Ask a Pastor Ep. 62 - Bible Translations, Modern Perspective on the Bible, New Christians


Welcome to Ask a Pastor, a podcast from Orchard Hill Church! Have you ever had a question about the Bible, Faith, or Christianity as a whole? Submit your question and one of our pastors will answer on the program. New episodes every Wednesday.

This episode our Senior Pastor, Dr. Kurt Bjorklund, talks with Strip District Campus Pastor, Joel Haldeman, about the differences in bible translations, if we are missing anything by having a modern perspective on the bible, and how new Christians should start learning about the Bible.

Books Mentioned in the Podcast
ESV Study Bible -

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Kurt Bjorklund: Hey, welcome today on Ask a Pastor. I'm joined by Joel Haldeman. Joel pastors our campus in the city in the Strip District. He's done a great job. That campus is growing and exciting things are happening there. Joel, welcome.

Joel Haldeman: Thanks.

Kurt Bjorklund: Today we have some questions that are centered around the Bible specifically that have been asked by a variety of people, so different questions, different people, but, really, some of the things that may not interest everybody, but if they're of interest to you are of great interest. Here's the first question, and that is it's about Bible translations. Can you talk about the different translations of the Bible? King James, NIV are the two main ones most people know. I know there are many others. Where does translation come from, and why do we need so many? What's your advice to people in terms of the plethora of Bible translations?

Joel Haldeman: I think this is one of those questions that we could spend an hour answering. There are whole graduate studies and doctoral programs on Bible translation and all of that. To be very to-the-point about it, all of the Bible translations that we have today come from the oldest manuscripts, that is the oldest copies of biblical writings that are in existence. There is no whisper-down-the-lane sort of thing where there's a translation of a translation of a translation of a translation. We use, at Orchard Hill, the NIV. The ESV is a popular Bible, even the King James Version. All of those Bibles go back as early as they can to find the earliest manuscripts.

Joel Haldeman: In terms of translation, I think all people know that language changes over time. The NIV was translated in the '70s. It was translated, there was an updated version in I think '84, and then 2011. Each of those was a time where there was a reaction to the way language had changed. In the '70s, you could use masculine pronouns to refer to all people. That was like a totally normal thing. Today-

Kurt Bjorklund: You could also say like groovy or something like that.

Joel Haldeman: That's right.

Kurt Bjorklund: They didn't actually say that, but yes.

Joel Haldeman: Today, our language has changed, and so there are edits to those translations. Then every time, it's an effort to go back to those original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts and to put them into the most, to communicate those as best as possible today.

Kurt Bjorklund: What's the difference between, say, the NIV and the ESV for somebody who looks at them and says, "What's the difference?" if those are two of the more popular ones today.

Joel Haldeman: The NIV is an attempt to make a Bible translation that's very readable. What they'll often do is they'll take, instead of a word at a time and translate that word from its Greek or Hebrew into its English equivalent, it might take a couple words or even a whole thought, and translate that into a way that is readable and make sense. I think the NIV is meant to be written at what, like a fifth grade reading level or something like that.

Joel Haldeman: Now, the NIV loses some things in doing that. There's a technicality that's sometimes missing. For that reason, when I'm reading a large chunk of scripture at home, I'll read the NIV. If I'm doing sermon prep or study in English, I'm going to use the ESV because the ESV is a translation that attempts to really do more of a word-for-word translation, although even the ESV doesn't do that.

Kurt Bjorklund: At times, you can't because the order in the original language doesn't work in English sentence order and so on, but yeah, they try to have a equivalent of word-for-word almost in terms of if a word appears in Greek, they want a corresponding word in English.

Joel Haldeman: Yeah, and so there's this continuum, like there's this thing called an Interlinear translation, which literally takes... it has a word in Greek, and it has its English equivalent and you can't read it. It doesn't make sense because Greek is not, translating Greek or Hebrew into English is not like Spanish into English. They're very different languages. The thought, the sentence structure is so different. Then on the other hand you have things like the NLT or The Message or the NIRV. The R stands for reader, which really just attempts to make something as readable as possible. The Message is more of a, I even struggle to call it a translation. It's a-

Kurt Bjorklund: It's a paraphrase, really.

Joel Haldeman: It's a paraphrase. Right, or even a commentary, so-

Kurt Bjorklund: Yeah, and I think when that was done, I think Eugene Peterson who did it would even have said that. He wouldn't have claimed that it was a translation. One of the other differences there is the difference between a committee versus one person.

Joel Haldeman: Yes.

Kurt Bjorklund: The Message was done by basically one person, and so anybody who does that, rightly or wrongly, will bring some of their biases, predispositions, and doctrinal interpretations into some things-

Joel Haldeman: That's right.

