Posts Tagged ‘trust’

1170196_78561358A question popped up the other day. “If the Bible is the Word of God, which one is the right Bible? Which one – which version – can I trust?” I thought it was a brilliant question, and one that people should ask more often! This person had thought-out one of the problems with having so many versions of the Bible available in English. And the more I thought about it, the more I wondered how many other people have the same question.

In the last hundred years, there has been a huge increase in the number of different translations that are available. At the beginning of the 20th Century, the King James Version was still the standard, at least as far as the public was concerned.. But two things happened. Firstly, Biblical scholarship was helped by the discovery of a lot of different ancient manuscripts. These helped to both confirm the accuracy of what we have now, and to shed better light on the original texts. That in turn enabled translators to make more accurate choices.

Secondly, the nature of the English language itself changed; more and more people needed to learn English – often as a second language – and the flow of 1600’s English (in both grammar and vocabulary) became more obscure. For one famous example, Genesis 25:29 – “and Jacob sod pottage”. To any modern reader, that looks like either a misprint or something pretty horrible. It isn’t.  Today there are Bibles to suit almost any level of literacy, from the very easy-to-read to intermediate, all the way through to the Greek and Hebrew languages themselves (and some don’t even have subtitles!). So now we can read that “Jacob was cooking stew.” Much more pleasant to contemplate than sodding pottage.

But that doesn’t answer the issue completely – if they all claim to accurately translate “from the ancient tongues”, why are there so many different translations? Which is right? And if some are more “right” than others, does this mean that there are any Bibles that are wrong?

To un-complicate a tangled issue, there are several schools of thought used by the various Bible translation groups.

At one end of the scale, there are Bible versions which reach for the closest possible word-for-word accuracy. The translator “seeks as far as possible to capture the precise wording of the original text and personal style of each Bible writer.[1] The technical name for this is “formal equivalence”, and the overriding goal is the most precise choice possible for each word.

On the other end of this scale are the Bible versions that attempt to give the reader a thought-for-thought accuracy, where the translator tries to give an accurate account of the sense of the sentence or paragraph as a whole. Sometimes this may mean stepping away from precise word-for-word accuracy. “Since this translation is intended for all who use English as a means of communication, the translators have tried to avoid using words and forms not in current or widespread use[2] – which is where it may lose some of the very fine detail – but the goal is that a reader can understand the complete thought, or concept, with as little trouble as possible. This is known as “functional equivalence“.

Some translation groups deliberately aim for the middle, with the intent of using the best from both camps – this is termed “optimal eqivalence“.

Isn’t it better to have word-for-word accuracy? Logically, yes – if one language could be switched to another, easily, without losing something in the original. Realistically, that’s almost impossible. Different languages have different rules of grammar, and individual words don’t always translate neatly enough for a direct word-for-word translation to easily make sense. For one example, let’s look at a  verse. Mark 1:32-33 is a good enough example. The Greek reads as follows:

 Opsias de genomenairs, hoete edu ho hairlios, epheron pros auton pantas tous kakoes echontas kai tous daimonizomenous. Kai hair holei polis episunairgmenair pros tehn thooran.[3] 

The Greek of the New Testament is an ancient type known as Koine. Which means that you can’t exactly take it to the Greek embassyor the fish-shop for a translation – Koine is a “dead” language, no longer spoken today. So (at least for the exercise) you’ll have to take my word on the translation. The literal word-for-word rendering is: Evening and (but?) having come, when set the sun, they were bringing toward him all those sickness-having and those being-demon-possessed. And was whole the city gathered-together at the door[4].

While that’s… umm, interesting (at least for an academic), it would be pretty taxing to read more than a couple of paragraphs in that style. Reading it aloud in church would be a labour, and it would be just as tortuous for the listener. It obviously makes far more sense to interchange some words, and adjust the word order: That evening, after sunset, all those who were sick and demon-possessed were brought to him. And the whole town gathered at the door. This would be classed as word-for-word accuracy (even though it isn’t quite word-for-word).

Some people will still find that a clunky sentence. People who are not naturally strong readers, or people who have English as a second language, may find the next sentence more natural to understand: The sick and the demon-possesed were brought to him in the evening, and everyone gathered around the doorway. This would be a translation classed as thought-for-thought. It is far simpler, although it could be argued that – in the effort to make things easier to read – I’ve lost a bit of precision along the way.

Somewhere betwen the two extremes, I could choose to phrase it: After sunset, the sick and demon-possessed were brought to him. And the whole town gathered around the doorway. This is an example of “optimal equivalence” – a good middle ground.

Which is most accurate? That’s a question I’ll leave you to answer. Even the most literal translations can’t use word-for-word, as you can see. Compromises do have to be made so that (once again) people can plainly understand the Word of God, the Bible. But those compromises are small – very small – and in no way result in a Bible that can’t be trusted. Which Bible version is the RIGHT version? The one that you can understand most clearly, the one that you will have no trouble reading through every day.

If you have a high reading level, aiming for a translation that values formal equivalence is a good idea. If your reading level is more street-level, look for a version that tries for the best thought-for-thought translation.  The preface of almost every Bible will have the translator’s aims laid out pretty clearly. Have a read through a few passages.

Simply put, it’s really important to realise this: it’s vital to have a Bible that you can understand. God has chosen to speak to man though the Bible – the Bible is the place  where God tells us what he wants us to know about himself, and it contains all the things we need to learn to be saved from destruction.  You can put trust in any common Bible translation. But it’s imperative that you can comfortably read and understand your Bible. It’s that simple.


[1] Preface, English Standard Version. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Bibles, 2001. “Translation Philosophy”, p. vii

[2] Preface, Good News Bible, Today’s English Version. New York: American Bible Society, 1976. p.viii

[3] I couldn’t find how to write in Greek on WordPress, so I’ve transliterated from the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum GraeceI ed.XXVII. For the sake of simlicity, I’ve spelled phonetically rather than use the normal conventions (again, WordPress limitations).

[4] This translation – and the two following are my own. If you’re a Greek scholar, feel free to offer any suggestions or corrections!

Bible and Cross by Billy Alexander

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