Translation or Interpretation?

Written by Drew on May 28th, 2006

Recently, an article I submitted to one of our brotherhood publications was revised by the editor. To support a claim that human life was to be regarded with respect, I cited the English Standard Version’s translation of Psalm 8:4-5:

What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.

The editor altered the rendering to the King James Version, which reads,

What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? for thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour (emphasis added).

First let me say that I believe an editor has every right to revise articles submitted to him for publication. He is the one who will be held responsible for what is printed, and he has to make changes to ensure the credibility of his paper.

That being said, I would like to use this example as a springboard for a discussion of the ethics of translation. When do we consider a translation to be accurate or inaccurate? And what standards must translators use to ensure they are translating the Bible and not interpreting it?

Elohim
Upon comparing the ESV and KJV on Psalm 8, I decided that the decision to change my wording was based on the ESV’s choice of the phrase “heavenly beings” over the KJV’s “angels.” Interestingly enough, the word in question is elohim, the most frequently used title for the true God in the Old Testament. It is curious that, although the word is used numerous times, this is the only place in which the KJV translates it “angels.”

Elohim is the plural of eloah, meaning “God” or “god.” Usually, however, it is not intended as a true plural when used of Jehovah. Instead, it expresses a “plural of majesty.” This is seen in the fact that elohim is consistently used with singular verb forms and with adjectives and pronouns in the singular, making for awkward grammar but fascinating theology (Theological Wordbook of the OT, p. 44). The sentence construction is consistent with what we see in the first chapter of Genesis, where Moses tells us, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness'” (Gen. 1:26). This mysterious mixing of plural subjects and singular verbs teaches accurately the doctrine of the Godhead: three persons in one divine essence (cf. Mt. 28:19).

The original wording explains why the ASV and NASB render Psalm 8:5, “Yet thou hast made him a little lower than God…” (emphasis added). Following their lead, the CEV says, “You made us a little lower than you yourself….”

The ESV obviously went with a literal translation. However, not wanting to be as strong as some of the other versions, it stopped short of using the term “God” and went with “heavenly beings,” leaving the reader to use the context to decide whether David meant God or the angels. I see nothing wrong with this decision. David had a Hebrew word available to him if he wanted to speak of angels (malak), but he chose to use elohim. It seems to me that we need to respect that.

Hebrews 2:9
There’s more to the issue, though, than meets the eye. After the lexicons have been consulted, one must also consider supplemental evidence. This is where it gets tricky.

The Septuagint (LXX) is a Greek translation of the Old Testament, produced sometime between the third to the first century BC. For reasons unknown to us, the translators of the Septuagint rendered the Hebrew elohim in Psalm 8:5 angelos, a Greek word specifying “angels.”

The writer of Hebrews evidently had a deep respect for the Septuagint, varying from it only rarely for “interpretational purposes” (F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, p. xlix). Thus, he quoted from the Septuagint when he penned Hebrews 2:9, which speaks of salvation through Christ: “But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” Such closes a lengthy quotation from Psalm 8, which begins at verse 6 (notice the phrase “it has been testified somewhere”).

Undoubtedly the Septuagint or Hebrews 2:9 was responsible for the KJV’s choice of the word “angels” in Psalm 8:5. In either case, the translators used supplemental evidence to arrive at their conclusion and did not go with the literal reading. That is not to say this is an inappropriate means of interpreting Scripture. In essence what they did was compare their text with an inspired commentary in order to arrive at a conclusion. But was it the right decision relative to translation?

Observations
1. Because of the evidence provided by Hebrews 2:9, I see nothing especially wrong with the KJV’s rendering of Psalm 8:5. Even though its scholars translated elohim “angels” in only this one case, they had the backing of an inspired writer when they did it (Heb. 2:9).

2. But I don’t see the problem with the ESV’s phrase “heavenly beings.” With it you get the best of both worlds. It shows respect for the Hebrews citation, because angels are included in “heavenly beings,” but it is also a literal translation of elohim, which, literally speaking, is the plural form of “God.”

