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, Gods 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.