Why I Trust My Bible - Lesson 10
Can We Trust Our Translations?
Unless you can read Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, you need a translation. But why are there so many, and why are they so often different? Can they be trusted? Bill Mounce, chair of the ESV translation for 10 years and currently on the Committee on Bible Translation that is responsible for the NIV, shares his answer to these questions.
Can We Trust Our Translations?
2. Three Problems
a. Bible written in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic
b. Languages are not codes
1) Word level
2) Phrase level
“In accordance with, involving, or being the primary or strict meaning of the word” (Webster)
3. Solution: Translation philosophy
a. Focus on words or meaning?
b. Example of hilastērion
4. “Formal Equivalence” (ESV)
a. Definition: translate word for word
b. Good points
c. Problem #1: terrible English
d. Problem #2: Can obscure meaning
e. Problem #3: Not always possible
1) 1 Timothy 3:11 (gunaikas)
2) John 2:4
“All translators are traitors”
5. Functional (Dynamic) Equivalence (NIV)
a. Definition: translate meaning, not form
b. Good points
c. Problem: more interpretive (1 Timothy 3:2)
6. Paraphrase (NLT; Phillips)
a. Good: understandable (Romans 12:2)
b. Bad: untrustworthy (Acts 27:17)
7. Running commentary (Living; Message)
Cannot trust to study
8. Test case — Romans 16:16
a. NIV: “Greet one another with a holy kiss”
b. Good News (TEV): “Greet one another with a brotherly kiss”
c. Later: “Greet one another with the kiss of peace”
d. Original Living: “Shake hands warmly with each other”
e. NLT (2): “Greet each other in Christian love.”
f. Phillips: “Give each other a hearty handshake all round.”
g. Ideas? Kiss on the cheek. Hug.
Someone once told me that we can’t know what the words of the Greek and Hebrew really mean since we do not live in the same cultural context, and therefore we can’t make any definitive statement about the meaning of anything in the Bible
a. Unrealistically negative view of how we know meaning in another language
b. My view of what a German is saying may not be perfect, but I certainly can understand the gist of what he is saying
c. Hyper agnostic view of meaning
a. Recognize the limitations of a translation
b. Trust your Bible
c. Better if read two (of different philosophies)
- Are you curious about the trustworthiness of the Bible? Are you looking for answers to common criticisms and questions about its reliability? "Why I Trust My Bible" is the class for you! Taught by renowned experts in the field, this class will help you understand and defend your belief in the Bible. Whether you're a freshman in college facing new challenges to your faith, or a parent concerned about your child's belief in the Bible, this class is designed to provide you with the tools you need to think critically about these issues and to be confident in your belief in the Bible. Don't miss this opportunity to learn from the world's leading authorities on the Bible and its trustworthiness.
Some people feel that it is wrong to ask fundamental questions such as whether or not they trust the Bible. But if you never seriously ask the question, you will never be convinced that it really is true and trustworthy.
As amazing as it sounds, some people question whether Jesus actually lived, often claiming that there is only one non-biblical reference to him. That simply is not true; there are many more. But it makes sense that he is not referenced a lot since biographies were written about the rich and powerful.
Since there was a period of time between when Jesus lived and when the gospels were written, how can we trust that the writers' memories weren't faulty? And didn't they change history to match their theology? Actually, the "informed controlled": understanding of orality assures us that the writers were accurate and trustworthy. The gospels were not written right away because we prefer the testimony of eyewitnesses.
While the gospels are anonymous, tradition is very strong as to who wrote Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and all four authors were in a position to know the truth and we can trust their writings. If the church did not care about authorship traditions, they would not have picked these four.
If the biblical writers were not concerned about historical accuracy, we would expect more verses that would have answered the burning questions of the first century, and we certainly would not have the many embarrassing and difficult verses that we do have. The gospel is couched in historical fact, and if the events did not happen then the teaching is false.
How can we trust the Bible when it is so full of mistakes and internal contradictions? Really? Where are they? Doesn't harmonization help us see how the gospels can describe the same event but in different terms? If the Bible and science and history disagree, doesn't the Bible, properly interpreted, deserve the benefit of the doubt?
