What do we do with difficult Scripture passages?

I could tell he was reluctant to ask his question, but I encouraged him that any sincere question was welcome. He seemed shocked at himself for actually expressing his doubt aloud, but he blurted out anyway: “I just don’t understand how this kind of verse can be the Word of God!” The passage that was troubling him was Psalm 137:8-9:

O Babylon, you will be destroyed.
Happy is the one who pays you back
for what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who takes your babies
and smashes them against the rocks!

The first thing I said in response was that I would be troubled by anyone who didn’t find this passage disturbing! I could immediately see the relief on his face. He later explained that he was afraid we would think he was some kind of heretic or atheist because he dared to even wonder about a particular verse of Scripture. We went on to discuss this passage in its context. But before I share more with you about this specific case, I want to step back and look at this more general question: What do we do when we run across a passage of Scripture that really troubles us or even makes us doubt? How do we handle it when it seems the Bible might be wrong?

When facing such a problem, it’s easy to fall into one of two extremes. We can just rely on blind, irrational faith, insisting that if the Bible says it—no matter how illogical or silly it sounds—then it’s true. The problem with this approach is that we may be holding sacred our own mistaken idea of what the Scriptures are saying, not what the Bible actually communicates. (We’ll see some examples of this below.)

But then, at the slightest hint the Scriptures might be in error, we could also simply reject the Bible as inspired or infallible. We can assume that all the critics are right and the Bible is a merely human book, describing the beliefs of people in the distant past. The problem with doing this is that the Bible has a long track record of refuting its critics. (We’ll see some examples of this below also.) If we too easily reject the Scriptures, we might find ourselves rejecting the very Word of God.

So what do we do? It’s interesting that even Christians in the relatively early history of the church had to face difficult passages of Scripture. Sixteen hundred years ago, the pastor and scholar Augustine described how he approached these kinds of challenges. His methods are still sound for us today, and we’re going to look at each of his three suggestions. But we begin with a fourth step I’ve added (with which I’m sure Augustine would agree):

1. Pray
It often goes without saying, but the first step in studying the Bible—especially when struggling with something difficult to understand—should always be to pray. If the Bible was written through the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit, then we need the illumination of the Spirit to properly interpret the Scriptures. We need to humbly ask God to help us understand the heart of what he’s telling us in his Word.

2. Check the translation
It’s easy for us to get the wrong understanding of a Scripture passage because of an unclear translation. This is especially true of older translations that use more archaic English. I love the King James Version. I grew up with it; it was the only Bible I knew for years. But I can’t tell you how many times people have come to me with a passage they don’t understand in the KJV. When I show them the passage in another, more clear translation, the response is usually, “Ohhhhhh, that’s what this means.”

For instance, many people are confused by Jesus’ desire to “suffer the little children [Matthew 19:14],” not realizing that today this would be expressed as “allow the little children” or “don’t prevent the little children.” So if you’re reading something that doesn’t make sense, try reading it in a different translation. Many times, reading the same passage in different words can help you better understand the passage.

3. Check the notes
Augustine would say ‘check the manuscripts.’ This sounds overly technical and even intimidating to many ordinary Christians today. Thankfully, we can all check the manuscripts; all it takes is reading the notes in our Bibles. If you check the little footnotes in your Bible, you’ll see a few of them that say something like: “The oldest and most reliable manuscripts do not contain this passage.” These notes refer to verses that the vast majority of biblical scholars agree were accidentally added to the text centuries after it was originally written. We know these passages shouldn’t be included as Scripture. Here’s an example from John 5:4 (from the KJV):

For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.

This was apparently someone’s attempt to explain why the people were trying so hard to get into the pool. At first, this explanation was written in the margin, but it eventually was incorporated into the text itself. But—by comparing all the thousands of manuscripts we have available—textual scholars can ascertain the original reading and the spurious addition (and even determine the general timeframe when it was added). So we don’t have to accept this odd and superstitious reading as part of John’s Gospel.

Another example is the reference to handling snakes in Mark 16:18. Here again, practically all biblical scholars agree that this section of Mark was not part of the original. So after making sure you understand the translation of a difficult passage, check for notes to make sure it was genuinely part of the original text. (Anything that was added is likely to be problematic [like snake-handling], but be careful; just because a text is difficult doesn’t mean it’s not part of the original!)

4. Work to truly understand the passage
If you’ve verified that the translation actually means what it seems to mean, and there are no notes in your Bible indicating the passage isn’t authentic, then it’s time to push up your sleeves and do the work necessary to properly understand the passage. While the essentials of the gospel are crystal clear in Scripture, not everything is as easy to immediately grasp. Speaking of Paul’s letters to the churches, Peter wrote that “some of his comments are hard to understand [2 Peter 3:16].”

