The Paroikos Bible Blog exists as a resource to those interested in Biblical studies and Koine Greek. It is hoped that this blog will simultaneously provide food-for-thought to the reader while pointing him or her in the direction of valuable resources, both in print and on the internet, that will further help his or her studies in the Word.

Dec 31, 2015

Why I'm thinking of having my Hermeneutics students read an article in the NSA Technical Journal

Language is rarely logical! That's one of the mantras I occasionally try to drill into my students, and one of the key examples of that is how words usually have multiple meanings. Consequently,very rarely is there a 1-to-1 correspondence between two words in two different languages. While occasionally this can lead to humorous consequences, in many cases the results are tragic. Shortly after the Potsdam Declaration, July 1945, Japanese reporters stood waiting to hear a comment from Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki. His one-word response was "mokumatsu," which can be translated as either "no comment" or "not worthy of comment" (big difference). Ten days later, the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima.

My father John R. Himes, a former missionary to Japan, uses this incident as an opening illustration in his essay "A Translator Takes a Linguistic Look at Mark's Gospel" in the book Digging for the Truth: Collected Essays Regarding the Byzantine Text of the New Testament--A Festschrift in Honor of Maurice A. Robinson. Today, I found (surprisingly, via Wikipedia) that a short article in the (now partially declassified) NSA Technical Journal is devoted to this one word and its consequences. The article, by an unknown author (his name is the only part of the document that is classified), is entitled "Mokumatsu: One Word, Two Lessons," in volume 13.4 (Fall 1968) of the NSA Technical Journal. The full text of the article may be accessed here.

While the article is hardly what you'd expect in a "technical" journal, it is an excellent piece of writing (occasionally humorous) that drives home an extremely  important point: words have multiple meanings, and the resultant ambiguity can cause problems if we are careless. Surprisingly, the author discusses Bible translation in passing, including the now famous (though perhaps apocryphal) stories about translating "Lamb" as "Seal Pup" in an Eskimo dialect and translating "I stand at the door and knock" (Rev 3:20) as "I stand at the door and call" (in an African cultural context). 

From a military and diplomatic perspective, the author's point is that careless translation, or the assumption that we automatically know what a word means without further clarification, can have extreme consequences. Furthermore, when precision is required, one must avoid ambiguous words at all cost! The author chastises both politicians and newspaper reporters for exploiting words that are so ambiguous that they can be made to mean almost anything. Regarding Prime Minister Suzuki, the unknown author states, ". . . the fault for the mokusatsu incident is not entirely the translator's. Believe it or not, the real culprit is no less a personage than Kantaro Suzuki, the Japanese Prime Minister himself! After all, there would have been no translation problem if he had not used an ambiguous word for such an important statement" (p. 98).

The reason I am thinking of requiring my college Biblical Hermeneutics students to read this article (sans the one swear word, which I shall "classify" and edit out) is not for the discussion of Bible translation (personally, I believe that when translating Scripture, words that are ambiguous in the original languages should keep their ambiguity in the target language as much as possible, within reason. This is not always possible, of course, but often it is). Rather, the value of this short article lies in its clear illustration that words have multiple meanings. This is a point on which many would-be Bible translators are woefully ignorant: you cannot automatically translate a word in the original language the same way every time in the receptor language! 

Furthermore, the article underscores the difference between "word" and "concept"--the same word may, in different contexts, point to totally different concepts. As I have explained to my past Hermeneutics classes, the verb "fire," in English, may point to the concept of "discharge a firearm" or "dismiss somebody from their job." Conversely, as has been pointed out by many biblical linguists, studying a concept (e.g., "love") in the Bible must not be limited to just a single world. Multiple words (e.g., both agapaw and philew) and phrases must be included in the study, or one's study of "the Biblical concept of love" remains incomplete.

As a side-note, Bible translation remains a high-priority task for those who take the Great Commission seriously. For those of you who have shown evidence of skill in languages, why not consider this ministry? English, of course, has more than enough translations (though in my opinion there's room for a Byzantine-based translation); however, many languages are starved for the Word of God in their own tongue based on the original languages of Scripture (translations based on English are only a stop-gap measure, though they're certainly better than nothing!). The school I teach at, Baptist College of Ministry, has been emphasizing Bible translation more and more these past couple years, and my doctoral alma mater, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, was at one point considering offering a master's in Bible translation (not sure if they've gotten around to it yet). Currently, I have the privilege of assisting my father in translating a new Japanese New Testament based off of the Greek. Nevertheless, this is still a neglected (and not as glamorous) field that is essential to the Great Commission task!


  1. I'm glad you're teaching at BCM, Paul. Careful linguistic thinking is so, so important, and in my experience it takes a long time for people to grasp it. It did for me.

    I've been working at popularizing a similar mantra. Here's one stab I took—Rod Decker liked it, at least. =)

    1. Thanks! Good to hear from you Mark, hope to see you at the next faculty summit.