Podcast: Translating Genesis 1-11, with Samuel Bray and John Hobbins

Mere FidelityOn this week’s episode of Mere Fidelity, Derek and I were joined by John Hobbins and Samuel Bray, who have just produced a ‘new old translation’ of Genesis 1-11. The translation itself is great, but the notes and commentary upon it provide a wonderful window into a world of which most Christians are only dimly aware. I highly recommend this book to anyone who would like to discover more about the process of translating Scripture and the sort of judgments that need to be made by the scholars engaged in such a task.

Bray and Hobbins’ translation has received praise from a number of scholars:

“Bray and Hobbins have themselves given us the best possible description of their Genesis 1-11 book. It is ‘a new old translation’ for everyone. They resist the temptation to innovate for innovation’s sake. They do not fix what’s not broken. And their lively writing mines the best of the ancient and the new to give us a dragon’s hoard of learned enjoyment. The translation itself gives these famed biblical chapters a more lucid splendor. But more than that, their engaging notes and essay ‘To the Persistent Reader’ are a journey into the translator’s world that will enrich lay-folk and scholar alike.”—Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies, Eastern University, author of “The Book of Proverbs” in The New Interpreter’s Bible

“This is a wonderfully provocative exercise in translation, commentary, and book-making–certain to bring instruction and delight to any Persistent Reader, and to make this vital portion of the biblical text stand forth in a new light.”—Alan Jacobs, Distinguished Professor of Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University, author of “The Book of Common Prayer”: A Biography and a critical edition of W.H. Auden’s The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue

The translation has been reviewed here. Bray has also written a wonderful series of articles on the process of translation that will give you a taste of the book. I highly them to you:

  1. Translating Genesis
  2. Translating Genesis: Double Translation
  3. Translating Genesis: Physicality
  4. Translating Genesis: Physicality Continued
  5. Translating Genesis: Repetition
  6. Translating Genesis: Figures of Speech
  7. Translating Genesis: Concluding Thought on Legal Interpretation and Biblical Translation

Buy a copy of their book for yourself here.

You can also follow the podcast on iTunes, or using this RSS feed. Listen to past episodes on Soundcloud and on this page on my blog.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Bible, Genesis, OT, Podcasts, Scripture, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Podcast: Translating Genesis 1-11, with Samuel Bray and John Hobbins

  1. Geoff says:

    Fascinating. Cleary, what the text says is of foundational importance in determining what it means. But, as with Robert Alter, it can be coloured by existing belief systems. Literal translations have been much maligned, often described as wooden. The King James translation seems to come out quite well, as may, I suppose, the NASV.
    Dynamic equivalence may, at times, stray over into moving directly to meaning rather than pass through the translation phase, perhaps a little like a copied JPEG photo compared to a RAW or lossless TIFF (a file which can then be interpreted, with changes to contrast, colour and tone and fuzziness/sharpness.) A JPEG, however, becomes permanently altered with no ability to revert to the original image.
    Having said that, the modern ear is not attuned to the language cadences of ancient languages, let alone Chaucer or King James.
    The Genesis 3 reading was interesting, but I do think the gist of NLT and ESV, even in the new/old translation in the context of the text read and the follow-up compare/contrast scripture relating to Cain and sin at his door: it seems to amount to the same meaning. But I may have missed something on first blush. Is not the “desire” the same in both instances, the desire to have… control over? The Complete Jewish Bible (CJB) (David A Stern, translator) has this Genesis 4:7 “….sin is crouching at the door – it wants you, but you can rule over it.” The CJB is described by Stern as “something between a translation and paraphrase” with the Jewish Publication Society of the Tanakh,1917, as its base.
    The repetitions brought out in the new/old translation would appear to be important in any exegesis, to bring out patterns and emphasis and weight. Amen and amen, truly, truly. The modern mind gets quickly bored and impatient with repetition and what is seen to be prosaic and perhaps uneducated, in the use of words that would not gain a GCSE pass in English language or literature. Vocabulary would be far to limited. Yes, yes, I’ve got it. Now let us move on.
    Without a great deal of help, I certainly would not be able to identify patterns and repetitions even from English translations.

