Translating The Bible

The other day I was in church and the sermon focused on a particular passage in the Bible’s book of Acts. It was a pretty well known passage in Acts 2 that talks about the first Christians. After Jesus had ascended into heaven, the Spirit of God had empowered the first Christians to do miraculous things, and huge things were happening that caused the explosive growth of the number of believers. The passage goes like this.

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers. (Holman Christian Standard Bible)

This is way the Holman translation puts the passage. My church tends to really like the Holman translation of the Bible and I generally do too, although from time to time I fight with it a little. But it got me thinking about Bible versions and translations, and maybe it might be a good opportunity to tease out the ideas a bit.

I’ll divert from this passage a bit, but eventually we will come back to it. But before we do, we need to answer a few key questions about the Bible, and how it should be translated.

So, why care what the Bible has to say at all?

First of all, as a Christian I believe that the Bible is the Word of God. This means that every word of it is ‘breathed’ from God. In that sense, it is without error. At the same time, it was written down by people. Paul, who wrote many of the books in the New Testament, uses words that are particular to him. You also see his personality come out.

For instance, in Galatians 5, Paul is speaking quite passionately about people who are following him after he leaves a town and teaching the newly believing Christians that they have to become Jews and follow all the Jewish rules in order to be Christians. He is particularly angry at their teaching the new Christians that they have to get circumcised in order to be Christians. He is really just using circumcision as a symbol for their whole teaching. The message about Jesus was that you couldn’t live up to a bunch of rules. A big list of rules would only prove that you couldn’t be perfect enough to deserve God’s favor.

But the people who were following Paul were saying to the new Christians, “Well…yes, you have to follow Jesus. He’s the only path to God…well, and following all of the Jewish laws too.” So Paul writes that he wishes the people teaching this would just “Go the whole way and emasculate themselves.” In other words, he wishes they would cut everything off, instead of just a little foreskin. Paul is mad. His personality is coming out.

But doesn’t that make the Bible less perfect, or less important?

Let’s say that you believed that God is real (which I do) and that Jesus is God with human skin, and that He was executed even though he’d done nothing to deserve it…but He didn’t stay dead. He’s alive. And finally, that He alone is the pathway to get to God’s love. If you believed that; I mean, really believed it—and I told you that there was a communication directly from this God about all of this, and that communication was directly to you and had all of the answers to all of life’s problems, and a complete explanation of your own purpose—then that communication would likely become the most important thing in your life. Wouldn’t it?

Well, I believe all of those things. I am also right now realizing that I spend way too little of my time and energy on it.

However, different from some other “holy” books in the world, Christianity has never believed that the exact letters and the very paper the words are on is what makes the Bible powerful. The Bible was written originally in several languages (e.g. Aramaic, Koine Greek, Hebrew, etc) and we don’t read it in any of those. Christians have always believed it is the meaning behind the words that are what’s important.

That idea is really powerful. It is what means that a Christian in Vietnam, another in El Salvador, Kenya, and America can all have a relationship with the same God, even though we can’t understand a word the other is saying. But, it also creates some interesting challenges.

One of those challenges is in Bible translation. Instead of making learning the original languages of the Bible a barrier for a person to learn in order to hear the words of God, the burden is for other mature Christians to translate the Bible into the languages of each people group. That allows people to connect to God in their own language directly.

Christians also don’t have a learned gate-keeper who knows the original language as the only ones to explain God to the masses. In fact, the Bible says that there is only one between God and each human, and that mediator is Jesus. It is not a priest or someone who can read a foreign language. No, you can go to God directly. So, the Bible must be put into the language that each person speaks.

But the problem is that every language is different. There are words in some languages that just aren’t in other languages. For instance, the German word for “T-shirt” is “T-shirt.” In French it is written “T-Shirt.” In Dutch, it’s “T-shirt” again. It’s the same in Malay, Swedish, and Serbian. It isn’t a mere coincidence that these words are the same. It is because those languages lacked their own suitable term for the relatively new apparel item, so they just borrowed the English one. This is the same reason why the Japanese for “homerun” is pronounced “home-u-run.” Check it out on Google Translate—it’s fun.

There are also phrases that mean different things in different languages even when the words are translated directly. In high school German class every year we would meet the new foreign exchange students from Germany. One year an American guy told a German girl that he was hot from being outside. The literal translation of “I am hot,” in German meant that he was very excited sexually. That wasn’t what he was trying to say at all, even though the words were the same.

