A Bible Translation Reflects the Translator(s)

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By Raymond Harris

Preface
The Original Bible Languages and the complexities of bringing them into English seems to be rarely discussed. I am not certain of the reason for this, but the process cannot be ignored nor should it be understated how important it is to have, at least, an awareness of the Original Languages and the process that brings those Scriptures into English. The process is complicated and tedious, yet we have implicitly placed our trust in the translators. As for this article’s length, I contemplated dividing this information into at least two articles, perhaps more, but I decided that the content is so integrally inter-related that it justified one article. Knowing the article runs at length, I have attempted to keep sections concise while still addressing concerns. Blessings.

 
A Short Review
In a previous article entitled: Lost in TranslationS, I spent time explaining that

“… as English only readers, we have placed part of our faith in our favorite English Bible Translation, because we have given part of our faith to the Translators of the English Bible to reveal to us the meaning of the Bible’s Original Languages.”

That is not necessarily the big issue, per se, but our dependence and reliance on others to interpret the Original Languages and bring them into English for us is functionally no different than believers in the first century who were dependent on those who could read Greek. The educated believers who could read the Greek and interpret its intended meaning did so for the encouragement and faith building of the believers who could not read. In other words, those who were (and are) incapable of reading and writing Greek had (and have to) by necessity, trust the more literately educated – giving trust to those who can read and/or write Greek.

So, when we depend and rely on our translators, are we not demonstrating ourselves to be functionally the same as the first century? But, you see, we have one major advantage. We are not completely illiterate! Most of us can read and write, at least, one language which is 100-percent more than many of our brothers and sisters in the first century. The question is: given our ability to read and write, sometimes in two languages, why do so many choose to remain functionally illiterate in the Bible’s Original Languages?

And I closed out the Lost in TranslationS article saying,

“I beg you not to argue English Bible Translation supremacy, the argument is empty and invalid. Each English Bible Translation has a role to play in developing a person’s faith…”.

Whether we like it or not, we depend on others. We depend on teachers to teach us. We depend on interpreters to interpret for us. This is why I am convinced that arguing supremacy of an English Bible Translation is like arguing which dictionary is better, the Oxford or Webster’s.

Both Dictionaries represent diligent study by individuals and teams, who put forth their best efforts to reveal accurate and intended meanings of English words. Yet, even these two dictionaries have nuances in how they define and identify English terms. It is fairly common for people to argue over the intended meaning of English terms which is why we turn to our Dictionary, often our preferred dictionary, to settle the dispute. Arguing by, and utilizing our favorite English Bible Translation is really no different.

 
A Short Preview
In this article, I want to reveal how much we, English Only Bible readers, truly trust the skills of the translator and/or translating team. It is one thing to learn the Original Bible Languages, but successfully communicating those ideas through the English is extraordinarily difficult. There are many reasons for this.

While you and I have the technological advantages of the World Wide Web and the Printing Press, these did not exist nor were they even conceived in the First Century. Generally, a person hired a Scribe to transcribe, as in replicate, the text into a new document; a scribe was basically the ancient equivalent to a photocopier, just a bazillion times slower, and in some instances a lot less accurate. Unlike the Ethiopian in Acts Eight (Acts 8.26-35), most people were not capable of reading the Scriptures for themselves, this is because most were illiterate and needed someone else to read and explain the Scriptures to them.

Consider William Harris, a Columbia University professor, who has studied Ancient literacy rates of places like Athens and Rome. His study revealed that, at best, only 10-15 percent of the population was literate, and sometimes it was worse; this means that 85-90 percent of the population could not read.1 However, I would like to point out that the literacy rate may have been different in Israel based upon Israel establishing Synagogues that were used to teach Scripture. But, you see, the ancient illiteracy rate verses modern literacy rate does not even begin to reveal the magnitude of decisions and studies needed in order to make an English Bible Translation, because in order to make a translation possible, as we will see, Original Language interpretation, not just reading, is critical.

