A Biblioblog Bible . . . Is It Possible?

I used to have aspirations of heading up a Bible translation project, though my aims were doctrinally motivated. This project died along with my fundamentalism. However, I have recently been frustrated by some interactions I have had with major translations. In preparing my manuscript for my contribution to the Texts@Contexts volume on Exodus being published by Fortress Press, I ran into the problem of finding a translation that was suited to my discussion. Fortress Press prefers translations like the JPS or the NRSV. While I admire these translations, both were horribly suited for my article. I was dealing with a biblical phrase from Exodus echoed in Jonah and Joel, and while the Hebrew is consistent, the translations were not (and I have been unable to identify a reason that would warrant this). Fortunately, the ESV had done an excellent job in translating these consistently and I think they will accept my use of the ESV (I would have provided my own translation, but I really couldn’t see improving on what the ESV did).

In my previous post, I pointed out that a particular phrase in Genesis 4 is consistently translated by all major translations in the KJV legacy as the KJV translated it. Given the highly interpretive nature of the translation, it just seemed odd that an alternative was not offered (though a footnote in the ESV did suggest an alternate, literal reading).

Also, the NIV butchered Ecclesiastes by translating hebel “meaningless,” and the KJV legacy of “vanity” isn’t much better. Moreover, when is a major translation (other than the JPS) going to recognize that Qohelet is a name, not a title?

I’m sure all of us familiar with the biblical languages could create lists much longer than this of frustrations we have with modern translations. I am sure many of us think, “If I was involved in a Bible translation project, I would be sure to render this verse . . . ” While I was thinking about this today, the Conservative Bible Project popped into my mind. And then it struck me, Why don’t we start a wiki Bible to which scholars and professional Bible students can contribute?

Three advantages immediately come to mind regarding such a project.

  • The translation would always be improving. A wiki Bible would be unlike print translations which can only be updated every-so-often.
  • The wiki discussion pages would allow people using the translation to read the rationales of the translators or the discussions/debates taking place among the translators about the passages. So often, people want to know why a translation reads the way it does. This project would make it possible for this information to be available in a way never before possible.
  • Such a project would have the capability of being more eclectic than any translation project of which I am aware.

So I want to know, what do you think? What are the merits of such a project. What will be its challenges? Would you want to be involved? If you aren’t capable or qualified to translate the Bible, would you be interested for those who are to produce such a project?

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40 thoughts on “A Biblioblog Bible . . . Is It Possible?

  1. I had a similar notion at one time, but did not pursue it, so obviously I would be a contributor. Keep me posted.

    Of course, the whole thing could degenerate into a bar-room brawl!

    1. Do you think that an open project, like this one, is likely to attract readers/translators more than a closed project would? I think that there would need to be some restrictions set up to keep just anyone from editing, if for no other reason that to reduce the need for people to go back and clean up the inevitable graffiti of spammers or fundamentalists.

      1. A closed project would probably produce a better product. The question, though, is how much better than all the other English translations out there? Is it worth the effort? We have the NET Bible now that is online. Also those of us that teach the Bible and read the original languages are constantly tweaking whatever translation we have anyway to fit our understanding of the original. So I agree with James (comment below) that there could be issues with not liking this translation any more than the others. It’s a good goal, though, and I like the idea of getting more access to the translator’s rationale for a given passage.

      2. “The question, though, is how much better than all the other translations out there?” It isn’t necessarily about making a better translation *per se*, though I don’t doubt that would happen, but rather about making an altogether different translation. In particular, this project would produce a dynamic translation as opposed to one that is static in nature. Even the NET is a static text. The idea that the translation is dynamic–always changing, always improving–I think would be what would set this translation apart from all the other translations out there and make it so useful.

        “Is it worth the effort?” When you think of the breadth of Britannica versus the breadth of Wikipedia, I almost wonder if it wouldn’t be easier than the effort it takes to create, maintain, and improve print translations.