3. When editors solicit articles from other authors, they ought to give the submissions the benefit of the doubt. While they have every right to revise articles appearing in their publications, they ought to do so only when it is absolutely necessary.

4. When editors do feel it necessary to change an author’s work, they ought to have the goal of clarity in mind. Altering my work to include a translation with words like “art,” “visitest,” “hast,” and “honour” in it only made it more difficult to read.

5. Some preachers and teachers harbor undue suspicion towards all modern translations. But a Bible doesn’t have to bear the name “King James” in order to be an accurate translation of the original Greek. I don’t agree with every decision made by the translators of the ESV (cf. Mal. 2:16; Rom. 10:10), but for the most part it is an excellent translation. Considering the way the English language has evolved, it is far riskier to use the KJV in writing and teaching.

6. Finally, when comparing two translations the question ought to be, “Which is closer to a translation, and which reads more like an interpretation?” The ESV, being more literal, comes closer to being a translation.

It’s good to talk about experiences like mind, for they demonstrate the process of translation and the principles that ought to govern it. More discussions like this will help to inform Christians about the Bibles they use for study and reflection upon God’s will.

Or maybe it’s just sour grapes.

 

13 Comments so far ↓

  1. Daniel says:

    Drew,

    I wonder if the editor just quotes all references in KJV as a matter of uniformity. He may have just reasoned since most quotes in the paper are KJV, all should be in KJV. He probably hasn’t put as much thought as you have into the KJV vs ESV on this issue.

    I grew up on KJV and ASV “diet.” I still remember many verses in KJV/ASV. Personally, I use an ESV. I appreciate it in the OT especially. However, recently in my own observation when comparing text, I have found that the ASV (1901) maybe closer to the Greek, than the ESV. But, I still use the ESV.

    I’d have to do some further digging, but it seems the KJV is based on an older set of manuscripts than ESV, or ASV. I know other MSS have been found since 1611. Does anyone else know this off the top of their heads?

    Did the editor reveal why the change? It may be innocent, or just a matter of uniformity.

    Daniel

  2. almcfaughn says:

    Drew,

    Another excellent article, and a subject (translations) that needs to be discussed often.

    While I do not want to get into a “this translation is better than that one” argument, let me share a short story recently passed on to me from a congregation not far from here.

    A man I know well recently read a passage from the New King James Version at a congregation that uses the KJV almost exclusively. After services an elderly man (he said probably in his 80s) came up to him and said he wanted to talk about “that Bible you have there.” Of course, the reader was scared and thought he had offended this older gentleman by using the NewKJV.

    Not the case! The older gentleman asked a question about it and then said something along these lines: “I think I need to change to that–I actually understood it.”

    Here is an older man who gets it. As long as the translation is faithful to the text (and, while the New King James isn’t perfect, it is still very reliable), a student of God’s Word needs to get a translation he/she can understand.

  3. James Jones says:

    Great article. I have enjoyed the ESV as well. I have a booklet entitled “Preferencing the KJV.” It lists reasons why the author prefers it over the KJV. As I went through the arguments, I found that they could be applied to the KJV as well. I am not a KJV hater. I am just disappointed when I witness such biases that it reaches the point of inconsistency. I was challenged to face my inconisistent beliefs. Because I was challenged, I am now in the Lord’s body, and not in a denomination. It is my prayer that brethren will be careful in their conclusions when it comes to what they believe and why.

  4. James Jones says:

    Whooops. The booklet was preferencing the KJV over the NKJV. Sorry about the typo.

  5. Drew Kizer says:

    Actually, Daniel, the KJV, translated in 1611, was based on later manuscripts than the “modern” translations, especially with regard to the Greek NT. At the time the KJV was translated, the most valuable NT manuscripts had not been discovered: the Vatican, the Sinaitic, the Alexandrian, and the Ephraem Manuscripts. Since that time these have been found and used as even better witnesses to the original inspired text.

