Reader Questions: How Accurate are Bible Translations?

ancient antique architectural design architecture

I recently added a page on this site where readers can submit questions or suggest topics (click here for that page). Recently I received this question:

Hi Pastor Nick. I have heard you talk about your study of other languages and various Bible translations. Can you help me with a response to a Jewish man who is convinced the English translation is completely inaccurate and can’t be trusted?

Bible Translation Basics

I wrote a series on Bible Translation to explain some of the inherent difficulties in doing it, as well as some relevant issues related to some particular English translations:

  1. Making Sense of Different Bible Translations – Part 1
  2. Making Sense of Different Bible Translations – Part 2: the King James Bible
  3. Making Sense of Different Bible Translations – Part 3: Gender-Inclusive Language and the NIV

Response to the Question

I would start by asking which English translation he thinks cannot be trusted, and my next question would be why he believes they cannot be trusted.

There is not just one English Translation of the Bible, but hundreds of translations – many of which have been carried out by teams of scholars whose work was then reviewed, checked, proofread and scrutinized by other scholars in order to assure accurate translation.

Basically, his claim that a translation of the Bible into English (or presumably any language?) is not trustworthy is intellectually untenable.

These translations are made by groups of scholars who have devoted their lives to studying these ancient languages, cultures, and beliefs. Furthermore, there have been multiple groups over the past 2000 years who have translated the Scriptures into various languages, and these translations all say the same things. Where they differ is based on different possible translations of words or phrases in the original language, but there are a finite number of options, and the options are usually recorded in the footnotes or in textual commentaries. All that would be needed in order to refute a translation would be someone who could prove that they are in error. So a challenge to anyone who claims that a particular translation is not trustworthy or accurate would be to simply invite them to make their case publicly, and contribute their insights and knowledge to help make a better translation!

What is Inspired: the Original Text or the Translation?

It should be noted that we as Christians believe the original texts to have been inspired by God, not the copies or translations.

Article X of the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy explains it this way:

WE AFFIRM  that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.

WE DENY  that any essential element of the Christian faith is affected by the absence of the autographs. We further deny that this absence renders the assertion of Biblical inerrancy invalid or irrelevant.

However, this does not mean we cannot or should not translate the Scriptures into languages other than the originals – to the best of our collective abilities – in order that people who do not speak ancient Hebrew and Greek (the vast majority of the world’s population) can understand God’s Word to them.

Bible Translation Has Precedent: the Septuagint and Jesus

Lastly, there is precedent in Scripture itself for the translation of the Bible into other languages. The Septuagint was the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, and it was widely used in antiquity. The New Testament writers often quote from the Septuagint and record Jesus as having quoted from the Septuagint. Being that Aramaic was widespread in Israel at the time of Jesus, we can be quite sure that Jesus would have spoken to crowds in Aramaic, meaning that when he referenced or quoted from the Hebrew Bible (AKA Old Testament), he would have translated those verses into Aramaic.

In conclusion, we can be quite confident in the translations that we have in English and other languages. While it may be helpful to acquaint yourself with the original languages, you can be sure that when you read your English translation of the Bible, you are getting the essence of the original text and its meaning, especially if you are supplementing your reading with textual commentaries.