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Disagreeing with the translation

My preaching theory:  When preaching, it is best not to disagree with the translation people have in front of them. 

It cultivates the sense that people can't read the bible for themselves.  I know that personally I have held many difficult passages at arm's length merely under the suspicion that the underlying greek might be ambiguous.  Maybe in some cases it is.  But I found that when I knew no greek my first reaction to hard verses was generally: 'I bet it's not really saying this in the original.'  It was a way of sheathing the sword of the Spirit.

My preaching practice:  My sermons are littered with "That's not literally what it says in the Hebrew.  In the Hebrew it really says..."

Hmmm.  Maybe deep down I don't really believe my theory.  Maybe I want people dependent on my magisterial interpretation.  Maybe my proud desire to prove special knowledge simply wins out.  Maybe I want to communicate excitement at the rich layers of nuance the Scriptures possess.  And maybe sometimes you just have to see your theory as a rule of thumb because the translation sucks.  I think for me probably all the above factors come into play.

Case in point: my sermon on Isaiah 2:6-22.

In verse 10 it literally says (I've gotta stop saying that in sermons, it bugs even me):  "Go and hide in the rock"

Go is an imperative. The rock is a singular noun with a definite article - The Rock.  'The Rock' is a title for the LORD 6 times in Isaiah - a book in which, as my previous post has said, refuge in the LORD is all important.  Verse 10 is different to verse 19.  Verse 19 is a future indicative.  In the future day of judgement many people will hide themselves in many caves and many rocks.  But in verse 10 we have a command.  Go, now, and hide yourself in the Rock.

Trouble is people had NIVs in front of them which says 'Go into the rocks...'  And the first three conversations I had after the service began like this, "So what translation of the bible can we trust!?"

Hmmm.  What do you think, should preachers disagree with translations?  When?  How?


33 thoughts on “Disagreeing with the translation

  1. Paul Huxley

    What about when the pew Bible is really, really bad? Three years ago my church still had an old, heavily liberal/Catholic-influenced translation which really needed to be corrected in every sermon (we've since switched to ESV).

    The text Matt quotes is helpful though. Maybe "XXX is a good translation of the original, but I think it misses this allusion/emphasis/whatever". That's my best stab as a nearly completely inexperienced preacher.

  2. The Orange Mailman

    Glen, I like this post. When should you disagree? When it is a matter of doctrine which could lead a believer astray, or keep a non-believer from believing. In matters which don't matter, why disagree? Is that vague enough?

    I know what you're getting at. The average Joe has "their" Bible that mom or dad bought for them. They see that Bible as "their" Bible.

    "I like my Bible. It's easy to read. I don't get confused. I don't need a preacher's Bible. I'm just a student of the Word."

    How should you disagree? If it is a situation where that translation is in the minority, point that out. For instance, since you brought up Isaiah 2:10, point out that KJV and ESV both state "Enter into the rock". That way it isn't your knowledge versus NIV, it's NIV in the minority and you, ESV, KJV, and those who translated it literally in the majority. In other words, don't make yourself out to be more knowledgeable than the translators of the originals.

    But just a point here, which may touch on your subject, you have added something ever so slightly to the idea of Isaiah 2:10 by capitalizing the word "rock". You don't know that it's a proper noun in the original, but you have imported an idea from other verses that may or may not be there. In essence, you may be reading ideas that aren't there because of your knowledge of Hebrew and an ability to see the bigger picture that others can't. Some may believe what you are saying that this must be referring to Christ when it isn't explicit in the text. They would be basing their knowledge on your sermon instead of what the text "literally" says.

    My advice, give the original translation best you can. Present your idea, but don't change the original meaning of the words. If people see a connnection like you do, they will do so based on their study of the text, not because you said it was so. Hopefully I prove my point without stating whether I agree or disagree whether Christ is the Rock of Isaiah 2:10.

    Have fun and stay busy - Luke 19:13

    -The Orange Mailman

  3. Rich Owen

    Interesting. Yeh, creating a situation where people don't trust thier bibles, or think that it can only be properly understood by the experts is bad. Perhaps the greatest triumph of the reformation was reversing that - putting the bible into the hand's of the people, in thier own languages. So, I have to disagree with you, Dev.

    Re Glen's question - how about recommending that people read something like KJV and ESV along with thier TNIV or NIV or whatever. You can then show the shades of meaning, and enthuse about the richness of the text, but do so in a way that anyone can understand as they listen, and can then copy when they get home.

