Bible and Tradition–Translation and Interpretation

My journey in the Faith has encouraged me to ask a great many questions. A positive element of this is a constant desire to read and learn more about the Scriptures, Writings of the Father, and teachings of the Church. The issue with many of the documents is that they were not written in English. Anytime something is translated to another language, it is also interpreted: meanings can be changed through the lack of similar terms from one language to the other, or even a difference of idiom. 

Let’s discuss the Bible specifically. This post is focused more on the interpretation from ancient languages into English and not whether to interpret the Bible literally, allegorically, or typologically. That is the basis for another discussion.

My father took a person of Protestant background to our local Orthodox parish a few years back. The guest complained to him afterward that we had “changed” the end of the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ to read “unto ages of ages” instead of “forever”. I assume she agreed with the woman who proclaimed, “If the King James Bible was good enough for Saint Paul, it’s good enough for me.” Most Americans are educated enough to know that the manuscripts of the Bible were not penned in English. The commonly spoken language in biblical days, and the language used for most New Testament manuscripts, was Koine (common) Greek. Greek was the language of the learned in both eastern and western Christendom.

As Latin developed and became more popular in the West, the Bible was translated to that language by the western Church Father Jerome. One of the reasons we don’t hear about many bishops from the west being present at the Church councils was that few of them spoke Greek, the language used during these days in all matters theological. The west continued to use this translation, referred to as Vulgate, for hundreds of years and all throughout the empire. People needed to rely on the Church to read Scriptures for a few reasons: few laypersons were literate, manuscripts were not readily available–remember, most were handwritten, and Latin was a foreign language to most people in the western empire. The West continued to use Latin even after it was a ‘dead’ language.

The first translation of the Bible into English was by John Wycliffe in the 14th Century, mostly from the Vulgate, itself a translation. The Venerable Bede had begun a translation from Vulgate to Old English in the 7th C, but was not able to complete the project. The advent of the printing press by Gutenberg in the 15th Century was the key driver of circulation of the Bible to the masses. People wanted to read the Bible. Tyndale was a scholar who used Greek and Hebrew manuscripts to develop a scholarly translation into English in the early 16th Century. The western Church, united with State authorities, did not approve of this during that time: Tyndale was captured and burned at the stake as a heretic. It is no wonder that there was call for reformation.

Many American Protestants today are under the impression that the Traditional Church does not encourage people to read the Bible independently, but to take only the word of ‘mediators’ as to what the Bible says. Contemplating the story just mentioned, it is no wonder that they came to this conclusion. Orthodoxy strongly encourages everybody to study, read, and pray the Scriptures, and it always has. Quoting the very scholarly 4th Century Theologian, St. John Chrysostom of Antioch, “I have always suggested, and will not stop suggesting, that you not only heed what is said in church, but also constantly occupy yourself in reading the Divine Scriptures at home.” We no longer have to rely on learned men who understand Ancient Greek, Hebrew, or Latin to share texts with us. Thanks to modern printing, Bibles are readily available to anybody who wants one.

It is important that we understand Scripture within the context of the teaching of the Church, however. Also, we must realize that all translations are imperfect. There is an ancient saying that reads, “all translators are traitors.” It is not possible to have perfect translations. In fact, many may not realize that all paragraph headings and divisions, verses, chapters, commas, colons, apostrophes, quotations, and more are all the additions of editors. Some may often wonder why Liturgical readings in the Church services begin or end in the middle of a verse or chapter. The reason for this is that the verses and chapters are additions. Chapter divisions first occurred in 1205; and, verse divisions came in 1565. St. John Chrysostom read his text with all capital letters and no spaces between the words! We know sentence breaks through periods and commas can meaningfully change or affect the meaning of a sentence.  Let me provide an example given on a recent Ancient Faith Radio podcast:

a woman without her man is nothing

a woman: without her, man is nothing

There is also a matter of idiom: what an expression means in a particular language and time. I was lamenting just yesterday about the recent addition of a slang-like term into the Oxford dictionary: awesomesauce. Certainly, those in biblical times would have no clue how to understand such a term. Frankly, I don’t even know how to understand such a term! Dr. Jeannie Constantinou of Holy Cross Seminary recounts a similar problem with a particular expression in the Bible and its understanding in modern American English usage. Let’s look at John 2:4. This is a response to Mary from Jesus when she told him that their guests were out of wine–The Wedding at Cana.

