Lesson 6

January 30 - February 5

The Languages and Translations of the Bible

READ FOR THIS WEEK'S STUDY: Isa. 19:18; Mark 5:41; 15:34; Acts 21:37, 38; 2 Tim. 2:15; Rev. 14:6; 22:18, 19.

MEMORY TEXT: "And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people" (Revelation 14:6).

KEY THOUGHT: Since the Tower of Babel there has been an astounding increase of various languages and dialects. Languages also are in a constant process of change. This presents an enormous challenge if we are to fulfill the commission to provide the Word of God in every tongue.

Sabbath Afternoon January 30

LANGUAGES OF THE BIBLE. Most of the Old Testament was written in what now is known as ancient Hebrew. A small portion was written in Aramaic. The New Testament was written in koine Greek (the language of the common people) as opposed to the classical Greek used by writers of that time.

Although the Bible was still read in Hebrew in the synagogues in the time of Christ, Aramaic had become the common language of the Jewish people. Aramaic was the language Jesus spoke. Bible translations began in the third century B.C. when the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek. Near the end of the second century A.D., the New Testament was translated into Syriac (a form of Aramaic), into Latin, and for the believers of Upper Egypt, into Coptic.  

Sunday  January 31

BIBLICAL HEBREW (Isa. 19:18; 2 Kings 18:26, 28; Neb. 13:24).

What biblical terms are used for the language spoken by the Old Testament Israelites?

Isa. 19:18  ____________________    2 Kings 18:26, 28   _____________________

Neb. 13:24  ___________________    2 Cor. 3:14  ___________________________  

Biblical Hebrew is a branch of the ancient Semitic language spoken by the Hebrews and the natives of Canaan. Most of its basic words contain three consonants, making the Hebrew sentences brief and forceful. The seventh commandment in English contains five words but only two in Hebrew. The twenty-third psalm contains 57 words in Hebrew as compared to 122 in the English translation. The Hebrew makes the poetry of the Old Testament particularly vivid, expressive, and beautiful.

What was one common form of keeping manuscripts in Old Testament times? Jer. 32:14.  

This has been confirmed by the finding of many ancient records stored in jars. The most famous of these are the Dead Sea Scrolls found in the caves at Qumran and dating from the third century B.C. to the first century A.D.

Significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls. "These finds have provided us with Bible manuscripts that are a thousand years earlier than the earliest Hebrew Bible texts known before these scrolls came to light. This is of great importance, because we have thus obtained samples of every Old Testament book, save one [Esther], as it existed during the time of Christ's ministry. In other words, we now know what the Bible of Christ's time looked like; in fact, we have discovered that its text differed scarcely at all from the one on which our modem translations were based.'—SDA Bible Commentary (1978), vol. 1, p. 34.

When Paul refers to reading the books of Moses in 2 Cor. 3:14, what term does he use? What does Luke call the Old Testament, and what does he include in it? Luke 24:27.  

For reflection: How is your confidence affirmed in the Old Testament you study, knowing that it was the Bible used by Christ and His apostles?   

Monday  February 1

ARAMAIC IN THE BIBLE (Gen. 31:47; 2 Kings 18:26; Mark 5:41; 15:34; 1 Cor. 16:22).

Aramaic, closely related to Hebrew, was the language of the Aramaeans who lived mainly in Upper Mesopotamia and Syria. Because it was a simple and easy language to learn, the Assyrians and Babylonians adopted it. The Persians made Aramaic the official language of their empire. As the result of the Babylonian captivity, the Jews adopted it in place of the Hebrew language.

By the time of Christ, Aramaic was the mother tongue of the people who lived in Palestine. Ezra 4:8-6:18; 7:12-16; Daniel 2:4-7:28; and one verse in Jeremiah (10:11) were written in Aramaic. As a high official in Babylon, Daniel was so fluent in Aramaic that, when he introduced the speech of the wise men in chapter 2:4, he began quoting them in Aramaic and continued using that language through chapter 7:28.

When was an Aramaic word first used in the Old Testament? Gen. 31:47.  

Laban used the Aramaic Jegar-sahadutha, and Jacob used the Hebrew Ga'eed. Both mean "stone heap of witness."

Why did the officials of King Hezekiah ask Rabshakeh, the emissary of King Senacherib of Assyria, to speak in Aramaic to them?  2 Kings 18:26.  

How do such texts as Mark 5:41; 15:34; and 1 Corinthians 16:22 demonstrate that Jesus and Paul spoke Aramaic? 

"A number of Aramaic expressions in the New Testament show clearly that it was the language of Jesus. 'Talitha cumi' (Mark 5:41), and.. .'Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? (Mark 15:34) are some of Christ's expressions.

