Biblical Interpretation & Translation

When reading the Bible, it is important to first understand what it is that we are reading.  The Bible is the word of God, but it is expressed in the words of men.  One of the things this means is that when God chose the people that He wished to communicate His Word through, He would also be making use of each human author’s literary style, their personal encounters with God, as well as the time and place in which they lived.  The Bible is, therefore, not one single book, nor even one single genre, but rather a collection of books with vastly different writing styles and genres that were written over a period of time spanning thousands of years.  Some books are written as a historical narrative, while others may be legalistic or inspirational, while others may be parables or proverbs.  Thus, how we approach Scripture, with all of it’s different literary styles, is important for how we interpret and understand Scripture.  The first and foremost thing to keep in mind when attempting to interpret Scripture is to remember that the Bible must be read in unity.  What this means is that nothing in sacred Scripture can contradict itself because God cannot contradict himself.  If there seems to be two verses in contradiction with each other, then it is a sign that we are misinterpreting one or both verses.  Because of God’s continuing revelation over time through various authors and the literary styles and genres employed by them, the Bible can at times seem to contradict itself.  This is especially true in the Old Testament, when God is often described using anthropomorphisms such as when various writers describe God with “feelings” such as anger.  These verses should always be read in light of what Jesus Christ revealed about God in the Gospels.  The second thing to keep in mind is that verses should always be read in context.  This means that any one verse should be understood in light of the entire letter.  Chapters and verses were not added to the Bible until after the 13th century, which means that each author intended for his letter to be read in its entirety.  Lastly, understand that there are multiple ways for how one may interpret a single verse of the Bible; there is both the Literal sense and the Spiritual sense.  The literal sense does not simply mean to take the author’s words literally, but rather to understand the author’s intention.  This means that we must be attentive to the author’s time and culture, modes of speaking, cultural idioms and expressions used during the time period, the audience for whom the author was writing, how the culture felt about the material presented, and the genre which the sacred author was employing (i.e. historical, allegorical, metaphorical, etc.).  The Spiritual sense builds from the literal sense and can be divided into three categories: moral, allegorical, and anagogical (CCC 115).  The moral interpretation is the moral lesson drawn from the text. The allegorical interpretation uses a person, place or event within a narrative to convey a larger picture.  This method of Scripture interpretation was commonly employed by St Paul (Gal. 4:24, Romans 5:14) and early Church Fathers such as Origen of Alexandria and St Augustine.  While the anagogical sense views realities and events within Scripture in terms of their eternal significance.

There are also some external authorities that we can look to when interpreting Scripture;  Sacred Tradition and Magisterial Authority.  It is always important to read Sacred Scripture within the context of the Living Tradition of the whole Church.  This means understanding how the early Christians who first received these books understood them and how they taught future generations of Christians to understand them, by passing on what they had learned from the time of the Apostles down to the present day.  The Written Word is only part of God’s revelation to us, as Christ never wrote anything down, and the Apostles only committed part of His teachings to written word.  The rest of what Christ taught us the Church refers to as Sacred Tradition and it has been a part of Christianity since before the New Testament was even written.  We also look at what the Church Magisterium teaches us are the guidelines and framework for interpreting Scripture.  Christ gave teaching authority to the Church, which in turn used that authority to write, compile, and authoritatively determine the books that compose the New Testament.  This authority can be reasoned from simply looking at the historical sequence of events that led to the development of the New Testament canon.  First, we should approach the books of the New Testament as simple historical documents without bias.  From these documents, it is possible to deduce that Christ existed, that He started a Church, and that He gave His disciples authority to spread the Gospel and teach others.  This Church spread the Gospel first by word of mouth and preaching to communities.  It would be decades before the Church began to write the letters and books that would eventually compose the New Testament.  The Church then preserved these letters, reading them whenever they gathered, but it would be centuries before they would be compiled into a “New Testament”.  When the early Church received these letters, they read and understood them in light of what they had already been taught.  This is how the early Church determined which writings were ‘orthodox’ and which were ‘heretical’.  Because the Church preceded the Bible, the Church is therefore the authority on the Bible, including it’s interpretation.