There is no question that Jesus and Paul sound different, but are their differences complementary or contradictory? What effect would their different contexts have on how they speak and what they write about?
Canonization is the process by which the church determined what books belonged in the Bible (and here we are focusing on the New Testament). Despite the frequent assertion to the opposite, the canon was not determined by a few individuals in a haphazard way. It appears that the three tests were authorship, harmony of doctrine and tone, and usage in the church as a whole. Did the church get it right?
Correction: Bill mentions "Dan Block." He means, "Dan Brown." (Dan Block is a friend of his.)
It does no good to talk about inspiration and canonization if the church altered the contents of the Bible through the centuries. And why are there differences among the Greek manuscripts? This is the topic of textual criticism. The current situation is that we are confident of 99% of the New Testament text, and the 1% we are unsure of contains no significant theological doctrine.
Unless you can read Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, you need a translation. But why are there so many, and why are they so often different? Can they be trusted? Bill Mounce, chair of the ESV translation for 10 years and currently on the Committee on Bible Translation that is responsible for the NIV, shares his answer to these questions.
We have looked at attacks on the trustworthiness of the Bible and given reasonable counter-arguments. it remains but to share personally why I trust my Bible.
We can no longer assume that people trust their Bible. The popular media has launched such an attack on the believability of Scripture that our people have serious questions about the Bible. Are you ready to answer them? Did Jesus actually live? (Bill Maher on Larry King Live says no.) Did the biblical writers get it right, or did they slant/create the message? The gospels were written so long after Jesus lived; how can you trust them? How can you believe a Bible that is full of internal contradictions with itself and external contradictions with science? Doesn’t archaeology disprove the Bible? Why should we believe the books that are in the Bible; many good ones were left out, like the Gospel of Thomas. Why trust the Bible when there are so many and contradictory translations? These questions and more are discussed and answered in this class.
The class, "Why We Trust Our Bible" covers these and additional related topics in greater detail. Click here.
The YouTube Videos and handouts that Dr. Mounce is referring to in lecture 1 are the links that you will find on the class page. The two handouts are a list of the books of the Apocrypha, and a chart showing translations of the Bible on a continuum from formal to dynamic equivalence. The two links are an article by Dr. Blomberg, and a YouTube video of a debate between Dan Wallace and Bart Ehrman.
The bibliography and footnotes in the book, Why I Trust the Bible, by Dr. Mounce, also provide a detailed list of the resources that are the basis for this online course and for the book.
Some additional resources that will give you a picture of what is going on in culture are interviews and debates with people like Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, Bill Maher, Ben Shapiro, Joe Rogan, Tim Keller and Steven Crowder (e.g. "Change my mind"). You will find many of these by searching on YouTube. Many of these people are not believers, and Harris and Maher, for example, think that religion is the underlying cause of all the problems in the world.
For biblical responses regarding issues raised outside of the trustworthiness of the Bible, you can see classes on BiblicalTraining.org like C.S. Lewis: His Theology and Philosophy (https://www.biblicaltraining.org/cs_lewis_theology/michael-peterson), Advanced Worldview Analysis (https://www.biblicaltraining.org/advanced-worldview-analysis/ronald-nash) and others. Other websites that you may find helpful are Apologetics 315 (https://apologetics315.com) and Summit Ministries (summit.org).
Course: Why I Trust My Bible
Lecture 10: Translations
This is the 10th lecture in the online series of lectures on Why I Trust My Bible by Dr Bill Mounce. Bill was a preaching pastor at a church in Spokane, WA, and prior to that a professor of New Testament and director of the Greek Program at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He also taught at Azusa Pacific University and is the author of the bestselling Greek textbook, Basics of Biblical Greek.
The basic challenge with translations, they are at times really different from one another. How can we trust any of them? If translators are translating in different ways with significant differences, how can you trust anything that they are doing? It is an honest question that a lot of people ask. So, what are the problems with translations?
2. Three Problems
First, the Bible isn’t written in English; the Old Testament is mostly in Hebrew with a small amount in Aramaic and all of the New Testament is written in Greek. So, if you want to read the Bible in any language other than those three, you have to use a translation. Many people still aspire to the King James Version of the Bible and they sometime quote the saying, ‘if it is good enough for Paul, it is good enough for me.’ Well, there is no way to answer this saying as English was not even used by Paul. Interestingly, Middle and Old English is generally taught as foreign language. So, the Bible is not written in English and so presents an initial problem.
