Ancient Road Publications


How to Choose a Bible Translation

Introduction.  Back in 2007 we did a series entitled “How We Got the Bible.” This series lays the groundwork for understanding why translations differ.

Textual Basis. 

      One of the key factors that was explained in that series, is what is called the textual basis behind translation. What this refers to is how much weight is given to modern manuscript discoveries.  If a manuscript has some differences should we conclude that it is closer to the original, or do we take the view that standard texts preserved through history are closer to the original? If translations of the New Testament give more weight to modern discoveries, they could be said to use a “critical text” as their textual basis.  If a translation relies more on standard texts as they have been preserved through history, it uses the “received text” (or Textus Receptus) as its textual basis. (Note: I’ll make a comment on this later in the lesson, but if you would like to talk with me more about this, feel free to let me know and I’d be happy to discuss it in more detail).

Why Do Translations Differ?

A.  Differences in language.  Languages communicate different things in different ways. Idiomatic expressions can be unique to a particular language.  How can that idea be carried into another language?  Even within the same language, meaning can change over time.

B.  A different textual basis. If a translation relies on modern discoveries, variants will occur.  A word will be added or left off.  Spellings may differ.  One may say “Christ” where another says “Jesus.” Note: These variants should not lead doubt the reliability of the text. 99% of biblical variants involve minor differences in word order, spelling, and synonymous wording.

C.  Different doctrinal perspectives. No matter how one might try to avoid it, we can not remove ourselves from the influence our beliefs have on our choices. As a result, if I am translating something and encounter a couple of ways something could be rendered—one which supports my beliefs and another which does not, I am mostly likely to choose that which supports my beliefs.

D.  Style of translation. I want to devote the focus of our study tonight on this area. We are going to survey some English translations and consider how different philosophies of translation, affect the outcome, value, and profitability of a text for use in Bible study.

Different Styles of Translation:

I.  The Paraphrase. To paraphrase, is literally to state something “beside” (Gr. para) something else. It is to summarize a text or put it in one’s own words. 

·            All preaching involves paraphrase. A preacher must explain a text as he understands it—in his own words.

·            In 1 Cor. 2:9 Paul (through the direction of the Holy Spirit) paraphrased Isaiah 64:4-5.

·            The ancient Jewish texts called the Targums were interpretations or paraphrases of Old Testament books.

·            The Greek Scholar Erasmus, whose work laid the foundation of the KJV did a paraphrase of the New Testament.

Paraphrase is not translation in the strictest sense, in that it does not attempt to bring the exact words or thoughts of one language into another. Yet, it is a method employed in translation of biblical and secular texts. It is not sinful in and of itself. However, of all styles of translation it is the most vulnerable to bias, misinterpretation, and blatant error because it is the words of man about the word of God, and not the word of God itself.

           Modern times have seen two major examples of Biblical paraphrases:

A.        The Living Bible (aka. The Book, The Way). By Kenneth Taylor. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Pub. 1971. Taylor was a Baptist who first began writing paraphrases to explain Scripture to his children. This eventually led to a complete paraphrase of the entire Bible. Taylor was conservative but many of his paraphrases reflected his Calvinistic background.

1.          Psalm 51:5:  “But I was born a sinner, yes, from the moment my mother conceived me.”  The Hebrew says, “I was brought forth in sin” but it does not specify if his own, his mother’s, or the world’s sin is meant. The Bible does not teach inherited sin (Ezek. 18:20). This same bias is seen in…

2.          Romans 5:12: “When Adam sinned, sin entered the entire human race. His sin spread death throughout all the world, so everything began to grow old and die, for all sinned.” The Greek says, “through one man sin entered the world” going on to explain that “death” (not physical but spiritual death) “spread to all, because all sinned” (using the same form of the word for sin as that found in Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” It is a different thing to say sin entered the world, than to say it “entered the human race.”

B.        The Message. By Eugene Peterson. Colorado Springs: NavPress Pub. Group. 1993. Peterson, a former Presbyterian preacher, and professor at Regents College in British Columbia, did his own paraphrase with no verse divisions as an evangelistic tool. It is much less conservative than the Living Bible, employing modern idioms totally foreign to the original text.

1.         In Matthew 9:23 he changes the “fluteplayers” and “noisy crowd wailing” to “neighbors bringing in casseroles.”

2.          In Acts 2:41 Peterson says of the 3000 who were baptized and “added to” them that “they were baptized and were signed up.” Where does Scripture teach a signing-up to obey the gospel? We might see these examples as innocent enough, but a paraphrase can fuel error.