 
Bible Languages
First there is the issue with the Bible Languages – none – not a one of them are English. What is more difficult is that Modern English, as we have come to recognize it, was not established until sometime in the 1500s.2 As I have endeavored to learn more about the Bible’s Original Languages, the first thing I learned is that there are three: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.

Of the three languages, the one most similar to the constructs of the English language is Greek. Not only are the Hebrew and Aramaic letters significantly different, but both Hebrew and Aramaic are read right to left where Greek, like English, is read left to right. The rules of English grammatical structures are too modern and completely foreign to Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew. Our English grammatical rules place a tremendous emphasis on word order, this is not necessarily the case with Greek; the Greek word order usually gives emphasis to something different than English.

Additionally, the first Bible translation was from Hebrew into Greek. The Hebrew BibleW3 was translated from Hebrew into Greek about 200 years before Jesus was born. This Hebrew to Greek translation (known as the SeptuagintW) becomes, and is, a tremendous blessing for Greek NT readers. William D. Mounce makes it known that the Greek NT has the same “common Koine GreekW that is used in the SeptuagintW [the Greek OT]”.4 This means that if one is capable of reading NT Greek then they can read OT Greek. But this Koine GreekW language construct is important for, at least, one other reason. Since Koine GreekW is found in both the Greek OT and NT, then the SeptuagintW becomes an important Greek lexical and grammatical lens to better understand the Hebrew, which in turn helps you and me as English readers.

 
Punctuation
I imagine that punctuation was the part of English that all school kids hated to learn. Yet, we were taught the importance of:

  • capitalization, colons, semi-colons, commas,
  • exclamation points, question marks, and periods,
  • putting spaces between our words,
  • using parenthesis for parenthetical thoughts, and
  • placing quotation marks around statements from other people (learning the difference and the proper use of both the double quotation mark and the single quotation mark).

As we learned in school, punctuation is a powerful mechanism for language – revealing things like pauses, and emphasis. But, you see, the earliest Greek NT manuscripts had no punctuation. This is because the punctuation (as we recognize and use in the English Translations) did not exist when the New Testament was written.

Some punctuation was developed when the Christian Bible began having greater distribution quantities, and early forms of capitalization and things like indentation were used as early as 400 A.D./C.E..5 But, punctuation (as we have come to recognize it) was not developed until about the same time that Verses entered the English Bible – this was around the time of the printing press. Yet following the 1500s, punctuation would still received further enhancements.

MounceThis means that for each and every English Bible Translation: every Capitalized letter, every comma, every colon, every semi-colon, every exclamation point, every question mark, every period, every parenthetical thought, every quotation mark has been placed into the text by the translators and/or the editing team. While this sounds, and is uncomfortable, this should not, in any way, scare you or me. Because in application, this is absolutely no different than the Chapter Verse system being infused into the Bible – the Chapters became part of the Bible in the 1200s,6 and Verses were added in the 14 and 1500s.7

This means that the Earliest Greek Manuscripts had neither chapters nor verses. This also means that the Earliest Greek Manuscripts had no type of punctuation as we have come to recognize it. So what this means is when and where English Bible Translations have capitalization and punctuation (a period, comma, semicolon, and other punctuation) and – as we will see, interpretation of the spaces between the Greek letters – all affect how you and I read the Bible.

While there is a tremendous amount more that affects the reading and interpretation of the Bible’s Original Languages (e.g. how idiomsW establish idiomatic expressions) what follows is a short examination of Spacing, Capital Letters and Ambiguity. I will utilize the English language to reveal the difficulties that Spacing, Capital Letters, and Ambiguity present. Another major item that affects Biblical Interpretation is Theology. I discussed how theology causes arguments in my Theology Series, so that amount of detail is absent in this article; but theology certainly affects Bible reading and interpretation. However, keep in mind that Punctuation, Words and Spacing, Capitalization, and Ambiguity, along with Theology only represent five issues that affect reading and interpretation.

 
Words and Spacing
We don’t often consider words and the spaces between them an issue, unless of course, thewordsarewrittentooclosetogether (even as I typed that, the word processor underlined the characters because it thinks I made a mistake). In case it was too much, here is what I said, “…unless of course, the words are written too close together.”