  2. I like the idea, but as I imagine the constant back and forth, constantly changing text as two scholars with strong views on a particular translation point played tug of war with the text, I can see some potential problems as well!

    1. I can imagine something like this would certainly happen, but we don’t have to think traditionally about the way we would approach this. If there are two (or more) reasonable translations that scholars can equally justify, why not have both options available? I am sure there are a number of formatting techniques that would make this possible in a reader-friendly format.

  3. I can see the attraction of this and I can see some value in it. However, there are still 2,000 languages out there spoken by getting on three hundred million people without a single word of Scripture. Perhaps we should make those a priority before adding to the plethora of translations available in English.

    1. Eddie, I don’t know any of those 2,000 other languages, so I couldn’t contribute to such a project. But I cannot imagine that a project like this one would detract in any way from those who are qualified to translate the Bible into other languages.

  4. Joseph,

    This is something I’ve thought about a fair bit and also considered trying to instigate. There are a few conclusions I’ve come to:

    1. Translations must have a guiding philosophy before they begin. A wiki-translation without this will simply degenerate into back-and-forth spats between vested interests. It has to be clear what is being built. I would suggest it also needs a Benevolent Dictator at the helm to communicate and exemplify its goals.

    2. Translations are normally motivated by their use in faith communities. They are thus difficult for scholarly work (as you found in your example), and depend dramatically on the theological stance of the community involved. There are good historical and liturgical reasons for a faith community to retain KJV-style renderings, for example. Avoiding this would involve a translation project that focussed on producing a critical English text. The NA of English bibles, if you like. This would give a reason for scholars to contribute, a clear vision for the project, and a criteria on which debates about appropriate translations could turn. It would be, in short, the equivalent of Wikipedia’s doctrine of NPV.

    3. As has been mentioned in previous comments, it must provide opportunity for divergent translations, translator’s notes and other apparatus. This would be essential to avoid the worst ravages of internal politics and support scholars with different requirements from the text. It might be better, therefore, to think of the project as the construction of a scholarly ‘study bible’ rather than a straightforward translation of the text.

    4. It will not get done magically. Nowadays wikis aren’t a magic bullet for getting tons of free good quality content, as they may have been 8 years ago. A small team of highly committed scholars would need to be willing to drive the project and produce significant amounts of the content. Significant enough amounts that it may impact on their other other research! Particularly when it comes to asking for contributions to translate books that are currently unfashionable in the academy. Only this way would the rest of the effort coalesce around them. Having a few “I’m in” posts on a blog isn’t going to wash, IMHO.

    In my personal opinion there are too many English translations of the bible, each displaying subtly different biases. I would like to see a text that could be used and quoted in a scholarly setting, and that was constantly being refined based on critical work. Such a text that unashamedly distanced itself from the doctrinal needs of faith communities would be valuable in its own right and could have a life beyond the wiki-site. As in all things, only by clearly and excellently occupying a niche will you get market traction.

    1. While I didn’t write about a philosophy, I certainly had the basic structure of one in mind. I really admire Robert Alter’s translation of the Pentateuch, and believe that his efforts to produce a translation that reads like the Hebrew text has much to offer, particularly to the scholarly community. The many translations that are faith based aim at making the Bible sound relevant, which often causes it to sound less and less ancient in character. These are all things I would think such a problem should avoid. Perhaps I will write out a basic sketch to a philosophy and see what feedback I get.

      I like the idea that the project be envisioned as a scholarly study Bible. I certainly agree that the project will need more than a few “I’m in” posts on a blog, but I had to start somewhere. I am in complete agreement with your final paragraph.

      1. I didn’t mean point 4 to be a criticism, by the way (rereading it, it sounds like that, particularly since it was my first comment!). It was the issue that convinced me I wasn’t the person to try organizing it, that’s all!

