Anti-Charismatic Bias in the Chinese Union Version of the Bible

By Robert Menzies

Abstract
In this article, Robert Menzies asserts that the translators of the Chinese Union Version of the New
Testament deviated from their guiding principles when they translated the verb “to prophesy”
(profhteÊv). They did not translate the verb consistently nor did they render it literally. The
Union Version translators generally translate references to predictive prophecy with the phrase yu
yan (“to prophesy”) or shuo yu yan (“to utter a prophecy”). Yet they translate references to prophetic
utterances in the early church, particularly those texts in 1 Corinthians 12-14 that might
have a bearing on the practice of the contemporary church, with phrases associated with preaching,
such as zuo xian zhi jiang dao (“to preach prophetically”). Menzies argues that this tendency to
identify prophecy with preaching is reductionistic and misleading. It arbitrarily dismisses predicative
prophecy as a valid dimension of profhteÊv in several instances and it incorrectly narrows
the semantic range of the verb, which normally denotes spontaneous, Spirit-inspired utterances,
to the exposition of Scripture. Menzies concludes that the translators of the Union Version have
unconsciously foisted Calvin’s view of prophecy as preaching onto the biblical text.
Keywords
Prophecy, Chinese Bible Translation, Charismatic Theology, Calvin, The Reformed Tradition

Anti-Charismatic Bias in the Chinese Union Version of the Bible

The living room of the tiny apartment was packed with Chinese believers. The eagerness of the students and their hunger for the Word of God was truly inspiring. At this point in my ministry, I had only been in China a few years. Nevertheless, several church leaders knew of my Pentecostal orientation and my interest in the work of the Spirit. So, they asked me to speak to the group concerning the New Testament teaching on the work of the Holy Spirit.

I began by teaching about the activity of the Holy Spirit in Luke-Acts. As we looked at a number of key passages, I noted that in Luke-Acts the Spirit is, above all, the Spirit of prophecy. Throughout Luke-Acts the Spirit is presented as the source of prophetic inspiration, inspiring speech and granting special wisdom. In this way, the Spirit enables the church to bear witness for Christ, even in the face of opposition and persecution, and directs its mission. At one point, I noted that this understanding of the Spirit as the source of prophetic inspiration also forms the backdrop for what Paul refers to as “the gift of prophecy” in 1 Corinthians 12-14. Here too Paul refers to the Spirit as the source of spontaneous, Spirit-inspired speech. When I mentioned the “gift of prophecy” in 1 Corinthians 12-14, there was a puzzled look on the faces of a number of the believers. Then one of the bolder Chinese Christians blurted out in Mandarin Chinese, “Paul doesn’t speak of prophecy (yu yan)[1] in 1 Corinthians 12-14. In these verses he talks about preaching (jiang dao)[2]!”

I was a bit stunned by this response and suggested that we all look at 1 Corinthians 14:1. I was then introduced for the first time to a peculiarity of the Chinese Union Version, the standard Chinese translation of the Bible that is today used by virtually all of the Christians in China. I found that the text of 1 Corinthians 14:1 reads: “…eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially prophetic preaching (xian zhi jiang dao).[3]” I noticed that the term normally used for prophecy (yu yan) was not to be found here or elsewhere for that matter in 1 Corinthians 12-14 of the Union Version.[4] Instead, the translators used a phrase that is normally associated with preaching (jiang dao), and qualified it with the term for prophet (xian zhi).[5] Thus, the essential idea conveyed is that of “prophetic preaching,” with preaching being the dominant theme. Certainly in the mind of these Chinese brothers and sisters this passage had little to do with a spontaneous message inspired by the Spirit. Rather, this passage spoke of the Spirit’s role in helping believers explain the meaning of the Bible after careful study of the text. In the eyes of these Chinese believers, then, 1 Corinthians 14:1 encourages believers to seek the gift of preaching.

In the following essay I would like to look more carefully at this peculiarity of the Chinese Union Version – a peculiarity I term “the anti-charismatic bias” of the Union Version. We shall first look at the history of the Union Version translation, which will enable us to better understand the dynamics that helped shaped this translation. We shall then look at how the translators dealt with specific texts, particularly those that support the contention that the Union Version reflects a clear tendency that might be termed, “anti-charismatic.” Finally, we shall assess our findings and inquire into the motivation for this tendency.

