Translation of Holy Writ

“The Dance of Life and Death”                            W. Zeitler



Translation is tricky business, and none trickier than translating Holy Writ — trying to bridge the gap between very disparate cultures.

Yet another example of this is translating ‘man’ from 1st century New Testament Greek into 20th century American English. Once again, Greek has multiple words for ‘man’: ANThRŌPOS for ‘humanity’, and ANĒR for male adult/husband. Until the last couple decades or so, in English ‘man’ did double duty meaning either ‘humankind’ (ANThRŌPOS) or male adult (ANĒR). Thus, when Tyndale translated the New Testament into English (1535) using the original Greek (instead of the Latin Vulgate), he translated Matt. 4:4 thus [Tyndale’s spelling]:

Man shall not lyve by brede onlye but by every worde yt proceadeth out of the mouth of God.

The word here for ‘man’ is ANThRŌPOS. Translations have been heavily influenced by Tyndale’s precedent ever since — it’s estimated that over 80% of the King James Bible (1711) comes straight from Tyndale (with spelling updated as time goes by):

Man shall not liue by bread alone, but by euery word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. [King James original spelling].

Note: it’s important to distinguish between a translation proper, where the translator tries to more or less strictly represent the Original (e.g. the Revised Standard Version), vs. paraphrases in which the paraphraser recasts what THEY think it means in their own words (sometimes with only tenuous connection to the Original). Paraphrases (like the Living Bible) have been recasting this verse as “People shall not live by bread alone” for some time. It’s only been in the last couple decades that translators have started making the distinction in their English translations (e.g. the New Revised Standard: “One does not live by bread alone…”).

It’s a case of us ‘moderns’ catching up to an important distinction that 1st century folks were making two millennia ago.

A few other examples of ANThRŌPOS:

“I will make you fishers of people…”

“Let your light so shine before people…”

“If you forgive people their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.”

Furthermore, one of the results of translating ANThRŌPOS as ‘man’ is that it makes the New Testament sound more patriarchal than it actually is. Now, to be sure, 1st century Palestine was quite patriarchal. The Middle East is STILL very patriarchal (how’s school for young girls faring in Afghanistan?) To be sure there’s still plenty of patriarchy in the New Testament: e.g. Paul’s dictum “women should keep silent in churches” (I Cor 14:34). On the other hand, we have Jesus violating cultural taboos by conversing with the woman at the well (John 4) — a man was not to even speak to a woman who wasn’t his wife.

While we’re at this, I think it’s worth reviewing just how different 1st century Palestine was from the modern world. In pre-industrial societies in general (no agricultural machinery or artificial fertilizer) about 80% of the population was devoted to agriculture.  ALL of that would be manual labor in the fields.  (About 2% in the U.S. feed the rest of us today.) Meanwhile, of children born, only about half would survive to adulthood — fewer when some plague or marauding army was passing through. Furthermore, about one in ten childbirths ended in the death of the mother.

The thing is, on a farm, lots of kids are a big help — but not at all when you live in the city and work in a factory or office. Furthermore, there was no Social Security for old age — you needed to have kids for that. So in pre-industrial agricultural societies, it was a practical necessity to have as many children as you could — just so enough would live long enough to help on the farm and take care of you in your old age. That meant that it was a practical necessity for women to be pregnant as much as possible. Either that, or everyone dies out. That was their grim reality. Modern technology has given us the LUXURY of ‘self-fulfillment’ instead of pulling weeds for your entire life.

Finally, one feature of pre-industrial agricultural societies was that they were sustainable and eco-friendly. Heck, they ‘sustained’ themselves since the dawn of agriculture roughly 10,000 years ago! Time will tell whether we ‘smart moderns’ will ever figure out how to have a sustainable technological society — our track record so far has been rather dismal. Time will tell!

I’m just slow to say that ‘we are modern & good, and the ancients were primitive and beneath our enlightened wonderfulness.”