In an article last year, Dr. Stephen W. Paine, president of Houghton College, reported that a committee of fifteen evangelical scholars had begun work on a new English translation of the Bible. Many of these scholars, including Dr. Paine, are well known in conservative circles. They will be advised by a large board consisting of officers of national Christian organizations and denominations, school men, and other Christian leaders.
In this article (“Why We Need Another Translation,” United Evangelical Action, October, 1967), Dr. Paine discusses the reasons for this project. The King James Version is losing its long-held ascendancy because of the public demand for a Bible in modern language. The Revised Standard Version, now the only strong alternative to the King James, is, in the opinion of a number of evangelical scholars, “quite unacceptable to Bible-believing people.” “Its most serious defect,” says Paine, is “an apparent design to minimize and annihilate what we call the unity of Scripture, its cohesiveness and harmony, particularly as between the Old and New Testaments.” In contrast, he says, a faithful translation will be marked by consistency between the Old and New Testaments. “Those who believe that God through human instrumentality authored both Old and New Testaments will expect to find them harmonious. In making word choices in translation they will naturally choose the words which recognize rather than destroy this harmony.”
The devotion and sincerity of members of this Committee on Bible Translation can only be commended. But some of their assertions and assumptions must be respectfully challenged.
Paine points out three sets of RSV passages that he feels show mistranslation.
1. Psalm 45:6—Hebrews 1:8. In the King James Version, Psalm 45:6 reads, “Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever.…” Paine notes that the writer of Hebrews regarded this as a prophetic reference to Christ: “But unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever” (Heb. 1:8, KJV). The RSV translators are then criticized for rendering the line in Psalm 45, “Your divine throne endures for ever and ever.” In doing this the RSV “seemingly snuffs out any logical or probably Messianic implications of the statement” by eliminating the “thy” referring to the deity; the “divine throne,” says Paine, could refer to that of any king.
This is quite misleading. Psalm 45 is addressed to the king of Israel or Judah (v. 1). To translate the line as “Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever” is to imply that the king was thought to be divine. In the Ancient Near East, kings of some countries, such as Egypt, were often considered divine. But most scholars believe that evidence is generally against a widespread belief in the deity of a Hebrew king.
Now if the verse is not intended to make the king divine, then it must be said to embody hyperbole or exaggerated language. And if this is so, then the RSV translators legitimately render the verse, “Your divine throne endures for ever.” They thereby retain the idea of divine approval but avoid the notion of divine kingship for a ruler of Judah. At the same time they note in the margin that the Hebrew syntax allows for other renderings, including the KJV one.
For philological and contextual reasons, the reading of the RSV is perfectly legimate. And many evangelicals feel it is the preferred reading. In this instance as in many others, the New Testament goes beyond the Old Testament. It adds something new. It does not agree exactly with the Old Testament; to insist that it must is to pervert the first intention of the Old Testament writer.
2. Isaiah 7:14—Matthew 1:22, 23. Paine cites the much discussed passage in Isaiah 7 as a “standard” RSV handling of the text. As is well known, the RSV translates verse 14, “Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” In a footnote “virgin” is listed as an alternative reading. The New Testament (Matt. 1:22, 23) uses this sentence to refer to the virgin birth of Christ. The Greek word parthenos definitely denotes a virgin, not merely a young woman, and it was this word that was used in the Greek translation of Isaiah 7:14 made about the third or second century before Christ. Consequently, some evangelicals have long inveighed against the translators of the RSV for mistreating the Old Testament text.
But that is not the whole story. The direct reference in Isaiah 7:14 is to a boy to be born, at most, within fifteen years from the time of the prophecy, and probably sooner. The mother of the boy is a contemporary of Isaiah. Moreover, despite Paine’s assertion that “no one questions that ’almah [the Hebrew word in Isaiah 7:14] could properly be translated ‘virgin,’ but somehow the RSV committee thought it better the other way,” there are many scholars who question whether ’almah should ever be translated “virgin.” There is certainly no definite evidence that it must be translated that way. And most scholars, including various evangelicals, think that the word should be translated “young woman” in Isaiah 7, even if it can sometimes mean “virgin.” They note that Hebrew has another word, bethulah, that explicitly means “virgin.”
In using the prophetic statement to refer to Christ, Matthew goes beyond the Old Testament just as the writer of Hebrews does. He adds something new. It is a travesty to deprive the Old Testament of its direct intention and to insist that an indirect usage in the New Testament must be imposed upon the Old Testament.
3. Genesis 12:3; 22:18—Galatians 3:8, 16. The other example of alleged mistreatment of the text by the RSV translators is in Genesis 12:3. As Paine notes, in the King James Version and the American Standard Version the verse is translated, “In thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” These versions also use the passive verb form for Genesis 22:18, “In thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” Paine then observes that in Galatians 3:8 Paul uses the Abrahamic blessing as a prophecy of Christ: “And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed” (KJV). This too is a passive construction. One should note also Galatians 3:16, where Paul says, “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many; but, referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ which is Christ” (RSV).