 

  1. The History of the Union Version Translation of the New Testament

The translation of the Bible that has become the standard for Christians in China is termed the Union Version.[6] It is hard to underestimate the importance of the Union Version for the Chinese church, for it is used by virtually all of the Christians in China, whether they worship in the government-recognized, TSPM churches or in house churches. In most quarters, to attempt to use another translation would be tantamount to using a text other than the Bible. Christians in China today view the Union Version like an earlier generation of English-speaking Christians viewed the King James Version. It is the Word of God and there is no other.

This important translation traces its origins back to a missionary conference that was convened in Shanghai in 1890.[7] Prior to the conference there was a growing sense of need for a recognized translation of the Bible that all Protestant groups could agree upon and use. The delegates of the conference actually determined that work on three Union Versions of the Chinese Bible should be undertaken: two versions in classical or literary Chinese (High Wenli and Easy Wenli); and a Union Mandarin Version. Ironically, at the time most missionaries felt that the classical versions were most important, while the Mandarin version was viewed as relatively insignificant. History would prove these perceptions wrong. It was the Union Mandarin Version that would have a lasting and significant influence – as we have noted, an influence that still exists today. It is upon this particular project, and more particularly the translation of the New Testament into Mandarin Chinese, that we will focus.

The translation known as the Union Mandarin Version (now known as and hereafter referred to as the Union Version) of the New Testament was produced by a committee of scholars selected and sanctioned by the Protestant Missionary Conference of 1890. An executive committee of ten members was selected by the conference, and this committee in turn selected a team of seven translators. Over the years, a variety of translators served as members of the translation team. However, three men formed the core of the translation team, significantly shaped the final product, and guided this project over the years. These men were: C.W. Mateer of the American Presbyterian Mission; Chauncey Goodrich, a Congregationalist missionary who served with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions; and F.W. Baller, a Baptist missionary associated with the China Inland Mission. These three men, uniquely qualified to engage in translation work, gave a great portion of the best years of their lives to see the project completed.[8] This was no small feat, for the entire project lasted 30 years. The project, as we have noted, was initiated in 1890. The Union Version of the New Testament was completed and published in 1907. A revision of this translation was published together with the completed translation of the Old Testament in 1919. This work represents the standard Chinese translation of the Bible currently used in China today, the Union Version. Mateer, Goodrich, and Baller were involved in a significant way at every stage of this translation of the New Testament, including the final revisions that culminated in the Union Version of 1919. For our purposes, it is also important to note that the key translators of Union Version of the New Testament – Mateer, Goodrich, and Baller – were all steeped in the Reformed tradition.

The Protestant Missionary Conference of 1890 not only initiated the translation project by selecting the executive committee, it also laid down an important guiding principle for the project. The conference felt strongly that each of the Union Versions should be based upon the same biblical text. With respect to the New Testament, the conference determined that the Greek text underlying the then recently published Revised English Version should “be made the basis, with the privilege of any deviations in accordance with the Authorized Version.”[9] The translation team remained faithful to this guideline over the course of the project. Thus, the Union Version New Testament “was based on a Greek text which generally reads like the Greek text underlying [the Revised English Version],” although the Union Version was “more conservative” than the Revised English Version in keeping with readings of the Textus Receptus.[10]

On November 18, 1891 the translators met together with the members of the executive committees and established 18 principles which were to guide the translation project. Four were particularly important for our purposes:

 

  1. Passages expressed in the same terms and in the same or similar connection in the original, translate in the uniform manner.

 

  1. Translate Greek and Hebrew words occurring in different places and used in the same sense by the same Chinese words….

 

  1. Make a special effort to render literally words and phrases which have a theological or ethical importance, and which are, or may be, used by any school for proof or support of doctrines; putting explanations in the margin, if necessary….

 

  1. When two or more interpretations seem quite or nearly equally good, give one in the text and the other, or others, in the margin.[11]

 

These principles highlight the executive committee and the translation team’s desire to translate significant Greek terms consistently (Principles #3 and 4 above) and also to translate terms of theological importance in a literal way, with a minimum of theological interpretation, so as not to alienate specific Protestant churches (Principles #11 and 15). Let us now turn to the translation of the New Testament itself and examine how faithful the translators were to these guiding principles. Our inquiry will focus on how the Union Version translators rendered the term προφητεύω (“to prophesy”) into Chinese.

