What’s in a word?

Monday Musings for January 18, 2021

Good morning, Musers,

The more I study God’s word, the more I am convinced that he was wise to allow language to evolve naturally over the centuries. It’s tempting to think that we might be better off if he made it so that language never changed. That way we’d have one language for all cultures and all times... and that would certainly take the pressure off translating the Bible. But people being people, they would still mess it up!

You see, the problem has never been authenticating the words that God used. The New Testament is an astoundingly accurate rendering of the original documents (the autographa) — and it is not just we Christians who say this; secular historians admit that the New Testament has an extremely high textual and historic credibility. But, although the project of translating the Bible begins with the study of its documents, their history and history per se, it has its own demands.

Translators must answer important questions like, what are the actual words that God used in the original documents? What did those words mean in the original context? What is the best way to bring that forward into the contemporary idiom? That is biblical hermeneutics in a nutshell... and the algorithm you use (or assent to) will affect how you read your Bible forever.

The most important part of translation is understanding what the original text meant in its native cultural context. A scholar cannot make an informed choice about how to say something in English until he has a firm grasp on what it said in the biblical Hebrew or Greek. As such, there is no substitute for working in the original languages.

Does this mean that you cannot make informed decisions about translations if you haven’t studied biblical Hebrew and Greek in seminary? Not at all. I never studied the biblical languages directly, but with all the material available to today’s English reader, you can join me and use the work of credentialed scholars. It’s a bit like using a boxed cake mix, but that’s how I roll!

Today’s questioner is asking about the word “in” in Greek. She is worried that because we have so many ways to render that word in English that it could have been mishandled. This highlights one of the challenges of hermeneutics: the original languages are comparatively small.

By way of contrast, English has a huge lexicon! This is a boon to us: the more words, the more precision! But this also sets up a problem: that level of precision did not exist in the original languages. So, when we bring propositional content forward from the Hebrew or Greek, we have to be careful not to imply that a level of precision exists that did not exist in the original languages.

Let’s take a lesson from the physical sciences. When you transfer a fixed amount of heat into a greater volume, each unit of the new area is comparatively cooler. Now, all that heat is still there… but there’s no free lunch in physics: with more units (volume) to absorb the heat, there is less heat available per unit.

Translating from a smaller language to a larger language works the same way. Since there are more possible words with which to collide in the new language, each word will have more possible matches. The translation will, therefore, be “cooler.” When an old idea is brought into a new larger language, it will be more diffuse than in the original… but God knows this, too.

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