Friday, August 4, 2023

An Unfamiliar Bible

 I’ve been taking a look at Scot McKnight’s new translation of the New Testament, called The Second Testament. McKnight, a professor at Northern Seminary in Lombard, is an excellent scholar and, even more rare, a good writer, so I’ve been interested to read it.

     McKnight’s translation, in his estimation, is “more word-for-word than thought-for-thought,” and I think that’s accurate. His stated intention is to replicate the syntax and rhythm of the original Greek as closely as he reasonably can in English. In fact, he says in the preface that his translation will sometimes “not sound all that English-y.” Which flies in the face of most recent translations that operate more on the theory of communicating the original text in more conventional and conversational English. In fact, if what you’re looking for is a word-for-word, literal translation of Greek to English, The Second Testament is probably the New Testament for you. 

     McKnight’s translation philosophy yields some interesting results. For one thing, he transliterates names. So “Jesus,” in his translation, is “Yēsous.” (It’s a little odd, I confess, to open a New Testament and nowhere see the name J-E-S-U-S.) “John” is “Yōannēs.” “Galilee” is “the Galilaia.” “Jerusalem” is “Yierosoluma.”

     But the names aren’t even the most striking choices he makes. Take a look at these comparisons:  

Ephesians 2:8-9

“For it is by grace  you have been saved,  through faith —and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works,  so that no one can boast. ” (NIV)

“For by grace you are delivered through allegiance—this isn’t from you; it’s God’s gift—not from works so someone might not boast. (TST)

Matthew 11:28

“Come to me,  all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (NIV)

“Come to me—all the laboring and loaded—and I will [provide] rest [for] you.” (TST).  

1 Corinthians 1:27-31

      But God chose  the foolish  things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not —to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. (NIV) 

    “But God selected the Kosmos’s idiots to degrade the wise, and God elected the Kosmos’s weak to degrade the strong, and God elected the Kosmos’s ignoble and devalued—the ones who “are not”—to undo the ones who “are,” so that no flesh may boast before God.” (TST)

I don’t foresee McKnight’s translation becoming my favorite, or the one I’ll just sit and read, and certainly not one I’ll read from in church. It winds up being pretty clunky sometimes — largely because it’s committed to sounding more Greek-ish than English-y. 

     Still, there are some benefits to this. A more literal translation like TST is less concerned with supplying meaning. It leaves more room for the reader figure out meaning. There’s something to be said for wrestling with a text, trying to draw out its meaning for you. Often, though, the impulse of the translator is to just give us the meaning of words by their choices. Sometimes that’s exactly the right call. Other times, it doesn’t serve us so well.  Sometimes the choice of a translator narrows the possibilities for the reader too much. 

   As an example, look at  what McKnight does with 1 Timothy 2:12, compared with the NIV: 

“I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man;  she must be quiet.” (NIV)

“It isn’t appropriate for a woman to teach, nor to overwhelm a man, but to be [learning] in silence.” (TST) 

I’ve talked about the difficulty of this verse before; the Greek word authentein is not used anywhere else in the New Testament. Most English translations render it as some sort of exercise of authority, sometimes abusive, sometimes not. The NIV simply says “assume authority.” I think that’s a motivated reading that gives the impression that the problem Paul is trying to resolve is that the wrong gender has authority. 

     The word and its cognates, however, are always negative outside of the New Testament. Check out this post if you want more information than I can go into here; suffice to say now that authority isn’t the issue — Paul often used other words for authority in his letters. Authentein has to do with abusiveness, control, and power, which fits the context of Ephesus as seen in the pastoral letters. So McKnight translates authentein in 1 Timothy 2:12 as “overwhelm.” 

    What I like about The Second Testament is that it provides an antidote to what McKnight calls the “wonderful problem” that many of us have when reading the Bible — that of familiarity. (To be sure, the opposite — unfamiliarity — is increasingly a problem even in church.) He writes that he he wants the translation to “jar the reader.” And I think those of us who are familiar with the Bible may need jarring the most. To read a familiar text is to, sometimes, read right past, through, or over what the Spirit intends to do in our lives. I remember something I heard often growing up in church: “The familiar needs to be read more closely.” Sometimes we just don’t see or hear certain words or phrases, especially specialized, “stained-glass” words. 

     Notice in Ephesians 2 above how McKnight handles two of those “stained-glass” words. The Greek word pistis, usually translated in English “faith” or “belief,” is regularly translated in TST as “allegiance.” It sure sounds weird — “saved by allegiance”? — but it takes a word that, I’m convinced, is often misunderstood and given little thought and makes you take a second look at it. It makes clear that faith is more than an agreement in your mind that something or someone is genuine. Tangled up in it are concepts like loyalty, obedience, and trust. “Allegiance” communicates really well.

     The same with another word, sōzō, usually translated “save.” That’s a word that we take almost exclusively as a synonym of forgiveness of sins — which is part of salvation as discussed in the Bible, but not nearly all of it. “Saved” often calls to mind old-time revivals, where people come forward to “get saved.” McKnight consistently translates sōzō as “deliver,” avoiding the misconceptions of the more familiar word while making us ask questions like, “Delivered from what?”    

   Reading a different translation can help you “get over” your familiarity with the Bible.

     And really, that’s what I’m advocating here. Now and then, when you feel like your Bible reading needs a boost, find a different translation than you normally use and give it a try. It doesn’t have to be McKnight’s. It doesn’t even have to be literal, like his — a very free translation can accomplish the same thing. (Give the New Living Translation a shot.) It may not “sound like the Bible” to you, but that’s the point. Sometimes we need the Bible to sound a little less familiar to us.

     May we all hear the Bible with new ears. May the Holy Spirit keep us out of the trap of familiarity.

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