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This is a bit longer and more technical than normal. Be forewarned.
As you probably already know, the Bible was written in Greek and Hebrew (and a little bit of Aramaic). But you probably need to read them in a translation. And for us English speakers, we are both blessed and cursed with a plethora of translations. ESV, NIV, CSB, NASB, KJV and others are all translations of these Greek and Hebrew texts of the scriptures.
So, in a manner of speaking, one could say that these various versions or translations are not the scriptures. They are not the actual texts themselves, they are only translations of the actual texts. Now, of course these Greek and Hebrew texts are texts that we still have and are studied by the people who can read them, usually scholars and some pastors.
For example, here is John 3:16
Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλὰ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.
And even transliterated:
[hutohs gar aygapaysen ho theos ton kosmon, hohste ton huion ton monogenay edohken, hina pas ho pisteuohn eis auton may apolaytai alla ekhay zoayn aiohnion.]
And this is Genesis 1:1
בְּרֵשִׁית בָּרָא אֶלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ
[bereyshiyth bara’ elohiym eyth hashamayim we’eyth ha’arets]
Clear as mud, right? Naturally, the issue is that unless you have gone through the trouble of actually learning the forms of these languages used in the scriptures, then you can’t read them. In a manner of speaking, you can’t read the actual text of the scriptures. You can only read translations.
Now you might object to all this elitist seminarian talk and say that if the English translations are generally faithful and accurate, then we are in fact reading the text of the scriptures, in the same way that I can say that I’ve read Les Miserables even if I’ve only slogged through an English translation of this unnecessarily long French novel. It’s the meaning after all that matters, not the words themselves, as if it were some kind of magic incantation.
Furthermore, most English translations are fairly decent. Obviously none are perfect since they all have to make decisions and interpret the text as they translate it. They have different philosophies about how to translate and have different biases as they come to the text. But in general this isn’t really too much of a problem.
I’m not here to tell you that your English translation is trash and you don’t have the Bible if you’re not reading it in Greek and Hebrew. That is NOT what I’m saying. What I am saying is that when you do read your English translations, you have to recognize what it is: a translation. It is not the text, not in the strictest sense. Because of this, one has to be aware of a few things lest one end up misunderstanding or abusing the text.
Greek and Hebrew Are Not Magical
First off, I feel the need to make this clear. There is nothing magical about the languages used in the scriptures. I can’t tell you how many times I heard in various ways growing up that Greek was this magically precise language or all this weird pious stuff about Hebrew, yet none of this is true. Greek and Hebrew are languages just like any other languages. They have their own quirks and ambiguities. Sure some things are necessarily more precise in one language, but then other things are not as precise.
Usually what will happen is that people will talk about individual words in Greek or Hebrew and treat them as if they in themselves hold so much more meaning than any English equivalent. And to be sure there are some words that are hard to express succinctly in English. For example, the word κοινωνία [koinohnia]. Paul uses this word a lot and it means something like commonality, fellowship, even generosity or participation/sharing. However, the fuller meaning is a bit harder to grasp than that. The idea is wrapped up in the idea of holding things in common, like how the church in Acts sometimes literally held everything in common, all their wealth and possessions. So in Paul’s context he has in mind the unity all the believers have since they all have the same faith, hope, and Lord. There’s quite a bit more to the idea than merely “fellowship” which is how the word is normally translated.
However, other words are often purported to hold far more meaning that they actually do. One of the most common ones has to do with the various Greek words for love. There are a few words in Greek that can be translated as “love,” such as ἀγαπάω [agapaoh], φιλέω [fileoh], στέργω [stergoh], and ἐράω [eraoh]. Often a lot of hay is made out of the differences between these words. And to be sure they are different. However, there’s also a lot of overlap between their meanings. It’s not as if these are strictly separate and distinct categories. In fact, some times writers in the New Testament will use these words interchangeably, like in John’s Gospel.
Other times people will point to word origins or how a word has come into English and derive meaning from that. For example, often people claim that the word δυναμις [dynamis], meaning power, is an explosive kind of power, like dynamite. Now, the word dynamite is derived from the Greek word, but that has nothing to do with what the word means in a first century context nearly two millennia before dynamite is even invented.
This is all to say that Greek and Hebrew are not magical. These are not mysterious mystical languages. They’re just normal everyday human languages that God happened to use because those were the common languages within the context he was working.
Hold the English Text at Arm’s Length
Okay, so first off one has to recognize that the meanings of English words, phrases, or sentences may not completely match up with the meanings of the Greek/Hebrew words, phrases, or sentences. Words don’t mean just one thing, but have a range of meaning. The full range of meaning of a word in one language will never completely match the range of meaning of a corresponding word in another language. For example, in Romans 6:13, Paul uses the word ὅπλα [hopla], which is often translated as “instruments,” as in “present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.” The word ὅπλα [hopla] however has a range of meaning that includes concepts such as “tool,” “instrument,” or even “weapon.” The word “instrument” in English can be a musical instrument, a mechanical tool, a means by which something is done, a device for measuring, etc. Now, “instrument” has a lot of overlap in meaning with ὅπλα [hopla], but it’s not perfect. There are shades of meaning of “instrument” that are not conveyed by ὅπλα [hopla] and vice versa.
