Podcast: How to Translate the Old Testament (Jack Collins)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Translating the Old Testament

Today's episode is a conversation with ESV Translation Oversight Committee member Dr. Jack Collins on translating the Old Testament, why all Bible translation entails trade-offs, what it means to read (and translate) the Bible literally, and a whole lot more.

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Topics Addressed in This Interview:

01:41 - When Engineering and Bible Translation Collide

Matt Tully
Jack, thank you so much for joining me today on The Crossway Podcast.

C. John Collins
I appreciate you having me. It’s good to be with you.

Matt Tully
Today we’re going to talk about a variety of facets related to the process of translating the Old Testament into our English Bibles. We’re talking with you because you served as Old Testament chairman on the Translation Oversight Committee for the ESV. I want to get into that role—what that entailed and what your work was like there—but before we do that, I have to ask a little bit more about your background. I saw that you have a Master of Science from MIT. Could you share a little bit more about that?

C. John Collins
My first training was in engineering at MIT at a bachelor’s and master’s level, and I worked for several years as a research engineer in the Boston area before I went to seminary. Then in seminary, I just fell in love with the biblical languages and that’s why I went on to do a PhD in ancient Semitic languages.

Matt Tully
What kind of engineering were you involved with? What was the work actually focused on?

C. John Collins
Mostly, it was what’s called systems engineering, which for Bible translation makes a big difference because most people aren’t accustomed to thinking in terms of systems. The overall system is what has to work well and each individual part might not be doing the absolute best that it could, but it’s the way that it fits with the whole system. Actually, we just had the Olympics, and if you think about the all-around Olympics competition for gymnastics—there’s a young lady who lives across the street from me who is the state champion in her age bracket as the all-around gymnastics. She isn’t going to necessarily place first in every single one of the events, but the overall production is superior to everybody else’s. In a Bible translation, that’s also what we’re seeking to do. It’s what you can call a global concern. Namely, we want the whole thing to work together and that means, of course, that you have trade-offs. Most people aren’t accustomed to thinking about trade-offs and cost-benefit things, so I actually found that my engineering background helped me in preparing for a Bible translation. We have a particular philosophy of translation, which might or might not dictate what we do in a particular place, just depending on how it relates to everything else that’s going on.

Matt Tully
We’re going to come back to some of those details in a minute, but you mentioned that sometimes there are trade-offs and that’s a concept that you got from this systems engineering background that you had. Speak to that really briefly on the issue of translating. I would imagine most people would think you have your Hebrew text sitting in front of you, you’ve got a verse that you’re trying to translate, you’re just going to make the right and best decision for that passage in isolation, and then you move onto the next one. Why would there ever be a time when you feel like you would have to make a trade-off when it comes to translating the Bible?

C. John Collins
A real simple example is in the situation of repeated words. Very often biblical writers will repeat words or related words. For example, a word like salvation as a noun and the verb to save. If you can capture the repetition, you get a sense of how the whole passage hangs together, or how this passage hangs together with other passages. But it might not have been the thing that you would have chosen if you were just looking at the individual sentence in which it occurs. You sacrifice a little bit of discomfort at the sentence level in order to secure something at the large level, making visible these repetitions to the English reader.

Matt Tully
That’s so interesting. Would you say it’s fair to say that there is an art to translating and it’s not always that you know exactly what word it should be every single time?

C. John Collins
That’s right. To do a translation requires a lot more than simply cranking it out. People have done studies with computerized translation, and the one thing that a computer doesn’t have is a feel for the situation.

06:36 - A Love for Language

Matt Tully
Maybe jumping back to your educational background, you said you did this work at MIT and then you went on to get a MDiv from Faith Evangelical Lutheran Seminary in Washington state. That was where you got introduced to the languages. What was it about the biblical languages that was so interesting to you? Again, coming from this science background, it feels like a pretty stark difference there.

C. John Collins
I’ve always had a love for languages, so the prospect of learning more languages has always appealed to me. On a strictly human level, I simply enjoy it!

