“That Book in Your Hand”
How much authority does your translation,”That Book in Your Hand,” really have? Should we shrug it off as just a translation? That’s what the Mormons have historically done, saying it is true as far as it is accurately translated, and then largely disregarding anything that is uncomfortable to their beliefs because “it must not have been translated correctly.” Or should we say, as some have, “I don’t care what the Greek says, I want to know what the Bible in my hand says?”
Sermons on the nature of the Bible (Bibliology):
- The inspiration of the Scriptures, their divine nature, from II Timothy 3:16.
- The moving of the Spirit in giving us the Scriptures, from II Peter 1:19-21.
- The inerrancy of God’s Word (its complete reliability).
- The preservation of God’s Word.
- The illumination of the Scriptures, the work of the Holy Spirit in helping us to understand spiritual truths.
- The perspicuity of Scripture — the Scriptures can be understood and rightly interpreted.
- The canon of Scripture — this wasn’t a sermon, but it belongs in this study on Bibliology
- The unity of Scripture — it is one Book by one Author with one unifying message.
- 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.
Previous post on Bible translations:
- Scripture translation is approved by God, as we can see by the use of languages in the Bible and the use of translated Old Testament passages in the New Testament.
- Scripture translation is a necessary part of God’s plan, continuing the pattern of taking the Gospel to people where they are, a pattern which reached its highest expression when God became man.
A Sure Word of Prophecy
II Peter 1:19-21
19 We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts:
20 Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.
21 For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.
I’ve written about this passage before in regard to translations, but I’d like to address it here again.
Peter is writing in Greek. Galatians 2:7-8 tells us that Peter had a particular ministry to the Jews, but we know from the same chapter, and from Acts 10, that his ministry was not exclusively to Jews, and here he writes to a Greek-speaking audience. Some of his readers may have been Jews and understood the original Hebrew Old Testament Scriptures, but that would not be true of all his readers. Some of them would have had to rely on a translation.
His Readers’ Translation
The history of the Greek translation of the Old Testament is somewhat uncertain. It is known as the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX), because tradition held that 70 (or 72) elders translated the first five books of the Old Testament independently and came up with the identical translation. We don’t really know the date and origin of the translation, or how similar the LXX that we have now is to the Greek Old Testament which Peter’s readers would have used.
In the New Testament, when the Old Testament is quoted in Greek, some of the quotes match the Septuagint as we have it today, and some do not. We can’t assume that Peter’s readers used the LXX as we have it. What we do know is that the LXX which we have today is rather a loose translation of the Hebrew. No one would honestly call it a perfect translation (though some Jewish tradition, as I mentioned above, claimed divine intervention in its translation), nor is there any reason to think Peter’s readers had a perfect translation.
Confidence in a Translation
In light of the knowledge that Peter’s readers were using an imperfect translation, his wording is stark: “We have also a more sure word of prophecy.” His intent is obviously to include them when he says, “We have,” so he is talking about their “Book-in-Hand,” what they have. Peter doesn’t caution them about translational errors, or tell them they need to learn the Hebrew — he tells them to have confidence in “That Book in Their Hands,” a “more sure word of prophecy.”
There is nothing in this passage that tells them to take out their Strong’s concordance to look up the number to find the Hebrew word. He just tells them it is a “sure word” to which they need to “take heed” — to listen and obey.
Preach the Word
II Timothy 3:15-4:2
14 But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them;
15 And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.
16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
17 That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.
1 I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom;
2 Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.
This passage is very similar to the one above in some respects. Paul is exhorting Timothy about the profitability of the Word of God which he is to preach. But Paul is writing to Timothy in Greek, which was almost certainly Timothy’s primary language since his father was Greek, and Timothy was preaching the Word in Ephesus (I Timothy 1:3, II Timothy 1:16-18). So when Paul says to Timothy, “Preach the Word,” he is telling him to preach Greek words to Greek-speaking people.
A Translation in View
As with I Peter, we know that the reference to the Scriptures here includes the Old Testament, and so has to have some kind of Greek translation in view. In I Peter it was obvious because of the reference to prophecy “in old time.” Here, we have the reference to “all Scripture” in 3:16, but if there was any doubt, verse fifteen removes it.
The words “holy Scriptures” (hiera grammata in the Greek) are a hapax legomenon (appearing only here in the New Testament), but they were used by the Jews to refer to the Old Testament (near contemporaries such as Philo and Josephus used the term). Verse fifteen, then, has the Old Testament in view, both from the contemporary usage of the words and the fact that probably none of the New Testament was written when Timothy was a child. Verse sixteen expands beyond that with the inclusive “all Scripture,” so when we come to “preach the Word” in 4:2, it is clear that this includes the Old Testament and any of the New Testament which he had in his possession.
