Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Twisting Translation to Fit an Agenda

The history of Biblical manuscripts and textual criticism is full of tales about monks messing with the manuscripts in an attempt to force the text be be more aligned to the church's idea of orthodoxy, and also tales of translators who used their knowledge for the same purpose. The Textus Receptus (Latin: received text) is probably the prime example of this. It was the Greek text of the New Testament that Dutch Catholic philosopher Desiderius Erasmus put together as the foundation to be used for translation to Latin (and later other languages). Most Reformation-era vernacular translations of the Bible relied on it - Martin Luther's German Bible, Tynedale's and King James' English translations, and even the Catholic English translation, Douay-Rheims.

But Textus Receptus is badly flawed. Whenever Erasmus couldn't find an existing early Greek manuscript, he translated St. Jerome's Latin Vulgate to Greek. He also included scribal marginal annotations as actual text. The most famous of these was the Johannine Comma, which occurs in two verses of the First Epistle of John, 5:7 - 8. Without the comma these verses read: "For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree." This apparently wasn't trinitarian enough for a Fourth Century monk, who added a more suitable addition in the margin. Erasmus added it to the text itself, so that the verses then read (here in the King James Version): "For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one." [The bolded portion is the added comma.] Later scholars who put together the Greek texts which all modern translators and scholars use recognized the nature of the addition and eliminated it as it deserved.

Why did Erasmus do such a thing? He was out of favor with the Vatican, not only because he was well-known as a humanist philosopher, but also because he acted as adviser to Martin Luther for a time. But without the Vatican's sponsorship Erasmus would cease to have a means of livelihood, so Textus Receptus was his bid to get back into Rome's good graces; he gave them the text that would best please them. But history hasn't treated him as well as the Curia did, and most now recognize his "received text" as anything but.

But this sort of finagling with the original text didn't end in the 16th Century. It still goes on today, which is what spurred me to compose this post. Let's take a look at what's commonly known as "The Lord's Prayer", the version in Matthew 6:9 - 13. Here's the original Greek (from the Nestle-Aland text, 27th edition):
9) ουτως ουν προσευχεσθε υμεις πατερ ημων ο εν τοις ουρανοις αγιασθητω το ονομα σου
10) ελθετω η βασιλεια σου γενηθητω το θελημα σου ως εν ουρανω και επι γης
11) τον αρτον ημων τον επιουσιον δος ημιν σημερον
12) και αφες ημιν τα οφειληματα ημων ως και ημεις αφηκαμεν τοις οφειλεταις ημων
13) και μη εισενεγκης ημας εις πειρασμον αλλα ρυσαι ημας απο του πονηρου
My translation of these verses is:
9) Instead, you should pray this way: Our father in heaven, your name be revered.
10) Bring down your kingdom, fulfill your will, as in heaven so upon earth.
11) Bestow upon us today whatever bread we need.
12) And forgive us our debts just as we ourselves have forgiven our debtors.
13) And do not force us to endure test after test, but rescue us from the evil one.
Now I need to establish some background. There are some old New Testament texts in Syriac, a variant of Aramaic. The earliest was put together by Tatian in the 2nd Century, called the Diatessaron, which was a book that harmonized the four canonical Gospels, i.e. didn't arrange them as four separate books but arranged them according to similar narrative threads. A later 4th Century text in Syriac eventually developed into the New Testament of the eastern monophysite churches, such as the Assyrian Orthodox and related denominations; it's called the Peshitta (Syriac "simple, common").

Why do I bring this up? Because there's a school of thought called Aramaic Primacy which considers the Syriac texts to be the real "original" text of the New Testament, rather than the Greek. They believe that because these texts are in a variant of the Aramaic spoken in Roman Palestine in Jesus' time, therefore these texts are more "authentic" than the Greek. There are serious problems with these claims.

Solid scholarship shows that these Syriac texts were actually translated from Greek to Syriac. Even Tatian never claimed his Diatessaron to be original. He split from Rome (he was a disciple of Justin Martyr and after Justin's death renounced Rome and moved back to Edessa) and considered his Gospel Harmony to be a way of casting the Gospel into the vernacular of his people. He considered Greek to be the "imperial tongue" and Syriac to be the language of the common people, and acted accordingly. The Peshitta was viewed in the same way, as a thumbing of the nose to the Byzantine and Roman powers who sought to control the Mediterranean world. This motive has much in common with Reformation-era vernacular translations of the Bible; Luther and the Protestant scholars of England who crafted their translations were thumbing their noses at Rome.

And the claim that these Syriac texts are more authentic because they share a language with Jesus is shaky at best. The Aramaic dialect of Syriac differs significantly from the seven Palestinian dialects extant at the time of Jesus; they were from different branches of the Aramaic family, the Palestinian being in the Western branch and the Syriac being in the Eastern. This would be like the difference between Gothic and Old Norse - both in the Germanic family of languages, but different branches (Old Norse in the Northern Branch and Gothic in the Eastern), and while they might be able to understand each other somewhat, it wouldn't be anywhere near complete understanding, due to differences that culture and environment (such as loanwords from neighboring non-Germanic languages). Add to that that Palestinian Aramaic was antique compared to 2nd Century (the Diatessaron) and 4th Century (the Peshitta) Syriac, and you end up looking at that "same language" claim with a large handfull of salt.