The second problem is that languages aren’t codes. If you know multiple languages you might think that this is an odd thing to say. When I started to learn Greek, for example, I thought that languages were in a sense codes, for example, Bill in more code is: da dit dit dit, di dit, di da dit dit, di da dit dit. I just assumed that Bill in Greek would be another series of dots and dashes, but just different dots and dashes. In other words, I was thinking that there was an exact equivalent between languages and in vocabulary and grammar. I found out very quickly that is not even remotely true and that it is virtually impossible to say the same thing in one language that is being said in another. In seeing simultaneous translators do their work, you will often find that the translation take longer to say than the original. This is because the translators have to say more words in order to convey the idea that’s being said by the main speaker. Even a word as simply as ‘the’ which is an indefinite article in English; However, Greek doesn’t have an indefinite article. There is no Greek word for ‘a’ and ‘an’ so if you want to say ‘an apple’; there is a Greek word ‘ha’ that is often translated as ‘the’ but sometimes it is translated as ‘his’. Sometimes it isn’t translated at all as it is a grammatical marker which has no meaning in terms of actual words. It has a grammatical function but it has no other meaningful function. So, even as something as simple as the word ‘the’ in English, doesn’t really correspond with ‘ha’ in Greek. This is just the nature of languages. They are not codes; you can’t go smoothly from one language to another. And this is certainly true at the word level, for example with the English word ‘can’. Just think of the ways this word can function in English. My doctoral supervisor once said, ‘Americans eat what they can and can what they can’t.’ This is just one example of the different use of the word ‘can’. There isn’t any Greek word that has that kind of flexibility or semantic range.
Words have bundles of meanings, not just one meaning but instead, groups of meanings. You can’t find the same word in Greek that has the same set of meanings. We see this issue crop up in words. Another example is the Greek word ‘sarks’ with reading Paul or even John. The basic meaning of the word is flesh. So in John 1, we see that the Word became Flesh. He is saying that he became that which is our body or the stuff on our bones. He became fully a human being. But you read in Paul where sometimes he uses the word ‘sarks’ and it’s clear that he means ‘sinful humanity’. Here, if you say flesh, you are not really conveying what Paul wants to convey, the idea of our sinful nature. Recently, there has been a debate around the word ‘Doulos’. Does it mean ‘servant’ or does it mean ‘slave’. Are we servants of Christ or are we slaves of Christ? In some contexts, servants of Christ work well but in other contexts, slaves of Christ is better. But the problem in America and its history of slavery comparing that to what slavery was in the Roman Empire; yes, it is always a bad thing. Slavery in the Roman Empire was largely unlike that which took place in the southern part of the United States. So the minute you say that we are a slave of Christ, it brings up ideas that simply weren’t in Paul’s mind. So, you have this problem of language not being codes at the word level. We also have the same thing with the phrase level and my favorite illustration is the Greek phrase ‘me genoita’. Paul is going another in Roman 6 talking about, ‘should we continue in sin so grace can abound?’ Should we continue to sin because we are really doing God a favor because it gives him the opportunity to forgive and express his grace toward us; so we should keep on sinning in order that God’s grace can be seen for what it really is. Paul responds in the strongest way in Greek, ‘absolutely no way.’ He uses one of the words for no: ‘me’ and he uses the word genotia from ‘I am’ in the operative mood, which means ‘may it not even be a wish.’ It is as far away from fact as possible, absolutely positively no. This is a screaming in the text as Paul says this. So how do you translate this? Well, there is not an exact equivalent for the phrase me genoita in English. The New American standard translates it as ‘may it never be.’ This is fairly strong and fits the meaning reasonably close. The ESV says, ‘by no means.’ The new living NLT translates it as ‘of course not.’ I don’t think this is a very good translation of the Greek word as it doesn’t make Paul’s words strong enough. The King James Version actually has the better translation, ‘God forbid!’ The Greek doesn’t have this nor forbid, but the phrase God forbid is the strongest way in English that I know of, to say absolutely not.
