Translations: Getting Back to Results

Wayne Leman, on the Better Bibles blog, has posted a note about Ben Witherington’s apology for his remarks about the ESV (Ben Witherington apologizes for ESV comments). I’ve been pretty busy the latter half of this week, so I missed part of the action and had to review it through several blogs. I admire someone who is willing to apologize openly and honestly for an error in what he has written.

Wayne goes on to make an important point when he says, “He has, in my opinion, now placed the focus where it should be for any Bible version, on its own merits, not on what one perceives to be the motives of its translators.” Ben Witherington has also moved forward to precisely this type of information with his post A Sample of More Literal Translations. These are some good examples of the types of decisions that translators must make irrespective of their approach to the final product. I’ve discussed details of the translation methods in my book What’s in a Version?, and in various notes on my Bible Version Selection Tool.

But as a Bible teacher working primarily with lay members, I must also get involved with the question of how the individual Bible student gets an accurate idea of what the Bible means. In other words, by “results” I need to look at the final product. Once I’ve talked about Bible translations, study tools, and how to make use of them, how do laypeople test their work and study with confidence? The question I’m asked most often is just how one can be sure. Those who want to use more literal translations do so for the very good reason that they think they will get an more accurate understanding. For reasons I’ve explained elsewhere, I don’t think that is true. “More literal” is not the equivalent of “more accurate.” Both extremes on that spectrum of methodology, and everything in between, involve choices and compromises.

The type of questions that Ben Witherington is asking in this post are a starting point in looking at the result. Too often scholars remain in a totally scholarly environment, commonly known as the ivory tower, and determine whether the meaning has been expressed in discussions between scholars. Expressing a meaning is kind of empty unless someone hears and understands the expression. In translations, that involves field testing.

But for the average person the question again is this: How can I be certain of an interpretation? How can I be certain the meaning I get from my English text is right?

Well, to be most certain, you need to learn the Biblical languages. Notice that I says most and not absolutely. Even when you know the Biblical languages, there remains differences in the level of skill between various readers, points on which honest disagreement is possible, and simple human error. In my own study, though I generally produce a translation of any passage of scripture I’m going to use in preaching or teaching, I also compare my own work with a selection of English translations. Why? Because I am as subject to error (and sometimes more so!) as the next guy.

But there is still one more step. Even when I am as certain as I can be about the meaning of a particular verse, to be sure I’m understanding the full meaning and the application, I need to do two things:

  • Study the verse in context
    By this I mean to study entire passages. Sometimes “in context” becomes the equivalent of reading the verse before and the verse afterward. But if you want to understand Paul’s argument in a verse in 1 Corinthians 14, you will need to read the entire chapter at a minimum, and that will almost certainly lead you to reading chapter 12, and then surely Paul had a reason for putting chapter 13 between the two. To be confident that you understand a single admonition in chapter 14, you really need to put some work into studying all three chapters. Going beyond that, an overview of the entire first letter to the Corinthians will help you understand what Paul means about being spiritual.
  • Study the verse as it stands in relation to the canon of scripture.
    This means to look at the teaching in the light of other scriptures on the same topic. Try to do this after you have taken a serious look at the scripture you’re studying. Often people lose nuances of various portions of scripture by simply overriding them with another scripture. At the same time, a good principle, long used and tested, is to let what is plain and widespread help explain what is simple.

These two principles can correct your understanding of an individual passage. It is especially important to do this type of study if your impression from a particular scripture seems odd or out of place. That’s the time to check especially carefully for misunderstandings.

My final check, which I normally teach first in classes on Bible study, is the hanging principle. When Jesus said that all the law and the prophets hung on the two commands of love for God and love for one’s neighbor, I think he also gave us a check on how we read. Try to hang your interpretation from the two laws. If it doesn’t fit, reconsider it.

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