Monthly Archives: December 2009

Literal or Dynamic translations?

The nuances of translating is difficult. One cannot directly translate word for word from one language to another.

For example, Origen’s command of Greek presupposed one understands the neo-platonic background that he wrote from. If one produces the translation in a literal fashion, it leaves severe literary gaps that assumes the reader understands the antecedents and the presuppositions.

Many would argue that the readers who have interest in Origen do not have such a background, and the literal translation becomes incomprehensible. Perhaps many would conclude that he was a mystical writer because of the cognitive dissonance.

As I read the Talmud Babli Megillah and compare it to the English translation, this text is even more difficult to translate than Origen. It is written in a shorthand type method and assumes the reader understands the antecedents of every discussion. A literal translation would almost make this text incomprehensible.

A danger exists in going into dynamic translation mode where it becomes more of the translator’s opinion than actual integrity to the text. This has been a serious problem with English Patristic texts. For example the translation of Origen’s Against Celsus goes way beyond the Greek in the reference to tongues and convinces the reader of non-existent facts. Augustine is also a great example, where his works have been annotated and abridged so frequently, that it leads the English reader to think he had little to say about tongues. The reality is, snippets of it was simply cut-out in the editorial process. Not that it was a conspiracy against tongues, but it just simply didn’t have value at that time to be part of the publication.

I attended a seminar years ago where a Wycliffe Bible translator gave a lecture on the difficulty of transferring Biblical texts to a certain Inuit group. He used the example “The Lord is my Shepherd”. The Inuit group have no concept of shepherding, so the translator changed it altogether to something about hunting and fishing. The literal commitment to the text was lost.

Over time, I think such loose translations become a problem as the readers become more literate on the subject matter. It can even invite skepticism and erode trust on the whole translation.

The challenge I am facing here with the tongues project is how far do I go with the translations? There have been too many dynamic translations that are misleading and are simply the translators opinion. Yet, if the text isn’t put into a dynamic form many readers will be lost.

I would like to take my Origen translations and move them to the next step of making them more dynamic. Instead of being committed to the literal text, I would take the thought behind his writing and put that into English.

Yet, I don’t feel this is right. I think the readers of my works are intelligent enough to pick these things up.

What have other translators done to be committed to the text, but yet make it fluid enough for the average reader to understand?

I tend to like the English translation done on the Talmud Bavli Megillah. It does make every attempt to make it more readable, and has conventions that alert the reader to the fact that a portion or piece of translation is indeed an English interpolation.

The Patristic translations are not so consistent or as good an example. The translator(s) do not alert the reader to when the transition from literal to dynamic has occurred.

For now, the methodology espoused by the Talmudic translators is the direction I am going to head in when translating the Patristic writers.

Jacob the min

While reading and researching the Talmud Babli Megillah on the role of the reader in ancient Jewish worship, an unexpected name came up – Jacob the min, or in Hebrew, יעקב מינא (Talmud Mas. Megillah 23b)

Min or minim is a controversial word coined by leaders in the Jewish community about groups or persons that strained or threatened normative Jewish customs. Another word for minim in English may be heretics, but this may be too restrictive. The early Jewish Christians were the predominant target with this term.

He has been mentioned before in the Tosefta Chullin 2g, and a number of other Jewish writings where he is identified as being a faith-healer.

Tosefta Chullin 2g has been translated by Travis Hereford in his book, “Christianity in Talmud and Midrash” :

“The case of R. Eleazar ben Damah, whom a serpent bit. There came in Jacob, a man of Chephar Sama, to cure him in the name of Jeshua ben Pandira, but R. Ishmael did not allow it. He said, Thou art not permitted, Ben Damah. He said, I will bring thee a proof that he may heal me. But he had not finished bringing a proof when he died. R. Ishmael said, Happy art thou, Ben Damah, for thou hast departed in peace, and hast not broken through the ordinances of the wise ; for upon every one who breaks through the fence of the wise, punishment comes at last, as it is written [Eccl. x. 8]: Whoso breaketh a fence a serpent shall bite him.”

When I look at this quote more closely, the translation “in the name of Jeshua ben Pandira”, causes some difficulty. Pandira is a variation of the Latin last name given to Joseph’s father. This copy does not exist in the original Talmudic text supplied by the Judaic Classics Library (published by Davka). There must be a reason for this but it is not presently known. If one holds together other references of Jacob the min, and supposes that the problem text of Pandira is true, Jacob was a follower of Christ.

Also there is no Tos. Hullin 2:22-23 as Hereford identified. He must have been using another reference system, as it is Tosefta Chullin 2g or as some may call it 2.6 (Some write Chullin as Hullin).

