What makes a good Liturgical Translation?

As a frequent reader, sometime participant, of BetterBibleBlog [Wayne Leman, host and primary author] and Bible-Translation list, the issue of Bible translation is center stage. Bible translation has been an interest of mine for 25+ years, and learning Greek and Hebrew spurred my continued interest. At one time or another I have translated all but two (small) books of the NT, and portions of the OT. I am not an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I am concerned about good translations, especially for use in the Church and by the Church.

A couple of weeks ago on BBB, the discussion went to the relative merits of ESV and TNIV. I raised the concern about whether any translation makes for a good liturgical translation. What follows is an edited version of my comments.

==========================

Wayne Leman asked: “Liturgically the ESV is much better than TNIV.” How do you determine what is liturgically better? Does it have to do with one’s personal preference for an older form of English that sounds more dignified or sacred? Or are there some objective criteria by which we can measure liturgical quality?

I think this might relate to whether someone comes from a liturgical background. That is, the general Protestant Christian congregation (especially in western cultures) today is essentially non-liturgical. By that I mean that what was the liturgical form of worship for the past 1,500 years has not been retained among these congregations (this is not meant as a judgmental statement, but an observation). The historic liturgical form included spoken/sung responses (Kyrie, Alleluia, Gloria Patri, Te Deum, Nunc Dimittis, Agnus Dei, etc.).

Thus, part of the liturgical use of a translation relates to how the translation expresses and relates to these traditional musical/lyrical/rhythmic elements. This is both a translational and a musical process/evaluation. It is interesting that when the LCMS (Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod) had worked with the LCA and ALC on a new hymnal, eventually Lutheran Book of Worship LBW, in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Psalm texts were translated specifically for the hymnal. However, when the LCMS pulled out of the project due to theological problems with the project itself, the LCMS couldn’t use those translated Psalms, and so settled for the NIV for the Psalms text — because it was royalty-free!

But this brings up another point — whose text is it? and what purpose does it serve? Dr. Theodore Letis has written about this in the book The Ecclesiastical Text. That is, the Church (not referring to a denomination) has traditionally been the retainer of the text, translator of the text, and especially the user of the text. In the last 100 years there has been a major shift from the Church to the Academic and parachurch organizations (publishers) who have taken over the role of translation and Bible “selling”. Sadly many in the parachurch groups do not have the liturgical heritage to evaulate whether a translation is good for liturgical purposes.

And finally, the liturgical text must have the oral/rhythmic quality that can only be heard and not just read on the page. This is a critical factor for any translation (and one which GW does well), but especially for a liturgical translation (which GW doesn’t do as well).

Wayne wrote: Ideally, we want a Bible that contains good quality English wordings … is highly accurate, and sounds good for public reading, including liturgical reading.

I would agree wholeheartedly with this statement. I suspect part of the problem with English word choices relates to whether a translation should use Latin-based words (“expiation”) or highly specific “church-language” words: righteousness, justification, grace, reconciliation, etc. Since I use the text within the context of the faith community, I believe that it is important to grow the believer into the knowledge of the faith. This is the point at which liturgy, translation, and catechesis come together. They become both faith expressions and teachers of the faith. Thus, an 80 year old great-grandmother and an 8 year old great-granddaughter can recite texts based on a common liturgical heritage (I have examples of the Lord’s Prayer), where small accomodations for language changes still allow the rhythm of singing/chanting/reading the same text.

I remember the struggle I had with God’s Word translation as it field-tested some translation choices. Obviously grace, righteousness, justification were at the top of the translators’ list of “alternatives”. They were correct in pointing out that many people in the test congregations misunderstood the words (our congregation at the time did quite well in understanding the meaning as related in the Biblical texts). The solution for the GW translation team was to use words that may or may not have been better: God’s approval instead of righteousness. However, that choice too may be misleading. And yet GW retained righteousness 130 times, and in several key OT passages (i.e., Psalm 4:1, 5; 9:8; 50:6; 97:2; Isaiah 1:27; 5:7; 9:7; 51:7, 8; 54:14; 56:1; 58:14) and then 1 Corinthians 1:30. My solution would be to continue to teach people so that they grow in the understanding of what is behind the translation whether TSeDiQ (צדק) or DIKAISOUNH (Greek: δικαισυνη). And by retaining righteousness there is a historic link — theologically and liturgically.

=================

I don’t have a final answer about translations and liturgical use. But it seems that this is a critical factor that is often ignored by translation committees. I have read several books about how various translations were made, including the decision-making agenda on wording and the translating process. Not once have I read anything that relates to liturgical worship. To me, this suggests a major need for translators and liturgical churches. And who knows, perhaps the focus on a litrugical translation might avoid some of the traditional conservative/liberal splits that fracture churches and even translation committees.

My little plea is that translation committees m ake a concerted effort to examine the translation in light of and for liturgical use.

Jonah and Missions

It might be surprising to some people that Jonah is really a mission book. Many years ago at seminary a returning missionary/Bible translator spoke about his work in the mission field. He then noted that when new converts wanted a book of the Bible translated, often the first one mentioned was Jonah. Let’s pursue that a little more and see if we can discover the reason.

