What are some of the challenges in translating the Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible into English, and other modern languages around the world?
Although Adventists do not hold to verbal inspiration, this does not mean the words chosen by the Bible writers were not important. We might think that words always “mean what they mean,” but this is not the case. Individual words only have meaning in a given context. For instance, in sarcasm, the words usually indicate the exact opposite of what they mean (“I can’t wait to have a root canal!”). In symbolism, the word is a code for something else (Jesus’ use of “temple” for “body”). In idioms, slang meanings approximate the actual meaning (“hit the sack” for “go lie in bed”). Words are important, and sometimes they have multiple meanings. All this has a part to play when translating the Biblical text into modern language.
The Importance of Words: Luke 10:15, Acts 2:27
In Jesus’ woe on the unrepentant cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum he said they would be brought down to “hades.” For the Greeks, this word summoned images of the god of the underworld, Hades himself, and thus of the fiery afterlife of the wicked. However, when used in the New Testament, it often translates the Jewish idea of the grave, that is, where you bury a dead body, without the Greco-Roman baggage. It is the same word used throughout the Old Testament to translate the word “sheol,” which is likewise used of the grave. The Hebrew idea of “sleeping with one’s fathers” as did David, Solomon, and the rest of the kings, includes a rest in sheol. To interpret the New Testament meaning through the Greeks is to completely miss the Jewish backgrounds of the word. Acts 2:27 quotes the Psalms and shows how the word is equivalent to undergoing decay in the grave, not some everburning fire.
The lesson points out the meanings of hesed and shalom. These words are indeed rich, deep, and often experiential. Their range of meaning cannot come from just a single passage or story, but must be understood by reading widely throughout all the stories, laws, and poetry of the Bible.
Should a Bible pride itself on being a faithful “word-for-word” translation? Or is there a better method of translation?
Repetition: Poetry and Psalm 22
The lesson points out how repetition shows emphasis in the Hebrew mind. This is especially so in poetry through parallelism. Where Western-world poetry usually is noted for vocalic rhyme where last words in a line sound like the last words in the previous line, Hebrew poetry exemplifies idea-rhyming. Their use of synonyms—not just in words, but in ideas—communicates things in multiple ways increasing the ability to memorize, and see something from several different angles at one time.
Look at Psalm 22. We see the parallelism beginning in the very first verse. This Messianic psalm begins with David feeling forsaken (line 1), and far from deliverance (line 2). In verse 2, he cries by day (but no answer), by night (but he has no rest). The lines are not intended to be exact parallels, but are closely related. This style of language permeates not just individual lines, but larger sections of poetry. Sometimes the themes of an entire book are parallel.
Why do Biblical texts contain so much repetition? Couldn’t the Bible be a lot shorter and say the same thing?
Context: Beyond Literary Surroundings
The lesson this week makes much of the literary context of a word, and this is the primary place it receives meaning: first, the level of the phrase or sentence; second, the passage; third, the story or section; fourth, the book; fifth, the collection of books (i.e., “Minor Prophets,” “Prison Epistles”); sixth, Old or New Testament; and seventh, the entire Bible.
One vital are of context the lesson says little about is the historical/social context. While this cannot always be known or reconstructed, knowing just a little bit of background of “why,” “where,” “when,” and “who,” aids interpretation. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus’ admonition to “go the second mile” makes more sense when we know that Roman soldiers could commandeer a bystander to carry their gear for a mile.
What are some of the dangers with historical context? When can we take it too far?
Meaning of Books: Chronicles
Much of the world has the inestimable privilege of reading God’s word unhindered, and to applying it in their lives. The big picture, or largest level of meaning, emerges from reading the entire book, often more than once. We can see this easily in a small letter like Jude, or even a larger one like Joel. However, with something as large as Chronicles, it can be more difficult. When we compare Chronicles to Samuel/Kings, it’s clear there is a lot of overlap and re-telling the same stories. But what is emphasized and what is left out shows the author’s main point: Israel’s exile is the result of abandoning God, and worship at His sanctuary. The rebuilding of the temple in the time of Ezra-Nehemiah is because of God’s graciousness following Judah’s discipline in Babylon for 70 years.
What messages emerge when you read the Bible widely, whole letters at a time or in a sitting? Do you see a grand theme throughout the entire Bible?
Words, sentences, paragraphs, sections, books, testaments, whole Bible. Meaning is achieved by reading it all, and giving each it’s proper value. If I could recommend anything, it would be to spend time doing two types of study of the Bible: first, read large portions at a time to see the big picture. Second, study much smaller portions, maybe a couple verses or a section in-depth. Then notice how that smaller portion helps understand the whole.