04 Feb

There is no advantage whatsoever to reading the Bible in translation OVER reading the Bible in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.  Translations are interpretations and commentary both at the same time.  Reading 10 or 15 or 20 translations is reading 10 or 15 or 20 interpretations, none of which may really catch the tone, sense, and spirit of the author.

Reading any author in translation is the intellectual equivalent of kissing your spouse through a sheet.  You may get something out of it, but you aren’t, and never, ever will get everything you can out of it.  Kissing your spouse through 20 sheets is even less satisfying.

NEIN!  It is wrong headed and inaccurate in the extreme to suggest that translations can ever be held superior to or even equal to the original texts.  NEIN!

Allow me to cite Luther’s Open Letter on Translating for the benefit of our blogger:

There is a saying, “He who builds along the road has many masters.” That is the way it is with me too. Those who have never even been able to speak properly, to say nothing of translating, have all at once become my masters and I must be the pupil of them all. If I were to have asked them how to put into German the first two words of Matthew’s Gospel, Liber Generationis, none of them would have been able to say Quack! And now they sit in judgment on my whole work! Fine fellows! That is the way it was with St. Jerome too when he translated the Bible. Everybody was his master. He was the only one who was totally incompetent. And people who were not worthy to clean his shoes criticized the good man’s work. It takes a great deal of patience to do a good thing publicly, for the world always wants to be Master Know-it-all. It must always be putting the bit under the horse’s tail, criticizing everything but doing nothing itself. That is its nature; it cannot get away from it.

It’s usually the people who can’t translate a line who find the most reason to denounce the originals.

Again, Luther notes

I will go further with my boasting. I can expound psalms and prophets; they cannot. I can translate; they cannot. I can read the Holy Scriptures; they cannot. I can pray; they cannot. And, to come down to their level, I can use their own dialectics and philosophy better than all of them put together; and besides I know for sure that none of them understands their Aristotle. If there is a single one among them all who correctly understands one proemium [preface] or chapter in Aristotle, I’ll eat my hat. I am not saying too much, for I have been trained and practiced from my youth up in all their science and am well aware how deep and broad it is. They are very well aware, too, that I can do everything they can. Yet these incurable fellows treat me as though I were a stranger to their field, who had just arrived this morning for the first time and had never before either seen or heard what they teach and know. So brilliantly do they parade about with their science, teaching me what I outgrew twenty years ago, that to all their blatting and shouting I have to sing, with the harlot, “I have known for seven years that horseshoe-nails are iron.”

Only those who read the biblical text in the original and can make sense of it are worth hearing as expositors of it.  Those who rely on translations alone, no matter how many, are simply parrots repeating they know not what.


Posted by on 4 Feb 2016 in Modern Culture


6 responses to “NEIN!

  1. mlward

    5 Feb 2016 at 12:38 pm


    In true blogging style, I won’t back down. I claimed a 23% improvement in understanding, and I’m sticking to it. =) But I don’t think we’re as far apart as your post title would seem to indicate.

    Because I’m happy to confess that you’re right about a great deal, and as one commenter on my post put it, echoing Warfield, “What! than ten translations, along with the Greek?” I’d never, ever want to “denounce the originals.” Perish, perish that thought! And I have been quacked at by the heirs of the people who quacked at Luther and Jerome—I know from many years of personal experience with Greek and Hebrew the kinds of things that can only be known by knowing the original languages, and I am deeply impatient—yea, righteously angry—with the anti-intellectual insistence that such knowledge is superfluous. I even (mostly) agree that “only those who read the biblical text in the original and can make sense of it are worth hearing as expositors of it.” In my experience, preachers who don’t know Greek or Hebrew suffer great lack, and I find it hard to listen to them without continual wincing. (I only mostly agree because I don’t want to throw under the bus all of the Bible teachers around the world who have genuinely had no opportunity to study Greek or Hebrew; but I’ll happily throw under the bus those who did have the opportunity and didn’t take it up!) I’m all for direct exegesis in the originals.

    But I wasn’t speaking to expositors; I was speaking to lay students of the Bible. And I made my argument precisely because “translations are interpretations and commentary both at the same time.”

    One paragraph that my good editor suggested I cut from the piece might help you see what I mean:

    Let’s acknowledge that it is possible for one person to have a better grasp of Ephesians than someone else. The 21-year-old me knew it a lot better than the 17-year-old me, because in between those two birthdays I listened to a riveting, extended sermon series on the book by a world-class expository preacher. Christian—and physical, and intellectual—maturity surely also played a role for me and the many other college students who sat in the pews for that series. But being led through the book by a skilled teacher is supposed to increase your knowledge, right? Ephesians 4 says so.

    In my experience, the greatest leap forward I ever took in my understanding of Ephesians came from a man gifted to teach it to me in English—in reliance upon Greek. To this day, after doctoral level training in Greek and a dissertation which focused a great deal on Greek linguistics, I find it best to read in English and refine in Greek. On the macro level, it’s English Bible translations (and even good paragraphing) which have best helped me understand Paul. On the micro level, it’s Greek.

    The layperson without Greek training must not be told that he can only hear God’s word through a sheet; he can hear it, and hear it clearly, through the work of translation. He can be rooted firmly in good doctrine, Ephesians tells us, through the work of teachers Christ gave to his church. And some of those teachers, those gifts, are the translators who have given us our embarrassment of riches in Bible translation.

    Because of the anti-intellectual quackers out there, I’m sensitive to defend the value of Greek and Hebrew exegesis. But because of the priests out there, I’m sensitive to defend the value of lay Bible reading.

    And I think my confidence in translation is a trust Jesus and the New Testament writers shared—because you can see their continual reliance on the Septuagint in the pages of the NT.

    You say, “Those who rely on translations alone, no matter how many, are simply parrots repeating they know not what.” Really? Luther’s hilarious and accurate boasting is appropriate to direct at fellow clerics, but do we really want to tell laypeople that they can only ever be parrots?

    I won’t back down; I can do no other.


    • Jim

      5 Feb 2016 at 12:43 pm

      i’m sure we agree on more than we disagree, but i do think that simply repeating texts, we know not why, is parroting. i don’t know what else to call it. but look at the bright side- your post will be in the upcoming carnival of evil posts! 😉


      • mlward

        5 Feb 2016 at 12:53 pm

        Luther made it into the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, but he was still right. =)


  2. Matthew Hamilton

    6 Feb 2016 at 8:12 am

    Jim, I worked in the library of a major theological college for some 12 years, a college where there was an expectation that all the graduating students must know Greek and some would also know Hebrew.
    A question I always had was this: is it better to have:
    1. a graduating pastor who struggled with their Greek (i.e.: barely passed) so after graduating relied on the English text and the exegesis of others who are well respected in evangelical circles to base their sermons on, and who is first rate in other areas of ministry, or
    2. a graduating pastor who knows well both Greek and Hebrew so can undertake their own exegesis from the original languages, and who is second or third rate in other areas of ministry?

    Ideally pastors would first rate in everything, but since few are, who would you prefer a congregation to be lead by?


    • Jim

      6 Feb 2016 at 8:15 am

      false dichotomy. a learned pastor isn’t necessarily a useless pastor and a helpful pastor isn’t necessarily a learned pastor. a pastor should be both. it’s both and, not either or.


    • Jim

      6 Feb 2016 at 8:16 am

      or- how would you like to go to a surgeon who had no bedside manner but could cut with his eyes closed; or one who could charm you to tears but who couldn’t cut open a paper bag.