The most literal expression from Greek would be as follows: “What to me and to you, woman?” This comes from a Hebrew expression (idiom) that really means, ” you don’t even have to even tell me, we are on the same page (or, we understand each other),” or “Woman, you and I are one, it goes without saying.” But this expression has been rendered as follows by popular Versions:

Woman, what have I to do with thee? (KJV)

Woman, what does your concern have to do with me? (NKJV)

O Woman, What have you to do with me? (RSV)

Woman, what concern is that to you and me? (NRSV)

Woman, why do you involve me? (ESV)

Dear woman, why do you involve me? (NIV)

How do you think the average American in our time understands this? Neither the words ‘concern’ or ‘involve’ were in the original Greek. The NIV inserts the word ‘dear’ before woman to try to soften ‘woman,’ which the editors felt appears harsh. We have no context of the Hebrew unless we involve a scholar who is rooted in the Church. If one addresses a lady with the term ‘woman’, it takes harsh tone. It was not understood that way in those days; the term embodied the highest level of respect for a female person.

So, we should read, study, and pray the Bible. But we should also work with learned men of the church to help us understand the full and true meaning of the text.

There are many versions of the English translation available today. There are also various versions that really should not be used by serious readers or for scholarship, in my humble opinion. A few of those include the English Standard Version (Good News Bible), the Living Bible (a complete paraphrase and product of one man’s opinion), or any Bible which is purposely inaccurate–The New World version for example. Other versions appear to make attempts to alter words with some agenda in mind. For example, the NIV, which is very readable, (exclusively a protestant committee) has chosen to change the Greek word tradition to teaching. Greek has specific words for each. The Greek word used in the original text is paradosis, while the word for teaching is didaktikos. The RSV, KJV, NKJV all use tradition, so why did the publishers of the NIV change the word? Also, instead of using the word bishopric (episkope in Greek) or overseer used by the aforementioned versions, NIV uses the word leadership. It does have a similar meaning, but again, it would appear that the publishers have changed the words in the text to give the meaning a more anti-catholic understanding. My point in mentioning this is for one to be informed when choosing a version, to cross-reference other versions for understanding, and to consult the original language. One should be careful not to build theological views on an English word alone.

The so-called King James Version, or Authorized Version, was the first translation to English that was authorized by the State. King James selected a committee of very learned scholars to underwrite this project, which was published in 1611. It is a very poetic version and considered by many to be a work of art. It has been popularly used throughout the English-speaking world for 400 years. There is a wonderful book that describes the project entitled, “God’s Secretaries.” Over time, language has developed somewhat and it can be hard to read or hear the language used from 1611. Some idiom has changed since then too. Take for example, “suffer the little children to come unto me.” We don’t understand the word suffer in the same way today. There is a New KJV (NKJV) which attempted to update some of this by removing Thee(s) and Thou(s) from the text. A publishing group in California, Conciliar Press, used this version when putting together a study Bible for Orthodox people.

I took a class in college a few years ago to learn more about the New Testament. The professor strongly endorsed the Revised Standard Version. This is NOT to be confused with the New RSV, which was written with the idea of “reducing gender bias.” Fr. Thomas Hopko of blessed memory, Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary, also preferred using this version. The project was written very ecumenically and supported by Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox leaders including Ecumenical Patriarch Athenogoras. It isn’t easily found, but one can purchase the  Oxford Annotated Version on Amazon, which contains the complete canon of Old and New Testaments. This translation was done by a committee of dedicated scholars who looked to update the language of the KJV. Additionally, there were many more manuscripts available in the 1950s for this project than were available in 1611 England. The resulting version is a very solid work. In fact, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North America sends out the daily lectionary readings using the RSV. There are many good versions available that have used solid scholarship. I prefer to use the RSV myself, but also regularly reference both the KJV and NKJV. There are also ascetic scholars who have projects for updated texts with the goal of creating a version to more accurately reproduce the Greek manuscripts. The New Testament is now available on the App Store and has wonderful notes for further reference to other possible renderings and the original Greek words. 

To summarize, the first step is to actually read the Bible. One can use any version available, but it would be advisable to keep some of the points mentioned in mind. Read various versions and study. Make reading the scriptures a central focus of your life for spiritual growth. 

“If an earthly king, our emperor, wrote you a letter, would you not read it with joy? Certainly, with great rejoicing and careful attention. You have been sent a letter, not by an earthly emperor, but by the King of Heaven. And yet you almost despise such a gift, so priceless a treasure…to open and read this letter, is to enter into a personal conversation face-to-face with the living God. Whenever you read the Gospel, Christ Himself is speaking to you. And while you read, you are praying and talking to Him.” ~St. Tikhon of Zadonsk (1724-83) , Patriarch of Moscow

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3 thoughts on “Bible and Tradition–Translation and Interpretation

  1. So, perhaps different translations through the centuries is partly the natural cause of confusion many believers have regarding Christianty. Comparative discussions in a secular institution will slant Christianity one way and even so in religiously affiliated institutions. I submit that regular practice of the faith helps an academic to the Faith become more solidly bound to the true interpretation, through practical understanding, relating to scripture in its many versions.

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