Matt Tully
You’re one of those people that most of us don’t fully understand. The thought of trying to learn another language is—

C. John Collins
Well, what can I say? I’m told that I have a pretty good ear for the sounds in other languages. I usually can pick things up and find a way to say something embarrassing in a language that somebody is teaching me. That’s my gift I suppose.

Matt Tully
When was it that you made that turn from just appreciating those languages and enjoying the study of biblical Greek and Hebrew to then actually pursuing a PhD from the University of Liverpool in England in these ancient languages?

C. John Collins
I don’t really know the answer to that. It was something that dawned on me eventually that I felt that I was good at this and perhaps by being good at it, that was some level of guidance from God. The opportunity opened up for me to go, so it’s really that simple.

Matt Tully
Did you think that you would be involved in a Bible translation project when you first started that work?

C. John Collins
No, never. I never would have dreamed of that.

08:30 - On Joining the ESV Translation Oversight Committee

Matt Tully
How did you get connected to the English Standard Version?

C. John Collins
I was minding my own business and was doing something with my kids one evening, and then I received a phone call from Wayne Grudem—whom I knew by reputation but not personally. He phoned me up and asked me if I would consider it. He had been in contact with one of my colleagues. Actually, at the time, it was a former colleague of mine who was then one of his colleagues at Trinity who had said, You should get in touch with this guy. It’s really that simple. I didn’t volunteer, I didn’t know anybody was talking about me, I just had this phone call. I believe it would have been in the fall of 1998.

Matt Tully
What was it initially that drew you to the project? I would have to imagine that working on a translation project like the ESV—it’s a big undertaking, it entailed a lot of hours of hard work, both independently and as a committee. What was it that compelled you to consider doing that?

C. John Collins
Several things. One is that before being a seminary professor I was a church-planting pastor. I was using a Bible translation that was oriented towards easy intelligibility, but I was finding it difficult to use that translation in my public ministry because I didn’t always agree with it, or I didn’t feel that the translators had an eye towards these global concerns. It was very frustrating for me to say, Well, the Bible in your lap says “X,” but it would have been better had they said something else. I don’t think that’s a healthy situation for people to feel that their minister is the only reliable voice of God. I don’t think that’s good for the ministry. I don’t think that’s good for the congregation. I don’t think that’s good for anybody. So there was that, but then just a little bit after that phone call we were getting into the Advent season. I was reading Bible passages for my kids—both of my kids were born in the early 1990s, so you can imagine they’re very early school age—I was reading to them from one of the very dynamic Bible translations where the shepherds were to go and look for an infant wrapped in baby clothes. My children objected immediately. They were convinced that I was pulling their legs: No, that’s not the Bible! I realized that kids actually do have this sense of what the real Bible is, and kids don’t want the Bible to speak as if it were written in 2000, or now in 2021. They want it to be the ancient document that it is. So, my kids actually convinced me that we need a Bible translation like what the ESV set out to be.

Matt Tully
How would you summarize, just briefly, what that goal for the ESV was when you all first started work on it?

C. John Collins
We’ve used a lot of different terminology—transparent translation, essentially literal, and so forth—but let me put it in different terms. When you read the Bible, I want you to recognize both that it comes from an ancient and foreign setting, but also that it is relevant to you here and now. I do want you to be able to go on a journey to ancient Palestine or to ancient Mesopotamia or to ancient Athens when you read the Bible, but to read it in a way that it begins to make sense why it’s relevant to you right here and right now.

Matt Tully
I would venture to guess that most modern-day evangelical Christians in America intuitively understand the latter part of what you just said, that we want to see how the Bible is relevant and applies to us today and now. That just feels very core to who we are as evangelical Christians. But why would you say it’s important to actually start that journey by going back into the ancient times?

