Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Venus translation vs transculturation

When discussing the ideology of accuracy of translation there really is a conservative bias against genuine accuracy of translation. In general conservatives want accuracy but not at the expense of breaking with the traditional renderings. The most obvious example is in the treatment of old testament texts which are elsewhere quoted by the new testament:
Even fifty years ago, no scholar who wished to be taken seriously in conservative churches would have contradicted Ramm's statement that "If an Old Testament scholar says that a given passage meant so-and-so to the Jews (on the grounds that the passage must have meaning to its contemporaries) and limits its meaning to that meaning, he is misapplying the cultural principle and denying the sensus plenior of Old Testament prophecy." (14) Ramm associated this negative "use of the grammatico-historical method of exegesis in the hands of the religious liberals" with "radical criticism" and characterized it as "a return of Marcionism." (15) In 1953 the faculty of Dallas Theological Seminary issued a scathing Critique of the Revised Standard Version for this manner of treating the Old Testament. But evidently this seminary has changed quite a bit since then. (Michael Marlowe review of NET bible)
In term of my personal opinion regarding tradition, I take the opposite position. I think there is huge gap between four very different statements and this needs to be absolutely disambiguated:
  1. The Greek text X means Y
  2. Paul meant X when he said Y
  3. The church has always taken Paul to mean X in passage Y
  4. The church interprets Paul to mean X in passage Y
I have no objection to a bible being written in terms of #4. I have huge objections to conflating #1 with #3 or #4. In other words a church is free to say what they believe they aren't free to rewrite history. With respect to #4 I have no problem talking about the living church developing its theories over time, the Catholic position. With respect to #1, I am an absolute fundamentalist. I expect bibles to be very careful about their language and not conflate those two.

Most of the places where this comes up are politically hot verses. I'd like to pick low passion verse where translations tend to obscure the Greek, "I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven. (2Cor 12:2)". Some bibles and most commentaries drop the term "third heaven". What's interesting is this is an example of overly literal translation being used to avoid the actual meaning. What's worse is what commentaries frequently do here. Taking the views from above:
  1. The Greek text means "Venus". (i.e. in order the heavens are: The moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn).
  2. I think Paul meant Venus, but he was bringing with him a Hellenistic notion of layers of heaven in a metaphorical sense (as per the Secrets of Enoch). The third heaven would have been above the land of the Archons but not quite there with God, the abode of Raphael where great mysteries like the Tree of Life resides....
  3. The church has always taken this to mean "with God" or "elevated / greatly honored" (and elevated or greatly honored is correct).
  4. The modern church takes him to mean a vision of being with God.
I have no trouble with a bible saying in a note, "This is understood by the church as being a spiritual vision of being with God". I have a huge problem with a bible saying "The Greek means a place where God lives" (from the Harper Collins or the Reformation Study bible for example). The Greek means Venus, and Hellenists including Jews did not believe the 3rd heaven was where God lived.

The NISB and the NET bible actually addresses this directly. The NISB agrees with the treatment above. They explain this is being used in the sense of Jewish mysticism, they make no false claims about where God lives. And that is a perfect example of why I recommend the NISB. The NET comes with an unusual theory based on no texts AFAIK but at least shows an awareness of the Greek meaning:
In the NT, paradise is mentioned three times. In Luke 23:43 it refers to the abode of the righteous dead. In Rev 2:7 it refers to the restoration of Edenic paradise predicted in Isa 51:3 and Ezek 36:35. The reference here in 2 Cor 12:4 is probably to be translated as parallel to the mention of the “third heaven” in v. 2. Assuming that the “first heaven” would be atmospheric heaven (the sky) and “second heaven” the more distant stars and planets, “third heaven” would refer to the place where God dwells. This is much more likely than some variation on the seven heavens mentioned in the pseudepigraphic book 2 Enoch and in other nonbiblical and rabbinic works. (NET bible note on 2Cor 12:4)
Now in the case of Harper Collins and the Reformation Study Bible I think they were just being lazy. 20th and 21st century educated people don't know their astrology and they didn't bother to check. I freely bash all the major bible translations for screwing up Paul's frequent use of astrology. But this reads like an honest mistake.

Because this isn't an idealogical mistake I think it is a good one to discuss. How do you think this verse should be translated? What should the textual comments say? What do you think it means? And given how the mentally imagery of Venus has changed. A modern American when he hears "Venus" pictures the image to the left not the one to the right.

Chapter 8 of Secrets of Enoch reads:
1And those men took me thence, and led me up on to the third heaven, and placed me there; and I looked downwards, and saw the produce of these places, such as has never been known for goodness.
2And I saw all the sweet-flowering trees and beheld their fruits, which were sweet-smelling, and all the foods borne by them bubbling with fragrant exhalation.
3And in the midst of the trees that of life, in that place whereon the Lord rests, when he goes up into paradise; and this tree is of ineffable goodness and fragrance, and adorned more than every existing thing; and on all sides it is in form gold-looking and vermilion and fire-like and covers all, and it has produce from all fruits.
4Its root is in the garden at the earth’s end.
5And paradise is between corruptibility and incorruptibility.
6And two springs come out which send forth honey and milk, and their springs send forth oil and wine, and they separate into four parts, and go round with quiet course, and go down into the PARADISE OF EDEN, between corruptibility and incorruptibility.
7And thence they go forth along the earth, and have a revolution to their circle even as other elements.
8And here there is no unfruitful tree, and every place is blessed.
9And there are three hundred angels very bright, who keep the garden, and with incessant sweet singing and never-silent voices serve the Lord throughout all days and hours.
10And I said: How very sweet is this place, and those men said to me:

  • Douglas Ward has an article where he takes the takes the position of the sky as an onion.


