Restating the Obvious about Bible Translations



Restating the Obvious
about Bible Translations

George Orwell (pseudonym for Eric Blair) of ANIMAL FARM and 1984 fame is commonly quoted as saying that circumstances have “sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of the intelligent man.” I have been unable so far to track this quote down to its exact reference, but inasmuch as I have seen it ascribed in three different sources to Orwell, I feel safe in assuming that it really is his remark.

 The churning, muddied waters of the present English Bible translation dispute have sadly obscured the obvious and most basic truth of the whole matter. That basic and obvious truth which cries out to be repeated is this–The whole PURPOSE for having a Bible translation–the very reason for its existence–is to convey in words which people DO understand the meaning of words (in the Greek and Hebrew originals) which people DO NOT understand.

 Let me say it again–the sole justification for producing and publishing any Bible translation is so that those who do not understand the words in the original languages can nevertheless gain access to them through words they do understand in their own language. 

Most English speakers cannot read Greek or Hebrew (or Aramaic–the language used in parts of Daniel, Ezra, and one verse of Jeremiah). Therefore, if they are to have access to the words inspired by God in those Biblical languages, they need a translation of those words into English. But we must be cautious here: the degree to which an English Bible translation fails to accurately, clearly, and fully convey the meaning and content of the originals, to that degree it FAILS to attain to its very reason for existence. Any obscurity, ambiguity or inaccuracy that exists in a translation–and is knowingly allowed to remain in that translation–is an affront to the very purpose for that translation’s existence. 

Let us come to specifics. By now, almost everyone involved in the King James Bible controversy knows or should know that there are archaic and obsolete words in KJV which either puzzle (at best) or mislead (at worst) the common Christian reader. “Prevent” in I Thessalonians 4:15 does not mean what we today always mean by that word, namely, “to stop, hinder.” That word as used in 1611 meant “to precede” and the reader back then would not have stumbled over its meaning. The reader today, however, will stumble over it. “Well, why not just put a note in the margin telling the reader that ‘prevent’ means ‘precede’?” Rather, why not simply put ‘precede’ into the text so there is no need here to search the margin? 

“Spoil” in Colossians 2:8 invokes images of decay and putrefaction, whereas the underlying Greek–and “spoil” to a 17th century English reader–means “to despoil,” or, to use a more common synonym, “to plunder, take as plunder” Even though “spoil” in the text here will surely “spoil” the understanding for the modern reader, some still insist that it must remain in the English translation at all costs, regardless of the effect on the reader’s understanding. “Plunder” should be the reading in the text. “To the margin! To the margin!” they cry. “In the text! In the text!” the basic principle of translation replies.

 And what shall we say of “corn”? To a 20th (and 21st) Century American, that word describes only one particular species of plant, identified in the Linnaean system of classification as Zea mays, and sometimes called in older books “Indian corn” to distinguish it from the grains brought to the New World by the white Europeans. To read that Jesus “walked through a corn field on the Sabbath day” conjures up images of Iowa in the summer, when the true scene was more like Kansas wheat fields. Corn/Zea mays is a native American plant (like watermelon, sweet and white potatoes, sunflowers and most kinds of beans) and was wholly unknown in the Old World, including Palestine, until after A.D. 1492. To allow the older English “corn” to remain in English Bibles is guaranteed to mislead most contemporary American readers, while “grain” (a word ultimately descended from the same Indo-European root as “corn”) creates the correct visual image. I recall a day in a hermeneutics class which I was teaching in which a student became vehement, even belligerent, in his insistence that “corn” in the KJV certainly meant CORN (Zea mays) and not “grain” as the instructor was teaching. Had this zealous and misguided student been reading an English translation which read “grain” instead of “corn,” he would have been spared this experience (and no doubt others) of grossly misunderstanding an English version.

 There is also the problem of proper names. What reader of the New Testament has not been greatly puzzled on finding “Jesus” in Acts 7:45, and Hebrews 4:8? And who is Elias (Matthew 27:47)? and Eliseus (Luke 4:27)? and that strangest of all, Osee (Romans 9:25)? which I always thought sounded more like a brand of hotdogs than an OT prophet. Of course, these are merely Greek (or Latin) attempts to represent those whom we meet in the English OT as Joshua, Elijah, Elisha, and Hosea. Why confuse the reader by retaining the obscure and divergent forms? Why leave these stumbling-blocks in the reader’s path? (And yes, I know that Moses is a Greek form of the Hebrew Moshe, but since we are accustomed to this Greek form as the name of the OT prophet, as we know the Savior’s name in Greek form–Jesus, and not the Hebrew Yeshua–it does not cause confusion, especially because it is used consistently in our translations).

