BIBLE TRANSLATIONS: Can we trust them?

Bible translations: can we trust our Bible?

Recently a member of my church wrote that he was increasingly frustrated in his Bible study group with the use of multiple translations of Scripture. He complained that it wasn’t infrequent for someone to say, “That’s not what my Bible says”, and then to read their paraphrase which had quite a different wording.  To quote him, he says that: “there are sufficient differences between “essentially literal” and “dynamic equivalent’ translations to cause some to be concerned. Add into the mix the contemporary paraphrases and confusion reigns.”

What is going on with our Bible translations?  Can we trust our Bible?

The Bible is the Word of God.  God speaks to us today as we read our Bible.  The person with the Holy Spirit of God hears the words of the Bible as the very words of God (1 Cor 2:10f).  The doctrinal basis of the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students (AFES) states that we believe in: The divine inspiration and infallibility of Holy Scripture, as originally given, and its supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct.  The Bible is inspired – not meaning that it inspires us (which it does), but that it is God-breathed (2 Tim 3:16).  It is infallible: completely trustworthy.  It is our supreme authority in all that we believe and do.  But… which Bible are we talking about?!  According to this excellent doctrinal statement, it is the Bible as originally given.

The original Bible is in Hebrew in the Old Testament (except for some parts in Aramaic) and Greek in the New Testament.  Our current Hebrew and Greek Bibles are not quite the original.  We have many manuscripts with some minor variations between them.  These variations show us where errors have entered in the transmission of the Bible from the original.  However by and large, that transmission, thank God, was done with amazing accuracy.  We can be confident that what we have is very close to the original.  The differences are often very minor (whether the word “and” is at the start of a sentence, etc).

For the purposes of textual criticism (determining the original text) we have a Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint or LXX), a Latin translation of the Bible, and translations in many other ancient languages.  When I have read the Greek or Latin versions I note that they are often word for word translations.  That is why we can still use them for textual criticism.  If they were paraphrases we would not be using them for textual criticism.

There are a range of translations available today in English that range from the quite literal to the paraphrase.  At the literal end is the King James Bible, followed closely by versions such as the NASB, ESV, NRSV, RV, RSV, Holmans, etc.  A paraphrase Bible would be one such as the CEV or Good News Bible, or The Message.  The NIV is somewhere in between these.

As I have been translating from the Greek or Hebrew in the past, these are my observations.  First, almost all Bible versions are essentially accurate over the long haul.  That is, if we are reading an entire chapter of the Bible, the different versions say much the same thing.  However at the level of fine detail, examining a single verse or phrase, there are indeed differences in our translation versions.  For example, in my experience the NIV can often be a paraphrase and not an accurate translation of the Greek or Hebrew in front of me.  The NASB is fairly accurate, but not entirely so.  The ESV differs from book to book.  Some books are wonderful in their accuracy, others less so.  The King James Version (KJV) remains for me by far the most accurate.  I marvel at how it translates word for word what is in front of me, in good English.  I simply don’t understand why other translations cannot seem to achieve this same result!

Take for example part of the verse 1 Corinthians 6:11.  The Greek says: “but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified”.  Most modern translations translate the first “but” and then omit the following two.  These translations are seeking to smooth out the English translation of the Greek.  However in doing so they are not translating the Greek that is in front of them; they are paraphrasing it.  Furthermore I think that they are showing amazing hubris.  Why does Paul say “but” three times?  The answer to that question may be a matter of interpretation.  But the fact is, he does say “but” three times.  God has seen fit to put that into the Bible.  Modern translations omit it.  Why?  Do they think they know better than God?  Do they think they can speak his words better than he can?  How could I look at the Greek and decide to drop out some words that I don’t like?!?  The KJV, being literal, leaves the word “but” in its translation all three times.  I’m very grateful it does.  For that is what the Greek actually says.  The NASB also translates this Greek sentence literally.  Other versions I have do not translate the Greek words in front of them.

I myself oppose the dynamic equivalent philosophy of translation.  If the ancient versions had followed such a course, those versions would now be almost useless to us.  It seems to me that this is a very modern (recent) innovation.  To me it smacks of great arrogance that we can know better than God and translate the Hebrew or Greek more smoothly, deciding which words to keep in or drop out.  Of course this is not the intention of the translators.  But the result nevertheless is the same.  As far as I am concerned, if the Greek or Hebrew is “wooden” or “literal” then leave it so. That is what is says.

The problem is that a paraphrase, like the NIV, is not a translation.  It is an interpretation.  A phrase in the Greek or Hebrew may be ambiguous in meaning to me.  Perhaps there are three options I could have for the meaning of the Greek phrase.  What will I do?  The KJV, being literal, will translate exactly and leave the ambiguity in English.  That makes for a more difficult reading, but one that is accurate.  The NIV will often choose one of the three options.  If they are ‘right’ (in my eyes or another interpreter’s eyes) then it will read much more smoothly than the KJV.  But if they are wrong, then I cannot preach from their translation or will have to explain what the original language really says.  If I choose one of the other two interpretative options that the NIV rejected, then I won’t agree with the NIV ‘translation’ and won’t be able to use it.

Am I an advocate then for using the KJV?  No, I’m not; I don’t use it at all in church.  Word for word, when it is using the right Greek or Hebrew texts, the KJV is by far the best translation in my opinion.  However in the end I do not use it for the following reasons.  There are three families of Greek manuscripts broadly speaking behind the New Testament documents we have.  The KJV translates from the least accurate of these.  The KJV was updated by the Revised Version (RV) using more accurate manuscripts around a century or so ago.  (However it still uses old English which is too difficult and quirky to use in a modern congregation.)  So because the KJV does not use the most accurate manuscripts available, I do not use it myself at church.  But I still love how it translates the Hebrew and Greek.