3.          In Matthew 16:18 Peterson has Jesus telling Peter, “You are Peter, a rock. This is the rock on which I will put together my church.”  This is exactly what the Roman Catholics believe with regard to Peter, claiming he was the first “pope.” What this fails to bring out is that Jesus uses two different words for “rock,” inferring that it is the confession Peter makes, not Peter himself, upon which the church is built.

4.          Peterson also reveals his Calvinistic leanings, rendering Eph. 2:8, “Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it.” The uninformed may come to believe from such words that salvation is by faith alone, or that even faith is something God forces upon man.

C.        While one might consult a paraphrase to consider human opinion on Scripture it should never be used as Scripture. 

II.  Interlinear Translation. If we thought of paraphrase as one extreme on a scale the other extreme would have to be what is called an “interlinear” translation. An interlinear places an English word-for-word translation under every word in the original language. Whenever possible, one word is under the word in the original language.  The challenges to this approach are…

1.          Not all foreign words can be translated by a single word.

2.          Word order is dramatically different from one language to another.

3.          Some original language words are grammatical markers and have no corresponding equivalent in English.

Because of these challenges, interlinear translations are good study tools but far too awkward for use in teaching, reading, or preaching.  One of the most readily available interlinear Bibles is The Interlinear Bible, by Jay P. Green. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1982. Green utilizes the Textus Receptus as his textual basis for the New Testament. Modern printings even include Strong’s numbering below each original language word.

           On this spectrum from paraphrase to interlinear translation, the next step up from paraphrase is what is known as…

III.  “Dynamic Equivalence” (thought for thought).  A step away from a paraphrase is an approach known as “dynamic equivalence” or “thought for thought” translation. This approach is more dependent than a paraphrase upon the actual text of the original language, but allows itself more flexibility to express the meaning (or what the translators believe the meaning to be). All translation involves some of this. For example, 2 John 12 reads, “I hope to come to you and speak face to face,” yet the Greek literally says “mouth to mouth.” Obviously that means something different in English than it did in Koine Greek.  Translators judgments about how much freedom to allow themselves in this determines whether a translation moves closer or further away from a paraphrase.  The more freedom that editors allow, the more vulnerable the text becomes to bias, misinterpretation, and error.  Let’s start with the more extreme examples of this and move towards a more literal approach.

A.        The Voice New Testament.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson Pub. 2008. One problem with many dynamic equivalence  translations is their reliance upon gimmicks to attract an audience. A relatively new project, called The Voice, presents the text of the New Testament in screenplay format.

1.         It uses the term “Liberating King” throughout in place of “Christ.”

2.         Instead of “baptism” it refers to “ceremonial washing” with a footnote in each place that it literally means “immerse.” Now, baptism is immersion, but it doesn’t clarify misunderstandings about baptism to call it a “ceremonial washing.”

3.          Although it does not present itself as a paraphrase, it incorporates so much commentary into the text that it becomes a paraphrase.  For example, many translation use the custom of italicizing words supplied by editors. Notice how it renders Acts 20:7: “The Sunday night before our Monday departure, we gathered to celebrate the breaking of bread. Many wondrous events happened as Paul traveled, ministering among the churches. One evening a most unusual event occurred.” Two entire sentences are inserted in italics!  This is commentary, not translation.  

B.        The Amplified Bible. Ed. Francis E. Siewert  (+ 12 scholars). Lockman Foundation. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. 1965. This text attempted to bring out some of the nuances that can be found in certain grammatical forms in the original language.  Sometimes there is value in this.  For example…

1.         Matthew 18:18: “Truly I tell you, whatever you forbid  and  declare to be improper and unlawful on earth must be what is already forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit  and  declare proper and lawful on earth must be what is already permitted in heaven.” Here the Gr. future with the perfect does express “will be in a state of having been bound.” However, sometimes this allows too much commentary. For example…

2.         Psalm 51:5: “Behold, I was brought forth in [a state of] iniquity; my mother was sinful who conceived me [and I too am sinful].”

3.         1 Peter 3:21: “And baptism, which is a figure [of their deliverance], does now also save you [from inward questionings and fears], not by the removing of outward body filth [bathing], but by [providing you with] the answer of a good and clear conscience (inward cleanness and peace) before God [because you are demonstrating what you believe to be yours] through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” This presents denominational commentary as if it is expressed in the grammar of the text.  It is not!

C.        The American (and United) Bible Society, the major publishers of foreign language translations, have done two dynamic equivalence translations.