Without an authority to determine how a certain text should or should not be interpretationed, each individual becomes their own authority, which often leads to vastly different interpretations.  Whether one interprets a verse as literal or metaphorical can have vast ramifications on one’s theology.  The question of whether something is a symbol or a miracle becomes hard to answer when God is involved and at times the answer could even be both.  Whether intentional or not, each individual brings their own background and education -or lack there of- with them when reading the Bible and can, at times, read into the text their own preconceived notions rather than drawing from the text. This, in turn, leads to vastly differing theology and the inevitable uncontrolled fracturing of denominations that we see today.  Differences in interpretation have led groups to conclude multiple contradictory beliefs, such as whether or not creation took a literal six days, or if baptism is essential to salvation, or whether baptism should be given to infants, and whether or not salvation can be lost, or will there be a Rapture, and what part works play in our salvation, and whether Christ is truly present in communion and, if so, to what degree, and even whether or not Christ is divine.

Because the Church is the authority on the Bible, this also means that it is responsible for its translations as well as its interpretation.  Most Christians would agree that we ought to draw from the words of the Bible rather than reading our own bias into the words of the Bible. For example, some Protestants complain that the Revised Standard Version translation of Luke 1:28, where it calls Mary “full of grace”, has a Catholic bias (even though this translation was the result of a committee of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America).  They fail, however, to recognize the Church’s complaints when it comes to traditional Protestant translations such as Luther’s Bible, where he added the word “alone” to Romans 3:28 or Tyndale’s Bible, where he purposely mistranslated words such as “love” rather than “charity”, and “congregation” rather than “church” (Greek ekklesia).

Another example is the NIV Bible, where the word paradosis is translated as “tradition” in 2 Thessalonians 3:6, but then is translated as teachings in Thessalonians 2:15 so that it reads: “stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you,” instead of traditions.  The NIV also translates the Greek word ergon as “work” in Romans 4:2 -“If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works (ergon), he had something to boast about—but not before God,” -where it’s used to reinforce the Protestant doctrine of “faith alone”, but it’s translated differently when it would serve Catholic doctrine, such as in Romans 2:6-7 where it’s translated: “God ‘will give to each person according to what he has done (erga).’ To those who by persistence in doing (ergou) good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.”  If these erg- derivatives were translated consistently as “work” then it would be clear that the passage says God will judge “every person according to his works” and will give eternal life to those who seek immortality “by persistence in working good” -supporting the Catholic view of salvation.

Protestants and Catholics find common ground, however, when it comes to the Watchtower’s New World Translation, which is often translated in a way to deny the divinity of Christ.  For example, John 1:1 in the NWT reads: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god,” compared to the King James Version (KJV): “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  It goes on to render John 8:58: “Jesus said to them: ‘Most truly I say to you, before Abraham came into existence, I have been.’ Whereas the KJV: “Jesus said to them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.”  Here, Jesus harks back to Exodus 3 where God reveals Himself to Moses in the burning bush as I AM.”

It is for these reasons that the Catholic Church claims the right to not only interpret Scripture, but also to authorize any translations.  It is the Church’s book; written, collected and preserved by the Church, handed down faithfully through the Church’s Tradition and maintained by it’s authority via Apostolic Succession.  The Church, therefore, has the right to safeguard its content and uphold its original interpretation.

History of Biblical Translations:

Timeline of Biblical Translations:

