It's Not the Hebrew, Stupid
Difficulties in translation or any other area are not improved or
eliminated by insisting that the only meaningful text is that framed in
the Hebrew language (or any other language), either. The nation of
Israel received handwritten tablets direct from God (it is not known
what language) and the record shows it did not help with obedience.
Moses was even present to relay and interpret God’s writing (and
speaking), but was constantly confronted with hostility and stubborn
refusal to obey anyway. The prophets spoke to the failure of
Israel to obey over and over, and it didn’t seem to matter that the
language used to chastise them was the ‘proper’ language or not.
Jesus quoted the Hebrew Scriptures extensively, speaking in what was
probably Hebrew or Aramaic, and many believed, but many more continued
in their rebellion, up to and including executing the bearer of the
message. It seems plain that obedience to God’s Word doesn’t
derive from the accuracy of the delivery but the receptivity of the
heart. As Walter Kaiser has said (speaking of the Law but
surely applicable to all of the Word),
"That (The Law) is not where the problem ever
existed, for Israel or the Church: The problem always was with
people, not the Law." [Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., The Place of Law and Good Works in
Evangelical Christianity, in A Time to Speak: The Evangelical-Jewish
Encounter, ed. A. James Rudin and Marvin R. Wilson (Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 1987), p. 132. Quoted by Marvin R. Wilson in the book
“Our Father Abraham” (Grand Rapids, Eerdman's, 1989), page 28.9.]
Practically speaking, there are tools the untrained person possesses
that can help counter translational bias. For instance, the number
of scholars working to make the translation can mitigate a large portion
of the effects of translational bias and act in favor of an accurate
rendering of the text. Over 100 scholars worked on the New
International Version. Close to 50 worked on the King James
Version. The jacket of the New American Standard Bible states
that, “58 consecrated and dedicated scholars” worked at translating it.
[New American Standard Bible, (Carol Stream, Illinois: Creation
Book House, Inc., 1971, p. IV.)]
It is said that 70 Jewish scholars worked on the Septuagint.
Granted, with a small number of people, agreement could be legislated
and controlled (and sometimes is), and thus a translation produced that
is false even if homogenized. But the likelihood of this happening
is remote given the skeptical and critical nature of scholars,
especially when the translation is exposed to the probable skepticism
and criticism of other scholars. While the number of scholars
alone is not in itself a guarantee of bias free translating, it still
helps to curb personal excesses and encourage a more accurate rendering.
Another, related, tool or technique that can be used to counteract
or mitigate translational bias, if it were really ‘the’ problem, is that
of comparing translations. Many English translations from the
Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of the Bible have been produced over the
past few hundred years, as well as multitudes of translations into other
“It has been estimated that since the appearance
of the KJV in 1611, there have been published in the English
language no less than 30 versions of the entire Bible, 75-80 New
Testaments, and upwards of 150 parts of Scripture, and that estimate
does not take into account the numerous translations included in the
growing list of commentaries that exist.” [Panning, p. 1]
So many translations have been produced, in fact, that it is
equivalent to having one’s own university on the living room bookshelf.
There is no hiding of personal doctrinal bias in the searching light of
company such as this.
But the weightiest fact bearing on the
inability of translational bias to truly affect the understanding of the
Word is that the foundation for all of the books is the first five,
known as the Torah. The Torah was the first ‘canon’ (a Greek word
meaning ‘rule’ or ‘standard’) by which any additional writing, or any
prophet or preacher, was always measured.
“You shall not add to the word which I am
commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the
commandments of the Lord your God which I command you. (Deuteronomy 4:2
NASB95, cf. Deuteronomy 12:32)
the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this
word, it is because they have no dawn. (Isaiah 8:20 NASB95)
This foundation was itself subject to the bedrock of God’s direct
Word, spoken to Moses and inscribed on stone. All the prophet’s
messages point back to it. The Wisdom Books contemplate some
aspect or aspects of understanding from it.
God, speaking directly to Moses, and giving him a written record (in
summary fashion) of His conversation to him, established the primary
“rule” (canon) for all subsequent revelation. What would be written
by the prophets (including Moses) would by necessity have to align
itself with the Torah given at Sinai. The measuring stick of
Scripture was handed to Moses when God wrote upon the prepared
tablets. [Tim Hegg, , How We Got Our Bible, An Introductory Course,
(self-published course syllabus: Tacoma, WA 2004), page 120.]
John the Baptist and Jesus called the nation of Israel to repentance,
meaning that people should live lives in submission to it, unfettered by
the traditions of men which added requirements or subtracted meaning
from it. All of the other Apostolic Writings extol the virtues and
blessings of following it, and expect the true child of God to live by
it. The Revelation describes those who hold to the testimony of
both the Messiah and His Word. Stephen, in Acts 7, refers to the
so-called Old Testament as ‘living oracles.’
“This is the one who was in the congregation
in the wilderness together with the angel who was speaking to him on
Mount Sinai, and who was with our fathers; and he received living
oracles to pass on to you. (Acts 7:38 NASB95)
The principle of all Scripture being based on the Torah is
illustrated further in a rabbinic anecdote recorded in the Talmud.
