Lesson 6 – The Translation of Scripture


Survey Studies in Reformed Theology

Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
by Bob Burridge ©1996, 2006, 2010, 2016


The Translation of Scripture

One of the challenges we face today is that most people
don’t know the languages used in the writing of the Bible.

The Old Testament was written in Hebrew with a few portions in Aramaic (primarily Daniel 2-7 and Ezra 4,6,7). The New Testament was written in Greek during the Koine period when it was the commonly spoken language.

After Israel’s long captivity, most of the Jews did not know the Hebrew language. When Ezra taught God’s word, he and others with him had to explain the sense of what each passage was about. They translated it into the language the people understood at that time.

Nehemiah 8:8, “So they read distinctly from the book, in the Law of God; and they gave the sense, and helped them to understand the reading.”

The New Testament often translates Old Testament texts into Greek.

Sometimes the Books of the New Testament quote from the Septuagint, a commonly used Greek version of the Old Testament at that time. At times they directly translate the Hebrew or Aramaic into Greek. These translations in the New Testament are themselves presented as the authoritative word of God.

There is a “quality of inspiredness” that obviously adheres to good translations to the degree that they accurately represent the words and meaning of the original.

These translated verses are properly referred to in the Bible as Inspired Scriptures, and the Word of God. They are authoritative when they accurately convey the meaning of the originals. Only the original writings in their original languages can be considered infallible and inerrant. But when an inspired verse is translated by another inspired text it’s done inerrantly.

Some question why it’s important to defend inerrant and infallible originals if we don’t have them. Inerrancy and infallibility are teachings that derive from the fact of divine inspiration. That mandates that the original writings were without errors, and that they were perfect. They are God’s word as he superintended the writers to convey exactly what he wanted them to say. These inspired writings are therefore canon. Everything else is to be tested by them.

When we prayerfully and diligently study the text and meaning of the Books of the Bible, we can be confident that underlying what we have before us is a perfect original. God himself has providentially preserved its content so we can say that we know what God has revealed.

There are several approaches to Translation

Some translations attempt to be carefully literal.
Each word and grammatical form is translated with as much direct correspondence with the original as possible. The problem is, there’s no perfect correspondence between any two languages. Purely literal translations will seem stiff trying to transform ancient idioms and cultural references into modern terms while remaining as close to the original words as possible. Good translations in one era become confusing in later times as languages and cultural circumstances change. Early English translations used words and grammar forms completely alien to English speakers today. Old spellings were very different so most modern versions of the old translations have updated spellings.

The Great Bible of 1539 was autorized by King Henry VIII to be used by the Church of England. It was the work of Myles Coverdale but it included spurious portions inserted from the Latin Vulgate.

The Geneva Bible of 1560 was translated by English protestant scholars exiled from England. They gathered in Geneva with John Calvin to produce a careful translation with footnotes by Calvin and others. This was the translation used by the Pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower. It’s the text used by Shakespeare, John Bunyan, John Milton and others in their writings.

The Bishop’s Bible 1568 was produced by the Church of England. It was to replace the Geneva Bible which was too Calvinistic and Presbyterian for them. It has many translational inconsistencies so it went through several revisions.

The well known King James Version of 1611 compared the existing translations with the few Greek and Hebrew texts available at that time. But many of those good words chosen in 1611 have a very different meanings in the 21st century. This is why the “New King James Version” of 1982 was put together.

Examples of a Good Literal approach are: the King James Version, the New King James Version, the English Standard Version, and the early edition of the New American Standard Bible.

Some less literal translations use varying degrees of “dynamic equivalence.”
This method looks for contemporary idioms and expressions that correspond between the languages. It asks, “How would it have been said today?” This involves more interpretive information. This can sometimes obscure quotes from and similarities between passages. Dynamically equivalent translations read better, but may limit possible interpretations to those in the translator’s mind.

There are varying degrees of correspondence in this general approach. Some try to be very faithful to the ideas being expressed in the original, while others take great liberties to achieve ease of reading.

Examples include: the New International Version, the Good News Bible, and the Living Bible. The Living Bible often takes paraphrase to an extreme.

Since translation depends to a degree upon the assumptions and expectations of the translator, having a knowledge of the theological positions of those working on the version is helpful. An Arminian Theology is clearly promoted in the Living Bible. A liberal slant is seen in parts of the Revised Standard Version, A conservative view of the Bible is evident in the New International Version even though it tends to be less literal.

Compare for example the more literal translation of the NASB with the dynamic translation of the New Life Version in Romans 1:13.

(NASB) “I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that often I have planned to come to you (and have been prevented so far) so that I may obtain some fruit among you also, even as among the rest of the Gentiles.”

(New Life Version) “brothers, many times I have wanted to visit you. Something has kept me from going until now. I have wanted to lead some of you to Christ also, as I have done in other places where they did not know God.”

There are some helpful things to keep in mind
as we use Bible Translations

Those who do not know the original languages of the Bible are wise to consult a variety of translations. They can be compared to see where differences occur. That can show the broader meanings of the words in the original language. It can also expose the prejudice or convictions of the translators. Where there are substantial differences you can look into why they are not the same.

It’s best to begin with one or more of the more literal translations (like the New King James Version, New American Standard Version, or the English Standard Verson). The more dynamically equivalent versions are best used only as commentaries on the passage.

