Precious Death

This post originally appeared here on August 17, 2008. But I’m reflecting on it again in light of Good Friday. I have proposed below that the death of God’s servant is precious to him (Psalm 116:15) perhaps because it is a rare and costly thing. It is costly because it means that faithful servant is no longer serving the Lord’s purposes on this earth. How does that apply to the death of Jesus? Jesus’ public ministry on earth ended with his death, so we can again say that the death is costly. And it cost Jesus so much more, too. Insults, beatings, the agony of a slow murder. Despised by men, forsaken by the Father, he who knew no sin becoming sin for us. And yet the death of Jesus is also precious because it accomplishes so much! Victory over sin, death and the devil! Jesus died so that I don’t have to die. Yet through his death, I too can die to self, sin, my sundry precious idols, and yes, I too can die to death in the death of Christ.

Okay, the post from August 17, 2008, entitled “Psalm 116:15 – My ‘Precioussss’…

We learn a good lesson from Tolkien’s Gollum and the ring he calls “My Precioussss.” Indeed it is the things we consider most precious that have a way of sucking us into their power to control us and blind us to their dangers and to the value of other things.

Even our approach to the word of God can become that to us if we lose sight of the living God who speaks that word (see NT Wright’s recent lecture to a group of Anglican bishops concerning the theme of his book Scripture and the Authority of God ). We students and scholars of the Bible also come to the word of God with our interpretive “Preciouseses,” and we allow these perspectives–as well-intentioned as they may be–to control our reading and application of the text.

In light of these dangers, I appreciate the fellowship of community–including this biblioblogging community–and how we seek to fulfill what Edgar Krentz (The Historical-Critical Method, 53-54) has described as the virtue of the biblical historian:

The critical biblical scholar will not only question the texts, but himself–his methods, his conclusions, and his presuppositions–and the others who share in the same task. For he knows how often men are captive to their own prejudices and limitations…. On the one hand the historian remains critical of his own critical abilities…. But in a more profound sense he recognizes that in judging a text he also places himself under judgment of the text. And where the text deals with the profundities of man, that calls for a submission to the autonomy of the text that calls the historian forth for judgment and knowledge of himself. Then history performs its humane or (in the case of biblical texts) its theological function.

And thus, the recent interaction with Dr. Claude Mariottini between his blog here and mine here and here about the meaning of the word יקר (yāqār) ‘precious’ in Psalm 116:15 prompts me to re-examine my own approach to the text and translation. The discussion has centered around the legitimacy of some translations to interpret the word יקר (yāqār) in this context to mean ‘too precious’. And so instead of a more literal translation stating that the death of the faithful is precious to the LORD, they either say that the death of the faithful is somehow grievous to the LORD (NAB, Tanakh, TEV, CEV), or the verse focuses completely on the value of the life of his faithful followers (NET).

What is my translation philosophy for passages like this where the meaning is either ambiguous or perhaps evenly debated? (This questioning of allegiance to my own translation philosophy is how the discussion of the word יקר (yāqār) ‘precious’ in Psalm 116:15 relates to the image of Gollum and his ‘Precioussss’ and the lesson of being self-critical.)

Even though I have argued that the death of the faithful in Psalm 116:15 may be precious to the LORD precisely because he finds great value in their continued faithfulness in life, I feel quite uncomfortable losing the reference to the preciousness of death in a translation. Although I appreciate the NET Bible for getting at the potential underlying significance of the verse–the LORD values the lives of his faithful followers–it unfortunately removes any reference to death at all, and so the translation fails to show what this significance is in application to. In other words, the original expression of this verse is not a statement about life, but of death.

The value that God places on faithfulness in life may help us to understand why he considers the death of one of his children such a precious thing, but the statement about the preciousness of death should not be lost too easily. Something is precious when it is rare or when its value is high. We are willing to spend a large fortune on something that is most dear to us. And the great cost to the LORD of seeing the death of one of his faithful servants is that the person is no longer serving the LORD in the world. That is one way in which the death of the faithful may be understood to be a precious thing to the LORD. But to merely say that the LORD values the lives of his faithful followers says nothing of those lives coming to an end in death nor of the LORD’s view of such a death. Furthermore, such a translation precludes any other possible explanation for the LORD’s perspective on the preciousness of death among his faithful.