"The Bible was still read in Hebrew in the synagogue services in the time of Christ, but many people, especially the women, could not understand it. It had therefore become customary for the readers in the synagogues to translate Scripture passages into Aramaic. Later on, written translations of the Old Testament into Aramaic were made-the so-called Targums. Contrary to Hebrew, which had become a dead language in pre-Christian times, and has experienced only artificial revivals, Aramaic has been kept alive continuously as a spoken language to the present day, and is still used in certain parts of the Near East, where it is known as Syriac."—SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 1, p. 30.

Tuesday  February 2

NEW TESTAMENT GREEK (Acts 21:37-39; 22:2).

With the expansion of Alexander's empire in the fourth century B.C., Greek culture and language spread throughout most of the Mediterranean area and the Middle East. Later, Greek was adopted by the Roman Empire as its universal language. As far as can be determined, all twenty-seven books of the New Testament were written in Greek. However, many of the Greek terms had to be adapted to fit the religious meaning expressed in the New Testament.

At the time of his arrest Paul surprised the Roman commander by speaking Greek and impressed the mob by speaking Aramaic. Acts 21:37; 22:2. Why? What point was Paul making with each of these usages? Acts 21:38, 39; 22:3.  

The advantage of studying the Bible in the original languages. It is not essential to be able to study the Bible in the original languages, especially when we have so many modem translations. But it is helpful to be able to do so as an aid to understanding the original intention expressed in the languages used to write any particular portion of the Bible.

The following illustrations demonstrate how an acquaintance with the Greek language helps us understand the meaning of the Bible text in which it is found:

1 John 3:4sin (Gr. hamartia) means to miss or fail to hit the mark; in this context, to wander from or violate the moral law.

2 Cor. 7:9repentance (Gr. metanoia) means a change of mind, implying that the change is for the better and produces good results.

Rom. 3:20to be justified (Gr. dikaioo) means to set right; to declare right; to treat as being righteous; the act by which a person is brought into a right state in relation to God.

Eph. 4:22conversation (Gr. anastrophe) means manner of life, conduct, behavior. In this context it gives the idea that the new nature is to be put on to replace the old nature.

Matt. 16:18Peter (Gr. Petros) means a small stone as compared to the Gr. petra, which is a large, immovable rock. A small stone would make an impossible foundation for the building of the Church. Jesus, making a play on words, referred to Himself as the Rock (see 1 Cor. 3:11; 10:4).  

Wednesday  February 3

WHAT ABOUT THE VERSIONS? (Rev. 22:18, 19).

How does God regard those who make deliberate changes to the revelation He has given? Rev. 22:18, 19. 

Although specifically referring to adding to and taking away from the book of Revelation, the principle applies to making deliberate changes in any book of the Bible. As the need arose for versions in different languages and within languages because of their constantly changing nature, the restriction found in the book of Revelation serves, among other things, as a guide to keep translators from taking liberties with God's Word.

In spite of God's warnings, some liberties have been taken. Ellen White states: "I saw that God had especially guarded the Bible; yet when copies of it were few, learned men had in some instances changed the words, thinking that they were making it more plain, when in reality they were mystifying that which was plain by causing it to lean to their established views, which were governed by tradition. But I saw that the Word of God, as a whole, is a perfect chain, one portion linking into and explaining another."—Early Writings, pp. 220, 221. Even though there may be some errors owing to human-made changes in any one version, our interpretation is to rest on the weight of evidence as we take into consideration all that the Bible has to say on a topic.

Variations in versions go back to the earliest. Because the Septuagint (the earliest Greek version of the Old Testament) served as the Bible of the New Testament writers, it is common to find some minor variations in phraseology between texts quoted in the New Testament and the texts being quoted as we find them in our Old Testament, translated from the Hebrew text. Yet such minor variations do not result in any differences in theology. To become familiar with these differences, complete the exercise that follows:


Old Testament New Testament
Exod. 16:33 Heb. 9:4
Ps. 102:25-27 Heb. 1:10-12
Ps. 40:6 Heb. 10:5
Deut. 32:35, 36 Heb. 10:30   
Even though the Bible is an ancient book, it has been preserved, and its use is widespread today, reaching many diverse peoples in their own tongues. It is indeed for all the world and for all times meeting the deepest longings of the human heart. 

Thursday  February 4

WHAT ABOUT MODERN VERSIONS? (Acts 2:5-11; 2 Tim. 2:15).

According to 1995 statistics published by the American Bible Society, the Bible or portions of it are now printed in 2,123 languages or dialects. Although they estimate 6,528 languages and dialects exist, many of them are used by very few people. Therefore, they estimate that 90 percent of the world population has access to the Bible in their spoken language. The current number of translations and versions is constantly increasing.

The following comment and exercise have to do with an antiquated English version of the Bible. This may not be useful to our non-English readers, but they may wish to use a similar exercise relating to an old Bible version in their own language.

Many who use the English version believe the King James Version is the most authentic and has the greatest authority. Yet, the King James Version contains many words no longer currently used. As evidence, determine what the following words mean in the King James Version-passages indicated: (Answers in Friday's section.)

