Dr. Don Wilkins, Senior Translator of the NASB

It may not take much to convince you of the premise of this chapter. The Bible is, after all, the Bible. But literal translation has no claim to priority unless the individual words of the Bible are very important. Let me make a comparison to clarify my point.

The Classics

I was privileged to study Greek and Latin classical literature in their original languages, and compare them first-hand with the Bible from a scholar’s viewpoint. There was always one bona fide scholar in the room, i.e. my professor. We studied Homer, Hesiod, the Greek historians, Greek tragedies and comedies, the Greek philosophers, and Greek poetry. The same for the Romans, only not as much. For the philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, it was especially important to see exactly what they were saying in the Greek, because it often did not come through clearly or cleanly in the English.

Classical poetry was a special challenge, because in addition to the content there was always a strict meter that the ancient author had to follow. Getting the right idea across within the meter, factoring in word order and all, was a true art. The restrictions were so confining that it must have been a little like painting a masterpiece on the head of a pin. At the risk of sounding a little elitist, I have to say that the modern style of free verse pales by comparison.

We found that no English translator was able to duplicate this feat, so the translations fell into two categories: those that had poetic form but inadequately communicated the content of what was said, and those that accurately carried over the content (i.e. literal translations) without any poetic structure. For our purposes, the latter category was always preferred. If we wanted to enjoy and properly appreciate the poetic meter, we read the poetry aloud in the original. It was an acquired pleasure that only a scholar has time for (the root of “scholar” is a Greek word for leisure).

We examined every word in the original texts, poetry and prose alike, and, as advanced students, studied and discussed all the interesting grammatical constructions, learning more about them in the process. We valued any commentaries that got into the details of word meanings and grammatical constructions. There were not as many as there are for the Bible, which is also an indicator of its special status.

Not often, but sometimes, the professors pointed out readings in original texts that were “conjectures” by the editors. These were infrequent occurrences in the texts where the original seemed to make no sense or to be lacking something. We learned that the editor had made a “correction”­–for which the technical term is “emendation”–that was not found in any existing manuscript of the text, but was consistent with the content. You may wonder what could possibly justify such a correction? Can anyone, even a scholar, take an ancient manuscript and simply make a change when he thinks there’s a mistake?

No reasonable, intelligent person would do that to an important manuscript that could actually be verified as the original work of the author. But of course the autographs have long since ceased to exist, and it happens that for these great classics of antiquity, we often have only a dozen or so copies that usually originated around our own tenth century, sometimes a few centuries earlier (or later). Thus the family trees (called “stemmata”) for these works are weak, and in many instances a conjecture is the only solution for fixing the text. In such a case I would not hesitate to accept a conjecture.

So studying the classics presents an interesting contrast to studying the Bible. On the one hand, serious students of classical literature take pains to analyze and digest every word, hoping to get inside the head of the author. On the other, there is no illusion that the text is correct or reliable, and thus there is no hesitation in making corrections where they are needed. Analyzing problem passages is an academic exercise, not one with potential consequences for personal faith and practice.

The Bible and Inerrancy

When we read and interpret the Bible, we are–in contrast to studying a classical work–dealing with material that determines faith and, properly used, affects our behavior, indeed our entire lifestyle. Even so, if the manuscript tradition for the Bible paralleled that of ancient classical works, scholars would face no reasonable obstacles to mending it here and there as they saw fit. Of course many people devoid of the proper credentials, skills, and resources have done exactly that, based on their own judgments of what should and should not be in the Bible.

But in fact the textual tradition of the Bible encompasses thousands of manuscripts and manuscript fragments, in comparison to single- or double-digit numbers for a great ancient Greek or Latin work.[1] There are so many, no doubt, because the original recipients of the biblical materials understood that the autographs were inspired by God, or sacred, and it was therefore crucial to preserve them just as they were written. They passed on this reverence for the Bible to others who for the most part took great pains to preserve it in handwritten copies.

I will have more to say about the manuscripts and our treatment of them as textual critics and translators in chapter 6. For now, it is important to know that we have sufficient collections of biblical manuscripts to be able to determine the original text. In my opinion there is no need for conjectural emendations, though determining the original text is a very complicated process and some NT textual critics rarely do make such emendations anyway. One can say that their philosophy of textual criticism for the New Testament allows them the freedom to do it. But if the text of the Bible were in a state comparable to that of the ancient classics, it would be impossible to have complete faith in it, or to treat it as the word of God. At best it would be a close approximation to the original text, the actual word of God.

Since we have sufficient sources and tools to identify the original text, faith in the inerrancy of the Bible is viable, and the doctrine that every word of the original text is inspired–or “God-breathed” as stated by Paul in 2 Tim. 3:16–places great importance on each word. It follows that every word should be accounted for. In 2 Tim. 3:16-17 Paul explains why by saying that all Scripture is “…profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” In fact, even those who do not advocate inerrancy at the level of individual words have it in common with those who do that the Bible is  the only infallible guide for faith and practice.

