(First published at Anglican Fulcrum on 7th Oct 2014)

jrheadAfter 23 years service with the global Bible translation community I have become accustomed to encountering the question, “Which is the best/most accurate English translation of the Bible?”. I have developed a number of strategies to try and turn this enquiry into something more helpful. The very fact that the question is asked, and asked so often, is indicative of our resource-rich western world view. We are accustomed to picking and choosing from amongst a vast wealth of resources. I have to confess that whenever the question is posed I groan inwardly.

Lurking behind the enquiry is so often an attempt to solicit support for a favourite translation. Often this translation will be one associated with a particular expression of church. The correct answer is expected and I learnt a long time ago that the wrong answer resulted in judgements being made. Mention of a favourite translation of mine often invokes a snort of disgust and the comment “but that’s a paraphrase”. I have news – every translation is a paraphrase! We tend to judge translations more on the basis of whether they fulfil our expectations of the text rather than on how well they render the original texts in our language.

Translations can be formative for churches and nations. The degree to which the Authorised Version has captured the English speaking soul is clear evidence for this[1]. I do not want to suggest that our many English translations are not a wonderful resource to have but I do think a translation can limit our sense of who God is. RS Thomas understood this: “History showed us / He was too big to be nailed to the wall / Of a stone chapel, yet still we crammed him / Between the boards of a black book” [Thomas 2000, 117][2].

Nowadays the boards may not be black but the problem remains.

To translate is, to a degree, to assimilate and inculturate; it has to be so, but both reader and translator must always be aware of the degree of strangeness which inhabits the original texts. Modern translations tend to smooth over strangeness in search of accessibility, placing the narratives as neatly as possible into our world. And they are right to do this. But we must not lose sight of the distance between us and the original texts. The gospels are not only linguistically distant, they are culturally distant as well.

We inhabit a world of democratically elected governments, personal choice and individual autonomy. The world of the gospels was one of itinerant Rabbis and their wandering schools of disciples, client kings and imperial governors, where choice and autonomy were only for the rich and powerful. Shot through this weave of poets, prophets, priests and kings is the growing recognition of a loving God. That revelation remains as strange to our world as it was to the ancient world.

Human beings are innately conservative. Most of us like to know our place in the world around us. We know what we like and we like what we know. Social customs root us in our heritage and shape our lives. Churches are no different. We read our scripture through 2,000 years of theology. In the West we read the gospel narratives through the spectacles of the great teachers of the Western church. Augustine, Aquinas, Luther and so many others shape our expectations and guide our understanding. We read our Bibles in the confident expectation that they will conform to our theology. And by and large they do, not least because part of a translator’s task is to have a deep understanding of the culture for which a translation is made and to make the translation as accessible to that culture as possible.

This sense of familiarity with the narrative, style and vocabulary of our favourite translations can obscure their strangeness. Christians (at least in the West) expect to encounter God in Scripture in their own language and sharing the same preoccupations. It is good that we have such wonderful resources and so many translations from which to choose but there is much to be learnt from the original texts. We need a little strangeness.

An excellent way of introducing strangeness is to read Scripture in the original languages. Even if opportunity is limited, learning a little about the original texts and the world which produced them helps us avoid the temptation of subsuming the gospel within our own little world. One example will suffice: much has been written in recent years about the pistis tou Christou debate[3]. Proponents suggest that many texts traditionally translated “faith in Jesus” might be equally reasonably rendered “faith/faithfulness of Jesus”. How the traditional rendering came to be the norm is an interesting question in itself. Given that the significant antecedents of our modern English translations emerged during the Reformation era we might wonder if Reformation theologies drove translation.

Whichever side of the debate we favour there is no denying that the outcome of the discussion has been a wealth of new insights into Paul’s letters, Romans and Galatians in particular[4]. Modern translations still tend to follow the traditional rendering but are increasingly beginning to footnote their texts with the alternative (so Romans 3.22 in NRSV footnote k). And there we have an important point. These are alternative readings. Scripture is, in fact, full of opportunities for alternative readings. But we do like to know where we stand! Preserving such ambiguities in the text is not popular yet so often it is exactly such moments which broaden our understanding and give us a glimpse of a God who is bigger than our own ideas.

All of which brings me back to the text. Engaging with Scripture in its original languages can transform our understanding of the gospel if only we can find the time. Although New Testament Greek appears on the curriculum of most full time Theology, Mission & Ministry (TMM) courses it has disappeared from the part-time training syllabus almost entirely. Hebrew has for many years been an optional extra taken only by those with an interest in ancient languages. There are good reasons for this, particularly for part-time students. The breadth of material that candidates have to cover is vast and it is hard to see what can be omitted in order to allow more time to be given to exploring the world and languages which shaped the original witness of Scripture.

We are trying to address this here in Sherborne. Fitting language study into TMM courses is hard to do but short intensive courses offer a way to deliver language tuition which is both affordable and effective. During 2015 we will be offering intensive study weeks in both New Testament Greek and Biblical Hebrew in association with STETS and Sarum College. Courses are focussed towards reading Scripture rather than formal language study. A residential Learn to Read Biblical Hebrew is planned for Tuesday 7th April until Sunday 12th April inclusive alongside the STETS Easter School in Wiltshire.  (Sadly, the Easter School plan has fallen victim to insurance issues but arrangements have been made to offer both Greek and Hebrew courses at Hilfield FriaryLearn to Read NT Greek (designed to take the student from zero to being ready to begin reading St Mark) is planned for Sarum College in Salisbury from 27th July – 1st August. We are always glad to respond to requests to run courses elsewhere for local groups, whether intensive courses for beginners or guided readings of gospels or letters. You can contact us at www.learnbiblang.org.uk.

When a translation team completes a Bible or New Testament in a language which has until then had no Scripture a common response from the people for whom the translation is prepared is “now we know that God understands us”. Equally, the translation process can show the translators things about God which were less apparent in the languages and translations which shaped their study. Learning to read just the New Testament  in Greek is well worth the effort. It reminds us of how strange and radical the gospel really is and by challenging our expectations of the text it can show us new things about God.

Perhaps it is time to return to the Bible in the Raw.


[1]     Crystal, D, The influence of the Bible on the English language, Newman Lecture, London, 2011

[2]     Thomas, R S, Collected Poems: 1945-1990, Orbis, London, 2000.

[3]     Bird, M F & Sprinkle, P M (eds), The Faith of Jesus Christ, Paternoster, 2009.

[4]     Hays, R B, The Faith of Jesus Christ, Eerdmans, 2002

Follow Us: