August 20, 2017

Straight Cuts: Just How Friendly Should We Be? (Proverbs 18:24)

Randy Jaeggli

Perhaps you have had an experience like mine. I listened as the preacher announced his text and read Proverbs 18:24 from the Authorized Version: “A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.” The ensuing message stressed the necessity of the believer to show love for people by going out of his way to be friendly. A chief form of selfishness for the Christian is to be introverted and concerned only with one’s own circumstances and problems. We need to be connected with as many people as possible and develop as many friendships as we can. Obedient Christians are warm, outgoing, engaging, and always ready to interact positively with the people they encounter.

The message that day sounded really good, and I might have gone from the service truly convinced that I need to be as extroverted as possible. There was just one problem, though, and it was a pretty serious one. The version I was reading as I followed the preacher’s argumentation translated the Hebrew text as follows: “A man of many friends comes to ruin, But there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (NASB). I was just beginning my seminary training and finding the NASB to be a remarkably accurate translation of the Greek text. I hadn’t taken any Hebrew yet, so I was completely at a loss to explain the breathtaking differences between the KJV and the NASB translations. I thought to myself, “When this preacher was preparing for his message, did he even read another translation? Did he consult any commentaries? Why is he not explaining the translational difficulties that must be present in this text?”

These days in our Fundamental churches folks are bringing many different versions with them. Gone are the days when an effective communicator might choose to gloss over translational difficulties. A preacher completely loses his credibility with his people when he fails to explain the translational options present in a particular Hebrew or Greek text. Explaining technical aspects of the original languages in ways the average person in the pew can comprehend is a difficult task, but preachers simply must develop the ability.

With this caution in mind, how should we understand the differences we see among various English translations of Proverbs 18:24? Perhaps a little background concerning the reliability of the Masoretic Text (MT) may help. The Masoretes were Jewish scribes who preserved and copied the Hebrew text during the Middle Ages. They were fanatically careful in copying manuscripts. They also engaged in the evaluation of different readings among the manuscripts in their possession before they standardized the text. If they thought that a scribal error had occurred sometime in the transmission of the text they had received, they would never alter the consonantal text. Instead they created marginal notes called Kethib/Qere readings. These marginal notes preserved alternate readings they considered significant.

Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the middle of the twentieth century, most liberal scholars were suspicious of the reliability of the MT. But careful examination of Qumran manuscripts such as 1QIsa quelled many of their concerns. This manuscript was more than one thousand years older than the oldest MT manuscript of Isaiah we currently had, and yet there were only a small number of significant differences that had arisen due to scribal copying over a millennium! The liberal tendency to emend the MT on the basis of the reading of ancient versions, such as the Septuagint, Vulgate, or Syriac, became far less pronounced. The prime mandate for anyone who translates the Hebrew text into English is this: trust the reading of the MT.

So, what is the state of the MT in Proverbs 18:24? There are no Masoretic Kethib/Qere readings here. The text makes perfectly good sense as it stands. Here is how I would translate it:

A man of [casual] friends is about to ruin himself, But there is a [very close] friend who manifests more loyalty than a brother.

This verse is an example of antithetic parallelism. The first line states a proposition, and the second line declares the opposite truth. The word for “friends” in the first line is the general Hebrew term in the OT for a neighbor, acquaintance, or friend, but it is different from the word for “friend” in the second line (a participle from the verb “to love”). In the first line the word “friend” has the same consonants as the verb “to ruin,” a hithpolel infinitive construct that is most likely reflexive and used to communicate the idea of something that is just about to happen. The contrasting second line introduces us to the sort of friend one might find only once in a lifetime: a very close friend like a loyal spouse who sticks with us through all the vicissitudes of life.

How can we explain the translation of the KJV? It may be that the translators followed the reading of the Vulgate and Syriac versions. Or they may have adopted the translation of the Geneva Bible. One thing is certain: they departed from the MT and violated the prime mandate of translation. Thankfully they didn’t do that often.

Dr. Randy Jaeggli is Professor of Old Testament and Ancient Languages at Bob Jones University Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina. He is the author of Love, Liberty, and Christian Conscience as well as More Like the Master.

(Originally published in FrontLine • July/August 2008. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

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