How Human Tradition Has Influenced Scripture Translation
I recently had a very interesting talk with a Bible translator. He is working on revising a major Bible translation because of inconsistencies, and I was curious about what those inconsistencies were.
Years ago, I started studying the Bible with the free esword software. I realized I could either search every place an English word is used in the Bible and examine the different Greek or Hebrew words behind those translations, or I could search for the Strong’s number and find every place a Greek or Hebrew word was used in the Bible, see the context, and see how it is translated differently in English. I now often use the interlinear Bible online and am even starting to pick up the Greek alphabet.
I’ve read the Bible in dozens of translations and languages. They are all different, and I usually prefer the more literal translations. All too often it seems to me like rich insights are lost in paraphrased versions. Over time, I’ve become aware of various scriptures where translators added words which are not in the original language, translated the same Greek word in different ways, or translated different Greek words with different meanings or shades of meaning into the same English word. For example, the KJV of 2 Corinthians 12:9 translates the same Greek word in two different ways in the same sentence and context, “infirmity,” and “weaknesses.”
Sometimes this is reasonable because words have different meanings in different contexts. Sometimes it is not inaccurate, but some of the meaning is lost in translation. However, some of these translation inconsistencies are rooted in pure bias and human tradition.
Authoritarian And Hierarchical Bias
King James included in his 15 rules for Bible translators that the old ecclesiastical terms be kept when translating the Bible, including that they should not use the most accurate translation,“congregation,” but instead should use the word “church.” He also wanted them to use the language most in line with church tradition when translating a word with more than one meaning. The KJV has been the basis for many other modern translations.
As I studied words like “authority, obey, apostle, bishop, deacon,” and others in the original language, I was shocked to see how much translation bias had clouded the epistles’ agreement with Jesus’s words that we were not to exercise authority over each other and the greatest would be the servant of all. I wrote my first book, “I Am Persuaded,” because some people encouraged me to share my findings. Wanting to test my findings, I sent the book to scholars who knew more about the original languages than I did. I got glowing endorsements.
For example, the Greek word “proistemi” literally means “to stand before” someone. 1 Timothy 5:17 and Romans 12:8 in the KJV translate this word as church leaders “ruling,” and 1 Thessalonians 5:12 translates is by saying they are “over you” in the Lord. However, the noun form of the same word in Romans 16:2 calls Phebe a “succourer” (helper) of many, not a ruler! A letter written in Greek from a son to his father in 252 BC expresses his desire to “look after” his aging father. The word is “proistemi.” He is talking about caring for his father, serving his father, not ruling over his father! And so the translators interpreted the same Greek word as “ruling” or being over someone in several other parts of scripture, but as a reference to service in Romans 16:2!
Why? In his teaching about greatness, Jesus said that the greatest would be the servant of all. Jesus used the very words that repeatedly refer to the authority and governments of this world to describe how it should not be in the church. Yet the KJV interpreters were seeing the word “to stand before” through the lens of a politically powerful church that was deeply intertwined with government, and not through the lens of Jesus’s teaching.
I realized that the New Testament uses a whole different set of language when talking about church leaders than it uses when referring to government officials. Yet these different Greek words are often translated in the same way into English!
One inconsistency that I see in many English translations but not in other languages like Spanish, Russian, or Portuguese, is that the New Testament uses the noun “pastor” at least eleven times in the singular referring to Jesus himself, but only one time, and in the plural, referring to any church leader other than Jesus. The emphasis is strongly on Jesus as our pastor. In a Biblical mindset, the first answer that comes to mind for the question “Who is your pastor?” is “My pastor is Jesus.”
I learned that the connotation of the word “bishop,” rather than being a powerful position in a hierarchy, was the function of visiting people to care for them and minister healing! In fact, I could also scripturally say that I am Jesus’s bishop! And I sure don’t think I’m “over” Jesus!
One of the things that really blew me away was the use of the word “deacon.” It is a transliteration, not a translation. In the Greek New Testament, Jesus himself, apostles, and elders are repeatedly called “deacons,” or “servants.” It’s hard to understand how anybody reading the Greek could possibly envision this word as a reference to a lower level in a hierarchy of church leadership. In the KJV of 1 Timothy 3:10 and 3:13 this verb, translated almost everywhere else simply and accurately as “to serve,” or “to minister” suddenly becomes “to use the office of a deacon.” What? None of that is in the original language!
