the linguistics of inspiration*

When people ask my opinion as a linguist, I usually quail. Most often that is because the question is to do with some area of linguistics that I’m under-equipped to deal with, which in truth means most areas. But other times it’s because the topic isn’t capable of being handled by the discipline of linguistics, at least as far as any respectable linguist would understand it in today’s academic environment.

One such topic is the question of the inspiration of scripture. A gentleman who recently commented on this post on the properties of the AV flagged up a moderated debate on the relative merits of two other translations of the bible, the ESV and the NIV, both of which are hugely popular in the Reformed Christian world. (It was further discussed here.)

To be up-front about it, the Versions Wars have more or less passed me by. I have no problem with the AV as something I can quite happily use almost exclusively in personal, family, and corporate reading. Equally though, I see no virtue in pretending that it is flawless, and if it hadn’t happened that I was brought up with it and belong to a context that is steeped in it, I can well imagine myself using alternative versions simply in a bid to achieve comprehension of the text.**

Which is partly a reason why I can’t contribute anything to the question of which is better, ESV or NIV, since I’m simply not acquainted enough with either to be able to comment.

But it is also an excuse to move the question a step back. The major difference between the ESV and the NIV (correct me if I’m wrong) seems to be the translation philosophy which underlies them. In the case of the ESV, the translators aimed to provide as literal a translation as possible. In the case of the NIV, the translators aimed to provide as rhetorically effective a translation as possible. The outcome of these decisions is that the ESV can be critiqued for phrasing things in ways that sound awkward to the less biblically literate reader (“it’s just not how we’d say it”) (although if they’d kept up a nodding familiarity with the AV along the way, it often really would be how we said it). On the other hand, the NIV can be critiqued for giving too much interpretative power to the translators, allowing the final translation to convey what the translators think it should say/mean to the reader, rather than leaving the decision about interpretation up to the reader. So in both cases the focus of the discussion is over the practicalities of the final product, and the effect that it has on or for the reader.

But the choice of a translation philosophy must itself, surely, depend on a prior understanding of the nature of the documents being translated. That is to say, the real question (surely) is about our doctrine of inspiration.

A doctrine of inspiration which allows for, just say, a long slow process of canonisation and lots of redaction, and is non-specific about the form that the revelation took when the prophets received it from God (assuming they did receive a revelation from God and didn’t just write things that were subsequently increasingly appreciated by other people), or whatever, is not going to give rise to a translation philosophy that will take particular care over conveying to the reader the details of what was in the document itself. On the other hand, a doctrine of inspiration which adopts the view that God gave words to his prophets to write, and they wrote them, will more naturally encourage a translation philosophy which provides the reader with just what the text says, as far as that is possible, and at least attempts to let the text speak for itself.

Anyone with any sense (thus by definition excluding KJVO-ists) knows that translations themselves are not inspired. Inspiration is the process that ensured that the divine revelation that was breathed out in human words has all the properties of the words of God – when it is God who is speaking, the word is authoritative, timelessly true, internally consistent, complete in itself, comprehensible, holy (all necessarily so), and also (in his sovereignty) full of grace towards sinners. Verbal plenary inspiration, which we deduce from the scriptures, carries with it the implication that the words themselves matter, and a translation philosophy which is maximally consistent with this doctrine will prioritise the rendering of the words themselves – not so much their presumed rhetorical equivalent for speakers of the vulgar tongue – translating as literally as possible, as dynamically as necessary.

Obviously, this view of inspiration can’t be handled from an academic perspective when that academic perspective excludes the possibility of the supernatural. But it seems to me that your doctrine of inspiration, your understanding of the nature of the sacred texts themselves, is the essential starting point when you come to evaluate how successful one translation of the text might be in relation to another.

Old semi-related discussions –
On revelation

In the Confession

On canonicity

* But not the inspiration of linguistics, much as I covet the Chiasmus of the Month award.
** By far the weakest point of the pro-AV case (referring here to honest British conservatives who are emphatically not KJV-Onlyists) is the twin insistence (i) that the longevity of the AV rules out the need for any successor and (ii) that it is quite unproblematically readable and accessible to anyone who cares enough to make the effort. The AV is no longer the ploughman’s bible, and arguments in its favour need to acknowledge this.

