Friday, November 16, 2012

The Value of Reading Multiple Translations

Twice today I experienced scenarios which illustrate well something I encourage believers to do - study from multiple translations of the Bible. While it is practically wise to have one primary translation from which to read and study and memorize, it is also good to compare with other translations. This becomes particularly important (1) when you have little experience with the original languages, and (2) when you base a point of doctrine on a text.

A few hours ago I was talking to a fellow believer when the subject of nonresistance came up. For those who may not know, nonresistance is an application of Christ's teaching to love our enemies and not to resist evil. According to those who embrace nonresistance, this means that Christians must avoid violence at all times, including refusing any participation with governments in their exercise of the power of the sword. So, for an obvious example, nonresistant Christians would not join the military (although the issue of nonresistance extends far beyond this). In our discussion, this young man said, "What really drove [nonresistance] home for me was where the Bible says, 'Do violence to no man'" (Luke 3:14 KJV). Not remembering that text, I pulled out my little pocket ESV and read, "Soldiers also asked him, 'And we, what shall we do?' And he said to them, 'Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusations, and be content with your wages.'" There seems to be a real difference in the meaning of these translations. At the time I was talking, I did not know the reason for the difference, so once I got back to my office I looked it up.

In this case, the difference in translation is not based upon a textual variant. That is to say, both translations are translating the same Greek words. The term in question is (transliterated) diaseio, a term which is used only here in the New Testament. The standard Greek lexicon for the NT (BDAG) gives this gloss, "extort money by force or threat of violence, extort (literally 'shake violently'; cp. our colloquial 'shake down')." In fact, it claims that this term was a legal technical term in ancient Greek documents from around the time of the NT. Another NT lexicon based upon semantic domains (Louw & Nida) defines the term in the same manner and classifies it with other words that have to do with stealing or robbing.

Here is one example of the use of this term in an ancient apocryphal book called 3 Maccabees. In 3 Maccabees 7:21, we read "And among their enemies they possessed a greater dominance than before, both honored and feared, and were abused of their belongings by no one" (NETS, my underlining indicates the translation of the term we are considering). As you can see then, in Luke 3:14 John the Baptist was not issuing an order against violence in general. He was telling the soldiers not to abuse their position of power to intimidate, bully, threaten, or otherwise oppress the people in order to get what they want out of them.

Now with a text like this, what is a Christian to do who does not read Greek and does not have access to Greek lexicons? First of all, always read carefully in context. Read in context, even the KJV translation does not necessitate a nonresistant interpretation of this text (as a perusal of Matthew Henry's commentary will show). But in addition to that, a very simple and easy step is to read the text in some good English translations. The point of doing this is not to cherry pick the translation that suits you. It is to gain a more well-rounded understanding of the text. By simply reading a few other translations besides the KJV, one can quickly discern that the violence spoken of here has to do primarily with others' possessions.

New American Standard Bible: "Do not take money from anyone by force."

New English Translation: "Take money from no one by violence."

New International Version: "Don't extort money."

Holman Christian Standard: "Don't take money from anyone by force."

New King James: "Do not intimidate anyone."

Thus, we can see that this text does not support a nonresistant application. When John the Baptist had the perfect opportunity to tell soldiers to quit their profession and stop waging war, he did not do it. He told them not to abuse their power, but he did not tell them that repentance required abandoning soldiering.

Now, my point here is not to prove or disprove the theory of nonresistance. There are many good brothers who hold that position based upon their understanding of Scripture. My point is that reading a few different translations will help you avoid misunderstanding and misapplying a text of Scripture.

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