For two years now I have been sharing comparisons of Old Testament translations on social media, especially the Proverbs. Quite often people respond with the question, “What does the Hebrew say?” They have before them several renowned translations, including the Matthew and Geneva Bibles, the KJV, and the NIV, but feel compelled to ask what the Hebrew says! Confusion arises because the translations disagree, creating a riddle. Sometimes they are so different, one wonders if they derive from the same Hebrew text. (And sometimes they do not. See note 1 below.)
Some moderns believe they are competent to pronounce on the correct translation with reference to their Hebrew dictionaries or seminary studies. I am content to let them be their own translators and debate the issues among themselves. However, I have studied languages. I know that even years of university study and great textbooks are not sufficient in themselves to make a good translator – much less when it comes to a dead language, and especially when it comes to the Bible, where faith and calling are prerequisites. Furthermore, all graduates are not equal. My father, a university professor, used to say that we must never forget that half of them were in the bottom of their class.
In the end the real question is, which Bible (or Bibles) can we trust? We cannot expect perfection, but must make a choice when translations disagree. They cannot all be true. If we care about truth, we are not indifferent to the problems they pose.
The confusion of commentaries
Often people try to solve translation riddles by wading through different commentaries. In my social media posts, conflicting “expert” opinions are offered as possible solutions. The truth is, the plethora of commentaries only increases confusion. A sensible reader will realize that bringing in ever more scholarly opinions will not solve the riddle either, because they also disagree.
In the early 1500s, William Tyndale lamented the same situation. There were so many commentators and expositors, he wrote, if you had but one book of each, they would fill a warehouse in London. And so he set out to give us a reliable English Bible, one the ploughboy could understand without resorting to scholars and clerics who would darken it with a thousand opinions. Myles Coverdale did the same. As we know, John Rogers then gathered the translations of these men together in the 1537 Matthew Bible, and even added helpful notes explaining Hebrew idioms, so we could know what the Hebrew said.
Did the Matthew men succeed in their mission to give us a true and clear Bible? Have all the later revisions really improved on their work? How can we judge? Lastly, can we confidently choose a trustworthy Bible from among those that disagree? I say we can, and, further, we need not learn ancient Hebrew to do so.
Witness X in the court of God’s word
I liken choosing a trustworthy Bible to juristic practice for choosing a trustworthy witness in a court of law. When a trial judge (or member of a jury) is faced with conflicting testimonies, he must choose between the witnesses. He cannot travel back in time to verify every fact, so he must choose the best witness(es) of the facts. This we must also do with our conflicting Bible translators, who are as expert witnesses in the court of God’s word. We cannot verify their understanding of ancient Hebrew, nor speak with the prophets and apostles to ask them what they meant. Therefore we must choose the most reliable witness or witnesses of the biblical testimony.
To evaluate trustworthiness a trial judge looks for certain things, including:
- Forthcomingness. Is the witness direct and earnest to tell the full story?
- Clarity. Is the witness clear? Clarity signals honesty, while confusion indicates error or deception. Clarify also indicates competence and clear-headedness. A good maxim to remember is, Where there is confusion, there are lies.
- Consistency. A truthful testimony is internally and externally consistent; that is, the witness will not contradict himself or externally verifiable truths. Here a good maxim is, It is given to liars to self contradict.
After the judge has chosen the truest witness, he will say, “When there is a conflict between witness testimonies, I accept the evidence of Witness X.” He does not expect perfection, but will give Witness X the benefit of the doubt. The necessity and wisdom of this approach is obvious. He has to make a decision, get on with his work, and close the case.
Where God’s word is concerned, there is also the subjective, spiritual test of voice recognition: the sheep know the Shepherd’s voice. Hearing is impaired, however, if the flock is asleep, or when the thief makes himself sound like the Shepherd by weaving truth with falsehood, or by “speaking fair,” as Tyndale would say.
Getting on with our work
Can we apply the juristic tests to Bibles to choose our Witness X? Yes. We can test the biblical testimonies we have received from the men who have taken their hand to the Scriptures, make our finding, and get on with it. We should refuse the role of translator, to which we are not called and for which we are not qualified, and instead accept the role of juror in the court of God’s word. To this, all reasonably intelligent adults who know the Lord are called and qualified by the Holy Spirit.
If we are sincere and not blinded by pride or prejudice, we can examine and fairly judge Bible translations for forthcomingness, clarity, and consistency. I’ve done a lot of this work already, and will explain my discoveries and analysis in Part 2 of the Story of the Matthew Bible. We can’t always prove right or wrong in translation. Too much is a matter of opinion, too much is lost in the mists of time. But we can weigh the preponderance of evidence.
As well as clarity, etc., Christians will want to assess a Bible translator’s faith. This is not easy with committee Bibles unless there are notes and commentaries. The Puritan notes in the Geneva Bible reveal that they were zealous for their “true Church of prophecy,” and we can discern the influence of their post-millennial doctrine. We have ample material to assess the faith of the Matthew men, Tyndale, Coverdale, and Rogers, through their legacy of writing. Also we have an extraordinary testimony from Martin Luther, who influenced the Matthew Bible. These were some of the translators God ordained to open his word to the world in the Reformation. It is up to the reader to read what they wrote and judge their faith. I have done this, and I believe they gave a faithful testimony. And after ten years of daily work with the Matthew Bible and comparing it to others, I can confidently accept it as my Witness X.
I should add, I would also be quite happy with Coverdale’s 1535 Bible — or Luther of 1534, or even Wycliffe’s Bible, if I could read the old German and middle English. I would base my decision on the trustworthiness of those men, like any good member of a jury is right to do.
Test the spirits, weigh the translations, decide for yourself
I don’t want anyone to just take my word for it. Subscribe for our upcoming blog posts, weigh the different translations, and decide for yourself. Given the great disagreement that exists between the biblical testimonies we have received, it is our responsibility to judge as best we can.
(1) When the Puritans revised the Old Testament, in certain places they preferred LXX (Septuagint) renderings over the Hebrew text, as I explain in my paper on Exodus 21. We are not saying it is necessarily wrong to do this, but it is a relevant issue. As is demonstrated in my paper, modern resources may not reveal that a disagreement between translations results from a translator having departed from the Hebrew. Thus the lay researcher can never be sure he has the information he needs to judge the translations as “translations,” even if he were qualified to do so in the first place. However, the juristic tests may assist.
(2) To learn about the making of the Matthew Bible, read our book The Story of the Matthew Bible: That Which We First Received