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Amen amen I say to you: The NET Bible and the Greek text of the Fourth Gospel (Round 2)

May 18, 2010

A few weeks back I posted an entry about my dissatisfaction with the NET Bible’s rendering of the Johannine phrase, amen amen lego hymin. Yesterday Dr. Michael Burer (Assistant Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary and Assistant Project Director for the NET Bible) responded to my post. In his response he provides the following rationale for the editors’ decision:

We often assume that the original wording of the scripture was perfectly clear, but often times it was shocking, unusual, or thought provoking. We acknowledge that about the Johannine phrase. However, we felt it necessary to balance a strong statement with communication in English: In our judgment a contemporary reader would get little to no meaning out of “amen, amen.” In fact it might have the opposite effect and sound sanctimonious instead of powerful. We chose the dynamic rendering “I tell you the solemn truth . . .” as the best of all options, even though it does fall short in some ways.

Keep in mind, in the first post I disclosed that I use the NET Bible, generally agree with its translation philosophy, and recommend it to others. In addition, I know Dr. Burer and the other editors and I consider them friends. That being said, I think the above comment may shed light on a philosophical issue that divides us here. When Dr. Burer argues that “the contemporary reader would get little to no meaning” out of a formal equivalent translation in this instance, he is, ironically enough, contributing to the point I was trying to make in the first post. I am not convinced that one goal of the translation process is to solve/resolve every difficult issue for the contemporary reader, especially not in such an important literary and theological context.

The Fourth Gospel’s presentation of Jesus arrests the reader with concepts that do not appear in the Synoptic Gospels: Jesus is the revealer of the Father. Jesus has been given the very name of Father. Jesus is the unique earthly representative of the Father. These are important elements of the Fourth Gospel’s presentation of Jesus’ mission and identity. Since I am not convinced that we should solve/resolve or smooth out every problem for the contemporary reader, I think that placing “amen amen” at the front of a pronouncement could potentially raise questions the contemporary reader has not yet considered.  In other words, to resolve the issue for the contemporary reader in this instance is ultimately to offer that reader a disservice. After all, shouldn’t our study of the Bible raise at least as many questions as it answers? Perhaps this is more of a hermeneutical question than a question of translation philosophy, but aren’t the two inextricably linked?

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