Monday, June 4, 2007

CBT member on Shema post & comments

One of the oldest members of the NIV/TNIV Committee on Bible Translation (CBT) has responded to our post on the Shema and comments on the post. Here is his response, speaking as an individual, not for the CBT as a whole:

"Chemo head" has been so severe the past few weeks that I have been incapacitated. Today, hopefully, I can make some sense.

I cannot now respond to every item raised in your blog and the responses, but in general I must observe that the critics , at least the worst of them, show a serious deficiency in their understanding of the Hebrew (its idioms, and how it works), and in their understanding of the social system that developed the Hebrew language and which that language served. As for this latter, ancient Israel was not a community created by a large/small group of individuals through economic and political action. It was rather a community generated organically (family->clan->tribe->people).For that reason the people could be called/named after its patriarchal ancestor, and was so called/named regularly. When such was addressed by its progentor's name, it was both the community itself that was addressed collectively and its members destributively at the same time. And the language reflects that.

Allow me to work through the shema' in detail, with brief annotations. This will show how the language works: how the collective (and generic) [which is implicitly distributive also] can be and is referred to in pronouns and verb forms with either the singular or the plural without any difference in meaning.--the shema' is not a catechism of the individual, as "anon" claims, but is expressly (and grammaticaly) addressed to "Israel" (the people with whom Yahweh made covenant at Sinai), which is the antecedent of the pronouns (both independent and as integrated with the verbal forms) throughout the shema'. That is to say, here the pronouns, mostly singular but sometimes plural, refer to the people of Israel, collectively and/or distributively at the same time. This will be demonstrated by also adding some of the following narrative, where the same language is continued.
4 Hear (m.s.impv), ISRAEL (prop. n., m. s. col), Yahweh our (1st pl: Israel) God, Yahweh is one [see also the possible alternatives]. 5You (m.s.: Israel--all and each, and similarly in what follows) are to love Yahweh your (m.s.) God with all your (m.s.) heart and with all your (m.s.) nephesh and with all your (m.s.) might / strength / power. 6And these words/commands which I command you (m.s.) today are to be on your (m.s.) heart. 7And you (m.s.) are to recite them to your (m.s.) children and you (m.s.) are to speak of them when you (m.s.) are in your (m.s.) houses (pl. according the Mas. pointing) and when you are walking on the way (s. abstract generic ), and when you (m.s.) are lying down and when you (m.s.) are rising up. 8And you (m.s.) are to tie them for a sign on your (m.s.) hand/arms (pl. according to Mas. pointing), and they are to be philactories (pl) between your (m.s.) eyes. 9And you are to write them on the doorposts of your (m.s. ) houses (pl. according to Mas. pointing) and on your (m.s.) gates [pl.--city gates?].
10And it shall be when Yahweh your (m.s.) God brings you (m.s.) to the land which he swore to your (m.s.) fathers (pl), to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob, to give to you (m.s.), great and pleasant cities (pl.) which you (m.s.) did not build, 11and houses (pl.) filled with all (s. col.) [kinds of] good (s. col.) [things] which you (m.s.) did not fill and (already) dug wells/cisterns (pl.) which you (m.s.) did not dig, vineyards (pl.) and olive groves (pl.) which you (m.s.) did not plant, and you (m.s.) eat and you (m.s.) are satisfied, 12guard (m.s.) yourself (m.s.) lest you (m.s.) forget Yahweh who brought you (m.s.) out of the land of Egypt, from the house (s.) of bondage (pl.). 13Yahweh your (m.s.) God you (m.s.) are to fear and him you (m.s.) are to serve and in his name you (m.s.) are to swear (your oaths). 14You ( are not to go after other gods from the gods of the peoples who are all around you (, 15for a jealous God is Yahweh your (m.s.) God who is in your (m.s.) midst, lest the anger of Yahweh your (m.s.) God flare up against you (m.s.) and he destroy you (m.s.) from the face of the ground. 16You ( are not to tempt Yahweh your ( God as you ( tempted him as Massah. 17Be sure to keep ( the commands of Yahweh your ( God and his statutes and decrees he commanded you (m.s.).
Note carefully all the annotations. One cannot read Hebrew forms/idioms as if they were English. Clearly, throughout this typical piece of Hebrew text, ISRAEL, the people delivered out of Egypt and covenanted with at Sinai is the community addressed (collectively and distributively), the people who constitute a community generated from their patriarchal ancestors, not created (through economic and/or political action) by a group (large or small) of individuals. That is what translators have to honor. FOR THAT REASON, RENDERING THE SINGULAR PRONOUNS AND VERBS WITH PLURALS IN ENGLISH THROUGHOUT SUCH PASSAGES IS ACCURATE TRANSLATION.

Many other matters could be addressed: the Hebrew use of the conjunctive waw, the Hebrew use of nephesh (as well as our modern uses of "soul" as in "heart and soul" or "body and soul" or "heart, soul, mind and strength," etc.), but I do not have the strength for it now.


Mike said...

Was this Bruce Waltke...?

Wayne Leman said...

Mike, I have emailed for permission to include the responder's name. Until then I can't say.

Mike said...


Wayne Leman said...

I have received an answer from the CBT member. He is content with the post as it is but does not want to become further "entangled" with Internet matters, so has asked me not to post his name. I can say that he is one of the longtime members of the CBT and a fine scholar. He is also struggling with cancer treatments which some of you might have picked up with his reference to "chemo head."

I admire the CBT for their grace in responding to criticims of the TNIV.

anonymous said...

First, let me say that I am sorry the anonymous translator of this remark is ill, and I hope he recovers fully soon.

I cannot understand this argument. There are two points that the anonymous translator is making:

(1) That he believes the pronouns refer to Israel collectively

(2) That an examination of the tenses of the verses supports his contention

Regarding (1), it is true that some commandments in the Bible are addressed to Israel collectively (and indeed, this passage has one: to announce the Shema on city gates.) However, it takes some hubris to assert necessarily that remainder of the passage necessarily associates "you" with "Israel." In traditional Jewish recitations of the prayer, there is an interposition of another verse after Deut 6:4, so this is hardly the context in which it is currently used. Moreover, viewing this as a collective remark creates a difficulty -- it suggests that the monotheistic declaration was specific to a particular tribal configuration and not a universal and timeless truth (how else can we understand a singular "rise up" and "lie down" -- when it is manifestly clear that it is not the case today that we all have the same bedtime.) However, suppose I were to concede that point and agree with the anonymous translator's assertion. Then it would have been as clear in English to have translated the same idea using singulars -- as indeed, every other major translation as I have consulted has done.

Regarding (2), an examination of the translator's own breakdown of Deut 6:5-9 shows that the plurals are gates (of course a city can have multiple gates), philactories (which come in pairs and thus are always plural) and children (which also are often multiple). For the term "arm" and "houses", the translator needs to refer to Masoretic pointing. So for this passage, I would say the weight of evidence refers to a singular meaning.

The effect is lost in English, where we have lost the singular "you" except in archaic forms. But in Hebrew, it is powerful, immediate, and personal -- sending a personal feeling to the hearer.

However, suppose I were to grant all the author's arguments and agree that the plurals would the preferred form. Then wouldn't it be best to include a footnote?