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The Bible as seen through the eyes of . . .

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Tim Bulkeley

I do hope this is the first part of a series, or a manifesto that will be filled out more in further posts!


That's all it is, Tim, a shot across the bow(s).

John C. Poirier

Great stuff! Your ideas here need to be worked into a print article.

Translators should always be aiming for the bullseye. With too many recent translations, however, one gets the impression that the translators were happy just to hit the dart board.


Hi John,

I get that a lot. I am ambivalent about turning the content of this blog into Veblenesque prestige goods.

Paradoxically, in order to locate the content of this blog in a prestige niche and price its content beyond the reach of most readers, I would have to cheapen its quality. In particular, I would have to remove the possibility of searching its content electronically; remove live links and cross-references; and remove the possibility of online interaction.

True, scholars tend to shy away from online interaction. More often they write me a response privately via email. Or they deliberately seek to fail to notice online interaction with their research focus and the primary and secondary literature they control. Life is too complicated already.

All of these reactions are understandable. I suppose, then, that you are right.

I should recast and repackage content into forms scholars are taught they cannot avoid - though they usually do anyway - most peer-reviewed research never really becomes part of a larger conversation.



Very nice post. I do believe that the Hebrew of the Bible is best understood as a vernacular. But one of the problems with any vernacular is that it interacts with the lingua franca in often unpredictable ways. Certainly this happens with large scale linguistic issues but it also can happen at the lexeme level. I think of Rendsburg’s comments on a word play with a Greek word in Prov 31:27 (I see that this is actually from Wolters), or an Akkadain word in Isa 10:8 or even an Egyptian word in Exod 10:10 to give just a few examples. All this surely adds to the problem of translation.


Hi Duane,

Thank you for some very pertinent observations.

C. Stirling Bartholomew


I read this post, composed a response, threw it away. Read W. Leman's post of your post on BBB. Read your post again. You see, I taking this seriously, really trying to understand.

I does seem like you are talking a completely different language than W.Leman, P.Kirk, Kerr, I.Larson et al. I read Leman's request as a question in regard to a formal linguistic framework. I don't see that in your response.

Your post reminds me of a linguist and friend of mine from eastern europe who wanted to get his phd dissertation published in the west and was frustrated because his whole approach to the text didn't conform to the way western scholars do their work. His approach to the text was very different and simply didn't fit into the way linguists work with the text in the west.

I see something very much like that going on here. You seem to be working with the biblical like literary scholar but your critics on the BBB are mostly linguists. Having one foot in both worlds, I can read your post appreciated as I might something by Harold Bloom, on the other hand, if I look at it for a "theoretical foundation" of the sort linguists work with I don't find an answer to what I assume Wayne was asking for. This is in no way a criticism of your point of view. I just think the BBB folks and JFH are not talking about the same thing.


Hi C. Stirling,

With this post, I wanted to show that a single, linguistically founded distinction, if taken seriously, calls into question a number of assumptions the BBB people take for granted.

Are they going to reverse themselves and no longer privilege translations that value clarity and naturalness of expression above all? I expect not. My goal is modest. To think of translation in sociolinguistic terms. It has a social location. Different kinds of translations have different social locations.

I will develop this further in future posts.

Wayne Leman

John wrote of BBBers:

Are they going to reverse themselves and no longer privilege translations that value clarity and naturalness of expression above all? I expect not.

Well, John, what can we say in response? It's like trying to answer the question: "Have you stopped beating your wife?"

We have insisted all along that accuracy trumps everything else, including clarity and naturalness. We have pointed out that a translation can be clear and natural but inaccurate. And the converse is true. I have given examples of each problem: good clarity but inaccurate, and poor clarity but accurate. Neither case is acceptable translation. Instead, as I have written repeatedly, a Bible translation should be a clear to its audience as the original biblical texts were to its audience. Due to cultural distances, something has to be done to bridge the cultural divide. The main solutions are:

1. Have a Bible teacher explain what is not culturally understood by translation users.
2. Footnote explanations for cultural differences.
3. Include some explication of culturally implicit information in the translation itself, but only what is necessary to keep that portion of translation from having zero or little meaning. Depend on #2 for filling in what would detract from the flow of the narrative or logic.

We, like you, believe that the literary features of the biblical texts should be retained in translation. Translations should be in the same register and genre as their source texts.

Be sure you are describing what we actually promote at BBB and not your own caricature of it. Straw men are easily demolished. It takes more work to address what actual differences do exist. I have not seen any evidence yet in this post of any actual differences, but I know you believe that there are some, and so I look forward to further posts in this series which will demonstrate those differences. Then we will have something empirical with which to make comparisons.


Hi Wayne,

Given a commitment in theory to preserve style and register in translation, how is that done at the level of vernacular vs. lingua franca? Is it possible to translate a vernacular into anything other than another vernacular without engaging in code-switching?

Not that I know of. This as an issue for all schools of translation technique. Why not address it head on?

Wayne Leman

John asked:

Not that I know of. This as an issue for all schools of translation technique. Why not address it head on?

I would if I understood what it it that you want me to address head on, John. I know what vernacular language is. I know what a lingua franca is. But I don't understand how you are relating them to Bible translation. I do know that the mission organization of which I am a member has done translations into both vernaculars and lingua francas. Fill me in--or I can wait for subsequent posts--then I might have enough mental hooks on which I can hang something.

In the world today there are clines of different kinds of languages vis-a-vis vernaculars and lingua francas. There are pidgins, creoles, lingua francas, vernaculars, dialects, registers, sacred languages, etc. I often do not understand concepts right away unless I can see some examples of what they refer to. Show me and I can try to respond.


I thought I would get back to blogging when I had finished all my commitments (one last round to go), and then you up and publish this! It can't go unanswered, but I'm still one lead article in a collected volume and one son's wedding away from having the time to give a real answer. Let me put down an IOU.

Ken Pike always used to say that it was about the assumptions. If we really shared assumptions we end up in the same place. But we don't. You see the Bible as essentially foreign and other. I see the Bible, especially the NT, as immediate and, at its heart, simple. Jesus' stories are about farmers and compassionate foreigners and fathers who love their sons so much that they overlook horrible transgressions. Paul's letters are about dealing with churches trying to wrap their heads around a loving God and stumbling along the way. To a man the writers of the NT would be horrified to discover we treat their writings as Scripture. They were solving very specific down to earth problems, like preserving an apostle's witness of Jesus life when he was getting old, or dealing with a church that hadn't quite mastered the balance between freedom and responsibility. They weren't about challenging Hellenistic culture or Roman authority (cf. Rom. 13). If they were in anyone's face it was the Jewish hegemony.

