Imagine, for a moment. You wake up one morning and, as you stumble downstairs to grope for the coffee maker, you notice that the front door of your house is wide open, the brisk morning air blowing into the room and clearing your mind just a little bit. You stare at the door for a moment to process the fact that it is open. Your first thought, of course, is for your family. You race upstairs and throw open the door of your son’s room. He is lying peacefully asleep. Breathing a prayer of thanks you cross the hall, opening the door to your daughter’s room. Her blankets are in a heap beside the bed, her nightlight on, but she is nowhere to be seen. Frantically you search the house, calling for her, begging her to answer you. But she is gone.
Before you can pick up the phone to dial 911, it rings. You answer it before the second ring and discover that it is a reporter from a local newspaper. He awoke this morning to find a strange package on his front doorstep. Opening it, he found that it contained a warning that someone had taken your daughter. A letter detailed a series of steps you would have to take if you ever hoped to see her alive again.
The reporter begins to read the letter, but you shout, “I don’t have time for this! Just give me a summary!” Or do you? Of course not! It would be ludicrous for you to do anything but ask him to read the letter slowly and with dead accuracy. You would not want the summary but would want to hear and understand and ponder the kidnapper’s every word. You would not want his understanding of the kidnapper’s demands, but would want to hear the words yourself so you could come to your own understanding. Only then might you ask for his understanding of it. You would want to know, study, understand and follow every detail of that letter.
Words, it seems, are important. This applies not only to series of words, but to individual words. We see the importance of words all the time in legal documents, recipes, love letters, interviews and quotations. Think of a courtroom. Even if you have never been involved in a court case, you may have seen cases tried on some of the court shows like People’s Court or Judge Judy. Maybe you took time off work to watch the O.J. Simpson trial. When a lawyer or judge asks a person to recount the details of a case, does he allow the person to provide a summary, or does he dig deeper and demand the exact words and phrases that were used? It is not enough for a person to testify that “the defendant threatened my life.” The judge will demand to know the exact words the defendant used. Did he say, “Give me your purse or I’ll kill you?” or did he say, “Give me your purse or else…?” In either case there was a threat, but only one can be accurately shown to be a threat against the person’s life. The other was merely interpreted to be so. In this instance it may or may not be the case.
Whether following instructions to find one’s daughter or standing before a court in an attempt to put an assailant in prison, individual words play an important and even crucial role. It strikes me as odd, then, that though we place such importance on individual words in so many areas of life, we are so willing to read translations of the Bible that, in many ways, are mere summaries of the actual words. If we agree, and I’m sure most of us do, that there are no words more important than those written in Scripture, why do we read versions of it that make a mockery of the words that were breathed out by God?
Consider just a couple of quick examples. Romans 13:4 discusses the role of civil government. The authorities, says Paul, have the right to “bear the sword.”
“But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” (ESV) The word translated as “sword” is machaira and means “sword.”
But consider this passage in some less-literal translations:
“But if you are doing something wrong, of course you should be afraid, for you will be punished. The authorities are established by God for that very purpose, to punish those who do wrong.” (NLT)
“If you do something wrong, you ought to be afraid, because these rulers have the right to punish you. They are God’s servants who punish criminals to show how angry God is.” (CEV)
“But if you’re breaking the rules right and left, watch out. The police aren’t there just to be admired in their uniforms. God also has an interest in keeping order, and he uses them to do it.” (The Message)
Noticeably absent from these three translations is the word “sword.” The translators have seen fit to provide what they feel is the main idea of the passage, that the civil authorities have the right to punish those who do wrong. But this is a verse that has long been used to discuss the Christian view on capital punishment. It is an important verse in this context and in others. But in these three translations there is nothing to discuss, for the “sword” has been removed and punishment, which may be imprisonment, fines or community service, among other things, has been substituted. This same word is used in Acts 12:2 where we read of the murder of James the brother of John. In this passage the NLT speaks explicitly of a sword, while the CEV suggests one with the words “cut his head off” and The Message speaks of “murder.” In either case, the translators have, in this second passage, translated a word in a way that is inconsistent with how they have translated it in another passage. They have done so in order to interpret and not to make a more clear translation.
Let’s look at a second example. A standard translation of Psalm 32:1 might read as follows: “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” (ESV) This translation is not a transliteration, or direct translation of word position, punctuation, and so on, but is a readable translation that attempts to translate each word that is in the original language. Now let’s look at a few translations from less-literal versions of the Bible.
“Count yourself lucky, how happy you must be—you get a fresh start, your slate’s wiped clean.” (The Message)
“Oh, what joy for those whose rebellion is forgiven, whose sin is put out of sight!” (NLT)
“Our God, you bless everyone whose sins you forgive and wipe away.” (CEV)
What has become of the word “covered?” It has been replaced by “wiped clean,” “put out of site,” or “wipe away.” But is “covered” not one of the words God breathed out and wrote in His book? Should we, as the reader, not have access to that word? Conversely, “fresh start” is foreign to the text and is provided as an addition to the passage without alerting the reader that these are not God’s words, but the translator’s.
Consider even the words of Solomon, written to his lover, describing her unsurpassed beauty. “Your hair is like a flock of goats leaping down the slopes of Gilead.” (ESV) The Message renders this, “…like a flock of goats in the distance streaming down a hillside in the sunshine.” Note that addition of “sunshine.” The author may claim poetic license, but the fact is that he has added a word that is foreign to the text. The New Living Translation adds a small amount of interpretation, suggesting that her hair falls in waves. “Your hair falls in waves, like a flock of goats frisking down the slopes of Gilead.” If I were to write a love letter to my wife, do you think she would want it word-for-word, or does she merely desire access to the content of my thoughts? Again, translators have interpreted rather than translated.
What I mean to show in these examples is that anything other than an essentially literal translation of the Bible may work to subtly undermine the Christian’s confidence in the Scriptures. This is a topic that I cannot adequately cover in only a small article and I do realize there are complexities I have not considered. But on the basis of these examples I would urge you to consider this matter on your own. As Christians, people of the Book, we need to have confidence in our text. What basis do we have for our faith if we cannot have confidence in the Bible? We cannot overestimate the importance of ensuring that what we study is the clearest, best, most accurate translation of God’s Words that we can possibly find.