    • The Genesis 3 translation does make a difference. The desire for, for instance, could be a sexual desire for the husband, or a desire for the husband’s heart, or a preoccupation with the husband, etc. The notion that it is a desire to control the husband is highly contestable and heavily interprets the text.

      • Geoff says:

        Did I misunderstand that the same wording in Gen 3 is repeated in Gen 4v7 with a conclusion that it is to be resisted (as in Gen 4 v 7)
        Or have I got that wrong?

      • We would be missing something important if we didn’t hear an interplay. However, this interplay needn’t mean that the use in Genesis 3 refers to something to be resisted. Rather, the textual parallel might be for the purposes of contrastive juxtaposition. Like Lady Wisdom is contrasted with the woman Folly in Proverbs, where much the same words are spoken by both figures, so sin and Eve may be held together here in order that their particular distinct characters may be made clearer from the association.

  2. Geoff says:

    Is this not similar to the ejusdem generis method of construction, “words of a feather flock together?”

  3. Geoff says:

    After glancing at article 7, from a former vested interest in law I’d be interested in making some comment in the canons of construction in judicial interpretation of parliamentary Statutes. and delegated legislation but my knowledge is sketchy now, out of date, even though the principles set out in case law precedents may be largely unaffected, notwithstanding perhaps being superseded by EU law and their Court of Justice. That came into effect after my time.
    Similarly, there were numerous Court precedents in the interpretation of Wills and Testamentary Dispositions. Need to find out the “intentions of the testator”.
    Many of those rules would seem to be greatly applicable to the interpretation of scripture.
    To my recollection, the only place I’ve seen reference to “legal” rules of construction, is in one of the first books I read after conversion: Basic Christianity by John Stott. It resonated straight away.
    Having said all that, I’m not sure what would be gained nor who would be interested, particularly for the effort involved.
    And there is a difference between the legal systems and Constitutions of the USA and England and Wales (Scots law differs) the main one is that the UK does not have a written Constitution and does need to refer back to Centuries old legislation to interpret today.
    I also have quite a bit of unformed thought on Genesis 3 and Genesis 4 mentioned in comments above but again I’m not sure how far to press it, as I think Alastair has pre-formed views probably developed in his many writings on male, female and relationships and Biblical Manhood….etc

    It would be interesting to know your views, particularly how you would preach Gen 3, Alastair.
    Has reading this new book changed your interpretation?

    After all your theological/biblical expertise I pose the following QUESTIONS with some trepidation together with some comment.

    QUESTION: Where is the contrastive juxtaposition, you suggest might exist?
    Is Genesis 3 and 4 Wisdom literature?

    You seem you seek to apply Hebrew antithetical parallelism which is prominent the book of Proverbs. I’d contend it is not appropriate in Gen 3 and 4. If it is akin to parallelism, I’d contend it would be synonymous parallelism. If there is a contrast it is between Cain, who didn’t do what was right,(not doing right is to be resisted) and Able who did and was murdered as a consequence.
    Where were Cain’s desires fixed and where were Able’s in their sacrifice?
    You will be well aware of this:
    Since the examples in the first section of this paper were primarily from the Psalms, there is no need to find more examples of these forms of parallelism from this book. Turning to the book of Proverbs reveals multiple examples of Lowth’s three types of parallelisms.

    Synonymous parallelism is found numerous times throughout the book, and several times in the first chapter alone.

    We shall find all kinds of precious possessions,
    We shall fill our houses with spoil;
    Cast in your lot among us,
    Let us all have one purse
    My son, do not walk in the way with them,
    Keep your foot from their path;
    For their feet run to evil,
    And they make haste to shed blood (Proverbs 1:13–16).
    Each distich in this section contains an example of synonymous parallelism. The context of the passage may explain why this was chosen. The writer instructed his son to stay away from people who would entice him to make evil decisions. As such, the information bears repeating and synonymous parallelism works perfectly in this setting.

    PROVERBS contains the highest percentage of antithetical parallelism in the poetic books. One of the most popular verses in the book is a great example of this form.

