Monday, February 21, 2005

Why Do We Need Modern Versions of the Bible? (Part 3)

As we noted in our last entry in this series, there is a place for dynamic equivalent translations due to the fact that the Greek and Hebrew languages sometimes use grammatical constructions and idioms that are difficult for English speakers to understand. However, as valuable as a dynamic equivalent translation is for clarifying the meaning of some biblical passages, they just as often muddle the meaning of other passages. One such passage is 1 Corinthians 13:8-10, which reads (NIV):

"Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears."

At issue here is the choice of verbs used for each subject after the first clause, "love never fails"; namely, what exactly does the text say about the fate of prophecies, tongues and knowledge? The NIV suggests a different fate for each subject: prophecies will "cease"; tongues will "be stilled"; knowledge will "pass away"--oh yes, and the imperfect will "disappear." This idea of different fates is true of practically every major translation, including the KJV. But notice how this differs in the NASB:

"Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away."

According to the NASB, tongues will do one thing ("they will cease"), while prophecies, knowledge and the partial will do something else ("they will be done away"). In other words, Paul places tongues in one category (with one fate; they will cease) and everything else in this passage in a second category (with a different fate; they will be done away). The reason the NASB has it this way is because this is just what we find in the Greek: literally, prophecies "will be abolished" (or "will be superceded"; Gr., katargēthēsontai), tongues "will cease in themselves" (Gr., pausontai), knowledge "will be abolished" (or "will be superceded"; Gr., katargēthēsetai), and the partial (which according to v. 9 includes knowledge and prophecy, but not tongues) "will be abolished" (or "will be superceded"; Gr., katargēthēsetai).

Knowing how Paul categorizes these spiritual gifts is crucial for understanding this passage and the fate of tongues. The common fate for the category of prophecies and knowledge (that which is "in part") is that "they will be done away" (or superceded) when the "perfect" comes. The verb used for both subjects is in the future-passive, which means that the subject receives the action; that is, something else will act upon knowledge and prophecies and cause them "to be abolished," and that "something else" is "that which is perfect." I take this to mean the perfect state (see vv. 11-12). In other words, "partial" (or imperfect) knowledge and "partial" (or imperfect) prophecies will continue until the perfect state, at which time they will be superceded by the fullness of knowledge and the fullness of prophecies.

But tongues, we are told, "will cease of themselves." The word used here (pauō) is not only a different verb than before but is also in the future-middle (not passive), which means the verb performs the action on itself. Nothing else (such as the "perfect" or eternal state) will cause them to cease--they just sort of die off on their own. This stongly suggests that tongues will not continue until the perfect state as knowledge and prophecies will.

Now my intention here is not to resolve the debate over the issue of tongues, but merely to show how a literal translation can help clarify the issues in that debate. If, as the NASB (and the Greek text for that matter) suggests, Paul places tongues in a diffferent category than knowledge and prophecies--further, that those two categories will enjoy two different fates--then there are exegetical ramifications to that observation that cannot be ignored.

There are some who dismiss this observation by appealing to the possibility that Paul may be engaging in "stylistic variation" of verbs (D. A. Carson is disappointing on this point). But this is almost certainly not the case; else, why wouldn't Paul have used (per the NIV) different verbs for prophecies and knowledge--and a different one still for "the partial"? Why would he consistently use the word katargeō and consistently place it in the future-passive with three of the subjects (prophecies, knowledge, and "the partial," which we are told in v. 9 includes only knowledge and prophecies), and deviate from that pattern only with regard to tongues (pauō in the future-middle)?

The NASB on this passage shines through as an unmatched example of the importance of a literal translation. That is not to say that a literal translation does a better job of clarifying the issues in every case (we've already looked at several examples where a dynamic equivalent translation, such as the NIV, does a better job of conveying the intended meaning than does a literal translation--see parts 1 and 2 of this series). Only that a literal translation should not be so quickly and easily dismissed by those who seem to think that the value of a translation is bound up in how well it communicates to those immersed in the lingua du jour. There are some who believe the more colloquial and "hip" a translation is, the better. While they seek to be inclusive in their translation, they ironically end up alienating and excluding those who don't happen to speak that particular style of "modern parlance."

So which is the "best" translation? It depends on your purpose. Is your purpose personal devotion, rapid reading or lengthy public addresses? Then I'd go with a dynamic equivalent. I still prefer the NIV over some of its more recent competitors (such as the TNIV or the ESV), if for no other reason than familiarity; the text of the NIV has more or less become an established standard in the Evangelical community, and the way it words certain passages demonstrates a general "neutrality" in its theological slant. Is your purpose instead to do an in-depth Bible study? Then I would use as many versions as you can get a hold of (literal, dynamic equivalent, and paraphrase) so that you can compare them side by side. Yet for your primary text, you cannot do much better than the NASB. The only exception I might make here is an interlinear, such as Marshall's Parallel New Testament (my personal favorite), which has the Greek text and literal English translation of the Greek in the center column of the page, along with two other major translations (your choice) on the right and left columns of the page (the one I use has the NIV and NASB). With that as your basic text, and the other translations as safety checks to keep you from going too far astray in how you're understanding the literal wording of the text (here commentaries are a great help as well), you're well on your way to plumbing the depths of God's word.