In passages such as John 6, we see Jesus teaching things to the people that were difficult to hear and accept. He knew that many of them were following him for superficial reasons, not because they understood the spiritual significance of what he said and did. So he would occasionally teach hard truths, to distinguish between those who had “ears to hear,” and those who weren’t willing to truly hear. We need to not reject a passage right away just because it disturbs or confuses us. We first need to make sure we accurately understand the passage.

In the passage we began with, Psalm 137:8-9, who is speaking? It’s not God. The author is one of the refugees from conquered, destroyed Jerusalem. He’s a Jew who now lives in the land of his conquerors: Babylon. He is overwrought with what has befallen his people and his homeland, and he longs for vengeance against the people of Babylon. He cries out for them to experience the same horrific fate they’ve perpetrated upon his people. The psalm is very expressive and even moving in places, but it doesn’t express the heart of God; it dramatically expresses the heart of these devastated Jewish refugees. Once we’ve done the work to understand the passage in context, it still disturbs us, but we don’t have to accept it as the will of God. [For more on this, see The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us.]

An earned benefit of the doubt
We don’t want to fall back on a blind, subjective faith in Scripture. On the other hand, we need to realize how often the Bible has proven itself accurate against the attacks of the critics. A classic example concerns the existence of the Hittites. The Old Testament refers many times to these people, portraying them as a major power and sometimes foe of Israel. Not long ago, if you had suggested in a secular university that this biblical portrayal was historically relevant, you would have been laughed out of class. Everyone knew the Hittites were a biblical myth, at most a minor, insignificant local tribe. That is until a few decades ago, when archaeologists began uncovering confirmation of the Hittite empire. As it turns out, these Hittites had a rich, longstanding culture, they were dominant over a widespread territory, the other major powers of the region considered them a threat, and they existed during the same timeframe the Bible describes. Score one for Scripture.

This same kind of scenario has played out again and again. Many times the Bible has proven itself to be far more accurate than the supposed “experts.” This doesn’t mean we should just assume it can never be wrong, especially in our interaction with skeptics and unbelievers. But it does mean that none of us should too quickly dismiss the claims of Scripture because of the current consensus of skeptical critics. We need to resist the temptation of a knee-jerk reaction, either in support of a particular reading of the Bible or in opposition to it. Especially for those who are followers of Christ, we must:

Work hard so you can present yourself to God and receive his approval. Be a good worker, one who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly explains the word of truth.

2 Timothy 2:15

Believing the Bible series:

A matter of faith: Believing the Bible

The Bible: Are we really reading what they wrote?

Why we can trust the Bible

What do we do with difficult Scripture passages? [see above]

The NIV controversy, part 1

It’s not unusual for the release of a prominent, new translation of Scripture to cause controversy. At the beginning of the 5th century, a scholar named Jerome produced a new translation in common, everyday Latin. This translation was called the Vulgate because it was rendered in the “vulgar,” or common, language of the people. Jerome was the first Christian scholar to produce a common version of the Bible by translating the Old Testament directly from the Hebrew manuscripts rather than from the traditional Greek version. This resulted in some readings that sounded strange to the people. For instance, instead of God providing a “gourd” for Jonah, Jerome translated this more specifically as a “castor-oil plant.” The reaction? Rioting in the streets! The people didn’t appreciate anyone messing with their familiar readings of Scripture.

Ironically, over a thousand years later the Vulgate was itself firmly entrenched as the common Bible of the Western world. It was also badly in need of revision. In the early 16th century, Erasmus printed a Greek New Testament, based on the best Greek manuscripts he could find. Alongside the Greek text, he provided a brand new, up-to-date translation in Latin. As you might guess, this new translation faced great resistance. How dare Erasmus change the accepted Word of God that had been the authorized version of the Catholic Church for over a thousand years!

This new scholarship by Erasmus and others was used by the translators of the King James Version, which was published in 1611. It may come as a surprise to many that the King James Version itself faced vehement opposition when it was first released. For over fifty years, many people resisted this “new innovation.” Prominent church leaders decried it as a perversion of the Word of God. This translation, which is now widely hailed as one of the most beautiful works of English literature, was considered by many to be unfit for public worship or personal study. The Pilgrims, who used the Geneva Bible, refused to allow the King James Version on board the Mayflower.