    Re Mailman's comment, I don't think it is wrong having done the above to shy away from saying what you actually think it says - isn't all our preaching informed in part by our theological assumptions? I would much rather a preacher tell me what they think, show me that they are convinced, than offer a nebulous collection of possibilities, and not claim one of them as thier own.

    When it gets difficult, is when a translation takes it so far into one particuar shade that it excludes a widely held, and perfectly acceptable understanding. Glen, try reading Psalm 8 in the TNIV!

  4. Dev

    Martin Luther:

    "In the measure that we love the Gospel, let us place a strong emphasis on the languages. For it was not without reason that God wrote the Scriptures in two [primary] languages, the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek. Those languages which God did not despise, but rather chose above all others for His Word, are the languages which we also should honor above all others. It is a sin and a shame that we do not learn the languages of our Book."
    "The languages are the sheath in which the sword of the Spirit is contained."

  5. Adrian Reynolds

    Perhaps you have answered the question in your own post, Glen. When we say things like that often it does undermine the translation people have in front of them. [I find it is often pride that makes me come up with this stuff - look how clever I am folks!] Irregularity (which should be all that is needed) can be positive - it reinforces that all translations are just that and encourages the people that their pastor is thinking and studying well. Oh, and given some of the translations I know my people have open, I'm keen, in a rather perverse way, to undermine their confidence in them......

  6. glenscriv

    Matt, good link thanks. I'm beginning to see that the *how* of disagreeing is very important. Mounce has some excellent advice

    Paul, I think that's the best argument for switching translations - so that the preacher's not always contradicting what's in front of the people. (Shame though because I really like the readability of NIV)

    Orange, great thoughts thanks. Encouraging a people to be familiar with a range of translations seems very wise. On the capitalisation of Rock - of course it was spoken in the sermon, and Isaiah would have been spoken to the people for the vast majority of its 2700 year history! What's more there are no capitals anywhere in Hebrew. Which puts us onto the truth that all translation, in fact all bible reading *is* interpretation. There's not a first literal step and then a theological re-reading. Our theology goes all the way down. I write more on this here:

    Dev, can't disagree with the Luther quote but did Luther ever actually teach his whole congregation Hebrew or Greek? Or Calvin? Or some new england congregation? I'm not sure there's any historical precedent - glad to be corrected.

    Rich, TNIV is like RSV - I think they go for 'mortals' or something like that. But you make a rod for your own back in that case - see all the footnotes TNIV has to insert to show that it's actually in the singular. Tricky business this translating!

  7. glenscriv

    Good point Adrian, reminding people that they have *translations* is no bad thing. Nor is the teaching office of pastor! And we haven't capitulated to a magisterium simply because a pastor has more training in languages than his congregation and can help them in that regard.

  8. Rich Owen

    Glen, your assumption there is that pastors *should* know the languages. What lies behind that, and what does that mean for the laymen (especially with regard to the above)?

    Worm can open...

  9. yemsee

    if no one except the pastor knows the original
    how does anyone discern what the pastor is saying is true?

    if in one sense the reformation was based on 'correctly translating' certain verses - i.e. Luther on Romans 1

    isn't it possible if we begin by teaching all our children Christ focused theology and languages instead of all the nonsense we do fill their heads with - it will lead to incredible reformation?!

  10. glenscriv

    Rich, I am not at all *naturally* inclined to study languages myself so I'm not writing as a language buff. But I think "correctly handling the word of truth" means a certain level of knowledge about the way that word was written and how it can and cannot be handled. What is the semantic range of this word? Do I realize how meaning can change depending on which prepositions are attached or what verb stem it's in? Do I at least understand the arguments for why the New World Translation gets John 1:1 wrong? I think a pastor should have a handle on this kind of stuff - not that they can necessarily weigh in with great scholarship but that they at least know why the NIV says what it says and can justify it if they disagree.

    Dev reminds us of Romans 1, there's also the huge significance of Matthew 4:17 - Vulgate says 'Do penance' but when Luther sees it's actually "Repent" it becomes the very first of his 95 theses.

    I'm not saying someone can't have a hugely powerful ministry without knowing the original languages (who can deny that in places where the church is growing fastest, pastors very often don't). And I'm not saying every pastor needs to get to the level where they do all their prep and quiet times in Hebrew. But if our pastors have been given significant formal preparation for word ministry then studying those words in the original languages should be a key component of that. It's surely not right that pastors have a hundred opinions on the new perspective but don't actually understand the linguistics behind "pistis Christou" for instance.

    I think the tools of a pastor's trade are words - the bible's words more specifically. I wouldn't have confidence in a car mechanic who said "We just need to twist the doo-hickey until the thingumy-jig pops out."

