The Dongola Times

(Anachronistic) Dispatches from the Kingdom of Makuria.
07th of December, 2013

Spirit-Inspired Bible Translation and the Tools of the Hobby-Trade

It is an interesting experience, when you start towards a translation of the Bible. In my case, I have had to create lots of throw-away scripts (in Ruby), generating data analyses on my sources. Where other people use textual critical tools (NA28, for instance), I am instead considering the original already settled and I build translation tools and aids around that original. You will soon be thanking God I am not a KJV-only type.

For starters, when you do not have a committee of Bible scholars—let’s say you are Tyndale, or Luther—and you have to make a translation of the Bible, you have to rely on inspiration by the Holy Spirit to keep your Bible true. That is why these men of old who copied manuscripts and did translations were simple yeomen, but they got us our Bible perfectly intact, from goat-herds writing on vellum, via prisoners writing on parchment and revolutionaries pressing on paper, to geeks programming Ruby.

When you do not have a committee, you need the Holy Spirit. And the methods of the Spirit are generally more interesting and wild—like the wind, “you hear it blow here and there, but you know not where it comes from or where it goes.”
So it is in that way that I find myself building these tools. The most-important, one a small database I generated from the sources, is a list of the words that occur in the Bible, with their codes for the Strong’s Concordance, sorted by the number of times they are used (commonest-first), and all the references to them, by verse. No wonder it is 1.4MB in size (a whole floppy disk).

In working on the translation, I have already come to a few conclusions about modern Bible translation.
First, focus on Koine Greek. This is simply because now one doesn’t need to know two ancient languages (Koine Greek and Hebrew) in order to be a scholar of the whole Bible. For today you find that if one specialises in Koine Greek, such a one is generally lost from the Old Testament. Or if one specialises in Hebrew, such a one is also generally lost from the New Testament. This is completely unnecessary, given that authoritative and relevant Koine Greek translations of the Old Testament exist. The problem is that they are considered inferior to the Hebrew-language Old Testaments, even by Christians.

“Even by Christians,” because the Septuagint (the Greek-language Old Testament) is what is quoted in the entirely-Greek-language New Testament. More-interestingly, some parts of the Hebrew-language Old Testament—Messianic prophecies, to be precise—are at serious variance with the parallel parts in the Greek-language Old Testament. It turns out that, due to textual criticism, manuscript archæology (the Dead Sea Scrolls), and historical witness, we now know the Greek-language Old Testament (i.e., the Septuagint) to be truer to the original sources. As a result, you find that quotations of the Old Testament, when found in the New Testament, they read differently from the common Old Testament (Hebrew-language), but true to the Septuagint. Therefore, by witness of the infallible New Testament as well, the Septuagint is an accurate Old Testament. The Masoretic Text on which is based the common Hebrew-language Old Testament is at least 600 years younger than the New Testament, unlike the Septuagint which is from about 200 years before Christ.

We have settled the question of the Old Testament, and we have found that one need not know more than just Koine Greek to do the most fruitful Bible scholarship from the original sources.
But this exposes an interesting fact: an inspired translation can become the authoritative copy of the Bible. Philo considered the translators of the Septuagint to have been prophets, and it was at the time accepted that the translators had been divinely inspired. Stories of scholarly miracles surrounded this translation, the Septuagint. We know that the Septuagint is an inspired translation.

Another poorly-understood inspired translation is the King James Version. God was preparing a new Koine Greek (which is English), a language that would be spoken by the majority of the educated World, to be the international language. And he chose a Bible in that language, and inspired it. This is the King James Version. Therefore it is not idly that other languages, having come into contact with Christianity and desired to have a Bible, have been able to copy from an inspired translation without need to learn the Greek. The first Luganda Bible was a translation from the King James Version, and this is the case for many other translations. I do not endorse the KJV-only movement, but on this fundamental issue I agree with them.

One interesting upside of this widespread nature of the KJV is that it was used in the most-beautiful of the Protestant reformations—the Scottish Reformation—and also that it got to be read in full by many people everywhere. It excelled in particular by favouring the Majority Text for the New Testament, so that we know the upper limits of the inspired glosses that can be in the New Testament. In 1894, a version of the Textus Receptus was prepared by Frederick Scrivener, as a back-port from the KJV. This TR1894 is the inspired Greek sources of the New Testament. (Scrivener was such a poor tool to use for generating the inspired text of the KJV, because as a person his flesh was too weak for this job, but with the Holy Spirit that is another story.) The thing that is inspired about the KJV, which is read by everyone and preserved in the TR1894, is that it is the upper limit to glosses on the New Testament. Glosses of meaning in the New Testament, as preserved by KJV/TR1894 can be borrowed arbitrarily. But if they are glosses, we have to know what they are glosses of. We have to know the minimum, if the TR1894 is the maximum.

The critical work done by the earthen vessels to produce the Westcott-Hort version of the New Testament resulted in the minimum of the New Testament. This is why they worked with the overbearing assumption that the more-accurate version of the New Testament would be the smaller version. This is not true, of course, since some ancients may have paraphrased liberally, or copied out only certain chunks of the New Testament. Nevertheless, the search was not for the ultimate New Testament, but rather the minimum version of it. So we know that the New Testament is found somewhere between Westcott-Hort on the lower side, and TR1894 on the upper side.

