From time to time, I get asked to recommend a Bible translation. Often, it’s ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses who ask me because they have come to see how flawed the New World Translation is. To be fair, while the Witness Bible has its flaws, it also has its virtues. For example, it has restored the name of God in many places where most translations have removed it. Mind you, it’s gone too far and inserted the name of God in places where it doesn’t belong and therefore has obscured the true meaning behind some key verses in the Christian Scriptures. So it has its good points and its bad points, but I can say that about every translation I’ve investigated so far. Of course, we all have our favorite translations for one reason or another. That’s fine, as long as we recognize that no translation is 100% accurate. What matters to us is finding the truth. Jesus said, “I was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. All who love the truth recognize that what I say is true.” (John 18:37)
There is one work in progress I recommend you check out. It’s found at 2001translation.org. This work advertises itself as “a free Bible translation continually corrected and refined by volunteers.” I personally know the editor and can say with confidence that the goal of these translators is to provide an unbiased rendering of the original manuscripts using the best tools available. Nevertheless, doing so is a challenge for anyone even with the very best of intentions. I want to demonstrate why that is by using a couple of verses that I came upon recently in the book of Romans.
The first verse is Romans 9:4. As we read it, please pay attention to the verb tense:
“They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.” (Romans 9:4 English Standard Version)
The ESV is not unique in casting this in the present tense. A quick scan of many translations available on BibleHub.com will show that the majority support a present tense translation of this verse.
Just to give you a quick sampling, the new American Standard version says, “… Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons…”. The NET Bible gives, “To them belong the adoption as sons…”. The Berean Literal Bible renders it: “…who are Israelites, whose is the divine adoption as sons…” (Romans 9:4)
Reading this verse by itself would lead you to conclude that at the time the letter to the Romans was written, the covenant God made with the Israelites for their adoption as his children was still in place, still valid.
Yet, when we read this verse in the Peshitta Holy Bible Translated from Aramaic, we see that the past tense is used.
“Who are the children of Israel, whose was the adoption of children, the glory, The Covenant, The Written Law, the ministry which is in it, The Promises…” (Romans 9:4)
Why the confusion? If we go to the Interlinear we see that there is no verb present in the text. It is assumed. Most translators assume the verb should be in the present tense, but not all. How does one decide? Since the writer is not present to answer that question, the translator must use his understanding of the rest of the Bible. What if the translator believes that the nation of Israel – not spiritual Israel, but the literal nation of Israel as it exists today – will again return to a special status before God. While Jesus made a new covenant which allowed Gentiles to become part of spiritual Israel, there are a number of Christians today who believe that the literal nation of Israel will be restored to its special pre-Christian status as God’s chosen people. I believe this doctrinal theology is based on eisegetical interpretation and I don’t agree with it; but that’s a discussion for another time. The point here is that the translator’s beliefs are bound to affect how he or she renders any particular passage, and because of that inherent bias, it is impossible to recommend any particular Bible to the exclusion of all others. There is no version that I can guarantee is completely free of bias. This is not to impute bad motives to the translators. Bias affecting the translation of meaning is just a natural consequence of our limited knowledge.
The 2001 Translation also renders this verse in the present tense: “For they’re the ones the adoption as sons, the glory, the Sacred Agreement, the Law, the worship, and the promises belong to.”
Perhaps they’ll change that in the future, perhaps they won’t. Maybe I’m missing something here. However, the virtue of the 2001 translation is its flexibility and the willingness of its translators to alter any rendering in keeping with the overall message of Scripture rather than any personal interpretation they may have.
But we can’t wait on translators to fix their translations. As serious Bible students, it is up to us to seek out the truth. So, how do we protect ourselves against being influenced by the bias of the translator?
To answer that question, we’ll go to the very next verse in Romans chapter 9. From the 2001 translation, verse five reads:
“They’re the ones [who descended] from the forefathers, and the ones the Anointed One [came] through, in the flesh…
Yes, praise God who’s over it all throughout the ages!
May it be so!”
The verse ends with a doxology. If you don’t know what a doxology is, don’t worry, I had to look it up myself. It’s defined as “an expression of praise to God”.
For example, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem seated on a colt, the crowds cried:
“BLESSED IS the King, THE ONE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD; Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Luke 19:38)
That’s an example of a doxology.
The New American Standard Version renders Romans 9:5,
“whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.”
You will notice the judicious placement of the comma. “…who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.” It’s the doxology.
But in ancient Greek there were no commas, so it’s up to the translator to determine where a comma should go. What if the translator is heavily into belief in the Trinity and is desperately looking for a place in the Bible to support the doctrine that Jesus is God Almighty. Take these three renderings as just one example of how most Bibles render verse five of Romans nine.
Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen. (Romans 9:5 New International Version)
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are their ancestors, and Christ himself was an Israelite as far as his human nature is concerned. And he is God, the one who rules over everything and is worthy of eternal praise! Amen. (Romans 9:5 New Living Translation)
To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. (Romans 9:5 English Standard Version)
That seems pretty clear, but when we look into the word-for-word rendering from the interlinear that clarity goes away.
“whose are the patriarchs and from whom is Christ according to the flesh being over all God blessed to the ages amen”
You see? Where do you put the periods and where do you put the commas?
Let’s look at it exegetically, shall we? To whom was Paul writing? The book of Romans is directed principally to the Jewish Christians in Rome, which is why it deals so heavily with the Mosaic law, making comparisons between the old law code and that which replaces it, the New Covenant, grace through Jesus Christ, and the outpouring of the holy spirit.
Now consider this: Jews were aggressively monotheistic, so if Paul were suddenly introducing a new teaching that Jesus Christ is God Almighty, he would have had to explain it thoroughly and support it completely from Scripture. It wouldn’t be part of a throwaway phrase at the end of a sentence. The immediate context speaks of the wonderful provisions God made for the Jewish nation, so ending it with a doxology would be fitting and readily understood by his Jewish readers. Another way we can determine whether or not this is a doxology is to examine the rest of Paul’s writings for a similar pattern.
How often does Paul use a doxology in his writings? We don’t even need to leave the book of Romans to answer that question.
“For they exchanged the truth of God for falsehood, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.” (Romans 1:25 NASB)
Then there’s Paul’s letter to the Corinthians where he is clearly referring to the Father as the God of Jesus Christ:
“The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, He who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying.” (2 Corinthians 11:31 NASB)
And to the Ephesians, he wrote:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ.”
“…one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.”
(Ephesians 1:3; 4:6 NASB)
So here we have examined two verses only, Romans 9:4, 5. And we have seen in those two verses the challenge that any translator faces in properly rendering the original meaning of a verse into whatever language he’s working with. It’s a huge task. Therefore, whenever I’m asked to recommend a Bible translation, I recommend instead a site like Biblehub.com which provides a wide range of translations to choose from.
Sorry, but there is no easy path to truth. That’s why Jesus uses the illustrations like a man searching for treasure or seeking for that one precious pearl. You will get truth if you seek it, but you have to really want it. If you’re looking for someone to just hand it to you on a platter, you are going to get handed a lot of junk food. Every so often someone will speak with the right spirit, but the majority in my experience are not guided by the spirit of Christ, but the spirit of man. That is why we are told to:
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (John 4:1 NASB)
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