Posted by: alisonwalley | 24 May 2009

Lost in translation

Following on from last week’s post, a wacky email arrived in my inbox this week. (Not actually to me, as we filter emails for a Christian conservation organisation working in the Middle East.) I am not going to tell you who the email was from, because the author(s) don’t deserve the publicity. Suffice it to say that the email was addressed to “All leaders, members, staff & yourself” and asked “Does your love result in obedience?”

So, no message of encouragement, expression of interest or offer of help, but a densely written and hard to disentangle message, the point of which eventually emerged as being that Christians have strayed from God’s law by holding to Sunday as the day to worship God instead of Saturday, the “Sabbath”.

Having said last week that God can still speak from the 400-year-old King James version, I did begin to wonder from some of the verses quoted in this email! Now I know that you can misquote from any translation at any time, and historically people have read in their own interpretation to make the Bible justify all sorts of things (slavery, apartheid, the place of women in the church, etc), ever since the Bible was first written down. But I do think that using a very old translation makes you more liable to misunderstand or misinterpret. It’s hard enough reading some parts of the Bible even in modern English. The culture and the concepts may be quite alien. But to have to struggle with the language as well is just too much.

Imagine reading the Bible in another language that you don’t speak well. That’s pretty much the same as reading early seventeenth century English. And the King James version was even at the time written in a slightly archaic language. I was brought up on the Authorised (King James) Version, but I struggle reading it today.

Do you really want “in the midst of the seven candlesticks was one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle”? I have to say that this just makes me laugh. How much better to read: “among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash round his chest” (Revelation 1:13).

But there’s a more serious problem with the AV, and even with the New King James Bible. And it’s that since 1611, many, many more Greek and Hebrew manuscripts and fragments of the Bible have been found and our knowledge of the original sources is much, much better. The original translators of the AV used what they had, not realising that some verses or parts of verses were actually textual notes which had been interpolated into the text. Most notably perhaps, Mark 16:9-20 is not in the earlier manuscripts and in modern translations always has a note to say so (it’s sometimes printed in a different font too).

Sometimes you’ll find people trying to make a point on the basis of a verse that is only in the AV – or to say that the Bible has been changed because some verses are ‘left out’. What’s amazing is not so much that there were these extra parts, but there weren’t more of them. Our final manuscripts are remarkably consistent and don’t contain anything that would significantly affect the gospel message. (Oh, and the verse divisions only started to be used in the sixteen century.)

Thank God for those who first translated the Bible into English (or any other vernacular). But thank God he still gifts those who can translate it for our day so we may read and understand.

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