  • 200 A.D. “Septuagint” Greek translation of O.T. includes deuterocanon & is used by Early Christian Church
  • 325 A.D. Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus, and Ephraemi Codices are oldest existing Koine Greek copies of Bible
  • 350 A.D. -Ulfilas, Goth Bishop, develops Gothic alphabet & translates Bible into Gothic
  • 350 A.D. “Vetus Latina” -“Old Latin” Bibles dated from 350 to 1200 AD.
  • 382 A.D. “Latin Vulgate” -Pope Damasus commissions Jerome to translate the Bible into Latin
  • 405 A.D. St. Mesrop Mashtots translates the Bible into Armenian.
  • 450 A.D. “The Peshitta” -“simple version” Syriac translation of the Bible.
  • 500 A.D. “Nubian Bible” -translation into Old Nubian (Egyptian).
  • 664 A.D. Old English translation by Aldhelm (639-709), Bishop of Sherborne.
  • 700 A.D. St. Bede (672-735), translates the Gospel of John into Old English.
  • 715 A.D. “The Lindisfarne Gospels” -by Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne (died 721).
  • 800 A.D. Charlemagne (742-814) institutes reforms to improve Latin literacy, translate Bible into Frankish, and create a royal library & scriptorium.
  • 875 A.D. Alfred the Great (849-899) circulates Old English passages of the Bible.
  • 950-970 A.D. Aldred the Scribe translates Old English gloss for the Lindisfarne Gospels.
  • 990 A.D. “Wessex Gospels” translation into West Saxon dialect of Old English 
  • 1199 A.D. Pope Innocent III bans unauthorized versions due to Cathar heresy, which taught dualism, a belief in an evil O.T. God & a good N.T. God
  • 1205 A.D. Cardinal Stephen Langton divides the Bible into Chapters.
  • 1280 A.D. “Alfonsine version” -Spanish translation commissioned by Alfonso X, King of Castile.
  • 1297 A.D. “Bible Historale” -French translation by Catholic monk Guyart des Moulins
  • 1360 A.D. “Leskovec-Dresden Bible” oldest known Czech translation 
  • 1381 A.D. Bohemian (Czech) translation given to Queen Anne of Bohemia
  • 1382 A.D. “Wycliffe’s Bible” translation into Middle English credited to John Wycliffe.  Banned in 1409 by King Henry IV & Catholic Church as “unauthorized”, but versions dated before 1409 were still widely used by clergy.
  • 1455 A.D. “Gutenberg Bible” is the first PRINTED Bible by Johannes Gutenberg.  Future Pope Pius II writes of its marvels and the ease of its reading.
  • 1466 A.D. “Mentelin Bible” German translation by Catholic printer Johannes Mentelin.
  • 1471 A.D. “Malermi Bible” Italian translation by Catholic monk Nicolò Malermi.
  • 1517 A.D. Old Belarusian translation by Catholic translator Francysk Skaryna
  • 1534 A.D. “Luther Bible” -German translation by Martin Luther. First to include section called ‘Apocrypha’. Moved Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation to the back due to doubts about canonicity. Added the word “alone” to Romans 3:28.
  • 1535 A.D. “Tyndale Bible” -English translation by William Tyndale.  In 1531, it was declared ‘corrupt’ by King Henry VIII for biased & purposeful mistranslations.  Included Martin Luther’s commentaries to provide a “lens” through which the Bible was to be read. Tried for heresy by Emperor Charles V.
  • 1555 A.D. -Moses of Mardin, a Syriac Orthodox priest, is successful in printing 1000 copies
    of the Bible in Syriac with the aid of Johann Albrecht Widmanstetter (Imperial Chancellor and former secretary to Popes Clement VII and Paul III).
  • 1609 A.D. “Douay–Rheims Bible” -translation into English by the Catholic Church.
  • 1611 A.D. “King James Version” -English translation commissioned by King James VI and I, which included an “Apocrypha” section.
  • 1961 A.D. Jehovah’s Witnesses release “New World Translation” (NWT) which has been criticized by modern Protestant scholars for biased and purposeful mistranslations.

Historical Quotes:

Martin Luther (1483-1546), Father of the Protestant Reformation & Founder of Lutheranism

“We are obliged to yield many things to the papists (i.e. Catholics)—that they possess the Word of God which we received from them, otherwise we should have known nothing at all about it.” -Commentary on St. John (Chapter 16).

Thomas Cranmer, Protestant Reformer & ArchBishop of Canterbury

“The Holy Bible was translated and read in the Saxon tongue, which at that time was our mother tongue, whereof their remaineth yet divers copies found in old abbeys, of such antique manner of writing and speaking that few men now be able to read and understand them.  When this language waxed old and out of common use, because folks should not lack the the fruit of reading, it was again translated into the newer language, whereof yet also many copies remain and be daily found.”. -“Preface to The Great Bible of 1539

Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), Lord High Chancellor of England

“The whole Bible long before Wycliff’s day was by virtuous and well learned men translated into the English tongue, and by good and godly people with devotion and soberness well and reverently read.” –Dialogues III

“The clergy keep no Bibles from the laity but such translations as be either not yet approved for good, or such as be already reproved for naught as Wycliff’s was.  For, as for old ones that were before Wycliff’s days, they remain lawful and be in some folks’ hand.  I myself have seen, and can show you, Bibles, fair and old, which have been known and seen by the Bishop of the diocese, and left in laymen’s hands and women’s too.”   Dialogues III by Sir Thomas More

Non-Catholic Biblical Scholar Quotes:

John Henry Blunt, Anglican cleric & historian.

“But as of the earlier period, so of this, there are none but fragmentary remains, the ‘many copies’ which remained when Cranmer wrote in 1540 having doubtless disappeared in the vast and ruthless destruction of libraries which took place within the few years after the date.” -History of the English Reformation (1868). 

