Tuesday, October 14, 2008

More of the Daniel Wallace Essay (4)

III. Deissmann and the Papyri
In 1895 a German pastor by the name of Adolf Deissmann published a rather innocent-sounding volume: Bible Studies. Yet, this single volume started a revolution in NT scholarship--a revolution in which the common man was the winner.

In the 1800s Deissmann began reading ancient Greek MSS. But not the great classical authors. He was reading private letters, business transactions, receipts, marriage contracts. What were these documents? Merely scraps of papyrus (the ancient forerunner to paper) found in 2,000-year-old Egyptian garbage dumps. In these seemingly insignificant papyri, Deissmann discovered a key to uncover the NT! For these papyri contained the common Greek language of the first century A.D. They were written in the vocabulary of the NT.

What's so revolutionary about that? you ask. It is revolutionary because up until 1895, biblical scholars had no real parallels to the language of the NT. They often viewed its Greek as invented by the Holy Spirit. They called it "Holy Ghost Greek." Now it is true that the ideas--even the words--were inspired by the Holy Spirit. But it's another thing to say that the language of the NT was unusual--that its grammar and vocabulary were, in a word, unique. If this were true, only the spiritual elite could even hope to understand the NT.

Deismann's discovery burst the bubble on this view: the Greek of the NT was written in the language of the common man.

There are two implications of what Deissmann did for the Bible translations:

First, if the apostles wrote in easy-to-understand terms, then translations of the Bible should reflect this. We ought not to translate with big 50 cent religious-sounding words if the original was not written that way.

Except for having learned years ago that the Greek of the Bible is Koine Greek or the language of the common people, I'm not up on this facet of the situation and I guess I'll have to do some research, but my first take is that this seems like a trumped-up accusation of the KJV translators. Who says the KJV was written with "big 50 cent religious-sounding words?" What is the evidence that the KJV translators, or Tyndale or the Bishops Bible, which are about 95% of the KJV, did anything but render the Greek as accurately as possible? That is, since the Greek of the Bible is not identical to the Greek of the classics that educated people were familiar with, they may have erred in thinking it a special form of Greek invented by the Holy Spirit, but that doesn't mean they did anything but render it word for word as accurately as possible.

Well, he's going to give us an example of a "big 50 cent word" now:

The King James word 'propitiation,' for example, basically means 'satisfaction'--that is, God is satisfied with Christ's payment for our sins. Our Lord's final word from the cross, "It is finished," has been found on papyrus business documents--on receipts, if you will. It means "paid in full."
1. Seems pretty obvious to me that "propitiation" is NOT well translated by "satisfaction." The online Merriam-Webster definition of propitiation is "Specifically an atoning sacrifice." "Satisfaction" is a very vague term compared to "propitiation." It waters down the meaning. "Appeasement" would be better than "satisfaction" but "propitiation" is the best because it is most accurate. If readers' vocabulary isn't big enough to take in "propitiation" then the Bible can teach them a word they need to know.

2. Comparisons of the different versions over and over have shown that the KJV does NOT have stilted words, but some of the modern versions do. Just think "pinions" in the Revised Standard and NASB's terrible rendering of Psalm 91 where the KJV has "feathers."
In other words, Bible translations need to be clear. One of the obvious proofs of this is that the gospel offends people. And it cannot be offensive unless it is understood!
Yes, it DOES need to be clear, and "satisfaction" is NOT clear. It takes just as much explaining to get the meaning of "satisfaction" across as "propitiation" does, and it's open to far more misunderstandings.

As for offense, the idea of an atoning blood sacrifice of a human being is really offensive to people, but calling it payment of a debt is vague and wishy-washy and needs a lot of explanation.

Second, the papyri discoveries have helped us to understand words which the King James translators merely guessed at. For example, in the King James version of John 3:16, the Greek word translated 'only begotten' really means 'one and only' or 'unique.' The Bible, then, does not say that Jesus was the begotten Son of God--which might suggest that he had a beginning--but that he is the unique Son of God.

I assume this refers to the Greek word "monogenes" which the KJV and all the Bibles previous to it translated as "only-begotten?" Just looking at it suggests that has to be its most precise meaning. "Mono?" OK, pretty clearly means "one" or "only" (think "monogamy" or "monochrome" or "monologue.") Then "Genes" is obviously related to "genetics" and "generate" so "begotten" is apt for the origin of the Son of God. So in all these ordinary writings of daily life that Deissmann studied perhaps the most apt meaning is"unique or one and only." Well, are such writings normally referring to the generation of a human being, or simply the origin and uniqueness of various non-begotten things? Maybe I'm wrong but it sounds like it's a matter of context here, and in the mundane contexts in which the term monogenes was used it had to mean something like "unique" or "one and only" but that doesn't mean that in the context of the Biblical reference to the Son of God it is confined to that meaning.

As I already found out in doing verse comparisons, it appears that the differences in terms in the new versions usually come down to Westcott and Hort's having chosen the most marginally valid translation of the term, the least precise, or sometimes ANYTHING as long as the KJV didn't use it, and that subsequent versions based on the same Greek texts continued finding secondary and tertiary meanings for the Greek words. Really, that is the way it looks when you take the time to investigate and compare verses in many different translations, the word choices and what Strong's says about them.

But there is another implication of the papyri discoveries, though not related to Bible translations. Rather, it is related to preaching. Preachers of the Word of God need to make themselves understood. As one of my seminary professors was fond of saying, "We are not called to feed giraffes--we are called to feed sheep!" This does not mean that a sermon should be sloppy or inaccurate--just that it should be clear.

Deissmann has done a service for scholar and layman alike. He has shown that the language of the NT was understandable to the common man on the street. The ironic thing is that when the King James Bible was first published in 1611, it was condemned by many for being too easily understood! But after 400 years, the English language has changed. I, for one, invite the new translations because they give the gospel back to the people.

First of all, there is reason to believe that the new versions are not any clearer and have to be explained to people anyway.

Second, didn't Dr. Wallace just imply above that the King James used "big 50 cent words" and now he's pointing out that in its day it was thought to be "too easily understood!" There's something wrong with his reasoning here. Yes, after 400 years the English language has changed enough so that people do stumble over some of the archaic terms in the Bible. Remember though that in their day those archaic terms were not "big 50 cent words" but ordinary English.

Making the King James Bible accessible to people today only required at most some updating of some terms. There is absolutely no justification for substituting a whole different set of Greek texts and 36,000 changes in the English if your objective is to "give the gospel back to the people."

In fact there is no loss to the people of the gospel in the KJV as it now stands. It's mostly a matter of becoming familiar with it, which people were up to the time of Westcott and Hort, and would be now if it weren't for Westcott and Hort. There are very few words that cause people to stumble and they can be corrected in footnotes -- or if the revising committee that was hijacked by Westcott and Hort had done what they were in fact commissioned to do -- the absolute minimum necessary -- it would have been officially and sufficiently updated at that time.