Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Always the same - and always changing

... lead us not into temptation... Matthew 6:13 (KJV)

... do not bring us to the time of trial... Matthew 6:13 (NRSV)

... do not bring us to hard testing... Matthew 6:13 (GNB)

... do not bring us to the test... Matthew 6:13 (NEB)

The Pope has recently authorised a change in the wording of this part of the Lord’s Prayer. He has accepted that the old version, using the word “temptation”, is misleading. If “temptation” means “enticement to sin”, why would a good and holy God even think of doing that?

So an alternative wording, which speaks of “trial” or “testing” rather than “temptation”, is now acceptable in Roman Catholic churches.

This change has been accepted for many years in many churches. (My copy of the NEB (New English Bible), from which I have quoted above, was published in 1970, nearly fifty years ago.)

So there is nothing very controversial about the Pope’s pronouncement.

But the fact that it has been in the news has raised the whole issue of Bible translation, and it might be useful to focus on this, because I think many Christians have only very hazy ideas about why new translations come out from time to time. Some, in fact, feel quite uneasy about it.

One reason for this uneasiness is that the KJV (King James Version) used to be called “the Authorised Version” - and many people took this to mean that it was authorised by God.
But this is simply mistaken. In fact that word “authorised” applied not to God but to King James VI, who decided that the church needed a new Bible translation. This is why the title “King James Version” is far better than “Authorised Version”.

But the big question is: why does the church need new Bible translations anyway?

Two main reasons. First, because language changes. Words that meant one thing at one time might well have come to mean something very different just a decade or so later (try asking a 70-year old and a 7-year old what the word “mouse” means... you might get a surprise.)

Second, because experts in the field of ancient languages make discoveries that throw new light on what words might have meant in the original.

Both of these factors must be taken into account if a Bible translation is to be good.

To demonstrate how very difficult the art of translation - any translation, not just Bible translation - is, let me suggest an example...

You go into a French restaurant and order a meal. The waiter places your plate before you and says, “Bon appétit, monsieur/ madame”. Now, how do you translate “Bon appétit” into English? Well, it’s easy, isn’t it? “Bon” means “good” and “appétit” means “appetite”. Wahay! Sorted! “Good appetite.” What could be simpler?

Just one problem: “Good appetite” would in fact be a totally rubbish translation for the very simple reason that in English we just don’t say “Good appetite”, do we?

A good translation would depend on the kind of establishment you happen to be in. If it’s a fairly civilised place the waiter might say “Enjoy your meal” (or, these days, just “Enjoy” - urgh...). If you’re in yer local greasy spoon “Dig in” or “Grub’s up” might be more appropriate. But none of these seem remotely like “Bon appétit”. Probably you can think of other possibilities.

Go back to the Lord’s Prayer. It has come to us in the New Testament in a form of Greek which the experts call “Hellenistic” Greek, and which no-one speaks today. Likewise, the Old Testament has come to us in ancient Hebrew (with a smidgeon of another language called Aramaic).

This means that no-one - no, not me and not you - is qualified to pass an opinion on a modern Bible translation unless we have a mastery of these languages. Which certainly counts me out! - and probably you too.

And this in turn means that, whether we like it or not, we depend on those who have made these ancient languages their life-time study. Most such scholars are, of course, sincere Christians themselves, so we have every reason to trust their expertise, even though their translations will never be perfect.
In Matthew 6:13 the key Greek word is peirasmos (pay-raz-mos). Like many words in every language peirasmos is ambiguous - it can mean more than one thing. Did Jesus mean “temptation”, in the sense of being “enticed into sin”? Or did he mean “testing” in the sense of “trial”?

Ultimately, we simply cannot be sure - but for the reasons I mentioned at the beginning the weight of opinion has come down on the side of the latter alternative. Hence the Pope’s statement.

Forgive me if all this is old hat to you - but I hope there are some who might find it helpful. What matters is that the Bible is the word of God, and we are to treat it as such. But it didn’t descend fully formed from heaven in any fixed form!

So I suggest we make it our business to pray for those whose calling it is to study these things and to give us Bibles we can trust, use - and obey!

Father, thank you for your word in scripture. Please bless and give great wisdom to all those whose calling it is to put it into language which is both accurate and understandable. And please help me to read, mark, learn, inwardly digest - and above all, to obey. Amen.

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