September 26, 2011

Bible Translation 101

Did you ever wonder why your Bible sometimes reads slightly differently than the preacher’s? Or how you can be in a Bible study, and two different people can read the same verse in such vastly differing translations? It’s an important question to ask. After all, if God has really spoken, we want to be sure we have His words in our hands exactly as they should be! And the difference between the translations can sometimes leave us wondering if we really do.

So what accounts for the difference in Bible versions? And why do some Christians see this as a fighting matter? Is it that important? Why or why not? These are valuable questions to consider.

Over the next several days, I am going to attempt to answer some of these questions – to take you on a layman’s tour of Bible translation, explaining the ins and outs of why our English Bibles are the way they are, and even why they sometimes differ slightly. I’m calling it a Bible Translation 101 (or, as I said, a layman’s tour) because that’s exactly what I am when it comes to these things – a layman who understand these things at a roughly introductory level. I am not an expert in Greek, Hebrew, linguistics, or translation theory – just a local pastor who wants his people to be confident that the Bible they read is an accurate English rendering of what God actually said in Greek and Hebrew. In order to be thus confident, it would be good for us to know how we got our Bible, why some translations are better than others, and so on.

Let me start with an introductory point, before moving on to some more challenging matters in the days ahead.

First, at the risk of stating the obvious, let me remind you that the Bible was not originally written in English! No, the Old Testament first came to us almost entirely in Hebrew, and the New Testament in Greek. So, unless you read one of those two languages, your encounters with the Bible are always in translation. And, of course, it was the original Bible authors (and not later translators!) who were specially inspired by God (2 Peter 1.21). So, when we speak of the infallibility or inerrancy of the Scriptures, we are saying that the Greek and Hebrew words of Peter, and Moses, and Luke, and Nehemiah were infallibly inspired by God … not that their English-speaking translators were infallibly inspired by God!

Does that make sense? The Scriptures are inspired in their original autographs; in their original languages. English (or Swahili, or Japanese, or German) translators are not protected from error in quite the same way. Surely we trust that God superintends our translators’ work. But He does not promise to make them infallible like He made Peter, Paul, Moses, and the rest of the biblical authors. And what that means is that we have taken a wrong turn if we seek to enshrine one particular English translation as ‘inspired’, and label all the rest as perverted. In point of fact, none of the translations are inspired, in and of themselves. They are inspired only insofar as they accurately translate the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts which are inspired!

In this regard (as I will go on to point out in the days ahead), not all translations are equally faithful to the original Greek and Hebrew, it’s true. So I am not saying we should not prefer one translation over another. I am simply saying that none of our English translations or translators were protected and guided along in quite the same way as God protected and guided the original Bible authors! And therefore none of them should be enshrined as the Bible for English-speaking people. It’s not the King James or New American Standard translations that were infallibly inspired by God, but the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts!

That’s the whole reason why this series of articles exist. Since we are not reading the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts; and since our English translators (excellent and faithful as they almost invariably are) are not infallible, it is worth asking which translations of the Bible render the original Greek and Hebrew most accurately and faithfully.

There are answers to that question. And there are accurate, faithful translations! In the posts ahead, I hope to help you know how to find them.

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