A Brief Explanation of Biblical Translations

by Reagan McClenny


Scripture: Rm 8:28 Feb 4, 2024

Reagan discusses how God providentially allowed the invention of the printing press, leading to wider dissemination of the Bible, despite initial pagan origins. He then gives an overview of different philosophies of Bible translation, from word-for-word to paraphrase, noting strengths and weaknesses of each. He concludes by urging us to read and study the word of God daily in multiple translations, allowing Scripture to equip us for every good work.


Good afternoon. If you'd like to take out your Bible and turn to Romans chapter 8. We'll read verse 28 here in just a moment, and that will be our first scripture this evening. Romans chapter 8 and verse 28. Tonight's lesson is by request. I've had a couple of questions about this over the last number of weeks, and so I thought it might be beneficial.

To preach a lesson on it and I'm excited about the things that we're going to talk about tonight. I'm glad that you're here. Glad for all of our members to be here and glad for our visitors to be here as well. And if you're in Romans chapter 8 and verse 28, we will be there here in just a moment.

Let's go back to 1432 before we do. The German city of Aachen hosted an event that epitomized the paganism of so called Christianity during this time. Aachen, one of Europe's great cathedral cities, was a major destination for Christian pilgrimages, like the one portrayed in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

The cathedral there that you can see on the screen behind me right here, It's one of the oldest in all of Europe. It was built in the the end of the 700s finished at the beginning of the 800s. It was sacked sometimes toward the end of the 800s and rebuilt in the 900s. And so it's been there a long time.

It had been there over 600 years by 1432. William Powers describes the event that took place in this German city in his book Hamlet and Blackberry, a book that was recommended to me by Leon Manning. He says this, Powers says this, Pilgrims went to Aachen because of its magnificent cathedral, which housed some of the most sacred relics in all of Christendom, including what were reputed to be the swaddling clothes of the infant Jesus, the Virgin Mary's robes, and the cloth used to wrap the severed head of John the Baptist.

These objects were widely thought to have miraculous powers, and they drew such huge crowds that in the late Church officials decided that they had to limit access to them. Henceforth, the relics would only be shown to the public once, every seven years. And then, just for two weeks. During those septennial events, Aachen was inundated with pilgrims.

One happened in 1432, with thousands pouring into the city from near and far on foot, horseback and donkey, in carts, wagons. And any other means they could find, like Chaucer's Pilgrims, they were a motley assemblage representing a wide range of classes and circumstances. But, having reached the cathedral, in fact, they probably would have come up this very street, they merged into one crowd, a heaving, shouting, sweaty mass of humanity.

All trying to reach the same goal, the sacred relics. One year, the pressure of all these bodies caused a building to collapse on the crowd, leaving 17 dead and 100 injured. What exactly were they seeking? Tradition held that the relics sent out invisible rays endued with divine powers that could heal the sick and answer other prayers.

And the surest way to obtain these blessings was to touch the objects themselves. That had once been easy to do, but as the crowds had grown over the years, it had become impossible to provide physical access to everyone. Too many people, too little time. However, if you stood in the path of the rays as they hit you, it was thought to be just as good.

Thus, during pilgrimages, the relics were moved to a raised platform outside the cathedral, where clerics held them aloft, one at a time, in order to give the rays a wide distribution among the crowd. A special device had been created to ensure that no one missed out. A small mirror. designed to catch and absorb the rays.

According to the historian John Mann, a pilgrim, having bought one from a local vendor, would find a vantage point with a straight line to the relics. Some scaled city walls and held up their mirrors as if they were a third eye above their heads. And because the mirrors were thought to retain the sacred energy, they could be used long afterward to heal the blind, the sick, and anyone else in need of divine help.

Man writes, You could head for home in the secure and happy knowledge that you carried in your belt pouch the very essence of the miraculous. And this, brothers and sisters, was so called Christianity. What a low point. What a low point upon for those who claim to be followers of Christ. And what good could possibly come from such superstitious, idolatrous, paganistic, so called Christianity?

