February 25th, 2008


My students would lynch me if I used a textbook like this

Imagine you are a student in a course in which the textbook seemed to contradict itself in a number of places. The book also contradicts what you have learned in other courses and what you know from your everyday life experiences. You know that your understanding of the material in the book is going to be evaluated by examination and that your performance on the exam is going to have a major impact on your grade in the course. So you first talk to a number of students in the class to try to figure out what the textbook is saying. But you find that the other students in the class have many different interpretations of what the textbook is saying.

So, next you go to the instructor with your concerns. And your instructor says, “If you consider the passages in question in the proper context, you will find that there are absolutely no contradictions in this book.” You do your best to take his advice, but you just cannot resolve the contradictions.

Frustrated, you send an email to the head of the department, complaining that this textbook is not clearly written—certain parts don’t make sense and the students are coming to different conclusions about what the book is saying. Isn’t there a better textbook, one written clearly enough such that all students will understand it? You get an email reply that the current textbook is perfect. The truths it presents are crystal-clear. There is no better textbook. In fact, a better textbook would be impossible.

You continue to wonder how you are going to pass the test, so you identify one particularly difficult passage that seems to make no sense at all, and make an appointment with the dean of the college so that you can discuss the passage as an illustration of how unclear this textbook is. The dean welcomes you and lights up as you present the senseless passage. “The problem here,” says the dean, “is that a few words were not translated properly. If you go back to the Greek version of this textbook, you will see how those words should have been translated, and it will all make sense.”

“Are you saying, then, that in order to understand this textbook properly, I have to learn Greek and read the Greek version?” you ask. “Well, to be on the safe side, you might want to consult the original text in Aramaic,” he replies. “I don’t get it—why can’t we have a textbook that translates the original accurately and clearly into English?” “Now, now,” chides the dean. “If you read the text with a properly prayerful attitude, its truths will be delivered unto you.”

You leave the dean’s office wondering how the instructor, department chair, and dean can possibly believe that this is a good—no, a perfect—textbook. And you wonder how you are ever going to pass that test. “Oh, well, it’s just a test,” you say. “At least it is not life or death.”

[I have been meaning to write this little essay for a while. I was finally inspired to do it after reading some horrible mistranslation apologetics for II King 2:23-25.]