Christians and those that follow the teachings of the bible in one form or another; I would like to ask us to contemplate this question: What are we believing and why? Not to cast doubt on Scripture, but to encourage recognition that there is more to what is taught in churches, and why, than generally understood.
I am not writing this article as an expert in biblical translations, as I am not. But I am writing as someone concerned with some of the issues behind this controversial topic. I say controversial because of the enmity that is inherent in many believers who declare only they have the correct God inspired translation, thus making their theology which may be derived from the version used as the only correct interpretation.
It may not be commonly known amongst the general populous that is Christianity, but there are many books written, challenging the various translations and the groups behind them. Some scholars challenge each other constantly over these versions and their validity. It is a challenging topic but one that is right to discuss, exposing some of the issues, so people have an awareness of the complexities involved.
It is interesting, when I started to examine the issue of Bible translation into English, or any other language, that most believers gravitate towards a particular translation and stick to it like glue. But I ask these questions:
• “If all translations are the word of the living God and infallible, why do they, in some instances, not only contradict each other, but bring about a division in Christianity which leads to over 40,000 denominations worldwide and counting?”• Why are there so many translations? According to Bible.com, there are currently 2,162 translations of the bible in 1,477 languages. With 61 of those translations in the English language alone.
Did you know that not all translations are as literal as they claim they are? There are several reasons for this, and they must be considered when looking to study a bible and accept what the translators' claim is biblical accuracy.
With this statement, I am not declaring these translations are heretical, nor stating that there are those written to deliberately deceive. All the translators of each version have come to the table with the yearning to bring out the truth of the scriptures, yearning to help followers of the Messiah come to a correct understanding of what the intent of scripture is. The problem arises when we examine what the intent of the translators is in relation to their theological bias.
Over the years as the doctrinal position of many denominations has expanded and separated. From each other, so has the desire to have a translation that represents these particular theological positions. This means that in many cases, where the bible has words or concepts from within its Judaic or Greek context that are difficult to interpret, the translators use their theological bias to bring out of the context what they think it should say.
One example of this can be found in Luke:
Luke 23:43 (KJV) And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.
Most but not all translations have this verse written this way. However, it is also possible to translate it:
Luke 23:43 (AFV) And Jesus said to him, "Truly, I tell you today, you shall be with Me in paradise."
Notice the difference, one supports the theological position that when one dies, they immediately go to be with our Messiah in heaven. The other leaving the option to defer this event till the end days when the Messiah returns and brings about the resurrection of the dead. One is present tense, the other future. All based around a comma placed to “bring clarity”.
However, in the Greek, there is no comma in this verse, therefor it can be used to infer either, so a decision is made, and doctrines are formed. Either preformed ideas cause the comma to be placed where it is to support a preferred narrative, or, the narrative becomes based around the placement of the comma. This is something that needs consideration. Each will have their theological position and some really good arguments to defend their position, but at the end of the day, someone is wrong.
It might appear a bit nit-picky to focus on this one verse which can be written differently, after all, what is one comma in the great scheme of the bible and its meaning? However, when consideration is given to the fact that this verse can decide overall the way much of the rest scriptures are interpreted; we need to pay attention to what the translators have as bias, in how they translate.
This includes the translators of the King James Version. This one comma can affect the understanding of where someone goes when they die (Straight to heaven as a believer upon death, or sleep in the grave till the resurrection of the dead), this can have a major impact on the belief and direction scholars go in further interpretation.
The Bibles written into English and other languages must have punctuation to help us understand the context and demonstrate the sentence structure in our language. But, as we see above, punctuation can be used to influence the reader in a particular direction just as much as the words used. I can only comment on the English translations as I do not know the punctuation systems for translation of all languages, though I would imagine they have the same issues
All honest bible translators write a proviso in the introduction to their translation, sometimes it is obscured in jargon no one reads, or make it sound like the most natural thing in the world. It usually says something similar to this: “When we come across words or ideas that do not translate directly into English, we try to write what we believe the intent of the scriptures to be. Not all words have a direct correlation in the English” (my wording).
It would be sensible to read this for yourself in the translation used. The smaller the group of translators the more theological bias will be found. A large group of translators from various fields will, in most cases, bring about a more balanced translation. However, when they differ on points of theology, they agree on what they think is best to suit all. This, however, can lead to an interpretation of some scripture by the consensus of the people, rather than its actual biblical contextual meaning.
