Bridging the Historic Distance

The Psalmist could say with confidence that he had hid the Word of God in his heart that he might not sin against God[1]. The modern English speaking believer faced with the rows of Bibles in his Christian bookshop could easily be forgiven for thinking: "Great, but which one?" Fortunately the position, methodology and approach of all the major Bible translations are well understood. Therefore provided the believer can accurately detail what they want from a Bible translation it should be fairly straightforward to pick the right one. The aim of this paper is to discuss some of the criteria that should be considered in that selection process.

When evaluating a potential new tool the first question that must be asked is: what is it used for and how is it to be used? This is a particularly good question to ask because whilst the Bible does not tell us what translation to use it does tell us how the Bible is to be used. Whilst the following is not comprehensive it covers a number of the points that scripture makes:

  1. Scripture is to be memorized. We have already seen the psalmist explain the reason this.
  2. Scripture is to be meditated upon over long periods of time[2].
  3. Scripture is to be studied in depth[3].
  4. Scripture is to be used in combat situations[4]. This means it has to be authoritative but also well handled.
  5. Scripture is to be preached from[5].
  6. Scripture is to be accurately rendered[6].
  7. Scripture is to be available from childhood onwards[7].

Whilst each of these points has individual weight I think it should be clear that combined the premise is that the individual should do whatever it takes to integrate scripture into the lives and consciousness. The notion that Bible study should be quick and easy is entirely invalid. It should be noted that some use the need for wide availability of the Word as a reason to make it simpler. However the premise of scripture is that some things will not be obvious to children[8] or even some adults[9] and that these 'non-obvious' features should generate questions which are then answered and subsequently learned from.

The next question to ask is: "What are the fundamental design decisions underpin the manner in which the tool functions". In the case of Bible translations there are essentially two antithetical approaches and most translations pick a place on that line. At one extreme is the literal translation[10] that essentially tries to map each word of the original language to a direct equivalent in English. Little or no effort is placed into rendering the result readable to the English reader. At the other extreme is the 'free' translation that attempts to pick up the original concept of the Biblical passage and then 'map' it to an equivalent in English. Between these two is a significant class of Bibles that attempt functional equivalence. This is the notion that whilst grammar and syntax can be altered the exact meaning of the underlying is replicated as faithfully as possible: given the constraint that the eventual English should be 'good'.

It is important to realize that the further away from literalness the translation moves then the more involved the translator has become in interpretation rather than pure translation. The book 'How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth' provides an excellent example from 1 Co 7:36:

The first of these is the most literal of the translations. It has accurately translated the underlying Greek to "virgin". However, as the book points out this translation has left the question of the shade of meaning of virgin ambiguous. The other three versions have taken the translation further and interpreted what Paul had meant by virgin. Of course in this particular case the three translation teams came up with differing answers. The converse is thus also true; the further towards literalness the believer moves the more the burden of correct interpretation falls upon their own shoulders as opposed to the shoulders of teams of men that have been trained in the task.

There is an additional issue that regrettably needs to be introduced too. As well as the dimension of literalness verses translational interpretation[11] there is also the question of bias. Because translation involves the interpretation of Scripture we need to be extremely cautious if our translators have a belief system that we know we do not agree with. The Jehovah's Witness Bible is an obvious case of this but even within the more mainstream churches there are translations such as the JB that come from significantly outside of evangelical Protestantism. There are also a number of translations that have openly taken liberties with the original languages in order to suit gender neutrality preferences.

I believe the question then becomes: what translation or group of translations is going to produce the life invading, memorable, authoritative Word of God within our hearts? For me personally my primary translation could never be one where there were words on my page that bore no real relation to the Word of God as originally delivered. It is interesting that in the example from 1Co 7:36 given previously the book concludes that the NKJV rendering is 'literal but unhelpful'. This may be true, but at least I know what I don't know. I know that I must study further to track down what virgin means. With the other three translations I think I know what the Word of God is telling but there is a 66% chance of being wrong.

As I see it the problem with the translations that 'go a little further to help' is that there is no way of telling from the page whether I am reading the Word of God or some gentlemen's best guess. The result is that I do not know how much weight I can place on a particular verse of scripture. With a literal translation I know whether or not the words make sense. If they do then I can place significant weight upon the verse. If I don't then the verse may well be of less use to me; but at least I haven't just created false doctrine.

There is however, I believe, an intermediate position that may be beneficial to a lot of people. If you look at the four translations above they combine to give me a huge amount of information: the NKJV gives me a fair rendering of what the Word of God says and then the other three tell me that the meaning of the word virgin is extremely unclear and here are three possibilities. The precise fact that the four translations differ alerts me to interpretational issues and my research is then 'pre-filled' with some mainstream possible conclusions.

Of course this approach has some potential pitfalls. Not least is the danger that the automatic construction of interpretational possibilities will cause us to 'shop' for the interpretation we most like. The other may be that we get so involved in some of the nuances of translation that we miss the big picture of what the verses are trying to tell us. Some of these concerns can be mitigated by refining the 'consultation group' to include only those translations that you believe have genuine merit. Personally I have the KJV and NKJV as parallel personal study Bible. I use Young's Literal as my first reference to dig further with the AV & RSV providing me with some 'left field' alternatives. Another translation I believe to be good but that I have not used myself is the NASB.

Another issue to raise is that of memorization. There can be a tendency to assume that simpler linguistic constructs are easier to memorize. The opposite is actually the case. Word patterns that are abnormal stick in the mind because they are abnormal. Lengthy prose using familiar words is far more likely to get jumbled. For anyone that doubts this I suggest you try memorizing a page of a novel and then a poem of the same length. The more formal language of the poem resonates with the human mind far more readily than the prose that is initially more readily digested.

Bible translations can often be an emotive issue that is guilty of generating more heat than light. The underlying agenda of this paper has not been a particular translation. The underlying agenda is that I believe that we need to select a translation or group of translations that will provide the best results if we sit down and study Scripture consistently, persistently and tenaciously. To pick a translation because it allows us to reduce our study time or to avoid some of the harder interpretational issues is, in my opinion, disastrous. My recommendation is that we pick a regular translation that is as literal as we can handle and then to supplement that with a 'panel' of translations to alert us to pitfalls and possible interpretations.


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