Van der PoolWords, and the spacing we place between those words, are something we are not just accustomed to, but were taught to do. Having the words separated by spacing helps us read the information on the page, making reading less laborious. But the convention of placing spaces between words was not used in some of the Earliest Greek Manuscripts.

In this section we want to see how the Bible’s words would appear without spacing. So, let us use the KJV translation of John 1.1 as our example. I am using John 1.1 from E-Sword (version 8.0.6) which is the 1769 Edition of the KJV, here is what it looks like:

1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

 
However, let us for sake of our example assume that the KJV was the original language (it isn’t, but that should have gone without saying), let us first remove the chapter, verse, capitalization and punctuation, so it would look like this:

in the beginning was the word and the word was with god and the word was god

The following is John 1.1 in the Greek, it is from this that an English Translation is based (Greek is Westcott-Hort Greek New Testament, E-Sword version 8.0.6)

εν αρχη ην ο λογος και ο λογος ην προς τον θεον και θεος ην ο λογος

 
But we are discussing that spaces were not included in the Earliest Greek Manuscripts. Again, what follows is John 1.1 in the Greek, it is from which an English Translation is based (Greek is Westcott-Hort Greek New Testament, E-Sword version 8.0.6). This is how the Greek looks when all the spacing has been removed.

εναρχηηνολογοςκαιολογοςηνπροςτονθεονκαιθεοςηνολογος

But let us also use our KJV John 1.1 example again, but remove the spacing. The passage would look like this:

inthebeginningwasthewordandthewordwaswithgodandthewordwasgod

 
The only reason we can read the above line is because we know English. Similarly, Greek scholars and students can look at the Greek manuscripts, and read the Greek that has-no-spaces-between-the-words, as well as you and I can read the above English without spacing. This is because of word recognition – we do this all the time with web addresses. In essence, a web address is nothing more than a string of characters; but it is our familiarity with English and the language of the Internet that allows us to read the web address. This brings us two other issues for interpretation: Capitalization and Ambiguity.

 
Capital Letters
Capital letters are an integral part of English written communication. Not only do we signal the beginning of a sentence with a capital letter, we also capitalize proper names. Interestingly, we USE ALL CAPS to emphasize, but if we are writing email or instant messages, using ALL CAPS represents shouting.

While rare, I still receive emails and hand-written correspondence where people have either typed or written their entire message using all Capital letters. IN ESSENCE, THEIR ENTIRE LETTER LOOKS LIKE THIS. THEY ARE NOT SHOUTING NOR EMPHASIZING, BUT MERELY TRYING TO COMMUNICATE SOMETHING TO ME. In this situation, my familiarity with English and English writing conventions allows me to decipher their letter for proper names and the beginning of sentences.

So another issue with taking the Greek into an English Translation is that some of the Earliest Greek Manuscripts were written with all capital letters. Again, let us use the KJV translation of John 1.1 as our example. I am using John 1.1 from E-Sword (version 8.0.6) which is the 1769 Edition of the KJV, here is what it looks like:

IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD AND THE WORD WAS WITH GOD AND THE WORD WAS GOD

But remember, some texts were also written without spaces. So, if the text was all capitals and without spacing (remember it would have been Greek not KJV), it would look something like this:

INTHEBEGINNINGWASTHEWORDANDTHEWORDWASWITHGODANDTHEWORDWASGOD

Proper Names; Proper References
Reading the text that uses all capital letters probably is not too difficult, but we must keep in mind that words like: Christ, Jesus, and God (which we have come to capitalize) were not spelled using capital letters in the Earliest Greek Manuscripts. In other words, the convention of capitalizing a Proper Name (e.g. Jesus, Paul) and Proper References (e.g. God, Christ) was not used. (For an explanation of God’s Name see: Doctrine: What about God?)

As I have revealed this truth, some have responded with this concern: if “god” is not capitalized with an upper case “G”, then how did those people and how will other people know which god is being talked about? This is a good question, and this concern is addressable partially by giving their attention to literary context.

