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Is the Bible an Ancient Book?

This is one of the more interesting questions that is answered in each translation’s “Philosophy of Translation.”

For example, the NLT reads like a modern book. It is so interpretive that many of the culture expressions are lost; but that is its approach, and as long as the reader understands this, it is fine.

The ESV on the other hand wants to be in the translation stream of the KJV, and in most places reads like an ancient book. Just count the percentage of the occurrences of “shall” and “will” in the Old Testament vs. the New Testament and you will see what I mean.

The NIV sits in a somewhat uncomfortable middle position. It wants the reader to hear the message of Scripture in the same way as the ancient readers heard it, but yet it tries to be faithful to the Greek and Hebrew in doing so.

An obvious place where this is an issue is in Acts 28:11. “After three months we put out to sea in a ship that had wintered in the island—it was an Alexandrian ship with the figurehead of the twin gods Castor and Pollux.” The well-known issue is that the Greek says, πλοίῳ … Ἀλεξανδρίνῳ, παρασήμῳ Διοσκούροις; “a ship … Alexandrian, marked by the Dioscuri.” What is the Dioscuri? Διόσκουροι is from Δίος κοῦροι, “Sons of Zeus.” That is all the Greek says. But presumably the committee (I was not on the committee yet, so I am assuming) thought this was not understandable, so they added the names of Castor and Pollux. BDAG says they are the “twin sons of Zeus and Leda, serving as insignia.”

Interestingly, BDAG defines παράσημος merely as “to being marked (on the side) so as to be distinguished, marked,” but the NIV went further by saying it is the figurehead. Whether they are right or not is not the point; the point is that this level of interpretation (and all translations are interpretive) removes the Bible from its original context, making it sound more modern.

I recently came across two less significant example of this. I am not saying the translations are wrong; I am saying that the more modern the idiom the less ancient the Bible sounds.

John 6:7 says, “Philip answered him, ‘It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite! (βραχύ [τι] λάβῃ)’” βραχύς does not mean “a bite.” It means, “to being low in quantity, little, small” (BDAG). The idiom sacrifices precision; who is to say that a year’s wages would only have been able to buy one bite. Maybe it would have been two bites. But more to the point, “a bite” is idiomatic, almost slang, expression making Philip sound modern.

John 7:38 reads, ”Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them (ἐκ τῆς κοιλίας αὐτοῦ).” Part of the translation is accounted for by the desire to not use “him,” hence “them,” since the Spirit flows from both women and men. But in doing so, the expression “out of his belly” loses something. The κοιλία was “the organ of nourishment, the womb, the seat of inward life, of feelings and desires, belly” (BDAG). Jesus is saying much more than “from with.”

By the way, the ESV loses as well when they say, “Out of his heart.” Jesus wasn’t talking about the heart in his ancient physiology. Interestingly, BDAG adds, “but Eng. prefers the functional equivalent heart.” BDAG is calling the ESV’s translation a “functional equivalent.” There is some irony in that.

There are many other examples. “Dollars” for a denarius, “feet” for cubits, “miles” or “kilometers” for stadia, “pounds” for a talent, etc.

Let me stress, these translations are not wrong. After all, any movement from Greek into English makes the Bible sound more modern. But how modern should they be?

When I read Caesar’s Gallic Wars, I want to know I am reading an ancient document and not a modern documentary. I want to be able to understand it, but if it reads like the front page of the Wall Street Journal, I probably would not trust it.