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C. S. Lewis on Bible Translation

I recently attended a lecture by the Revd Professor Alistair McGrath of Kings College London and Oxford.  The lecture was hosted by the Lanier Theological Library, a private collection of nearly 80,000 theological books.  It was founded and opened to the public just 3 years ago by an amazing fellow named Mark Lanier.  Lanier is one of the top trial lawyers in the nation, and one of the most gifted Bible teachers you will ever hear.  For those of us who love books and all things English, the Lanier Library is a bit of heaven.  You can tell from the picture that it looks like the kind of library you’d find at Cambridge. Lanier Theological Library

Professor McGrath was invited by Lanier to give a lecture on the contributions of C. S. Lewis.  2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the death of C. S. Lewis.  He died the same day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, November 22, 1963.  I’m sure Lewis’ death was overshadowed by the death of the 35th president.

McGrath has written a definitive biography of Lewis to mark the occasion of his passing and reassess his contribution.  He titled it C. S. Lewis—a Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet.  If you are interested in Lewis’ life, I recommend you buy it and read it.  McGrath is a worthy interpreter of Lewis.

While I have read 7-8 of Lewis’ books in the past, I haven’t read everything Lewis wrote.  I discovered from listening to McGrath that Lewis had a great deal to say about Bible translation in a variety of essays and the preface to J. B. Phillips’ translation of the New Testament Letters (published 1947). 

 Here are a few things Lewis said about translation:

 . . . the Authorised Version has ceased to be a good (that is, a clear) translation.  It is no longer modern English: the meanings of words have changed. . . . The truth is that if we are to have translation at all we must have periodical re-translation.  There is no such thing as translating a book into another language once and for all, for a language is a changing thing. If your son is to have clothes it is no good buying him a suit once and for all: he will grow out of it and have to be re-clothed.

 We ought therefore to welcome all new translations (when they are made by sound scholars) and most certainly those who are approaching the Bible for the first time will be wise not to begin with the Authorised Version—except perhaps for the historical books of the Old Testament where its archaisms suit the saga-like material well enough. 

 Lewis went on to commend the translations of James Moffatt (1870-1944) and Ronald A. Knox (1888-1957).  They had translated the full Bible, beginning with the New Testaments. C S Lewis

 After having read some of what Lewis has said about translation, I wonder what he would think of The Voice.  Lewis loved stories; he was himself a master story-teller.  Would Lewis have appreciated the emphasis on story in The Voice?  Would he like the screen play format we used in dialogue that makes it clear who is speaking to whom?  Lewis praised human imagination and encouraged Christians to be imaginative when sharing the good news; more than any 20th century Christian leader he unleashed his imagination in expressing his faith.  What would Lewis think of the imaginative ways the poets and scholars worked together in order to discover the beauty of the poetry, the acrostics and the various literary techniques employed by each writer?  Well, we will never know what Lewis might think, this side of eternity.  What I do know is that the more I read Lewis, the more I think he would celebrate any serious attempt made to capture the hearts and minds of those who read the Bible. 

“God’s Restorative Justice”

There is a phrase in Paul’s letters that is notoriously difficult to translate.  It occurs at key moments in major letters like Romans and 2 Corinthians.  Most often the phrase is translated into English as “the righteousness of God.” cropped-p52.gif

Notice how the New American Standard Version renders Romans 1:16-17: 

                 16For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.

            17For in it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written” But the righteous man shall live by faith.”

Now Romans 3:21-22 (NASV):

            21But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets,

            22even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; . . .

Now I must admit that I like the NASV translation; I have preached from it for years.  It is probably the most literal translation into English we have.  If you have the time, interest, and skill in doing a word study, it is an important translation to have around. Unfortunately, it tends to obscure the meaning of important phrases.  People without a background in Scripture may be left scratching their heads.

So what does “the righteousness of God” refer to?  It is an important question.  Without getting that straight you can’t make heads or tails out of what Paul is saying in these key passages.  Scholars, by the way, have been debating the significance of this phrase in these letters for centuries.  So it is no easy task.

When we were translating THE VOICE, we spent a great deal of time working through Paul’s language in these passages.  We ended up with what I think is a faithful and helpful rendering.  Here is The Voice translation of Romans 1:16-17:

                 16For I am not the least bit embarrassed about the gospel.  I won’t shy away from it, because it is God’s power to save every person who believes: first the Jew, and then the non-Jew.  17You see, in the good news, God’s restorative justice is revealed.  And as we will see, it begins with and ends in faith.  As the Scripture declares: “By faith the just will obtain life.”  

