“All swans are invariably white!” wrote the Roman poet Juvenal over 2000 years ago. The notion that a swan could be black seemed as impossible as a horseless carriage, a four minute mile, man in flight, a man standing on the moon, and flying cars.
John Stuart Mill, a philosopher, wrote A System of Logic in 1843. Mill utilized the notion that all swans are white to explain how massive quantities of reliable observations can lead to false inductions.
Back in 1912 Karl Popper, another leading philosopher, published in his book, The Problems of Philosophy that the “black swan fallacy” to affirm his idea that scientific ideas can never be verified true, only untrue.
The “Black Swan Fallacy” postulates that if the speaker has not experienced a certain event or truth, then it cannot occur. Said in another way, just because a speaker has never experienced something in a way other than he has always experienced the event, then it means he can never have a different experience. Thus, since I have never observed a black swan, there cannot be black swans.”
As I approach our topic for review this week related to the gap of language, I want us to guard against the “black swan fallacy.” We want to guard against thinking that the way we have always seen it, is how it must be. We need to seek to understand God’s Word the best we can and use the best tools at hand. To simply accept that this is how I was taught or this is how I believe without serious, honest study, is to commit the black swan fallacy.
- E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, in Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible, warn us about our possible ‘black swan fallacy,’
“We can easily forget that Scripture is a foreign land and that reading the Bible is a crosscultural experience. To open the Word of God is to step into a strange world where things are very unlike our own. Most of us don’t speak the languages. We don’t know the geography or the customs or what behaviours are considered rude or polite. And yet we hardly notice…we tend to read Scripture in our own ‘when’ and ‘where’, in a way that makes sense on our terms.”
What is the Gap of Language?
First, the biblical writers penned their works in Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek. Without question, most English speaking believers are not proficient in these ancient languages. Should you desire to read the Hebrew text, you will need to know about the masculine and feminine noun forms, masculine and feminine pronoun forms and a variety of verbal forms. Our ‘you’ can be either masculine or feminine depending upon the form used.
Second, each of the biblical languages have different literary conventions. As English speakers we must depend upon trained translators (either a single translator or a committee of translators) to bring the ancient languages into our language. Thus, don’t miss this, every translation contains some element of ‘interpretation!’ The translators make many, many interpretive choices for the English reader. Some are doctrinal choices and others are merely choices to make the English easier to comprehend.
D.A. Carson adds in The Inclusive-Language Debate, 48-51,
No two words are exactly alike. As we learn in our chapter on word studies, words mean different things in different languages. Even words that are similar in meaning differ in some way. For example, the Greek verb phileo, often translated ‘to love’ must be rendered ‘to kiss’ when Judas kissed Jesus in an act of betrayal (Matt 26:48 in both KJV and NIV).
Thus, the gap between the biblical world and our world requires careful study in order to bridge the language gap. Proper study helps us to understand what the ancient writers wrote and what they intended by what they wrote.
Are there any guiding principles for the English speaking Bible student to employ when it comes to overcoming the language gap?
- Study Greek and Hebrew
If at all possible, study the biblical languages. Many students and laymen tell me, “I can’t study Greek or Hebrew!” I respond, “you don’t have to but you do have to work!” If you cannot study the original languages, learn to use an interlinear.
One of the best is William D. Mounce and Robert H. Mounce, The Zondervan Greek and English Interlinear New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008).
Another useful interlinear would be William D. Mounce, Interlinear for the Rest of Us: The Revised Interlinear for New Testament Word Studies (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006).
Logos and other computer bible study materials even have a reverse interlinear where you can see the English word and it will show you the original Greek or Hebrew along with definitions and other important information: case, number, gender, tense, voice, mood etc. Of course, one will want to review English grammar as well. Below is a sample page of what an interlinear would look like.
- Review the various types of translations available and their purposes.
We know that none of the original autographs are still extant and available for us to use as our model to translate. We must know that a variety of translations techniques exist. A convenient method is to list them from highly periphrastic to highly literal. This fact behooves us to note that no single translation is absolutely perfect for every situation. The fact is no single word for word correspondence can ever meet the requirements of translation of ideas.
The formally equivalent versions try to maintain the original word order and language syntax of the Hebrew or Greek from which it is translated. The NASB is an example.
The dynamically or functionally equivalent translation seeks to be a thought-for-thought translation rather than word for word. The goal is to produce the same effect on the modern reader that the Greek or Hebrew would have on the original reader. The GNB is such a translation.
Below is a chart showing the general position of many translations.
MORE FORMAL MORE FUNCTIONAL
KJV NASB RSV NAB NIV NJB NCV GNB THE
ASV NKJV HCSB TNIV REB NLT CEV MESSAGE
- Compare Versions – one of the easiest methods
William W. Klein et al., in Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, illustrates the choices for us using 1 Corinthians 7:1
“The NIV renders the final clause, ‘It is good for a man not to marry.’
Compare this with KJV/RSV ‘it is good (or well) for a man not to touch a woman”;
Phillips, ‘it is a good principle for a man to have no physical contact with women’;
and NEB, ‘it is a good principle for a man to have nothing to do with women.’”
The internet is full of websites to help you do this as well as Logos and My Study Bible by Lifeway etc.