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Bible Translation Review: New Testament TransLine

October 6, 2011

translineMichael Magill’s New Testament TransLine was published by Zondervan in 2002 and reprinted by Wipf & Stock in a two-volume paperback edition in 2008.   (I have not seen the paperback edition, but it is also reported to contain a large number of corrections to the text and commentary.)  The entire translation is printed in outline format with about two-thirds of the text being extensive commentary (the translation is also available online with no commentary).   Magill has also self-published his translation with greatly shortened commentary and conventional paragraphing as the Disciples’ Literal New Testament (paperback (not seen), hardcover, online version with no commentary).

Format

It is perhaps easiest see what Magill is trying to do by looking at the samples of Ephesians (New Testament TransLine, Disciples’ Literal New Testament).  I am going to be focusing on the TransLine in this review.

Magill begins with an outline overview (click for a larger image):

transline_sample--_ephesians_Page_01

He then follows with an outline translation.  The starting verse is indicated at the top, and on the left-hand side in gray is an outline description.  Conventional verse numbering is on the right-hand side in gray.  If a verse division occurs in the middle of single outline point, it is indicated with a grey dot.  The text of the translation is in the middle, using the old tradition of marking “implied words” not found in the original in italics (similar to the convention used in the KJV) and “stressed words” in bold.  Sometimes words are added for clarification in brackets.  Compound words (e.g., below “caused-to-abound”) that are a “single word” in Greek are indicated with dashes.  The text is annotated with two types of footnotes – lettered footnotes which refer to the commentary, and cross-references with letters.  The cross-references are to word notes on the Greek found elsewhere in the commentary.  Many translation pages are only half or two-thirds full, in order to accommodate the extensive commentary.

transline_sample--_ephesians_Page_02

The commentary is in double-columns on the facing page.  Magill indicates the Goodrick-Kohlenberger (GK)  numbers  of words he considers particularly important.  Variants found in UBS4 are indicated with the grade level ({A}, {B}, {C}, {D}) marked in that text; variants found in NA27 but not UBS4 are marked {N}; variants found in the Byzantine text (particularly KJV source-text) are marked {K}.   Other notes indicate Magill’s interpretation of the text.

Magill considers Ephesians 1:3-14 to be a single sentence, so I also show the next page of translation and matching commentary:

transline_sample--_ephesians_Page_04

transline_sample--_ephesians_Page_05

Translation philosophy

Magill aspires to make his translation as literal as possible, and is clearly heavily influenced by the NASB translation.   He claims the following strategy in translating gender-based terms:

The gender issue.  Words such as “sons,” “brothers,” “man,” and the pronoun “he” are often used in the New Testament when both men and women are in view, a custom also followed in English until recent times. Since the New Testament TransLine is reflecting the ancient Greek, these words are rendered as the biblical writers wrote them. Although this is not the modern gender-explicit or gender-neutral way of speaking, it accurately reflects the Greek point of view. The modern reader can easily make the transition between how the Greek states it, and how we in the 21st century prefer to state it. In the case of “brother” and “son,” the reader can discern from the context whether physical brothers/sons, fellow-members of Abraham’s physical family (Israelites, male and female), or fellow-members of God’s spiritual family (fellow-believers, brothers and sisters in the Lord) are in view. In the case of “man,” there are Greek words that always refer specifically to a male or a female, and they are translated as such. But there is another Greek word (anthropos, from which we get “anthropo”-logy) which means “man” in the sense of “male” and “mankind, a person, whether male or female.” In order to clearly reflect the writers’ intended meaning in English, this word is translated “man” only when a male person is intended. Otherwise, it is rendered “person, mankind, human.” This permits the English reader to see the meaning in places like Jn 6:10, which uses two different words to say that the “people” (anthropos) sat down to eat, and the “men” were counted.

I don’t find this explanation particularly satisfactory for a number of reasons, and in practice Magill is somewhat inconsistent in his treatment of gender.

Evaluation

On the one hand, it is impossible not to admire a plucky individual who has the sheer chutzpah to see his work appear in print, self-publishing it as necessary (Zondervan apparently did not support his translation, and it seems that there was only a single printing of his initial translation.)  But on the other hand, this translation goes much further than most in overdetermining the meaning of the source text and imposing that meaning on the reader.  The truth is that one can read the text of the New Testament, even in English, in a large number of different ways.  Rather than celebrating that ambiguity, deliberate or accidental, Magill chooses to impose his own reading onto the text, even to the point of determining what the primary and secondary ideas of a text fragment are.  Further, his highly organized outline form strips the text of its literary presentation and makes the Biblical text look rather like a PowerPoint presentation, or a rough-draft of a student paper.  The effect is to make the text more distant, not closer.

