Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Holy: Understanding it Better Through Translation

I know you are visiting this blog to learn about the biblical meaning that is translated as "holy" (mainly) in English.  I am working openly (out in public view) on my project for my post-graduate degree through this blog for defining holy in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.  In this entry, I want to improve our understanding of holy through a better understanding of the principles of translation. 

Elsewhere ( in earlier blog entries) I have spoken about the need for greater clarity in translation.  For me, there are two principles for an excellent translation.  They are:

     1) clarity, and
     2) meaningfulness

Recently, a friend of mine on Facebook complained about the wording of a verse in the CEV (Contemporary English Version).  Knowing Greek as I do, I could not concur more.  The problem is that the translation was that it used a one-legged approach rather than a two-legged approach to translation.  It dealt with translation as though meaningfulness was the only leg or central principle of translation.  But rather than delve too deeply into either general principles of translation or into one entire Bible translation effort, let me narrow things down to a unit of Scripture that most Christians (and even non-Christians) will likely find familiar and that contains the word "holy".   

The place I want to suggest is that of the verses commonly referred to as the "Lord's Prayer" and usually recited according to the KJV and from my memory as (Matthew 6:9-15):

     Our Father, who art in heaven,
     Hallowed be thy name,
     Thy kingdom come,
     Thy will be done,
     On earth as it is in heaven,
     Give us this day our daily bread,
     And forgive us our trespasses,
     As we forgive those who trespass against us.
     And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
     For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever.

This passage is very familiar and yet that does not mean it is either clear or meaningful to us in the 21st century.  That is not a knock on the clarity or meaningfulness when the KJV was created, if it is not as clear and meaningful now as it was at that time.  So let me make this recited translation from the KJV (without consideration for textual criticism issues), in a more clear and in a more meaningful way.  I would in good 21st century translation into English, like it to say:

     Our Father, who is in heaven,
     Holy be your name,
     Your kingdom come,
     Your will be done,
     On earth as it is in heaven,
     Give us this day our daily bread,
     And forgive us our debts,
     As we forgive those who are our debtors.
     And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
     Because yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever.

On first glance, you will notice that most of the changes have to do with updating "thy" and "thine" to "your".  This I have done on the basis of the principle of meaningfulness.  A second change, I make for the sake of meaningfulness, is that of going from "for" to "because", because this is how we connect these two clauses today.  We just don't use "for" very much at all in this way.  Back now to the first change, when we say "thine", we pretty much have to translate (my age and younger at least) in our heads from that older English to a newer form of English.  Sometimes when the Lord's prayer is recited in church, I even do this quietly under the louder voices around me, so I can say the Lord's prayer in its full meaningfulness for myself!

On the next glance, you will also notice some changes in words chosen that is more than just updating English.  These changes have to do with clarity more than meaningfulness.  The first change is from "hallowed" to "holy".  The second change is from "trespasses" to "debts". 

It is true that "hallowed" is also sort of meaningless, because the only other related word we use now is "Halloween".   That, of course, is not much help!  It is more confusing than anything.  The reason I switched over to "holy" is because then it is clear that this statement is connected to the Old Testament statements that God's "name is holy".  With "hallowed", because it is another word rather than the same word, we don't usually make the connection.  The interesting thing is that internally in the Bible's own translation of its prior words, it only uses one Hebrew word (or root), one Aramaic word (or root) and one Greek word (or root).  So I am in favor, for the sake of clarity, of using one English word across the board for all three originals to bring greater clarity and unity of message as was intended within Scripture itself.  We can se aside all the sanctification and hallowed language and just preserve it in theology and in footnotes.  They are historically valuable, but not for the sake of clarity are they valuable in our time frame. 

On the question of debts and trespasses, it is unclear to me why the KJV people chose "trespasses" for a word in Greek that is not related to the other word they translate as "trespasses" in the same context discussing prayer.  I, for reasons of clarity, think a different word must be used and I will go with "debts", unless I find someday a better option.  For now that is the best suggestion that I have seen from translators.  Again, why confuse people with one word for two words in the original, when that is not necessary?  Seeking clarity is the right leg of translation.  It must step out in tune with the left leg of meaningfulness. 

The implications for my efforts to define holy is this.  Let's go with holy or with one of its possible meanings in the English language: 1) pure, 2) set apart, or 3) moral whole; but let's stick to one of them not many of them.  One is clear.  Many is unclear.  Try this test.  If we all say the same word at once (ex. "yes") the message is clear, but if we split into thirds and each say a different word in each third at the same time ("yes", "no", and "maybe"), then the message becomes unclear.  That is what "hallowed" and "trespasses" are doing in the Lord's Prayer.  They are making things unclear rather than clear. 

