If you wish to truly study a passage from the Bible and know exactly what it says, you must either thoroughly learn the ancient languages and study the oldest and most original texts you can find or you must read the passage in several different translations written by people who have studied the texts in the original languages. Then interpolate what you find. Even with the greatest effort you can manage, you will still fall short of full understanding.
Why would I make such a difficult assertion? Because every single translation of the Biblical texts has been translated through a biased perspective. No matter how carefully the interpreters struggle with the issue, their own knowledge and limitations of language will influence the choices of the words they use to translate. And your own personal sense of the meanings of words will influence how you interpret the writings of the translators. Not only that, but the meanings of words themselves change over time further complicating the issue.
Let me use a non-biblical, but somewhat humorous Limerick to illustrate a part of the problem:
There was an old man from Nepal Who fell in the spring in the fall It would have been a sad thing If he’d died in the spring But he didn’t – he died in the fall.
The Limerick is written in English and because of the multiple meanings of some of the words, it cannot be translated into any other language and retain its original intent. Every human language has similar issues.
Further, a number of literary forms used in the Bible are unfamiliar to us today. (For a taste of that you could look up “chiastic structure”.) No one can expect to be able to pick up a Bible and perfectly interpret such things or easily recognize the significance of unfamiliar or obscured conventions that add to the meaning.
Yet, 2 Tim. 3:16-17 tells us, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work.”
With all the language problems I’ve outlined above, how can the verse from 2 Timothy possibly be true? Because the text is inspired writing, essential meanings will still be communicated no matter what translation difficulties get the details mixed up.
One effect of the mix-up of details is that some Bible passages can be interpreted in different ways. While such differences never affect our personal salvation, they can lead to problems within the body of Christ. Possibly the most critical problem develops when an individual insists his or her interpretation is correct and all others are not.
Of course there will be actual false prophets and flawed interpretations, but quiet wisdom should prevail. When such differences are shown to be legitimate translation differences and the interpreters are believed to be sincere in their efforts, such differences must be permitted and accepted. Any thing else can damage the body of Christ.
Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 AD) gives us this advice:
In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture.
So the problem has existed for over 1,500 years. Remember, the Word is meant to lead us to God. It was not written to scratch every itch or satisfy every curiosity. Hence differences of opinion must not only be tolerated, but we must learn to enjoy them.
What’s your opinion?
Copyright © 2022 Sam Dronebarger
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