In our last post, we talked about using the ESV in liturgical settings. We briefly mentioned one thread that deserves fuller treatment: what’s the difference between “obsolete” language and “archaic” language in Bible translations?
We turn, as we did last time, to a document produced by the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. We’re not necessarily endorsing their view completely, but they provide a well-thought-through place to start.
They write in Language Guidelines and Principles of Translation (pdf):
Certain terms may not be part of everyday discourse, but they have an important function in the thought and the life of the church. “Justification,” “Seraphim,” and “Incarnation” have little currency outside of the Christian faith, but this is by no means a reason to revise them out of a contemporary hymnal.
Linguists recognize the category of technical language and language that belongs to a particular subgroup. Every field, every profession, every culture, and every subculture has a language that is its own. In fact, it is language that constitutes and makes possible the work and the identity of each group. The church is no exception.
Linguists also recognize the category of “ritual language.” Words that are seen to be performative in themselves, or language used in rituals, tend to preserve archaisms and to employ grammatical constructions of their own. Whether in a secular court room (“Hear ye, hear ye”) or in a marriage service (“With this ring, I thee wed”) or in Sunday worship (“The Lord be with you”), the grammar consists of unusual imperatives and subjunctives that are found nowhere else. (See the specialized senses of “thou” and “vocatives” described above.)
Such language, though it would sound strange in another context, is, in fact, seldom misunderstood. But when it is, the language of the church simply must be taught. Becoming part of a community (whether it is the legal profession, a clique of teenagers, or a new culture) means learning its language. Initiating members into the language of the church is a major part of catechesis and the teaching ministry of the church.
In another document (Comparative Study of Bible Translations, pdf) they provide a more specific distinction between “obsolete” and “archaic” language:
Theological writings and liturgies of the church contain many archaic terms, e.g., the remission of sins, confession and absolution, Introit, Gradual, the Propers, the Offertory, the Benediction. Those words have specific and known meanings that have remained the same for hundreds of years, but they would not be used outside the context of worship.
Archaic language helps to convey the ancient and rich theology of the Christian faith, and it may be well-loved by many in the church, for example, in the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 23. Church members know what that language means and cherish it….
In contrast to archaic language, which may benefit the church, obsolete language is old language that is no longer understood by most people. Sometimes a word drops out of usage. For example, many people would have to consult a dictionary to define “firmament” in the KJV of Gen. 1:7.
Sometimes a form of a word becomes obsolete, even if other forms of the word remain archaic and understood. For example, “begotten” in the Nicene Creed is archaic, while “bare” in the KJV of Gen. 4:1–2 is obsolete: Eve “bare” (bore, gave birth to) Cain and Abel.
Sometimes the predominant meaning of a word changes so that the continued use of obsolete language may even convey the wrong idea. For example, in the KJV of Phil. 4:6 Paul counsels, “Be careful for nothing,” and in the KJV of Lk. 10:41 Jesus says, “Martha, thou art careful.” That language is obsolete because in modern English “careful” no longer can mean “full of care, worried.”
Modern Bible translators face a dilemma when translating passages that rely on words that have fallen out of common usage (words like propitiation, and even grace, which has a slightly different meaning in church contexts than elsewhere). Should they use the same words that English Bibles have used for centuries, or should they replace them with words that are immediately understandable (“perspicuous”) to readers without access to a church to help them understand the words?
The ESV consistently prefers the traditional English words as the best way to translate the original Greek and Hebrew. We’ve mentioned before that the ESV Preface notes that the ESV “retains theological terminology… because of their central importance for Christian doctrine and also because the underlying Greek words were already becoming key words and technical terms in New Testament times.”
Such words, while “archaic” in the sense used above—we prefer the term “traditional”—are far from obsolete. Modern churches use them often, and churchgoers use such words to mold their thinking.
Note: we re-paragraphed some of the quotes to make them more readable online.
Update: fixed typo.