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Reliance on Bible Translations

ScribeI'm currently in the process of reading Hector Avalos's book, The End of Biblical Studies. One of the things I was struck by reading the first chapter is just how dependent most of us are on translators when reading the Bible. After all, the good book wasn't written in English, and most us can't speak ancient Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic, so we really do put a lot of trust in translators to deliver a text that accurately reflects what the original writers intended.

Sometimes, however, there's reason to question that accuracy. Avalos discussed the passage in Genesis 2:18-19. Here are three popular translations of that passage. Pay close attention to the timing of the events described.

From the New International Version (NIV):

18 The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

19 Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.


From the King James Version (KJV):

18 And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.

19 And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.


From the New Living Translation (NLT):

18 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper who is just right for him.” 19 So the Lord God formed from the ground all the wild animals and all the birds of the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would call them, and the man chose a name for each one.


From the NIV translation, using the tense 'had formed' in verse 19, makes the timing a bit ambiguous. It's not clear whether God created the animals before or after he created Adam. The KJV definitely seems to imply that the creation of the animals came after Adam. And according to the the NLT, it's quite obvious that Adam came first. Of course, if the NLT is accurate, it would be a contradiction with the creation story presented in the first chapter of Genesis, where animals and birds were created before humans. Something as seemingly minor as verb tense can have major implications for the varying interpretations of the Bible.

Discussing the NIV translation, after making the same points I did above, here's what Avalos had to say.

However, when speaking of the origin of the human male in verse 7, the NIV translates as a simple past tense (formed) the same Hebrew form of the verb (yatzar; [Hebrew characters]) found in verse 19. Since the Hebrew shows no difference in the form of the verb, the inconsistency in the NIV's translation seems solely motivated by an attempt at nullifying the contradiction.


So, if we're to trust Avalos, it looks like the NIV has translated the same word in two different ways, for no apparent reason other than trying to hide a contradiction. At the very least, we can say that separate teams of translators have come up with different interpretations of the same passage.


Avalos discussed other examples besides the creation stories. It really emphasized for me how much of an impact translators can have on the meaning of passages. It certainly showed me how naive I was in simply accepting that modern day translators had faithfully reconstructed the meaning of the ancient texts.

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