Lost in Translation

The general population has not always had direct access to the Bible like we do today.  The Scriptures were originally read and recited exclusively by priests and rabbis.  It wasn’t until 1539 that “the Archbishop of Canterbury, at the bequest of King Henry VIII, hired a publisher to publish the ‘Great Bible’. It became the first English Bible authorized for public use, as it was distributed to every church, chained to the pulpit, and a reader was even provided so that the illiterate could hear the Word of God in plain English.” (1)  Now, there are literally hundreds of versions of the Bible written in English.  Each version has its own translation philosophy.  Each translation is subject to contradictions and omissions.

Many churches view the King James Version, originally published in 1611, as the only accurate or true interpretation of the Scriptures.  Others feel that the KJV is too difficult to read and is therefore misunderstood and/or simply unappealing to the average reader.  This opinion, as well as widespread literacy, has led to many new translations over the years.  Where the various translations seem to vary the most is in regard to the passages dealing with sexuality.  The word ‘homosexual’ did not appear in any Bible until 1946.   Sexual orientation is a modern concept that translators are impressing upon ancient Scriptures more and more.   Are translators deviating from, or moving towards the original ‘God-breathed’ meaning and intention of these passages?   I’d like to offer a few notes on the translation philosophies of four modern versions of the Bible, followed by a comparison of how each version interprets three select verses.

New International Version:

The NIV Bible has met with major opposition from its inception in the 1970’s.  The 2011 version controversially declared itself ‘gender neutral’ or gender inclusive, but also rewrote many verses on homosexuality.  This version made its denunciation more clear. (2)

The NIV was one of the earliest to create a more modern English Bible by removing the Old English thou, thee, thy, etc.  Thanks to this it would eventually outsell the King James Version.  The NIV Bible is the most widely utilized translation today.  On their website, they point out that “other Bible translations (emphasis mine) focus on the meaning of Scripture, helping you grasp the message of the Bible in your own words. The challenge with this approach is that if you stray too far from the form of the text, you might miss some of the subtle nuances—literary devices, wordplays, etc.—found in the original. Even the best literal translation can’t follow the original form all the time. And even the best meaning-based translation can’t capture every detail of meaning found in the original (emphasis mine).” (3)  The philosophy behind the NIV translation is an attempt to balance literal with thought for thought.

New Living Translation:

First published in 1996, their website says that while they are ‘reluctant to clarify the meaning of the text, they are open to doing so when absolutely necessary.’  They go on to say that an individual translator (rather than a committee of scholars) may also clarify and/or paraphrase to ‘catch the attention of readers in a fresh way, seeking to jolt and surprise them into understanding (emphasis mine)’.  A second edition was published in 2004, with the purpose of increasing its precision without sacrificing its easy-to understand quality. (4)  This translation is a mix of formal and dynamic equivalence, similar to that of the NIV.  The NLT Bible seeks to be moderately literal without over simplifying.

International Standard Version:

First published in 2011, it states on their website “when the text can be understood in different ways, an attempt is made either to provide a rendering in which the same ambiguity appears in English, or to decide the more likely sense and translate accordingly. In the latter case, a footnote indicates the alternative understanding of the text. In general, the ISV attempts to preserve the relative ambiguity of the text rather than to make positive statements that depend on the translators’ judgment (emphasis mine) or that might reflect theological bias.” (5)  This translation is also a mix of both formal & dynamic equivalence.

God’s Word Translation:

The translation theory behind this Bible is the ‘closest natural equivalent’.  CNE “provides readers with a meaning in the target language that is equivalent to that of the source language.” (6)

The preface of this 1995 Bible states “God’s Word is intended to be read by those who are well-versed in Scripture as well as first-time Bible readers, Christians as well as non-Christians, adults as well as children.  And so, as in the case of the GNB [Good News Bible], an attempt is made to promote the use of the version by all kinds of readers. But it is obvious that the translation is designed more for the first-time readers and children (emphasis mine). The style is informal. Sentences are broken up so as to make them shorter and less complicated.” (7)

“Translation can never be completely objective. It involves subjective judgments. Even when operating under the guidelines of closest natural equivalence, translators cannot produce a perfect translation. Translators use cautious judgment and maintain a keen awareness of all the factors needed for a full understanding of the source text. Among other things, translators need to understand the original language’s grammar and syntax, appreciate and understand literary devices used by the original authors, understand what kind of audience the original author had in mind when writing, and understand the modern target audience and its language (emphasis mine).” (8)

Contrast & Compare:

I.

