God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

The Mythical Value of Reading the Bible in the Original Languages

One of the commonly suggested solutions for overcoming bad Bible translations is to “learn Hebrew and Greek” and “read the Bible in the original.”

While there are many good reasons to learn biblical Hebrew and Greek, I don’t think that better insight into the original meaning of the Bible is one of them.

This came up most recently in Dr. Bill Mounce’s latest post in his weekly “Mondays with Mounce” column about Bible translation: “A Translation Conundrum – 1 Tim 2:9 (Monday with Mounce 165).” There he addresses the Greek phrase en plegmasin, commonly “with braided hair” (ESV, NIV, etc.), but “with elaborate hairstyles” in the NIV2011 and “by the way they fix their hair” in the NLT.

Dr. Mounce explains that braided hair was one way of “enforcing a social pecking order and class system that was woefully inappropriate for the church.” Accordingly, just to translate “braided hair” leaves the modern reader wrongly thinking that there is something inherently undesirable about braided hair, when the point is really what that braided hair represented.

He concludes that this is “a good reason to learn Greek and Hebrew….”

I disagree.

In this particular case, what’s needed to understand the passage is not only a knowledge of the Greek language but a detailed understanding of Greek fashion (though, in fact, I think the fuller context of the verse makes the meaning pretty clear: “women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes.” [NRSV]).

This sort of issue is exactly what an amateur or even advanced Greek student would get wrong. Armed with a knowledge of Greek, such a student would look at the word plegma, discern that it means “woven,” and proudly announce that the NIV2011 got it wrong.

More generally, the notion that studying Greek (or Hebrew) leads to a better understanding of the original texts is predicated on the idea that a student can do better than the professional translators. While, unfortunately, Bible translations tend to be of lower quality than other translations, they are still good enough that it’s pretty hard for all but the most expert students of Greek and Hebrew to find a true mistake.

What usually happens instead is that a professional translation takes a variety of factors into account while the student misses some of the nuances. Most people, unless they intend to become an expert, will understand the Bible better in translation. Worse, because of their limited knowledge, they’ll think their own reading is better than the accepted translations. This is a case of the clichéd way in which a little knowledge is dangerous.

I still think there’s value to learning Hebrew and Greek. I see it as akin to going to a museum to see an artifact versus just reading about it. It brings people closer to the original in very powerful ways.

Additionally, both Jewish and Christian traditions hold that there’s inherent value to the original words, even beyond their meaning.

So, absolutely, learn Hebrew and Greek. But I think it’s a good idea to keep professional translations handy, too.

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November 26, 2012 - Posted by | translation theory, using Bible translations | , , ,

15 Comments »

  1. No one would claim that students could do better at translating than professionals. Rather, the problem is that translations are involved at all, since translation is an inherently limited process. You’re always going to be losing something in the process; each translator just has to decide what he or she can take along and what will have to to be left behind. The point of learning the original languages should be to have the ability to read without translating.

    Thank God for translations. They usually get the main point across. And if that’s all you’re after, then they suffice.

    Bible translations are like canned peas. At least you won’t go hungry. Bickering over which translation is best is like touting your favorite brand of canned peas. I prefer mine fresh from the garden.

    Comment by Aaron | November 26, 2012 | Reply

    • My point is that, for most people, reading the original languages is worse than reading a translation.

      Comment by Joel H. | November 26, 2012 | Reply

      • I agree, although I don’t think most people who study the original languages typically arrive at a point where they are truly “reading” the language. There are two ways to approach this problem, and mine is to do a better job teaching the language.

        Comment by Aaron | November 26, 2012

      • Agreed, Joel.

        Comment by Gary Simmons | December 5, 2012

  2. Just as equally valid as your point is the preconceived manner in which one reads the Bible, regardless of the language, from which they are reading. I have told many people, that for those who insist that Christ and the early church set the supreme example for the entire church until we leave this earth, then the only Biblically acceptable method of paying one’s taxes is to go fishing!

    Comment by Stephen Brummitt | November 26, 2012 | Reply

  3. Aaron and you are wrong, Joel. Professional translators get it wrong all the time. That’s why I wrote my book. They don’t know MYSTICISM. Until they learn it, they will CONTINUE to get it wrong. Zechariah 13:7 is a perfect example. The accusative ‘et’, while often signifying a direct object (‘shepherd’) as in the receiveds, should be as Brown-Driver-Briggs says is a possible choice: page 85, #3: “added emphasis for a change of subject”, which is just the case here, as 13:7a has “sword” as subject. But mystic teaching demands “Strike, O Shepherd, that the sheep may be shattered [not ‘scattered’].” As you say in your book, and I quote you in mine: ‘the purpose of the text is make poetry as well as sense’ (paraphrasing you). The Shepherd in 13:7 is THE GOOD Shepherd here at the resolution of the good/bad shepherd pericope of Zechariah 10-13. He ‘strikes’ the sheep to ‘shatter’ or ‘break them to bits’, so they can be ‘refined as in fire’ (13:8) and become ‘my people[, says the Lord]’ (13:9). Without learning mysticism it doesn’t matter HOW professional you are. You’ll get it wrong. Christianity built a whole false religion out of things like this. There are many more examples. Hundreds.

