February 21, 2021 - Translation

Audio file of this program

How do we know that the Bible has been correctly translated? Let me begin by correcting a common but mistaken belief. Some think that the Bible was translated from Hebrew into Greek, then from Greek into Latin, and then from Latin into English, a chain of translation that could scramble the meaning at any point along the way. No, today’s Bible versions all go straight back to the original languages: Hebrew for the OT, Greek for the NT. The only value of the Latin Bible and the Greek version of the OT for us is that they give us snapshots of what the Bible they had looked like in 280 BC, when the Greek OT was done, or in 400 AD, when the Latin Bible was done.

 

Our Bibles go straight back to the original languages, based on the best available copies we have (we’ll talk about that next time). The translators who did the KJV used the best scholarship they had back in 1611. We have access to earlier copies than what they had, and maybe we know a little bit more about the languages than they did. But the only 2 disadvantages I see in the KJV are: 1. Sometimes it is archaic in its English. In the KJV, Paul tells the Corinthians to eat whatever is sold in the “shambles” – today, we would say “meat market.” Or it will say “wax” when we would say “grow,” or say “meat” when it means food or grain. 2. Sometimes it is too literal. In the KJV, Paul says he yearns for the Philippians literally with all the “bowels” of Christ Jesus; we would say “compassion.” A translation called the New KJV can help us overcome these difficulties.

People ask me what my favorite Bible translation is. I don’t have one particular favorite. They are all reasonably accurate the vast majority of the time, and even where I disagree, God has left us very little room for misunderstanding what we must believe and do, as far as what God has actually said (sometimes God leaves us “wiggle room” where 2 of us can disagree and both be right). The differences between translations are often equally acceptable. The same Greek that says “forbearing one another” can just as easily be translated “putting up with one another” – one is just as accurate as the other. Most translation differences are just issues of style or wording; the meaning is the same.

 

But not all English Bibles are translations. Some of them are paraphrases, where the Bible has been reworded less literally according to someone’s opinion of what it means, to make it easier to read or understand. That can be very helpful, but I always want to then go back to a more literal translation to compare with what the Bible writer actually said. One of today’s most popular paraphrases is called The Message by Eugene Peterson. Instead of “Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God,” The Message has Paul say in Romans 12:1, “Take your everyday, ordinary life – your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life – and place it before God as an offering.” I always want to have a more literal translation handy when I read a paraphrase. My favorite plain-language version is the New Living Translation, which takes out a lot of the opinion from the old Living Bible (which was a paraphrase), updates the language, and makes it into an honest-to-goodness translation.

 

How do we know what words mean in the Bible? Often, what words mean is determined by how they are used in a particular situation. The Greek verb parakaleō means literally “to call alongside.” Sometimes it means “comfort.” Sometimes it means “encourage.” Sometimes it means “beg” or “urge” or “beseech” or even “exhort.” It all depends. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” “Comfort one another with these words.” “I beseech you therefore, brethren.” “And with many other words did he testify and exhort: Save yourselves from this crooked generation!” You see how whether we translate “beg,” “pray,” “beseech,” or “plead” is simply a matter of preference or style, while “comfort” may fit better in a situation where the verse talks about helping someone in sadness or pain.

As we read the Bible, it helps if we happen to know that the Hebrew word for “earth” can also mean “land” or even “ground.” In the first verse of Genesis, the Hebrew word eretz means Planet Earth as opposed to the heavens. In Genesis 12:1, it means “land” – God tells Abraham to go to the “land” that God will show him, obviously meaning another country rather than another planet. In Genesis 23:15, “land” means a piece of property that Abraham buys to bury his wife, and in Genesis 18:2, it means the ground (Abraham bows “to the ground”). So when this word is used in the account of Noah’s flood, all 3 meanings can be kept in mind as we seek to understand how big the Flood was: did it cover the earth, or land? The same is true for the Greek word for earth: when Jesus is crucified, it says that darkness covered the whole “earth” or “land” (the same word can mean either – we don’t have to assume that darkness covered the entire planet).

 

In both Hebrew and Greek, the same word (ruaḥ in Hebrew, pneuma in Greek) is used to mean “spirit,” “breath,” and “wind.” We see this in Ezekiel 37, in the chapter about the valley of the dry bones, where God commands Ezekiel to say, “Come from the 4 winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain.” Wind, breath, or Spirit – all 3 come together in this verse. In John 3, Jesus says, “The pneuma blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes or where it goes; so is everyone who is born of the Pneuma.”

