At the end of the 4th Century, officials in the church asked the Latin scholar, Jerome, to produce an updated version of the Bible in Latin. As time had elapsed, the language had changed as well as the meanings of many Latin words. But Jerome was very intimidated by that prospect. His concern was primarily for what other people would think of him and his commitment to the truth. People were comfortable with the way the Bible they’d grown up with sounded; they didn’t all feel the need for a new Latin translation.
You urge me to revise the Old Latin version. . . . The labor is one of love, but at the same time both perilous and presumptuous. . . . Is there a man, learned or unlearned, who will not, when he takes the volume in his hands, and perceives that what he reads does not suit his settled tastes, break out immediately into violent language and call me a forger and a profane person for having had the audacity to add anything to the ancient books, or to make any changes or corrections therein. (Jerome, in the Preface to The Four Gospels)
If you find yourself upset or confused by the many, many newer English translations of the Bible, please remember from this little episode from church history. We’ve been here before. And we’ll continue to struggle through this process as long as languages change and the Lord returns. And at the minimum, no violence, please!
We believe the Bible is God’s inspired and inerrant word. We believe the words on the page are the words of God. And they are. In fact, any translation of the Bible is the word of God so long as it accurately reflects the words and meanings of the original text. Where a modern translation fails to reflect what God originally inspired men to write, to that degree it is not the word of God. I can translate a Greek sentence into English in a number of different ways, and they are all faithful reflections of the original Greek sentence. But I can also do a very poor job of translating the Greek text into English, or any other receptor language. To the degree that it fails to accurately reflect the original, it is not the word of God I think it is important to understand that no English translation perfectly reflects the original Greek even though a number of English translations accurately reflect it.
The problem arises when English speaking people equate God’s inspiring work with an English translation. There’s a big difference between accurately reflecting and being perfectly identical. The second is impossible; the first is readily available in a number of English translations.
As people continue the difficult but necessary work of providing an updated version of God’s Word, try to give the translators a break, just like Jerome hoped the people of his day would give him the benefit of the doubt. They’re just trying to do what God’s people have always done, be faithful to the word and to the God who spoke it. Or, they are just trying to provide the next generation with the same hope they grew up with.
I leave you with this quote from the translators of the 1611 King James Version who, in the spirit of Jerome, were trying to make a good work into a better one. You will find it in the comments of “The Translators to the Reader”:
…so, if we building upon their foundation that went before us, and being holpen by their labours, doe endevour to make that better which they left so good; no man, we are sure, hath cause to mislike us; they, we persuade our selves, if they were alive, would thanke us.