So, languages are not codes and we see this at a word for word level and also at a phrase for phrase level. You just can’t move back and forth through languages easily. There is a third problem to this whole issue of translations and this has to do with the word ‘literal’. I don’t like this word because people misunderstand it. If you ask the average person on the street or pew, what kind of Bible do they prefer? Often you will hear that they want a literal Bible. What they are saying, it should be as close to the Greek or Hebrew as possible. For example, if Greek uses three words, English should use three words. It should be as transparent as possible to the Greek and the Hebrew. The problem with that understanding, this is not what the word means in English. Literal doesn’t affect form; rather it has to do with meaning. Webster says that it is in accordance involving or being the primary or strict meaning of a word. So, a literal Bible is one that conveys exactly the same meaning as the original, but not necessarily the same form. In this sense, people use the word ‘literal’ inaccurately. If you want a literal translation, look at this in John 3:16, ‘In this manner for he loved the God the world so that the son only he gave in order that each the believing into him not perishing but have life eternal.’ We have interlinear Bibles that translate that way. They are not really Bibles, they are interlinear because nobody can read or understand it. So, be careful with the word literal; the English word has to do with the meaning and what people really mean is that they want a Bible that conveys the same meaning. Another example for this literal issue has to do with something that happened to me in Germany. Most of my friends were much more advanced in their German studies and very fluent in the language. It was cold one day and we were outside in a park and I wanted to say something in German, to practice my German. I said that I was cold, ‘ich benkalt’ and my friends all began to laugh and then said, if you want to say that you cold, you must say ich es zu mir ist kalt. Well, what did I say? You said that you are sexually frigid. So you can understand the problem of the misunderstanding of the English word literal.
Translation Philosophy: What do we do when we do translation? Basically, every translation has a translation philosophy. I have been on two translation committees and the chair of the ESV for the first ten years and I am currently on the NIV committee. I will use the ESV and NIV as I am more familiar with it. These and other translations all have a translation philosophy. They have come to an understanding of how they want to translate the Bible. This is a bit of a simplification but this is the best way I know to explain it. Think of yourself on the edge of a knife and you are translating along. Everybody tries to go word for word if they can and follow the Greek. But what happens when you come to a passage that you can’t go word for word. What happened when the grammar of vocabulary is too complicated or if you go word for word you will miss-communicate. What happens in that situation and what do you do? Well, the translation philosophy establishes that. And what will happen in translations, when translators come to these difficult passages where you can’t do word for word, they are going to go to one side or another of the knife blade. They will either go to the side of words or they are going to go to the side of meaning. The ESV falls over to the side of words whereas the NIV falls over to the side of meaning. Stating it another way, when we come to a passage that is a little difficult, the ESV has a tendency to just translate the words and so the function of the translator and the Bible student or the pastor will have to help people understand what those words mean. It is a perfectly legitimate way to translate the Bible.
The NIV is going to fall on the other side and say that the Bible needs to be understandable by people. It needs to be understood by English readers the same way that the Greek was understood by Greek readers. That means we have to work a little differently to get the same meaning across. But the point is, when translations can’t stay on the edge of that knife, are they going to fall over to the side of words which is also the NASB and the ESV or they are going to fall over on the side of meaning which is the NIV and the NLT for example.
Another example has to do with the word, hilasterion. This describes what Christ accomplished on the Cross. What was he doing there? We see in Romans 3:25, the old RSV translated using the word, expiation which means that the force which Christ did on the cross was directed toward human guilt and our ability to accept forgiveness. ESV comes along and says, no, it is not expiation but propitiation; what Christ did on the Cross is directed toward God’s wrath and appeasing God’s wrath caused by our sin. Both of those translations fell over on the side of words to convey the meaning of hilasterion. I still remember with the ESV that we actually opened up Webster’s and read the meaning of propitiation and we wondered whether or not it was accurate. But then the NIV changes this to ‘atoning sacrifice’ which is a great translation. It was a sacrifice that atoned for our sins. But, even that, didn’t convey all the meaning, because hilasterion also refers to the place of atonement. And in the temple, the place of the atonement was on top of the Ark of the Covenant where the blood was sprinkles, where forgiveness was granted. For the Christian, the hilasterion is the Cross. So it’s not just human guilt and God’s wrath against sin, it is also the Cross. An atoning sacrifice covers some of that but not all. It was interesting in the initial release of the New Living Translation translated hilasterion with a very long phrase. They said it was to take the punishment of our sins to satisfy God’s anger against sin. This is fairly expansive but they were trying to get the meaning of hilasterion across. In the second release of this translation, they changed it to sacrifice for sin. The point of this illustration, we came to a word and the RSV and ESV tried to find a single word to use. And then the NIV and NLT tried to convey the meaning of the Greek word. I could give you thousands of these kinds of illustrations, both with words and phrases and grammar. So translation philosophy has to with which side it is going to err on.
