Question: Off topic? More

Ken Smith kens at
Sat Mar 16 13:15:53 EST 2002

> > Biblical translators do have the 
> > special advantage of being informed by the Spirit.
> Ha! Informed by their theologies and prejudices you mean.
> Liz Fried

Hi, Liz.  This is perhaps off the topic of Biblical Hebrew, but it's
come up a number of times, so I thought I'd at least throw out a short

I'm not sure being informed by the Spirit is necessarily antithetical to
being informed by a critical understanding of one's theological
tradition.  I think it's a misunderstanding of the nature of the Bible
to believe that our goal as translators or interpreters is to move the
reader back into the world of the 7th or 5th centuries, complete with
all of their assumptions and cultural heritage.  Whether we are Jews or
Christians, we have the Bible only because it has been handed down to us
by a lengthy and creative process of editing, transmission,
interpretation and reinterpretation.  I'm sure you're well aware of the
complex processes by which the Bible came to take its present form --
JEDP and so forth.  But I think it's clear that these editorial and
redactional processes didn't just stop when, say, the Priestly writer
put the final touches on the Pentateuch in the early post-exilic period.
Placing Joshua after Deuteronomy was just as much a creative act of
reinterpretation as placing the Priestly creation story before the
Yahwistic one.  From a Christian perspective, it was just as much an act
of genius -- it was just as much a significant, semantic act -- to place
Revelation at the end of the canon as it was to place Genesis at the
beginning.  Those who did so, whether consciously or unconsciously,
subtly changed the meaning of both books: they mutually reinterpret each

In other words, while it may be of real historical and even theological
interest to evaluate the documents independent of each other, i.e., how
they would have been understood by their pre- or post-exilic authors,
editors or readers, I would argue that it is entirely legitimate (and
even necessary) to understand the texts in light of the traditions by
which they have been handed down to us.  Of course, we can't just make
the texts say whatever we want them to say.  But since all words must be
translated in light of their context, it is quite legitimate, in some
instances, to allow this extended context to exert an influence in the
translation process.  For example, it's obvious that Isaiah 7:14, in its
original historical context, wasn't a messianic prophecy (though I often
have a hard time making my students see that).  But in the context of
the Christian Bible, it quite clearly *is*.  There's no doubt that the
Christians who placed Isaiah between the same covers as the Gospel of
Matthew intended for their readers to understand (LMH as PARQENOS.  So
it isn't on the grounds of mere theological prejudice, but as the result
of an informed and critical reading of the Christian tradition, that I
have no objection to the NIV's choice of "virgin" in that passage.
After all, the NIV is trying to translate the Christian canon, and not
the Jewish.

Does that make sense?

Ken Smith

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