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Galatians 2:16 – A Problem in Translation and Theology

Galatians 2:16 – A Problem in Translation and Theology

I wanted to write a quick note here as this relates to my study tonight, as well as illustrating quite a number of translation problems. Here is our text, with CEV (NOT CEB) to the left, NRSV in the center as a “literal” comparison, and NLT to the right. I’m copying the NRSV notes as they highlight the issue.


But we know that God accepts only those who have faith in Jesus Christ. No one can please God by simply obeying the Law. So we put our faith in Christ Jesus and God accepted us because of our faith.


yet we know that a person is justifiedd not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.e And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ,f and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.
Notes: d. Or reckoned as righteous and so elsewhere. e. Or the faith of Jesus Christ. f. Or the faith of Jesus Christ.
(The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Ga 2:16). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.


“Yet we know that a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be made right with God because of our faith in Christ, not because we have obeyed the law. For no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law.”

Tyndale House Publishers. (2013). Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Ga 2:16). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.

If you look at notes e & f which are identical, you’ll see the problem. The Greek text can justifiably be translated either as “faith in Christ,” that is, our faith directed to Christ, or as “the faith of Christ,” Christ’s faithfulness to us. That’s not an insignificant difference. The NRSV does well here by translating one way and footnoting another. The problem is that people rarely read footnotes. In a Dynamic Equivalence (or functional) version the translator is obliged to make a choice. You cannot clearly express the meaning of the original in a new language if you have not understood it. Having understood it (you think), there is always the possibility that you have misunderstood it.

This is another important reason why I urge people who study the Bible in translation to both use more than one and also to read translator’s footnotes. They can be critical.

(See for some comparisons.)

Study Your Bible in English

Study Your Bible in English

Study Bibles Galore!
Despite My Dislike, All These Bibles were within Arm’s Reach of My Desk

That is, study it in English if English is your native language, and when your knowledge of biblical languages isn’t up to the task. Face it. For most people, even those who have some study of biblical languages. Different levels of study of the languages provide different levels of benefits. But for most people, the best idea is to study the Bible more carefully and thoroughly in the language they actually know.

There’s a sense among people in the pews that knowledge of Greek or Hebrew provides some sort of magic key. This even affects pastors, who want to look up a particular Greek or Hebrew word in order to spice up their sermons or  to find the real meaning of a text. The problem is that looking up a particular Greek or Hebrew word and then wielding that definition like an axe, chopping chips out of the text, more often misleads than enlightens.

For laypeople, the approach is often to find “the meaning of the Greek” through a commentary, or even worse through a concordance such as Strong’s. A correspondent once sent me a complete translation of a verse derived from glosses (single word or short phrase translations of a term) in Strong’s, in which not one single word was translated correctly in the context. One could, however, track the English words back through the concordance to a Greek word which did, in fact, occur in the verse.

Words do not have singular meanings. It is more accurate to say they have fields of meaning, sometimes called semantic ranges. I look out the window in front of me and I see a number of things that I would call “trees,” yet they are not identical. Some are larger, some are smaller. At some point there is the transition between “bush” and “tree,” and “bush,” again, covers a range of items. The actual boundary is set by usage. Now that I live in Florida, I have to realize that Floridians call things “hills” that northwesterners would call mounds or bumps, while there’s nothing in easy range of here that a northwesterner would call a mountain.

If you have the time and inclination to learn the biblical languages, by all means do so. But if you don’t, what can you do?

Here are some suggestions:

