How did the New Testament authors approach the use of translations?

by Luke Wayne
10/31/18
Return to King James Onlyism

A common objection by King James Onlyists is that only "formal equivalence" translations, or very literal word-for-word translations, could possibly be the word of God. They insist that a proper understanding of inspiration demands that we translate only in this manner and never in a more thought-for-thought or "dynamic equivalence" approach to translation. This can sound very reasonable and, all things equal, I generally prefer to rely on literal "formal equivalence" translations myself, such as the NASB, ESV, KJV, and NKJV. Still, is this really doctrinally demanded? When we look at how the New Testament authors, who wrote in Greek and quoted from the Hebrew Old Testament in translation, do they rely only on formal equivalence methodology? Or do they, at times, render the meaning of the text in a more thought-for-thought "dynamic equivalence" approach more akin to the NIV or CSB? And if so, can we call a translation methodology doctrinally deficient if it was sometimes utilized by the inspired authors of Scripture themselves?

The New Testament and the Septuagint

The New Testament authors had a Greek translation of the Old Testament already available to them that had been produced by Greek-speaking Jews over the previous few centuries. The Septuagint is in many places quite literal and word-for-word. In many other places, however, it is rather interpretive and even periphrastic. Even in these places, the New Testament authors saw fit to quote the Septuagint as authentic Scripture. They still used it as the word of God without qualification.

A Body Hast Thou Prepared

One of the strongest examples of this is in the book of Hebrews:

"Wherefore when he cometh into the world, he saith, Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared me," (Hebrews 10:5, KJV).

Here, the author of Hebrews is quoting from Psalm 40:

"Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire; mine ears hast thou opened: burnt offering and sin offering hast thou not required," (Psalm 40:6, KJV).

Of most interest here is that the author of Hebrews translates the phrase "mine ears has thou opened" with the very different phrase "a body hast thou prepared for me." This is a direct quotation of the Septuagint, which also translates the Psalm as:

"Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not; but a body hast thou prepared me: whole-burnt-offering and sacrifice for sin thou didst not require," (Psalm 40:6, LXX).

How did the Septuagint translators come to this seemingly odd rendering? To understand that, we have to understand that the Hebrew here is somewhat unusual. Literally, the Hebrew words mean "you have dug out ears for me," but the meaning of this phrase is not altogether clear. Even the KJV translators chose to offer the interpretive translation "mine ears has thou opened" rather than a literal word-for-word rendering. Note how other translators have rendered it. Before the KJV, translators gave us options like:

"...thou madest perfectly ears to me..." (Wycliffe Bible).

"...mine ears hast thou prepared ..." (Geneva Bible).

While most modern translations roughly agree with the KJV, others offer options like:

"...my ears you have pierced..." (1984 NIV).

"...you have given me an open ear ..." (ESV).

A few offer even more periphrastic renderings like:

"...you gave me to understand..." (Jewish NJPS Translation).

"...You make that quite clear to me..." (NET).

Thus, it is not utterly shocking that the Septuagint translators also felt the need to get a little creative to capture the meaning of this text for their readers. Much like the Wycliffe reading of "thou madest perfectly ears to me," the Septuagint translators seem to have understood "you have dug out ears for me" to be a reference to God's creation of our bodies. God "dug out" our ears when he made or formed our ears. Thus, they generalized it. Rather than praising God only for the creation of ears, they go from the parts to the whole and write "a body hast thou prepared me." This is certainly a dynamic, interpretive rendering of a difficult text. It is far from a literal, word-for-word translation. Yet, the author of the Hebrews gladly quoted it as Scripture without correction, qualification, or objection. He still treated it as the true word of God, and did so under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Saw His Glory

Another important example comes from John's gospel:

"Therefore they could not believe, because that Esaias said again, He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them. These things said Esaias, when he saw his glory, and spake of him," (John 12:39-41, KJV).

In this powerful testimony to the deity of Christ, John quotes from Isaiah 6 and then says that Isaiah wrote this when he saw His (Jesus') glory. But whose glory did Isaiah see? The chapter opens:

"In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple," (Isaiah 6:1, KJV).

This clearly says that Isaiah saw the Lord (i.e. YHWH, Jehovah, the one true God). But it doesn't plainly mention seeing "His glory." The Septuagint, however, reads:

"And it happened in the year that King Uzziah died that I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and raised up, and the house was full of His glory."

Thus, John interpreted the passage based on the wording found in the Septuagint translation "the house was full of His glory," rather than a more literal rendering, "his train filled the temple."

A Few More Examples

The New Testament is full of examples of this, where the authors quote from the Septuagint in places where the translation is far from a literal word-for-word rendering. To note just a few more examples:

"A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench: he shall bring forth judgment unto truth. He shall not fail nor be discouraged, till he have set judgment in the earth: and the isles shall wait for his law," (Isaiah 42:3-4, KJV).

"A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench, till he send forth judgment unto victory. And in his name shall the Gentiles trust," (Matthew 12:20-21, KJV)

Quoting from the Septuagint, Matthew says that he shall bring for judgment "unto victory" rather than "unto truth" and that "in his name shall the gentiles trust" rather than the more literal "the isles shall wait for his law."

"Wherefore the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men," (Isaiah 29:13, KJV).

"This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men," (Matthew 15:8-9, KJV).

There are a number of less than word-for-word renderings here, but the most significant is that Matthew has "But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men" as the translation of "but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men."

"The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound," (Isaiah 61:1, KJV).

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised," (Luke 4:18, KJV).

