It’s been a few weeks since my last post, but I want to continue walking through Randolph Richards’ and Brandon O’Brien’s book, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes. So far, I’ve posted these 3 articles:
- Preview of the book
- Chapter 1 – Mores (the fundamental moral values of a group that go without saying)
- Chapter 2 – Race & Ethnicity
Now it’s time to move on to chapter 3, which looks at the subject of language.
Most are aware that the Bible was given to us in languages quite different from English. I do remember a friend, who at the time worked for a Christian bookstore, relaying a story to me. One time a man walked in and asked: Do you have one of them King James Bible’s? You know, the one in the language Jesus spoke in.
This was in the year 1998 or 1999, I kid you not.
Now, it’s a bit funny, as we know the Old Testament was mainly written in Hebrew, while the New Testament was primarily in Greek.
But, what’s the big deal about language?
Richards and O’Brien remind us that we need to think through how language works. They note:
Behind the words, now in a language we understand, remains that complex structure of cultural values, assumptions and habits of mind that does not translate easily, if at all. (loc 726)
What they are arguing, and correctly arguing, is that translating words and statements from one language to another seems a simple task. This word in language A means this word in language B. But you have to remember that words find their place within particular settings, cultures, time periods, etc. One great example is the word gay. Not too long ago, the word referred to someone as being happy. Now, in today’s society, it refers to a person involved in a same-sex relationship.
An example given by the authors comes from the ‘beatitudes’, found in Matthew 5. Each of the ‘beatitudes’ begin with the Greek word makarios. This word really does mean ‘happy’. However, the English word, happy, might not get to the point. Richards and O’Brien say it sounds a bit trite.
So, in most English translations, we find the word ‘blessed’, believing this best describes what the word, makarios, means – a feeling of contentment and harmony.
Let me give you a personal example. Living in the north of Belgium, where Dutch is the prevailing language (French is prevalent in the south and in Brussels), I’ve learned a few things about not only the Dutch language, but my own mother tongue, English. We can consider a simple statement (or not-so-simple statement) such as: I love you. In Dutch, you communicate this one of two ways:
- Ik hou van jou.
- Ik zie je graag.
Now, the ‘literal’ translation of these two statements goes something like this:
- Ik hou van jou. – I keep for you. I keep from you.
- Ik zie je graag. – I like to see you.
It doesn’t translate exactly.
Even more, the phrase, ‘I love you,’ is really only something a Belgian says to their spouse, children or close family. Whereas, for many Americans, these words can be expressed to close friends as well.
Randolph Richards gives an example of one notable difference between western and eastern terminology. Several eastern languages have no word for privacy. As a missionary in Indonesia, many times, he would come across people in his home of which he had no idea who they were. Not so nice for a westerner. He notes: ‘My personal business’ was a nonsensical expression. While privacy and loneliness are important factors to western life, they are very odd concepts to many easterners. Your business is the town business!
But, moving on, Richards and O’Brien remind us about an even deeper problem with language: The whole is more than the sum in the parts.
While individual words alone can be difficult to translate from one language to another, we have an even more challenging problem when keeping these words within the context of phrases, sentences, paragraphs and even larger contexts.
Consider this statement: That house is big.
Big is easy to translate as a word. But what is big in Europe might be considered small for an American, and even more for a Texan! And I can attest to this.
Now, imagine the challenges of understanding words and statements within non-narrative portions of Scripture – in poetic and prophetic literature where metaphors, personification and imagery fill the pages?
And this is what we need to keep in mind. Westerners are normally set on the idea that truth must come in propositional statements. We desire detailed explanation, rather than ambiguity. Even more, where Scriptural statements come to us through poetry or imagery, we easily look to translate them into propositions, all that it might be neatly defined for us. But this was not the status quo of the ancients who gave us Scripture.
The authors exclaim:
A philosophical description of God (omnipresent) is better than an anthropomorphic one (his eyes roam to and fro throughout the land). Or so we think. This is why books on Jesus often talk more about the facts of his life than his parables…
…But the writers of Scripture recorded the profoundest truth in similes, metaphors, parables and other colorful and expressive (and potentially ambiguous) forms of language. (loc 872)
This is important to remember as we approach Scripture. And I think it crucial even as we approach sections usually labelled as ‘narrative’. There is an organic flow within the text, meaning that prose can very easily contain literary elements that are not as straightforward as we first imagined. But we might not easily catch this from our western mindset.
We don’t need to despise our western concepts. We simply need to note that, as we approach Scripture, the authors and compilers of what we have in the canon were quite different from us.
This is why extra-biblical tools (commentaries, books discussing ancient perspectives, etc) can be quite helpful as we study the text, also considering how to apply the text as new covenant followers of Jesus Christ.
Going back to the original illustration of an iceberg, this chapter on language finishes out the section labelled as above the surface. These are aspects that are not too difficult to note when studying the text of Scripture (or any text). In the next post, it will be time to move just below the surface.