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Reading the Bible

Ok, so awhile ago someone asked me about the different versions of the Bible. Does it really matter? If you can read NT Greek and Hebrew then, fantastic, your all set, but for most of us (including myself despite four years of taking Greek and Hebrew) this isn't an option. so we rely on modern translations, whether it's the King James, the NIV, the RSV, etc, but does it matter? Sometimes, in all the translations, the translation is good and other times it is not. So how can you tell the difference?

We’ve been told that it doesn’t really matter which translation you use, I’m arguing that it does. But is there one English translation that is always %100 spot on? No. It’s not that they get the translation wrong (at least not always) it’s that words and phrases over time change their meaning. Take for example Proverbs 29:18 “Where there is no vision the people perish”. You’ve heard that one right, usually at the beginning of the year on a Church’s vision Sunday. That is the king James version, the only version that says this. Today the word “vision” has a completely different connotation than it had in 1611 (or previous dates of updates of the KJV). Vision had nothing to do with corporate statements, this vision was prophetic vision. And people perishing meant that people were perishing in sin, dying in sin, not, as we read it today, perishing in a corporate or communal sense. No other translation words it this way, the others say something to the effect of “where there is no prophetic vision, the people cast of restraint.” These say two complete different things.

Here’s the thing, you don’t have to be a Greek or Hebrew scholar to understand this and to know how to get to the real meaning of a text or to differentiate versions of the Bible.

Read the text in Context: The problem we often have is that when someone quotes a Bible verse in a sermon or Christian book the often only quote one sentence or part of one sentence. If you read the context of Proverbs 29, you’ll see it has nothing to do with setting vision statements, it clearly speaks about fathers correcting their sons so they don’t sin (ie cast of restraint), later portions of this chapter talk about dealing with servants, but all in an effort to make sure that people are living with restraint.

Look at other translations: You can also look to various translations. Keep a couple around, and if you have a text that you don’t understand take a look at what the other translations say. While some say you should only ever use one version I think it’s important to look at several. Those versions are those who have been scholarly tested and time tested like the KJV, RSV, NRSV, ESV, or the NIV.

Understand a good translation from a bad one: This is often difficult. But there are versions of the Bible out there that are motivated by other things than getting to the truth. The New World Translation, the Holy Bible: King James version (When stated in that exact order), the Recovery Version Bible, are all cult Bibles, Bibles from the JW’s, Mormons, and other cults create their own versions of the Bible to fit their doctrines. I made the mistake of owning and reading a New World Translation, it was clearly not the same Bible.

-There are other versions of the Bible that may be from good translations but they are what is called “niche” Bibles, they are Bible for a particular group of people or for a people who think or believe a certain way. While the content of the Bible is the same, these often add other things, like emphasis on certain texts or leading commentary to point to aspects and meanings that the author deems important to that group. This is fine at times, but the problem with these versions is that the author(s) is leading us to a certain meaning rather than allowing the Bible and the Holy Spirit to lead us to what God is trying to say through that text.
-This can include versions of the Bible that are denominationally or doctrinally specific. The Passion Bible, the Jerusalem Bible, or the TNIV are all popular versions of this type of translation. These translations read into their definition of certain texts via their doctrinal differences. For instance the TNIV takes out all gender language and uses genderless pronouns which were not used in the original text. The Passion Bible inserts phrases and words that are not in the original text adding footnotes to say that these statements are “implied”. For instance Galatians 2:19 says, in the Greek, “Hina zao theos” which plainly says “that I might live for God”, the “Passion translation” says “that I might live for God in heaven’s freedom”. They add an implied statement that comes from a doctrinal understanding, rather than from what is written.

-Some versions of the Bible are not actually the Bible at all. The most famous is the “message”. If you read the message, don’t read it like it’s the Bible. Read it like it’s a Christian book about the Bible. Because, that is what it is, it is not the Bible. It is Eugene Peterson’s understanding of the Bible. Peterson does not even claim that it’s a translation, because it is not. It is not a modern translation of the Bible, it is Peterson’s rewording of the Bible to express some of his views on the Bible, which are sometimes correct and sometimes incorrect, just like any other book, but it’s not the Bible.

If it’s a modern version, look at who contributes and who endorses it. If the people contributing to the translation and endorsing the translation are all Pentecostals, or all liberal, or all Presbyterian, or Baptist, etc, then you’re probably dealing with a denominationally motivated translation, and it’s best to avoid them.

If the Bible is given to you, know who gave it to you and why: this is how I ended up owning and reading a New World Translation. A JW gave it to me, only, I didn’t know they were a JW. I was very young and didn’t have a good deal of Biblical understanding so I read it and accepted it, until someone told me what it was. Often cult Bibles are given out quite freely, those giving them will act as if they are regular versions of the Bible. They are not.

Don’t take shortcuts: The Bible can be difficult to understand, that’s Ok, because it’s in the studying and wrestling with the meaning that we find the real truth. Many people end up turning to non-Bibles because they don’t want to take the time to study, or they think they can’t study. The reality is, is that it is OK if you don’t understand something and you have to wrestle with it or ask someone else.

It’s OK to disagree with pastors and famous Christian authors: If your reading a translation or commentary and you come up with something different from what your preacher said or your favourite Christian author said, study it further, you might be right, and if you are don’t be afraid to talk about it. But never accept things at face value. 500 years ago Martin Luther stood up so you could have the ability to read and study the Bible for yourself, don’t be afraid to use that freedom.

About the author

Erik Liljegren

Erik Liljegren

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