21 thoughts on “the linguistics of inspiration*

  1. Might I ask a semi relevant question?
    are the books of
    1st and 2nd Machabees, included in the above versions?


  2. Because they were never included as part of the canon – not until the sixteenth century. They were always apparently in circulation alongside Scripture, but only as sort of generally useful writings, never with the status of the actual scriptures, until the Council of Trent took it upon itself to bestow that status on them.


  3. A gentleman

    Such presumption, harumph!

    This is great cath, I almost wish I could go back in time and use it as my moderator’s opening statement (except that it would declare a win for the literal side before the debate could begin!)

    Personally, I think AV is preferable to the NIV on philosophy, and NIV is preferable on modern texts (although I’m really quite uninformed about the whole Textus Receptus issue). Since I believe (again, uninformedly) that textual issues are not that important (God has preserved his Word sufficiently through all ages), that makes AV a winner over NIV, even though it takes more effort to read. But really, if you can read Shakespeare, you can read KJV, and I haven’t heard anybody calling for “modern translations” of the Bard’s Canon!

    However, since ESV is on the right side both in philosophy and texts, I’ll stick with that!

    (But I do peek at KJV quite often, for Strong’s indexing — even has also indexed the ESV)


  4. Cath, what you are saying is just not true. The Protestant canon is the canon of the Pharisees who rejected Jesus fixed after the destruction of the temple. The Christians always accepted the canon of the LXX. They may have argued over it’s extent but not over the inclusion of the books Luther omitted from the OT and NT. They were always clearly canonical. No Christians denied the canonical status of these books before the sixteenth century though some may have added others as well. Those who accepted the definitive character of the decrees of the Holy See already had the decrees of various late forth and early fifth century Popes to which Augustine compelled Jerome to submit. But long before the sixteenth century in the Oecumenical Council of Florence defined that:

    “The Holy Roman Church, founded on the words of our Lord and Saviour…accepts and venerates the books, whose titles are as follows: Five books of Moses, namely Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy; Joshua, Judges, Ruth, four books of Kings, two of Paralipomenon, Esdras, Nehemiah, Tobit, Judith, Esther, Job, Psalms of David, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Baruch, Ezechiel, Daniel; the twelve minor prophets, namely Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi; two books of the Maccabees; the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; fourteen letters of Paul, to the Romans, two to the Corinthians, to the Galatians, to the Ephesians, to the Philippians, two to the Thessalonians, to the Colossians, two to Timothy, to Titus, to Philemon, to the Hebrews; two letters of Peter, three of John, one of James, one of Jude; Acts of the Apostles; Apocalypse of John.”


  5. My feeling is that Aelianus is correct. ( After I asked a Priest friend who is a Biblical Scholar, which I am not) That A Pope in the 4th century compelled St Jerome to include them in his “Vulgate Bible”
    Also he said something about the “dead sea scrolls” which proved it was correct to include them.


  6. I too am no biblical scholar, but from the start the Apocryphal books were not treated as having the same status as the canonical books, even though they were venerated, as Florence affirms, as being valuable for believers to read. Saying that it was “the Pharisees who rejected Jesus” who fixed the Old Testament Canon is, apart from verging on the ad hominem, missing the point, because even those Pharisees who rejected Jesus were undeniably faithful to their task of preserving intact, and preserving only, the inspired writings that belonged to the Church prior to the incarnation. The insistence of Trent that the apocryphal books are canonical is just one more example of how the Church under Rome around the Reformation was increasing and hardening the extra-Scriptural requirements it was imposing on those who were inside it.


  7. Not sure what /when you mean when you say, from the start. ?
    I do not think those books could be referred to as Extra-scriptural. As we can see from history, it was long before Trent, almost 1000 years before, in fact that they were included.


  8. From the start of the New Testament Church. They clearly existed long before Trent, long before the New Testament era. But they were never part of the Jewish canon, ie the canon of scripture that the NT Church inherited from the OT Church. Sorry for the slow reply.


  9. Tiggy,
    Surely you don’t mean to suggest that all the documents found in the caves, collectively referred to as the Dead Sea Scrolls, were intended by God to be included in the canon of scripture?? I’m afraid you would be mixing a whole lot of rubbish into scripture if you took that line.


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