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Can We Trust English Translations of the Bible?

"I recently acquired a Hebrew copy of Genesis from a Jewish book store. It is written in Hebrew, then English. As I was reading I noticed there were stark differences between this translation and Christian translations of the Bible. In Genesis 4.26 the Revised Standard Version reads: 'At that time men began to call upon the name of the Lord.' In the Jewish translation the same verse reads: 'This is when men began to assign the name of the Eternal to idols.' What are churches to do if they don't read Hebrew?"

The old adage "Something's lost in the translation" is no more true than when we read the Bible. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek. Some words simply do not translate into English very well, and some not at all. For instance, the Hebrew word chesed is most often translated "Loving kindness" or "Grace". But the exact meaning of the word is far richer than we can express in English. Indeed, there are no good English synonyms that can capture its full meaning.

Further, when you read a translation of scripture, you are not just reading a direct translation of the words, but an interpretation of what the text says. Most of the time this makes little difference. But when translating words like chesed, the translator gets to pick what they think is the most accurate English word choice. And when it comes to selecting the choices, the translator draws not only upon their knowledge of the languages, but also on tradition.

For instance, in the Christian Bible, there is a tendency to "clean-up" some of the rather vulgar Hebrew. In Judges 3.22 we read of the assassination of Eglon, King of Moab while he was in the bathroom. The English translation of the murder reads, "[Ehud] did not draw the sword out of his belly; and the dirt came out." However, the actual Hebrew word used to describe the "dirt" that came out is considered to be, shall we say, indelicate.

But what about Genesis 4.26, the passage our reader is concerned about? This is another case where tradition has taken liberties with the text. Our reader doesn't say which Hebrew interlinear translation he is using, but I suspect it comes from the Jewish Publication Society (JPS). JPS is a scholarly publishing house that reflects the Midrashic traditions of the Israelite faith. Because of this, in many instances the Jewish translations from Hebrew are less a translation and more a paraphrase (similar to the differences between The Living Bible which is a paraphrase, and The Revised Standard Version which is a translation). In the case of Genesis 4.26 the translators took serious liberties with the text. The Jewish translation reads, "This is when men began to assign the name of the Eternal to idols." In the Hebrew, neither "idol" nor "assign" exist in the original.

The problem in this passage is with the word chalal. The form of this word is commonly used in two ways. The first and most common way to translate it is "to begin." But there is a second, more obscure, way to translate the word which is "be profaned." Apparently the Israelite translators used the obscure translation to indicate the belief that humanity began idol worship, a profane act, at that time. A notion most scholars say the text does not support. Thus, the scholars produced a translation that reflects tradition over accuracy of the text.

So, how can we be sure we're reading a good translation of the Bible? Unless you read Hebrew and Greek, you really can't. Even an interlinear translation, like our reader used, is no guarantee that the translation is accurate. The second best way to read the scriptures, if you're concerned about accuracy of translation, is to read the same passage from several versions. I would suggest reading a passage in Revised Standard, Amplified, and Today's English Version as minimums for good understanding. But still, the very best way to read the Bible, is to learn Hebrew and Greek and read it in the original because there really is something lost in the translation.

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