Thursday, June 2, 2011

“Palabra” or “Verbo”: Truth or Tradition?

The True Story Behind the Spanish Translation

Most new Christians are told to read the Gospel of John as a sort of initiation rite. I personally was told to read John when I asked the universal question, “Where do I start?” It was only much later, after further study and research on my part, that I realized why this is common among all Christian denominations. The Gospel of John has been popularly coined “the spiritual Gospel,” as any encyclopedia or dictionary will tell you:
Because of its special theological character the Gospel According to John was considered in ancient times to be the ‘spiritual Gospel’ [wielding] a profound and lasting influence on the development of early Christian doctrine.[1]
This “special theological character” has led some to identify John’s Christological teaching as “higher” than that of the other Gospels. However, all the Gospel accounts relate the same story of Jesus of Nazareth and proclaim him as the prophesied Jewish Messiah, “the Son of the Living God.”[2]

As a result of this “profound and lasting influence” from ancient times, the novice believer is immediately confronted by “a kind of mystic symbolism and repeated emphasis on the incarnation.”[3] In other words, most Christians come away with an erroneous picture of how the one eternal, invisible God somehow literally became a human being. This often-used word “Incarnation” needs further explanation, since it has in many ways been obscured due to the way the early Church Fathers of the nascent Catholic Church reinterpreted it from its original Hebraic meaning.

The noted scholar Raymond E. Brown best defines the term under the heading “Precreational Preexistence” in his An Introduction to New Testament Christology [p 34-35]:
Incarnation means that at his human conception the Son of God did not come into existence;[4] rather he was a previously existing agent in the divine sphere who took on flesh in the womb of Mary. Technically incarnation does not tell us whether this agent was created (as were the angels who exist in the divine sphere) or existed with God before any creation. A fortiori, it does not tell us whether the agent was God or equal to God…Many scholars, influenced by the Prologue to John’s Gospel where the Word who becomes flesh does exist before creation, join the two ideas.
This modern Christological consensus goes back to the early church fathers who, while not Trinitarian in the later sense of the word, nevertheless identified the human Jesus as the preexistent Person of “the Word who [became] flesh.”
There is one God, who has manifested Himself by Jesus Christ His Son, who is His eternal Word, not proceeding forth from silence, and who in all things pleased Him that sent Him.[5]

The Sad History Behind the First Spanish Bible Translations
[It is illegal for anyone to translate the] Bible in Castilian romance [Spanish] or in any other vulgar tongue, the Spanish New Testament of Francisco de Enzinas…and any other books of Holy Scripture in Castilian romance, French or Flemish or any other tongue which have prefaces, notes or glosses that reveal erroneous doctrines repugnant or contrary to our holy Catholic faith or to the sacraments of Holy Mother Church” (Index of the Spanish Inquisition, 1551).
It was in this environment of intimidation and persecution that the Spanish reformer Francisco de Enzinas published the first known translation of the New Testament from the original Greek into Castilian in 1543. He was also one of the first to convert to the cause of the Spanish Protestant Reformation. The translation was done directly from the Greek, using as basis the Greek text of Erasmus of Rotterdam (for which he himself was arrested in Brussels, leading to his work being prohibited by the Inquisition). Enzinas dedicated his edition to Emperor Charles V, mentioning the three reasons that led to his work: the assurance that such a translation would serve both God and the Christian world, the honor this would bring to the Spanish nation, and the fact that the author considered the work as not violating any law.[6]

From 1556 to 1560, Dr. Juan Perez de Pineda published a number of works in Geneva designed to introduce these ideas throughout the rest of Spain. Among these was his translation of the New Testament, only the second complete translation into Castilian. Perez was helped by Enzinas’ translation. However, quick opposition in their native country led both of them into exile. But thanks primarily to the efforts of one Julian Hernandez, copies were spread by smuggling them into Catholic churches and monasteries. Like Enzinas and Perez, Julian was persecuted by the Catholics but, unlike them, he did not escape the hands of the Spanish Inquisitors.
Unfortunately, Julian was betrayed by a supposed friend and imprisoned for his ‘crime’ of Bible smuggling. He was brutally tortured by the Catholic Inquisitors. After three years of remaining firm in the faith despite the persecution, refusing to denounce his convictions, Julian was burned alive at the stake.[7]
Casiodoro de Reina was a Catholic monk in the monastery of San Isidoro del Campo in the city of Sevilla where he obtained one of Julian’s contraband New Testaments by Enzinas-Pineda. He immediately set to work on what would become the most famous of the early Spanish Bible translations, La Biblia del Oso, published in 1569.