Kurt Bjorklund: ... whereas the committee, your idea is that you have a lot of scholars looking at it, arguing over the idea of which word or thing best represents the text, you hopefully eliminate some biases in that as well. If somebody is at a point of saying, "Okay, I've just kind of had a Bible, haven't really thought much about translation," what would you say to them about picking a translation, and how should that relate to Orchard Hill's choice to generally use the NIV for our public worship and declaration?

Joel Haldeman: I would say the most-widely used translations today, I guess outside of the Catholic Church, would be the ESV and the NIV, and so I would suggest that somebody that that's where you start. I think it's helpful to have both, one for reading, one for studying. If you're going to have one, I'd probably say have the NIV. A lot of people have a King James Version sitting around at home. There's a lot that we could say about that, but I think suffice it to say that King James Version was translated in 1611, so we're talking about a translation that's 400 years old. It's going to be hard to read, and there's going to be places where what it communicated 400 years ago is not what it communicates today-

Kurt Bjorklund: Right.

Joel Haldeman: ... and so that's probably not your best choice today.

Kurt Bjorklund: Most people use the New King James Version if they use that today.

Joel Haldeman: True. Yeah.

Kurt Bjorklund: So, and this is a little curve ball for you, what would you say to somebody who says, "Well, the King James Version is based on a better version of the original languages; therefore, that is the only legitimate current translation," because that I do get that from time to time from people, usually not people at Orchard Hill because they say, "You use the NIV, how could you?" that kind of thing, but somebody may hear that at some point. What would you say to them?

Joel Haldeman: The backstory to that is that for 1,900 years, the church translated, made translations based on what was called the Byzantine text family. Basically, we don't have, this is an important point, we don't have any of the original letters that were written by Paul, Matthew, Mark. We have copies of those letters, which in some sense is even better. When we look at those copies, there are some that have unique characteristics, and so they're grouped into a family, the way they're written, the style. One of those that was most popular, or there were the most number of copies, was the Byzantine text type. That is what is behind the King James Version for 1,900 years. This is what translations were based on.

Joel Haldeman: In the past hundred years, I mean this is awesome, in the past hundred years, there's been an explosion of manuscripts that have been found that were so much earlier, and of course, the earlier we get, the more accurate we're going to get to the original to the point where we have stuff that's within the same generation that those writings were written in. The difference between the King James Version is the King James Version takes one particular text type whereas all the other translations today, including the ESV, even though the ESV comes from the King James family, sort of, uses a multitude of manuscripts, compares them all, looks at the minor differences, and tries to understand what is original.

Kurt Bjorklund: Yeah. Just to summarize, what you're basically saying is when somebody makes that argument, they don't understand the backstory of all the texts, or if they do, they've chosen to say, "We prioritize this because, clearly, to compare more text is better,"-

Joel Haldeman: Definitely.

Kurt Bjorklund: ... "than saying, I just have one." Probably a way to put this in modern equivalence, if somebody says, "I was at an event that happened," and you get it from one perspective, you're more likely to get a good picture if you have 30 perspectives or, in this case, hundreds of perspectives that point back to the text and say, "This is what the tax likely is and what the King James, our only argument is, is we have one text that is better than all the others," with no real textual evidence for it that people are making, so you can refute that with confidence if somebody comes in and says, "That is how this works."

Joel Haldeman: Yeah.

Kurt Bjorklund: So.

Joel Haldeman: An important point to make, when we're talking about differences between text, we're talking about things that are all so minor.

Kurt Bjorklund: That's right.

Joel Haldeman: It's the difference between the Lord Jesus Christ in one and Jesus Christ our Lord in another-

Kurt Bjorklund: That's right.

Joel Haldeman: ... and none of them deal with any sort of serious theological matter.

Kurt Bjorklund: Yeah. I think I saw one, somebody wants did an analysis, and you're talking about less than a percent, less than like a 10th of a percent or something, that's in dispute, and it's all issues like you just said that aren't doctrinal at the end of the day, so. All right, here's a question. Modern perspective on the Bible. The world today takes Scripture very literally and out of context from a 21st century perspective. How do stories in the Bible lose their meaning through millennia and through translation? Additionally, what literary conventions and nuances do we miss out on from the original Hebrew and Greek that would have been clear to ancient readers that are lost on us?

Joel Haldeman: I think there's an important point to make here, and this is a technicality. It's that the stories and the text itself does not lose its meaning because that's something that's fixed in history. That happened. That was written down. The deficiency doesn't lie with the story or the medium that it was written in. The deficiency lies with us as the translators or us as the interpreters. I think it's the first place to start in that.

