Away with the manger?

With all the glitz surrounding Christmas it can be hard to disentangle the facts from the questionable add-ons. How many kings were there? Were they actually kings, anyway?   How long after the baby’s birth did they come? Did they kneel in the stable?

We can at least hold on to the manger as the place where the new-born baby was placed, but what was the manger like? And what of the inn, the hard-hearted inn-keepers and the stable which provide the essential plot-line for so many nativity plays?

Recently reading Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth E. Bailey, I have had my mind opened up to an alternative Christmas scenario which seems very convincing and which makes me question some of the long-accepted backdrop to the world-shaking birth of the long-promised Messiah:

While they were there [in Bethlehem], the time came for the baby to be born,  and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
                                              Luke 2:6-7 New International Version

Much of Bailey’s reasoning centres around the Greek word traditionally translated in most English versions as “inn”, katalyma. Significantly, this is not the word for a commercial inn, providing rooms for strangers in return for payment. That word is pandocheion, as used in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:34-35). katalyma is a more general word for a lodging place, and is the word used for the room where Jesus ate the Passover with his disciples (Luke 22:11). As there, it may apply to a room which is part of a larger structure and is kept available for guests. Bailey argues that it is unthinkable that Joseph, from the royal line of King David, would not have been taken in by relatives in the town of his family’s origins, especially when he arrived with a heavily pregnant wife. He would never have had to go searching for somewhere to stay among the commercial establishments of the town, and Luke would have used the appropriate Greek word if he had.

A second distraction is that the expression “no room at the inn” easily gets transformed into “no rooms available at the inn”. The Greek word topos means “room” in the sense of “space”, and so we may legitimately end up with the translation:

Mary placed the baby in a manger, because there was no space for them in the guest room.

This changes the picture entirely. Jospeh and Mary are taken in by relatives, but the guest room is already fully occupied by other relatives who have come to Bethlehem because of the census. So where is the manger? Quite probably in the family living room! A simple village home would have had one room where the family lived, ate and slept.  A guest room with a separate entrance might be at one end of the building or constructed on the flat roof. At one end of the family room would be a section, often at a lower level, where the animals would be brought in at night. The manger might be a hollowed-out dip in the floor of the living room at the end where the animals were kept, such that they could lean across and eat from it. Whether like that, or a more conventionally imagined portable wooden structure, it would make a very suitable place, lined with hay, to put to bed a baby just born in the family room.

Since there is every indication that some time passed between the arrival in Bethlehem and Mary giving birth (when the time came for the baby to be born), it is even more unlikely that a makeshift arrangement which would have brought shame on the relatives could have taken place. Later, when the Magi came on their visit, led by the appearance of the star, Matthew says:

On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.
                                      Matthew 2:11 New International Version

It was clearly a house, not a stable, that they came to. Of course, if they came a considerable time after the birth (as is quite possible), alternative arrangements would by then have been made to house the visiting family. We cannot however escape the consistent picture which emerges from a fresh reading of the Biblical account. Whether the birth of Jesus actually happened exactly as Kenneth Bailey portrays the event, or not, it is a good reminder to approach the Bible with an open mind and not to be blinkered by traditions, however long-held and well-established they may be.

Just as he was

On Saturday we had an excellent 3-hour session at church on “Reading the Bible in a way that grips your heart”. As part of this we were exploring  in a small group the passage Mark 4:35-41, Jesus calms the storm. While this account was familiar to us, by entering into the dramatic situation and exploring some of the details we all gained new insights.

One little phrase which  we puzzled over was “just as he was” in verse 36:

Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. (New International Version)

Why did Mark include this little phrase? Somebody in the group asked how we had translated it in Kasem. Prepared for everything I fired up my laptop and found the passage. Initially I was concerned that we had left it out altogether! But a closer look showed that we had taken the phrase in a slightly different way, literally:

As Jesus was sitting in the boat like that, they took him, went away and left the crowd behind. (Kasem back translation)

Turning to the Greek text there is some ambiguity in how the phrase “as he-was” should be connected with the surrounding context:

and leaving the crowd they-took-along him as he-was in the boat (Greek back translation)

With a lack of punctuation in the Greek, we can see how two slightly different meanings may arise depending on whether as he-was is primarily linked with the preceding or the following phrase. From the context we know that Jesus was already seated in a boat in order to teach the gathered crowd (Mark 4:1). So it makes sense to take  the phrase here to be connected with the following: as he-was in the boat. This is how the Good News Bible takes it:

the disciples got into the boat in which Jesus was already sitting, and they took him with them. (GNB)

Either way, you get a picture of the disciples taking charge of their rabbi who was physically worn out at the end of a busy day of teaching, saying to each other something like this:

“Teacher wants to get off to the other side of the lake and he’s in no fit state to do anything for himself. No point in moving him—just give him a cushion to make himself comfortable at the back of the boat where he won’t be in the way. We can handle it.”