Side note: It is most likely that 3:15 also refers to a translation. Timothy’s Jewish mother taught him the Scriptures, and she could have taught him Hebrew, but it seems doubtful. He was not circumcised as a child, so we know his Greek father wanted him to be raised as a Gentile, not a Jew. While he might have permitted Timothy to be taught Aramaic (the spoken language in Israel at that time), Hebrew may have been a step too far — that would be religious training. We can’t be sure, but probably Timothy learned as a child from a Greek or Aramaic translation of the Old Testament Scriptures.
A Profitable Translation
As I noted earlier in my discussion of inspiration, the Word that Timothy was to preach (in 4:2) is the same Scripture that Paul identified as profitable in 3:16-17. There was no chapter break when Paul wrote and Timothy read — there is a direct link between the end of chapter three and the beginning of chapter four. Both are talking about the Word which Timothy is to preach.
When Paul says that the Scripture is theopneustos (inspired), he is saying that the divine nature which Scriptures possess (because of their divine origin) is present in the Word Timothy is to preach, and thus it is profitable for him to preach it.
Paul makes no disclaimer: “Well, I really only mean that the original Hebrew has that divine nature, and is profitable. If you are going to really ‘preach the Word,’ you’d better make sure you explain the original Hebrew to your hearers!”
Surprising Statement of the Day
The two most important passages on the origin and authority of our Scriptures (II Peter 1:19-21, II Timothy 3:14-4:2) were written to those using translated Scriptures and thus had to have translations in view, and they made no direct reference to the original languages in affirming that authority, nor did they place any explicit limits on that authority.
Something that is anchored is secure — the authority of a translation is anchored and secure, not adrift. I am dismayed by teachers who repeatedly undermine the confidence that believers have in “That Book in Your Hand,” implying that you really can’t rely on your translation.
There is nothing Biblical about treating a translation of the Bible as “just a translation.” This is a Spirit-infused, living Book, both in the original and in translation. It makes us wise to salvation (II Timothy 3:15), is divine in nature (3:16), is profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness (3:16), is able to completely equip us for every good work (3:17), and can be used to preach, reprove, rebuke, and exhort with doctrine (4:2). It is a sure word of prophecy, a light shining in a dark place (II Peter 1:19). Every one of those statements applies to the translated Scriptures, “That Book in Your Hand.”
Furthermore, it is highly probable that the teacher who undermines the authority of your translation knows less of the original Greek and Hebrew than any of the translators who worked on it, and he certainly knows less than the pooled knowledge of the translation committee. In most cases, he is relying on what he has read, hopefully at least combined with some level of functional knowledge of the original language. He is (at best) appealing to a level of expertise which is comparable to that of the translators. If he says they translated the Bible wrongly, there’s a good chance he’s trusting the wrong expert, or that he simply doesn’t understand the reason for the translational choice they made.
The Basis of the Security
An anchor is only secure if it holds to something. If that anchor cable leads to an anchor that isn’t secured to the bottom, then it doesn’t do much good to talk about the strength of the anchor or the cable.
In both II Peter and II Timothy, the rock to which that anchor holds is clear — it is the words that God originally gave. The basis for the “sure word of prophecy” is that “holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” If your translation is saying something that is different from what those “holy men of God spake” and wrote, then it isn’t giving you that “sure word of prophecy.”
Similarly, Paul ties the authority of the Scriptures, translated or not, to their divine nature as carrying and conveying the breath of God. But the Scriptures will not carry and convey that breath unless God breathed it into them, so again we are anchored to the original words God has given. Neither Peter nor Paul said this, but by referring to the original giving of the Scriptures in affirming the authority of a translation, it is evident.
Second Surprising Statement of the Day
Despite the authority of a translation being limited by its accuracy, Paul and Peter didn’t specifically state this. It is taught, but only by implication, and never emphasised.
The Basis Strengthens, Rather than Undermines, Security
The tone of Scripture, when speaking to those who used translated Scriptures, is NOT to say anything that lessens the confidence of the readers in “That Book in Their Hand.” You simply can’t find Scripture where anyone is told to doubt what they hold in their hand. There may have been differing manuscripts and translational difficulties, but the Scriptures always affirm Book-in-Hand authority.
