What actually *is* the Bible? (pt 3 – Bible Translations)

At the very start of this series I said we’d answer three questions:

  • What actually is the Bible itself (the “canon of scripture”)?
    • Where does it come from?
    • How is it in English?
  • What is a Bible translation (what we have in English today)?
    • Does our choice of Bible translation matter?
    • Is there one “perfect” Bible translation out there?
  • How do we defend against controversy?
    • “That’s not a real Bible because it’s not translation X
    • “That translation is based on outdated language and culture”
    • …etc.

In the first two parts we covered (at a very high level!) “what is the canon of scripture” and touched upon how it has come to be in English. (Well, how it came to be in human language full-stop!)

At the end of part 2 we just started to dip our toes into the question of Bible translations. We established that scripture is divinely inspired and was originally recorded in Greek and Hebrew (with a little sprinkling of Aramaic), and hinted that when translating these original (or as we’ll see: “near original”) texts into modern English (or French, Yembi-Yembi, etc), quality of translation matters.

Remember – God’s message to us is not in the literal original words – but in what the words mean. We have different words because the meaning of words matter. So our concern is to ensure that what we have on our shelves today (assuming we’re not fluent in NT Greek and OT Hebrew!) correctly carries the meaning of God’s word.

And that’s a complex subject.

What is in a Bible translation?

The obvious answer to this question is “God’s word” 😉 Well that’s true – (or at least should be) – but I’m looking for a slightly more technical and “practical” answer on this one.

Paul wrote a letter to the church(es) at Rome. He wrote it, a very long time ago (we’re counting in millennia). Given highly redundant and geo-distributed digital storage systems didn’t exist until the late 1990’s AD, whatever ink Paul wrote with has long since perished into dust!

When we translate scripture into modern languages, we’re looking at copies of the original. In fact, we’re probably looking at copies of copies of copies – and there’s plenty of them. According to the Gospel Coalition (and petty of other citations agree) there are in excess of 5800 copies of Greek manuscripts for the New Testament alone – and those are just the hand-written ones! And dating of these many copies and fragments of copies puts some of the earliest back to within a few decades of the originals.

Compare that to Caesar’s writings for example (which are largely taken as absolute in reliability by the academic world), the earliest copies only date back to within a century of him – and those which deal with his actual words? 900+ years removed. And we’re talking about low-tens of copies – not thousands.

So while we don’t have originals, we have a statistically and scientifically sufficient corpus to say with confidence that – except perhaps the odd word – we definitely know what the original prophets said and apostles wrote.

Oh and for the Old Testament? Trust me when I say the Jews have a history of meticulous record keeping…

Occasionally when translating scripture, at some point a newer and “more reliable” fragment or copy of the originals are unearthed. Sometimes these reenforce something we already took to be true. On very rare occasions, it pulls something we’ve taken for granted into question. When that happens, the older fragments trump (unless there’s a really good reason). So you’ll see footnotes for texts such as Mark 16:9-20 – where most modern English translations warn that while the facts recorded are true – this may not be originally stated by Mark himself.

This process of “revising” modern translations is a job never finished. Sometimes the English language evolves too (requiring a change in translation output)! The ESV alone for example was first published in 2001 – using the 1971 RSV as it’s base. That not only gave opportunity to revisit (and revise translation of) all the old manuscripts used for the RSV, but also allowed the introduction of any fragments etc found since 1971.

In 2007 the ESV further revised their translation, changing some 500 words.

Another 500 words across 275 verses were again revised in 2011.

In August 2016 “the ESV Permanent Text Edition” was published (with with another 52 words changed) … and a month later the ESV team U-turned on the permanency … 😉 (Well full kudos for them for being honest on their mistake.)

To really drive the importance of the ESV’s decision to remain responsive to ever-better translations, let’s look at Mark 1:2:

We can see when comparing the NKJV (which is based on fractionally less reliable “younger” manuscript fragments for Mark 1:2) reads “the Prophets”. Presumably one of the scribes when copying Mark’s gospel some thousand or more years ago assumed that “Isaiah the prophet” was a mistake – given Mark went on to quote both Isaiah and Malachi.

The ASV had slightly older manuscripts and fragments available, which led them to translate the (presumably more accurate) rendering of “Isaiah the prophet”. You can see though why one would hesitate to make that decision, given the apparent self-contradiction.

What theories and practices of Bible translation exist?

Again assuming we simplify the spectrum of theories to a single dimension, we have on the two far extremes “Formal equivalence” and on the other “Free”, with “Dynamic–” or “Functional equivalence” in the middle. (The names vary depending on what textbook you read.)

On the extreme end of “formal equivalence” everything is translated “word for word” – regardless of how “readable” the end result is. A poor illustration of this theory might be the French sentence “Il fait un temps de chien!” – literally (or “formally”) translated – “It’s dog weather!”

The sentence is idiomatic – and we have a functional (or dynamic) equivalence in English. “It’s raining cats and dogs.” Finally a free translation might be “It was a wet day.”

