Friday, May 07, 2004

Ancient Meaning Known By Modern Reader

The Jollyblogger wrote a blog on Translation Issues II. In it he discusses whether we should translate the scripture formal equivalents or use dynamic equivalents. I’ll let you read his blog to get the difference. In discussing the Jollyblogger’s blog on Translation Issue II, my good friend Keith asked, “How do we know what the meaning of the ancient words was any way”? This is a good question because in talking about translating a text with either one, we still have to know what the words or text meant in the first place. There was no ancient dictionary. The first dictionary for English was published in A.D. 1656. Dictionaries are relatively recent phenomena. And besides, a dictionary’s authority is only as good as the academic scholarship work that was put into it. Of course for the most part, we should not argue with the dictionary. To address the issue, how do we determine word meaning from an ancient text?

1. Word Usage In The Bible Text
How words are used in a context helps us determine original meaning of the words. Checking how the words are used in not only one context but also in similar contexts. A concordance can be used to find how a word is used in various passages of the Bible. We should not just check out the word, but also a phrase.

2. Word Usage In Other Relevant Ancient Texts
There are other ancient writings that we can look at. For instance, the use of the phrase “works of the law” was not a common phrase, but from examining its usage in a document found with the Dead Sea Scrolls it is quite evident that it means a ceremonial righteousness.

3. Ancient Translations
Lastly we can look and see how the ancients translated the texts in their own day or in the centuries just following the writing of the scripture. The Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek in the 3rd Century B.C. There are also other ancient translations the Bible, like the Syriac Version. Then of course there is the Vulgate version. These all add to our knowledge.

In the end, the name of the game is context, context and context. That means that it is more art than science in determining word and phrase meaning. At the same time, that does not mean that we don't know anything about the Bible's content. To decide what a passage means, read it. Context, context, and context.
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