To me the Bible is about being human, not about making a kind of self-aware counter-cultural statement that is only possible in a post-Freudian world.

I'd say speaking to culture (as opposed to speaking to people) is very much in the spirit of postmodernism. In my understanding the thrust of pomo is against globalization and homogenization, the very thing you accuse the NIV and TEV of.

To the extent the world of the Bible is foreign, it's foreign in being less self-aware than any 20th/21st century educated person is. Its stories are sparer and less laden with description than we would write. But this is, as they say in the computer business, upwardly compatible. Roman era Greek speakers would have a harder time understanding us than we have understanding them. We have SO many more artifacts integrated into our lives and so many more highly-developed societal structures that we depend on and so much better an understanding of our inner lives.

Finally (for now) I think the evidence is clear from the mounds and mounds of papyri that keep showing up that there is a lot less Aramaic in NT Greek than one tends to think if one is used to looking at Semitic -- or possibly that what Aramaic influences there were were in colloquial Greek from Athens to Alexandria. The point is NT Greek (maybe with the exception of the clearly barely competent John) isn't "funny" Greek for the the Greek of the time. (There's even a good case to be made that the LXX was as much in use in the synagogues as the Hebrew Scripture.)

Some of these differences in view really are unresolvable. I have one other big thing to say, but it's midnight here and that point deserves a whole post which I'll put over on BBB when I get the time to write it up properly.

Wayne Leman

John, we are BBB believe in sociolinguistics as you do. In particular we believe that the sociolinguistic context of the biblical texts has a huge impact on their meanings. We must not translate without taking into account the sociolinguistic context of the biblical language texts, as well, as that of the target language speakers, whose lexicon, syntax, cosmology, theology, etc. must be known well enough to the translators of that language so that the translation will communicate the same message to them that the biblical language texts did to their audiences. I don't think any BBBers believe in contextualizing translation. I sure don't.

So I continue to be baffled. I still don't understand what difference you believe there is between the kind of translation you advocate and that which we BBBers do. Could you clarify, please?

I thought that you were going to demonstrate in a post how your mentors, Pym, Toury, and other one would translate the Bible differently from BBB translation mentors. Maybe that's still in your outline to be covered in subsequent posts. If so, I'm sorry for getting impatient. It's hard to be patient, however, when you are characterizing what we at BBB believe and I don't believe what you seem to be saying I believe. Why don't you ask us first what we believe instead of telling others what we believe when I don't understand how what you're saying about our beliefs can be true?

Next, how are you defining "pomo"? I would never have imagined any of the Bible versions you called "pomo" being pomo as I understand post-modernism. What specific evidence of post-modernism do you find in any of the English Bible versions you mentioned? I'm not trying to defend them. I simply don't understand how they could be post-modern when I'm far from pomo and have never seen any scent of pomo in them. For the record, I'm a strong advocate of authorial intent. That's as far as one can get from pomo, if I have my definitions straight.



See footnote 2 for the sense in which I am using the term "post-modern."



Translating from a vernacular into a lingua franca poses specific challenges.

So far as I know, these challenges have not been identified as such in internal discussion among Bible translators.

The senses in which the Hebrew of the Bible is a vernacular and the senses in which Hellenistic Greek is a lingua franca but, in the hands of the NT authors, used for a purpose that is both nativizing and universalizing at the same time, deserve discussion precisely in the context of the practice of Bible translation.

These are the kind of issues, even if they are not (yet) the same issues, that someone like Lawrence Venuti raises and which he presented - by invitation - to Bible translators at a Nida lecture in the context of SBL.

Feel free to take a long hard look at the article by Tim Parks to which I link.

Of course, Parks is not a linguist but a celebrated author. However, those of us who read widely in sociolinguistics will be the first to agree that Parks raises questions which echo throughout the secondary literature.

The cross-referencing I did was with the work of Seth Sanders and Mark S. Smith in the field of biblical studies. The implications of their work for the practice of translation from the vernacular of biblical Hebrew to the lingua franca of 21st century globalized standard English have not been touched on, so far as I know, outside of my post.

Wayne's comeback is I think illuminating. He redirects the discussion into the tried and true paths of Bible translation theory to date. That is, the vernacular / lingua franca is once again off the table and all energies are concentrated on thinking about the specific challenges posed in the work of translating from a source text from a time and place which is strange from so many points of view into a familiar target language and "mental map" (to take up language borrowed from another discipline, cognitive linguistics).

I realize that I am asking a lot, but I nonetheless invite people to interact with the thesis I expressed in footnote 2 (if only Eddie Arthur were here; it is the kind of thesis he would warm to, even if he disagreed with it):

The identification and privileging of “barrier-less” translations of the Bible in the language of the empire through fluency testing serves the interests of the empire, whereas a translation of the Bible in a form of Biblish – i.e. in an ideolect with a narrower and deeper set of cross-references – has the advantage of creating a wedge between two cultures in conflict: that of market capitalism, built around a perverse notion of economic communion; and that of the Bible, built around a commitment to the communion of the saints.


Another thing.

My critique of the kind of translations that are preferred by BBB contributors on sociolinguistic grounds is not without precedent.

I don’t have the references handy, but the Living Bible back in the days was buried in criticism of this kind.

The history of the NLT is the history of a retreat from a highly familiarizing translation technique to a technique that respects to a progressively greater extent the strangeness of the source text’s diction and mapping.

My one and only point: NLT2 still does not go far enough in the direction of respecting the strangeness of its source text. Not by a long shot.



I look forward to hearing more from you, but you better get crackin', since I will soon move on to discussing theory and reflections by a number of others, some of whom Wayne has listed, and others who will be brand new to him and everyone else on these threads (because I read translation theory in Italian and German, not just English).

I very much like how your frame the questions. Let me chart some of our differences.

You say:

"I see the Bible, especially the NT, as immediate and, at its heart, simple."

