The Bible Translation Blog Series
Episode 1: How did we get all these versions of the Bible?
If you've ever felt lost in the sea of Bible translations, you're not alone. The vast array of options can be overwhelming, and passionate opinions only add to the confusion. In our first blog post, we addressed the dilemma of choice, the perils of dogmatic views, and the struggles faced by new believers in navigating this complex landscape.
When it comes to choosing the “right” Bible translation I think many Christians feel stuck, confused, or even overwhelmed. Depending on your family or church tradition, you may feel like you’re expected to read “this” version or avoid “that” version no matter what. It can feel like you’re caught in the crossfire of conflicting opinions and the pressure to choose the "right" translation can be daunting.
Those who are just deciding to pick up the Bible and pursue God face a different dilemma. Which Bible Translation should you start with? There are so many to choose from. To make matters worse, when you ask your family or friends which version you should read, they often just suggest the one they’re familiar with, which may or may not be a great version to start with as a new reader of the Bible. If you ask them why they would recommend that version very few people would have any reason beyond something like, “well it’s just the one I’ve always used.” An answer that doesn’t exactly inspire confidence for a new reader.
Whether you’re a long-time Christian or just picking up the Bible for the first time, our Bible Translation Blog Series is here to guide you through the maze of translations. We'll explore the origins of popular English Bible translations, introduce the teams behind them, and shed light on the financial support that brought them to life.
Why join us on this adventure?
1. Informed Choices: Uncover the strengths and benefits of each translation, empowering you to make informed choices aligned with your spiritual journey.
2. Debunking Myths: Bid farewell to harmful rumors and opinions. We'll separate fact from fiction, dispelling myths that may cloud your understanding of the Bible in English.
3. Equip Others: Arm yourself with knowledge to guide fellow believers, especially newcomers, through the maze of translations. Let's replace confusion with clarity!
With that in mind it’s time to dive into some meat in this post. To begin, we’ll cover the basics behind where the “Bible” came from, who wrote it, which language was it written in, and what are the common English language translating philosophies. I realize that sounds a bit “heady” but hang in there with me and I’ll break it all down into plain English as we go. After all, if you don’t understand what I’m sharing, what’s the point?
OK, let’s start at the beginning. Where did the content for the Bible originally come from?
Keeping it simple and to the point. It’s helpful to know up front that the Bible is not like a traditional book, written by one or two people. The Bible was written by a variety of authors at different times and places. Some of them, like Moses, King David, Paul, or John, wrote considerably more of it than others like James, or Peter. So when you think of the “Bible” it’s good to think of it as a collection of writings from approximately 40 different people. Traditionally most scholars agree on about 35 men and then there are some others that are not explicitly named which wise people debate whom the possible authors could have been. Truth be told, some are just unknown.
These “writings” by these various authors were most often scrolls or letters that were intended to be read to the Israelites and later to the Christians in various synagogues and churches. The authors were inspired by God to write these letters. With God’s leading they would have different purposes in mind.
For example, some writings were meant to be poetry or words to a song. Intended for the benefit of a mostly non-reading and non-writing audience. Among other things the poems and songs would be designed to memorialize certain events or acts of God among His people. The people would learn these poems and songs and rehearse them often as a group, a family, and on their own. As you can imagine, memorizing these poems and songs would help secure those events or attributes of God in the minds of His people from generation to generation.
Other times God would inspire the authors to write more explicit instructions to His people. Giving them incredibly detailed plans to follow to build something or ways to prepare food, make sacrifices, or handle disputes.
And other times God would inspire the author to write to specific groups of Christians in specific places to offer them encouragement, instruction, or correction regarding things they were engaged in. For example, how should a particular group of Christians in an area handle false teachers who were traveling through their towns and villages teaching something different than what Jesus taught. Or what should they do about the widows living among them.
Lastly, it’s also important to know that these God inspired authors also used a variety of writing styles. Imagine you go to a book store or a library today. As you walk down the rows of books you’ll notice the various categories. Fiction, Non-Fiction, History, Poetry, Fantasy, and so on. For most of us we’re familiar with these categories and we would know what to expect from a book from any given area. You wouldn’t pick up a book from the fantasy section and expect that you’d be reading a literal historical account of real events. Understanding the “type” of book you’re reading greatly shapes the way you understand and believe what you’re reading.
The Bible contains many of those similar types of writing styles.
The hard part comes in because they’re not neatly categorized in rows or sections like the types of books are in a library. There’s plenty more to learn about this subject but it’s critical to know up front that not every author of the Bible was writing literally (what we think of as non-fiction). As you would expect, they used different writing styles that were popular in their culture. Some were basic letters from them to other people, much like you and I would do today. Others used writing techniques that most of us are much less familiar with, like apocalyptic or prophecy, which incorporate lots of metaphors, analogies, and exaggerated language to paint a picture of a person, place, or event. In most cases they’re not meant to be literal, nor are they intended to be read like history or explicit instructions. As you can imagine, these kinds of writing styles create a lot of confusion for people especially those newer to the faith.
Which brings up my last point in this section. As a modern, English language reader of the Bible, you have to approach it recognizing that it was written in a different language, a different time, in a different culture, to specific people, at specific times and places. You may have heard teachers or preachers say that we approach the Bible with “western” eyes but it was written by authors in an “eastern” culture. To break it down in plain English, there is more to understanding the Bible than just being able to read what it says in any English translation. Not having this in your mind as you read the Bible will be a huge detriment to your growth and understanding of who God is, how He relates to His people, What He wants from His followers and so much more.
