Sundays with Silva: The Problem of Overinterpretation

“It is approximately the year 2790. The most powerful nation on earth occupies a large territory in Central Africa, and its citizens speak Swahili. The United States and other English-speaking countries have long ceased to exist, and much of the literature prior to 2012 (the year of the Great Conflagration) is not extant. Some archaeologists digging in the western regions of North America discover a short but well-preserved text that can confidently be dated to the last quarter of the twentieth century. It reads thus:

“Marilyn, tired of her glamorous image, embarked on a new project. She would now cultivate her mind, sharpen her verbal skills, pay attention to standards of etiquette. Most important of all, she would devote herself to charitable causes. Accordingly, she offered her services at the local hospital, which needed volunteers to cheer up terminal patients, many of whom had been in considerable pain for a long time. The weeks flew by. One day she was sitting at the cafeteria when her supervisor approached her and said, ‘I didn’t see you yesterday. What were you doing?’ ‘I painted my apartment; it was my day off,’ she responded.

“The archaeologists know just enough English to realize that this fragment is a major literary find that deserves closer inspection, so they rush the piece to one of the finest philologists in their home country. This scholar dedicates his next sabbatical to a thorough study of the text and decides to publish an exegetical commentary on it, as follows:

“We are unable to determine whether this text is an excerpt from a novel or from a historical biography. Almost surely, however, it was produced in a religious context, as is evident from the use of such words as devoted, offered, charitable. In any case, this passage illustrates the literary power of twentieth-century English, a language full of metaphors. The verb embarked calls to mind an ocean liner leaving for an adventuresome cruise, while cultivate possibly alerts the reader to Marilyn’s botanical interests. In those days North Americans compared time to a birdprobably the eaglethat flies.

“The author of this piece, moreover, makes clever use of word associations. For example, the term glamorous is etymologically related to grammar, a concept no doubt reflected in the comment about Marilyn’s ‘verbal skills.’ Consider also the subtleties implied by the statement that ‘her supervisor approached her.’ The verb approach has a rich usage. It my indicate similar appearance or condition (this painting approaches the quality of a Picasso); it may have a sexual innuendo (the rapist approached his victim); it may reflect subservience (he approached his boss for a raise). The cognate noun can be used in contexts of engineering (e.g. access to a bridge), sports (of a golf stroke following the drive from the tee), and even war (a trench that protects troops besieging a fortress).

“Society in the twentieth century is greatly illuminated by this text. The word patient (from patience, meaning ‘endurance’) indicates that sick people then underwent a great deal of suffering: they endured not only the affliction of their physical illness, but also the mediocre skills of their medical doctors, and even (to judge from other contemporary documents) the burden of increasing financial costs.

A few syntactical notes may be of interest to language students. The preposition of had different uses: casual (tired of), superlative (most important of all), and partitive (many of whom). The simple past tense had several aoristic functions: embarked clearly implies determination, while offered suggests Marilyn’s once-for-all, definitive intention. Quite noticeable is the tense variation at the end of the text. The supervisor in his question uses the imperfect tense, ‘were doing,’ perhaps suggesting monotony, slowness, or even laziness. Offended, Marilyn retorts with a punctiliar and emphatic aorist, ‘I painted.’

“Readers of Bible commentaries, as well as listeners of sermons, will recognize that my caricature is only mildly outrageous. What is wrong with such a commentary? It is not precisely that the ‘facts’ are wrong (though even these are expressed in a way that misleads the reader). Nor is it sufficient to say that our imaginary scholar has taken things too far. There is a more fundamental error here: a misconception of how language normally works.

“Our familiarity with the English language helps us see quite clearly that any ‘exegesis’ such as the one I have just made up is, in the first place, and overinterpretation of the passage. Except perhaps in certain poetic contexts, we do not use words and grammatical functions as suggested by those comments. Of course, none of usnot even the finest scholarcan acquire the same familiarity with biblical Hebrew and New Testament Greek that we have with our native, living tongue. Consequently, it is a littler easier to read alien concepts into an ancient text and sound quite scholarly as we do it. And if the text in question was written by a great classical author, we are even more readily disposed to assume that it contains great richness of meaning.