Tyndale New TestamentYet as we will see, capitalizing Proper Names and Proper References is an English spelling convention that has been adopted somewhere in the last five hundred years or so. But, we must keep in mind that Proper Name and Proper Reference capitalization were not practiced at the time the NT was written. Any Greek NT text that has capitalized letters is a redacted (an edited) text adapted to fit modern English spelling conventions.

Interestingly enough, from what I am witnessing in movies and other printed materials, it is becoming more common to see the lack of capitalization in names and in sentences. Whether we care for this or not, we must accept the lingual reality that Capitalization is a convention of the English Language and is not necessary for complete understanding.

But this capitalization issue does reveal how much we have come to completely depend on and implicitly trust in the English Translators. Modern translators have simply adopted the practice of capitalizing words (Names and References) that Christianity has come to associate with God Almighty and Jesus Christ. But, the fact is spelling God with a capital “G” has not always been in the English Bible. Consider William TyndaleW, his translation of John 1.1 (see image) it looks like this:

“In the begynnynge was that worde/ad that worde was with god:and god was thatt word.” circa 1526 edition Tyndale BibleW

Not only did Tyndale spell God with a lower case “g”, the four words: beginning, word, and, that are spelled differently. This one passage from the Tyndale BibleW does reveals how much our English spelling has changed since the early 1500s. Yet, with the Tyndale Translation we do see that the English sentence begins with a capital letter and has some punctuation.

The point is, all we have to do is go back to the early 1500s and see that even English did not always capitalize God. This makes the Tyndale BibleW Translation, in someways, like the Greek, giving textual ambiguity, at least in the capitalization of God. Leaving textual ambiguity is not falsehood, nor is it harmful to any reader. Ambiguity exists in all languages, even in the Original Bible Languages. This is why readers should be taught to examine literary context to order to find some answers for many concerns; yet, there are times that literary context does not bring the clarity desired. But, this brings us to looking at ambiguity.

 
Ambiguity
I have met very few people who are truly comfortable with ambiguity. This is because ambiguity makes things less apparent, it leaves things “open to interpretation” which depending on how emphatic an interpreter wants to be, ambiguity does not lend itself to be an ally. This leaves English Only Bible Readers at the mercy of the translators, did the translators leave the text ambiguous, or did they “clarify”? Consider the following example.

MounceI use this example for two reasons. One, using a passage from the Bible could create controversy that I want to avoid in this article, therefore this example makes it a little easier to make my point; but, two, this example serves well revealing the difficulty of interpretation even for English. Read and interpret this imaginary web address:8

www.opportunityisnowhere.com

What did you read?

Did you read it as: www . opportunity is no where . com
or
Did you read it as: www . opportunity is now here . com

It was during my research for this article that the above imaginary website came to my attention. By using the imaginary website, the author used its name to reveal that a person’s temperamentW influences their interpretation. The author claimed that pessimists tended to see “opportunity is no where”, but optimists tended to see “opportunity is now here”. With such, the author effectively demonstrated that temperamentW affects our interpretation of the assumed “space” between words.

So, our point is this: since temperamentW affects our interpretation and reading of the English, then how much will temperamentW (meaning theology, and theology is affected by temperamentW) affect a translator’s interpretation of the Bible’s Original languages? This is why I advocate that we learn and return to the Bible’s Original Languages – reading and interpreting for ourselves.

 
Translation Reflects Translator
I don’t write the things I write to anger or frighten believers, but I do write them in order to reveal the complexities of each and every English Translation, without exception. The technical translation process and theological interpretation process both directly affect the English Bible; this is why this article’s title: “A Bible Translation Reflects the Translator(s)” is true, without exception. As believers, we claim that we what to know the truth, yet I find many who become dismayed at this truth. Why? We must accept this situation for what it is, learn from it, and learn to place greater trust in God through Christ rather than Bible Translations.

My heritage (the church of Christ) taught me to be “non-denominational” and to seek the truth as the first century knew it; yet, we have argued and continue to argue which English Bible Translation is more accurate to “intended meaning” of the Bible’s Original Languages. From this article, I hope I have revealed why a continued debate about Bible Translations is unnecessary.