Like Enzinas and Pineda before him, Reina made extensive use of various sources for his translation, some of which are mentioned in his introduction. The work also shows other sources used, which were not mentioned for fear of the Inquisition. The basic texts used were the Hebrew and Greek texts available at the time: the Masoretic Hebrew text and the Greek texts compiled and used by Erasmus. In addition Reina also used the Latin version made in Lyon in 1528 by Sancte Pagnini, the Bible of Ferrara, the Latin Bible of Zurich and the Latin Bible of Sebastian Castellón. But most of all, Reina extensively used the Spanish translations of Francisco de Enzinas, Juan Perez and Juan de Valdés. All of these books were banned by the Catholic compendium known as the Index of Forbidden Books.

Like Enzinas before him, Reina sought the acceptance of the Catholic Church and the Spanish government. Unfortunately, these not only rejected his translation but made it illegal, persecuting anyone involved in its distribution.
He was constantly pursued by the Catholic Inquisitors and a price was placed on his head. He was labeled a heretic, a criminal, and was even accused of being a Sodomite by the Catholic Church. [His translation] was labeled [as] "a most dangerous edition of the Bible."[8]
In his dedication to his 1543 edition, Enzinas “fiercely postulated the convenience and necessity to translate biblical texts in their native language and in particular to Spanish.” Years before he died of a plague that was raging in Europe, Enzinas wrote to a friend saying:
I'm working with good conscience, God is my witness. If the people of this time do not thank me, I hope others in the future come with a better judgment, who will be better served by our studies.[9]
More prophetic words could not have been written but, unfortunately, the effort and hard work of these first Spanish Reformers are yet to be fully appreciated by modern biblical translators. They until this day continue to ignore the simplicity and truth brought by these scholars, attained through their rigorous study and knowledge of the original biblical text. The best example of this is the way they translated John’s prologue.

Logos: Word or Verb?
In the beginning was the word [la palabra] and the word was with God and God was the word…All things were created by her and without her nothing that that is made was made. In her was life…She was the true light that illuminates all men who come into the world.[10]
The fidelity of the first Spanish Reformers in translating logos as “palabra” (“word”) instead of “verbo” (verb), followed by feminine pronouns (“she, her”) instead of masculine (“he”), has survived in a few modern translations. But unfortunately they have been overshadowed by the overwhelmingly popular Spanish version known as the Reina-Valera, itself influenced by the (in)famous King James Bible of 1611. This version has been proven time and time again, by Catholic and Protestant scholars alike, to be one of the worst — not only for its antiquated style but, more importantly, because of its many errors.[11] An example of this is the persistent addition since the 1500s of the only verse which explicitly teaches a Trinitarian doctrine, 1 John 5.7-8, also known as the Johannine Comma.[12]

The first Reina-Valera edition of 1569 was subsequently revised by a number of editors and biblical groups through the centuries. Indeed, they changed the all-important meaning that was first faithfully translated from the original languages by the first Catholic converts to Protestantism: Enzinas (1543), Pineda (1556), Reina (1569) and Valera (1602).

The first to introduce this fatal interpretation into the text of John’s prologue, changing the feminine noun “palabra” to the masculine “verbo,” was the Spanish scholar Pedrosa Lorenzo Lucena in 1862. Lucena was a Catholic bishop who later joined the Protestant Episcopal flock. His task was not only to change the antiquated spelling, but also to revise forms and meaningless expressions into the modern Castilian. In the process, he changed the significance of logos.

Unfortunately, Lucena’s translation was adopted not only by the Catholic Church but by all the Protestant Bible societies. Therefore, from 1869, Lucena’s text appears in Bibles published in London, Madrid and Barcelona. Nowadays the Reina-Valera Bible, thanks in large part to Lucena’s revision, remains the most popular version in Spanish, reaching an annual distribution of some two million copies.

So why the change of the word “palabra” to “verbo”? The answer should be self-evident.