FormalIt’s dog weather!
DynamicIt’s raining cats and dogs.
FreeIt was a wet day.

Now, putting my poor French illustration to one side, we can also find plenty of functional/formal differences in scripture (here’s three):

  • Romans 12:20: (lack of sense in English)
    • Literally “coals of fire” (KJV) (formal)
    • Meaning “burning coals” (NIV) (functional)
  • Genesis 31:35: (euphemism)
    • Literally “the manner of women is upon me” (ESV) (formal)
    • Meaning “I am having my monthly period” (HCSB) (functional)
  • Genesis 18:11: (euphemism)
    • Literally “it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women” (ASV) (formal)
    • Meaning “Sarah had passed the age of childbearing” (HCSB) (functional-euphemistic)
    •  or “Sarah had stopped having her monthly periods” (GNB) (functional)

But we should note that this “one-dimensional” spectrum is a slight simplification of the reality. Most translations will declare themselves as “functionally equivalent” or “formally translated”, yet compromise depending on context… take for example the Greek word σάρκα (flesh) in the ESV, comparing 1 Corinthians 1:26 (ESV) and 1 Corinthians 6:16:

1:26 –
“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly (σάρκα) standards”

6:16 – “Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh (σάρκα).’”

So which translation method is best? Well between functional and formal (I’ll come back to free momentarily), if we’re serious about delving into the text – formal makes us work harder, but for hidden benefits we can’t reap elsewhere. That said functional (or dynamic) translations can be a great way to get a high-level understanding of a passage (and for kids or adults who struggle with reading comprehension), and sometimes, I’ll risk arguing ;-), sometimes they can provide what is in my opinion “better” translations:

Hebrew wording: (Genesis 3:30) “Be built from her”…

NIV (functional / dynamic / “thought-for-thought”):
build a family through her

ESV (formal / word-for-word):
have children through her

For Genesis 3:30 I’d argue the NIV has handled the translation best – it’s kept formally close to the sense of the word (the idea of being built from), while translating it in a way that reads well in English.

Or Hebrew wording: (Psalm 41:3) “turn all of his bed“…

NIV (functional / dynamic / “thought-for-thought”):
restores them from their bed of illness

ESV (formal / word-for-word):
restore him to full health

And finally there are occasions where there’s just no “right answer” – at least, nobody today knows what the right answer is!

Romans 3:22 carries more than some translation complexity – and as a Bible reader or student we can only see that by consulting commentaries or comparing a variety of translations (both of which are good practices, especially comparing versions). The specific Greek word in question here is πιστεως (pisteos – faith), and the difficulty is in knowing whether the faith is of or in Christ:

through faith in Jesus Christ
by faith of Jesus Christ
through faith in Jesus Christ**Or through the faith of Jesus Christ
through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ**Or “faith in Christ.”
through faith in Jesus Christ**Or through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ
through faith in* Jesus Christ*Or through the faithfulness of
through faith in Jesus Christ

Another curious card to throw onto the table of debate around functional vs formal is “well does scripture give us any guidance?”. Well we can certainly look at how Paul translates some Old Testament texts when he quotes them, and at least a couple of times – Paul chooses a more functional translation (but I wouldn’t go drawing any conclusions on the NIV vs ESV based on this!):

Isaiah 52:7:
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news
c.f. Romans 10:15:
How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!

Psalm 36:1:
there is no fear of God before his eyes.
c.f. Romans 3:10:
There is no fear of God before their eyes.

Will you hurry up and deal with “free” translations now?!

Yes, yes, OK. I’ve said several times that I’ll “come back to free translation theory in a bit”. Let’s deal with it now.

I’ll be honest at this point and say my personal recommendation would be to avoid “free” translations. My argument for this is that where the rules of translation are lacking or even non-existent (which well describes most “free” translations), there is increased opportunity for accidental error.

In translating Romans 8:29 for example, both formal and dynamic translation theories restrict us to translate either the words used or the sense of the words. A free translation however is allowed to make a full-blown interpretation, and rephrase what Paul said based on the translator’s own theological convictions.

Thus we can understand how the controversies of predestination have found their way into some free translations:

KJVFor whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.
ESVFor those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
NLTFor God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.
GNTThose whom God had already chosen he also set apart to become like his Son, so that the Son would be the first among many believers.
MSGGod knew what he was doing from the very beginning. He decided from the outset to shape the lives of those who love him along the same lines as the life of his Son. 
TLBFor from the very beginning God decided that those who came to him—and all along he knew who would—should become like his Son, so that his Son would be the First, with many brothers.

Now this isn’t the time or forum to discuss predestination at length – but I hope we can all agree that there’s a risk (not just with predestination!) of interpretation being taken out of the Christian’s hands and certain doctrinal stances being subtly pedalled when free translations are read.

My question isn’t whether the free translations are correct or not, but my statement is that the question of what Paul meant should be left up to the reader to investigate and prayerfully consider.

Next up… kidneys! Let’s talk about that.

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