Preaching Pointers - Biblical Translations and Preaching

April 13, 2022

Since most preachers today do not read the biblical texts in the original languages, attention to the translation we are using is a matter of homiletical integrity.

We can pay attention to the purpose of a translation. In the preface or introduction to a particular edition, you should find some indication as to why the editors thought this translation was particularly worthwhile. Preparing an edition of the Bible for publication is neither easy nor cheap—so there’s a reason someone went to that effort. Amongst those: bringing the language to the level of a daily newspaper (TEV), capturing the rhythm and cadence of the original (NEB), providing the most faithful rendering of the original meaning (NRSV), and updating the language of a classic translation (NKJV). Having a motive is not wrong. But does it speak to you?

We can note the variations in word choices as a key to richer meaning. Most of us have favourite, go-to translations. However, making a point to read the preaching text in other versions may unlock important insights. If you speak or read more than one language, you know that a one-to-one verbal correspondence between them does not always exist. The different choices translators make can provide nuances to understanding a particular word or phrase. For example, in John 14:16, Jesus promises that God will send one named “Paracletos.” Translations of that term in English-language versions include Helper, Comforter, Advocate, Intercessor, Counsellor, Strengthener, Standby, to name a few. This knowledge might suggest we reflect on the multiple ways the often-elusive concept of the Spirit influences our discipleship.

Those different word choices can help us explore the richness of the biblical text. Modern translations are wonderful for providing access to scripture, but they can lull us into forgetting that these are profoundly ancient documents whose authors viewed almost everything in ways different from our own. The stories come from cultures fundamentally unlike the one our listeners inhabit every day. Until you, as preacher, have some grasp on that, you might, even with the purest of motives, cause the text to say something it never intended.

Speaking of variations, if your congregation has pew Bibles or if you print/project the text, be aware of the versions being used. It’s awkward to have prepared a faithful sermon based on one translation only to have a different one read that varies on just that key word!

May I make a plea for not using a paraphrase (such as The Message) as the text read in worship or sermon preparation? A paraphrase can be a great gift in helping us understand and enter into scripture. But if translation from Greek/Hebrew into English takes us one step further from the original (not to mention what may have happened in the copying of manuscripts over the centuries), a paraphrase takes us yet another step away by giving us one person’s interpretation of the text. Whatever our personal theology of scripture and its place in worship and preaching, I would argue that getting close to the original (in all its strangeness) is something we should value.

Reading is, itself, an act of interpretation. Establishing an accurate translation of words can be challenging enough, but most words carry extra layers of emotional and experiential content, too, which will inevitably be caught up in any understanding we have of a text. Some of the most basic and commonly used words of life and faith are loaded for our listeners. Sometimes, a different version of the Bible, through its rephrasing of a concept, can circumvent the barriers to comprehension that we may not even know exist.

Clarity of language alone will not solve all the challenges with which the Divine Word confronts our living. But it will help to ensure that we, and our listeners, confront the real issue.

Ross Bartlett is the Director of United Church Formation at the Atlantic School of Theology, Halifax, N.S.