Translating the Bible

As you guys know we’ve been studying people of the Bible. However, there are a couple of books of the Bible in the middle of the Old Testament that have no people to showcase, because they are not books that describe the lives of people. They are poetry and wisdom books: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs—also known as Song of Solomon. I think it’s important to stop at this point in our people of the Bible discussion because large portions of some of these books are thought to be written by David and Solomon—who we’ve spent a lot of the last year discussing.

So for the next little while we’re going to look at one of these books a week with the exception of Job. We’re actually going to come back to Job at some point and spend quite a bit of time there, but I think we’ll actually do that as our last book of the Old Testament—because I think the book of Job has a lot to tell us about God and I think we want to have it on our minds when we talk about Jesus. So for the next few weeks we’re going to look at Psalms, then we’ll look at Proverbs, and then the week after we’ll focus on Ecclesiastes.

But this week before we discuss these books of poetry we need to discuss something very important and that is the idea that the Bible is translated. So today we’re going to talk about Bible translations—what’s important, what’s not, why we prefer translations over others, and perhaps some warning signs that someone is using a translation wrong.

Does anyone know what language the Old Testament was written in? [Let them answer.]

Hebrew. Hebrew is the language of the Israelite people, and the language that the oldest surviving manuscripts of the Old Testament are written in. The New Testament on the other hand is written in Greek. If you’ll remember the Old and New Testaments were written at very different times. When the Old Testament was written is was for the Israelite people, so it used their language. When the New Testament was written, the writers used what was a more common tongue for the known world at that time—because they were trying to speak not just to Jewish people but also to people from other cultures. Greek was the most common language in that area of the world, which is why they used Greek.

Does anyone in this class speak Hebrew or Greek?

I don’t either. And even if you did speak modern Greek, Biblical Greek is a different dialectic, which basically means a slightly different version. So it would be hard for Modern Greek speakers to read Biblical Greek without taking a class to learn about Biblical Greek.

For a long time in human history, you had to know Hebrew or Greek to read certain parts of the scripture. In Jesus’ time, everyone who studied the Torah—that is the first five books of the Old Testament—would have been studying it in Hebrew. And even today modern Rabbis study Hebrew and learn to read the Old Testament in Hebrew. Our pastors also have often studied Hebrew and Greek so that they may better understand the original language of the Bible.

But you and me? We’re not Biblical scholars. We’re just average Christians who want to know what the Bible says! So we rely on English translations of the Bible.

In today’s modern age, there are a ridiculous number of English translations of the Bible. It’s amazing, but that wasn’t always the case. For a really long time, like I said you either had to know Greek or Hebrew, or Latin. Now the Bible wasn’t written in Latin, but in around 300 AD, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and the Romans spoke Latin. So the Roman Emperor had the Bible translated into Latin. For a really long time, that Latin version of the Bible was considered the only official version of the Bible and you were not allowed to translated it into any other language. So if you were German, you would go to church on Sunday and hear the local priest read from the Bible in Latin, and you may not understand what he’s saying at all.

These were the Middle Ages, and things were very different back then.

Eventually a priest named Martin Luther in the 1500s said, “that doesn’t really make sense. I’m German! I want to read the Bible in German!” As a priest he knew how to read the Bible in Latin and what it meant, so he created a translation of the Bible into his local German (in history classes they’ll call this “venacular” to translate something into the vernacular is to translate it into your local language.)

Does anyone in the class speak two languages or have you ever studied another language? [Let them answer]

You may have noticed that it’s really hard to directly translate things between languages. Sometimes direct translations simply don’t convey the same meaning. So translating isn’t as simple a task as finding the same word in the dictionary and directly translating it over. A silly example is: what do you say after someone sneezes?

In English we say “God bless you.” Sometimes you might hear someone use the German word, gesundheit. Gesundheit does not mean “God bless you.” It means “health.” Because you’re basically wishing the person who just sneezed good health. In French you say “a tes souhaits,” (pronounce: ah te sway”) which means basically “as you wish.”