 

In the Bible, the English word “lust” is used to translate a word that means “desire.” The noun epithymia and verb epithymeō can be used for desires that are good, bad, or neither. At the Last Supper, Jesus literally says, “I have desired with desire to eat this Passover with you” – lust would be the wrong word to use here! Paul tells the Philippians (1:23) that he has a “desire” to depart and be with Christ, the same word that is translated “lust” when it’s a bad desire. Paul says in 1st Timothy 3:1 that if anyone aspires to be a bishop, “he desires a good work.” In Luke 15:16, the Prodigal Son “desires” to gorge himself with the dry carob pods that he’s feeding to the pigs. This Greek word is also the standard way to translate the 10th commandment, “Thou shalt not covet” (an oversized desire). Paul urges believers in 1 Thessalonians 4:5 that they should marry in holiness and honor, “not in the passion of desire, like heathen who do not know God.” Paul says marriage has to be based on more than just romantic desire. Perhaps the best known negative example for this word is where Jesus teaches, “Whoever looks on a woman [literally] to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” So desire in the Bible can be good, bad, or neutral, depending on what we desire.

 

There are at least 5 Greek words for love that the NT apostles had to choose from. The apostles chose the noun and verb forms of agapē, a word that had no special meaning until the followers of Jesus got ahold of it. Why did they choose agapē? Because the other words all had baggage attached to them. Philia was the love Isaac had for Jacob’s pot of stew; it’s also where we get the word “philanthropy” (“love of humanity”) and the name Philadelphia (brotherly love). Storgē was used only for love within a family – in Romans 1:31, the opposite (a-storgoi, “without natural affection”) means someone who would kill their own children. Erōs (from which we get our word “erotic”) was too exclusively associated with sex, and aphrodisia, a non-Biblical word, was even worse.

 

In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul takes a previously generic Greek term for love and loads it with new meaning. (The KJV uses the term “charity” for this special kind of love.) Paul proclaims that love does not envy or show off (“vaunt itself”), and is not “puffed up” or “arrogant” or “proud” (depending on which translation you use). In verse 5, he says that love does not behave “shamefully” (most versions say “rude” or “unseemly”). He says that love literally “does not seek its own things” (other versions say “does not demand its own way” or “is not self-seeking”). He says that love is not “provoked” or “irritable,” and that love literally “does not reason or calculate the bad;” other translations say it “thinks no evil” or “keeps no record of wrong.” In verse 6, Paul declares that love “does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.” In verse 7, Paul attributes four constant action verbs to love: it “bears all things,” always “trusts,” always “hopes,” and always “endures.”

 

Agapē love amazingly resembles the kind described in the Hebrew word ḥesed, although surprisingly, the word agapē is never used to translate the word ḥesed. (The Greek version always translates this word with the word for “mercy.” To me, this proves that agapē did not mean what Paul says it means, back when the OT was translated into Greek.) Ḥesed is a combination of “love” and “loyalty.” It is the word repeated in every line of Psalm 136: “for his mercy (or “steadfast love”) endures forever.” We find it also in famous lines such as Exodus 20:6 (“showing ḥesed unto thousands of them that love me”), Psalm 100:5 (“For the Lord is good; his ḥesed is everlasting”) and Psalm 103:8 (“The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in ḥesed”). Ḥesed is a combination of love and loyalty, a love that never quits, just like the kind of love that Paul describes in his chapter on agapē.

 

In my book The Historical Jesus and the Historical Joseph Smith, I mention that there is one verse where translation does make an important difference. In Hebrews 7:24, the writer says that the Melchizedek priesthood held by Christ is an “unchangeable priesthood.” The word the writer uses here is a-parabaton, which means literally “non-transferable.” In other words, Christ holds a one-of-a-kind priesthood that cannot be passed on to anyone else, a non-transferable priesthood. The Aaronic priesthood could offer animal sacrifices, but they could never take away sins. Only Christ’s Melchizedek priesthood could do that, and Christ was the only one who was qualified to hold that priesthood. It was a non-transferable priesthood.

