No “Secret Decoder Ring” in Bible Translation

Remember the cereals you would eat as a kid? Not only were they often heavily laden with all manner of sweeteners and flavorings – both natural and artificial – that would appeal to the sugar-high addictions of kids, they would also have various prizes, toys, and game pieces as well. I remember one of those colorful, plastic toys being a “secret decoder ring”. On the outside of the box was a cryptic message, veiled from the curious child. The only way to “crack the code” was through the use of this secret decoder ring to assist in the translation of the hidden message on the box. This would result in hours of fun! (Yeah, this was long before video games.)

I think of that “secret decoder ring” when I reflect on the field of biblical translation. Many people may hear sermons in churches where a particular Hebrew or Greek word is provided to give meaning and depth to the English translation, or who have encountered variations from one Bible translation to another. I have also encountered many questions from people regarding the original languages. One of the things I have noticed is that people tend to think that translation from one language to another is a simple as using a “secret decoder ring”. For instance, some may believe that you simply find a meaning of a word in the Bible, go to a Greek or Hebrew dictionary to find its English equivalent and, voilà, that’s how the word should be translated. However, translation of any kind, let alone Bible translation, is more complex than using a “secret decoder ring” approach.

The following video provides an excellent example of the complicated process in determining how to translate the Bible into English. This group is a committee working on how to translate the Greek word, δοῦλος (doulos, “servant, or slave”), which occurs four times and the verb, δουλόω (douloō, “enslaved”), is used once in 1 Corinthians 7. The term can be rendered either “slave” or “servant” and they are coming to a decision on which English term to use. The passage with the four occurrences of the noun from the original English Standard Version is offered below [with the committees revised decision provided in brackets]:

“Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. 18 Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. 19 For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. 20 Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. 21 Were you a slave [bond-servant] when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) 22 For he who was called in the Lord as a slave [bond-servant] is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave [bond-servant] of Christ. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become slaves [bond-servants] of men” (1 Corinthians 7:17–23 ESV emphasis added).

It should be noted that all of the individuals in that room are some of the most highly respected, doctoral-prepared Greek and Hebrew scholars in their respective fields. Translation decisions have gone through an extensive process by teams of brilliant scholars who really know their stuff. We can therefore trust that, though there may be differences from version to version, modern English translations are very accurate and reliable.

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3 thoughts on “No “Secret Decoder Ring” in Bible Translation

  1. Wonderful! Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge of Bible translation. The video clip is very enlightening. It is apparent that the process of translation is taken seriously, and considered prayerfully, by true scholars before changes are made. This post has provided a reminder of how important it is to evaluate the difference between truth and false teaching in both Bible translation and in the messages coming from the pulpit. Thank you again, Aaron, for being “diligent”.

  2. Excellent analogy with the decoder ring! I can just picture Ralphie furiously working in the bathroom after receiving his decoder from Ovaltine 🙂 Thanks for this post! It’s helpful to remember how many layers there are to the translating decisions that may seem automatic to us plebeians.

    That said, [as you pointed out at the end] it’s a dual reminder that once translations are agreed upon and discussed to the nth degree, we can trust that they need not be re-hashed with convenient opinions.

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