Monday, 23 October 2017

Can the translator be
a traitor when it comes
to New Testament
references to Liturgy?

Serving the Divine Liturgy in a Greek Orthodox Church in Platanes, near Rathymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

In the past week or two, I have been talking to the editors of a new book I have contributed to about my chapter and about their plans for a publication date.

The book is about the tradition and practice of preaching in the Church of Ireland, and my chapter looks at the link between preaching and liturgy. The central point of my argument is that word and sacrament should never be disconnected; in other words, we should never have a liturgical celebration without also ‘breaking the word’; and similarly, we should never have a service that emphasises the word without also breaking the bread.’

Traditionally, Anglicanism has seen the signs of the visible Church in the preaching of the word and the celebration of the Sacraments. How can we be the Church, how can the Church be visible, if do we not celebrate and administer the Eucharist with the same regularity that we read and preach the Gospel?

The chapter for this book is written and edited, and has already gone to the printers. But a recent discussion on a social media platform drew my attention to another relevant place in the New Testament that I might have considered as I developed the main points in my paper.

Christ the King of Kings and Great High Priest … an icon in the old parish church in Piskopiano in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

In the Acts of the Apostles, the ordination of Saul and Barnabas takes place within a liturgical context and setting. The Greek text reads:

Λειτουργούντων δὲ αὐτῶν τῷ κυρίῳ καὶ νηστευόντων εἶπεν τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον, Ἀφορίσατε δή μοι τὸν Βαρναβᾶν καὶ Σαῦλον εἰς τὸ ἔργον ὃ προσκέκλημαι αὐτούς (Acts 13: 2).

But how the text has been translated into English in many modern editions of the New Testament shows a surprising anti-liturgical bias of the translators, particularly the translators of versions popular throughout evangelical circles.

The translation of this verse in New Revised Standard Version Anglicised (NRSVA), the version I use most often, says:

While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’

The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) renders it in the same way, with a slight difference in spelling:

While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’

The New International Version (NIV) is similar:

While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’

The same verse in the English Revised Version reads:

And as they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them.

The King James Version (KJV) says:

As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them.

A modernised version, the New King James Version (NKJV), reads:

As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’

The American King James Version varies slightly:

As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them.

The New Living Translation says:

One day as these men were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Dedicate Barnabas and Saul for the special work to which I have called them.’

The English Standard Version reads:

While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’

The Berean Study Bible renders this verse:

While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’

A similar translation, the Berean Literal Bible, says:

Now as they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart then to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’

The New American Standard Bible has:

While they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’

The Holman Christian Standard Bible says:

As they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work I have called them to.’

The International Standard Version reads:

While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set Barnabas and Saul apart for me to do the work for which I called them.’

The New English Translation (NET) Bible gives us:

While they were serving the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’

The New Heart English Bible has:

As they served the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Separate Barnabas and Saul for me, for the work to which I have called them.’

The translation that calls itself ‘God’s Word Translation’ reads:

While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set Barnabas and Saul apart for me. I want them to do the work for which I called them.’

The American Standard Version provides:

And as they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them.

The New American Standard (1977) offers:

And while they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’

The Jubilee Bible (2000) prefers:

As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work unto which I have called them.

The Douay-Rheims Bible gives us:

And as they were ministering to the Lord, and fasting, the Holy Ghost said to them: Separate me Saul and Barnabas, for the work whereunto I have taken them.

The New Jerusalem Bible translates the same verse as:

One day while they were offering worship to the Lord and keeping a fast, the Holy Spirit said, ‘I want Barnabas and Saul set apart for the work to which I have called them.’

Webster’s Bible Translation reads:

As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, Separate for me Barnabas and Saul, for the work to which I have called them.

The Weymouth New Testament gives us:

While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for Me, now at once, Barnabas and Saul, for the work to which I have called them.’

And finally, the World English Bible reads:

As they served the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Separate Barnabas and Saul for me, for the work to which I have called them.’

Christ and the Communion of the Apostles … a modern icon

Some of these versions claim that they are standard or literal, so the reader who does not read Greek might expect standard and literal translations. In their enthusiasm to promote their own particular piety, some of them capitalise certain words, while others, in an effort to show their consistency with tradition, for example, prefer Holy Ghost to Holy Spirit.

But we might expect literal translations from translators in a tradition that says Scripture ought to shape our beliefs, and not allow our beliefs to shape how we read scripture, to provide careful, accurate and faithful translations of the original text.

A major variation in these versions is where they refer to ‘worshiping the Lord and fasting,’ ‘offering worship to the Lord and keeping a fast,’ ‘serving the Lord and fasting’ or ‘ministering to the Lord, and fasting.’ The translations vary slightly in the words, but three consistent variations predominate: worshipping, serving or ministering to the Lord.

The one word that they do not use or hint at is ‘liturgy.’ Yet this is the precisely the literal meaning of the very first word in this verse, λειτουργούντων, is that they were serving the liturgy or performing liturgical acts.