4. Formal Equivalence Translation Group
I am going to break the idea of translation down into four different categories; it is general to break them down into two but I think we need to have four. The first group is listed as formal equivalence. The New American Standard and the ESV are good examples of this. This has to do with a grammatical equivalence. If there are seven words in Greek, we are going to try for seven words in English and if it is a participle in Greek, we will try to a participle in English. Part of formal equivalence is something called accordance where we try to use the same English word for the Greek word in order to be more transparent. So that when you see ‘city’ in the NASB, you will know that it is translating ‘Paulus’. It is a formal grammatical equivalence that will adhere to the Greek and Hebrew as much as possible. And formal equivalent translations agree that it is not always possible. There are idiomatic language and other ways in which Greek will express itself where you can’t do this word for word thing. But for the most past we are going to really try.
There are some really good things about formal equivalence, one of which being very transparent to the Greek and to the Hebrew. If you know Greek and you are reading the NASB and the ESV, you can usually see how the translation is done behind the English. That is a good thing but I would point out that it is indeed transparent but this doesn’t matter if you don’t know Greek or Hebrew. In addition, within the NASB, they have this policy of italics in the way they insert a word when there is no corresponding English word to it, they put it in italics to show that they have added that word. Formal equivalence is also less interpretative. For example, if you just want to say expiation or propitiation and leave it at that, you will still have had to do some interpretation; you would had to choose between the two words. So, there is less interpretation in these translations compared to some of the others. If anyone ever says to you that they use a Bible that is not interpretative; it just gives me what the Greek and Hebrew says; this isn’t exactly so. It is actually impossible! You need to understand that all translations involve interpretation; there is just no way to get around this point. All translations are interpretative, but formal equivalent translations do tend to be a little less interpretative. So these are the good points: they are transparent and less interpretative.
There are also some fairly serious problems with these translations. The first involves using terrible English. Every once in a while, I will read a sentence and wonder if it is really English or not. So, there is a real problem of having good English structure just for the sake of staying as close to the Greek or Hebrew. But a second problem with this kind of translation, especially when it comes to the concordance, it can obscure meaning. They are letting you do the interpreting. The best example of this is with the NASB’s translation of the word ‘polus’ which occurs 163 times in the New Testament and every single time the NASB translates it as city. They call Nazareth a city, for example. But archaeologists suggest that there were only about 600 people living there in Jesus’ day. This, of course, is not a city; at the most, it is a small town or rather a village. It is not a city. Yet, it is simply not possible to translate correctly, you have to interpret it; there is just no choice. I remember in the ESV, if we had an ambiguous Greek phrase, we would look for a similar ambiguous Greek phrase. Sometimes we would find one but usually you can’t and thus you have to interpret it. In 1st Timothy 3:11, Paul is going through the requirement for church leaders. So he starts with elders and goes through the requirements and then he gets to the deacons. Again, he gives the qualifications and then you come to verse 11 where the Greek word is gunaikas from gyne (goo-nay) and the problem is, it can be translated either wife or woman. There is no English word for both of those so you have to choose and that choice is significant. In the RSV, it is translated, ‘the women, likewise must be serious, no slanderers but temperate in all things.’ If gyne is translated as women, then who are the women? So it has to be the deaconesses.