  11. glenscriv

    And so yes, that means that not just *the pastor* should know something of the original languages. I definitely think language classes should be offered every bit as much as evangelism, theology, discovering your gifts classes. Just not sure the entire congregation needs to know them. Different gifts and all (I'm pretty sure this is what Luther thought of as the gift of tongues btw).

  12. codepoke

    Your questions are better than a lot of answers I read out here. Thank you, Glen.

    The reality is that translation really is difficult. Glossing that over does a disservice to a lot of people, and someday someone is going to burst that bubble anyway. (People use that argument regarding ugly stuff, but there's nothing ugly about this. Ugly stuff should stay hidden, but this is perspectives on beauty.) The comments on the importance of "how" you present the conflict are spot on the money.

    The NIV chose to ignore what you found compelling for explicit reasons. I don't know what those reasons are, but in humility you should probably hold some respect for that committee's thoughts on the matter. If you present the issue as a difference between one respected committee and another about the author's intent, that should demystify the whole process. I mean who really respects a committee anyway? It's a natural balance. :-)

  13. Gav

    I wouldnt dare challenge Martin Luther, but regarding:

    "It is a sin and a shame that we do not learn the languages of our Book.”

    Crackers! Thats a bit harsh isnt it? I've got enough sin to repent from with without dealing with that as well!

    On what grounds is it a sin? How in my heart have I turned from God by not learning Hebrew and Greek?

    Mate, we are flat out enough just trying to maintain and develop ministries. Where on earth would we get the time to become full time theologians?

    I'm not being a S.A. This is a fairdinkum question.

  14. bobby grow

    My Greek prof said that "if he was ever sitting in the pew when we were preaching, and he heard us say, 'the Greek says,' he would take off his shoe and throw it at us."

    I think he was serious ;-) . . . his point, that we should not "elevate" ourselves to a level (and scripture) that is only attainable for the initiated (the trained). The effect being to cut the "lay" man/woman off --- and discouraging the important principle of the Priesthood of ALL believers.

    I think, if we come to some difficult grammar, it is fine to do a comparative analysis (even from the pulpit) in the English --- comparing, for example, what the NIV vs. the NASBU vs. the ESV vs. the KJV etc. say. This way folks are encouraged to study the scriptures themselves, in languages they understand. And as my prof pointed out, given the various and disparate approaches and philosophies' of translation (behind the translations); the original languages (and much of the nuance and depth of both grammar and semantics) is all attainable in the "English" for the determined bible student (of course this begs the question for languages that don't have multitudinous translations in their own language).

    Anyway, good post, Glen!

  15. Dan Hames

    "Crackers! Thats a bit harsh isnt it? I’ve got enough sin to repent from with without dealing with that as well!"

    I'm not answering this objection so much as saying Luther would know exactly what you're talking about! Made me chuckle.

  16. glenscriv

    It's probably worth saying that the level of Hebrew required to be able to spot the difference between singular "rock" and plural "rocks" would be covered in about hour 4 in the classroom.

    And learning to slowly decipher written languages is not as mystifying as it may seem. It's not like learning to speak a language or converse in it. You don't even have to be able to write biblical greek, just read it. Very slowly. Usually with some bible software close to hand!

    But it pays off. Very quickly you're able to see a thousand links that are there to see in the original languages but (necessarily) obscured by translations. I know two churches in London that have offered Hebrew classes to interested lay people. I'm not saying it's for everyone, but neither do I think it's the worst use of time for busy lay folk. Digging deeper into the word is not a distraction from ministry. It might not be for everyone but it should probably be for more people than we currently witness.

    I think anyway. (My greek and hebrew teachers would laugh to hear me say this - I'm a terrible linguist!)

  17. Rich Owen

    Thanks Glen. I agree to a point, but I can't quite run with all your conclusions. I hope you don't mind if i get a little blunt/direct - it is nothing personal (i think you are fab) - please stay with me.

    Would you trust a pastor who doesn't really have any friends in the congregation, doesn't actually live sacrificially for his flock or who didn't do any personal evangelism? I couldn't. But, would you trust a pastor who did the above but couldn't read hebrew? Handling the word of truth is just a part of what a pastor does, and I certainly wouldn't push what that means as far as you do above. Jesus chose for example, Peter - an uneducated fisherman, to be one of the first pastors. "Come follow me, and after a month of devotion to various aspects of the semantics and lexicography of Ancient Hebrew, I will send you to catch people". Ho ho. But Peter correctly handled the word of truth.