  5. A major difficulty is that once a source is easily alterable, it is no longer scholastically quotable. Your Britannica versus Wikipedia is a wonderful case in point. When was the last time anyone was allowed to cite Wikipedia in a paper submitted for credit versus Britannica. While such a translational goal as having a “scholarly” translation or study bible might be helpful for some…all that value will be lost once it is no longer quotable due to constant alterations (IMO). Also, I find the notion of a “scholarly” translation outside of a particular faith community to be highly suspect (just as I always also question ALL other translations based upon their community).

    1. It is not entirely true that it is no longer scholastically quotable, although citations do become increasingly more complicated, especially in print media. But is there not a place for scholarly material that is not necessarily scholastically quotable? Such a project would certainly be blog quotable. Moreover, it would prove to be a great resource for people who are unable to navigate the biblical languages to see the translators working through translations difficulties. The issue I struggled with yesterday when I taught on Cain and Abel was in the way most translations in the legacy of the KJV translate Gen 4:7. It proved to be a sticking point in our conversation. All I could say (not having the JPS translation readily available) was that the issue was more complex than all the versions we were looking at seemed to make it out to be. It is one thing when all translations are saying something different (cf. Mal 2:15). In such a case, people in my Bible class will have no reason to question me when I challenge how their particular translation renders that verse because every translation sound drastically different. But when they all sound the same, like in Genesis 4:7, I sound questionable if I try to suggest that there is more going on in this verse. If I could point people to the discussion page of a scholarly wiki-Bible, they could see this concretely.

      If you question all translations, be they by a scholarly committee outside a faith community or one within a faith community, what options are left for one that is above such a criticism? I think, since objectivity is fleeting, we should be interested in having a plethora of subjective approaches to a Bible translation, the least of which not being an ecumenical scholarly one.

    2. There are two conflated issues in your objection, I think.

      Firstly there is the question of dynamism and secondly that of accountability.

      Wikipedia isn’t, by and large, quotable in scholarly work because it is written in a way that has no *accountability*. It can be (and often is) stunningly accurate, considering its sheer scale and methodology. But ultimately citing scholarship is like hiring a lawyer: the blame for inaccuracies or misinformation passes on to rest elsewhere. In the academy that means a person: hence the centuries old tradition of scholarly work being associated with specified people even when (as in the sciences) it is clearly the product of huge labs or teams of tens or hundreds.

      Wikipedia’s dynamic nature is irrelevant for its lack of citation. Anyone interested in citing a static version could easily cite a specific revision, for example.

      I think both problems would be solvable with a proper framework and process in place. I’d suggest the following:

      1. Proper version management, including independent management of alternate translations, so scholarly citations can be made to specific versions of the translation and can be traced back after the fact.

      2. A system of peer review, where translations can be associated with a status based on the level of critical review they have received.

      3. The identification of scholars involved in each fragment translation, and the traceability of their work.

      4. A citation style-guide which explains how the bible should be responsibly cited.

      These are all doable. There are technical solutions to 1, 2 and 3, combined with policy solutions to 2 and 4.

      “Also, I find the notion of a “scholarly” translation outside of a particular faith community to be highly suspect ”

      I would expect many folks firmly routed in a particular faith community, such as an AoG minister for example :), to feel that way. In fact established faith communities *should* be suspicious of rigorous application of HC techniques, because they operate from a functional agnosticism, and will throw up challenges to doctrine as often as reinforcements. That’s not to say, of course, that the greatest biblical scholars aren’t members of a faith community. Just that the converse doesn’t hold: most members of faith communities are very poor biblical scholars.

      That’s really what I mean by wanting to see a *scholarly* translation. One that takes the HCM seriously rather than pandering to vague post-modernist notions that everything is a faith position, or that all translations are equally biased. I would resist the notion of ‘ecumenical’ for that reason. Ecumenical usually means ‘the lowest common denominator’. Good biblical scholarship is rarely ecumenical and is very often hostile to the doctrinal positions of established faith communities.

      It is for these reasons I made the comment about needing a very strong philosophical position and Benevolent Dictator.

