Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Reviewing Ancient Words In Context

A wise teacher once told me, “All meaning is context dependent.”  That concise 5-word sentence made all the difference in my future understanding of all things printed. 

What is context?  Literally, con means with.  Context is what runs with the words, envelopes the phrases, elongates the sentences.  Context fills the political, social, economic, and historical background of the temporal structure.  Context may describe the author’s background, thoughts, prejudices, or intent.  

When I know the context, the text has meaning I might not derive from my own time, culture, and thoughts.  This is especially true for foreign cultures and ancient times.   And this is where authors can get into trouble.

Of the common types of literature, historical fiction, non-fiction, and speculative fiction all take advantage of context.  The good historical fiction novel recreates the original background of the time.  The speculative fiction novel creates a new world context.  The non-fiction work must validate its theories with facts that provide a true context.

What happens if you remove the context?  For non-fiction, words can then mean whatever you want them to or whatever the reader understands them to mean, which may be two or more completely different meanings. Watch the first section of this the second part of the Oscar winning short film Why Man Creates and you will understand how the viewer or reader perceives the artistic creation or the written word. With little or no context, the viewer brings their own meaning to the artist’s work.

I found myself confronted with mixed contexts as I read a new translation/paraphrase of the Bible, specifically the New Testament.  The Voice New Testament is a thought by thought translation of the New Testament with additions.  What is added makes it different from many other translations. 

First, and most useful is boxed text which provides context.  These context boxes explain the culture or background behind the text.  Whether explaining a custom, a tradition, a practice, or describing the geographic or historic significance, or even asking questions of the reader, these text boxes add much to the reading.  In only a few cases do they leave behind context for judgments that should have been omitted.  Look for the words, “apparently,” “probably,” or “it is clear” and you will be able to stop reading at that point.   

Next, and least useful are italicized words and phrases within the text that have been added for readability, clarification, or whim.  I use the last term because some of these added words seen to be an attempt to add alliteration or other contemporary literary devices.  While a new reader of the Bible might find the style engaging, as a long-time Bible reader I frequently found these italicized words and phrases intrusive and distracting from the original text. 

Maybe, this Bible wasn’t meant for me or other long-time readers.  Although not quite a paraphrase, a paraphrase might better fit the purpose of this The Voice New Testament.  Here is a good quote from The Voice New Testament followed by the same quote from the New International Version, then from The Message, a paraphrase by Eugene Peterson. 

Matthew 11:28-30

Come to Me, all who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Put my yoke upon your shoulders—it might appear heavy at first, but it is perfectly fitted to your curves.  Learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble of heart. When you are yoked to Me, your weary souls will find rest. For My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.  (The Voice)

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (NIV)

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly.  (The Message.)

As you can see, The Voice New Testament is more readable than the NIV, a straight translation, but not as readable as The Message which puts the entire passage in contemporary language, making it easier for the person who has never read a Bible.  I believe The Voice New Testament could be confusing.  I found myself wondering whether the writers had changed the meaning with their added words.  I consulted two other translations and was satisfied that the translation of The Voice New Testament was reasonably accurate.  However, with the added words it falls between a strict translation and a paraphrase.  I recommend using a strict translation (NIV, NASB, ESV, NKJB, etc.) for study, and The Message paraphrase for easy reading.  If you have already read The Message, by all means read The Voice New Testament for another easy read.

Finally, all direct dialogue in The Voice New Testament is presented in screenplay format, with the speaker’s name on the left and their words on the right.  This manner of separating dialogue from the narrative helps emphasize the dialogue.  I often find myself losing the spoken word in the narrative and I greatly appreciate this format.  I would like all translations to use this method of differentiating narrative from dialogue.

To summarize, this is not a Bible for someone who wants a new translation; this is for the person who wants to casually sit and read the Bible.  If you are opposed to reading a paraphrase like The Message, this is both readable and accurate enough for Bible Study; but like me, long time Bible scholars are going to set The Voice New Testament aside for a good study Bible or a straight translation.



I received The Voice New Testament free from the publisher for this review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.


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