1.         The Good News Bible (aka. Today’s English Version). Robert Bratcher (NT) and six others (OT).  New York: American Bible Society, 1976. It was written on a six grade reading level and made broad use of interpretation rather than actual translation.  For example, Acts 20:7 reads, “On Saturday evening we gathered together for the fellowship meal.” The Gr. text says “first of the Sabbaths (the term for a week).”  In calling this “the fellowship meal” it reads into the text, the false view that Christians first combined a full meal with the Lord’s Supper.  First Corinthians 11:17-34 condemns this.

2.         The Contemporary English Version. New York: American Bible Society, 1995. This text utilized more translators than TEV but was still aimed at a children’s reading level.  This text yielded to the mounting pressure exerted by feminists to eliminate “gender specific” references in Scripture.

·    In Ephesians 5:22 the command to wives to “submit” is weakened to a charge to “put their husbands first.”

·    In 1 Corinthians 11:10 in Paul’s discussion of the head covering, reference to a “sign of authority” is changed to “a sign of her authority.”

·     In 1 Timothy 3:3 and 3:12 roles in the church restricted to those who are “the husband of one wife” are opened to those “faithful in marriage.” That is not what the text says. These are alterations of the text.

D.        New Living Translation. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Pub. 1996 (rev. 2004). In 1996 Tyndale House, under the guidance of Mark Taylor (one of Kenneth Taylor’s sons) published a new work entitled the New Living Translation which sought to retain the readability of the older Living Bible but avoid the stigma of being a paraphrase.

1.         These initial efforts met with some success, but in 2004 Tyndale House issued a revision of the NLT which (in some cases) became more of a paraphrase than the original Living Bible.

2.         Both the original Living Bible (LB) and the 1996 edition of the NLT were fairly literal in their rendering of Acts 2:38.  Both described baptism as “for the remission of sins.” The 2004 edition of the NLT, however, went beyond the point of paraphrase and read its own biased commentary into the text. It has Peter commanding the people to, “be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ to show that you have received forgiveness of sins.” This is outrageous!  

E.         Holman Christian Standard Bible. Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2004. Given the dangers of bias and misinterpretation in dynamic equivalence translation, some have sought to attain a balance between a “word-for-word” and a “thought-for-thought” approach. Under the influence of the Southern Baptist convention, Holman Publishers has produced what it calls an “optimal equivalence” translation.  In practice, there is still denominational bias that reveals itself:

1.         Psalm 51:5: “Indeed, I was guilty [when I] was born; I was sinful when my mother conceived me.” Scripture does not teach that anyone is born “guilty.” Only a few Psalms before in this the same translation David says, “I was given over to You at birth; You have been my God from my mother’s womb” (Psalm 22:10).  How can David be “guilty” and yet “given over” to God at the same time?

2.         Acts 22:16: “And now, why delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins by calling on His name.” Calling on the name of the Lord is more than just saying words. It is a complete commitment (cf. Rom. 10:13). Even so, many denominations teach that it is prayer, and one can be saved “by calling on his name.” To read this into this text denies the role baptism plays in forgiveness and reflects denominational teaching and not Scripture.

F.        The New International Version. International Bible Society. Grand Rapids:  Zondervan Pub. 1978. This has become the most popular translation among many Protestants in America. It did not absolutely reject the Textus Receptus, but it did rely heavily on critical editions of the Greek New Testament. Although it promotes itself as the product of translators from various religious views, it demonstrates a blatant Calvinistic bias.

1.         Romans 8:5: “Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires…” The Gr. sarx means simply “flesh.” This rendering is a reflection of the Calvinistic doctrine of Total Hereditary Depravity to speak of the “flesh” as the “sinful nature.” Jesus shared the same sarx with mankind, yet, He had no “sinful nature” (cf. Heb. 2:14).

2.         The NIV in the last few decades has become embroiled in controversy over gender-neutral language.  In 1996 NIV issued an “inclusive language edition” with gender-neutral language, which was opposed by many American religious leaders.

·    Psalm 8:4 the originally read, “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” (NIV). 

·    However, an edition called the New International Reader’s Edition (1994) aimed at children reads, “What is a human being that you think about him?  What is a son of man that you take care of him?” (NIrV).

·    Today’s New International Version (2005) abandons all gender references, reading, “What are mere mortals that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” (TNIV).

This might seem innocent enough in this text, but it reflects a willingness to reject gender distinctions, roles, and references which are present in the original text in order to appease modern prejudices and preferences. We don’t have that right!    