Translating is not an easy thing to do, many biblical concepts need to be considered, and must be understood, not all of the translators have a grasp of all these doctrinal concepts, therefore, the translators favour translating from their own understanding, limited in some occasions, despite their academic credentials (no man knows all things, we only know in part 1 Cor. 13:9). There are also those that favour theological positions that oppose the actual teaching of the scriptures themselves and emphasise points to favour their belief. We can find instances of this in the non-mainstream protestant branches of Christianity such as the Catholic, Mormon and the Jehovah’s Witness translations.
This is not new; we have examples of people doing this throughout history. People such as Marcion who rejected anything, including the Epistles that did not support his position. He refused to accept the scriptures from the Bible that disagreed with his theology. Strangely, he was recognised as a heretic amongst his peers, yet his teachings can still be found in various forms today.
There are groups today that claim the teachings of Paul should not be in the bible as they see him as a form of anti-Christ or demon. Much of our understanding of scripture comes from the scholars who attempt to inform us of what it was Paul meant in his teachings. Of this, there is much contention.
Some groups will only preach from and observe the teachings in red that Jesus spoke in the King James Version. These groups teach that the rest of scripture pointed to the Messiah and are now finished with, as we have Jesus to tell us what to do, and now follow.
Sadly, there are denominations springing up and re-writing the bible for a context they prefer according to their doctrinal stance. Men understand only a small part (and not always correctly) of what the scriptures are imparting to us. If we are studying in truth, we all grow, and our understanding of certain concepts develop. What we were certain of last year can be different this year. Growth brings change, that includes the way we understand. As a result, we currently have the aforementioned 61 English translations, and I am sure this number will grow over the next few years.
There are two main types of translation, those that attempt a word for word direct translation and those that paraphrase. The paraphrased bibles are directly linked to the theology of the translators more obviously than word for word. The direct translations try their best to bring a literal translation in plain English for the reader. But as I mentioned earlier; the more difficult concepts found in the scripture are open to the interpretation of the translators.
Idioms for instance, do not translate across languages, they are culture specific. If they are not understood in their original context, they will require a re-interpretation to deliver a medium that makes sense, both in language and in the theological position of the translator. This can leave a major shortfall in the information required to bring clarity by those teaching.
There are many that teach, especially in bible study groups that we do not need extra biblical books to interpret the bible. But this is a rather closed-minded view in gaining an understanding of what scripture says on certain issues. For instance: if you wish to know what a centurion or legion are, you would go to a dictionary or history book. Often, the writings of the time period can help us interpret what the scriptures are referring to. Our knowledge of scripture and its interpretation can be enhanced by this extra biblical knowledge.
This list is by no means exhaustive, but it demonstrates the commitment of translators to attempt to prove the theological position taken without compromise. The fact that a translation is paraphrased is enough to give many pause. Unless one agrees with the theology of the paraphrase, it can be especially confusing when trying to follow someone reading from a translation that says something different. However, again I say; even these translators of the paraphrases are doing it with the best of intentions and genuine desire to share, what they consider is the truth.
Both have their pro’s and con’s – a paraphrase can get across a point the original author was making in the context of the time. But this is, of course, limited to the translators understanding of the history, their theology and period they are referencing.
On the other hand, a literal translation, though giving as close as possible, a direct translation from one language to another, does not convey the historical context or idioms and cultural understanding of said text.
We also have to be aware that the original Hebrew OT scriptures were translated into Greek, the Greek is then translated into English, in some cases via the Latin. How much contextual understanding can we lose through this process?
We should now be starting to understand how difficult it is to translate a Bible into English, or any language worldwide.
This leaves us with some things to ponder: What are the rules for translation if any? Do translators use specific recognised rules? Who decides what rules to follow?
There are some basic rules to biblical interpretation. However, these are interpreted to suit, for the most part by the group translating.
Pure Bible Press for instance declare these translation rules:
First six of their fifteen recommended rules, which many do follow:
“1. The Authorized King James Bible is to be followed, and as little altered as translational accuracy and honesty will permit: Pure Bible Press is very careful, clear, and unwavering in this point.
“2. The names of the prophets and the holy writers, with the other names in the text, to be retained, as near as may be, according as they are commonly used.
“3. The old ecclesiastical words to be kept; as the word church, not to be translated congregation, etc.
“4. When any word hath divers significations, that to be kept which has been most commonly used by history and Christianity, being agreeable to the propriety of the place, and the analogy of the faith.
“5. The division of the chapters to be altered, either not at all, or as little as may be, if necessity so require.
“6. No marginal notes at all to be affixed, but only for the explanation of other pure vernacular words (which cannot, without some circumlocution, so briefly and fitly be expressed in the text), and certainty given that no doubt is brought to the mind of the reader of the plain text of scripture.