C. John Collins
Simply historically, the Bible comes from that ancient setting and speaks about things in that ancient setting, and it’s upon us to learn about that ancient setting. The climate in Palestine is different from the climate here in St. Louis or in England. Theologically, I’m akin to the Puritans and a lot of Puritan imagination about the scenes in the Bible transpose those scenes into the English countryside. That’s fine for what they’re trying to do, but that is not going to further your understanding of what the biblical text was doing in its own original setting. Theologically, I would say God chose to give his word in particular languages at particular times. He has placed us—the readers here in the twenty-first century—in the position not of the original audience of those biblical texts, but we are heirs of those first audiences. The things that the Bible writers would have said to those first audiences, they might or might not be saying to us depending on what our condition is. In Leviticus, for example, there are prohibitions about the kinds of foods that the people of ancient Israel are allowed to eat or not allowed to eat. Most Christians will agree that those prohibitions don’t apply to us in exactly the same way. There are some Christian groups that do want to apply those, but most Christians would say we’re not prohibited from eating pork like the ancient Israelites were. As a Christian, I want to recognize what those prohibitions were doing in ancient Israel so that I can appreciate how that has a bearing on me. To say that they had a bearing primarily for the first audience doesn’t leave me out; it lays me under an obligation to understand what it means to be an heir of all that.

Matt Tully
When it comes to the work on the ESV that you did—as I’ve already mentioned, you served as Old Testament chairman—what exactly did that role entail? Was that something that you were initially brought into or that you eventually took on as time went on?

C. John Collins
That was from the very get-go. I was the chairman. The original idea was to have a fairly small group and we would make a small number of revisions to the Revised Standard Version (RSV)—the Revised Standard Version from 1951 or so. The New Revised Standard Version was already in existence for about ten years, but we weren’t going to try to reproduce what that had done, but to go in a more biblically conservative direction. But then we realized there’s more to it than that, so then I needed to recruit more members of the committee. Initially, we ended up with a committee of three, and then we expanded it to include another. Then we had to divide up the biblical books amongst ourselves—who would be primarily responsible for these particular books and so on. Our basic procedure was we would take the text of the RSV and we would simply go through it verse by verse, comparing it to the biblical texts (the Hebrew and the Greek).

Matt Tully
What Hebrew text were you using when it came to the Old Testament?

C. John Collins
The standard Hebrew text is the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS). There are other editions of the Hebrew Bible and they vary almost not at all. Basically any one of the standard Hebrew texts that somebody would have would be the same thing. But the BHS was our standard, just like it is for most academics nowadays. One of the things I was looking for was if there were places where the critical inclinations of the RSV translators had perhaps led them to tone down something that’s in the Bible, something that’s strange or odd, or in some cases to offer a revised reading that they thought, Oh, it must have been changed in transmission. Our goal was, as much as possible, to represent the Hebrew text as much as we could, with a few places where we thought, Yeah, there’s a pretty good case for a revised reading. But the RSV thought there were a lot of places where the case was good, so we were looking at those things. We were learning as we were going. We were recognizing, Okay, so there are certain repetitions. We learned this very early on in Genesis. In Genesis 3:15 the woman’s seed, as it’s traditionally rendered, in most modern English versions it would be the woman’s children, perhaps, or her descendants. The word offspring in English actually presented itself as having the same challenge as the English word seed. That word can be a particular seed or it can be a collective or a bunch of seeds. Likewise, the English word offspring, just when you use it—the woman’s offspring—is it a particular offspring, or is it her offspring in general? We didn’t think that it was the job of the translators to decide that, because different commentators will take different perspectives on that. But it turns out that the term offspring is repeated quite a few times in the book of Genesis and actually throughout the Bible, coming up into the New Testament as well. We thought it was worthwhile, as much as we could, to allow people to see the offspring of the woman, and then you have the offspring of Abraham, and then ultimately Jesus is the offspring of David. If we could allow that to show through, we tried. You couldn’t succeed in every case, but it was a goal anyway.

Matt Tully
That’s such an interesting example. Am I hearing correctly that there was ambiguity (with the Hebrew word that’s translated offspring) as to whether or not it means a single person, multiple descendants, or other descendants, so in that case you were trying to maintain the ambiguity of the original text in the English translation?

