September 27, 2011

"But MY Bible says ..."

Yesterday we began asking the question of why our English Bible translations differ in various places. The first part of our discussion centered on the fact that we are, in fact, reading translations of the original Greek and Hebrew. And translations involve translators – men and women who, hopefully like you and me, are trying to do the best they can possibly do in their work for the Lord; but who, like you and me, have limitations and foibles and so on. This is one reason our translations differ – because different men and women sometimes translate the Greek or Hebrew in different ways.

In this article, let me mention some of the reasons why that may be so.

First, the fact is that the English language is quite sophisticated in its vocabulary and flexibility. In layman’s terms, that simply means that our language has a great capacity for saying the same thing with several different words. So, for instance, one translator may render a certain Greek word as “patient”, while another translator may render the exact same Greek word as “longsuffering”. Both translations are accurate because both “patient” and “longsuffering” have the same basic meaning. And it is this breadth and flexibility of our English vocabulary that accounts for some (though not most) of the variations in our translations.

Second, our Bible versions sometimes differ because, as we said last week, translators are fallible. One translation team may have a better grasp on a given Hebrew word or syntax pattern than another translation team. And thus, while neither team’s translation radically transforms the overall meaning of the verse in question, team B may be able to render the wording just a little more lucidly than team A. And yet, on the next verse, with a different set of vocabulary or syntax, team A may do just a little better job.

Let me say again that, as far as our mainstream English translations go (KJV, NKJV, NASB, ESV, NIV), both team A and team B almost invariably get the translations basically right. So these differences will not be a matter of bad versus good … but of good versus better.

Thirdly, the fact that we are reading translations rather than the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts requires us to understand that there are different theories of how the Bible should be translated. How exactly literal should a translation be? Should we translate word-for-word, or phrase-for-phrase? When a given Greek or Hebrew sentence is difficult to understand, how much license does the translator have to smooth the wording out and make it readable, even if he has to change the wording up just a bit?

These are questions over which Bible translators and scholars disagree widely. And it is largely because of these differing theories of translation that our Bible versions differ so widely. This is, by far, the biggest reason for the discrepancies in our various translations. There is much at stake at this point – much more than in any issue we have covered so far. Tomorrow, Lord willing, we’ll give an entire article to explaining translators and their theories … and how it affects what, for us, lies between Genesis and Revelation. Stay tuned.

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