This interesting little article recently appeared in Novum Testementum: Wollenberg, Rebecca Scharbach. 2017. “אני יי רפאך: A Short Note on ἐγώ εἰμι Sayings and the Dangers of a Translation Tradition.” Novum Testamentum 59, no. 1: 20-26.
Although the article itself is interesting, I more so want to dwell on an area of Bible translation that the article touches on. First, I will give a brief summary of the article’s contents, followed by some stream of consciousness for Bible translation.
Believe it or not, there is an entire field of study devoted to the gospel of John.
Why you might ask? I’m sure you’ve noticed by reading it that John is a bit different from the other gospels. In fact, in nerdom world we call Matthew-Luke the synoptic gospels. Not so much because they look at Jesus in the same way, but because John is just so different. It would take a small monograph (or big depending on your publisher and how much fluff you could get in there) to outline all the characteristics in detail. At least a cursory reading will reveal that, in the gospel of John, Jesus is just more….personal, right? You see him up close.
One of these salient features in the gospel are the famous “I AM” sayings of Jesus. Jesus teaches about his divine being and plan of salvation through relating himself to objects like bread (6:35), a vine (15:1,5), light (8:12), the shepherd (10:7), the door (10:11), etc. These sayings “[provide] information about the nature of the divine speaker, defining the divine-human relationship, and outlining the mechanisms of salvation.” (21).
So what’s the problem?!?!
Well, on this side of history it’s fairly common knowledge—dare I say intuitive—that the New Testament is VERY intimately related to the old. This was not the case back in the day. Early scholars of John were part of a movement that was highly critical of the Bible and approached it with the pre-supposition that the meaning is behind the text and the text is just an impediment to be peeled back like a blood orange.
So, what better way to neuter the text of the New Testament than to prove that the authors’ writings were not influenced by the Old Testament but rather other, secular literature. Therefore, liberal scholarship issued the following two challenges:
- The way that “I am” is written in greek has no parallel in the Hebrew Bible
- Therefore, it could not have come from the Hebrew Bible.
Just to give you some context, the way you say “I am” in Greek is ἐγώ εἰμι (ego eimi), which is a pronoun (I) plus a verb in the first person for “to be” (am). In Hebrew, there are a couple of ways to do this. One is אני הוא (ani hu), the pronoun for “I” followed by the pronoun for “he/it”—meaning “I (am) he/that.” Here is where this got my attention. For the longest time, this argument was based off of a shockingly over-simplistic syllogism:
Major Premise: Ani hu (Hebrew) and Ego Eimi (Greek) translate both “I am” into English
Minor Premise: There are no sentences with Ani hu (Hebrew) + [quality] like there are in Greek
Conclusion: Therefore there are no “I am” statements in Hebrew.
I’ll just spoil the rest of the article for you and say that that kind of thinking was wrong. There are plenty of “I AM” + something statements to the same effect as those in John. The Hebrew ones are often much richer in meaning and therefore won’t be constrained to one type of syntactic construction. To quote the author,
In my opinion, proponents of this view underestimate the symbolic power often adhering to the specific names attributed to God in the [Hebrew Bible]. 22
God calls Himself the mighty one (Isa 43:12) The eternally existent one (Mal 3:6). In Isa 49:15, He calls Himself the speaker of truth, and then tells you what it means in the same verse! So, why did these scholars not see this?
The reason is simple. They did not consider Hebrew on its own merit. You see these scholars of John were mainly skilled in Greek and therefore read the Greek version of the Old Testament instead of the Hebrew one. Now the Greek version (LXX) has its reasons for being valuable1I plan on discussing why in a BIG post I have planned for the future[rew/note], but at the end of the day Greek is not Hebrew.
Remember when I said that there are many ways to say “I am” in Hebrew? Greek simply did not have the vocabulary to capture to true force of the Hebrew names. Think I’m nit-picking? Lets look at an example from the article
Exodus 15:26 as אני יהוה רופאך in Hebrew and ἐγώ εἰμι κὐριος ὁ ἰώμενός σε. The Hebrew says, “I am Yahweh your healer” whereas the Greek says “I am the Lord who heals you.”
Two striking differences here
- God’s personal name is missing from the Greek. This is a big deal and I have a special guest who will drop that bomb in the future.
- In Greek, healing is just something God does whereas in the Hebrew, it communicates the sense that healing is part of God’s character.
The only way to know that is to be familiar with how the Hebrew language “feels.”
Can you see how this affects Bible translations today?
Please don’t think I’m saying that you can’t trust in your translation. People ask me which one I think is the best all the time and my answer is the same: all of them are good. I am just trying to inform and understand that translations have their limits. Those who work on them have time crunches and not only that, the final product must pass through an English editor often times that may or may not bleach any distinctives of the language that the translator is trying to get across.
Specialized translations can only be found in major commentaries in which the author of said commentary has been pouring over that particular book of the bible and can take into account the background of everything from the linguistic to the historical that inform the translation of that verse. My hope for this site is it can be a hub and steady resource to constantly keep the church connected to that level of though and precision with regards to Bible translations! It’s a labour of love for me and I can’t wait to see what the future holds! Make sure and always check the translation section. It’s slow, but steady! Upwards!
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