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NT Idiomatic Translations

The New Testament: An Idiomatic Translation: The Early Letters by George A. Blair (Studies in the Bible and Early Christianity: Edwin Mellen Press)
The New Testament: An Idiomatic Translation: The Master’s Life by George A. Blair (Studies in the Bible and Early Christianity: Edwin Mellen Press)
The New Testament: An Idiomatic Translation: Later Revelation by George A. Blair (Studies in the Bible and Early Christianity: Edwin Mellen Press)

I must confess that I began reading this text with certain reservations. Firstly, I could not find any information about the author. He did not seem to be a member of the scholarly biblical guild to attempt such a momentous endeavor of providing a translation of the New Testament. Today it is widely recognized that such an enterprise is far too much for one person to attempt without considerable preparation and linguistic studies. Secondly, no footnotes were provided or bibliography supplied which would indicate the translator's preparation and horizon. Thirdly, I would like to know the actual procedure involved in producing such a translation. He describes himself as a philosopher with a scholar's background and refers to his own Mellen publication on The Synoptic Gospels Compared (2003).

Nevertheless as I read the text I gradually grew in admiration of the clear style of the writer as he faced such a momentous task while admitting that new translations are a dime a dozen. His approach is courageous and honest to produce "not a literal, not really simply an idiomatic," but what he considers a "faithful" translation. This means five senses:

1.) Faithful to the English as well as the Greek.

2.) Faithful to the personalities and writing style of the authors.

3.) Faithful to when the documents were written.

4.) Faithful to the psychological context.

5.) Faithful to history and the intent of the authors.

This aim is for the texts to speak for themselves and all in all one could not disagree with the proposals of the writer. I could only admire. But most scholars would have questions and problems on every page. I was taken aback by the translation of Messiah by Prince, of John bathing instead of baptizing, of Judeans not Jews, sacred people in place of saints, student for disciple and community for church. Nevertheless the author at every point made me stop and think how I would translate the expression. To be honest I so often came up with the answer "I am not too sure."

Comments like Mark's report is obviously written in a second language, Luke's is fluid and literary, Matthew is pedantic, John is extremely poetic, the Rock's letters are somewhat pompous and Hebrews is superb and elegant Greek writing, show a good mastery of Greek as when he accuses the King James of sometimes transforming the pedestrian into something lofty and elegant. However, to include the second letter of Peter and other letters among the Early Letters would not find much agreement among mainstream scholars.

I certainly admire the clear fluidity of Blair's writing and the fact that he made me think and raised questions on every page. I liked his comment (p.25) that it is "extremely implausible psychologically" for Paul to have written Galatians around 48 "off the top of his head" and then sent such "composed" letters as Thessalonians and later reverted to his original style to Corinth and only slightly modified it when writing to Rome and Philippi. Certainly there is value in such fresh evaluations, whatever scholars think of them. Why bother with a new translation of the New Testament?

They seem to be a dime a dozen. But it turns out that in many ways, they are all variations on the same theme, and, I think, don't quite match in English what the Greek actually says—which is what translation should be about. So I am going to try to produce, not a literal, not a modern, not really simply an idiomatic, but what I think of as a "faithful" translation.

There are several senses in which Blair attempts to be faithful:

Faithful to the English as well as the Greek

First of all, this is a "faithful" translation in the sense that Blair wants it to be faithful to both the Greek language he is translating from and the English he is translating into. Most translations that style them­selves as "faithful" are really faithful only to the Greek. They are "literal" translations, with the English reflecting the Greek behind it—and the result is Greek with English words, not English. To illustrate with a modern language, it is in this sense "faithful" to translate, "Cuantos años tienes, Chico?" as "How many years do you have, little one?" But it's not English, however clearly it expresses the meaning. We say, "How old are you, little boy?" Translations that are faithful to both languages are sometimes called "idiomatic."

But in translating the New Testament, there is also a second problem in being faithful to the English: the authors' words generally appear in that specialized jargon that is "Biblical English." Many have become technical terms, which it seems like sacrilege to alter:

Christ, grace, disciple, justification, parable, Gospel, baptism, apos­tle, church, and so on. These words have got so encrusted with the Theological sense that they don't now have anything like the mean­ing of the ordinary Greek words the authors were using.

Do not misunderstand him. I have no quarrel with Theology (except perhaps in some of its most recent deconstructive vagaries), or even technical terminology. What Blair is saying is that the original writers were using normal Greek words with ordinary Greek mean­ings. The Theological implications may have been latent in them, but these were only latent. In the beginning, they were just simple words.

