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On Christian Doctrine: Chapter 12
Chapter 12.—A Diversity of Interpretations is Useful. Errors Arising from Ambiguous Words.
17. And this circumstance would assist rather than hinder the understanding of Scripture, if only readers were not careless. For the examination of a number of texts has often thrown light upon some of the more obscure passages; for example, in that passage of the prophet Isaiah, 1774 one translator reads: “And do not despise the domestics of thy seed;” 1775 another reads: “And do not despise thine own flesh.” 1776 Each of these in turn confirms the other. For the one is explained by the other; because “flesh” may be taken in its literal sense, so that a man may understand that he is admonished not to despise his own body; and “the domestics of thy seed” may be understood figuratively of Christians, because they are spiritually born of the same seed as ourselves, namely, the Word. When now the meaning of the two translators is compared, a more likely sense of the words suggests itself, viz., that the command is not to despise our kinsmen, because when one brings the expression “domestics of thy seed” into relation with “flesh,” kinsmen most naturally occur to ones mind. Whence, I think, that expression of the apostle, when he says, “If by any means I may provoke to emulation them which are my flesh, and might save some of them;” 1777 that is, that through emulation of those who had believed, some of them might believe too. And he calls the Jews his “flesh,” on account of the relationship of blood. Again, that passage from the same prophet Isaiah: 1778 “If ye will not believe, ye shall not understand,” 1779 another has translated: “If ye will not believe, ye shall not abide.” 1780 Now which of these is the literal translation cannot be ascertained without reference to the text in the original tongue. And yet to those who read with knowledge, a great truth is to be found in each. For it is difficult for interpreters to differ so widely as not to touch at some point. Accordingly here, as understanding consists in sight, and is abiding, but faith feeds us as babes, upon milk, in the cradles of temporal things (for now we walk by faith, not by sight); 1781 as, moreover, unless we walk by faith, we shall not attain to sight, which does not pass away, but abides, our understanding being purified by holding to the truth;—for these reasons one says, “If ye will not believe, ye shall not understand;” but the other, “If ye will not believe, ye shall not abide.”
18. And very often a translator, to whom the meaning is not well known, is deceived by an ambiguity in the original language, and puts upon the passage a construction that is wholly alien to the sense of the writer. As for example, some texts read: “Their feet are sharp to shed blood;” 1782 for the word ὁζύς among the Greeks means both sharp and swift. And so he saw the true meaning who translated: “Their feet are swift to shed blood.” The other, taking the wrong sense of an ambiguous word, fell into error. Now translations such as this are not obscure, but false; and there is a wide difference between the two p. 541 things. For we must learn not to interpret, but to correct texts of this sort. For the same reason it is, that because the Greek word μόσχος means a calf, some have not understood that μοσχεύματα 1783 are shoots of trees, and have translated the word “calves;” and this error has crept into so many texts, that you can hardly find it written in any other way. And yet the meaning is very clear; for it is made evident by the words that follow. For “the plantings of an adulterer will not take deep root,” 1784 is a more suitable form of expression than the “calves;” 1785 because these walk upon the ground with their feet, and are not fixed in the earth by roots. In this passage, indeed, the rest of the context also justifies this translation.
Isa. 58.7, “And that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh” (A.V.).540:1775
Et domesticos seminis tui ne despexeris.540:1776
Et carnem tuam ne despexeris.540:1777
Isa. 7.9, “If ye will not believe, surely ye shall not be established” (A.V.).540:1779
Nisi credideritis, non intelligetis.540:1780
Nisi credideritis, non permanebitis.540:1781
2 Cor. 5.7.540:1782
Adulterinæ plantationes non dabunt radices altas.541:1785
Next: Chapter 13
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