Bryan Bibb

The Bible in Church and Academy

The Mens Bible

If you’ve been thinking that Christian men need a project that turns the Bible into a self-help guide, a collection of individualistic “tools” with just the right amount of machismo and moral shaming, then I have good news for you.

Presenting, the Men’s Bible.. They say in the title, “Why we helped create a Bible just for men: It tackles marriage, pornography, friendship.” Here’s the problem, as they see it:

Even for Christian men, the Bible can be an extremely intimidating book to tackle. After all, it is the Word of God. It contains some pretty heavy stuff. And if you happen to pick up a translation and come across words like satyr, concupiscence and phylacteries, you can forget about reading more than two verses before you’re ready to go throw a football around or make a mess in the garage.

So really, it’s no surprise that men—generally visual learners known for our short attention spans and occasional selective listening—are not particularly excited about reading and owning Bibles.

I find the article’s description of the spiritual needs and mental abilities of men to be incredibly offensive and condescending, but the problems are much deeper than that. I object to their assumption that the biggest challenges for men in this world are porn and getting along with the dudes and ladies in their lives. The Bible has very little to say about those individualistic and peculiarly modern topics.

However, biblical texts go on for page after page about the real problems that do grip this world. The ways in which men are the perpetrators of violence and hate. How men degade themselves and the people around them with greed and the lust for power. How men construct notions of masculinity that reinforce our collective comfort with the oppression and exploitation upon which our lifestyle is based. I could go on.

I would love to have a study Bible that asked men to take a hard look at the world around them and at themselves, and that called men to work together to spread covenant values of justice and righteousness in the world. The authors of this article are correct that Christian men need to engage more and know the Bible better.

But their supposed answer only makes the problem worse. We don’t need a million men trying to get a grip on their web browsers. We need a million men trying to get a grip on their police departments.

(I have academic-related things to say about this project, such as the fact that they never mention what translation they use, but that’s for another time.)

SBL Meeting Participation

Recently, Russell McCutcheon asked on Facebook whether SBL members should be limited to one slot on the program, in order to make room for more participation especially among non-tenured scholars. That’s not a bad idea, especially if a member could make more than one proposal and have only one accepted. As it is, I feel pressure to submit two proposals to increase my chances of getting on the program, since I only get full funding if I am presenting (not moderating).

That said, in general I would like to see students presenting at regional meetings rather than the annual meeting, unless they are very far along in their process. This is how things were before this crazy job situation came along, and my perception is that it raised the quality of both the regionals as well as the annual meeting.

SBL2015 Paper Proposals

I’m happy that I have had two paper proposals accepted for the 2015 SBL meeting in November. Both are related to my new monograph project on the ideology of English Bible translation, and you will notice the connection between them.

The first is for the Metaphor Theory and the Hebrew Bible section, who called for papers on “Translating Biblical Metaphors.” I am very excited to work on this paper. I wrote a paper on this passage for JJM Roberts’ Isaiah seminar back in the day, and look forward to revisiting it in light of my current project. The second of these is a practical presentation on teaching translation theory for the Global Education and Research Technology group. I plan to expand it into an article on pedagogy for the Wabash journal or something similar.

Yahweh as the Priest of Human Sacrifice in Isaiah 30:27–33

The richly metaphorical description of God’s judgment of the Assyrian king in Isaiah 30:27–33 is a challenge for both translators and interpreters. The text describes Yahweh in theophanic language, with attendant elements of fire, smoke, and thunderstorm. As the deity arrives in anger and overwhelming displays of power, the people hold a religious festival around a central act of ritual: Yahweh’s killing of the Assyrian king on the tophet, the altar of human sacrifice. A metaphorical passage such as this challenges notions of “literal” versus “dynamic” translation. All attempts to render these images in English fail, but for different reasons. A formal translation that preserves the original imagery is difficult for modern readers due to their lack of historical domain knowledge. A dynamic translation that unpacks the “meaning” of the metaphors softens the shocking literalism of the text. Bodily metaphors for Yahweh’s theophany are difficult enough, but in fact, no English translation has captured the essential nature of the metaphor as a whole, i.e., Yahweh as the high priest performing a human sacrifice. Most versions either transliterate “Tophet” or render it loosely as “the burning place.” How does this metaphorical shift change the meaning of the text? When tophet is pictured as a funeral pyre, the metaphor slips into a less precise conceptual domain: Yahweh is angry, the people rejoice, and the Assyrian king dies. However, when “tophet” is translated as “altar of human sacrifice,” Yahweh’s anger is one element of a classic theophany, the people’s rejoicing has the technical elements of a worship event, and the king’s death occurs through a pagan ritual of human sacrifice. Why, then, do translators make this choice? In modern religious contexts, this passage is surprising, counter-intuitive, and inconsiderate. Translators have been unwilling to convey fully the significance of this metaphor because of the conceptual boundary between orthodox theology and heterodox abomination. Surely the Lord cannot be part of such a scene! In English translations of Isaiah 30:27–33, he is not.