When a passage is debated like this, or when its meaning is truly ambiguous, it is a worthy goal of the translation team to express the meaning with an equivalent dose of ambiguity. However, inasmuch as the process of translation is an arduous and complicated process, the attempt at translating a double meaning or an ambiguous meaning is exponentially more difficult. It may be easiest to do if a highly literal translation reflects the same indeterminacy or multiplicity of senses as found in the original language text. But that is often unlikely.

I know it’s impossible to avoid interpretation in translation, and many times it’s necessary and important to choose the best understanding of a text to be reflected clearly in a translation. But we certainly don’t want our translations to over-interpret the text. When a translation comes down heavily on one side of an ambiguous, unclear, or debated text, that may be over-interpretation. If that interpretation is something that we hold dear–perhaps a “My Precioussss”–it’s more difficult to let it go. But even as we apply the tools of exegesis and communication to the processes of interpretation and translation, we must allow the Voice of the text to do his theological work in us.

Why can’t Catholics say Y@#W&H!?

I was wondering if anything strange or wonderful was going to happen on 8/8/08. Well, it seems that something strange AND wonderful did happen, and it touches directly on Bible translation.

A letter dated 8 August 2008 was sent from Bishop Serratelli (Chairman of the U.S. Bishop’s Committee on Divine Worship) to U.S. Catholic bishops introducing directives from the Vatican in a statement from Cardinal Arinze on the pronunciation and translation of the divine name.

The divine name was revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14 and written as יהוה (YHWH — ‘Yahweh’), also known as the tetragrammaton (“4 letters”). The divine name appears 6877 times in the Hebrew Torah (according to the masoretic text published in the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia), but it is normally read as ‘Adonai’ (meaning ‘Lord’) by Jews–but also by many Christians, especially students of the Hebrew scriptures–in order to respect God’s name “and keep it holy.” More recent trends have seen the use of ‘Yahweh’ appear in songs, prayers, and even some translations (e.g. the Catholic New Jerusalem Bible), and it’s wider use is evident the popular song ‘Yahweh’, written and recorded by Bono of the band U2.

Here is the letter introducing the Vatican’s directives…

Your Eminence / Your Excellency,

The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has sent the attached
letter containing several directives on the use of “the Name of God” in the Sacred Liturgy.

We welcome this guidance on the use of particular terminology for the Divine Name, as it helps
to emphasize the theological accuracy of our language and appropriate reverence for the Name of God so consistent in our tradition. While the directives contained here do not force any changes to official liturgical texts, including our continuing work of the translation of the Missale Romanum, editio typica tertia, which already follow the spirit of the directives, there may be some impact on the use of particular pieces of liturgical music in our country as well as in the composition of variable texts such as the General Intercessions for the celebration of the Mass and the other sacraments.

This instruction from the Congregation provides also an opportunity to offer catechesis for the
faithful as an encouragement to show reverence for the Name of God in daily life, emphasizing
the power of language as an act of devotion and worship.

Sincerely yours in Christ,
Most Rev. Arthur J. Serratelli
Bishop of Paterson
Chairman

This letter, including the other letter with the directives from the Vatican, can be viewed here. Basically, what this all means is that the Catholic Church is instructed to…

  1. no longer vocalize the divine name YHWH with such pronunciations as ‘Yahweh’, ‘Yahwè’, ‘Jahweh’, ‘Jahwè’, ‘Jave’, ‘Yehovah’, etc. in the liturgy, songs and prayers
  2. render the divine name in modern language translations of the Bible with the equivalent of Adonai/Kyrios: ‘Lord’, ‘Signore’, ‘Seigneur’, ‘Herr’, ‘Señor’, etc.
  3. in translating biblical texts that include both the Hebrew term Adonai as well as the tetragrammaton YHWH one after the other, Adonai is to be translated as ‘Lord’, and the tetragrammaton is to be translated as ‘God’.

