Questions and Challenges: Part 2

“And why are there so many versions of it (the Bible)?”

(Please refer to the previous post,, for the origin and context of this “project.”)

If you want to read the Koran, you must learn Arabic, the language in which that sacred text was/is written. An English translation of the Koran is just that, a translation and not the Koran itself. For Islam, truth is language specific and translation inevitably entails diminishment and distortion.

Not so in Christianity, not since the first public Gospel proclamation on Pentecost. The scene is dramatic. The disciples of the Lord were all gathered in one place on that day when the Holy Spirit rushed upon them with the sound of a violent wind and appeared upon them in divided tongues like fire. And they began to speak in other languages. Divided tongues and other languages is suggestive and symbolic of what happens next. St. Luke continues the story:

Acts 2:5–12 (ESV): 5 Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6 And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. 7 And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? 9 Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11 both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” 12 And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

Peter then explains what it means, and it means more than he explains. But one implication is clear: the Gospel is for all people in all languages. Unlike the Koran, the Gospel truth is not language specific. Translation is not only possible; it is God ordained. That conviction is a hallmark of the Reformation with its insistence that all people must have access to Holy Scripture in their own language and that public worship must be conducted in the common tongue.

And that brings us inevitably to the challenges of interpretation, the translation of a sacred text from the source language (the language in which it was written) into the target language (the language of the reader). I am no expert on this, but I can speak to it in general terms that should address the relevant challenge.

Those of you who are bilingual, or perhaps multilingual, will understand that each language has its own patterns and forms, that individual words have a fullness and richness in one tongue that are not perfectly conveyed in another. That doesn’t make accurate translation impossible; it makes it challenging. And it makes multiple good and accurate translations both possible and inevitable.

Perhaps a brief example will help. You may know that the New Testament was written in Koine Greek, not the Greek of the academy, but the common Greek of the marketplace. There are a few words of Aramaic in the New Testament, but the number is vanishingly small and need not concern us. Consider the first verse of the Gospel according to St. John:

En archē ēn ho logos, kai ho logos ēn pros ton theon, kai theos ēn ho logos.

Suppose we attempt a word-for-word translation from Greek into English. We run into difficulties almost immediately:

In beginning…

In beginning. But, wait; that doesn’t sound right in English. We would say in the beginning. The Greek lacks the definite article the. Should the translator insert it or not? Let’s continue.

In (the) beginning was the logos…

Logos is a richly textured and philosophically complex term. It can mean something as straightforward as word. But it also contains connotations of character, order, pattern, even goal/purpose. So, how is the translator to choose?

The whole of John’s Prologue, John 1:1-18, is a clear allusion to the creation account in Genesis 1; John is providing a Christ-centered retelling of creation. How did God create? By speaking the word: let there be. Since the word was God’s “instrument” of creation and since John insists that all things were created through Christ the logos, translating logos as word makes the essential connection that John intended. So, a reasonable and faithful translation of John 1:1 begins:

In (the) beginning was the word…

We will stop our translation exercise here, but you see that it is a challenging process, that choices must be made, and that different choice are both possible and reasonable. Some translators adopt a philosophy known as formal equivalence, in which they attempt to retain as much of the structure of the source language as possible. These produce accurate and faithful translations, though they read a bit awkwardly and stilted in English. The New American Standard Bible is an example of this translation philosophy. Other translators opt for dynamic equivalence, a more thought-for-thought translation. In this method, the primary questions are (1) What did the author wish to communicate in the source language? and (2) How might that best be expressed in the target language? These also produce accurate and faithful translations with this “advantage”: they read well as an English text. The New Revised Standard Version is an example of this method, though some think it carries the philosophy a bit far. Again, though I am not an expert on this topic either, it seems to me that American Sign Language (ASL) provides a good example of dynamic equivalence. As I understand it, an ASL interpreter does not sign each word the speaker says, but rather communicates each thought in sign. And that means that two equally proficient sign language interpreters might well communicate oral speech differently, though each would communicate it well and accurately.

So, why are there (so many) different versions? The most basic answer is that Christians believe that Scripture must be translated into the languages of all the people. Since translation is a complex and challenging task requiring many choices, it is inevitable that slightly different versions result. It is worth noting that most translations — certainly those that are most widely used in the church and in the academy — are performed by committees of expert linguists and theologians who take the task most seriously. Frankly, most any of the modern translations so prepared are good and reliable. Better still, the serious reader will use multiple translations, ideally ones representing the best of each translation philosophy. And, if you can learn Hebrew and Greek, more’s the better.

There is another matter that contributes to the multiplicity of versions: study Bibles and “niche” Bibles. A study Bible contains explanatory notes, cross-references, maps, charts, etc., all designed to provide context and deeper understanding for the reader. There are Roman Catholic Study Bibles and Reformation Study Bibles. There are literary, theological, and chronological Study Bible. The list is almost endless. These versions do not change the Biblical text, but they do provide interpretations of it. And none of these interpretations is without theological bias. This presents a caveat emptor situation; let the buy beware. Simply be aware that the study notes are just that, notes and not inspired Scripture. Again, it is best to consult multiple Study Bibles and commentaries with different theological perspectives. “Niche” Bibles — and that is my term for them — are Bibles targeted for a particular demographic: women, men, police, military, nurses, teachers, etc. These Bible frequently have additional devotional reflections/materials geared toward the demographic. It is tempting to see this simply as a marketing strategy, but that is, perhaps, uncharitable. As long as the reader realizes that the devotional materials are not Scripture, there is little potential harm and perhaps significant possibility for good.

So, yes, there are several versions of the Bible available. Is this a challenge to the integrity of Scripture? I do not think so; rather, I think it is an indication of the seriousness with which translators take their vocation. It is, also, a benefit to the church in providing a richness and depth to the English biblical corpus that no single translation could provide.

Lastly, and very briefly, I should mention that the majority of English language translations are based on a mere handful of source language manuscripts which present an exceptional level of agreement among themselves. The most frequent variations in these manuscripts concern word order, e.g. Christ Jesus versus Jesus Christ, or alternate spellings of words on the order of colour versus color. Significant differences that impact theological interpretation are exceptionally rare. This means that we have a reliable source language texts from which to do the work of translation. Even though we have no original manuscripts, the copies evince a profound dedication of Christian scribes and scholars in preserving the accuracy of the original texts.

In summary, we should not be concerned about the availability of various translations; this is a strength and not a weakness.

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN, and as Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of the South.
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