Letter: The Old Canard of Bible Translations

The Old Canard of Bible Translations

Dear Sir,

In his rather gruff insistence on having his letter published Mr Fleming took aim at many targets at once (11th Feb); such a scattergun approach makes it tricky to discern the main point therein. The evaluation of ‘style over substance’ is somewhat in the eye of the beholder; I find much substantial material within these pages fortnightly. Perhaps Mr Fleming could ask his three friends whether they know of any other publication that regularly brings to its readers’ attention the text of both the Heidelberg Catechism and the Thirty-nine Articles?

Regarding the old canard of Bible translations, I would think that since the rest of the newspaper is printed in modern English there might be an argument in favour of a modern translation, if only for consistency’s sake. The case Mr Fleming makes for his preferred version is that it is ‘tried and trusted’, which could mean simply that it has been around for a long time. If that is the sole commendation, the same argument could be made for the Papacy, though I surmise neither Mr Fleming nor I would wish to advocate that!

Surely in the choice of Bible version, every Christian (including our esteemed Editor) has liberty to exercise their judgment responsibly, considering which translation might be best for their spiritual discipline and growth. The Bible is silent about its translation into English, of course, and we should avoid filling that silence with a doctrine built around our own preferences. However, might there yet be factors to guide us away from a totemic use of one version over others? 

By the second century BC, the Old Testament had been translated from Hebrew into Greek. In the multi-lingual world of the Roman Empire this meant that Jesus and the apostles had a choice of translations available; indeed the New Testament contains evidence of both Hebrew and Greek texts being used. (For one example of the Greek OT being cited, compare the quotation in Mark 7:6,7 with Isaiah 29:13.) If the church from its very beginning could live with multiple Bible translations, surely we can do so today?

When addressing his contemporaries Jesus spoke Aramaic, which had overtaken Hebrew as the everyday language of Israel by that time. Thus Jesus used the common language of the day, rather than the less-familiar language from a few centuries earlier. Might the Word of God incarnate provide us with an example when we consider the Word of God written? 

The New Testament itself contains translation. The gospel writers recalled actual Aramaic phrases spoken by Jesus (Talitha cumi, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?, Ephphatha) and then translated them for the benefit of their Greek readers. They translated in the same manner as they wrote, using first-century Greek (Koiné), not the polished classical Greek of a few centuries earlier, that might have been considered more suitable as sacred language. 

Had we been reading the English Churchman during the reign of King James I, would we have seen correspondence lamenting the loss of the ‘tried and trusted’ Geneva Bible, or the Bishops’ Bible? Certainly the Authorised Version did not receive universal enthusiasm on first publication, and was compared unfavourably to earlier English versions.

Had the first English Bible been published in 2022, would there have been campaigns to have it rendered in the language of Shakespeare? The attitude of Scripture-starved Christians receiving the first Bibles in their native tongue would indicate otherwise. By comparison, it seems so indulgent of us to engage in these debates, which are alien to much of the Church yesterday and today.

I do not claim to have contributed style or substance, and fear I may have lost readers before the end of this letter. I simply ask, can we find common ground on this issue by holding to the tried and trusted maxim: In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity?


Michael Andrews