Thursday, April 3, 2008

What's the original?

Many students (and not a few scholars) wax wistful and glassy-eyed when they drift into reverential discourse about the "original" version of the Bible that they are studying. For most people involved in biblical studies, that original version is usually a recent edition of the critical text available through the various Bible Societies. However, a Hebrew text whose vocalization was not written down until well into the Common Era and a pastiche of New Testament manuscript readings is not original. Those texts might have some good warrant, and they may have merit as the best thing available, but they are certainly not original, and they did not have influence as cohesive texts until their (recent!) publication.

Most of the historical influence of the Bible has come through various translations of it. Functionally, those translations have been the original for most people, most of the time. Research scholars, perhaps, can retreat into narrow preference for Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. For teachers, however, such a stance is problematic, and not just for people with confessional commitments.

I have faith commitments in place, but I don't teach interpretation of Bible with some subversive agenda of somehow injecting a little "Truth" in my uncommitted students' consciousness. The historical reality is that the interpretation of these translations has often ended up with people getting killed, and I want to promote justifiable and responsible interpretation with the hope of curbing that nasty trajectory. The foundational aspect of any sort of interpretation is simply awareness of the need for it--any time you have a text, you have interpretation.

One of the privileges that I have had as a grad student was the opportunity to interact with undergraduate students as both a Teaching Assistant and also an instructor. The earliest lesson that I learned was that students have a very difficult time analyzing texts in general, and the Bible in particular. That lesson has been thrust before me more often than any other as I have continued teaching. These days, I don't teach critical thinking--I teach defensible interpretation. If you can get students to see the data, their reasoning skills usually engage without any special help.

In my estimation, teachers of Biblical Studies have a responsibility to help students learn to read the Bible better in the only original text that they will ever know--a translation. Such an approach certainly shows respect for history, but it ultimately shows respect for both text and student as well.

1 comment:

  1. I appreciated your insight that most of the historical influence of the Bible has come through translations. One has to think only of the King James Version's lasting impact on the English language or the influence of the Septuagint on early Christianity. However, I believe few scholars or teachers well-versed in Hebrew and Greek really believe they are retreating to the "original" text. We have access to the text in the original language, but not access to the original text. That access is an important skill when we try to teach the text in translation. And even though the students may always read in translation, it is still important that they realize they are reading a translation -- someone else's interpretation from the get-go. The proliferation of English versions also complicates things. It's not like we're all reading the KJV anymore. (Although maybe we should be, it's the closest thing we've got to the original text [ahem, wink-wink])