We know that there were female deacons very early in the church, even in the first 300 years. Interestingly, the feminine form of deacon in Greek apparently wasn’t created until about the 3rd to 4th century. So women were called deacons in the early church. When I was in the pastorate, they wanted to talk about deaconesses; I said no, we are not going to genderise this: women and men together are deacons. That is how the Bible treats it. That is reading gyne as women, i.e. deaconesses. The ESV comes along (I believe there may be a footnote on this) and it says that their wives, likewise, must be dignified. Well, we are still talking about deacons and now we are talking about the deacon’s wives and Paul goes on to talk about the deacon’s children. The point here, you have to choose between the two meanings. There is no English word that could mean woman or wife; you have to choose. Another really good example is from John 2:4. This is the story of Jesus at the wedding in Canaan where they ran out of wine. The NASV translates, ‘and Jesus said to her (to his mother), woman what does that have to do with us? My hour has not yet come.’ It is the same Greek word, gyne, by the way. In modern English, there is only one way to hear that phrase and that is pejorative (expresses contempt or disapproval). Mary says, hey Jesus, they ran out of wine; do something about it. Jesus says, woman. The only way to hear that in English is in a pejorative, negative and demeaning way; in a way that Jesus would never have said to his mother. Jesus would not have been that cruel. Just saying ‘woman’ miscommunicates here. In the NIV, they said, ‘dear woman.’ There is no Greek word for ‘dear’ but they are trying to soften the pejorative woman and how we hear it in English. They simply say, ‘how does that concern you and me?’ in the NLT; so they don’t even try to translate it because there is no way to say it in English. So when formal equivalence fail at times as often times it does, then they will have to be interpretive.
There is an Old Italian proverb that translates into English as ‘all translators are traitors’. I am told that when you translate from Italian to English, you lose something. This confirms the truth of the maxim. This means that we are all traitors to the meanings of the original text. We might over translate a little in order to do a little more work to convey the meaning or we might under translate a little and not convey all the meaning of the English. But it is virtually impossible to get it perfect when it comes to translation work.
5. Function Equivalence (NIV)
The next main category is called functional (Dynamic) Equivalent Translation. The NIV and perhaps the NLT fit into this category. In this, they are not concerned about the grammar. They don’t care if this is a participle or if it is seven words in Greek. The question is, what is the Greek saying and what does it mean and what words do I use to convey the same meaning in English? That is the basic distinction. There are some really good things about functional equivalent translations. They convey meaning; they are understandable and they make sense. I remember getting my son a NLT Bible and he was surprised at how well he could understand it. The translators are being a little more interpretive in doing a better job in conveying the meaning of the passage. They also tend to be better English and don’t make the disciples or the writers sound ignorant. They write in good English. The problem with functional equivalent translations, as you might expect, they may become too interpretive. In an attempt to get the meaning across, we add words in order to convey meaning. There is a little more of the translator in the translation with this category. An example of this has to do with a divorce person not being an elder in the church. This comes from 1st Timothy 3:2. The word divorce does not occur in the passage nor does the word married. If you go word for word, the requirement for an elder is that he must be of one woman man or of one wife husband. There is an added problem with English as word order is used to convey meaning; so if you have a verb, you want to know who is doing the action of the verb, the subject being in front the verb. The person or thing receiving the action of the verb is the word following the very, the direct object. But in Greek, there is a different linkage at work, the subject can come after the verb and the direct object can come before the verb or they can all come at the end of a sentence. There is a standard order for Greek sentences but you don’t really have to follow it at all.
One of the things that determine order in Greek is emphasis. When you want to emphasize something, you move it to the front of the sentence and because of this linkage system which is called case endings, you can push the word or phrase you want to emphasize forward in the sentence. We can do this in English by putting a prepositional phrase at the beginning of the sentence. For this example in 1st Timothy 3:2, the emphasis is on one woman man, on one of wife husband. You have to be really interpretive to translate this idea. The odd thing here is that we can’t find this phrase anywhere else in Greek literature. So a question I have for Paul is to why he used such an odd phrase. In understanding this about whether or not a divorce person can be an elder, we just need to understand the Greek and like many things that we think we understand, we need to have a little more humility in regards to this particular passage; we just don’t know what it means. The ESV translates this to read ‘therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife.’ But in translating it this way, we have lost the emphasis on the idea of one. There is more of an emphasis on marriage than the word one. The New RSV says married only once; they are keying off here the emphatic position of one and they are taking it as wife and husband. The NIV 1984 version says the husband of but one wife. The use of but again is the use of an emphatic position of the word one. The New Living Bible reads, ‘he must be faithful to his wife,’ which I think is more correct. We have an old expression, ‘a one woman kind of guy.’ I am not saying that this is the equivalent here, but this gets at what Paul is trying to say, that the elder must be faithful. The false teachers in Ephesus were sexual active, especially among the young widows and Paul says that this is not what an elder is. This is also the translation of the 2011 NIV of being faithful to his wife. The point to all of this in functional equivalence and as in all translations they have to interpretative and sometimes if they are really committed to conveying the meaning, they have to be a lot more interpretative.
