By Taylor Halverson
Why can’t scripture study be like the latest diet fad? Hmmm, good question. Maybe I should try the high powered sales pitch I often hear on the radio.
Ok, do I have something to sell to you!!! I developed this unique formula in my garage using true imitations of fake natural products to boost your immune system against the power of the destroyer and open your mind to the scriptures like never before! Simply pop two of these placebo pills a day, drink a lot of water, say your prayers and wazaam! You will be a true scholar of the scriptures!
Well, sorry folks, I don’t have the magic pill for making the scriptures come alive in your heart without any effort. Instead, I do have a few suggestions that if coupled with honest searching of the scriptures, humility and prayer will help you to find greater meaning and purpose in your scripture study.
There are several objectives in sharing an article such as this. First, I wish to briefly encourage everyone to read Paul. Second, I want to encourage everyone to use more than one translation when reading Paul. Third, I wish to shed light on the work of Biblical scholars, such as those who made the King James Translation, who labor to make the Bible more accessible and more understandable. The Bible is worthless if it is inaccessible or incomprehensible. It is in this light that I wish to elucidate the efforts and motives of Biblical scholars.
First: Why should we read Paul? Well, the most obvious answer is that more than of the New Testament is attributed to him. More importantly, Paul is probably the most formative figure in establishing and expounding the doctrines of Christianity after the death of Christ. If then, Paul is the author of such a vast corpus of inestimably important material on Christ and Christianity, we should study him and his words as an additional witness of the mission and ministry of Christ.
Second: Once we are motivated to study the words of such an important apostle we must overcome the obstacles that hinder understanding Paul. Some of the obstacles are of our own making; they are in our own mind. We fear reading Paul (perhaps like we fear reading Isaiah), thus we do not venture forth and thus we lose the opportunity to experience that we can indeed understand this key witness of Christ.
Now our fears concerning Paul are not without reason. My goodness, we must be in good company when even Peter the mighty apostle admitted in one of his epistles that Paul can be hard to understand:
“So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand.” (2 Peter 3:15-16; NRSV translation)
Having admitted the real challenges that Paul’s writing can pose, let me offer a way that our comprehension is magnified and enhanced.
Perhaps one of the best methods for understanding Paul is to use the synoptic method. We are all familiar with this approach as applied to the four Gospels. They are called the synoptic Gospels because each offers a unique view and testimony on the mission of Jesus Christ. In other words, each synoptic perspective offers additional information and insights that may not be expressed by other witnesses. Each perspective plays a crucial role in informing the whole. And who among us does not benefit from a 2nd opinion, from a different viewpoint, from another way of seeing a matter? The synoptic viewpoint is a way of seeing together through a chorus of harmonious witnesses. And what better example of harmonious witnesses do we have then the synoptic Gospels themselves? They offer unique access into the powerful doctrines taught by the Master Teacher. Through these accounts we learn of his miraculous birth, his unparalleled mission and his all encompassing charity of everlasting kindness known the world over as the Atonement.
Let us now change focus and consider the concept of the synoptic perspective from another angle and see how such an approach to the Bible, and to the Pauline epistles, can enhance our insight and understanding. Let us apply this concept to Bible translations (or “versions” if you will). Would we gain additional perspective and insight if we read more than just one translation of the Bible? May I submit that just as our insight and understanding have been greatly enhanced through the “seeing together” offered to us by the synoptic Gospels, so too can our insight and understanding be enhanced by reading various translations of the Bible? Such is the case with the Pauline writings as well.
There are, of course, literally hundreds of available English translations of the Bible. Our King James Version (KJV) is one example (and the one officially approved by the Church, with JST enhancements, footnotes, dictionary, etc). Other prominent examples include the following list:
- The New Jerusalem Bible (NJB)
- The New King James Version (NKJV)
- The New International Version (NIV)
- The New American Bible (NAB)
- The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
As you can see, many of these Bible translations have “new” in the name. This reflects that as our understanding of Biblical texts and languages increases there is a need to update our translations.
Now the task of translating the Bible is an extremely arduous one. What goes into such an effort? The answer will fulfill the third objective of this article, i.e. to shed light on the work of Biblical scholars who labor to make the Bible more accessible and more understandable.
Translating the Bible is a truly monumental effort. First, all available ancient documents and versions of the Old and New Testament must be reviewed and analyzed. There are literally thousands of ancient documents that contain portions of the Old and/or New Testament and variations of text and composition number in the tens of thousands! Scholars carefully examine each version, each text, each verse, and sometimes down to even the very letters of each word to determine which texts are most authentic and most reliable. Just as a detective seeks for the best evidence to make a case and rejects that which is unreliable, so too the Biblical scholars work tediously and carefully to determine which ancient manuscripts are most authentic to the original authors. Hey, we don’t want someone like me out there composing Biblical texts, inserting them into the mix of other ancient texts only to find that I fooled the Biblical scholars into getting me published!