Translators, in general, have a system to adhere to, however, that system insists that the translation fit their criteria and the translation they recognise as truth. There, of course, has
to be some parameters from which to work. As a result, the group will share a list of general rules, but use them in a way that suits their vision.
Here is a list of criteria that I believe are not considered and examined, even though challenging, when translating scripture:
1. Neglecting the research and advancement being made today in understanding the scriptures from their socio/religious, and archaeological findings; this void leaves a gap in important information, opening scripture to the interpretation of the reader. In some cases, negating what these scriptures are actually declaring.
2. It is important to note that the biblical authors were trying to convey Judaic, well- established framework of practice and thought into the Greek language, many of which are idioms spoken and understood in the culture from which they are derived.
3. Idioms do not transfer when copied into another language without the knowledge of the original intended meaning. The words will be there but not the concept being transmitted.
4. Translating from a biased theological perspective provides support for a man centred doctrinal outcome.
5. The transfer of biblical knowledge is diminished when the original Judaic meaning is reinterpreted to fit a modern western narrative removing them from their Near East 2nd Temple period belief system.
Another consideration is the issue of copyright. For a bible to be considered for publication, certain rules must be followed. There must be a 30% difference between each translation for it not to be considered plagiarism. This in itself creates problems. What words to change to keep within the context but make it different enough to get the meaning across and not infringe on previous translations. I have the greatest respect for the people who try to take on this mammoth task regardless of denominational background.
These are just a few of the issues that need to be considered. Whenever a new translation is released, within a short space of time there will be ‘Experts” or “detractors” who declare it heretical or wrong in some aspect. What manuscripts they used become something to dispute, or which previous bible did they use as a basis for their translation.
There are those that declare emphatically that if it is not based on the KJV it is not scripture. We have proponents of the KJV that declare it as the only viable translation. However, we have others who explain that some of the newer manuscripts such as the KJV used are in fact added to by creating verses from the side notes of the transcribers who copied the Greek scriptures over the centuries. Declaring this, as the particular verses under dispute are not in some of the older manuscripts.
This is a many faceted and complicated issue with more to consider than just translating a word for word version. Even when translating a word for word version, words are often translated to fit the narrative of the translator rather than what the word means in the context of the people it was written to. Translators try to avoid this, but it becomes inevitable as doctrines believed will influence them regardless, referring back to my previous demonstration about translating Luke 23:43.
What is the solution? Do we all need to go out and learn Hebrew and Greek to gain a better understanding of what scripture is saying, studying the Judaic context from a first century perspective?
Though it would be great if we could all do this, it is not what is needed or practical. When examining scripture, it would be expedient for those studying to use several translations of the Bible, to gain an overview. It would also make sense for believers to not just accept all the teachers say we are to believe as they also tend to disagree with each, even on some points that are of major importance. The issue of salvation, for instance and what is required can be interpreted differently from alternate translations that allow for certain interpretations.
It is important to be aware that when we are listening to various teachers who, either translate the scriptures or interpret them, that there are certain Christian words that are understood differently by different groups. “Christianeze” is not as uniform in word meaning as one might think.
The word Repentance for instance. To some it means to change one’s mind from unbelief to belief in the Messiah. This group tend to teach that because repentance is only mentioned a few times in the NT that it is something that happens when we believe; repentance is faith and comes about because of our belief.
Others interpret it to means, turn from your sin and be obedient to God. This position teaches that once one understands who the Messiah is and what He has done, we put our faith in Him and the proof of this is the turning to Gods teachings and follow the Messiah. There are, of course, many variations of the theme.
This also includes such words as justification, sanctification and salvation. All these words have different meanings to different branches of the Christian faith. This can be confusing as people go from one church to another thinking they all mean the same thing when using these terminologies.
I have not written this article to confuse people but to make them aware of the difficulties and differences inherent when translating a bible from the native language. We lose much of the nuance and importance of comprehending what the people who were written to, and those writing, were, not only thinking, but intending when it was penned.
This is a problem that is not going to go away anytime soon. It is estimated that there are currently around 40,000 denominations worldwide with an average of 2.5 new denominations springing up every day. This does not work towards the unification of belief and bringing believers together but of division. So, I have to repeat my first question: What are we believing and why?
2 Timothy 2:15 (ISV) Do your best to present yourself to God as an approved worker who has nothing to be ashamed of, handling the word of truth with precision.
Dr M Debono-De-Laurnetis
'Though born in England, the author was brought up in Brooklyn NY within the Jewish community as his step-father was Jewish.