Are you ready for a nerdy, insider-Christian anecdote? My wife, Sara, and I loved going to LifeWay Christian Bookstore when we were dating in college. Our collegiate faith community, or at least our experience of it, resembled a “hunter/gatherer” society. Except it wasn’t wild game or berries that we were after, but information. To the victor went the spoils. The more you knew about the Bible, God, church history, contemporary Christian music and church trends, the more respect you had. These aren’t bad things, but I wish in retrospect that there had been more emphasis on actually experiencing God, building spiritual habits like Sabbath, and mutual vulnerability in relationships. Anyway, that’s a whole other blog!
So, walking into the information shrine that was a LifeWay Christian Bookstore was intoxicating. I wanted to consume it all. No mortal could possibly keep up with the deluge of new publications freshly lining the shelves with each visit, but that was fine - I prided myself on my ability to sort out the wheat from the chaff. What always tempted me to draw out my wallet quicker than a revolver in an old Western duel were the new Bibles. I’m not sure what it was about them - some were so beautiful, ornate in their design. Others promised to have invaluable study and commentary notes in the margins. Still yet, others were themed around a young philosophy major’s theological arena of choice - apologetics. Insta buy.
Needless to say, I’ve collected a ton of Bibles over the years. And part of that journey was the realization that there are so many different translations, each promising to be the best, modernized, research-based edition of the inspired scriptures. If I really wanted to know what God was saying and become acquainted with God’s truths, I needed to get THIS version. Incredible marketing, Zondervan.
I was never too troubled by the differences in the translations. I had a tacit trust that the translators had a commitment to upholding the same message across the versions. And frankly, I never really read-through these various versions in their entirety, only the English Standard Version (ESV) received that honor from me.
But then, I arrived at seminary. Everything changed. Despite Talbot School of Theology’s loyalty to traditional conceptions of inerrancy, inspiration and other doctrines of scripture, the course content that dealt with translation and interpretation eroded my once unwavering confidence in the process as a whole. Or more charitably, it generated a host of questions, that up until then I was largely ignorant of, and that I am still sorting through now.
Here’s one: How can I trust that the English words on the page of my version, and the sense that I bring to the table to understand them, accurately capture the intentions of the Biblical author? This, and other ways of articulating this question, hit on so many aspects of the disciplines of biblical translation and interpretation. It can be overwhelming at times. One such aspect is the philosophy of translation-interpretation. I hyphenate these words because you can’t really translate anything without doing some interpretative work. Thus, you need a philosophy or guiding principle of how to do that interpretive work in your translation effort.
Do you take the manuscript copies from Hebrew or Greek and do a word-for-word translation - that is, finding the best English word(s) for each ancient language word? Or, do you figure out the meaning from the ancient language, and then articulate that into the best English phrases or sentences, without feeling compelled to follow the exact wording? These are in tension, and the plethora of translations out there fall somewhere on the spectrum between these two philosophies.
The former allows you to feel a bit more confident that the translators weren’t adding or subtracting items from the text. Each word is represented more directly. Yet, this is usually at the cost of readability and understandability. The cultural/historical gap between author and reader is more maintained in the translation. Here lie the KJV, NKJV, ESV, and NASB versions among many others.
The above latter option improves readability and understandability; the ideas are communicated in plain English. Yet, the more studious among us find out on further inspection that not every word seems to get a clear representation. Heavier, or another layer of, interpretive work is done for you. The person who wants to own more of the interpretive process may not love that it is done for them by the translator. Classic examples are the NIV, NLT, and even more so the Message Bible.
In either case, the significance of the words for the original audience and what it means for our own theologizing today is left unanswered from just reading a translation “at face value”. I don’t mean to suggest we need to scrap or even dramatically alter our views of inerrancy or inspiration. Maybe - it would depend on what notions you build into those words - but, it does mean that we should be careful not to erect enormous theological structures on the foundation of a single, English translation. As such, most scholars across the theologically “liberal / conservative” spectrum recommend using multiple translations for study of the Bible - I mean by that the endeavor of trying to determine the author’s intended meaning of the passage.
To get into more of the details of the trickiness of translation and interpretation, check out our most recent episode of the podcast Which Bible is Best? You can watch it on Youtube or listen on your favorite podcatcher.
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