If you read Greek or Hebrew, you soon discover that the biblical texts were speaking to cultures very different than our own. Taking about 1300 years to complete, the readers of this ancient text had different cultures, different languages, different struggles, and different mores. Therefore, you have to imagine how the Bible hit their ears.
For example, living in cultures without cars, asphalt and concrete, and close-toed shoes would have heard the command to wash feet as an act of service or hospitality in a much different way that we do who have all those conveniences. We who wear socks and at the end of day do not have feet caked with the day’s dust.
If you add the nearly two thousand years that have passed since the writing of the last book of the biblical canon, you have huge obstacles to overcome as you try to convey the words of that ancient book to our modern culture. There are those who mistakenly believe that the language of the Bible is fixed, frozen in linguistic time. But it is easy to see that such is not the case. Not even the venerable King James translation is easily read by a modern reader.
A modern reader who is very committed to social justice and loving one’s neighbor will find the Bible’s sometime indifference to slavery or treating women as property will most certainly zoom out to look at the whole message of scripture and arrive at very different conclusions.
A Christian blogger took on this question by listing some of the KJV passages that are difficult to understand.
- “…he is able to succour them that are tempted” (Heb 2:18)
- “…not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh” (Col 2:23)
- “Fret not thyself in any wise to do evil” (Ps 37:8)
Look up these passages in any modern translation from the last 50 years, and you will be amazed at how easy they become to understand when expressed in the language of your own time and culture. Attempting to be faithful to the original text, translators are faced with the enormous challenge of capturing what the biblical writers were attempting to say to their audiences.
An alert modern reader will, most certainly, want the Bible to speak to the needs and education of the contemporary reader. Most Bible bookstores will feature Bibles for sale that are aimed at readers with a fifth-grade education. More scholarly translations like the New Revised Standard Version (translated to the ninth grade) have to be purchased online because fewer people like its level of writing.
The Bible is a living text, not meant to be read in a wooden way. It is timeless in its principles but how those go applied in ancient cultures were often very different. In the last of this series we will look at the linguistic differences in translations.