Bible Freedom Science: Bible TranslationCopyright © 2011, Charles Henry Johnsen, III

Bible Translation Loses Meaning

Biblical Translations are Impossible

The Bible is hard to translate. This Book was written down over the course of a thousand years, from sources much older, over two thousand years ago. The Book is actually a collection of scrolls, roughly the same scrolls as the Jews held sacred, bound into a book by Christians in the First and Second Century. To these the church added new writings, including collections like Paul's letters and the Four Gospels. There are three different languages involved, four if we count the English we wish to end up with: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek. Even after the textual critics (those who practice the art of reconstructing the original document, whatever that means) have done their work we are left with lost words, contexts, referents, and meanings. But all of these are minor problems compared to the two big ones: the ancient words, especially Hebrew, cannot be equated to a single English word and translators have a Indo-European mind.

Before I go any further, I assure you that the English version (scholars call translations versions) you own is okay. Here and there I may have an argument with a rendering. Over all, I may have criticisms about things like gender designations and various theological agenda. But all that is necessary for morals and doctrine, every thing you need for life and salvation, is present and clear in your personal Bible. At some point, if you agree that I am correct, you may decide to chose another English version. That may be wise but it is not essential for faith and morals.

That being said, it is still clear to me that some versions, I pray not your's, are so politically correct, so honey coated with sappy Mid-Twentieth Century hippyisms, that it should be discarded entirely. The Gospel may still be there but so buried in false doctrines about human nature, science, or theology that it is time to find a more faithful translation. By the way, this also applies to more ancient heresies like the Immortality of the Soul, Arianism, or Gnosticism.

I find that all Bible versions narrow the ancient vocabulary. But I am used to this. Hebrew has a small vocabulary compared to English. Where we have the three words peace, prosperity, and happiness; they have one word: shalom. Too often translators try to pin down a single, unambiguous meaning for complex Hebrew words using context and examples from ancient versions like the Vulgate (Latin) or the Septuagint (Greek). It is as if they believe that neither the original authors nor us modern readers were able to emit and absorb sophisticated clusters of meaning embedded in the arrangement and selection of Hebrew or English words. Even worse, there is an attempt to make the foreign and primitive Hebrew text sound more modern, whether modern is First Century A.D. (Vulgate, Septuagint) or Twentieth Century A.D. (NTSB, JPS, etc.).

Often, for me, any translation is an amputation. I am rather extreme in the opposite direction. I strive to leave ambiguity for the reader to ponder. Usually this is no more than a cultural difference between speed reading and devotional memorization. But too often the choices of the translators come to a different, more troubling result. There is an unwillingness in Twentieth Century culture, now ungracefully passing away, to see the value of ancient learning, especially biblical teaching. The arrogance tops out with the assumption that a university professor is smarter than Moshe or Paul. You see this most clearly in the movement to neuter the Bible's language. Male and female He made them it says. But that implies there is a difference between the sexes! Everybody knows (a clear signal that the rest of the sentence is false and can only be supported by a poll) that the only differences between boys and girls are forced on them by parents and culture. Yet any two year old of either sex, long before they are interested in sexual reproduction or recreation, can tell the difference between boys and girls. I mean in their minds, not only in the trivial differences of childhood external sexual characteristics. For all of history all of human kind, except for a handful of American university professors for the last fifty years, knows Moshe was right, Paul was right, and Skinner was wrong.

All too often you and I, as well as those heretics we all know, read our own values and philosophies into the biblical text. This is called interpretation and I do not like it. Even when I do it, I do not like it. My motto is Do not interpret the Bible, read it.This is hard and finally impossible for us, like chastity. But it is not hypocrisy to push to the goal of reading instead of interpreting.

But most of us do not read Hebrew or Greek. So we must, the whole church must, depend on translations for the Word of our God. Fine if you share the translator's world view or predilections. But not so fine if the translator, consciously or unconsciously, selects a meaning that leaves out the nuances or the hammer blows that the Word contains for our edification. If you see the word soul on the page and read immortal soul instead of the meaning breath or life or person you will miss the clear teaching of Scripture that the soul is not immortal. We always say that we have the right our own interpretation and that mine is as good as yours. Balderdash. It is true that you have the political and civil right to find Morris Code in Leviticus and secret messages from space aliens in Jonah. But you would still be wrong.

So here I have to talk about more than the plain words. Not because I want to interpret them but because I am afraid that without a little better education in history, economics, science, and theology we cannot even read this Book. So who am I? No one but an old preacher who comes to tears when translators do their best to bury the complex. earthy, practical, social, and strict meanings from the Voice that speaks in the Book.

It is a shame that I have to explain that markets and trade are natural and good. It is a shame that I have to explain that human nature is natural, that our rights come from our Creator and/or from natural selection. But after fifty years of strangle hold on the universities and teacher colleges, the radical leftists in American have nearly erased the heritage of a free people. The wisdom found in the head of every rural American farmer, our ancestors, is mocked. Ordinary common experience and Jewish and Christian values are made fun of.

Here are some specific examples of what I am talking about:

Thus far this essay. I need to finish it, bring other related essays into it and consolidate my rants on translation. Also, see the entry for Hebrew in the glossary.