The goal of the Bible translator is to stay with the original text as much 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 NASB that italicize words that are not in the Greek text.
This is different from not translating a word that’s in the text literally. For example, John 3:3 reads “born from above” 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 to answer someone who claims the Bible teaches reincarnation.
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). See this interesting video by James Jordan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ohzs2IDqESY
Reading the Bible (Again) for the First Time
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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 (graphē) themselves that make them special. “God-breathed” stresses the origin of the revelation as God’s own words. The New International Version, a less than a literal translation, translates theopneustos as “God-breathed.”
Today, people and writings are often described as “inspired.” There is no revelational meaning — “thus saith the Lord” — in using “inspired” in these contexts.
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.
Young’s Literal Translation attempts to be a word-for-word translation.
Young’s translation is designed to assist students in the close study of the Biblical text by reproducing in English the Hebrew and Greek idioms, in an exceedingly literal translation. … In the pursuit of minute accuracy, Young tries to represent the Greek tenses with certain English tenses consistently, he tries to adhere to the word-order of the original, and he consistently translates a Greek word with the same English word in all of its occurrences. But in doing these things, he often fails to give the sense of the Greek correctly in English. It is doubtful whether the translation is really of much help to those who do not know Greek, because here the English is being forced to observe rules of the Greek language. The reader must become familiar with Greek syntax and vocabulary in order to make sense of the English!
More about Young’s Literal Translation below with some examples.
Having a basic knowledge of Greek is helpful and can go a long way to inform you on what the Bible actually says. The Greek alphabet can be learned in a few hours. You can be reading the NT in Greek within a week, although you might not know what you are reading since learning vocabulary and grammar take more time. But with a Greek-English interlinear cross-referenced to Strong’s numbering system and a basic dictionary, you will be able to determine the meaning of each Greek word.
A concordance lists every word in the Bible and gives its English translation. A concordance like Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance also serves as a basic Bible dictionary. Strong’s comes in a printed and electronic form. It is keyed to the KJV. Different Greek words are often translated by a single English word. Consider the word “world” (2889: kosmos: John 3:16), (3625: oikoumenē: Luke 2:1), (165: aion: 2 Cor. 4:4). The KJV has “the end of the world” in Matthew 24:3 when the Greek word aion and not kosmos. It can be confusing when reading an eschatological chapter like Matthew 24. “World” and “age” have very different meanings in terms of eschatology.
Matthew 24:14 is most often translated, “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world….” The casual Bible reader might conclude that the fulfillment of this verse is in our future since the Gospel was not preached throughout the whole world in Jesus’ day. But kosmos is not used in Matthew 24:14. Matthew uses oikoumenē which means “inhabited earth,” “Roman empire,” “Roman world” or “limited political boundary.” Matthew 24:14 is the only place in Matthew’s Gospel where oikoumenē is used. Is this significant? It is!
The same Greek word is used in Luke 2:1, Acts 11:28, and other places. The NASB translates oikoumenē in Luke 2:1 as “inhabited earth” with a marginal note that reads “I.e., the Roman empire.” In Acts 11:28, oikoumenē is translated “all over the world” with no note. The New International Version translates oikoumenē in Luke 2:1 and Acts 11:28 as “Roman world,” but follows the same translation for Matthew 24:14. Like the NASB, it translates it as “world.”
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).”
The source language of Greek has oikoumenē not kosmos; therefore the target language (English) should reflect the difference. The best printed single volume interlinear cross referenced to Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance is the Word Study Greek-English New Testament by Paul R. McReynolds (Tyndale). The unique feature of this interlinear is that it has Strong’s bound with it. The numbers that appear over the Greek words are keyed to the Greek words in the Concordance section. There are additional lexicon and dictionary references and an introduction that shows how to use it.
Many Bible translations get it backwards. They should put the literal translations in the text with an explanation in the margin. This has always been a frustration for me. So many debates could be eliminated if we all knew what the literal translation is. If a translator wants to interpret, let him do it with a marginal note.
This frustration came to mind during a sermon. There is a man named Bar-Jesus in Acts 13:6–7: “They traveled through the whole island until they came to Paphos. There they met a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus, who was an attendant of the proconsul, Sergius Paulus. The proconsul, an intelligent man, sent for Barnabas and Saul because he wanted to hear the word of God.” “Bar” is Aramaic for “son,” similar to “ben” in Hebrew (Benjamin = “son of my right hand”): The following is a good explanation of what was going on:
The name Bar-Jesus means “son of Joshua” or “son of the Savior.” In Acts 13:8, the magician is called Elymas, which, according to Luke, means “magician” or “sorcerer.” It was not uncommon for Jews to have more than one name, and Luke thought it was important to include both in the account.
While Barnabas and Paul were visiting with Sergius Paulus, they encountered Bar-Jesus. The sorcerer, who most likely feared losing his job with the proconsul, began to openly oppose the gospel message being shared by Barnabas and Paul. The Bible says Elymas tried to turn the governor from the faith (Acts 13:8).
Filled with the Holy Spirit’s power, Paul looked intently at Bar-Jesus and said, “You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord? Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind for a time, not even able to see the light of the sun” (Acts 13:10–11).
Immediately, the magician was afflicted with temporary blindness and began groping around for someone to guide him by the hand. The magician’s name Bar-Jesus meant “son of the Savior,” but Paul called him “child of the devil,” a wordplay that would not have been lost on Sergius Paulus.
We find “bar” (ben in Hebrew) translated as “son” as it should be while the Greek υἱός is sometimes translated as “descendent” (in a translation I heard in a sermon) or “child” (NIV) in Acts 13:10. “Descendent” and “child” aren’t wrong, but to get the full impact of the encounter as it was heard, the better (literal) translation is “son.” “You claim you’re a ‘son of Jesus,’ but in reality, you’re a son of the devil!” Again, this is not a big deal. No doctrine hangs in the balance, but such translations are often indicative of similar translation missteps that obscure the meaning of a passage. Thankfully, in the Acts 13 case, most translations get it right.
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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).
John H. Dobson, Learn New Testament Greek, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005). This edition includes a CD-ROM of lessons 1–21 that helps with memorization and provides repetition of exercises.
It’s difficult to know for sure if he was identifying with Jesus Christ or only co-opting the meaning of the Greek name Ἰησοῦς (Jehovah saves). Jesus was not an uncommon name being derived from the Hebrew Joshua. Jesus predicted there would be false prophets (Matt. 24:11; 1 John 4:1).