or Gods 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 Gods Word in
any language today. Thats 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
Spirits 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 Johns message,
and Luke quotes it again in Acts, this time giving Pauls version
of it. We have, then, five different Greek translations
of Johns 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 Matthews
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 Johns 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
In the case of the New Testament writers translations
of Johns 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 Johns 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
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