So let's stop limping along with only clarity or only meaningfulness.  Say the Lord's Prayer with all the gusto we can all together in English (for English speakers).  Say it with clarity and with meaningfulness.  Why are we still walking with only one leg?  Let's walk on the two translation legs that God gave us to walk with!  I hope this has enriched your holiness and your saying of the Lord's Prayer. 

In Christ,


Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Holy: Understanding it Better Through Biblical Words

We all need to understand the meaning of holy in the Bible.  But equally important is the words that are used for its definition.  Do we understand them?  Are they more basic, so that they add clarity and meaning rather than more confusion and meaninglessness?  There are 3 definitions in particular whose biblical understandings can be important.  They are: 1) "pure", 2) "set apart", and 3) "whole".  In this entry, I want to say something from a biblical perspective about the 3rd option listed: "whole".  The reason this is important is because it occurs in the context of holy quite frequently.  In fact, if you only read an English translation, "whole" occurs far more frequently than translators make you aware; because English (like the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible) speaks of the whole in a way that is different from that of Hebrew.  It does not translate kol as "whole" very frequently, but instead as "all".  Why is that? 

The English word "whole" has been getting a lot of attention lately.  I'm not too interested in those many debates.  They are far ranging and they are sometimes misleading.  What I want to do is exegetically and linguistically understand what "whole" means in a biblical text and how frequently this concept appears not in a translation, but in the original texts of Scripture. 

For me, a very basic definition of "whole" is something in which all the parts of the whole are present.  Stated in a negative way, none of the parts are missing.  That really does not face much debate.  This definition is fairly clear and meaningful.  For example, my bike in the garage is whole.  Since the season of Spring begins tomorrow, that is meaningful. 

What is more controversial is how frequently the concept of "whole" is introduced into Scripture and also how important it is.  The reason this is controversial is because of the issue of how to translate the Hebrew word kol into clear and meaningful English.  It properly means, according to Strong's dictionary in Strong's Concordance, "whole".   But kol's frequency in Hebrew is not matched by the frequency of"whole" in an English translation.  Instead, it is often translated as "all".  So why is that the case in translation and how can the average English reader of a translation know that kol's proper meaning of "whole" is behind the use of "all"? 

The first step to take in resolving this issue is to examine concordances for word frequency.  The easy way to examine this on-line for yourself is to look for Strong's # 3605 (kol) (there are other associated #s as well, but I am keeping things simpler for now).   The problem is that word frequency lists for kol or "whole" will not all be the same in all concordances.  The biggest problem for the KJV and for Strong's concordance will be that very frequently kol is translated as "all" and the word "all" only appears in the appendix, which does not list the Strong's # behind the translation of "all".  This does not mean both the translation and concordance are not valuable, but it does mean that sometimes they have limitations that must be overcome through another concordance or translation. 

In the case of kol, the solution came from looking in the NASB concordances on-line, where the frequency for kol [Strong's # H3606 (H stands for Hebrew) is ranked much higher.  In Concordances associated with the KJV the number is approximately 223 doing my own rough count with taking into consideration of Strong's # H3605.  With the use of the NASB concordance on-line, it rises to 5000 [This is an idealized # from memory - I will be putting a more accurate figure here, when I can confirm the # from a few sources.]  That is quite a difference in frequency!  But the bigger issue is also how many times kol appears in the context of qadosh (the Hebrew for holy), because the greatest promise for defining holy is finding a parallel word to holy in the biblical text.  The higher frequency may greatly change our awareness of "whole" being in the context of qadosh or hagios or holy".  I will say more on this later, but this is the implication from the frequency increasing for kol. 

The second implication from this higher frequency might also be that the bible has more to say about the current issues of our day regarding holism or being wholistic (holistic).  It may make us more equipped to handle these issues and their implications.  It may also cause us to shift our priorities, since frequency can sometimes say something about how important or significant an issue is.  Those issues I cannot work out in this entry without doing a disservice to the main objective which is pointing out the frequency of "whole" in the biblical text and in the context of holy.  So what happened that English translations and Greek translations (used in the 1st century) did not translate the Hebrew word kol as "whole"? 

How this happens and why this happens seems to be fairly straightforward.  Hebrews and Greeks don't speak the same way about wholeness.  The available literal equivalent in Greek (holos means "whole") does not fit with the natural way in Western languages the concept of the "whole" is expressed.  To put it another way, saying "of the whole of the people" seems rather awkward in both good Greek and in good English compared to "all  the people".   If nothing else the latter is more efficient (requiring fewer words) than the former and in the end it does say the same thing.  So that perhaps explains the answer to the question, "How?"; but what is the answer to "Why?"? 