  6. I might add that I am not envisioning this translation as becoming a source for print journals necessarily. But I think if a scholarly wiki Bible could provide long awaited translation improvements, it might be possible that other translations/revisions would be likely to follow suit. Someone needs to be willing to break the mold. I suspect a wiki-Bible would be uniquely suited to this role.

  7. I see something like this having immense potential, but that the obvious big-and-glaring drawbacks are three things:

    1) Vandalism
    2) Edit Warring; and
    3) A combination of 1 and 2. :-)

    Other big potential hurdles and useful features include:

    4) A standardized annotation system, a problem that plagues Biblical software to this day.
    5) A means to track contributor credentials. (Which would be useful.)
    6) A means to determine the consensus on the “quality” of particular translation choices with given reasons. (Like a ratings system of sorts.)

    One way to eliminate much of #1 would be to have the system be invite only, similar to Gmail; however, that doesn’t make it completely “open.” Perhaps some method of requiring a number of discussion posts in a collaborative forum or on “talk” pages first? Where it would certainly be possible to circumvent such a measure, it would make things just inconvenient enough to keep away the majority of vandals and outline the individuals who have stronger investment in the project.

    You see, now the gears in my head are turning at the code level. Perhaps a bought of insomnia or two may yield a proof-of-concept prototype. :-)

    Peace,
    -Steve

    1. I agree that an open system wouldn’t be useful. Many of the most vehement and ugly wars on Wikipedia involve faith groups (of all kinds, not just Christian). There are too many vested interests wanting to put forward their spin on the biblical text to have an open and anonymous edit, I think.

      I like your other suggestions, Steve.

      I suspect mediawiki wouldn’t be perfect for this job.

    2. I, too, do not believe an open system would be the most effective means to produce such a translation. And I also like your suggestions. I am anxious for this bought of insomnia you speak of! Keep me updated.

  8. (at the risk of spamming your comment thread – can you tell I’m excited about the idea?)

    A more reasonable archetype might be the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (http://plato.stanford.edu/) rather than Wikipedia. The SEP, for example, is accountable, scholarly and relatively citable (Google scholar lists thousands of citations of the SEP in journals, proceedings and academic books). It is also dynamic, no guarantees are made as to the stability of the articles.

  9. Hi Joseph.

    This is not an ad – but rather a way to help your readers understand that Bible translation is something that is greatly needed around the world.

    As to “I used to have aspirations of heading up a Bible translation project” – you CAN still be involved – in bringing the Bible to the more than 2,000 language groups around the world who don’t have a SINGLE word in their language. Go to oneverse.org.

    We English-speakers have such a luxury of so many translations to choose from.

  10. The criticism that an inherently fluid text cannot be quotable is legit, if the goal is to create a *citable* text. You can quote it at any time, but cannot provide a citation. This is a limitation which indicates that it won’t obviate dated texts.

    The value would be allowing each and every “verse” of the scriptures (there is no such thing as “The Bible”) to be subjected to translation scrutiny. It will never “arrive” but will be expanded.

    I do not envision a “translation” at all, but rather:

    * you post a public domain version, such as the KJV;
    * each verse is a blog;
    * people supply endless alternatives as they see fit;

    So, if I’m interested in John 3:16, I go to that blog (or Wiki) entry and I see the KJV and all of the comments made by others, suggesting alternative readings.

    This is similar to “Better Bibles Blog” and “God Didn’t Say That” but with an organizing principle that is precise enough to serve as a reference – an encyclopedia of translation considerations, organized by individual verses.

    1. A couple of problems with separating the verses: you couldn’t actually do a sustained reading of the translation, you couldn’t highlight structure in the poetic sections, and you would be at the mercy of the verse divisions as they exist. I think we need to think outside the verses, and perhaps outside the chapter divisions. That doesn’t mean we don’t make that information available, but that we don’t structure how it appears by the chapters or verses. For example, Genesis 1:1-2:3 would be a better division for the first page than Genesis 1 would be.

      1. It should be possible to divide the text in any way you like.

        I’d suggest that using traditional verse structures is nice and atomic and easy to manage procedurally. The verse structure is the database structure, in other words, and the higher level organizations are the views into that data.

