Monday, October 31, 2011

The Bible Says, but What if Mine Doesn't?

Exegesis is not for the timid or the lazy. What do we do when our two major English formal translations (NASB and NRSV) have very different content? In Proverbs 11, there is a verse that could alter interpretation of the whole passage depending on which translation we use. Why were the versions different? In the passage at hand, the NRSV uses an ancient Syriac Greek manuscript. Conversely, The NASB, NIV, KJV, and other English translations rely only on the Hebrew Massoretic Text. However, this is not a case of majority rules.

Many of us have heard the phrase, “The Bible says,” but what if yours or mine doesn’t say something? In the case of Proverbs 11, v.16 has the ability to change how we read the rest of the chapter. Not to worry, there’s nothing wrong with the Massoretic Text (Hebrew). But, there’s nothing wrong with the Syriac Greek text either; in fact, it may predate the Hebrew in this case.  

Hebrew based translation: “A gracious woman attains honor, And ruthless men attain riches” (Proverbs 11:16, NASB). 

Greek based translation: “A gracious woman gets honor, but she who hates virtue is covered with shame. The timid become destitute, but the aggressive gain riches” (Proverbs 11:16, NRSV).

As you can see, these two versions of the same verse are a more than a little different.
Honestly, the main reason that the Greek manuscript could change the meaning of the chapter’s context is that the NRSV uses the word timid, which means hesitant and/or afraid; whereas, the word lazy might make more sense (as used in the Good News paraphrase). The flow of parallelism in Proverbs 11 and elsewhere is very important to its interpretation. English translations of Proverbs using the Massoretic or Greek text don’t tell us that one Bible is right and the other Bible is wrong. Instead, they tell us that we need to ask questions as we read the biblical text in any translation because there is always more to good exegesis than, “The Bible says….”  


  1. Which is why persons of my personal religious persuasion say we believe the Bible is the Word of God insofar as it is correctly translated. We seek out additional witnesses of that truth, not to dispute its veracity, but to confirm and clarify it.

  2. @Gwosatum, thank you for the well-worded expression of the inspiration and authority of scripture. :)

    Based off of my interpretation your persuasion and mine the difference, as it pertains to translating and interpreting scripture, is that both Jesus and the canon of scriptures are the Word of God. Not that your persuasion does or does not consider Jesus the logos, but Lutherans are kind of big on that — so much so, that the phrase "Word of God" is not synonymous with the Bible.

    Thank you again for commenting and reading!!!