06 December 2012

Lost in Translation: Church and State

Many Christians prefer the King James Version of the Bible to any other because it is the “Authorized Version”, though authorized not by any body or official from the Church of England but by the king, who was then James I of England. 

One wonders why these same people do not likewise use the Book of Common Prayer which the good King James also “authorized” in 1604 (really just a slight revision of the 1559 BCP).  As well as why none of their Bibles contain the complete and unabridged Authorized Version, since they lack the books of the Apocrypha which were indeed a part of the full Authorized Version of the good King James.  Come to think of it, why, in the United States of America, is it important that King James “authorized” it?  Didn’t we fight an eight-year revolution to break away from the rule of the king of England and establish an elected republic?

True, in some passages, such as the Psalm 23, the poetry is unmatched in any subsequent translations.  I myself much prefer the KJV translation of Ecclesiastes 12 to that of any later version, for example.  But some of the wording throughout the KJV Bible, even many of the words themselves, is archaic or even obsolete, and carries an entirely different meaning than what it did in 1611.  Take, for instance, the word “comprehended” in the first chapter of the Gospel of John.  Here, in King James time, “to comprehend” did not mean “to understand” but “to overcome” or “to conquer”.

Since we’re at that chapter, let’s look at how it opens:  “In the beginning was the Word…”  The English word “Word” here is translated from the Greek word “Logos”.  The word Logos can be translated as “speech”, “reason”, “study”, “statement”, or “wisdom”.  For example, in Decalogue, the Greek term for what may call the “Ten Commandments”, the –logue is derived from logos meaning “saying”.  The word logic is likewise derived from logos.

As used in the first chapter of John, Logos referred more to a concept than a dictionary meaning and isn’t readily translatable.  In Hellenistic philosophy, Logos was the principle governing the cosmos, the universe, especially among the Stoics.  To Neoplatonists, Logos was the mediator between Soul, Spirit, and the One.  To Jews, the Word of God (God’s actual words or voice, rather than the Tanakh) had always had special power, and among the Hellenistic Jewish mystics based in Alexandria (Philo in particular), Logos became God’s instrument in the creation of the universe and intermediary between creation and Creator.  All this led to the writer of the Gospel of John identifying Logos with Jesus of Nazareth.  Later Christian writers such as Justin Martyr and Augustine of Hippo expanded on John’s use.  The concept even crossed over to Islam through its Sufi mystics, especially the late 12th/early 13th century philosopher Ibn Arabi of Murcia in Al-Andalus (Moorish Iberia).

When the king of England’s translators sat down to begin work on that gospel, they had several options to choose for the meaning of Logos.  Perhaps since Logos stood for a concept rather than a word with a definite meaning they should have just left it as Logos.  But they chose to use “Word” instead, a mistaken if convenient translation (in 1st century Greek, the actual word for “word” was “lexis”).  They could just have easily, and if they had been working a century later may have, translated Logos as “Reason”, a much more correct translation, linguistics-wise anyway, than “Word”. 

Here’s how that might have looked:  “In the beginning was Reason, and Reason was with God, and Reason was God.  Reason was in the beginning with God.  All things were made with Reason; and without Reason was not anything made that was made.  In Reason was life; and that life was the light of men.  And the light of Reason shines in the darkness, but the darkness conquered it not.”

Note the KJV style; it’s the only translation not under copyright.

Greek is kind of a funny language, at least from the point of view of a native speaker of American English; I’m sure native speakers of Greek find English really weird.  In some cases where in English we might express several similar ideas with a single word, Greek uses different words for each.  For example, love.  In Greek, there is “eros”, for romantic or sexual love; “phileos”, for brotherly or platonic love; and “agape”, for unconditional love as for immediate family.  For all those varieties, in English we simply use the word “love”.

Some words in Greek have flexible meaning, like “logos”, while others have more specific meaning.  The Greek word “esothen” falls into the first category while the word “entos” falls into the second; both words, however, are translated in the KJV as “within”.

I mention entos because it figures in one of my favorite passages from the New Testament, one from the 17th chapter of the Gospel of Luke in which a group of Pharisees as Jesus about when the kingdom of God was coming.  He replied, “The kingdom of God cometh not with observation.  Neither shall they say, Lo here! Or, lo, there!  For, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”  (Luke 17:20-21)  That passage was the first that made me interested in the lexicology of Greek words in the New Testament.

The Greek word translated by the scribes “authorized” by King James as “within” in this passage is “entos”.  The word “entos” is used only one other time in the whole New Testament, in Matt. 23:26 – “Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.” 

In other translations, “entos” is translated variously as “within” you, “in” your “midst”, “among” you, “already among” you, or “in the midst of” you, all of which are incorrect, or at the very best, inexact.  Given that the only other place in the entire New Testament in which the word “entos” is used in the original Greek talks about the inside of a cup or platter, the best and most obvious translation for the word “entos” would be “inside of”.  This would render the passage (in modern English):  “The coming of the kingdom of God can’t be seen.  No one will say, “Look here!” or Look there!”, because the kingdom of God is inside each one of you.”

I think what might be tripping up the translators is that Jesus was talking to the Pharisees and it’s clear from many other passages in the gospels that he didn’t think very much of them.  Often, the word Pharisees is paired with the words hypocrites.  The antipathy seems to have been two ways, as well.  So, it’s not unreasonable to see that a translator might find it hard to believe that Jesus would tell men who didn’t like him and whom he himself frequently called “hypocrites” that the kingdom of God is inside each of them.  Thus do we get the abundance of theologically-inspired mistranslations of this passage.

And since we’re on the subject of the kingdom of God, I have question…

-for all those who either believe America was founded as a Christian Nation or who want to make it one;
-for those who see in the the modern temporal state of Israel the ancient Israel of the Bible;
-for those who want to erect idols of the “Ten Commandments” in courthouses and town squares;
-for those who want to have prayer before local government meetings and public school sports events;
-for those who want to hold prayer meetings, have Bible readings over the intercom, or allow religious recruiting in public schools;
-and for those who want to retain the phrase “In God we trust” as our official national motto rather than the more historic and less sectarian “E pluribus unum” which had stood since the foundation of our Republic: 

What part of “My kingdom is not of this world” do you not understand?

ADDENDUM:  I was telling an atheist friend about the part of this essay dealing with the meaning of the Greek word “entos” and how the true translation of Luke 17:21 is “The kingdom of God is inside of each of you”, and he responded, “Yea!  It’s all in your heads!”.  Maybe that’s exactly what the man Jesus of Nazareth was trying to say.

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