    Quoting the preface to the ESV: “The ESV is based on the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible as found in Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (2nd ed., 1983), and on the Greek text in the 1993 editions of the Greek New Testament (4th corrected ed.), published by the United Bible Societies (UBS), and Novum Testamentum Graece (27th ed.), edited by Nestle and Aland…. The ESV is an ‘essentially literal’ translation that seeks as far as possible to capture the precise wording of the original text and the personal style of each Bible writer. As such, its emphasis is on ‘word-for-word’ correspondence, at the same time taking into account differences of grammarr, syntax, and idiom between current literary English and the original languages. Thus it seeks to be transparent to the original text….”

  6. Scott says:

    Thanks for an excellent article. I have done some research on translation philosophies and spoke on the subject a time or two. We need to be concerned about some of the looser translations out there, but we need to make sure we are making sound arguments when we discuss the issue. I have used the ESV sometimes and I like it. I, like you, do not always agree with how they have translated every verse, but for the most part I think they have done a good job. The translators of the ESV have written some great books and articles on translation. “The Word of God in English” by Leland Ryken is one.

  7. Kevin Rhodes says:

    I agree with almost everything written here. The ESV is not a perfect translation, but it certainly outclasses most modern versions, even though I still prefer the NKJV. I will second Scott’s recommendation of Leland Ryken’s “The Word of God in English.” It is specific in many ways to the ESV, but it also addresses the problems of functional equivalence translation theory. Drew is correct about the age of the manuscripts that came after 1611, though I might dispute whether or not they are better. (I find many flaws and contradictions with reasoned eclecticism theory. No, I am not a Textus Receptus man.)

    On another note regarding Drews original post, since Elohim literally means something along the line of “Mighty One(s),” I would argue that heavenly beings is not a bad translation at all. This point also enters into Jesus’ usage of “god” in John 10:34-35.

    However, as someone who has done some editing, I believe the first comment is the most likely explanation. I myself continue to use KJV references in my writing for the sake of uniformity, even though I preach from the NKJV.

    As usual, good job, Drew.

  8. Wayne Leman says:

    For reasons unknown to us, the translators of the Septuagint rendered the Hebrew elohim in Psalm 8:5 angelos, a Greek word specifying “angels.”

    And according to your post, this LXX translation would be closer to an interpretation, would it not?

    Thanks for your interesting post.

  9. Will Kenney says:

    There is a huge difference between the King James Bible’s translation of Psalm 8:5 and those of many modern versions. The KJB tells us that we were made a little lower than angels.

    Psalm 8:5 “For thou hast made him a little lower than THE ANGELS, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.”

    However, many modern versions tell us that we were made a little lower than God himself.

    ASV, Catholic Jerusalem bible – For thou hast made him but little lower than God, And crownest him with glory and honor.

    RSV, Holman Standard, NASB “You made him LITTLE LESS THAN GOD.”

    NRSV 1989 – “you have made them a little lower than God”, but
    footnotes: ‘or than divine beings or angels’

    The Message – “Yet WE’VE SO NARROWLY MISSED BEING GODS, bright with Eden’s dawn light.”

    Young’s – “a little less than Godhead.”

    NIV, ESV – “You made him a little lower than THE HEAVENLY BEINGS”

    Daniel Wallace’s Gender Bender NET version reads: “Of what importance is the human race, that you should notice them? Of what importance is mankind, that you should pay attention to them and make them a little less than the heavenly beings? You grant mankind honor and majesty.”

    Brother John Hinton, Ph.D., a strong King James Bible defender, of Bible Restoration Ministry rightly comments: “Does it make sense to say that we are made a little lower than God? This implies what Hindus, New Agers, Mormons and other pagans say about man being bound for godhood. If we are a little lower than God, can we not work a little harder and become gods ourselves? This idea was actually presented to mankind in the Bible. It was presented to Eve through the mouth of Satan in the garden of Eden.

    Genesis 3:5 “for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be AS GODS, knowing good and evil.”

    “This is, of course, a lie and it contradicts the entire Bible. We are vile sinners that are lost and on our way to hell if not for the grace granted to us by Christ. If we were just a little lower than God without a Saviour, what would we become once we are lifted up by a Saviour? Ask a high level Mormon for the answer to that question.
    Spiritual discernment alone tells us that elohim does not mean God in this verse. Our alleged slightly lower status than God’s is the message of the serpent, not of God’s Word.”

