And yet … many if not most scholars would say, perhaps slightly provocatively (or rather, you may think it is slightly provocative!), that there is no such thing as uninterpreted truth. Whatever truths are in scripture come to us through someone’s interpretation, whether it’s John Calvin, Billy Graham, or Tom Wright. Or even, simply our own interpretation: we read it and we decide that such-and-such is what it’s “obviously” saying. Yes, the Bible is our authority for life and faith, but generally that means the authority that we grant to someone’s interpretation of it, whether that’s our denomination, or tradition, or the Bible scholars that we like the most.
In my last blog, I talked a bit about the difference between what “the Bible says …” and what the Bible means by what it says (including, why it said it at the time) and how those are not automatically the same thing. We can expand this a little further. Logically, we ought always to start with what a verse or passage would have meant to the people who wrote it and what it would have meant to the people who originally heard it (almost always it would have been “heard” rather than “read”). There is a basic principle of good biblical interpretation that says “it cannot mean now, something that it could not possibly have meant then.” This is not to say that the Holy Spirit cannot speak to us through a verse or passage now in ways that may not have occurred to those original writers and their audiences; this is the dynamic role of the Spirit. However, we should not confuse the meaning of a text with how God may speak meaningfully to me through that text. In the latter situation, we judge the validity of what we feel God may be saying through its consonance with scripture as a whole rather than its consonance with that text’s original meaning.
Once upon a time (well, around a century or more ago) when people spoke of “the Bible says” they had in mind the King James Version. There were of course a few others around, too, but it’s only since the mid-twentieth-century onwards that we have had a proliferation of Bible translations. On the (highly-recommended) biblegateway.com website, one can view and compare a verse in over 60 versions (just in English), of which by my quick reckoning 50 have been published post-1900 and most of those post-1950. To think of the Bible as speaking authoritatively is made much more simple when one only has one version of the Bible to refer to. However, the multiplicity of translations draws attention to a couple of things. One, that whenever we now say, “the Bible says …” we need also to ask “which Bible says …?” and two, every Christian is now aware that there is such a thing as “biblical interpretation” and cannot avoid it. Of course, some will say “Well I think I will just stick to the KJV, because that’s the oldest one so it must be closest to the original.” Which I assume they deduce by a process of logic based on (a) its age and (b) the fact that it sounds the most old-fashioned. In reality, of course, almost the very opposite is the case. The manuscripts and knowledge of the ancient languages available to the translators of the King James was very, very limited compared to what is available for translators today.
All this is saying that the act of translating is in and of itself an act of interpretation. Translators cannot avoid their own personal (and doctrinal) perspectives on what the Apostle Paul meant when he used a term. For example, the word that is usually translated “justification.” Or whether, when he used the word for “atonement,” he was thinking of “propitiation” or “expiation,” since it can mean either. (Propitiation means averting wrath by assuaging anger with a gift, whereas expiation means cleansing or taking away). These kinds of questions arise partly by reason of the Bible we’re reading being in English, while the texts that are being translated are in ancient Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic, and partly because of the cultural gap between today’s world and the biblical world. Quite aside from the language issues, we have to deal with the worldview (what people in Bible times thought was “obvious” about life, the universe and everything), their idioms, the backgrounds to their circumstances at the time, and so on, all of which have an impact upon the meaning that would have been shared between original writer and original audience.
Nowadays, if we read a newspaper and it is talking about “lockdown” or “social distancing” we would find it strange if they added “What we mean by ‘lockdown’ and by ‘social distancing’ is …” because author and audience share a common understanding already. It’s obvious what those words are “pointing us to.” (This is called the sign-theory of language — wherein words serve as signposts, with the writer or speaker pointing the reader or hearer to something that the word signifies for both parties, in a kind of shared-shorthand. We read or hear a certain word and we picture a certain thing).
We have this difficulty when we approach the Bible; other extant literature from the same era may not provide us with the answers. One example of that would be how ancient world sacrifices were thought to be efficacious in dealing with sin — we simply don’t know what they thought, presumably because it was so “obvious” that no-one bothered to write it down for future generations.
