Which One is Right?

What does it mean that there are so many variations in the translations of the Holy Scriptures?

Mark 1:1-8
as told by Deborah

This is how it began, the glorious message that has been revealed in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Just as it was written in Isaiah: “Look! I’m sending My messenger on ahead; a voice crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way for the Lord; straighten the road, smooth the path,” so did John appear in the wilderness, announcing a baptism of freedom; a fresh start: to turn away from evil and toward righteousness.

People from all over the Judean countryside and everyone from Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, publicly admitting their wrongdoings.

John dressed in camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

He proclaimed, “One who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to tie his shoes. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Isaiah 40:3-10
as told by Deborah, influenced by the NRSV

A voice cries out, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, build a highway in the middle of the wasteland for our God. Every valley shall be filled in, and every mountain and hill leveled off; the curves will be straightened, the rough surface will become smooth. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people, everywhere shall see it, that’s what God has promised.”

The voice says, “Shout out a warning!”

I reply, “What can I say? People are as variable as the wind, as inconstant as wildflowers: one day they blossom, the next they have faded and died. But the word of our God shall never pass away.”

“Go up to the mountain top, O herald of good news;” the voice commands, “Shout with all your might, proclaiming the good news. Shout as loud as you can; don’t be afraid! Tell the people, ‘Here is your God! Pay attention! God is powerful, reliable, and just; following Him is its own reward; a blessing without end.’”

Photo of a flower

Reflection by Deborah Beach Giordano
December 11, 2017


There are two ways of reading Isaiah’s report of his call to announce the good news to the people, and both can be found in various modern English translations of the passage in Isaiah and in Mark’s reference to it:

A voice cries out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord,”
A voice cries out, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.”

The words are literally identical, yet their meanings are not. In one the voice comes from the wilderness (presumably the speaker emerges to make his announcement) in the other it the wilderness is where the road is to be built.

The Glories of Punctuation

Punctuation is of enormous help in understanding what an author wants to convey. Take these two sentences as an example:

Let’s eat, Gramma!
Let’s eat Gramma!

Or this:

There were deer eating plants.

shocked deerWere there deer, grazing? Or were deer in danger from carnivorous plants with a taste for venison?

In translating the Bible, the situation is particularly problematic, as neither Hebrew nor koine Greek give us any punctuation: no quotation marks, no commas, no dashes or parentheses, not even paragraphs! While much can be interpreted based on sentence structure, a great deal cannot. There are many, many verses of Scripture that remain ambiguous, unclear; their meanings susceptible to the bias of the interpreter — or, equally, the leadings of the Holy Spirit.

It is the blessing and the challenge of our Sacred Texts. Many passages make demands on our reasoning and perception — for there are no “facts,” but experiences presented with shadings and subtleties, and constrained by the limitations of language. How does one describe the Extraordinary? What words can convey what it is to be in love? Or awe-struck, or frightened, or heartbroken, or filled with hope?

Tone and Texture

One of the folks I meet with regularly was recalling what a great storyteller his grandfather had been. George remembers sitting on an old blue sofa next to the older man who rested his stocking feet on the coffee table and methodically lighted a cigar, waiting for his grandson to say, “Grandpa, tell me a story.” And then the adventure would begin.

heartApparently most of his grandfather’s stories were about vagabonds and outlaws, armies and battles and bloodshed; tales of danger and violence. Imbued with modern sensibilities, I was concerned, “Those sound scary. Do you think that was that such a good idea? Didn’t they give you nightmares?” George was shocked by the suggestion, “Not at all! It was magical; like a magic carpet ride into a foreign land. It took place somewhere else; not where we were…. Besides,” he added, after a moment’s thought, “My grandfather was always so kind; good-hearted. I knew that everything would turn out all right.”

Our understanding of a story is influenced by the attitude of the one who tells it. In the case of the Bible, it is we, ourselves, who set the tone. What is our attitude toward the material; is it fearful or hopeful, condemning or compassionate? Do we listen with our hearts, expecting to hear lovingkindness and mercy? Do we trust that everything will turn out all right?

Personal and Particular

It is the ambiguity, the necessity for discernment that allows the Scriptures to speak to each of us according to our needs at a particular time. A passage that we understood in one way when last we last encountered it can say something very different today. Where we “are” can change what we hear and how we hear it: where we are in our life — the influence of world events or personal experiences, and where our spirit is dwelling: in hope or despair, in anger or mercy, in joy or sorrow.

bugSometimes you’re the bug,
sometimes you’re the windshield.
    ~ anonymous

In good times and bad, the Holy Spirit speaks to us. The challenge is keeping our hearts and minds open so that we can hear what is being said, even — especially — as the message changes. We must be mindful of the fact that there is always more to the story.

There is a temptation, when we believe we’ve “got it” — that we understand exactly what God is saying — to stop thinking about what we have heard. Our personal insight becomes imbedded in stone: we become certain that the Truth is ours alone: “Ah, yes, I see it now: God wants me to shout out a warning to the people!”

There may indeed be someone who stands in need of a warning, or reassurance, or forgiveness. If you look, you may see that person’s face reflected in the bathroom mirror.

The Living Word

The Holy Scriptures are not stagnant, but filled with energy. Neither history nor fantasy, but something Wholly Other, they hold the power to inform, transform, enlighten, and inspire. IF we hear them with open, listening, teachable hearts.

The words of the Lord Jesus Christ are life-giving. IF we allow the Holy Spirit to illuminate our understanding.

A quotation mark is moved, a comma is changed, a word jumps out at us, we misread a sentence — and a new insight suddenly appears before us out of the blue. Like a Voice from out of the wilderness; surprising, unexpected, it calls us to hear with new ears.

BibleThat’s Holy Wisdom at work.

Lively and uncontrolled, She breezes in, clearing the air, bounding across the text, inserting questions, challenging prejudices, disturbing the peace, and insisting on God’s goodness. Holy Spirit can clear a path for the Lord from out of the wilderness of our hard hearts.

Alive with Meaning

A voice cries out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord,”
A voice cries out, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.”

Which translation is correct? Some may hear this passage as a confirmation of how it feels to be isolated and alone in our desire to bless and serve the Lord. It is as if we are on our own in a deserted land, crying in the wilderness, shouting down a well; unheard, unheeded. Others will hear it as a description of our world: it is as if the whole land has become a wilderness: a place of spiritual destitution and ethical degradation — a wasteland — and all are being called to return to righteousness, just as the people of Judea were called by John the baptizer to turn away from evil and toward good/God.

What is alive breathes and moves and changes. The Spirit “blows where it will”: uncontained, uncontrolled, unrestrained, alive, enlivening. The Word lives in us when it breathes life into our faith, when it energizes our work, and inspires us to love and serve God.

There will always be disputes and debates over “the meaning” of Scripture passages. That is the blessing and the challenge that we face as “people of the Book.” What is important is that we read this Book in the light of the Spirit of Grace and Mercy, with full knowledge of the life and teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ. We hear these stories confident of God’s goodness, knowing, as my friend George would say, that everything will turn out all right.

Virtual hugs and real-time blessings,


Suggested Spiritual Exercise

Pay attention to what “jumps out” at you from within the Scriptures.

Illustration credit:
Bug on Windshield, 2006 ad campaign, Bug Wash® Windshield Washer Fluid,
    Prestone Products Corporation.