 

  1. The Translation ofπροφητεύω

The Chinese Union Version of the New Testament generally translates the Greek term, προφητεύω (“to prophesy”), with the Chinese phrase normally used to describe prophetic speech, shuo yu yan.[12] The character shuo means “to speak.” The characters yu yan suggest the idea of “speaking (yan) beforehand (yu),” thus they routinely designate prophetic speech. In this sense the phrase yu yan is very much like the Greek term, προφητεύω, which also suggests speaking (fhmi&, “to say”) beforehand (pro, “before”). Of course the concept of prophecy in the New Testament is larger than simply predicting future events, but this is a core element of the term. The tendency for the Union Version to translate the verb προφητεύω (“to prophesy”) with shuo yu yan may be illustrated with a number of texts.[13]

Matthew 11:13 reads, “For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John.”[14] The Greek term translated “prophesied” is a form of the verb προφητεύω. The Chinese text at this point translates this Greek term with the phrase shuo yu yan.

Similarly, Mark 14:65 describes how, shortly before the death of Jesus, “they blindfolded him, struck him with their fists, and said, “Prophesy!” Again, the Greek word rendered “prophesy” is a form of the verb προφητεύω. And the Chinese text translates with the phrase shuo yu yan.

The prophecy of Caiaphas is recorded in John 11:51, “He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation….” The Greek text again employs a form of προφητεύω, which the Union Version translates with the characters yu yan.

Peter’s citation of Joel’s prophecy in Acts 2:17-18 includes the phrases, “Your sons and daughters will prophesy” and “they will prophesy.” Both verbs in the Greek text are forms of προφητεύω. The Union Version again renders these verbs with the characters shuo yu yan.

Another significant passage that refers to prophecy is Acts 19:6, “When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.” The Greek term translated “prophesied” is again the verb προφητεύω. The Union Version at this point translates with yu yan, but adds a note in the margin: “or ‘and preached the word’ (jiang dao)”.[15]

Additional examples can be adduced from other portions of Scripture as well. Jude 14 declares that Enoch “prophesised.” The Greek term προφητεύω is again rendered in the Union Version with the phrase yu yan. In Revelation 10:11 John is told that he must “prophesy.” Here again προφητεύω is translated with shuo yu yan in the Union Version.

This brief sampling of texts illustrates how the Union Version generally translates the verb προφητεύω (“to prophesy”) with the Chinese characters shuo yu yan or sometimes simply yu yan. Indeed, a close analysis reveals that all of the texts that clearly refer to predictive prophecy in the New Testament are translated in this manner.[16] However, it should also be noted that some passages that cannot be confined simply to predictive prophecy are also translated with yu yan.[17] Acts 2:17-18 and 19:6 are especially illuminating. Here references to prophecy that almost undoubtedly include the broader activity of “declaring the wonders of God” (Acts 2:11; also compare 19:6 with 10:46) and not simply predictive prophecy are translated with these characters.

In spite of this general tendency, the Union Version does not translate προφητεύω in a uniform manner. A number of references to prophecy in 1 Corinthians are translated with phrases which denote preaching, such as jiang dao (“to preach”) or zuo xian zhi jiang dao[18] (“to engage in prophetic preaching”).[19] For example, in 1 Corinthians 11:4 Paul writes, “For every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head.” The term “prophesies” is a translation of a form of the verb προφητεύω. The Union Version translates προφητεύω here with jiang dao (“to preach”), although it does add a note in the margin, “‘to preach’ or ‘to prophesy’”.[20]

In 1 Corinthians 14:1-5 Paul uses forms of the verb προφητεύω no less than four times. Paul writes, “eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy” (14:1). Paul continues, “But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their encouragement and comfort” (14:3). He also adds, “…but he who prophesies edifies the church” (14:4). Thus, Paul concludes, “I would rather have you prophesy” (14:5). In each instance, the Union Version translates with the phrase zuo xian zhi jiang dao (“to preach prophetically”). Again, a note is also placed in the margin, “The original text reads ‘to prophesy’.”[21]

This pattern continues in 1 Corinthians 14:39[22] where Paul writes, “Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy….” Here again the Union Version translates προφητεύω with the phrase, zuo xian zhi jiang dao (“to preach prophetically”).