There is a wide variety of translations available on the Internet without charge. Most search engines will bring up a huge library of versions on any verse or passage you type in.

Ultimately you have to get input from someone with a good knowledge of the original languages. Most conservative denominations still require Pastors to have Seminary credit in both Hebrew and Greek. There are good commentaries, inter-linear Bibles, and English dictionaries of the biblical languages. Some computer programs allow you to click on words in an English text to find out what the original words were and meant. Some include good dictionaries and commentaries too. Students often use the Strong’s Concordance or similar helps to look up the meanings of the original words. We will say more about that in the lesson about interpreting the Scriptures.

We should be like the Bereans. In Acts 17:11 it says, “These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.”

Jesus said, “You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness of Me;” (John 5:39).

The results of reconstructing the original text, translation, and interpretation are neither infallible, nor inerrant. When we differ, we who love truth should be driven to engage in a better study of God’s word. We need to humbly identify where we diverge from one another, and where we use the same passages of God’s word in a different way. The Bible is always the only final standard against which what we believe must be measured.

The Grammatical Task has three basic areas
to consider when translating.

1. Lexicography is the study of the meaning of words.
One of the first goals in the study of any particular text is to determine the meanings of the words used. Definitions are dynamic. Meanings change with time. Rather than having just one narrow meaning, words often have spheres of meaning. They come from special uses of the words in certain cultures and moments in history. The exegete of Scripture should consider all the possible meanings of the words in the text he is studying.

Words can take on idiomatic meanings unique to a particular topic, place, and time. They can also become attached to figurative images that convey more information than the word itself provides.

The interpreter needs to carefully eliminate the meanings inconsistent with the context.

There are several tools that help the interpreter with this task:
– Concordances show all the occasions where words are found in Scripture. The best indicator of the meaning of a word is the way it’s used in each context. English concordances of particular versions of the Bible are of limited help because the same English word isn’t always used when translating a particular Greek or Hebrew word. Sometimes words take on different shades of meaning by their grammatical form not reflected in English.

The best concordances are based on the original languages. The Englishman’s Concordances are based on Hebrew and Greek words, but show the verses in English. You don’t need to know the original languages to use them. The Strong’s Concordance has become a favorite since it indexes the original words by a numbering system. But it’s based on the words translated into English, which are not the same in every tanslation, and the same Hebrew or Greek words are not always translated by the same English word.

– Lexicons and dictionaries list the various meanings and uses of a word. The student of Scripture needs to keep in mind that lexicons and dictionaries are not inspired by God. They are the products of fallible human scholars, not the infallible Holy Spirit. Their definitions are only a summary of a sampling of uses of a particular word selected by the editor.

Good lexicons will catalog a full range of the meanings of a word. They also give examples showing each meaning of a word in a sample context. Some show biblical uses of the words, along wit their uses in contemporary literature of the writer’s era and culture.

– Word study and idiom books include articles about the meanings of words. They are likely to be strongly influenced by the theology of the editors, but can be extremely helpful, particularly if contexts are given where you can see how the word was actually used in other places.

– Synonym studies are helpful to aid us in comparing similar words. It helps identify the uniqueness, nuances, areas of overlap and individual flavors of each word. Idiom studies analyze special localized meanings unique to specific places and times.

2. Accidence is the study of the grammatical forms of words.
Words often take on spellings, endings, and prefixes to show how they relate with the other words in a sentence. It helps to determine if a noun is the subject or the object of the thought. It’s important to know if a word is singular or plural, masculine, feminine or neuter. Words need to be recognized as verbs, substantives, particles, adjectives, adverbs, and so on. Verbs have a particular tense or mood attached to them by their grammatical form.

The tools that help with this task are a bit more technical. They include grammar books that show word forms and their meanings. They explain the way various kinds of words are changed to indicate their use in the sentence. It’s basic to know your own language well, and the rules of linguistics that apply generally to all languages. We should also understand the fundamental differences that distinguish the various groups of languages.

It’s hard to benefit from Greek or Hebrew grammars without some formal training. There are books and computer applications that help those who only know the languages casually. But there is no substitute for a thorough working knowledge of the languages themselves.
– Grammars for beginners will explain the basic forms.
– Advanced grammars analyze the forms in more detail and show more specialized uses of the forms. The best ones also explain the cultural thought behind things such as verb tenses. Grammatical forms have different implications in Hebrew, Greek, and English.

Analytical lexicons and some computer or web-based programs identify the forms of each word found in Scripture. They should be used with caution because they’re usually not complete as to the possible meanings of each form. They can hinder students of a language from learning to recognize the forms on his own, and gain real proficiency.

3. Syntax studies the relationships between the words in the immediate context.
After the grammatical forms are identified the information needs to be put together to determine the meaning of the phrase, sentence, and paragraph. Word order and the combination of the various grammatical forms narrow down the possible meanings of a text. It can be useful to diagram a sentence using the symbols and forms familiar to students of English grammar. The tools used in the study of syntax include the grammars and idiom books described before.

These tools and helps are easily available today in books, on the internet, and in computer applications. Often search engines can turn up web-based articles on words and grammar forms, but not all are done by careful scholars without a theological prejudice. We need to be very careful to break down what verses directly say and remain cautions about our interpretations.

That’s our next study: The Interpretation of Scripture.

(Bible quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (1988 edition) unless otherwise noted.)

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