Friday, August 13, 2021

Words Get in the Way (with apologies to Gloria Estefan)

Oh me oh my! My morning Bible time was so rich. I love how The Living Bible brings out the verbal aspect of the present infinitive in 1 John 3:9. The CSB completely misses it.

That's right, I've been doing a deep dive into Bible translations lately. I've been asking myself, "What good is it to debate verbal aspect theory or deponency or lexicography or semantics if it doesn't affect the way we translate or understand the New Testament?" This topic will be a MAJOR part of what we'll be doing in our Advanced Greek Grammar class this semester.

Example: language registers. Here we're talking about the level of formality we use when we talk. Different life situations call for different registers. There are five basic language registers:

  • Frozen
  • Formal
  • Consultative 
  • Casual
  • Intimate

We often adjust the formality, tone, and even vocabulary depending on our audience. 


I had to smile when I saw that a brand new version of the New Testament rendered Jesus' words to those arresting him in John 18 as, "Whom do you seek?" If the police knocked on your door, would you say, "Whom do you seek?" Of course not. You'd reply, "Who are looking for?" But that's a BIG no-no. It breaks not one, but two "rules" of English grammar:

  1. Who should become whom when the pronoun functions as the object in its sentence.
  2. Prepositions are not words to end sentences with (*wink*). 

Pronouncements about correctness or incorrectness in language can get New Testament scholars in trouble if they're not careful. (Here's an example.) What we call an "error" may simply be a writer's or speaker's choice of language register.

Let's go back to the "frozen" register of language for a minute. This register hardly ever changes. Examples include the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, Miranda Rights, or certain wedding vows. At one time you could include the Bible in that list. That was when practically the only Bible people knew was the King James Version. Today, however, we're faced with dozens of Bible translations all vying for our attention. The same thing can be said about the hymns that many of us are familiar with. Have you noticed a trend today to change the lyrics of well-known hymns? I tend to be resistant to those changes, but the fact is that a hymn is probably no longer a"frozen" register in our culture. Thus "Here I raise mine Ebenezer, hither by Thy help I've come" becomes "Here I find my greatest treasure, hither by Thy help I've come." I mourn the loss of a biblical reference but, come on, who nowadays knows what "raising an Ebenezer" means except the person who named their dog Ebenezer? 

Ah, language register. Is the language of our Bible translations and hymns appropriate? Inappropriate? And who determines that? 

I'm afraid to have to say it, but Bible study requires us to think about such questions!