        @ego – Starting with the KJV defeats the object entirely, I’d say.

  11. As the surgeon said, “Let’s operate and see what happens.”

    I’m inclined to think that a closed contributing community is the way to go, so that the project doesn’t get targeted for vandalism.

    Besides that bit, I’d say that the cautions voiced are exactly the kind of things that get worked out by any wiki-creating community. It’s good for us control freaks to find ourselves in a forum where we don’t “own” our contributions and can’t “protect” them except by advocating for our points in a Discussion forum.

    I think it’s a great idea.

  12. My biggest concern with using ANY translation out there is that in order to be marketable, translations must be geared toward faith communities to sell. Faith communities already know (or have already decided) what they want the Bible to say. If we try to provide a “secular” (i.e., honest) Bible translation, few people would use it outside the rather slim confines of those of us who teach Bible and who are not overly confessional about it.

    It is a resource that the world needs — desperately! But Bible scholars need to agree on the ground rules and who will run the show.

  13. And Steve has rather wonderfully illustrated why I believe this to be a rather foolish endeavor. This endeavor has all the earmarks of a simply ‘scholastic’ treatment…which UTTERLY misses the point of the revelation of Scripture…and arrogantly assumes ‘secular’ means “honest” (but I can probably assume that is your notion as well Joseph). The rejection of a ‘faith’ community is always replaced by another ‘faith’ community…in this case by those who seem to think that secularism in academia and Biblical studies is the correct way to go.

    And just so you know…I believe the finest Biblical scholars are (and have been) confessional. I would actually argue for a confessional committee working on such an endeavor as a Bible translation, but would assert that it should be strongly ecumenical.

    1. Its pretty simple, Rick

      Religious translation = a translation designed to meet the liturgical and doctrinal needs of a particular sect or denomination.

      Ecumenical = a translation designed to meet the liturgical and doctrinal needs of many sects or denominations.

      Secular = one that does not take into account liturgical and doctrinal needs in its translation.

      There are plenty of the first two, I don’t see why you should be dead against there being the third. Well, actually, I understand perfectly why you’d find the third threatening. But I think you’re being unfair.

  14. Ian,
    Its not about feeling threatened (not sure how anyone can feel threatened by persons who are deluded into actually believing they have no agenda or a ‘pure’ agenda)…its about missing the point of Scripture altogether. I am amazed at the seeming ability to be “objective” concerning the Scriptures…as if the revelation of God is subject to our simple observations and analysis apart from a demand placed upon us by the Lord to believe and obey. This is not to say that persons cannot study, analyze, translate, etc. the Scriptures without believing, but ultimately what is the agenda and what is the point?

    1. I understand that you struggle to see why people who don’t share your view of the bible might be interested in it, or consider it worthy of their time. That’s fine by me. I understand the inerrancy of the bible is the first item in your church’s creed, above even the nature of god (http://ag.org/top/Beliefs/Statement_of_Fundamental_Truths/sft_short.cfm) and I understand why you might therefore you feel you have some privileged understanding of what the “point of Scripture” is and anyone else is “deluded”.

      So okay, a non-sectarian bible is not your thing. Fine. Find a bible that does reflect what you believe the revelation of God is. Find one you do think shows the authentic inspiration of God. There are *plenty* for you to chose from.

      [Also it is quite disturbing that when characterising our position you used two words in quotes “pure” agenda, and “objective” – the only occurrence of either of these words or their cognates in the discussion are yours – except for Joseph’s comment that “objectivity is fleeting”, i.e. that it is unobtainable. That strikes me as a hefty straw man you’re hacking away at there.]

  15. Actually Ian…reread Steve’s post and you’ll see he refers to the “secular” with “honest as one example. This would seem to imply a notion of the “secular” as pure in regard to bias…and objective in regard to truth. If your contribution to such a translation will only work with exact lexical morphemes…then good luck! I’ll let those of you here who don’t hold to Scripture as the authoritative canon for doctrine and practice :-).