Well, perhaps there is a lesson here from what we read there in Romans chapter 8, verse 28. In Romans chapter 8, it describes the suffering that sometimes takes place in our lives as Christians, and how evil things happen. And yet God is powerful enough in verse 28 that it says this, And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.

Notice that the passage doesn't say that all things are, are good. Some things are still evil, some things are still wrong. And yet God, our God is powerful enough that He can take things that are wrong, that aren't good, and He is able to use those things to accomplish His purposes in ways that we could not expect and did not imagine.

Because, at that 1432 event, there were too few mirrors for the people, and so, craftsmen from other places were commissioned to make and sell the mirrors. One of those craftsmen was a young man named Gutenberg, who To make a better profit, invented a press to make mirrors, which he sold at either the 1432 event or the 1439 event.

Well, the 1439 event was postponed because of a plague, so the 1440 event, where all these pilgrims came. And apparently his little contraption to build these mirrors didn't work very well for mirrors. It was unsuccessful, but we do know that Gutenberg later modified that press, and in the mid 1450s, he was able to mass produce Bibles in Latin.

And for the first time, the common man had much cheaper access to the Word of God. Of course, it was still in Latin. In Latin especially, the Formal Latin of the clergy was the language of the wealthy and the educated. The common people still did not have access because of this language barrier, because of a literacy barrier.

Can you imagine? Because this was the reality for many people living in the 14 1500s. Can you imagine, and before, can you imagine only hearing the Word of God in a language that you did not understand? Can you imagine? The only time you heard it at all was when it was read at some place by a priest who dispenses this knowledge to you.

You don't even know what it says, and then you have to trust the priest who says, Well, this is what this means. This is what you need to do. Now give me your indulgences.

What a horrible and dark time. And yet God, in His providence, was going to use a man like Gutenberg to bring about the light of the Gospel through the Word. Into the lives of many. It was a common occurrence in the early church to translate the scriptures into other languages so that other people could read them and understand them.

This was not something that was unusual for the first 400 years or so of the early church. Even going back to the Jewish scriptures, we know that in our New Testaments, many of the trans many of the quotations that we see in our New Testaments, especially in the gospels, are actually quotations from.

The Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. The Septuagint, it's called. And in the early days of the church, we see that the Greek scriptures were translated into other languages, in different places, so that people could read the Word of God in their own language and know what God's will was. And yet that fell out of favor for about a thousand years.

But starting here in the 14 and 1500s, there started to pop up these translations in other languages. German, French, Russian, and yes, English. And the church didn't like this. The Catholic Church didn't like this. On October 6, 1536, about 80 years after Gutenberg's first Bibles were printed, William Tyndale was burned at the stake.

What was his crime? He translated the Bible into English, though he didn't get to fully complete the Old Testament before his execution. Though others had done some translating out of the Latin, Tyndale was the first to translate into English out of the original Greek and Hebrew. And his last words, you can actually see them here on this printing in Old English.

Lord, open the king of England's eyes. And as he burns to death, he prays for kings and all those in authority. And for the good of God's kingdom and his death would do nothing but fan the flames, as it were, of a desire to, to read and study and understand the word of God. Two years later, king Henry VIII Order, table of Miles cover sale, which based largely on Dale's work to be used in every parish of, at the time, new established Church of England.

In 1599, the Geneva Bible was completed again based on Dale's work. Translating the entire Bible into English out of the Greek and Hebrew. And 60 years, 68 years after Tyndale's death, King James commissioned 50 scholars to create an authorized translation, the King James Version, which was finished in 1611.

Even then, even by the time we get to 1611, the, a personal copy of a Bible was expensive. It was hard to find, and you had to know how to read in order to be able to access it. And we, we think about that, and we think about all those things that happened, and the people who lost their lives, and all that paganism masquerading as Christianity.

And shouldn't it cause us to stop for a moment, and thank our Father in Heaven that we were born in a time and born in a place where we have access to the Word of God. You can have the Bible for free. In fact, if you don't have one, we'll give you one for free before you leave this building this evening.