So, a Bible translation unavoidably requires acts of interpretation. How then does this help the average reader to know which version is “right”? Well, generally, of course, it really doesn’t matter that much. Most biblical stories and narratives can be read and grasped well enough in most versions. The problem mostly comes when an untrained reader is wanting to use a text to “teach” something from it and is relying on (their understanding of) a certain English word or phrase (in a certain version) to assert or support that meaning or teaching. Here I’m afraid it’s a case of caveat emptor — “let the buyer beware”! A classic example of that is misreadings — thanks to the King James Version, or rather, thanks to the way that certain English words in that version come across today, with their “signposting” meanings having shifted — by Word-Faith preachers (health-and-wealth, prosperity-gospel folks) to support their false doctrines.
The reason that we can’t say a particular version is “right” is because only the original in the original language would be “right” … and unfortunately, even that is the wrong question to be asking! That’s because there is (and never has been) any such “original.” Texts went through processes of copying, editing and arranging on the part of multiple authors and scribes (copyists) over many centuries. Some evangelical statements of faith assert the “inerrancy” of the “original manuscripts” (or, “autographs”) which — while it’s understandable, in their strong desire to hold scripture in the highest regard as the Word of God — is technically nonsense, because (a) no such “original manuscripts” exist and (b) they never have done. The many, many versions that translators work from today are all copies of copies of copies, and, there are textual variations in them. Not highly material variations, in the overall scheme of things, but variations nonetheless. It appears God did not want us to have “originals” — or at least, that he did not want us to base our faith on them. Perhaps because of the danger of idolising them. It seems that he did not want us to think of what the phrase ‘the Word of God’ means and requires (for it to be the Word of God) in those terms.
When Bible translators set out on a translation project, there are two basic approaches they have a choice of following. One is a “word-for-word” (or “formal equivalence”) approach and the other is a “thought-for-thought” (or, “dynamic equivalence”) approach. Strictly speaking, no version is all one or the other, certainly not at the “word-for-word” end of the spectrum, since e.g. the order of words in the original is often not the order we would follow in English and nor does the original necessarily include certain connecting words that English needs for a sentence to make sense today. Both translation approaches are aiming to convey “the meaning,” but from different directions, for a different readership. Decisions need to be made either way. For example, does one stick to an original idiom or catchphrase or illustration, which may be incomprehensible to the untrained reader, or update it into an equivalent idiom or catchphrase or illustration that we’d use today? Which approach will be most helpful to today’s reader in grasping what (we think) the writer was originally trying to say? How much of a premium does one place on “accuracy” versus “readability” (those words are in inverted commas because neither can be applied in an absolute, either-or, sense).
Until the middle of the last century, all translations were essentially following the “word-for-word” (or “formal equivalence”) approach. To understand the translation philosophy (and at times, doctrinal philosophy) that underlies a particular version, read the publisher’s notes that are usually at the beginning in a print copy. Or the ‘Version Information’ on biblegateway.com. Most versions fall within that spectrum: the NASB, NKJV and ESV, for example, are at the “word-for-word” end; the NLT, CEB and NIRV are at the “thought-for-thought” end. The NIV and NRSV sit somewhere in the middle. Be aware that (a) the translators of the NKJV included in their brief to “retain the purity and stylistic beauty of the original” wherever they felt it was possible, (b) the ESV comes from a Reformed direction, if that matters to you, one way or the other, and (c) the NIRV uses deliberately short sentences and simpler words to assist those who may find reading more challenging.
Be aware (and at times, beware) of single-scholar personal translations (such as the so-called “Passion Translation”), since the checks and balances inherent in having a translation team of 50 or 100 scholars are inevitably not there. That said, scholars such as N. T. Wright and David Bentley Hart should by no means be ignored, depending on the passage and the subject, but keep it in mind. Finally, we have the ultimate in “thought-for-thought” approaches, which are not even on the spectrum of translations! These are the “paraphrases” — notably, Eugene Peterson’s The Message, which (as they describe it themselves) is not a study Bible, but rather a “reading Bible.” “The original books of the Bible were not written in formal language. The Message tries to recapture the Word in the words we use today.”
Personally, depending on the passage and subject, and my audience and purpose, I will look at and/or cite a number of versions, but typically the NASB, the NIV and the NLT. Again depending on the subject and audience, I will also look at the Hebrew and the Greek.