Errors in Translation: Background

A few months ago, we published an article and a sermon, concerning the subject of “How Atheists get Christmas wrong,” discussing, among other things, a translational error that appears in most English translations of the Bible. In discussing Luke 2, I have discovered a theme in a few answers given by atheists: the “You’re an evangelical, so you don’t know what you are talking about,” rebuttal. My first response was to inquire where they had studied Koine Greek grammar, or what source they were working from, but answering ad hominem arguments in kind, while entertaining, is pointless. It occurred to me, however, that most Christians (much less atheists), know very little about the advances that have been made in the study of New Testament Greek grammar. While it is not the intent of this site to discuss secondary issues, from time to time, translational considerations are a part of the way in which we answer questions about the faith, so I want to address the question of the reason that translations are corrected from time to time. Therefore, I am now presenting a few facts that will help you when a Christian apologist, or other Christian teacher, discusses a translational issue, to be followed by an article on its practical implications:
• Before the 1890’s, New Testament Greek grammar held many mysteries to most Greek students. The grammar (as well as the vocabulary) did not always behave as Attic Greek did (the prevailing dialect that was known in New Testament times). A few writers thought that the Greek of the New Testament was somehow an inspired form of Greek grammar. Others postulated that most of the variations were drawn from Semitic languages (though the New Testament and Koine Greek certainly do have some Semitic influences), since some of these tendencies were similar to those in the Septuagint (the Greek Translation of the Old Testament in common use during New Testament times).

• In the late 19th century, archeologists uncovered the “non-literary papyri”. The dates of these documents overlapped the New Testament, and were written with some of the same peculiarities. This type of Greek was dubbed “Koine Greek,” (“koine” means common) because it was the common Greek of the day, as opposed to Attic Greek, which was used for more literary productions. This produced considerable data for scholars dealing with Greek vocabulary and Greek grammar.

• More recently still, computers have enhanced the study of grammar and vocabulary, through that which was originally known as “Gramcord”, although a number of computer programs now offer this information. Previously, concordances (if complete) could be used to trace out vocabulary to determine and isolate meanings, but induction from grammatical constructions was more difficult. Gramcord allowed scholars to search for specific forms and combinations to use as a data source, completing in minutes and hours, those searches that might take weeks and months, in previous eras.
Next time I want to discuss some practical ramifications of this information, any thoughts so far?

2 thoughts on “Errors in Translation: Background

    • Well there was the NT and the LXX, but the nineteenth century was really when we had enough to understand the dialect as such. Also note that the nineteenth century was when archeology reallu began to develop as a discipline. We could read the NT before, but we missed a lot of the fine details.

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