Monday, March 24, 2008

Detecting that hint of irony: a few tips

It's unfortunate that so many of the nuances of irony or facetiousness are best detected through spoken language. It can be very difficult to determine if a writer (myself in this case) is making a serious claim or inserting a tongue-in-cheek remark. I suppose it's a by-product of my dry sense of humor. It's indirect and delivered in a matter-of-fact style. At least it would be if it was spoken. For those of you who have difficulty detecting irony in print, here are a few tips to help you.

1. If it sounds like a throw-away remark or an "aside" (that is, something I would mutter under my breath), then it's probably not a serious claim.

2. If I couch it in words meant to convey uncertainty like "possibly" or "maybe" or "perhaps" AND the statement seems incongruous with demonstrable facts, then it may be something that's not intended to be taken literally.

3. Related to #2, if you are able to prove the statement is patently false or at least highly unlikely based on information available to you, then there's a good chance I already knew that and did not expect you to be taking it so literally as to be fact-checking on something I didn't really think was accurate in the first place.

4. Use of parentheses. If I make a statement and place it in parentheses, your first thought should be that it might be an aside (see #1). If said statement also conforms to one or more of the other clues given here, then it's probably a facetious remark.

5. If you read it and your first reaction is, "really?" (indicating you're on the cusp of belief but still uncertain and need that final confirmation), then the answer is probably, "No, not really."

6. If you typically don't get the jokes when people around you are verbally using irony, sarcasm, satire, wit, or some other facetiousness, forget about it. You're not going to get it in print either.

That's all I can think of for now. Of course, humor is less humorous once you've had to explain the joke. Consider this a fair warning. My statements are not always meant to be taken seriously. On the other hand, I try to limit the use of humor to only a few remarks now and then. So please don't write off everything I say as just a joke. Remember...just a hint of irony. (A hint is a small amount, barely perceptible. I can't believe I had to explain that to you. Seriously.)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

One translation every 400 years should do it...

The ISV (International Standard Version) of the Bible is gradually progressing toward completion.  They don't have a whole lot going on in the press releases portion of their website,  Their most recent news is from February 2007, over a year ago, and relates to a blog post in February 2007 that hailed their translation as "A KJV for our time."  The blog itself has now been deleted;  the author is unknown, but the full text of the post is reproduced on the ISV site.   Their praise for the ISV is fine.  I haven't evaluated the version yet and probably won't until it's complete, but what he or she claimed to be looking for in a bible translation is frankly a bit naive.  The heart of the essay seems to be that "[w]e need to make a Bible translation that can be the standard for hundreds of years, like the King James Version has been."

First of all, the KJV was losing ground as the "standard" from very early on in the 20th century.  The American Standard Version came out in 1901.  It was based in the English Revised Version of 1881 which was a revision of the KJV.  So at best, we can say the KJV was the standard for about 300 years.  Despite its continued popularity to this day, it is not the standard in any sense of the term.

Second, the 1611 KJV we use today is actually the 1769 version that adopted modern spelling and made some minor changes to the text including fixing of typos.  So the version considered by some to be the "standard" has only been around for 250 years.  Further revisions of that version started as early as 1881, little more than a hundred years later.  Moreover, various other translations were made throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.  Apparently, some people didn't see the standard as the end of the matter and continually worked to render the biblical text in the English of their day.

The KJV stood as long as it did as the main standard text of the Bible primarily because English bible scholarship in the original languages was still a developing discipline.  From the Reformation to the 17th century, it was in its infancy.  In the 18th century, childhood.  The 19th century, adolescence.  It only hit its stride in the 20th century. 

The point is that every generation needs to go through the process of developing an English bible version suitable for the language of the time.  There will be no standard that will endure for another 400 years, despite the hope of our unknown blogger that the ISV will be that version.  This is the reason that most English versions are updated or replaced every 30 years or so.  The versions of the '40s and '50s were replaced by the '70s or '80s.  The NIV and NASB of the '70s are showing their age and were updated in 2005 and 1995 respectively.  The English language changes too rapidly in today's world to make a standard version spanning many generations of readers impossible.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Holman Christian Standard Bible

About a month ago I posted my thoughts on Bible translation philosophy including a chart giving the range of many popular translations between the two opposing extremes of word-for-word translation and thought-for-thought translation. The two extremes are also sometimes called formal equivalence (word-for-word) and dynamic equivalence (thought-for-thought).

