The Zombie Bible: part 2

As part two of the “Zombie Bible” post (part 1 here) I had planned on publishing my thoughts on the Revised Standard version. I wrote it up but have since decided that instead of spewing my personal opinion, in all it’s gory detail. It would be better (and less narcissistic) to discuss the factors which influence ones opinion, and let you the reader decide for yourself.

Ok, There are several factors which potentially influence ones opinions of a particular translation. They are translator bias, type of manuscripts used, translation philosophy and literary style. Here is a chart of the various factors and how they relate to the various translations we are discussing.

Translator bias Manuscript source Translation Philosophy Literary style
Original RSV Liberal mid 20th century Protestant OT- Masoretic Hebrew with lots of comparative sources.

NT- eclectic content follows critical Greek text (Nestle 1941 edition)

Formal equivalence Formal modern English takes KJV into account reverts to sacral language when speaking to God
ESV Conservative Reformed Protestant OT- Masoretic Hebrew.

NT- critical Greek text (Nestle-Aland 27th)

Formal equivalence Formal modern English eliminates sacral English
RSV2CE Catholic (mainstream and faithful to Church teaching) Changes and content differences often reflect the Neo-Vulgate (which is based on critical texts) Formal equivalence Incorporates more traditional liturgical type language eliminates sacral English

Translator bias – I think it is impossible to avoid translators bias altogether. One’s personal beliefs are likely to color ones understanding of certain things and to be expressed to some degree, even when the person is striving to be objective.

The biases of the ESV and RSV2CE given in the chart are relatively self-explanatory. I feel I must explain a bit with the RSV. In the case of the original Revised Standard Version, the translators were mid-20th century liberal protestants. The underlying ideology of the translators very much included a school of thought called “higher criticism”. There is such a thing as legitimate textual criticism which is scientific and seeks to discover the authentic and original reading/meaning of a text. However beginning in the 19th century (primarily with German scholars) a rationalistic biblical criticism came into being. One which was by default skeptical. In brief these critics assume the bible is not true and tend to accept any shadow of doubt relating to the biblical text as true. This school of thought is still very much in existence and includes such things as “the quest for the historical Jesus”. There is for example the “Jesus seminar” which determined what words Jesus actually said and what was made up by the Gospel writers, based on … nothing, no objective measure, just their own biases and a vote. This is the sort of mentality, to a greater or lesser extent, that mid 20th century liberal Protestant biblical scholars possessed. It is difficult to give a brief summary of this movement but this humorous video from ‘The Lutheran Satire’ is a great, perhaps slightly unfair, demonstration.

Manuscript source – Really this is a massive subject. I can’t do it justice here but briefly, different people prefer different approaches to the manuscripts for different reasons. As far as the sources we have I will summarize. For the Old Testament the complete Hebrew (Masoretic) manuscripts are a medieval text which a sect called the Masoretes standardized. The Christian Old Testament of the ancient Church was the ancient Greek translation called the Septuagint. There are some other ancient sources, such as the dead sea scrolls and Samaritan manuscripts, as well. In the case of the New Testament there is the Byzantine family of manuscripts, and the Alexandrian family whose manuscripts are older but significantly fewer. There are also ancient translations from the Greek into other languages, most notably the Latin Vulgate. We also have scriptural quotations from the Church Fathers as textual witnesses. Critical texts are those which scholars have pieced together using comparison of different sources. I suggest that if this is confusing to not worry about it too much now and if it interests you go study the subject on your own.

Translation Philosophy – All translations are a compromise and balancing act between translating the thought expressed (dynamic equivalence) and translating the words (formal equivalence). On one end of the spectrum is the paraphrase and on the other would be something unreadable, a hyper-literal word for word text without adjusting for the grammar. For serious study and general all around use it is preferable to use a translation that is reasonably literal. It is more accurate and reflects the original text better. Translating thoughts involves to some degree interpretation of the text, and so you are counting more on the translator to understand it’s meaning. In other words the more “dynamic equivalence” the translation the more of someone’s interpretation and bias you are getting.

Literary Quality – is simply the style of language used. The RSV intended itself to be an updating of the King James Version. From a literary point of view the KJV is a very important work in the development of the English language. However the updating is so extensive that it is essentially a new translation rather than simply a revision. The RSV and it’s revisions represent formal modern English.

One final consideration is that of broad appeal to different sectarian groups. It is ironic. There was an attempt to make the original RSV an ecumenical bible, acceptable to all Christians. This was part of the mushy 20th century ecumenism which tended to ignore important doctrinal differences. In its revisions the RSV is back from the dead and being used by uncompromising Evangelicals and Catholics.

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