In fact, I think that it might be a good idea for some readers to attempt to put the Biblical text – either in Greek or in translated language – into an outline format; but the value of doing that comes from the exercise of interpreting and organizing the text; I am skeptical that there is great value in reading another person’s outline-interpretation of the text.

While Magill’s notes on variants and word cross-references might be useful to many readers, his interpretative notes are somewhat idiosyncratic and personal, and exclude readings.  They tend to carry a fair amount of theological baggage.  Now perhaps this is inevitable for any commentary, but Magill goes somewhat further than most.

Further the commentary is largely isolated from historical-critical readings, even to the extent of ignoring important pre-existing philosophical notions or contrasting the New Testament text with Second-Temple Judaism.  In that sense, the commentary is very old-fashioned; and tends to make the reading artificially self-complete, rather than seeing the text as part of an ongoing philosophical and theological tradition.  This sort of reading might be attractive to some readers, but I do not think it fosters critical thought.

In short, although I think this book is physically attractive (and Magill’s formatting is not at all inelegant), I found the content of it to be intellectually smug and stultifying.  Instead of opening thought and discussion, it presented a comic-book style presentation of the text.  And its belief in “word studies through English,” this book hails back to crutches such as The KJV with Strong Numbers and The Amplified Bible (although those versions, lacking Magill’s outline format, are actually more intellectually engaging.)

I am afraid that I cannot recommend this translation except as a curiosity.  While it goes quite far in giving “the Bible according to Magill,” it does not accomplish its goal of bringing the reader closer to the Greek text.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 6, 2011 6:13 pm

    Thank you very much, Theophrastus. This is an excellent review! After looking at the pages you supply, doing some of the reading of the text online [thanks for those links], and reading the translation philosophy (especially with respect to gender), I must agree it seems “stultifying.” On the other hand, is “the Bible according to Magill” really “intellectually smug”? I can’t see Greek scholars or New Testament experts giving it much weight. Moreover, I doubt the lay person will find it nearly as accessible as The Amplified Bible or The KJV with Strong Numbers (or the online NET Bible or the BlueLetter Bible). So the work may not have an audience to be smug among.

  2. October 6, 2011 6:55 pm

    Perhaps the adverb “intellectually” in “intellectually smug” is inappropriate. But I stand by my evaluation that the book is smug.

    I find reading a humbling experience. When I read a complex literary text, I am reminded of how narrow my worldview is compared to the vast possibilities offered by language. I have an interpretation of the texts I read, but I by no means would claim that my reading is the only possible reading. In this way, reading a literary text is very different than reading Euclid. I am certain that I read Euclid the way he intended me to read him. I am not certain that I read Plato — or even Aristotle — and much less Homer, the way the authors intended. I’m not even certain that there was a single intention in the mind of the authors.

    Magill, though, is supremely confident of his ability to read Greek New Testament — and thus my claim about “smugness.”

    There is a Jewish tradition about the 70 faces of Torah — reflecting a belief that there is no single reading of Torah that excludes others. In this way alone, smugness is inappropriate.

    But even more important, the act of reading is the act of forming one’s own interpretation/reaction/understanding of a text. “My reading of the text is ….” When someone tells me that the “correct” reading of a text is such-and-such, not only is that intellectually smug, it robs me of the opportunity to read myself.

    I remember when I was in graduate school, and I met a student who obsessed over Melville. I once mentioned the 1956 John Huston Moby Dickmovie (with a screenplay by Ray Bradbury!) — a movie which I admire on several levels. He reacted with horror, saying it was better to not have any preconceptions or images at all when one reads Melville. After thinking it over, I was forced to agree with him — as good as the John Huston movie may be, it necessarily steals away the ability of the reader to read the Moby Dick movie for him or herself.

    I think Magill has done the same thing with the New Testament.

  3. October 7, 2011 11:08 am

    “In the case of ‘man,’ there are Greek words that always refer specifically to a male or a female, and they are translated as such.”

    I’m 99% sure that this is wrong. I assume he means to refer to “aner” here as the specifically-male word. However (doing a dreaded word study in English, using Strong’s Numbers no less!), I note that James 1:20 uses aner to reference the anger of man versus the anger of God. I’m quite sure that James does not mean to indicate that women’s anger is somehow morally different. In fact, across the board James seems to use aner to mean simply a person of unspecified gender.

    Acts 17:34 seems to include Damaris amongst the androi as well.

  4. October 7, 2011 2:52 pm

    Eric, I agree with your analysis.

    I am quite sure that Magill only has sincere and good intentions in making his translation, but the end result is not something that I can recommend. I find it interesting that Zondervan dropped the volume so quickly, and I wish I knew the details of that part of the story.

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