Wednesday, March 07, 2012

We Urgently Need a New Translation of the Bible

We urgently need a new bible translation.

This may seem an absurd suggestion, given the number of translations, paraphrases and other modern versions that pass themselves off as 'the bible'; but they share some of the same fundamental problems.

First, all the translations except the AV were done within a Cartesian framework, using Cartesian methodology, which allows for only one epistemology, the linear one, and considers other ways of knowing to be 'irrational'. In fact the mind works with two epistemologies, as anyone who cares to observe their own mind will discover, and as neuro-psychology has confirmed, (the linear one being the the lesser of the two); and it is this two-epistemologies model which underlies many pre-Cartesian texts, and which, in fact, may pre-Cartesian texts are commenting on.

In addition, all the modern translations of the bible have been made through the filters of 'historical theology'. The divorce of theology from praxis is a live question these days, and the main reason for this is, again, that historical theology ignores the two epistemologies model, not to mention what I think of as common sense psychology. 'The death blow,' writes Barker, 'to mythology was dealt by those who made myths into history. We still have problems with Adam and Eve to this day as a result!' (The Gate of Heaven, p. 180). Her work also shows the folly of scholars' self-blinding. In but one of many examples, she suggests that because scholars have refused to allow that the Lord or an angel could have had more than one title, there has been confusion about who is what and what their function is.

The same problem evident in similarly blinkered approaches to ancient, late-antique, patristic and medieval texts. For example, Peter Brown's review essay in the March 8, 2012 issue of NYRB speaks of the 'dualism' characteristic of the late antique. While certainly there were people who were in fact dualistic (as there are in every generation), many of the late antique texts and points of view are not in fact dualistic, but are talking about the two different ways of knowing and how to get from the one to the other, their different concerns and characteristics. When speaking or writing of the refocusing of attention from the self-conscious, external and material world to the perspective that arises from re-centering in the inner world (deep mind), it is all too easy for Cartesian-minded scholars to interpret such discourse as dualistic when it is robustly incarnational.

Barker shows (in Temple Mysticism), although she doesn't put it in these terms, how the elaborate rituals of the temple were precisely about re-connecting with Wisdom, that passing through the veil leaves the material world behind (in the sense of where one focuses one's attention) and that the ritual of the holy of holies is symbolic of the transfiguration (she uses the word 'transformation' which I think is incorrect, especially as she links this ritual to the Transfiguration of Jesus) that takes place in what I have called the deep mind, and which perspective and wisdom then re-emerges from the holy of holies to bring wisdom and transfiguration to others.

If scholars don't have the two epistemologies model in mind as a possibility, as a heuristic tool, then texts that discuss the movement between the two epistemologies will look dualistic, and perhaps even seem incomprehensible. But if this interpretive model is applied not only to the bible but also to the pre-Socratics, Plato, Philo, Augustine and many other texts and authors, including those labeled 'gnostic', these texts suddenly take on new life and make a lot more sense. And if Barker is correct about the influence of temple theology on Pythagoras and the Greek tradition—finding the right flow between the two epistemologies, the two parts of the mind; that is, the receptivity to wisdom of which the action and furnishings in the temple are symbolic (one thinks immediately of Pseudo-Denys), then to look again at pre-Cartesian texts and to create a new translation of the bible becomes imperative.

There is also in this process what I have come to think of as the 'psychology of the text', not just the understanding of the psychology implicit in the process of theosis—the re-centring of the person in the deep mind by passing through the veil of liminality—but also the way the words resonate (or don't) in the deep mind, which is, it seems to me, how much of the biblical text works. One of the strengths of Barker's work is that her observations slot into place without having to make other emendations, and the texts make more sense in consequence.

In terms of the bible specifically, Barker's discoveries about changes that were made in the texts from which we make modern translations of the bible, her pointing to the older versions (e.g. the substituting of the word 'rock ' for 'invisible God'—the latter fits much better into the text) and the linkage between the first temple and Christianity are highly significant as to the way people, especially translators, understand the New Testament.