Looking at the diagram now, I think it would be more clear if the "Thought-for-Thought" label were moved to the right so that it was directly over TNIV. The NIV was pretty much right between the two extremes, but the TNIV has moved toward dynamic equivalence.

I think it is possible to balance both sides well. On the one hand, we want an accurate translation, but on the other hand, it must be readable and as easily understood as possible. Most translations sacrifice one for the sake of the other.

I recently acquired another fairly new evangelical Christian translation, the Holman Christian Standard Bible. It first came out in 2004, but I hadn't really looked at it to evaluate the translation until now. I'm glad that there have been a number of really good new English versions that have come out in the last several years -- the English Standard Version (ESV), the New Living Translation (NLT), and now the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB). Any one of these translations deserves the #1 spot among evangelical Christians more than the New International Version (NIV). The updated NIV, Today's New International Version (TNIV), doesn't come close to making the cut.

If market share of the bible business can be gauged by shelf space given to the version in any bookstore, then the NIV is very dominant, and the ESV and HCSB aren't getting the attention they deserve.

In my opinion, the HCSB translators have successfully balanced between formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence with a translation philosophy they call "optimal equivalence." The HCSB is very readable. I can tell immediately that they were very concerned with using contemporary English with good English grammar and style. Like the NLT, their philosophy is to give the literal rendering when it makes sense, and to give a more idiomatic rendering when the literal meaning would not be as clear. I would place the HCSB on the spectrum between the ESV and the NIV, probably just to the left of the NIV.

One useful feature of the HCSB is that they place words added for clarity in small brackets. That adds to their accuracy because the reader can see when words that are not explicitly in the original have been added, usually for grammatical reasons.

Since they attempt to be idiomatic at times, the translation has the same issue of all meaning-based translations -- they regularly limit the potential meaning of a verse to what they think it means. In other words, they do the bulk of the work of interpretation for you and remove some of the ambiguity inherent in the text. Some translations do that work poorly (i.e., NIV, CEV, The Message), but some do it very well (i.e., HCSB and NLT).

The HCSB is one of several brand-new translations that have been finished recently. The first complete edition of the NET Bible was available in 2001. As far as I know, they only intend for it to be an online resource. The International Standard Version (ISV) is still in progress -- 83% done as of today. Unfortunately, they still think they're undertaking the first wholly new translation in decades (or at least their director said as much about a year ago - possibly he'd been too busy to hear about the HCSB and the NET Bible).

Before this current crop of "from-scratch" translations, the NIV from 1973 was the last completely new English version. So, it was definitely time for a version in today's English and the HCSB fits the bill. While the ESV is still my personal favorite because of its greater accuracy, I feel confident recommending the HCSB for anyone wanting an accurate but more idiomatic translation.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

As it is written . . . Mark 1:2

This is a follow-up to my previous post on Mark 1:2-3 about the 2 Old Testament passages that are quoted by Mark with the heading: “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet…” It would be a good idea to read the earlier post here before continuing with this one.

The main problem with Mark’s use of the OT is that he quotes both Malachi and Isaiah and attributes the entire quotation to Isaiah. As I see it, there are 3 possible options to explain this discrepancy, only one of which is really tenable.

1. The Majority Text (Byzantine text-type) of the New Testament is correct.

2. Malachi which could be either a proper name or a title (“my messenger”) in Hebrew was actually written by Isaiah the prophet.

3. Mark was technically wrong with his Scripture reference either by accident or by design.

I rejected the originality of other minor differences in the Majority Text in my previous post. I see no reason to accept it as original here and every reason to see it as a later minor correction of the text by a scribe dealing with this exact problem. The Majority Text reads, “As it is written in the prophets” (a phrase used only here in the NT in either manuscript tradition). The fact that earlier manuscripts exist with a variant giving a specific reference makes this more generic reference less likely to be original. However, it may be a correct interpretation of how Mark was using “Isaiah” here.

The second option is impossible, but as it is one that might occur to the average reader, I thought I should mention it. All scholars are agreed that Malachi dates to the post-exilic period, probably the 400s BCE at the earliest. No one has ever tried to connect the book with Isaiah because Isaiah dates to around 700 BCE for the most part. Traditional attempts to identify “Malachi,” which is probably not really a proper name but a title, connected him with Ezra the scribe.