So if we use the "Biblical" term, a common word gets transformed into something esoteric—which is unfaithful to the English.

There are also other ways of being unfaithful to one or the other language, which Blair  attempts to avoid: to "modernize" the text, fitting an­cient ideas into a contemporary mold, or to make alterations to cater to modern sensibilities or fads, or to make the text "understandable" to us by putting it into "basic English," so that the authors sound as if they were ten years old. Some of them, after all, such as the author of Hebrews, clearly showed great sophistication. No, he is simply trying to produce an English that will create in a contemporary Amer­ican mind what would have been in the mind of someone in the first century who heard these documents read (most people heard documents in those days, of course, since few could read themselves). Perhaps you could say Blair is trying to write what the authors would have written if they were writing their (ancient) ideas in contemporary American English.

The result will doubtless come as a shock. Let me give some examples.

First, instead of "translating" Christos by its transliteration, "Christ," or by a transliteration of the Hebrew, "Messiah," or by the literal meaning of the word, "Anointed One," Blair uses "Prince."

Why "Prince," of all things? Because the "Biblical" words are seriously misleading. You see, because of Christianity's develop­ment, the term "Christ" or "the Anointed" conveys the idea of the divine Savior—and, of course, for us, the "Christ" in "Jesus Christ" even sounds like his last name. For the Hebrew of the time, however, the term was a title, and the Christos was thought of as the descend­ant of David, the Pretender to the Throne of Israel, who would reestablish a dynasty that would last forever. Kings were anointed among the Hebrews, which means that even Ahab, hardly a divine savior, was the "christ" or the "messiah" while he was King of Israel. So "Jesus Christ" becomes "Prince Jesus."

True, there are other implications in the anointing; for instance, as Hebrews points out, he was also a priest; but that anointing wasn't in people's minds when they heard the term. And I do not deny that the documents are trying to establish that Jesus was in fact the divine Savior; but the point is that this isn't what the word meant.

You will also find John "bathing" people instead of "baptizing" them. The word means "to sink"; but the way people bathed in those days without soap (though soap was actually known back then) was to go down to the river and sink themselves in. Paul alludes to a sinking when he says that we were sunk into the Prince and died by this sinking. But the word would really have conveyed the meaning of getting washed, not being drowned; and certainly it did not have the purely religious significance our word "baptize" has.

Blair translates Judaioi as "Judeans" and not "Jews," because that was what it originally meant. The term was something like our "Yankee," which to a non-American means an American, but to an American means a New Englander. Paul, for instance, was clearly referring not only to Judeans but Galileans too, while John, who was a (Jewish) Galilean, had a real problem with the Judeans, who considered them­selves the "real Hebrews" and looked down their noses at the all-but­-Gentile "northerners." His report isn't anti-Semitic, it is anti-Judean. Blair owes this insight to a conversation with Dr. Joseph Martos.

You will also find "sacred people" in place of "saints" or "holy people." The reason is that we think of saints or holy people as virtu­ous, and Paul, for instance, berates these "holy people" for things like incest, backbiting, factionalism, and so on—hardly actions of the kind of people we think of as saints. Furthermore, a husband who is an unbeliever does not become a saint in our sense just by being married to a Christian—even to a saint. But he does become a sacred thing by association.

Most of the time Blair translated "flesh" by "matter," and "fleshy" by "material." Our word "flesh" makes us think of "naked skin" and has all kinds of sexual overtones; whereas what these writers were driving at was (a) the opposite of "spirit" or "spiritual" or (b) meat. In the second sense, John reports Jesus as saying, "unless you eat the meat of my body" ["eat my flesh"], which sounded just as disgusting to the Judeans as it does to us.

In place of "disciple," you will find "student," because a mathetes (Lat. discipulus) is not some special follower, but just the usual word for "student." The students of Jesus were not in a classroom, of course; but then classrooms weren't how you learned in those days.

The "apostle," becomes the "emissary." This is fairly close to the original flavor of the word; the "apostle" is the one "sent out" some­where to speak for a king or government. "Ambassador" won't quite do, since the ambassador was a representative of the country, and the apostolos had a definite message the king wanted delivered, or a task he wanted performed. The Twelve seem to have understood them­selves, once Jesus had died, as temporary spokesmen for the Prince until he returned to take over the world's throne.

The "church" is the "community." The Greek word means "the calling out" or "assembly." But we think of assemblies as things that happen in auditoriums to listen to a speaker; and what the authors of the various documents meant is a group of people with something in common that unites them and sets them apart ("calls them out") from others.

