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Posts Tagged ‘translation’

gideons bible drawer

Short answer: yes.

Longer answer: There are at least three important issues here:

  1. The Word of God versus the World.
  2. Original writings of the prophets and apostles versus existing manuscripts.
  3. Existing manuscripts versus translations.

1. Is the Word of God – every single word – true? Even when the World, our cultures, our hearts, say the opposite? Yes. The simplest proof of this is to look at how Jesus handled the Scriptures (see DeYoung’s talk below). Obviously we need to be sensitive to metaphors and poetry and sarcasm and personal style and all the diversity of normal human language that you see in the Bible but at the end of the day it comes down to whether these are (all) precisely the words that God wanted to have written down. This is the clearest and most basic point at which liberalism attacks the Faith – we are told that ‘the Bible writers were culturally conditioned’ or that ‘inerrancy is a modern idea made up by fundamentalists’ – but the question at stake is the nature of Christ himself. Was he culturally conditioned? Did he get things wrong? Was/is he not God? Is God a bad communicator?

Let us watch out for a coming wave of liberalism. Or perhaps more subtly a shift towards a quiet functional liberalism – not intellectually-thought-out liberalism – more just skipping over difficult passages, not preaching any more form certain bits of the Bible that no longer fit with our 21st century culture or our personal life choices.

2. But what do we mean by ‘every single word’? Traditionally inerrancy has been understood in relation to the original manuscripts – sometimes called the ‘autographs’ – the first version in ink and papyrus. But no original manuscripts actually exist. Which is not surprising since they were written on perishable materials 2000 years ago or more. There are no original manuscripts for other ancient works of that period either. So do we have a problem? Has the text of the Bible been corrupted over time like a giant game of Chinese whispers?

Daniel Wallace brilliantly addresses these issues in “Is what we have now what they wrote then?” (available in slightly different forms as audio, text or video). It’s very helpful stuff from a worldclass NT Greek scholar and solid evangelical. Worth reading/listening/watching it all but what I found most helpful was his pointing out that it is not really like Chinese whispers as we normally play it at all. This is Chinese whispers where you don’t whisper you write it down and very carefully the next person copies. And there is not just one line of people, there are multiple lines going out like the branches of a tree. And those at the end of the line can compare not only the text that has come out the end of each branch/line but also plenty of texts from various points along a number of the branches, going back in some cases to texts only two or three removed from the original. Isn’t that great! We can reconstruct the original text with an incredibly high degree of accuracy. We can have great confidence that what we have now is what they wrote then.

3. But most of us are not great at reading Greek and Hebrew. And that’s fine. The Bible itself is very happy about it being translated (see Nehemiah 8). Before the incarnation the Scriptures had already been translated into Greek – a world language in preparation for a world mission. For Islam there is only one holy language but the God of the Bible wants the good news preached in every tongue under heaven (see Acts 2). The (Jewish) apostles often quoted from Greek version(s) of the Scriptures as they preached and wrote letters to the new churches.

The tricky issue is that there have been, from the earliest days until today, different types of translation ranging from those that are more word-for-word through to those that seek to communicate the sense while being quite relaxed about choice of language and idioms. The word-for-word translations are emphasising faithfulness and closeness to the original text but tend to be harder work to read. The dynamic equivalence translations at the other end emphasise communication – they are very easy to read but a few steps removed from the original. Other versions sit somewhere in the middle, trying to find the optimal balance between faithfulness and communication.

spectrum bible translations

On one hand we might argue that it is the meaning/ideas of God’s Word that are most important and that is what we should translate (the dynamic equivalence view). On the other hand it’s important to recognise that those at the more dynamic/paraphrased end of the spectrum (The Message etc.) are making a lot of interpretative decisions for you. In some ways they are more like reading a commentary or a devotional on the text. That’s fine so long as you know that’s what it is. Always be suspicious if a preacher puts a huge amount of weight on a turn of phrase that he found in The Message. The more word-for-word versions have tried to make as few interpretative decisions as possible, leaving us the reader to decide (with God’s help) what the text means. So while a more dynamic, looser version can be very helpful if you want to read through big chunks at a sitting, a more formal, tighter version (e.g. ESV) will be safest if you are preparing for a sermon. The NIV is a good compromise for everyday use (cf. the recent Neno Kiswahili version from Biblica which works on a similar translation philosophy to the NIV).

It’s a bit more complicated than this spectrum diagram suggests though. Sometimes the ESV does actually make interpretative decisions and doesn’t consistently translate  a Greek word with the same English one. And friends who know Hebrew well point out that the NIV sometimes does a better job of rendering an OT verse than the ESV (e.g. Hosea 11:12). If you want to follow up some of these translation issues see the references below. The bottom line is that basically most of the mainstream contemporary versions are fine. They are not a demonic conspiracy to corrupt the Word of God. They are the product of groups of godly translators doing their best to translate the best manuscripts into a faithful readable version. A good preacher who has done his homework well and knows the big point of the passage and is trying to communicate that big idea will be able to preach from any Bible he’s handed.

Don’t rip up your NIV. Read it. Enjoy it. Live it.

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