 

In my book The Historical Jesus and the Historical Joseph Smith, I also talk about Romans 11:6, where Paul says that if salvation is by grace, “then it is no more of works, otherwise grace is no more grace.” The words “no more” actually are from a word that means “no longer.” Grace is no longer grace if it requires good works in order to be worthy of it. How do you merit unmerited favor? Paul is saying that grace and works are mutually exclusive. We are saved by either one or the other. You either earn it, or you don’t, and Paul teaches that no one can earn it. Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-9 that we can only be saved by grace through faith, “not by works, lest anyone should boast.” If good works are the way we obtain salvation, Paul says that then “grace is no longer grace.” See what a difference translation can make to improve our understanding!

 

Languages that are related to Hebrew, like Canaanite or Babylonian, can bring out the meaning of an otherwise unknown Hebrew word. In Numbers 21:5, the Hebrews in the desert complain about “this light bread” or “wretched food.” The word is qeloqel. We’ve found this rare word in a Canaanite text – it means a plant they fed to horses. Another example: Isaiah 40:20 says that people who make idols choose “wood that will not rot.” We’ve found the rare word that is used here in the Babylonian language: it means Indian rosewood, a high-quality wood that would be a top choice for making idols. In Greek, we can always find non-Biblical texts that use a word we’re trying to figure out. How do we know whether Paul means “dung” or “garbage” in Philippians 3:8? We look for cases where the word he used is used in non-Biblical Greek, as I have done on one of my blog posts.

 

Translation involves not only vocabulary, but also grammar, how the noun and verb forms work. Greek nouns have a form that can mean “to, for, in, [or] by means of.” So when Jesus says, “Ye have heard it said by them of old time,” the same noun form can also mean “to them of old time.” Here in this verse, the difference may not seem that big, but it does make a difference on the question whether we baptize in water or by means of water, sprinkling versus immersion. If it was all-important to God which way was the right way to baptize, God would have found words to nail it down more specifically which method to use.

 

In Greek, the statement “You (plural) believe in God” can also be a command: “Believe in God.” Is it a command, or just a statement? Sometimes it’s hard to tell! In Hebrew, a verb form called the imperfect tense can mean either present or future time. So Isaiah 43:19 can either be read “Will you not know it?” or “Do you not know it?” Meanwhile, the Hebrew perfect tense can be used for either past or present time! (Amos 5:21: “I hate, I despise your feasts!”)

 

Details like these explain why one Bible version reads differently than another. A good study Bible will point these details out to you. Most of the translation differences make very little impact on what we must believe or do. We don’t have to wonder whether we can trust what they say, or worry about which Bible translation is more correct.

You’ll find more than 40 word studies, including a few of the ones we’ve talked about today, posted in a year’s worth of blogs I have posted on the Patheos.com website under the title “Biblical Words and World.” You’ll find my studies on the words “desire,” “love,” “dung,” and “earth.” You’ll find a study on the word Paul uses to describe what’s wrong with getting drunk. (“Do not be drunk with wine, for that is” – what, exactly?) You’ll find 2 posts there that deal with same-sex erotic behavior, including the word that Jesus used for that behavior. You’ll find a post on the meaning of “concubine” versus married woman. You’ll find a post on whether it was thieves or terrorists who were crucified with Jesus, and a post on whether it was an inn or a guest room that had no room for Jesus to be born. To find these and more, go to biblicalethic.org, and click on the “Patheos blog link,” then browse through the posts month by month till you find what you’re looking for. Again, go to biblicalethic.org.

 

Even if you don’t know Greek or Hebrew, you can still dig deeper into your Bible than what you find in your English translation. The best tool you can use is a copy of either Strong’s or Young’s Concordance. Both of them are based on the KJV. Look for the verse in question and the word you’re trying to figure out, and you can find the original Greek or Hebrew word, and where else it’s used in the Bible. A lot of helpful information is also available in modern commentary series like the Word Bible Commentary and the New International Commentary. You might be amazed at how much helpful translation information you have access to as an average Bible reader.

 

How do we know whether our Bible has been correctly translated? God has given us a large number of reasonably accurate English translations. The differences are mainly just style and wording. God has given us enough, so that we can be sure that nothing that God really wanted us to know has been lost in translation. Next time on Biblical Words and World, we’ll take a look at how we can be sure that we have accurate copies of God’s word, and how we can be sure that nothing plain or precious has been changed or removed from those copies.