“is a word-for-word translation unbiblical?” — part 2

Another illuminating example is Deut 6:5 — the greatest commandment. Again there’s little substantial difference evident between the MT and the DSS:

ואהבת את יהוה אלהיך בכל לבבך ובכל נפשך ובכל מאדך

These reflect a tripartite division of “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (NASB). The LXX follows this quite literally, preserving the tripartite division of heart, soul, strength:1

καὶ ἀγαπήσεις κύριον τὸν θεόν σου ἐξ ὅλης τῆς καρδίας σου καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς ψυχῆς σου καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς δυνάμεώς σου.

However, when we look to the NT the words are translated differently. Here are the final words of each instance:

Matt 22:37
ἐξ ὅλης τῆς καρδίας σου καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς ψυχῆς σου καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς δυνάμεώς σου
Mark 12:30
ἐξ ὅλης τῆς καρδίας σου καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς ψυχῆς σου καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς διανοίας σου καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς ἰσχύος σου
Luke 10:27
ἐξ ὅλης [τῆς] καρδίας σου καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ ψυχῇ σου καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ ἰσχύϊ σου καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ διανοίᾳ σου

As you can see, there are slight variations in each instance. Most significantly, Mark and Luke specify four parts against Matthew’s (and the MT’s and LXX’s) three. There is, unsurprisingly, considerable discussion over the source and significance of these variations, much of it speculative. What we do know, however, is that these each represent translations from the original (perhaps through Aramaic if they recall Jesus’ words). As such, they provide a further point for examining the translation methodology endorsed by the NT.

So what can we say? Many commentators agree that these texts all express a merism for the entire person. Today we might translate “body, mind, and spirit” (if not for the new-age overtones). Furthermore, the variations between versions do little to diminish this impression. Instead, they likely cater to different audiences and their understanding of the constituent components of a human being.

But what of the significance of the variations for our understanding of translation methodology? First, it is clear that Mark’s and Luke’s versions cannot easily be reconciled with a “word-for-word” or “formal equivalent” approach. Both these examples can be considered more “dynamic equivalent” translations of the Hebrew than “formal equivalent” (although these exist on a spectrum), and yet both are authorised by the NT. This has some significance for arguments about inerrancy, for it undermines claims that the text must be transmitted at the word level rather than at the level of meaning (a claim which I suspect is confused by the frequent translation of the nouns דבר and λογος by “word” in English when context frequently requires a meaning something like “message”).

In the end, the expectation that an accurate translation reflects the very words of the original in a thoroughly formal equivalent manner is spurious. The oft-cited claim that dynamic equivalent translations “change” the words of the original is nonsensical, for a translation changes every word of the original from the source language to a target language. What the examples cited here indicate, however, is that the NT authors and the LXX translators were often happy to preserve the meaning they saw in the text more than merely the form of the words, and sometimes even at the expense of the form of the words.

So is a word-for-word translation unbiblical? No, there are too many examples of the NT adopting word-for-word translations of OT texts. The NT does not reflect a consistent translation methodology, undermining any case that one particular modern approach or translation is superior to all others when such is assessed only on the methodology employed. Consequently it is not possible to claim that a dynamic equivalent translation is unbiblical either!

1. Some manuscripts record διανοίας in place of καρδίας, a variation reflected among the NT quotations (see Paul Foster, “Why Did Matthew Get the Shema Wrong? A Study of Matthew 22:37” SBL 122.2 [2003], 319).

3 thoughts on ““is a word-for-word translation unbiblical?” — part 2

  1. It’s great to see you have continued this thread.

    It seems through reading various thoughts on the KJV and other older versions that we are at risk of misunderstanding those Scriptures through our own modern understanding of those ancient words and not understanding them within the cultural understanding of when they were translated.

  2. Hi Craig,

    You’re quite right. Perhaps the biggest problem is that the KJV uses words we’re familiar with, but it uses them with quite unfamiliar meanings. For example, see here.

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