You can carry a digital copy of it around in your pocket, and with the tap of a finger, you can have access to a number of different translations of the Bible. What a blessing it is. Because the Word of God is, is, is the power of God. The power of God to bring about our salvation. I want you to turn over, if you would, to Hebrews chapter 4.

Hebrews chapter 4.

Begin reading in verse 11 with me, please. Let us, therefore, be diligent to enter that rest, that eternal rest of heaven, lest anyone fall short according to the same example of disobedience. The disobedience of those who fell in the wilderness who hardened their hearts in different times and in different ways.

Well, we don't need to be disobedient, we need to be obedient to the Word of God. Verse 12, For the word of God is living, and powerful, and sharper than any two edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and it is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

And there is no creature hidden from his sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of him to whom we must give an account. The Word of God has this power for, for discerning the thoughts and intents of our heart, for directing us in the way we ought to go and who we ought to be. And it's amazing that we have this kind of access.

What a blessing to have our own personal copies of the Word of God translated into our own native language. And even in our world today, there are places where that is just not the reality. I was reading just a couple of weeks ago about some efforts being made in mainland China to smuggle Bibles into that country so that people can have them.

And how oftentimes what happens is, There are people meeting underground who are sharing a limited number of Bibles, trying to keep them from government officials so that they can have a copy of the Word of God. How blessed are we? And yet, amazingly, we're presented with a different problem in our time and in our place.

Which Bible do I get? Which translation do I use? Should I use one for study and another for reading? One for devotionals and one for worship? What Bible should I get for my grandson? What Bible should I get for myself? And those are just some of the questions that I've fielded and answered through the years.

And here recently, I've received that question a lot with, with really a question about, How do I know what the Bible really says? How do I know that what I have in my translation is close to Hopefully as close as possible to what, what the original work said in the Greek and Hebrew. And there's, there's a lot of things that we can unpack about that.

We've preached lessons on those things. Harold and I both have preached lessons on those things. We've had other people come in. Buddy Payne, for example, came in and talked about the, the various issues with translation and so forth. But as I was having conversations over the last couple of weeks, I realized that I've never preached a lesson devoted to the idea of translations.

And so, for the rest of our time this evening, I just want to give a brief explanation of Bible translations as we think about translations into English. And what we need to be looking for as we consider the various English translations that we use as we're seeking to, seeking to understand and apply the Word of God to our lives.

So, we know that the Bible consists of 66 books, written over about 1, 500 years, with 40 different writers and 6 major empires and 3 different continents. But for our purposes, most germane to our purposes tonight, it was written in 3 different languages. It was written primarily in Hebrew in the Old Testament.

primarily in Greek in the New Testament. And there are a few verses in both the Old Testament and New Testament in Aramaic. There are about 67 verses from the book of Ezra in Aramaic, about 200 verses from Daniel Jeremiah 10 11, and various other proper names and isolated words and phrases. In the New Testament, there are several direct quotes from Jesus and others in Aramaic.

And yet the vast majority is found in Hebrew, Old Testament, Greek, New Testament. So those languages, which are in many ways very different from our own, very different from English, I would suggest more precise. Each of them is more precise than English. Those languages are translated into our native tongues.

And as anyone who has any experience with another language knows, even if it's just the basic required foreign language that you take in public school, trying to figure out what one language says in a new language can be messy. And decisions have to be made about how you're going to interpret and translate.

So here's a chart that shows the major English translations. A number of them. There's some that are missing, of course. But this gives you a pretty good idea of what you see across the spectrum. And that's what it is. We have a spectrum as we think about the different kinds of translations, the different philosophies that are used in translation.

At one end of the spectrum, you have what would be called a word for word translation. It is exactly what it sounds like. I'm trying to take this word in Greek or Hebrew, I'm trying to find the most appropriate word in English that means the same thing. That's, that's sometimes very tough, picking exactly the right word, but that's the goal.

I want to find this word in, in Hebrew or Greek, The most appropriate word in English to go with it. And so, the New American Standard, the ESV, the King James Version, all of those would be good examples of a word for word translation. The Old American Standard, which is not on this list, would be the most literal, most word for word outside of an interlinear, which just has the Greek and then the English translation to go with it.

