December 26, 2014.
There is often a lot of discussion in churches about which version of the bible is best to use and which stays closest to the original language. Sometimes you can even see a correlation of the stance a church takes (on a conservative scale) by the version of the bible they most often use (though this is not always the case). I saw a recent question in one of the forums I participate in asking which was the “correct” version of the bible. This struck somewhat of a chord with me, as I have been on both sides of this discussion. Usually when this point is pushed, it is from a conservative stance asserting that the King James version is the only bible we should read and all other translations have errors and teach mistruth. I once was on this side, claiming that the KJV was the closest to the truth and all other translations try to take away from the truth. As I have matured in the faith and done research on different translations, reading them for myself, I have come to the conclusion that this simply isn’t true. Today I would like to discuss seven different points about translation/biblical translations that I think we should consider when looking into the different versions and deciding which we are going to use. I hope this helps for any of you who are choosing a translation or are confused about which translation is “right.”
1. Translation is not as simple as it seems.
The first thing we need to realize is that translation is not as straightforward as it seems, especially to someone who has never tried translating before. I mean, it’s simple right? If you know both languages, you just write what they said in another language. But it really isn’t that simple. There are many words and phrases that simply don’t translate directly into other languages, and when a translator comes across these phrases, he or she must decide what the author is saying and how to say it best in another language. Let me give you an example.
Since the only other language that I know a little bit about is Spanish, I will show you why just translating word-for-word all the time does not work. Take the English phrase, “I’m sleepy.” A simple phrase, right? In Spanish, to say “I’m sleepy,” you would say “Tengo sueño.” This phrase literally translates to “I have dream.” Now, if I were translating a children’s story from Spanish to English and I came across the phrase “Tengo sueño,” would I literally translate “I have dream”? No, I would translate it to “I’m sleepy.”
This is just a simple example, but it gets more complex the more complex the language gets. So, if we read a truly literal translation that was word-for-word of the Greek/Hebrew (or Aramaic) text of the Bible, it wouldn’t make much sense. Think of it as using Google translate. If you paste a block of Spanish (or whatever language) in and translate it to English, you will get a lot of broken English. This is not because it was written in broken Spanish, but because it does not translate word-for-word into english. For an example of how this would look in the Biblical context, Young’s Literal Translation (YLT) actually set out to translate the bible literally, word-for-word. Read some of it and see what a true literal translation sounds like. Though we can probably understand the gist of it, it is very choppy and doesn’t adequately translate the meaning of the Greek/Hebrew idioms and language is all cases. It can be a helpful translation, nevertheless.
Thus, the different translations all take slightly different philosophies in translation. Some air on the side of literal and others are more of a paraphrase that try to translate the meaning of the text as opposed to the literal word for word. We will discuss this later.
2. All translations have their problems, and all translations have their strong points.
For years I heard reasons of why the KJV was the best translation, usually via the downfalls of other translations. A few verses would be picked out of the NIV or whatever translation was on the chopping block and be ridiculed for their inaccuracy. Thus, the KJV was the only reliable translation.
The problem, however, is that you can do the same thing with the KJV, and many opponents to Christianity have used this tactic. In Job 39:9, the KJV mentions a “unicorn.” Other modern translations render the word “Ox” instead, which is the better reading. Does this mean we should throw out the KJV? I don’t think so, but using the logic I was taught, I suppose we should. The KJV also translates the passover as Easter in one part. This is usually handled gently by proponents of the KJV, all while over exaggerating the flaws of other translations.
The fact of the matter is that ALL translations have their problems. Some are too literal, some are too much of a paraphrase, some miss words, others add their interpretations instead of strictly translating. No translation is free from bias, nor are they free from error, which brings me to my next point.
3. Translations are not inspired, but they are guided by providence.
No translation of the Bible is inspired. I’m sorry if that has popped any bubbles. We often quote II Timothy 3:16-17 that the Bible is inspired by God, and the the Biblical writers were indeed inspired by the Holy Spirit to write the Scriptures, but that Scripture referenced in this verse is not the Bible. The bible wasn’t even compiled at the time of the writing of Paul to Timothy. The letters weren’t even done yet! The authors were inspired, not the Bible. And even if you count the words that the inspired writers wrote as inspired, those are still not the words we read today. No Biblical writer wrote in English. Everything we read in English is not the original (yes, that includes the KJV, even then authorized 1611 version), but rather a translation, translated by uninspired men.
Does this take away from the value of the bible we have today? Not at all. Although it is not directly inspired, I do believe that the reason we have the Bible is through the direct providence of God. I do not believe that God expects us all to be Greek or Hebrew scholars to be saved. The preservation and impact (due to the thousands of translations into different languages) is miraculous in and of itself. God has preserved His word for us, so that we would have no excuse for not knowing it. That is especially true for us in America, and even more specifically in the bible belt. The word of God is so easily available to us that we have absolutely no excuse for not knowing what it says. There are so many places in the world where Bibles are scares, yet we could stop at just about any retail store and find one. When we stand before God in judgment, I do not think He will be very open to hearing our excuses as to why we didn’t know what He said. We have ample opportunity.