Joel Haldeman: I mean, here's the thing that we know: We can communicate, like we have language, and it gives us the ability to communicate. We can communicate to someone that speaks a different language today, and we can communicate to someone who speaks a different language and comes from a wildly different culture. What we all know is that in those settings, we have to be careful, we have to pay attention. Sometimes we have to do a little bit of study in advance in order to make sure that we're not miscommunicating.

Joel Haldeman: It's the exact same situation when we talk about Bible translation, or simply interpretation, that we just got to be careful. We have to understand that we're coming from a different culture than what it was written in, and we just need to be careful. I think if the question is like a pragmatic "how do I make sure," I mean, the only answer there is a little bit of study. The ESV Study Bible I think is one of the better study Bibles to have, and at the bottom half of the page, there are notes that deal with that deal with the text. Anytime there's a significant cultural difference, it'll call that out, and it'll sort of alert the reader to it.

Kurt Bjorklund: I'm amazed actually at how good that Bible is. I'll often start with that, look at the text, look at the notes. I'll then go do my research on a passage if I'm getting ready to teach and come back after maybe a couple hours and reading multiple commentaries, doing all kinds of things, and say, "Oh, that was pretty much the summary,"-

Joel Haldeman: That's right.

Kurt Bjorklund: ... "of all that other good work. That is a great resource to have. Here's something else that I would be concerned about when somebody even ask the question, "What are we missing by not knowing the original languages?" I don't believe that there are many cases where you have to actually know Hebrew or Greek to know the teaching of the Scripture on that point. As soon as somebody appeals to that and says, "Well, your NIV and your ESV appear to say this, but I say you're probably in a bad space." Now, if it enhances your understanding, it's a nuance, it's a shade of meaning, but if it's reversing what appears to be a clear reading of the NIV or the ESV or the... especially the two of them together, I would get concerned-

Joel Haldeman: That's right.

Kurt Bjorklund: ... generally, that you're finding meaning that hasn't been found by scholars for generations who've spent just an incredible amount of time in academic rigor trying to come to the conclusion of what it says. Then what happens sometimes is we don't like what something teaches, and so we look for somebody who will appeal to the language because it makes us feel like, "Well, we found the hidden meaning,"-

Joel Haldeman: That's right.

Kurt Bjorklund: ... "that nobody else found rather than saying, "No, this is what this text says," and so Greek and Hebrew can help illume it, but it shouldn't change the meaning. Even the question of "what am I missing" I think is probably the wrong question in a sense as opposed to saying, "What is it that I can gain or glean?" I certainly love the languages. I mean, I spend... I try to, every time I teach, look through the language of the, the original language before I get to the text. I'm not saying it's superfluous, but what I'm saying is it shouldn't be reversing what you can clearly find.

Joel Haldeman: The great thing that is accessible to any person is any person can sit down and go to Bible Gateway or wherever and compare 10 different translations and see that, with the exception of The Message, being a paraphrase, they're all going to say almost the exact same thing. It's really not a... I think the challenge here is not so much a translation thing because that's, in a lot of ways, that's a pretty simple thing. It's understanding some of the cultural background, like Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. Anybody can read that passage and totally understand what the author's meaning to communicate, that Jesus is coming, and people are celebrating him.

Joel Haldeman: What a study Bible or just a little bit of study will show us is that the practice of riding in on a donkey or on a horse, that that has some precedent in the ancient Near East. That just helps understand that passage, but it's not necessary to understand that passage.

Kurt Bjorklund: Right. Okay. No, I think that's well-put. Then here's another question. What are some ways for someone who's a new Christian or new to faith to learn how to read and understand the Bible? If somebody came to you and said, "I'm brand new, just kind of learning my way around the Bible," what would you say to them to help them understand or start having confidence in reading and understanding the Bible?

Joel Haldeman: My wife and I had a little bit of a disagreement about this one last night because I told her that my answer to that is just start reading the Bible. If you're new to the Bible, just sit down and read through the book of John. You're going to get the words straight from Jesus, straight from John, and that's going to give you the best way of understanding Jesus for the first time.

Joel Haldeman: She sort of pushed back on that, and having just done a Bible study with a brand new believer who didn't have any church or Bible background, she said... she referenced a study that she did. It really gave like a snapshot of the Old Testament as well as looking at a study in the New Testament. Maybe it is better to do a study that gives you a little bit of that background. We have a friend who's a new believer that read through The Jesus Storybook Bible, which was written for kids, but you could read it very quickly, and it gives you sort of the 30,000 foot view of Scripture, and then when you jump in and start reading the Book of John, it makes a lot more sense.

Kurt Bjorklund: You have some context. Right.