This leaves the third option as the only remaining tenable one. Mark was technically wrong, but there were extenuating factors that help explain the mistake. First, Malachi directly precedes Isaiah in the Septuagint order of the books (The Minor Prophets come before the Major Prophets instead of after). So in the bible Mark was most familiar with, the verse he quoted was only 23 verses away from the book of Isaiah. Even if he was wrong, he was close.

Second, if he was quoting from memory as suggested previously, he could have easily confused the verse in Malachi as being from Isaiah because of the similarity of content (compounded with the proximity mentioned above). The two texts work together in Mark because of their similar content. Both Mal 3 and Isa 40 talk about God sending a messenger to announce his coming. This also wouldn’t be the only occurrence in the NT of a writer confusing two OT passages because of similar content. In Matt 27:9, the Scripture quoted about 30 pieces of silver is attributed to Jeremiah, but it is actually a quote referring to Zechariah 11:12-13. The confusion could have arisen through a mix-up with Jeremiah 32 where the prophet participates in a symbolic economic transaction similar to the symbolic transaction in Zech 11. It is also possible the events reminded the writer of Jeremiah 6:30 where he speaks of “rejected silver.” So, similarity of content could have led to a mistaken reference in both these instances.

To look at this question from another angle, I surveyed Mark’s use of OT passages in general (except for 1:2-3), looking for patterns. He does not quote the OT as often as the other gospels. I counted only 21 more references to OT passages. Eight were from the Pentateuch. Four were from the Psalms. Of the remaining nine, 5 were definitely Isaiah. One was indeterminable. The phrase was similar to something in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah, but the wording did not match any. Two were references to Daniel, and one was Jeremiah. Considering just Mark’s use of the prophets, he has a clear preference for Isaiah. This could explain an association of any prophetic text with Isaiah. The book of Isaiah was symbolic of the Israelite prophets in general for Mark. In other words, Isaiah represented the prophetic genre of texts. In this way, the Byzantine reading “in the prophets” made this generic function explicit.

Friday, March 7, 2008

The Use of the OT in the NT -- Mark 1:2-3

One of my primary research interests is looking at how the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament was interpreted in antiquity by the various religious groups that accepted it as sacred scripture. The groups that I am most fascinated with include the Qumran community, the early Christians, and the Rabbis. Recently, I came across an interesting New Testament usage of the Old Testament that I believe highlights the nature of the difficulties in looking at how the OT is represented in the NT. The passage is Mark 1:2-3 where both Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3 are quoted. A detailed look at how Isaiah 40:3 is used in the NT and at Qumran would be worthwhile in its own right, but for now I am interested in the textual details of how these two verses are represented and put to use in Mark’s gospel. For a textual comparison, I used two representative Greek NT versions – one a representative of the earliest manuscripts (Nestle-Aland, 27th ed.) and the other a representative of the Majority Text (Robinson-Pierpont Byzantine text). For the source of their quotations, I looked at the Greek Septuagint (LXX) in Rahlff’s edition and the Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT) in Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS). So as not to burden the reader with the original languages, I have the text provided in fairly-literal English translations that represent the major differences between the versions. An important point to remember is that the NT is written in Greek. The first place we look for the source of a NT quote of the OT is the LXX because it is also in Greek. However, there were later Greek translations that were more literal in their representation of the Hebrew text (MT) which is why we must also compare with BHS. The example of Mark 1:2-3 shows that the quoted text in the NT often does not exactly match our OT text in either Greek or Hebrew.

Mark 1:2-3

Nestle-Aland Gk NT (ESV):

As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, "Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'"

Byz Gk NT (KJV):

As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

Quoted Passages


Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me (Mal 3:1a). A voice cries: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God (Isa 40:3).

LXX (Brenton):

Behold, I send forth my messenger, and he shall survey the way before me (Mal 3:1a). The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight the paths of our God (Isa 40:3).

