Bible Translations / Accuracy

This has come up several times in my conversations with various people:

They argue that we cannot take the Bible very seriously because it’s been translated so many times over the years that we no longer can be sure of it’s accuracy. They argue that’s it’s just an interesting bit of history but probably not the “word of God” because it’s been translated too many times and we no longer know if it really IS the message that God intended.

I know in my heart this isn’t true, but I can’t find the words to explain myself.

Any suggestions?

Thank you!

Well, the Bible was never meant to be a stand-alone thing. Like with most things in life, there is a correct method to be used in interpreting the Bible. Vary from the correct method and there’s no guarantee that you’ll get the desired results. Let me give you an example. What would you think if the Controller for a company went into the CEO’s office one day and said, “Hey, boss! What would you like me to show on the financials this month? A profit or a loss? I can do either.” Sounds flakey, doesn’t it? Sounds like he’s forsaking sound accounting principles and methods to get his desired results instead of the correct ones.

The Catholic Church, from which we got the Bible in the first place, has a method for interpreting Scripture. It is outlined in the document Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation -Dei Verbum (Word of God). It’s not a very long document and could be read in one sitting, I think.

But here’s the method in which we should use when interpreting Scripture:

  1. The Bible should always be viewed and read in context of the whole. The Truth is a Person, Jesus Christ, not an abstract notion. Properly interpreted, there are no contradictions in Scripture. The Old Testament should always be read in light of the New Testament. The New Testament should always be read as a fulfillment of the Old Testament. It is a mistake to ignore either in light of the other.

  2. The Bible should be read in light of the oral method of transmission, i.e., Holy Tradition. Jesus did not establish a Bible-reading Church, but a teaching/preaching Church. He taught orally, and passed His teachings on to the Apostles orally. The Apostles did the same with regard to their successors the bishops, who did likewise. Keep in mind that even the Bible says that not everything Jesus did or taught is IN the Bible (John 21:25). Yet, Jesus commanded the Apostles (and their successors) to teach everything that He had taught. (Matt. 28:20) The difference is Holy Tradition, the oral teachings of the Church.

  3. We should always interpret the Bible through the analysis of faith, as expressed by the teaching Magisterium of the Church (the Pope along with all the bishops united to him).

Without using the proper method, you end up with what Protestant Christianity has become, a mess! Tens of thousands of differing, disagreeing, doctrinally disunified denominations, all based on personal interpretation of Scripture (which St. Peter warns against in 2 Peter 1:20), and no final authority in which to settle doctrinal disputes. Every man, woman, and child has equal authority, regardless of education/training.

Such people are searching for a convenient reason to avoid the ‘embarrassment’ of faith. If Jesus had written scripture in His own hand, they would find as many reasons to discount it as they do with the bible.

While the bible is specific in many instances, it remains the story of a relationship (covenant) between God and Man. Its “big picture” has not changed, even if some of the details have through transliteration between languages.

Your answer is to pray for such persons, as reason and logic will not appeal to a heart that is closed to faith.

I agree with Po18guy. This objection is rarely a sincere one.

And I assume the argument is really only against the NT, not the OT, because religious Jews read Hebrew.

Through comparisons of NT manuscripts found in different countries and in different languages and from different centuries we can reconstruct 95% of the original NT. That means that the issue is really only 5% of the NT. Looking then only at that small portion, the differences that make up about three of that five percent are differences in grammar and such that don’t even change the meaning of the sentences. That leaves us really with only a 1 or 2% variation across the entire NT. But no point of doctrine is based upon those particular sentences.

So really what we’re doing is translating the NT from a source that is about 99% word-for-word the same as what Paul or John etc originally wrote. And a “study Bible” will actually print, in footnotes, the variations right there on the page, so you can read for yourself the variations.

And then, from that, we have like a gazillion English translations to choose from. Just lay them side-by-side and see for yourself what is different. “” is one way to do that. Today the Bible is for all practical purposes in the public domain.

After all that – I missed the part where we’re translating anything wrong.

The argument is without merit. Those who promote it suggest that the Bible has been translated from A to B, then from B to C, C to D and so on. They conclude that a translation of a translation would not be true to the original meaning. In fact, that is not the case.

Nearly every Bible translation has been directly from Hebrew (most of the OT) and Greek (NT and the deuterocanonicals). The fact that different translations read so differently is more due to the time of translation (words shift in meaning) and the goal of the translator (literal or paraphrase).

There are a few (very few) translations through intermediate languages. Latin is the most common intermediate language in this case. Still, The (Latin) Vulgate was translated directly from Hebrew and Greek and has been thoroughly vetted through the centuries.

This objection is only raised by people who neither know a second language, nor know anything about the Bible.

Sometimes objections like this can be refuted (well, silenced at any rate) merely by pointing out that the person who raises the objection cannot possibly be in a position to know this. Sometimes just asking for an example is enough.

You can make this point in a clever and powerful way by memorizing a simple passage in several languages and then ask the objector for his opinion. Here’s an example:

You know, Mr Objector, John 3:16 in Greek says, “ekhay zowayn ayownon”, the Latin has “habeat vitam aeternam” - but the King James has “have everlasting life” while the NIV reads “have eternal life”. In your opinion, what do you think is the best translation of “ayownon”?