J. K. Gayle said...

This is a wonderful, thoughtful post! You get right at the translation biases but allow for them as long as they are transparent.

You also made me want to see how Greek classics translators have handled Paul's statement. Here are my three favorite:

Ann Nyland: "a third heaven" and "Paradise" (and gives a nice note on some of the etymologies of the latter, including the mention in Xenophon's "Anabasis.")

Richmond Lattimore: "the third heaven" and "paradise"

Willis Barnstone: "the third heaven" (with "The highest ecstasy" in a footnote) and "paradise."

Do note that Aristotle uses the phrase that Paul does. Or maybe Paul's using an Aristotelian phrase? It's in Aristotle's Meteorology, his treatise on the earth and the universe (Bekker page 343b). Here's E. W. Webster's translation into which I've interpolated Aristotle's Greek:

"An objection that tells equally against those who hold this theory and those who say that comets are a coalescence of the planets is, first, the fact that some of the fixed stars too get a tail. For this we must not only accept the authority of the Egyptians who assert it, but we have ourselves observed the fact. For a star in the thigh of the Dog had a tail, though a faint one. If you fixed your sight on it its light was dim, but if you just glanced at it, it appeared brighter. Besides, all the comets that have been seen in our day have vanished without setting, gradually fading away above the horizon; and they have not left behind them either one or more stars. For instance the great comet we mentioned before appeared to the west in winter in frosty weather when the sky was clear, in the archonship of Asteius. On the first day it set before the sun and was then not seen. On the next day it was seen, being ever so little behind the sun and immediately setting. But its light extended over a third part of the sky [τοῦ τρίτου μέρους τοῦ οὐρανοῦ] like a leap, so that people called it a 'path'. This comet receded as far as Orion's belt and there dissolved. Democritus however, insists upon the truth of his view and affirms that certain stars have been seen when comets dissolve. But on his theory this ought not to occur occasionally but always. Besides, the Egyptians affirm that conjunctions of the planets with one another, and with the fixed stars, take place, and we have ourselves observed Jupiter coinciding with one of the stars in the Twins and hiding it, and yet no comet was formed. Further, we can also give a rational proof of our point. It is true that some stars seem to be bigger than others, yet each one by itself looks indivisible. Consequently, just as, if they really had been indivisible, their conjunction could not have created any greater magnitude, so now that they are not in fact indivisible but look as if they were, their conjunction will not make them look any bigger."

CD-Host said...

Wow JK what in interesting passage from Aristotle! I'd love to know that actually happened in Astronomical terms to be able to transculturate that. Is Aristotle describing a comet passing between Earth and Venus, near Venus; into Venus orbit, as observed from the Earth, projected out... ? It is true that solar emissions can cause the dust tail (antitail) to disattach and be charged enough to be visible (we had a comet that did that in 2007) so I suspect that's what he is talking about regarding Democritus.

I've had an electronic copy of Nyland for a while but I just picked up the physical copy. Did any of them indicate why they think 3rd heaven is paradise? I have yet to see a source that back this.

Anyway glad you liked the post and very interesting comment.

Anonymous said...

As your faith is strengthened you make declare that there is no longer the dire to be suffering with a discrimination of oversight, that things will stream as they see fit, and that you discretion flow with them, to your extraordinary delight and benefit.

Anonymous said...

A human beings begins scathing his insight teeth the earliest time he bites out more than he can chew.

Anonymous said...

Work out ferments the humors, casts them into their adapted channels, throws off redundancies, and helps cosmos in those secretive distributions, without which the body cannot subsist in its vigor, nor the man role of with cheerfulness.

The White Man said...

Where is your source for the idea that TRITOU OURANOU refers to Venus in Koine? By extension, 'seventh heaven' would also have to refer to Saturn. What are the reverences to the various ordinal heavens, and how many are named?

CD-Host said...

WM --

That's right. 7th heaven would be a reference to Saturn. In terms of a cite, any diagram of the Ptolemaic system (example diagram), full article.

In terms of the other heavens they are discussed in the various books of Enoch as well.

This tradition of seven heavens maintained itself in Judaism and even today from different words for heaven in different old testament passages you have different heavens:

Vilon (וילון), Also see (Isa 40:22) also called "arafel"
Raki'a (רקיע), Also see (Gen 1:17)
Shehaqim (שחקים), See (Ps 78:23, Midr. Teh. to Ps. xix. 7)
Zebul (זבול), See (Isa 63:15, I Kings 8:13)
Ma'on (מעון), See (Deut 26:15, Ps 42:9)
Machon (מכון), See (1 Kings 7:30, Deut 28:12)
Araboth (ערבות), The seventh Heaven