In the middle we have what this chart says, thought for thought. The technical term is a dynamic equivalence. And so the idea is, I have this thought that's being expressed in Greek or Hebrew. This phrase, perhaps, sometimes it's called phrase for phrase. This phrase in Greek and Hebrew. And I'm going to try and find the appropriate phrase or thought in English that communicates that same thought that is found in the native language.

And so, you think about right in the middle, between word for word on one end and what we're going to talk about, paraphrase on the other. Most people are familiar with the NIV. The NIV is right there in the middle on this spectrum, if you want to think about it in those terms. It is a dynamic equivalent.

They're trying to take the thought from the original languages and put it into English. At the far end of the spectrum, you have what's called a paraphrase. This is basically like a running commentary. And so what the translators are trying to do is Here's what the Apostle Paul is saying. Here's what Jesus is saying.

Let me try and put that into my own words that says this is what he's saying in English. So I'm taking what he's saying in Greek or what the Old Testament writers are saying in Hebrew, and I'm trying to put it into English in an understandable way using modern vocabulary, using modern phraseology. This is what I think he is saying.

So from one end of the spectrum, word for word, to a paraphrase, a running commentary on this. So here's my question. You still with me? Which one of the ends of the spectrum is best? A little bit of a trick question. It really depends on what you're trying to accomplish in reading from the specific translation.

Because each end of the spectrum has strengths and weaknesses. The strength over here with the paraphrase is that it's easy to understand. And a lot of times it does put it in language and vocabulary that we can understand to say, Oh yeah, I see what that's saying, sure, that's the strength there. While sometimes we all know these word for word translations can be difficult to understand.

What exactly is the Apostle Paul saying here? What is Jesus saying here? But of course, because it is a paraphrase, well, that gives more opportunity for the translators to put their own think sos in there, right? While when it's word for word, maybe I don't understand exactly what it means, but I know it's not what somebody else is saying Paul says, it's as close as possible to what Paul is actually saying.

This is made more difficult in some ways because English doesn't stay the same. The Greek and Hebrew text really remain the same from what they were from when they were written. And yet English changes a great deal. And in some ways it has made translation more difficult for us. We see the old King James here.

I mentioned the old American standard. Well, English has changed since 1611 by quite a, quite a great deal, right? And even some of the ways that we talk about things. Hmm? The translators of the King James Version of the Bible, and later the American Standard Version, were better equipped to maintain the distinction found in Biblical Greek between the singular and plural second person pronouns and verb forms.

English at that time still used thou, thee, thy, and thine for the singular. And ye, you, you, your, and yours for the plural. So, the old King James reads in Matthew chapter 5 and verse 13, Ye, plural, are the salt of the earth. I used this illustration when we did Better Together as our congregational focus.

What word would we use in modern Texas English for ye? Y'all. Y'all are the salt of the earth. And so we see that it's not just talking about an individual. It's talking about a group of people. It's in the plural. We drop down to Matthew 5 verse 29, we see, And if thy right eye offend thee, that's in the singular.

So it's just talking about one person instead of a group of people. Now, is that a killing matter, as Bill Reeves used to say, between these two? No, but it does give us a greater insight into what exactly Jesus was saying there. And that's lost in the New King James. It just says, You are the salt of the earth.

And it says, If your right eye causes you to sin. Without that distinction between the singular. In the plural, but the issue is we don't talk like this. Ye are the salt of the earth, but if the salt have lost his, his savor, wherewith, shall it be salted. We don't talk like that anymore. And so it's difficult to understand and many of the words don't mean the same thing now as they did then.

So the language was updated and the singular and plural forms have been lost to make it more readable for our modern English. And it's, at this point, there are some who would say that's why we just need to use the King James, the old King James, originally as it was in 1611. Well, the reality is even the old King James has had revisions from its original language.

Does anybody have an extra 5, 000 laying around? If you do, if you do, oh, somebody's shaking their head yes. You can own your own copy of a single page from a 1611 King James Bible. Here's one that is for sale. It's actually from Psalm 23. Isn't that nice? And so this is one of the original printings from the 1611 version.