Also, it can be silenced by pointing out that the argument just doesn’t add up. Does anyone really think that Jews and Christians are so stupid that they would rely on translations of translations and so on, while this would cause intolerable variations among those who use the Bible in their religions?

Even Catholics only use a translation of a translation, but go no further. We have an English Bible that was translated from the Latin translation made by St Jerome, which he in turn made from Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek Bibles. You can do the same with these:

*You’re right, Mr Objector. A lot gets lost in translation. In fact, John 14:35 is “edakrusen ho Yaysous” in Greek, the Latin translation of that is “et lacrimatus est Iesus”, and the Catholic English translation-of-a-translation made from the Latin goes “And Jesus wept”. The word “edakrusen” became “wept”! Isn’t that hilarious? “Edakrusen”! I mean, what were they thinking? :rotfl: But seriously, how would **you *translate it?

The Holy Spirit protects the Living Tradition, so that what is handed on from generation to generation retains purity of truth. The Holy Spirit guides the Living Magisterium, so that the passage of time does not in any way erode the teaching of the Church. Similarly, the Word of God in Sacred Scripture, though written, is also lived by the Church, and is protected by the Holy Spirit from erosion or degradation over time.

Is there secret wisdom in interpreting the bible, such as in the story of Noah’s ark? In Jewish mysticism there is the Zohar and other forms of secret wisdom.

It is the Magisterium of the Church. While not ‘secret’ per se, it is entrusted to only a few, just as Jesus opened the minds of only a few to understand the Gospel (Luke 24:45). Secrecy and secret knowledge I generally regard as being of the evil one, as is equivocation in speech (Matthew 5:37).

I agree with much of your post but I disagree here. Let me simplify it for you in mathematical terms. If in A you have a simple phrase nikto dikto, for example. Nikto can mean at least two things, “study” or “advance” in B, and dikto can mean “dog” or “wolf” in B. In this scenario, which is not too uncommon in translations, you have a 25% chance, et ceteris paribus, of getting the proper intended understanding in B. Then if the same possibilities exist between B and C, you have a 6% chance of the correct understanding in C. Your chances increase of course by going from A to C, but that’s still not a guarantee of accuracy. The assumption of course is that a translation (or even a paraphrase) can never be better than the original language. Errors can creep in chemical laboratories by simply copying data. I know, I’ve been there.

That said, St. Jerome increased his chances of accuracy by consulting several sources in Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, and other languages. While the Latin Vulgate has lost some meaning from the Hebrew and Greek separately, but with so much scripture being cross referenced, it is probably as acceptable to the Church as it can be in its Latin form.

I use this website to quote from the Vulgate:

I use this website for increased precision of Scripture.

There is a good RE activity in the classroom where all of the students are given the same text of writing and are free to change a few words here and there and add and subtract the occassional sentence.

When this is done all of the students then share their amended texts and compare one to the other and the original wording can always be worked out.

For example if 2 students change the fruit from ‘apple’ to ‘orange’ then that is easy to pick out when comparing texts. Same if a students adds, changes or takes away a sentence when compared to the text of the rest of the class.

We have thousands of Greek, Roman, Egyption, Syrian and Armenian texts. The lesson is that the original text can quite easily be verified.

[SIGN]You missed my point entirely[/SIGN]
I apologize for being insufficiently precise in the text you quoted. Had you quoted my entire post, you would have retained its full intent.

For clarity, it was not my intent to assert that meaning would not be lost translating from A to B then B to C et cetera.


My assertion is that most translations are from A to B, A to C, A to D, et cetera.

Your illustration of nikto dikto is apropos, however. As a complete phrase, nikto dikto can only be translated with 25% accuracy, as you say. However, that is only because there is no greater context. The Bible is not translated word-for-word. It is translated complete. The translator studies the text in its entirety in the original language to understand its meaning and intent.

The translator thus learns the context of nikto dikto and can translate it with much greater accuracy. If the passage, for example, is teacher giving a lesson to pupils, nikto has a greater chance of meaning “study.” If the passage is more of a practical application or recording of an event, “advance” seems more likely. Dikto can be ascertained similarly. If dikto is portrayed as protective or loyal, “dog” is the likely translation. If it is antagonistic in the passage, “wolf” becomes more likely.

Verified by whom if fewer and fewer study the art of translations? We’ve already lost complete touch with their ancestors who probably left a lot of “texts” of their own.

Sorry to have misinterpreted your post.

I agree that more than just the two words need to be looked at. Perhaps the art of translating would be better if we put the possible meanings into a set. For example, the prefix “sub” would be better “translated” as {under, inferior, secondary, less than, in place of, secretly} so we get the general gist of the word rather than simply as an educated selected guess, say, “inferior” which then becomes fixed in the minds of the reader of the translation and much precision would probably be lost. And then that gets further distorted with if the recipient of the translation were to paraphrase or further translate for another.

We read a lot of translations (Polish-English, Latin-English, Mandarin-English) as gospel truth unfortunately but it doesn’t have to be that way. English Bibles are different and I’ve even heard radio Protestant ministers to explain the Latin or Greek behind some of the passages which then make those passages a lot clearer.

The truths of Divine Revelation are not so fragile
that they cannot survive translation,
from any language into any other language.

There are of course Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Syrian and Armenian Christians and scholars who are expert in the old languages of their cultures.

Except in the cases of certain agenda-driven non-Catholic translations, I view scripture as being similar to prophecy: principle rather than precision.

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