How Accurate is my English translation of Scripture?

If you have ever read more than one English version of the Bible, you have realized that each one is different, and in some cases confusingly different. Since the Bible was originally written in ancient Hebrew and Greek, modern translators have all the challenges of how to render an ancient language into one that communicates well to people of today. The problems of doing so are many. The languages were different, the geography was different, and the cultures were different, among other challenges. So not only must scholars learn the ancient languages well, but then they must figure out how to adequately convey the thought of those languages to English or the hundreds of other languages spoken around the world today. The results of project after project to translate the Bible are going to be different because of differing translation theories, differing audiences (usually education level), and even different conceptions of how the translation will be used (devotionally, personal Bible study, scholarly study, public reading, to name a few).

Just one example will illustrate the differences. In Romans 1:17, Paul writes, “For the righteousness of God is revealed in it out of faith into faith, as it is written, the righteous from faith will live.” That is my own, very literal, translation of this passage, and it is a bit awkward, especially the final phrase (the “it” of the first phrase refers to “the gospel” in 1:16: “I am not ashamed of the gospel”). Because of the awkwardness to our ears, all of the modern English translations try to smooth verse 17 out. Here are several of them:

NKJV (New King James Version):  “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.”

ESV (English Standard Version): “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

RSV (Revised Standard Version): “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.”

NRSV (New Revised Standard Version): “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

NIV (New International Version):  “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

NLT (New Living Translation): “This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.”

CEB (Common English Bible): “God’s righteousness is being revealed in the gospel, from faithfulness for faith, as it is written, The righteous person will live by faith.”

CJB (Complete Jewish Bible): “For in it is revealed how God makes people righteous in his sight; and from beginning to end it is through trust — as the Tanakh puts it, “But the person who is righteous will live his life by trust.”

As you can see the first five are very similar for the first phrase, but the second phrase is all over the place. My “out of faith, into faith” is translated seven different ways! What’s more my “the righteous from faith will live” is also translated seven different ways. What the heck? When we actually examine each translation, they are truly not the same. Each one has a slight or major nuance different from the others. The NIV, NLT and CJB translations of “out of faith into faith” are similar between themselves but very different from the first five, and the CEB is different again (and one I think is very good). I am not going to go into interpretation here, but how is a person to make sense of this situation? I didn’t even mention that the term translated “righteousness” is also translated in other places as “justification.” We actually see this nuance in the NKJV “the just will live by faith.” It must be realized that there are differences of interpretation for this verse that takes an entire study of Romans to understand. Fundamentally, though, knowing Greek is the first place to start. Without Greek, the questions remain and often confusion remains.

What I am not saying is that just depending on English translations is hazardous to your faith. All of these translations on the whole convey the message of God’s desire to redeem the world through Jesus Christ. Reading from any of these translations every day is going to bolster your knowledge of God and your faith. But as the saying goes, “the devil is in the details.” Preachers usually deal with the translation issues by using different translations when needed (hopefully with a knowledge of Greek and Hebrew). But some pick the one that says it how they want it to say. The first is legit, the second not so much.

This Wednesday, from 6-8 PM PST, I will be presenting a webinar: “How Accurate is My English Translation of Scripture? A Primer to Learning Greek.” During the two hours I will look at a few other examples like this one, discuss different translations and translation theories, then talk about why learning Biblical languages (Greek in this case) are so important for knowing and interpreting the Bible. If this topic interests you, I would love to have you join in. You can bring your questions too.

For information on the webinar visit: https://www.rightonmission.org/events/how-accurate-is-my-english-translation-of-scripture-a-primer-to-learning-greek

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