I am in complete agreement on the theological level. I would go further, with the Reformers, and emphasize not only the inherent clarity of scripture, but also, that it is perfectly suited to the purpose God intended it to have, that it, thanks to the Holy Spirit, does not and will not lead us into error, that Scripture is its own interpreter, and so on.

I am just trying to be honest and note how these theological claims are in tension with linguistic facts.

The linguistic facts, and sociolinguistic considerations of the kind I touch on in the post above, lead to me to favor the kind of translation the ZB offers. For background, go here:

You say:

"They weren't about challenging Hellenistic culture or Roman authority (cf. Rom. 13). If they were in anyone's face it was the Jewish hegemony."

Here we are very far apart. Where is Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat when you need them?

To be clear, my mentors here are not Brian and Sylvia so much as Hendrikus Berkhof (read his classic "Christ and the Powers" - I predict it will change your thinking big-time), E. P. Sanders, Daniel Boyarin, and Robert Jewett. To put it very briefly, the social and cultural backdrop of Paul's Letter to the Romans *is* the Roman Empire; Romans 13 has to be read in conjunction with Romans 8; Paul does not challenge Jewish hegemony so much as expect it to be reinstated - see Romans 11. Jewish hegemony is part of his apocalyptic hope and a non-negotiable part of his understanding of the history of salvation: the gifts of God [to the Jews] are irrevocable (11:29).

I'll leave it there for the moment.

I could have begun further upstream, I admit. I am still waiting for someone to write a sociolinguistic analysis of biblical literature, even at an undergraduate level, of the kind you expect undergrads to produce at Berkeley:

C. Stirling Bartholomew


I think Wayne asked you to give your views on elephants and you continue to discuss bananas. There is a linguistic framework that looks a lot like what you appear to prefer in translation practice. David Kenneth Holford Gray, here is snip from the abstract: "This dissertation analyses Robert Alter’s translation of Genesis as an example of New Literary Critical Approaches to the text in general, and to Bible Translation in particular. By way of introduction various theoretical approaches to Bible Translation are studied; Functional Equivalence, Relevance Theory and Literary as well as a brief comparison of Formal Correspondence and Functional Equivalence."

D.Gray puts the whole issue into a language which both literary people and linguists can understand. He does not address the "language of empire" but he answers Wayne's question in a manner which is very close to your preferred method of translation.

Wayne Leman

John answered:

See footnote 2 for the sense in which I am using the term "post-modern."

Thanks, John. I have read that footnote, but I don't understand your English in it. Let me do some guessing and please tell me if I am at least getting in the ballpark.

Are you alluding to the fact that translations such as GNB, CEV, and (much less so) NLT are "common language" translations (a technical term used by the Nida school)? As you probably know, the GNB was translated for those who speak English as a second language. Later, when it got such a warm reception among those whose first language is English, ABS promoted it as a translation for all English speakers.

Is this the globalization you are referring to, which you consider post-modern? These are sincere questions, not rhetorical, since I have difficulty understanding the register of English you have written the footnote and entire post in and I want to understand your thinking about Bible translation.

Much of your writing reflects the authors you have read but I have never heard of. That's not meant as a criticism; it's just an observation. If I am to understand what you have written, I either need a translation to my dialect of English, or I need to put down my work and spend a lot of time reading those you read and trying to work through what you have written for an audience which shares your background and vocabulary. Speaking of iconicity, in an interesting way, your passionate (a good thing) writing about something you care so much about is written in language which is foreign to most English speakers, the very thing which (I *think*) you laud in translations to English. Slowly, I think I am starting to understand the edges of this new pond of authors, vocabulary, and concepts, if I have guessed right about what it is that you mean by what you are writing.

How did I do with my guessing?


Unfortunately, I really won't have much of a window until some time in mid-July. You post what you need to, and I'll get to it or not.

The simplest way to understand the heart of my stance is this:

We're WAY over-thinking this thing.

We've had two millenia of people by the thousands, the tens of thousands, including no small number of geniuses thinking about the NT since the time the various books in it were written. (And you can pretty much double that for the OT.) Every syllable has been examined and re-examined. Every imaginable reading has been tried. Whole complex theologies, many all but incompatible with one another, have been proposed and Scripture re-examined in their light. We can hardly look at Scripture without seeing layer on layer of stuff. Stuff that both is and isn't really there. If you want to hear what the original audience heard, you have to turn your back on all that. Not so easy to do.

Furthermore, so little of the NT is literature that talking about literary translation is, I maintain, a basic genre mistake. (For the OT, it's the other way around, but even there there are serious questions about the Torah and the prophets as literature.) It is a logical mistake to take the fact that the Bible has influenced our literature so deeply and infer from that that the Bible is literature. (I do, however, appreciate how much the interplay of the Bible and Western literature sets up an expectation that the words of the Bible should sound literary.)

BTW, I think that treating the Bible as literature is a handy way for non-believers to avoid engaging the heart content of Scripture.

So anyway, you can cite brilliant translation theorists till you're blue in the face and it won't matter to me. So much of translation theory is about literary translation, and I think that approach is a fundamental mistake when it comes to the Bible. When a given book really is literary, Song of Songs, for example, then you'll have my attention, but when you are translating Luke and Acts, it just isn't literature. I'll much sooner read the comments on translation problems on LEO. They help me clarify my thinking much more than literary theory.

And there's a substantive argument here. There are a lot of quotes in the NT, and the language in the quotes is demonstrably different from the language of the rest of the NT, which means: the LXX was in Biblish to the writers of the NT. If you translate the whole of the NT into Biblish there's nowhere to go.

That's as much time as I can afford tonight.

(Daniel Bruhn is a grad student, actually. I think that paper was for Ling 150 which is the upper division sociolinguistics course that can be taken for graduate credit.)



I thought that paper was rather good, even for a Berkeley undergrad.

I would certainly insist that the Bible is literature, in the first place, as you seem to admit, the Old Testament. I don't see how one can regard Genesis and other parts of the Torah or any of the prophets as anything *less* than literature, though they are also *more* than literature.

I also think that Luke-Acts is literature. Note how Luke 1 begins; note his use of Biblish, not only when he cites LXX, but in terms of narrative technique, theme embedment, key concepts, and so on. No one doubts that Luke-Acts is literature, only, that it is not typical koine literature.