According to this anecdote, a gentile approached a rabbi by the name of
Shammai and asked to be converted, but to teach him the Torah while
standing on one foot. Shammai chased him away. The same
gentile then went to another rabbi named Hillel, and posed the same
statement and question combination. Hillel took up the challenge
by responding, “that which you hate, don’t do to others. That is the
entire Torah, the rest is simply explanation (commentary). Go and
learn it!” (Shabbos 31A.) These two rabbis were born the generation
before Jesus, showing that some of the principles taught by Jesus were
not that new, after all.
Speaking of Jesus, He also summarizes
the whole of the Torah by a similar statement recorded in several places
in the Apostolic Writings.
“In everything, therefore, treat people the
same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the
Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12 NASB95)
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in
the Law?” And He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all
your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This
is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You
shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments
depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:36-40 NASB95)
Jesus also summarized the instructions of God (Torah) in another way
when He said, “Love others as I have loved you” (John 13:34,
paraphrased, cf. John 15:12).
God’s Word has always been
filtered through the understanding of man, since it was first given in
the Garden of Eden. The copying and translation processes of the
Word of God have been filtered through the human understanding of the
copiers and translators since Moses was told to write them down.
In fact, it could be said that the translational bias possibilities go
all the way back to when God talked with the first person, and come all
the way down to the current reader. But the only ‘spiritual
damage’ that occurs to a reader of the Word is the damage to the
prideful carnality and sinfulness of the soul when contemplating the
awesomely pure and holy words of the Lord of Hosts.
who want to insist on a Hebrew original for the Apostolic Writings (NT)
imply that somehow God has missed the boat in delivering His Words to
man in a way that can be easily understood. If one blindly accepts
this proposition there is indeed much ‘spiritual damage’ that occurs,
starting with fostering a lack of trust in God’s abilities. If God
allowed the failings of human translators to get in the way of the
living oracles, then they are robbed of their effectiveness. It is
the heart without faith that will look for any excuse to avoid obedience
to the will and authority of the Father, starting with impugning the
veracity of the written oracle in whatever version it is published.
Even an autographed original in Hebrew without textual variants, or even
tablets of stone written by the finger of God, will not help such a one.
“Different people look for different things in the Ten Commandments.
Some are looking for divine guidance, some for a code of living. But
most people are looking for loopholes.” [Humorist Sam Levenson.]
Fortunately, for the person without scholarly training in biblical languages, the practical effects of translational bias, real or imagined, are surmountable. Many dedicated scholars have worked long and hard, some of them even suffering death (at the hands of the ‘church’), to translate the Living Oracles into as many languages as are spoken. The efforts of these people can be compared one to another to keep the inevitable discrepancies to a non-damaging minimum. Correct language doesn’t automatically improve one’s ability to accept or obey anyway, even if that language is spoken by God Himself.
The Torah also remains as the first canon, the rule and guide for interpretation of the balance of the message of the Gospel. If this canon is returned to the average follower of God, dusted off of the cluttering and obscuring effects of translational biases such as Dispensationalism or Covenant Theology, or even the ‘Hebrew Roots’ thinking, then whatever shadow of spiritual damage that might be present in a translation is dissolved in the pure light of the Source.
The heart of faith, filled with love and trust, responding to what is
preserved and presented, hearing and doing what God says for it to hear
and to do, beating the breast and asking for God to have mercy on a
sinner, will always understand the will of his or her Father.
Faith is not a blind acceptance of what we are
unable to prove, but the sure and steady belief that what we are unable
to fully explain may still be true, especially if God has declared it
Yet in this search for answers, by faith we proceed with the
knowledge that there are answers to the nagging questions we have.
Moreover, we believe that the word of God, as we now have it, is
sufficient in every way for faith and halachah (walking). [Hegg, page 78, parenthesis added.]
Our Father encourages all of His children to ‘labor’ and ‘be
diligent’ to obey His Word.
Study and be eager and do your utmost to
present yourself to God approved (tested by trial), a workman who has no
cause to be ashamed, correctly analyzing and accurately dividing
[rightly handling and skillfully teaching] the Word of Truth. (2 Timothy
2:15 Amplified New Testament)
That God’s Word has lost its’ effectiveness is, of course, not the
case, given the large number of people who have come to an intimate
relationship with the Father over the millennia. It seems obvious
that the heart of faith can discover, in any language, what His Father
requires of him. Whether the Spanish word for Jesus (pronounced
‘hey-soos’) is used or the Hebrew word (Yeshua or Y’hoshua), the
sacrifice He made for man comes through loud and clear. His
request, for a man to give back all that he has in return, is
understandable and reasonable, no matter the grammar and syntax.
“For as the rain and the snow come down from
heaven, and do not return there without watering the earth and making it
bear and sprout, and furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the
eater; so will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not
return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without
succeeding in the matter for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:11