If I were a French translator, translating a book from French to English and someone in the book sneezed and someone responded “a tes souhaits,” I would not translate that as “as you wish” even though that is the direct translation of the word. Because an English reader wouldn’t read that and say, “that’s just a standard response to sneezing.” They would read “As you wish” and say “huh, that’s weird. Why did the character just say that?” So a good translator would actually translate “a tes souhaits” to “God bless you” even though that’s not what it means.

Translating between languages is really weird like that. It’s not just about directly translating words. You’re trying to translate meanings. Therefore any translation actually introduces a bit of interpretation, and as we’ve talked about before interpretation can be subjective.

How can interpretation be subjective? Well let’s take another easy example. The sentence: He said he didn’t steal it.

How do you interpret this sentence? What does it mean? [Let them answer.]

Now what if I said “He said he didn’t steal it.”

Now what does it mean? [Let them answer] Basically it would mean this guy is saying it was stolen but he wasn’t the one who stole it.

What about “He said he didn’t steal it.” What does that mean? [Let them answer.] Yeah! He’s saying he didn’t steal that item, but the probably stole something else.

That’s one seemingly straightforward sentence that depending on how I said it had different meaning. Representing it in modern writing, you can capture this emphasis with italics or bold or underline, but Biblical writers didn’t have concepts like italics or underlining! They just wrote words and hoped the way they wrote them conveyed what they meant!

This is why there is so much in the Bible that can be taken as a matter of interpretation. Even if we’re all looking at the exact same translation we might disagree on what the words mean!

Now back to this idea of translation: Because the Bible is not written in English, every version of the Bible that you can read is going to be a translation. The translation we use regularly in this class is the New Revised Standard Version. This is actually the version used in a lot of academic settings. The NRSV translation is made by a committee of thirty Biblical scholars—men and women--from Protestant, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Jewish backgrounds. This is why it’s so widely respected. Having such a diverse group who all greatly respect the authority of the Bible and want to make sure they are true in their translation means we’re less likely to introduce bias or inaccuracies in how it’s translated.

Another version of the Bible that occasionally gets brought up in this class is the King James Version—because we have a couple of copies. This is the version that has all the “thee’s” and “thou’s” in it and reads to us modern readers more like Shakespeare and is harder for us to make heads or tails of. The King James Version is important because for a long time it was the only version of the Bible available in English. Unfortunately, since it was translated in 1611, there are some poor translation choices. Some of that is just because scholars in 1611 didn’t know as much as scholars today. Some of it is just how the English language has changed—so though a turn of phrase would have made perfect since in 1611 it no longer makes sense now. However, the King James Version did do one thing right, and that is that it made things that are poetic sounds poetic. Sometimes in our more modern translations we lose a bit of the poetry.

This is why some people when it comes to Psalms, actually prefer to memorize the King James Version of the Psalm, because to our modern ears it just sounds more poetical, even if it’s sometimes a little harder to understand than the NRSV.

These are not the only two English translations of the Bible. Far from it. Growing up, my churches mostly use the New International Version (NIV). For more personal study I like the New American Standard Bible (NASB). I’m also fond of the English Standard Version (ESV). I think all together I have nine English translations of the Bible and one French one.

One version of the Bible that I have that we’re going to reference in the next couple of weeks that we don’t normally use in this class is called “The Message.” This version of the Bible isn’t really considered a translation so much as an interpretation. A modern pastor thought the Bible was sometimes a little too hard to read for all the people he led and so he broke it down into more modern language. This Bible is less for the purpose of academic study and more for the purpose of breaking things down.  A lot of modern Bibles like to pretend that they’re pure translations with no interpretation—which as we’ve discussed is literally impossible, the act of translation introduces interpretation. However, the Message is very clear that it is an interpretation, it’s trying to interpret the Bible into modern language. Sometimes when we read the New Testament—especially the letters by Paul, it’s all run on sentences and confusing vocabulary and philosophy that’s sometimes hard for scholars to understand. The Message breaks it all down into easy to read sentences and uses the Message’s interpretation to break down the meaning into what the writer of the Message thinks Paul is trying to say. This is why it’s not necessarily recommended for academic study, because the writer of the Message could have gotten his interpretation wrong, but it is a very useful tool for if you’re stumped at even how to read the sentence!

