July 21, 2010

Does translating scripture beget theological fixation?

It's the problems in anyone's work that most naturally tend to absorb one's attention. This can't be any different for translators. Plainly factual claims - Joseph took Mary, Jesus went up to Jerusalem, Paul fell off his donkey - must be far more easily gotten through than whatever Paul said in each chapter of Romans.

Now, many young Christian scholars in training are told to put great emphasis on learning how to translate from the original languages - and that seems proper to everyone - but I'm starting to wonder if this doesn't have natural side effects.

Christian scholars spend so much time on translation and meaning, so much time working through ancient language, one word, one sentence, one thought at a time. If the bulk of that time necessarily veers towards wrestling through the more esoterically problematic portions of scripture's content... can a young mind avoid getting stuck in those ruts?

I'd especially love to hear comments from the seminary grads, students & professors who keep up with this blog. Does this happen? Does this explain as much as I suspect it might? Is it even a problem? If not, why not? If so, what might be done about this?


Geoff Hudson said...

It certainly is a problem. They (biblical scholars) spend so much time telling us the meaning of the words that they miss the logical structure. The NT consists of a number of documents derived in part from earlier documents. We can no longer directly prove this because, as yet. No-one has directly discovered the earlier documents which were written by first century Jewish prophets who rejected animal sacrifice. But we can prove it indirectly by a logical reconstruction of some of the existing text, whatever language one uses. In other words, I am saying that learning the original Greek, Aramaic or Hebrew is a distraction to getting to the source of the documents, because the existing text has been so changed in many places. If you wish I will post some examples.

Bill said...

That won't be necessary, Geoff. Thanks anyway.

mike fox said...


i think you've pinpointed a real danger. but, the ones who really go on to master (or at least develop some chops with) the languages seem to reach a certain level of synthesis and are able to build on insights at the micro level to help them understand what's happening at the macro level of a book. when this happens, the church is rewarded with good biblical-theology. when we have good biblical-theology, lives are impacted. like i said, i think you've pinpointed an inherent danger (that exists in every discipline i can think of), but the alternative - downplaying the significance of the biblical languages - is not something i personally would deem acceptable.

great thoughts, great post

Bill said...

Mike, I agree. We can't downplay the importance of original language work for scholars. What we do need to downsize is an overly-philosophical mindset, given too much towards abstractions and minutiae.

Of course, it's like pulling jaws to get some seminarians to shift out of that focus. I suspect this post may partly explain why.

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