My Church History Perspective 5 – Translation and Textual Criticism

The two threads of the problem of translation and the impact of modern textual criticism strike me as interwoven with the work of history in different ways. Any work of translation, of course, is an intrinsically historical effort. Language is closely correlated with culture. So before an idea can be expressed in a different language, it must be understood in the setting of its original context. However, because different languages operate in different cultural contexts and historical settings, operating sometimes under very different assumptions, there is often not a clear expression of an idea from one language in another. Modern textual criticism, on the other hand, often seems to be used against actual historical evidence, as if working from texts alone one can somehow divine the “truth.” I wanted to touch on both topics, at least briefly, in this series.

The work of translation is, as I already mentioned, a fundamentally historical work. The success and accuracy of any translation effort depends on the correct understanding of the text that is being translated. Since idiom and cultural assumptions permeate any and every text, if you do not properly understand those assumptions and the idioms that flow from them, you will misunderstand the text being translated. Obviously, if you don’t correctly understand that which you are translating, the odds of correctly translating it are significantly worse.

But the task is even harder because it is impossible to approach any text without your own presuppositions. The more important the text is to you, the more your desires will influence your translation efforts. Modern translators of biblical texts into English try to overcome some of those biases by assembling teams of translators. However, that simply trades the individual bias for a group bias. No translation effort is ever free from that sort of bias. That’s why it’s always good to research a translation and understand which Christian tradition or group produced the translation. It’s a particular problem now due to the radical division and pluralism of belief that exists in Christianity today.

Sometimes translators simply ignore history. For example, there are those who decided that the Apostle Junia mentioned in Romans must have been a male named “Junias” despite the complete lack of any historical evidence that such a male name ever existed and over the clear historical tradition of the Church about Junia. Why did they reach that conclusion? Because they did not believe a woman could have been an apostle. The bias of the group drove decisions about the translation of the text in direct opposition to the overwhelming historical evidence to the contrary. However, translation bias is not usually as blatant as that. Typically, it’s more subtle.

Modern textual criticism, on the other hand, is much stranger and much more driven by the biases and goals of those performing it. I think I’m too “postmodern” in my formation to understand a perspective that believes you can “objectively” determine much of anything by studying texts. It’s this discipline, for instance, that has promulgated the widely held belief that the Gospel of Mark was written first and even that there is some mythical “lost” document that Mark and the other synoptics used as a source. There is no historical basis for either claim. Every patristic source we have states that Matthew was written first. Moreover, there would have been no motive for the ancient writers to lie or distort the truth. There is no evidence that the order itself was important to them. They were simply reporting the tradition they had received from the apostles themselves or from those who had known one or more of them.

The question then, is really why the modern textual critics wanted Mark to be the first gospel written? And when you ask that question, you begin to unravel a tapestry that allowed some in that group to place Mark in the second century, and remove all the gospels from an apostolic source. That’s not a widely held belief anymore from what I can tell, but the idea that Mark was written first, developed as a linchpin for that effort, persists nonetheless.

Bias also creeps in through variations in the ancient texts. If you read the notes in the translation of the Holy Scriptures you use, you might see notes to the effect that the “oldest” texts do not contain this or that bit of the text or that they say something different. Our initial reaction is to believe that the “older” texts are the more accurate, but that’s a reaction based on modern assumptions. In the ancient world, the texts were generally produced by hand. It was a long, laborious process and much depended on the skill of the transcriber. Given that texts were always less trusted in an oral culture, a poor text would be quickly identified and set aside while a good text would be used. Thus the oldest surviving texts are more likely to be poor copies that were little used while the better texts were much used and thus did not remain intact. If something exists in a broad array of old texts, there is no reason to reject those texts simply because one or two older ones have something different.

However, even among the best copies there are some variations in the text. But that doesn’t seem to have bothered anybody in the ancient world. They expected it and treated it as completely natural. If you read patristic sermons, you’ll encounter places where they note that the text they are reading says this, but they’ve read it differently elsewhere, and then they’ll tend to explore points in both variations. Later, as the texts were translated into other languages, you’ll see points made from the nuance of the language of the translation that go beyond the meaning in the original. Christianity has always believed that the Spirit speaks authoritatively through the text in any language and, as long as it is consistent with the tradition of interpretation, has had no problem with nuance arising from the translation itself.

The obsession with determining exactly what text is “right” is a purely modern one. And it most often seems to be a way of disputing or rejecting traditional interpretations and asserting novel interpretations instead. There is actually no such thing as a truly “conservative” (in the traditional sense of the word, not in the way it seems to be bandied about today) Protestant. But then, most people today (at least in the US) don’t use “conservative” or “liberal” in anything like their original sense. I’m not sure there is any consensus on what the new meanings of the words are because they don’t seem to be used in any consistent fashion at all. Most often, they seem to be used either as pejoratives or to describe the group with which you associate. If that group uses one of the words, then in that context, the word means the things that the group says and the other word describes everyone else.

Or at least, so it seems to me.

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  1. Posted December 15, 2009 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    At one point some years back, I decided to see what all the fuss was about on the gospels and which came first & all that. Being the type who doesn’t like to take the expert’s word (since your likely to get expert’s biases rather than solid data), I just got hold of the Greek received text for the four gospels, starting running comparisons on them & such. You know the “compare versions” function in MSWord is a handy tool. One of these days I may actually write up the whole set of what I noticed.

    Short version: certain accounts (but not all) are so similar between GMatt and GMark that I expect they shared a written source. I also suspect that the written source was not in Greek; too many places where they have different words or phrases that happen to mean the exact same thing, as if both were translated from an earlier account in another language. GMark leaves his original languages showing more often: “Rabbi” . “Korban”, etc.

    Now we know Matthew was said to have written “in the Hebrew tongue”. And we know our received GMatt is in Greek. So we’re missing a layer, when it comes to that.

    It’s interesting stuff, not 100% cut and dried.

    Take care & God bless
    Anne / LF

  2. Posted December 16, 2009 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    It will be interesting to read if you ever post your observations. My main point in that section is that an analysis of the text alone can’t actually tell you which one was written was first and certainly doesn’t provide enough information to overrule the actual historical statements we have. Moreover, since the interpretation of a text in and of itself is different for every individual, “conclusions” flowing almost exclusively from textual criticism reveals more about the person doing the analysis than anything “inherent” in the text.

    Grace and peace to you also over the holidays.

    However, if you keep signing Anne/LF, you’ll make me feel like I need to start signing everything Scott/Thariand. 😉

  3. Posted December 17, 2009 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

    You know, that last part … it may be worth it. I have a follow-up question: with or without the little blue pentagram?

  4. Posted December 18, 2009 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    Hmmm. Well I wouldn’t really be Thariand, Adept of the Blue Star without it, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a smiley for it. 😛

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