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Given that both the humans who actually penned the Bible and the later humans who translated it all had free will, the issue of Biblical inerrancy is a tricky one.

See also: By what mechanism could the Bible be inerrant?

It is usually claimed that those transcribing and translating the text were working under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. While this may be true of some, it is also clear that not every translation project has even approached the work in good faith, much less under supernatural guidance. Some 'translations' are clearly contradictory with others, and others show obvious signs of a specific agenda being brought to the text. Others specifically state having a political bias going into the project (e.g. the Conservative Bible Project). Of course nearly every group or individual that produces a translation then goes on to claim that theirs is the "true" rendition of the text or meaning.

Since clearly not everyone that works on the Bible is guided by the Holy Spirit, how are we to know which translations are reliable? Are modern and ancient mainstream translations considered to be free from political agendas and personal bias? If so, how do we know?

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<removed obsolete comments> Question has been re-written in light of discussion from comments. –  Caleb Sep 30 '11 at 13:43
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3 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Cliche Christian answer: pray about it. I'm guessing that isn't the answer you're looking for though, so I will say "research."

For example, looking at Wikipedia you can see the New International Version "translation took ten years and involved a team of up to 100 scholars from the USA, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. The range of those participating included many different denominations such as Anglicans, Assemblies of God, Baptist, Christian Reformed, Lutheran and Presbyterian." Also, "Recent archaeological and linguistic discoveries helped in understanding traditionally difficult passages to translate."

Having a large team of international, inter-denominational scholars helps quite a bit to remove bias and helps to ensure an accurate translation. Then, using different discoveries gives further insight.

You can easily do this research (and more in depth research) for the other translations as well. I only used NIV as an example because it is what I see quoted most often. With so many scholars using so many different translations, it is usually pretty easy to find out when a translation is inaccurate.

If worried about bias, consider purchasing a parallel Bible so you can always compare two or three translations

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This is a good answer. –  Paul Sep 30 '11 at 15:15
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There is a danger of becoming a largest common denominator if many people work on a translation, especially with diverse groups. Your comment about using multiple bibles is very valid. Use bibles in different languages, from different times. –  Ralph M. Rickenbach Sep 30 '11 at 15:21
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A bible translation is deemed "trustworthy" according to how well it can translate the concepts described in one language into the vocabulary of another. The NIV does not do this well in a few cases. Every instance where it says "sinful nature," should really be translated as "flesh." "Sinful nature" denotes that sin can be a part of our human nature, whereas actually sin makes us less and less human (and therefore cannot be dubbed as a part of our human nature). A good bible translation is one that can convey timeless Gospel truths as best as possible. However, we must remember that translation is interpretation. And that in any translation it is impossible to not do some amount of interpretation.

People can denounce a translation as not being very accurate, but the real question at root is whether or not God can use a poor translation to bring about transformative change in a person and community's collective soul. So maybe instead of asking what is our basis for a good translation, we could be asking, is there any medium that God is not content to use in order to reach who he wants?

Not only that, but all text has an agenda. Scripture definitely has an agenda, to point us towards Christ. The real issue is trusting that the Holy Spirit has and does continue to guide the Church universal through means that we might deem "not good enough" if we were God. But then again, thanks be to God that God can work through any and everything to his glory.

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You can view this in different ways. I think the three viewpoints I'm going to tell about all have their merits.

The optimistic answer

Warning: don't apply the following reasoning to sectarian translations, e.g. the New World Translation. Seriously.

All (notable) Bible translations are very carefully created. Every one of them is trustworthy on all of the more important points. Any minor translation errors will be minor enough not to matter too much.

The realistic answer (in other words, what I recommend!)

All translations have errors. You should read different translations side-by-side (eg. using an online parallel Bible), and be careful with any translation choices that are found in only a few versions.

Practically, it's slow to do this for everything you read. It might suffice to do it only when in doubt.

The ultra-cynical answer

All translations have errors. Read the original, then. But some of the manuscripts have errors, too. And many things don't make sense to us, in a very different culture than which the texts were written in.

So become a Greek and Hebrew scholar, a historian, an archaeologist, a theologian, etc.

Or the less cynical variation: realize that sometimes a non-expert will need to do a lot of research. And they might still be wrong.

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