Once Upon a Time in Bible Translation
Earlier this week I posted a piece on the Huffington Post about different biblical writing styles. In particular, I claim that the exaggerated ages in Genesis served to notify the ancient reader that the stories weren’t meant to be taken literally.
In other words, there are at least two different kinds of stories in the Bible: those meant as history and those not meant as history. Furthermore, the different kinds of stories were written differently.
(The quick summary is this: The OT has three parts, detailing: the world, the people Israel, and life in Jerusalem. Only in the third do the characters tend to live biologically reasonable lives. Furthermore, historians generally agree that only the third is historically accurate. This suggests that the ancient authors used large, symbolic ages to mark non-historical stories. I have more in Chapter 8 of And God Said.)
If I’m right — and with almost 4,000 comments on my Huffington Post piece, it’s clear that not everyone thinks I am — an obvious question presents itself: Should we translate these stories differently?
Sometimes the answer to “should we?” in Bible translation is “yes, but we can’t.” In this case, though, we’re lucky, because in English we have a simple, widely accepted way to mark non-historical stories: “Once upon a time.”
Should we, then, translate Genesis 6:9 as, “Once upon a time, there lived a righteous man named Noah…”? Should Genesis 11:1 read, “Once upon a time, the whole earth had one language…”?
What do you think?