There is a third category that I call the paraphrase. Perhaps the New Living Translation belongs to this category. Well, it is actually in between these two categories, and there are places where it is incredible periphrastic. The J. B. Phillip’s translation is a fantastic translation, one that I really love. My mother became a Christian reading this Bible. It is very periphrastic and interpretative reading very much in modern and in his case, British English. These translations are good if you understand what is going on. The good part is that it will often say things in different ways which helps you look at the verse in a different way. An example would be from Romans 12:2, the NIV says, ‘do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’ Phillips comes along and says, ‘don’t let the world squeeze you into its own mold, but let God remold your mind from within.’ So we have words like squeeze, transform, remold and renewing; this is not strictly a translation but instead more of a paraphrase. This helps you to understand, and in this case very accurately as to what Paul is saying. By the way, let me say something about the Phillips translation. All of the translations, other than the Phillips and the Living, were done by committees. I would never try to do a translation by myself, especially not one that was going to be disseminated widely. You really need committees because we all hear things differently and so we want to bounce words off each other. So translations are generally done by committees and this is what makes J.B. Phillips so unusual, in that he was able to produce a reliable paraphrase by himself. It is certainly helpful in conveying meaning.
What’s bad about these translations is that they are usually very interpretative and when you read them, you just don’t know whether you are reading the Bible or reading additional words that are interpretative in terms of the meaning. That is why I would never study from an NLT or the Phillips. I love to read them and there is a time to read them. There is so much of the translator (the ideas of the translator) in these paraphrases, so much so that you have to be very careful; you certainly can’t do word studies based on a paraphrase. You just don’t know whether or not a word has been added in or translated. An example would be Acts 27:17 where Paul is on his trip to Rome and they are in the middle of a storm fearing that the ship would hit the rocks. The ESV translates verse 17, ‘fearing that they would run aground on the Seritus; they lowered the gear (a sea anchor) and thus they were driven along.’ This is not clear English. They were driver along toward the Seritus with the sea anchor slowing them down. The NIV says that this Seritus is actually the sand bars of Seritus. So the Seritus is a place where there are sand bars. The NLT translates it as being afraid of being driven across the sand bars of Seritus off the African coast. This is not in the Bible and personally I think the NLT crossed over the line between translator and expositor. It is hard enough to read it as the sand bars of Seritus. It helps to understand where the ship was headed. This is an extreme example for the NLT, but this illustrates what is good and bad about paraphrasing. They are very interpretative in trying to help you understand the meaning.
7. Running Commentary
There is a fourth category that belongs to the original Living Bible and the Message Bible. I just call them running commentaries. There is so much of Kenneth Taylor in the Living Bible, but God used that Bible as a tool to save thousands of people bringing them to a relationship in Christ. There are so many good things in it, but you really couldn’t study from this Bible. There is also so much of Eugene Peters in the Message Bible which you can’t study from it either. I tell people to read them to see what the translator means and see more modern ways of expressing Biblical truth. But I would never call them a Bible as such.