In Jonah 1:1-2 God commissions Jonah with these words: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” Interestingly the LXX uses κηρυξον (“preach”), which the ESV follows, “preach against”. Such wording implies a very strong Law proclamation.

But Jonah has other ideas: But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare, and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD. At the command to go to Nineveh, Jonah heads in the opposite direction; while there is doubt about the exact location of Tarshish, it is generally agreed to be in the western part of the Mediterranean Sea, most likely Spain. In other words, Jonah tries to flee as far from Israel/Judah as he can go.

It might be easy for us to criticize Jonah, but let’s remember the situation in which he finds himself. Nineveh represented the hated and feared enemy of God’s people. They would soon swoop down and conquer the northern 10 tribes (Israel), killing many, dragging many into captivity. Consider today if God told me to go the Al Qaeda headquarters and preach against it. What would my reaction be? Probably the same as Jonah’s.

But God does not let Jonah get away. For God’s prophet to speak God’s Word, he will first have to undergo the same as the people of Nineveh. God has to “preach against” Jonah. He does so by sending the storm, then allowing the sailors to throw Jonah overboard, and finally a great fish swallows Jonah. The Law is spoken in its harshest measures. Only an intervention by God can save Jonah – and that is what happens.

Jonah recognizes in the bottom of his despair – in the bottom of the fish – that apart from God’s steadfast love/covenant love (חסד) there is no hope. Ironically Jonah adds the phrase “those who pray to idols” forsake that very hope. Thus, Jonah is setting himself up against the Ninevites (who have the idols – chapter 3). That is, it is “good, right, and salutary” that Jonah, an Israelite would be shown grace, extended God’s steadfast love, and receive hope in the midst of no hope.

What Jonah forgot was something that happened early in the kingship of Israel, several hundred years before his time. Notice this critical passage: 1 Samuel 15:23, Samuel speaks to Saul: For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you from being king.” Jonah fell into the same trap; he could not see that his rebellion was in the same category as the idolatry of Nineveh. Therefore, all are under the same condemnation, whether Jew or Greek (Romans 3:9-10).

Nevertheless, God’s grace rescues Jonah, leads him to renewed faith in God.

Sometimes we as forgiven, restored Christians might think that God will change his mind about what he wants us to do. “I have been forgiven, but surely God won’t ask me to do something that I have already refused.” But not so with God. In fact, 3:1-2 we find a repeat of 1:1-2, God’s commission to preach against Nineveh. This time Jonah responds in obedience (result of faith); he goes to Nineveh and preaches against the people. Only an intervention by God can save Nineveh – and that is what happens.

The results are stunning! The people hear the judgment against them and their city, they recognize their sin, and repent in sackcloth. Even the king publicly proclaims the changed hearts, in the desire that “God may relent and turn from his fierce anger” (3:9).

Given Jonah’s prior experience of terror under the Law and the refreshing new life in the Gospel, we might expect that Jonah would rejoice at such a response. Alas, Jonah does not. Rather, he is quite put out! “It is exceedingly evil” was how Jonah considered this new situation. Because Jonah was an Israelite, he knew the promises of God to God’s people. But the Ninevites? No way! They are people who cling to their idols (Psalm 115:1-6), and in Jonah’s mind meant that meant there were two classes of people: God’s people and “them”. The people of Nineveh were part of “them” and therefore could – should not! – receive the same “steadfast love/covenant love (חסד)” that is the heritage of Israel. God shows the same compassion to the “nations” (epitomized by Nineveh) as he does to Israel. The law of God and the grace of God are not hindered by barriers set up even by the strongest of nations.

So the pattern is:

Part 1: God commissions Jonah to speak against Nineveh

  • Jonah refuses
  • God speaks against Jonah
  • Jonah repents and lives
  • Jonah rejoices in prayer
  • God’s first mission complete

    Part 2: God commissions Jonah to speak against Nineveh

  • Jonah obeys
  • God through Jonah speaks against Nineveh
  • The people of Nineveh repent and live
  • Jonah sinks into despair
  • God’s heart of compassion demonstrated and second mission complete

    Now through the lens of Jonah, let’s glance ahead to the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20. Jesus sends the disciples to “make disciples” of all nations (note also the “preach” aspects in Luke, Mark, harking back to the LXX use of the same word in Jonah’s context). In the past “nations” (Hebrew: GoYiM) would have meant “them” of Jonah’s experience, now the “nations” include Israel itself as part of the “nations” (Acts 1:8, “beginning in Jerusalem”). Everyone and every nation is the missionary target of the Good News.

    Further, notice the promise in 28:20 “for I am with you always.” Jonah thought he could avoid the mission assignment by fleeing, not from Nineveh, but from God’s presence. It didn’t work; God was with him. So also, those who think that the Great Commission can be shuffled off to someone else forget that Jesus “is with them always”. No matter where they go, when they go, how far they go, Jesus is there, and the commission is in effect. Jonah becomes a precursor of both Jesus’ resurrection (Matthew 12:39-41) and the Jesus’ Commission to the disciples (Matthew 28:16-20).

    Jonah truly is a missionary book – for all of us!