    I am just not sure that knowing the languages adds very much to ordinary pastoral ministry. What material difference will it make to my relationships? In what way does it enable me to do better evangelism? I dunno - prolly not much as it goes. In preaching most of the time it isn't an issue. If it really isn't possible to preach the sermon without having to make those explanations or comments for whatever reason, then we should be asking ourselves: "how can I do that in a way that completely points AWAY from me, and doesn't undermine confidence in our bibles?"

    Don't get me wrong, knowing the languages is no doubt a good thing - somebody needs to know them, for all the good reasons expressed above, but most of those reasons are exceptional - I wonder how many times those kinds of issues come up in the local church? And even if they do, most of them have already been dealt with by the best scholars, who have published their work. Re-inventing the wheel?

    Given the choice of investing my time in re-inventing the wheel (and making a hash of it, my langage skills stink) when our congregations struggle in personal evangelism and are living comfortable lives... i think it's a no brainer.

    (PS, they aren't "original languages" anyway. Jesus spoke in Aramaic. The greek is itself edited and is a translation)

  18. glenscriv

    Hi Rich,
    No good to be challenged.

    Perhaps there might be a misapprehension of:

    a) just how knowledgeable a linguist I'm imagining the pastor / elders to be


    b) just how long it takes or how much specialist gifting it takes to get to that level.

    Here's what I'm saying: It is a tremendous help in correctly handling the word if you know enough about Greek and Hebrew to at least be able to read the technical commentaries and use the bible software. This will mean that, with help from commentaries and Bibleworks etc, you are preparing sermons from the Hebrew and Greek and not simply from the English translations. I really think this makes a significant difference to your word ministry. Enough difference that it is worth the expenditure of, say, 160 hours in training - i.e. 4 hours a week (2 in classroom, 2 in homework) for 40 weeks or something? To be honest you could probably get away with less. And you do NOT have to be a language buff to be able to get to this level. I am in no way naturally gifted for languages (I've blogged on this before), but I found huge payoffs in forcing myself to do it.

    Now put that 160 hours (or less) in context. I've spent many times over that amount in studying church history, many times over that amount simply reading Calvin, simply reading Barth, simply reading systematics, simply reading Christian paperbacks. I've spent hugely more time blogging!

    I'm not talking about secret knowledge that takes decades of training and special anointing. I'm talking about learning alphabets and a bit of vocab, learning some verb and noun tables and then figuring out how clauses and sentences fit together. Most of that is dead boring - but these are the nuts and bolts of God's revelation to us. And pastors deal in God's revelation. Yes we deal in people and you rightly highlight how crucial that is (Tit 1:6-8). But we also deal in the word (Tit 1:9). We find time for all sorts of other nonsense in preparation for word ministry (JEPD anyone?!) languages is a *really* good investment of time. If you have the chance to do it, do it.

  19. Rich Owen


    Ok, we aren't talking about your skill levels or mine, or about scholarly greatness. Agreed. That isn't really my beef. I want to get at the assumptions even behind knowing the basics. Why do we do even the basic stuff and who are we doing it *for*... really... honestly?

    So, you say "I really think [having basic language skills] makes a significant difference to your word ministry"

    Could you quantify firstly what those significant differences are and then secondly link them to real situations in your ministry when they have been useful?

    (if you don't want to do this publicly, i'm happy to take it offline... your call)

  20. glenscriv

    Ok, last week I preached on Isaiah 2 and then 1 Cor 7:

    Isaiah 2:

    All translations conceal just how much ideas of high-ness, lofti-ness are repeated in verses 11-17. Reading this in the Hebrew definitely allowed the word to dwell in me more richly. I was more impacted by the word because of reading in the Hebrew.

    Searching for a theology of trees and hills was easier to do with knowledge of the hebrew. (of course it's not impossible to do without hebrew but it takes longer and you end up relying on things like bible dictionaries - and I'm never sure if I'm always on the same page as the bible dictionary contributors (esp on OT)). Btw this is an important point - it's good not to have to rely on scholarship that's not convinced of a christocentric hermeneutic (which is most OT scholarship!).

    In v10, 'The Rock' vs 'the rocks' - I might decide to prefer ESV because of many factors, but surely the best factor is that the Hebrew says bazur not bazurim. This was a *key* point in my sermon - a big talking point afterwards. I'm glad I know something of Hebrew when those conversations come up. If you're going to argue for Christ in OT (which I am), the vast majority of your biblical scholarship / commentary help is at least 300 years old. It's brilliant stuff, but most of the contemporary stuff is just not going to pick of christocentric detail. But, learn Hebrew yourself and you'll see it on every page.

