In which translating the Bible ain’t always easy

by Craig on July 15, 2011

Yesterday I ended with some ‘splainin’ to do…and the ‘splainin’ is gonna get deep…and have lots of Greek.

This is a picture of my very own Greek NT - I heart this little book!! I highlithed today's verse!!! I heart photoshop!!!


Here goes…

Why do some Bible translations disguise the word “works” in Romans 2:15?

Isn’t it wrong to take a text and not translate it literally?

Here’s Romans 2:15:

it looks like this in the Greek…

οἵτινες ἐνδείκνυνται τὸ ἔργον τοῦ νόμου γραπτὸν ἐν ταῖς καρδίαις αὐτῶν

and that’s pronounced like this – with the emphasis on the highlighted syllables – and broken into phrases…
oyteenedz en dayknoontie / ta airgone too namoo / grapton en tayees kardeeyase owtone

…and remember to sound Greek when you say it  (◠‿◠)

if you’re new to reading me, I do this all the time…

it takes a little practice, but just go slow and enjoy reading the Greek words like they should be read…

like Paul would have read them.

You’ll catch on – and you’ll heart reading Greek.

And, oh, this is a super easy translation…

“which show the work of the law written on their hearts”

So why mess with that when translating it?

Like the NAB (my personal fave Bible translation). It translates ἔργον τοῦ νόμου (airgone too namoo) “work of the law” as “demands of the law”?

if it really were demands of the law”,
would have been written like this…

απαιτήσεις του νόμου

and sounded like this:

apaytaysayse too namoo

(that first word, by the way, is the one from which we get “appetite”)

And why does the ISV, which is the most current translation around, translate “work of the law” as “what the law requires”?

If the Greek text said…
“what the law requires”…
it would look like this:

τι απαιτεί η νομοθεσία

and sound like this
tee apaytayee ay namathaseeya

Is this what the doubters and critics mean when they say “There are so many translations of the Bible it could mean anything!!”

And are they right?

The short answer is no.

The longer answer is…

it’s one of those decisions a translator has to make. And these translators decided that to leave the word as it was, “works”, wouldn’t really convey the meaning of the word in context. So they used the different word “demands” of the law or “requirements” of the law – or they might even have chosen to say “appetite” of the law.

What the context says is that the law of Moses has certain demands.
The Israelites who chose to accept the law had a duty to meet those requirements.
But the non-Jews of the day met some of the requirements,
they satisfied some of the demands of the law, handed down from God, to Moses, to Israel,
without even knowing God,
or the law,
or Moses.

“the works of the law in their heart”


When they were on their best behavior they didn’t lie, steal, or even murder very often.

Maybe it might have been better if they left it as is,
“work of the law”,
and jotted something down in the “notes” section explaining it further.

So I looked at my handy NAB Bible,
and checked the notes,
and they explain it,
but didn’t mention that the actual word was “work” not “demand”.

“Tsk tsk”, I thought.

But then only about 15% of Bible readers actually read the notes.

Maybe that entered into the discussion.

I still like my way better – but I get why they did it their way.

Translating isn’t always about just a “word for word” translation…

it’s about getting the meaning right…

N’est pas?

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Cora July 15, 2011 at 10:52 am

I wanna get it right! And yes, all the translations out there do make it hard sometimes. Even the Bible dictionaries, Vines, Wuest Word Studies, etc., make my head spin at times. If only they would break it all down — like daisies —- we could all get it soon it life.

I don’t know if you realize it, Craig, but you could create lessons and illustrations for young children on topics most of us don’t dare approach until out 50th year in study! Every once in a while, I see myself in the basement of our church in Junior Church, and I can just hear YOU
up there with the flannelgraph board and all the daisies, corrals, etc., there for us kids to learn
the most important things the Bible has to teach. You have a gift. A gift that makes people WANT to learn. Even Greek!


Craig July 15, 2011 at 5:38 pm

Cora, I used to not like all the different translations – and the fact that some of them kind of conflicted with each other. It is so awesome to live in a generation where we have access – all of us – to the original languages – and don’t have to trust explicitly the word of a translator. That being said – with the extremely rare occasion – all the common translations can be trusted. Looking into the languages just adds depth that a translation can’t provide.

And believe it or not, Cora, I have worked with second grade kids – and translated verses before. We did it just like the translators do. We looked at all the possible meanings – and considered context – and came to a consensus – and their translations – which looked very little like any adult would’ve written them – were awesome. And I think they got something special out of it. I know I did!! Thank you for your kind words Cora – you know what one of my negative voices tells me – but I’m finding it easier to believe the truth of true people like you. God bless you!


Debbie July 16, 2011 at 2:15 am

Loved Cora’s comment and your reply to her, Craig! :) And that the translations can be trusted, that helps me too. God bless you!


Craig July 16, 2011 at 8:41 am

In the past the more I heard pastors say “but in the Greek – or but in the Hebrew it means…” The less it made me want to trust the translations. But when you think about how the translators worked – and how a word for word translation isn’t always best – and now knowing the languages – and having translated – really – they can all be trusted. But we can always learn more by digging in (◠‿◠). God Bless you Debbie.


Michelle July 16, 2011 at 4:33 am

“Translating isn’t always about just a “word for word” translation…
it’s about getting the meaning right…”

So true. Thank you for what you are doing with your ‘splaining. I need to have things ‘splained to me. Sometimes I read it and get it, other times (like anything Paul wrote) I need help. So thank you.

And one translation I have misgivings about … The Good News version which, in Ps 23, states “He *lets* me lie down in green pastures,” which I think is very different from “He *makes* me lie down in green pastures”. Very different, methinks.

But thank you for your ‘splanation.


Craig July 16, 2011 at 8:37 am

Yay Michelle – thanks for making me look this one up!! After about a half hour on this ( I should have written a post (◠‿◠) (and still might) – because I wanted to get it right for you – here’s what I have. THere is only one verb in this verse – although in almost all the translation sit looks like two. It’s נָהַל (pronounced nahal – but sounding very much like middle eastern person – whenever you hear an arab talk in arabic – that’s what Hebrew sounds like) and it means to LEAD – NOT to MAKE – as in “force” – although it’s a word for leading specifically to the waters and resting places – it’s a shepherd kind of word – in which case the silly sheep – who always headed to the wrong waters – the fast ones to drown in – or the wrong kind of grass (i.e. grass filled with fire ants or such) to lay upon – the shepherd had to lead – sometimes FRIMLY (the staff and rod) because sheep (i.e. me) don’t always pay attention to the “leading”. So I can see why they may have chosen this translation through the years – but the best one for us – in our day – is “to lead” – both to the still waters AND the grass. Hope my ‘splaination helps. God bless.


A. August 1, 2011 at 11:12 am

so many things about the bible that i would love to understand better…so thankful for what you are gleaning and sharing with us, craig. so thankful for your faithfulness.


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