Using Bible Software to Teach Translation Theory

Undergraduate students often have only a rudimentary understanding of why there are so many Bible versions. An instructor using biblical software can quickly reveal the many important differences in translation, but it is also important to help students understand why translations are different, i.e., what theoretical and practical factors have shaped each version. This presentation will demonstrate techniques developed in a courses titled, “The Digital Bible,” in which students use Accordance and free online tools to explore the underlying methods and assumptions behind particular translation decisions. One common motif in treatments of introductory exegesis is the contrast between “formal correspondance” and “dynamic equivalence” approaches to translation, popularized by Eugene Nida and now usually presented as a spectrum between two poles. Students are taught, for instance, that the NASB is one of the most “literal” Bible and the Message is the most “dynamic,” and they are asked to decide which version is “correct.” However, translation theory in recent decades has moved beyond these two categories in order to emphasize that all translation is interpretation. Translators participate in power-laden interpretive frameworks, and all translations function within a web of reader expectations and needs. Students should recognize, for instance, that every translation of controversial passages related to gender (e.g., Ezekiel 23, 1 Timothy 2) is constrained by particular social, political, and theological goals and assumptions. By using tagged texts, lexicons, translator’s notes, etc., students can gain a richer understanding of the translation process and why it matters to interpretation. Rather than casting one translation as more “accurate” or “faithful,” this exercise shows how translation is always already an interpretive act.

Beyond Equivalence

I am working on a journal article that sets the groundwork for my monograph project next year. I’m calling it “Beyond Equivalence: Ideology and Power in Biblical Translation,” and it presents my argument for moving beyond the traditional spectrum of “dynamic equivalence” and “formal correspondence” translation. Another common (but slightly different) way of describing this specture is “word for word” and “sense for sense.”

I have been working on parts of this paper for a year, and am now preparing the larger version for journal submission. It was difficult to bring the different pieces together into one focused structure, and I found the app Scapple (from the Scrivener developers) to be very helpful. I have used many mind-mapping apps on both Mac and iOS for years, and Scapple is by far the easiest and most flexible to use. It doesn’t let you fiddle with styles and colors too much, and it is happy to create whatever kind of linked structure you need, not only hierarchical. And it’s only 15 bucks. Highly recommended for other visual thinkers out there.

Accordance, DCH, and Turbans

I’m researching the topic of “head-dresses” in the Hebrew Bible for an encyclopedia entry, and was having trouble keeping all the various types of turbans and crowns straight in my head. This is an image of an Accordance workspace with several views of the Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, the standard multi-volume Hebrew lexicon. Needless to say, this kind of comparison would be very difficult with print volumes. Also, it is easy to click open a biblical passage and then “amplify” to any number of commentaries, textual notes, and multiple translations.

I love living in the future.

OOTLE 2015

I am looking forward to an experimental course this semester called the “Open Old Testament Learning Event,” coordinated by the brilliant Brooke Lester, Assistant Professor of Hebrew and the Director for Emerging Pedagogies at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. I’m not sure what all will happen, but I know there will be weekly Google “hangouts” to discuss particular topics, and blog posts from participants aggregated to the OOTLE site.

By all means check it out, and if you have any questions, ask Brooke. I’m sure he’d love to tell you more about it.

Can U Just Not?

On FB, Timothy Michael Law shared a link to a hilarious post translating “Thou shalt not” in biblical commands as “can u just not?”. By all means go read it.

Consider this:

Exodus 20:17

“Can u not covet thy neighbour’s house, can u not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s. can u just not.”

and this:

Matthew 6:5

“And when you pray, can u not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.”