Christological Prejudice
As a matter of solid fact…such a rendering is a frightful mistranslation. It overlooks entirely an established rule of Greek grammar. Bruce Metzger on John 1.1.[13]
The reader of John 1 can come to a Trinitarian interpretation only with an already developed Christology. That is why many Spanish readers find it hard to read logos in John 1.1 as “palabra,” since the translation of logos into a feminine noun necessitates the use of feminine pronouns in the rest of the prologue. That is why translators chose the masculine noun "verbo" which in turn was probably taken from the “verbum” of the Latin Vulgate by Jerome, a version made famous since the 19th century.

Furthermore, any Greek lexicon confirms that logos means "word" and never "verb." Logos can also mean: story, cause, communication, doctrine, purpose, preaching, thought, mind, plan, activity, statement, expression. As we can see, logos can never be translated as “verb”! However many Spanish dictionaries today have added a new meaning to “verbo”: "The Second Person of the Holy Trinity."

In personal correspondence Professor Lynette Dyer Vuong, Instructor of Latin at the University of Houston, wrote:
If the translator who used 'verbo' instead of 'palabra' did so on the basis of gender and rejected 'palabra' because it's feminine, he was wrong...I would side with the majority and vote for ‘palabra’, which obviously means ‘word’, while ‘verbo’ generally means ‘verb’…It looks to me as if the Reina-Valera translator may have had some bias against females that made him unwilling to translate a word used to refer to the deity, who was 'with God' and 'was God,' with a word of the feminine gender.

[Apparently, he either didn't know or chose to ignore the fact that the word for 'spirit' as in Holy Spirit is feminine in Hebrew. (It's neuter in Greek and masculine in Latin.)]

Translators should give as nearly as possible the meaning of the words and keep their own biases and agenda out of it.

I think you are right on in your assessment. I agree with you.”

[1] John, Gospel According to, The New Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 6, 15th ed., p 587-588.

[2] Mar 8.26-29; Lu 9.17-20; Mat 16.12-16; John 20.31.

[3] Ibid.

[4] We do not know how Matthew and Luke understood the conception of Jesus through the Holy Spirit without a human father. For them was that the becoming of God’s Son? The “therefore” in Luke 1:35 (“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the one to be born will be called holy, Son of God”) could be interpreted to point in that direction. One may not simply assume that Matthew or Luke thought in a Johannine incarnation pattern. Although some scholars think Luke knew John’s Gospel that is far from certain; and John never mentions the conception of Jesus. Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 110) is the first one known to have put together conception and incarnation Christology, for he refers to both Jesus as God’s Word and the birth from a virgin (Magnesians 8:2; Smyrnaeans 1:1).

[5] Ignatius, Mag. 8, c. 110 AD.

[6] P.W. Comfort, R.A. Serrano, The Origin of the Bible, p. 347, 2008.

[7] Rodriguez, God’s Bible, p. 39.

[8] Ibid., p. 40.

[9] Boehmer, Eduard, Bibliotheca Wiffeniana: Spanish Reformers of Two Centuries, (Strasbourg 1874), vol. 1, p 155.

[10] El Testamento Nuevo de Nuestro Senor y Salvador Jesu Christo. Nueva y fielmente traducido del original Griego (por J. Pérez) en romance Castellano. Venecia, 1556.

[11] “So superstitious has been the reverence accorded the Textus Receptus that in some cases attempts to criticize or emend it have been regarded as akin to sacrilege. Yet its textual basis is essentially a handful of late and haphazardly collected minuscule manuscripts, and in a dozen passages its reading is supported by no known Greek witness” (The Text of the New Testament, p. 106). “The King James Version has serious defects…These defects were so many as to call for revision” (NRSV to the Reader, Metzger).

[12] “The Roman Catholic Church was slower to reject the comma…On 13 January 1897…the Holy Office decreed that Catholic theologians could not ‘with safety’ deny or call into doubt the Comma's authenticity. Pope Leo XIII approved this decision two days later, though his approval was not in forma specifica [full papal authority]…On 2 June 1927, the more liberal Pope Pius XI decreed that the Comma Johanneum was open to dispute” (Comma Johanneum, Wikipedia).

[13]Bruce M. Metzger, Theology Today, 10.1 (April 1953), p.75.

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