I maintain, then, that the Bible needs and deserves at a minimum the same treatment as any other ancient document that is the standard for faith and practice, and for Christians, there is no other such document. Let me offer an example for comparison: the U.S. Constitution.

Earlier, I referred to the wording of the Second Amendment as an example of a participial construction subject to interpretation.[2] It happens that the different ways in which the Constitution as a whole is interpreted serve to illustrate the ways the Bible can be interpreted. The Constitution is also a good example for comparison because it can be considered the only rule of political belief and legal practice recognized for the United States and all its citizens in the issues that it addresses. In addition to that, the Constitution was authored by men who have long since died and cannot be resurrected to tell us exactly what they had in mind when they drafted it. We do have a large collection of their letters and other writings to assist us, but there are two opposing views of the Constitution that reveal our uncertainty about how it is to be interpreted.

The one view of interpretation has been called “strict constructionism” or “originalism,” and as the latter implies, those who advocate it insist that the Constitution is to be understood exactly as its framers originally wrote it. I would compare them with those who favor literal translation of the Bible. From this viewpoint the task is in part to determine what the individual words meant when they were pinned, similar to “formal” definitions of biblical OL words which we discussed earlier. The same is true for grammatical constructions. The text is considered almost sacred, in that the country was founded on these words. So when constitutional issues are examined with the goal of applying it to modern practice, it does not matter how a modern reader might choose to interpret the text for today. The strict constructionist demands that the original meaning of the framers be ascertained and followed. If we do not like the original meaning or we think it has become obsolete, then the proper procedure is not to reinterpret the text, but to propose an amendment. This must be what the framers intended, a strict constructionist could argue since they included the procedure for adding amendments.

Opponents of strict constructionism argue that our Constitution is a “living” document which the framers intended as such when they composed it. This is to be inferred from the flexible terminology that they used, as for example the wording of the Second Amendment might be viewed.[3] Even if a strict constructionist disagreed about the intention of the framers, the “loose constructionists” (as advocates of the opposing view have been called) can argue that our modern society requires a “loose,” flexible interpretation of the Constitution in various places due to the fact that the framers could not have anticipated the needs of modern society.

There are theologians who take a similar view of the Bible; i.e. they would essentially say that the Bible “means what it means to me.” Their position is that no matter what the biblical text originally meant, God uses it today as he sees fit to impact the modern reader. I do not put DE/FE translators in the same camp; they do care what the text originally meant. But in many cases, their methodology and the product of their work resembles the approach of loose constructionists. It is interpretive in the same sense, with the modern relevance of the translation taking a high priority, sometimes higher than that of conveying the actual meaning of the OL words. The significance of inerrancy can get lost in the process as well since the actual meanings need not always be accounted for.

 The question I would pose is whether the same treatments we apply to the Constitution are appropriate and reasonable for Bible translation. It is easy to defend literal translation as it corresponds to strict constructionism since the latter continues to be a leading approach to the Constitution. All one needs to do is to argue that if the Constitution is worthy of such treatment as a human document, surely the Bible is even more worthy of it.

On the other hand, loose constructionism finds its support in the fact that the framers were mere mortals and unable to foresee all the future needs of American society. They were also fallible, and for all these reasons one can argue that the Constitution needed to be malleable and adaptable to our changing society. If God had written the Constitution, it would be a different matter. The document truly would be sacred, and the task would be to determine exactly what God meant when He wrote it. It would contain no mistakes or flaws.

The Bible is a “living” document, but not in the same sense as a “living” constitution, i.e. one that many view as flexible in its meaning and subject to ever-changing interpretations as needed or desired. It is living in the sense of Heb. 4:12, and truly unique.



[1] For example, there are a good number of manuscripts of Homer’s Iliad (an eighth-century B.C. work), but few are complete, and the best–Venetus A–was produced in the tenth century A.D. There are a few dozen manuscripts of Sophocles’ tragedies, the two oldest and most important coming from the eighth and eleventh centuries A.D. There are only a handful of manuscripts of Plato’s Republic (fifth to fourth century B.C.) the best of which comes from the ninth or tenth century A.D. One of the better-represented Roman authors is Virgil (first century B.C.) with nine manuscripts from the fourth to sixth centuries and a dozen from the ninth century. However, there is only one significant manuscript from the eleventh century of the first- to second-century A.D. historian Tacitus’ Annals 11-16, in which he stated that Christians were despised by the Romans for their “shameful acts.” Contrast all these figures to the number of full-text manuscripts studied for the most recent work on the general epistles (James through Jude) as seen in NA 28. From 130 to 163 “witnesses” were cited, representing more than those numbers of actual manuscripts. Full texts come from the fourth century, and partial texts come from as early as the second century.

[2] See note 6 p. 42.

[3] See note 6 p. 42.