very important word to the Romans at the time of Jesus. (It does not in any way, shape, or form ever mean "belief", as far as I know) Allegiance to the Emperor Caesar was the single most important political thing there was. The word was used to describe the Roman army's oath of allegiance, and even appeared on coins. "Allegiance to Caesar as Lord"... the political slogan of the Roman Empire. "Allegiance to Christ as Lord"... Paul's slogan to the Christians he was writing to.

Here's the thing: Paul is writing to major Roman cities. Their understanding and use of "pistis" will be being influenced by the Latin equivalent "fide", and similarly by the popular political phrases. Paul being widely travelled would have to know this. It is undeniable that when Paul uses the phrase of "faithful to Christ as Lord" he is deliberately paralleling the Roman political phrase of faithfulness to Caesar as Lord.

This, perhaps, helps solve an interesting problem. Namely why Paul seems to use pistis to mean "allegiance"/"faithfulness", while James uses it to mean "belief". Paul's usage of the word is being influenced by its Roman usage, while James is using it in a non-Romanised way. In other words, Paul is deliberately choosing language that he knows his audience will understand and making his message more interesting and relevant to his readers by explaining it in terms of the major issues of the day that were relevant to them.