Someone once commented to me that there are an awful lot of bible translations. I don’t know for sure, but what they said had the tone of someone who had thrown up their hands in the belief that no one can know what the truth is. While there are some challenges to understanding what certain phrases may mean exactly, it should be a comfort to know that the foundations of Christianity are not disputed in any competent work.
God as creator, the gift of His son Jesus, His death and resurrection, His coming and a final judgment are easily discernible. And what he expects of us — we can understand that too.
But what about the differences? Let’s begin that discussion with a short primer on the kinds of bible translations we have today. Basically, bibles will fall into two camps. One is called formal equivalence and the other dynamic equivalence, or some now use the term, functional equivalence. In a formal equivalent translation an attempt to translate word for word is the goal. Whereas, in a functional equivalent translation the goal is to exchange a phrase for a phrase to convey the idea of the original. Word for word translations can be hard to understand because we lack the cultural context to discern the meaning of certain phrases. The problem with phrase to phrase translations is,the translators ideas and biases can creep into the text because he decides what a phrase means and then relays that thought to you in words he believes you can understand.
The King James Bible is a formal equivalence translation –but not always. They knew certain phrases would make no sense to an English speaking public.
An example would be Psalms 73:21 Where the literal reading would be something like —-My heart is soured and my kidneys are pierced. The KJV reads–
Psalms 73:21 KJV
- Thus my heart was grieved, and I was pricked in my reins.
In the Hebrew thought the kidneys were the source of our innermost moral and emotional impulses. But the original text sounds a lot like a medical condition. Yuck!
In this case, I believe a functional equivalent translation helps our understanding of what was meant— The NIV reads– 21 When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered. It seems David was under going inward turmoil not some dreaded medical condition.
Another example would be Psalms 103:8 The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy. The phrase slow to anger literally says– slow to nose. In the Hebrew culture they noticed that our nostrils flare when we are angry, hence the word for nose, which was the physical manifestations of anger was used to convey anger.
Sometimes though a verse may vary considerably between bible translations. An example would be KJV Psalms 29:9 where it says “The voice of the LORD maketh the hinds (deer) to calve”…. The NIV reads “The voice of the LORD twists the oaks“– Why the difference? Well the Hebrew reads literally –“The voice of the LORD makes the strong leaders turn”. The thing is, the word for deer stag and Oak is the same word. The stag in the Hebrew mind was one of the more powerful creatures of the forest, hence a strong leader. And the Oak when compared to other trees, such as pine, was seen as superior; perhaps because it is a harder wood hence prominent among the trees of the forest. Which one was meant can usually be figured out by it’s context. When the context lacks sufficient detail, confusion can result.
Another example would be Job 17:1. The KJV reads “My breath is corrupt…” and the NIV reads “My spirit is broken…”. The Hebrew word here can refer to our literal breath or to who we are –our character. That’s why some commentators on this verse talk about his long sickness manifesting itself as an ill smell on his breath and others talk about the state of his emotions.
So which is it? Inquiring minds want to know. Deer or oak—breath or spirit? It’s difficult to say for sure but what difference does it make really? Neither interpretation will bring you nearer or further away from God. The bible’s pretty clear on what God expects and what the requirements for salvation are no matter what translation you use as long as it’s authentic ,not some hack job. Whether you read the NIV the KJV, HCSB or others, you can be confident you will be accepted by God. If you accept the scriptures clear teachings and follow them.
So now you see some of the difficulties translators face. Not to mention the fact that English itself is always changing. Conversation in King James day meant manner of life—not verbal communication as we do now. Peculiar now means strange or odd. Then it meant a special possession or property. So when reading 1Peter 2:9 in the KJV where it says we are a peculiar people – he didn’t mean odd he meant special. Modern translations can help us not make simple mistakes because word usage has changed.
So what is best to choose. A more literal translation or a phrase for phrase one. I say, why not both, so we can balance the one against the other. There’s seeing, and then there’s seeing the whole of something. Black and white TV was great—but who wants to give up color. Because everyone’s wiring tends to vary, ideas can impact us differently depending on how it’s phrased. I think it also helps us not to stray from sound teaching. How you ask? By helping us prove or disprove what we think the scriptures are saying. Unsound beliefs may not send us to hell, but they can interfere with how we interact with God and others.
No more excuses. We have a lot of quality material at hand let’s make the most of them. When we know the truth, then we are equipped to help set others free.
I am grateful for all God’s teachers and know that I stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before. These sites were of a great service to me http://www.ancient-hebrew.org/index.html and http://biblestudymagazine.com/ much (though not all) of the info comes from sources on these sites.