The Problem With Bible Translations

If you think the real issue in biblical translation is linguistic, i.e. being equivalent to the original text vs. adapting the text to the inclusive principles of modern social constructs to just name one issue, you would be wrong. The real issue is theological, what is the actual meaning when going from one language to another; what is the text saying to us and that has to be considered across all of its contexts. Having a friend who used to be Wycliffe Bible translator in New Guinea, I can tell you that the issue goes well beyond academic concerns of mere linguistic equivalence.

How does this affect me in my everyday Christian life you ask? Well the major question any student of the Bible is trying to answer when honestly attempting to fulfill Paul’s command in 2 Timothy 2:15, study to show yourself approved, is what does the text say to me, ask or demand of me, or more mundanely, just mean. That question opens up a veritable can of worms and is the fodder of endless biblical commentaries.

With that in mind, what about the average Christian, what are they supposed to do? It is no mean task. Even in the first century, when Christianity was spreading throughout the Roman Empire, very few if any new believers spoke or read Hebrew/Aramaic, giving them no access to the original biblical sources, even if they had the right to use a scroll, since they likely could not read it.

What they did have was the Septuagint, the first translation of the original biblical text ever attempted, that opened the Hebrew Scriptures to the Greco-Roman world, which included the new Church of Jesus Christ. This fact is significant, especially when you consider that numerous Old Testament quotes in the New Testament text are actually their Septuagint versions, validating its use for the early Church and in some sense validating the concept of using translations as a means of understanding God speaking to His people through his Word.

However, in modern times it isn’t simply a decision between a Greek or Hebrew Old Testament to accompany your Greek New Testament. Since the Canon was closed, the use of translations, the first being the Latin Vulgate, began affecting the teaching and theological ministry of the Church, sometimes in questionable ways. The Reformation coupled with the printing press (their concurrence is no accident) opened the door to the proliferation of the Word in the common languages of the people (German, English, French, etc.) rather than the ecclesiastical language of the Church (Latin or for scholars Greek and Hebrew).

Initially the translations that gained traction and acceptance were created by national churches. For example, the venerable King James Bible was an Anglican, Church of England effort supported by the Crown. That is no longer true. In modern times, Bible translations have gone parachurch and are efforts of publication companies or ministries, both organization and personal (e.g. ,The Message).

What we may have forgotten is there are no Church counsels supporting the proliferating “versions” of the Word. In many ways, God’s Word has become like any other commodity, carrying a caveat emptor tag. It is left up to the individual, albeit with some help from their denomination or home church or authors they have come to trust, to figure out which version(s) of the Word (and sometimes which portions of that version) are the Word to them. This is no mean feat considering that for the English reading world, the biblical search site, Bible Gateway, now lists 21 English versions to search in and they are growing yearly.

What are we ordinary Christians to do? What and who can we trust? How are we to understand what God is saying to us when there are so many competing voices? It is as if the Tower of Babel has descended on the One Word and fragmented it into a plethora of competing voices. This is a real issue, which John Dekker nicely illustrates with a table in his article: Formal Equivalence vs. Dynamic Equivalence.

Matthew 10:22 – “for my name’s sake” (ESV) vs. “because of me” (NIV)
Luke 1:42 – “the fruit of your womb” (ESV) vs. “the child you will bear” (NIV)
Ephesians 5:16 – “redeeming the time” (NKJV) vs. “making the most of every opportunity” (NIV)
1 Peter 1:13 – “gird up the loins of your mind” (NKJV) vs. “prepare your minds for action” (NIV)
1 John 1:1 – “we have an advocate with the Father” (ESV) vs. “we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense” (NIV)

John takes his lead from an article about the translation of a German joke used by Richard Rhodes on the Better Bibles Blog to illustrate the problem of trying to understand what the Word really says to us when we use translations.

This has opened up a completely new arena of thought for me, especially since I am a thinker-preacher-teacher-writer of biblically-based commentary. A new and ongoing prayer must be added to my efforts: May God grant me, and his Church in toto, the wisdom and understanding it needs to navigate this exploding minefield.

Aside: While there is general agreement on most basic Christian doctrines across most of the commonly accepted translations, they do differ in specific details, as the simple table by John Dekker shows and often, the Devil they say, is in the details. In this context, that is more than just an aphorism. The Devil may indeed be in the details, subtly influencing (sometimes not so subtly) a shift of the reference points to his advantage. I never thought I would one day rue the time that I had let my Greek (22 course hours in college) understanding lapse to the degree that I have, rather than pushing it forward to allow me to easily read the NT and Septuagint, but today I feel such a weight on my soul.

8 thoughts on “The Problem With Bible Translations

  1. I know the feeling Bill – about the Greek & Hebrew lapsing. I recently picked up some Bible software that will hopefully facilitate my spending more regular time in the original languages.

    Tied with the questions of linguistics, formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence is the question of hermeneutics.

    hermeneutics: The theory and methodology of interpretation, especially of scriptural text.