There is an Italian phrase that says Traduttore, traditore, literally ‘Translator, traitor,’ or ‘the translator is a traitor.’ It has been traced to irate Italians who felt that many French-language translations of Dante betrayed either the beauty or the accuracy of his writings.

This happens in every translation, particularly of poetry, drama and humour. Do we translate poetry literally, or try to maintain the style, rhythm and emotion of the original verse?

In the case of Acts 13: 2, however, there is no attempt to maintain the original meaning and intention of the text, which says that it was within the context of the regular liturgy of the Apostolic Church that Saul and Barnabas were ordained.

Preparing for the Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In a recent conversation with an Anglican bishop outside the Church of Ireland, we shared an interesting discussion about the way translations of the Eucharistic and liturgical references in the New Testament are often reduced to the ‘lowest common denominator’ rather than the ‘highest common factor.’

Scott Hahn (The Lamb’s Supper) is prominent among a group of scholars who read the Book of Revelation as a key to understanding the mysteries of the Eucharist, and in that conversation I referred to the translation of one particular passage in the Book of Revelation in the NRSV.

That passage in the original Greek reads:

καὶ οἱ εἴκοσι τέσσαρες πρεσβύτεροι [οἱ] ἐνώπιον τοῦ θεοῦ καθήμενοι ἐπὶ τοὺς θρόνους αὐτῶν ἔπεσαν ἐπὶ τὰ πρόσωπα αὐτῶν καὶ προσεκύνησαν τῷ θεῷ λέγοντες,
Εὐχαριστοῦμέν σοι, κύριε ὁ θεὸς ὁ παντοκράτωρ.

The NRSV translates it:

Then the twenty-four elders who sit on the thrones before God fell on their faces and worshipped God, singing:

‘We give thanks [to you], Lord God Almighty [Pantrocrator] ...’
(Revelation 11: 16-17).

Christ the Great High Priest … an icon in the parish church in Piskopiano in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The translations force a particular sacramental and sacredotal interpretation that remains ambiguous in the original Greek.

But a Greek-speaker would naturally might translate πρεσβύτερος in verse 16 as priest rather than elder and Εὐχαριστοῦμέν σοι not merely as ‘We give thanks [to you],’ but with its Eucharistic emphasis. In the Liturgy in the Orthodox Church, the word θρόνος (thronos, throne) is often the word used for the altar. Earlier references to the Lamb on the Throne remind me that the portion of bread on the altar that is known as the Lamb (Ἀμνός Amnos) is the portion that is consecrated at the Liturgy, and from which both the clergy and the laity receive Holy Communion.

Preparing the liturgical bread for the Eucharist early on Sunday morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Turning to Acts 13: 2, many evangelical commentators try to justify and defend a non-literal translation that conforms their own churchmanship in which liturgy and sacrament are often downplayed.

The verb leitourgein is commonly used, both in the Septuagint or Greek Old Testament and in the Greek New Testament in references to the ritual service of the priests and Levites in the Temple (see Luke 1: 23; Hebrews 8: 6, 9: 21). In Hebrews 1: 14, the corresponding adjective is used to distinguish the ministry of worship from that of service to people. When the Apostle Paul uses these words in reference himself, he does so in connection with the idea of a liturgical and priestly sacrifice or oblation (see Romans 15: 16).

Later in the Church, these words were connected specially with the celebration of the Eucharist or the Liturgy of the Church.

Yet, one evangelical commentary makes the sweeping claim: ‘It would, perhaps, be too much to say that the word necessarily conveys that meaning here.’

It is breath-taking to read evangelical commentaries that say that Scripture need not necessarily be red literally when it suits dismissive evangelical attitudes to the Liturgy. Yet, the same people insist on their own literal and narrow readings of passages that they insist relate to the current debates in the churches about human sexuality.

One evangelical commentary goes so far as to suggest that instead of the liturgy of the church this passage is referring to ‘spiritual songs.’

I thought evangelicals, of all people, would allow the word of scripture to speak for itself, and would seek to present the word of God, as they see it, in a way that is as faithful as possible to the original text. To relativise one passage in the New Testament is to leave all passages of scripture open to the same approach; to force one’s own emphasis and doctrine on one passage of Scripture is to ensure that doctrine shapes scripture rather than allowing scripture to shape doctrine.

The liturgical meaning and intention of these passages in Acts and Revelation are deliberately deprived of their original meaning. I might then ask, why then do so many evangelicals not read and interpret other passages in the New Testament with the same hermeneutical approach?

The word liturgy is still used in Greek to mean service, including service to the public, and every Greek understands its plain meaning. So, the phrase Ωρες λειτουργιας in a shop window simply means ‘the hours of serving the public’ or ‘Opening Hours.’

The Bible-reading public deserves to be served by the translations rather than forced into a theological strait-jacket by translators with a particular agenda or antipathy.

The sign reading Ωρες λειτουργιας in a hairdresser’s shop window in Platanes near Rethymnon tells the public of the hours of service or opening hours (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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