Still, the Peshitta is the Biblical translation of choice for the non-Byzantine derived Eastern churches, and in that function there can be no problem with that. The issue I'm addressing in this post comes from a particular translation of the Matthean "Lord's Prayer" passages by a particular person. First, let's look at the Syriac text (I have to use a graphic image version because apparently the Web doesn't recognize Estrangelo script):

My translation of this is:
9) Pray therefore like this: Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
10) Your kingdom come, your will be done, as in heaven so on earth.
11) Give us this day the bread we require.
12) And forgive us our offenses as we also have forgiven those who have offended us.
13) And do not bring us into trial, but deliver us from the evil one. [For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory for ever and ever.]
[Note: that last bit in brackets at the end of verse 13 is one of my prime arguments against the Peshitta being more "authentic" than the Greek texts. It's actually a Greek doxology from the Greek liturgy, added to make sure everybody saying it knew it was a prayer. It's not a Syriac addition, it's a Greek one!]

Now that's pretty straightforward and except for the liturgical doxology tacked onto the end, it pretty much follows the Greek version. But just in case anybody distrusts my translation, here's the translation of the same verses (minus the introductory "Pray therefore like this...") by George Lamsa, Syriac scholar, Aramaic Primacist, and the man who first introduced the Peshitta to western audience:
Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, as in heaven, so on earth.
Give us bread for our needs from day to day.
And forgive us our offenses, as we have forgiven our offenders.
And do not let us enter into temptation, But deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory for ever and ever.
See? Basically the same words. But...

There's another Aramaic Primacist who has a version of the Lord's Prayer that sounds nothing like this. In fact, it's not really a "translation" at all, more a paraphrase, or even more accurately a commentary. This is by Dr. Neil Douglas-Klotz, who fancies himself a modern-day Sufi and who imposes a metaphysical New Age philosophy on his Syriac translations. Which is fine in and of itself, except that he bills his translations as "translated directly from the original Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus." Except that it's not, it's ostensibly translated from the 4th Century (and later) Syriac Peshitta and the words he uses in his translation have little or nothing to do with the Syriac words of the text. You be the judge:
O, Birther of the Cosmos, focus your light within us -- make it useful
Create your reign of unity now
Your one desire then acts with ours,
As in all light,
So in all forms,
Grant us what we need each day in bread and insight:
Loose the cords of mistakes binding us,
As we release the strands we hold of other's guilt.
Don't let surface things delude us,
But free us from what holds us back.
From you is born all ruling will,
The power and the life to do,
The song that beautifies all,
From age to age it renews.
I affirm this with my whole being.
Now do you see anything but a mere whiff of a nod towards the original Syriac text in this? No, me neither. This is pure, unadulterated New Age metaphysics, and this guy is using the Peshitta to push it. Whether I agree with his take on this is immaterial; as I said above, I probably would never have even noticed this if he had billed it as his own, personal commentary on the Lord's Prayer, which is what it is. But he had to bill it as "translated directly from the original Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus." And that it's not, as anyone can plainly see. It basically puts him in the same class as Erasmus, willing to twist Holy Writ to serve his own ideological purposes. And in the world of Biblical scholarship, that's a big no-no!

© 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger


  1. I cannot for the life of me understand how someone as thoughtful and brilliant as you (as meticulous and exact as you) is unemployed.

    How is that possible? You're a genius and you're honest. Why are those not commodities in demand?

  2. Wow. Amazing commentary. Have you read Elaine Pagels or Charles Freeman?

    Augustine based his commentaries on what is now known to be a notably faulty Latin translation of the Bible. From such an accident of history, he laid on the most successful guilt trip in human history.

    Steph, Roy is equally adept at writing about popular music. I always look forward to his commentary on my Just A Song blog.

    Which reminds me: Roy, if you're ever interested in contributing to Just A Song, you have but to say the word...

  3. Aw shucks, you guys! Thanks.

    Steph - the Biblical Studies and translation stuff I do requires a post-graduate degree to get a job in the field, and I dropped out of college after two years. Most of what I know I picked up on my own, and only in the last 10 years have I had guidance from several academic mentors. My writings on the subject aren't nearly as wild and out to lunch as they were long ago due to their taming of my vision. and I'm really not a genius; I'm just educated in my field and have a flair for it, just as you're educated in your field and have a flair for it. Looking at some of the stuff you do leaves me as much in awe of you as my stuff leaves you in awe of me.

    As for unemployment, aside from being good with people and being able to convince them they need to buy whatever it is I'm selling, my only other possible marketable skill is photography, and believe me, I'm exploring the options. At the moment I'm putting together a web gallery of birds found in Ballard Park for The Friends of Ballard Park website. A donation, because they're not really set up to pay me for such a thing, but there are some real movers and shakers involved, and having my nature photography displayed in that particular public forum is good exposure.

    K - I tend not to read the popular market stuff; I end up digging into academic papers, doctoral theses, that kind of thing, because the popular literature is more often than not stuff I already know. I've glanced through stuff by Pagels and Karen Armstrong and the like to catch up on where public knowledge has gotten to, but I tend to read more of the heavy tomes by people like Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, and Bruce Metzger to actually dig into the heart of the matter.

    And thanks for the invite to Just a Song. I may come up with something, at that. I'll let you know.

  4. interesting...some times things get lost in translation it seems...

  5. Logic and meticulous research are always in demand. They are not really subject specific.

    I hate to say it but have you thought about local politics? We certainly have far too few thinkers there.

  6. Oh, God, Stephanie (sorry for the pun). A man who cares about the exact meanings of words is NOT cut out for politics.

    Roy: I've been reading your comments on Stephanie's blog, and I find myself here. Fascinating.

    The Bible is, of course, not the only place mistranslation and retranslation are used to push an agenda, but it does happen to be one of the most IMPORTANT in history.

    As you point out, none of the paraphrasing and rewriting is important, in and of itself. Except that there are people who actually take each word literally. That's when these things become problematic.

    My biblical knowledge is mostly in the Torah, but I am often struck by how differently those first five books are when translated strictly from the Hebrew, from what I pick up in hotel room Gideons.

  7. I can dream can't I? (You know when I'm not planning my dictatorship.)