Towards the end of my first family-based visit to Greenbelt (assuming I survive that far!), I am taking part in a panel exploring the Bible called Lost in Translation. The panel is being chaired by the new director of Theos, Elizabeth Hunter (@TheosElizabeth) formerly of MediaNet and the Church and Media Network. The other panelists are Prof Richard Burridge, Dean of King’s College London and Prof Janet Soskice, Fellow of Jesus College Cambridge. I’m evidently the make-weight on this panel!
The main theme of the panel is the usefulness of the Bible – well, I think that is what we are getting at. The brief is huge – looking at the historical development of the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts through the various translation processes and up to the modern day. The basic premise is that since a translation can only ever be partial, do we not end up losing so much of the text through the various translation processes that the Bible ends up being useless – evacuated of meaning and the bearer of disputes rather than truth.
I can see the point but I think that there is a bit of overkill here. Translation is necessary if the bulk of the people don’t have the original language. Moreover, translation is easy and pretty straightforward with what is after all rather low literature. Before you have me burned at the stake, let me explain that statement. The Bible tends to be written in pretty straightforward Hebrew and Greek. There are some passages which have lots of possible meanings and some which commentators have argued over for centuries. But the vast bulk is clear. It isn’t written in the close intense style of, say, Shakespeare. Translating that style of literature (high literature) is really hard going since you need to bring with you lots of different allusions and patternings and so on. But getting a good dynamic equivalent reading of the Bible isn’t too difficult for someone with a modicum of Greek and Hebrew. Wycliffe Bible Translators may be miffed at that…but look at The Message! The problem is that such translations tend to be radically dated very very quickly and need to be replaced by dynamic equivalents into contemporary idioms.
The problem comes when we hyper focus on the text. We are good at doing this. Indeed, the rabbinic tradition which we share with Judaism bequeathed the penchant for textual scrutiny to us. Rabbis argued over specific words in the Hebrew text and denounced one another (usually in good humour) for misreading dots and dashes and misinterpreting the text. We continue to do this. We can argue of small matters which in the end tend to be the modern equivalent of exploring how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. On the other hand, we can also dismiss this close scrutiny as the province of the expert and so nothing to do with us or the true mission of the Church. To do that is pretty dangerous. When we abandon good biblical scholarship, we end up with the Bible meaning anything and therefore nothing. I worry that some of the most popular thinkers in the new emergence church treat the Bible with disrespect and offer some pretty poor biblical exegesis. They want to avoid being called pharisees but in the end are in danger of selling their birthright for a popular message.
We need to have both the rabbinic scrutiny of the text alongside the broad sweep of the Bible. We need to be acquainted with the whole of Scripture while at the same time confident that we can explore the minute details. We need to read the Bible ourselves while at the same time having alongside us the voices of the modern Christian rabbis taking us deeper and deeper into the text. Barnabas Lindars, and many others, have used the says that the Gospel of John is shallow enough for a baby to paddle and deep enough for an elephant to drown. So right. But it is right for much of the Bible. We need to get the balance between being paddling babies and drowning elephants.