Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Translation within Scripture

Every so often controversy erupts about Bible translation - one is scattering its ashes through the blogosphere right now, sparked by news of another form of the NIV due in 2011, and fuelled in some quarters by strong criticism of those versions which get anthropos and aner wrong in respect of humanity/man/woman.

One footnote in all discussion about translation is acknowledgement that within Scripture itself translation takes place. An example I came across last night is in Luke 9:1-6 (a reading in the lectionary for this morning's eucharist at St Stephen's, Tahunanui).

In this famous paradigm for gospel mission, Jesus calls the Twelve together and gives them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases. He then sends them out with this task:

'to preach the kingdom of God and to heal'.

With a few more words of instruction they depart, and, according to verse 6,

'went through the villages, preaching the gospel (lit. "evangelizing") and healing everywhere'.

It seems that 'to preach the kingdom of God' is translated as 'to evangelize'!

In this translation lies considerable room for theological reflection and debate. Consider:

- is evangelism announcing the presence of the kingdom of God? (a point N. T. Wright emphasizes, and argues is the Pauline gospel considered in the New Perspective)

- is preaching the kingdom of God announcing the justification of sin through faith in the crucified Christ? (more or less what Paul the Apostle does, especially according to classic Reformation understanding)

- did Jesus preach a message different to Paul? (and Luke here is attempting to unify the two understandings in the context of his great history which spans the mission of Jesus and the mission of Paul)

- is there one message, one 'gospel of the kingdom' (Matthew 9:35) whose dimensions are bigger than many Christians can grasp, which is both a call to sinners to repent (Mark 6:12 // Luke 9:6) and an announcement of God's rule over the world (cf. Matthew 10:7 // Luke 9:2, 'the kingdom of heaven is at hand')?

On the last suggestion, Luke is a clever theologian and literary artist with his subtle, chiastic method of witnessing to the fullest compass of the gospel message!

Also in the last suggestion we note the possibility that Luke, who almost certainly knows Mark's gospel and possibly knows Matthew's gospel as well, is translating other versions of the same story of Jesus' commissioning the Twelve for mission ... and that reminds us of another famous translation in respect of 'the kingdom of God', when John in his Gospel translates it as 'eternal life'.


  1. You say, almost as a throwaway .. "and that reminds us of another famous translation in respect of the 'kingdom of God,' when John in his Gospel translates it as 'eternal life.'

    I have two comments. The first is that this is the sort of remark that can undermine a new Christians faith, implying as it does, that John's is a disputed or inacurate usage.

    Secondly, it is John [quoting Jesus] who gives us the clearest understanding of what 'eternal life' means when he says .. "This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent."

  2. Hi Rosemary
    Thanks for pointing out that sloppy remark!
    But I think the question nevertheless arises about whether, on some occasions at least, John has translated 'kingdom of God' with 'eternal life', noting that Matthew in writing his gospel mostly uses 'kingdom of heaven' instead of 'kingdom of God' (in similar stories and situations to Mark and Luke's 'kingdom of God'). That is, the gospel writers seemed to have felt some freedom to compose their versions of the gospel to suit the context into which they were writing!

  3. Stick to your guns, Peter. Don't feel you have to apologize for raising such issues in your blog, which is explicitly a forum for discussing hermeneutics, the process of translating and interpreting holy scripture. This is not a site for tending to the needs of new Christians of tender understanding and fragile faith (Note: some new Christians have neither!), and it was wrong of Rosemary to suggest that it should be.

    Identifying the process of interpretation within scripture itself, where we can see later authors, inspired by the Holy Spirit, adapting earlier writings they regarded as inspired but hard to understand (or even hard to agree with) provides us with important guidelines for our own appropriation of scripture 2000 years later. I thought you were merely noting one such instance, briefly but by no means as a "sloppy remark". Keep up the good work.

  4. Hi Peter,

    did Jesus preach a message different to Paul?

    Interesting question. I think it depends on what the word "different" might refer to.

    I have to write an essay on Philippians and have been fascinated to discover how Paul tailored his message to his audience. Actually, I feel a bit aggrieved that I'm only finding this stuff out now, but better late than never I suppose.

    In any case, my point is that Jesus and Paul had different target audiences so their messages must have been somewhat different, at least in the way they were presented. But the underlying theme (which I tend to think of as, "Believe God and act as though you do,") was the same.

  5. Hi Janice
    Best wishes for your essay!

  6. I don't follow Rosemary here. I didn't think your remark 'sloppy'. 'Kingdom of God/heaven' is characteriscally 'Palestinian' usage (to use an anachronistic word for Judean-Galilean) but 'eternal life' conveys the meaning to later Gentiles (which I presume is the context for John's Gospel - pero quien sabe?) But Jesus himself in the Synoptics speaks of 'entering into life', so I think the usage originates with him.

  7. Anon1 .. I would point out that I did NOT use the term ‘sloppy.’ Peter in his humility used the term of himself.

  8. Rosemary: agreed. It's my paratactic style. I meant: "I don't follow Rosemary here. AND I didn't think your remark 'sloppy'."
    Trying to save electrons.
    Yes, Peter is a humble man. But he is from the mainland.