Sunday, 22 January 2017

Numbers in Scripture and translation issues - grrr!

Looking at the rest of the chapter for today's first Nocturn readings, Galatians 1, I came across one of those really annoying translation problems with otherwise excellent texts, namely the Knox version of Galatians 1:18.

Galatians 1:18

The Knox Bible version gives it as:
Then, when three years had passed, I did go up to Jerusalem, to visit Peter, and I stayed a fortnight there in his company;
Where does the reference to a fortnight come from?

The translator's imagination it would seem.

The Greek gives it as fifteen days, as does the Vulgate:
ἔπειτα μετὰ ἔτη τρία ἀνῆλθον εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα ἱστορῆσαι Κηφᾶν, καὶ ἐπέμεινα πρὸς αὐτὸν ἡμέρας δεκαπέντε:
deinde post annos tres veni Jerosolymam videre Petrum, et mansi apud eum diebus quindecim:
Fortunately the Douay-Rheims provides a more literal translation:
Then, after three years, I went to Jerusalem, to see Peter, and I tarried with him fifteen days.
The significance of numbers in Scripture

Does it matter?

Well yes in my view.

We tend to forget that numbers in Scripture are important.

When the inspired writer includes a specific number, we have to assume there is a reason for that, not least because Scripture itself often records instruction to the effect that these numbers are significant.

Scripture tells us that God 'hast ordered all things in measure, and number, and weight' (Wisdom 11:21), and we are frequently reminded that the recurrence of certain key numbers is meant to tell us something important.

In Matthew 16:8-10, for example, Our Lord asks the apostles to ponder the significance of the number of baskets of bread left over from the feeding of the 5,000 and the 4,000 - the numbers in question being the symbolically laden 12 (the 5,000 perhaps standing for those covered by the Pentateuch the five books of the Old Law; twelve for the twelve tribes of Israel) and 7 (the four thousand standing for those brought in by the four books of the Gospel; seven standing for perfection or completion, from the days of creation, or perhaps expansion and the going into the world) respectively.  In Acts, the importance of those numbers is reinforced again in the election of a new apostle to restore the number to twelve, and the appointment of the seven deacons.

Similarly, in 2 Peter 2, St Peter points out that eight people were saved from the Great Flood; the Resurrection that reopened the way to heaven was on the 'eighth day', creating a symbolism that led to baptisteries and baptismal fonts traditionally having eight sides.

The symbolism of fifteen 

The number fifteen used in Galatians is rather less prominent in Scripture than 7, 8 and 12 (which recur hundreds of times through the Old and New Testaments) but it does have several key uses in Scripture that are probably meant to be understood here.  Let me just point to a few of them.

First, the life of King Hezekiah was extended by fifteen years after he prayed when being told he should repent as he was about to die.

Secondly, there were fifteen steps from the outer to the inner temple, and the temple was viewed as a microcosm of heaven, so the steps mark the ascent from this world to the next.

And thirdly, corresponding to the steps of the temple there are fifteen 'psalms of the Ascent' or Gradual psalms, often interpreted as marking the ascent to God through grace.

There are other key Scriptural associations with 15 as well, particularly in its multiples, such as the 150 days that it rained during the Great Flood, symbolising the cleansing from sin; and the 150 psalms, which summarise all of the Bible.

So when Galatians tells us that St Paul stayed with St Peter for fifteen days, St Paul is telling us not that it was only a short time that he spent with the Apostle, in my view, but rather that it was a grace-filled time, a great gift of God; a time that marked the cleansing of the sins of his previous life.

Fathers and Theologians

And indeed, if you check the commentaries of the Fathers and Theologians on the verse, they make exactly these kind of points.  Let me provide just two reference points by way of illustration.

 St Jerome, comments:
And though it seems excessive to some to investigate numbers in Scripture, yet I think it is not beside the point to note that the fifteen days that Paul spent with Peter signifies the fullness of wisdom and the perfection of doctrine, seeing that that there are fifteen [decades of] psalms in a psalter and fifteen steps by which people go up to sing to God.
St Thomas Aquinas adds:
 And I tarried with him fifteen days, because that number is the sum of eight and seven. Eight is the number of the New Testament, in which the eighth day of those who will rise is awaited; but seven is the number of the Old Testament, because it celebrates the seventh day. And so he stayed with Peter fifteen days, conversing with him on the mysteries of the Old and New Testament.
Numbers, it is clear, matter in Scripture, and translations that hide them from us contribute to the undermining of tradition that has become so endemic in our time, with Christmas no longer having days, and the invention of  'Ascension Sunday'.

Working with translations

 I actually do like the Knox translation for many purposes, but alas this particular example is by far from the only place where significant numbers are obscured by the translation.  The number of people saved from the Great Flood in the letter of St Peter I cited above, for example, is not eight in the Knox Bible, rather Noah and 'seven others with him'.

The moral of the story is, if you are using a translation, crosscheck it!  Ideally, use the Latin (and/or Greek).  But failing that (or as a supplement depending on how strong your language skills are) also look at a more literal translation such as the Douay-Rheims and/or use one of the excellent online resources (my personal favourite due to its clear layout is Blueletter bible but there are many others) that can provide multiple translations for comparison purposes, as well as breakdown the Greek or Hebrew for you via links to Strong's Concordance. 

No comments:

Post a Comment