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"Words are Players": Review of Leithart, Deep Exegesis, ch 3

Peter J Leithart Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture, Baylor 2009

Chapter 3: Words are Players

Leithart’s next target is the privileging of synchronic rather than diachronic word studies. He begins with quotes from Eugene Nida, Moises Silva, Peter Cotterell and Max Turner, Anthony Thiselton and finally James Barr (75-77). He acknowledges that they “all have points” but remains “suspicious” (77). Leithart’s first suspicion is that, as in the battle for the Bible (ch 1), here modern linguistic and communication theory is being allowed to determine how we read the Bible. Modern evangelical hermeneutics expects to determine the the way words work in the Bible prior to reading it (80-81). Again the result is a privileging of meaning over style, content over form. For Leithart this is a “major departure from the procedure of earlier translators”, e.g. the LXX and Tyndale, who incorporated Hebraic style and neologisms in the translations (79). Here I think Leithart is being a bit simplistic. In regard to biblical translation Tyndale and Eugene Nida, and indeed the LXX, are not polar opposites but on a spectrum, and I wonder how many of his interlocutors would feel they are being treated fairly? When he quotes Cotterell and Turner agreeing with him, rather than accepting they might not be so far apart, he suggests they are admitting his point only “sheepishly” (83)!

Polemics aside, the chapter mainly discusses the way words work in poetry (and in jokes) and how past meanings, etymology, and ambiguities can all play a part in interpretation often creating more than one possible meaning and allowing the text to say new, unexpected, things. This is where Leithart really has something to offer, but rigid formal translation is surely not the answer. Many such word plays, etymologies, and ambiguities are simply untranslatable because no two words from different languages will share the same possibilities. Surely the only way to get even close to such an understanding of a text is to read the original languages? Any translation not only disables certain meanings but also creates new possibilities through etymology, word plays, etc. Leithart is yet to address this issue.

Leithart makes the historical case that “ancient writers were very interested in word derivations, etymologies, and histories” (95). Giving as examples Socrates, Aristotle, Ovid, Qunitillian, Philo, Isidore of Seville, Coleridge and Hamann, he suggests Biblical writers were no different and points out that “There are as many as eighty explicit etymologies in the Old Testament, and many of these etymologies contribute substantially to the poetry and theology of biblical narratives” (95). He goes on to discuss Homer (96), Heidegger (96-97) and Seamus Heaney (97-99) in making his point. He then returns to John 9 and argues that John’s Gospel uses many such word plays and discusses how John’s translation of Siloam as “sent” in John 9:7 connects meaningfully with themes throughout the gospel and in the immediate narrative and exposes John’s poetic approach (99-105).

So Leithart’s objection is to “minimal meaning” (105) where the meaning of a text is flattened out to a literal translation of an assumed meaning without recognition of the poetic possibilities inherent in the text. For him, “The Bible is closer to poetry than to a scientific manual” (108). Here I think he is spot on. What I’m not sure, as of yet, is how far Leithart really has a solution to the problem of translation, or if he really thinks it is as simple as returning to the (supposed) translation strategy of the LXX and KJV!


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