  1. Don’t just go to the most literal translation you can find. People often believe that by using the New American Standard Bible, the English Standard Version, the New Revised Standard Version, or something similar, they are getting closer to the source language. In one way, these versions do get you closer to the original, an I don’t have a problem with using any of them. Just don’t assume that they take care of getting you closer to the original.
  2. Instead of #1, choose 3 or more translations. Try to find translations that are committee translations and represent different theological backgrounds. For example, the NASB, NIV, and NLT are all done by evangelical translation committees. They represent three different approaches to translation, but their committees are all conservative. The NASB is formal, the NIV is a kind of compromise version, while the NLT is dynamic or functional. (There are many more differences in approach to translation. Check my site and/or my book What’s in a Version?.) On the other hand, the NRSV is quite formal/literal while the Revised English Bible is quite functional/dynamic, yet the committees involved are from mainline denominations and thus more liberal. I recommend choosing your three translations to represent different theological traditions and different styles of translating. For protestants, I’d recommend including the New American Bible or the New Jerusalem Bible, which are translated by Catholic committees. The NAB is probably a bit more literal/formal than the NIV and the NJB is dynamic/functional like the NLT or REB.
  3. Instead of spending your time looking for glosses to Greek words in a concordance like Strong’s, spend more time studying relevant passages in English. Don’t find a gloss and then force it into all the verses. Rather, study each passage and look for definitions from the context. I mean definitions of the English words provided by the English context in your English Bible. So if you want to know what the “church” is, don’t worry about the definition of ekklesia in Greek. (Dave Black wrote some good notes on this the other day. If you read what he wrote about the Greek words carefully, you will see some of the difficulties in doing this sort of study unless you are very well versed in the language.) Worry about the definition of “church” (and related terms like “body of Christ”)  in English verses. How does Paul view this in Ephesians 4, for example?
  4. In order to keep from getting stuck with the work of just one committee, compare those translations. While the formal translations may be closer to the form of the Greek or Hebrew, you may not correctly comprehend what that form means. Try the options in one of the dynamic/functional versions. Then listen to the context. Many, many misinterpretations are produced by deciding what a word in the original language is suppose to mean and then forcing the verse to fit that meaning. Ask instead whether the definition you have in mind truly fits. In English, for example, the word “car” might refer to an automobile, the part of an elevator you ride in, or one element of a train. You wouldn’t take the elevator-related definition and force it into a passage about automobiles, would you? Don’t do it to the biblical text either. Consider words like “salvation,” which may refer to a moment of new birth, a continuous process of God’s work in the believer, or the eventual salvation from final death, among other things.
  5. Don’t be afraid of surface reading. Surface reading is a good starting point for study. I like to read an entire book of the Bible through before focusing on a section. That’s harder to do if we’re talking Isaiah or Ezekiel, but for most of the New Testament it’s not that hard. It’s a bit like standing on a mountain looking across a forest before trying to hike through it. You can read rapidly and you don’t need to understand everything. That’s what your later study is for.
  6. Don’t be intimidated. Those of us who read the languages also make plenty of mistakes. We’re subject to all the same human biases. I thank the Lord for the opportunity I’ve had to learn and for the gift of reading the Bible in its original languages. But none of that work gave me the right to lord it over others or to demand that they accept my view because of my study.

Above all, I encourage you to study the scriptures for yourself and listen for God to speak to you. It is the privilege of everyone, not just of clergy or scholars. Many people have given their time and some have even given their lives so that you can have that Bible in your own language. Make the most of it!

Translating Metaphors and the NLT of Isaiah 43:2

Translating Metaphors and the NLT of Isaiah 43:2

is43-2I am very slow to criticize translations in broad terms. Every time I point out what I consider to be a problematic rendering in some Bible translation, someone will ask me if they should discard that version in exchange for a more accurate one. Any translation will contain renderings that can be questioned. In many cases there were people on the translation committee who questioned the chosen rendering. Translation has a great deal of art to it. Keep that in mind as I criticize this rendering in the New Living Translation.

Here’s the NLT of Isaiah 43:2 —

When you go through deep waters,
    I will be with you.
When you go through rivers of difficulty,
    you will not drown.
When you walk through the fire of oppression,
    you will not be burned up;
    the flames will not consume you. (via

Now I think the NLT has captured some of the meaning very clearly. The interesting thing is the translation of the metaphors. The words [of difficulty] and [of oppression] are not explicit in the Hebrew. Now the metaphor probably justifies this reading as a good option for understanding the text. My problem with it is that the metaphor is, in my opinion, equally comprehensible in English as it is in Hebrew. That is, in reading this passage, an English-speaking reader would probably feel free to choose from the same set of events or experiences that might be referenced by the metaphor.

On the other hand, the modern reader might tend not to see the same range of literal understandings. “Through deep waters” doubtless would evoke the Red Sea (Sea of Reeds) and possibly the flood. “Through rivers” would likely evoke the story of crossing the Jordan, while “fire of oppression” might well draw on the story of the three Hebrews (Daniel 3), though of course based on dating, that story might even be said to draw on this. In this way the NLT rendering takes away some literal connections to the narrative of Israel’s history/traditions which might easily be missed.

The three metaphors are each translated with a different impact. The first, “deep waters” is left literal. This is perhaps due to the flood, Red Sea (Sea of Reeds), and the Jordan. In the second case we break out the metaphor, though it is closely parallel to the first, but we break it out in a generic sense, “of difficulty,” which says to the reader, “Don’t take this literally, but it has broad application.” Finally, in discussing fire, we get very specific, and say, “fire of oppression.”

But does not that third option reduce the potential for the English reader to less than the Hebrew intends? Yes, sometimes translators have to make this sort of choice, but in this case, I think we take a passage that can be clearly understood when rendered in a largely formal fashion, and actually diminish its impact with explanatory prepositional phrases.

This isn’t a terrible rendering, but at the same time, it struck me as not being one of the better ones in the NLT.


