Interpretation – translations and context and the meaning of words?

In Bible study, observation is gathering the facts about a Bible text one is looking at. Interpretation is figuring out what it means. One key thing to do is determining the meaning key words in the text. Sometimes the Bible translators will help out with that task.

Let’s take a look at Colossians 2:18-23 (NIV) …..

18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. 19 They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow. 20 Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: 21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? 22 These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

Let’s take a look at Colossians 2:18-23 (NASB)

18 Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, 19 and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God. 20 If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, 21 “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” 22 (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? 23 These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence .

As you can see here, the NIV translation uses two different words while the NASB uses only one word.

What is going on?

The Greek word in question is: σαρκὸς. This is Strong’s Greek word number 4561 sarx. Thus, in the Greek text, there is only one word in question. Depending on context, that word could have different shades of meaning. In v. 23, the meaning is “the animal nature with cravings” while v. 18, the meaning is “the earthly nature of man apart from divine influence.”

As you can see the two translation teams made different choices in terms of English words. In the NASB case, they opted to stick closer to the Greek word and used the same English word. While the NIV opted to get at the meaning of the word and thus used two different English words to render the one Greek word. This is a decision that is constantly in front of Bible translators to balance translating the thoughts and the words.

As such, it is always a good idea, if possible, when studying the Scriptures, to have two translations at different points of the spectrum of the word-for-word and thought-for-thought translation spectrum. And, if you feel ambitious, be ready to go to the internet and find the Greek or Hebrew behind the English translation!spect

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