In many places, the natural response to reading Luke-Acts is, "Your LXX is showing," the Hebrew through that; in fact, with Q and beyond (see now Maurice Casey), the case can be made that "your Aramaic is showing." In the case of the LXX, this is a form of metalepsis. But metalepsis is considered to be a literary trope, not something one expects in contracts and letters on papyri.

Even if you leave aside the above examples of "interference" typical of literature, you still have highly crafted speech. Ever read Tannehill's The Sword of His Mouth? It's a classic which no student of the language of the sayings of Jesus can do without reading. And no one can read T's volume, I submit, and then be satisfied with reading Jesus' words in a translation like GNB, NLT, or even NIV.

By the way, I am not saying that RSV/ESV/NRSV on the sayings of Jesus (they largely overlap) cannot be improved. But I am convinced that that translation tradition remains the best starting point for reading something like the Sermon on the Mount - short of reading it in Greek and consulting the commentaries.

In short, yes, I will cite theorists of literary translation until I am blue in the face. I think their work is of great relevance, not only to the translation of the Psalms, but of Genesis, not only of Isaiah, but of Ruth; not only of Luke, but of Hebrews.

The most non-literary work I know of in the NT is the Apocalypse. Paradoxically, I think it would take a great literary translator to transfer into English its non-literary style. Novelists like Rudy Wiebe or Faulkner knew to how to inflect the voice of people speaking vernacular as opposed to literary speech.

But I hope you find the time later on to come back to this. Perhaps if I take up some specific examples from the gospel of Luke I will lure you back.

Rev. Bryant J. Williams III

Dear John,

If I understand your post correctly (?), then it appears that you are saying that world, i.e. the worldview, culture, politics, religious and language of the OT (both Hebrew and Aramaic; let alone the Greek and NT), should be translated as such into English (for example). There should not be the cleaning up process that is frequently used in modern translations to make it easier to read, let alone understand. BOTH testaments are factual and historical documents. They should be translated as such. The Hebrew scribe copied the text and did not change the text. Any differences or changes were made in the margin of the text; so also in English. Poetry is translated as poetry and reflects the Hebrew original. See Robert Alter's article: the Eloguence of the King James Version, 05/11/2011,

The OT and NT were NOT written in a vaccuum. There were assumptions by the human authors and receivers of the texts. Furthermore, both OT and NT were written primarily by authors with a decisively Semitic worldview in languages that would be understood, but the thoughts and concepts would not be (spiritually discerned). Luke, the author of Luke-Acts, would still be somewhat influenced by Semitic thinking since he spent so much time with Paul and and in Ceasarea Maritime.

The use of the NT authors of the LXX in their theology of Messianic passages of the OT is striking. Where did the authors of the NT derive their use of the OT? From Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

The final thought is that the Bible is the result of a single, DIVINE author. This alone creates tension when trying to determine and to translate the intent of the DIVINE author, vis-a-vis the human author. Translation theory needs to take this issue head-on.


Hi Bryant,

It is true that both Jews and Christians think of the Bible as having a single, divine author. This is huge. In that context, canonical readings of the Scripture, ones which systematically bring scripture to bear on scripture, are not only permitted, but required.

A difficulty that arises relates to law and prophecy. Does one translate a prophecy in light of the fulfillment one's tradition considers of unequivocable importance? On that basis, one might translate Isa 7:14 with

Ecce virgo concipiet, et pariet filium: et vocabitur nomen eius Emmanuel

Or make a chain (this has a pre-Christian Jewish pedigree):

Ecce virgo concipiet, et pariet filium: Et vocabitur nomen ejus admirabilis, Deus Fortis. Super solium David, et super regnum ejus sedebit in aeternum

Does one translate Torah in light of its later aggiornamento in the tradition of the Sages? This, too, has been done often enough.

There are arguments in favor of translating the texts as they are, and arguments in favor of harmonization. I prefer to leave the texts as they are, but I understand that there may be instances in which that just seems unwise.

Here's an example from Bible translation lore that cuts the other way (but not really).

Bruce Metzger is said to have argued long and hard that NRSV should title the appropriate epistle that of "Judas." After all, it is "Judas," not "Jude," in the Greek. He got the committee on his side. But he slept on it, and thought better the next morning.



You said (

"I agree it's wrong to make Paul a liberal, in a formal translation. What I’m not sure about is why it's then OK to make him a Protestant."

I agree. That's why I often complain about the translation of paradosis in NIV and NLT 2 Thessalonians 2:15 and 3:6. I have to admit: on this basis alone I find NIV and NLT hard to recommend. ESV and HCSB shine in comparison.



You said (

"Seems to me that the history [of LB and NLT at Isaiah 7:7-9] shows consistent effort to clarity in translation."

I agree.

In particular, NLT tends to disambiguate metaphors in translation whereas I have consistently defended the need to preserve metaphors in translation wherever possible; second best, to translate a source metaphor with a roughly equivalent metaphor in the target language.

This is about accuracy. In my experience, proponents of translations that bend over backwards to disambiguate metaphors do not realize that they are surgeons who, at the first sign of trouble, choose amputation.

For Wayne, I think it is fair to say it is about "standard English." Once it is determined that it is not standard English to say "Father Abraham," it is preferable in his mind to replace that expression with "our forefather Abraham" or "our ancestor Abraham." Go here @ Matt 3:9:

To be clear, *no* translation at Luke 16:30 (unless one counts CEV, which seems to just skip the phrase) does away with "Father Abraham."

But if Wayne is right, and I quote, "In English one does not refer to a multi-generational forefather or ancestor as 'father,'" Luke 16:30 would not lose in accuracy but gain in naturalness and clarity if "Father Abraham" were set aside.

I respectfully disagree. Phrases like "Father Abraham," and "we have Abraham as our father" need to be retained. They are part of a web of references to fatherhood which form a mental map and interconnect. A translation with "ancestor" obscures details of the mental map; "forefather" is not much better.



In your comment ( you quote David Bayly of all people to characterize Robert Jewett.

With all due respect, Bayly is no authority on Jewett. Please do your homework.

Jewett motivated his objections to MRSV with great care, as one would expect from a great scholar. I went over this before, with citation of sources to avoid any suspicion of misrepresentation (disclaimer: Robert Jewett is one of my mentors):

[Jewett] was incensed by NRSV 2 Thes 3:12 because it has Paul exhorting people to work quietly and "earn their own living." That, he said (Paul, the Apostle of America, p. 85), gave the text an individualistic, capitalistic bent whereas "the food that people ate" was consumed during communal meals, family-style in which the whole church was a "God-taught" family. This has to do with Jewett's carefully argued thesis of tenement churches and a continuation of the Acts 2:42-45 model in Pauline Christianity.