Luke, quoting from the Septuagint, has "recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised," as the translation for "the opening of the prison to them that are bound." Reading the idea of "recovering of sight to the blind" back into Isaiah's literal words is far from a word-for-word translation of the Hebrew, at least as we have it today. One could argue that the Septuagint represents an early form of the Hebrew accidentally omitted in the Masoretic text, but if that is true, then the KJV is incorrect in its version of Isaiah 61:4. If, however, Isaiah 61 always read exactly as it reads in the KJV, then one must admit that Luke was using a rather interpretive paraphrase and yet is quoting it as the word of God. Either way, this is inconsistent with King James Only claims.

"And had rained down manna upon them to eat, and had given them of the corn of heaven," (Psalm 78:24, KJV).

"Our fathers did eat manna in the desert; as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat," (John 6:31, KJV).

The original Psalm reads that God rained down manna for them "to eat" and also that He gave them "corn (grain) of heaven." Yet, it nowhere says that "He gave them bread from heaven to eat." This is a dynamic translation that draws from both parallel clauses to produce one thought.

"I have set the Lord always before me: because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall rest in hope," (Psalm 16:8-9, KJV).

"For David speaketh concerning him, I foresaw the Lord always before my face, for he is on my right hand, that I should not be moved: Therefore did my heart rejoice, and my tongue was glad; moreover also my flesh shall rest in hope," (Acts 2:25-26, KJV).

In almost every clause, the author of Acts (through quoting the Septuagint) gives us a dynamic translation that captures the meaning but not the exact wording of the original.

"Behold ye among the heathen, and regard, and wonder marvelously: for I will work a work in your days which ye will not believe, though it be told you," (Habakkuk 1:5, KJV).

"Behold, ye despisers, and wonder, and perish: for I work a work in your days, a work which ye shall in no wise believe, though a man declare it unto you," (Acts 13:41, KJV).

Again, the Septuagint here, as quoted by the book of Acts, differs significantly in wording from the original.

"Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun," (Psalm 19:4, KJV).

"But I say, Have they not heard? Yes verily, their sound went into all the earth, and their words unto the ends of the world," (Romans 10:18, KJV).

Note that the Psalm says that their "line" is gone out through all the earth. Paul, quoting from the Septuagint, translates this as their "sound" has gone out.

"I will ransom them from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death: O death, I will be thy plagues; O grave, I will be thy destruction: repentance shall be hid from mine eyes," (Hosea 13:14, KJV).

"O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?" (1 Corinthians 15:55, KJV).

Paul, relying on the Septuagint, translates "O death, I will be thy plagues; O grave, I will be thy destruction" as "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?" which is far from the literal translation the KJV Onlyists tell us biblical doctrine demands.

"And he said, Swear unto me. And he sware unto him. And Israel bowed himself upon the bed's head," (Genesis 47:31, KJV).

"By faith Jacob, when he was a dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph; and worshipped, leaning upon the top of his staff." (Hebrews 11:21, KJV).

Whereas Genesis literally says that Jacob was bowed "upon the bed's head," the Septuagint reads that he bowed "upon the top of his staff." Again, whether one takes this as a textual variant or an interpretive translation, the author of Hebrews cites the verse this way rather than the way it appears in the Genesis of the KJV.

Many more such examples could be given, but this should be more than enough to demonstrate that the New Testament authors did not believe that only formal, literal, word-for-word translations were true Scripture.

New Testament Writers as Dynamic Translators

The New Testament authors treated the Septuagint as the true word of God where it was quite loose and interpretive in its renderings. Yet, they did not always quote from the Septuagint. Sometimes they quote the Old Testament in words that don't line up with the Septuagint at all. In such cases, they may have been relying on other ancient Greek translations that have now been lost, but there is no evidence to indicate this. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that the New Testament authors sometimes offered their own translations of certain verses in the Old Testament. And even in such cases, they were not always strictly word-for-word. To take just a couple more examples, we read in Matthew that:

"And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel," (Matthew 2:6, KJV).

He is quoting here from Micah, who wrote:

"But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting," (Micah 5:2, KJV).

Matthew's wording does not match the Masoretic text or the Septuagint and it appears to be original to the gospel. Thus, Matthew translates "Bethlehem Ephratah" as "Bethlehem of Judah." Not a literal rendering, but a fair explanation of the meaning. Matthew likewise says that Bethlehem will not be "the least among the princes of Judah" rather than "though thou be little among the thousands of Judah" and specifies more clearly that the one who will come to rule Israel will be "a governor." Matthew offers us a clear and meaningful but not exactly literal translation, but he quotes it as what the Scripture really says.

Similarly, in both Matthew and Luke we read that Jesus said in His confrontation with the devil in the wilderness:

"Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve," (Matthew 4:10, KJV).

"And Jesus answered and said unto him, Get thee behind me, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve," (Luke 4:8, KJV).

Both gospel writers agree on what Jesus said was "written." Jesus was quoting from one of two verses in the Torah:

"Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God, and serve him, and shalt swear by his name," (Deuteronomy 6:13, KJV).

"Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God; him shalt thou serve, and to him shalt thou cleave, and swear by his name," (Deuteronomy 10:20, KJV).

Either way, what Jesus said was not a word-for-word translation of what was originally written. It is a dynamic translation of the meaning, but not a precise rendering of the exact words. Yet Jesus quotes it this way as Scripture, declaring "it is written." Thus, if even Jesus treated dynamic, thought-for-thought translations as the authoritative word of God, who are we to say that only formal, literal, word-for-word translations are God's word? Who are we to tell Jesus, the Apostles, the New Testament authors, and the Spirit of God who inspired their writings that they are against a proper view of inspiration by relying on and even producing translations that are not precise, literal, word-for-word renderings.