QUESTIONS and ANSWERS with NT scholar Prof. Bart Ehrman

by Terry 12 Replies latest watchtower bible

  • Terry

    The following is a tiny excerpt from Bart Ehrman's blog of which I'm a member.

    This particular entry contains questions and answers about the nature of translating the New Testament.


    gabilaranjeira August 22, 2014
    Hi Bart,

    Did the fact that early Christian scripture was written in koine Greek have an effect in how the religion was perceived by the pagan elites and imperial family? In other words, did that make the religion look bad or koine Greek was acceptable? Did later Church Fathers write in Attic Greek (is this correct? Is Attic the Greek the “highbrow language” of the elites you mentioned above?)?
    Bart Ehrman Bart Ehrman August 22, 2014
    Yes, the literary elite looked down on the early Christian writings as completely third-rate. Some of the later fathers wrote in more elegant Greek — some of them were among the real intellectuals of the empire. But not for the first three centuries.
    gabilaranjeira August 22, 2014
    Do you think that this progression from koine to more elegant Greek used by later Church Fathers was a critical factor for Christianity to win over the elites and also Constantine, as Christians could then defend their faith in more sophisticated grounds?
    Bart Ehrman August 23, 2014
    Yes, indeed, it probably was!
    Macavity August 22, 2014
    When did you learn Classical Greek? Wasn’t the Greek taught at Wheaton College predominately Koine Greek? What do you think of the benefits of learning Classical Greek from the beginning rather than starting with Koine Greek?
    Bart Ehrman August 23, 2014
    At Wheaton we learned classical (Attic) Greek before beginning to translate texts out of the Koine. It is much better to do it that way. Anyone who can read Attic Greek can easily handle the Koine, but not the other way around.
    TomTerrific August 22, 2014
    How different is koine Greek from Attic? Would there be an analogy in English?

    My wife likes to watch BBC and I find it difficult to understand some of the accents.

    Then again, in school we were exposed to Chaucer as it was originally written and it was very difficult to read.
    Bart Ehrman August 23, 2014
    I suppose koine would be like what you hear on the street and Attic would be Faulkner.
    qaelith2112 August 22, 2014
    Dr. Ehrman,

    This is a question which has nothing to do with the blog entry (using this as a means of getting another question across), but the “translation” aspect reminded me that I have been wanting to ask this.

    Having read “Misquoting Jesus” (among others, but only these two are relevant for this question) and “Orthodox Corruption of Scripture”, and having followed up on those by comparing a number of the passages which have suffered corruption in some number of extant manuscripts to several English translations, I’ve noticed that translations vary quite a bit in exactly which witnesses they favor as a basis for their English translation. Among the bibles I have compared, so far the New English Translation (NET) seems to have agreed with you on a larger proportion of your conclusions than the others. That is to be commended, but it nonetheless goes with the reading which is more likely to have been a corruption in more passages than I would have liked.

    The question: Do you have an opinion as to which modern translation or translations (or actually the teams doing the translation) have ended up making the highest proportion of good decisions (meaning those that your research would identify as more likely original) with respect to disputed passages? And as another related question, which translations seem to do the better translation into English? I’m hoping for one translation to both translate well and to make the best decisions most of the time regarding which reading to use.

    The translational quality question may be a bit more loaded because I realize that a part of it is subjective — the “literal vs. readable” tradeoff and the passages that may need to be paraphrased in some way in order to better convey to a modern reader the actual meaning of something which might not be obvious in a strictly literal translation (such as “feet” actually meaning “penis” in biblical Hebrew).

    Very sorry for wordiness in conveying the question.

    Chris Jones
    Bart Ehrman August 23, 2014
    Well, I disagree with decisions of a lot of the translation committees. On the other hand, they disagree with me! My preferred translation is the New Revised Standard Version, which I especially like in a study edition, such as the HarperCollins Study Bible. (My mentor, Bruce Metzger, who taught me textual criticism, was the chair of the NRSV translation committee.)
    RonaldTaska August 22, 2014
    The possible variations in translation are quite interesting and I discovered the existence of such translation variations when I took New Testament Greek in college which made it even more difficult for me to understand the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy since there was no universal agreement on the correct translation.
    What do you make of the New Testament being written in “Koine” rather than more sophisticated Greek? Does this, for example, mean that it was not a very “scholarly” endeavor?.
    Bart Ehrman August 23, 2014
    Yes, it was not the work of scholars, but of educated lay folk.
    Bart Ehrman on his classes and teaching:
    In most of my PhD seminars we have weekly translation assignments. I assign a passage (last semester, from the New Testament; this semester from the Apostolic Fathers) and the students are required to translate it for class. And then we spend an hour together, where I will ask one student at a time to translate out loud, without having an English translation sitting in front of them. They read the Greek on the page with their eyes, and give an oral English translation for the rest of us. Whenever they get something wrong I’ll correct them; I’ll ask them questions about how the grammar is working; I’ll ask them to parse difficult Greek forms (for the verbs: what is the tense, voice, mood, person and number, e.g.), and so on

    Lots of times in every class period we will discuss alternative ways to translate this or that word or this or that line. Often, to get the nuance, we talk over a number of ways to try to get to the meaning.