A Note on Translations and Commentaries

A Note on Translations and Commentaries

CBC based on the NLT
Are we veiling the commentary with the translation used?

As I’ve been reading a commentary based on the New Living Translation (NLT), it has been interesting to note how the commentators differ from the readings of the translation on which the commentary is ostensibly based.

For example, as I finished reading the section on Numbers today (pp. 217-443), written by Dale A. Brueggemann, I noted two important translation notes.

  1. 35:12, in which the NLT refers to “relatives” rather than to the singular “goel” or avenger/redeemer, a translation that the commentator says “… may be misleading” (p. 426n). Certainly potentially misleading and may cause one to miss connecting thoughts built on this concept.
  2. 35:20, in which two points are noted. First, the NLT adds “a dangerous object” which is not in the Hebrew source, and also omits “while lying in wait,” which is in the Hebrew. The latter omission the commentator calls “this telling qualification” (p. 427n).

It’s not surprising that a commentator will work for the source text, of course, but it’s interesting to note. You’ll find this sort of disagreement in almost any commentary where the author is required to use a particular translation. Sometimes one could almost say “with the ___ version included” rather than saying it’s a commentary on that version.

With a dynamic equivalence translation, however, the odds are greater that there will be a certain tension between commentator and English text. This is not really surprising. Is it problematic? For many, this disagreement is an argument in favor of more formal equivalence translations.

It seems to me, however, that a formal equivalence translation, besides allowing for misunderstanding, such as when it verbally translates some idioms, also simply leaves greater room for one to imagine the translation agrees with one’s own approach, even when it’s simply a bit ambiguous.

It’s valuable for lay persons who read scripture to become aware of the fact that there are differences in the way translations are done. That’s why I frequently recommend reading from more than one translation. For example, a good counterpoint to the NLT might be the New Revised Standard Version (which also provides from more theological diversity in the translation committee) or the English Standard Version (with an evangelical team similar to that of the NLT).

Translating Hebrews 2:6-8 – Gender, Number, and Breaking the Discourse

Translating Hebrews 2:6-8 – Gender, Number, and Breaking the Discourse

dreamstimefree_235996_smI’ve written about this a couple of times before, though using the NIV1984 and NIV2011, in A Gender Neutral Example – Hebrews 2:6-8 and Quick Follow-up on Hebrews 2:6-8.

I covered most of the key issues in those two short posts, but to summarize quickly, I note the questions of how one should translated the quotation of Psalm 8:4-6 as it is presented in Hebrews 2:6-8. One of the questions is the text. In some cases translators have “corrected” New Testament quotations of Hebrew scriptures by using readings from the Massoretic  text even when the NT writer is quoting from the LXX. In this passage “for a little while” gets a footnote to the MT in some translations.

The question for the translator is whether to reconcile the texts, in this case make Hebrews 2:6-8 correspond to the text of Psalm 8:4-6, so that a reader is not confused (or even challenged) by the difference, or whether the texts should be translated faithfully in each instance. In the case of either decision, what should be indicated in the footnotes?

I was reading this passage today in the NRSV, immediately after having read it in Greek. Here it is:

6 But someone has testified somewhere,
“What are human beings that you are mindful of them,
or mortals, that you care for them?
7 You have made them for a little while lower than the angels;
you have crowned them with glory and honor,
8 subjecting all things under their feet.”

In this case there is a footnote (one of several), which reads: ”

Gk or the son of man that you care for him? In the Hebrew of Psalm 8:4-6 both man and son of man refer to all humankind

In fact, the plural continues into the remainder of verse 8, which is not quoted: “Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control.” It is not the authors argument here that everything is placed under the command of humanity in general, but rather of one human being, Jesus. I fully agree with the translators (and their footnote), that Psalm 8 is referring, in its original context, to humankind in general, and our relationship, as a whole, to God—our place in creation.

By translating the quotation “accurately,” as it occurs in a different text and location, the translators have disrupted the discourse of this passage. So while I will not call this an error (it’s certainly intentional, and I can formulate the arguments for doing it, even though I find them dismally unconvincing), I do think it’s a very unfortunate approach. One could let readers know that the quoted text, in its historical context, refers to humanity as a whole, but that it is being used here specifically of one particular human male, Jesus.

In fact, one could argue that acknowledging “humankind” in Psalm 8 need not be inconsistent with the usage here, as we will shortly see the author of Hebrews continue with the argument that Jesus must very much be one of us (humankind) in order to be able to redeem us. One could discuss the idea of being “in Christ,” though that is not the language of Hebrews. In Hebrews the language is one of kinship and community.

I do think that this makes it harder, though not impossible to follow the flow of the authors argument in this passage.