Paine now takes issue with the RSV translators for rendering Genesis 22:18 (the article says 12:3), “By your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves.” Again there is no reference to the footnote in the RSV giving “be blessed” as an alternative rendering. The author claims that by using the plural, “descendants,” the translation excludes the one, Christ. Using “bless themselves” rather than “be blessed” changes the picture, we are told from one of Christ bringing blessing to the nations to one of having the nations bless themselves through Abraham or his descendants.
In reply, one may say that the RSV translation has good reason behind it. “Seed” in reference to offspring is not used in modern speech, and “descendant(s)” is a much more appropriate translation. Moreover, the Hebrew word for “seed” (zera’) is simply not used in the plural form. The singular form commonly has a plural meaning.
More importantly, the contexts of the blessing statements in Genesis support the plural reading. Let the impartial reader look at all the “your seed” promises addressed to the patriarchs. For orientation let him begin with Genesis 15:13–21 and then proceed to Genesis 12:6–7; 13:14–17; 17:1–22; 21:12, 13; 22:15–18; 24:7, 60; 26:1–5, 24; 28:1–4, 10, 15; 32:9–12; 35:9–12; and 48:3–21. Even in the King James Version, the plural connotation of “seed” is generally inescapable.
The reflexive translation of Genesis 22:18, “And by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves,” is also in full accord with the Hebrew verbal construction. The passive translation, “be blessed,” would be equally possible if one were to look at this verse alone. But the same construction is also found in Genesis 26:4; Deuteronomy 29:19; Isaiah 65:16; Jeremiah 4:2, and Psalm 72:17. In Genesis, Isaiah, and the Psalms the meaning of the verb is ambiguous, either reflexive or passive. But the context in Deuteronomy 29:19 and the parallelism in Jeremiah 4:2 show that a reflexive translation is preferable. Interestingly enough, even the translators of the King James Version used the reflexive in these passages. The RSV translation of Genesis 22:18 and corresponding passages is, therefore, based on the evidence of the Hebrew texts themselves.
The RSV use of “bless themselves” in Genesis 12:3 is less certain. This verbal form is found in only three places (cf. Gen. 18:18 and 28:14). Hence, little evidence is available to indicate whether a reflexive or a passive translation is preferable. To argue that the RSV translators made a mistake in choosing the reflexive here would be incorrect. On the other hand, to use the passive in these three places would be perfectly acceptable also. Paul no doubt followed a Greek reading like that of the Septuagint, which has “seed” in the singular and “blessed” in the passive. Aside from these few uncertain instances, the Old Testament evidence corroborates the RSV translations of the promises of blessing in Genesis.
Examination of alleged mistranslations in the RSV often shows that they are not mistranslations at all but are faithful renderings of the Hebrew texts. About 90 to 95 per cent of the supposed mistranslations in the RSV can be defended. And most of the other “errors” are possible or probable as alternative translations.
In some evangelical circles the Revised Standard Version has too long been spanked like a naughty boy. Probably there are a few points at which theological bias has caused a less preferable reading in the RSV text, but these are rare. And in many ways the RSV is an excellent translation. It is dignified, yet idiomatic and contemporary, and it is powerful in its representation of Old Testament poetry.
The most disturbing thing about the proposed translation is the apparent contention that, if a translation is to be reliable, the Old Testament must agree exactly with the New Testament. This contention is especially associated with prophecy and fulfillment.
From time to time someone will argue something like this: “There are at least seventy-five direct prophecies about details of Christ’s life made at least four hundred years before he was born.” But this approach is grossly oversimplified. Actually, most of the “prophecies” are not at all direct. They are indirect and are based only on one or more points of correspondence. And having a point of correspondence is not the same as being equivalent. In numerous places where the New Testament uses the Old, there is either a modification of the text or a shift of application or both.
This does not mean that the New Testament use of the Old Testament is necessarily inappropriate. To Christians, the language of the Old Testament often finds its completion and greatest meaning in Christ, even when the first intention or meaning of that language was somewhat different. The unity of the Bible cannot be based on a literal interpretation of the Old Testament by New Testament writers or on an exact equivalence in meaning and translation. Rather, the unity is based on the great over-arching themes that span the two testaments, God’s continued work among his people, and the actual realization of some hopes and prophecies.
New Translation Unnecessary
The RSV is not the only modern version available to English readers. The American Standard Version, the Jerusalem Bible, the Berkeley Version, and a number of other translations and paraphrases are helpful. Moreover, other translations are forthcoming, including the New English Bible translation of the Old Testament.
It is questionable, then, whether a new evangelical translation is needed, even if it were to be based on the soundest principles. Could not the thousands of dollars and thousands of man-hours to be spent on this new version be better invested elsewhere? And because the new translation is to be based in part on the highly questionable premises described in this article, the translation is more than unnecessary. Despite the good intentions of the translators, it is also inadvisable.
Milton D. Hunnex is professor and head of the department of philosophy at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He received the B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Redlands and the Ph.D. in the Inter-collegiate Program in Graduate Studies, Claremont, California. He is author of “Philosophies and Philosophers.”
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