Academic exegesis is that form of interpretation which copies academics or authority figures. The Lord Jesus Christ cut through this in His teaching.
Academic exegesis is seen in the translation of several biblical passages. Bible versions are the product of teams of academic translators pooling their collective knowledge to produce a final decision on the translation of particular texts.
It is easy to demonstrate that when a significant translation, such as the New International Version, makes a break from a traditional translation, then subsequent versions will follow, on the principle that new research has identified an improvement.
However, these are not always improvements but such is the bias of academia that academic exegesis kicks in to cement the new translation as the new standard, inhibiting independent thought and establishing a new paradigm.
Those who are unfamiliar with translation may think that this criticism is too strong. So it might help to give an example of academic imitation. For a long time it has been recognized that Jn 5:39 is not a command ‘Search the Scriptures’, as the King James Version suggests, but a comment ‘You search the Scriptures’, meaning that in spite of their searching of Scripture they did not realise that the Scriptures spoke about Jesus. The variations in translation can be viewed by clicking here. So far, so good.
However, what about ‘My witness is not true’ Jn 5:31? A quick review of twenty versions, old and new, shows that there is very little variation among them in translating this. Yet most commentators know that there is a difficulty with this text. As it stands, it appears as if Jesus raises the possibility, for the sake of argument, that He may not be telling the truth. Is this even likely? Jesus plainly contradicts such a thought in Jn 8:14 ‘Jesus answered and said unto them, Though I bear record of myself, yet my record is true.’ So there are various attempts at explaining the verse. The point is not which interpretation is correct, but that in spite of all the academics pouring over this verse none of the versions have translated it as a rhetorical question. The proper translation is: ‘If I bear witness of Myself, is My witness not true?’ which makes much more sense than the statement ‘My witness is not true’ – the uniform translation in all versions I have consulted. Jesus asks a rhetorical question, Why should My witness not be true, even if I bear witness of Himself?
Why have none of the versions translated it as a rhetorical question when the Greek text is in this form? Bible translations are produced by teams of academics, so how have they not analysed the Greek text for themselves and discovered this? Have they been so busy studying the commentaries and weighed up the opinion of other scholars that they have not done their own exegesis? If so, studying commentaries is not exegesis of the text, but relying upon academia, the very thing that Jesus exposed.
This appeal to authority is what the scribes did in Jesus’ day – so when He cut through their academic exegesis and explained the proper meaning of Scripture, ‘the people were astonished at His doctrine: for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes’ Mat 7:28-29 and Mk 1:22. This mistaken emphasis is similar to that form of theology which is not ‘the study of God’ theos-logos but ‘the study of theologians’. This variety of theological study overlooks God and studies theologians, and it does not reckon someone to be a theologian if one does not know these theologians. Similarly we have translators who overlook the Bible and study other translations; how else do we account for imitation which overlooks the biblical text?
Proper exegesis of this passage in Jn 5:31 would have yielded the result that the negative statement of all extant English translations cannot be correct, even before analysising the Greek text. Like Jn 5:39 the Greek text in Jn 5:31 has legitimate alternative translations. So why have so many teams of translators followed each other along only one of these alternatives? The answer is either that they have not considered the alternative or that they are too frightened to break out of the consistent consensus of academic opinion. Neither option is commendatory.
Why call it academic exegesis? 1. because it is not exegesis, which does not need any qualifying adjective. 2. when something goes wrong with exegesis, there must be a reason for it. The commonest error is eisegesis, which is the very opposite of exegesis. 3. in this case, the error arises because of an overweaning fear of breaking out of the academic consensus, so that ‘academic’ exegesis is an appropriate adjective.
It is interesting that Jesus goes on to deal with the overweaning regard for worldly honour that prevents people believing in Him, taking Him at His Word, and following Him fully as a disciple Jn 5:44.
This is only one of many examples of academic exegesis in Bible translation, in which academics are controlled by their peer group and too frightened to do their own exegesis, resulting in academic imitation, which Jesus broke through in His time, and which we must continue to assess in our time. God willing, I hope to return to this subject with more examples as time permits.
Update with further examples as they come to light:
10 Jul 2017: the NIV translates Ps 125:3 with ‘the land’, which: 1. is not the Hebrew word, 2. does not make sense; 3. is not true; but 4. it is followed by many modern versions. Why is this so? They are copying each other – not exegeting the text. In addition, and incidentally, only some versions notice that another of the Hebrew words in this text is ‘wickedness’ and not ‘wicked’.
25 Jul 2017: ‘angels spirits’ in Ps 104:4 has been translated as ‘messengers winds‘ and copied by current translations. I happened to exegete this Psalm in my Bible commentary a few days ago, specifically on this subject about the angels, and today I discovered this article in the Trinitarian Bible Society Quarterly Record Oct-Dec 2016, pp. 17-21 on this very subject. There is providence for you! Could it be that the translators did not understand why angels are mentioned, or that some of them did not believe in angels and took the opportunity to use another translation, or could it just be that some of them copied each other?
11 Aug 2017: the New International Version has translated Act 14:21 ‘and won a large number of disciples’. Most versions have ‘many disciples’. So why have all these teams of academics not noticed that the Greek word is ‘sufficient, enough’ and not ‘many’, far less ‘a large number’? Could it just be that they are copying each other and not doing their own exegesis? The meaning of the text is overlooked by this mistranslation. It means that having made sufficient disciples to begin a congregation, and considering the effect of the negative campaigning by the travelling Jews Act 14:19, Paul and Barnabas continued no further in their travels, but retraced their steps to visit the new Christian congregations already formed in order to establish them against this negative campaigning.
11Aug 2017: the New International Version has translated Act 14:23 ‘Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them’ although the Greek text is simply ‘they’. ‘Paul and Barnabas’ is a legitimate inference but it is an interpretation rather than a translation. So why do the New Living Translation, the Berean Study Bible and the International Standard Version also ‘translate’ with Paul and Barnabas? Is it scholarly analysis of the Greek text, or is it not rather prompted by an instinct to copy each other?
4 Sep 2017: the New International Version has translated 1Tim 3:2,12 and Tit 1:6 as ‘faithful to his wife’, copied by the New Living Translation, although not by other versions. This is not translation but interpretation and omits the proper teaching of the verse which reminds the Christian church that although those who were converted as polygamists may become members in the church, yet they could not be office-bearers, in order that the proper biblical teaching on marriage may be sustained and promoted. The New Revised Standard Version has ‘translated’ these verses as ‘married only once’, which is a doctrinal imposition upon the text, which has caused untold harm and heartache to many Christians. This is a deliberate change from the Revised Standard Version, which like most other versions has ‘the husband of one wife’, which is retained as a footnote in the New Revised Standard Version.