Of course, the King James Version withstood this opposition and went on to become the dominant version of the Bible for over 300 years. But by the late 19th century, many Bible scholars realized there was a great need to revise the King James Version. Not surprisingly, this Revised Version faced withering criticism. Many people felt that anything other than the reassuringly familiar King James Version simply wasn’t the Word of God. To this day, there are some who teach that it is wrong to use any Bible but an “authorized” King James Version.

In 1978, the New International Version (NIV) was published. Despite sometimes stiff opposition, the NIV became the preferred version of Scripture for the vast majority of evangelical Christians. Because of an ongoing commitment to provide a translation of the Bible in current, up-to-date language, in 2005 the translators of the NIV released a new translation, Today’s New International Version (TNIV). And once again, the church went through a firestorm of controversy regarding a new translation of Scripture.

While a large number of highly respected, eminently qualified, solidly conservative scholars praised the accuracy and quality of the TNIV, its critics waged an all-out campaign to bury this new translation.  Accusing the TNIV translators—many of them well-known, conservative scholars themselves—of stealthily promoting a liberal, feminist agenda, they appealed to the suspicions of Christians who were mostly ignorant of the process of biblical translation. Many people began signing protests and complaining to Christian bookstores and churches about the TNIV without adequately understanding the underlying issues.

Generally, when a Bible publisher releases an update of a translation, they stop selling the older version. But Zondervan, the publisher of the NIV and the TNIV, faced a tough choice. They were publishing a brand new translation that many saw as the rightful heir to the NIV; but the NIV (which hadn’t been updated since 1984) was still a bestseller, and they apparently didn’t want to kill the golden goose. So they decided to advertise the new TNIV while continuing to offer the familiar NIV. In actual practice, most of their energy and resources were dedicated to supporting the money-making NIV. Many observers felt this strategy was a mistake, effectively eliminating any possibility for the TNIV to succeed. The TNIV quickly got a reputation as ‘the best translation no one will ever read.’

In 2009, Zondervan sought to rectify this situation by announcing that a new edition of the NIV would be released in 2011, which would replace both the TNIV and the 1984 version of the NIV. Dubbed the NIV 2011, this latest version of the NIV was released to the public earlier this year. Soon after it was released, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a strongly-worded resolution opposing the new version. The reaction of many evangelical Christians was a weary, ‘Here we go again.’ Christianity Today published an editorial in response to the SBC resolution, titled Battle for the Bible Translation. The editorial was well-written, clearly explaining the relevant issues, and rightly decrying the divisive and unnecessary stance of the SBC.

CT’s editorial was posted online, and quickly began receiving comments in response. Unfortunately, these responses tended to reveal the ignorance and hostility of many of the critics. Despite a few commenters who oppose all functional translations (including the original NIV), most of the new NIV’s opponents showed through their comments that they have a naive and overly simplistic concept of Bible translation. Though some of these commenters seemed well-intentioned, many had an almost superstitious perception of how Bible versions are produced. Few seemed knowledgeable of the complexities of real translation. While a few critics expressed themselves graciously, others apparently felt no qualms about slanderously attributing erroneous motives—sometimes in shockingly mean-spirited language—to men who had dedicated their lives to serving the body of Christ.

After teaching from the NIV for years, I was an enthusiastic supporter of the TNIV, feeling that it was an excellent translation. My enthusiasm didn’t wane until I became discouraged by Zondervan’s surprising lack of support for their new translation. Happily, this discontent led me to examine the New Living Translation, and I’m now even more enthusiastic about this translation. While I refer to many versions in my studies, my primary reading Bible is the New Living Translation, and our church uses the NLT. I wish the NIV 2011 great success, but I don’t foresee ever returning to an NIV-family text as my go-to Bible for reading or teaching.

So I have no personal stake in this debate. But I am dismayed to see this kind of hostility expressed toward fellow believers, and for evangelical Christians to be so unknowledgeable and naive about the translating of Scripture. Such paranoia and religious McCarthyism have no place in the body of Christ and must be strongly opposed. Those who follow the way of truth must not fall prey to sensationalistic conspiracy theories. And it’s the responsibility of evangelical pastors and leaders to speak out.

I’ve already addressed the need for Christians to handle controversial issues in a loving, Christlike way. (Contentious Christians: How should we handle controversy?) The translation of God’s Word is obviously of extreme importance, and it’s appropriate for us to discuss issues related to Bible translation vigorously. But we must also do so with Christian love and with fairness. And we must do our homework first so we truly understand not only what we’re opposing and why, but why fellow Christians disagree with us. My next post on this topic will explore the specific characteristics that some people find questionable about the NIV 2011.

Related posts:

The NIV controversy, part 2

Which Bible version should I use?

Which Bible version should I use?