    “The Book of Hebrews not only explains the verse, but it actually quotes it, and it does translate elohim with the Greek word for angels. It should be noted that even the corrupt Westcott-Hort and Nestle-Aland pseudo-texts also have ‘angelous’ in this passage.
    Hebrews 1:6-7 But one in a certain place testified, saying, What is man, that thou art mindful of him? or the son of man, that thou visitest him? Thou madest him a little lower than THE ANGELS; thou crownedst him with glory and honour, and didst set him over the works of thy hands.” – (John Hinton)

    A member at our Which Version club (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/
    whichversion/) posted a link to a Christian blog in which the author was criticizing the reading found in the King James Bible. It is of utmost importance to point out that neither this member nor the man who wrote the blog believes any Bible is the pure and inspired words of God. I have found this to be true of every person who criticizes the King James Bible. In fact, so you will know where he is coming from, here are his own words which he posted at our Which Version bible club: “The ESV is my favorite. I’m certain it’s not perfect though. And yes, I believe only the originals are inspired… I don’t have to defend a particular translation, and I have no need to believe any bible out there in any language is the complete, pure and infallible words of God that I can go out and get a copy of at Walmart. I don’t see such a belief as this warranted by scriptures themselves.”

    Obviously this man does not believe any Bible on this earth is the pure and 100% true words of God. He doesn’t even consider the version he prefers and uses to criticize the King James Bible to be the infallible words of God. Such is the mentality of all Bible Critics.

    Let’s examine some of his thoughts. First of all, it is clear that he sets up his own mind and understanding as his final authority. He has no infallible Bible, and doesn’t even always agree with his own ESV.

    Secondly, how can the phrase “heavenly beings” possibly refer to God?
    I can see the likelihood of it referring to angels, but not to God.
    Heavenly “beingS” is plural, but there is only one God. The Bible never refers to God as “heavenly beingS”. Is he now promoting the multiple Gods theory?

    Thirdly, his argument about “this is the only time the KJV translates the Hebrew word as angels”, and “David had a Hebrew word for “angels”
    but he chose Elohim” totally breaks down under the weight of blatant hypocrisy.

    There are numerous examples in all bible versions of translating a particular Hebrew or Greek word usually one way, but only once another way. In fact, the ESV’s own phrase “heavenly beings” is the only time it is so translated. In addition to this, not only does the ESV translate the Hebrew Elohim as God or gods, but also as “MIGHTY wrestlings” (Genesis 30:8); “a VERY GREAT panic” (1 Samuel 14:15; and “Nineveh was an EXCEEDING great city”.

    Likewise, the NASB and NIV also translate this same Hebrew word Elohim as “divine, divine being, exceedingly, the JUDGE (Exodus 22:8,9), great, RULER, and even “shrine” (NASB – Judges 17:5). The NIV even translates the ‘literal’ SONS OF GOD three times as “the ANGELS” in Job 1:6; 2:1, and 38:7.

    The argument about David having a special word for “angel” and not using it here also falls apart when we look not only at the King James Bible but also at the NASB, NIV, NKJV, RSV, NRSV, and his favorite though not inspired ESV. All of these versions take a completely different Hebrew word and translate it as “Man did eat ANGEL’S food” in Psalm 78:25. In fact, this single Hebrew word Abbeer is translated in the modern versions as “angels (by the way, only once), bulls, strong, valient, stouthearted, mighty ones, and chiefest.”

    Fourthly, when this Bible corrector talks about “the original Greek”, he’s hoping you will not notice that there is no such animal as “the original Greek”, and he wouldn’t know what it looked like if it fell on his head. There are currently some 25 very different printed Greek texts, all of which often differ from each other in thousands of words, and nobody considers any of them to be the pure, complete, and infallible words of God. The RSV omits some 45 entire verses from the New Testament, while the NIV omits 17 plus a couple thousand other words, and the ESV omits more whole verses than the NIV, but not as many as the previous RSV. When he speaks of “the original Greek” he doesn’t really have anything specific in mind, but merely wants you to think he believes in something he knows doesn’t really exist.

