Friday, September 25, 2009

Exposing the inaccuries of English translations of the bible

Bible translation has been a concern of mine, as has recovering women's history. Elizabeth McCabe has a good article on the subject of Phoebe as a deacon and a church leader on the SBL Forum and how her titles have been inaccurately translated as early as Jerome and his Vulgate. I enjoyed reading this feature which represented a compressed blurb from her forthcoming edited volume. I look forward to picking up the new book that McCabe has edited when it is released:
Women in the Biblical World: A Survey of Old and New Testament Perspectives (ed. Elizabeth A. McCabe; Lanham: University Press of America, 2009).
Phoebe is a good example (as is Junia) of how male translators and interpreters of the bible have altered our knowledge of women's history in the earlier period, erasing leadership roles that were theirs from the beginning of the movement. Historical-literary criticism being done especially by feminist biblical scholars is largely responsible for restoring these women to their historical prominence.


Mark Goodacre said...

Well said, April. Thanks for the link to the article, and the mention of the book.

Geoff Hudson said...

I think Romans 16 is a complete interpolation included to give the appearance that the epistle was written to Rome. The chapter is intended to give support to the idea that Paul had supposedly met these people on his mission to Gentiles. There was no mission to Gentiles. The original would appear to end at 15.33.

15.30 to 15.33 would have looked something like:

15.31.Pray that [I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea and that] my service in [Jerusalem] {Rome} may be acceptable to the saints [there] {here}, that by God’s [will] {Spirit} I may come to you with joy and together with you be refreshed.

15.33.The [God] {Spirit} of peace be with you all. Amen.

The original writer intended to go to Jerusalem.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

I have written a somewhat similar article published here.

Steve Wiggins said...

I used to tell my students about the old Italian proverb that (ironically) translates to "translators are traitors." Getting an accurate read on the past, even on their concepts of gender is very difficult, I fear. I used to use the German example of Mann, which was originally gender-neutral, but since it has given English our word "man" it is no longer a cogent example.

Geoff Hudson said...

Then why do most translations agree, at least 99%?

bulbul said...


Then why do most translations agree, at least 99%?
I very much doubt your number is correct. I've been a translator for more than a decade and the one thing I have never ever seen is two translations of the same text agreeing more than 75% and that's with the use of all modern computer-aided translation technologies.
But the question is still a good one: why do Bible translations agree most of the time? Answer: because no translation is done ex nihilo. There is always some tradition the translator draws from - Jerome started out correcting Vetus Latina, St. Cyril based his translation on the Septuagint and was influenced by translations into other languages (Armenian, possibly Ge'ez), the KJV translators had the Bishop's bible and the Great Bible in the back of their minds. And that's just the purely linguistic aspect of the translator's task (if there is such a thing), ignoring the difficult linguistic aspects. What's more important is that a translator is always a child of their own culture and thus approaches the task of translating a holy scripture with a number of preconceptions about what the text 'really says' (depending on what they've been taught about the text) or 'what it should say' (depending on what they've been taught about the world). If all you've ever been taught is 1 Cor. 14:34-35 and the point's been hammered in over and over again and you encounter a word that means "minister" with reference to a woman, you find yourself in quite a pickle. You can go with what the text says and thus create a conflict between 1 Cor. 14:34-35 and Romans 16:1 that will be difficult for your readers to resolve. Or you engage in some mental and hermeneutic gymnastics and end up with a questionable translations, justifying it by the requirements of the almighty context.
And just by the way, there are translations into languages other than English which translates Phoebe's position as "deaconess".

Geoff Hudson said...

Bulbul, the points you raise are mostly fairly minor. The variations are as you say, largely translator originated. Since there are many translators involved, one is bound to get variation of text, but mostly with a similar or same meaning. There can be no other ancient document that has received as much attention from translators.

I will give you another reason why the translations are all fairly similar. It is because the source texts are all basically the same. The 'winners', the Flavian editors, did a very good job of converting Acts and the epistles from prophetic documents to what they now are, and of creating at least one of the Gospels, basically in that order. They destroyed the original documents. Before they edited and created the New Testament, they reworked much of the writings attributed to Josephus, to cover-up the true cause of the 'war'. This was a priority. The writings attributed to Josephus and the New Testament are inextricably linked by this process. Thus they were not just translating.

bulbul said...

Bulbul, the points you raise are mostly fairly minor.
As long as we're talking about the process of converting a text in one language to a text in a different language, none of the points I have raised is a minor one. But you seem to be talking about editing, which is a very different process.

It is because the source texts are all basically the same.
Well of course. I thought we we're discussing the translation of the same source text (Pauline epistles in, say, the Nestle-Alland) version into English.

Shawna R. B. Atteberry said...

This book has just went onto my to-buy list. Thank you for pointing it out.

