With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

September 4, 2008 at 12:01 pm (Ancient Languages, Church, Theology and the Bible) (, )

Yesterday and today, I read over Doug Mangum’s series of posts comparing the new ESV and NLT study Bibles. Of particular interest to me was the third and final part in the series, where Doug compared the study notes of the two Bibles. In the course of his post, Doug pointed out several notes where he felt that the ESVSB over-theologized based on the Hebrew grammar. I scanned the Book of Jonah, available for viewing online, myself, and felt he was fairly justified in his points of contention with several of these notes.

When Doug ended with the statement, “what I’ve seen so far leads me to think it will be a worthwhile addition to the study bible market,” it started me thinking about whether or not I would say the same thing. I am in agreement with Doug in that I would be interested to see how the rest of the study Bible turns out (and certainly before making any bold judgments on the overall quality of the ESVSB – which I wouldn’t do based on one excerpt). However, considering the notes of the ESVSB brought this thought to my mind: in general (not speaking now of the ESVSB specifically) can a study Bible that makes theological or hermeneutical claims based on the Hebrew grammar, and on closer inspection, it turns out these claims are flat out wrong (or at least highly tenuous), really be considered “worthwhile”?

My problem is this: those of us who know the Biblical languages (or in my case, Hebrew and Aramaic, Greek to be added in this coming school year) have a great responsibility toward those who do not. There is enough self-perpetuated ignorance among lay people as it is, without those who have training in Biblical languages to be spreading more of it around. To me, this is almost unforgivable. Consider the general audience of study Bibles: the average Bible-minded Christian who doesn’t know Hebrew or Greek, and really has no resources to look up something a study Bible says about the language to verify its accuracy.

When it comes to interpretations based on the English, at least the lay person has English resources, if they so chose to utilize them, to look up and see if the information being given has some credence. However, when a claim is made based on the original language, what further resource does the lay person have? They are left with basically two options: trust that the person writing the study notes knows what they are talking about and accept what they say, or try to find someone personally who knows the languages to verify it with them. Since there are, sadly, hardly a glut of people running around in local churches who have a handle on Hebrew and Greek, most are left with option one. There is the option of looking in commentaries by people who know the languages to see if they say something similar, but ultimately it’s the same idea: they can’t know for themselves.

Therefore, I repeat what I said earlier: those who know the languages have a great responsibility. We cannot afford to be careless in our statements based on Hebrew words or grammar. There are hundreds of thousands of people depending on the accuracy, diligence, and scholarship of study tools to get it right. I, of course, realize that we are all human and we all make mistakes, nor do any of us have unlimited knowledge, and some are further down the road of understanding the languages than others. Obviously, there will always be some enterprising person who will make something of nothing regardless of how careful one is. However, to the very best of our ability and knowledge, when we are dealing with educating lay people (which study Bibles, among other tools, ultimately purport to do), we must be very careful in how we use the biblical languages to add theological meaning to the text.

Of course, ultimately, this would all be solved if every Christian would learn the Biblical languages. I am in full agreement with my husband there.


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Jeremiah 3:9

July 29, 2008 at 10:08 am (Ancient Languages, Theology and the Bible) (, , )

Thanks to everyone who posted a comment on my previous post regarding what Harvard class I should take. I appreciate the input! There’s still time, if anyone else wants to comment. 馃檪

I was translating Jeremiah today, and I ran across this problem in 3.9:

讜址转旨侄讞直谞址祝 讗侄转志讛指讗指专侄抓

Here’s the problem: how to translate? You see, the vowels clearly indicate that this is a Qal. (Alas, the vowels didn’t really copy and paste properly. Just take my word for it.) Unfortunately, the Qal definition of this verb is something like, “to be defiled.” This is a problem because there is a direct object marker after the verb indicating that the noun “the land” is the direct object of the verb. So, what it literally says is “she was defiled (DO) the land.” Obviously that makes no sense. The stative definition can’t take a direct object. At first I thought, okay, perhaps the DO is really the preposition “with,” as per the end of the verse, “and she committed adultery with the stone and with the tree.” Unfortunately, “she was defiled with the land” really doesn’t make sense in context. The land didn’t defile Israel, Israel defiled the land, which is clearly stated properly elsewhere. So, we either have two options: remove the DO marker and thus we are able to make “the land” the subject so that it reads, “the land was defiled,” or, change the vowels on the verb to make it a Hiphil, which would make it read, “and she defiled the land,” which obviously makes much more sense, and also fits the context better, since here we are primarily focused on Israel’s actions, not the land.

After consulting BDB I see that I am not (of course) the first to notice this problem, and BDB lists both options for resolving this. My question is, is there really a textual problem here? Did the Masoretes mess up the vowels on the verb, or include an extra DO marker? Or, is this some sort of poetic thing, where they just liked the way it sounded regardless of what we say the “definitions” should be?

Of further interest is that apparently this phrase is not in the LXX, though I’m not sure about the other versions. (BHS has a textual note but I’m not entirely sure what it means!)

This would be interesting to put some further study into, but, today I must forge on ahead in my translation.

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