    And that’s how I read Greek for over thirty years – either by myself or in a communal setting. What I wasn’t expecting when I agreed to translate the Apostolic Fathers was that it would be a very different kind of task altogether. But it was. And it surprised, aggravated, and distressed me. For now the task was different. I don’t know why I didn’t realize that it would be, but it was – very different. Because now, instead of coming up with three or four ways to render a sentence (or a word) to get to the nuances, I had to sit at my key board and render it in ONE way. When you publish a translation, you are making decisions at every point – every sentence and every word – and when you decide to render the text in one way you are deciding not to render it in another way, and you can’t suggest three or four options. You have to type something. And so which of the various good options will you choose? It was a discombobulating and difficult experience at first. (I obviously got used to it.) No one rendering is really satisfactory, yet you have to produce one rendering. And at every point you’re thinking that other scholars looking at this are going to disagree with the choice you made. And in a two-volume set of translation, you are going to make thousands and thousands of choices. Ai yai yai…..

    And so I found it really hard – not because I couldn’t read the Greek, but because the very act of translation is really complicated, far more involved than one would think. Or at least than I ever thought.

    The entire project took an enormous amount of time and effort. On one level it was invigorating. For a few years before that, I had been writing college-level textbooks for nineteen year olds and trade books for their parents and grandparents, but had not been doing serious hard-core scholarship since The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (well, except for some academic articles I had written). So on that level doing the Loebs was great. But it was unusually difficult, far more difficult than I had imagined or that I imagine most people would imagine.

    When I finished the project, I vowed with some vehemence that I would never, ever do another translation project. It was great to have done one, but one was enough. Never again. Until, well, I decided to do another one. I’ll talk about that one in the next post.

    To be continued . . .


    (You can go to EHRMANBLOG.ORG and become a member for about $7.98 as a Trial Membership. All proceeds go to charity.)

  • Bungi Bill
    Bungi Bill


    Anyone who can read Attic Greek can easily handle the Koine, but not the other way around.

    This is something to remember when directing criticism at the late FW Franz, whose academic credentials were in Classical Greek - but who had only (so it is said) two or three days formal tuition in Koine Greek. According to Prof. Ehrman, this matters not one jot!


  • Pistoff

    Bungi Bill:

    " This is something to remember when directing criticism at the late FW Franz, whose academic credentials were in Classical Greek - but who had only (so it is said) two or three days formal tuition in Koine Greek. According to Prof. Ehrman, this matters not one jot!"

    What academic credentials are those?

    Does he have a degree in Classical Greek?

    Does he have more than one semester even?

    Do you have the transcripts?

  • TJ Curioso
    TJ Curioso

    Terry You can ask him about the NWT... ;)

  • Bungi Bill
    Bungi Bill


    I do not have any transcripts, but understand Frederick Franz did study Classical Greek for two years while at university. (Although I don't believe he actually graduated with a degree). For a person of his times, this is not in any way unusual - studies in "The Classics" used to be quite commonplace. In fact, in the English public school system, education was limited to little more than those subjects.

    Just for the record, I am in no way a fan of Mad Freddies!


  • designs

    Koine was the hip-hop of its day...

  • Phizzy

    " Koine was the hip-hop of its day..." LOL.

    Koine was the Lingua Franca, understood by most of the known world to some degree. It is interesting that the Greek of Revelation is not even as elevated as Koine, it must have been on a par with the speech and writing of one of today's teenagers who has hardly ever attended School.

    There has always been a preference for people to use a local dialect in the past, at least for the spoken word, so Jesus and his disciples would have spoken in Gallilean Aramaic, so we have an immediate translation going on by the Gospel writers from the spoken word in to Koine. Which is then translated again for us.

    In view of Bart's comments above on the huge problems with translation, we can see how very silly it is to put any weight on what the Bible says.*

    * "What the Bible says", I should not use that phrase, it is one of my pet hates, the Bible says nothing, it is merely a collection of books. People say things, and they are usually wrong.

  • Terry

    Terry You can ask him about the NWT... ;)

    I did ask.

    I'm trying to find my way around the huge Blog to where I asked and he answered!

    I'll let you know. Next time, I'm putting down bread crumbs to find my way back.

  • Pistoff


    "I do not have any transcripts, but understand Frederick Franz did study Classical Greek for two years while at university. (Although I don't believe he actually graduated with a degree)."

    As far as any information posted in the 12 years I have been posting and reading here, he had one semester of Greek; does anyone have any more information?

  • the girl next door
    the girl next door

    I thought he had two years of Koine.

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