    Comment by Robert Wahler | November 26, 2012 | Reply

    • This is a great case in point illustrating why readers need to be familiar with Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek as natural human languages, rather than approaching it as some kind of secret code.

      Comment by Aaron | November 26, 2012 | Reply

    • —In a society unaware of calculus, a calculus textbook would be a kind of secret code. The technical terms in the textbook have precise and consistent meaning throughout the text. Imagine translating that having no understanding of calculus. Robert Wahler is on the right track, but I would probably stay away from the term “mysticism” because it is likely to have a lot of the wrong connotations for most people. The Bible, as well as many texts that did not make it into the canon, teach about the spiritual path using precise terms in much the way a calculus textbook does.
      —Many Bible scholars/translators put a great emphasis on translating Bible words in the best way possible. There is nothing wrong with that, but probably more important is that the words are translated consistently.
      —Next in importance might be words that have two meanings, where scripture uses one meaning on the literal level and the other meaning on the spiritual level. Not knowing Hebrew or Greek I cannot point out good examples of that, but “Let the dead bury the dead,” shows that Bible writers absolutely played with two meanings of words. I hope no one thinks that “those that bury the dead” are being portrayed as zombies there. The meaning is that the “dead” (those not spiritually alive) are the ones that are more concerned with the material functions of society such as burying the “dead” (the actual physically dead). The corollary, which is the real teaching here, would be, those that are pursuing the spiritual path in the right way won’t put the cares of earthly life above their spiritual welfare, even when the earthly matters might be as significant as a dying parent.
      —Another well known teaching gives a very good perspective on the proper balance between earthly concerns and spiritual concerns.
      —“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”
      —The spiritual teaching here is that, “our earthly concerns should be viewed as a necessary tax we have to pay to be able to pursue our real priority, the growth of our spiritual understanding.” The meaning has little, if anything, to do with actual paying of taxes to an earthly government.
      —If every American Christian followed that teaching what a different place our nation would be. The capitalistic greed which is now synonymous with the US, would lose its death grip on our society.
      —Robert suggests that there are many places were Christianity has missed the spiritual meaning and taken the literal or some other meaning as the point. I agree, hundreds of places at least, in fact, it is hard to find anywhere that traditional Christianity has understood the spiritual meaning of the Bible.

      Comment by Caleb J. | December 31, 2012 | Reply

  4. Just because a translator is a professional does not mean that he/she will get it “correct” or that that particular translation will resonate with me. I have several translations on my book shelfs by professional translators and then of course there is the Internet. What is a person to do when many of the translations differ with each other? It is up to me as a thinking and interested individual to make up my own mind as to what a particular verse means to me. All the the professional opinions and knowing the language help me in my deliberations.

    Comment by Irving (Road Runner) Zlotnik | November 26, 2012 | Reply

  5. Excellent point by Robert Wahler.

    Knowing “just enough Greek to be dangerous” probably sums up many or most people who have studied the language solely for reading the Bible in it. The real advantage would come with being a true reader of ancient Greek, and having read all or most of the popular Greek literature that would have been available to someone in the first and second centuries, particular in genres that correspond to Biblical works. Such a person would pick up nuances, cultural references, jokes, and more that would simply go over the head of even many professional translators.

    Comment by Paul D. | November 27, 2012 | Reply

  6. So, in summary, one should know the original languages as well as the historical, social, and literary context in which the original text was written. My current personal favorite example of this is 1 Corinthians 11.

    Comment by Jason Engel | November 27, 2012 | Reply

  7. Translators will translate according to THEIR understanding of Scripture and will make choices based on their interpretations. This simply cannot be avoided and in some cases they will be wrong, in some cases dead wrong, perhaps because they misunderstand some other part of Scripture and then try to make a later part conform to their earlier misunderstanding.

    Here is one example: ESV
    Rom 14:14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.

    This is a preposterous statement by Paul as it is put into English. This is because Paul is a Torah-observant Jew and this statement would never be made by a Torah-observant Jew. But if one investigates further, one can find out that the word the translators translate as “unclean” is actually “koinos” which means “common” and in context means “profane” as contrasted with “holy”. So one can with some thought figure out that the ESV OVERSIMPLIFIED what Paul was saying, we do not know why they did it, but we can see that that is what they did, and so distorted what Paul is really teaching.

    Here is another example that most translations get wrong: ESV Mat 19:3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” This translation makes it seem that the Pharisees are asking if there is any cause for a divorce, so it is a broad scope question. But what they are really asking is whether the Hillel “Any Cause” divorce is actually found in Torah (in what we call Deu 24:1), but one would never know this unless one knows the disputes between Hillel school and Shammai school as recorded in the Mishnah.

    Comment by Don Johnson | December 6, 2012 | Reply

  8. A prof of mine said a couple of years ago that given the choice between an expert on backgrounds and an expert in language, he would choose backgrounds any day. I’m inclined to agree.

    Comment by Jason | December 17, 2012 | Reply

  9. […] Meanwhile, in a post which will comfort some and frustrate others,  Joel Hoffman talks about the Mythical Value of Reading the Bible in the Original languages. […]

    Pingback by Bible and Mission Links 26 | Kouyanet | December 31, 2012 | Reply

  10. […] I agree. […]

    Pingback by Wise Comments on the Value of the Original Languages - By Faith We Understand | September 21, 2013 | Reply


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