He's right on, I think, but you can count the number of people on one hand who care as much as he and I that the historical particularities of Pauline Christianity be brought out, not disguised, in translation.

Another example is NRSV 1 Thessalonians 4:4-6, revised to be gender-inclusive though that warps the plainly androcentric focus of the passage which, furthermore, is about "procuring a vessel" = acquiring a wife (so, rightly, NAB), not controlling one's body.

BTW, ESV translation choices in both loci are almost as politically correct and petit-bourgeois as those of NRSV.

For discussion, see the previously cited volume, chapter 4, the Sexual Liberation of Paul and his Churches.

Scary, I suppose. I trained with fiercely egal scholars who even so would scream bloody murder if you introduced surreptitiously even one drop of egalitarianism into the text that wasn't there.


Mike Sangrey,

You said (

"Are you trying to divorce the sociolinguistic, world-view fabric, woven into a document (any document) from the text itself?"

Answer: no, I am trying to keep them together.

You also say:

"I hear you saying that translators should be more in tuned with their socio-economic assumptions. However, I don’t see any argument (yet) for steering away from clarity and naturalness. These later two attributes simply mean we use the language we’re given."

What I'm arguing is that when NIV 2011 translates Isa 19:16 without recourse to the natural equivalent of "women," I assume on the grounds of clarity, in reality it is obeying a thirst for political correctness.

I believe there is a place for politically correct, gender-sensitive translations: in congregations that require such things in order to enforce and reinforce their view of the world.

In catholic (with a small "c") congregations, in truly diverse communities, it is better in my view to stick with politically incorrect, gender-accurate translations.

I understand that you agree that translators should be more in tuned with their socio-economic assumptions (see comment above on 2 Thes 3:12). That's a great first step.

Now add: socio-cultural (Isaiah 19:16 or 1 Thes 4:4-6). Then add: socio-religious (for example, don't make Paul into either a Protestant or a Catholic: contrast NIV and NLT 2 Thes 2:15 and 3:6).

Finally: socio-political (now I've really opened a can of worms).


For those inclined to form an opinion about Robert Jewett based on a reading of his work and a sense of his cur vitae, go here for starters:

Here is a point of departure for a discussion of the translation of metaphors (apologies to Rich Rhodes, who was hoping that I would leave the theory of literary translation to one side, as if it didn't apply to the Bible), from a classic article by van den Broeck (1981):

According to Toury [1976] the translator is always confronted with a "basic choice between two polar alternatives deriving from the two major constituents of the 'value' in literary translation [...]: he either subjects himself to the original text, with its textual relations and the norms expressed by it and contained in it, or to the linguistic and literary norms active in the TL and in the target literary
polysystem, or a certain section of it."

Although the translator's practical decisions will rarely represent one or the other alternative in its 'pure' form - that is to say that the decisions made will thus generally be some combination of these two extremes - a description of metaphor translation in terms of initial norms can start from the following basic distinction:

(1) If the translation adheres to the SL norm, metaphors will tend to be translated 'sensu stricto,' even if the resulting item in TL might prove to be incompatible with the target linguistic and/or literary norms. This retentive mode of translating is then responsible for the deviant (or 'alienating', i.e., exotic and/or archaic) character of translated metaphors.

(2) If the second position is adopted, SL metaphors are most likely to be replaced by more or less corresponding (or equivalent) TL metaphors, or will at least often be adapted. The prevailing mode here is substitution by which original metaphors are domesticated, i.e., adapted to the prevailing norms of the target system, which eventually determine the acceptability of translational equivalents.

Full article here:

Unfortunately, translations bent on functional equivalence tend to disambiguate metaphors, i.e., dissolve them. They do not even rise to the standard van den Broek lays out for TL focused translations, much less express a healthy compromise between a SL and TL focus.

I will illustrate these principles in upcoming summer posts.


Since we are talking about gender inclusive I had some data on my site ( ) taken from Translators and The Gender Gap ( )

which dealt with the issue overtime.

Occurrences of "anthropos" (men/humanity) in the New Testament 100 instances unquestionable gender inclusive, when they translated gender inclusive:
Jerusalem Bible (1966)-48%; New Jerusalem Bible (1985)-93%
New American Bible (1970)-40%; New American Bible (1986)-95%
New English Bible(1970)-31%; Revised English Bible (1989)-69%
Revised Standard Version (N.T., Second Edition, 1971)-14%; New Revised Standard Version (1990)-100%.

Sampling 50 instances of such gender inclusive uses of huioi (sons/children) unquestionable gender inclusive in original:
JB-38%; NJB-72%
NAB-44%; NAB Revised N.T.-88%
NEB-52%; REB-64%
RSV-4%; NRSV- 100%

Sampling of 50 instances of adelphos (brothers/christian community) referring to whole Christian community:
NAB-O%; NAB Revised N.T.- 0%
NEB-26%; REB-66%
RSV-O%; NRSV-100%

I'll respond more generally to the metaphor issue separately so as not to mix data with editorial.


Hi CD,

The statistics are useless since everyone knows that "man" in a gender-inclusive sense is acceptable in current English outside of some academic and ecclesiastical venues.

The case for translating huioi as children rather than sons is sometimes strong, sometimes weak: the statistics, once again, are blind to the real issues.

I have served "catholic" (diverse, with a conservative / liberal mix) congregations for decades now.

In Italy, everyone knew that "fratelli" was gender-inclusive until feminists told them it wasn't.

Likewise, here in the good 'ol USA, in a mixed congregation I served for 5 years, in which NIV 1984 was used, "brothers" whether used in the gender-specific or the gender-inclusive sense *never* created any problems.

People in general are very good at figuring these things out on the fly.

In environments dominated by or coinciding with venues of political correctness, a case can be made for accommodating the felt need for "gender-sensitive" translation.

On the other hand, all other things being equal, Christianity is well-served, and so is the commonweal, by political incorrectness. Of the Left or Right varieties: it doesn't matter to me.

My point: there is nothing more demeaning to someone who loves language to pay tribute to self-appointed, self-important language police.