    The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
    But fools despise wisdom and instruction (Proverbs 1:7).
    The mention of fools despising instruction reiterates the importance of seeking wisdom and instruction, but this can only truly begin when one fears the Lord.

    Just as it does with synonymous parallelism, Proverbs also strings together multiple antithetical distiches.

    In the multitude of words sin is not lacking,
    But he who restrains his lips is wise.
    The tongue of the righteous is choice silver;
    The heart of the wicked is worth little.
    The lips of the righteous feed many,
    But fools die for lack of wisdom (Proverbs 10:19–21).
    The contrast between the righteous man and the foolish or wicked man is drawn into clear focus by the use of antithetical parallelism. The first stitch tells the reader to either strive for something positive or to avoid something negative. The very next line shows what happens when that advice is ignored. This is a powerful way to communicate one’s point.

    Proverbs does not utilize synthetic parallelism as frequently as the other two forms. This is likely due to the fact that in most places, the book is not advancing a narrative at all, but simply providing short pieces of wise advice. One place where a sort of pseudo-narrative is told is found in the passage about a virtuous wife in Proverbs 31. As expected, this is also the passage that contains a high percentage of synthetic parallelism.

    Who can find a virtuous wife?
    For her worth is far above rubies.
    The heart of her husband safely trusts her;
    So he will have no lack of gain.
    She does him good and not evil
    All the days of her life.
    She seeks wool and flax,
    And willingly works with her hands.
    She is like the merchant ships,
    She brings her food from afar (Proverbs 31:10–14).
    In fact, every verse in the account of the virtuous wife is made up of synthetic parallelism. There are also several examples of this form in the warning about the harlot in Proverbs 7.

    Proverbs masterfully utilizes each of the forms of parallelism. To stress a point that is being made, the writer used synonymous parallelism. To offer both an exhortation and a warning of failing to achieve a goal, the author used antithetic parallelism. Finally, when the writer wanted to expound on particular subject, he utilized a high percentage of synthetic parallelism.”

    In Gen 3 we see what the womans desired before eating the fruit, which Adam did not resist . Afterwards God said the woman’s desire would be changed. It would be a fallen desire, disorded, perhaps an over-desire, with all that involves, a sinful desire, which Adam has to resist (which he didn’t at first.) He didn’t do what was right, and just as Cain didn’t do what was right, so “sin was crouching at his door” sin could be said to be crouching at Adam’s door, resulting in sure death.

    But there is another aspect, another line, which divides into two two lines that . Bound up in the curse is the promise of the seed. Here we have the woman now as Eve, Life, from whom all living (as opposed to death) – the Eternal life would come. In effect, Eve was the first Mary and Jesus was the Last Adam. Whereas from Eve came two lines of humanity, from Mary came one line, a new humanity, and in Christ Jesus. God coming to recreate, and rescue.

    • I’ve written a more detailed discussion on Genesis 3 and 4 in my forthcoming book. I independently arrived at a position similar to Hobbins and Bray’s. For the relationship between Genesis 2-3 and wisdom literature, see Walter Moberly’s work on the subject. Some thoughts here as well.

  4. Geoff says:

    Thank you for the response. I was not aware of Moberly. The link to your post is helpful, but I don’t think answers the points I’ve made in relation to Genesis 3-4 and the interrelationship of those chapters, particularly with regard to Adam and Cain. I was aware of your approach to forming and filling.
    I am aware of Form Criticism (FC) and Documentary Hypothesis (DH), however, and it seems to me that what is being suggested – a distinction between narrative and wisdom literature, which, with what you proposed, seems to change abruptly from Wisdom literature ending with chapter 3 and narrative literature starting in Chapter 4 risks falling within the penumbra of both FC and DH and, additionally, redactor, JDPE theory. That is, if you see it as a risk?

  5. Geoff says:

    Here is a timely contribution from John Piper and the “golden rule” for bible interpretation, it is as is the “golden rule” for interpretation of Statute to discern the intention of the author, or the “Testator.”
    Is he reading your blog?
    The video is worth a few minutes of time to watch.