Once the most reliable ancient Old and New Testament texts have been identified, scholars then begin the careful process of translating the texts into the target language (in this case English) in a form that is both readable and understandable. This requires a thorough understanding of at least one ancient language, whether Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic. Do they slavishly stick to literal translation? Of course not, that would be impossible because of the nuances of words and grammar that do not easily cross over cultural barriers. If you don’t believe me just ponder for a moment why foreign diplomacy often fails. Sometimes words can have multiple meanings depending upon context. In this case, the scholars seek to understand the meaning and intent of the passage as a whole, or they appeal to what is known of ancient cultures or customs of those times to make an appropriate translation. Each translation is reviewed many times by many people so as to ensure accuracy as well as consensus among experts. Believe me, the process is tedious and time consuming and usually does not offer the type of financial rewards one would get through an IPO.
Why, then, would anyone labor so intensely on such a project? What is the reward? In most cases, these translators are people like you and me who care deeply about the Bible and the power it has to inform and enhance our lives. Thus they strive to make the Bible both available and understandable to all people through translations. These translators and scholars realize that most people in this world will not take the many years necessary to learn half a dozen ancient languages and to master some 4000 years of history in order to gain access to the meaning of the texts in their original languages and contexts.
Granted that most Biblical scholars are God-fearing and well-intentioned individuals, it is unavoidable that their “fingerprints” get left on the final product. Every new translation of the Bible is essentially a “new version” that reflects the attitudes, values, and ideals of the time period in which it was translated. This is an inescapable fact. For example, the King James Version (KJV) is reflective of 17th century English culture. How? This is most strongly reflected in the language and grammar employed in the translation itself, though this is somewhat of circular reasoning for what other options did the translators have than to render the original Hebrew and Greek texts into the common tongue of their place and time? But that is exactly the point. Every time we translate the Bible we cannot help but place our own fingerprints upon the work. That does not necessarily mean that we have smudged the Bible or corrupted it; we should have no fear of translating and transmitting the Bible so that it continues to inform our spiritual lives today. In most cases today, new translations depend upon the most ancient and authentic sources (usually Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic) and not the translations of our own times. In other words, if I was attempting to translate the Bible into Spanish I would not use the English KJV to do so. Such an approach would preserve the “fingerprints” of the King James translators into the Spanish version as well as adding the new “fingerprints” of Spanish culture and values embedded in the language of the translation. Rather it would be best to go back to the original languages of Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic and make a fresh translation from those documents into Spanish. That way the intervening “fingerprints” of the KJV translators are not preserved and transmitted. This is not to sleight the KJV translators. What we are simply attempting to do is to get back to the most original and authentic versions of the Biblical text.
So it is important to realize that “fingerprints” come in various forms. Some translators seek to be “politically correct” in their translations. Other translations attempt to render the English in such a colloquial way as to make the Bible read as though it was the product of the lowest common denominator of meaning and vocabulary. Hence, no translation is without its deficiencies. Nevertheless, with some study, faith, prayer and humility supporting “synoptic” witnesses can be selected to facilitate reading the Bible, especially Paul.
Before I close I will offer but one example of how reading a “synoptic” translation of Paul can enhance our study and understanding. Read both translations of 1 Corinthians 14:1-12 below and then ask yourself if this exercise increases your comprehension of Paul’s explanation of the gifts of the Spirit. If you can answer “yes” then you are already on your way to experiencing the value of using various translations in the synoptic approach.
Follow after charity, and desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy.
2 For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries.
3 But he that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort.
4 He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church.
5 I would that ye all spake with tongues, but rather that ye prophesied: for greater is he that prophesieth than he that speaketh with tongues, except he interpret, that the church may receive edifying.
6 Now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, except I shall speak to you either by revelation, or by knowledge, or by prophesying, or by doctrine?
7 And even things without life giving sound, whether pipe or harp, except they give a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped?
8 For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?
9 So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air.
10 There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification.
11 Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me.
12 Even so ye, forasmuch as ye are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church.
Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy.
2 For those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God; for nobody understands them, since they are speaking mysteries in the Spirit.
3 On the other hand, those who prophesy speak to other people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.
4 Those who speak in a tongue build up themselves, but those who prophesy build up the church.
5 Now I would like all of you to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. One who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.
6 Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I speak to you in some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching?
7 It is the same way with lifeless instruments that produce sound, such as the flute or the harp. If they do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is being played?
8 And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?
9 So with yourselves; if in a tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is being said? For you will be speaking into the air.
10 There are doubtless many different kinds of sounds in the world, and nothing is without sound.
11 If then I do not know the meaning of a sound, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me.
12 So with yourselves; since you are eager for spiritual gifts, strive to excel in them for building up the church.
 Here is an example of how the names change as the Bible translations are updated. First there was the Standard Version. Then there was the Revised Standard Version. And now there is the New Revised Standard Version. I have often quipped that if there is a standard Bible translation why does it need to be revised? And if the standard version has been revised why does it need to be new? And what will happen if the translation needs to be updated in the future? Perhaps they will just do what Cheerios makers have been doing for years (without significantly changing anything but the box display on the shelf).they will call it The New and Improved Revised Standard Version (NIRSV)!
 Usually Biblical scholars are competent not just in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic but other languages as well such as Ugaritic, Akkadian, Egyptian, Moabite, Edomite, Syriac, Coptic, Latin, Arabic or dozens of other languages.
 If you are interested in using additional translations of the Bible in your scripture study you will find them for purchase most bookstores. Or if you wish to save the money, there are several internet sites that have different translations available online for free. One that I like, which allows you to read different translations in parallel columns, is found at www.bibles.net.