It is also interesting, at least to me, how thoroughly Barker's work supports my concern with 'behold', which word in itself implicitly sums up much of her work about the temple and theosis, as well as the two epistemologies model. For example, someone recently referred to the translation Luke 17:21 as 'controversial', but it is so only if one approaches it from a Cartesian point of view and without common-sense psychology—and above all without listening to the context of what Jesus is saying about how the word itself in fact works, keeping in mind, in addition, that he is also quite possibly referring to the first temple tradition. He's talking about the mis-use of the word 'behold' (mis-translating it as 'look', for example), telling his listeners that it is not a word that can be used in a linear or analytical way, but rather that it is appropriate only to the sort of engagement that Buber was later to call 'I-Thou', which is an interior disposition and perspective, the kingdom of heaven within, with which one engages ordinary life. It would never occur to a lot of scholars that Jesus might have this sort of linguistic or psychological sophistication. In addition, those who want to translate the third phrase in Luke 17:21 using 'among' ignore the fact that while the kingdom of heaven may be in potential, it is not faerie dust: it can only be among if it is first within. A community is only as healthy as the solitudes that make it up. The kingdom is among us only as it is present within each of us.

Furthermore, there is a whole psychology/epistemology/syntactic strategy in the world 'behold' that aims to stop the listeners' minds' habitual schematising to enable them to receive something startling and different. There is nothing wrong with using the word 'behold' today: people continue to use and understand it intuitively and correctly. On March 2, 2012, CNN had an article somewhat paradoxically entitled 'Beholding Beauty: How It's Been Studied'. A month or two ago a television reporter remarked, 'All that was left for her was to behold the body.'

Furthermore, each of the modern translations of the bible seem to have some kind of bias, whether it's evangelical, or Roman Catholic, or exhibiting the fetishes of a particular scholar (the sort of thing that required the REB to be done after the NEB). And all the translations seem just to get flatter and flatter, more linear and less resonant, which means they cannot possibly carry out the task that the original texts aim to do. This flattening of language has been due in part to the desire to make the texts 'accessible' but this has been the wrong kind of accessibility, a Cartesian accessibility. The translations are aimed at accessibility to the linear mind, when in fact many of the texts are aimed at helping the reader to bypass the linear mind and access the deep mind.

The Cartesian methodology and purposes of the modern translations are at complete cross-purposes with many of the biblical texts. You cannot fail to misunderstand a text that is based on two epistemologies if you are using a methodology that allows for only one. Or by confining yourself to an interpretive methodology that is linear when dealing with a text that is trying to push the reader into the part of the mind that is multivalent, holistic, if not Day One.

It is interesting that the history of the temples follows more or less the same pattern and trajectory as that of Western Christianity: a shift from an outward (in the sense of self-forgetful), invisible God-focused process of theosis, with a high anthropology, to one that emphasises sin, a low anthropology, breast-beating etc. This pattern is a commonplace in the history of religions, but the parallels between the history that Barker has winkled out and that of the church in the West seems particularly striking.

Of course all the problems that beset modern bible translations also affect liturgical translations and actions—and I think it is in large measure for these reasons (aside from the institutional problems) that people are no longer interested in going to church. And there are the additional issues of the conflicting theologies within the liturgy, those that point to sin and abasement that characterise the post-Paschasian atonement theology, for example, for which there is no excuse whatsoever. Barker's discussion of atonement theology is illustrative.

The good news in all of this is that a new translation of the bible combined with looking again at ancient, late antique, patristic and medieval texts, both Christian and non-Christian, could employ a great many scholars for a very long time. It is work that badly needs to be done.

As Barker notes, '...the mythology and symbolism of the ancient temple are the key to understanding much of Christian origins. Modern translations of the New Testament which obscure this imagery are counter-productive. We must recover an understanding of this symbolism, not modernize it to a point where it says nothing, for when the meaning of these symbols is lost, the meaning of Christianity will also be lost.' (The Gate of Heaven, p. 181.)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Maggie,

Presumably the translators would need to be people of silence, not 'just' scholars, however expert they may be in their field. I wonder now about the inner lives of those who taught me scripture and theology....

