When Words Aren’t Quite That Simple

by Rich Dixon on February 9, 2011

What does that passage of scripture REALLY say?

Note: This is part of our Wednesday series about the Bible. Previous articles:

The Easy Bible     Bible Stories: Were Noah And Moses Really Brothers?

100 Significant Scriptures     Why Read The Bible?     The Bible Is About…

A couple of years ago I joined a writing team at church. We worked together to create some small-group study materials for a few series of sermons. As preparation, we studied and discussed a book: How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart.

It’s supposed to be a non-theologian’s guide to reading the Bible. I think I grasped about 10% of the concepts.

One idea that really stuck involved the importance of careful interpretation. Assuming that the goal is to understand what Scripture actually says and means, interpretation is a difficult and essential task involving several steps. I want to spend the next few Wednesdays talking about my limited knowledge of those steps.

Step 1: Translation

Despite our ethnocentric world view, Scripture wasn’t originally written in modern English or French or Dutch or whatever. The original writers spoke ancient Hebrew and Greek. So unless you’re planning to spend several years becoming fluent in those languages, you’ll have to read a translation.

If you’ve ever studied a second language, you know that translation isn’t as simple as word-for-word substitution. Grammatical constructions differ. Idioms and expressions have unique meanings.

I still recall a college Russian professor—a survivor of Stalin’s purges—becoming a bit miffed when we laughed at literal translations of expressions. For example, the expression It’s snowing (idet sneg) translates literally to The snow walks.

We also know that words assume changing connotations over time. A few decades ago, if you were cool you looked for a sweater.

Words aren’t just words

Now, magnify those issues across twenty centuries of social and cultural shifts to get some sense of the difficulty encountered by translators. Here are a few examples:

You. It such a simple word, but I’m told that ancient Hebrew had different words for the singular (you as an individual) and the plural (you as a group—all of you). Since we use the same word, we might lose the sense of whether a passage refers to you as a group or an individual.

Bless. When you sneeze I say, “God bless you.” We’ve transformed the notion of “bless” into a Hallmark moment. The Hebrew word (barak) related to the idea of kneeling. Their sense of blessing was the bringing of a good gift in humility—literally, on a bended knee.

Word. Two New Testament Greek words are translated as word.

Logos refers to the total inspired Word of God and to Jesus, Who is the living Logos. Some examples:

  • In the beginning was the Word [logos], and the Word [logos] was with God, and the Word [logos] was God. (John 1:1)
  • The seed is the word [logos] of God. (Luke 8:11)
  • Holding forth the word [logos] of life. (Philippians 2:16)

Rhema which refers to a word that is spoken and means “an utterance.” Some examples:

  • Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word [rhema] that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. (Matthew 4:4)
  • The words [rhema] that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life. (John 6:63)
  • So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word [rhema] of God. (Romans 10:17)

So…what?

I’m certainly not a Biblical scholar. I’m betting you aren’t, either. I’m not even sure I completely understand everything I just wrote. The pastors I know who’ve studied this stuff intensely confess that they’re often uncertain about the subtleties. So what does all of this have to do with us?

My takeaways:

  • I must be aware of the possibility of a deeper, less obvious meaning due to translation issues.
  • I need to look beyond my provincial, on-the-surface first impressions.
  • I can’t always rely on a single translation—even my “favorite.”
  • Understanding sometimes requires a little research, discussion, and study.

What would you add? What do we all need to keep in mind regarding translation issues in Scripture?

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You might also like:

The Easy Bible

Bible Stories: Were Noah And Moses Really Brothers?

100 Significant Scriptures

Why Read The Bible?

The Bible Is About…

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