As my friend Aaron Couch says over and over as he teaches the Bible and leads study tours in Israel and Turkey, “Context Matters”.
If you’re newer to all of this don’t stress out. It can all feel a bit overwhelming. It’s helpful to think of it more like a “learning journey” you’re on rather than a “class you have to pass”. Us “western thinkers” like clear answers, problems resolved, known facts. The Eastern Thinking authors of the Bible were far more interested in inviting people into God’s story. Too learn who God is, what He’s like, and how He expected them to live and love Him and others as they went. Learning the Bible and ultimately growing as a Christian is a lifelong journey where Jesus invites you to follow Him as your guide and teacher. It’s a very different way of thinking than most people in North America are used to. We’re trained to approach learning new things like school. You take a series of classes or courses, study and then take tests. The problem with this whole process of course is that the tests don’t measure true understanding. Knowing the answer to a problem is far different than knowing how to solve that problem out in the real world under the pressures of real life situations. Western education is designed largely to test for information retention. Do you remember what you read or heard? Simply remembering things is a far cry from knowing how to do them correctly in real life. Ok, I’ll hop off my soap box and get back on track with the rest of this post!
Basic Introduction to Bible Translating Philosophies:
This is another topic that can easily get a bit overwhelming if you’re just starting to learn about it. So I’ll try and give you the basics in plain English.
First off, as I’ve mentioned, the Bible was originally written in a different language than English. It was originally written in 3 different languages. Remember that there were many authors that contributed to the text we now know as the Bible. These authors wrote in different times and places. Those authors wrote in the common language of their time. So, the Bible was written in Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek.
When any person or team of people wanted to translate the original language of the Bible to their modern language they were faced with some obstacles. First of all, the ancient languages had a much smaller vocabulary compared to modern languages. Next, there are words in these ancient languages that have no modern equivalent in English. Beyond those problems is perhaps the most difficult. How to understand the nuance and meaning of the authors who wrote in ancient languages and brought their own cultural references, comparisons, and literary styles. Even with just a very basic introduction to this topic you can start to see that translating the Bible from it’s original language into modern English is a massive undertaking. And on top all of that we can’t forget about the spiritual weight and importance of the very words they were translating. The idea of taking on a project like this is completely overwhelming to me and well beyond anything I would dream of tackling. All the more reason to appreciate and value the incredible work of those that have done this work before us to make the Words of the Bible available to us in our modern language!
With those issues in mind, the translators adapted some different philosophies to guide their translating efforts. Think of these philosophies a bit like a funnel that each word had to go through. It was important to determine up front which “funnel” they would use so that they would remain true to that method all the way through.
Here are a few of the common “funnels” that translators chose to use.
The Literal Funnel: Take the original Aramaic, Hebrew, or Greek word and run it through their funnel process to determine the most accurate and literal equivalent word in English. Regardless of sentence structure or readability in English, this funnel sticks with a word for word approach. In academia this general approach is known as the Formal Equivalent Philosophy. In my brain it makes more sense to think of it as the “word for word funnel”
The Meaning Funnel: For this method the translators study the words in their context. They ask more questions about what did the original authors mean with each word or statement. What would the original audience have heard or understood. The words and sentences that go through this “funnel” are designed to come out as a variation in English that will carry the same intent or meaning. They’re chosen carefully to help make sure a modern reader would take away the same thing as the ancient audience would have. You can think of this approach as the “Meaning for Meaning Funnel. In academia this general approach is known as the Dynamic Equivalent Philosophy. Again, in my brain, the “Meaning for Meaning Funnel” makes sense.
The Paraphrase Funnel: You can probably guess what guides this approach. This is a method where the translator or team takes a much less literal approach and instead focuses much more on trying to grasp what the original authors were saying and then think through how they would paraphrase that or say it more simply to someone in modern English. While this method is sometimes helpful to reference in your studies, you can see how it could steer you off the path at times. It’s hard for the general biases and beliefs of the translator not to permeate their paraphrases as they work through the original text. In academia this one is called the Paraphrase Philosophy! Finally an easy one.
As we move forward through this Blog Series we will take a look at many of the popular modern English translations of the Bible.
For each of them we will dig deeper into the details to learn who translated, was it one person or a team? When was the work done? Has it been revised or updated? How was the translating team funded? What translating “funnel” did they use when working through the texts? And any other interesting details we can glean along the way.
Then, at the end of each post, I’ll do my best to provide a summary that explains who this translation might be best for and why. As well as offer some guidance on translations that a new Christian should steer clear of in the beginning of their journey and why.
Whether you’re new to the Bible or a seasoned reader, my hope is that this Blog Series will help equip you with the knowledge and wisdom to make informed decisions about which Bibles you read and why. So the next time someone asks you which Bible they should read you’ll be able to offer them some truly helpful guidance. After all, think about how many more growing Christians there would be if all the people who started reading the Bible but quit, would have stuck with it. Learning about the things we’ll unpack in this series will help you stick with your Bible reading and equip you to help others do the same.
See you back here next week where we’ll dive into our first Bible Translation! Wonder which one it will be?
By the way, if you have a favorite translation that you want to make sure I cover in this series please drop a comment or send me a message to YourJesusJourney@gmail.com