 Then there are the infelicities that now plague the KJV. Try reading Song of Solomon 5:4 (“my bowels were moved for him”) to a junior or senior high school group. And what shall we say of “ass” and “asses”? How much better to use in translation the contemporary equivalent, “donkey” which will not distract the immature reader. And who ever read I Kings 21:21 “him that pisseth against the wall” in public? If it is embarrassing to read–and it is–why not substitute a euphemistic term, such as “male” as the NIV does? Proper decorum–and the avoidance of an unnecessary distraction–demands that we substitute “illegitimate” for “bastards” in Hebrews 12:8, and “mute donkey” for “dumb ass” in 2 Peter 2:16.

 And we come to unintelligibilities. Where is the person, unaided by the Greek text, a foreign version, or a modern English translation who can make heads or tails out of 2 Corinthians. 6:11-13?–“O ye Corinthians, our mouth is open unto you, our heart is enlarged. Ye are not straitened in us but ye are straitened in your own bowels. Now for a recompense (I speak as unto my children), be ye also enlarged.” And where is the average twelve year old who cannot plainly understand the NIV here?–“We have spoken freely to you, O Corinthians, and opened wide our hearts. We are not withholding our affections from you, but you are withholding yours from us. As a fair exchange–I speak as to my children–open wide your hearts also.”

 And space fails us to speak of “against they came” “fetched a compass” “durst not behold” “listeth” and literally a thousand and one other obscurities that unnecessarily cling to commonly-used English Bible translations, for no other reason than tradition. Certainly they are not retained because of enhanced intelligibility.

 And there are positive inaccuracies in the KJV, as in all Bible translations in all languages. The Greek text of Titus 2:13 (there is no variation in the various printed Greek texts here) clearly and unambiguously teaches that the two terms “great God” and “savior” apply to one and only one person in this verse, namely, “Jesus Christ.” This is one of the strongest “proof-texts” of the Deity of Christ in the entire Greek NT. The KJV’s rendering “the great God, and our Savior Jesus Christ” [and that comma WAS present in the original 1611 KJV] is at best ambiguous (it always puzzled me), and at worst separates the terms and applies them to two persons, namely God the Father, and Jesus Christ. Because the KJV fails to unambiguously and clearly teach in this verse that Jesus Christ is both “our great God” and “savior,” it is an erroneous and deficient translation (see similarly 2 Peter 1:1).

 And I could write at length of the KJV’s fourfold reference to the Holy Spirit, Third Person of the Trinity, as “it” (John 1:32; Romans 8:16, 26; I Peter 1:11), which in my opinion comes little short, if indeed it comes short at all, of blasphemy. Baptist theologian Emery Bancroft ascribed this horrid translation to Socinian influence among the KJV translators (see Emery H. Bancroft, CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY, [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1961; revised edition], pp. 147-8). The Socinian doctrine of the Holy Spirit was roughly the same as that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose translation–alone of modern Bible versions–also refers to the Holy Spirit as “it.” [I hope to address this subject at greater length in a future issue of AISI].

 And then there is “faith” instead of “hope” at Hebrews 10:23, and the very frequent failure of the KJV translators to give the correct force of the Greek definite article in translation (often omitting the article in translation–under influence of the Latin Vulgate–when the sense and meaning of the passage demands that it be inserted), and many other inaccuracies of greater or lesser import, which will perhaps occupy our attention in the future.

 Now, some will insist, “But these are small matters”–little foxes that “spoil” the vines, if you will. In reply, let me say first, I do not think obscuring the Deity of Christ (as the KJV does at Titus 2:13 and 2 Peter 1:1) and virtual blasphemy against the Holy Spirit by repeatedly referring to Him as “it” are small matters. But beyond this, I affirm that anything–ANYTHING–which unnecessarily puts an obstacle between the present-day Bible reader and a better understanding of the Word of God is wrong and evil. To enslave English readers to a single translation which is often archaic and obscure, occasionally wholly unintelligible and sometimes plainly inaccurate when other versions that remedy these defects are easily accessible is a monument to mere human tradition and is, as it were, to spit in the face of the very purpose of Bible translation, and to deny to the mere English reader the fuller knowledge of God and His revelation he could have if, IF such obstacles were removed by use of a revised translation which conforms to current English usage, and the infallible standard of the original text.

–Doug Kutilek

[Reprinted from “As I See It,” vol. 2, no. 6, June, 1999]

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