This is a delightful exercise in register in translation. There is nothing wrong with this rendering from a literal perspective, generally speaking. However, I think we’d all agree that it changes the meaning of the text because these words evoke a different socio-linguistic web of contexts than does “thou shalt not.”

These two options are at the extreme ends of the spectrum, but other renderings in between them have similar—though more nuanced—impact on meaning. Other options for Exod 20:17 include “You shall not covet” [NRSV, etc.], “Do not covet” [HCSB, etc.], “You must not covet” [NLT], “Let not your desire be turned” [BBE], “Do not desire your neighbor’s house” [CEB], and the scolding tone of the Message’s “No lusting after your neighbor’s house.”

There are two questions. First, which one best captures the tone and intention of the original? I like “you must not,” personally. Second, which one is the most effective in communicating the ethical/moral imperative invested in these texts by the translating/reading community? In all honesty, one could make a case for “can u just not?”

Can a Genre Be Errant?

Carlos Bovell has written a very nice guest post on the blog of Peter Enns, titled “Does an inerrantist culture ‘do good or do harm?’” His argument is that evangelicals need to reframe and decenter the notion of inerrancy in their conception of biblical authority:

One concern I have is that, for various reasons, a number of inerrantist scholars are failing to grasp just how debilitating it is to spiritual formation to foreground inerrancy as a central and permanent fixture for American evangelical identity. They fail to see how, culturally and institutionally, this mindset can keep evangelical teachers from doing good, from providing healing for searching Christians both in evangelical churches and in classrooms.

It’s a great article. Go read it.

What caught my eye was his statement that although inerrantists have become more sophisticated in their hermeneutics—recognizing the existence of different genres in scripture—they reject the existence of “errant genres” like myth and legend.

Defining inerrancy according to genre, for example, does not go far enough because inerrantists still feel the same pressure, just delayed for a moment: only genre designations that are not “errant” are allowed, which helps explain why myth and legend in Genesis, for example, are not typically admitted as legitimate genre designations by inerrantist writers.

But such designations are routinely—even universally—accepted outside of inerrantist scholarship. Guarding against “errant” genres in scripture looks like special pleading and a needless spiritual distraction.

You can see this dynamic in the 1978 Chicao Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics, which affirms “genre criticism as one of the many disciplines of biblical study” in Article XIII, but still rejects mythic readings of Genesis in Article XXII.

Here is my question: how can a genre be errant? Each genre is a tool of the biblical writers, like all of the other tools that they use. The literalist argument is that Genesis 1–11, for instance, presents itself as factual, and so must be read as historical narrative rather than myth. I disagree with that argument based on analysis of the text itself, in its context, but that is a much better claim than that myth cannot be true or authoritative, a legitimate genre within scripture.

These hermeneutical maneuvers are not a good strategy in the long term. I would prefer that we engage scripture on its own terms and let go of our tight grip long enough to let it speak to us however it wants, in whatever genre.

Nyasha Junior Is Headed to Temple

My friend and colleague (and fellow PTS grad), Nyasha Junior has accepted a position in the Religious Studies department at Temple University. She will be teaching Hebrew Bible alongside Jeremy Schipper and Mark Leuchter.

Temple’s program was already strong, and it is now certainly one of the best places in the country to study Hebrew Bible. I will definitely make sure that my students have the Temple program on their radar.

Congratulations to Temple and to Dr. Junior! Also, can I just add that Nyasha has the best website in the profession?

Damrosch, Alter, Boom

The folks at Nida just sent an email with a video link for the two lectures (and responses) at the 2014 Nida Research Symposium in September. I enjoyed the event tremendously, most of all for the chance to share conversation with good friends from Misano [s/o to James, Deborah, Michael, Roy, Jason, Brian, Phil, and Simon!]. It was also wonderful to visit NYC again with Jen and to take Joseph for some historical sight-seeing.

I can’t give you access to all of that goodness, but the talks were quite interesting and the responses trenchant. You can watch them on the FUSP site:

  • David Damrosch, Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature and Chair of the Department of Comparative Literature at Harvard University, “World Literature, National Markets”

  • Lydia Liu, Wun Tsun Tam Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Chinese and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, Response

  • Robert Alter, Professor in the Graduate School and Emeritus Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkley, “Translating Biblical Poetry: Ancient Hebrew Verse and the Constraints of English”

  • Adriane Leveen, Senior lecturer in Hebrew Bible at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, New York Campus, Response