The Bible and Vernacular Translation


*Pastor’s Note: There are certain things I just won’t debate because it doesn’t edify the Body of Christ. However, when I teach something to others that may appear controversial, I do so with the authority of the Word of God and let others determine for themselves whether the teaching is considerate of changing a person’s ideas or even opinions.

One such subject, unfortunately is Bible translations into modern English from the Elizabethan, King James era. I still use the King James Bible, mainly for the prose, and I was born-again through the use of the King James Bible version. However, as I have matured, and have been called into the ministry of the Lord, and thus have had to study (to show myself approved) I have learned to rely on several different translations as well as Greek and Hebrew dictionaries.

I am not presenting this with the intent of trying to change someone’s mind. Actually what I am doing is for those who feel comfortable using other translations such as I do for study and reference and would like a clearer understanding of why there is nothing wrong with other translations. For those of you who are “dead set” on the King James Bible only, known by many as “Onlyism” this is not a lesson for you as you have made your minds up. I have ALWAYS found translation and translating a fascinating topic of study and when it comes to the Bible, I always refer TO the Bible!

From the King James Bible I like to rely on these two exceptional Scriptures:

Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. – 2 Corinthians 3:6.

“Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come.” – John 16:13.

I do NOT believe the Holy Spirit stopped inspiring man back in the 1600’s and decided the ENGLISH version only of the King James Bible had reached the peak of perfection. I believe God is STILL fully and totally in control when it comes to preserving His WHOLE Word, in context, when taken as a whole and not just word by word.

Now with that in mind, I have been reading a fantastic book called Authorized: The Use & Misuse of the King James Bible and I highly recommend it for anyone who is interested in translations as a whole. The Author, Mark Ward, takes a very sympathetic approach to the KJV as he himself was raised on it, but he also gives many reasons why it doesn’t hurt and is actually IMPORTANT to use other translations if you are going to do any kind of witnessing to those around you, especially in the case of English speaking people.

So, the following is an excerpt from that book that I found very, very interesting and my hope is that you will too. I am witness to the fact that you are NEVER to old to keep learning something new in the Lord!

P.S. Pictures added and not part of the original article.

pd bible translations

The Value of the Vernacular

The by-laws of Christian publishing require at least one chapter in each Christian book to begin with a C. S. Lewis quote. I am a great lover of Narnia and Perelandra, so I am happy to oblige. Lewis, a celebrated literature professor, philologist, and master of English prose, wrote in a foreword to a new Bible translation:

The truth is that if we are to have translation at all we must have periodical re-translation. There is no such thing as translating a book into another language once and for all, for a language is a changing thing. If your son is to have clothes it is no good buying him a suit once and for all: he will grow out of it and have to be reclothed.

Old Testament expert David J. A. Clines gives this advice for scholars studying the KJV: “As with Shakespeare, a commentator should look up the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) for every word [in the KJV].” Regular Bible readers could feasibly do this too. But this is a rather generous definition of “feasibly.” Normally, translations are provided so that people don’t have to look up words.

But why? Why shouldn’t the Bible be in its own special language, befitting its own special status? Indeed, why not leave it in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek? In Islam, only the authoritative Arabic version of the Qur’an is considered to be truly Allah’s word; translation introduces too many possibilities for human judgment—and therefore for error.

Some Christians have lapsed into a similar view, anointing one language (such as Latin) or one translation (such as the Vulgate) above all others and refusing to let common people worship or read the Bible in their own language.

But in the beginning of the church, it was not so. From the earliest days Christians have thought it important to worship God with and translate the Bible into vernacular languages—the languages spoken by ordinary people.

Why? Because the Bible tells us so.

The Bible and Vernacular Translation

The Old Testament provides only hints toward the value of vernaculars, largely because the Old Testament people of God were never given a Great Commission; they were never told to take God’s word actively out into the world. However, they were called to be a “kingdom of priests,” a “holy nation” mediating the presence and word of God to surrounding Gentiles. On those relatively rare occasions when Jewish prophets spoke directly to those Gentiles, as in the story of Jonah, they presumably used words their hearers could understand. Otherwise, how would the Ninevites have known to repent?