Review – Tyndale Select NLT: Select Reference Edition

Review – Tyndale Select NLT: Select Reference Edition

nlt_with_spineWhen the e-mail arrived offering me a copy of this gorgeous Bible edition, I didn’t really read the material thoroughly enough or I might have declined. I’m a content man. I have one complete bookcase and parts of three more dedicated to Bibles. Very few of them are special in terms of their binding. It’s the text that drives me.

But I saw that this was the New Living Translation, and that it was in a new edition, and so I said I’d review it. I’m actually glad I did. I’ve read a few of the other reviews, and they emphasize some simple facts about this Bible. It’s a work of art. Mine is goat skin for the cover, the paper and font are magnificent. It’s truly an heirloom Bible. You can find out all these details, however, from Amazon or from the publisher. I’m going to include some pictures in my review here on my blog so you can get an idea.

Though it is an heirloom Bible it is not one of those huge books that are destined to stay on whatever table they’re placed on first. It’s easy to carry and to use. You can reference it, which is nice, considering it’s a reference edition. So while you may not feel like doing anything too vigorous around it, lest you damage the work of art, it is nonetheless quite useful as a reading or study Bible.

Those who know me can predict where I’m going next. I’m afraid I have to admit that I start to twitch when I just hold this Bible. I didn’t actually look up the price before I received it, but within moments of actually putting my hands on it, I realized that it was a more costly Bible than I imagined. I’m not going to cite the price in my review, simply because current prices change. I’ll let you follow the link and get that information from the web site. I have never owned, and rarely touched or handled a Bible that costs this much. That leaves me with mixed emotions about it. But a book review should talk about the book from the point of view of what that book was written and/or designed for. I don’t criticize the NLT for not being either The Message or the NRSV. A Bible translation is designed for a purpose, and so is a Bible edition. You can decide what is right for you. If your plan is to buy an heirloom Bible that is to last and be passed on from generation to generation, you should be looking at this one.

Did I meniont that this Bible is designed to last and to be passed down from generation to generation. In pursuit of that goal it has lovely presentation and family record pages as well.


The text is, of course, the NLT. I have a high opinion of this translation for the appropriate audience. In one sense the NLT is descended from the Living Bible. One of the weakness of the Living Bible was that Kenneth Taylor didn’t read Hebrew or Greek. He worked from the English text of the American Standard Version. As a result, while the Living Bible was very readable, it was not always as accurate as it could have been. This problem was corrected for the NLT by a highly qualified evangelical translation committee. They managed to keep the readability, though I think they lost some of the charm and all of the eccentricity. How good that was is open to question. I have linked a couple of references to the NLT to my web site where you can get some additional information and see how I rate the translation in various categories.

nlt_interior_psalm_78As I say on the cover of my own book What’s in a Version? the best Bible version is one you read. The first question should be whether you’ll be able to use and understand a Bible version. Accuracy in details is of no particular value if you don’t actually read and comprehend the accurate words. Of course, readability should not be an excuse for inaccuracy. Unfortunately, reviewers of Bible versions frequently call disagreements with their preferred translation of some particular verse “inaccurate,” when it is really just “different than I would have done.” The NLT may be different, but it is competently different.

The things that stuck out for me in this edition are first things that are missing. This is not a study Bible in the sense of one with study notes, book introductions and so forth. I am pleased with that. Too many people are treating study notes as the inspired text and ignoring the actual text. You won’t do that here. You’ll need a good Bible handbook or Bible dictionary if you want to get that sort of information.

What you do have is a single column that is a good width for rapid reading. I’ve discussed before many different approaches to reading, and I think one of the most neglected is sustained reading of quantities of the biblical text. This Bible will make that easy. I prefer that greatly to the multiple narrow columns that tend to slow me down. Further, there are quite a number of cross-references. It is possible to become dependent here, just as it is to become dependent on notes, but in this case I think most people can do with the help. The NLT translation notes are included at the bottom of each page.


In the back you have a basic concordance and dictionary. This is not a replacement for your Bible dictionary but it will give you the basics and help you find a variety of references on a topic. This is followed by a selection of maps. Again, no effort is made to compete with your Bible atlas, but for reference on the run or in your study group, the material is better than average.


While the binding, paper, and high quality construction are the distinctive features of this Bible edition, I found that it is fully valuable as a Bible for your actual use. If you do choose to spend the money on an heirloom Bible edition, and hope to pass it on to your children, this will fit the bill. With decent (though not massive) margins, you may also be able to leave your notes and your testimony in it for your children as well.

I remain a content person, but I can respect a true work of publishing art when I see it, and this is one.

For those interested in the text, here’s my video review of the NLT:

(Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free from the publisher for review.)

