Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Monday, March 17, 2008

Translation: both art and science

Good translation is not merely the ability to apply all the appropriate rules of grammar to a passage but the ability to go behind the words and learn from the context what the writer actually means by what he says. If the sign says, “Do not throw lighted objects from a moving vehicle” it simply will not do to stop the car and throw your cigarette out the window. Nor will it do to keep moving and drop it rather than throw it. We recognize this is normal situations but often forget it in Biblical passages. Perhaps Matthew 1:19 can serve as an example.

The Greek text transliterates literally as, “Jesus but the man of her, righteous being and not wishing her to disgrace wanted secretly to divorce her.” It is apparent that changes need to be made to turn this into a readable sentence in English.

Some changes are easy. The de (but) often carries little weight; it could be “and” or even dropped from the translation. Likewise, “the man of her” becomes “her man,” or in this situation, “her fiance.” But wait, where did “fiance” come from? The Greek aner (man) takes its meaning from the context — he was in fact her fiance. The legal engagement had taken place.

Other questions are a bit more difficult. What does it mean that Joseph was dikaios (righteous)? Probably that he was the sort of man who did the right thing in every situation. And what would the right thing be? Here is where the question branches out. One possibility is that being a good man, who always did what was right, is that he felt sorry for Mary in her embarrassing situation so he decided to take care of the problem in a way that would cause her the least humiliation. Righteous men (read just, good, kind) act in that way.

But there is another possibility. Being righteous or just in that first century situation would normally mean to be careful to always following the law. Deuteronomy 22:23-24 says that a betrothed virgin, should a man lie with her, is to be stoned to death. So the “right” thing (from a purely legal perspective) would be to have Mary stoned. However, Joseph did not want to humiliate her. That Mary’s condition was the result of the intervention of the Holy Spirit had not yet been to revealed to him (it came in a dream, cf. v. 20). So Joseph is faced with two possibilities, stoning of his wife so as to fulfill the law, or finding someway to annul the engagement privately. This understanding of the text would yield a translation such as, “And Joseph, her fiancee, although he was (taking on as a concessive participle) a man who was careful to carry out the law, nevertheless (kai taken as a contrastive conjunction) did not want to disgrace her so he laid plans to divorce her privately.

Although this choice is not as simple as whether or not to stop the car in order to get rid of a burning object, it does show that “meaning” is not always so apparent that you can arrive at it by merely parsing the words. Translation is an art that requires understanding.

— Bob Mounce