Bible Translation: January 2007 Archives

Compare the following two translations:

1 "Whoever steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it must pay back five head of cattle for the ox and four sheep for the sheep. 2 "If a thief is caught breaking in and is struck a fatal blow, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed; 3 but if it happens after sunrise, the defender is guilty of bloodshed."Anyone who steals must certainly make restitution, but if they have nothing, they must be sold to pay for their theft. 4 If the stolen animal is found alive in their possession—whether ox or donkey or sheep—they must pay back double. [Exodus 22:1-4, TNIV]
1 When someone steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, the thief shall pay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep. The thief shall make restitution, but if unable to do so, shall be sold for the theft. 4 When the animal, whether ox or donkey or sheep, is found alive in the thief’s possession, the thief shall pay double. 2 If a thief is found breaking in, and is beaten to death, no bloodguilt is incurred; 3 but if it happens after sunrise, bloodguilt is incurred.[Exodus 22:1-4, NRSV]

Do you notice anything funny about the NRSV translation? They've transposed the order of the verses because verses 1 and 4 are about a similar subject matter, while verses 2 and 3 are about another subject matter. They've assumed that some copyist or editor was too stupid to notice that they'd moved the verses out of the original order and thus split up the original unit of verses 1 and 4. (Technically, they've also made what the NIV has as v.3b into part of v.1 as well, but it's more complicated to describe it if you factor that in.)

A more likely explanation for the only order we have in any Hebrew text (or any ancient translation) is that it's deliberately ordered the way it is as a chiasm, a common literary device in Hebrew literature. In this case, the chiastic structure is a simple ABA, with the A laws as bookends around the B law. Simple chiasms are common in this section of Exodus. Two of the more obvious examples include Exodus 21:12-14 and Exodus 21:15-17, both ABA structures. It seems, then, that the NRSV order is just a premature disordering of an already ordered text out of a complete lack of sensitivity to the kind of literary structure Hebrew literature regularly displays. It's an interesting example of cultural insensitivity leading to a sense of cultural superiority, i.e. the attitude a modern, western ordering would be superior.

In Christ

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Wayne Leman at Better Bibles Blog argues that the Greek phrase usually translated "in Christ" in the New Testament would better be rendered in other ways. His main reason is that the English expression "in Christ" just doesn't mean very much to most English speakers who aren't thoroughly steeped in this expression from English translations of the Bible. I generally agree with this sort of argument when it applies to things that would have been very clear in the original language but are not at all clear in contemporary English, but I think there are sometimes other factors that count against such a translation, and this case may well have several of them.

My first thought on reading his post was to ask whether this have sounded like natural Greek grammar to its original audience. I've always gotten the sense that it wouldn't have. If that's right, then we do Paul a disservice by translating the unnatural form out of it. But I don't have good information on this. The only extra-biblical case I can think of is Epimenides' "in him we live and move and have our being", which Paul quotes in Acts 17 when speaking to the Epicureans and Stoics in their own terms. But was this a normal way of speaking in religious contexts in the Greco-Roman world, or was is strange to Epimenides' context and still strange when the NT authors used it?

It's also worth pointing out that this isn't just "in Christ". Paul regularly says "in him" and "in whom", and John has a lot of similar expressions, e.g. "in me", "in the Father", "in the Son". I believe we get expressions like "in God", "in Jesus", "in the Lord", and even "in the Beloved" in various places, and then there are the compounds like "in the Lord Jesus" or "in Christ Jesus".



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