A Bible Student’s Hidden Strength

Comparing Bible translations

I once had a grandmotherly friend, a secretary in my office, who had great interest in the Bible but no training in the biblical languages. Her strength as a Bible student came from one obvious and one hidden source.

The obvious source was her daily practice of Scripture reading, that beneficial spiritual discipline most Christians at least acknowledge—if only by experiencing a vague (or sharp!) sense of guilt that they’re not doing it. Well, she did it.

The hidden source of her strength as a Bible student was that she knew Spanish and frequently read her Spanish Bible, both in church services and in personal devotions. Simply put: She made comparing translations of Scripture a regular part of her Bible study.

I’m not sure she saw this as a strength, because she was always coming to me perplexed—and sometimes a little irked—about 1) why her English and Spanish translations sometimes differed, and 2) why she so frequently heard preachers say, “What the Greek says here is . . .” and then go on to say just what her Spanish Bible said. If Greek says what the Spanish Bible says, why doesn’t the English translation say that? That was her regular refrain.

I’m going to give you some of the questions she asked me. All questions are used by permission—and when I asked for permission, she asked me another question.

Judgment calls

Here’s the first one:

Numbers 23:21a—what do the original languages say? My Spanish Bible agrees with the KJV, but another Bible says something totally different.

This turned out to be a legitimate difference in judgment between translators. It hinges on the meaning of a common word in a somewhat obscure context.

And by asking this question, my friend learned by exegetical experience that translations can differ for no apparent ideological reason. That is, many people assume that differences between Bible translations are theologically motivated. The “good” translations are motivated by “good” theology and “good” theologians. The “bad” translations are motivated by evil conspiracies straight from the pit of somewhere really bad. Theologically motivated differences occur, but most often, actual comparison of translations will show you that the differences are just judgment calls.

Hebrew vowels

Here’s another question my friend asked:

In the KJV of Psalm 58:1 it says, “O congregation.” In the NKJV it says, “you silent ones.” How can those be anywhere kin to each other?

The answer to this question has to do with the vocalization—the vowels—of the Hebrew text. Translations read anything from “congregation” to “gods.”

Originally, Hebrew was written without vowels. Around 800 AD, scribes known as the Masoretes inserted vowels to aid reading. But sometimes Bible translators disagree with the vowels inserted by the Masoretes. This is usually because the vocalization chosen by the Masoretes doesn’t seem to make sense, so modern translators make a change, an “emendation.” As the NET Bible notes say here,

The Hebrew noun אֵלֶם (’elem, “silence”) makes little, if any, sense in this context. The present translation assumes an emendation to אֵלִם (’elim… “rulers,” a metaphorical use of אַיִל, ’ayil, “ram.”

The ESV translators, following the RSV translators before them, took yet another view, feeling that elim was a rarely used plural form of אֵל (’el, “god”).

By keeping the consonants but using vowels different from what the Masoretes chose, translators come to a reading that makes better sense. But they’re not hiding this fact: the ESV footnote says, for example, that their reading was established “by revocalization” and notes that the (Masoretic) Hebrew reads “in silence.”

By asking this question, my friend learned that Hebrew works differently than English in one specific and important way: The vowels were originally left out and only added later.

The original languages

She asked another question about a passage that contains an obscure line:

Job 11:12 makes better sense in the KJV and makes no sense in NKJV. Which fits the original language? Thanks mucho.

Rather than trying to answer this question here (it’s complicated), I’ll just note something in it that I really like—something that’s true of all her questions: She recognized that the standard for accuracy was not any one English translation, but instead the original. The Greek, the Hebrew.

The fact is, however, that in an era before printing presses, it was nearly humanly impossible to produce a perfect copy of a large document like the Bible—or to know if you had. People who study the Bible need to know that ancient biblical manuscripts differ slightly. The science of establishing the original reading to the best of our knowledge is called textual criticism. And sometimes, without knowing it, my friend’s questions were actually about that very (demanding, convoluted, and important) topic:

Ephesians 3:9 says in English, “who created all things by Jesus Christ”; in Spanish it just says, “que creó todas las cosas.” Notice what is missing in the Spanish version, then translate that verse from the original Greek. I am trying to figure out which is really the true translation.

