Bible blog 2190

Translating Galatians

This blog is the first of a new series looking at the kind of issues faced by any translator of this and other letters of Paul.

The document is presented to the reader as the text of an actual letter sent by Paul to the christian assembly in northern Galatia, possibly around 52CE. Having read the relevant material, I am convinced that there is no serious reason to doubt this. In all probability, these Galatians lived near present day Ankara, and were a Celtic people related to the Gauls, the Irish, the Welsh and the Bretons, speaking a Celtic language, as well as the common Greek of the Roman world. Paul visited them along with Timothy and Titus, in maybe 46-47CE after a long journey north through present day Turkey. He records that he arrived amongst them ill, and was treated with kindness. Perhaps his very frank language in this letter reflects not only his exasperation at their interest in Judaism, but also his affection.

The dating of Paul’s missionary activities is confused by the book of The Acts, written much later and designed according to its author’s theology rather than any, historical facts. The only sensible strategy is to use only what information can be gathered from the letters themselves.

Literally translated the letter begins thus:

Paul, an emissary, not from human beings nor through a human being but through Jesus Messiah and God the Father who raised him from the dead.

Anyone who consults this verse in available translations will be amazed at their variety.  An emissary is sent by someone, so Paul is first of all denying that he has been sent by human beings – the Greek plural maybe suggests groups or nations of human beings. An emissary is also appointed by someone or speaks on behalf of someone. Paul denies that he has been appointed by any person or speaks by anyone’s authority, other than that of Jesus and God. A decent translation has to express these denials in modern English:

*Paul, an emissary, not sent by any human beings nor under the authority of any human person, but authorised by Jesus Messiah and God the Father, who raised him from the dead*

That raises a question about the nature of Paul’s apostolate: if an apostle/ emissary is somehow “official”, perhaps sent by Jesus himself, or by some Christian assembly, how can Paul  claim this status? In fact he claims both the authority of Jesus, revealed in Paul by God, and that of the Jerusalem assembly which recognised him as an apostle to Gentiles. The authority belongs to Jesus and is subsequently approved by the assembly, which enables Paul to assert a) that he is a genuine emissary/ apostle, and that b) his message is not of human origin, unlike that of his opponents. He is thus able to claim authority and independence at the same time. Nice work.

But he is not alone, as he includes “pantes adelphoi” lierally, “all the brothers”, who are with him, in the place from which he is writing,  probably Ephesos where he was under continuing house arrest. It’s reasonable to ask whether “brothers” is simply a conventional patriarchal word for both men and women or whether Paul was referring only to his male colleagues. My judgement, based on all the genuine letters of Paul, is that “brothers” is inclusive. I would therefore translate, *and all the brothers and sisters who are with me*, while recognising that this gives the false impression that Paul used modern inclusive language.

The addressees of the letter are called the *assemblies of Galatia*. The obvious reference is to the Roman province of Galatia, which was populated by various races including people of Celtic origin with a history of acting as mercenary troops for Rome; although it’s possible that it could refer to an independent Celtic kingdom further north, near modern Ankara. I incline towards this latter identification.

* Kindness and good health to you from God our father and the Lord Jesus Messiah*

That may seem a far cry from the familiar “grace and peace” but I would argue that the beautiful word “grace”  has been spoiled by its pervasive theological use, and that “peace”  has become vaguer and vaster than its normal Greek usage warrants. The Greek *charis has overtones of a kindly favour done by a social superior, whereas *eirene  translates the Hebrew “shalom” which as a routine greeting means something like “good health” I love the familiar words but have chosen as above to keep the reader awake.

There’s also the issue of how to translate the Greek “Christos” often simply translated “Christ”. It is used by Paul to translate the Hebrew “Mashiach” , anointed one or Messiah, designating a person anointed as a sign of God’s choice of him/her for a specific task, such as kingly rule or prophetic utterance. Paul’s letters are the first written evidence that Jesus was given this title by his followers. He uses it very frequently, but is at pains to remind his readers that the Messiah, the Anointed One, was killed on an execution stake. In this passage he goes on to remind them that the Messsiah “gave himself for our sins”. Should we translate Messiah or Anointed One? I think Paul, the former Pharisee, recognised Jesus as the God-given ruler of his people, and therefore translate, “Messiah.”

*who has given himself for our sins*

this is the “charis”, the kindness that Jesus Messiah has done for human beings. He has given himself, his life and labour, “on behalf of” or “for the sake of” human wrongness. Paul writes elsewhere that “Messiah died for us while we were still sinners” Jesus’ life and death are a kindness done for sinful people.

*to pluck us out of the present evil age*

The Greek verb exaireo often translated “deliver” has the root meaning, to “pluck or tear” which is more forceful; hence my translation. Paul, like his fellow Jews would have distinguished this world with its physical and moral determinations, as evil, in contrast to the world to come, which would be determined by God’s goodness. I would like to find a better translation than “age” but have failed to do so. The plucking out of the evil age is the “eirene, the good health,” which God gives through Jesus Messiah.

*owing to the wish of of our God and father*

Prepositions are often the hardest words in a foreign language. Here the Greek preposition “kata” can mean “down from” “according to” but I prefer “owing to” which indicates the cause of something, in this case the “will” or “wish” of God. I prefer the latter because it seems more active.

*to whom be the honour for all ages”

As part of our prayer language, “glory” has gone dead. The root meaning of the Greek doxa is reputation, so honour seems a good option.

That’s just the opening address of the letter but it already requires decisions pf the translator which will have consequences for the whole letter. Accuracy is the first objective; use of coherent modern English, the second; and constructing a characteristic voice for Paul, the third.



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