    1. “good luck! I’ll let those of you here who don’t hold to Scripture as the authoritative canon for doctrine and practice”

      Thanks (for the ‘good luck’), that’s all I was getting it. It obviously doesn’t float your boat, but it floats mine.

  16. Why do bible scholars need a translation? Our research is all based on the original anyway. I think it would be much more useful for a “Scholarly Bible” wiki to present a reliable text in the original language (preferably from a single manuscript, rather than a critical text), the other ancient version, and as many variants as may be found for each… A sort of master critical apparatus…

    But the main thing would have to be notes. Notes upon notes and discussions of notes. A translation is really a very poor tool for understanding the Bible with precision . We can already read it in original language anyway. Now we just need to figure out what the heck it means!

    The other difficulty I have is with the idea of translation by consensus. Good translations must be based (in my opinion, your mileage may vary) on thorough exegesis of the entire text in question. No two scholars approach any book of the bible in exactly the same way, and you’d probably end up getting a hodge podge sort of translation that doesn’t give any sort of consistency. I’d rather see a unified vision when analyzing a unified text.

    For example, when translating Genesis, would you exegete J, E, and P separately and translate based on that (or even perhaps try to analyse various strati within each)? would you take a form-critical approach and only try to give continuity to each individual tradition? would you postulate a heavy handed final redactor and try to find his meaning? Would you acknowledge the complex textual history but attempt to find canonical unity anyway? Would you agree with the conservative scholarship that it was put together in the period of the united monarchy, With the classic criticism and the various dates it assigns to the pieces (or the Jerusalem version that moves P before the exile, and makes only the redaction an exilic or post-exilic work), or will you translate according to the theories of the Copenhagen school that sees the whole thing as written well within the second temple period? Will you see more cultural and literary connections to Mesopotamia, Egypt, Ugarite, or the Hittite empire? All of these things come into play when translating Genesis.

    The difficulty with signs is that they refer to real things… only in the case of the Bible, we don’t always know what those real things are. I think notes and discussions are much more helpful than translations else in getting at the meaning of those signs. 21st century English has little basis for making direct semantic analogies with Biblical Hebrew.

    Case in point: As far as I know, the discussion concerning Qohelet being a proper name or a title is still far from a consensus. Just translating it one way or the other will not do much to help the discussion. Putting forth arguments might.

    1. I agree to a large extent, Aaron. But I also think that there is a large hinterland of people who are not language scholars who don’t have access to a H-C bible translation.

      I’m thinking particularly of undergraduate students. It takes two years to get them reading at even a reasonable level in original languages, and even then exegesis is very difficult (except for the odd passage). Because I’m most excited by the NT, my Hebrew is still about at that level: I can work methodically through a text with the right resources, but it is hardly a reading experience, and it is almost impossible to do exegesis on larger textual units that way.

      I think your objection is one of the reasons there hasn’t been a H-C translation before. There is obviously less of an audience than a confessional translation, or a critical text. And there are obvious and important weaknesses in all translations you point out. It would never be possible to be definitive in any sense, or even consistent to any particular school of critical thought. Your objections are valid, I think, and no translation should ever claim to be anything but a signboard for the original languages. But I think there’s a gap between those criticisms and the kinds of problem Joseph was talking about and problems I see where conventional translations mask underlying consistency or variety.

      So I think there’s good value in the project. And I support the idea of making it a forum for diverse approaches and apparatus too. That, in my mind, could make it a truly awesome resource.

  17. I also wonder how making a wikified translation would ensure that it was always improving. It’s not exactly as if our feild is making leaps and bounds by the day. The primary material has hardly changed in a couple thousand years. Just because somsbody has a new idea to offer doesn’t mean it will be any better than an old one (not to say that new ideas are not needed or valuable, just that they are not so very often great improvements to state of knowledge). Sorry for being such a humbug, just saying what’s in my head. If you do manage to get it started, I’ll be as interested to see what happens as anyone.

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