 Now Romans 3:21-22:

             21But now for the good news: God’s restorative justice has entered the world, independent of the law.  Both the law and the prophets told us this day would come.  22This redeeming justice comes through the faithfulness of Jesus, the Anointed, who makes salvation a reality for all who believe—without the slightest partiality.

Now, we think this translation may help shed light on what Paul is getting at here in these verses.  Still we decided to put some commentary with it to help people think through it.

The phrases “God’s restorative justice” and “this redeeming justice” refer to the same reality.  For Paul the good news—the gospel—is located in history in the incarnation and sacrificial death of Jesus. By “God’s restorative justice” Paul means first that justice and rightness belong to God; they reflect his character.  God, and no one else, determines what is right and what is just.  But as we all know, character is reflected in action.  “Justice” and “righteousness” are nouns of action.  This means that God’s justice must express itself in some way.  So it is in the nature of a just God to act, to restore, to redeem, to repair the world.  This God did primarily through His Son, Jesus the Anointed, the Liberating King. 

Paul would not shy away from these bold claims.  The gospel is power.  It is God’s power to restore the world to what it can and ought to be.  But how do we get in on what God is doing?  Well, Paul says, it begins with and ends in faith.  It begins with God’s faithfulness to His creation, then His covenant people.  It continues with Jesus’ faithfulness to God to enter our broken realm to give Himself in love to begin its repair.  It ends with us, hearing and responding in faith and following faithfully in his footsteps. 

Now read the passage again with these things in mind.  Do you see it?  Did you get it?  Recognize that from the beginning God has been at work to restore our world so badly damaged by sin and corruption.

Bousset at 100

I’ve worked with several scholars–Loren Stuckenbruck, Paula Fredriksen, and Larry Hurtado—to create a special session at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting in November 2013 (Baltimore, MD).  Christ enthroned2013 is the 100th anniversary of the publication of Bousset’s magisterial work, Kyrios Christos.  We thought it might be helpful to take stock of Bousset’s influence on the field of religious studies. Here are a few of the salient questions we hope to address:

(1)   How do we assess the significance of Bousset’s work today (particularly Kyrios Christos), 100 years later?

(2)   How has Bousset shaped scholarly discussion?

(3)   Is there a new history of religions school (a statement made by Professor Martin Hengel in the 1990s)?

(4)   Is there anything Bousset said that we missed?

(5)   Has subsequent research (Dead Sea Scrolls, pseudepigrapha, archaeology, etc.) proved or disproved any of Bousset’s ideas?

Four prominent New Testament scholars have agreed to present papers and guide our discussion.  They are

       Kelley Coblentz Bautch, St. Edward’s University

      Larry Hurtado, University of Edinburgh

      Lutz Doering, University of Durham

      Cilliers Breytenbach, University of Berlin

Dr. Jeff Peterson of Austin Graduate School of Theology has agreed for his program unit, Extent of Theological Diversity in Early Christianity, to host the session.

Professor Jens Schroeter, editor of the prestigious journal Early Christianity, has agreed to publish the essays in the fall 2014.

As details about the time and place of the session are made known, I’ll share them with you.  If you plan on being in Baltimore, MD in November 2013, I hope you will join us. 


English or Biblish?

I remember a conversation I had with a friend years ago.  He was lamenting the fact that modern Bible translations like the New King James Version and the New American Standard Version had dropped words like “Thee,” “Thou,” “Thine,” “art” (as in the Lord’s prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven . . . “) and “hast.”  These words were typical of the 16th and 17th centuries but have long since fallen out of use with most English-speaking people. The only time people may have heard or used them was “in church.”  For my friend, the Bible was not the Bible if it didn’t sound . . . well “Biblish.”    kjv_bible

(I’m grateful to Mark Strauss and Gordon Fee for bringing this word to my attention in their excellent book, How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007]).  Modern translations, he felt, had left behind the formal language of heaven (God’s language) preferring instead the mundane language of “this world.” The translation he loved sounded more “spiritual” to him than the newer ones, so he was against them, pure and simple.  Like many people, my friend had a deep emotional connection with the King James Version of the Bible based on all the years he spent in church and Sunday School.