How soon though the disciples realise they are in a situation they cannot handle themselves, as a storm whips up and seasoned fisherman call on the sleeping carpenter to rescue them. No wonder they end up with the question on their minds, “Who is this?!”

Ode to O

One change I have noticed in the 2011 version of the New International Version (NIV) is that they have consistently dropped the vocative form of address O, so that “O God” becomes simply “God”, for example. For some reason there are still a few Os floating around, in the Psalms in particular:

I will sing the praises of your name, O Most High.
Psalm 9:2

Arise, LORD! Lift up your hand, O God.
Psalm 10:12

However, the large majority of the 993 occurrences in the older NIV have disappeared, including those in the New Testament:

“O unbelieving and perverse generation,”
“You unbelieving and perverse generation”
Matthew 17:17

But we still have the Os in:

“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
1 Corinthians 15:5

This echoes Hosea, where they are also retained:

Where, O death, are your plagues?
Where, O grave, is your destruction?
Hosea 13:14

Since we have not in my lifetime been in the habit of using O in addressing one another, not even the Queen, it is surprising that its use has persisted in the modern “common language” versions. I guess translators have found it a  useful device for indicating a vocative form of address, and retained it even though not in current English usage.

We should not, of course, confuse O with Oh!, an exclamation which remains in current use. The 2011 NIV retains these in full force:

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains would tremble before you!
Isaiah 64:1

It seems to me that the Good News Bible gets these muddled at one point:

“O horror! horror! How horrible it will be for all who live on earth when the sound comes from the trumpets that the other three angels must blow!”
Revelation 8:13

This surely should be Oh! It is translating “Woe! Woe! Woe to those living on the earth …” and is an exclamation, rather than a form of address to horror.

Which leads to the question, when people exclaim, or text,  (as they do, even when having no apparent affiliation to God), “OMG!”, should that be “O my God,” or “Oh! My God!” ?

I finish with an Ode to O:

O O,  you really have to go?
Oh no! Must it be so?
Oh yes! I see you are no longer needed;
language has changed and you are superseded.
But some small praise on you should be bestowed;
at very least, you are owed an ode.

Another God coming along behind

I have been working my way through checking the Kasem translation of Isaiah for a few weeks now. The repetitive nature of Hebrew poetic form presents a challenge. Pairs of lines tend to repeat the same information, with some variation in the words used,  sometimes pairing a positive with an equivalent negative, or mirror image;  sometimes with the second line expanding or strengthening the idea contained in the first line. This has been described as rhyming ideas, rather than the rhyming of sounds, which we are more used to.

The challenge is that people not familiar with Hebrew poetry (such as most Kasena) will want to read a different meaning into successive lines–why say the same thing twice over? Here is an example from the English Standard Version:

… for the LORD will go before you,
and the God of Israel will be your rear guard.
Isaiah 52:12b (ESV)
That surely must mean that one God (the LORD) is at the front and another (the God of Israel) is following at the rear. Of course those with a good Bible knowledge will know that these are one and the same, and that the LORD, the God of Israel will protect them in front and behind.
Recognising that it is the Israelites who are being addressed the Good News Bible gets around the problem with:
The LORD your God will lead you and protect you on every side. (GNB)
Surprisingly, the New Living Translation keeps the potentially confusing parallelism:
For the LORD will go ahead of you, and the God of Israel will protect you from behind. (NLT)
Omitting the and between the lines may help a bit, as New International Version and others:
… for the LORD will go before you, your rearguard will be Israel’s God. (Revised English Bible)

Once again, we are faced with the dilemma in translation between maintaining the dynamism of the poetic form (or at least a hint of it), and spelling out the meaning clearly in a rather flat and uninteresting way. A more ambitious alternative may be to research equivalent poetic forms in the target language and mould the text into those patterns, but this is moving further away from the cultural setting of the original.

One more example: Isaiah often interchanges the names Jacob and Israel in successive lines, referring in each case to the same people of God. The names refer to the founding ancestor of the nation, whose name was changed from Jacob to Israel. I count 23 instances in the book of Isaiah where the two names are used in parallel, but with essentially no difference in who they refer to. Here is an example:

But now thus says the LORD,
he who created you, O Jacob,
     he who formed you, O Israel:
Isaiah 43:1a (ESV)
In these cases it seems necessary to combine the two forms of address into one appellation, so as to avoid the inference that God is addressing two groups of people. There is the added complication that of course it is not the long-dead ancestor who is being addressed but his descendants, as a group. In Kasem it is possible to combine these and translate the above into something like:
Offspring of Jacob who are the Israel people,
God has created you and brought you into being.
This keeps a hint of the parallelism, but avoids possible ambiguity in who is being addressed, two groups of people or one. What do you think?

