Wednesday, October 3, 2007

From good news to bad news

I have been dancing around the subject of correct bible translation. The problem with this issue is that people can be saved out of a very poor translation. How is this so? The truth is not inside the book, at least not completely. How on earth with incorrect translations are these people saved?

Before we go any further, I am not a KJV only guy. I am a person who cannot read or speak a single word of Hebrew or Greek, but I remain a Hebrew and Greek only person. Do you want the inspired words of God, read the copies of the original Hebrew for the old testament and the copies of the original Greek manuscripts for the new testament. Anything else is subject to err. Even the Septuagint, which is a translation.

So what are we supposed to do? The problem is that there is no scriptural example for translations. Oh yes there is. It is so amazing how the word of God can come alive if we are prepared to look for what it says. There is a story of the Ethiopian eunuch, in Acts Chapter 8

27 And he [Philip] arose and went: and, behold, a man of Ethiopia, an eunuch of great authority under Candace queen of the Ethiopians, who had the charge of all her treasure, and had come to Jerusalem for to worship, 28 Was returning, and sitting in his chariot read Esaias the prophet. 29 Then the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot. 30 And Philip ran thither to him, and heard him read the prophet Esaias, and said, Understandest thou what thou readest? 31 And he said, How can I, except some man should guide me? And he desired Philip that he would come up and sit with him. 32 The place of the scripture which he read was this, He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth: 33 In his humiliation his judgment was taken away: and who shall declare his generation? for his life is taken from the earth. 34 And the eunuch answered Philip, and said, I pray thee, of whom speaketh the prophet this? of himself, or of some other man? 35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus. 36 And as they went on their way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?
-Acts 8:27 - 36

There are many important things to notice in this section, probably enough to get a PhD in theology. But what on earth does this story have to do with bible translation? Well, we know that the man was reading "Esaiah." This is the profit Isaiah, we know this by the closeness of the spelling. The reason that they are not spelled the same is that this man is reading a translation. Why else would God entail that the verses be read. The verses he reads are very important as well, especially when it comes to translation.

The first verse is "He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth:" it is through this verse we find the context of what the man is reading. In the Hebrew (obviously translated to English) it reads, out of Isaiah 53

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.
-Isaiah 53:7

Now this tells us that the translation is good. We do not trust the quotation of Scripture, even when quoted in Scripture, as Scripture. What I mean is we believe this section of Acts because it points us to Isaiah, which is Scripture. What the eunuch was reading means little to us, since we can find it in Isaiah ourselves. So we have to ask, why is it there?

Well the next verse answers that question. The eunuch read "In his humiliation his judgment was taken away: and who shall declare his generation? for his life is taken from the earth." but what does the next verse in Isaiah say?

He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken.
-Isaiah 53:8

These passages, although similar, are not the same. The key part is this: "His judgment was taken away." The problem here is that it was not in His humiliation, because He bore the judgment for us in His humiliation. He became sin that had no sin. The translation issue is that it is not consistent.

Is this 'Scripture' right (or correct)? No, the bible is telling us what the eunuch was reading, in one part to show where he was reading from and in the second part to show us it was not entirely correct. This is an indication that translations were not perfect then either.

Finally, it may be seen that regardless of the poor translation of the text, the man was saved. This goes to prove that regardless of the bible, God may use it to His benefit. This does not excuse bad translations, but rather encourages us that as long as there is even a remote interest, God may work through people.

Another point to be made is that the eunuch's heart was prepared for God. Philip did not save this man, God did. God used Philip. When Philip asks "Do you understand what you are reading?" the eunuch does not say "I have need of no man, that to understand is such a thing as I can grasp it with no other man, to the point at which I believe Isaiah to be incorrect." The eunuch responds in humility: "How can I?" Even though the text was incorrect God used it to confound and humble the eunuch, to the point where his heart was prepared for the gospel of Christ.

This brings me to an important point. Can we now rest on the stick of God's sovereignty? Do we say, "A bad translation is better than no translation" and leave people to be utterly confounded? I dare say that some people would, and have, said such things to me. I was accused of taking translations too far when I started giving out ESV's to people who already have bibles, but non-literal translations. "God will work no matter what" is what I get from them.

The irony is that the people who say this to me are those who deny God's sovereignty in salvation. They claim that "we must save ourselves by making a choice that may or may not last eternally" but in the same breath will argue that the bible translation does not matter or that churches need not discipline because "God will work on their hearts." It was for this reason I was such an apostate believer. I cannot grasp this. If man is responsible for his salvation in any part, then it is upon the man during his walk with God to be responsible for getting everything exactly right. This inconsistency drives people mad.

If, however, it is God who can work through whatever circumstance, then the issue of translation does not matter. Sovereignty in all things will go with bad translations. But if God cannot save men because he incapable without the man's consent, then we better make sure people get it exactly right.

The ironic thing is, those who believe God is sovereign are more eager to see people get it right than those who trust themselves for salvation. Those who believe in the total and unbound free will of man could not care less whether he reads one bible or the next. It is not possible that we get it right with any one translation.

God will work through any translation. That does not mean any translation will do. Getting it right is important and this means that we must, with care and diligence, discover what the original author said, in its context. God did not create us to be lazy, but rather to work. From the first day He made Adam he was given work to do. We cannot be lazy. Jesus is coming, so look busy!

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