Sorry, CD. I'm a rebel.


John --

OK your June 17, 2011 at 09:44 PM post finally clarified exactly what you meant. If I can make a recommendation this is good phrasing when you want to address this point. And I agree with your decomposition.

And I'd say I 90% agree with your point.

IMHO a formal translation should retain the metaphor as per the SL and include in a footnote the context needed to understand it.

A loose dynamic translation (Voice, NLTfe...) should definitely go with the target langage metaphor.

For a dynamic translation I'd say it depends on reading level. For example in general I'd expect the REB to translate the SL metaphor and footnote while being OK with the NLTse going with a TL because it explicitly aims for simplicity.

I'm OK with bibles aimed at a very low reading level just dropping the metaphor entirely. I suspect we differ here.


Now that being the case I'm not sure that I understand your objection to "Father Abraham" is it your assertion this is a metaphor and not an expression?

As a footnote here is the 9 point scale of literalness I'm using:

Hebrew/Greek, Diglot or Hebrew/Greek Reader (NA27, Majority /Byzantine Text, Textus Receptus, MT-Heb)
Interlinear translation (Brown & Comfort, Marshall, McReynolds, Concordant interlinear)
Highly literal (AMP, NASB, YLT, Mounce, Concordant)
Balanced (TNIV, NET, NIV, HCSB, Price)
Tight Dynamic (REB, NAB)
Dynamic (NEB, NJB, CEV, NLTse, Gaus)
Loose dynamic (NLT1ed, GNB, Voice)
Paraphase (MSG, TLB, TAB, JBP)



Perhaps you need to slow down a bit. I said:

"Phrases like 'Father Abraham,' and 'we have Abraham as our father' need to be retained."

I have no "objection to 'Father Abraham.' On the contrary.

Your scale of literalness seems accurate. Among the formal translations I prefer ESV for reasons we have gone over before, though I think ESV could be improved in a variety of ways.

I'm guessing that NAB revisions have also moved in the direction of literalness.

I note the same trend in the revised Grail Psalms, which just came out. Thankfully, the translation retains "man" where appropriate. For that matter, so does Alter.

You have hit on our difference of opinion about metaphors. You can take 'em or leave 'em. Not me. They are very important to me. I guard them with my life.

As one of the protagonists said in "Il Postino," [The Postman], "metaphors are dangerous." I want my Bible dangerous, which is why I want it full of metaphors. And it is, unless one reads it in a translation bent on disambiguation.


This thread and the discussions below are a delight. As a child I was reading NKJV and KJV pretty much from the start of my ability to read, and though there were words that had to be learned -- a quest which eventually propelled me into studying the original languages -- I wouldn't have given that up for the world. When I became acquainted with the NIV and some of the other translations church friends were using, I was shocked at their flatness, a flatness which mirrors the flatness of the simplistic faith that is so popular as well.

In Venezuela, a pastor who is a friend of the family was asked to look over the Spanish NIV. Shocked by the way it, in his eyes, mangled what was so rich and beautiful and immediate and challenging in the various editions Reina Valera, he said it was dangerous to Christians and recommended that no one, ever, read it again. This from a man who dropped out of school at the end of the first grade to work at a shoe factory.

I suspect at times that our fear of hard English is really a fear of the complexity of God's communication with us, and that attempts, a la NIV, GNB, etc. to make it somehow easier to read could be a superficial way of making Him more manageable. The NIV doesn't scare me. The KJV, the Vulgate, the Reina Valera, the Greek, and the Hebrew do. And as someone who has to face the constant temptation of waving texts in people's faces to feel superior, having a text that I fear mishandling makes all the difference.

Whether there might be some way to cast those three paragraphs in terms of linguistic theories or philosophy of translation, I do not know.


Hi Mitchell,

In three paragraphs, you made a number of points very eloquently.

I was happy with a smooth, flat translation (GNB) until two things happened.

(1) My walk with God, insofar as I grasped it, failed to fit into the nice, neat little boxes both evangelical and liberal Protestant thought are famous for.

(2) I began to read the Bible in the original languages, and I discovered I had been deceived. The texts in the original languages are bumpy, not smooth. Its language is rarely in the middle. Sometimes the language is humble and pure. Sometimes it soars to rhetorical heights. There is a lot of poetry in the Bible. Like all poetry, it is full of gaps.

Pomo translations tend to provide a text that is already cooked, always at the same temperature, always in the same cheapo microwave. But I'm convinced a translation ought to offer the text raw. Let the cooking be done by others.

Literary translations, like those of Buber-Rosenzweig in German or Alter in English, at least redress a part of the balance.


Hi John,

I'm with Wayne: I still don't really understand what you mean by "post-modern".

But I'll add that I also don't know what you mean by "literature".

Can you try a bit harder to explain? Maybe to the alternative lingua franca of Commonwealth English?

I also don't get what you think is different between what you're saying and what most of us BBBers think. Looking forward to follow up posts!

J. K. Gayle

The texts in the original languages are bumpy, not smooth. Its language is rarely in the middle. Sometimes the language is humble and pure. Sometimes it soars to rhetorical heights. There is a lot of poetry in the Bible. Like all poetry, it is full of gaps.

Pomo translations tend to provide a text that is already cooked, always at the same temperature, always in the same cheapo microwave. But I'm convinced a translation ought to offer the text raw. Let the cooking be done by others.

Literary translations, like those of Buber-Rosenzweig in German or Alter in English, at least redress a part of the balance.

Hi John,
What do you think of Alter's English that seems to smooth out and rather rejects the bumpiness of Proverbs 14:33, Proverbs 14:34, and Proverbs 14:35? Please feel free to comment here at your blog or where I posted on this at mine.

Tony Siew

Dear John, I am for you on this. We are translating a Malay Bible here in Malaysia and many issues you raised are relevant and useful for translators to consider. Thanks.



I'm very glad to hear that.


You are preaching to the choir. Even Robert Alter can be improved on, in the sense the two of us agree on.



Go up and take a look at Rich Rhodes' comments. He had no trouble understanding what I'm doing here and where I am going with it, though he disagrees with both.

I am using "literature" in a straightforward manner. Do a JSTOR search with "Bible" and "literature" as terms and you will find lots of articles taking the position that I do here, that the Bible is literature, or that much or most of it is literature.

