About a dozen times each year I get this question: “What Bible is the best translation of the Hebrew and Greek text?” Inquiring minds want to know. Unfortunately, the answer isn’t as easy as a National Enquirer article might suggest. The truth is that there simply is no English translation that captures all the nuances and deeper readings of the text in Hebrew or Greek. Every translation has a particular perspective and every translation committee has to make choices about which words to use to convey meaning from one language to another. That’s why translation is art and science. A wooden word-for-word mechanical translation often overlooks idiomatic expressions and misses important underlying cultural contextual meanings. On the other hand, freer translations and paraphrases often insert glosses or rearrange the text so that the original connections are lost.
But there is hope.
Here are some hints and suggestions that may help you get at the rich meanings in the text.
- Read the introduction to your English Bible translation. You will be surprised how much you’ll learn about the viewpoint and the bias of the translation committee and you’ll discover how the committee deals with alternative texts, changes in tense and word rearrangements. By the way, if the introduction doesn’t address these translation issues, then you can probably put this translation aside.
- Watch for italicized words and marginal notes. Each time these appear, they indicate either added words to make the English sentence grammatically correct or understandable, or alternative readings.
- Compare different English translations. If the text is virtually the same in the various translations, you can usually (but not always) assume that there is a standard way of handling the text. But when you discover that English translations vary, you should look deeper. Something else is happening that doesn’t appear on the surface.
- ASK WHY? Questioning the text is the most fundamental means of understanding the text. Ask yourself questions about everything. Does this make sense? Why does the author use these words and not others? What would this mean to the people who first heard it (one of the most important questions)? Does this verse remind me of other verses in other places? How are they connected? Etc.
- Read the text along with a good commentary. See my recommended reading list.
- Try to imagine what it would have been like to hear these words in the culture and the time they were written. For example, when Noah is given commandments about food, remember that Moses is writing the story and the “food” has a particular meaning to the children of Israel in the time of Moses. Shrimp is not food. Neither is pork or alligator or snake. YOU have to put the culture back into the text.
- Read Jewish and rabbinic comments. These often have greater insight into the cultural issues than we get in Christian thinkers. Of course, don’t ignore great Christian commentators, but remember that the majority of the Bible is firmly set in Israel’s history and culture.
- Use a good interlinear to do your own review of the text and the etymologies of the words. There are many on-line, free interlinear helps like Blue Letter Bible.
- If you really want to get serious, buy the standard references dictionaries like The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament or its companion, The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (but watch out, the 10 volume set has a lot of Greek in it).
Have fun. Share your insights. Pray. Read. Worship. (Humm, that sounds like a movie title)