C. John Collins
Right. For some people, ambiguity is a pejorative word, so I would say that it requires you to make a decision or to make a discernment. It’s a required discernment. In Genesis 3:15, I think it’s a particular offspring based on the grammatical structure there. Not everybody agrees with that. It isn’t purely residing in the meaning of the word that we translate offspring—there are other factors. The responsibility to decide is thrown onto the English reader, so we want to allow the English reader the same opportunities to make discernments as were there for the original Hebrew and Greek readers.

21:37 - What You Should Know about Ancient Hebrew

Matt Tully
Speak a little bit more broadly to the question of the Hebrew language. To most Christians who have not studied ancient Hebrew or ancient Greek, all we know of our Bibles is an English translation—or maybe multiple English translations—that we’ve grown accustomed to or maybe grown to love and cherish. Help us understand a little bit more about the dynamics of ancient Hebrew. What are some things that modern Christians should know about that language?

C. John Collins
The first thing to say about it is that it was a living language that was spoken everyday. I tell my students, There’s two-year-olds in Jerusalem that are speaking this language, so there’s no excuse for you not learning it either. It’s a spoken language, but then in the Bible what you have is a sort of higher level of the language than the everyday and it’s in the written form. It’s in a written form so that it can be read aloud in the gathered worship assemblies of the people of Israel, and then you would have a priest expounding it. There’s a level of formality. I wouldn’t like to use the word artificiality, but it’s not exactly the same as everyday Hebrew speech. It’s a little bit separate from that.

Matt Tully
How do we know that about ancient Hebrew? How do we know that this wasn’t exactly what they would have been speaking to each other?

C. John Collins
Part of it is inference. There are a few inscriptions that have turned up. There aren’t a whole lot, but there are a few. But from the Bible itself, it’s indicated what it’s function is. It’s to be read aloud in the gathered congregation. From the perspective of socio-linguistics, that means you expect that kind of language to be a little bit different from the everyday. For example, it won’t change as fast as the everyday speech will. Just putting it in writing just means that it won’t change as fast. For example, a modern student here in 2021—a person who is a college graduate coming to seminary—I have them read the writings of C. S. Lewis, for example, but those were written in the 1940s or 1950s. And it’s English English, as opposed to American English. There’s already getting to be a bit of a distance between the current kind of speech and that sort of speech. But had those things been presented regularly in people’s hearing, you wouldn’t have the same kind of difficulty. So that’s the phenomenon that you have in the Bible. It changes much more slowly. It does change, so you do have later books where the Hebrew is a little bit different—not totally, but a little bit different—and then after the end of the books in the canon, Hebrew is still a spoken language and it’s still a spoken language in the time of Jesus, although it has changed. Then it develops into the language that was used amongst the Jewish rabbis in the collection called the Mishnah and various other resources. And that, of course, has a relationship to the Hebrew that is spoken in Israel today. To say that it has a relationship is definitely not to say that it’s the same, but there’s some level of continuity there. So, it was a living and spoken language, but the writings in the Bible sort of free the language. They exercise what’s called a linguistic conservatism, that is to say we’re preventing the natural change from happening in order to freeze it in this text here. Just the nature of that language is already taking them back to the time of their ancestors.

Matt Tully
Something that I heard a lot when I was in grad school, and I’ve heard other pastors testify to the same dynamic, is that as a student learning biblical Greek and Hebrew for the first time, Greek is a little easier to pick up right away. But eventually Hebrew, although maybe the learning curve is steeper at first, it’s ultimately an easier language to grasp and to get further in. Do you resonate with that? How would you rate the two languages and how hard they are to learn?