  6. quinnjones2 says:

    I enjoyed listening to this – it’s encouraging that Bray and Hobbins have dedicated themselves to this work.
    I would like to think that everything in the Bible must be true simply because it is in the Bible, and that any apparent ambiguities arise because of problems with translations, so we just need to decide which are the best translations. But how can we do that when most of us are not experts in Ancient Hebrew or Greek?
    In addition to this I have other awkward questions. For instance, I wonder how Adam and Eve learned the language they spoke. They were created as fully grown adults and therefore had no childhood and learnt no communal language. Presumably the first words they heard were the words spoken to them by God in Genesis 28-30? Presumably God spoke to them in Hebrew?
    And yet…many years ago when I was at Uni we were taught that the oldest language was Sanskrit, so did God speak to them in Sanskrit? At our NT Greek class yesterday I asked about this and one person thought Sanskrit was the older than Hebrew. Another said that, in trying to decide which language was older, we are dependent on written records, and that this cannot prove which was the oldest *spoken* language.
    Where this gets me is that I have yet more unanswered (and maybe unanswerable?) questions, to file away in the ‘Unknown’ section in my mind! It also, somehow, seems to increase my faith in our omniscient, omnipotent Creator God.

  7. Geoff says:

    I love this last sentence of yours.
    “It also, somehow, seems to increase my faith in our omniscient, omnipotent Creator God.”
    I don’t think there is anything in scripture to say how or in which language God spoke in Genesis 1.
    But I stand to be corrected. You can ask God when you meet.
    But it is known that there was oral tradition and transmission, for donkeys years before there was writing.
    Abram wasn’t Hebrew, but from Ur of the Chaldees.
    The bottom line is how can any of this be known? Only through revelation from God about Himself and us. My default is this: can an infallible God communicate infallibly to and through, thoroughly fallible humans? The Triune God surely has said, Yes, We/I have.
    As for method of communication, Grudem in his “Systematic Theology” has posited that God communicated Spirit to spirit. But I think that argumentation was in relation to prophesy.
    I am sure Alastair would have much to say in this whole area.
    You’ll be aware that there has been much ink used and time spent by theologians, scholars, over who wrote “Moses” – the first five books. Could Moses have written it or is it a construct of various writers, editors and is it important?
    From a layman’s position I found “The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict” -books 1 &2 combined by Josh McDowell really helpful in getting a handle on this when studying on a Methodist local preacher course, as we were being fed liberal stuff and after radical “charismatic” conversion on an Alpha Course in a CoE church what was being taught went against the grain, was from an unbelief in a Supernatural God. The book is wide ranging in its defence of Christian faith, including attacks on scripture and provided rejoinders to what was being taught on the course.

    Here is a Amazon review from a purchaser:
    “The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict Fully Updated to Answer the Questions Challenging Christians Today” is an excellent reference book for conservative Christians everywhere. Josh McDowell deals with Christianity based upon historical facts. The citations used cannot be refuted as they are written by secular schollars, all of whom have been reknowned and accepted throughout these past centries. “New Evidence…,” also deals with liberal Christian theological issues. He presents the Liberal position with their evidence; then looks at each piece of their evidence with the same positions from a logical, evidentual perspective.
    Josh McDowell is a college profesor who started his original work “Evidence That Demands a Verdict” with the purpose of exposing Christianity as a “fraud”. However, when he finished his work he found that Christianity was not fraudulant but was a factually based faith. Those facts, and much more, were included in “The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict Fully Updated to Answer The Questions Challenging Christians Today.” This is a book that needs to be in the Conservative Christian’s library.”
    The book will be elementary to Alastair.
    Also of great help was McDowell & Wilson’s”He Walked among us Evidence for the historical .
    Jesus”, particularly with oral tradition and transmission.
    I have a friend , a retired dentist, who, when a young man at university, was greatly influence by Albert Schwietzer, who wasbelieved that the Jesus of history is not the Jesus of faith.
    That view reverberates throughout the liberal church today.
    This is a recent tweet from Peter Hitchens, an author, a jounalist, whose politics will not be embraced by everyone who embraces the tweet:
    “Category error, Religion, whether it be Atheism, Christianity or Islam, is about beliefs, not facts”.

