Traditional Bible Translation

You can’t just feed the original Bible manuscripts into a machine and expect a perfect translation to come out – Why?

1. those handwritten manuscripts no longer exist although parts of copies are extant.

2. when going from one language to another there isn’t always an exact equivalent word or a literal translation might not make any sense if taken out of context.

3. some words have changed meaning over the years.

So the translator’s job is by no means easy.

The mainly Hebrew and Greek manuscripts were written in capital letters. The choice of capital or cursive letter in the translation is at the discretion of the translator.

If we believe scripture to be inspired by God and wish to know what it really says then we must bare these things in mind.

The King James Bible has been good enough to add some words in italics, these are there to make the English readable but they are not in the original.

Originally the KJB had a multi page “translators’ preface” in which they outlined some of the difficulties they faced and how they had chosen to surmount them – they certainly made no claim to have made a perfect translation as some today seem to suggest. This preface is rarely printed, being replaced by a tribute to the king who had authorised the translation.

He had his own reasons for giving it the go ahead – he disliked the Geneva Bible that was popular at the time because there were some marginal notes that he hated like the one that praised the Hebrew midwives for disobeying the king’s orders. He laid down some rules about what could be in the margins and about the type of language that could be used. Hence we have Passover in Acts 12:4 translated to Easter (name derived from the heathen goddess of fertility- Easter bunnies, eggs etc). Certain ecclesiastical terms had to be adhered to.

The Hebrew language does not have regular written vowels like ours. If you change the vowels between three consonants in an English word you would probably have changed the meaning of the word completely. In Hebrew you would just make it change to something related to it, like house changing meaning into home or family depending on the vowel sounds you used. Which vowels were used were passed down orally but as time went by it became imperative that they find a way of preserving these vowel sounds in writing. About 700 AD they came up with a system of dots and lines that could be added to the sacred text in a way that left it undisturbed and these are known as nikkud.

The Jews took the very letter of the Law as sacred and in spite of their strenuous efforts to preserve the original text, errors did creep in, but they dared not correct them. Instead they produced marginal notes saying what must be read for certain words in the text which no longer made sense. These notes are known as the Quere and the text is called the Kethib.

The Old Testament was written mostly in Hebrew but most Jews actually lived outside of Palestine in other parts of the world that Alexander the Great had conquered and Hebrew was no longer their first language. In the third century BC it was translated into the language that most people spoke which was the Koine or common version of Greek. Most of the quotations from the Old in the New testament are taken from this version which is known as the Septuagint or LXX for short.

It was natural for the New Testament to be written in this ‘English of that day’. This would have been the second and sometimes first language of the people in first century Palestine and throughout much of the Roman empire.

Greek has many tenses that need a few words of English to do justice to the meaning and they are formed by small changes to the basic word and the word order is not as rigid as in English.

There is a definite article – a word for THE (actually there are three words for THE depending on it referring to a masculine/ feminine or neuter noun and it is not always obvious which of these genders a thing falls into.Greek does not have an A or AN (indefinite article) as we do. But the lack of the definite article doesn’t always warrant an A or AN in translation, it can indicate a quality and in the case of theos can mean godlike or divine.

Translators beware! 

If they put in the A or AN, it might not be strictly correct or if they put in the THE every time it occurs it might make very stunted reading; leaving the THE out can alter the meaning that was intended.

There are about eighty places where Jesus is called or calls himself “the son of the man” in the Greek but the traditional translation drops the second the. Now what would that say to a Jew who was waiting for the son of David to come to rescue the nation? The traditional translation misses the point.

When God is referred to he is the god (ho theos) because in those days lots of mortal men were called gods such as magistrates or others with power or authority. However if it was literally translated every time then it would be awkward to read.

One solution would be to write God with a capital G and theos without the definite article would necessarily be god with a small g. In the traditional translations both get a capital G unless the translator’s theology forbids it. So in Philippians 2 we see that there is no definite article in “equal to god” or in “in the form of god” but there is when we read that God exalted him and gave him a name over all names. But translators’ preconceptions usually use a capital G throughout.

Similarly the porter who carried your case would have addressed you as lord (kurios) in the same way as today he might address you as Sir. So at that time neither the words god nor lord would have to have the meanings that we have come to attach to them.

Reader beware!

Those who have translated our Bible have not had an easy job. They have had to make decisions on the translation of words from long ago from books written in capital letters and often without spaces between the words. Ancient manuscripts were hand copied before the invention of the printing press which gave rise to slight changes being introduced by accident and sad to say some maybe not so accidental. We know how church historians have played fast and loose with historical records to make themselves look better and their foes worse.

When they have come to a translation crossroad, they have often chosen the path that confirms their theology and then the circle is completed by the theology being confirmed by those same translations.

However, God’s word has stood the test and although the letter may have at times been corrupted, the spirit of the word shines through and with a bit of effort we can bypass the translators and their choices and we can make up our own minds about what the word really says. Jesus says that his spoken words are life and they are spirit. May we indeed hear what the spirit says to the “called out”.

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