C. John Collins
I think that’s probably correct. The reason is that Greek has a lot more complexities to it. You have multiple patterns for the nouns. For the noun cases you’ve got three declensions—that didn’t bother me because I had been a Latin student in my high school days where you had five declensions, so three seemed like a nice break. The system of the verb is a little bit more challenging in Greek. But at least for a native speaker, what’s going on in Greek is a little bit more recognizable and a little bit more intuitive. In Hebrew, there are just different kinds of grammatical patterns, and the way the verbs work is a little bit different. Actually, there are multiple theories out there still theories out there still—there would be only one theory if everybody came to me and asked me what I think! But since they don’t all come to me, there are multiple theories out there, so it kind of depends on which text book you're using exactly how you understand the verbs in Hebrew. I think we’re narrowing down on a fairly good consensus nowadays, but that’s the grammatical structures. The vocabulary—everybody has heard the word shalom. Everybody has word the word amen. We’ve all heard the word hallelujah, but hardly anybody in English knows that hallelujah is actually a plural imperative, where hallelu is addressed to a group of people and I’m inviting them to praise jah, or the Lord. We have a number of borrowed terms in English but we don’t really know what to do with them or what they’re supposed to mean. When I was a new Christian and I would find a parking place in Boston (which is difficult) after I had been praying, God, please bring me to a parking spot I would say Hallelujah!—that’s actually not grammatical to the Hebrew. I probably should have just said it in English.

28:52 - What Is Textual Criticism?

Matt Tully
When it comes to the Old Testament, my sense is there are a number of issues that are often raised that often have this apologetic side to them. There are some issues with the Old Testament that we as Christians sometimes wrestle with and will be challenged on. Some of them relate to this issue of the original text—the original Hebrew. I want to explore a couple of those with you today. The first one relates to that question of the topic of textual criticism, which you already referenced briefly, and then even authorship. What is textual criticism? How does that come into play when it comes to translating the Old Testament?

C. John Collins
Textual criticism—the word criticism may trouble some people—it’s simply evaluating the reading of a text. Just to give a simple example, I have an edition of the Sherlock Holmes stories that was printed in what was then Czechoslovakia in the 1980s, and so every now and then there is something that looks funny and I have a right to suppose that it’s because the proofreader in Prague (or wherever he was) didn’t understand the English word.

Matt Tully
This is an English edition?

C. John Collins
That’s right. It’s an English edition of the Sherlock Holmes stories. I would find something that was spelled b-r-o-u-g-h, and there’s supposed to be a “t” on it. But obviously, the proofreader didn’t know that. Then you get to some words where even the misspelling is still an English word, like thought and though. Again, just missing a “t” at the end. So I make a judgement: I think ’thought’ was probably what Conan Doyle wrote here. That’s what textual criticism is. I’m looking at a reading in a text, and especially when I have a difficulty with it, I think, Maybe the difficulty is because it didn’t get transmitted correctly. One way to do it would be to go and find a printing of the text that was closer to the time of Conan Doyle and that had been printed in London rather than in Prague. That’s a resource for textual criticism. It’s a check. That wasn’t intended to be a pun, but I guess it is. When you have multiple manuscripts of a text, you can compare those manuscripts and you are assessing, Okay, which of those seems to be closer, in my best judgement, to what the author actually wrote? In the Hebrew Bible, we don’t have the same situation as we do in the apostolic writings. In the New Testament, we have multiple attestations of the Gospels or the letters of Paul, so we can sift them. If you look at what’s called a critical edition of the New Testament, at the foot of the page there will be a lot of material there on alternate readings. When you’re looking at the Hebrew Bible, you don’t have the same kind of situation. You don’t have multiple alternate readings in Hebrew texts. It’s changing a little bit because of certain discoveries like the Dead Sea Scrolls and the text from the synagogue in Syria. But we also have ancient translations: the Greek translation, the Septuagint and then Jerome’s translation, the Vulgate. It’s possible that they might be testimony to different reading. It’s possible, but good textual criticism says, Yeah, but there might be other explanations. You have to look at all the possible explanations. For example, a Hebrew verb is inflected—that is to say it has a different ending depending on whether it’s subject is masculine or feminine. If I were speaking to you, I would use the masculine form. If I were speaking to my daughter, I would use the feminine form. So, every now and then you’ll encounter a text where you expected to see the masculine form and there’s the feminine form. What do we do with this? Either there is something going on that I don’t understand, or there might have been some difficulty in the transmission of the text. So you have to make some kind of discernment there. Criticism just means evaluation. You consider the possibilities and you make your best judgement.

