When we are trying to understand a passage in the Bible, the assumptions we bring to the text are our starting point. Beginning from them, we draw other conclusions. This is neither good nor bad. It is just inevitable.
But sometimes our assumptions can lead to a misunderstanding of a given passage. This is especially true if our assumptions have been informed by heavy dependence on a particular English translation. We may forget that the Bible was written in ancient languages not our own and that English translations can only approximate and not fully bring out the meaning of the original text. Often something does actually get lost in translation. That’s why it is so useful to study our Bibles in multiple translations, which allow us quickly to spot differences that require deeper study.
For the first ten years of my Christian life, I used one English translation exclusively. Under its influence I learned and obeyed the Gospel, and it helped me develop into the Christian man I am. However, as a more mature Bible student now than I was then, I have come to realize that some of the assumptions that translation led me to make need to be reconsidered.
Let’s look at a few examples of how the particular wording of a translation can actually obscure other possible interpretations of a text than the one that translation might seem to support. Note these examples from four passages in I Corinthians having to do with the matter of women in the church.
I Cor. 11:3. The KJV and ASV translate a key part of this verse as “the head of the woman is the man,” and the NIV similarly as “the head of the woman is man.” Who could be faulted for making the assumption from these translations that Paul has all men and all women in mind? But what if you read only the ESV rendering: “the head of a wife is her husband”? Or what about the NRSV: “the husband is the head of his wife”? If one of these two translations was the only one you read, what assumption would you make now? The Greek word for woman can mean either “woman” or “wife,” depending on the context, as these conflicting renderings attest. The same is true for the word for man in the original. Using only one translation can lead to our making an erroneous assumption about the meaning of this passage.
I Cor. 11:16. Here is a case of actual mistranslation. If your version is the NIV, you will read Paul saying, “we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.” From this you would naturally assume that the practice on head coverings Paul has been promoting is his own and the universal church practice elsewhere. But you would be wrong, because what Paul actually wrote was “we do not have such a custom, nor do the churches of God,” as such translations as the ESV, KJV, NKJV, ASV, NASB, and NRSV faithfully render it.
Here the pull of presuppositions being brought to the text is doubly powerful. First, intuitively it does not seem to make sense that Paul would be saying that the practice he is promoting for Corinth is not his normal practice nor that in other churches. That’s the presupposition many interpreters, including a number of translators, bring to the text—hence, the mistranslation. But then, if one reads only those translators whose assumptions influence them to mistranslate the passage, the “intuitive” assumption is only reinforced. Perhaps it is better to find out what Paul meant by paying attention to what he actually wrote, rather than changing his words and then interpreting them.
I Cor. 14:34. Here practically every English version faithfully renders Paul’s words about women, “it is not permitted for them to speak.” The problem is that this translation does not tell us all there is to learn about the particular form of the word Paul uses for “speak.” Because of this, interpreters ascribe all kinds of meanings to “speak,” from uttering any verbal sound to speaking in a formal way in the assembly. The fact that in the original Paul uses the present infinite of “speak” here indicates that he is talking about something these women were repeatedly doing, not just piping up every once in a while. With this understanding of the word, many interpreters conclude, for good reason, that Paul’s real point here is that these women should not repeatedly interrupt the assembly with questions for which they could easily get answers in the privacy of their homes. So, in this case there is nothing wrong with the normal translation, but a fuller one would help us eliminate some probably incorrect assumptions as we approach this text.
I Cor. 14:35. Paul’s statement that is frequently translated, “it is shameful for a woman to speak in church” poses a dilemma for the modern reader because of the ambiguity of the word “shameful” in English. Modern English translations have tried to capture the flavor of the original word with a large variety of renderings, including “disgraceful,” “improper,” “dishonorable,” “shameful,” “a shame,” or “a shocking thing.” Alexander Campbell’s Living Oracles even has “an indecent thing.”
The way we are predisposed to interpret Paul’s point here will be influenced by the way we normally understand the word in the translation we normally read. It is widely believed, for example, that this is a strong statement of God’s own evaluation of the way these women were speaking in church. This is not an unreasonable assumption, given the words chosen by some of these translators. However, what none of these translations brings out unambiguously is the fact that the particular word Paul uses refers to cultural shame, that is, what was deemed by the people in Corinth at the time as culturally inappropriate. J. W. McGarvey, in his commentary on I Corinthians, makes this specific point and follows up by noting that in our modern culture such is not the case.
The English translations we use can be very powerful in influencing us to interpret passages in a certain way. These assumptions then become our starting point as we try to understand the meaning of a text. We shouldn’t be overly concerned about this because a simple solution is to use multiple translations. Then when we find a different rendering that causes us to question what we had assumed about the author’s intent, we know to dig deeper.
If you are interested in a fuller treatment of some of these points, check out God’s Woman Revisited: Pocket Edition.