Authority of Lexicons?

Translation’s First Myth

Let’s talk about the use of lexicons. Lexicons in translating the Scriptures.

Generally speaking, most who translate the Scriptures base many of their decisions on lexicons. And, the latest and biggest quoted the better. All under the idea that here is the “final” authority who sanctions a particular translation. Here is a typical response to a translation question:

Dear Bob,

Thank you for your email.

I think you need to look again at A & G. They do not make too much
personal preference, just for translators, by their explanations.

With a broader use of “kai,” there is every good and proper reason to
translate it as “then,” rather than “now.

A & G [Arndt & Gingrich] is considered one of the best, if not the best lexicon to use while translating the New Testament.

As the reply above mentions, I had stated to the author that the over use of these lexicons lent too much arbitrary decision making for translators. In the many posts you will receive on this site, will be several examples proving this point from actual translations and their comparisons with other translations, absolutely showing the “ad-lib” translating done in the modern world of a Bible a week publishing.

Not only does the over reliance on the lexicons, but the “scholars” who publish personal opinion as fact to the public, cause bad translation work, but in the end, cause a total misunderstanding of the text itself in too many cases.

Before quoting some material for you, let me mention this. In the past, as students at a Bible college, I was taught not to rely too heavily on modern scholars and translators. Not because they were bad people, but because of their tendency to quote each other to prove their premise, versus quoting heavily from Scripture to show how Scripture itself used the vocabulary and grammar. This method, sad to say, is almost foreign to the scene today.

Having said the above, over the years I have been told that no other group or organization felt that way, nor taught that way. I.e. Not to rely too heavily on the scholars for the final judgment on translation. Well, it just so happens that much of the field recognizes this problem, but only pays lip service to it. Let’s see:

2. The Current Use of the Words.

The current signification of a word is of far more importance for the interpreter than its etymological meaning. In order to interpret the Bible correctly, he must be acquainted with the significations which the words acquired in the course of time, and with the sense in which the Bible authors use them. This is the important point to be settled. Now it may be thought that this is easily done by consulting some good Lexicon , which generally gives both the original and the derivative meanings of the words, and generally designates in what sense they are perfectly true. At the same time it is necessary to bear in mind that the LEXICONS ARE NOT ABSOLUTELY RELIABLE, and that THEY ARE LEAST SO, WHEN THEY DESCEND TO PARTICULARS. They merely embody those results of the exegetical labors of various interpreters that commended themselves to the discriminating judgment of the lexicographer, and often reveal a difference of opinion. It is quite possible, and in some cases perfectly evident, THAT THE CHOICE OF A MEANING WAS DETERMINED BY DOGMATICAL BIAS.” [all emphasis mine] p. 68-69, Principals of Biblical Interpretation, Baker Book House, L. Berkhof, B.D., 1966

So, there you have one of many sources explaining this fault-line in Biblical interpretation. In other words, as one writer put it about history and historians: “they just make CREATIVE LEAPS”. And, following their examples, so do the translators of the past, and of today.

In a follow-up post I’ll show what Tregelles said about this situation when discussing the Hebrew language. And, as you will see, his remarks apply equally well to the Koiné of the New Testament. Tregelles is listed in Berry’s interlinear translation along with Griesbach, Lachmann, Tischendorf, TREGELLES, Alford and Wordsworth. All pioneers.

Author: Bob Petry

Student of the Bible since 1953. And am still learning.