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.