“The problem intensifies when we deal with Scripture. Surely and inspired text must be full of meaning: we can hardly think that so much as a single word in the Bible is insignificant or dispensable. True enough. But we must never forget that God has spoken to us in the language of the people. Much of what passes for biblical interpretation, whether in books or sermons, implies that God has used an artificial, coded, or even esoteric language. Ironically, not a few examples of ‘grammatico-historical exegesis’ suggest that the Bible is as distant from common believers as it was assumed by the proponents of the allegorical method. We must recall this basic principle: the richness and divine origin of the biblical message are not compromised by the naturalness and simplicity of the form in which God has chosen to communicate to us.

“In addition to overinterpreting the passage, however, our whimsical commentary above is deficient at a more important level: it contributes virtually nothing to the reader’s understanding of what the passage actually says! A simple translation into twenty-eighth-century Swahili would have conveyed far more accurately and efficiently the point of the text. Similarly, clear English versions of the Bible communicate to the modern reader the main (and therefore most important) point of any passage without recourse to obscure points of grammar.

“Preachers who make appeals to ‘the original’ may in some cases help their readers obtain a better insight into Scripture. More often than not, however such appeals serve one of two functions: (1) they merely furnish illustrations to heighten interest to that hearers think they have a better understanding of the passage (cf. the comment on embark above); (2) they provide the occasion to make a point that has little do to with the passage (cf. the comment on patient).”

Moisés Silva, “God, Language and Scripture: Reading the Bible in the Light of General Linguistics” in Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation: Six Volumes in One, ed. Moisés Silva (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), pages 199-201.

The NIV and the Messiah in the Old Testament

I expect that most of my readers are aware by now of the recent resolution of the Southern Baptist Convention on the NIV 2011. In this document, the SBC expressed its “disappointment” with what they term an “inaccurate translation of God’s inspired Scripture,” requesting that LifeWay Christian Resources (an agency of the SBC) “not make this inaccurate translation available for sale in their bookstores” and further resolving that Convention could not “commend the 2011 NIV to Southern Baptists or the larger Christian community.” The Baptist Press News blog comments that this was “a surprising and dramatic move,” further noting that “[t]he Resolutions Committee had asked messengers not to consider the resolution.”

This hastily presented document and the politically engineered process that led to its approval stands in stark contrast to the careful, balanced, and genuinely helpful supplemental report that the Translation Evaluation Committee of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod has prepared for its own convention later this month. The indefatigable Rod Decker already directed our attention to this document nearly two months ago, and I am a bit surprised that his notice has failed to elicit further discussion of the report’s contents. I encourage anyone interested in English Bible translations in general, and the NIV in particular, to acquaint themselves with the supplemental report and the various other supporting documents available on the WELS website.

The Translation Evaluation Committee, who were impeccably thorough in the fulfillment of their mandate, sat down for an extended discussion with Douglas Moo, Chair of the NIV’s Committee on Bible Translation. This meeting is described in some detail in pages 7-9 of the report. I was intrigued to learn the following, from page 8:

Regarding the understanding of messianic prophecy, Moo said that all of the members of the committee believe that the Old Testament has predictive prophecy that finds its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ. He suggested that the majority of the committee follows the Walter Kaiser “line of fulfillment” approach.

In a footnote, the report further elaborates:

Walter Kaiser accepts the existence of direct, messianic predictions in the Old Testament. But he also emphasizes that, in many cases, one shouldn’t have to choose if a particular prophecy is fulfilled in the immediate situation of the psalmist, or later in salvation history, or in Christ and the church. It can be fulfilled in all of them, even though it may be ultimately fulfilled in Christ. A prophetic passage’s unity of meaning consists in the fact that from the original “seed” meaning, the core idea grew in content over time as God’s promise-plan unfolded. See: Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., The Messiah in the Old Testament, Zondervan, 1995, pp. 23-31.

These comments piqued my interest for at least a couple of reasons. For one, Kaiser’s views on these and related matters are often dismissed as naïve, particularly by younger Evangelicals who claim a certain degree of hermeneutical sophistication. There may be some truth to that assessment, of course, but Kaiser is not a rube and his views are not an oddity. In fact his views remain extraordinarily influential, to the extent that a majority of a select group of the best and brightest in Evangelical biblical scholarship are said here to operate within his single-meaning, “epangelical” approach to the interpretation of messianic prophecy. Secondly, this bit of information constitutes a rare insight into the minds of the translators, and it might suggest to informed readers how to properly evaluate disputed renderings in the NIV when they touch on this vexed subject.