Can We Trust the Translations?

Conversations About God (5:6)

But what about all the translations? There are about two thousand languages on earth, and there are at least parts of the Bible in almost every one of those languages. And hundreds of translations in English! The story behind each of them is long and colorful. Beginning in 1382, the “Morning Star of the Reformation,” Wycliffe, directed the translation of a magnificent Bible, all written out by hand. Printing hadn’t been invented yet. In 1525 along came Tyndale, who provided the first printed English New Testament. Ninety percent of Tyndale’s work is in our King James Version. In his Bible he was inclined to include some notes that were rather inflammatory, such as opposite the story of the Golden Calf: “Yea, but the Pope’s bull slayeth more than Aaron’s calf.” This was hardly designed to win him friends and it may have cost him his life. Poor Tyndale was arrested, strangled, and burned to death at the stake for daring to translate the Bible into such readable English.

In 1599 the great Geneva Bible was produced by the Calvinists who fled from England to the Continent. It is also called the “Breeches Bible,” because it says that “Adam and Eve took fig leaves and sewed unto themselves breeches.” And then in 1611 came the great King James Version. It was published with no notes, because the notes in preceding Bibles had stirred up so much trouble. And then there are all the revisions of the King James: The English Revised, The American Revised, The Revised Standard, The New American Standard Bible, and even The New King James Version.

Around the beginning of the Twentieth Century, the modern speech Bibles began to appear. I think of Moffatt’s great work, and Weymouth’s, and Goodspeed. The Goodspeed New Testament is still one of the very best, finished in 1923. But some were opposed to using modern speech in Bibles. In fact, some have even thought that the King James was too vulgar. A Boston man named Dickinson (in 1833), for that reason, redid the King James Version. For example, when Elizabeth and Mary met together during their pregnancies, it says in the King James, “the babe leapt in her (Elizabeth’s) womb.” And Mr. Dickinson thought that was very crude. So in his Bible he changed it to, “the embryo was joyfully agitated.” The whole Bible reads like that, all the way through.

And then there are versions that were produced by women: Mrs. Montgomery in 1925 and Helen Spurrell in 1885. There have also been many magnificent Roman Catholic translations—the Knox, the Kleist and Lilly, the Jerusalem, the New American, the Spencer, the Alberhouse, and the Rheims-Douay, the one that started it all. There are also great Jewish translations. I recall the quality translation of Genesis 2:7 in one of them: “God breathed into man the breath of life and man became a living being.” A footnote to that excellent translation says that the Hebrew word for “soul” means “the whole person, even the blood in his veins.”

There are also joint Protestant – Catholic Bibles, for example, the Revised Standard Version – RC (Roman Catholic.) There is even a joint Protestant, Catholic and Jewish Bible—the biggest one ever to come out– the Anchor Bible. In addition to these, there are translations that are especially helpful for study. The New Testament from Twenty-six Translations, for example. There are also smaller collections of translations, some with four columns and some with two.

Some translations are extremely readable, like Phillips. I think his work is so magnificent. Then there is the Good News Bible, or Today’s English Version, by the American Bible Society. The New English Bible was England’s desperate attempt to save the British Isles for Christianity. That explains why they made that one so different and so readable.

And then there are the paraphrases, like The Living Bible. It is very rewarding to read, even though its author said it is only a paraphrase. Included in this category of paraphrases are the Cotton Patch New Testament, Letters to the Saints in Atlanta, Georgia, and God Is For Real, Man. The last one is the ultimate limit, trying to make the Bible readable to the gangs that roamed the streets of New York at that time. Would you support a translator who would do that? The twenty-third Psalm in that translation turns out to be “The Lord is my probation officer,” because the intended readers had never seen sheep or a shepherd on the streets of downtown New York. I have unlimited respect for the people who have been willing to do all this work. It takes a lifetime to produce some of these translations. I even have room for the Reader’s Digest Bible, though it leaves out some of my favorite sections. It is only meant to be an appetizer.

The Bible has never been so available, and has never been so readable. Fear of versions has been lessening. People aren’t burning new translations, the way someone did when the Revised Standard Version first appeared. The address of that public burning was appropriately Furnace Street, Akron, Ohio. The right attitude towards versions, I think, is in the original Preface to the King James Bible. I wish it were still there. You see, nobody wanted the King James when it first came out. It wasn’t just the size, people were upset that the words were changed. So the men who prepared this great Bible say in the introduction, “Hath the Kingdom of God become words and syllables? Why should we be in bondage to them when we may be free?”

“In many and various ways” (Heb 1:1-3) God has spoken to us through the years. And in many and various ways those words have been translated into English and most of the other languages on this earth. How else could the gospel go to all the world? How could people find out about our God? So there is no substitute for taking the Bible (or preferably the versions, plural, of your choice) and sitting down together to read and study. Never has the evidence contained in the Bible been so readily available. And having all this evidence so readily available, let’s read it. Can we confidently come to the conclusion that we understand the meaning? That the evidence is really there? That the Bible can be trusted? And, as some of us who have spent a lot of time reading these versions believe: the Author who is behind the Bible can be trusted because there is trustworthy evidence in the record.

2 thoughts on “Can We Trust the Translations?

  1. Anna Withers

    I am in complete agreement with your comments. The enemy does not want us to read the Bible. Especially the modern versions that make the Bible understandable. We need to stop being legalistic about the Bible versions. What ever version touches our heart is the right one.

    Reply

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