So what’s so STRANGE about all of this?

First of all, it’s a bit strange that the issue of present day Jewish-Christian dialogue has come almost to the forefront in much of the discussion about this. See Fritz Voll here, Iyov here and here. Some of the best ideas concerning issues related to pronunciation appear in these posts and the discussions among the comments…

Charles Halton: “Yahweh or Adonai?”

John Hobbins: “The Pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton in Christian Worship: Unanswered Questions”

Kevin Edgecomb: “The Four-Letter Word”

In truth, the directives from the Vatican do not mention “Jewish” relations at all, although one of the bases for these directives was explained in the ancient pre-Christian tradition…

The venerable biblical tradition of Sacred Scripture, known as the Old Testament, displays a series of divine appellations, among which is the sacred name of God, revealed in the tetragrammaton YHWH (יהוה). As an expression of the infinite greatness and majesty of God, it was held to be unpronounceable and hence was replaced during the reading of Sacred Scripture by means of the use of an alternate name: ‘Adonai’, which means ‘Lord’.

The Greek translation of the Old Testament, the so-called Septuagint, dating back to the last centuries prior to the Christian era, had regularly rendered the Hebrew tetragrammaton with the Greek word Kyrios, which means ‘Lord’. Since the text of the Septuagint constituted the Bible of the first generation of Greek-speaking Christians, in which language all the books of the New Testament were also written, these Christians, too, from the beginning never pronounced the divine tetragrammaton.

Comment: Nowhere does this letter refer to present day Jewish-Christian relations. In fact, it seems that Cardinal Arinze and Archbishop Secretary Ranjith went out of their way NOT to include explicit reference to the “Jewish” people—ancient or contemporary—in this letter. Even the above reference to pre-Christian tradition is not mentioned out of sensitivity to Jewish tradition, but for the express purpose of tying these directives from the Vatican to the tradition of the early Church that was inherited from ancient practice. This comes out very clearly at the very end of the first part of the letter that explains the bases for the directives…

Avoiding pronouncing the tetragrammaton of the name of God on the part of the Church has therefore its own grounds. Apart from a motive of a purely philological order, there is also that of remaining faithful to the Church’s tradition, from the beginning, that the sacred tetragrammaton was never pronounced in the Christian context nor translated into any of the languages into which the Bible was translated.

Certainly, Jewish-Christian dialogue must proceed on the basis of appropriate principles of humility and respect for differing traditions. But outside of Jewish-Christian dialogue (which the Vatican’s letter is), it is certainly appropriate for the Christian community to ask if the divine name can be spoken with due reverence.

So what’s so WONDERFUL about all this?

The most wonderful thing I have seen in this is something that has received hardly any attention at all, and some may feel that it actually flies in the face of Jewish sensitivities. One of the longest parts of the Vatican’s letter relates the ancient practice of translating the divine name as “Lord” in the Septuagint and the early Church to New Testament Christology…

This fact has had important implications for New Testament Christology itself. When in fact St. Paul, with regard to the Crucifixion, writes that “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name” (Phil 2:9), he does not mean any other name than “Lord,” for he continues by saying, “and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil 2:11; cf. Is 42:8: “I am the Lord; that is my name”). The attribution of this title to the Risen Christ corresponds exactly to the proclamation of his divinity. The title in fact becomes interchangeable between the God of Israel and the Messiah of the Christian faith, even though it is not in fact one of the titles used for the Messiah of Israel. In the strictly theological sense, this title is found, for example, already in the first canonical Gospel (cf. Mt 1:20: “The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.”) and one sees it as a rule in Old Testament citations in the New Testament (cf. Acts 2:20: “The sun shall be turned into darkness… before the day of the Lord comes (Joel 3:4); 1 Peter 1:25: “The word of the Lord abides for ever” (Is 40:8)). However in the properly Christological sense, apart from the text cited of Philippians 2:9-11, one can remember Romans 10:9 (“If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”), 1 Corinthians 2:8 (“they would not have crucified the Lord of glory”), 1 Corinthians 12:3 (“No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit”) and the frequent formula concerning the Christian who lives “in the Lord” (Rm 16:2; 1 Cor 7:22; I Thess 3:8; etc.).

