Not the Fundamentals: Bible Translation


Gentle Reader,

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the 1611 Authorized Version, also known as King James, tells me so.

Take that as a good-natured rib. I’m devoted to my New King James. My parents bought me my first Bible at Easter when I was seven; it was the Precious Moments edition of that translation. I still have it tucked away among other keepsakes. The NKJV introduced me to the riches of God’s word, and I’ve never had a desire to switch to anything else, though I do use the fabulous BibleGateway to compare passages, often in the New International Version and the Message. So, right away know that this isn’t about having a preference for one translation over another. Whatever Bible you’ve got, use it! Learn from it! Love it!

Just know that the Bible you have isn’t really “better” than the Bible somebody else has.

The art and science of translation, for it is both, is complex. Hebrew and Greek do not lend themselves easily to English. There are some Hebrew words that have multiple meanings and the translator has to rely upon the surrounding context to decipher which one applies. Greek nouns are themselves a headache – they are classified by gender (masculine, feminine or neuter), number (singular, dual or plural) and, depending on their function within the sentence, are then further divided into the five cases (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative or vocative). English, as an ever-changing and ever-lazier language, doesn’t have any of that. (For information, please see the Institute of Biblical Greek, because, honestly, it’s all Greek to me).

Then there’s the different styles of the authors themselves. Although writing under the inspiration of the Spirit, the personality of the Biblical authors shines through. Luke writes in polished Greek. Paul is famous for huge, run-on sentences. David’s poetry isn’t the same as that of the Sons of Asaph. And the style of God Himself when it is clear that He is the speaker; much of the word-play and humor found in the original language is lost in English.

It is no mean thing to sit down and translate Scripture into English. (And I imagine that it’s just as great a task in other languages). That is at least one reason why most of the work is done in a committee format. When a decision regarding word choice or grammar has to be made, better to have a discussion than to allow the theological bent of one person to hold sway. While commentaries and study notes are unapologetically biased, the text of Scripture itself must be accurate and fair.

There is no doubt that we all track together up to this point, but when formal vs. dynamic equivalency comes into play, the gloves are off. Should the structure of the sentence remain as close to the original as possible, even if that makes for clunky reading and requires a thick dictionary? Or should the sentence reflect the meaning of the original, while expressed in a modern format? Should the committees stick to the Textus Receptus, the basis of the King James? Or should they seek out the most recently-discovered copies of the originals, some of which correct the Textus Receptus? Or should all of this be combined and taken into consideration?

Oh, boy.

Again, preference is one thing. My husband loves the NIV. I can’t stand it and use it only for comparison. A friend uses the New American Standard; I think it reads like a brick. But I don’t for a second believe that my husband and my friend aren’t reading Scripture. I don’t think that either of them has a “wrong” Bible. And while I wouldn’t use the Message as a study Bible (that’s not what it’s meant for), I don’t think it’s an invalid translation. Neither is the New Living Translation or the English Standard. Each of these translations falls on the formal vs. dynamic scale and all were worked on by people devoted to God. Each of these Bibles stands in sound scholarship.

It’s another thing entirely to insist that one translation is “better” than another. I frequently drive by two churches in my area, both proudly proclaiming that the KJV is IT. Unfortunately,

some have gone so far as to adopt what has been called a ‘King James only’ mentality. Thus the King James Version is not only considered to be the best translation of the Scriptures but the only acceptable one. This position has escalated to the point where there are some who believe that the translation of the King James Version was providentially guided by the Holy Spirit and the translation is without error. Even the original texts of the Hebrew and Greek can be corrected by it.

The idea of the KJV committee being guided by the Spirit in the same way the original authors were, and that the original authors can be corrected by the work of the KJV committee, is an extreme position. There are not many groups who would articulate their adherence in these terms. Nevertheless, the idea that the KJV is the only acceptable translation is wide-spread and deeply divisive.

Here’s the thing, though: The original authors didn’t speak Elizabethan English! Neither do we. For example, Matthew 19:14 in the KJV reads:

But Jesus said, “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”

Compare this with the NKJV:

But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”

And the NIV:

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

Which is easier to understand?

Oddly, some prefer that Scripture be difficult to understand, holding that being able to decipher it is a mark of true faith. Does such a position really make sense in light of that fact that we serve a God who has gone out of His way to make Himself understood? He went to great lengths to spell out exactly what He wanted from His people. Are we to believe that the Hebrew and Greek were only understood by the spiritual “elite?”

Warning! Gnostic (heretical) waters ahead!

It is a mark of our privilege as English-speaking and -reading people that we even spend time fighting about this. There are places in the world today where believers would give anything for just a page of the Bible in their own language, let alone the entire thing. There are people who wind up in jail (or worse) for distributing one of the Gospels or a section of the Psalms. Missionaries and translators in foreign fields sometimes have to invent the alphabet for an exclusively oral language.

Do we really expect these hungry brothers and sisters to learn English, and possibly the English of the 1500 and 1600s, in order to read the Bible? Do we really expect the men and women who labor with so little recognition to put the context of other languages aside when working with other cultures?

God is not limited to English. He is not limited to the KJV. Or the NKJV. Or the NIV. He desires that His word be available and accessible to all. I have no doubt that He blesses the faithful people who have worked to do just that.

My journey to faith. (15)

For all the posts in the Not the Fundamentals series, go here.

P.S. – If you want to dig into this subject, check out the articles Dynamic Equivalence and Its Daughters and Is Your Modern Translation Corrupt



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