Solomon’s litter

Was King Solomon a litter lout? Tongue in cheek, let me draw your attention to a somewhat unfortunate combination of expressions used by the English Standard Version (ESV) in translating Song of Solomon (Song of Songs) in Chapter 3 verses 2 & 3:

What is that coming up from the wilderness like columns of smoke … ?

Behold, it is the litter of Solomon!

At least he was burning his rubbish as he went along.

There are some lessons to learn here about unseen pitfalls for the translator. You, as translator,  may have a very clear idea of what the translated text is communicating, but a reader approaching it with a quite different mindset or worldview may manage to draw out of it a totally unintended meaning.

ESV use of the word ‘litter’ is quite justified, but the predominant use of the term in English nowadays as meaning ‘rubbish’ may push the reader to try and interpret the passage in the light of this more common usage. Anything else in the immediate context which can be taken to collocate with that sense of the word will only strengthen the incorrect hypothesis being formed in the reader’s mind.

Revised English Bible (REB) also uses the word ‘litter’ but forces the correct choice of sense by the wording:

Look! It is Solomon carried in his state litter …

Other versions use different terms, not always very poetical in nature:
‘portable couch’ (NET),  ‘throne’ (several versions), ‘carriage’ (several versions). I haven’t found one that uses ‘palanquin’.

How does the word ‘litter’ in English come to have such diverse senses? Possibly:  (1) couch carried as a comfortable seat or bed; → (2) material used to provide comfortable bedding for animals (straw, bits & pieces); → (3) bits & pieces left lying around which make a mess.

Ecclesiastes: Looking on the bright side

Last week I finished checking through the 12 chapters of Eccelsiastes in draft translation in Kasem. No hiding the fact that the writer takes a rather negative view of life, but following the guidance of the Translator’s Handbook produced by United Bible Societies, I came to see that he generally gets a harder press than he perhaps deserves. A lot depends on the particular slant you give to two or three key Hebrew words and phrases that form a pattern throughout the book. Maybe the author was not so much depressed by the uselessness of life itself, as he was frustrated by the impossibility of coming up with a satisfactory explanation for all its anomalies.

How do we understand his frequent use of the Hebrew term <hevel>, which has a primary meaning, of “vapour, breath, breeze”? Does the ‘Teacher’ (Qoheleth) use it in the sense of “empty, vacuous, transitory”—giving us the translation “vanity of vanities, all is vanity”, or is it rather used in the sense of something difficult to get a handle on, enigmatic, hard to understand and explain? The latter fits well with his other much-used expression; it’s like trying “to shepherd the wind”, a frustrating exercise. The Translator’s Handbook has the following to say by way of introduction:

In this Handbook we have assumed that Qoheleth was an honest scholar who observed life very carefully and thoroughly. We see a person who believed firmly in God’s control over the universe and human lives, but also someone who experienced much pain when confronted with the injustices and unanswered questions in life. He worked within the framework of the wisdom school and the traditional beliefs of his time, yet he saw their limitations. However, Qoheleth never renounced his faith. His continual advice to enjoy the good things in life—eating, drinking, and working—affirms his belief that God is in control and life is worth living.

Looking at Ecclesiastes in a more positive light made me want to translate it this way into English. Here is my version (PPV—Philip’s Positive Version) of Chapter One:

This is what the Teacher has to say, the one who is David’s descendant, king in Jerusalem.

Life poses lots of questions (1:2–11)

The Teacher says: Life is hard to understand; totally puzzling; a complete enigma. You just can’t get a handle on it. Tell me—what lasting benefit do people get from all their life of hard labour in this world? One generation passes on and another one succeeds it, but the earth continues the same as ever. The sun rises and the sun sets and as soon as you know it, it’s back where it started again. Round and round in circles! The wind goes through the same routine: north, south, east, and west; back and forth, then back to the beginning again. The rivers keep on channelling water down into the sea, but the sea never fills up! The water just makes its way back to the springs, and here we go again! All it adds up to is a ceaseless repetition. You’ll never get to the end of what people can say, nor to the end of what they can see, nor to the end of what they can hear.  Whatever has been around in the past will continue to be with us. Whatever people have done in the past, others will continue to do well into the future. You won’t find anything new coming up in the whole wide world. You may hear someone say, “Take a look at this! Now this is new!” But in fact you will find it was already around long before we were born. The trouble is, nobody looks back to former generations to think what happened then. Nor will it change—our offspring will soon be forgotten by their descendants.

My quest to make sense of life (1:12–18)

I, the Teacher, have been king of Israel, ruling from Jerusalem. I have made every effort to get to the bottom of all that goes on in this world, using [the methodology of] conventional wisdom. I found that the whole business is a sorry mess that God has given us human beings to cope with. I took a good look at everything that people do in this world, and what do you know? I just can’t make head or tail of it. It’s like trying to pin down the wind. A waste of time.