    In other words, according to him, the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ did not take place in space, time, in history.
    I didn’t believe that the Bilble, was inerrant, was inspired, God breathed, until after conversion.
    Alastair seems to have bowed out from his blog for the time being, though he remains a curious cat.
    The discussion on next book in “Confessions” is/was due.

    • quinnjones2 says:

      Thank you Geoff – I will check out the books you recommended when I get a chance.
      Whilst I think that a new translation of the Bible can be helpful and interesting, I also think that, given that we none of us have evidence of the original spoken words of God and Jesus, and given the challenges of any translation work, it can be difficult to assess whether or not one translation is better than another. Different churches seem to favour different translations, so in some ways, when we talk about the Word of God, we may not always be singing from the same hymn-sheet, so to speak. Some of the differences in the translations may not matter too much, but other differences seem to matter a great deal to some people. For instance, some JWs who came to my house were none too pleased when I pointed out that in a German Bible I have (Gute Nachricht Bibel), in Luke 18:24.25 (verses one of the JWs had just quoted to me) , ‘the Kingdom of God’ is translated as ‘die neue Welt Gottes’ (the new world of God). ‘Kingdom’ is an important word for JWs, as no doubt you know! I don’t know how ‘the Kingdom of God’ is translated in other German translations of the Bible, such as Luther’s.
      Personally, I think that new 21st century translations in current standard English can be good when they keep as closely as possible to the original text, but, whereas I find a ‘sense-for-sense- translation such as ‘The Message’ lively and thought-provoking, I also think that Peterson treated himself to quite a large helping of ‘poetic licence’ when he translated that! If I remember correctly, the Bray and Hobbes translation included the word ‘bring’ spelt ‘brynge’, and I am still struggling to think of anything good to say about that 🙂

  8. quinnjones2 says:

    I just found the verses I quoted above in the Luther Bibel (1545). Luther translated ‘the Kingdom of God’ as ‘das Reich Gottes’. Maybe the word ‘Reich’ (realm, kingdom, empire) was left out of the translation in the ‘Gute Nachricht Bibel’ (published 1997) because of its associations with Nazi Germany. Just a thought.

  9. Geoff says:

    Hello Christine,
    I’m doing this on phone so It may not come out well.
    Me too with “brynge”.
    At some meetings I’ve been to one man prayed in King James English, as if God couldn’t understand today’s English.
    I’m wary about paraphrases Like Peterson’s, much preferring a range of translations as I don’t have understanding of original languages.
    I have a friend who came out of years in JW’s. His wife continues to be active, whereas he is now a member of a Reformed Church.
    The New World Translation, is a different kettle of fish
    Not to put too fine a point on it – it is a corrupted text. Eg John 1, reads and the “Word was a god.”
    “a” has been inserted. The more determined JW’s will however argue for Christian bibles. They are trained to answer questions on the Trinity. The Holy Spirit is not God, is not a Person but power, energy, like electricity. Their view of Jesus is not God the Son.
    Alistair would have much to say on Bible translations.
    After preaching in one Methodist Church, an aged member, in their 90’s said he wouldn’t listen to anything other than from King James, nor sing anything not in Methodists, Hymns and Psalms
    As you will know, there are Churches that will only sing Psalms unaccompanied

    • quinnjones2 says:

      Hi Geoff, your comment did come out well!
      What you said about JWs tallies with what they have said to me. I’ve had several visits from them, possibly because there is a big JW community in this town. They certainly don’t like any mention of the Trinity, and on one occasion I think they got fed up with me referring so often to the Holy Spirit – they were the ones who ended the conversation! The translation ‘The Word was a god’ certainly strays from the original Greek – I still have big L-plates on with NT Greek studies, but I know that much.
      I actually like the KJV very much, but I appreciate that it can be difficult for younger people to follow it, because standard English has changed so much since it was written. One of the changes that saddens me is the loss of the ‘familiar’ form of ‘you’ – the fact that Jesus addressed God in the familiar form in the Lord’s Prayer is not apparent in modern translations. I think the 90+ person you mentioned probably has the benefit of understanding both the KJV and more modern translations, so in that respect he has an advantage over some younger people!

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