This is the 3rd installment of a series of draft portions of an article I am writing on Biblical translations. Comments are welcome via e-mail.
See also Part 1 and Part 2
3. The Theological Perspective of the Translators
Every translator has a theological point of view that influences their translation either for good or for ill. Ideally, we would be using translations done by Orthodox scholars whose work had the sanction of the Church, but unfortunately no such translation has yet been produced. Consequently, until have such a text in hand, we have to find the best options among Protestant and Roman Catholic translations. Even when dealing with the best examples of these translations, we need to be aware of the theological views of the translators, and keep an eye out for when their erroneous views may have negatively influenced the accuracy of their translation.
One of the worst examples of a heretical translation of the Scriptures is the New World Translation, which is published by the Jehovah’s witnesses. It would take a book much longer than the text of the Bible itself to lay out all the dishonest twisting of Scripture that takes place in this translation. It is the work of a group of anonymous “scholars” who ostensibly wished to remain anonymous out of humility, but those who have researched the question have determined that this was more likely a means of cloaking the complete lack of scholarly credentials and linguistic abilities of those who crafted this text.3 To touch upon one of the low points of this translation, it translates the Greek word “kyrios” (“Lord”) as “Jehovah” throughout the New Testament, except where the text clearly refers to Jesus Christ, because they deny both the doctrine of the Trinity, and that Jesus Christ is God. This is a completely arbitrary move designed to promote their heretical theological agenda, and there is absolutely no textual basis for translating the text in this manner to be found in any Greek manuscript of the New Testament. The outright dishonesty of their translation particularly demonstrated by the fact that in Hebrews 1:10, they do not translate “kyrios” as “Jehovah” (or the more proper “Yahweh”) because the quote is applied to Christ… despite the fact that this is a quote from Psalm 102 (101 in the LXX), and the LORD in that Psalm is Yahweh in Hebrew.
Most other examples of the way bad theology has impacted a translation are far less obvious, but no less real. We have already cited an example of how the NIV twisted 2nd Thessalonians 2:15 in order to wring out of the text a translation that was more favorable to the conservative Evangelical Protestant leanings of its translators.
Another example, from the opposite side of the Protestant spectrum is the Revised Standard Version (RSV). Unlike the New World Translation, the Revised Standard Version is the work of qualified and respected scholars (as is the case with most of the translations commonly in use today), and there are not any examples that I am aware of in which one could question the honesty of the translators. One can however question the theology of these translators.
The translators of the RSV were without question on the more liberal side of the Protestant spectrum,4 and even included among their number a non-Christian Jewish scholar.5 The best known example of how the theological perspective of these translators influenced the text is in how they translated Isaiah 7:14:
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Imman'u-el.”
This translation marks a complete departure from 2,000 years of Christian tradition of translation, and is even a departure from the pre-Christian Jewish tradition that translated the Hebrew word “almah” as “parthenos” in the Greek Septuagint, and there is no debating that “parthenos” means “virgin.” Certainly, after the Christians came along and applied this prophecy to Christ, the non-Christian Jews developed the polemic that “almah” was not the precise word for “a virgin” and that it could simply mean “a young woman”. Since there are scholars that accept this argument, one cannot accuse the translators of the RSV of being charlatans for choosing to translate the word in this way. One can however accuse them of departing from the Christian tradition on this question. Furthermore, there are compelling linguistic arguments in favor of the traditional translation of this word, such the fact that the word is never used of a woman who is not a virgin, and that it is used interchangeably with the word “Bethulah,” and that the pre-Christian translators of the Septuagint understood the term to mean “virgin”. Also, contextually, one would have to wonder how a young woman being pregnant would be a miraculous sign. Young women are pregnant all the time. In fact, it would be more of a miraculous sign if it had been an old woman who was pregnant. A virgin being with child, however, clearly is a miraculous sign.6
In contrast, the translation philosophy that is the basis of the King James Version included the following principle:
“When a Word hath divers Significations, that to be kept which hath been most commonly used by the most of the Ancient Fathers, being agreeable to the Propriety of the Place, and the Analogy of the Faith.”7
And so, even if one might argue that the question of the meaning of Isaiah 7:14 could not be definitively proven one way or the other, the fact that the Church had always understood it as speaking of a virgin being with child absolutely settles the question for a believing Christian. It is certainly true that the translators of the King James Version were Protestants, rather than Orthodox, however, their theological assumptions and translational philosophy come far closer to that of the Orthodox than do most other translations. One must still be aware of their theological assumptions, and there may well be cases in which their erroneous Protestant views led them to make translation choices that the Orthodox would not agree with, however, I am not aware of any that clear cut examples, or are very significant.
Prior to the King James Version, most Protestant translations had clear signs of promoting a particular Protestant agenda. The Geneva Bible often contained slanted translations with even more slanted marginal notes. Luther’s translation into German had even gone so far as to insert words that did not occur at all in the original text to promote his own doctrinal agenda.9
The King James Version was different for several reasons: the Anglican Church had a much higher opinion of Church tradition; the translators included scholars of various Protestant persuasions and so kept each other honest; and most importantly, King James specifically commissioned this text to have a non-sectarian character, without commentary in the margin notes, that would help accomplish his broader goal of uniting the country that had been bitterly divided in the wake of the English Reformation. He wanted one translation that all English speaking people would use, and thus the translation could not be one that promoted the agenda of a particular Protestant sect.10
3 M. Kurt Goedelman, A Critical Look at the Jehovah’s Witness Bible, the New World Translation, Aug. 31, 2006 <http://www.xmark.com/focus/Pages/jehovahs.html>. See also: Aug. 31, 2006 <http://www.bible-researcher.com/new-world.html>
4 C. P. Lincoln, "A Critique of the Revised Standard Version," Bibliotheca Sacra, Volume 110 (Jan. 1953) pp. 50-66, Sept. 1, 2006 <http://www.bible-researcher.com/rsv-bibsac.html>
5 Bruce M Metzger, “The RSV-Ecumenical Edition,” Theology Today, Vol. 34, No. 3 (Oct. 1977), p. 316, Sept. 1, 2006 <http://theologytoday.ptsem.edu/oct1977/v34-3-criticscorner4.htm> It is true that a Greek Orthodox representative was added to the translation committee, but the Jewish scholar was part of the translation when it was actually being done, and the Greek Orthodox representative was added after the real was already completed.
6 For more on question of how “almah” should be translated, see: William F. Beck, What Does Almah Mean?, Sept. 2, 2006, <http://www.wlsessays.net/authors/B/BeckAlmah/BeckAlmah.PDF>, see also: Origen, Against Celsus, Book I, Chapters xxxiv -xxxv, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. iv, eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldosn, trans. A. Cleveland Coxe (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), p. 410f. as well as: St. Jerome , Against Jovinianus, Book I, Chapter 32, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 2, vol. vi, eds. Henry Wace and Philip Schaff (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), p. 370.
7 Adam Nicolson, God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003) p. 73. See also: Laurence M. Vance, A Brief History of the King James Bible, Sept 2, 2006, <http://www.av1611.org/kjv/kjvhist.html>.
9 For example, Luther inserted the word “alone” into his translation of Romans 2:28, to make it support his doctrine of justification by faith alone. When asked for justification for his inserting words that did not exist in the original text, Luther simply responded “It is so because Dr. Martin Luther says it is so!” See Frank Schaeffer, Dancing Alone (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1994) p. 77, and: Jaroslav Pelikan, Reformation of Church and Dogma (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985) p.252
10 Nicolson, p. 77f.