In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he describes who will and who most certainly will not be allowed to enter into heaven.  1 Corinthians 6:9 reads:

“Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind” (KJV)

Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men” (NIV)

“… Don’t fool yourselves. Those who indulge in sexual sin, or who worship idols, or commit adultery, or are male prostitutes, or practice homosexuality” (NLT)

“… Stop deceiving yourselves! Sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, homosexuals” (ISV)

Part one of the verse is fluid between these versions; wrongdoers, wicked people, and the unrighteous are all synonyms.  Part two however, is translated very differently by comparison.  The original Greek word is ‘arsenokoitai’.  Its exact meaning is debatable and thus it is up to the translators to interpret.   Men who have sex with men is not the definition of homosexuality.  The act is not the orientation.  In ancient times, there were male temple prostitutes and men who engaged with them.  This behavior did not mean either man was necessarily homosexual.  There was also the practice of pedastery.  Furthermore the language excludes women, which makes the term ‘homosexual’ an even less accurate translation.  Modern churches who detest homosexuality do not excuse lesbianism.  It is possible that Paul is saying that sexually active gay men cannot enter the kingdom, but celibate gay men could.  However, this theory is doubted by most as the idea of sexual orientation did not exist in Biblical times.  The modern insertion of the word ‘homosexual’ in this verse seems to be an inaccurate inference.

II.

Similarly, in the Old Testament, male cult prostitution has been retranslated to ‘homosexuality’.              1 Kings 14:24 says:

“And there were also sodomites in the land: and they did according to all the abominations of the nations which the LORD cast out before the children of Israel.” (KJV)

There were even male shrine prostitutes in the land; the people engaged in all the detestable practices of the nations the LORD had driven out before the Israelites.”  (NIV)

“There were even male and female shrine prostitutes throughout the land. The people imitated the detestable practices of the pagan nations the LORD had driven from the land ahead of the Israelites.” (NLT)

“There were even male prostitutes in the temples of idols throughout the land. The people of Judah did all the disgusting practices done by the nations that the LORD had forced out of the Israelites’ way.” (GWT)

The term sodomites has been said to imply ‘homosexuals’.  And yet the same original word or phrase has also been translated as male prostitutes and even female and male prostitutes together!  In the examined versions, there is no version where the word ‘homosexual’ is used.  Why then has it begun to be used in other passages?

III.

One final example of how varied English translations of the Bible can be is Jude 1:7.  The sins of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are expressed here.

“Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.” (KJV)

“And don’t forget Sodom and Gomorrah and their neighboring towns, which were filled with immorality and every kind of sexual perversion. Those cities were destroyed by fire and serve as a warning of the eternal fire of God’s judgment.” (NLT)

Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities near them, which like them committed sexual sins and pursued homosexual activities, serve as an example of the punishment of eternal fire.” (ISV)

“What happened to Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities near them is an example for us of the punishment of eternal fire. The people of these cities suffered the same fate that God’s people and the angels did, because they committed sexual sins and engaged in homosexual activities”. (GWT)

Strange flesh, angels, homosexuality, and/or sexual sins in general, are wildly varying interpretations of the same original text.  The other interesting observation here is that the notion of Sodom and Gomorrah being destroyed because of homosexuality is disproven after examination of this verse.  The three modern translations also mention other sexual sins, meaning that God destroyed the city because an array of sexual sins were being committed, not exclusively gay male sex, as many churches falsely believe and teach.

Conclusion:

Each new version of the Bible may vary subtly or greatly from its predecessors, and indeed from the original sources.  Your Bible may say things that mine does not.  The opposite is true as well.  Believers, therefore must understand this and read with an open heart and a critical mind.  All humans are fallible.  We must demand accuracy in translation, not justification for preexisting bias.   Obviously, translation is not an exact science.  What this leads to is inexact religion.

References:

  1. http://www.greatsite.com/timeline-english-bible-history/
  2. http://www.christianpost.com/news/latest-niv-bible-translation-clearer-on-homosexual-sins-says-theologian-66393/#3fCPIIPJ1bJ5LPX1.99
  3. http://www.thenivbible.com/about-the-niv/niv-translation-philosophy/
  4. http://www.newlivingtranslation.com/05discoverthenlt/philosophy.asp#sthash.AIy36Q3M.dpuf
  5. https://www.isv.org/bible/translation-principles/ 
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/God%27s_Word_Translation
  7. http://www.bible-researcher.com/godsword.html
  8. http://bakerpublishinggroup.com/bibles/translation-philosophy

Further Reading:

Taken Out of Context

Communication in our modern world is often reduced to small catchy ‘soundbites’.  This trend has not excluded the Bible or the modern Church.  We have all read online commentary that quoted a Bible verse to substantiate a point of view.  Many times these verses are taken out of context, mistranslated, misunderstood, or simply misused.  I’m not saying this is done intentionally or with malice.  Often it is not.  What I am saying is that we must insist that those who quote the Bible go beyond mechanical repetition.  We must encourage others to read for themselves firsthand, and fully understand the Word if it is to be used wisely and appropriately and we must demand the same of ourselves.  Informed belief is preferential to blind faith.  (Proverbs 2:2-3, 3:13, 4:7, 8:1, Colossians 2:2-3, James 1:5, 1 John 4:1)

Furthermore, “because the Bible says so” is not a responsible argument for or against the issues we face in modern times.  Many laws, codes, and Biblical customs no longer apply.  For example, Christ’s death nullified Mosaic Law, or the Law of Moses.  (Matthew 5:17, Romans 10:4, Galatians 2:21, 5:4, Ephesians 2:15)  Included in these are the laws that forbade wearing clothing made of two fabrics, or eating shellfish.  Clearly, not every law or moral code that is written in the Bible is applicable to Christians today.

