My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him.

 Song of Solomon 5:4 KJV

Song of Solomon is the greatest love poem ever written. There is a story that young men were not allowed to read it until they reached the age of 30. If you read it, you will find line after line of flowing poetry. You might even choose the King James Version because it is more poetic. If you did, at some point in time you will encounter this verse. Chapter 5 verse 4. What the heck are you supposed to make of this one? I’ve been married a long time and I have never associated bowel movements with romance. A brief consideration of an alternate translation ought to clear up any weird misconceptions:

My beloved thrust his hand through the latch-opening; my heart began to pound for him.

Song of Solomon 5:4 NIV

A bit of a difference there. This passage is a very silly way of demonstrating our next rule for understanding the scriptures: Use several translations.

This is necessary because the Bible has been translated from languages that are noticeably different than English and originated in a very different era and culture. Translations typically reflect the best demonstration of the meaning possible. However, some concepts are difficult to portray, so using multiple translations frees us from being subject to one version’s translational decisions. To understand this, it is necessary to understand how translation happens. Most of the modern translations we use are done by teams of scholars working in committee with the manuscripts. For each portion of the scripture, roughly 5000 individual manuscripts exist. When a translation is done the scholars evaluate the manuscripts and consider how to best translate the text. There is a spectrum of translating styles that come into play here, which we will deal with momentarily. These scholars work for years doing a version of the Bible. So, when we choose a translation, we are relying on the expertise and work hours of a team of scholars (sometimes quite a few). The advantage of working with multiple translations is that we then use the collected expertise of every scholar involved.

Greek is an inflected language. What that means is that the context in which a word appears alters it’s meaning. I read an excellent example of this recently on another blog that dealt with Judas’ betrayal of Christ. The word that the scripture uses is “handed over” and is usually associated with malicious intent. This, along with the fact that the “handing over” was in exchange for 30 pieces of silver has caused many translators to say “betrayed” instead of “handed over”. This is a judgment call by the translator and is not an unusual thing. Most words have several meanings and shades of meanings based on context and situation. This prompts translators to make interpretive decisions. In addition, certain words like the Greek word “kai” can literally mean dozens of things. Kai is a generic conjunction whose meaning is totally based on the argument in which it is presented. This is another one that requires an interpretive decision. The oddest example of interpretive decisions shows up a lot in Paul’s letters. Greek sentences are often composed of multiple clauses that modify a main point. Sometimes those clauses can be very numerous. Paul occasionally wrote sentences that will go on for pages. The translator must essentially break up the sentence because it would not make sense in English. These are just a few of the challenges involved in translating. The impact of these decisions is diminished the more translations a reader references.

Using multiple translations is necessary when trying to understand a particularly challenging passage of scripture or when studying. This is less necessary when you are casually reading the Bible. When you choose the translation you will use, it is necessary to understand the various translating styles. There are three styles that represent a spectrum of approaches. They are:

Static equivalent: A static equivalent translation is word for word, pr as close to it as possible. The most word for word translation available is the New American Standard Version, which courteously makes note of alterations for the reader by putting additions or alterations in italics. The King James Version is also fairly word for word, though the translation can be a tad wooden at times.  The New Revised Standard Version is mostly word for word, but is controversial for making interpretive decisions that are based on how a modern audience may receive the passage, like gender neutrality (getting rid of gender specific words like brothers). The NRSV also tends to have a more liberal theological leaning.

Dynamic equivalent: Dynamic equivalent translations are the word for word balanced with translating the meaning as best possible. So, the word for word is important, but some paraphrasing or rewording is necessary to reflect the original message of the author.  The trick with this type of translation is that there are more interpretive decisions involved, which means that the translator is doing some interpretation for you. This is a bit of an advantage for the lay person, but a detriment of sorts for scholars. These translations tend to be easier to read and are the direction most non-scholars go when choosing a study Bible. The New International Version is the most common dynamic equivalent translation.  Others include: The Holman Christian Standard Bible, The New English Translation and the New American Bible.

Free/paraphrase/commentary: These Bibles tend to lean in the direction of paraphrase with the least amount of emphasis placed on the word for word aspect of translation. The goal is to get the message of the passage across. The most popular versions in this category are: The Message, The New Living Bible, God’s Word Translation and the Contemporary English Version. These translations are the most subject to the interpretation of the translator and leave the least amount of judgment up to the reader. There is clearly a spectrum within these books. The Message, for example, is a very loose translation with a great deal of influence from the translator. The Contemporary English version is much less so. These Bibles are best suited for casual reading.

It is important to note that each of these categories is a spectrum of its own and none of the translations falls strictly in the middle ground.

When interpreting a passage, it is important to select translations from across the spectrum. The reader will benefit from each of the styles of translation because each offers some benefits to the reader as far as word usage. It is important to compare the word usage and recognize that the consensus will generally indicate the stronger understanding. It is also important to recognize that the variations reflect shades of meaning in the passage.

There is one thing that folks sometimes do with comparing translations that is a technical foul. It is not a good practice to shop translations in search of the meaning you want. This is because the passage means what it means, not what you want it to mean. When you shop the versions of the Bible you try to find the message you want the passage to mean. This also works as a red flag when reading or listening to teachings. When a pastor jumps from version to version, it’s a sign of possible shopping.

Below I have included a spectrum I borrowed from the website.