The Bible was written a really long time ago and therefore the grammar used by the writers is completely different from what we use today. For example, there was no such thing as punctuation back then! No periods to tell you when the sentence was over! Which is why today it all reads like run on sentences. The Message version of the Bible tries to eliminate that confusion by making everything as close to modern English as the writer can while still getting across what the writer of the Message thinks is the meaning of the text.

Let’s look at some differences between these versions of the Bible! Someone grab one of the King James Versions. Let’s turn to a verse we should all know in this class: John 3:16.

Someone please read the King James Version:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life

Okay now someone read the NRSV.  

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

Alright and now I’ll read the Message version:

This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.

You can see that generally all these verses have the same gist. God loved the world so he gave us Jesus so no one would die but everyone would live! It’s just they use slightly different words like “only begotten Son” versus “only Son” versus just “his Son.” Or using “perish” versus “destroy.” These words for the most part mean the same thing and reading this we should all be like “Yeah that seems pretty solid. We understanding the meaning of this verse.”

Okay now let’s try the same thing, still in John, but a little more complicated. Someone read John 14:16 in the NRSV:

16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate,[a] to be with you forever. 

Okay the word I want you to pay attention to here is Advocate. Can someone tell me what Advocate means? [Let them answer.]

When I looked it up google said it means “a person who pleads on someone else’s behalf” or “a pleader in a court of law, a lawyer.” So you can think of an Advocate like a lawyer.

Now do you guys see the little letter g in the your NRSV Bibles next to the word “Advocate?” That means there is a footnote. So you can look at the bottom of the page, where there is little writing, and see what it reads next to the g. Can someone read that?

g Or Helper.

What this footnote is saying is that this version of the Bible chose to translate whatever Greek word the Greek text used as Advocate but that Helper would also be a good definition of the world. Do Helper and Lawyer mean the same thing?

Sort of I guess in the sense that your lawyer should be helping you. But a Helper verses a lawyer have very different connotations. An Advocate makes people think of someone powerful who helps you, who argues on your behalf powerfully to get your out of trouble, where the connotation of a helper is more like…someone who just helps out on occasion.

Let’s see what word the King James Version uses. Someone please read John 14:16 in the KJV Bible:

16 And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever;

What word is used here? Comforter!

A comforter is a person who gives you comfort in hard times. That doesn’t make you think of a lawyer defending you in court or someone helping you out. That makes you think of someone patting you on the back saying “there, there.”

Comforter, Advocate, Helper…these words all seem to be different. So what is Jesus saying? What he is actually saying God is going to give us here?

Let’s see what the Message says.

“I will talk to the Father, and he’ll provide you another Friend so that you will always have someone with you.”

So now we have Advocate, Helper, Comforter, and Friend. So what is Jesus actually saying?

Well I didn’t really give you guys a lot of context here, we didn’t read the verses around it, but Jesus is talking about the Holy Spirit. You guys may recall that we believe God exists in three parts: God the Father, the Son Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. This section of the Bible is Jesus telling the disciples not to worry because after Jesus dies, they will not be left alone. They will get the Holy Spirit.

The Greek word being used here is “Parakletos” or “paraclete.” The truth is that this is a hard word to translate. What makes this word hard? Well it’s not like people made English to ancient Greek dictionaries back in the day, mostly because English didn’t exist when the Bible was written. When modern translators don’t know what a word means they try to find other ancient texts from the same time period that use the same word, so that they can use context clues to determine it’s meaning. There are a couple of other texts from the time, one from a Greek orator named Demosthenes that uses the same word. And I think this is a case where Advocate and Helper are probably the closest meaning, and “Comforter” is a bit farther off.

But the truth is all of these words can be used to describe the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the part of God that is still here active in us and active on this earth. It is our Advocate—interceding on our behalf in circumstances and events. It is our Helper—helping us when times get hard or when we don’t feel strong enough. It is our Comforter—comforting us in the darkness to let us know God is with us and we’re not alone. And it is our Friend—just as Jesus was the Friend of the twelve disciples. Using all of these words, all of these translations, gives us a fuller understanding of what the Holy Spirit is.

What is the point of all of this? Why is this important?

