Summary: This sermon explores how to choose a Bible version. It presents an argument for choosing an essentially literal translation of the Bible.
The past few Sundays we have been looking at Romans 3:1-2. I would like to do so again today.
The Apostle Paul asked, “What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision?” (3:1). How responded by saying, “Much in every way!” (3:2a). And then he stressed the first advantage of the Jew which, incidentally, is also the advantage of every child of God throughout the ages. The Apostle Paul said in Romans 3:2b, our text for today:
"First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God" (Romans 3:2b).
The Apostle Paul said that the Jews—and, indeed, all Christians—have been entrusted with “the very words” of God, as it is expressed in the New International Version. In Greek the expression “the very words” is logia. Most other Bible versions translate logia as “oracles.”
Today, I want to consider “the very words” of God, particularly in the English language.
The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, except for approximately 10 chapters in Daniel (2:4b-7:28) and Ezra (4:8-6:18; 7:12-26), which were written in Aramaic.
The New Testament was originally written in Greek.
Over the years, the Bible has been translated into over 2,000 of the world’s languages. John Wycliffe published the first complete Bible in English in 1382. Since then there have been approximately 50 complete translations of the English Bible, with many more partial translations.
My question then is this: Since we have been entrusted with the very words of God, which version of the Bible should we use? How should we choose a Bible version?
Today, I want to examine how to choose a Bible version. I aim to proceed by asking and answering a series of questions.
I. What Is the Goal of Bible Translation?
Let’s begin by asking: what is the goal of Bible translation?
The goal of any translation is to translate the source language into the receptor language in such a way that the receptor language accurately conveys the meaning of the source language.
Thus, the goal of Bible translation is to translate the source languages (the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek) into the receptor language (in our case, English) in such a way that the English translation accurately conveys the meaning of the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts.
One of the very earliest English translators, King Alfred the Great (whose language was Old English), said that he translated “sometimes word for word, and sometimes meaning for meaning.”
In this statement we have set before us the two major approaches to Bible translations. One approach is a “word for word” approach, also known as an “essentially literal” approach. The other approach is a “meaning for meaning” approach, also known as a “thought for thought” approach. Sometimes the essentially literal approach is also called “formal equivalence,” and the meaning for meaning approach is called “dynamic equivalence.”
Now, it is important to note that English Bible translations were all essentially literal translations until 60 years ago when J. B. Phillips translated the New Testament (1947-1957). For several hundred years prior to 1947, the goal of Bible translation was an essentially literal approach. So scrupulous were the translators that when they could not translate a word exactly or if they had to add a word to make the English version intelligible, they added the word or words in italics so that the reader knew that the word or words was not in the original language. You can see this, for example, in any King James Version or New King James Version.
Technically, the J. B. Phillips’ New Testament was not a translation but rather a paraphrase. That is, Phillips simply paraphrased the New Testament into more colloquial English rather than translate the New Testament Greek into English. Leland Ryken correctly notes “that dynamic equivalence would never have achieved the prominence it did if Phillips had not whetted people’s appetite for a loose and colloquial English version.”
II. Does God Say Anything About How His Word Should Be Translated?
That brings us, then, to the second question, which is, does God say anything about how his Word should be translated?
Is God silent on the matter of Bible translation? Does it matter to God whether we use an essentially literal approach or a dynamic equivalent approach to Bible translation?
I humbly submit that God is extremely interested and concerned about how his Word should be translated.
The Apostle Paul said in our text today that the Jews had been entrusted with “the very words” of God (Romans 3:2).
Moreover, Jesus said that “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). My Greek professor, Wayne Grudem, says that the Greek term for “word” is rhema, which is the term Jesus used to refer to the actual words spoken by God. The expression “every word” coupled with the fact that the words proceed from “the mouth of God” places further emphasis on the very words themselves.