What this means is that if you’re reading just English you may be drawn to meanings conveyed by the English meanings that are not present with the Greek word (the left side of the Venn diagram). Furthermore you will be blind to meanings potentially conveyed by the Greek word that are not present with the English word (the right side of the Venn diagram). Now, this is generally not a problem most of the time. For example, with this verse, the potential meaning of “instrument” as “musical instrument” is not supported by the context, so you’re not likely to go for that meaning of the English word. Although the potential meaning of “weapon” for ὅπλα [hopla] is actually quite possible here. So, that would be a meaning that someone reading the ESV would likely miss.
But, what’s the point of all this? My point is that when you’re reading in English, you have to hold the English text at arm’s length, in a manner of speaking. That is, don’t put the English text under a microscope and try to unpack the meaning of particular words or phrases in English in a really detailed way. It’s misguided to do this since the range of meaning of a word or phrase in English will not match up exactly with the range of meaning of the word or phrase in Greek/Hebrew.
For example, you might do that here if you were to somehow conclude that when we are presenting our members to God we are making music of righteousness, since that is what the English, “instruments” means.
Generally, translators do their best to convey the core meaning of the words in the original language in English, but this is not always possible, since translators are forced to make choices about a text. There may even be multiple reasonable ways to read a text in Greek/Hebrew, but all of these readings cannot be expressed in English at once. This is especially tricky when the difference in meaning is important or controversial, unlike our previous example.
For a more controversial example, Romans 16:7 in the ESV reads:
Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.
No problem, right? Well, some translations render this differently.
See for example the NASB:
Greet Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners, who are outstanding among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me.
There are two points of difference here. The first is the name Junia(s). The ESV gives the feminine form of the name, Junia, whereas the NASB gives the masculine form of the name, Junias. While the name is common in Latin, it’s quite rare in Greek. Therefore, it’s not perfectly clear whether the masculine or feminine form is intended here. Secondly, there is the question of whether Junia is “well known to the apostles” or whether she is “outstanding among the apostles.” In other words, is Paul saying that the apostles know about Junia, who is not an apostle or that she, being among the apostles, is an outstanding member of that group.
TLDR: The controversy is about whether or not Junia is an example of a female apostle.
This has potential implications (especially for some) for the role of women in the church, especially concerning the issue of women’s ordination. In other words, for some it would be difficult to maintain that there is a scriptural prohibition of female pastors if there are indeed clear examples of female apostles.
This is a situation where a translator has to make a decision. The Greek genuinely appears to be ambiguous, but it is not possible to render this ambiguity into English. Thus the translator has to do the work researching and studying the text and making their own decision of the best way to read the text, but in the end it is a choice made by the translator. There isn’t necessarily a clearly “correct” solution. And of course in an instance like this, the translator may very likely be guided one way or another because of their own feelings about the larger controversy regarding this text and the issues it brings up.
Translators have to make these sorts of decisions all the time, but when you’re reading the English text you won’t necessarily know where they’re making these kinds of decisions about how to translate the text and what the potential alternatives might have been, unless it’s been footnoted in the translation text. There is a serious danger in being blindly led by the translator if you’re not careful.
What Then Do We Do?
Now, you may ask, “Well what am I supposed to do other than becoming a Greek/Hebrew scholar?”
And you could do that. That would be pretty cool. But short of doing that there are a few things you can do to hold the English text at arm’s length and mitigate some of these issues.
1) Keep in mind that whatever English text you have in front of you might not be the best or the only way to translate something.
If something seems odd, or if you have a question about why something is the way it is, remember that there might be a translational issue. There are almost always multiple legitimate ways to translate something and your issue may disappear with a different translation.
2) Check other translations
It’s always a pretty good idea to check other translations to see how they handle a text. There are a plethora of translations in English so there are no shortage of second opinions available. Be aware of different translation styles and check translations of different styles. Some are more literal like the ESV, others are slightly less literal like the NIV, others take more liberties with the text like TLB or like a paraphrase like the Message. Different translations also come from different perspectives. The ESV translators are rather conservative and in my experience tend to show a Reformed bias in their translation. Other translations will show other biases.
3) Find resources that are accessible to you so you can have your questions answered
A good study bible might help you out here. Sometimes you may need to look at an in depth commentary. Other resources like Blue Letter Bible (here) or The NET Bible (here) can be very helpful. I particularly like the NET Bible. It’s available for free online and contains a whole bunch of notes that explain why the translators decided to translate it the way they did. Since it’s online, they have the freedom to have far more expansive notes than in any English print bible.
Of course in all of this it’s important to remember that amidst all of these uncertainties and difficulties of language, it’s amazing to realize that the same God who created all things has chosen to reveal himself using human language. He uses our words and communicates his eternal Truth in our languages. Sure, sometimes it can be hard to understand, but it is understandable. He’s given us brains so that we can understand and study his word and his promises for us in Christ.