Tom Pittman's WebLog

2021 April 16 -- Accurate Bible Translations

Knowing that I care about Bible translation, my friend sent me a link to a video interview with John MacArthur, in which "Mac" discusses (among other things) his support for the new LSB translation -- the "L" stands for Lockman, the publisher (I guess they did the same thing that the Southern Baptists did some two decades earlier, see my "Translation Accuracy" essay at the time),but they hunted around for a more marketable word that also starts with an "L" -- so I looked at their website, which featured a bright colorful picture of a stained-glass window with nice Christian symbolism in the image, then pointed out that the purpose of a window is to let you look through it to the scenery outside (another purpose, not mentioned, is to let light in, which stained glass does without distracting you with irrelevant stuff to look at).

The purpose of any translation of any source text or speech into any language -- including new Bible translations into English -- is to induce in the reader of the translated text the same understanding as the original author intended for the original readers, so far as we can figure that out. Modern "poetry" is intentionally obscure and focussed on emotions rather than cognitive understanding, so it is probably best translated by equally obscure words which induce the same or similar emotions, but that was not true of poetry more than 100 years old. Everything else, the original author usually intended to induce a particular cognitive understanding, and the translation should aim for the same cognitive understanding. Thus far most modern translators (including those approved by MacArthur) probably agree with me.

We disagree on the nature and language of the intended audience, and sometimes on what exactly the original author intended to communicate. I think the "S" in the short name of those Bibles that boast of it most certainly stands for "Scholar" because many (perhaps most, but certainly the LSB according to MacArthur) of them aim for a single English word to translate each single Greek or Hebrew word, even when the original text in different places where the same word is used meant two entirely different things by it. Only Scholars can possibly know the original culture and language well enough to figure out what is meant by the blatant inaccuracy (ordinary English speakers seeing one word and assuming it means the same thing in both contexts). Perhaps the translators, all pastors themselves, think of this as "job security" for the pastors who preach from this obscure translation, the same as many King-James-only pastors apparently think of their own ministry. I was astonished to hear MacArthur actually say as much in his defense of the LSB. But that does not make it a good translation, and certainly not an "accurate" translation for anybody other than those scholars, and probably not for them either. I have seen this kind of inaccuracy happen in my very presence (see "Ambiguity" in my essay "On Love" last year).

Then I watched enough of the video to clearly understand what the LSB translators had in mind. MacArthur said "It is not the job of the translator to produce a text that accommodates the reader..." I stopped right there. It is the job of the translator to produce a text that accommodates the reader. That's what translation is all about, and the LSB is intended to do exactly that, insofar as it accommodates the reader's lack of Greek and Hebrew training. Otherwise why bother? Why not force the readers to read their Bibles in the original language(s) as the Muslims insist of the Koran? The only difference is that MacArthur (and apparently also the LSB translators) want to accommodate a different class of readers, who speak and understand a different dialect of English, than the other Bibles -- notably the New Living Transaltion, which is measurably and substantially more accurate -- that is, ordinary readers (not scholars) achieve a higher level of correct understanding -- than any other Bible that I have seen the numbers for (see my "Translation Accuracy" essay for numbers, although the links may be stale by now).

2021 April 21 -- Lockman's Silly Blunder (LSB)

John MacArthur is a big name among conservative Protestants, not quite the status of Pope, but he probably wouldn't mind if you thought of him that way. At least that's the message that comes across in the portion I watched of a YouTube video interview dated March 29, from 47:53 to the end, specifically at 49:39 where he states: "The bridge between the original author, and therefore the original text, and the reader, is the preacher and the teacher." A half minute later he takes responsibility for what he is there announcing as "the Legacy Standard Bible" or (as they seem to prefer) LSBible.

Me, I think rather slowly, and when I posted my first remarks on this pseudo-translation last week, it had not yet occurred to me that the Bible itself (indirectly) addresses the question of how to translate the Holy Name of God into another language. That came to me this morning after I had struggled through one of the Psalms of Asaph -- Hebrew poetry uses a lot of obscure words not otherwise frequent in the Biblical text, and I don't know all those words and idioms, and the marvelous praise to God in this Psalm tends to get lost in the effort, sort of the way that the self-centered "vain repetitions" and ear-shattering decibels tends to destroy any sense of praise that might linger in modern church "music" (see "Easter After the Ban" earlier this month) -- and it was like God was saying, "No problem, here's something for you today."