4. Looking up a Greek/Hebrew word or reading an article about it does not make you a Greek/Hebrew scholar.
This is probably what gets me the most about translation and the original meaning. Want to win an argument? Easy! Just pull out a Greek/Hebrew word and make is seem like you know what you are talking about. Or better yet, use the original language to prove how right you are about a particular verse. This happens on both sides just the same. A conservative Christian will use the original Greek word that they looked up in a concordance to drive home their point just in the same way a more liberal Christian will do for their pet dogma. And then each of them will get mad at each other for using the “original meaning” of the word!
The fact of the matter is, just because you can look up a word in a concordance does NOT make you a scholar. It actually is probably a pretty bad way of truly understanding the original meaning. Think about it. If you didn’t know English and you were trying to figure out what the word “run” in the sentence “He had a nice run” meant, you might go to your concordance and read the definition for the word “run” in English. “Run- to drive (livestock) especially to a grazing place.” Oh yeah, this phrase means that he was driving livestock! That was the original meaning of the word!
See how this might not get you to the right place? Just a three letter word like “run” has over 400 definitions! And context is the only way to tell them apart! The same thing happens when we look up one word in our translation to get the “original meaning.” Often we are far from the meaning, because we let our own biases dictate what the meaning would be in the context. If we don’t like alcohol, we say that any place that the bible talks favorably about wine must mean unfermented wine because we think the “original meaning” of the word could mean either fermented or unfermented. When we talk about the Lord’s supper, the phrase “breaking bread” only means the Lord’s supper when we think it should. In times that we think they shouldn’t be having the Lord’s supper, we say it simply means having a meal. The phrases are the same in Greek, so we can make them mean whatever we want, as long as it fits one of the definitions.
The problem is, we are not Greek/Hebrew scholars. Even if we take a few classes in Biblical Hebrew or Greek, we are in no way scholars, just like I am in no way a scholar in Spanish just because I took a few classes in it. You shouldn’t come to me to make authoritative statements about what a Spanish phrase means. You should go to someone who either fluently speaks Spanish or is a scholar in the language (which I guess should mean they fluently speak it).
The scholars who translate the bible, on the other hand, have dedicated most of their lives to knowing and understanding the language, and because of this, I would trust them over what you might find by looking up a single word in a concordance or what you have read on some blog (see what I did there?). This brings me to my next point.
5. There is confidence in numbers.
Not only have the translators of the mainline translations dedicated their lives to knowing and understanding the language they are translating, they are also in great number. Many, many people have translated the Bible, and many translations were made by committees of scholars. I put some faith in numbers (though this is not always the case). If hundreds or thousands of translators render a certain passage the same way, and you find one “scholar” somewhere who says it should actually be translated differently (in a way that conveniently argues your point), I am going to trust the numbers. These committees were made up of scholars that came from different denominations and theologies. Their purpose was not to interpret the Bible, but to translate it. No worries, we would still argue over the meaning no matter how the translation was rendered.
There are several key verses that I go to that if someone wanted to change doctrine, they would do it in these verses. Almost all of the translations that I have looked at these verses in are strikingly similar and have the same meaning. Even translations that I don’t particularly care for. This gives me confidence that most of the mainline translations are decent and can be very beneficial if used with care.
6. Biblical writers wrote in the common language of the day.
As a short note for those who insist that the KJV is the only translation that we should read, I would like to point out that the biblical writers wrote in the common language and vernacular that the people they were writing to could understand. They didn’t use a heightened language or flattering language (Paul actually points this out explicitly in I Corinthians 2:1-4). The King James version, however, was written in a heightened language at the time, out of alleged respect. That is a fundamental difference in purpose of the writings. And even if it weren’t written in a heightened language, it still is written in a language that is outdated that we don’t use. This makes it very hard to understand, and again goes beyond the purpose of the writing of the New Testament, as they wrote in a language that the common people could understand. I used to think that those who claimed they couldn’t understand the KJV were just not trying to understand it because I was young but could still understand it. Then I read the NASB and ESV and I realized that I didn’t quite understand as much as I thought I did. It was quite eye opening.
7. Common translations.
Now, I say all that to give some information on translations. I do, however, have a preference and I do not think that all translations are created equal. Though you cannot do a literal word-for-word translation and have it make sense, there are translations that try their best to stick very close to the original language while still rendering it in readable and understandable English. The two translations that I personally would recommend are the New American Standard Bible (NASB) and the English Standard Version (ESV). Both of these translations are acclaimed to their loyalty to the original language. Yet both of them read very well in English. The NSAB is probably the closest to the original language, whereas the ESV reads a little smoother.
Less literal versions include the New International Version and the New Century Version. These are said to be more of a though-for-thought translations. An even less literal version (which I really don’t like) is the New Living Translation. The NLT definitely adds some interpretation into the Bible rather than a straight translation. Then you have your straight paraphrases (which you should be very careful with when you study) such as the Living bible and the Message. I found a good visual representation of the different English translations from “christianbook.com” which I think is a good quick look at the different translations:
As I said, I prefer the more literal to the paraphrase as I want to read the closest to the original and then ascertain the meaning of what they said as opposed to someone else doing that for me. I would recommend this approach for diligent study. For a easier reading, the thought for thought translations might be better. As with any version, you should use care, caution and further study to find truth. I also encourage frequently comparing different translations, or even getting a parallels bible that has multiple translations side by side. We are to be students of the word, and that means looking at different translations. Each have their strong points and weaknesses. But all contain some portion of the truth. May we ever seek to be children of God, walking in His will and studying His word. I hope this clears up some confusion.
Sugested Daily Reading: II Timothy 1-4.
Grace and peace.