Translation Problems

One of the frequently raised issues concerning the Bible is the question of translations. We have maintained that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, and have quoted 2 Timothy 3:16-17 which says, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God…” and goes on to say that using it can make us complete. Those who denigrate the Bible, view such a claim as nonsense not only because it’s an ancient book, but also because they say it contains internal contradictions.

The truth is that if a person looks at who wrote a particular passage, to whom they wrote it, why they wrote it, and how the people of the time would have understood it, most of the claims of error will vanish. The ancient time of the writing is not an issue in the case of the Bible because the subjects the Bible deals with are not time dependent. How to get along with others is not a new issue. How to handle sexual temptation is not peculiar to the modern day. How to raise a child is not a topic confined to the present century. How to deal with failure and grief are not time-dependent questions. The question of race relations and rights for women are topics not just making the headlines today but are questions handled with compassion, wisdom, and common sense in Scripture. It is difficult to read the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 5–7 and not see the great wisdom and practical value of what Jesus taught for today, not just for that group of Jews on a hillside.

The claims of internal contradictions are also easily handled if a little time is spent looking at who wrote it, to whom, why, and how the people of the time would have understood it. The contradiction between Matthew and Luke in giving the genealogy of Christ, for example, is easily explained by looking at who wrote it and to whom. Matthew is a Jew writing to a Jewish audience. He uses the Jewish symbol of seven and its multiples to give the genealogy with 14, 14, and 14 being used as an indication of completeness (See Matthew 1:1-17). In Luke 3:23–38 the genealogy is given in over in 55 “begats,” but this was written by a Greek author to a non-Jewish audience, so the cultural difference is easily seen. (For more on this see “God’s Revelation in His Rocks and His Word” on our website.)

Another example we have discussed is in Genesis 6 where the Hebrew word nephilim is translated in different ways by different translators. The literal meaning of nephilim is “fallen ones,” and this is the flood chapter of Genesis. That means it is not talking about aliens or spirit creatures. It refers to humans who rejected God’s teachings and lived selfishly and destructively. The context and the literal meaning of the word are clear. In this case, the King James translators were in error in how they translated the word nephilim. This part of the King James came from the Latin Vulgate translation where nephilim was translated with the Latin word gigantus. The King James translators didn’t know what to make of the word, so they translated it as “giants.” There are many such errors in the King James and other translations. Some of them are obvious, and some are not. In Hebrews 4:8 the King James says, “For if Jesus had given them rest, then would he not afterward have spoken of another day.” If you read other translations of Hebrews 4:8 you will find that it is Joshua, not Jesus that the passage is talking about. The names “Jesus” and “Joshua” are the same in Hebrew. Jesus means “Savior, ” and “Joshua” means “The Lord Saves.” The King James translators simply got it wrong. By looking at what the passage is about, who it was written to, and why, the error is easily corrected.

Second Timothy 2:15 says to, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.” You don’t have to be a Hebrew or Greek scholar to do this, but you do need to invest some time and energy in looking at who wrote the passage, to whom, why, and how the people it was written to would have understood it.
–John N. Clayton © 2017