Quick Follow-up on Hebrews 2:6-8

Quick Follow-up on Hebrews 2:6-8

I commented earlier on the difficult choices involved in translating an Old Testament reference that does not match the Old Testament passage in your own translation.

Here’s an example from the NIV1984. First, Psalm 8:4-6 –

what is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?

You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.

You made him ruler over the works of your hands,
you put everything under his feet.

Now look at this as translated in Hebrews 2:6-8 –

“What is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?

You made him a little lower than the angels;
you crowned him with glory and honor
and put everything under his feet.”

The key phrase here is “a little lower than the angels.” The usage of this line in Hebrews will reflect an alternate translation of the Greek (LXX), “for a little while lower.” The translation is, I believe, accommodated to the phraseology in the Old Testament. The NASB is pretty open about simply translated the text in front of the committee, and leaving it to commentators to deal with the difference in the text and translation.

I find this interesting, though not a major issue. It is valuable, however, to understand the approach taken by your translation. I am much more concerned with the attempt by the NIV to “fix” problems through questionable translations, such as the sudden introduction of an unjustified pluperfect at Genesis 2:19, a rendering that survived from the 1984 to the 2011 NIV.

A Gender Neutral Example – Hebrews 2:6-8

A Gender Neutral Example – Hebrews 2:6-8

A couple of days ago I discussed gender-neutral language in a post dealing with both inerrancy and Bible translation issues. Today, as I was doing some reading about Hebrews, I encountered a vigorous comment against such language in a passage in Hebrews. The passage in question is Hebrews 2:6-8, and it quotes from Psalm 8:4-6. The NIV translates the first anthrwpos as “mankind” and then huios anthrwpou as “a son of man.” They then continue with a series of plural pronouns in the explanation.

In his The New American Commentary: Hebrews, David L. Allen responds to this translation with some vigor. (Note that he is responding to the TNIV, and relying on the text of the 1984 NIV, but the text of the 2011 NIV has in it every difficulty he references in his discussion. I really can’t get the flavor of his arguments without quoting more than I’m going to quote in a blog, but he starts with two major issues. The first is that by obscuring the anthrwpos/’adam reference with a plural (TNIV uses “mortals” while NIV2011 uses “mankind”) one loses the sense of the unity of the human race through descent from Adam. Secondly, by using plural references in succeeding texts, one makes it more difficult, if not impossible, to connect this to “son of man” as a Messianic title for Jesus. Whether this was the intent of Psalm 8 in its original context, it appears to be an intent of the author of Hebrews.

Of these he says:

Third, to change the word or phrase to a more “gender neutral” expression, especially in light of the other two problems above, is simply an exercise in linguistic political correctness. (p. 240, Nook edition)

The issues here are somewhat more complex than any case I was referencing in my earlier post. When you have someone address a congregation that includes both men and women using adelphoi, the issue is more one of referent. In this case, we need to ask a couple of questions:

1) In what way was the author reading the passage? In other words, how would he have understood it in then making his argument? It seems courteous, in a sense, to render a quotation in the same way as the person quoting it intended. This is by no means uncontroversial. If an author quotes the LXX, as is done here, but the Bible translation in question translates its Old Testament from the Hebrew, what should be done? There are cases in which a translation will accommodate their own rendering of the OT verse to the translation as they have it in their OT, whether or not that fits the author. On the other hand, to have the author of Hebrews quote Psalm 8:4-6, and then have the rendering there differ from what a reader will find when he or she turns to the Old Testament in that very same Bible edition can (and will) raise questions. So it is a case of decisions, decisions, and no matter what you do, there will be disagreement.

2) What will your readers miss when they read your rendering? In this case we have two choices. We might leave out some understanding of the unity of humanity and the connection between a singular son of man and Jesus. On the other hand, for some readers, we might be leaving out the sense that this is humanity and not just some particular man. I know of nothing that would cover all options except for an explanatory note, and most of us are likely aware of how many people read explanatory notes.

I don’t consider this a clear case of a change of language requiring a change of translation. The word anthrwpos, as used here, is covering a different semantic range, and the translator needs to take that into account. The danger into which the NIV2011 and the TNIV have both slipped here is that they undercut the author’s presentation by using a different translation of the passage he’s building on. He chose the LXX of his time. Perhaps we should honor the idea of his choosing a translation by translating that translation in a way that matches his use.

What do you think?

On Prettying-Up the Bible (In Reply to @drbobcwcc and @RevKindle)

On Prettying-Up the Bible (In Reply to @drbobcwcc and @RevKindle)

Does the Bible need some improvements, if not in content, at least in presentation? That’s one way to put the question addressed by Rev. Steve Kindle in a guest post on Dr. Bob Cornwall’s blog. I want to make some fairly picky comments on this post. As I do so, I want you to be aware that I generally applaud the goals of this post, even while disagreeing in detail.

