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Selah

October 28, 2011

The question is whether or not it is fair to leave “selah” to the footnotes as the NIV 2011 has done. The conversation started here with Rod Decker who wrote in defense of the NIV 2011,

Selah is a bit mysterious, but probably is a musical notation that may have indicated a rest/pause. When reading Scripture orally, it should never be read and it should certainly not be made into a matter of exegetical or homiletical significance. (I’ve often heard it used as an indication that some statement is particularly significant: “think of that!” is the usual idea that I’ve heard.) To do so would be a bit like singing these actual words in the Hallelujah Chorus: “Hallelujah! rest Hallelujah! rest Hallelujah! rest Hallelujah! rest Hallelujah! rest.” I doubt Handel would be pleased!

Jim Hamilton responded here, saying,

When I read an ancient text from a different culture, I don’t want to look into a linguistic mirror. I would like for that text to feel a little foreign, to feel a little ancient. I don’t want it only telling me what I already know. This word Selah occurs over and over all across the Psalter and into Habakkuk 3. One of the challenges of reading and understanding the Bible is paying attention to all the things the Bible says that we don’t understand, studying those things, and trying to come to a place where we begin to learn what the biblical authors were talking about and how they talked about it.

In a comment on this post Hamilton writes,

The presence of something in the footnotes is NOTHING like it being in the text. Most people don’t read the footnotes at all, and if they do, they probably assume that what’s in the text is what matters and what’s in the footnotes is there because the editors and translators have decided it doesn’t really belong in the text.

This is fascinating since the translators of the ESV have been adamant that having “brothers and sisters” in the footnote for adelphoi should be enough for women to consider themselves included in the common form of address found in the epistles.

Rod Decker responded to Hamilton with this,

Then you say that the NIV has “removed” Selah from the text. But that isn’t the case at all. Every instance is clearly marked, both in the Psalter and in Hab 3. It is not presented in the notes as a textual variant, suggesting that it isn’t original. I don’t have any access to the mind of the CBT as to why they’ve done this. Perhaps they’ve discussed it somewhere. My assumption, however, is that they have acted consistently with the normal view that it is a musical notation—one that was relevant when originally sung, but which serves no equivalent function in English translation. Rather than simply delete it, however, they have been careful to maintain it since it is part of the text. They certainly do not “remove it from consideration.” By putting it in the note they encourage what I would consider a proper practice: not reading ancient musical notation when reading the Psalter! You obviously disagree, but let’s not make accusations about tampering with the text when that’s not the case at all.

Perhaps the most significant and disturbing feature of this exchange is found in a final comment by Jim Hamilton,

I don’t think it’s extreme to conclude that a translation that removes a word from the text to the footnotes has failed to present the text faithfully.

I think the CBT should reverse itself and put Selah back where it belongs. If they won’t, it would seem to me that a discussion about Article 10 of the Chicago Statement is warranted.

I was raised in a Christian community which practiced excommunication, and as I read these words, I feel my chest tighten and my heart beating faster. This statement comes across as a very thinly veiled threat. Yikes.

There are a few additional considerations. This concern about the NIV 2011 has as its focal point, 1 Tim. 2:2, and whether women can exercise authority in the church. This puts all women in a rather unhappy circumstance as the focus of such immoderate dialogue.

A second consideration is that the Latin Vulgate did not include selah in the text. I am not aware of whether it has been added to the recent revisions. From what I have studied, it seems that Pagninus was the first translator to add selah into a translation. I now ask myself if the Vulgate would also be labeled “unfaithful,” or does Hamilton already regard it as such.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 28, 2011 9:39 am

    I’ve had to grapple with this issue for My People’s Prayer Book, because both the rabbinic prayers and the biblical Psalms in the liturgy contain the word selah. And to make matters worse, it’s true that we don’t know for sure what selah meant in the Bible, but it’s pretty clear that, for the Rabbis, the word means “forever.”

    It occurred to me that selah — based on its distribution and on later rabbinic interpretation — might have been the equivalent of our modern fermata, which usually indicates that the final note of a musical phrase is to be extended.

    It’s just a guess, and I’m not sure it helps the translation issue all that much, but there it is.