    1 Corinthians 7:
    There are so many minefields here - and so many ethical issues that depend on language debates. I'm nowhere near in a position to contribute to these debates, but it's very helpful to be able to follow them especially when I'm telling certain people they can't marry or can't divorce and telling them on the basis of these ten greek words which have multiple interpretations.

    e.g. what's the difference between 'separating' in v10 and 'divorcing' in v11-13? What does it mean for the woman not to be 'bound'? in v15? Is that relevantly similar to the word for 'bound' in v39? Your stance on divorce and remarriage is fundamentaly affected by that question.

    Now the language alone is not going to decide it and not everyone needs to have language knowledge. But I'm recommending an investment of time in languages that better places you to think through all these issues.

    On the one hand learning languages saves you time. It really does - searches are far faster, technical commentaries are much easier to read. If you're at all interested in the detail of the text, knowing some greek and hebrew makes things faster not slower. On the other hand, it slows you down in the right way. Reading the passage in the original allows you to see details and emphases and repetitions that are necessarily filtered out in translations, to see things of Christ that aren't usually picked up on. It comes home a bit stronger. Maybe none of that will translate to the pulpit, but it translates to my heart - and that's good for my ministry.

  21. glenscriv

    Been thinking about it some more.

    I think if you want to see the wonder of doing some in-depth work on the Hebrew of the OT just read Jacky or Dev's blogs!

    And if you want to do the same, I reckon a hundred-odd hours of language study will prevent you from making a lot of unwarranted links. E.g. you'll learn that verbs in different stems can have very different meanings, or that the prepositions attached can make all the difference - which are the sorts of things you won't pick up if you just use the bible searches.

    But now, if you want to do any work at all that looks at the Hebrew or Greek - even if it's just going to blueletterbible and searching on the Strongs codes - then you are investing in language work. I guess this is the point I want to challenge you on. If you look *at all* at the Greek and Hebrew (even if it's just reading a commentary that mentions it) - you are already involved in the original languages.

    All I'm suggesting is that for those who spend a lot of time teaching the bible, a hundred-odd ours is an investment they should make that will a) save time in the long-run, because your preparation will involve original languages on some level and b) save from errors since you'll be able to be more discerning when those languages are inevitably brought up.

  22. Nicolai

    I only ever gave a handful of talks, but found myself doing the same thing, getting the greek that I don't know out of a commentary. Thought that was a bad way of doing it.
    Instead of referring to the hebrew, you might be able to get away with referring to KJV or ESV, or whatever people would accept as a more literal translation than NIV.

  23. glenscriv

    Hi Nicolai,
    Welcome to the blog. Yes - I think that's the point I'll take away from this whole thing. Raising other translations rather than your 'secret knowledge' is a much better way forwards.

  24. glenscriv

    Hi Tim,
    Yes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing - but I think dangerous if deployed beyond the teacher's understanding levels. Therefore a Hebrew scholar of 10 years could be dangerous if speaking above her pay-grade so to speak. A pastor who's done one year's Greek can speak on much less safely. But actually every pastor 'uses' the original languages to some extent - even if it's only to read the transliteration of a greek word in a commentary or some description of the pistis christou debate. To be able to safely handle *that* knowledge is what my recommendation of 100-odd hours is all about.

  25. Rich Owen

    Given how poor so many modern commentaries are, finding the christocentric meaning in the hebrew, is a worthy reason to know the lingo, and for that reason I reckon 100 hours of hebrew is a good thing to do, and maybe one day, I'll have the time to do that.

    For your church though, how about recommending reading one of those decent 300 year old commentaries that doesn't ignore Jesus - that would be less... intimidating (?) than recommending they learn hebrew?

    Glen, it has been a good discussion. Thanks. Of all the people I've discussed this with, you are the only person who hasn't attempted a defence which (crudely speaking) has not been driven by a desire to defend your theological education, and hence pride, job position, magisterial position or because a theological framework is dependant on a shade of meaning only available at language level.

  26. glenscriv

    Thanks Rich - hope things are well with you.
    Yeah I think we both agree that the argument for languages is *not*: Languages are intimidating and look how brilliant I am to have ascended into the mysteries.

    If you're going to enthuse about languages it should be as a really really normal, non-special thing. (And maybe some of this is a function of the fact we English speakers see second-languages as a far more 'specialized' knowledge than most people on the planet. Maybe? It's a thought anyway).

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