Another interesting example of the Union Version’s tendency to refer to preaching rather than prophecy is found in Matthew 7:22. The text reads: “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name….” Although here the Greek text employs the verb προφητεύω, the Union Version translates with a phrase that again speaks of proclamation, chuan dao.[23]

 

The Union Version Translation of προφητεύω

Clearly Predictive Clearly Not Predicative Ambiguous
Mt. 11:13 (yu yan)

Mt. 15:7 (yu yan)

Mk   7:6 (yu yan)

Mk 14:65 (yu yan)

Lk   1:67 (yu yan)

Jn   11:51 (yu yan)

1 Pet. 1:10 (yu yan)

Jude 14 (yu yan)

Rev. 10:11 (yu yan)

 

Mt. 26:68 (gao su)

Lk 22:64 (gao su)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note:

yu yan: “to prophesy”

gao su: “to tell”

chuan dao: “to proclaim”

jiang dao: “to preach”

Mt. 7:22 (chuan dao)

Acts 2:17 (yu yan)

Acts 2:18 (yu yan)

Acts 19:6 (yu yan)

Acts 21:9 (yu yan)

1 Cor. 11:4 (jiang dao)

1 Cor. 11:5 (jiang dao)

1 Cor. 13:9 (jiang dao)

1 Cor. 14:1 (jiang dao)

1 Cor. 14:3 (jiang dao)

1 Cor. 14:4 (jiang dao)

1 Cor. 14:5 (jiang dao)

1 Cor. 14:24 (jiang dao)

1 Cor. 14:31 (jiang dao)

1 Cor. 14:39 (jiang dao)

Rev. 11:3 (chuan dao)

 

These examples illustrate a striking feature of the Union Version. When predictive prophecy is clearly in view, often references to Old Testament prophecy or prophecies regarding Jesus, the Union Version translates the verb προφητεύω (“to prophesy”) with the phrase yu yan (“to prophesy”) or shuo yu yan (“to utter a prophecy”). However, when προφητεύω is used with reference to prophetic utterances in the early church that are not clearly predictive, particularly in 1 Corinthians – texts that might have a bearing on the practice of the contemporary church – the verb is generally translated with phrases associated with preaching, such as zuo xian zhi jiang dao (“to preach prophetically”). This lack of uniformity is all the more striking when we remember the principles that guided the translation project. As much as possible, the translators were to “translate Greek…words occurring in different places and used in the same sense by the same Chinese words” (see Principle #4 above).[24] Additionally, the translators were to make every effort “to render literally words and phrases which have a theological or ethical importance” (see Principle #11 above). The translators of the Union Version clearly violated these principles when it came to their treatment of prophecy and related terms in the New Testament.[25]

Of course one might argue that the different contexts of the verb προφητεύω justified the different translations employed. Texts in contexts that indicated a predictive prophecy was in view needed to be handled differently from those which seemed to indicate a word of exhortation or encouragement without any predictive element. Yet, given the fact that prophecy in the early church was a rather broad phenomenon, involving both foretelling (e.g., Acts 21:10-11) and words of exhortation (e.g., 1 Corinthians 14:3), can these neat distinctions really be made? Is it really possible, for example, to discount a predictive element in the prophetic gift that Paul encourages the believers at Corinth to eagerly desire (1 Corinthians 14:1, 39)? Can we limit the impact of the prophetic gift granted at Pentecost (Acts 2:17-18) to predictions concerning future events? It would appear that such judgments are spurious. At the very least, the theologically significant nature of these judgments should have encouraged the translators to opt for a more consistent and literal rendering of the text. The fact that they did not indicates that another agenda was at work.

Additionally, it appears that the translators of the Union Version missed another important matter. Even references to prophecy as a non-predictive word of exhortation or encouragement are not adequately translated with terms associated with preaching. This is the case because prophecy in the New Testament, even as a non-predictive word of exhortation, is normally portrayed as a spontaneous, Spirit-inspired message directed to the specific needs of a community, a message that is neither pre-planned nor primarily the product of prior preparation or study.[26] Thus, the semantic range of terms associated with preaching is simply too narrow to do προφητεύω justice. The essential concept conveyed with these terms – a pre-planned message that is the result of prior study of the Scriptures – is, in the final analysis, misleading.[27]

Some might question whether the difference between the Chinese phrases shou yu yan (“to prophesy”) and zuo xian zhi jiang dao (“to preach prophetically”) is as significant as I suggest. I believe the following personal experience sheds light on this question. Earlier this year (2005) I asked four Chinese church leaders what shuo yu yan and zuo xian zhi jiang dao meant? They emphasized that these two terms did not have the same meaning. They indicated that shuo yu yan had to do with speaking a word from the Lord for the church with reference either to the present or the future. They stressed that this was not presenting biblical teaching, but rather a more immediate, direct word for a specific situation. They understood the phrase to refer to a spontaneous, unplanned message inspired by the Holy Spirit that brings encouragement or direction to the church.

