The more mature I get in my faith, the more I realize love and faith matter above all else, and the works that are the product of true faith are good: too to feed the poor and visit the orphans and widows. Yet I also recognize that words matter and our understanding of the Bible matters. God gave us His word and we should be most faithful to it.
I'm not at all suggesting there has been unfaithfulness in the following but I am curious about the rendering of a certain word, in the several comparative translations I see online through a popular bible website, and I'll explain why I feel that way. It is a minor issue but it interests me as a case study and I think its implications could also be culturally significant. I feel I am mature enough to start forming opinions on key word translations on my own and we really do live in the age of information and increasing knowledge that our forefathers could only dream about. I understand that no translation may be perfect, and to get perfection you have to understand the text in its originally inspired language.
To be clear, this is strictly a translation question, not a doctrine question.
The Greek prefix α means "not" - for example, a-theist means someone who is not a theist, much like 'un' means 'not' in English. Therefore we read of circumcision and uncircumcision side by side, for instance in this interlinear passage of Galatians 6:15, we think or assume that in the Greek they are of the same root. They are not, with one just having a prefix like in English, but it is actually not the case. The Greek uses a different construct for circumcision (περιτομή) than uncircumcision (ἀκροβυστία), that per Strong's means foreskin or prepuce as in:
Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.
All translations translate Strong's 203 ἀκροβυστία as uncircumcision when that is the third definition on their list.
Definition: the prepuce, foreskin, uncircumcision.
The word itself has an etymology.
ἄκρον (Akron) means highest or extreme source as in words like Akropolis (highest city). It was suggested elsewhere that the 'bustia' part is of Hebrew origin. Incidentally, I think that Help's word study at that same at BibleHub link gets it wrong when they say:
[203 /akrobystía literally means "what covers the extreme end," referring to the part of the male foreskin not removed by circumcision. [Italics theirs]
It makes more sense to me if they meant to say, or ought to have said that it is the part that is removed by circumcision but that's a side question.
Essentially, ἀκροβυστία literally means foreskin or prepuce. Even the word 'foreskin' can have multiple meanings, in terms of whether one means the part of the organ that is 'fore' of the tip, hanging over, which I think was its original and Greek meaning- the akro portion, or whether one means the entire prepuce as understood in early 21st century Western civilization. Anyway, it therefore surprises me that not one translation on this list of most common translations (including Young's literal) translates it as foreskin or prepuce.
"Uncircumcision" works just as well for most bible study use cases, but I for one would have liked to see foreskin or prepuce used in at least a few translations, especially in the more literal translations. It would add a depth of imagery and understanding that people often miss. I think it would
- contrast more clearly the Greek vs the Jewish mindset and culture
- remind people that the foreskin is an actual organ with an actual visible appearance as opposed to a state of being one way or another
- serve as a literal rendering of God's word, giving literal value, and
- notify grammarians and Greek learners and other folks that these are not the same words just with a different prefix but are from different root words
I guess I'm wondering, given what I've shared
- How do other people judge or regard these heuristics
- Whether I have a point
- Whether I am missing anything- whether I lack specific insight on the use, that would favor the existing translation
I'm not against it ever being used, as I've said above, but unanimous consent sometimes scares me in places where you wouldn't expect it.
I know there are two mutually exclusive approaches to translating the bible - literally vs idiomatically. I know also that one can also strive to make a text as accessible as possible at the expense of detail (accessibility vs sophistication). Each of these approaches has its use cases and brings unique value, which is why it is great that we have multiple translations but when I see such uniformity in anything I tend to think there is an invisible force at play governing how things are done- whether that force is cultural or whatever. I've always liked to be rational and courageous and not stick to culture when I think there is a better way, but follow culture when I think it is best or just as good as any other way. That's always been how I have tried to live life.
I'll be honest- while this is not the most important thing in life or in Christianity, as I have said above, I think it may tell us something. I think the English-speaking world in the 20th and 21st centuries has been extremely phobic of the foreskin, ignorant of it and its function, and quite superstitious about it as well, and this has possibly affected the choice of translation. Whether the English-speaking world has violated the commandments of God for traditions of men (in that ancient form was a smaller cut, which I think is the case), or whether they have just chosen to ignore the suggestions of Paul on the subject, who I know was speaking in terms of its theological value- yet who I don't think could ever conceive of people getting cut for non-religious 'medical' or 'aesthetic' reasons, let alone with the fervor and zeal of today- these are questions for elsewhere, but I think the English speaking world's ignorance and phobia in this subject matter, which I think exists, has bled into our English NT translations (no pun intended).
In general, I'm seeing that translators have to in many cases be courageous and bold and cannot be captured by a culture, not just here but in translations of words like hades or Gehenna for hell or αἰῶνας as age vs forever- not that our beliefs should change, but just that we should have access to the actual words without needing dictionaries for everything and read everything from our trusted translations with a grain of salt, especially when things are so universally translated thus in every version John Smith finds for sale on the shelf. Do I have a basis for this? I guess that scribes, who Jesus talked a lot about, although I know I may be using the word anachronistically, nonetheless have a grave responsibility and I feel like my level of trust in translations generally is sinking, as it's a work done by mere mortals, fallible, non-all-knowing men, who moreover have mouths to feed, products of their times, under earthly authorities. I feel like we have to be detectives if we really want to understand God's word, almost to the point of doing original work. I especially don't like when things are given to us dumbed-down. I guess I'm wondering, does anything I say get the stamp of approval from this community, and is there anything people would like to add, amend or suggest me to consider?
I hope you consider what I have said and I hope the Holy Spirit guides us in truth. I know that stack overflow can be brutal in its feedback. I did not mean to use this as a soapbox or pulpit, but I feel this post has some original material that I hope will be useful for future thinkers, scholars, and Christians who are asking these same questions.