But what she wanted was not the “true translation” of this verse; she wanted the “true textual criticism.”

Bible study questions

You can study textual criticism, Hebrew vocalization, and principles of Bible translation from the top down, as it were. You can read books about those topics and discuss the competing theories. That’s all good. I’ve done it.

But I also like the bottom-up approach, where Christians learn about different arenas in biblical studies by paying close attention to the Bibles they can read—and just wanting, more than they want to “get their Bible reading done,” to know why they differ.

Is your Bible study generating the kinds of interesting questions this woman asked? I urge you to use multiple translations of the Bible in Logos (Logos Now’s Multiview Resources is currently the best way). See what questions and then insights it will generate.

For further study

strauss_shrinkWe’ve got some fantastic Mobile Ed courses which go into much greater detail regarding Bible translations and how they relate to one another. I always find Mark Strauss thought-provoking and linguistically aware, and he has a course called Introducing Bible Translations (Bi 181) that I recommend highly.

Leland Ryken wrote a book, The Word of God in English, describing and arguing for the translation philosophy adopted by the popular English Standard Version.

And R.L. Thomas has written a straightforward and workmanlike little volume discussing the comparative value of our major English translations, How to Choose a Bible Version.

Comments

  1. If Greek says what the Spanish Bible says, why doesn’t the English translation say that? That was her regular refrain….

    A great line.

    I found myself saying "If the Greek means this why didn't they just say that?"

    I understand it isn't that simple but I understand the person-in-the-pew's thoughts.

    • Yeah, I’ve always felt that the “most Bible scholars are not dummies” principle ought to apply here. There is a reason of some kind for every one of the many choices translators make. Without knowing Greek and Hebrew, it’s essentially impossible to grasp all those reasons—though you can still see something of a general pattern if you use multiple modern translations.

  2. TruckerJohn3:16 says:

    If you’ve ever worked on a committee, you know how hard it is to get concensus. Once I found out how the KJV was translated, that settled it for me. Then I ran across some quotes from Mr Wescott and Mr Hort who are responsible for the foundational text of ‘most’ modern translations. It’s clear from their writings W & H were NOT born-again Christians. Quit wasting time and read your Bible. My Bible says “the Holy Ghost… will teach me all things”. John 14:26

  3. How is it that we don’t just fine tune our abilities of hearing Holy Spirit? For Spirit’s role is to lead us into all truth. So hey, let heaven teach us in our humble prayer closets, or at our grand or petite student desks, or whereever we are; willing to engage in meanings, interpretations and seeking understanding?

    Where does that come into it? Rather than relying on third, fourth or tenth-hand via other scholars who may or may not have it accurate either – for valid or not so valid reasons?

    Where is that inspiration?

    Surely we want the LIVING WORD active in our minds but mostly in our hearts, to influence our minds.

    Looking forward to hearing from you.

    • Nothing I said is meant to deny or minimize the role of the Holy Spirit of God in illuminating Christian students of the Bible. This is not an either-or—either careful study or reliance on the Holy Spirit. It’s a both-and.

      And the Holy Spirit himself said through the Apostle Paul that Christ has gifted his church with teachers (Eph. 4:11ff.). We’re supposed to get some things third-hand—none of us can study everything relevant to understanding the Bible. We have to take some things on authority, even as we study carefully on our own.

      You should read B.B. Warfield’s classic essay, “The Religious Life of Theological Students.” Here’s a golden quote:

      Nothing could be more fatal, however, than to set these two things over against one another. Recruiting officers do not dispute whether it is better for soldiers to have a right leg or a left leg: soldiers should have both legs. Sometimes we hear it said that ten minutes on your knees will give you a truer, deeper, more operative knowledge of God than ten hours over your books. “What!” is the appropriate response, “than ten hours over your books, on your knees?” Why should you turn from God when you turn to your books, or feel that you must turn from your books in order to turn to God? If learning and devotion are as antagonistic as that, then the intellectual life is in itself accursed, and there can be no question of a religious life for a student, even of theology.