As a seminary graduate and a recently minted PhD in New Testament, I tried to explain to him all the complexities of Bible translation. I talked about translation theory, the ins-and-outs of determining word meaning, the difference between functional and formal equivalence. I defended the need for newer translations.  But it didn’t matter.  His mind was made up.

The basic concern we had as a translation team on The Voice was to render Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic sentences (our source languages) into meaningful, natural English (our target language).  In other words, the goal of any English translation must be English not Biblish.  As Strauss and Fee note: “Biblish results when the translator simply replaces Hebrew or Greek words with English ones, without sufficient concern for natural or idiomatic English” (p. 21).   Translation is not about exchanging this Greek word for that English word or this Hebrew word for that English word.  Translation is not that easy. It involves knowing both the source and target languages well enough to be able to move back-and-forth between them.  It entails an understanding of culture—then and now—and recognizing how language is one of the key vehicles of culture.  Translation, I have come to understand, is not a science; it is an art.

I’m not sure what my friend would think about The Voice. I haven’t seen him in years.  I hope he would have mellowed a bit and would appreciate what we have tried to do.  In the last year I have met a number of people who prefer the KJV but now read regularly from The Voice.  But, if I’m honest, I’d be disappointed to learn that my friend had lost his deep, emotional connection with the KJV.  The KJV is a great, historic translation, even if it is no longer in our language.

Saul a.k.a. Paul

We encounter Paul the apostle in the NT under two names: Saul and Paul. There’s a common misunderstanding about the two names. Often you hear that Saul the Pharisee changed his name to Paul when he came to faith in Jesus. At first glance that seems reasonable because there are biblical people whose names are changed at significant moments in the story. For example, Abram’s name is changed to Abraham when he puts faith in the covenant that God was making with him (Genesis 12-22). Jacob’s name is changed to Israel ( = one who wrestles with God) right before he meets his brother Esau again. Jesus gives Simon the name Peter (Cepha = rock). So there is a tradition of name changes that correspond to important moments in a person’s life. Also, when we first encounter Saul, he’s persecuting the church and standing by as Stephen is stoned (Acts 7). Later, however, in Acts 13-28 the missionary, apostle is referred to as Paul. Conclusion: he changed his name when he accepted Jesus as Messiah. Sounds reasonable, right?
On closer investigation, however, we find out this is not the case. First, Saul is converted or called in Acts 9. He’s baptized and engages in apparently a significant period of Christian discipleship and ministry under the name of Saul. In Acts 13 Saul along with several others are leaders in the church at Antioch when the Holy Spirit sets them a part for the Gentile mission. In Acts 13:6 Saul is called Paul for the first time (“But Saul, who was also known as Paul, . . . “) on the island of Cyprus. For the rest of the book and in all of his letters he is referred to as Paul. So what is going on?

Saul was a Pharisaic Jew of the tribe of Benjamin. If Jewish tradition were followed–and there is no reason to think it wasn’t–he was given his Jewish name on the day of his circumcision. So Saul was his Jewish name, the name of Israel’s first king. But Saul may well have been a Roman citizen as well (that’s Acts testimony) which means that he needed a Roman name. Perhaps Paul was taken because it was a family name or the name of someone who helped provide citizenship to his family, we don’t know. But the name Paulos in Greek means something like “little fellow.” I suggest that what happens is this: when Saul is around Jews, he uses his Jewish name. But when Saul is around Greeks and Romans, he uses his Roman name. In Antioch where the Jewish population of Christ-believers was significant it made sense that he’d use his Jewish name. But during the Gentile mission, he encountered primarily, well . . . Gentiles. So he used his Roman name then. But there’s another thing. When you take the Jewish name Saul and render it in Greek it sounds like this: Saulos. And the word saulos in Greek means “the sultry walk of a prostitute.” No wonder Paul didn’t want to be introduced like that.

By the way, the same thing happens today. One of my best friends is a Jewish rabbi. His Jewish name is Shimon (Simon). When he is around Jews, particularly at the synagogue, they call him Shimon. But his “American” name, the name on his birth certificate, is Stuart. That’s how I know him.

As you move across cultures, you may find that your name means something odd or even scandalous in another language. That’s true for another friend of mine. His Vietnamese name when properly pronounced in Vietnamese is a really, really bad word in English. So he allows all his non-Vietnamese friends to call him by another, more acceptable name.

Cross-cultural work calls for compromise and creativity. In 1 Corinthians 9 Paul said I have become all things to all people so that I can by all means save some.

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