Matt Tully
How does that work relate to the question of authorship? I think sometimes these two topics are linked together in some way, but authorship is a big question about certain sections of the Old Testament.

C. John Collins
Before I address that, let me point out that if you talk to anybody from an Islamic perspective, they will tell you that there is not textual criticism needed for the Quran because God has preserved it whole and intact completely. The very fact that Jews and Christians do textual criticism is evidence that their scriptures are not as fully inspired as the Quran is. As it turns out, there is actual textual variation in the Quran tradition. But then secondly, the kinds of variations, especially in the Hebrew Bible, are extremely small and of no significance for the most part. Then thirdly, what we have is a different perspective on the human being. The biblical situation honors human beings with the responsibility to make these assessments and to do their best job. Islam, in that approach towards textual criticism, is really, I think, demeaning the human being. From the apologetic side, I don’t think that it’s actually a difficulty as some of our Islamic friends would like to make it out to be. We had a visitor, an Imam from Iran, at one of our faculty meetings a number of years ago and he asked this very question. We were all caught flat-footed and the seminary president said, I think Dr. Collins would like to answer that question. So I’ve been stewing on that ever since.

36:05 - The Question of Authorship

Matt Tully
Speak to the issue of authorship. In my experience, that’s a related issue that’s often brought into conversations related to textual criticism of the Old Testament.

C. John Collins
There’s a higher level than just the reading of the text. There are the literary features of the text and how does the text hang together. Starting around the year 1800 or so (I’m just using rough terms here), people began paying attention to what they thought were discontinuities in the text, or irregularities. It doesn’t seem like the same author is speaking when you go from the end of chapter 2 to the beginning of chapter 3 of some particular text. So maybe chapter 2 and chapter 3 have different authors and somebody just sort of slammed them together and never really smoothed out the difficulty. That’s where questions about authorship begin to arise. There are more complexities than that. The tendency is to point to things that seem to be irregularities or inconsistencies in the text that lead people to suspect that these texts come from different sources and they’ve just been slammed together—just glued informally together—without making a serious effort to give them a good consistency. From the translator's point of view, first of all, in order to be an honest translator, if there is a problem that’s visible in the Hebrew, it’s not our job to hide it from the English reader. But of course, the prior question of what actually constitutes a difficulty or a problem, that’s not purely a translator’s question. That’s more of a critical thinking type of question. One of the classic examples is in Genesis 1 the deity is God—Elohim in Hebrew—and then starting Genesis 2:4 it’s “the Lord God”—Adonai Elohim in Hebrew. It’s suggested that these two passages come from different sources and are different tellings of the creation narrative and somebody has just slammed them together. The fact that we can detect this discontinuity is evidence of the less than fully competent slamming together on the part of the editor. It wouldn’t be right for a translator to disguise any of that. It’s right for the translator to pass on to the English reader what the Hebrew reader sees. Then it becomes the job of the expositor to decide what to do about it. I don’t find any difficulty in it myself, but some people do. As a translator, we ought to let people see what it is that people are fussing about here.

Matt Tully
In your translation work when you ran into situations like that, was there ever the sense—especially coming from a perspective of affirming the inspiration of Scripture and the canonicity—was there ever this temptation to smooth things over in a way that wouldn’t be transparent to the original text in an effort to help people pastorally or apologetically to feel confident in the Bible?

C. John Collins
People sent us mail, so they asked us to do things like that. We tried to give consideration to any serious suggestions, but in the end we never took any of those kinds of suggestions because we felt that we would be violating our responsibility as translators. The fact of the matter is that most of us—probably all of us—felt that there are reasonable ways of looking at these things that don’t involve doubt towards the Scripture and towards the way it was composed.

40:41 - The Morality of the Old Testament

Matt Tully
Another apologetic related issue that kind of ties into this is a question of the morality of the Old Testament. In certain passages in the Old Testament, it seems like God’s people do some terrible things, sometimes even at God’s command. I would imagine as a translator there would theoretically be ways to translate the Old Testament text to maybe make it less unpalatable to a modern ear. Was that ever an issue that you guys had to wrestle with in your work?