It is also a bit strange that…

Most online discussion has centered around the pronunciation of the divine name and have paid little attention to what this means for translation. Some have even said that this does not apply to Bible translation. Doug Chaplin here raises an interesting possibility: “The instruction does not target biblical translation per se, only liturgical use.”

Well, actually, in the three directives at the end of the letter, one is about pronouncing the name, and two are about translation. The very beginning of the letter begins by introducing the main topic…

…to communicate to the Bishops’ Conferences the following as regards the translation and the pronunciation, in a liturgical setting, of the Divine Name signified in the sacred tetragrammaton, along with a number of directives.

Can the phrase “in a liturgical setting” be understood to modify ‘translation’ as well as ‘pronunciation’? Does translation occur in a liturgical setting? Perhaps this refers to the use of the Jerusalem Bible–which frequently spells out Yahweh–in the liturgy. Doug Chaplin explains, “Although the lectionary is based on the Jerusalem Bible, the readings printed out in lectionaries and missals use the convention of replacing the divine name with ‘Lord’.” On the other hand, the end of the Vatican’s letter is clear…

For the translation of the Biblical text in modern languages, destined for the liturgical usage of
the Church, what is already prescribed by n. 41 of the Liturgiam authenticam
is to be followed; that is, the divine tetragrammaton is to be rendered by the equivalent of Adonai/Kyrios: “Lord”, “Signore”, “Seigneur”, “Herr”, “Señor“, etc.

This can only mean the process of translating the Bible that happens prior to liturgical usage.

The letter continues with an explication of Bible translation philosophy…

The words of Sacred Scripture contained in the Old and New Testament express truth which transcends the limits imposed by time and place. They are the Word of God expressed in human words and, by means of these words of life, the Holy Spirit introduces the faithful to knowledge of the truth whole and entire and thus the Word of Christ comes to dwell in the faithful in all its richness (cf. Jn 14:26; 16:12-15). In order that the Word of God, written in the sacred texts, may be conserved and transmitted in an integral and faithful manner, every modern translation of the books of the Bible aims at being a faithful and accurate transposition of the original texts. Such a literary effort requires that the original text be translated with the maximum integrity and accuracy, without omissions or additions with regard to the contents, and without introducing explanatory glosses or paraphrases which do not belong to the sacred text itself.

As regards the sacred name of God himself, translators must use the greatest faithfulness and respect.

Comment: On the whole, this is a worthy translation philosophy to attain to, but it really is an impossible task. Any linguist is aware of the vast differences between languages and understands that no translation can truly be made “without omissions or additions with regard to the contents, and without introducing explanatory glosses or paraphrases which do not belong to the sacred text itself.” Obviously, translation teams must try to minimize these elements, but that this goal might actually be attained seems a bit overstated. It is this overstatement of translation philosophy that makes the directive to render the divine name always as the equivalent of Adonai / Kyrios / ‘Lord’ a bit simplistic for a more complex translation problem.

Question: How do directives like this and the Liturgiam authenticam relate to the Guidelines for Interconfessional Cooperation in Translating the Bible, the New Revised Version, Rome (1987). In these guidelines, “The clear goal of this interconfessional effort is to produce editions of the Holy Scriptures which provide all speakers of the language with a common text.”

Psalm 116:15 – My ‘Precioussss’

We learn a good lesson from Tolkien’s Gollum and the ring he calls “My Precioussss.” Indeed it is the things we consider most precious that have a way of sucking us into their power to control us and blind us to their dangers and to the value of other things.

