Academic exegesis

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 Jn 5:31?  A quick review of twenty versions, old and new, shows that there is little variation among them.  Yet most commentators know that there is a difficulty with this text and 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 them have translated any version 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 – especially when the standard translation contradicts what the Saviour says in Jn 8:14.

Why is this?  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, this 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 modern theology, which is not ‘the study of God’ theos-logos but ‘the study of theologians’.

Proper exegesis of this passage would have yielded the result that the negative statement of all extant English translations cannot be correct, even before analysising the Greek text, which like Jn 5:39 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.

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:

10 Jul 2017: Ps 125:3: the NIV translates this 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.  So why is this so?  They are copying each other – not exegeting the text.  Only some versions notice that another of the Hebrew words in this text is ‘wickedness’ and not ‘wicked’.

25 Jul 2017: Ps 104:4: ‘angels spirits’ has been translated as ‘messengers winds’, 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!

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