I explain the sense in which I use "post-modern" in footnote 2. After you have read Jameson, if you are still befuddled, let me know.

Michael Marlowe

John writes: "My critique of the kind of translations that are preferred by BBB contributors on sociolinguistic grounds is not without precedent. I don’t have the references handy ..."

Here's a reference:


Thanks, Michael. You link to a carefully argued essay which I had not read before.

The primary reference I have in mind is a recent overview of translation theory in Italian that takes a long, hard look at a number of approaches, including that of Nida. Stay tuned.

Rich Rhodes

On the question of Luke-Acts as literature, here's how I look at it. Luke was literate in some important sense of the word. He knew how to allude, he used quotes effectively, he manages his word choice well. So his writing would qualify as pretty good writing. But that's different from his work being literature.

To clarify: Bloomfield once wrote a really interesting article in the journal American Speech about his Menominee language consultants. After some years of work on this Native American language (which he learned to speak) he began to recognize differences in how well different speakers used the language. He wrote his observations up as "Literate and Illiterate Speech". (American Speech, 2(10):432-439 -- you have to have access to JSTOR to read it online, unfortunately.)

Consider Gary Willis, a good historian who writes exceptionally well. Lincoln at Gettysburg (for which he won a Pulitzer Prize) is a masterpiece. (If you haven't read it, you should, you'll learn a lot.) But it's only a masterpiece if you contextualize it as an historical analysis, it isn't literature.
Luke is a good writer, and a reasonable historian, but he isn't as good a writer as Gary Willis (and why should he be). If Gary Willis' best history writing isn't literature, then Luke-Acts isn't either.

Also you didn't respond to the part about the general language of the NT and the language of LXX quotes being different. You sneer at the GNB for being flat. But ALL translations of the Bible are flat. From Wycliff to The Message, no one takes into account that the writers of the NT really have different voices and that the LXX quotes are Biblish in Greek while the rest of the text isn't. (If there is a place for using ideas from literary translation in non-literary genres, this is it.)

It just occurred to me that maybe what you think a sociolinguistic analysis would bring to the table, is actually the kind of thing a usage and framal analysis would do. That's what is necessary to characterize the different voices of the various authors. (And I don't mean the statistic analysis that often passes for stylistic studies to distinguish differences in authorship.)

Rich Rhodes

Note: There is a copy of "Literate and Illiterate Speech" up (illegally) on a general access website from the University of Maryland. (I hope our former student Michael Israel doesn't get into trouble for it.)



Leonard Bloomfield's (1927) piece sounds very interesting. I'll take a look at it (I have access to JSTOR of course through the university where I teach). I'll be honest and say I trust some of the early essays by structuralists more than the more theory-laden essays in the various schools that have dominated since.

I am not going to belabor the point much longer about Luke-Acts. It is commonplace for example among NT scholars to refer to the "literary conventions" reflected in the preface to Luke and in Acts 1:1. True enough, the literary conventions they reflect are quite different from the Septuagintalisms that are found, not only in citations, but in the narrative tropes of Luke-Acts. Finally, the monograph by Tannehill I cited earlier treats the apophthegms attributed to Jesus as literary forms to be investigated as such and in terms of their rhetoric.

For the rest, I think most people think of biography as both a literary and a historical genre. Unless I misunderstand you, you consider biography a non-literary genre - unless, perhaps, the author is also a novelist or the like.

Of course, I would love to see a translation of any type that preserved the style and register differences across the gospels and beyond. I don't know of any that do it well.

I agree with you if you are suggesting that GNB is flat in one way, and REB for example in another. Whereas literal translations like KJV and ESV are just weird. If that is what you are saying, I don't disagree, except that the anomalous diction and syntax of literal translations are helpful for the purpose of creating a wedge between two cultures in conflict: our own, which I have characterized as pomo in the sense of Jameson, built around a perverse notion of economic communion; and that of the Bible, built around a commitment to the communion of the saints.

One might characterize the conflict of course in other ways. The conflict is more often cast as a question of authority. The Bible is assigned the role of a norm which norms all other norms. This authority, exercised at the level of large to even the smallest details, the jots and tittles of which Jesus spoke, needs to be given the closest reading possible.

For that purpose, "close" translation is needed.
"Close" translation creates the possibility of "close" readings. The principle, taken to the extreme. led to translations like Aquila.

But LXX and the Vulgate, with much internal variation, are also translations that strive for formal equivalence. One might even make the case that close translation is a logical consequence of understanding the Bible as a canon in the first place.


Michael Marlowe --

Didn't know you hung out on bible blogs. Your site is always a pleasure. The essay (which I hadn't noticed before) no exception. You are asking some great questions in that essay. The various points in it deserve full threads. As do other essays of yours.

So I guess was this a one off comment or should I start responding or do you want to setup a way to respond more broadly or...?

JohnH --

Well it looks like me mostly agree, seems like we are down to two minor points and other than mostly just issues of shading.

I guess the first question I have is. Do you consider the creation of an easy to read bible a legitimate activity? Say for example I have a bunch of Christians that have some high school education and moderate (at best) intelligence. Say for example prison populations (on average). Should they have a bible which is comprehensible to them at all?

I can understand the case for no. Better to have bible stories which are clearly not the bible and then something close enough to be an effective counterfeit. I just don't know where you stand on this issue. Since obviously if you are on the "no side", then the question becomes how best to translate for sophisticated readers only. If you are on the yes side, then I'm a bit confused about how categorical you are being.

As far as Abraham perhaps I phrased badly. You had used the example of "Father Abraham" and 'we have Abraham as our father' vs. Wayne's "Forefather Abraham" or "we have Abraham as our forefather". My question was do you consider "father" here a metaphor or an expression?


John, I'm of the opinion that while references have a place on blogs, readers shouldn't need to follow them to understand the core of a post's message.

I have no background in literature studies and this usage of the "literature" is entirely opaque to me. The closest I can get is the senseless distinction that Borders had between it's "literature" section and all the other section. As far as I could ever tell it had nothing to do with the books themselves, but everything to do with the tastes of the people who read them. So reading further articles in that discipline won't help me. I'd love to understand what that discipline thinks, but I'll understand if you won't be the one who'll get me there. Hopefully one day I'll be able to come back to these articles and understand them.


I don't have time at the moment to offer you help in this respect, but I will try to come back to it later.