    1. Gal. 4:17Affect (verb)

    2. Job 20:3Check (noun)

    3. Joel 2:24; 3:13Fat (noun)

    4. Deut. 28:26Fray (verb)

    5. Isa. 43:13Let (verb)

    6. Exod. 28:11Ouches (noun plural)

    7. 1 Thess. 4:15Prevent (verb)

    8. Ezek. 35:6Sith (conjunction) 

In the fight of what Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:15, how is his admonition helpful to us when we use the various versions? 

Ellen White's use of versions. In the 1905 publication of The Ministry of Healing, Ellen White used eight texts from the English Revised Version and fifty-five from the American Revised Version. W. C. White wrote: "When Testimonies for the Church, Volume Eight, was printed and it seemed desirable to make some lengthy quotations from the Psalms, it was pointed out to Sister White that the Revised Version of these Psalms was preferable, . . . [She] gave the matter deliberate consideration and instructed us to use the Revised Version."—E. G. White Document File, No. 579; Ministry, April 1947, pp. 17, 18. 

Friday February 5

FURTHER STUDY: As an aid to understanding the development of Bible versions, look under "Versions" in a Bible dictionary, if available. Choose a Bible chapter and compare it carefully in whatever versions or languages you have available. Notice: (1) variations in wording, (2) other differences, (3) which readings are the most understandable. If you have access to the SDA Bible Commentary, look up those passages on which you may have questions. What do you conclude about the use of Bible versions as a result of this exercise?

1. It is not difficult to understand why there should e translations in different languages, But why should there be so many versions in any one language? 
2. Do you know of or can you find other words in the King James Version that have changed meaning since its publication? 

A comment on Bible versions: From the standpoint of clarity and understanding alone, modem versions can be helpful. For example, Acts 2:47 in the King James Version reads "such as should be saved, whereas the Revised Standard Version translates it in harmony with the Greek text, "those who were being saved."

For serious Bible study of doctrinal topics, the literal translations closest to the original languages are recommended. In English such versions are: the New King James Version (does not use the outdated words in the King James Version), the Revised Standard Version (1946), and the New American Standard Bible. For personal devotional study, you may wish to read the version that brings the greatest spiritual blessing to you. Keep in mind that paraphrases are not translations of the Bible but reflect the intent and interpretation of the paraphrasers.

SUMMARY: The careful Bible student has the advantage today of being able to study the Bible in its original languages and in many modem translations and versions. Because these sources vary in accuracy, it is wise to become knowledgeable about using them.  

Answers to the quiz on the meaning of KJV words:
1. Affect (verb) = to desire earnestly, to seek after
2. Check (noun) = reproof, rebuke
3. Fat (noun) = a vat, vessel
4. Fray (verb) = to frighten
5. Let (verb) = to hinder, to prevent
6. Ouches (noun plural) = sockets in which precious stones are set
7. Prevent (verb) = to do or come before, to anticipate
8. Sith (conjunction) = since

China Report

I am a student at a university in China. But I find ways to spread the news of God's love to people who have never heard it before. Many people in China are eager to know about God.

One of my teachers, Mr. Lu, began asking me questions about the Bible. I answered with caution, because I did not know if he was a secret spy. But he was sincere, and soon we began studying the Bible behind tightly closed doors. Mr. Lu and his wife accepted Jesus as their Lord. Now he is eager to tell others about the freedom found in Christ. Often he comes to ask for Bibles to give to someone he has told about Christ.

But he must be careful. A few years ago Mr. Lu was accused of criticizing the government. He was questioned by the university, and his salary was reduced. He knows he is being watched.

Mr. Lu's brother and his family, who live in another province, became Christians three years ago, but they cannot fellowship with other Christians in the area. It is too dangerous. They have never seen a Bible! The government is very strict there, and the family's home has been searched twice for religious materials. Parcels arriving from outside the area are searched, and even passengers arriving from other areas are spot-searched for religious materials. In spite of this danger, Mr. Lu plans to carry Bibles and literature to his brother's family when he visits. Because he was born there, he hopes that authorities will not search him. Pray for him!

I tutor 13 students on a private basis and study the Bible with several others. Two students from inner Mongolia recently gave their hearts to the Lord. It is precious to see these intelligent, earnest young people choose to follow God so wholeheartedly!

Recently I spent my school holiday visiting former students. I stayed in the home of Chin Le. Her family are new Christians, and already they have won a number of others to God. These new believers came to Chin Le's home to study the Bible and find answers to their questions. If it were discovered that a foreigner was teaching them, the believers would face great hardships. So I hid in the house and did not even peek out the door for a whole week!

These people have so much love for the Lord! Many were members of a Sunday church whom Chin Le told about the Sabbath. Since the group was formed four years ago, they have established at least sixteen other congregations with more than two thousand worshipers-all without a pastor. Pray for our believers in China!

The author, whose name must remain a secret, lives and ministers in a large city in China.

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