Sunday, July 24, 2011

Aion: Burgon's answer to the currently popular Westcott-and-Hort-inspired mistranslation

Finally I'm getting around to a topic I've wanted to cover here for some time. The impetus for doing it now came from something I heard on Christian radio yesterday. I heard only a part of a presentation by someone who was going to argue for a Preterist interpretation of Biblical references to the end times, that is, the interpretation that all or most of the prophecies of events understood by others to refer to the end of time are in reality already in the past, so those of us who look for a yet-future fulfillment are wrong. I couldn't listen to the whole thing and didn't even get the presenter's name (well, I'm not very favorable to the Preterist point of view, though I may eventually have to grapple with it). But he made one comment that stuck in my mind and leads me back to this topic I've wanted to cover here. Perhaps in fact it illuminates the kind of thinking Preterists do -- after you read the following you may agree that it's the mistranslation by the modern Bibles itself that gives them license for their erroneous eschatology.

Ah, yes, the Greek term AION, one of those terms whose translation into English has been embattled since the Westcott and Hort Bible Revision of 1881 -- embattled for those who object to that Revision anyway; otherwise the excruciatingly bad W&H rendering has been enshrined in seminary after seminary as if it were a needed correction to the King James.

Of course all I can do is present J W Burgon's view of it to the contrary as I am not a Greek scholar, but as usual I find his remarks to have the feel of truth and a depth of understanding that is lacking on the other side.

The gist of the dispute is that the King James translates "aion" in certain places as "world" while the revisers of 1881 and Greek students who followed them insist that it should be rendered as "age." So where the KJV says "end of the world" all or most of the new translations of the last century have "end of the age."

The speaker on the radio made the remark that the King James is a very bad translation, that "aion" means "age," not "world." Sigh.

My first take on this kind of remark is always to wonder how on earth anyone can take such a position against the King James as if its immensely learned and God-fearing translators were such idiots that they did not understand that the Greek term literally does mean "age" so that if they rendered it "world" in some contexts THEY HAD EXCELLENT SCHOLARLY AND BIBLICAL REASONS FOR DOING SO!

This is probably a large part of why I found I didn't have time to listen further to the Preterist, I must admit. This attitude is just so offensively ignorant it hardly seems worth making the effort to find out whatever might be of value in what such a teacher has to say. But of course the ignorance goes back to Westcott and Hort themselves. It is an Ignorance that has been elevated to the status of Knowledge in the minds of generations of students of Greek, while the superior and nuanced understanding of Greek -- and English -- of the KJV translators is treated as trash. Sigh.

Well, let's get to what Burgon had to say about it. Unfortunately he didn't discuss it in much detail but what he said does as usual demonstrate his greater grasp of the issues of Greek-English translation than Westcott and Hort and their legions of miseducated followers.

On page 182 of his Revision Revised, Dean Burgon has a paragraph in which he demonstrates the inferior understanding of the Greek by Westcott and Hort in a number of different instances, starting with a comment about a three-word Greek expression I can't reproduce here which he says:
"is quite an ordinary expression for 'always,' and therefore should not be exhibited (in the margin of S. Matth. xxviii 20) as a curiosity, -- 'Gr. all the days.'"
This is the kind of comment Burgon makes throughout his book that to my mind demonstrates that he knows what he's talking about while the revisers of 1881 whom he is criticizing were klutzy ignoramuses by comparison. Sad to think their inferior knowledge of Greek is now the basis of all the new Bibles.

Burgon goes on in that paragraph to say:
"--So with respect to the word aion, which seems to have greatly exercised the Revisionists. What need, every time it occurs, to explain that [five Greek words here including a form of "aion" it would take me too long to transliterate] means literally 'unto the ages of the ages.'? Surely (as in Ps. xlv. 6, quoted Heb. 1.8,) the established rendering ('for ever and ever') is plain enough and needs no gloss!"
Does this suggest to anybody besides me that the Revisers had a klutzy flat-footed shallow understanding of Greek that ought to have disqualified them from any position of authority over the translation of the Bible?

The other place where Burgon discusses "aion" is on page 208:
What means also the fidgetty anxiety manifested throughout these pages to explain away, or at least to evacuate, expressions which have to do with ETERNITY? Why, for example, is 'the world (aion) to come, invariably glossed 'the age to come'? (See the margin of Rom. ix. 5. Are we to read 'God blessed unto the ages'?) Surely we, whose language furnishes expressions of precisely similar character (viz. 'for ever,' and 'for ever and ever'), might dispense with information hazy and unprofitable as this!
The KJV translators ONLY translate "aion" to mean "world" in expressions that refer to the "END OF the world," or ETERNITY, as Burgon says. "End of the age," on the other hand, today's favored mistranslation, implies something time-limited, the opposite of what the Bible means in those places. Take a look at Strong's Concordance. "Aion" is ALWAYS used with this meaning in those particular places. OTHERWISE, there are two other Greek words for "world" that refer to the globe itself, the planet, or to land.

ALSO, there are TWO places in the New Testament where the KJV DID translate "aion" as "age" or in this case "ages" -- see Ephesians 2:7 and 3:21. They also translated it by other words in different contexts. You can go check it out on the Concordance pages for "aion" at Blue Letter Bible. THE KJV TRANSLATORS KNEW WHAT THEY WERE DOING, and since that is the case it raises much doubt that the Westcott and Hort team had any clue at all as to how to read ancient Greek.


I noted when I was checking this out at Blue Letter Bible that the New King James also uses the W&H "age" instead of "world" but I didn't recall that from the list of the NKJV's taking over of the W&H wording that I covered a while back. I checked on two different discussions of the NKJV in this light and didn't find it. This is very strange since this particular change is one of the worst that could have been done.

COMING SOON: THE GREEK AORIST TENSE. I'm sure that most Christians have been in Bible studies or heard sermons that make a big deal out of the Greek "aorist" tense. Supposedly a recognition of this Greek tense helps us clarify the meaning of some Biblical texts the KJV translators supposedly couldn't grasp. Sigh. Burgon nails it as a pedantic insensitivity to both Greek and English. More klutzy bogus scholarship from Westcott and Hort through the modern Bibles down to us.
(Sorry, Burgon's discussion of the aorist is too lengthy and varied for easy digesting for blog purposes, and not well focused on the issues I had in mind that I've heard discussed in church and Bible study. I may nevertheless try to take it on at some point but I realize that for now with so much else occupying my time that it won't be for a while).