No worries, I wasn't expecting you to. I'll make do.

Rev. Bryant J. Williams III

Dear John,

I would agree with your argument for leaving the translation of the OT prophetic texts being from the Hebrew. I would also put a NOTE indicating that the NT use is quoting the LXX and give that translation. This is extremely important when it comes to Messianic prophecies or fulfillment issues found in the NT of OT texts.

Too often this issue is just swept under the rug, because, mainly, it was how the previous translations did it. I can see a translation teams point in one sense because of the flack that occurred with the RSV over ALMAH vs PARQENOS; or the Political Correctness version of the "NEW" NIV and some other translations especially in I Timothy 3.

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    weblog for a course on the Dead Sea Scrolls at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, taught by James R. Davila (archive)
  • Ralph the Sacred River
    by Edward Cook, a superb Aramaist
  • Random Bloggings
    by Calvin Park, M. Div. student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton MA
  • Resident aliens
    reflections of one not at home in this world
  • Revelation is Real
    Strong-minded comment from Tony Siew, lecturer at Trinity Theological College, Singapore
  • Ricoblog
    by Rick Brannan, it's the baby pictures I like the most
  • Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth
    Nick Norelli's fabulous blog on Bible and theology
  • SansBlogue
    by Tim Bulkeley, lecturer in Old Testament, Carey Baptist College (New Zealand). His Hypertext Commentary on Amos is an interesting experiment
  • Ancient Near Eastern Languages
    texts and files to help people learn some ancient languages in self study, by Mike Heiser
  • Midrash, etc.
    A fine Hebrew-to-English blog on Midrash, by Carl Kinbar, Director of the New School for Jewish Studies and a facultm member at MJTI School of Jewish Studies.
  • Phil Lembo what I'm thinking
    a recovering lawyer, now in IT, with a passion for a faith worth living
  • Roses and Razorwire
    a top-notch Levantine archaeology blog, by Owen Chesnut, a doctoral student at Andrews University (MI)
  • Scripture & Theology
    a communal weblog dedicated to the intersection of biblical interpretation and the articulation of church doctrine, by Daniel Driver, Phil Sumpter, and others
  • Scripture Zealot
    by Jeff Contrast
  • Serving the Word
    incisive comment on the Hebrew Bible and related ancient matters, with special attention to problems of philology and linguistic anthropology, by Seth L. Sanders, Assistant Professor in the Religion Department of Trinity College, Hartford, CT
  • Singing in the Reign
    NT blog by Michael Barber (JP University) and Brad Pitre (Our Lady Holy Cross)
  • Stay Curious
    excellent comment on Hebrew Bible and Hebrew language topics, by Karyn Traphagen, graduate, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia PA (archive)
  • Sufficiency
    A personal take on the faith delivered to the saints, by Bob MacDonald, whose parallel blog on the Psalms in Hebrew is a colorful and innovative experiment
  • The Sundry Times
    Gary Zimmerli's place, with comment on Bible translations and church renewal
  • Sunestauromai: living the crucified life
    by a scholar-pastor based in the Grand Canyon National Park
  • ta biblia
    blog dedicated to the New Testament and the history of Christian origins, by Giovanni Bazzana
  • Targuman
    by Christian Brady, targum specialist extraordinaire, and dean of Schreyer Honors College, Penn State University
  • Targuman
    on biblical and rabbinic literature, Christian theology, gadgetry, photography, and the odd comic, by Christian Brady, associate professor of ancient Hebrew and Jewish literature and dean of the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State
  • The Biblia Hebraica Blog
    a blog about Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, the history of the Ancient Near East and the classical world, Syro-Palestinian archaeology, early Judaism, early Christianity, New Testament interpretation, English Bible translations, biblical theology, religion and culture, philosophy, science fiction, and anything else relevant to the study of the Bible, by Douglas Magnum, PhD candidate, University of the Free State, South Africa
  • The Forbidden Gospels Blog
    by April DeConick, Professor of Biblical Studies, Rice University
  • The Naked Bible
    by Mike Heiser, academic editor at Logos Bible Software
  • The Reformed Reader
    by Andrew Compton, Ph.D. student in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures (focus on Hebrew and Semitic Languages) at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
  • The Sacred Page
    a blog written by three Catholic Ph.D.s who are professors of Scripture and Theology: Michael Barber, Brant Pitre and John Bergsma
  • The Talmud Blog
    a group blog on Talmud News, Reviews, Culture, Currents, and Criticism
  • Theological German
    a site for reading and discussing theological German, by Mark Alter
  • theoutwardquest
    seeking spirituality as an outward, not an inward quest, by David Corder
  • This Lamp
    Incisive comment on Bible translations in the archives, by Rick Mansfield
  • Thoughts on Antiquity
    By Chris Weimer and friends, posts of interest on ancient Greek and Roman topics (archive). Chris is a graduate student at the City University of New York in Classics
  • Threads from Henry's Web
    Wide-ranging comment by Henry Neufeld, educator, publisher, and author
  • Tête-à-Tête-Tête
    smart commentary by "smijer," a Unitarian-Universalist
  • Undeception
    A great blog by Mike Douglas, a graduate student in biblical studies
  • What I Learned From Aristotle
    the Judaica posts are informative (archive)
  • Bouncing into Graceland
    a delightful blog on biblical and theological themes, by Esteban Vázquez (archive)
  • Weblog
    by Justin Anthony Knapp, a fearless Wikipedian (archive)
  • Writing in the Dust
    A collection of quotes by Wesley Hill, a doctoral student in New Testament studies at Durham University (UK), and a Christian who seeks the charism of chastity
  • גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁב
    by David Miller, Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism, Briercrest College & Seminary, Caronport, Saskatchewan, Canada
  • ואל-תמכר
    Buy truth and do not sell: wisdom, instruction, and understanding - a blog by Mitchell Powell, student of life at the intersection of Christ, Christianity, and Christendom
  • משלי אדם
    exploring wisdom literature, religion, and other academic pursuits, by Adam Couturier, M.A. in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary)

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  • Ancient Hebrew Poetry is a weblog of John F. Hobbins. Opinions expressed herein do not reflect those of his professional affiliations. Unless otherwise indicated, the contents of Ancient Hebrew Poetry, including all text, images, and other media, are original and licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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