Now since Westcott-Hort there have been versions of Nestlé-Aland, which are trying to find a new minimum. Perhaps they or someone else will find it. Nevertheless, until a prophet shows up and points it out to us (and it may well be NA27), we have only Westcott-Hort as the inspired minumum.
Now the only assuredly worthwhile critical work is such as will establish a source from the between Westcott-Hort and TR1894.
My translation is initially based on the Westcott-Hort, and as time goes on, we will borrow christological glosses from the TR1894. The TR1894 will be bracketed in along the Westcott-Hort, where necessary. The result would be a new “critical” work, and a new inspired version.

By now you may have noticed that we have a Greek-language Old Testament that is inspired (the Septuagint, in particular the Codices Alexandrinus, Sinaiticus, and Vaticanus) and a Greek-language New Testament that is inspired (Westcott-Hort/TR1894). So Bible scholars only need learn the Koine Greek, and they will be scholars able to bring forth treasures from both the Old and the New, and be able to bring forth a translation from those two sources. This is what I am doing.

So far, I have come to where I have generated the tools for such a scholarly work. The dictionaries of the Greek and English, the frequency counts of the words, and the linking of every word to the verse where it occurs.
The first result of this will probably be the Koine English version of the Bible that I promised. I have got to the point where I can generate an entire Bible with the Greek words replaced by Strong’s Concordance code along with the classification of the word from the original. That intermediate language is important, because any dictionary can be keyed to Strong’s Concordance, and then an algorithm forces a 1:1 correspondence between the words of one language and the words of the Greek original. Since this is an automated process, the words would almost certainly not be of a normal human language, since they would have been mechanically and mathematically generated with the goal of being a more-understandable perfect equal of a dead language. It would be a mathematical Koine English. Hopefully, the version I would release as the Koine English version would be more-natural, but that is just a hope.

Bonus: In Koine Greek, you cannot say the above sentence “Hopefully … but that is just a hope.” The word often translated as “hope” in the New Testament—it is impossible that such “hope” can disappoint. It is more-appropriate to use the English word “expectation”, which is why Paul says “Now hope does not disappoint.” In Koine English, we still may use the word “hope” (such that in the mathematical version, the past tense turns out to be “hope’d”, as in hoped), the meaning of “hope” would have to be found in the rest of the writings, because it would have been used consistently only where that word was used in the document, rather than based on what our society understands by “hope.” So you see, we find that it would be an intelligible language whose meaning is otherwise entirely worked out from the Scriptures themselves, based on the context of other occurrences of a particular word. This is both how we learn any language and also how W.V.O. Quine realised The Indeterminacy of Translation[1]. Now putting a word in context doesn’t have to be difficult; usually for a fruitful hermeneutic, you only need to show that the Spirit used the same word, whatever the word, in two different places, in order to legitimately link them.

Now, the true problem with this scheme is that too many people are unaware of how the Spirit works, in spite of John 3. They expect that inspired translation is only done by scholars who have a visible halo on their MacBooks. Inspired translation is not done by humans, but by God. When the Holy Spirit inspires a translation, it can be a farmer doing the task, and it will still be inspired. —And inspired documents are important not for how perfect they are in the eyes of the humans, but for how perfect they are in the eyes of God. The Bible itself, after all, is a prophecy of how the Word became flesh; “in the likeness of sinful flesh.” Those who toss themselves wholly onto the Scriptures will find that they are walking on 70,000 fathoms of water. It is hard to explain, but when we observe the hand of the Holy Spirit in a translation—when we respect the work of the infallible God as He has been pleased to do it through fallible men, and we recognise the priceless treasure in these jars of clay—this faith is counted for us a righteousness, and God honours our faith in His word.

Therefore this our faith in the inspiredness of our version, down to the word frequency and character placement, is rewarded by God in terms of Him keeping the promises that He provided in the text we have so reverently been guardians of, and also by making fruitful the mystical study of the text characteristics (such as word frequency, placement, ambiguity, semantic tension, and other masorah in the text) to reward those who have loved His word above other things. When a document is inspired by God, as is our Bible, nothing is by accident. As a result, even the “accidents” and “errors” are all well-intended. I warned you; you have to be a fideist for this. Certainly we have no text with which to “correct” the Septuagint, because it is more-ancient than any other text we have.

The selection of what source text to use will similarly have to be based on faith, and can progress on internal counsel, even as the professionals ask why we didn’t set up a large committee to achieve this end. We know that alone with God we are greater than the entire World. “Greater is His who is in you, than the devil that is in the World,” even though “we know that the whole World lies under the sway of the Evil One.” God will not have to wait for university degrees. “I will remove them and destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will hide.” —By the way, that quote in 1 Corinthians 1 is perfectly in agreement with the Septuagint versions, both the NETS of Prof. Pietersma and Brenton’s more-available translation, even though the Masoretic Text reflects later divergences on such prophecies. (The Masoretic bears a history of the theological strife between Jews and Christians, being a representative of the Jewish emendations. The Septuagint predates Christians.)

The first task I see before me today is to bring the chapter and verse numbering of the Septuagint into sync with the Protestant Bible.