Anyway, MacArthur makes this big deal about how most Bibles translate the Tetragrammaton, the Holy Name of God as "LORD" (in all caps). I don't think he mentioned that there are exceptions, most notably the 1950 New World Translation by the Jehovah's Witnesses, which carefully punches through the Greek 'kurios' ("Lord") in the New Testament quotations from the Old Testament to recover the original "Jehovah" from the Hebrew as pointed (vowels added in the later Hebrew manuscripts). People were forgetting how words should be pronounced in the original consonant-only Hebrew text, so the Jewish protectors of the text added vowels, but the Holy Name of God, which had always been written in Olde Hebrew, they pointed with the vowels for 'Adonai' ("my Lord") so that readers would remember to say that instead of accidentally profaning the Holy Name. The result is that nobody knows the correct pronunciation of the Name ("Yahweh" is only a guess, and "Jehovah" is a silly nonsense word designed to remind the Jewish readers not to say it).

So MacArthur ridicules the traditional Jewish way of translating the Holy Name as "LORD" by pointing out that often it is used together with the actual Hebrew word "Lord" so that you would be saying "Lord Lord" -- he does not mention that the traditional way to deal with that particular construct is to render it "Lord GOD" which preserves the distinctive spelling as in the Hebrew text and puts the informed reader on notice that this the Holy Name.

What came to me this morning is that we have in the "inerrant, inspired by God" (I believe MacArthur would agree with the sentiment behind those words) Greek text a translation of one of those "Lord Lord" verses in the Old Testament, translated into Greek by the Apostle Matthew under the inspriation of the Holy Spirit and (as all conservatives, certainly including MacArthur, would agree) without error, where no less an authority than Jesus himself quotes from the Hebrew Bible in Hebrew, but we have only Matthew's Greek translation, which carefully matches the Hebrew text word for word -- a feat that no English Bible, not even the LSBible, can match! -- which you can see for yourself:

Ps.110:1 in Hebrew: 'Neum [said] YeHoWaH [the Name] le-adon-i [to-lord-my]'

Ps.110:1 in Greek LXX: 'Eipen [said] ho [the] Kurios [Lord] tw [to-the, dat] Kuriw [Lord, dat] mou [my]'

As quoted by Jesus and translated to Greek by Matthew in Matt.22:44:

'Eipen [said] Kurios [Lord] tw [to-the, dat] Kuriw [Lord, dat] mou [my]'
If you break the third Hebrew word into its three component parts, a prefix preposition, the main word, and a suffix possessive pronoun, you get an exact match, including word order, of Matthew's Greek to the original Hebrew. Often New Testament writers simply quote the Septuagint, sometimes even when it differs from the Hebrew, but this time Matthew carefully matched the Hebrew grammar and word sequence, but he did not preserve the original spelling of the Holy Name of God. Why is that? He was there when Jesus quoted the original, and I think Jesus himself quoted the text the way all good Jews quoted it, as 'Neum Adonai leadoni' [said LORD to Lord my]. That's ungrammatical in English, the best we can do is "[the] LORD said to my Lord..." But in Greek you can do that, because the words are inflected so you know what part of the sentence they belong in apart from word order. Matthew knew that and gave us Jesus' exact words, translated into Greek in the best, most accurate way possible: using Kurios and not anything resembling Yahweh -- which would be unpronouncible in Greek anyway: they don't have H's in the middle of words (except after P/T/K which softens it to ph/th/kh), and they don't have a W sound at all.

Now you need to understand that the proper translation of the Holy Name is not the point of what Jesus is saying, neither there in Matt.22, nor anywhere else. His point there is about the deity of the Christ, and we all understand it that way. However, if you accept the inerrancy of Scripture, which we -- both I and John MacArthur, along with Jesus himself and the Apostle Paul and (implicitly) also all the other New Testament writers -- do, then the fact that neither Jesus nor Matthew insisted on using in this text what MacArthur tells us is "the Name that God wants to be known by," tells us in no uncertain terms that attempting to do that in our English translations of the Old Testament is inappropriate and probably silly. Not Wrong, just foolish.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I tell people that an "S" in the short name of a Bible translation means it is less accurate than other translations. At least LSB; the first edition of NASB bungled the second-person pronoun in what the editors supposed are prayers to God where no such distinction exists in the Greek nor Hebrew original (they fixed that mistake in a later edition, but who knows what errors remain).

PostScript, I got to thinking about it, and since no translation can accurately capture all the subtle nuances of the original language (because every language expresses things differently, so there is no one-to-one mapping), we really do need scholars (preachers) to explain the subtle parts that didn't translate well, and those preachers (especially if they have forgotten or never learned Greek and Hebrew) need literalistic pseudo-translations like LSB (for a long time my preferred version was ASV, the original "S"-in-the-name) which can only be understood (and only partly so, unless they lean heavily on commentaries) by scholars and preachers. I do not wish to begrudge them that crutch.


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