Thursday, 21 August 2008

Does changing the end of the story change the story?

When I arrived in France as a young minister the regional president heard me preach and instructed the congregation to buy me a more modern French translation of the Bible than the one my English church had given me at my ordination. I realise now that it must have been a little bit like listening to someone struggle through a public reading of the King James version of the Bible. (The archaic translation my president took exception to was "De leurs glaives ils forgeront des hoyaux" Micah 4.3 - the word hoyaux is pretty unpronouncable even for native speakers and not a word in everyday speech.)
I was immediately given a copy of La Bible en Français Courant and found it quite a bit easier to get my tongue around (not quite as many subjunctives or archaic words) but I did encounter a major problem - I could not find my way around the old testament. I began to have nightmares of standing up in front of the congregation and hopelessly turning pages for minutes on end muttering madly "I know it's in here somewhere ..."!
Quite a number of modern French Bible translations have editions which follow the order of the Hebrew scriptures rather than the order of the Christian old testament.
This began with the ecumenical Traduction Oecuménique de la Bible (TOB) published in the 1970s, other French Bible translations of Protestant origin tend to offer versions following both the Hebrew order and the Christian order. Generally French Protestant Bibles which also include the deutero canonical books or apocrypha are more likely to follow the Hebrew order. Using the Hebrew order was perhaps something of an ecumenical compromise - a way too of bringing the apocrypha to a Protestant audience for (almost) the first time.
I'm not always terribly fond of the TOB translation - nor do I always agree with the explanations given in the amazing footnotes, but I love using my TOB concordance which is a mine of glorious translation, linguistic information and trivia. It has information about how often a word in French has been used to translate particular Hebrew and Greek words - a wonderful time waster - it's also so large it doubles nicely as a small coffee table! (OK yes of course you can get a CD version if you really want but I like turning paper pages.)
However, over the years I've found it both interesting and challenging to think about what the different ordering of the Hebrew books of the Bible does to the meaning Christian preachers, teachers and believers make of the beginning and end of the story. Traditionally the Christian ordering of the Hebrew scriptures ends with the book of Malachi and the promise of the Messiah and the coming of the Sun of righteousness. The traditional Jewish ordering of the Hebrew scriptures ends with II Chronicles and the call to the people in exile to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.
If I change the order of contents of a book - in particular the end - does this mean it tells a different story? As you can tell I haven't got an answer to this, and perhaps in post modernist times it doesn't mattter so much - the story is what you make of it and each of us perhaps creates our own canon, our own Bible or way of telling the story. For me it highlights just how little of the Bible we actually read in church - apart from the Psalms the lectionaries tend to concentrate on deutero Isaiah and parts of Genesis, Exodus and Jeremiah as readings from the Hebrew scriptures.
And in case you're wondering, now of course I can't find my way around either the French or the English old testaments, the nightmares have however thankfully receded.


J. K. Gayle said...

Quand il eut goûté le vinaigre, Jésus dit:
---Tout est accompli.

But of course, as we all know, that's hardly the end of the story. For one thing, it had to be translated into Greek, which began everything all over again. That first translating into the Greek had only caused a bit of reordering of the Hebrew testament by those seventy-some scholars (and they were before the moderns and us postmoderns).

Plus les choses changent, plus elles sont les memes.

Thanks for your wonderful post!

Jane said...

I have heard it said that the reason that some Orthodox scholars did not get involved at an official level in the TOB translation was that it was based on the Hebrew and not on the "septante" ... the Greek being the original for their church.