The "covenant" or "testament" is the "treaty." This is what God entered into with Abraham and the people of Israel: a formal agreement between two sovereigns. I toyed with calling it a, "compact," which would do the job, but seems to me to lack something; so I changed it back. And of course Jesus the Prince ratified a New Treaty with his blood. Note, by the way, that the term also means a "will," and sometimes will be translated that way, when the context calls for it. Blair left "New Testament" as the title of the book, however, so people would know what they were reading.

Peter will be called by what his Greek name (actually nickname) means: "Rock," which Blair admits makes him sound a bit like a boxer; but Peter is now too common a name, and the name Jesus gave him was not something that you would call a person in those days; so if "Rock" sounds funny to us, it sounded funny to the people then.

Speaking of what sounds funny, you will occasionally find a strange conglomeration of consonants, YHWH, which is the Divine Name, YaHWeH or JeHoVaH, as some used to spell it. The original was written, as all Hebrew was, with nothing but consonants, with the reader expected to put the right vowels in the right places. But since no one ever pronounced this name (the Hebrews substituted Adonai, "Master" or "Lord"—slave-owner--when they read it aloud), I de­cided to leave it as it was, YHWH (although nowadays the "w" is pronounced like a "v"). When quotations are given of the Old Treaty and that word is there, Blair has substituted it back for Kyrios (Master).

One other expression that looks funny. Jesus is constantly saying, "Amen I tell you . . ." Contemporary translations have tried to render this as something like "I solemnly assure you" (it is the equivalent of "the fact is . ."); but the expression was a Hebraism that was delib­erately included in the Greek text, and would have sounded odd to any of the hearers of the Report who was not a Judean. So Blair left it as it was, because that seemed to be consistent with the authors' intention.

One term Blair had a good deal of trouble with, oddly enough, was the one usually translated "Gospel." "Good news"  does not really fits, because the euangelion is not exactly the contents, but the message that was to be delivered to people; so, to get this across, Blair finally hit upon "report of the good news" as coming as close as he could think of to the sense.

In referring to the adelphoi of Jesus, Blair translated the term "relative" instead of "brother," since "brother" to us means only a blood brother, while the adelphoi included cousins and other close relatives. For instance, John remarks that at Jesus' cross, his mother and his mother's adelphe Mary of Clopas were standing nearby. Clearly, his mother's parents didn't have two daughters named "Mary," so the second Mary had to have been something like a cousin, not a sister in our sense.

In other contexts, such as those addressing groups of Christians, Blair translated adelphoi as "brothers and sisters" when those addressed were not all men, since we don't use "brother" in this inclusive sense.

This brings up what is called "sexually neutral" or "inclusive" lan­guage. Blair has tried to translate anthropos as "person" or "human being" instead of "man," because it is the generic word for human being, and nowadays "man" is increasingly only used to refer to male human beings (whose Greek is aver). Blair has not, however, done this when it would make the phrase awkward or call undue attention to itself.

And Blair could not bring himself to do anything with "nonsexist" pro­nouns. "He/she" stands out like a feminist banner, and to me the singular use of "they" has not yet got to the state where the singular use of "you" now is in English (as witness the trouble you get into in trying to decide whether to use a singular or plural verb-form with it). Blair is sorry to antagonize feminists, who bristle at the sight of the generic "he"; but it is either that or call attention to pronouns at the expense of meaning and flow—and meaning and flow are part of what this translation is all about. Blair uses the generic "he" for God also, rather than try to substitute a noun.

Because of what Blair just called "flow," he has not put in the verse numbering (though he kept the numbering of the chapters, which usually are reasonably rational divisions of the text). Verse number­ing encourages taking phrases out of context, and makes it difficult either to see the document as a whole or to follow the logic of it. Blair thought a sacrifice of ease of finding an exact location is a small price to pay for ease in reading the whole text. And, of course, the original hearers did not have what they were listening to divided up into chapters and verses.

In cases where there are allusions that everyone in those times would know, Blair occasionally put the allusion into the text itself rather than into a footnote, on the grounds that the author would undoubt­edly have done so if he had supposed that his hearers would have needed it. I also translated measurements into rough-and-ready natural equivalents that mean something to us rather than numeric equivalents in our metric system, which sound anachronistic and convey a false sense of accuracy. Thus, the students row several "bowshots" from land; the stone water jars hold ten or fifteen "buck­etfuls" rather than two or three "measures"; and so on.

Because of structural differences in language, Blair occasionally introduced indirect discourse when direct discourse was used in the Greek, and have been pretty free with connective terms, substituting the English word that seemed to be called for by the logic of what was being said. Connectives, more than anything else, cannot be rendered one-for-one.

