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Don’t Know Greek & Hebrew? Read Several Different Translations

translation 3 small sxc huGrowing up it was not uncommon for the leaders in my church to claim that Scripture, being inspired, was easy to understand. Why would God speak to his people in ways hard to understand?

Ignoring the fact the Peter directly contradicts this statement in regard to Paul’s writings which he deems Scripture—2 Peter 3:15-16—this claim makes no sense.

God inspired the Scriptures in Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic, thousands of years ago, in a culture quite foreign to our own. If I gave 99.99% of the world a copy of the original texts as they came from the quill of Isaiah or Matthew, they would be unable to read anything on the page. (I made that number up, by the way, but I doubt I’m far off… I could likely add a few more nines.)

Scholars working in tandem for millennia in the creation of grammars, lexicons, encyclopedia, books, articles and the like, have laid the ground work for the creation of translations that feed the confidence of the undereducated, who then boast that Scripture interpretation should be easy, and that they have no need for Scholarship.

While many don’t like it, the fact is that there are many things happening in the Scriptures on the level of the original languages that translations just can’t capture. Every translation is forced to make choices that inevitably eliminate options for those who are bound to translation. Every translation also introduces choices in the translation language that are not viable options in the original languages. This, of course, doesn’t even touch our struggle with a general ignorance over historical and cultural issues surrounding Scripture.

This leaves those bound to translations, for want of at least a functional knowledge of the original languages, at a distinct disadvantage. This is a fact that I would be a fool to conceal, though I have a great deal of compassion for those that find it difficult to hear. I can only imagine how deflating it must feel, how exhausting to even comprehend the obstacles that face the average bloke and blokette[1] who care deeply about Scripture, but are too consumed by the business of living to peel away the time to learn to “really read Scripture.”

Fortunately, this is not what I’m saying. “Really read Scripture” is the wrong way to think about the issues of reading in translation.

In fact, one the best things I ever did for myself before attending Bible college was to begin a regiment of massive Scripture reading in translation… in several translations.

Three chapters a day will put you through the while Bible in a year. I read the Old Testament five times a year and the New Testament ten times a year for five years.

English translations are good and this project took me a long way into understanding Scripture.

Because I read in several different translations, I began to pick out many areas of conflict between them, areas that I knew would need more investigation. My observations of the text became more acute as I read over and over and over again; my questions began to mount. As my studies progressed, I learned hermeneutics and how to get answers to my many questions… from better and better sources. I developed in my comprehension a good deal before learning biblical languages and wasn’t put off by the knowledge of how much more I needed to learn, or how much more I knew I would learn when finally I could master them.


(1 Chronicles 21:1)

  • “Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel. (ESV)
  • “And there standeth up an adversary against Israel, and persuadeth David to number Israel,” (Young’s Literal Translation)

Well? Which is it? This is definitely something to investigate. You don’t want to merely count translations…you’ll need to try to understand the arguments.

2 Samuel 11:3-4

  • And David sent and inquired about the woman. And one said, “Is not this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” So David sent messengers and took her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she had been purifying herself from her uncleanness.) Then she returned to her house. (ESV)
  • And David sent messengers, and took her; and she came in unto him, and he lay with her (for she was purified from her uncleanness); and she returned unto her house. (American Standard Version)
  • David sent messengers to get her; they brought her to him and he made love to her. (She had just finished her monthly ritual of purification.) Then she went back home. (Good News Bible)
  • David sent messengers and took her, and when she came to him,he lay with her; and when she had purified herself from her uncleanness, she returned to her house. (New American Standard)

These are not the same. Each renders a different logical connection between David’s choices and Bathsheba’s bath. There is definitely something to investigate here.

These are just two examples, but I hope it makes my point. You can go a long way with a dedication to comparing translations, making keen observations, asking lots of questions and turning to sources that can help you answer those questions.

My recommendation is that you get a good one volume Bible Dictionary like the New Bible Dictionary from Zondervan, and keep it with you as read lots of Scripture. A steady diet of reading the text, asking questions, and reading articles in this volume will leave you the best educated person in most churches.

Then, when you can, learn biblical languages and watch how well this earlier study lays a foundation for you as you strive to become an even better trained student of Scripture.

[1] I read several posts about the proper female equivalent for bloke, but was told women found almost every suggestion made offensive, and I didn’t think Gal, Lass, or Lady ethnic enough as a companion term. I liked, “bird” but was told that save in a couple areas of England, only blokes used the term for ladies.

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