Communication is not just what is said, it is also what is heard. What is heard is dependent on all kinds of factors. In face-to-face interactions that might include non-verbals like posture, eye contact, expression, and gesticulations. It can also include tone, volume, and very last…words. You know how Americans go overseas and talk really loud to everyone like it will help them understand what is being said better? Well, when language breaks down volume is just one part of the rest of our communications arsenal that we have at our disposal (although I would wouldn’t recommend that approach!). We tend to think that we say what we mean but often everything around our words can cloud the very meaning we are trying to convey with the words we choose to use.
Now add in to that mix talking to someone who has a different culture than you. They use different expressions, different non-verbals to communicate meaning, and even a different pace of speaking. Now lets say that person speaks a language you don’t know…things get tricky. Let’s add one more…let’s say they are from a different culture than you are and that culture is from 2000 years ago half way around the world. You realize there is a lot of explaining to do. They don’t know ipods and Segways (So lucky. don’t we all wish we didn’t know Segways too?). We would have a hard time understanding life from their more distant and somewhat primitive perspective.
You will probably need an interpreter to help you converse with the other person at which point many of the nonverbals and other cues we typically use to communicate with another person are diminished and we have to rely on the translator to bridge the conversation and, what is more, the meaning from one person to the other. I heard Mikhail Gorbachev speak when I was at Harding University. His speech was passionate and vibrant. It was full of energy and zeal. His tone was fused with energy and enthusiasm. He was moving even though I couldn’t understand him. Then his translator would speak in a slow, monotone and draggy voice. Even though he was translating his words so we could understand what Gorbachev was saying, 90% of the passion, feeling and even meaning was lost.
Now think about how this applies to scripture. The nonverbals that you benefit from when someone is standing right in front of you talking to you have been removed. You can’t read anything into the tone, because it is text on a page rather than hearing the spoken word. We don’t have the advantage of watching the gesticulations of the person who is trying to communicate to us the truth about himself and the universe and about us as human beings and our need for Him. Then you realize that we are even using a different language than the original text of the scriptures. Add into that them being from a different time and a different culture than we are familiar with. Things get tricky.
We are fortunate to be surrounded by a number of interpreter scholars. When you open a decent English translation of the Bible, that is what you are getting. That is what a modern Bible translation is. It is like having a group of interpreters who have studied the language, the culture, and the text that we are trying to understand in order to better converse with the one who ultimately communicated those words (God). Just like when using an interpreter in another country today, no interpreter gets all the words right all the time. No interpreter can perfectly communicate from one culture and language to the next first of all because even translations as old as the KJV are still 1600 years removed from the language and the culture that is being translated and, as mentioned above, 90% of the communication process has been stripped away (nonverbals, tone, gesticulations, volume, etc) due to the fact that we are dealing with words on a page rather than speaking with Moses or Paul or Jesus or Peter face to face.
So what we are left with is our best attempt to try to reconstruct the original meaning of the text into something roughly comparable in the English language. That is not an easy thing to do and that is why it is important, especially if you are not familiar with Greek (which at least removes a part of the awkward process of using an interpreter and instead makes us rely on lexicons and books on grammar that even still keep us a step removed from actually walking in the shoes of the biblical writers) to refer to at least two translations when studying a passage of scripture.