Who Chooses The Actual Words In The Bible?

Have you ever thought about the individuals who actually translate Scripture?

One thing’s for sure: they’re a lot smarter than I am.

Scholars dedicate large chunks of their lives to studying ancient languages. They dissect and fuss over difficult manuscripts. They tirelessly search for the proper words to convey the true meaning of God’s word.

But let’s remember something—they’re human beings. The original authors of Scripture were inspired by the Holy Spirit, but the translators are ordinary people. They work through the prism of their perceptions and biases. As much as these dedicated folks seek wisdom and guidance, they’re subject to the same human flaws as the rest of us.

What if experts disagree?
Last time we discussed a few of the difficulties encountered when ancient languages are rendered into modern terminology (When Words Aren’t Quite That Simple). So when disagreements arise, it’s natural to wonder how they’re resolved.

Modern translations are mostly done by committees, and sometimes they don’t reach agreement. That’s one reason for the notes at the end of most chapters. For example, the NIV includes the following footnote to Matthew 21:

Matthew 21:44 “Some manuscripts do not have verse 44.”

This means that the group believed that evidence weighed in favor of including the verse, but they wanted to note the minor discrepancy.

I’m encouraged by this kind of transparency.

Can we trust that it’s right?
Cynics claim that disagreements indicate a lack of authority. If even the experts can’t agree, how can we know what it’s really supposed to say? And if it’s always changing, how can we know what’s “right”? Don’t these human translation issues mean we can’t really trust the Bible?

Some factual responses:

  • No ancient text has been as carefully or thoroughly studied and authenticated than the Bible.
  • Translation always involves judgment, even from one modern language to another. Disclosure of disagreements demonstrates the translators’ sincere desire to get it right.
  • Translations evolve as language and knowledge evolve. Continuing changes are evidence of an ongoing search for understanding.
  • The Bible contains hundreds of thousands of words derived from ancient handwritten manuscripts. A fractional percentage of minor discrepancies doesn’t alter the main story of God’s revelation.

I think it’s important to understand that translation is an essential aspect of understanding Scripture. When we remember that translation is a human process, we’re encouraged to dig deeper, avoid getting caught up in petty disputes about particular words, and continually seek the real message of God’s word.

How does the influence of human translators impact your view and study of Scripture?