I regularly receive questions about Bible translations. ‘Why do we have so many versions of the Bible?’ ‘Why are they so different sometimes?’ ‘Which one should I use?’ Along with a vibrant prayer life, reading and studying the Scriptures are essential for our spiritual health. I want to take a few weeks to explore some simple principles for studying the Bible—principles that any believer can use. But before we discuss how to study the Bible, it’s helpful for all Christians to understand a little about the Bible itself and why we have different translations from which to choose.

The Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Greek and some short sections in Aramaic. Not many of us fluently read ancient Hebrew or Greek, so we can’t simply pick up these manuscripts and read them for ourselves. We need the Scriptures to be translated for us so we can read them in our own language and clearly understand what’s being communicated.

For many years, the common translation for most English-speaking Christians was the King James Version. But we no longer speak to each other in the archaic English used in the KJV. In fact, the language has changed to the point where many words found in the KJV have completely different, even opposite, meanings from what they meant in 1611 when the KJV was first published. Because of this, most people today find the KJV to be indecipherable or even misleading. The purpose of the KJV translators was to “deliver God’s book unto God’s people in a tongue they understand.” For most of us, this means choosing a modern translation—but which one? How do the translations differ from one another?

The most significant difference between the modern translations is how they’re translated. There are three basic approaches. Let me explain the different translation styles, and then we’ll compare them.

Some people say they prefer “literal” translations. While there is no truly literal, word-for-word translation, some Bible versions strive to be as close to the original languages as possible. They focus on the meanings of individual words, and they try to retain the original word order as much as they can. This is known as a formal approach to Bible translation. Examples of formal translations would be the New American Standard Bible (NASB), the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), and the English Standard Version (ESV).

Other Bibles are extremely free and dynamic in rendering the original into English. This kind of Bible is called a paraphrase. Paraphrases try to make the Bible as understandable and fresh as possible, but sometimes by going beyond the meaning of the text. The most well-known paraphrase currently is The Message.

Other translations aim for a median approach, striving for a thought-for-thought translation (which is the standard method of translating) as opposed to a word-for-word translation. Rather than focusing on individual words, these translations seek to accurately convey the meaning of whole phrases, sentences and paragraphs. Examples of these functional translations would be the New Living Translation (NLT), the New International Version (NIV), the New English Translation (NET), and the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB).

Which is the best kind of translation? It depends on how you intend to use it. All of these versions can be used effectively. But you’re also going to discover some limitations. For instance, anyone familiar with a foreign language will understand that a truly “literal,” word-for-word translation is seldom possible. The familiar Spanish phrase “como se llama,” would have to literally be translated as something like: “as it is called.” But anyone who knows even a little Spanish recognizes this isn’t what the phrase means. The “literal” translation doesn’t accurately convey the actual, literal meaning of the phrase. (Which is why we don’t translate that way.) To accurately translate the phrase, we have to put it into a corresponding, functional English phrase: “What is your name?”

A great way to illustrate how the different approaches work is to translate the French expression: J’ai le cafard. [I’m borrowing this illustration from James R. White’s book The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust the Modern Translations?] If we were to translate this as literally as possible, we would end up with: I have the cockroach. So now would you understand what your French friend is talking about? Not unless they were speaking of a literal cockroach (which they wouldn’t be). We haven’t really gotten that far, have we? We’ve translated the individual words into English, but we haven’t conveyed the idea the person is expressing. We’re as much in the dark as we were before. We’re still stuck with a sentence we don’t understand.

But what if we were to translate the whole phrase instead of just the individual words? What if we took what the entire expression means in French and conveyed it in clear English? Then we would have something like: I am depressed. Or—since this is a colorful French idiom—we could even try to find a similar English expression, such as: I have the blues. This is the functional approach. Since this method of translation conveys to us what the phrase really meant to the original speaker, it’s actually much more accurate in translating the meaning of the original than a strictly “literal” translation would be.

On the other hand, a very dynamic paraphrase will go to great lengths to make sure the phrase is understandable. A paraphrase of this French saying could be something like: I’m having a lousy day! This is definitely more expressive, but we have to be careful. The more freedom that’s taken in the paraphrase, the more the chance that accuracy will be sacrificed.

How does this actually work with Scripture? Let’s look at an example from Luke 9:44.

NASB
Let these words sink down into your ears; for the Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men.

NLT
Listen to me and remember what I say. The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of his enemies.

The Message
Treasure and ponder each of these next words: The Son of Man is about to be betrayed into human hands.