On the other hand, in their understanding zuo xian zhi jiang dao refers to preaching. This phrase speaks of presenting biblical truth – that is, truth that has been gleaned from the study of Scripture – to the church. When I asked how this differed from preaching (jiang dao), they answered that it is essentially the same.

As we continued to speak of the value and dangers of prophecy, they told the following story. At their church’s Bible school (in 1999), a group of church leaders and faculty members gathered together for a prayer meeting. They were all very discouraged – they had faced a lot of opposition – and they did not feel like praying. They were tired, discouraged, and did not even feel able to pray. In the midst of this setting, Lu Xiaomin, the famous songwriter, stood up and began to sing a song, zhan shi, zhan shi, qi lai (“soldiers, soldiers, stand up”). As the words of the song rang out through the room, they all felt the encouragement and strength of the Lord. It was evident that this song was exactly what they needed to hear. My friends spoke of this as a wonderful illustration of the Holy Spirit breaking in and, in an unanticipated and unplanned manner, inspiring a sister to bring much-needed encouragement to the group. They felt this was a good example of prophecy (yu yan) edifying the church.

We have examined the manner in which the translators of the Union Version translated the verb “to prophesy” (προφητεύω) and we have found, on the one hand, a striking inconsistency, and on the other, a clear tendency. The inconsistency is found in the fact that the Union Version uses different terms to translate the same verb. The tendency is seen in the translators’ predilection for describing prophecy in the early church, especially in settings like 1 Corinthians 14 which might have a bearing on contemporary practice, as the presentation of biblical truth gleaned from the study of Scripture (i.e., preaching). We have noted that this method of translation is reductionistic: predictive prophecy is arbitrarily ruled out in some cases. Furthermore, this translation is misleading: the semantic range of prophecy, which includes spontaneous, Spirit-inspired utterances, is quite different from that of terms associated with preaching. We are now in a position to examine the possible reasons for this unfortunate tendency on the part of the translators of the Union Version. Why did they tend to identify prophecy with preaching?

 

  1. The Presuppositions Behind the Translation

As we begin our inquiry into the possible reasons for the unique manner in which the translators of the Union Version translated προφητεύω, it might be helpful to first note factors that should be ruled out. Two in particular come to mind. First, we have noted that the translators of the Union Version New Testament were instructed by the Protestant Missionary Conference of 1890 to base their translation on the Revised English Version (Oxford, 1881) and its underlying Greek text. Is it not possible that the Union Version’s idiosyncratic translation of προφητεύω actually stems from this text? Were the Union Version translators simply following the example of the translators of the Revised English Version as they translated the verb “to prophesy”? As plausible as this rationale may seem, careful examination of the Revised English Version reveals that these questions must be answered in the negative. Unlike the Chinese Union Version, the Revised English Version consistently translates the verb προφητεύω with the verb “to prophesy.” So, for example, the Revised English Version of 1 Corinthians 14:1 reads as follows, “Follow after love: yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy.”[28] Clearly, the underlying text employed by the translators cannot be blamed for the peculiarities of the Union Version at this point.

Secondly, although it might be tempting to suggest that the translators were consciously reacting to the emergence of the modern Pentecostal movement, this is extremely unlikely. The Union Version New Testament was first published in 1907, the same year the first Pentecostal missionaries impacted by the Azusa Street revival arrived in Hong Kong.[29] While it is true that this initial translation of the New Testament was revised and published together with the translation of the Old Testament in 1919, producing the Union Version that we know today, it is unlikely that the revisions of the 1907 version impacted the key texts we have examined in any significant way. I am writing from China and do not have access to the 1907 Union Version translation, so I am unable to speak on this matter authoritatively. If it could be shown that the translation tendencies noted above were introduced into the text after 1907, then a case could be made that the translators were indeed consciously reacting to the emerging Pentecostal movement. However, as I have noted, I believe this to be highly unlikely. The translators produced most of their work prior to any encounter with Pentecostal believers.

