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Basic Stuff on Understanding Bible Translations, Part 1

In this issue of “Theology & Culture” (T&C), the first of two parts on the subject noted in the title, we are going to discuss a topic that has, believe it or not, split churches, caused Christians to brand other believers as heretics, along with causing countless debates over the years. We are talking about the choice of what Bible translation we choose to study and read.

The Bible does not speak about translations and Bible versions, per se. What it does do, though, is to remind us that the Bible is God’s revealed Word to us, inerrant (without error), and was given to us as such in the original manuscripts of the Bible (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

We must admit that some versions of the Scriptures are not good translations. We will tackle that and will also talk about some of the myths that surround Bible translation. Let us get started with some facts to keep us grounded in the truth that God’s Word is inspired, trustworthy, and gives us all we need to know and follow God.

Hundreds of verses in the Bible claim that what we are reading are God’s Words. In the Old Testament (OT) alone we see the phrase “Thus saith the Lord” 417x in the English Standard Version of the Bible. Within the pages of the New Testament (NT), where most of the attacks against Scripture and Bible translations occur, it also claims to be the Word of God.

For example, in 1 Corinthians 14:37 Paul (who penned thirteen books of the NT) claims that he wrote what God told him to. In 1 Thess. 2:13 Paul commended the Thessalonian church for hearing what he said because it was God’s Word given to them. In Gal. 1:8, Paul said that if anyone preaches a different Gospel than the one he and others taught, that person was under God’s strong judgment. Paul could only say that if the Gospel was given by God (1 Corinthians 15).

The passage mentioned above (2 Timothy 3:16-17) tells us that “All” Scripture is inspired by God. This, without a doubt, includes the OT, but by inference, the NT as well. In fact, in 2 Peter 3:14-18, Peter stated that Paul’s writings were “Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16).

Now, back to 2 Timothy 3. This was Paul’s final letter, dated between 62-64 A.D. By that time many of the books that make up the NT had already been written. The Gospels, with the exception of John, all of Paul’s letters, Peter’s letters, Jude, James, and possibly Hebrews, would have been written by the time of 2 Timothy. Only the Apostle John’s letters, which are dated between 85-95 A.D., would come later.

It is important to remember that the word “Scripture” or “writings,” as seen in places in the Bible, refers to God’s Word. It can refer to entire books or single passages in the Bible. Examples of this would be James 2:8; 1 Corinthians 15:3; John 19:37.

The Scriptures were, as 2 Timothy 3:16-17 tell us, “breathed out by God.” The authors of the books of the Bible were not robotic in writing down what God said.

The fact is that God used each personality of the writers in delivering God’s Word to us. That makes the Bible more real, in that we see the writing style and each individual’s way of saying things as they were led by God. Paul writes different than James. John’s word usage is different than Luke.

One other passage to note is 2 Peter 1:20-21. This passage of the Bible tells us that no prophecies of the OT originated with the prophets themselves but were guided by God in what they wrote. Vs. 21 states that God directed the writers. Nothing found in the OT (sometimes referred to as “The Law and the Prophets”) is the work of man apart from God’s leading. The Holy Spirit, it tells us in these verses, “carried” (moved, prompted) the authors to write what they did.

With all of this as a backdrop, we want to get into some important points regarding Bible translations, and we are talking, specifically, English versions. Please bear with me while we discuss the following. It may seem boring, but it is vital, as we shall see in our next edition of T&C, to having an understanding of how we get different Bibles.

First, we need to talk about the types of translations we have in print. There are five main types of translation work that are done, in which manuscripts (MSS) of the Old and New Testaments are taken and translated from the original languages of the Bible (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek) into what we have today in the way of numerous versions of the Bible. But two of the five are the most common ones used so we will mention those only.

First, there is what we might call the “dynamic equivalent” or “thought for thought”, or “phrase for phrase” approach.

Though very concerned about what the original words mean, and wanting to make sure to translate them correctly, this approach aims to get across the meaning behind the original text. The goal is to make the Bible more readable, we might say, than other approaches to translation work.

A second approach is known as the “word for word” approach. The idea here is adhering as closely as possible to the original sentence structures of the MSS but making changes to that when necessary to convey the meaning of the verse. It is more “wooden” than the first approach.

Part of the debate when it comes to versions of the Bible is which approach is the best. Technically, we could probably argue that the word for word approach get us closer to the original thought of the MSS, but in all honesty, there is no such thing as a word for word translation.

Both approaches have their plusses and minuses, if we could use those two words. Both, at times, try to convey “word for word” and also “thought for thought” concepts in interpretation. There is no translation that we hold in our hands that is “literal”, matching up word for word with the Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. In fact, to be literal, if you were to take a Greek NT and then translate each word into English, in the order they are in in the Greek, it would, in some cases, make no sense.

This is why it is vital to understand sentence structure, verbs, nouns, the word order of the text, just as we must do in the English language. The point is being accurate in a translation of the words while making it readable and, as noted, understanding how to structure what we are reading.

The goal of most Bible translations is to be accurate, yet readable, with some leaning toward more word for word in their translations, yet wanting to also make it understandable.

We will continue this discussion in our next edition of “Theology & Culture.” As we shall see, this topic is important to have a basic understanding of because as Christ followers, the Word of God is our guide.


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