Saturday, August 18, 2007

Making the scriptures common

Too many bibles make Pastor a sad panda:
I will admit that it has made me sad, in the past fifteen or so years, to see so many pastors adopting the NIV in their teaching; for this has encouraged those being taught to rely upon this version. Once again, my personal feelings are that this has been caused mostly by the massive publishing campaign instituted by Zondervan Publishing. Now they are pushing the TNIV Bible, which some claim is gender neutral, but Zondervan claims is just bringing the Bible more up to date with the English language. I often wonder if God truly wants the Bible to be more English friendly. He did originally write it i[n] Aramaic and Greek, didn't He?
Ignoring two minor problems with the above*, whether God truly wants the Bible to be presented in a language in which common people can read and understand it is a pretty important question, forming as it does the basis for argumentation against both the KJV-only position and, to a lesser extent, the Vulgate-only position promoted by the Catholic Church for centuries. It also underlies the question of whether the Bible should be translated at all - since languages never translate perfectly one to another, something of the original meaning is always lost in translation. In this sense the scriptures are no different than, say, the plays of Nabokov or the operas of Wagner.

But how does one go about arguing for what God wants when God doesn't say one way or the other? The best way, I think, is to look at what God did, in this case, to examine the language in which the Bible - and specifically the New Testament - was actually written.

There is not one Greek language in history, but four** (classical, Koine, Medieval, and modern) and the New Testament was written in the second. Also known as "common" Greek , it flourished in about a 600-year period straddling the first century. And the reason it was called 'common' was because it was just that, the language used by the common people of the Empire. It was not the language of government or poets but a bastardization of that language which incorporated a number of features of the native languages of the fishermen and farmers and huddled masses who made up the vast majority of the people of the Greek and later, the Roman empire.

And there was, through much of that period and later, a literary reaction against Koine, a 'fundamentalism' if you will, called Atticism, which insisted that all writing be done in classical Greek - which is why, other than the NT and maybe Polybius and Epictetus, there are very few surviving documents written in Koine. The writers of the Bible would have been in good*** company had they written the NT in classical Greek rather than common.

But they did not. And why not? It is not difficult to conclude that the reason they wrote the NT in common Greek was because (ta da!) that's what the common people understood, and it was more important to present God's word in an understandable form than a punctilious one.

Which brings us back to English. When Pastor wonders whether God truly wants the Bible to be more "English-friendly," he is really wondering whether God wants it in a form that our own fishermen, farmers, and huddled masses can understand it****. And while no one ever bothered to ask God so far as I know, I think God has already answered.

* 1) God didn't "write" the Bible in the strict sense (small parts, sure, c.f. Exodus 31:18).
* 2) Aren't we forgetting about Hebrew?

** If one wants to get picky one could throw in Mycenaean, Attic, and a host of other dialects.

*** or at least sophisticated

**** Honestly, I share the pastor's preference for the NASB, which I find (now that they have eliminated the pretentious 'thee's and 'thou's) is a very good translation, maybe the best there ever was. However, when I taught the Bible to a group made up mostly of moderately-educated and older rural folks, I discovered that they had a hard time reading it aloud, much less drawing the meaning from its precision - it simply does not 'speak' the way they do. Once I switched them to the NIV, the problem disappeared and they began to not only learn but to enjoy learning. While serious bible study is a task to be undertaken carefully and with the best tools available, one must crawl before one can walk.

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