Italics = inner-Gk differences

Bold = differences w/ LXX and/or MT

Types of differences:

  1. Inner-Greek differences in NT mss
  2. Inner-Greek differences between LXX and NT mss
  3. Greek differences with MT

Textual differences:

  1. Different word for “as” between Gk NT versions. (A)
    1. The earliest manuscripts (mss) use the more common way to phrase “as it is written.” 25x in NT vs. 2x for the Byzantine phrase.
    2. This is the only passage where Byz differs in this particular phrase. 24x as above vs. 3x for the alternative way.
    3. Best explanation – scribal error in Byz because it differs from the earlier mss. Byz phrase was influenced by the use of the same phrase for “as it is written” in Luke 3:4 before quoting Isa 40:3. (But, some will say that the earlier mss have the error and that Byz preserves the original in Mark 1:2 precisely because it uses the less common way of phrasing it. The earlier mss have a scribal error – changing to the more common phrase. The fact that this phrase occurs in all Gk mss in Luke argues against that explanation.)
  2. Earliest Greek versions read “in Isaiah” vs. the Byzantine text-type’s “in the prophets.” (A)
  3. The Nestle-Aland Gk omits the pronoun “I” quoting Mal 3:1 which is written in LXX and Byz. It is grammatically unnecessary because of the verb form. (B)
  4. The NT quotes of Mal 3:1 use the verb “to send” but LXX has a modified form of the same verb meaning “send forth.”
  5. The phrase “before your face” is not in MT or LXX but is present in both NT text-types. (B, C)
  6. The Gk versions use different verbs for “prepare” between Malachi and Isaiah. In the MT, both are the same verb. The LXX uses a verb which means “to look upon” in Malachi. The NT versions use a verb for “to prepare” in their quote, more like MT. (B, C)
  7. The syntax of the Greek NT versions differs for the “prepare” phrase from Malachi as well. LXX and MT have an independent clause with a coordinating conjunction, “he will prepare/look upon.” The NT quote makes it a relative clause, “who will prepare.” (B, C)
  8. The wording “your way” is different from both MT and LXX which read “the way before me.” (B, C)
  9. The Byzantine text quoting Mal 3:1a adds two additional words at the end, “before you.”
  10. NT versions of Isa 40:3 are nearly identical to LXX except for very end. LXX ends with “paths of our God” but NT says “his paths.” No evidence of correction/modification of this verse in NT versions back toward MT.
  11. LXX and NT versions of Isa 40:3 have read the phrase “in the wilderness” as connected to the “voice of one crying.” Later in the verse, they omit the parallel phrase “in the desert.” The phrase should be connected to what follows based on an examination of the Hebrew parallelism – “the voice of one crying, ‘In the wilderness, prepare . . .”

The Minor Differences with Mal 3:1a & Isa 40:3

The NT versions show the most variation from the MT Hebrew of Mal 3:1a. The only significant difference in the LXX is reading the verb as “to look” which likely does not reflect a different Vorlage. The Heb verb in question “PNH” usually means “to turn” in the Qal stem and can take the meaning “to look” in context, usually in Late Biblical Hebrew. The less common Piel stem has the derived meaning “to clear away, prepare” from “to turn away, put out of the way.” The LXX translator probably just read the verb as a more common Qal and missed the idiom “to prepare,” reading instead the idiom “to look upon.”

For the other NT differences, there are three possible explanations. The first is that there were other Greek mss of the Old Testament that contained a version of Mal 3:1 similar to the NT versions. The best place to look to check this is Field’s Hexapla which I have not done yet. The second possibility is that the verse was being quoted or paraphrased from memory. The nature of the variations makes this second possibility very likely. The important content of the verse is present, and the differences are minor enough to have been unintentional changes. On the other hand, a third possibility is that a few of these minor changes were intentional and theologically motivated. For example, the shift to “before your face” or “prepare your way” for Malachi’s “before me” changes the nature of the action. Instead of only two participants – the speaker (YHWH) and the messenger (preparing the way for the speaker), Mark’s version introduces a third participant – the “you” being addressed. YHWH’s messenger is preparing the way for the person addressed, not YHWH himself. In the context of Mark’s gospel, this works out to be God the Father sending John the Baptist to prepare the way for Jesus. This theological interpretation also explains the minor change in all the synoptic gospels’ use of Isa 40:3 – “his paths” for “paths of our God” in Mark 1:3, Matt 3:3, and Luke 3:4. The verse can more easily be applied to Jesus – preparing his path (= Jesus) instead of the paths of our God (= the Father).

Reading “in Isaiah” versus “in the prophets”

The most fascinating difference in the use of the Old Testament in Mark 1:2-3 is that a verse from Malachi is attributed to Isaiah in the earliest manuscripts. The implications of this will be explored further in a future post.