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Bible Translation Frustrations

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I get frustrated with Bible translations. A new translation that is gaining in popularity claims to be “essentially literal that combines word-for-word precision and accuracy with literary excellence.” I went to a number of verses to put the claim to the test. Here’s what I found: “ And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matt. 24:14). There is no indication in this verse or in Acts 2:1 or 11:28 that the Greek word translated “world” is actually oikoumenā and not kosmos.

After giving a presentation that included a brief discussion of Bible prophecy at a men’s conference a few weeks ago, as one might expect, there were some questions. One questioner pointed to Matthew 24:30 and asked me how this could have been fulfilled prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. He then read the following to me: “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory.” There are the usual translation problems—“sky” instead of “heaven” and “earth” instead of “land”—but I was shocked to hear him read “all the nations of the earth.” The Greek word is not ethnoi (“nations”) but phulā (“tribes”).

It’s no accident that the Bible is divided into two testaments. A testament is a legal enforceable declaration. A testament, as in “last will and testament,” 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. Concerning the interpretation of legal documents, Francis Bacon (1561–1626) said the following:

“‘Interpretation that departs from the letter of the text is not interpretation but divination.’ ‘When the judge departs from the letter, he turns into a legislator.’ Sir Roland Burrows makes the point with admirable clarity: ‘The Court has to take care that evidence is not used to complete a document which the party has left incomplete or to contradict what he has said, or to raise doubts, which otherwise would not exist; as to the interpretation, it is always restricted to such as will assist the Court to arrive at the meaning of the words used, and thus to give effect to the intention as expressed.’”[1]

What is true in the lesser case (legal documents), is true in the greater case (the Bible).

The goal of the translator is 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 authors. When a literal translation is not made, the reader should be notified and told why. This is done in some translations like the KJV and the NASV as marginal notes.

John 3:3 reads “born from above” (anōthen) 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.” This more literal translation might help in answering someone who claims the Bible teaches reincarnation.[2] In addition, 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” and “became flesh and tabernacled among us” (1:14). Jesus is the embodiment of all that the old covenant system was.

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.” “Inspired” gives the impression that something is done to the writings (graphe) that make them special. “God-breathed” stresses the origin of the revelation as God’s own words. The New International Version, a less than literal translation, translates theopneustos as “God-breathed.” Why is this important to know? Today, people and writings are often described as “inspired.” There is no revelational meaning to the claim.

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), considering what we will read in John 2:19–22 that Jesus identifies Himself as the new and permanent temple. This might not make sense to a new reader, but it is important for someone wanting to study the Bible for its theological meaning. Many more examples could be cited.

The solution is not to adopt the “King-James-only” route. While it is a very good translation, it has some of the same problems cited above. Oikoumenā, for example, is almost always translated as “world,” and in 2 Thessalonians 2:2 the translation is “at hand” when it should be “has come.”

As a Bible reader, I want to know what the actual words are. Translate, don’t interpret! Is this too much to ask?


[1] John Warwick Montgomery, “Testamentary Help in Interpreting the Old and New Testaments,” Christianity Today (May 5, 1978), 55. Quoted in Robertson McQuilkin, Understanding and Applying the Bible, rev. ed. (Chicagao, IL: Moody Press, 1992), 71.
[2] John Snyder, Reincarnation vs. Resurrection (Chicago: Moody Press, 1984), 51. One Bible verse in isolation from the rest of the Bible should not be used to establish a doctrine. Even if the better translation is “again,” this still does not mean the Bible teaches reincarnation since there are other places that speak against it: “And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, shall appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him” (Heb. 9:27–28).

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