I don’t like it when people get up in church gatherings and criticise bible translations. However there need to be forums where the successes and failures of our translations can be discussed, and I think that fits within The Grit‘s (admitted broad) brief (see our tagline!).
I’ve been trying to write a sermon on Luke 7: 24ff, where Jesus teaches about John the Baptist. It’s been hard going. For one thing, few of the commentators makes any sense of it, and also they all disagree with each other. Especially problematic is v.31-35. Here they are in NRSV (a generally excellent translation, I think):
“To what then will I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? 32 They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another,‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not weep.’
33 For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon’; 34 the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ 35 Nevertheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children.”
Hardly anyone seems to get this. (Bill Dumbrell’s commentary I would say is an exception, his reading seems coherent, but his comment is very brief.)
I think the cause of the trouble starts back in the preceding verses:
28 I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” 29 (And all the people who heard this, including the tax collectors, acknowledged the justice of God, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism. 30 But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves.)
This is where things start to go wrong, I think. The King James translators decided to make 29-30 a narrator’s insertion, a kind of parenthesis interrupting the story. And every translation since the seems to have followed suit.
Having spent the past three years immersed in Luke-Acts, when I get to that bit, it jars. It just sounds so un-Lukan. Luke doesn’t do that sort of thing, inserting lengthy theological explanations of people’s attitudes. My feeling is, if he’s doing that here, it’s unique in his writing. So that gets me off-balance to start with.
Then, of course, greek has no brackets, nothing sets v.29-30 apart from its cotext. So that’s been added in. Also, when it says ‘And all the people who heard this’, it makes the thing they’re hearing to be the previous words of Jesus. But ‘this’ is not in the greek, it just says, ‘And all the people, hearing, justified God.’ ‘This’ has been added. Nothing wrong with that, but the ‘this’ is the main word which makes 29-30 sound like a narrator’s insertion. Without the ‘this’, it could be a continuation of Jesus’ teaching.
Also the complex grammar of ‘they had been baptised’ and ‘they had not been baptised’ is not required. The aorist participles here could just as easily read ‘they were baptised’ and ‘they were not baptised.’
Now also, there’s this thing about the pharisees and lawyers hearing Jesus teahcing about John and rejecting God’s purpose for themselves. For one thing, we didn’t even know there were pharisees present in this scene. Strange (almost unheard-of) to introduce them in this way! But worse, how on earth do they manage to reject God’s will for them at this point. What will? Jesus isn’t talking about God’s will for Pharisees: he’s talking about John the Baptist, and his greatness. How they can hear this message and reject something quite different is beyond me. The comment about the Pharisees seems quite out of place here, if it’s refering to Jesus’ audience.
Another disturbing feature of the translations is the way they make Jesus pick up on the terminology of Luke’s insertion, in v.34-35. “All the people” becomes “All her children”. “Justify God” becomes “justify Wisdom” (a figure standing for God in Jewish thought). “Tax-collectors” are mentioned in both places. These two paragraphs are clearly interacting with each other, and the impression given is that the second (Jesus in 34-35) is responding to the first (narrator in 29-30). But it’s a bit weird when a character in the story starts interacting with the narrator! Shades of Sophie’s World?
Tomorrow I’ll suggest a different translation, and argue that it helps make simple sense out of the whole passage.