Today’s teachers, too often, sound far different. We make disclaimers about “That Book in Your Hand” that exalt intellectualism and knowledge of the original languages far out of keeping with the way the Scriptures speak of these things. That does not diminish the value and importance of studying the original languages — I’ve appealed to them in this very post to bring out something which isn’t obvious in the English. But we should not imply in our teaching that a new priesthood, that of the Greek and Hebrew scholars, alone has access to God’s Word in a reliable form.
We must not minimise the authority of a translation of the Word of God. We say with Benjamin Keach, the great English Baptist of the 17th century:
The Word of God is the Doctrine and Revelation of God’s Will, the Sense and Meaning, not barely or strictly the Words, Letters, and Syllables. This is contained exactly and most purely in the Originals, and in all Translations, so far as they agree therewith. Now though some translations may exceed others in Propriety, and significant rendering of the Originals; yet they generally, (even the most imperfect that we know of,) express and hold forth so much of the Mind, Will, and Counsel of God, as is sufficient, by the Blessing of God upon a conscientious Reading thereof, to acquaint a Man with the Mysteries of Salvation, to work in him a true Faith, and bring him to live godly, righteously, and soberly in the World, and to Salvation in the next. (emphasis added)
Nor can we dislodge a translation’s anchored authority from the original. The Scriptures themselves tie a translation’s authority firmly to the words originally given by God.
If someone exalts a translation’s authority over those original words which God gave, they are actually undermining the true authority which God intended that translation to have. They suggest a substantive difference between the original and the translation — and if that is so, then that part of the translation is the work of man, and has no more authority than my opinion, or yours.
If we are Biblical in our view of translations, we will look at how the Scriptures themselves addressed those who were using translations. When we do, we will see that translated Scriptures bear great authority, an authority which is not undermined by caveats, disclaimers, or elitist claims of intellectual superiority over the translators. We will also see, however, that the only sound reason for translation authority is the one that the Scriptures themselves gave –the translated Scriptures reflect the words which God originally gave. Thus, the authority of a translation is an anchored authority.
Note: I have not yet addressed “which translation.” It is a very important question, but the principles in this post applied to the Greek translation of the Old Testament, so they also apply to any reasonably accurate translation today.
Jon, Good post.
It seems to me that those most guilty of creating doubt about the “book in your hand” are those of the TR-only or KJV-only positions. It seems to me that they are the most likely to say, “You can’t trust the book in your hand” because it’s not the KJV or it’s not translated from the TR. In my experience, it is typically not the modern version proponents who say, “You can’t trust the book in your hand.”
It has always bothered me that this is true. Tuesday a young man who has been attending our church texted me with questions about this very topic. They arose, not from those of my persuasion, but because he had read some KJV proponents on the internet telling him he couldn’t trust the “book in his hand.” And it has created doubt and harmed his faith.
Hi, Larry. Thanks for reading such a long post, and for commenting.
I can find a lot of modern version proponents who have done their best to portray the KJV as not trustworthy. It has gone both waysl. My main concern here is not the translation debate, but an elitist attitude where preachers/teachers won’t actually say, “You can’t trust your Bible,” but their attitude towards the translated Word in the hands of the man in the pew actually gives that impression.
It is as if too many never stop and think, “Am I going to encourage people to read and trust their Bible with this comment, or do exactly the opposite by giving the impression it is hopeless if they don’t know Greek?”
As for the translation debate, I don’t think any major English translation is less precise than any known Greek translation of the OT, and Peter and Paul didn’t find it necessary to criticise those translations. So maybe some of the rhetoric on both sides could be ratched down a wee bit.
Even an intentional mistranslation such as the New World (Jehovah’s Witnesses) has enough truth that a person could be saved by reading it. That’s not to say I wouldn’t encourage someone to use a better one, but it is to say that we need to show a lot of respect for the power of God to work through even relatively poor translations.
I enjoyed this post — especially what you wrote about translations being anchored to the words God originally gave. Until then I was thinking, ‘What about the bad translations’! That is, the ones that have portions missing, or that deliberately mis-translate because of biases toward liberalism etc. Without the words God gave there is nothing to translate. That makes me interested in what you’ll say ref. ‘Which translation’? It seems to me that the original language text used as the source and the translation philosophy of the translators (their philosophy of identifying the best source text as well as their approach to that text) has a lot to do with how good the translation will be.
Hi, Tommy. You are right about key factors in assessing what is the best translation. It flows directly out of that anchored authority — so you’re anticipating where I’m going on that.
But even those poorer translations can be tremendously effective. Sort of like the Lord can use poorer preachers / teachers like us. 🙂
Amen! A case of ‘all things work together for good to them that love God’. 🙂