8. Test Case – Romans 16:16
Paul tells us the Roman church should greet one another and in the NIV, it says to greet one another with a holy kiss. But what is a holy kiss? It doesn’t really convey meaning as such. The Good News Bible, later called the TEV, says to greet one another with a brotherly kiss. They interpreted the word holy as brotherly in a way that Christian brothers and sisters would greet one another. Brother gets closer to what the meaning really means, but later the Good News changed it to greet one another with the kiss of peace which seems like a very odd translation. They wanted to get away from the word brother. The original living says to shake hands warmly with each other and this is also a really good translation of this holy kiss. Phillips says to give each other a hearty handshake all around. The second edition of the NLT says to greet each other in Christian love. Just like they did with woman in John 2, they simply threw the idea of a kiss out; there is no way to convey what a holy kiss is. So just greet one another in Christian love. How would you translate holy kiss? I think what Paul means when brothers and sisters are together; they are to greet each other in the standard way in which people greet each other, but with affection and purity perhaps. I guess today it is a hug; for me I don’t like hugging other women. This was especially so when I was a pastor, I liked to shake people’s hands, so shaking hands warmly with each other is okay by me. But shaking hands instead of hugging a person is almost taken in a negative sense, now. Paul is telling the Roman church to greet each other and really mean it. By the way on the online lecture, there is a chart of translations and where they fit on this continuum.
Before I close, I want to say one more thing about a discussion I had the other day. It came from someone that was raised in a conservative Christian home. I was shocked to hear it. It happened to be a woman. Basically, she said that we can’t really know what the words of the Greek and Hebrew mean since we don’t live in the same cultural context and therefore we can’t make any definitive statement about what anything in the Bible means. Well, I have never heard this historical agnosticism in my life. It is hard to know how to respond to this, but it is a totally unrealistic view of language and of history. Can I understand what anyone means in German? I may not understand exactly what they mean, I may not catch all the nuisances but if you know the language, you can get the gist of what is being said. You are not completely blind to what they are trying to say. According to this position, no person can understand what anyone says. In board general stereotypical terms that are only general true, women and men do have different gender cultures and that doesn’t mean you can’t communicate. Even though your knowledge and culture isn’t exact you can eventually get the gist of what the other person is saying. I am told that the Google translator translates a billion words a day. This hyper agnostic view of language is simply untenable. It doesn’t make any sense at all. Our knowledge of the Greek and Hebrew may not be perfect but it is fairly close.
In conclusion I have three more things to say: You need to understand the limitations of a translation. And if you use the NASB or the ESV, you need to understand that there are good points and not so good points in regards to these limitations. If you use the NIV or NLT, then you also need to understand what they are good at doing and the challenges are. Second of all and above all else, you can trust your Bible. My experience in translations which I love doing, there is always a reason; I have never found a random translation whether it is the NASB on one end or the NLT on another end. If I look at them long enough and if I do my exegesis and my word studies sufficiently, I can always see the reason why they translate the way they do. There are always reasons. I know the ESV and NIV translators and a lot of the LT guys and girls. These translators are good people and they love the Lord; they certainly have a high view of Scripture and are very good scholars, and furthermore they don’t do random. There are reasons why they do what they do. Translations are done by good people in good committees; it is slow, methodical and sometimes painful process. What is produced is very trustworthy.
I wrote a book called Greek for the rest of us. It was basically to learn enough Greek so you can make sense of your computer program and do Greek word studies and understand better commentaries. In doing this, I did a study and comparisons of different translations. I went into this expecting to find all kinds of contradictions, but I didn’t find that. In fact, I found very few contradictions among the translations. I found translations like the NASB and ESV tended to be a little more ambiguous in these problem passages and translations like the NIV and NLT tended to be a little more specific. The NLT hates ambiguity; it wants to communicate clearly and precisely and one way to do that is to remove ambiguity. And so when there is an ambiguous Greek construction, they take an interpretative position almost always. So this is the difference I found in translations, some are more ambiguous while others are more specific, but they don’t disagree with each other. So you can trust all of these standard Bible translations; they have good people who do good work, just different translations philosophies.
Thirdly, let me encourage you to read two Bibles from two different philosophies. I think a really good reading pattern would be to pick up the ESV or the NIV and make that your dominant Bible, your study Bible. But then what you should always do is have a second version that is in a different grouping. If you are in the ESV or NIV for you study Bible, get an NLT of Phillips and read it as a balance, certainly if you like to read your NLT as your standard Bible. This will help you see verses from a different standpoint. To close, Bibles are different, not contradictory but different. There are different translation philosophies which focus on either words or meanings. Know where your Bible fits within this continuum and read it and enjoy it and trust it.