Joel Haldeman: Yeah, exactly. What would you recommend? Would you say jump in and start reading or-

Kurt Bjorklund: Well, I don't think there's ever a substitute for jumping in, but what a lot of people do is they'll say, "Well, I start, I should start at the beginning, start in Genesis," and by the time you're into Exodus, Leviticus, you're into, "This is weird. How do I understand this? How does this apply to today?" There are some challenges in bridging the gap because you are reading something that had an original audience written thousands of years ago in some cases, and so there is a gap to bridge.

Kurt Bjorklund: Certainly, studying with people who have already started to read and understand is a wise thing. I think that's one of the advantages of your wife doing a study with somebody. That's a beautiful thing because they're walking together through it. Sometimes, if you're a longer-standing Christian, the questions that come are fantastic. I love doing it with when my kids were just a little younger because my kids would have no filter in their questions. They'd be like, "Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. What do you mean this happened?" Then you would try to explain it, and as you would explain it, you'd hear yourself saying, "Oh, that is pretty incredible. Jesus came to earth and died for sin." I mean, that rolls off a Christian's tongue very easily, but the reality is, that's an incredibly complex and earth shattering statement if you believe it.

Joel Haldeman: That's right.

Kurt Bjorklund: I'm not sure that I have a great answer to that other than to say keep it simple. What I mean by that is I think asking the three questions, and these are not original to me, and that is what does it say, what did it mean, what does it mean? You just simply look at it and say, "Okay, what does this actually say?"

Kurt Bjorklund: You brought up the donkey earlier. Well, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. It means that he came into Jerusalem on a donkey. What did it mean? Well, he was communicating something in that culture, in that day about a Kingdom and about rule and about what his intentions were. You can get closer to that. That's where maybe a study Bible helps or something like that. Then what does it mean? What does that imply to people today to say that is who Jesus is. Sometimes I think we, anybody can over-complicate something rather than simply saying, what are those three questions?

Joel Haldeman: That's right.

Kurt Bjorklund: There's a little short section of the Bible, let me read this and do my best answer those questions. Certainly, you could write books on those things, but those questions simply answered really do help you say, "I think I have an understanding of this," and it's that bridge from what did it mean to what does it mean. That often is the important bridge to say, "Okay, this is what it meant here. This is what it means today."

Kurt Bjorklund: I was working on, when we're doing our series on John this fall, John 13, which is the story of Jesus washing the feet, and here's a great example. Jesus says, "I want you to do, take this as an example and wash one another's feet." Jesus washed the disciples' feet. What did he do? He washed their feet, what happened. What does it mean, or what did it mean? It meant Jesus was telling his disciples to serve. In that culture, washing feet was a way to serve people. It was a way to take a lower position. Almost no interpreters today would say, "Oh, you should literally wash people's feet." It'd be a little weird, you wear closed shoes, and you-

Joel Haldeman: That's right.

Kurt Bjorklund: ... say, "Hey, take off your shoes. I want to wash your feet," but it still means something today. It means what is the cultural equivalent of selfless service? What is it that you say, "I can set aside my status in order to serve other people in my life, in the normal flow of my life." Here's another example. I think it's what Romans 16:16 says, "Greet one another with a holy kiss." It's a command. Some people read that, and they try to lay one on you. You're like, "No, no, no," but it still has a meaning today-

Joel Haldeman: That's right.

Kurt Bjorklund: ... in that it's talking about a warm, affectionate greeting and being welcoming of everyone who comes into your fellowship and is part of your life. Some of them are easy like that. Some of them are harder. That's right. But you know intuitively when the Bible says, "Greet one another with a holy kiss," that it doesn't mean, "Well, now that, I believe in Jesus, I should greet everyone with a kiss on the lips."

Joel Haldeman: That's right.

Kurt Bjorklund: But those three questions help you get to that very quickly.

Joel Haldeman: I think actually the neat thing, just about that specific example, is that what that shows us is that the translators aren't doing the interpretive work for us-

Kurt Bjorklund: That's right.

Joel Haldeman: ... because a translator could come along and say, "Greet one another with a firm handshake and a warm hug."

Kurt Bjorklund: That's right.

Joel Haldeman: They leave in the "holy kiss," and so it's left to the English speakers to do that interpretive work of "is this a first century thing, or does this apply as it is today?" which I think should give confidence to all people that are reading the Bible that what they hold in their hands is unbelievably close to the original text, and they can have total confidence that they are reading the word of God.

Kurt Bjorklund: Yeah, which is an incredible thing. The claim that what you hold in your hands is God's way of revealing himself to us is worth the effort to try to understand and mind the things that are there for us. Thank you, Joel.

Joel Haldeman: Sure.

Kurt Bjorklund: Thank you for spending part of your day with us here today. If you have questions, you can send them to We'll be happy to address them in the coming episodes.