What does that say up there? God's goodness, right? And even if you read through Psalm 23, The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in the green pastures. Well, I know that just because I have it memorized. Pretty difficult to read because spellings are different. Even some of the words, or some of the letters are different in the way they are written.

And so even the King James that you might have with you right now is gonna be different from what it was when it was originally translated. Languages change, and our translations change with them, and that's okay. So, using different translations for different purposes, therefore, can be really helpful to us as we're striving to read the Word of God, understand it, meditate on it, and study it.

So let me give you a couple of illustrations from the last month. I could give you a ton of different illustrations to show this, but these things, both of these things happened within the last month. So in the last month I had someone in a text conversation use the phrase, Sinful nature. Sinful nature of man.

And that phrase is not found in the Greek text or in any of the literal translations. So we throw up our our spectrum. None of these word for word translations have that phrase, sinful nature. But it is found 27 times in the new NLT, the New Living Translation, which is Almost a paraphrase. Maybe you could say it's somewhere between a paraphrase and a dynamic equivalent.

I actually really like the New Living Translation for readability. There are a lot of verses that make a lot of sense when you read through it. But in order to make it readable, they inserted their beliefs about man's nature to include this phrase, sinful nature. You know what the word there is in Greek?

It's the word for Flesh, or carnal, and that's interpreted by the biases of the translators of that translation, that paraphrase, to be translated sinful nature. And when they read that Greek word flesh, they understand it to mean that. And so that's the way they paraphrase what it is Paul is saying, and others are saying, I don't believe it means that.

And many others don't either. There are other paraphrases that you can get that don't have that particular translation. But that illustrates to us the biggest drawback of a non word for word translation. It allows for the biases of the translators to show through on difficult text. Whether they're right or they're wrong in those biases and their understanding, those biases shine through.

Another issue that sometimes comes up with these paraphrases, these word for word translations, almost without exception, are the work of a panel of scholars. And so it's not one man. It's not one person from one perspective, it's a group of people who kind of balance out some of those biases. Some of the best translations actually have a number of different traditions of Christianity represented, so that when people disagree on a matter of doctrine, they can just go back and say, Well, Well, what does this word actually mean?

With many of the paraphrases it's oftentimes the work of one person or just a couple of people. Again, that's not bad necessarily, but it does allow more biases to come through. It makes it more uniform because you've got the mind of one person translating this and so it all kinds of flows really well as you're reading through it.

But again, there's more possibility for biases, just like the message translation, for example. But there are advantages, on the other hand, as well, when we think about these paraphrases. One of my favorite one of my favorite verses and this is kind of, when people talk about a Bible hermeneutic, the way you interpret the Bible, I love this verse to illustrate what I try and do as I'm interpreting the Bible.

In my Bible, the New King James Psalm 119 and verse 160 says this, The entirety of your word is truth, and every one of your righteous judgments endures forever. Now, you read that, and what does it sound like? Well, it sounds like, one way that you might understand this is, well, everything in the Bible is true.

And that would be correct, but that's not really what this passage, what this verse is saying. And so I was studying with somebody earlier this week, or excuse me, this past week, and this lady was reading from the Passion Translation, which is a paraphrase. And you know what her translation said as I asked her, Hey, why don't you read that?

What does that say in your passage? This is what it says oh, oh, oh, let me go back. There it is. The sum total of all your words adds up to absolute truth. And every one of your righteous decrees is everlasting. In my judgment, that is exactly what that means. That you take everything that the Bible has to say on a topic, any matter of truth or doctrine, you take everything that the Bible has to say, you put all of that together, you consider it in its text and context, and what you have left from all of that, you draw a line under it, add it all up, and that That is the truth on that matter as it pertains to life and godliness.

You don't really get that. You can get that out of this, but you see it really clearly there in that translation. Does that make sense? So I've given you some some things to think about. And yet I've not answered the question, Well, which Bible, Reagan? Which one am I supposed to be using? Well, may I suggest this?

