Friday, March 25, 2016

Translation Greek

I'd like to revisit one of Bart Ehrman's objections to the historicity of the NT. He says the disciples were illiterate, Aramaic-speaking peasants. He says 1 Peter and the four Gospels were written in literary Greek. Hence, that disqualifies the disciples as their authors. 

1. To begin with, it's a straw man argument. Of the four Gospels, only Luke has any literary panache. And that's traditionally attributed to a well-educated, Greek-speaking Gentile author, not an illiterate, Aramaic speaking peasant. 

Only one of the four Gospels is even directly attributed to one of the Galilean disciples. And John's Gospel is written in simple Greek. 

Moreover, Galilee wasn't the backwoods place that Ehrman depicts. It had urban centers like Sepphoris, within easy walking distance of Nazareth, and Tiberias, a coastal town on the shore of Lake Kineret, a few miles from Capernaum. Moreover, Galilee had a road system. And the region is still dotted with Greek inscriptions. And these are just the inscriptions that happen to survive. Cf. C. Evans, Fabricating Jesus (IVP, 2006 133ff; "Galilee" 391-98; "Tiberias" 1235-1238, Dictionary of New Testament Background (IVP 2000).

Mark was an urbanite in highly literate, multi-lingual Jerusalem. As a tax-collector, Matthew hardly matches the profile of an illiterate, Aramaic speaking peasant. We'd expect him to be able to read commercial and administrative documents. We'd expect him to be a polyglot to some degree.

Of course, there's a lot we don't know about the authors, but that cuts both ways. That means Ehrman's dogmatism is unjustified. 

2. But I'd also like to discuss the issue of translation Greek. Take the cryptic statement of Papias that "Matthew set in order the logia in a Hebrew dialect" (i.e. Aramaic). A stock objection is that Matthew's Gospel doesn't read like translation Greek. The same objection might be raised to the possibility that Peter dictated his letter Aramaic, which his bilingual scribe rendered into literary Greek. I'm not saying I agree with that. I think it highly likely that Peter knew conversational Greek. I'm just responding to Ehrman on his own terms.

3. I find the common claim that something couldn't originally be in a different language because our text doesn't read like a translation is grossly simplistic. 

i) To begin with, that's an issue of translation philosophy. Translators are typically confronted with a choice: should they produce a more literal translation, or a more literary translation? A word-for-word translation, that preserves the original sentence structure (as much as possible), or a smooth idiomatic translation? 

It depends, in part, on the nature of the document. Is this a literary document? A legal document? Is accuracy more important than elegance, or vice versa? We don't want a translator to indulge in literary license with a legal contract. 

ii) In can also depend on whether the receptor language is cognate with the donor language. Suppose a translator renders a German author into English. English is a mongrel language. Because it has many words and forms of Germanic derivation, a translator could preserve more of the Germanic flavor of the original by using Germanic English words and forms where possible. But if he were to use more words and forms of Romance derivation, that would obscure the Germanic original. 

Or suppose he's translating a German author into Italian. The diction and syntax will be so different that the original language might be undetectable. Not to mention rendering a Chinese or Japanese text into a European language. Take the difference between fusional languages and agglutinative languages. 

iii) Or take the KJV. That's a pretty literal translation of the Greek and Hebrew. By that token, you might say it's translation Greek or translation Hebrew. Typically, literal translations are stilted. 

Yet the KJV is extolled as a model of English style. That's in part because it benefits from the luxuriant wealth of Germanic and Latinate vocabulary available to the translators. It was a vibrant period for the English language. And the range of synonyms gives the translators an opportunity to render the Greek and Hebrew into euphonious sentences that read aloud so well. 

iv) In many cases, the primary qualification for a good translator is to be proficient in the donor language and receptor language. However, some translators are notable stylists in their own right. Take Alexander Pope's celebrated translation of the Iliad, or Dryden's classic translations of Virgil. That transmutes the style of Homer into the style of Pope, or the style of Virgil into the style of Dryden. 

That raises an issue: when rendering a stylish work of literature, a translator may consciously adopt a more neutral translation to avoid imposing his own style on the original. Dryden and open were open to criticism for effacing the style of the original by substituting their own. Do you read Homer for Homer, or Homer for Pope? Do you read Virgil for Virgil, or Vigil for Dryden? 

But in their defense, they might say it's preferable to render the best Greek and Latin into the best English. To render the best Greek and Latin into inferior English is a demotion, misrepresenting the quality of the original. They should be at the same level. Moreover, they might say that they are cross-contextualizing the original. Making it accessible to readers in their own time and place.

My immediate point isn't to debate the merits of competing translation philosophies, but to demonstrate how simplistic and unreliable it is to claim that something can't be a translation because it doesn't read like a translation. But there are many factors that feed into that assessmnt. The translator's skill. The translator's aim. How much the two languages have in common. The range of available synonyms. 


  1. Recent scholarship has passed Ehrman up; perhaps because he is too busy publishing popular trade books.

    Studies by Porter on diglossia, including linguistic evidence of Jesus teaching in Greek has undermined Ehrman hackneyed objections.

    In addition, see my colleague's important work _ The Multilingual Jesus and the Sociolinguistic World of the New Testament_

    And see _The Language of the New Testament_

    To name a couple for starters...

  2. I just have to say that Bart Ehrman was illiterate with regard to Greek at one point. I guess that means we can conclude that he doesn't know it now? The factor of continual education exists for the Apostles as well.