The absence of God is evident in many ways in our culture. For example, we are not a praying culture and in fact our government is formally opposed to identifying with any particular groups prayers. We take the wisdom of this for granted, but a historical sense shows how unnervingly rarely we find parallel states.
One place I find the absence of God a little surprising, though, is in modern translations of the Bible. Let me give an example.
In Luke 1:41, we read in the older versions something like this:
“And it came to pass, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe in her womb leaped for joy.”
I’m just going to focus on the first clause of five words, but I included the rest to locate you in the story.
In Greek, the original of Luke, it says:
I checked some translations on-line, and this is what I found: KJV, Darby, Young, Douay Rheims, ASV, and Noah Webster all translated the phrase, “And it came to pass.”
Some other translations went like this:
Bible in Basic English: “And when the voice of Mary…”
Weymouth: “And as soon as…”
World English: “It happened…”
NIV: “When Elizabeth heard…”
NKJV: “And it happened…”
ESV; “When Elizabeth heard…”
Now, please do not take this post too seriously. Remember if you continue to read that I am not a language scholar, that I do not know much of what I am reflecting on, that I have always needed to process my thoughts out loud, and that therefore I welcome people’s challenges to the extreme position I am about to express. With that qualification, let me offer you my humble opinion:
I think those modern translations are straight from the pit of hell.
No, wait. That’s not my position. I don’t think that at all. Not really.
Well, I mean, in a certain sense, yes – but not in the sense you think I mean it. I don’t think a man of God like Art Farstat (sp) was demon possessed when he translated such a fairly minor phrase “It happened,” instead of “it came to pass.”
My point is different. It’s not about the people who did these translations at all. It’s about the linguistic “culture” in which these translations have been made.
And here is my absurd thesis: We translate “egeneto” with the Anglo-Saxon word “happened” because we live in an age trying to escape any trace of the presence of God.
My argument is actually rather simple. No, I may as well admit that it is not only simple, but simplistic. It is foolish. But I’m going to make it any way. Here it is:
In a world that recogizes God and the validity of real things (ie in the real word), NOTHING “happens.” Things only “come to pass.”
I don’t have a great problem with the word egeneto itself being translated “happens” in a general context, like in a translation of a pagan play.
But this is a Bible verse. It is not describing a neutral development of chance events and it is not describing a series of events that take place in the pagan world, where, from our point of view, everything “happens.”
Happen and happy are both related to that old Anglo-Saxon concept of “hap”, which could not unfairly be understood by our word “luck.” It has to do with uncontrollable circumstances. Things happen. In fact, so does something else a little more specific that a family friendly blog can’t mention even indirectly, so I won’t.
If things happen in a manner that you prefer, you’re lucky. Your hap has aligned with the hap of circumstances. You are happy.
However, it did not “happen,” that when John the Baptist heard the voice of the mother of our Lord (as Elizabeth calls her) that he leapt for joy. It came to pass.
I think what happens is that the translator is distracted by two things: one, the passivity of the phrase and two, the modern use of language.
I do understand that this word egeneto carries a passive meaning. If you look closely you can see words like genesis, gene, and other words having to do with conception. But that’s just the point: conception doesn’t “happen.” It is done. Somebody conceives something, or it doesn’t come to be.
My hang-up (because it is obvious that I’m OCDC or whatever about words) is over the modern use of language. “It came to pass” is an antiquated way of saying it, so we drop it. After all, antiquated things can’t be better than modern things, right?
But do we ever stop to ask why the phrase has become antiquated? Might it be because we no longer live in a world where our language guardians believe in a world where things come to pass, but only in a world where things “happen.”
I don’t know how a translater ought to translate this phrase, because one does have to translate for the reader. Nevertheless, I have a very serious problem with the notion that the reader is a market and that the market is always right.
The truth in the text is the master, and it is obvious from passages in the Bible that God’s first priority was not always to be “clear.” It is the wrestling with the text that makes men of us, so to speak. It’s not written for people who don’t want to think.
But here’s my crazy opinion: we need something like the French academy. We need people who are so well versed in language and live it in a world that welcomes and even yearns for the presence of the God who is the Word (OK, that second part doesn’t describe the French Academy) that they are able to make wise judgments about how language should be used.
I can already hear all the risible objections about language tyranny and so on, but that’s because people are comparing my suggestion to a fantasy in which language is an entirely democratic entity. Anybody who has ever written anything to be read knows perfectly well that there are guardians of our language at every level of society, from the parent, to the second grade teacher, to the debate and rhetoric coach, to the despairing college English professor, to the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language.
Presently, virtually all of the guardians believe that language is a set of cultural conventions subject to the whims of usage and not serving any higher function than expressing oneself and/or making friends and influencing people. In such a world, things happen.
But that is not the real world. In the real world, language strives to embody eternal verities, and things come to pass. And if our language does not have a current way of saying so, then our language does not express reality and it does not express reality because it does not believe in it. Consequently, our thinking loses its connection with reality.
The practical result of that disconnect is the unleashing of language – not into a domain of unlimited freedom, but instead into an abyss of meaninglessness.
In that abyss, the people who master language are the ones who rule (as they do in any other realm), but they cannot deliberately use language to bless. That leaves them only one option.
What I am asking for, then, is not the thought police that dominate the conventional schools and our public discourse, people who see language as their most effective tool for controlling how people think. What I am asking for is wise, humble, and scholarly people who realize that there is no more effective tool for finding truth, building community, and blessing others than the sound use of a language that bridges the gap between our minds and reality and between our souls and the souls of those around us. I’m asking for people who are, as Wendell Berry put it in perhaps his most important book, Standing By Words.
I’m also asking for humble people who gently resist the tyrannical and self-indulgent spirit of the age and demand of themselves and those over whom they have authority a proper use of grammar and usage, a submissive spirit to logical patterns, an appropriate use of the forms of rhetoric and a humility before the vast unknown that teaches us to love the form of what we do know and can express so that we can grow a little more in true knowledge every day. Add some music, painting, and math and you’d have a truly blessed person who is a true blessing to those around him.
Because that is what a sustained connection with reality achieves.
May it come to pass that these people arise and deliver us from what is happening to our minds today.