G.        The Dangers of Dynamic Equivalent Translation.  Leland Ryken, in his work entitled, Choosing a Bible, offers “Five Negative Effects of Dynamic Equivalence.”  These are: 1) Taking Liberties in Translation; 2) Destabilization of the Text; 3) What the Bible “Means” vs. What the Bible Says; 4) Falling Short of What We Should Expect; and 5) A Logical and Linguistic Impossibility. Note a couple of thoughts he offers in this section:

1.         “Dynamic equivalent translators believe that the translator has the duty to make interpretive decisions for the ignorant reader. Eugene Nida, for example, claims that ‘the average reader is usually much less capable of making correct judgments about . . . alternative meanings than is the translator, who can make use of the best scholarly judgments on ambiguous passages.’  But if this is true, why is it that translators, with their allegedly superior and reliable knowledge, cannot agree among themselves? Instead of leading the Bible reading public into a better grasp of the original text, dynamic equivalent translations have confused the public by multiplying the range of renditions of various Bible passages” (15).

2.         Commenting on the fact that dynamic equivalence remove indications of the actual wording of a text he quotes, Ray Van Leeuwen, from his article “We Really Do Need Another Translation,” to say, “It is hard to know what the Bible means when we are uncertain about what it says. . . . The problem with [functional equivalent] translations (i.e., most modern translations) is that they prevent the reader from inferring biblical meaning because they change what the Bible said” (17).  We agree wholeheartedly!

      Because of the danger of bias, misinterpretation, and error, a dynamic equivalence (or thought for thought) translation should not be used in teaching, preaching, public reading, or as a primary source in Bible study

IV.  “Formal Equivalence” (word for word).  A “formal equivalent” (or literal) translation seeks to overcome the awkwardness of an interlinear translation while representing the actual content of the original text. Whenever possible a word for word equivalence is established in language which is clear, but parallel to the content of the original. The degree to which a text maintains this correspondence moves it up or down on the scale between a paraphrase and an interlinear.

      No translation is flawless, however, translations which seek to establish a formal equivalence between the original language and the English translation are less prone to bias, misinterpretation, and blatant error. In our consideration of “How We Got the Bible” we followed the steps which led to the production of the King James Version. While recent years have seen renewed interest in pre-King James translations, we will start our consideration of literal or “formal equivalent” translations with a consideration of the…

A.        King James Version (or Authorized Version). Produced in 1611 by 64 scholars under the authority of King James I. Revised in 1873 by the Church of England into the form generally used today. Undoubtedly the KJV is the most influential English Bible in history.  Based on the Textus Receptus in the New Testament, it built upon the earlier works of Tyndale and others, while avoiding sectarian commentary and over-reliance on the Vulgate. It remains the basis for countless Bible study resources and has shaped the vocabulary of religious vocabulary in English. It is a wonderful, literal translation which preserves the content and basic structure of the original languages, but it does have its own problems.

1.          It consistently translates hades and sheol “hell.”  Acts 2:31: “…of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell…” The Gr. hades does not refer to final judgment, but to the place of the dead prior to judgment (cf. Rev. 20:13-14).

2.          It uses some names and expressions which are anachronistic (i.e. misplaced in terms of time). Acts 12:4: “…intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people.” The Gr. pascha refers to the Jewish feast of Passover, and not to “Easter,” which was a man-made development  after the New Testament as a memorial of Christ’s death.

3.          It includes a doubtful passage.  1 John 5:7 (the so-called Johnannine Comma) : “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” While this text reflects a truth taught in the New Testament, there are no ancient Greek manuscripts (prior to the eleventh century) which have this reading. It was not in Erasmus’ first editions of the Greek New Testament and was only inserted when a late manuscript (which may have had it inserted into it from the Latin) was brought to him.

4.          It also uses language which has changed meaning over the 400 years since it was first produced.  For example, Lewis Foster, in his book Selecting a Translation of the Bible, points out the following:

Obsolete words:

Carriages (Acts 21:15) means baggage.

Script (Mark 6:8) means wallet or bag.  

Fetched a compass (Acts 28:13) means sailed around.

Changes of meaning:

Letteth (2 Thess. 2:7) means restrains.

Prevent (1 Thess. 4:15) means precede.

Charger (Mark 6:25) means platter.

Conversation (James 3:13) means conduct.

I have a book in my library called The Language of the King James Bible, which is essentially a dictionary defining the meaning of the Middle English wording for modern English readers. This is a serious obstacle when it comes to teaching, preaching, and private study.  To resolve this, a number of modernized versions of the King James Version have been produced.  The most popular of these is…

5.          The New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Pub. , 1982.  This translation retains the style and flow of the KJV while eliminating obsolete words and expressions. It is close enough to the older KJV that the reader can readily use resources based on the KJV without confusion. 

·    The NKJV is not perfect.  It retains the doubtful text of 1 John 5:7.

