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What Does the Bible Literally Say?

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A great deal of ink has been spilled over whether the Bible should be interpreted literally. But before interpretive methods can be settled, there must a discussion of literal translations. Too often debates over interpretation can be settled by noting what the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek actually say. For example, Matthew 24:14 is most often translated “all the world.” The casual Bible reader will conclude that the fulfillment of this verse is obviously in the future since the Gospel was not preached throughout the whole world in the first century. Someone familiar with Greek will note that the word most often translated “world” in the Bible is kosmos. But kosmos is not used in Matthew 24:14. Matthew uses the word oikoumene which means “inhabited earth.” In fact, it’s the only time Matthew uses it. The same word is used in Luke 2:1 and Acts 11:28. The New American Standard Version still translates the oikoumene in Matthew 24:14 as “world,” while Luke 2:1 is translated as “inhabited earth.”

The New International Version translates Matthew 24:14 as "whole world" while it translates Luke 2:1 and Acts 11:28 as "Roman world." The official site of the New International Version states the following about its translation philosophy: “Honest with the original languages and sources and true to the Bible’s intent and context.” Kenneth L. Barker, a spokesman for the translating committee of the International Bible Society that produced the NIV, writes:

Many—perhaps—most translators and linguists today think the greatest faithfulness and accuracy are attained when they are as true to the target or receptor language (in our case English) as they are to the source language (in this instance, the Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek of the Bible).1



If this is the case, then why didn’t the translators translate oikoumene as “Roman world” in Matthew 24:14? Most modern translations will supply marginal notes informing the reader of the literal translation. In so many cases, the literal translation is the better translation.

For serious Bible study, Christians should use a translation that is essentially word-for-word. Why is this so important? It’s no accident that the Bible is divided into two testaments: Old and New. A testament is a legal enforceable declaration, as in “last will and testament,” that is to be followed to the letter. That’s why people pay lawyers to draft them. They want to be sure that their wishes are carried out as specified. The Bible should be treated in the same way. What is true in the lesser case (legal documents), is true in the greater case (the Bible).

No translation can be exactly literal since Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek “are so different from English in grammar, syntax and idiom that a pure rendition into English is nearly impossible.”2 Even so, the goal of the translator should be to stay with the original text as is linguistically possible by making judicious translation decisions that maintain the integrity of the words used by the original authors. In addition to the example of oukoumene above, here are three common examples of less than literal translations.

Literally, John 3:3 reads “born from above” (anothen) rather than “again.” Logically this is still a “second birth,” but “from above” conveys the origin and nature of the new birth in a way that is not conveyed by “again.” Knowing that the Greek literally reads “from above” might lead us to pull the entire chapter together by way of John the Baptist’s testimony in John 3:31 that Jesus is the one “who comes from above.” Salvation is what God does without the help of man.

Second Timothy 3:16 is most often translated as “All Scripture is inspired by God.” The literal translation of the Greek theopneustos is “God-breathed.” Using “inspired” gives the impression that something is done to the writings (graphe) themselves to make them special, where “God-breathed” stresses the origin of the revelation, God’s own words. The New International Version gets it right by translating theopneustos as “God-breathed.”

It might be helpful to know that John 1:14 reads that the “Word became flesh” and “pitched His tabernacle, or lived his tent, among us” (Ex. 25:8), as D.A. Carson puts it. The significance of this translation becomes clear when read in John 2:19–22 that Jesus identifies Himself as the new and permanent temple and that Jerusalem will no longer be “the place where men ought to worship” (3:20).

While readability is an admirable and necessary goal in Bible translation, accuracy is more important. This is why I recommend that Christians learn how to read Greek so they can use a Greek-English interlinear. It’s a must for serious Bible study. If translators want to smooth out a text for contemporary readers, that’s fine (to a point), but I still want to know what the text actually says.

Endnotes:

[1] Kenneth L. Barker, Accuracy Defined and Illustrated: An NIV Translator Answers Your Questions (1995): http://www.ibs.org/niv/accuracy/NIV_AccuracyDefined.pdf
[2] Greg Hartman, “1611: Straight From Heaven?,” Plain Truth (January/February 2004), 27.

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