The Need to Interpret and A Good Translation

Chapter 1 -The Need to Interpret and A Good Translation.

The Basics of Interpretation. Video content

The Bible is at the same time both human and divine. There is this dual nature when it comes to the task of interpretation and understanding the words in the Scripture. Firstly, the Bible is God’s word, and it has ETERNAL RELEVANCE in that it speaks to all humanity in every age and in every culture. It is also through human words in a historical context that every book has its HISTORICAL PECULIARITY. There is a tension that exists between the eternal and the historical.

Because the Bible has a human side it requires some observations to interpret correctly.

1.          God’s word was first and foremost written to a group of people in a historical setting even though it was also written to us. It was also written over a 1500-year period. That included literary forms of the time such as narrative history, genealogies, chronicles, laws of all kinds, poetry of all kinds, Proverbs, prophetic oracles, riddles, drama, biographical sketches, parables, letters, sermons, and apocalypses. Each of these requires some specific rules to interpret and some general rules that apply to all words of the Bible.

2.          Since God's word was expressed in the vocabulary and thought patterns of those people in different cultures and circumstances it will reflect those cultures and circumstances. “God’s word to us was first of all his word to them. If they were going to hear it could only have come through events and in language, they could have understood.” (Fee and Stuart, pg. 23) Our problem is how do we interpret the word of God considering those circumstances.

The first task of interpreting the Bible is called EXEGESIS.

This is the careful systematic study of the Scriptures to discover the original intended meaning. It’s basically a Historical task. the purpose of EXEGESIS is to find the original intent of the words of the Bible taking into consideration the original recipients who would have heard it.

There are two basic kinds of questions to ask of every passage: those that relate to context and those that relate to content. Context is broken up into two categories as well. Historical context and literary context.

When we read the Bible, we should understand the historical reason for writing the book. We should also try to understand the historical context of when the Messiah was going to come because it’s important to understand the nature of the conversations with John the Baptist and when Jesus comes opinion on upon the scene. It’s also important to understand the differences between cities like Philippi and Corinth.

When we talk of literary context were basically asking the question, “what’s the point?”. We want to understand the author's train of thought. The goal here is to find out what the original author intended. It’s important to know the difference between poetry and paragraphs.

The problem we often have is that we try to read our own, completely foreign, ideas into a text and make God’s word something other than it was intended for the original audience. This is where a good study Bible comes in handy. A study Bible will help you with some of the cultural, literary, and historical contexts.

The second task of interpreting the Bible is called HERMENEUTICS.

HERMENEUTICS is the study of asking questions about the Bible’s meaning in the “here and now”. Far too often people begin with HERMENEUTICS without taking into consideration EXEGESIS. The problem is that we will read into the text our current culture, literature, and history without taking into account what the text might have meant to the original audience. The reason you don’t begin with the “here and now” is that the only proper control for wherever HERMENEUTICS is to be found in the original intent of the biblical text. The original context will help determine what the here and now will mean. In other words, we can’t interpret a passage to mean something today that it was never intended to mean to its original audience.

The Historical Dimension Of Interpretation:

When reading the Bible, it is important to recognize that it has been read and interpreted by many Christians throughout the centuries from many times, places, and cultures. However, among this diversity of interpretation is a universal witness to the Christian faith (sometimes call the 'rule of faith'), that is summarized in such historical statements as the Apostle's Creed: These summaries of Christian beliefs are both derived from the Bible and help us to interpret the Bible in a way that is consistent with the faith of Christians in all times and places. This is important because it helps us to see what truths are most central to the Christian faith. When differences in our interpretations of the Bible arise (as they have and will!), if we know what to prioritize as Christians, it will help is not to "major in the minors" by exaggerating the importance of some of the disagreements we may have about points of interpretation not of central importance to our faith.  

A Good Translation

It’s important to know that we are always involved in the interpretation of the biblical text. Whenever you read it in English, the translation was done by making choices regarding the right words in English from words in the original language. These choices sometimes create some confusion. English translations are on a spectrum of historical distance. Some translations are closer to the original historical distance and others will update it or modernize the translation for a current historical time.

One group of translations is called literal translation. There is also a group called dynamic translation and a third group called free translation.

1. Word-for-word (literal translation). The first group as it sounds tries to make a word-for-word interpretation of the original language but also the language used remains in its historical context. For example, the King James version was written in 1612 and its language is similar to Shakespeare's. Because it remains in the historical context of the 17th century there are many words that we don’t use currently today. One of the problems with literal translation is that it often makes the English unclear.

2.          Thought for thought (dynamic translation). A dynamic interpretation takes an approach where the translators look at a sentence and try to find English words and idioms that will communicate the overall meaning of the sentence as close to the original language as possible.

3.          Paraphrase (free translation). The third group of free translation is trying to translate ideas from one language to another, with less concern about using the exact words of the original. This is sometimes called a paraphrase.

When reading the Bible, if you’re aware of the kind of translation you’re reading, there really is no better version than any another. This is because each translation is using the same original text in Hebrew and Greek. Every English translation is translated based on the most up-to-date original languages we have available to us.

However, when doing Bible study, a word-for-word translation is going to provide you with more precise language in English from the original. Often, a student of the Bible will have 2 versions close by, one a “word-for-word translation” and the other a “thought-for-thought translation”. Many people use paraphrased versions for devotional learning.

Small-group Material

Have your group look up 1 Corinthians 7:36 in at least four different translations. Try to use one of the following translations: NIV, NASB, KJV, MESS, NLT

Ask your group the following questions.

1.      Which one is the correct translation?

2.      How do you know which one is the correct translation?

3.      Are there notes in the margin of your Bible for this passage?

4.      What would be the advantage be for having more than one translation available to you?

Look at the graphic that’s been included in this session and have each person identify their translation on the graph. Have each person discuss why they like or don’t like this translation.

One of the problems of translation is the area of “historical distance”. Historical distance is the change of language, customs, euphemisms, vocabulary and word plays that change over time. Take some time to look up the following in different translations.

1.      Weights, measures, money. Read Isaiah 5:10 from the NLT and the KJV.

2.      Euphemisms: in English we have euphemisms for things like sex and using the toilet. In the Bible, a translator has one of three choices in such matters:

a.      Translate literally and leave the English-speaking reader bewildered or guessing,

b.      translate the formal equivalent but perhaps offend or shock the reader, or

c.       translate with a functionally equivalent euphemism (this is the best option).

Look up the following two verses in the NLT and the KJV: Genesis 18:11; 2 Samuel 13:14

3.      Vocabulary: finding precisely the right word is what makes translation so difficult. Most Hebrew and Greek words have a range of meaning different from anything in English. A functional equivalent translation may leave us with words that are easier to understand than a literal translation.

a.      Look up Romans 1:3 in the NLT, NIV and KJV. All of these translations are trying to find English words for Greek word “flesh”.

b.      What potential misinterpretations could happen from reading this in one translation versus another?

4.      Matters of gender: most current translations have moved towards removing the masculine language where women are included or are in view. There are some easy translations into plural or addressing everyone instead of “brothers” or “men/man” by changing things to “them/they/brothers and sisters”. Take the following from Psalm 1:1-3 and translate this into a plural version together as a group.

1 Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. 2 But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night. 3 And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.

What were the challenges in making this translation readable?

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