Bible Translation — God-Approved

“That Book in Your Hand”

“That Book in Your Hand” is probably a translation.  Not very many of us are fluent in Biblical Hebrew and ancient Koine Greek.  So as we look to the Bible, we rely on translations.   In this, we differ from Muslims:

According to modern Islamic theology, the Qur’an is a revelation very specifically in Arabic, and so it should only be recited in the Arabic language. Translations into other languages are necessarily the work of humans and so, according to Muslims, no longer possess the uniquely sacred character of the Arabic original. Since these translations necessarily subtly change the meaning, they are often called “interpretations.”

We believe the Bible can be translated.  We believe its divine nature survives translation.  We don’t believe this simply because we believe it, but because the Bible itself tells us so.

Rewind

Sermons on the nature of the Bible (Bibliology):

  1. The inspiration of the Scriptures, their divine nature, from II Timothy 3:16.
  2. The moving of the Spirit in giving us the Scriptures, from II Peter 1:19-21.
  3. The inerrancy of God’s Word (its complete reliability).
  4. The preservation of God’s Word.
  5. The illumination of the Scriptures, the work of the Holy Spirit in helping us to understand spiritual truths.
  6. The perspicuity of Scripture — the Scriptures can be understood and rightly interpreted.
  7. The canon of Scripture — this wasn’t a sermon, but it belongs in this study on Bibliology
  8. The unity of Scripture — it is one Book by one Author with one unifying message.
  9. The sufficiency of Scripture — the Bible is complete, and provides all we need to bring us to salvation and to guide us in a God-honouring life.

This series on “That Book in Your Hand” closes with the discussion of Bible translations.  Too many discussions of Bible translations generate more heat than light.  People base statements on emotion, intellectualism, non-Biblical or extra-Biblical authorities, and just about everything else.

I have much to say about translations, so this is going to take multiple posts.  I have no illusion that I’m going to end the translations debate :), and I’m sure some of my readers will disagree with at least some of my conclusions.  But I’m going to try to do something which, it seems, far too many people neglect — I want to start with Scripture.  The Scriptures are true.  My conclusions are obviously open to question, but I trust I’ll be able to at least present why I believe they are built upon Scriptural principles.

I’ll begin with the Scriptural authorisation of translation.  This topic is sometimes neglected, so I want to cover several points, and I’ll take more than one post on it.

An Important Teaching

The quote above on Islamic teaching actually sounds like what some Bible teachers say.  They tell us it was inspired in the original documents, that copying and translation are necessarily the work of humans, and so the result (especially of translation) no longer carries the sacred character of the original documents. Christian teachers don’t go as far as to say we shouldn’t recite translated Scripture, but that is actually not that far logically from what they do say.

If God didn’t say English words, should I recite English words with the claim, “God said?” What gives me the right to make that claim about any English words, if they don’t have the sacred character of the words God actually said?  What gives me the right to use English words at all in the place of God’s words?

As the Islamic challenge grows, and as they say something about their book that some Bible teachers will say about “That Book in Your Hand,” we need to be sure that we view things like Bible translation through a Biblical lens.

Why do we translate the Bible, anyway? Does the Scripture tell us to do so? If we believe in the sufficiency of Scripture, surely we won’t do anything as important as translating the Bible, and using a translation in our teaching, preaching, and personal Bible reading, if the Bible doesn’t authorise us to do so.

Are we really to rely on an entirely human work for our knowledge of God?  If so, if I’m dependent on human effort, I at least want to know it was God that planned it that way.  Otherwise, I’ll work harder on my Hebrew and Greek, start teaching my kids the original languages, and replace our Bible studies with language studies until everyone in our church can read the “real Bible” in Hebrew and Greek.  There’s no point in using an English Bible if it isn’t a real Bible.

Self-Translation

Mark 15:34

And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? which is, being interpreted, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

The Bible actually translates itself in several places, giving a phrase (in this case) or (more commonly) a word or name from one language and then translating it into the language of the readers.  In this case, Jesus quotes from Psalm 22:1 in Aramaic, and Mark translates it into Greek for his readers.  This case is perhaps more unusual than most because Jesus is Himself quoting a translation — the Aramaic version of Psalm 22:1 (it was originally written in Hebrew).

This gives us three interesting facts about translation.  First, Jesus quoted a translated version of Scripture.  He did not say that He was quoting Scripture, but the citation is obvious.  Second, the Holy Spirit considered the original language wording of Jesus’ statement important enough to record, even though He was providing us an inspired translation.  Third, He wanted Mark’s Greek readers, who didn’t know the original language, to know what it meant in their own language.

