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The Bible is alien to the modern and postmodern era

31 March 2015 / 10:03:09  GRReporter
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Here it is important to point something out. When we read the biblical text we usually try to discern the ethics of this text. However, we need to be very careful when we do that and we must make some crucial distinctions with respect to our object of study. We can state that Israel thought X, we can state that some authors of the Old Testament thought X, or we can state that the OT as a canon seems to think X. These three can be wildly different. For example, the practices and attitudes of Israel at the time of the Judges may have been completely contrary to the attitudes and beliefs of the author of Judges. One has to discern whether the author neutrally describes something, whether he commends it or condemns it.

The prophets, as well, are a great example of radical figures that critiqued their culture very strictly. So, I do agree that the status of women was not as it should be in ancient Israel, but I see that there are many biblical writers rebelling against this state. The last chapters of the book of Judges are very telling of a culture that treats women as objects, to which the author, however, reacts. The prophet Amos (2:7), is another example of a man who very probably reacts against the sexual use of women.

While Stone’s book is very important in alerting us to the widespread suppression of women and makes one wonder whether we have suppressed the feminine side of Yahweh, I am not convinced that there is a necessary correlation between the worship of a female deity and the status of women. For example, ancient Athens worshiped goddess Athena but the women of that world were not given citizen status. No need to mention the status of women in India where multiple female goddesses continue to be worshipped today. Or even in Christian traditions, such as the Catholic or the Orthodox church, where the Virign Mary has a more prominent role than in the Protestant tradition, the status of women is not any better at all. Quite the opposite.

Women are suppressed under any religion at all times. However, I do think that the scriptures contain the material through which one can critique this oppression. There are enough texts that plant the seed of equality, such as the Genesis text we mentioned, and in the New Testament, I consider St. Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:28 (which is curiously not mentioned in Stone’s treatment of the New Testament) to be programmatic for a dynamic justice-generating church: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Where does your interest in Biblical Hebrew, one of the most important and enduring Semitic languages in which the texts of the Old Testament are written in, stem from? Hebrew is an elliptical language, often it hints to different notions that could be interpreted in more than one way. What challenges does the translator from Biblical Hebrew face? Which of the Old Testament translations is considered the standard one in our days?

I am not a linguist, I am a biblical scholar, so my interest was not in the Hebrew language per se, but in the language as a means of understanding the Hebrew Bible, its culture and thought. I have been reading the Old Testament in a modern Greek translation since early childhood and I was fascinated by the stories. They transported me into this Semitic world. When I began my theological studies in 2001, I was very eager to learn Hebrew. I was certain that this would immerse me even further in the world I was reading about. I guess, you could call it a “romantic” interest in the language rather than an academic one.

You are absolutely right that this language is very different from Greek or English and, as you said, very elliptical. Context is key to a good interpretation that does justice to the ancient text, but we can never arrive at the one and only meaning the author had in mind. We are always working towards approaching it.

Your last question concerning the best translation is a difficult one. There are so many factors involved in answering this. First, we need to define what we mean by a “good” or “accurate” translation. There are various schools with different approaches today and they differ in their definition of a good or accurate translation. We tend to think of translation in a spectrum, from an extremely literal, almost “wooden” translation to a “freer” translation or, so called, dynamic equivalence. We tend to think that the more literal a translation is the more accurate it is, but that is not always the case. A literal rendering may end up distorting the meaning of the base text rather than transferring it to the target language. Conversely, a “free” translation may do a better job explaining the meaning, through paraphrase perhaps, of the base text than a literal translation would. What is most important in answering this question is the issue of “purpose” (skopos). One should ask who the target audience is. Is it an academic audience that has parallel knowledge of the source text language or is it an audience that is unfamiliar with the biblical text? Is the translation aimed for light, individual reading or is it aimed for an ecclesiastical liturgical setting. The skopos usually determines whether people will consider the translation accurate or not. I would recommend that people have access to more than one bible translation as one complements the other.   

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