These are a few of the major changes. There are many others, any of which can cause startled reactions. Suffice it to say that Blair feels he can justify all of them, based on the current meaning of the words and the general meaning of the Greek.

Faithful to the personalities and writing style of the authors

A second thing Blair attempts in this translation is to adjust the English style to what he perceives to be the style and personality of the Greek writer, instead of trying to make the book one coherent whole. The authors wrote very different Greek, some extremely fluent and ele­gant, some literate but down-to-earth (some even "earthy" at times), and some stylistically inelegant and even quite poor.

Thus, Paul comes out sounding "talky," using contractions and such, because it is perfectly clear that he was dictating as fast as the words popped into his head, occasionally even losing his grip on the sentence he was in. Mark's Report is actually quite awkward and not seldom ungrammatical, obviously written by someone for whom Greek was very much a second language. Luke's Greek, on the other hand, is fluid and literary, though with a Hebraic cast to it, Matthew's rather pedantic, and John's an extremely poetic use of ordinary language. The Rock's letters are somewhat pompous, especially the second, which is not in a style as good as the first (on which he says he had help by Paul's friend Sylvanus), and Hebrews is a superb example of elegant Greek writing.

Blair would be the first to admit that translations like the King James Version are beautiful and even poetic, and they sometimes do a fine job of rendering the peculiarities of the Greek into something that sounds very much like English (e.g. "said unto them" gets across Luke's peculiar "said toward them" very adroitly). Such translations are not "faithful" in the second sense of the term, even when they are in good English, because they transform what is sometimes quite pedestrian into something lofty and elegant. That is not what Blairis after.

Faithful to when the documents were written

Blair also wanted to be "faithful" to the documents in the sense that to put them into the order they were actually written in. As we have them from the traditional compilation, you find the Reports and Acts first, and then the letters—basically, in descending order of length— when the fact is that almost all of the letters belong before any of the Reports.

Of course, in many cases it is by no means obvious when the documents were written, and it is even open to dispute as to by whom—though this is not to be taken as meaning that everything is up for grabs. There is a good deal of evidence for some of them, both from references from other ancient writers (the "Fathers of the Church") and internally; but for others, early Christians are silent or not in agreement, and the internal evidence says either nothing or things that can be interpreted several ways, depending on what a given commentator thinks was the state of Christianity at the time. For example, does the reference in First Peter to being persecuted as "Christians" refer to the fact that people were persecuted for their belief—which had occurred from the beginning—or to the formal crime of being a "Christian," which would put the letter late?

Anyhow, Blair tries his best, and when he perpetrates something controversial, he feels he can justify the position. But so can anyone; the only real evidence we have is the documents themselves, and we have to make educated guesses based on what is in them.

But be aware that this is only translation, not a treatise that goes into the various controversies (and they are as legion as the Gadarene demons) and discusses the relative merits of various positions and gives detailed evidence for my view. To do all this would take many volumes (in fact, Blair’s justification simply for putting Matthew's Report after Mark's and Luke's does take a whole book: The Synoptic Gospels Compared, published (The Edwin Mellen Press).

But what he does here is let the documents speak for them­selves as much as possible, once we have them in an English that says what they originally said. But, of course, since they are not completely self-explanatory, Blair incluses little introductions to each, giving a hint as to when he think the document was written and why he think so, a bit of the context that would make sense out of some of the allusions, reasons why he translates certain words in a certain way, and a bit of what he thinks it was about, as well as what it implies about Jesus and the Christian enterprise.

Blair needs to give a more detailed commentary on Revelation, however, since, while it may have been revelatory to the original audience, it is to us an enigma, unfamiliar as we are with the histor­ical context, with what is called "apocalyptic" literature, and with number symbolism and its function.

Faithful to the psychological context

We have not run out of ways of being faithful yet. Presumably, each of the authors had a reason for why he was writing. In many of the introductions, Blair tries to discover this by a "psychological contextualism," giving what he thinks the situation was at the time, and what psychological demands this made on the author, explaining why he wrote at all, and why he said what he said.

For instance, for Blair it makes no psychological sense to say that James would write a letter, using Abraham as an example of actions rather than faith, after Paul had written Romans, where Paul brings up James's exact position and then thoroughly refutes it. It does make sense, however, as a rebuttal to the less sophisticated argument of Galatians, in which Paul used Abraham as an example of faith rather than actions, but in the process seemed to imply that actions were completely irrelevant.