My previous experience with prettying-up the Bible involves the violent passages. I previously reviewed Jack Blanco’s book (I have trouble calling it a translation), the Clear Word Bible. Some of his renderings are much more comfortable reading than the original, but I haven’t been able to conceive of a paradigm that would allow me to think of them as accurate. I often think, however, that some of the violent passages of scripture are saved from revision largely because so few people read them. Numbers 31 has the advantage of being in a portion of scripture rarely consulted by Christians. When they do consult it, they are often shocked and wish it would go away.

Besides honesty (or accuracy), there is a problem with smoothing out the past. It conceals the nature of scripture, of the experience with God that comes from different people at different times. Seeing trajectories of change in scripture will change our approach to how we get from the words in the book to ethical action in our world.

Rev. Kindle is primarily addressing gender language. This is a fairly controversial topic in modern Bible translation. Translations have been excluded from certain Christian book stores because of the way the represent gender. As is often the case, however, the issue was much more how one was perceived to represent gender. The same store carried other Bible translations that used gender neutral renderings. These other versions were simply less well-known. The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood is very involved in these issues from a conservative point of view, and are opposed by the Christians for Biblical Equality. In perusing these sites, one can see that there is a great deal of weight put on these issues in church doctrine and politics.

What is unusual in Rev. Kindle’s presentation is that it comes from a progressive Christian who supports equality. He supports gender neutral language in many endeavors, excluding one:

I am all for the use of gender neutral terms for God in all church settings including sermons, liturgies, and conversations. But when it comes to inclusive language in Bible translations, I must object.

There is a valid distinction between those fields of endeavor. There is a great deal of difference between determining the way I will discuss God and the way I will translate. Do I refer to god solely with masculine pronouns? Do I avoid the use of pronouns at all? Those questions involve different issues when I am translating the apostle Paul, for example, as opposed to expressing my own theology. I am not a pastor, a liturgist, or a theologian. My studies were in biblical languages, and I’m a publisher. I’m interested in the words.

And that’s where we tend to get into trouble.

Whats in a Version?Most people, in my experience, view Bible translation as a singular effort, one with a definite, definable goal. I encounter this attitude almost every time I speak or teach or any other time someone manages to connect my face with my book, What’s in a Version?. The question I’m most often asked is: What is the best Bible version? Sometimes there’s a variant: What’s the most accurate Bible version?

But those questions reflect the problem. On the cover of my book I have a one-line answer: The best Bible version is the one you read!

Surely that’s a horrible answer! There have to be bad Bible translations, and I could be reading one of them! And yes, it’s not a complete answer, yet it does make a point. The task of Bible translation is not singular. There is no one “most accurate” Bible translation. There is no single “most readable” translation. In order to answer that common question I have to know who the questioner is. What is the best Bible version for you? I also need to know the activity in view. What is the best Bible version for you to use for devotional reading? What is the best Bible version to use in your study group? What is the best Bible version to use from the pulpit?

The reason is that one cannot transfer the entire meaning of a a source text into any target language. You are going to lose something. The question is what?

Let me take a short digression here. When I discuss loss of meaning I do not mean solely between the text of the source language and the tip of the pen (or the little pixels on the computer screen) of the translator. I mean loss of meaning between what a well-qualified reader of the source language could get from the source text itself, and what a reader of the target language can get from the text in the target language. There is no great value in a text which is accurate in an abstract sense, but is not understood accurately by actual readers. It follows from this that a translation must consider who is to read the text in order to determine how to express thoughts from the source accurately.

Further, understanding comes in different forms. Do I emotionally “get” the story told? Do I comprehend the facts that are narrated? Am I swept away by the literary beauty of the passage? Can I place myself in the shoes of those whose story is told, or who might have first heard the story? All of these things are desirable to various extents at various times, but successfully conveying them is not easy. In fact, it’s impossible to do everything at once. I cannot, for example, convey the rhetorical impact of the Greek of To The Hebrews while also making every point of theology clear to an American audience.

I know readers will object that it is up to teachers and preachers to get the theology right, and they may be correct, but that is a choice in what will be translated. I could then say, “Translation X conveys the theology of Hebrews with great clarity, while translation Y gives one a feel for the literary tour-de-force executed by the author.” The author, however, was intending to convey his (or her, I must concede) theological points in a powerful and compelling exhortation. Where do I compromise?