Jacob lived, according to Travis Hereford around 130 AD (Page. 103), but Talmud Megillah 23b recorded him having a discussion with Rabbi Judah haNasi, who flourished around the early part of the 2nd century. So it is hard to peg Jacob the min’s actual date.

One can’t assume that this is the same person either, but the evidence tends to lean towards the same individual.

Jacob the min must have been an important contributor to Judaism during this time period.

It makes one wonder, if Jacob the min appears here, how many more undocumented places does he appear?

About the reading of the Law, the Rabbi’s included Jacob the min’s question.

“Jacob the Min asked R. Judah: What do the six of the Day of Atonement represent? — He replied: The six who stood at the right of Ezra and the six who stood at his left, as it says, And Ezra the scribe stood upon a pulpit of wood which they had made for the purpose…” (Megillah 23a Soncino Talmud)

This text does not directly comment on the public reading of the Law, but is part of a much larger discussion on it. It is amazing that Jacob the min, a Jewish believer, was allowed to be part of the discussion. It must have been a rite important to the Jewish Messianic community too.

A controversial 5th or so century manuscript with portions that may be dated earlier, The Apostolic Constitutions, reinforced the fact that the Church had continued the rite established by Ezra on the reading of Scripture:

“I Matthew, also known as Levi, at one time a tax collector, make a process to select a reader by laying hands upon him, praying to God, let him say, “O God, the everlasting, great in mercy and in compassion the one who hast made manifest the constitution of the world by Thy operations therein, and the number of elect you preserve, to him also now upon your servant being entrusted to read out your holy Scriptures to your people, and give to him your Holy Spirit, the prophetic Spirit. The One instructed Ezra your servant for the purpose to read aloud Your Laws to Your people…”

This is important to know as I get further into the role of the public reader and interpreter in the Church at Corinth.

Notes for Learning Ancient Hebrew

Classical Hebrew, the text for the majority of the Old Testament, is only a small part of the available Hebrew writings available today.

It doesn’t take much more effort to learn modern Hebrew over learning to read classical Hebrew texts. Utilizing the same amount of time learning modern Hebrew gives one a much more comprehensive toolkit.

Why one may ask?

Modern Hebrew gives one the ability to straddle among many eras of Hebrew literature. Not only that, it gives one the quickness, speed and the necessary knowledge to do it.

Those who learn solely classical Hebrew are stuck to a ninth-century or so text that is interpolated with Greek Septuagint and Latin chapter divisions. Not only this, but the vowel system, known as niqqud (sometimes spelled as nikkud), is not dominant in most Hebrew writings. It is considered at least from a modern Hebrew perspective, as a child’s aide.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, the Talmud and many other Hebrew writings do not have niqqud.

As one delves further into the Hebrew writing system, it is a crossover between a written and oral system. It has to be read and understood from this perspective. For example, the Talmud is written is such a way to make memorization easy. It is designed for the fact that that there was a limited supply of printed material (since everything at the time had to be laboriously copied out by hand). The importance of persons and communities memorizing the source material was paramount for the perpetuation.

Modern Hebrew helps with understanding this important concept.

Classical Hebrew has its own nuances, especially the vav conversive and its uses of the verb tenses, but it is not hard to learn by those who know modern Hebrew.

It also opens the world to later Hebrew documents such as the book of Daniel, which has Aramaic in it.

It also allows one cross into Talmudic texts. There is a caveat here though, the Talmud seems to have its own proprietary words and phrases. It is a writing unto itself. Modern Hebrew doesn’t align completely with the language of the Talmud, but it still is far better to have modern Hebrew than classical when approaching this unique text.

Modern Hebrew also opens the gateway to other authors such as Rashi, whose writings are powerful but little known in the Western world.

It also exposes one to many different font types from classical to modern handwriting. It gives one the ability to adapt to almost any Hebrew text of interest.

Because there is no niqqud available in most Hebrew texts, one has to learn how to read by context. A word with no vowels can mean or sound differently according to what precedes and goes after it. Learning modern Hebrew allows one to quickly identify the context and what the word sounds like and ought to be translated. It becomes second nature.

Those with a modern Hebrew ability also can become involved in contemporary writings such as reading ha’artetz, one of the leading Israeli newspapers. Unlike western newspapers, Israeli life and their journalists always cross-over into the religious realm. There really is no concrete distinction between religion and society in Israel. It makes for some really good contemporary religious dialogues.

Where would one start to learn modern Hebrew? Many local universities have courses in modern Hebrew. Or, if one is really adventurous, there are full-fledged immersion courses offered by universities in Israel, such as the Hebrew University, etc., but these can be expensive.

If one wishes to do self-study, this can be done too. has many resources to draw from.