Monday, August 1, 2011

A Tradition of Translation Timidity

...not the smallest letter or stroke... (Matt 5:17)

When we confess plenary and verbal inspiration of Scripture, we mean to say that we care about the details. So, I have been long supportive of the textual suggestions given by noted text-critic and Greek grammarian, Dan Wallace. He repeated them recently in part 3 of a review of NIV 2011. Wallace offers a helpfully succinct summary of why passages like Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11 are still in our English Bibles (when they really shouldn't be):
... along with virtually every other translation on the planet, Mark 16.9-20 and John 7.53–8.11 are found in the text, even though (almost) all the translators considered them to be inauthentic. But the NIV 2011 admirably puts them in a different font and has an in-text note to show that they are rather dubious. The reasons translations keep these verses in the text even when the translators themselves do not consider them authentic is due to a tradition of timidity. But with the publication of Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus (2005), a popular book on the transmission of the New Testament text, the cat is out of the bag. Most biblical scholars—including evangelical scholars—have long recognized that these passages are most likely later additions. We do the living church no service by not fully admitting this fact in our translations. But because these two passages have a long history in printed Bibles and even in the manuscripts, they should not be eliminated altogether. Placing them in the footnotes would seem to be the best policy.
Read his entire article here. Though I am decidedly not changing English translations to NIV 2011, I am encouraged to hear of the progress being made in how these passages are treated.

In an earlier article, Wallace addressed this further in respect to Ehrman's "revelations" (i.e., his attempts to make money and gain prominence by sensationalizing what has been widely-known and public for centuries):
As I noted in my review in JETS [see The Gospel According to Bart], keeping these two pericopae in our Bibles rather than relegating them to the footnotes seems to have been a bomb just waiting to explode. All Ehrman did was to light the fuse. One lesson we must learn from Misquoting Jesus is that those in ministry need to close the gap between the church and the academy. We have to educate believers. Instead of trying to isolate laypeople from critical scholarship, we need to insulate them. They need to be ready for the barrage, because it is coming. The intentional dumbing down of the church for the sake of filling more pews will ultimately lead to defection from Christ.
Read Wallace, "My Favorite Passage That's Not in the Bible."

I have long been persuaded that Wallace's approach is discerning and pastorally necessary. Isolation is always the wrong approach; we must equip, educate and "insulate" the Church from the attacks of the evil one. You know, something like "destroying speculations" or preventing Christians from being taken "captive through philosophy and empty deception." Radical concepts, but maybe they're worth trying?

To be sure, every translation committee must consider "ecclesiastical usage." That is, how the Church has read the Bible. This is why, for example, ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) is consistently translated "church," rather than "assembly" or "congregation." Even though our word "church" is properly derived from κυριακός [kuriakos], "of the Lord" or "the Lord's" in 1 Cor 11:20; Rev 1:10 (the Scots are closest with "kirk"). William Tyndale had ἐκκλησία right the first time with "congregation."

Nor is ecclesiastical usage always improper. I, for one, am not eager to see ἱλαστήριον, hilastarion rendered by anything other than "propitiation" (e.g., Rom 3:25).

So though ecclesiastical usage has its place in Bible translation, it must not drive textual or translation decisions. Leaving passages like Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11 in the same flow of the canonical text - just because the publisher does not want to handle the deluge of angry e-mails that are sure to follow their exclusion - just seems irresponsible.

Furthermore, this practice actually undermines our confidence in the inerrant text and undoes all that was accomplished in the Reformation's call to sola scriptura. For a vigorous application of "ecclesiastical usage" amounts essentially to a Roman Catholic view of binding authoritative tradition.

By not distinguishing these inauthentic passages - something like Wallace's footnote proposal - we are truly doing a great disservice. By offering a more transparent admittance of what we have known (for centuries!), we give greater witness to the text of Scripture and greater credibility to the preaching and teaching within the Church.

(NB, MacArthur's recent sermon, "The Fitting End to Mark’s Gospel").

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