Biblical Truth - Translation

Alasdair North - 

Let’s assume for a minute that there was a single orginial manuscript of The Bible. Let’s also assume that it was literally God’s word and was true in every way, with every word precisely chosen. While this would be awesome in lots of ways, it would be useless to me. That’s because it would still be written in languages that I don’t understand.

The different sections of The Bible were written in Hebrew and Greek, with a smattering of Aramaic on the side. A handful of Christians do learn these languages, but the majority of Christians don’t, and requiring it as a condition of conversion would be setting the bar pretty high.

This leaves most Christians with translated copies of The Bible. This introduces a couple of issues.

  • Quite often a word in language A won’t have a direct equivalent in language B. When a translator runs up against a word like this they need to make a choice. They need to decide which word from B best represents what the author meant.
  • There are different ways of translating a section of text. For example, you could go word by word, or you could take the passage as a whole and try and present its meaning as understandably as possible.

Many different groups of translators have made these choices in different ways, giving us the massive number of English translations we have of The Bible.

Could all these translators have been inspired by the Holy Spirit? Yes, they could have been, but that doesn’t change the fact that they all came out with different results.

If we assume we started the process with the complete and infallible word of God. What we have now is dozens of slightly different renderings of it, none of which completely accurately represents what God said.

What does this mean for us in practice? The simple take home message is that we can’t point to the NIV and say it’s 100% literally true. Is this a massive problem? Probably not, but it’s something we all need to be aware of. We should always look a passage up in a few different translations before we even begin to think we know what its original meaning was.

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I'm the CTO of viaLibri, a director and web developer at Runway, and an active member of St. Barnabas Church.

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