    (As for the theoretical question of whether words should be “left out,” I think the answer is “of course.” One clear case is ha’im in Hebrew, which introduces a question. In English we use a question mark at the end of the sentence for that, and in Spanish they use two question marks, an inverted one at the beginning in addition to one at the end. I don’t think anyone is of the belief that we should try to find an English or Spanish word for ha’im.)

    -Joel

  2. October 28, 2011 10:31 am

    Regarding footnotes; I have to say that I have sympathy for both positions here.

    Normally, I regard footnotes as an integral part of a text. I do think it is fair to experiment in the translated text if the experiment is properly noted. (Thus, in Christian Bibles, I think the so-called controversy of Isaiah 7:14 is a non-issue, because most recent translations note both the Septuagint and Masoretic translations. However, I do note that the ESV translators went to the trouble to actually remove the RSV’s footnote at this point.)

    On the other hand, the psalter is special, because it is a prayer book, and it is read aloud in prayer. One does not normally recite footnotes as a part of prayer. So in this case, footnotes are not an adequate substitute.

    There is a very real difference between a psalter prepared for study, and a psalter prepared for actual use in prayer.

    In my opinion, the best way out of this dilemma is to pray the psalms in Hebrew. (I note that in My People’s Prayer Book volumes, which I do admire, both the Hebrew text and Joel’s translation are given. The volumes also feature parallel commentary from a number of different perspectives.)

  3. October 28, 2011 12:11 pm

    I think this debate involves two unasked questions:

    1) Who is the audience?
    2) What is translation, anyway?

    Frankly, if this translation is aimed at the average American church-goer selah is going to be ignored anyway. I talked to a few people at my ESV-loving church after a recent discussion with Theoprastus here and asked what they thought of the RSV. The general impression most people (monolingual English-speakers) had was that the RSV was basically unreadable. Only the people who also read some Greek seemed to think otherwise. The debate about selah matters to a small fraction of the people who will actually be buying the Bible. One possible response to the charge Hamilton brings is to tell him to be serious – anyone who actually gives a rip about selah is the sort of person who reads footnotes.

    As far as the second question goes, it seems that there’s a question (that has been discussed at a much higher level than I am capable of doing) about what translation is. Is it carrying over core concepts? I think it’s obvious that words exist as ‘wrappers’ for concepts and that one could actually translate English to English – for instance, the word “gay” has changed meanings over the last century and could be legitimately translated from the English of 1900 to the English of 2000. So why are certain words preserved? What about the word selah requires preservation? This debate also strikes at the issue of “paraphrase translations” which seem to be generally hated in evangelical circles despite the fact that (see point 1) the average evangelical doesn’t seem to be reading at a level where it would matter. In fact, it might be very helpful for some people who hate paraphrase translations as a matter of principle to read one. They might find that the Bible makes sense.

  4. October 28, 2011 1:29 pm

    Surely the isssue is wider than “selah”? Translators and Bible publishers have for centuries been getting more and more ready to adapt the content and presentation to make the Bible more readable. But many such adaptations are two edged, headings predispose readers’ interpretation (or even as in Eph 5 twist it completely), but they also make Bibles feel more “normal” and help readers find passages…

    In the case of “selah” what we may be missing is an indicator of where breaks occur in the psalm, since “selah” often (though probably not always) occurs at a point where either one imagines a liturgical change, a change of stanza etc…

    Personally I can’t see the problem with putting it in right justified as many Bibles do…

  5. October 29, 2011 7:43 am

    Isn’t the very first translation of this Hebrew biblical phrase (perhaps some sort of literal mark of punctuation like the Spanish and the English question marks – as Joel suggests – and definitely a figural question mark for us all) the Septuagint translators’ διάψαλμα?

    And who really knows what that Hebraic Hellene phrase means? Except we know it is not a footnote and it is an included translation for what it’s worth. It makes outsiders of us all, whether we are women or not. Now isn’t that an interesting way to level the playing field?

  6. November 1, 2011 8:31 pm

    There are various other letters too – Samech alone perhaps as an abbreviation of Selah, and I think the odd Peh as well – such salt (and pepper) are nice seasoning – I say put them in and keep them guessing.

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