C. John Collins
Mostly no, but the question of how do we render the different words in Hebrew and in Greek for servant or slave came up. We discussed that in 2010 after the ESV had been out for a while. We wanted to revisit that and make sure that we had done the right thing. We found a few places where we could modify our translation not so much in order to remove the difficulty, but to make a little bit more clear what was going on. So there is some discussion in the preface to the ESV and there are various footnotes, especially in the New Testament because the term doulos is often translated bondservant. To make it a little bit more clear what’s going on, it’s often the case that at least for a person who is of European culture like I am, the word slave evokes the African slave trade. That is a problem, and it is certainly true that people have used the biblical terminology as a way of justifying the African slave trade. None of us on the ESV Translation Oversight Committee thought that was a legitimate use of the Bible. There’s only so much you can do with the translation of an English word. We don’t have a good English word that renders exactly the nuance, especially of the Hebrew word. Servant seems too weak. It’s appropriate at some places, but sometimes it just feels too weak. Slave might be appropriate at some times, but it often feels too strong because the idea is that for the person who is a servant in Hebrew, it’s your labor that belongs to somebody else; it’s not your person. There’s a difference there between slavery as we’re familiar with it especially in the new world, practiced throughout the new world by the European powers. Again, there’s only so much you can do when the language you’re translating into is English. Sometimes you have to add some explanatory material, as we have done, for example, in the preface.

43:54 - Reading and Understanding the Bible Literally

Matt Tully
A final issue that I thought might be interesting to talk a little bit about relates to this question of reading and understanding the Bible literally. That word literal is probably a pretty contested word among some Christians and it’s used in different ways. And yet, it has to have an impact on the work of actually translating the Bible. You have done a lot of work in the first three chapters of the Bible—Genesis 1–3—and written a lot about that creation account and how to understand that account literally. How would you understand or define the word literal when it comes to reading or translating the Bible? How does that impact the work of a translator?

C. John Collins
The term literal in classic discussions of hermeneutics—we’re talking about discussions that are coming out of the ancient church and then the Middle Ages and then coming up to the Reformation period and the contest between the Reformation and Catholicism and so forth. The notion of literal is the sense that the author intended and the sense that would have been perceived by a competent original audience. That’s the notion of literal—sometimes called the historical—meaning. And then the other sense is like the allegory, for example, to use a story in Judges about the decline of Israel as an allegory for the decline of the soul and so forth. Those are other uses. Those are the kinds of discussions that give us the terminology that we’re used to. Nowadays, sometimes what you get is that literal is understood in what I would consider to be literalistic. Jesus tells his followers not to take an oath. The literalistic application of that would be visible in certain Christian groups where they will not take an oath. For them, that’s considered to be strict adherence to the words of Jesus.

Matt Tully
Speak to the person listening to that example even right there, obviously from the New Testament, and they say, How do you distinguish between a literal interpretation of that and a literalistic one? What you just called literalistic feels like a very normal, literal interpretation.

C. John Collins
What was the statement of Jesus doing in its original context? What would that have communicated? The context is talking about ordinary day-to-day interaction, and it shouldn’t require an oath on my part for you to trust me. What we need—and this is what Jesus is concerned to produce—is a social system amongst his followers where everything is built on trust and trustworthiness. I shouldn’t have to assure you—Matt, from me to you—that I was fully sober during the whole time of working on the ESV translation. I shouldn’t have to assure you of that with an oath. May God strike me dead if at any time I was in an altered state of consciousness. Ideally, you and I should be able to trust one another that if I tell you that it was so, that you would have confidence and not need an oath to instill that confidence. That’s the sort of thing that Jesus was talking about. To prove that, you would look at Jesus’s own behavior and the behavior of his followers as they’re put under oath. Then you can see that what we do is ask: *What was he doing in that particular context? What would that look like in another context? Well, maybe not necessarily that.

Matt Tully
So the context really helps to inform how we understand what the author’s meaning was. How would this whole conversation about understanding a passage literally vs. figuratively—or literalistically on the other side—how would that inform or help you in the actual translation work from ancient Hebrew?

