A Bible Student’s Hidden Strength

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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.

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Written by
Mark Ward

Christian, husband, father, writer, ultimate frisbee player when possible.

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Written by Mark Ward