I like what I read of Barker (I'm no scholar) and wonder what the implications of her work are. the death of Jesus might be beginning to make more sense to me in light of this temple theology.


6:56 pm, March 07, 2012  
Blogger cloud-hidden, whereabouts unknown said...


10:02 pm, March 07, 2012  
Anonymous BR said...

Maggie, your thoughts on NT Wright's Kingdom New Testament?

2:45 am, March 08, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

To BR: Haven't read it, sorry. Afraid I'm not a fan. But I will take a look. Does it use the word behold? Does it show the profound and absolutely essential link/source in the OT?

3:08 am, March 08, 2012  
Anonymous BR said...

His take on Luke 17:20-21: "'God's kingdom,' replied Jesus, 'isn't the sort of thing you can watch for and see coming. People won't say, 'Look, here it is,' or 'Look, over there!' No: God's kingdom is within your grasp."

Other than that, I'm on page 16.

5:23 pm, March 08, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

O that's hysterical! The kingdom of heaven is precisely about UN-grasping (cf. Phil 2:5-11)!!!!!

5:40 pm, March 08, 2012  
Blogger Bo said...

That's classic Wright.

11:59 am, March 09, 2012  
Blogger changeinthewind said...

" A community is only as healthy as the solitudes that make it up."

Perhaps,you refer to a kind of being at home within stillness when you use the word solitudes rather than using solitaries.

Any group, inevitably small in numbers,which gathers to sit silently together finds much solitude present of course. And by its very nature a community in solitude is found where it is; outside of self.

Rewriting the Bible won't change this.

One who listens to solitaries can already hear solitude.One

9:33 pm, March 10, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Solitudes have to be fed; a translation that sounds the silence, awakening resonances and echoes will enlarge and deepen silence and solitude. A banal translation will deaden them.

The brain has two halves: they need each other. Solitude and silence need the Word, but that Word cannot be conveyed and/or enhanced by flat, linear, literal, clumsy language.

See the post 'Practical Adoration' on January 9, 2010 or the longer version in 'Writing the Icon of the Heart'

9:42 pm, March 10, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Might you and Margaret Barker consider in some way even translating some ... sections .. of one of the gospels .. or doing something like that?

All Good Wishes


6:59 pm, March 13, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Theo, I'm honoured you'd even think of such a thing.

Bible translation is hugely complicated: the KJV is so good because it had a committee—the exception to the rule that 'God so loved the world that he didn't send a committee'.

A new translation would certainly need someone like Barker, and a number of other experts in ancient languages because Barker doesn't have all the info or right answers, and several different kinds of poets; a composer (for the music of speech—we forget how accomplished the KJV translators were).

The point is that a new translation needs to be done by people who can listen for resonances—psychological, linguistic, spiritual—a very different universe from the Cartesian one which dominates all the present translations.

I would love to be involved but by the time a new translation gets organised I will probably have been dead and forgotten for many years!

7:58 pm, March 13, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Maggie,

I hear what you say and agree that a whole bible would need a rich team of people. BUT, you could start by bringing your own scholarship (you have Greek and Hebrew I think?) AND, equally importantly, your very clear understanding (if that is the right word) of Silence. I think you've got the necessary 'resonance' with that. And you've the soul/heart of a poet and wordsmith to boot! What you could do is work on just a few passages from the Gospels you have found significant for intending to the Silence, beholding the Silence..... Do you see what I mean?

I think even a few passages would be a task to get right but maybe you'll be given enough time to do that much! (I hope you are!!!!) Who knows, you might even get a postumous mention when that far-off committee publishes its new translation! (Sorry if I'm being too familiar. I really do think you can offer something here, Maggie.)

Whatever you do, keep this blog and your other writing going.

All Good Wishes


7:43 pm, March 14, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Thank you, Theo, I'm very humbled by your trust, but I'd need Hebrew and Greek scholars to work with and probably a lot more time. I do plan to do some work in this direction in my next book, but doubt it would pass muster as 'translation'! Bless you

7:50 pm, March 14, 2012  

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