Overcoming Inadequacies of Words Commonly Used in Bible Translation and Teaching (Part 1 of 3)

This is a guest post by Daniel Boerger. He and his wife Brenda worked on the Natqgu New Testament in the Solomon Islands. He is the translator of the Interpreted New Testament, available in print, ePub, Kindle, and free on Android.

General Introduction

Most English speakers today are “biblically illiterate.” By that I mean they lack any significant knowledge of biblical history, and/or biblical cultural norms, and/or theology – all of which are necessary in most passages for an accurate understanding of what the Holy Spirit and the original Scripture writer intended to say.

Even for a short historical narrative passage—in which the actions or events that happened may seem perfectly clear to any reader—the significance or implications of those actions or events is often not communicated, even though they would have been obvious to Jewish readers a couple of millennia ago. Sometimes modern readers are not even sure if what happened was good or bad —from God’s perspective or even sometimes from the perspective of persons involved in the narrative. Most modern readers will interpret any Scripture passage in terms of their own cultural standards, values, and worldview; and in so doing they may totally misunderstand the basic intended message, significance, and implications of the passage.

Much of the proper contextual knowledge needed to understand the Bible in general can be gleaned by becoming familiar with large portions of it. But this takes a lot of time, effort, and motivation—which is largely lacking in most people today. Therefore, most Bible readers today misunderstand many things that they read.

Unfortunately, Bible illiteracy is high today even among regular church attenders. The percentage of church goers who have the historical, cultural, and theological background to understand any given Bible passage accurately is quite small. Most church attenders are very dependent on pastors or other Bible teachers to enable them to properly understand a passage, so the only understanding they gain (unless they do a lot of Bible reading and studying on their own) is what they get from a pastor in a sermon or in a group Bible study or class. Learning what is needed to properly understand the Bible from only listening to sermons and attending group Bible studies takes years. But if a Bible translation were designed to communicate the basic meaning and implications of every passage such that any biblically illiterate reader could properly understand the basic intended meaning without being misled by their own cultural standards, values, and non-biblical worldview, a serious Bible reader could acquire an accurate understanding of at least the basics of the Bible within months instead of years.

Study Bibles can assist the motivated Bible student in their understanding of Scripture. But many of the notes in a typical study Bible are geared towards the serious Bible student and they assume a minimal level of knowledge that biblically illiterate readers lack. Study Bibles often do not provide simple basic information which a biblically illiterate reader needs. And many Bible teachers and pastors also seem to lack understanding of which basic information such biblically illiterate listeners are lacking. So they teach about the Bible using words and Scriptural figures that are often communicating either zero or wrong meaning to their listeners.

This article provides just one example of how a simple common Bible word is often misunderstood such that the message people receive concerning this word is not exactly what the Bible or a pastor intends to convey. And there are many such Bible words, multiplying the amount of misinformation that is conveyed in a typical Bible teaching and in reading a typical translation (whether a literal translation, or even in meaning-based translations like the New Living Translation).

My first goal is to convince Bible translators (and pastors and Bible teachers) by example that simply translating a word from the Hebrew or Greek text into its closest English equivalent is often not sufficient to accurately communicate the meaning intended in the biblical context. My second goal is to suggest possible ways of filling in the meaning gap in a Bible translation or when teaching about this example word. Perhaps future articles will provide further examples of Bible words that similarly do not communicate properly today.

I. Overcoming Inadequacies of the Word “Worship”

In deciding whether to use any modern word to translate a word in Scripture, one must consider the meaning of the word in modern usage. If it doesn’t mostly match up to the meaning in Scripture, then it will usually communicate the modern meaning rather than the biblical meaning to the majority of Bible readers, and it will always communicate misleading aspects of meaning to biblically illiterate readers.

II. A. What Does the Word “Worship” Mean to People Today?

Dictionary definitions of “worship” are: (I took these from a couple of different online dictionaries, combined them and edited them, but they will not totally match any one dictionary.)

Transitive Verb

  1. to honor or show reverence for a divine being or supernatural power,
  2. to regard with great or extravagant respect, honor, or devotion; to feel an adoring reverence or regard for (any person or thing)

Intransitive Verb

  1. to perform or take part in or attend a worship service or an act of worship
  2. to render religious reverence and homage, as to a deity
  3. to feel an adoring reverence or regard

Noun

  1. reverence offered to God, a divine being, a sacred personage, a supernatural power, or to any object regarded as sacred; also: an act of expressing such reverence
  2. a form of religious practice with its creed, ritual, or liturgy; or a formal or ceremonious rendering of such honor and homage (e.g. They attended worship this morning.)
  3. extravagant respect or admiration for or devotion to an object of esteem

Synonyms: Verb adore, adulate, deify, honor, glorify, idolize, revere, reverence, venerate

Synonyms: Noun honor, homage, adoration, adulation, deification, hero worship, idolatry, idolization

Among most church-attending Christians today, the above definitions are what they think of as the meaning of “worship.” Additional common meanings of this word are “to sing songs of praise and adoration to God, or to come to God in prayer.”

While there is overlap between these definitions of worship and the biblical meaning of worship, there are significant problems, and if this isn’t immediately and clearly obvious to you, then your own default understanding of biblical worship is, in my opinion, deficient.

2 thoughts on “Overcoming Inadequacies of Words Commonly Used in Bible Translation and Teaching (Part 1 of 3)

  1. Mike Tisdell says:

    It seems to me that this issue is not resolved by introducing even more functional equivalency into a bible translation but by returning to the formal equivalent translation practices of the past. Using the NLT example (referenced in this article), we see that phrases like these (and many more) are all consistently translated with the word “worship.”

    ישתחו ליהוה
    יקרא בשם יהוה
    יעבד את יהוה
    יזנה אחרי אלהיו
    ילך אחרי אלהים
    יעשה ליהוה

    It seems that a lot of confusion over what “worship” is could be eliminated by simply adopting the more formal equivalent translation practices of past generations.

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