This is why some have commented on the irenic tone of my book. It’s not that I’m such a peaceable personality, or that I am a great peacemaker, though I would love to be. The reason is that I believe that there are many possible goals for Bible translation and that there are many audiences for which one might translate. Thus there are many possible ways in which one can (and should) translate, so I have less of a tendency to condemn any particular rendering. I do not mean that all translations are equal. I do not mean that there are no wrong translations. I simply mean that there are multiple right translations within various parameters.

I am disturbed when I hear preachers and teachers refer to translations that are supported by significant numbers of scholars as “mistaken” or just as “errors in translation.” This presents the task of translation as too simple. There are many legitimate disagreements which should be referenced as such. Reserve the word “error” for a translation that cannot be justified.

But to get back to the gender issue, Bob, in his introduction brings it up,

Thus, the New Revised Standard Version and the Common English Bible will, where the translators deem appropriate, translate a word like adelphoi, the Greek word for brother as “brothers and sisters.”

and Rev. Kindle uses similar phraseology (9th paragraph from the end):

“Member” here is literally, “brother.”

I have been accused of not giving users of the word “literal” the sort of latitude I give with any other word, i.e. recognizing that words have different meanings. The problem with “literal,” especially in circumstances such as these, is that it is extremely susceptible to equivocation. As its use has developed in the language, it is often heard as “accurate” or “faithful” when those who use it intend something more like “simple,” “direct,” or “most common meaning.”

In this case I would disagree with the usage in either case. The Greek word adelphos or its plural adelphoi may have as its referent either a male person (or group of males, as appropriate), or a person of undefined gender, or a group of both men and women. It is probably significant that the masculine form was used in both cases, though it is very easy to take grammatical gender too far in translating a language in which grammatical and natural gender do not match.

Similarly, until recently (change is still in progress) we used “he” to refer to a generic person in English, and “men” and “brethren” to refer to groups of mixed gender. In groups I have been able to survey informally, there seems to be a break right around 40 years of age (adjusted for the passage of time) as to how this usage is understood. Older people will understand “brethren” as including both genders when a group is addressed, while younger ones do not. A pastor illustrated this to me very clearly when he objected to the NRSV because of its gender neutral language. He couldn’t see how “brothers and sisters” was an accurate translation of adelphoi, so he would stick to the more accurate (in his view) RSV. The next Sunday he was reading scripture and he came to a passage in Paul where the apostle was clearly addressing an entire congregation. He stopped, looked up, and said, “And that includes you sisters too!” Clearly he knew some in his congregation would not hear the passage as inclusively as it was intended.

This would apply differently in different passages. For example:

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism (James 2:1, NIV, from #BibleGateway).

The words “brothers and sisters” here translated the Greek adelphoi. I think it unlikely that James intended men in the congregation to eschew favoritism, while the women were allowed to practice it. He addresses the whole congregation. Yet if I read the usage of the English language correctly, a congregation with people largely below the age of forty would hear the passage as excluding women if we used the “literal” translation “brothers.”

On the other hand, we have James 3:1:

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly (James 3:1, NIV, from #BibleGateway).

Now here we have a historical decision to make. My belief is that there were many more women teaching in the early church than we have imagined. This is not the place to argue the point. If, on the other hand, one believes that only men were permitted to teach, this would lose historical information as translated by the NIV, as “fellow believers” is here also a translation of the Greek adelphoi. (Another interesting question is whether “fellow believers” or “brothers and sisters” is the more literal rendering of adelphoi. But I will avoid diving into the morass of meanings for the word “literal” that would evoke.)

This is different, however, from the kind of effort made by The Inclusive Bible, which changes many cases in which the original intent of the passage, by which I mean in this case the original referent, is not inclusive. The passage Rev. Kindle quotes from 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, for example, if it is original to the epistle (I believe, with Gordon Fee, that it is not), certainly is not intended as inclusive. That case is very different from either of the cases I referenced in the book of James.

These cases should be handled differently, according to the nature of the audience and the usage in the target language. Right now we are somewhat in transition on inclusive language in English, and that will complicate the work of the translator, and even the liturgist. Something that is heard one way by part of the congregation may be heard in the opposite way by another.

In addition, we need to recognize multiple goals in the use of our ancient texts. We do not translate just to convey data. We also translate for liturgy, for devotion, for prayer, for meditation, and for other goals. The particular way we handle the material at hand must take this different uses into consideration. There are certainly illegitimate translations (1 Corinthians 14:34-35 above from The Inclusive Bible, and many Old Testament passages from The Clear Word, for example) but there are also multiple legitimate goals and multiple audiences to which the translator will hope to convey something of the source text.

The Potential Arrogance of Critiquing Bible Translations

The Potential Arrogance of Critiquing Bible Translations

When I wrote yesterday about the HCSB introduction and its use of the label “optimal equivalence” I fully intended to write another post complaining about that introduction. And I will mention the other issue briefly in this post. But something else was drawn to my attention in the meantime.