I think the lesson and the warning here, is that if anyone ever gives a sermon or a lesson or an interpretation that hinges on the meaning of one specific word in English and claim that is the only meaning of the word, you should be skeptical and look into it yourself. Because the Bible was not written in English. Advocate, Helper, Comforter, these are all legitimate translations of paraclete, so if someone gives a whole sermon on how the Holy Spirit is only a comforter, they are wrong.

There is a good historical example of this. I say historical, but this is something being used even now to subjugate women around this world. Can the person with the King James Bible read Genesis 2:18:

18 And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.

God looked at man and said it’s not good for him to be alone, let me make him a “help meet”—that is woman. What does help meet mean?

Someone read the NRSV version.

18 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.”

Helper, okay that makes a little more sense to us. Let me make man a helper.

Helper is actually what most Bible translations use. This word has been used over the centuries to tell women that they are lesser to men. Only, merely a helper. This term “help-meet” has been used to say that women are merely meant to exist in subordinate or helping roles to their husbands.

I’m going to read a quote now from a theologian named Rachel Held Evans that explains more what the actual Hebrew word is here.

The phrase “helper suitable,” rendered “help meet” in the King James Version, comes from a combination of the words ezer and kenegdoFar from connoting subjugation, the Hebrew term ezer, or “helper,” is employed elsewhere in Scripture to describe God, the consummate intervener—the helper of the fatherless (Psalm 10:14), King David’s helper and deliverer (Psalm 70:5), Israel’s shield and helper (Deuteronomy 33:29). Ezer appears twenty-one times in the Old Testament—twice in reference to the first woman, three times in reference to nations to whom Israel appealed for military support, and sixteen times in reference to God as the helper of Israel.

So “ezer” is used to describe God, so God is described as Israel’s helper and David’s helper, does that mean God is subordinate to Israel or David? No. God is far greater than Israel or David. Now I’m not saying women are greater than men because when you combined “ezer” with “kenegdo” you get “helper of the same nature.” Basically “helper on the same level” or…in modern lexicon….basically a partner.

A partner is your equal, but you and your partner—whether that’s your best friend, our a group project or a business partner—you’re both invested in helping each other to be the best you can be, invested in your group project or your business or your relationship to make it the best it can be.

Man and woman are both made in the image of God, made as equals, but made to work together as partners.

Because the word “helper” has been used to translate this Hebrew phrase of “ezer kenedgo,” though, theologians have historically used it as an excuse to tell women they are less.

This is why it’s important to remember that everything is a translation influenced by interpretation and perspectives. In the hands of a biased person trying to prove the point, a translation can be tweaked through word choices and phrase choices to make a theological point the original text may not intend.

No one expects every Christian to be a theological scholar. Heck, there is no test on the Bible when you die to see if you’re theology is correct so you can go into heaven. There is no such thing. Christians were Christians even when they were illiterate with no access to the Bible. I just want you guys to be aware of these things so when you’re studying the Bible and confused by a word choice, you know there are other translations and resources you can go to in order to help you figure out what it means. Because humans translated the Bible and in the hands of some humans, those English word choices can become weapons against people.

Never trust a theologian or pastor—someone who is supposed to be an expert on these things—whose entire interpretation hinges on one English word without going back to the Hebrew or Greek.

Do feel comfortable enough to question things and seek out answers for yourself.

And also know it’s okay to not be a Bible expert. Because all it takes to be a Christian is to follow Jesus.  And what did Jesus say the greatest commandment was? The most important thing. The thing that ultimate it takes to consider yourself a follower of Jesus and God?

We keep going back to these verses and that’s because it’s important. Someone read Matthew 22:36-40.

36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Love God. Love your neighbor.

That’s it. Love God. Love people. Be love in the world. That’s all it takes to be a Christian. You don’t have to be a Bible scholar. You just have to be love in the world.

I teach you these things about Bible translations and sometimes church history not because it’s necessary for you to call yourself a Christian, but because this is Sunday School and I’m trying to prepare you for the world and the sorts of questions you may have one day—or now—that cause you to question your faith. It’s always okay to ask questions and seek answers.

But it’s also okay to just sit back and say “you know, I don’t know the answer. But I do know I’m supposed to love people.”

And really that’s all that matters.