Bible Studies/Translations

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Question
QUESTION: Dear Sir,

With reference to the many bible translations in English and other languages, can you please tell me how we can know if a particular translation is reliable?

I find that when Christians quote the bible, the skeptics especially the Muslims sometimes say “which bible” meaning which translation of the bible and they even point out the differences in various translations to try to prove that there is no single authoritative source for the Christian faith.  I recently read about a debate in which a Muslim debater quoted a passage from a bible translation which contradicted the Christian belief and the Christian debater had to indicate to the audience that the Muslim debater was using an inaccurate translation.  Is there any absolute standard by which we can conclude that any translation is accurate and reliable?

Thank you.
Lenin

ANSWER: Dear Lenin,

There is indeed no single translation of the Bible that is absolutely reliable in every way. Translations of the Bible are made by human beings who have limited knowledge (1 Cor. 13:9) and who make mistakes. Where does that leave us? It leaves us having to exercise faith and discernment. Our faith is not in the errorless perfection of human beings, but in the faithfulness of God. Christian faith is a faith of testimony. We believe because Jesus testified to the truth, the Holy Spirit testified to the truthfulness of Jesus, and the apostles testified to the resurrection of Jesus. We don't believe because no one ever made a mistake, but because we receive, by faith, the testimony of people of integrity, good will, and trustworthiness.

If  you seriously want to look into the strengths and weaknesses of different Bible translations (into English), spend some time looking at the comparisons and reviews at Better Bible Blog.

May you find good discernment and faith,



Webb Mealy

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Thank you very much for taking the time to respond.  I will check the blog link you provided.  Meanwhile, I hope I can ask a follow-up question:

You mentioned that we should exercise faith and discernment because no translation is perfect and that our faith is to be based on the faithfulness of God.  If we cannot depend on the bible, then how do we know about the faithfulness of God?  I mean what could be the basis for what we should believe about God?

You wrote “We believe because Jesus testified to the truth, the Holy Spirit testified to the truthfulness of Jesus, and the apostles testified to the resurrection of Jesus. We don't believe because no one ever made a mistake, but because we receive, by faith, the testimony of people of integrity, good will, and trustworthiness.”  The testimonies of Jesus and the apostles are all found in the bible.  How do we believe them if we don’t believe in the accuracy of the bibles we have?

Thank you again for your interest in answering.

Lenin

ANSWER: We know about the faithfulness of God because of a number of things. Jesus and the Bible testify to it; Christians down through history testify to it; people who live in faith and trust God in this generation testify to it, and the Holy Spirit in us, working in our personal experience, testifies to it. All these testimonies together help us to have a firm sense of God's faithfulness.

Let me paraphrase your last question. If the Bible we have isn't absolutely clear and absolutely accurate, how can we be absolutely sure about matters of faith?

The answer is, you can't be absolutely sure about anything. That's not the nature of human existence. You're going to have to exercise faith and discernment. No one, not even God, is going to hand you a tool that allows you to just look up all the answers and never exercise faith. Hankering for a Bible that you can trust so absolutely that you don't have to exercise faith in God is called bibliolatry. So face up to the fact that some of your opinions about God and matters of faith, which you have gotten in good faith from your Bible, which was brought to you in good faith by other believers, will be mistaken on some level or another. But the good news (!) is that you're not found acceptable by God on the basis of having all the right opinions and making no errors. You're found acceptable by God on the basis of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.

Is rational certainty the most important thing to you? If so, Jesus has some words for you: "I tell you the truth, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it." (Mk 10:15; see also Mt. 18:3). Certainty is an idol. Beware of confusing the illusion of certainty with faith.

Webb

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Thank you again for responding.  I agree with you on the points.  However, I am not looking for a bible which is absolutely free of error.  
Let me ask my question in a different way so that I can make myself clearer.

You wrote "no single translation of the Bible that is absolutely reliable in every way".  What is the standard by which you conclude that no translation is reliable?

Best regards,
Lenin

Answer
The absolute standard I am implicitly referring to is a theoretical one, whose elements would include these:

1. theoretical certainty as to the exact meaning and reference of all ancient words in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, the three biblical languages
2. theoretical certainty as to the fine points of the grammar of these three languages
3. theoretical ability to map ancient lexical and grammatical patterns effectively onto those of another language such as English
4. theoretical perfect freedom from theological or cultural bias on the part of translators.

The truth is that (1) we cannot always say with certainty what an ancient word meant, because it only occurs in one or a few instances, and/or its meaning or connotation changed over time or differed from place to place; (2) principles of grammar evolve over time and from place to place in the ancient world--this principle applies at any time and in any language; (3) translation is a very subtle art, and there is always a trade-off between readability and understandability in the target language versus capturing as much of the meaning of the source language as possible; and (4) every human being comes to the process of translation--and reading--of the sacred text with certain cultural and/or theological preconceptions that may, in subtle or obvious ways, bias the way in which they render the text.

What we have in the Bible is a tradition that is handed down from generation to generation and spread through thousands of very different languages and cultures in the world, and we trust that God will help each people group and generation to take hold of the good news and bring forth the fruit of the love, justice, and generosity of God through Jesus Christ. No human being or group has the whole and perfect truth, but we all, by faith, have access to the truth which we try to understand and live out.

I should mention that when I talk about the difficulties of translation, I speak as one who has himself translated the New Testament from the original Greek into contemporary English. See The Spoken English New Testament.  

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J. Webb Mealy

Expertise

Qualified to answer questions about the New Testament, including ones that require expert knowledge of Greek, New Testament History, and New Testament Theology. Particular area of expertise is New Testament eschatology (teachings on the end of the world), the Book of Revelation, and the Gospel and epistles of John. Questions about English translations--how they are arrived at, whether they are accurate, and whether there are alternative possibilities. Textual criticism.

Experience

Have taught the Bible and New Testament to lay people for 20 years. Translator of the Spoken English New Testament (www.sentpress.com), author of After the Thousand Years: Resurrection and Judgment in Revelation 20 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992). Senior Biblical Studies Editor, Sheffield Academic Press, 1990-1995.

Organizations
Instructor, Seminary of the Street, Oakland, CA

Publications
See my online publication, www.simplegospel.net, which gives an easy-to-understand but thorough introduction to the Christian Good News. See www.sentpress.com, home of the Spoken English New Testament, the most accurate available translation of the New Testament into natural contemporary English.

Education/Credentials
PhD, Biblical Studies, Sheffield, UK MA (Honors), Humanities, Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green, KY BA (Cum Laude), Religious Studies/New Testament, Westmont College, Santa Barbara, CA

Awards and Honors
Research Paper, "Tracing the Rise of Modalism in Rome," named best graduate paper of the year, Western Kentucky University, 1981

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