    And finally, have you ever noticed that almost every “No bible is inspired or inerrant” guy out there always takes his potshots at the King James Bible? Why not attack all the other “Your guess is as good as mine” ballpark approximation versions? I believe it is for the very same reason that only Christianity is publicly mocked and ridiculed, and not the other world religions. Satan hates the Truth, and that is what he always attacks.

    As we shall see in a moment, the King James Bible is by no means the only Bible version to correctly render this word as ANGELS in Psalm 8:5. Many other translators disagree with our Bible Rummager here, and believe the word Elohim refers to angels in this verse in Psalms.

    Let it be known that I do not hold any “scholar” or commentator to be my final authority for what the true words of God are. My final written authority is the Authorized King James Holy Bible, and nothing else. Scholars constantly disagree with each other regarding what they think the proper texts should be, what they mean, and how they should be translated. What one scholar confidently affirms, another just as firmly denies. I merely mention the comments of a few of them here so you can see that not all of them agree with the KJB critics.

    Adam Clarke actually says: “The original is certainly very emphatic:
    Thou hast lessened him for a little time from God. Or, Thou hast made him less than God for a little time.” This absurd comment implies that man will some day be equal to God, doesn’t it?

    John Gill discusses both readings of “God” and “angels” and the reasoning for both, and concludes: “but since the word is rendered “angels” by the Chaldee paraphrase, the Septuagint interpreters, the Jewish commentators, Aben Ezra, Jarchi, Kimchi, and Ben Melech, and in the Arabic, Syriac, and Ethiopic versions, and above all by the author of the epistle to the Hebrews, it is best to interpret it of them (the angels).”

    Surprisingly, Jamieson, Fausset and Brown agree with the King James reading – “God has placed man next in dignity to angels, and but a little lower, and has crowned him with the empire of the world.”

    John Calvin goes either way,(with angels in his footnotes) and says:”The Septuagint render Elohim, by angels, of which I do not disapprove, since this name, as is well known, is often given to angels.”

    Matthew Henry agrees with the KJB reading, saying: “he is made but a little lower than the angels, lower indeed, because by his body he is allied to the earth and to the beasts that perish, and yet by his soul, which is spiritual and immortal, he is so near akin to the holy angels that he may be truly said to be but a little lower than they, and is, in order, next to them. He is but for a little while lower than the angels, while his great soul is cooped up in a house of clay, but the children of the resurrection shall be isangeloi– angels’ peers (Luke 20:36) and no longer lower than they.”

    John Wesley concurs: “Thou hast in Christ mercifully restored man to his primitive estate, wherein he was but one remove below the angels; from which he was fallen by sin.”

    King James Bible and the other Bible Versions.

    Other versions that read Psalm 8:5 just as the King James Bible with:
    “For thou hast made him a little lower than the ANGELS” are the 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation, the 1936 Hebrew Publishing Company’s translation, the 1998 Complete Jewish Bible, and the Judiaca Press Complete Tanach of 2005. Thus we see that four of the most common Jewish translations into English read “angels” just as the King James Bible. These Jewish scholars might know a little more about the meaning of their own native language than some wannabe scholar who took a year or two of Hebrew in seminary.

    In addition to these Jewish translations we also have these other Bible translations that agree with the King James reading of
    “angels”: The Latin Vulgate 425 A.D.; Clementine Vulgate, Wycliffe 1395, Coverdale 1535, Bishops’ Bible 1568, Webster’s 1833 translation, Darby 1870, Las Sagradas Escrituras 1569, the Spanish Reina Valera 1909, 1960, 1995, the 1997 La Biblia de las Américas, the Italian Diodati 1602, Lamsa’s 1933 translation of the Syriac Peshitta, the Dutch Staten Vertaling (dan de engelen), the Modern Greek Bible used throughout the Greek Orthodox churches today, the Portuguese O Livro 2000, the Catholic Douay version 1950, the Catholic St. Joseph New American Bible 1970, New Century Version 1991, New Life Bible 1969, the Living Bible (but the New Living Bible has “God”), the NKJV 1982, the KJV 21st Century Version 1994, and the Third Millenium Bible 1998.