They say: “If something is twisted, you won’t be able to straighten it out.”
And: “You can’t count things which aren’t there.”
[Things are just the way they are, and you have to accept it that way.]

I reflected, “See, I have become very wise, more so than any of my predecessors that have ruled in Jerusalem. In fact I have got to the bottom of what wisdom and knowledge really are.” So I made every effort to understand what wisdom is and to compare it with foolishness and stupidity. But I realised that this is a fruitless task, like trying to pin down the wind.

As they say: “Too much wisdom only increases frustration; too much knowledge only increases sorrow.”

What do you think? Maybe there’ll be more to follow.

As good as done

I finished the exegetical check on Jeremiah in Kasem on Friday. Hooooray. It has been going on a long time, not helped by bouts of uncharacteristic sickness, probably part of a spiritual battle. Anyway, here is something else I came across, which may be of interest.

The prophets had a habit of referring to future events as if they were already completed. They ‘saw’ them so clearly that they were ‘as good as done’. One of the Hebrew words for a prophet was ‘seer’, and God’s revelation to them must at times have been vividly alive, happening before their very eyes. It is probably true to say that the primary differentiation in Hebrew verb forms is between completed actions (perfect aspect) and on-going or incomplete actions (imperfect aspect). Allowing for the dangers of over-simplifying, imperfect verbs refer to non-past (present or future) events, or to on-going or habitual events in the past, while perfect aspect verbs normally refer to past events. But the prophets used perfect aspect verbs to refer to future events, completed but yet-to-happen, as good as done. This is recognised in many Hebrew grammars as the prophetic perfect. I have come to think of it as the ‘as-good-as-done’ tense.

This is another example of the diversity of different languages. It isn’t just words and their meanings that don’t correspond one-to-one across languages. The same applies to grammatical categories, such as verb systems, gender categories, pronouns, and so on.

How does the translator cope with the Hebrew prophetic perfect? It is interesting to see the approach taken by different English versions. Taking an example in Jeremiah 48:4, where there are two prophetic perfect verbs, the Good News Bible (GNB) translates with a past tense, while the New International Version (NIV) uses a future tense, and New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) a vivid present tense—

Moab has been destroyed; listen to the children crying. (GNB)
Moab will be broken; her little ones will cry out. (NIV)
“Moab is destroyed!” her little ones cry out. (NRSV)

After that, the Hebrew verb forms are imperfect, and so are consistently translated with a future tense by all versions. Jeremiah 48:9—

Set up a tombstone for Moab; it will soon be destroyed.
Its towns will be left in ruins, and no one will live there again. (GNB)

This leaves me feeling that the past tense used by GNB in verse 4 is at odds with the future tense of verse 9. But what would adequately capture the flavour of the prophetic perfect? How about Philip’s Improved Version (PIV)—

Moab is as good as done for! (98:4)
… it will surely be destroyed. (98:9)

Well now, at least if you are reading the prophetic books in different English versions and you are confused by some using future tenses, where others use past tenses, you know what the probable explanation is. It is also a good reminder of God’s perspective on events. He sees the future as clearly as the past. But we (usually) don’t, so we need to trust him.

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. Hebrews 11:1 (NIV)

How! or How?

Occasionally I find a mistake in the draft of the Kasem Old Testament translation because the Ghanaian translators have misunderstood the English versions. Their English is good so it doesn’t happen very often, but differences of meaning can be indicated by quite subtle variations in English construction.  In Jeremiah 48:17 we have the exclamation:

‘How broken is the mighty scepter, how broken the glorious staff!’ (New International Version)
“How the mighty scepter is broken, the glorious staff!” (New Revised Standard Version)

The translator had understood this as a question, misled by the ‘How’, normally a question word. Consequently he translated it as a question, instead of an exclamation, giving quite a different meaning.

“How did the sceptre get broken?”

This sounds a bit like a mother scolding her children, “Now, how did that cup get broken?”  In fact, Kasem does use ‘how’ in the sense of an exclamation, but the form of the word is different to when it is used in a question. The equivalent meaning would be given in Kasem by something like: “See how the sceptre has become broken!”

Of course, the translation of ‘sceptre’ in Kasem is not straightforward, but a chief has a ceremonial walking stick which is a symbol of office. This comes close to the ‘glorious staff’ of the second line, which is parallel in meaning to ‘sceptre’. Added to which, the ‘sceptre’ and the ‘staff’ are themselves symbols of power and rule, and some English versions express this meaning, rather than the symbolism:

‘Its powerful rule has been broken; its glory and might are no more.’ (Good News Bible)

In Kasem, in order to maintain the two-line parallelism of the Hebrew poetry and also to fill out the symbolism with its significance we currently have:

‘See (how) the chieftaincy walking stick is now broken! Moab no longer has power!’