My lament then is this.  I do not like any translation we have.  Sorry, but it’s true!  That is my conclusion from my experience of translating the Hebrew and Greek.  Why do we not have a modern translation that is as good as the KJV, but using the right manuscripts we now have available to us?  My answer would have to be, that we do not value the Bible as highly as we ought.  I would imagine that the work involved to produce such a Bible would take many top scholars many years, and cost millions and millions of dollars.  Sadly, it seems that we do not hold the Bible in high enough esteem to warrant such a project.

Are you concerned now that if what I say is true, that you cannot trust your Bible?  Don’t be concerned, you can certainly trust your Bible!  It is the word of God.  When reading a whole chapter of any version I have, I am satisfied that they have captured the sense of the Hebrew or Greek.  Over a whole chapter there is no problem at all.  The problem arises more when studying a verse or phrase of Scripture.  When seeking to do such study, if one doesn’t know Greek or Hebrew, then using multiple English translations will help.  If they all agree, then you are on safe ground.  If they all disagree, as is happening sometimes in my friend’s Bible study group, then there is clearly a problem with translating the underlying Greek or Hebrew.  But the overall meaning of a chapter won’t be in dispute.  We can indeed trust our Bible whether it be the KJV, ESV, NIV, Good News, etc.

Finally I should say that I am not against Bible paraphrase versions.  I use different translations for different purposes.  For study purposes I would want a member of my congregation to have the most literal, accurate, Bible possible.  For my Bible study group with Chinese students, the Good News Bible is excellent.  The English of the NIV is too difficult for them, but the Good News Bible is perfect.   Horses for courses!

Be confident in your Bible.  But if you are doing detailed study and do not know Greek or Hebrew, a literal translation will help.  But I still long for the day when the world wide church coughs up a billion dollars for one of the most important projects we could ever do: translate the Greek and Hebrew Bible into an accurate modern English translation.

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12 responses to “BIBLE TRANSLATIONS: Can we trust them?

  1. Thank you Martin, that is a very good explanation about translation of the Bible. I have a NKJV now but have had a TNIV for a number of years. I guess I was troubled by the replacement of the word “mankind” with “human beings” in the TNIV. I am also troubled with The Message in recent times. I do believe we should do our homework with regard to any Christian literary work we read. That is the case with Bibles also. These days I try to find out as much as I can about the author/s of a book. This goes for Bible versions as well. It appears that the author of The Message, Eugene Peterson, has some mystic/contemplative propensities (to put it as gently as I can!). This could account for several of the puzzling phrases in The Message e.g. “May the God of green hope fill you up with joy, fill you up with peace, so that your believing lives, filled with the life-giving energy of the Holy Spirit, will brim over with hope!” Romans 15:13. What is “green hope”? Also in the Lord’s Prayer: “Do what is best – as above so below” Matthew 6:10. The phrase “as above so below” is an occult phrase apparently and certainly isn’t a good substitute for “On earth as it is in heaven” (NKJV). The question could be asked, is Eugene Peterson weaving his own beliefs into this version? I would not recommend The Message to anybody. I actually do not see it as a Bible in fact! We’ve come to a sad day when such works are accepted and published.

    • Wow! Thanks for that Lyn. Some further food for thought. That Romans 15 phrase in The Message is very strange indeed. I’ve been impressed by some of the changes I’ve seen in the TNIV. In preaching through 1 Corinthians at present it has even sometimes been more accurate than the ESV. I find though, regarding your comment, that the NRSV becomes ridiculous in parts when it tries to be gender neutral. But that’s a topic for another day!…

  2. Martin, what are your thoughts on whether translations should be produced by a mix of academia and business, as all of our modern translations are?Some prominent pastors advocate for the KJV because it is the most reliable translation available which is authorised by the church. I’m not convinced that’s a good reason to only use the KJV, but just wanted to know your thoughts.

    http://www.canonwired.com/ask-doug/king-james-version/

    • Hi Simon
      I’m not equipped really to answer that. I guess if the church doesn’t put forward the money (which we don’t), then we have to rely on business for help. But if we said that they have mixed motives, so too may the church. Academics also would have their own agendas and biases. So I guess I don’t mind either way, as long as serious scholarship and effort goes into it and an ACCURATE translation is the end product.

      • Thanks Martin. We’re in agreeance. Accuracy is surely primary. As Paul says in Phillipians, even preaching of the gospel from wrong motives is OK. I suppose we could apply the same principle here.

  3. Robert Oster

    I have not read such a concise, easy-to-follow, honest answer to the question before. Thank you 🙂

  4. Martin, I would be interested in your opinion on the NET Bible.

    • From a brief look, similar to ESV. Not bad, not great. I translated 1 Cor 11 recently, and once again was so impressed by the KJV. The ESV and NET make for a good ‘interpretation’, but do not always literally translate what is in front of them. It staggers me! I just don’t know why it should be so difficult!

  5. Martin, would you say that, for those of us who don’t know Hebrew or Greek, that to own such a work as “The Interlinear Bible – Hebrew-Greek-English” by Jay P. Green, Sr. is good? It has Strong’s Concordance numbers above each word as well.

    • Not sure of that exact interlinear Bible. I think looking at multiple Bible translations does the trick. If they are all the same, then they are translating the Greek or Hebrew right. If they are all fairly different, you know there is a problem and an interlinear Bible might tell you what the straight translation of each word is. I’ve never been a huge fan of interlinear Bible’s though (not sure why?!?).

  6. Martin,
    Why don’t you start translating? It may take while but won’t cost millions of dollars and we’d have a great translation I’m sure, and one that you’re happy with!!!

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