·    Some see its use of Textus Receptus as a “weakness.”  In my judgment, it is a rash conclusion to assume that any text which is older is closer to the original. This presumes that flawed or altered manuscripts would receive the same wear and use that accurate manuscripts would receive. That is a dangerous assumption to make.

·    The NKJV does cite in footnotes all pertinent evidence from modern discoveries.

·    I believe that the NKJV is the best choice currently available which maintains a connection to the vocabulary, influence, and resources of the KJV while using contemporary English that corresponds directly to the wording and structure of the original text. It is literal without being awkward. It is readable while maintaining the content of the original text.

B.        American Standard Version 1901. Was the first American translation which utilized 19th century manuscript discoveries into a revision of the KJV. It was one of the most literal translations ever done, even to the point that it was somewhat awkward to read. It broke the convention of translating the Hebrew name for God “LORD” and rendered it “Jehovah.” It retained the Old English forms “thee” and “ye” to distinguish singular and plural forms of the second person pronoun. The ASV was widely used by many brethren in the 20th century. Now it has become harder and harder to find in print.  Star Bible Publications is the only publisher currently producing the ASV, although it is easily found in various electronic formats and online.

1.          New American Standard Bible. Lockman Foundation.1971, rev. 1995. To overcome the awkwardness of the ASV and to utilize discoveries made since the ASV was produced the NASB was produced. It remained highly literal but improved the readability of the ASV, utilizing more contemporary vocabulary that the ASV.

·    The NASB is an excellent translation but moves some readings of the Textus Receptus into the footnotes. This, becomes awkward in study when such readings are encountered.

C.       Revised Standard. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Pub. 1952.  This text was the first revision of the Tyndale-KJV-ASV tradition produced by liberal scholars influenced by the National Council of Churches. Its translators did not hold a conservative view of inspiration.  H. Leo Boles, the Gospel preacher who authored the commentary of Matthew for the Gospel Advocate Commentary series, was asked to participate and declined after one meeting.  This liberalism demonstrated itself in passages such as  Isaiah 7:14. Instead of affirming the prophecy of the virgin birth (quoted in Matt. 1:23) it rendered the passage, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Imman'u-el.”

1.          New Revised Standard Version. In 1989 the National Council of Churches produced a revision of the RSV which utilized discoveries made since the original RSV. It retained the liberal elements of the RSV such as “young woman” in Isaiah 7:14 and moved closer to dynamic equivalence by incorporating gender-neutral language in references to humans while retaining masculine references in to Deity.

D.        English Standard Version. Standard Bible Society. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books and Bibles, 2001. This is one of the newest literal translations which describes itself as “essentially literal” striving to be “transparent to the original text.”

1.          The ESV is very similar to the NASB.  It utilizes the same textual basis and maintains a conservative “word for word” correspondence to the original text.

2.          It has deliberately resisted efforts to impose “gender-neutral” language into the text.

3.          The editors of the ESV, made the unfortunate decision not to follow the custom of italicizing wording supplied by translators. This can deceive the reader into thinking that a word or phrase (which may be inferred in the text) is present when it actually is not.  For example, Romans 8:5, “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.” This is an accurate translation but it duplicates the words “set their minds on” when the Greek does not. If this was in italics it would be clear.

4.          The ESV is inconsistent in some choices. For example, in Matthew 16:18 it incorrectly translates hades, “hell” even though it correctly renders it “hades” in Acts 2:31 and Luke 16:23.

Even so, the ESV maintains a careful respect for the content of original text avoiding biased translations of controversial passages.

Conclusion. Translation is a difficult matter. If it was possible it would be wonderful if every student of Scripture could learn Koine Greek and Biblical Hebrew. This can’t happen. Even so, while a student of the Bible should use great caution regarding his or her choice of a translation, we should never imagine that God’s word can not be understood in its simplicity. Even the worst translations preserve the force of this simplicity. Because of the danger which paraphrase and “dynamic equivalence” translations risk of bringing bias, misinterpretation, and error into the text, such versions should never be used as our primary source in study, teaching, preaching, or public reading. Among formal equivalent translations, the Revised Standard, and New Revised Standard demonstrate a far too liberal view of inspiration and gender distinctions.  While the English Standard Version would have been stronger with the use of italics to indicate editorial editions, it stands with the King James Version, American Standard, New American Standard, and New King James Version as good translations for study, reading, preaching, and teaching. In my judgment, by retaining readings from the Textus Receptus, while noting variants in the footnotes, the New King James Version is the most useful formal equivalence translation currently available.

Kyle Pope 2010

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