The Influence Of Gnosticism and Greek Philosophy
This is far too much to talk about in much detail here, but I discuss it in more detail in the book Jesus Has Come In The Flesh. Augustine was a member of a Gnostic cult that denied Jesus came in the flesh for about 10 years before he converted to Christianity. The Latin Bible he read added to the confusion. Augustine and some other early church leaders were heavily influenced by Gnostic ideas and Greek philosophy, which in turn influenced Catholic theologians and then Evangelicals like Martin Luther and John Calvin. Some of the ideas that came into the church through these philosophies were the beliefs that God controls everything, everything is pre-determined and happens for a reason, God and his will are mysterious and unknowable, and sex (even within marriage), mankind, and the physical world are fundamentally evil.
After talking with a church member, I recently asked a pastor if they believe that God controls everything that happens. He said “we believe what the Bible says.” I responded “That’s not an answer! What do you understand the Bible as saying about this?” He replied “Matthew 10:29.”
I answered, “Jesus said that not a sparrow falls to the ground apart from the Father. This verse doesn’t say anything about God controlling everything that happens. It just says God is there.” And the pastor said, “Yeah, but it means God controls everything.”
After that conversation, I looked up this verse again in multiple translations and compared them. And many of the translations do say that not a sparrow falls“apart from your Father’s will,” “apart from your Father’s permission,” “without your Father’s consent,” or “apart from your Father’s control.” But the Greek doesn’t say any of these things! It speaks of God’s omnipresence and care for his creation, but says nothing about him willing or giving permission for every little thing that happens!
What Does All This Have To Do With Heaven Now!
We recently talked about having unity that’s based on boasting in Christ and not in having all the same doctrine. That being said, doctrine has huge implications! The authoritarian bias and the gnostic worldview have long hindered the church from walking more fully in God’s glory.
So many Christians seem to find comfort in the phrase “God is in control.” Yet have they thought through the implications and scriptural foundations (or lack of foundation) for this belief? I believe God is all-knowing and all-powerful, but this does not mean he is all-controlling. He gave dominion to men.
More than once, demons have manifested as I explained to someone that God does not control everything. Deep belching, falling, eyes rolled back. At least once, the demon left as the person simply accepted a more scriptural view, without me even needing to cast it out.
Why? Last year I heard someone who was sexually assaulted say “I know God had a reason for me to go through this.” She was not walking with the Lord but gnostic thinking has been deeply ingrained in her through its influence on Evangelicalism. How will she ever get a heart revelation of God as scripture reveals him, as the protector of the weak, if she thinks God was controlling and “permitting” every detail of what happened to her? Few lies lead as many people into atheism or bitterness against God than the one that “God controls and permits everything that happens for a special purpose.” To walk as heavenly people, faces glowing with God’s glory, we have to be able to behold God as he truly is, not looking at him through life but looking at him through Jesus!
Are You Willing To Dig Deep?
The Bible translator agreed with me as I shared my thoughts about some of these translation issues, and he told me others. Then he made a statement that surprised me a little bit. He said “The Bible societies do care about accuracy, but they also care about selling Bibles. There are certain passages where we can’t really translate exactly what it says because it looks so different than other English translations and will really mess with people’s theology. If we would really translate them as what they say, people would think there was something wrong with the Bible and wouldn’t buy it.”
He then told me “My real concern, much more than the translation issues, is the pastors. They don’t want to study!” Likewise, I’ve encountered many pastors and Christians who are very dogmatic about a point without being open to hear scholarship that sheds light on the original language or historical context. Many even misquote scriptures to support their points! When scripture says one thing and you hear or quote another, it’s a great indication of an outside bias affecting your understanding of scripture.
The Holy Spirit Leads Us Into All Truth!
John 16:13 (NIV) But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.
It’s so hard today for many Christians (and leaders) to trust the Holy Spirit to do what Jesus said he would do. We need the Holy Spirit to open our understanding to the words of scripture. I often combine reading the Bible with praying in tongues, and it’s amazing how often I later find out that the insight I got closely matched the underlying Greek or Hebrew language. I’m not talking about having a private interpretation that has nothing to do with context, but rather, revelation that makes the scriptures come alive to our hearts.
I’ve received so many riches reading imperfect translations of the Bible, and I certainly would like to encourage people to read the Bible more, not less. While a great deal of scholarship goes into getting modern translations right, issues do exist and human tradition is still behind some of those issues! I think many Christians would be healthier if they were willing to dig deeper at times and were aware of the history of authoritarian bias, Gnosticism, and Greek philosophy affecting the church. I’m not saying to totally distrust your Bible translation, but when something is confusing or it seems like scripture is contradicting itself, looking into the original language and historical context can help a lot.