Open-Mindedness: II. Authority and Freedom

Authority in Interpretation

Ideally, a translation should give the readers of the Bible in their own language the same interpretive options that a reader of the original will have.

This quote from a recent blog post by Dr. Daniel B. Wallace on Bible translation caught my attention, because it speaks indirectly to an issue I’ve been struggling with in the past two years, namely, the abuse of authority in public discourse.

To the readers of a translated work, the translator is in a position of authority. For the average reader either has no access to the original, or cannot read the original, and has to rely solely on the translator. The words that the readers receive are those of the translator, not of the original author, for better or worse. When it comes to translating the Bible, much is at stake: To many people all around the world, the translators are speaking in the place of God (think about it!).

When many interpretive options are viable, a translator should have the humility to acknowledge that there might be layers of meaning and purpose in the original text that are beyond him, and he shouldn’t eliminate those options only because they’re incomprehensible or disagreeable to himself. He should exercise self-control, and translate the text faithfully, not imposing his personal opinions on the text.

For a translator, to give the readers the same interpretive options as the original, is to give them the same freedom of choice given by the original author. To deprive the readers this freedom of choice would constitute an abuse of authority.

Freedom from Abuse of Authority

An “authority” or “expert” is someone who has gathered more facts, gained more knowledge and experience in a specialized field than a layperson. An authority has no more no less good faith than a layperson.

Each one of us look at the world from within an interpretative framework, whether we are aware of it or not. An expert is no exception. When an expert does not acknowledge the limitations of his own perspective, nor the existence of different and equally valid perspectives, but presents his own as the only option to the general public, he abuses his authority.

The Bible speaks against such abuse of authority with a jolting image (Ezekiel 34:18):

Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet?

If we exercise more self-control and self-reflection in our pursuits, paradoxically, we ultimately allow ourselves and others more freedom. For by restraining our own prejudices and passions, not allowing them to muddy our vision, we preserve the freedom and possibility to grow, to enjoy greener pastures.

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2 thoughts on “Open-Mindedness: II. Authority and Freedom

  1. This is one of the problems we faced when I was in seminary. At that time Princeton Theological Seminary, which was founded by and for Presbyterian and related denominations, was at least a third Methodist, with other denominations from around the world, due to its impressive scholarly bench as much as anything else. Presbyterian clergy are required to have a working knowledge of Greek (the language of the New Testament) and Hebrew (the language of the Old, in Christian parlance). They will likely never be as good as their professors, but at least they should know enough to know where the controversies are, where the areas of unclearness lie, and whether some commentator is trying to pull a fast one. Methodists, Baptists, Quakers (I knew two Quakers in seminary) and many others do not require both languages, or even one. In homiletics, we Presbyterians were told that when starting our sermon writing, begin by translating and exegeting the text in the original language(s). Non-Presbyterians were instructed to consult as many different translations as possible, preferably six, and to compare the differences. Note that meant “translations,” not paraphrases like the Good News Bible; and furthermore, we were advised to use scholarly translations like the NIV and RSV and NRSV, which used the most recent original texts and which cited their sources and alternative translations in the footnotes.

    I think that principle applies in all sorts of areas. Most Buddhists in America don’t have a working vocabulary in Pali or Tibetan, many Muslims struggle with Arabic, and so on. Furthermore, few of us know the historical implications or situation in which a particular passage might have been written, that would explain the text more fully (the infamous “curse of Ham” theology was a particularly harmful example of taking a biblical passage out of its original context and misinterpreting it to mean something else, so that a passage originally meant to justify the Hebrew conquest of the Canaanites became a justification for white supremacy, damned ironic since the people responsible were also anti-Semitic). For that matter, we all rely every day on some sort of a translator. We rely on the doctor to tell us what our lab tests mean, we rely on the news to tell us what Iranian state news said, we rely on someone else to tell us what the Russian government did in the election or what the Laffer curve means and whether tax cuts really do pay for themselves, and so on.

    Most of us behave like my less successful students when I used to teach Bible classes in college. I would ask them to use at least one good Bible with footnotes so that they could look at alternative translations (like when the Greek and Aramaic versions of some passage might differ). My first semester, one of my students joined the class late. When I talked about different translations disagreeing, she simply smiled sweetly and said, “Well, there’s just so much confusion, so I just rely on the King James.” In the 1600s, the King James was produced, as was the NRSV in the 1900s, by a committee of scholars from differing theological backgrounds, pouring over the best original language texts they could get to try to express the sense of the original in what was then contemporary English. But in the 300 years between the two translations, we’ve dug up older and/or better original language texts, and our own language has changed. We’ve also done historical research that explains some of the actions and events described in the Bible. But she, facing information overload, relied on what a trusted authority, her church, had told her, which was to use the old, familiar King James Bible, and to ignore all other translations as errors. Whether an actual Jewish rabbi, who knew Hebrew, would accept the KJV version of the Hebrew scriptures as it was explained to her by her pastor, or whether the Dead Sea Scrolls might suggest that her version of First Samuel was missing material, all of this was simply irrelevant to her—-which might have been fine from a faith perspective, but not much help in a college class where you’re supposed to understand what the original said and meant to its original audience before you rush into applying it to yourself. Her test answers reflected this; when asked in an essay to discuss how one might respond to a person with a different perspective, she said she would “smile sweetly” (the phrase sticks in my mind) and gently explain that they were wrong because they didn’t know how much God loves them, when the question was about the interpretation of a Hebrew passage that was grammatically ambiguous. She had her one authority, her pastor, and rather than gather more information that would make her a functional scholar on her own she simply chose to repeat the conclusions of others.

    The general idea of “read six different translations and consult different commentators” really does apply to other areas too. In a modern or postmodern democratic and bureaucratic society, we all confront sources of information that we are incapable of double-checking; but we can at least try to cross-check them, and when we see no consensus we can start to ask questions. Increasingly, though, most of us look for a friendly face with good news, and rely uncritically on that. As wandering tribes and clans, that was enough; we all knew every member of our community and could judge who was a good source of information. Today, that sort of reliance on empathy, expressions of friendliness and an unreflective gut-check leads to, well, tribalism, and frequently makes us the victims of all sorts of con artists.

    1. “smile sweetly” (the phrase sticks in my mind)

      Sounds like something from a horror movie. You have my sympathy. 😉

      As Tolstoy was on my mind recently, I’ll make a comparison between translating Tolstoy and translating the Bible. It was said of Tolstoy’s works to the effect that his words are both plain and penetrating such that even a bad translation cannot obscure their brilliance. I think the same can be said of the Bible. Even a bad translation, or paraphrase, convey some of its power and magnificence.

      Having said that, it is certainly true that serious students should consult different translations and commentaries, and the original texts if possible.

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