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Should Archaic Language Be Used In Modern Translations?

I was motivated to write this after reading Mark Strauss’ utter contempt and blasting of the ESV. At one point he condemns the ESV for using archaic language. On the whole, I agree that I would like to see archaic terms removed. However, I do not think that all archaic terms can be removed. Matthew 1:18 is one such instance.

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothedto Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with childfrom the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 1:18; ESV)

Strauss blasts the ESV for using the term “betrothed.” But does anyone really have a better word to use instead of “betrothed?” The HCSB, NRSV, and NLT use the word “engaged.” But I do not think this is an appropriate word to use. In fact, “engaged” is terribly misleading. Joseph and Mary were not engaged. In the modern mind engagement suggests a serious relationship that can be broken off at any time without consequence. Joseph and Mary were not in that situation. They were legally bound together and only a putting away (divorce) could end this. The word “engaged” is not a strong enough word to reflect the situation Joseph and Mary were in. The NIV and TNIV use the word “pledged.” I suppose this word is fine. But I believe “pledged” requires just as much explanation as the word “betrothed.” What does it mean that they were “pledged to be married.” I don’t believe the (T)NIV offers any greater clarity. We still have to explain that this is a pledge that could not be broken without putting the other away.

The point is that there are some things that took place in ancient times that do not have a modern counterpart or parallel. In such cases, it is difficult to use modern terms to explain ancient practices. Another good example of this is the “casting of lots.” Should we come up with a modern phrase instead of the “archaic” phrase “casting of lots?” Sure, if you can come up with one. The NLT occasionally uses “throwing dice.” But we are not exactly sure that this is how lots were cast. Further, throwing dice carries a modern sound of gambling, which is certainly not what happened when lots were cast to select Matthias as a replacement apostle for Judas (Acts 1:26). (To the NLT’s credit, it reads “cast lots” in reference to Matthias’ selection and not “threw dice”).

So, what should we do? Most translations have decided to leave it as it is. Leave “casting of lots” in the text and we will just have to do our best to explain it. Leave “betrothed” and we will have to do our best to explain it. Archaic terms are not a sign of shoddy translation work. Sometimes there just is not a better way to render the ancient term.

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