That everyone, everyone needs to have a reliable, scholarly, word for word translation so that you can know what the text says. Everybody needs to have one of those. I use the New King James in my preaching, and you want to know the really technical, good reason why? Because that's what I used when I was a little boy.

And that's what most of my scriptures are memorized in. And then when I moved to Timberland that's what Harold was preaching out of, that's what our pew bibles are, and so I've continued that tradition. The New King James is a good translation. It is a solid translation. But it's not without its issues, both in translation and in the Greek text it uses for translation.

Well, that's an entirely different lesson we don't have time for tonight. I like the English Standard Version a lot. It's something that I've used a lot in my personal study. It's something that I've used in my preaching to say, well, the English Standard says this. You've heard me do that a number of different times.

The New American Standard Bible was one that was highly recommended to a, to me when I was in college. I've got one of those. I've read through one of those. I enjoy that. Any of those would be fine, would be good. For you to have a word for word translation. But I think it's also helpful to have a paraphrase, to have a, at the very least, a dynamic equivalent translation to help in comprehension.

And something that I like to do I'm still old school, sometimes I'll set them out on my desk, but you can really do this with a Bible program. Where you have four or five different translations open at the same time as you're reading through the text. What's helpful is to have multiple translations open so that you can look at all of them.

And compare the word for word with the paraphrase. Is that really what this is saying? And so thus it becomes a study tool for you. Something that I've done a number of times. I've not started it yet this year and so I'm a little behind here in February. But a number of times I've taken a translation that I've never read before.

And I'll read through that translation over the course of a year to see how I like it. And what's interesting to me is when you read out of a translation that you're not as familiar with, there are sometimes things that jump out at you in the text. And you say, I've never really seen that before. And so again, it can be helpful to you in Bible study.

My grandfather likes the Living Bible. He's been gone for many years now, and so I guess it's okay for me to say that. He used it a ton in personal study, but he always felt uncomfortable recommending it to other people because there's a lot of biases in it. And yet, for readability it's really, really excellent.

Especially it was a number of years ago. So, all of those things should be helpful to you. But most of all, this lesson, a lesson unlike any I've ever preached before, I've preached tonight so that we can be aware of the kind of Bible that we're using. What Bible are you using? Have you ever gone to the front there and consulted the very beginning of your Bible?

Where in the preface it talks about the purpose and the way it goes about formatting things and, and the translation philosophy of that Bible. Most Bibles have that there at the very beginning. And so you can check for yourself and say, Well, this Bible that I'm using, where does it fall on the spectrum?

And should I add something to my toolbox? Something to my repertoire? To where it would help me in my further study of God's Word. And if we are aware, That means that we can be ready for the relative strengths and weaknesses of different translations. And when it gets right down to it, what we need to do with all of this is read it.

Read the Word of God. Come in contact with it every day, because it can change us. Read it with our children. Read it with our spouses. And meditate on it deeply throughout the day. Because it has the power to change our lives. We would be remiss not to turn to 2 Timothy chapter 3 to conclude our lesson this evening.

2 Timothy chapter 3.

Beginning in verse 14, Paul says this to Timothy,

But you must continue in the things that you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the holy scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith, which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture. Old and New Testament, is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Maybe as you were reading along in your own translation, the words were slightly different. But I know this, that what we have in our English translations is a great and abundant blessing. that you and I, men and women of God, may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work, because we have access to the Word of God.

Let's live our lives in light of that blessing, seeking God's Word, reading and meditating on it, and applying it to our lives. Well, if you're here this evening and you don't know what it is you're supposed to do in order to become a Christian, in order to be right with God, God has provided the way for you to know.

And you don't have to take my word for it. You don't have to take any other person's word for it. You, yourself, can go and read and study, to search the scriptures daily to see what it is you must do in order to be right with God. And if you have the good and honest heart that has read that word, It has been implanted in your heart to such a degree that it is bearing fruit to say I know what I need to do to be right with God.

There is nothing that we would love more than to help you and aid you in coming to Christ on His terms, submitting yourself to His will, being baptized into Christ for the remission of your sins, that you might rise to walk in newness of life. If we can help you with that, even tonight, come now, while together we stand.