One more issue in reading the biblical texts: because they were written in other languages, in order to read them at all most of us have to read in translation. Now comes MMR number three:
Every translation is an interpretation, so you must read more than one translation.
Try to read this sentence:
What does this say?
I like red bikes.
I like to read books.
I look at rude books.
I lick your databanks.
How do you know?
The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and a little bit of Aramaic. The New Testament was written in Greek. The ancient Hebrew was written with only a few vowels and mostly consonants. The consonants were not added until a long time after the texts began to be written down. Thankfully the proper readings were also handed down orally, so we do know how to read the texts—mostly. I say mostly because in some cases, there are discrepancies in how the vowels got added. Some folks read it one way and added the vowels to match their reading; some read another way and, consequently, came out with a different set of vowels. It isn’t necessarily a terrible problem, but it is one that you should know exists.
Just remember: Nobody had word processors, lots of storage space and spell check back then. Even in the Greek, which does have nice things like vowels, those who copied manuscripts triedtosavespacebyrunningthewordstogether. (Think of text messaging these days. Do you know what a BFF is? Or what it means to ROTFLOL? If not, ask your local teenager.)
When folks started to translate the Hebrew and Greek into other languages, they ran into other problems. If you are from East Texas you might know what it means to say that something is the “cat’s meow,” but if you are not you probably have no clue. Even though I know what someone means (specifically my father) when he says that, I would have trouble translating it. “Well if that ain’t the cat’s meow” means something like, “Well, isn’t that amazing—I have never seen anything like it before.” You can see that an exact translation into something like French, or Spanish would not capture the essence of what was really being said. So do I translate word for word and then footnote, or do I translate the sense of what is meant?
Some translations are more likely to translate word for word (what is known as “formal equivalence”) and others are more likely to get the sense of what is said (“dynamic equivalence”). But then you have to ask yourself: Would another person from East Texas even agree with my interpretation of that sentence in English? If someone different translated according to the sense of the sentence, he/she might translate according to a little bit different understanding of the sense of the English.
Do you see the problem? Translating the text is partly science and partly art, and there is just no way around that. So, as I said before: Every translation is an interpretation.
Most translations will tell you in their introductions what their guiding principles were in making the translation. They will tell you if a committee did the translation or if it was all done by a single person. For instance, the NRSV, the NIV, and the NJB are all committee translations, the Living Bible and the Message are both done by individuals. It is helpful to read from the different families of translation. Look at this Wikipedia link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modern_English_Bible_translations for different translation families and more information on them. Also skim the introduction to your own bible that you read. What does it say about who translated, why and how?
When you read one text in several different translations you start to see where the translators have disagreed. You can be sure that is a place to look more closely at what the text says.
Now for a look at the real text of the bible! Read Genesis 1:1 in multiple translations (I suggest at a minimum the NRSV, NIV, NJB, and Tanakh). Also, look at the footnotes in the NRSV translation. See any differences? Comment if you like!