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Does It Make Any Difference How New Testament Texts Are Translated into English? (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNew) April 26, 2015: No doubt progressives and liberals are aware of the Christian right, the loose coalition of American conservatives who stand opposed to legalized abortion in the first trimester and to same-sex marriage. Certain people in the Christian right also stand opposed to teaching evolutionary theory in public secondary education.

Of course all Christians, not just conservative Christians, place a certain value on Christian the scriptures known as the canonical New Testament.

In the English-speaking world, the most influential translation of the entire Christian Bible is the King James Version (KJV) of 1611 with its oratorical English. The KJV is also known as the Authorized Version (AV) because King James authorized a group of scholars to prepare it.

The oratorical English of the KJV resembled the oratorical English of Shakespeare's plays. Together, Shakespeare's oratorical English and the KJV's oratorical English exercised enormous influence over American culture.

No doubt their oratorical English resonated well against the oratorical Greek of the Homeric epics, the ILIAD and the ODYSSEY, feature speeches, just as Shakespeare's plays do.

Because Homeric Greek was the gold standard for Greek, anybody who studied Greek well enough to become fluent in speaking and writing it would have been familiar with Homeric Greek.

Almost all of the texts in the anthology of texts known as the New Testament have come down to us in Koine Greek. (Basically, Koine Greek is not as complex as the classical Greek of Plato's dialogues.)

In the book THE HOMERIC EPICS AND THE GOSPEL OF MARK (2000), Dennis R. MacDonald shows that even the anonymous (to us) author of the Gospel of Mark was familiar with certain aspects of Homeric expression -- which shows that the author had studied Greek. But the anonymous author of Mark was a Jew, just as the historical Yeshua was.

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But the historical Yeshua would have spoken Aramaic in his public ministry to rural Jews, even though the four canonical gospels in Koine Greek portray him as speaking Koine Greek to rural Jews.

To be sure, Koine Greek was emerging as another lingua franca during the rule of the Roman Empire in the Jewish homeland -- another lingua franca, that is, in addition to the established lingua franca known as Aramaic. The ancient Jewish scriptures were written in Hebrew, and educated Jews in the first century knew Hebrew. But the Jewish scriptures had been translated into Greek. The Greek version is known as the Septuagint.

Now, the historical Yeshua has been described as preaching and teaching in his public ministry. He reportedly used narrative proverbs known as parables. In terms of the content of his public oratory, he was engaging in what Aristotle describes as epideictic oratory -- oratory centered on values. (In addition, he was reportedly a faith healer.)

But just how oratorical did the historical Yeshua's oral preaching in Aramaic sound? Had he ever heard the oratorical speeches of the Homeric epics, as the anonymous author of the Gospel of Mark probably had?

Just how oratorical did John the Dipper's preaching in Aramaic sound?

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You see, public orators in the ancient world typically practiced accentuating rhythmic patterns and sound effects in their speech so that their sounded oratorical -- and memorable.

By contrast, President Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" does not sound oratorical, even though it is memorable.

In the book MR. LINCOLN'S T-MAILS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF HOW ABRAHAM LINCOLN USED THE TELEGRAPH TO WIN THE CIVIL WAR (2006), Tom Wheeler shows that Lincoln used the telegraph to send messages. No doubt this required Lincoln to learn how to express his thought succinctly, as he does in the "Gettysburg Address."

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www.d.umn.edu/~tfarrell
Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)
 

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