Scribal culture and translation

Interesting Old Testament Text and Interpretation Class today.  There was an element of what we discussed which was valuable in relation to how we evaluate the worth of various translations.

First, the oldest Old Testament manuscripts we have (up to 250B.C.) reflect diversity and suggest that the scribes at the time were not only transmitting, but in some way creating something new. They weren’t recreating the stories, but what they were apparently doing was making the text they were transmitting more current.  We didn’t go in to great detail about this, but, for instance, things like place names would be changed to reflect changes in actual place names. Or perhaps certain words that were not understood or were illegible would be interpreted by the scribes and made understandable. So, while the scribes were concerned with fidelity to the text (why else would they be scribes?), they were also concerned with making the text understandable.

This was quite a revelation to me and has a bearing on how one feels about “thought for thought” translations (such as the New Living Translation). Making the text understandable and readable is not a 20th century innovation, but has a history going back to our earliest manuscripts.

The second interesting fact was the diversity of manuscripts during this period.  I knew something about this already, but the reading and class discussion we’ve had so far has added significantly. After the destruction of the temple in 70A.D. all manuscript diversity more or less disappeared, but before that time there were not only manuscripts, but manuscript traditions (in the plural).  What difference does this make?

Well, for one, we do not have an “original” Biblical text, in the sense of a complete and perfect manuscript of the Old Testament. It does not exist and has never existed. Any notion we might have of God dictating the scriptures to the prophets ignores the fact that the Bible is a human book.  The professor referred to this as the “second incarnation” issue.  Just as in the 4th century the church fathers were dealing with the question of how Jesus could be both divine and human, so we must wrestle with the notion of how scripture can be both divinely inspired and written by humans.  Did Jesus ever get sick growing up? If he was human, then he likely did.  Do the Biblical manuscripts have errors, even going way back to the first writings?  If they were human writings, then yes they did.

It is of further interest in terms of translations in that it makes the marketing behind so-called “literal word-for-word” translations essentially meaningless.  A word-for-word translation is not a “better” translation than a translation that leans more towards thought-for-thought translation.  Each has a particular function or value.  A translation like the NASB or ESV gives you the advantage of somewhat knowing what the Hebrew text behind the English translation looked like, but this does not make it a “better” translation nor does it necessarily lead to a better understanding of the meaning of the text.

Moreover, a translation like the ESV sticks to only one particular manuscript tradition, and not a particularly old one (though the age of manuscripts isn’t everything that counts, but we’ll get to that later). So how valuable in the end is their “literal” translation policy, at least in terms of how it is marketed?

This leads to interesting questions about inspiration and authority. We will cover these issues later in the semester. (So this will be an open-ended post.)

5 thoughts on “Scribal culture and translation

  1. Andrew

    This is really interesting. I had no idea about the manuscript diversity, though it’s not surprising. This puts a nail in the coffin of inerrancy, doesn’t it? Also, does this mean that the Torah books are viewed more as mythology than history as a whole?

  2. Marc

    I suppose it depends on how you define inerrancy.

    That aside, it has been my understanding that inerrancy is generally considered to apply to the “original” manuscripts. I imagine we will get into this later in the course.

    I think “inerrancy” and “infallibility” are useless terms for scripture, even if they are true.

    It also depends on what you mean by history. It certainly isn’t history in the Enlightenment/”scientific” sense.

  3. Marc

    I should have noted that while there is manuscript diversity, the differences in the extant manuscripts is not, as I understand it, significant. That is, there may be a lot of minor individual differences (mostly in spelling, etc.), none of them make a theological or doctrinal difference. For all the diversity, there is remarkable continuity.

  4. Andrew

    This is a curious protestant tradition, this inerrancy. It’s a modern (ie., post-enlightenment) development in reaction to 19th century liberalism, right?

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