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Is the Bible that We Hold in Our Hands Trustworthy, or Just the Ancient Languages and Manuscripts?

Written By Wade Mobley on 01/23/2014 | Posted in Christian HistoryDaily Christian Thinking

(Probably) A Pretty Good Translation

I can hear you saying it: "Well and good! We have the copies of the original manuscripts - so many of them that we can reconstruct the text of the Bible to a reasonable degree. But THEY ARE IN GREEK!" True enough, though Hebrew and Aramaic just called, both demanding recognition.

Fortunately, the Bible you hold in your hand today is (probably) a pretty good translation. For the purposes of this post I will consider only the New Testament. I say "probably" because all translations are not created equally, and thus I begin my walk where angels fear to tread - people have strong feelings about "their" translation of the Bible.

New Testament Manuscript Sets

Translations employ different sets of Greek manuscripts, largely because there is disagreement over which set is most complete, earliest and best-preserved. Some translations use "eclectic" texts, which pick and choose between the manuscript sets. One reason some people hold to the King James translation only is that it uses a specific set of texts, called the Textus Receptus ("Received Text"), which came from the set of manuscripts available to Martin Luther at the time of the Reformation.

The existence of the set of texts is one of the untold miracles of the Reformation. The Dutch humanist scholar Desiderius Erasmus assembled the texts, and though he later became a theological opponent of Luther, Luther's translation of the Bible into German would not have been possible without Erasmus' textual work. Most modern translations do not use the Textus Receptus.

Translation Philosophy

I mentioned that the manuscript set is one reason some people feel strongly about the King James. There is another reason: its use of Elizabethan English. I'm all for stretching the mind and vocabulary of readers, but it seems both unwise and unnecessary to retain 400 year-old language as a guiding principle for Biblical translation. After all, the point of the Authorized Version was to give the King's subjects access to a Bible in their own language.

Some go so far as to say that the 1611 King James Version (aka "Authorized Version") is the inspired text - over and above the Greek and Hebrew texts. I shudder. That said, the King James Version is available in updated language and is a fine translation.

There is (MUCH) more to translation philosophy, but I will confine my comments to four areas:

1. Translation/paraphrase Spectrum

Every version is part translation (word for word) and part paraphrase (thought for thought). It is impossible to render something identically from one language to another - that's why translation is needed in the first place. There is a spectrum, though, with some versions of the Bible trying to keep the translation as close as possible to the original and others trying their best to communicate the ideas in ways people will understand. The latter seems like a laudable goal, but it comes with a liability - the more you interpret for the reader the more likely you are to corrupt the meaning of a text, even with the best of intentions.

For example, when Jesus walked on the water (Mark 6:50) He said to His disciples, "Take heart, It is I." But the original text says "Take heart, I am." The first rendering is much easier to understand, but it misses the point of Jesus' use of God's sacred name, "I am" (see Exodus 3:14). Worse yet, for the grammarians, the translators changed a first person verb to a third person verb to do so.

2. Choice of Vocabulary

Words in a translation are like data for your computer screen. If you want an easy-to-run program, decrease the resolution of your screen. But that limits the detail you can see on the screen. If you want a better picture you must have more data. Bible translation is like that, too. Versions with limited vocabularies are easier to read and understand, but you tend to lose some resolution.

I encourage you to push yourself a bit on this one. Don't settle for an easy-to-read translation that limits vocabulary, especially if you are a good reader. It's okay to look up a word once in a while. A good compromise is the Holman Christian Standard Bible, which employs a 7th-8th grade vocabulary, but retains and defines key theological terms that suffer when translated. I like the idea, and it is also easy to read.

3. Retention of Original Structure

Some of the Scripture writers (especially Paul) wrote in sentences WAY longer than what we do today. However, if you try to gain clarity by changing the structure of those long sentences, you may end up missing the point.

Example? The Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) has one imperative (command): Make disciples. Some translations make it sound like four. The "go," "baptize," and "teach" words are participles, which modify the imperative verb "make disciples." This is not an intentional change in meaning, but the text suffers nonetheless. Lost in all this is that both teaching and baptizing are means of making disciples, but that's for another post.

4. Intentional Interpretive Decisions

Every translation must make interpretive decisions, but some do so more freely than others. For example, if you find, say, a GLBTQ New Testament, be sure that the translators went out of their way to make that translation friendly to homosexuality. This exists, believe it or not. This isn't translation; it's advocacy.
Not all advocacy is as transparent. Several modern translations use gender-neutral language when the original text is gender-specific. That is interpretation, not translation.

Another example changes Jesus' designation as "Son of God" so as to be more acceptable to Muslims, who abhor such thoughts. It may be more acceptable, but if you change a key concept does acceptability matter all that much? How about a Bible translation for naturalists, which removes all of the supernatural elements from Scripture? That exists, too.

I hesitate to give a bottom line recommendation. But, if I must....

Try the New American Standard, English Standard, or Holman Christian Standard versions. It seems everybody wants to be the standard. The New King James, if you are inclined to stay with the Textus Receptus is fine, too. I have some reservations about the NIV, especially in its more recent incarnations, though I was saved while reading the 1984 original NIV, so it must not be all bad.

Study Bibles

I encourage you to read a "text only" Bible until you understand what IS the Bible and what is NOT the Bible. Study Bibles are very helpful- I use one almost every day- especially when it comes to giving background information that you and I probably don't know from our other studies. But you have to be clear: The Bible is "above the line," and the commentary is "below the line." Only the Bible is God's Word - not the study notes or cross references supplied for your convenience. Several months ago I wrote a post about the difference, giving one specific example from a mistake I made while preaching.

What's black and white and red all over?

The old joke is "a newspaper," with a word play on red/read. I think the better answer is "your Bible." I hope this series of posts has encouraged you to read your Bible more and trust what God says to you in it. There are pitfalls to making these statements of explanation and defense. I don't want you to walk away thinking that God and His Word are so fragile that they need a red-headed ex-basketball coach to do the fighting for Him.

Charles Spurgeon famously called the Bible a caged lion: "It does not need to be defended, it simply needs to be let out of its cage." I pray that you will do so, then watch God do His work through His Word. You don't need to fear this work. Caged lions consume and destroy; God's Word saves and builds up.

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Thankful to the Living God for life, redemption and His many blessings. Doing my best to reflect His character in all I do.

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