The question of "Why?" might be explained by having different starting points, though both languages end up at the same ending point.  I studied philosophy just enough to have a suggestion here.  I think the Greeks appear to begin not from the whole, but from the parts and so they are focused on saying "all the parts" as an equivalent for "whole".  English, also being a Western language, seems to have the same starting point and ending point, so "all" can also be used to speak of the "whole".  This might be shifting though in our time with all the study of parts and wholes.  Hebrew, on the other hand, perhaps begins from the whole and works toward the parts.  You start from "the whole of the people" and then mention if any parts are missing as a concession.  I recall witnessing a number of examples like it in the biblical text where the whole of the people assemble and then the writer points out that a part of the whole of the people is not part of the whole as, for example, in the case of infants.   

The proof or support that I have for these differences between Hebrew ways of saying something and Greek ways of saying the equivalent began with Gesenius' Hebrew Lexicon in his entry for kol.  He says that by definition, it is properly "the whole, totality ... from the root kolal to complete".  Then he goes on the say that to this meaning in Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, Samaritan and Ethiopian, there is a number of words in Western languages.  He says it this way: "In Western languages it has to be rendered by adjectives."  Notice "it has to be rendered by", in other words, a change in how it is said from an Eastern or Middle Eastern language to a Western language.  He explains this still further, he (or perhaps the translator) says:"...[in English this has to be expressed either by whole preceded by the article, or by all without the article or else by the whole of]; ...."  This statement is followed by many examples like "the whole earth", "all the earth", the whole people, etc. 

For Gesenius, the first definition for kol as "whole" fits the context of "one continuous thing" and the second definition he gives is usually translated by "all" refers to a context of "many things, many individuals."  I use an interlinear with the Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek for my devotions and I have for some time on my own substituted "the whole of" for "all" in the translation and have found what Gesenius is saying very accurate.  The proper meaning of "whole" fits many contexts in which translators have preferred instead to use "all". 

For our 21st century, we need to realize that unlike the 1st century, where the Greek is only one language removed from the Hebrew and the Hebrew is read on the Sabbath likely in many synagogues even as it is today; with English we are a third (or even a fourth) language removed from the Hebrew; if you consider Greek, Latin, and English in that order for how we have decided to render "whole" from the Hebrew into English.  So perhaps using the language of "whole" in translation might make the original more accessible to us.  It is also true that "whole" or "wholeness" is a hot topic in our day and we might be better prepared as English speakers to handle a less efficient, yet more clear way of rendering kol as "whole" from the Hebrew. 

Also another issue is that I noticed recently in the case of Luke's Gospel and Acts, that he uses "all" in his Greek where many times "whole" would fit in a Hebrew context.  That is perhaps just fine.  But what is troubling is that when Luke uses holos, the Greek for "whole", the translators used "all" as though the original Greek used pas, the Greek for "all".  This issue of translation and where we should use continuity and change needs to be revisited.  I would be in favor of less change from the Hebrew into English and maybe even making the New Testament Greek to reflect a more Hebraic pattern where it makes sense in English.  We don't have to follow the translators of the Greek Septuagint to determine what is the meaning of kol in Hebrew.  We can reach back into the Hebrew attempt to be clear and meaningful and then try to make it clear and meaningful for today. 

One last point, before I conclude this entry.  The presence of kol near qadosh is significant and so we may need to make "whole" especially explicit in the case of contexts having to do with "holy".  I plan on doing that when I make my argument for holy's meaning from elements in its context.  This might be the only way that we can fairly evaluate in English whether holy means "pure", "set apart", or "whole".  It is by seeing holy in clear and meaningful translation and in a true and relevant context that then we can evaluate what meaning best fits holy.  I think understanding the Hebrew word kol, its frequency, and its context (in the proximity of holy) is the only way we can fairly evaluate all three plausible definitions for holy. 

Finally, our concern should be that the definition that is given is a biblical definition.  That is why I will not be just evaluating the biblical meaning of "whole", but I will also be evaluating the biblical meaning of "pure" and "set apart".  All of these are biblical concepts.  The only two questions are whether these concepts are also seen morally in the word "holy" and are we then giving them enough priority in how we view God and in how we live our lives.  Thank you for reading this post.  I hope and pray that it was beneficial for you.  Please feel to comment, if you desire. 

In Christ,