Brooke Foss Wescott, Bishop of Durham

“In order to appreciate the apostolic age in its essential character, it is necessary to dismiss not only the ideas which are drawn from a collected New Testament, but those also, in a great measure, which spring from the several groups of writings of which it is composed.  The first work of the Apostles, and that out of which all their other functions grew, was to deliver in living words a personal testimony to the cardinal facts of the gospel- the ministry, the death, and the Resurrection of the Lord.  It was only in the course of time, and under the influence of external circumstances, that they committed their testimony, or any part of it, to writing.  Their peculiar duty was to preach.”  -The Bible in the Church (1864) pg. 53.  

“The Apostles, when they speak, claim to speak with divine authority, but they nowhere profess to give in writing a system of Christian doctrine.  Gospels and epistles, with the exception perhaps of the writings of John, were called out by special circumstances.  There is no trace of any designed connection between the separate books, except in the case of the Gospel of Luke and Acts, still less of any outward unity or completeness in the entire collection.  On the contrary, it is not unlikely that some of the epistles of Paul have been lost, and any completeness is due not to any conscious cooperation of the authors, but to the will of Him by whose power they wrote and wrought.”  –The Bible in the Church (1864).  

Dr. James Gairdner (1828-1912), British archivist & historian

“The truth is the Church of Rome was not at all opposed to the making of translations of Scriptures or to placing them into the hands of the laity under what were deemed proper precautions.  It was only judged necessary to see that no unauthorized or corrupt translations got abroad; and even in this matter it would seem the authorities were not roused to special vigilance till they took alarm at the diffusion of Wycliffite translations in the generation after his death.”  –Lollardy and the Reformation in England (1908).

John Read Dore, Anglican historian.

“(On Wycliff’s translation of the Bible), The authorities of the English Church took into consideration the desirability of introducing a vernacular Bible into England, and the great majority of the Council were of the opinion that, considering the religious troubles on the continent and the unsettled state of things at home, at this juncture the translation of the Bible into the vulgar tongue, and its circulation among the people, would rather tend to confusion and distraction than to edification…. there was no anxiety whatever for an English version excepting among a small minority … the universal desire for a Bible in England that we read so much about in most works on the subject existed only in the imagination of the writers.”  –Old Bibles: an account of the early versions English Bible. (1888)

David Price & Charles Ryrie

“Unquestionably, anti-Catholic outbursts are sufficiently numerous to make a strong impression on any reader.”  -Let It Go Among Our People: An Illustrated History of the English Bible from John Wyclif to the King James Version (2004) 

Bruce M. Metzger

“flagrant errors in the teaching of the Jehovah’s Witnesses… the system taught by the sect, while liberally buttressed with Scriptural quotations, teems with erroneous and heretical notions. These are of two main varieties. On the one hand, the teaching of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, although making a pretense of being “all the Bible and nothing but the Bible,” is absolutely silent on several of the most central facets of the Christian Faith…  On the other hand, the second main variety of errors in the teaching of the Jehovah’s Witnesses arises not from a minimizing or exclusion of part of the Biblical teaching, but rather from a one-sided emphasis upon certain Scriptural passages, interpreted in a purely wooden fashion without taking into account the context or the analogy of faith. By thus joining together portions of Scripture which were never intended to go together it is possible, of course, to prove anything from the Bible… The whole approach should be that the Bible, properly understood, and the historic Christian faith offer far more than does the distorted and aberrant teaching of Pastor Russell and his followers.”  -‘THE JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES AND JESUS CHRIST: A Biblical and Theological Appraisal’ by Bruce M. Metzger in Theology Today 10/1 (April 1953), pp. 65-85.

Ron Rhodes

“Jehovah’s Witnesses regard The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures as “an accurate, easy-to-read translation of the Bible”.  What many don’t realize is that four of the five men on the translation committee producing the complete 1961 edition had no Hebrew or Greek training whatsoever… The fifth, who claimed to know both languages, failed a simple Hebrew test while under oath in a Scottish court… What all this means is that the Watch Tower’s official version of the Bible is “an incredibly biased translation,” –Reasoning from the Scriptures with Jehovah’s Witnesses.

H.H. Rowley, British Scholar:

(on the New World Translation):  “a shining example of how the Bible should not be translated… an insult to the Word of God.”