    Another textual issue concerning the New Testament text that quotes Psalm 8 in Hebrews chapter 2 should be addressed. This shows the utter confusion among the modern “Every man for himself” versionists.

    In Hebrews 2:7 we see the complete quote which agrees with the Hebrew text of Psalm 8:5-6. In the King James Bible we read: “Thou madest him a little lower than the angels; thou crownedst him with glory and honour, AND DIDST SET HIM OVER THE WORKS OF THY HANDS.”

    This is the reading found in a vast multitude of manuscripts including Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus, C, D, the Old Latin copies ar, b, d, and v, the Latin Vulgate, the Syriac Peshitta, Harkelian, Coptic Sahidic and Boharic, the Armenian, Ethiopic, Georgian and Slavonic ancient versions. It is also the reading found in Wycliffe 1395, Tyndale, Coverdale, Bishops’s Bible, Geneva Bible, Luther’s German, the Spanish Reina Valera 1909-1995, Douay-Rheims, Italian Diodati, and the NKJV.

    Even Westcott and Hort included these words in their first critical text and the words are found in many modern versions that were based on the WH text including: Weymouth, the Revised Version, American Standard Version, the NASB, Amplified, New Life Version and even in the blasphemous rag called The Message.

    However the UBS critical texts have now once again changed their texts and now omit these words, and so do the NIV, RSV, ESV, Holman Standard and the NET version by Daniel Wallace.

    Daniel Wallace gives us these silly footnotes for omitting the words “and didst set him over the works of thy hands”: “Several witnesses, many of them early and important (? A C D* P ? 0243 0278 33 1739 1881 al lat co), have at the end of v 7, “You have given him dominion over the works of your hands.” Other mss, not quite as impressive in weight, lack the words (Ì46 B D2 Ï). In spite of the impressive external evidence for the longer reading, it is most likely a scribal addition to conform the text of Hebrews to Ps 8:6.”

    So, in spite of the fact that the two “oldest and best” manuscripts upon which most modern fake bibles are based (Sinaiticus and
    Vaticanus) differ from each other, and the Hebrew texts read the same way as does the KJB reading in Hebrews 2:7, good ol’ Daniel “scribal error” Wallace has decided to also omit these inspired words from the book of the LORD. The modern Bible Babel versions do not even agree among themselves both in texts and meanings in literally hundreds of verses. Small wonder that more and more Christians today openly confess that they do not believe in the inerrancy of Scripture.

    The King James Bible is always right. Accept no substitutes.

  10. Will Kinney says:

    Hi Drew, I very much appreciate your attitude of fairness in allowing my rather long comments to appear on your blog. Many people would not have allowed them.

    If you or anyone else is interested in taking a hard look at some concrete criticisms of the ESV from the point of view of a King James Bible believer like myself, I have written an article about it.

    http://www.geocities.com/brandplucked/ESV.html

    Thanks to all for their interest in this vital subject.

    Accepted in the Beloved,

    Will Kinney

  11. almcfaughn says:

    Will said that the King James is “always right.” I would like for him to explain something to me, then, if that is the case. Will, could you please explain why the word “Easter” appears in Acts 12:4 if there is no way it EVER appeared in any original mss?

    Thank you for explaining this.

  12. Paul says:

    While the KJV is a reliable version, I’ve grown accustomed to using what I call “the big 3.” ESV, NASB, and the NKJV.

    No, Will, The KJV is not always right. How about the error of using “baptize?” Shouldn’t the word have been immersed?

  13. David Reber says:

    Drew, thanks for the post and the comments listed. I have studied the KJV for nearly 20 years and recently started reading the NKJV and have been pleased. I have had questions about the ESV. Based on your post and most of the comments it seems these three versions are prevalent amongst your readers.

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