    Frequently in theological discussions this focuses on determining the bases for interpretation – which gets into your earlier blog about a priori assumptions. The route I’ve been taking lately is to dive headlong into Ancient History – your old field. 🙂 The more we can know about the original context of when something was written the more context we have to discern what was intended with given texts.

    That does not necessarily mean that God intended for texts to be limited to those contexts, however… 🙂 It does give us a potentially more accurate starting point though.

    Grace and Peace!


  2. One of my concerns is that if not one “jot or tittle” will pass away, meaning that there is significance in the original text beyond even its contextual meaning, what is it that we loose in translations? Yes, we can present the basic gospel, the Jude 3 faith once delivered, from even weak translations. However, Hebrews 5:11-14 makes it clear that is only the beginning.

    Please email about the software you have gotten and let me know what you think of it. Thanks.

  3. Hi Bill,

    Consider me “just another Bill” too so hope I am not being too familiar for a first letter using the informal “Bill” for William.

    Your comment about Bible Gateway listing 21 English versions was enlightening to me–shouldn’t be surprised though because, and in fear of being negative there are “versions” out there for every kind of reader, it’s a wonder we don’t have one for “The Bible for Saints with Athlete’s Feet.” I hope you see where I am coming from. Perhaps the reason for such a proliferation of Bibles (and any books really) because of digital printing, publishing and writing have taken on a very easy access as compared to the involved printing methods of just the past 50 years.

    Yes, I agree with you about the problem being theological, and in fact, our preacher’s sermon a couple weeks ago, “It’s all about God” pretty much sums it up. Elizabeth Elliott’s husband, Addison Leitch once said, “All of our problems are theological problems.”
    This is saying the same thing. Life’s problems must be looked upon in a unique way as Christians; it is how we deal with our problems that is our test or so it seems to me.

    Another very sad commentary (unwritten) about the Scripture is some churches like to think they have a “lock and key” on the Bible and it is their interpretation that is right and everyone else is (simply) wrong.

    Twenty years ago, George Will wrote about Martin Luther’s astounding contribution to Christianity when he had Gutenberg print the Bible in German. “Charles V, Luther’s antagonist, said the German language was…only for speaking to horses. Luther made it speak for God.” And as such, with the Bible in the people’s hands and in his own words, Luther said it in 7 words, “each and all of us are priests.”

    Keep writing!

    Bill Venrick
    Lancaster, Ohio

  4. Bill, I don’t think digital printing is the issue, though it does make preparation of the printing part easier. Some are in it for the money. I think there is a shift in the sense respect for the Word itself. That allows people to liberalize their approach to its use and presentation. This part of the discussion could take a whole new posting.

  5. Since Gutenberg died in 1468 and Luther was born in 1483, it would seem rather strange to make the claim that “Luther had Gutenberg print the Bible in German.”

    Since I’m fairly sure that Will usually gets his facts right, I question Bill Venrick’s memory.

  6. Greetings in Jesus name,

    “Faith cometh by hearing and hearing from the Word of God.” (Romans, 10:17)
    It is really privileged for me to write to your ministry and I pray may Lord bless you abundantly. I am Miss Aliza from Pakistan . Five years before I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Savior and I trust in Him as my rock and try to walk in Him, as the Word of God says don’t be lazy in struggle.
    As I was visiting your site I found that you are doing the work of translation into native languages. I am able to translate the good stuff of you into my native language Punjabi and national language Urdu. There are two purposes to request you the first one are to know the Word of God more deeply and second one to be supportive my family and to run. our Ministry. We will also teach your stuff in our working areas with our people .
    My suggestion for you is to create your material in my language of Urdu and Punjabi also. It will bring lots of blessings of the Word of God for the Pakistani and Indian Urdu and Punjabi speaking people. For that purpose I as a translator will bring your material into Urdu languages and into Punjabi language as well. Although it will take your low expenses as well, as fund for the Word of God to reach out to the deserving people. As a translator I will take the expenses that will be spending just for the Word. I will be looking for your kind words on this my humble request as soon as possible.
    “There is nothing more precious than to read and listen the Word of God into your own language.”
    I hope you will consider me regarding this request.
    In Jesus,
    Miss Aliza


  7. To whom it may concern,
    I visited your Church site, it is really privilege for me to write you with the Will of God. I found that you have awesome and precious work of Lord Jesus Christ, May God bless your Church staff and all precious work. I belong the Christian family. I am able to do work of translation into Urdu and Punjabi, if you have any translation work so please consider for the translation work, i would love to give my service to you church as a translator. Your Church material and Word of God must be reached to unreached people who didn’t understand the English, those people can study and blessed through the Word of God. I hope that Lord Jesus will give the vision of Translation work and all funds. I will do pray to Jesus for this precious work. I will wait your reply.
    In Jesus name,
    rahila farrukh from Pakistan…….

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