Which of these most accurately communicates the original meaning to us? Have you ever tried to get someone’s attention by telling them: “Hey, let these words sink down into your ears”? We just don’t speak that way, do we? The literal translation may tell us something about Greek colloquialisms, but it doesn’t communicate the actual meaning as clearly as the other two. But then, was Jesus telling the disciples to treasure and ponder each of his words? You can see how the paraphrase embellishes the actual meaning of the text. The NLT, though, gives us a very clear reading of the passage and one which is easily understood in our common language. So, in this example, the NLT most accurately translates the meaning of the text.

But some protest that they like the more formal translations because they “sound like the Bible” to them. For these people, when the Bible reads a little awkwardly or uses language that sounds holy or spiritual, it feels like the Word of God. (One example is what some of us call ‘Yoda translations.’ They’re called this because you can almost hear the familiar voice of the Star Wars character as you read the strange, backward sentence structure: “Fear not,” “Fret not yourself,” “From the fig tree learn its lesson,” etc. [examples from the ESV].)

Now, in one way, I wouldn’t want to argue with this perception because the best Bible for you is the one you’ll love and use. If this is merely a personal preference, that’s fine. But I also want us all to understand that this isn’t really a good way to evaluate a Bible version. You see, when the Bible was first written it didn’t sound like a religious text. To those who love the familiar cadence of traditional readings and word orders, the original Bible wouldn’t sound like the Bible! It was written in normal, everyday Hebrew and Greek, using common words and expressions. So if we want the Bible we’re reading to be as similar as possible to how the original Scriptures were read, they should be translated into common, everyday English.

Sometimes the literal translation may be a little cumbersome, but still understandable (as with “let these words sink down into your ears”). Sometimes the wording may just sound so odd that it inspires giggling, like calling Jesus a “winebibber” (Matthew 11:19 in the NKJV) or claiming that “the ants are a people not strong” (Proverbs 30:25 in the ESV, and notice again the strange, Yoda-like syntax).

Other times though, the “literal” wording actually obscures the true meaning. Continuing in Matthew 11:19, the NKJV tells us “wisdom is justified by her children.” What in the world is that supposed to mean? I’ve asked this many times of students, and I haven’t had one guess correctly (and they all had to guess). Compare that with the NLT reading: “wisdom is shown to be right by its results.” Isn’t this much more clear? Or what of the NASB’s statement from the Lord in Amos 4:6: “I gave you also cleanness of teeth in all your cities.” Is the meaning clear in English? (Does it have something to do with oral hygiene?) Because the meaning is perfectly clear in it’s original Hebrew context. Is this more understandable (again from the NLT): “I brought hunger to every city”? We shouldn’t need someone to translate the translation for us!

So am I suggesting that formal, “literal” translations serve no purpose? Not at all! They can be very helpful, particularly for those who teach and need to do word studies or get the feel of the original structure of the text. But for general reading, the formal translations are usually too wooden and frequently obscure the flow of the passage. Paraphrases also can be useful by expressing the text in a completely new way that can be fresh and thought-provoking. But we shouldn’t rely on paraphrases to determine the precise meaning of a certain passage. It’s best—especially for teachers—to compare different kinds of translations when studying the Bible. But for general reading and studying, I recommend choosing a functional translation.

Our church uses the New Living Translation (NLT), and I haven’t found any other translation that combines accuracy and clarity so effectively. A good test when comparing translations is to read whole chapters in a book such as Romans or 1 Corinthians, first in one translation and then the other. As you read, see which one makes it easier to follow the flow of thought in the passage. You won’t always understand the concepts that are communicated in Scripture, but if you can’t grasp even the wording in the passage, then it’s really not doing you much good to be reading it! I was delighted when I saw how refreshingly easy the NLT was to understand without sacrificing the accuracy of the text. For a teacher, this means I don’t have to waste time explaining an unclear translation; I can devote that time to actually talking about the main points of the passage.

One final tip for this week. If you don’t already have a good study Bible I encourage you to invest in one. The best introductory study Bible I’ve found is the Life Application Study Bible, and it’s available in the NLT. I’ll write more next week about why this is important, but for now, the Life Application Study Bible has generally balanced notes and tons of in-text maps and charts. It will answer a lot of your questions as you’re reading, and it makes studying the Bible more fun. (If you’d like to see some of the features of this study Bible, just click on the book cover to the right.) Next week, we’ll start looking at some tips for digging into the Bible on your own.

(For a Spanish translation, I recommend the Nueva Traducción Viviente [NTV]. And for those who will be teaching or who have moved beyond a beginner’s study Bible, my favorite study Bible is the NLT Study Bible. By the way, I should clarify that I don’t receive any form of payment for products I recommend.)

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use? [see above]

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle

Related posts:

The NIV controversy, part 1

The NIV controversy, part 2