The Bible is an immensely large volume which contains many laws, codes, commandments, and stories to help guide its readers through life.  There are two testaments, Old and New, sometimes complimentary and sometimes contradictory.  The Old Testament is the Biblical record of creation, a history of man, mankind’s struggle and need for a Savior, and many prophecies later fulfilled by Jesus Christ in the New Testament. The New Testament is a guide for worship, spiritual living, and growth.

“The following are some comparisons between the Old and the New: Death versus Life (II Corinthians, 3:6-8). Bondage versus Freedom (Galatians 5:1). The Old was to Jews only (Mal.4:4) while the New is to all men (Matt.28:18-20). Temporal versus Eternal (Galatians 3:19 and Matthew 24:35). Carnal versus Spiritual (Hebrews 9:10 and John 4:23-24). Continued Guilt versus Pardon (Romans 8:2 and Hebrews 9:12-14).” http://www.bible.ca/b-Why-OT-NT.htm  “The Old Testament shows the wrath of God against sin (with glimpses of His grace); the New Testament shows the grace of God toward sinners (with glimpses of His wrath).” http://www.gotquestions.org/difference-old-new-testaments.html

I would also like to speak about the danger of quoting a single verse as if it were the definitive Word of God on a subject, without taking its context into account.  Let me give an example.  Ephesians 5:22 says “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” This verse (as well as Colossians 3:1, and 1 Peter 3:1) has been used to justify misogyny, domestic violence, and gender inequality in general.  However, read in its full context, the chapter in Ephesians is encouraging love and mutual respect in spousal relationships, not obedience and/or persecution.  I cannot stress enough the importance of context!

Women have become equal to men in most modern countries.  Women are able to get an education, provide for themselves, and even hold positions of authority over men.  Most marriages are not arranged.  First world women are not property and are no longer expected to be submissive or subordinate.   Women are no longer vehicles for continuing patriarchal blood lines.  The Biblical ideal of a wife is therefore not identical to our modern definition.  This fact does not alter or de-value the Scripture, or require that women give up their equality.   What it means is that believers must go beyond the words to find the deeper meaning of the passages.

Here’s another example: The Bible says in Deuteronomy 7: 3-4 “You shall not intermarry with them…” and in Daniel 2:43 “they will mix with one another in marriage, but they will not hold together” and also the New Testament in Matthew 25:32 it says “Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another…”  Does this mean God is against interracial relationships and believes people should be segregated?  That’s debatable, especially when referring to the Old Testament.  That is my point.  The Bible says many things that are now peripheral or even seemingly contradictory.  Taken out of context, the Bible can be used to affirm or condemn almost anything.

So how do ancient Biblical laws and codes of conduct apply today?  Biblical laws, rules, and codes should be understood as either passive or active.  Those that apply today and should continue to be followed (such as the Ten Commandments) should be considered active.  Those rules that are no longer applicable and consequently need not be followed, should be considered passive.  We may refer to passive rules as historical record and appreciate their past purposes and applications.  In order to consider the Word to be ‘living’, which indeed most believers do, we must rectify the idea that every rule is to be followed literally simply because it is written.  Believers must understand that because the Word is timeless, it is therefore adaptable.  We must read the Bible carefully, fully understand the rules, and discover their purpose from the context of the passage.  Language is equivocal.  We cannot draw accurate conclusions if we only read a fraction of the story.  We cannot gain insight from repetition, shallow reading, or having our ears tickled.  (2 Timothy 4:3)

The Bible tells us not to add to or subtract from it.  “If anyone takes away any words from the book of this prophecy, God will take away his portion of the tree of life and the holy city that are described in this book.” (Revelation 22:19)  I believe this to summarize my point clearly.  The Bible has tolerances and intolerances that we do not, and some of those ideals continue to be used in harmful ways.  Reciting portions of verses and/or passages to convey a message that was never intended is wrong.  If believers understand the Scripture better, it will bring God closer.  I would like to see a more embracing, compassionate church filled with loving rhetoric where ALL are welcome.

This blog will be my attempt to educate.  If you take this journey with me, please do not take my words for fact.  Read the passages I site for yourself to see if you come to the same conclusions.  I will document my sources so that you can follow my research.  The Bible says a lot.  There are nearly 800,000 words in most English versions.  It’s time to seek the true meaning behind those words.  Only then can we apply Biblical rules appropriately to our modern lives.