Sunday, June 10, 2018

Perspicuity 2: The NET Bible on Old Testament Obscurities

The NET Bible makes up for its overly paraphrastic translation by providing detailed notes that are more helpful for original language work than most commentaries. As I make my way through Old Testament books that I have not read in Hebrew before, I have found I can count on the NET Bible notes to comment on matters of Hebrew grammar, word meanings, and text criticism. Often the notes will include a literal translation and explain the rationale, typically stylistic, for the much smoother NET Bible translation. They also justify textual emendations, and identify when the translation follows the Greek or Syriac, for instance, instead of the Masoretic Hebrew text. In Jeremiah, which I have been reading recently, comments such as the following are not unusual:

(1) Explaining the NET Bible’s substitution of “Zedekiah” for “Jehoiakim” in Jeremiah 27:1:
The reading here is based on a few Hebrew MSS and the Syriac and Arabic versions. The majority of Hebrew MSS and most of the versions read “At the beginning of the reign of Josiah's son, Jehoiakim king of Judah” as in Jer 26:1. The LXX does not have this whole verse. It has long been recognized that the text of Jer 27:1 is textually corrupt. The date formula in the majority of Hebrew MSS at Jer 27:1 is contradictory both with the context of the passage which deals with an event in the reign of Zedekiah ... and the date formula in Jer 28:1 which refers to an event “in that same year” and then qualifies it with “Early in the reign of Zedekiah.” Hence it is preferable to read “Zedekiah” here in place of “Jehoiakim” and explain the error in the Hebrew manuscripts as an erroneous copying of Jer 26:1.
(2) The NET Bible offers this smooth translation of Jeremiah 28:1: “The following events occurred in that same year, early in the reign of King Zedekiah of Judah. To be more precise, it was the fifth month of the fourth year of his reign.” The note explains:
The original text is unusually full here and deemed by many scholars to be corrupt: Heb “And it happened in that year in the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the fourth year, in the fifth month Hananiah…said to…” Many scholars see a contradiction between “in the fourth year” and “in the beginning of the reign.” … However, it is just as likely that there is really no contradiction here. I.e., the term “beginning of the reign” can include the fourth year.
(3) The fourth note on Jeremiah 33:5 is just under 600 words long. It provides a literal translation of the Hebrew and Greek texts of Jeremiah 33:4-5, comments on the Hebrew syntax, and evaluates a proposed textual emendation. Here is a sample from the beginning and end of the note:
The translation and precise meaning of vv. Jer 33:4-5 are uncertain at a number of points due to some difficult syntactical constructions and some debate about the text and meaning of several words. … Until a more acceptable explanation of how the difficult Hebrew text could have arisen from the Greek, the Hebrew should be retained, though it is admittedly awkward.
(4) After translating Jeremiah 39:8 as “The Babylonians burned down the royal palace, the temple of the LORD, and the people’s homes…,” the NET Bible notes explain:
The reading here is based on an emendation following the parallels in Jer 52:13 and 2Ki 25:9. The Hebrew text here does not have “the temple of the LORD” and reads merely “house of the people.” The text here is probably corrupt.
In this case, the NET Bible’s reading is harmonized out of thin air because there is no manuscript evidence that supports a reference to the “house of the LORD.” Most English translations stick with a minor shift from a singular house to plural houses, and translate “the king’s house and the houses of the people.”

Since we do not have the ‘original’ text of the Old Testament, it should not trouble us that scholars sometimes declare words or phrases in our surviving Hebrew copies to be corrupt, and defend a reading preserved in another language as more likely to be original. Everyone agrees that the great medieval manuscripts printed in modern editions of the Hebrew Bible have errors. Often the copyists’ mistakes are obvious. Sometimes, as in the examples cited above, there is no consensus, but it is still possible to offer reasons in support of a particular conclusion. All modern translations depart from the Masoretic Hebrew text from time to time, but they often do it silently. The NET Bible is more conscientious than most about letting readers know where and why they have done so.

My point here is not so much to commend the NET Bible notes—although they are a fantastic resource and are freely available online—as to put Wayne Grudem’s comments about the clarity of Scripture in perspective.

In his article on “The Perspicuity of Scripture,” Grudem admits that “There are some places in Scripture where we still are not sure what a certain Hebrew or Aramaic or Greek word means.” So he adds this qualification:
“Scripture is able to be understood everywhere where we are able to translate it accurately; moreover, that the yet-unknown words are relatively few in comparison to the whole scope of scripture, and that even where the meaning of a word is unknown, the sense of the passage as a whole is usually quite understandable.”

As my examples above demonstrate, this is a significant oversimplification. I agree that the general gist of a larger passage is “usually quite understandable,” but uncertainty about the meaning of the Bible often extends beyond individual words, to matters of grammar and the text itself. In most cases, careful readers can still make up their own minds and come to an understanding about the meaning of the text. But decisions are required. If clarity means absence of uncertainty or scholarly consensus, we must conclude that not all the Bible is “clear” in the way Grudem defines it.

And sometimes we have lost the clue entirely. No one reading the NET Bible translation of Jer 40:5 would have any questions about the meaning of “Before Jeremiah could turn to leave, the captain of the guard added, ‘Go back to Gedaliah.’” The note, however, acknowledges that this is not what the Hebrew text says:
The meaning of the first part of v. Jer 40:5 is uncertain. The text is either very cryptic here or is corrupt, perhaps beyond restoration. The Hebrew text reads, “and he was not yet turning and return to Gedaliah” … which is very cryptic.
After working through various possible solutions, the translator concludes, “[I]t is perhaps best to retain the Hebrew and make the best sense possible out of it,” and then adds: “All of this shows that the meaning of the text at this point is very uncertain.”

In other words, not all the parts of the Bible are currently “understandable” in any meaningful sense of the term.

Incidentally, the NET Bible’s evangelical pedigree can be traced back to the faculty at Dallas Theological Seminary. Based on the notes, it appears that the translators would agree with the Westminster Confession’s statement that “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all.”

Other Posts in This Series:
Perspicuity 1: Is the Bible Understandable?
Perspicuity 3: Limited Clarity, Perspicuous Theology and the Importance of Historical Context

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