Jesus’ use of translated Scripture (He could have quoted it in the Hebrew) and the Holy Spirit’s provision of a translation into Greek both provide an implicit endorsement of Bible translation.

Use of Different Languages

The Bible is written in three languages.  The Old Testament is written almost entirely in Hebrew, the language of the people of Israel to whom it was given.  Daniel 2-7 (and some letters in Ezra) are in Aramaic, the language of the people of Babylon.  These chapters deal with God’s sovereignty over the human kingdoms of this world — it was largely a message for the nations, teaching them of the God of Heaven, who gives kingdoms to whom He will.  The rest of Daniel deals with Israel’s history in relation to those kingdoms, and is written in Hebrew — the language of the people for whom it was written.  The New Testament is written in Koine (common) Greek (not classical Greek), the commonly used language of the Roman Empire, the language of the people to whom it was addressed.

The Scriptures model the principle that they are to be presented in the language of those to whom they are given.  This implies, though not directly teaching, that God intended the Scriptures to be translated, and that we can use a translation of His Word, and should translate it for those who do not have it in their language.

Old Testament Used in the New

Hebrews 3:7

Wherefore (as the Holy Ghost saith, To day if ye will hear his voice,

The Old Testament is often quoted in the New Testament, often with words that emphasise the authority which the New Testament writers recognised in the Old Testament.  This verse is one of the most striking because of its wording.

Words of the Spirit

To understand the force of this verse, we need to understand that it begins a quote of Psalm 95:7-11.  Psalm 95 is written in Old Testament Hebrew.  Hebrews, which quotes it, is written in New Testament Greek, and quotes Greek words.  In other words, the last part of verse seven (and the verses that follow) is a translation.

Yet, the writer of Hebrews makes a stark claim — the Holy Ghost says this.  The Greek words that he recites are not the Hebrew words originally given, but he still says they are the words of the Holy Spirit.

No one believes there was any such thing as a divinely superintended Greek translation of the Old Testament.  Yet, we come back to this — Greek words, recounting Psalm 95 but replacing the original Hebrew words, were identified as a saying of the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit Saith

There is another aspect of this wording that we shouldn’t overlook.  When it says, “saith,” it is indicating a present tense, continuous action.  We might say, “The Holy Ghost is saying,” in modern English.

Our tendency would be to say, “The Holy Ghost said” — way back, 1000 years ago when the Spirit told David what to write.  That is not what the Scriptures say, it treats Him as still speaking presently (and in a translation).  As we’ve seen previously in this study, the Bible is a living Book, possessing a divine nature breathed into it by the Almighty.  When we hear the words of “That Book in Your Hand,” we hear the words of the Spirit speaking today, even though it is a translation.  The divine nature of that Book has not been killed by translation, and any translation in any language, where accurate, gives us the words of God.  It is as alive and effective in English (or any other modern language) as in the original.  God’s truth is not restricted to any language.

Hebrews 3:7 is hardly unique.  It is consistent with the way the New Testament cites the Old Testament over and over again.  Jesus said that David spoke by the Spirit (Matthew 22:43-44), and then He recited Greek words.  In Acts 1, Peter spoke Greek words (quoting the Old Testament Hebrew) and attributed them to the Spirit.  There is never a hint, in any of the quotes of the Old Testament in the Greek New Testament, that the translated words have lost any of the authority or divine character of the original.

More than anything else in Scripture, the Biblical pattern of citing translated words provides authorisation by God for our use of a translated Bible. The Lord Jesus Christ and the New Testament writers cited translated words.  They treated them as authoritative, powerful, as the very words of God.

The Bible is not like the Koran.  The Koran is a dead book, written by a man or men who are no longer alive.  Its nature will not survive the human work of translation — that is what Muslims teach, and they are correct about their book.

The Bible is a living Book, written by the living Spirit of God.  It is divine in nature, and the Bible itself indicates that its living, divine nature survives translation.  We do not need to say that a human work of translating the Scriptures destroys their divine nature.  A sovereign God who wants His Word to go to the nations ensures that it will not. He is Creator, Lord, and Master of all things, including languages, and He is able to maintain the power of His Word in any language.

We can apply the words “God said” to faithfully translated words, even if they are in English (or another language) rather than in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek.  It is appropriate to translate the Scriptures, to use a translation, and to cite translated words as the very words of the God who created laungauges.

About Jon Gleason

Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
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