And when the Jewish people themselves lost their ability to speak Hebrew while in exile (though the priests apparently maintained it), the Bible had to be translated for them. Upon their return to the promised land, Ezra and the other priests “read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Nehemiah 8:8). It’s not perfectly certain what “gave the sense” means—whether a translation or an explanation or both. But at some point before the time of Christ, enough Jews stopped speaking Hebrew that the Hebrew Bible had to be translated into Greek, producing what we now call the Septuagint.

It is indeed the Great Commission that most clearly demands vernacular Bible translation (and vernacular worship) for Christians today (Matthew 28:19–20). Simply put, how can Christ’s followers teach the nations to observe everything he has commanded them if those things aren’t translated out of Hebrew and Greek and into languages people understand?

And vernacular translation is actually inside the New Testament itself. The New Testament apostles quote the Septuagint, itself a vernacular translation. The Septuagint is man-on-the-street Greek rather than literary or classical Greek. Also, I’ve always loved the little efforts in the New Testament to “translate” not-so-very-old, or merely foreign, words and customs for the intended reading audience. These provide valuable examples of the vernacular principle. The New Testament authors translate words from Talitha cumi (“Little girl, arise”) to Immanuel (“God with us”) to Rabbi (“teacher”) to Tabitha (“Dorcas” [“gazelle”]) to Barnabas (“son of encouragement”) for the reader. (The Old Testament does this too, in 1 Samuel: “Today’s ‘prophet’ was formerly called a seer.”)

But there is one passage above all others that most clearly explains the importance of vernacular languages in Christianity. It’s Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 14.

In that chapter, Paul could merely have told the self-important Corinthians what to do: prophesy far more often than you speak in tongues. But instead he trained their minds to think like him by repeatedly providing the “why” behind his instructions. Here’s the why: edification. Building up. Instructing. Encouraging. Over and over in this chapter (by my count, seven times), Paul makes basically the same argument: use intelligible speech rather than unintelligible, because only the former does any good for people.

If with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.

Paul was all for speaking in tongues. But he actually instructed someone gifted by the Holy Spirit with a tongue to sit down and be quiet if there was no interpreter present (1 Corinthians 14:28). That’s how important it is that speech in church be understandable—because without understandable speech, there can be no edification.

It is true that Paul is contrasting the understandable with the completely foreign here—like English vs. Russian or Tamil or Jambi Malay. But the principle remains the same even when contrasting two versions of what is basically the same language—like contemporary English vs. Elizabethan English. If certain words or constructions make no sense to contemporary speakers (or make the wrong sense), Paul cares too much about edification to let this happen without complaint. That would be like inserting nonsense syllables into your erganomock. I feel quite certain that Paul would have a firm snelbanjaloo against such a practice.

And very important for our purposes, Paul also raises the possibility of a non-Christian entering the service. And his instruction is the same: if you use unintelligible language, you will do no good. In fact, the unbeliever will just think you’re crazy (14:23). By contrast, Paul expected regular, vernacular prophesying to be accessible to the unbeliever:

If all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you. (14:24–25)

The KJV translators put it this way when translating verse 9 in this passage: “Except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken?”

No translation can make the entire Bible “easy to be understood,” because some of it is “hard to be understood” (2 Peter 3:16). But a good translation will do its best to use language the unbeliever can be convicted by. It will use the vernacular.

pd bible in world
*If you are interested in this amazing and insightful book, you can find it on Logos.com if you utilize the Logos Software, or you can find it at your favorite Christian booksellers and at Amazon.com at the following link with an insightful review as well:
https://www.amazon.com/Authorized-Misuse-King-James-Bible/dp/1683590554/
It is well worth the purchase and the time in reading and studying.

Mark Ward, Authorized: The Use & Misuse of the King James Bible, ed. Elliot Ritzema, Lynnea Fraser, and Danielle Thevenaz (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018)

About Roland Ledoux

Pastor of Oasis Bible Ministry, an outreach ministry of intercessory prayer, encouragement and exhortation of the Word of God and author of the ministry blog, For The Love of God. I live in Delta, Colorado with my beautiful wife of 50+ years and a beautiful yellow lab whom we affectionately call Bella.
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