The Vibes of Translations: A Case Study Invoking John 1:14a   Leave a comment

Above:  The Hebrew Tabernacle in the Wilderness

Image in the Public Domain

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A Biblical translation has its vibe.

Years ago, at the Episcopal Center at The University of Georgia, I was participating in a Bible study one night.  The passage was the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12).  The study method was the African Bible study, by which the group heard the same passage read aloud three times, each time in a different version, and asked a different question each time.  After Carrie read from The Living Bible (New Testament, 1969), all of us present sang,

I’d like to teach the world to sing

in perfect harmony.

I’d like to buy the world a Coke

and keep it company.

The Living Bible is of its time.  That is the most polite evaluation I can offer of it.  My opinion of The Living Bible is so low as to be subterranean.  If I were to represent my opinion of that version numerically, I would use a negative number on a scale.  But I would still rate The Living Bible higher than The Message.

To my main point now….

The Prologue (1:1-18) of the Gospel of John is one of the most profound sections in the Bible.  That Prologue is theologically rich, like the rest of that Gospel.  And John 1:1-18 is one of the portions of scripture I read when evaluating a translation.  If a translation botches the Prologue to the Gospel of John, I read no more in that version.  Literary quality and theological subtlety are standards I apply to that evaluation.

The Revised Standard Version (New Testament, 1946; plus Old Testament, 1952; Second Edition, 1971) provides the standard English translation of John 1:14a:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth….

Two translation choices stand out in my mind.  First, “dwelt” is literal from the Greek, according to commentaries I have read.  Second, the Greek text reads, literally, “in,” not “among.”

Other versions offer similar readings.  For example, The Revised English Bible (1989) tells us:

So the Word became flesh; he made his home among us,….

The New American Bible–Revised Edition (2011) reads:

And the Word became flesh

and made his dwelling among us,….

And The New Jerusalem Bible (1985) tells us:

The Word became flesh,

he lived among us,….

Helen Barrett Montgomery (1861-1934) hit the proverbial nail on the head in her Centenary Translation of the New Testament (1924):

And the Word became flesh and tented with us…

William Barclay (1907-1978) also translated John 1:14a well:

So the word of God became a person, and took up his abode in our being….

Barclay picked up on the literal meaning of a particular Greek word meaning “in,” not “among.”  He also tied John 1:14a to the theme of indwelling that runs throughout the Fourth Gospel.  Jesus dwelt in YHWH, YHWH dwelt in Jesus, and followers of Jesus dwelt in him, and, therefore, in YHWH.

The reference to dwelling or tenting is to the tent of the Tabernacle, as in Exodus 25:8d.  Literally, in John 1:14, the Logos of God pitched a tent.   The Greek verb meaning “to tent” resembles the Hebrew root for “to dwell” and the Hebrew word from which the noun shekinah (divine presence) derives.

The meaning pertains to Realized Eschatology in the Johannine Gospel:  God was fully present among human beings in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  Father Raymond E. Brown‘s extensive and extremely detailed and verbose commentary (1966) on the Gospel of John makes the connection between John 1:14 and Revelation 21:3:

“Behold the dwelling of God is with men….”

Revised Standard Version

According to Father Brown:

Thus, in dwelling among men, the Word anticipates the divine presence which according to Revelation will be visible to men in the last days.

The Gospel According to John (I-XII) (1966), 33

However extremely few merits Eugene Peterson’s The Message (2002) may have, literary grace is not one of them.  Consider this rendering of John 1:14a, O reader:

The Word became flesh and blood

and moved into the neighborhood.

Now I return to the question of the vibe of a translation.  “…moved into the neighborhood,” in my North American context, carries a certain connotation.  I hear that phrasing and think of a scenario in which a prosperous, professional Latino or African-American family has moved into a conservative White suburb, and the White bigots have started fretting about the possibility of declining property values.  Peterson’s translation of John 1:14a leads my mind far away from what is really happening in that verse in the Fourth Gospel.  The unfortunate wording in The Message makes me think of White upper-class bigots bemoaning,

“There goes the neighborhood!”

Furthermore, Peterson’s translation of John 1:14a functions as another example of my main criticism of that version:  It commits the sin of being kitschy.  No Biblical translation should be kitschy.

I have decided to read Helen Barrett Montgomery’s Centenary Translation of the New Testament (1924).  She had the Word pitching a tent, consistent with the meaning of the Greek text.  I like the vibe of her translation.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

FEBRUARY 22, 2021 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF HANS SCHOLL, SOPHIE SCHOLL, AND CHRISTOPH PROBST, ANTI-NAZI MARTYRS AT MUNICH, GERMANY, 1943

THE FEAST OF BERNHARDT SEVERIN INGEMANN, DANISH LUTHERAN AUTHOR AND HYMN WRITER

THE FEAST OF EDWARD HOPPER, U.S. PRESBYTERIAN MINISTER AND HYMN WRITER

THE FEAST OF SAINT MARGARET OF CORTONA, PENITENT AND FOUNDRESS OF THE POOR ONES

THE FEAST OF SAINT PRAETEXTATUS, ROMAN CATHOLIC BISHOP OF ROUEN

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