As I've discovered in my own translations, women always get short-changed. The most recent example was the woman of Proverbs 31 that I preached on a couple of weeks ago. Most of the military terms for this woman are watered down or just ignored in English translations.

Geoff Hudson said...

Bulbul, if Acts and the pauline epistles were originally prophetic documents written from Rome to prophets in Jerusalem, what is the most probable language they would have been written in? It was probably Hebrew. The reason we cannot recognise that, is probably because of the subsequent editing and expansion of these documents.

Geoff Hudson said...

Were there any prophetesses in early 'Christianity'? If there were, they would have surely prayed and spoken.

Geoff Hudson said...

OK, suppose the letter to the Corinthians was originally a letter to prophetic Jews in Jerusalem, written from Rome, in Hebrew. Assume there were Jewish prophetesses in the synagogues of Rome - we would be entirely in a Jewish milieu. What would have been the Jewish attitude to prophetesses, as distinct from the later Roman (pauline) attitude of the extant epistle?

May be that is too big a jump. So, simply, what would have been the Jewish attitude to prophetesses regarding speaking and prayer?

Talon said...

geoff, once again you are asserting wild stuff without backing it up.

Geoff Hudson said...

I am asking a question, not owards women.asserting. What would have been the Jewish attitude to prophetesses regarding speaking and prayer? Does anyone have the answer?

To put this in more general terms, what was the Jewish attitude towards women? I think it was probably more respectful than the Roman view. But I would like to here what the experts have to say.

Geoff Hudson said...

How does one delete a post? I'll start again.

I am asking a question, not asserting. What would have been the Jewish attitude to prophetesses regarding speaking and prayer? Does anyone have the answer?

To put this in more general terms, what was the Jewish attitude towards women? I think it was probably more respectful than the Roman view. But I would like to hear what the experts have to say.

Geoff Hudson said...

I think, for example, that 1 Cor. 11:2-5,11-14, was originally a prophetic defence of women. There was a difference between the priestly and prophetic view of women.

11.11.In the [Lord] {Spirit}, [however,] woman is [not] independent of man , [nor is] {and} man {is} independent of woman.

Geoff Hudson said...

11.11.In the [Lord] {Spirit}, [however,] woman is [not] independent of man , [nor is] {and} man {is} independent of woman.

So which do you think is most likely to be true? Which makes the most sense?

11.11.In the Spirit, woman is independent of man, and man is independent of woman.


11.11.In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman.

I would suggest the former. The pathetic reason added for the latter, (thought of on the hoof - 1Cor.11.12) is: "For as women came from man, so also man is born of women". Well so do women come from women. Then the writer tries to match his "in the Lord" (really "in the Spirit) by a further addition of "But everything comes from God." So I conclude that an editor has changed the text.

Geoff Hudson said...

And the former can stand on its own merit. It needs no further qualification.

Geoff Hudson said...

A number of things are very clear about 1 Cor. It was about the Spirit, prophesying (called speaking), and prophets in an assembly or synagogue (called the church). Something that is not so clear is the inclusivity of women as prophetesses, but I believe it was there in the original.

"14.31.For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged."
This was meant to include women. And just in case anyone was in any doubt, the original writer went on:
"As in all the congregations of the saints, 14.34. women [should remain silent in the churches. They] are [not] allowed to [speak] {prophesy} [but must be] in [submission] {the Spirit}.

This was distinct from the place of women in the temple under the control of the priests. Thus it was taken for granted that in all congregations of the saints, women would be allowed to prophesy.

Geoff Hudson said...

"The congregations of saints" were not the congregations of 'Paul' spread over the Mediterranean as a consequence of any Gentile mission. They were assemblies in Judea. The original letter of 1 Corinthians was to Judeans - the 'essene' communities that existed in almost every town and village.

Geoff Hudson said...

Thus when Ben Witherington wrote in the Anchor Bible dictionary, "various levitical laws were interpreted in such a way that women were prohibited from taking significant roles in the synagogue", his basis for saying that was rabbinic literature, which was written much later by people of priestly descent. The 'Essene' commununities did not have the chance to correct matters, because they were wiped-out by Vespasian when he destroyed the temple (that was basically all that he did). The four to five years before was a period of peace when the 'Essenes' were in charge of the temple.

Geoff Hudson said...

In his article on Women in Early Judaism, Witherington, again it seems depending on rabbinic literature, writes (Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol 6, page 957) "There were, however, various teachers in early Judaism that frowned on women being given being given anything more than a rudimentary religious education, especially in regard to the oral halakah." The very fact that Witherington says that those teachers 'frowned', implies that some women at least were interested in taking part in religious activity. What about Mary the virgin who was filled with the Spirit? It was Joseph Caiaphus who actually 'frowned' upon Mary ('wanted to put her away').

