Troublesome Topic: Why Do the Versions of the Bible Disagree So Much?

Lesson 9 of 10

The short answer is assumptions!

Here is my full answer:

One of my desires is to give people a glimpse into the process of translating the Bible from the original languages. I am not speaking as an eminent Greek and Hebrew scholar, but rather as one who gets the job done with much effort and struggle.

However, I have noticed that there is one thing that seems to matter even more than a strong knowledge of the original languages; it is the assumptions one makes about the text and the person who penned it. When you compare different versions of the Bible and notice some striking differences, usually the reason behind them is the assumptions made, not the translator’s knowledge, or lack of knowledge, of the original language. Allow me to give you some examples of what I mean.

Here are some general examples:

-Assumptions about when Solomon turned from God to idol-worship influence the translation of the entire book of Ecclesiastes.

– Ecclesiastes is also influenced by acceptance or rejection of the idea that Solomon repented before writing Ecclesiastes. (I am convinced he did not repent!)

-Assumptions about whether Solomon and the Shulammite were married or not married influence the translation of the Song of Solomon, as does the acceptance or rejection of the idea that they got married part way through chapter three.

– Should we treat the Song of Solomon as a collection of word pictures, as literal references to a man and wife, as a competition between a king and a lowly shepherd, or as a depiction of our relationship with God? Obviously, one’s assumed starting point will direct the decisions that are made during translation. (Also, I will add that whichever of these assumptions you choose, EVERY PART of the Song must fit that assumption, or the assumption is wrong!)

– Is Revelation about future events, or about those going through persecution at the time they read it? The answer you choose would influence your translation if you were the one doing it.

– Is Revelation talking about geo-political realities (like governments and armies), or spiritual realities?

– Is the Law intended to save or to teach? This assumption also influences the ways translators render the text.

– Was the Bible intended to be of benefit to the people of all eras down through history, or only to one group of people in history? Was the Law for them, for us, or both? Was Revelation for them, for us, or both? The answer can influence the way one renders what is written in the original language.

To be fair, translators of Hebrew must rely on many assumptions, and sometimes the text does not mean what it appears to be saying. Greek is quite precise, and most of the time they followed their own grammar quite well. There are sometimes problems because Greek grammar allows things that English grammar does not. But Hebrew is a different story. Hebrew is very open, free, expressive, but not very precise. It is beautiful as poetry, but it is hard to be absolutely sure we (as foreigners) have the right meaning. Also, many of their words can mean a number of different things, and often those meanings are quite diverse. There are many things that are left out, sometimes even the main verb, and that is not always a verb of being that is left out. It is surprising the number of times that the determining factor in translating something from Hebrew is context. Context fills in those blanks, context points the direction of the passage in general, and context indicates which of several meanings is intended.

Here is a specific example:

In I Kings 11:4 we read how Solomon’s wives “turned his heart after other gods.” That part is fine. The first part of the verse indicates when that happened. The Hebrew says, time Solomon old age.” The word “time” was usually used of a precise point in time. It can mean “when” but it is a big stretch to make it mean “as” or “with the passage of time.”  Most Bible versions get this right, but the NIV renders it, “as Solomon grew old …”. Why does the NIV version stray away from the common use of this Hebrew word? The NIV translators came to this passage with an assumption that Solomon’s apostasy took place either in mid-life or shortly thereafter, giving time for him to repent and write the book of Ecclesiastes after that. I disagree with this assumption and therefore I translate that verse in a way that places his apostasy at the end of his life, as I believe fits better with the Hebrew of this verse.

The next lesson in Why Are Part of the Bible So Hard to Understand? is A Trick for Pronouncing Long Bible Names