C. John Collins
Again, it’s mostly a matter of not wanting to take out of the hands of the English reader the responsibility to decide what to do with the text. The thing is is that the Greek readers of the Gospels have the same issue: What was this prohibition from Jesus doing in its context? They have the same issue as you and I do as we read this in English. The Hebrew readers would have had similar issues. For example, in the Pentateuch there are commands to wipe out the Canaanite population. Those commands sound like, Take no prisoners. In linguistics there’s an area called linguistic pragmatics where you’re looking at what’s the function of words in their context—what are people trying to do with their words? You would apply that by looking at what Israel did when they spared various people. For example, they spared Rahab and her family. Guess what? The Lord actually approved of that sparing. That tells you that those commands that sound so categorical actually have their unstated but very real exceptions. You can make an exception if somebody from the indigenous population comes over to your side. But that’s linguistic pragmatics. It’s not my job as a translator to spell that out for you. My job as a translator is to let you see what’s there in the writing. In linguistics the locution—the actual form of words—and that’s my job as a translator is to convey the locution. The force of these words is called the illocution, and as a translator I have to be careful about importing my understanding of the illocution into the translation. That crosses a line.

Matt Tully
How would you respond to someone saying, But how can you separate those two things from each other? To actually accurately translate the meaning of a given word or passage—the locutions from Hebrew into English—you need to actually understand what they’re saying and interpret, to some extent, what’s going on there.

C. John Collins
You do your best. There is no straightforward answer other than you do your best. When Jesus looks at somebody and feels compassion for him and the literal rendering of the Greek is, His bowels moved, you’re not going to translate that into his bowels moved because that will mislead the English reader and it gives you something gross. We’re coming back to system optimization here. There are trade-offs to be had. In 1 Corinthians 7:1, Paul is apparently quoting the Corinthians who think that it’s good for a man not to touch a woman, and that term touch is probably a euphemism for touch sexually (there’s good argument for that). But some translations have gone further and rendered Paul as saying it’s good for a man not to marry. That’s just gone too far. There are times when you have to sort of give a little bit more interpretation in order to avoid a bad misreading. As long as you can keep them down to a minimum and as long as you can keep as close to the original as possible without going too far, then you’re still keeping true to your translation philosophy.

Matt Tully
What would you say are some common misconceptions about the work of a translator, and maybe in particular the work of translating the Old Testament, that you’ve often encountered over your years as a professor, a pastor, and a teacher?

C. John Collins
Sometimes people think, Oh, you’re a translator. That means you know everything about everything in the biblical text. No, all of us have specialized in order to get our PhDs, so we’re working very hard to learn more about other things. And the thing is—this is one of the best blessings that came out of working with my fellow workers on the Old Testament committee, for example—I came to appreciate the Pauline image of the body. We don’t all do the same things because we’re not all good at the same things. In our PhD work, we were instilled with this notion that I’m omni-competent and I’m the only authority on this and everybody else is wrong. If you’re working on a team, it’s really helpful to recognize, Oh, so Dr. House or Dr. Wenham or Dr. Williams, they actually see stuff that I don’t see. They have a background that I don’t have. I can add something that they don’t see, but we can actually bring the contribution of the team, and the team’s contribution is greater than the sum of the individual parts. At least in my estimation that’s what we have in the ESV. The whole notion of being a one-man show who knows everything is utterly defeated by trying to do a serious job of translating the Bible. Anybody who translates the Bible as a one-man show is asking for trouble.

Matt Tully
Jack, thank you so much for taking time today to talk with us about all the many facets that go into translating the Old Testament into English—into a language that many of us depend on having it in. It’s such valuable work for us and we appreciate it.

C. John Collins
Thanks for having me. I hope you will encourage your audience not simply to read the Bible, but try reading it aloud and encourage their churches to read it aloud—even in unison as much as possible. Recapture something about the nature of the Bible as God’s word for God’s people as they’re assembled to honor God and to listen to his voice.

Matt Tully
Amen.


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