BlombergYet, to read the Bible through any translation is to read it through the eyes (the mind and the theology) of the translator, there is no exception to this. To read an English Bible Translation is to implicitly trust the translator. By the nature of translation, it means that if I am reading an English Bible Translation put out by a “denomination”, then I will be (either knowingly or unknowingly) reading and receiving their theology. Every English Bible Translation is affected by someone’s theology. To more accurately aim for non-denominational doctrine requires us to learn and read the Original Bible Languages; until we do so, using an English Bible Translation and arguing for “non-denominationalism” seems unreasonable.

This brings me to the old Latin expression of caveat emptor (“Let the buyer beware”) – this seems true even for Bible Translations. Now, almost two millennia ago, the Greek NT included the phrase: “test the spirits” (1 John 4.1) – it seems that we modern believers should apply this to Bible Translations, even our favorite one. Also, I make the assumption that we were also taught to be like the Bereans (Acts 17.10-13). They were “more noble” because they searched the scriptures, but they did not search English Translations because English did not yet exist; by reason of historical context they either searched the Hebrew BibleW or the SeptuagintW Translation to confirm what was said. If we are to be noble, like the Bereans, then should we not do the same?

Consider this information from the Introduction of the Apostolic Bible Polyglot (a Greek-English Interlinear Bible) written by Editor, Charles Van der Pool:

“English Bibles have taken on a divine aura of their own, with some holding the translation to be divinely inspired, as some claim concerning the King James Version. … These bibles became so well accepted, that any variation in later editions or other Bibles were suspect. As the reader in general didn’t have the original language to compare, he or she was at the mercy of the translator being true to the original, and not embellishing or bending the meaning to his purposes. A paraphrase Bible does not exhibit the original language, and as the translator can choose whatever English word suits his taste, it becomes very difficult to confute his or her choice of words, as the original [language] is not present. With an interlinear Bible such is not the case. The Translator is held to a higher standard, as he must use English words which reflect the meaning of the original Greek word, and any other English word would be suspect and easily refuted. … As the God-breathed words of the autographs [the original writings] were in Hebrew and Greek, it must be noted that a translation must not replace the original, for far too much emphasis has been relegated to paraphrase Bibles, rather than emphasizing the studies of the original languages.”9

 
Conclusion
After presenting and reviewing some details regarding the complexities of producing an English Bible Translation, is it any wonder that Second Peter records (prior to any English Translation) this statement about Paul:

And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you; As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction. ~ 2 Peter 3.15-16 KJV, emphasis mine

We should now see that Punctuation, Words and Spacing, Capital Letters, Ambiguity, and Theology (addressed in this previous article) all have a major role in Biblical understanding. But, since we should now recognize that Punctuation, Spacing, and Capital Letters were missing in some of the early Greek Manuscripts, we are now faced with two issues:

  • the lack of Punctuation, Spacing and Capital Letters in the first century, greatly affected their understanding of both Paul’s and the Scripture’s intentions; and
  • the inclusion of Punctuation, Spacing and Capital Letters in our texts (which can vary from translation to translation and translator to translator) greatly affect our understanding of both Paul’s and the Scripture’s intentions.

In order to more fully understand the Bible, I advocate and will continue to advocate, a return to the Bible’s Original Languages; but in doing so, unfortunately, I have heard a common objection: “fine, but how do you know the meaning of the Hebrew and Greek words are correct?” Anymore, I find this retort, at best, silly; and, at worst, a gross misapplication of reason. Here is why.

BockIf that retort is true, which is claiming that the meanings of the Hebrew and Greek words cannot be certain or corrected for certainty, then I have to ask: how did we ever get English Translations? Some might ascribe English translations to Divine Inspiration, but I addressed this issue in Lost in TranslationS. But there is a caveat, just because word meaning can be understood, does not automatically insinuate that an English Bible Translation has understood how the associated clauses and phrases of the Original Languages interact with each other.