Even our approach to the word of God can become that to us if we lose sight of the living God who speaks that word (see NT Wright’s recent lecture to a group of Anglican bishops concerning the theme of his book Scripture and the Authority of God ). We students and scholars of the Bible also come to the word of God with our interpretive “Preciouseses,” and we allow these perspectives–as well-intentioned as they may be–to control our reading and application of the text.

In light of these dangers, I appreciate the fellowship of community–including this biblioblogging community–and how we seek to fulfill what Edgar Krentz (The Historical-Critical Method, 53-54) has described as the virtue of the biblical historian:

The critical biblical scholar will not only question the texts, but himself–his methods, his conclusions, and his presuppositions–and the others who share in the same task. For he knows how often men are captive to their own prejudices and limitations…. On the one hand the historian remains critical of his own critical abilities…. But in a more profound sense he recognizes that in judging a text he also places himself under judgment of the text. And where the text deals with the profundities of man, that calls for a submission to the autonomy of the text that calls the historian forth for judgment and knowledge of himself. Then history performs its humane or (in the case of biblical texts) its theological function.

And thus, the recent interaction with Dr. Claude Mariottini between his blog here and mine here and here about the meaning of the word יקר (yāqār) ‘precious’ in Psalm 116:15 prompts me to re-examine my own approach to the text and translation. The discussion has centered around the legitimacy of some translations to interpret the word יקר (yāqār) in this context to mean ‘too precious’. And so instead of a more literal translation stating that the death of the faithful is precious to the LORD, they either say that the death of the faithful is somehow grievous to the LORD (NAB, Tanakh, TEV, CEV), or the verse focuses completely on the value of the life of his faithful followers (NET).

What is my translation philosophy for passages like this where the meaning is either ambiguous or perhaps evenly debated? (This questioning of allegiance to my own translation philosophy is how the discussion of the word יקר (yāqār) ‘precious’ in Psalm 116:15 relates to the image of Gollum and his ‘Precioussss’ and the lesson of being self-critical.)

Even though I have argued that the death of the faithful in Psalm 116:15 may be precious to the LORD precisely because he finds great value in their continued faithfulness in life, I feel quite uncomfortable losing the reference to the preciousness of death in a translation. Although I appreciate the NET Bible for getting at the potential underlying significance of the verse–the LORD values the lives of his faithful followers–it unfortunately removes any reference to death at all, and so the translation fails to show what this significance is in application to. In other words, the original expression of this verse is not a statement about life, but of death.

The value that God places on faithfulness in life may help us to understand why he considers the death of one of his children such a precious thing, but the statement about the preciousness of death should not be lost too easily. Something is precious when it is rare or when its value is high. We are willing to spend a large fortune on something that is most dear to us. And the great cost to the LORD of seeing the death of one of his faithful servants is that the person is no longer serving the LORD in the world. That is one way in which the death of the faithful may be understood to be a precious thing to the LORD. But to merely say that the LORD values the lives of his faithful followers says nothing of those lives coming to an end in death nor of the LORD’s view of such a death. Furthermore, such a translation precludes any other possible explanation for the LORD’s perspective on the preciousness of death among his faithful.

When a passage is debated like this, or when its meaning is truly ambiguous, it is a worthy goal of the translation team to express the meaning with an equivalent dose of ambiguity. However, inasmuch as the process of translation is an arduous and complicated process, the attempt at translating a double meaning or an ambiguous meaning is exponentially more difficult. It may be easiest to do if a highly literal translation reflects the same indeterminacy or multiplicity of senses as found in the original language text. But that is often unlikely.

I know it’s impossible to avoid interpretation in translation, and many times it’s necessary and important to choose the best understanding of a text to be reflected clearly in a translation. But we certainly don’t want our translations to over-interpret the text. When a translation comes down heavily on one side of an ambiguous, unclear, or debated text, that may be over-interpretation. If that interpretation is something that we hold dear–perhaps a “My Precioussss”–it’s more difficult to let it go. But even as we apply the tools of exegesis and communication to the processes of interpretation and translation, we must allow the Voice of the text to do his theological work in us.