Witherington goes on; "Furthermore there is no evidence that prior to Jesus' ministry Jewish women were ever allowed to be disciples of a great teacher, much less travel with such a teacher." Again Mary travelled with the prophet James to Rome, after they and some others were expelled from Judea. (the garbled events are in Acts 1:13, and Ant.18.3.5). In Antiquities, the Testimonium Flavium appears shortly before in Ant.18.3.3. It is a fictitious interpolation.

Leon said...

Scholars, including Dr. DeConick, tend to be picky about what they consider a mistranslation, or which mistranslations they want to correct. Paradidomi is still mistranslated as betray for Judas. What no scholar disputes is that most of the time, paradidomi cetainly does not mean betray. It is translated as betray only for Judas. Even if it were true that betray is a secondary meaning, you would therefore have to justify translating it that way for Judas. It is not translated as betray when, in Mark 15, Pilate delivers Jesus to the soldiers or Jewish leaders hand him over (convey him) to Pilate.

Nothing in Mark justifies rendering it as betray for Judas. He tells a perfectly ambiguous story. Dr. DeConick and most scholars assume there was a betrayal and then bend the ambiguous evidence in a negative direction. In other words, they assume it should be translated as betray for Judas and then use the assumption to "prove" their case.

What Dr. DeConick has done on a previous blog in Aug. is to create what Bart Ehrman would call a mega-Gospel and I would call a staged reading to read some of the negative comments in Luke and John back into Mark. Mark never calls Judas a traitor, thief, or devil. You cannot attribute this to Mark, even implicitly. So as far as I can see, scholars have quite a good time suppressing certain voices from the past while championing only their own pet projects of how the past has been altered. I believe we should be honest about all of it and not pick and choose.

Leon Zitzer

Geoff Hudson said...

OK suppose you are right Leon. There are other strange things surrounding the 'crucifixion' account. It was more like a traditional stoning in Mark. I believe the death of Jesus was fabricated from the stoning of James at the hands of Ananus. (Ant.20:9.1) 'Handed over' is the sort of language used of a guard. In this case it was a Roman guard. 'Paul' was supposedly given a guard when he lived in his 'own' house on arrival in Rome. I suggest that it was James who travelled the other way from Rome to Jerusalem (it was reversed by the editor for 'Paul'), and that he lived in his own house in Jerusalem (that he had left previously on being bannished). He was guarded by Romans. The guard came under pressure and was bought-off.

Geoff Hudson said...

Incidentally, this would make a nonsense of the dating based on the birth of Christ, as referred to on Mark Goodacre's blog. Jesus never existed.

Matthew Alexander White said...

I think back when Phoebe was a deacon, the christian movement was nothing any man really would truely desire to be in control of: it was a community seeming built around togetherness and focusing on mystical intimacy with a deity and eachother. What man on earth would want to take over that? I'd rather sponsor the knitting club at my school... uggh! ;p There was/is nothing to gain from being in-charge of a group of people like that, so the women were left to run it (like church in the bible-belt now haha).
From the seemingly contradictory statements in the pauline leters, the early church seems to be a place where power and control weren't big issues... (at first...). Since there was probably no money, prestige, or temporal power involved, there was no need/desire for males to feel compelled to takeover and organize the movement (the better for controling it).

However, as certain parts of the christian movement grew in numbers, popularity, money, and prestige, it most certainly became something that I can see men (including me) being drawn to want to take over and monopolize the leaderships roles in (forgive me, i really am a sinful, dimple creature-but i try to know my faults).

Seriously, think about it, when there is a group or organization with little or no money, power, or prestige, the patriachy doesn't care if women run it. Why?, because running it would then just be then burden of service without any of the perks (power, prestige or money). When was the last time men tried to exclude women out of leadership roles in the local PTA, 12-step program, Aunt Edna's tuesday night prayer meeting, etc.
But you watch, if that prayer meeting ever takes off and turns into a full scale revival, the patriarchal local leaders will kick aunt enda out of her own home if they have to in order to take that thing over and be in charge of it.... and then they will misremember the facts and think it was their idea all along. (atleast thats what my wife says I do...hahha just kidding i know i do it too... without even trying... and thats the scary part)

But in answer to a few questions:
Yes Jewish perspectives on women are a lot healthier than Christian western ones. Espeically in the lately. Jewish thought doesnt have as much as a repulsion for the flesh ans inherently evil and so ergo it is a little more chill on sexuality and therefore women. Genesis is there book to begin with and they don't read the Fall narrative like Christians have done: Original Sin and chucking Eve under the bus.

as for Female prophetess' in NT times. Somewhere in the NT it mentions the early Christan Mnason who had five virgin daughters who prophesied.