I now interpret the retort about Hebrew and Greek as an objection raised to appease the conscience regarding the ignorance of those languages than true rational thought. Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek can be learned. All the time, these languages are learned by scholars, Bible researchers, ministers and Bible students – this simply means we, too, can learn the languages. Since I believe that my church heritage taught me to go to the source, I am convinced that learning and discussing the issues from the Original Bible Languages is one way in which we more fully interact with the First Century church.

 
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Endnotes
1. Ancient literacy rates from William Harris of Columbia University; Misquoting Jesus, page 37.

2. Early Modern English, History of the English Language – Wikipedia.org.

3. “Hebrew BibleW” this is what Christians call the Old Testament. The Hebrew BibleW was written in Hebrew and Aramaic, and consists of the 39 books found in the Christian OT, but situated as 22 books and arranged somewhat differently than the Christian OT. Before there ever was a NT, the Hebrew BibleW was the only Bible; subsequently the Hebrew BibleW would have been the Bible Jesus, the Apostles and the earliest disciples (e.g. Apollos) would have used, unless they happened to be using the translation of the Hebrew BibleW called the SeptuagintW.

4. “common Koine GreekW that is used in the SeptuagintW [the Greek OT]”, William D. Mounce; Basics of Biblical Greek, Mounce, Chapter One, The Greek Language, Page 1.

5. History of Punctuation, Wikipedia.org.

6. Chapters of the Bible, Wikipedia.org.

7. Verses of the Bible, Wikipedia.org.

8. Imaginary web address: www.opportunityisnowhere.com, The Survivor’s Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life, Ben Sherwood.

9. Lengthy quote from the Introduction to the Apostolic Bible PolyglotW, ~ Charles Van der Pool, Editor-in-Chief; Introduction, Statement, pages xiii-xiv. The ellipsis reveal that I have abbreviated his statement for brevity.

 
Right Hand Side Quotations
“When the New Testament was first written there were no punctuation marks. In fact, the words were run together one after another without any separation. Punctuation and versification entered the text of manuscripts at a much later period.

Obviously this has created some difficulties for contemporary scholars since the way a verse is punctuated can have a significant effect on the interpretation of the verse. …”
~ Robert H. Mounce
Basics of Biblical Greek, Grammar, Second Edition, William D. Mounce;Chapter 4, Punctuation and Syllabification, Exegetical Insight, page 13.
The ellipsis reveal that I have abbreviated his statement for brevity.

 
“Following the tradition of the earliest manuscripts there are no punctuation marks in the Greek text of The Apostolic Bible. Many of the earliest Greek manuscripts did not even have letter spacing, and all the letters ran together and would have looked something like this: andenoslivedahundredandnintyyears. Punctuation marks were added to the Greek text through the centuries, and many manuscripts differ in these punctuation marks.”
~ Charles Van der Pool, Editor-in-Chief
The Apostolic Bible Polyglot; Introduction, Punctuation & Italics, page x.

 
“… The way a translation handles an ambiguous verse … reveals the theological leanings of the translator.”
~ Robert H. Mounce
Basics of Biblical Greek, Grammar, Second Edition, William D. Mounce;Chapter 4, Punctuation and Syllabification, Exegetical Insight, page 13.
The ellipsis reveal that I have abbreviated his statement for brevity.

 
“… But in reading only the English, we may miss altogether the originally intended relationship between sentences and clauses, and we may import motives to writers they never held. …”
~ Craig L. Blomberg
Basics of Biblical Greek, Grammar, Second Edition, William D. Mounce; Chapter 8, Prepositions and εἰμί, Exegetical Insight, page 54.
The ellipsis reveal that I have abbreviated his statement for brevity.

 
Darrell L. Bock suggests that “a knowledge of Greek” can reveal significant emphasis within the text that some English translations only hint at.
“a knowledge of Greek” and the context of Darrell L. Bock’s statement are found in: Basics of Biblical Greek, Grammar, Second Edition, William D. Mounce; Chapter 11, First and Second Person Personal Pronouns, page 89.

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