Rather, I believe the evidence suggests that the translators were driven in their decisions at this point by unconscious theological assumptions. They were products of their era, greatly impacted by their own theological tradition, and this, I would argue, was the decisive factor shaping their particular approach to the translation task. We have already noted that the three key translators – C.W. Mateer (Presbyterian), Chauncey Goodrich (Congregational-ist), and F.W. Baller (Baptist) – were all steeped in the Reformed tradition. As such, they would have been very much aware of John Calvin’s teaching on prophecy. Calvin’s influence, either directly or indirectly, undoubtedly would have been great. It is precisely here where we find the key reason behind the translation tendency outlined above.

Martin Luther and John Calvin were of one mind when it came to prophecy. Luther was not happy with what he perceived to be the subjective excesses of prophets, whether they were attached to the Roman church or the radical wing of the Protestant Reformation. So Luther sought to ground prophecy in the objective ground of the Word of God. He wrote, “When Paul or the other apostles interpreted the Old Testament, their interpretation was prophecy (On Joel 2:28).”[30] For Luther, prophets were those “who can expound the Scriptures and ably interpret and teach the difficult books.”[31]

John Calvin’s position on prophecy was similar to that of Luther. He too felt the need to curb the abuses of subjective revelation. Calvin thus viewed the canon as the ultimate and final revelation to the church. Any ongoing prophetic activity was limited to a further explication of this word.[32] Calvin, for example, in his discussion of 1 Thessalonians 5:20 understands “prophesying to mean the interpretation of Scripture applied to present need.”[33] Furthermore, in his Commentary on Romans (12:5) Calvin wrote, “Prophecy…is simply the right understanding of scripture and the particular gift of expounding it.”[34] C.M. Robeck notes that Calvin’s “emphasis was placed on the prophetic as something that did not occur spontaneously….It did not seem to be fresh revelation but primarily correct understanding and application of existing revelation.”[35] In short, Calvin understood prophecy to be essentially preaching.

The connection, then, between Calvin’s perspective on prophecy and the translation tendency outlined above is apparent. It is evident that the translators of the Union Version New Testament simply reflected their own theological tradition’s perception of prophecy as they went about translating the biblical text. In this way, Calvin’s understanding of prophecy as preaching became enshrined in the Chinese New Testament.

It should be noted that this approach to translating the verb “to prophesy” (προφητεύω) is not unique to the Chinese Union Version. The Today’s English Version (TEV) of the New Testament represents a striking parallel.[36] For example, the TEV translates Jesus’ words in Matthew 15:7 as, “You hypocrites! How right Isaiah was when he prophesied about you!” Yet the same verb employed here is translated rather differently in 1 Corinthians 14:1, “Set your hearts on spiritual gifts, especially the gift of proclaiming God’s message.” This theologically loaded translation is, we have suggested, inaccurate and misleading. It is driven by concerns to protect the authority of the canon of Scripture – concerns which contemporary scholars from the Reformed tradition have acknowledged are without foundation[37] – and it flies in the face of contemporary New Testament scholarship on the nature of prophecy.[38] Nevertheless, given the wide range of translations available in the English language, an idiosyncratic translation like this translation is not so problematic. English speakers generally have access to many translations and may choose and compare as they please.

The situation in China, however, is very different. As we have noted, most Chinese believers have access to only one translation of the Bible. For these believers, the Union Version represents the only means available to them to read or hear the written Word of God. Additionally, the availability of other Christian books – books that might provide the perspective needed to deal with issues such as this – is extremely limited. The implications, then, of an inaccurate or misleading translation in the Union Version are thus magnified.[39]

It is difficult to know how one should respond to this situation since it is hard to imagine the acceptance of another translation in China in the foreseeable future. However, a short-term response might include the production of study materials that provide teaching on this topic in a sensitive manner.   A more far-sighted response would include encouraging Chinese Christians to produce modern translations of the Bible that show an awareness of and sensitivity to the issues outlined above.[40]

 