Also, certain nuances of language aren’t always easy to translate to another language either because of difference in culture and things like geography. When I first moved to Texas some teenagers told me that they were going out that night to “roll someone.” Being from California, I was desperate to stop them. They were nice kids and they didn’t seem like they were in a gang, let alone be inclined to the violence of a drive-by shooting. It wasn’t too long before they explained that here in Texas, that term referred to covering someone’s house and trees in the middle of the night with rolls of toilet paper, something we called TP’ing in California.

These three issues I just listed can lead to real errors in translating something as important (and both culturally and religiously intricate) as the Bible.

How does this work in real translation?

For instance, the Greek word βαπτιζω (baptizō) is usually not translated at all, but transliterated into English letters, and has become an English word, baptize. My college Greek professor would take off a point when any of us did that, because that Greek word actually means “immerse” or “dunk under water.” It was a pretty common word in ancient Greek. One might tell others to “baptizo” their clothes in order to wash them. Many translators simply basically refused to translate it, as the method of baptism had become quite controversial long before the Bible was ever put into English.  But wherever you see the English word “baptize,” the Greek, βαπτιζω is there.

Another example can be seen in the Roman’s 16:16 passage where Paul tells Christians to “Greet each other with a holy kiss.” There are radically different understandings of this among Christians in different places. When I was in Nicaragua as a 19 year old, a beautiful young girl in the church saying hello and kissing both cheeks was I thought, the only proper thing for a Christian to do. Other Christians say this is a cultural artifact and should be put into whatever cultural context it fits best. In America, this often means saying hi to Uncle Bubba with a handshake, which I think is just fine too.

But, that is where an important question should be asked. Should Romans 16 be translated “Greet each other with a holy kiss,” or is “Greet each other with warm affection” good enough? Should a reader of the Bible be trusted to reflect on the cultural-linguistic “baggage” of the text, or should the reader be led to a best interpretation?

Does this really affect real theology?

Yes, it does.

This leads us back to the passage that I started with. It seems innocuous, but there are versions of Acts 2:42 that read similar to the following:

They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers. (The Message)

I’m not actually picking on the Message too much. Eugene Peterson was very explicit in his description that his version was not a translation and not to be used for study like this, but to augment and aid those who couldn’t understand the Bible well in other versions. I have also seen similar wording in a few other versions (e.g. NLT, CEV, ERV, etc). Which I think is even worse.

The problem with this is really in the wording of “eating together,” or “sharing a common meal.” The actual Greek here is κλασει του αρτου  or literally “breaking of the bread.”

Here is where it gets difficult.

According to Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, this phrase was a pretty common one. Having a meal always involved a loaf of bread, which had to be physically broken to start the meal. The phrase did often mean to “share a meal.”

However, this phrase as used in New Testament almost always refers directly to Communion, a ceremonial remembrance of Jesus broken body and shed blood for the forgiveness of sin for all who believe. The only cases where we don’t see this connected to the Last Supper/Communion is when Jesus breaks the bread to feed the 5,000 in Mark 8 (which is often seen as a foreshadowing of the Last Supper), or in Luke 24, where the resurrected Jesus breaks the bread with His disciples and they suddenly realize it’s him, which is a post-shadow of the Last Supper.

There are Christian traditions that have then followed what they think Acts 2:42 is saying and have Communion every time they meet. The entire Catholic mass is also based on this precedent. So, it is most decidedly not a fringe interpretation within Christiandom.

So maybe it could be interpreted “they shared a common meal,” or maybe it is trying to say that “they devoted themselves to…having Communion together.” I’m wasn’t there, so I’m going to take a pass on being the authority in translating this passage into modern English.

But I think that is the point. In most cases, those translating the Bible should do the same that I just did. I do not doubt that people who are doing this work are generally quite honorable, but the whole thing is built on the idea that the reader gets to prayerfully decide. The translator isn’t the “mediator between God and man,” that is Jesus’ place alone.

I think we should take a pretty hard stance on most of this. We need to be really careful in changing the text. There are modern attempts to make the text more gender inclusive, more hip, and even more embracing of the common American understanding of sexual ethics. All of this is quite dangerous. If this is a communication directly from God to His people, then any translator should want to tread as lightly as possible. It should be his/her goal to make the words of God as accessible as possible and insert his own opinion as little as possible. -Ryan

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.