Further, if James, a man of great prestige, had written this letter right after First Corinthians, then it makes psychological sense for someone in Corinth who got hold of it to have denounced Paul as a fraud and a heretic, and to have him driven out of town in dis­grace—thus prompting Second Corinthians.

Reading the Bible in the traditional order, you miss all of this, because the documents have no relation to each other. Seeing them chronologically opens up new vistas into how Christianity developed in its early years.

Faithful to history and the intent of the authors

It is no secret that the authors of these documents were not just writing history or biography; quite clearly, from the very beginning, they were trying very hard to get across the religious significance of what they were saying. The question is, is this religious significance something they added to the events that happened, or did the events themselves actually have it?

This is the "Jesus of history/Christ of faith" controversy; and it is actually what prompted the investigation that gave rise to this book. Since Blair is a philosopher with a scientific background, he is not really interested in basing his life and conduct on legends that are not factual, however meaningful and beautiful they might be. Blair does not, however, subscribe to that silly view of science that something isn't "scientific" if it's not materialistic. Science is the enterprise that tries to find out what the facts really are, not what fits some preconceived view of what they ought to be. True, "this worldly" explanations are, for good reasons, preferable to "supernatural" ones; but one shouldn't cling to inconsistent and self-contradictory positions just because the alternative might involve something spiritual.

So, while on the face of it, the "Jesus of history" theory is attract­ive scientifically, the alternative is therefore not immediately ruled out of court. We have to test the theories to see what holds up under scrutiny. Remember, our only evidence available is the documents in this book. Any theory must make sense of them.

You see, almost any assertion of fact is subject to verification or falsification by an application of a generalization of scientific meth­od, because it inevitably implies (predicts) that if it is a fact, some other things have to be facts also. These other things may be testable; and if they aren't facts, then the view that predicts them is false.

In the case in question, the alleged fact is that Jesus was simply a very wise and holy man. But in the New Testament, he is portrayed as the Son of God and a miracle-worker who rose from the dead. Now if the alleged fact is true, then the documents are factually false; and so either the authors were lying, or they honestly thought they were relating what happened and were innocently deluded.

It is easy enough to falsify the theory that the authors were lying. People only lie if they have something to gain by it. But the authors of the documents here received no money, no prestige, no comfort, nothing but poverty, hatred, suffering, horrible torture, and death. They had absolutely nothing to gain by telling these stories, and everything to lose (see Second Corinthians). Why would they lie?

The other prediction gets spelled out in this way: Originally, Jesus was such a powerful personality that his followers were fascinated by him and his teaching. But this teaching was in some ways subversive, and so he was killed. After his death, his followers related what he had said and how holy he was; and as time went on, more and more glowing characteristics and events were added to the original nar­rative, symbolically enhancing his prestige. As still more time passed, these were accepted as facts, with the result that eventually, the auth­ors of the documents thought that the miraculous events had actually occurred. The "Jesus of history" had been transformed into the "Christ of faith," whose life now had a new, profound significance for the salvation of souls, and Christianity was born as a religion.

But what this theory now predicts is that the earliest view of Jesus would be that of the human Galilean sage, full of holiness and enigmatic statements. Only after quite a few decades had passed (especially after people who had seen and known Jesus had died) would the fantastic embellishments be accepted as actual events. And it was then that the documents reporting them were written.

The obvious way to test this, of course, is to arrange the docu­ments in order of writing and see (a) how far away the earliest ones are from Jesus' death, and (b) whether the early documents deal with the Galilean sage as opposed to the divine wonder-worker. If they do, then the probability is high that the theory is valid, and one can abandon Christianity as a religion, and simply keep it as an interest­ing historical phenomenon, perhaps gleaning something from the wise pronouncements reported.

If, on the other hand, the beginning is relatively close to the actual events of Jesus' life, and if the "Christ of faith" is there from the get-go, the theory has a severe problem. This difficulty becomes more acute if the statements of the "Jesus of history" do not appear until considerably later. A further blow would happen if some of the docu­ments explicitly seem to refute this theory (e.g. by saying, "If you don't believe that what I am saying actually happened, go ask these other people who were there and saw it for themselves.")

So as you read these documents from beginning to end, you will be able to follow The translator in his journey through the texts, and judge for yourselves why, when all was said and done, he found he had to remain a Christian. To Blair, it was all quite exciting; to his own surprise at how clear it became that the "Jesus of history" and the "Christ of faith" were in fact one and the same.

But as Blair notes, the idea here is for the texts to speak for themselves, not for the translator or the Churches to read into them what may or may not be there. Personally, I believe the New Testament speaks loud and clear; and that is why Christianity has been such a force throughout the centuries.