Conclusion 

Our analysis has revealed that the translators of the Chinese Union Version New Testament deviated from their guiding principles when they translated the verb “to prophesy” (προφητεύω). They did not translate the verb consistently nor did they render literally this verb with obvious theological significance. Rather, they translated the verb in light of the prevailing attitudes toward prophecy current in their own Reformed tradition. Thus, the Union Version translators translate references to, in their estimation, predictive prophecy – generally references to Old Testament prophecy or prophecies regarding Jesus – with the phrase yu yan (“to prophesy”) or shuo yu yan (“to utter a prophecy”). Yet they translate references to prophetic utterances in the early church not perceived to be predictive, particularly those texts in 1 Corinthians that might have a bearing on the practice of the contemporary church, with phrases associated with preaching, such as zuo xian zhi jiang dao (“to preach prophetically”). We have argued that this tendency to identify prophecy with preaching is both reductionistic and misleading. It is reductionistic in that predictive prophecy is arbitrarily and inappropriately dismissed as a valid dimension of the semantic range of the verb προφητεύω in many instances. Furthermore, this tendency is misleading because the semantic range of prophecy, which includes spontaneous, Spirit-inspired utterances, is quite different from that of terms associated with preaching. In short, the translators of the Union Version have unconsciously foisted Calvin’s view of prophecy as preaching onto the biblical text.

Since the Chinese Union Version is used by virtually all of the Christians in China and attempts to use other, more modern translations are viewed with great suspicion, this idiosyncratic element of the Union Version is especially problematic. It is hoped that this article might stimulate further discussion on this topic and encourage future translators of the Chinese New Testament to deal with this matter in a manner more faithful to the intended meaning of the biblical text.


Footnotes:

[1] 预言。

[2] 讲道。

[3] 先知讲道。

[4] The one exception is found in 1 Corinthians 14:6.

[5] 先知。

[6] In Chinese, the He He Ben, 和合本。

[7] On the history of the Union Version, see Jost Zetzsche, The Bible in China: History of the Union Version or The Culmination of Protestant Missionary Bible Translation in China (Monumenta Serica Monograph Series 45; Nettetal: Monumenta Serica. 1999); Thor Strandenaes, Principles of Chinese Bible Translation As Expressed in Five Selected Versions of the New Testament and Exemplified by Matthew 5.1 and Colossians 1 (Coniectanea Biblica NTS 19; Stockhom: Almquist and Wiksell International, 1987); and Chiu Wai-boon, “Chinese Versions of the Bible,” China Graduate School of Theology Journal 16 (January 1994), pp. 83-95, esp. pp. 89-90. Marshall Broomhall also provides an inspirational and more popular description in his, The Bible in China (London: China Inland Mission and Religious Tract Society, 1934).

[8] Zetzsche, p. 222: “The finally assembled Mandarin translation committee consisted of three men who had given much of their lives to the promotion of Mandarin anyway – Mateer, Goodrich, and Baller – and others whose qualifications were quite limited.” On the dominant role played by these three men in the translation of the New Testament, see Zetzsche, pp. 258-74, 322-30.

[9] Zetzsche, p. 200.

[10] Strandeneas, p. 84.

[11] Zetzsche, pp. 225-26.

[12] 说预言。

[13] Of the 27 references to προφητεύω in the New Testament, 13 are translated with the term yu yan: Mt. 11:13, 15:7, Mk 7:6, 14:65, Lk 1:67, Jn 11:51, Acts 2:17, 18, 19:6, 21:9, 1 Peter 1:10, Jude 14, and Rev. 10:11. Two references are translated with the term gao su (“to tell”): Mt. 26:68 and Lk 22:64. Twelve references are translated with terms associated with preaching: – jiang dao (“to preach”): 1 Cor. 11:4, 5, 13:9, 14:1, 3, 4, 5, 24, 31, 39; chuan dao (“to proclaim”): Mt. 7:22 and Rev. 11:3.

[14] All English Scripture citations are taken from the NIV unless otherwise noted.

[15] 讲道。

[16] These texts include Mt. 11:13, 15:7, Mk 7:6, 14:65, Lk 1:67, Jn 11:51, 1 Peter 1:10, Jude 14, Rev. 10:11.

[17] See Acts 2:17, 18, 19:6, and 21:9.

[18] 做先知讲道。

[19] Twelve references to προφητεύω are translated with terms associated with preaching: – jiang dao (“to preach”): 1 Cor. 11:4, 5, 13:9, 14:1, 3, 4, 5, 24, 31, 39; chuan dao (“to proclaim”): Mt. 7:22 and Rev. 11:3.

[20] “讲道”或作“说预言”。

[21] 原文作“是说预言”。

[22] See also 1 Corinthians 12:10, 13:8-9 (2x), 14:22, 24, 29, 31, 39 for the same pattern.

