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When Bible Translations Let Us Down (Comparing Translations for Hebrews 13:1-8)

I am studying Hebrews 13:1-8 right now and in the process of writing my lesson for Sunday. But I am frustrated because I can’t find a translation that I like for this section of scripture. This does not happen often, but it does happen from time to time. When I study, I typically begin with the ESV. But the ESV reads in verse 2,

…for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. (ESV)

Sorry, but “unawares” is a pretty ridiculous rendering. How the editors let that go by is astounding to me. This is a reading from the RSV that should have been updated.

So I turn to the HCSB next. But it also is a let down. Notice verse 4,

Marriage must be respected by all…. (HCSB)

Respected? Sorry, I will stay with all of the other translations that go with “honored.” To me, “honored” carries a stronger meaning than “respected.” Respect is something that can be done passively, perhaps in the mind alone. Honor requires not only mental activity but also action to show that honor. Apparently the revision to the HCSB did not fix this, which is disappointing.

What about the TNIV? Well, verse 4 is a sticking point in the TNIV as well.

Marriage should be honored by all…. (TNIV/NIV)

“Should” makes the command sound like a suggestion. Marriage IS to be held in honor, not should be. Saying that something “should” be done suggests that it is not required. Perhaps that is just me, but it makes the command sound optional.

So, I consider going back to the translation of my childhood… the NKJV. But it also runs afoul in verse 4,

Marriage is honorable among all…. (NKJV)

Well, that sounds like all marriages are honorable regardless of the circumstances. That is certainly not what the author is Hebrews is saying. We are being commanded to keep our marriages honorable and pure.

Could I go with the NLT? The NLT does a good job and there is nothing wrong with it. But verse 4 lacks the imagery.

Give honor to marriage, and remain faithful to one another in marriage. (NLT)

I miss the phrase, “keep the marriage bed undefiled.” That is a vivid image of the command, depicting that sexual relations outside of marriage are defiling. While the NLT has the meaning of the verse, it misses the punch of the defiling aspect of unlawful sexual relations. I like the vivid picture of the other translations rather than the explanation the NLT gives of verse 4.

What about the NASB? Well, I am not thrilled with it, but it is better.

Make sure that your character is free from the love of money…. (NASB)

I like the other translations better that read, “Keep your life free from the love of money.” This is a more forceful statement than “make sure your character is free from the love of money.” I also like “your life” better than “your character.”

What about the NRSV? It is close, like the NASB, but takes an interesting tact in verse 3,

Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. (NRSV)

“Tortured” is sharper than all of the other translations. All of the other translation simply speak of “mistreatment” or “ill-treatment.” “Tortured” seems to be a bit too strong for the text.

So, you can see my frustration. I keep going through translations and just can’t find the one that works acceptably to me. Maybe I will preach from the NET. There is nothing wrong with this except I am quite confident that no one in the congregation uses the NET, or has even heard of it for that matter. It is not a big deal when one translation is not great and we simply use another for that text. But when nearly all of the translations have a “hair on it,” it certainly is frustrating. I hope the ESV will do a better job is fixing the archaic language with its next revision (if it has another revision).