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God’s Word or God’s Words?
By Ervin Bishop, Senior Translation Consultant
World Bible Translation Center

The Bible is the Word of God. “Word” in this usage, however, is not the same as “words.” The Word (logos) of God is His “Message” conveyed to us, the people of the world using our "words," that is, whatever human language we use. This means it has to be expressed differently for different people. There is no “standard” form of God’s Word in any language today. That’s why a Bible written in any of a hundred different languages or styles is still the Word of God, as long as it accurately conveys the message originally expressed in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.

That the Bible is the Message of God expressed in the words of men is also illustrated by the fact that the same message is often expressed by different writers of Scripture in different words. For example, compare Matthew 8:16 and Luke 4:40. Both indicate the time of the same event, but Matthew says literally, “Evening becoming,” while Luke says, “Going down the sun.” Both describe the same time of day, but each in his own characteristic idiom. In a similar parallel between Matthew 14:15 and Luke 9:12, Matthew uses the same expression as above, but Luke varies his style with the phrase, “the day was beginning to close.”

A simple explanation for many of the variations between parallels in the gospels is that each writer was free within the Holy Spirit’s guidance to use his own natural language to express the truths revealed to him.

There is a related consideration which makes the variants between parallels significant for the work of translation. It is the fact that the Greek gospels in many passages apparently represent translations of material originally spoken (or perhaps written) in Aramaic. (Note the explicit references to “translation” in several passages, e.g. Mark 5:41 and 15:34). Aramaic was the language spoken by the Jewish people of Palestine in the first century (cf. Acts 21:40; 22:2; 26:14), and most scholars agree that Jesus and his followers spoke Aramaic. This being the case, we have in the Greek gospels some Biblical examples of translation. From these examples we should be able to derive some approved principles of good translation.

Below are five versions of a statement made by John the baptizer at the end of his ministry, just before the baptism of Jesus. His words express his own unworthiness as compared to Jesus’ greatness. Each Greek version of this statement appears below, accompanied by a literal English translation. John surely spoke to his Jewish audience in Aramaic. All four gospel writers record John’s message, and Luke quotes it again in Acts, this time giving Paul’s version of it. We have, then, five different Greek “translations” of John’s original statement.

 

Besides variations in grammar and syntax between the five versions, there are significant differences in the choice of words and expressions. Note that the idea conveyed with the term “sufficient” in the first three writers is expressed by John and Paul with the word “worthy.” Mark, Luke and John all make specific reference to the “thong” of the sandal, but Paul and Matthew do not. Paul, however, is the only one using the expression “the sandal of the feet.” Mark is unique in mentioning explicitly the action of “bending down.” Of special interest is Matthew’s apparent use of a different figurethat of carrying the sandals instead of untying the sandals. But most English translations are misleading here. Although the word used by Matthew usually has the meaning “to carry,” it can also have the meaning “to remove,” which it most certainly does in this context. So Matthew was just expressing in different words the same idea found in the other translations of John’s statement.

The differences between these writers should not be disturbing to the person who understands the nature of human communication. Consider the variety of ways the message “He died” might be expressed in English: “He passed on,” “He expired,” “He met his end,” etc. All are valid ways to state the same fact.

In the case of the New Testament writers’ translations of John’s words, each expressed the same message using language that was natural to him or would communicate best to his particular audience. There are, however, no differences in meaning. What one writer makes explicit is implicit in the other versions. For example, the fact that Mark makes explicit mention of bending down does not mean that he added any information that is not present in the other versions. For the other writers the action was so obviously a part of “loosening the sandals” that it did not need expression.

Considering the differences between the five versions of John’s statement, do we really know what John said? The answer is “Yes.” We may not know the exact Aramaic words that John used, but we most definitely know what he said. He said that Jesus was so much greater than he was that he was not good enough to perform for Jesus the humblest duty of a servant. While the words in each of the five translations are different, the message is exactly the same.

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