[23] 传道。

[24] Principle #3 essentially reaffirms this point, but in a slightly different way, “Passages expressed in the same terms and in the same or similar connection in the original, translate in the uniform manner” (see the reference above).

[25] Although it should be noted that they did on occasion put alternative translations in the margin in accordance with Principle #15: “When two or more interpretations seem quite or nearly equally good, give one in the text and the other, or others, in the margin” (see the reference above).

[26] See especially 1 Corinthians 14:29-33, Ephesians 4:11, and 1 Timothy 4:14. Gordon Fee, on the basis of the evidence in 1 Corinthians 14, states that prophecy “consisted of spontaneous, Spirit-inspired, intelligible messages, orally delivered in the gathered assembly, intended for the edification or encouragement of the people.” And he continues in an attached footnote, “Thus it is not the delivery of a previously prepared sermon” (italics his). See Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), p. 595 and p. 595, n. 73.

[27] The leading contemporary New Testament scholars writing in this field agree that New Testament prophecy cannot be equated with preaching. See James D.G. Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit: A Study of the Religious and Charismatic Experience of Jesus and the First Christians as Reflected in the New Testament (London: SCM Press, 1975), pp. 228-29, Fee, p. 595, n. 73, and Max Turner, The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts Then and Now (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1996), pp. 206-212.

[28] The New Testament of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, Translated out of the Greek: being the version set forth A.D. 1611 compared with the most ancient authorities and revised, A.D. 1881, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1881).

[29] See Luke Wesley, The Church in China: Persecuted, Pentecostal, and Powerful (AJPSS 2; Baguio City, Philippines: AJPS Books, 2004), pp. 54-7.

[30] I am indebted to C.M. Robeck for this reference. See C.M. Robeck, “Gift of Prophecy,” The New International Dictionary of Pentecostal Charismatic Movements, Stanley M. Burgess and Eduard M van der Maas, eds., (revised and expanded; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), pp. 999-1012; quotation from p. 1010.

[31] C.M. Robeck, p. 1010. Robeck cites the preface of Luther’s On Zechariah as the source for this quotation.

[32] C.M. Robeck, p. 1010.

[33] This quotation from Calvin is cited in Dunn, p. 418, n. 147.

[34] C.M. Robeck, p. 1010.

[35] C.M. Robeck, p. 1010.

[36] The quotations attributed to the TEV which follow are from the Good News New Testament: The New Testament in Today’s English Version, fourth edition (New York: American Bible Society, 1976).

[37] More recent scholarship has emphasized that Paul “relativizes the authority of prophetic communications in the church” (quote from Turner, p. 217). Thus, prophecy need not be viewed as threatening the authority of the Scriptures. See Wayne Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in 1 Corinthians (Washington: UPA, 1982), Turner, The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts Then and Now, pp. 213-17, and Sam Storms, The Beginner’s Guide to Spiritual Gifts (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Publications, 2002), pp. 85-118.

[38] See Dunn, Fee, Grudem, and Turner as cited above.

[39] Other texts in the Chinese Union Version that might reflect “anti-charismatic bias” or, at the very least, appear to reflect inappropriate and overly rationalistic translations include a group of texts where probable references to the Spirit of God are translated as references to the human spirit or attitudes. For example, in Acts 20:22 Paul is “compelled by the Holy Spirit” (dedeme&noj e)gw_ tw= pneu&mati) to go to Jerusalem. The Union Version translates this phrase as “Paul felt deeply compelled” (xin shen po qie). See also John 4:23, Rom. 7:6, 8:15, 1 Cor. 14:2, 2 Cor. 3:6, 12:19, Phil. 1:27, 2:2.

[40] Several modern Chinese translations of the New Testament have been produced. As we have noted, none of these have been widely accepted in China. Additionally, all these translations (at least all that I am aware of) follow the Union Version and translate the verb “to prophesy” in 1 Corinthians with terms associated with preaching, such as jiang dao. For example, The Contemporary Gospel – Chinese Living New Testament (dang dai fu yin), published in 1981, translates 1 Cor. 14:1 with, “…especially the gift of prophetic preaching” (zuo xian zhi jiang dao de en ci). The New Chinese Version Bible (xin yi ben), published in 2002, offers essentially the same translation. The Today’s Chinese Version (xian dai zhong wen yi ben), which is based on the Today’s English Version, renders 1 Cor. 14:1 with, “…especially the gift of proclaiming God’s message” (xuan jiang shang di xin xi de en ci).

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