Let me lay a foundation. Some years ago I was chatting about a particular Bible passage with a young person who was also a new Christian. We were discussing the best rendering of a particular verse in the Old Testament and when I defended the version we were looking at he said, “Wouldn’t ____ (naming a well-known figure) know best, since he reads Hebrew?” Now I didn’t point out that I read Hebrew as well, which was, perhaps, relevant! But I did point out that the translation we were examining had been made by a committee of several people, each of whom read Hebrew, and then it was reviewed by editorial committees, many of whom read Hebrew. They should get some credit!

This is one thing that concerns me when I hear pastors or teachers say, “This is how this text should be translated …” or “What the Greek text really means is ….” I’ve commented before that you’re generally about to be misinformed when someone says that. But even when an expert makes a comment about just what a translation should be, I have concerns. (Note that I’ve never heard someone say “what the Greek text really means” who was well-qualified in the language. They just don’t talk that way.)

My concern even when the linguistic information to follow is accurate is that this suggests to people that our Bible translations are carelessly put together by people with less language skills than the average pastor. Anyone with a few minutes and a reasonable pastor’s library can correct the work of the Bible translation committee! That’s simply not accurate. It also feeds a concern amongst many Christians that they cannot truly get to the meaning of scripture because so much is lost in translation, and they don’t have the time or talent to acquire facility with the source languages.

People like these come up to me in church hallways all the time. They’ve heard me introduced as knowing Greek and Hebrew, usually in exaggerated terms. “Reads Greek as well as you read English,” is one line that’s been used. I don’t know where they get that. No, most English readers exceed my speed at reading Greek. My main claim to fame is that I have kept my Greek and Hebrew up. I read my devotions in the original languages, so my comprehension is better than average, but I have not kept abreast of all the best linguistic scholarship. Nonetheless, people ask me what’s the best Bible translation. Can they trust the translation they’re using? What wonderful insights can I give them quickly that are missing from their Bible version?

These kinds of questions result, I think, from a profound ignorance about how Bible translations are made, who makes them, and the general quality of the work. I don’t want to diminish the value of knowing biblical languages. I wouldn’t trade that training for anything. But the best use to make of such knowledge is to deepen your own understanding of the scriptures, and then express that deeper understanding in words that people in the pews can understand. You don’t have to tell them with every insight how wonderfully smart you are because you know the languages.

The fact is that we have a very good set of translation options. Most—nearly all, I think—significant errors in interpretation can be avoided simply by carefully studying your text in context from your translation, and then comparing a few other translations to check your work. Properly using the linguistic comments of a few commentaries will help you even more. (May I recommend a book that I publish, “In the Original Text It Says …”?)

My point here is that Bible translators, in general, are a skilled and dedicated group of people who have provided a number of excellent translations for the English-speaking world.

Barring a couple of really troubling efforts, such as Jack Blanco’s Clear Word, any critique I offer relates to details and general approach. I don’t intend to call a translation bad unless I say it outright, for example, The Clear Word is a bad translation, if it can even properly be called a translation. So when I publish a couple of posts criticizing something in the HCSB introduction, I’m not trying to tell you it’s a bad translation. It’s not. It’s quite good. As with most translations, I disagree with some renderings.

Here’s some key points I try to remember in order to avoid the potential pitfalls. How successful am I?

  • Most “errors” reported in a Bible translation are not errors. Yes, I mean that. I have found very few translations for which I cannot find the justification. I may not agree with that justification, but it exists. For example, the following are not errors: Choosing a different textual variant than I prefer, translating a Greek genitive as a different type than I think appropriate, finding the English translation in a different part of the semantic range of a word, choosing a different option for what a clause modifies, using English words that I think are less than well-known by people in the pews. Each of those things can be annoying. I’ll criticize it in the translation. But that simply means that I would make another choice than the translation committee did. In general, there were more of them with higher level degrees. Read my arguments and make your choice. Reserve the word “error” for an error of fact, such as citing that reading incorrectly, proposing a meaning for a word that has no foundation at all, or using an English word that doesn’t fall in the semantic range of the word in the source language. You’ll find that translation committees make very few errors under this latter definition.
  • Say “I disagree” or I would prefer” rather than “this is wrong” or “the right way to translate this is.” It’s not a matter of uncertainty, or not caring about the truth. It’s a matter of giving credit to qualified people who disagree.
  • Don’t preach about translation differences. Preach about the text and the message of the text. You can almost always do this well in English without trotting out your Greek and Hebrew knowledge.
  • Say some good things about Bible translators. I have some concerns about the priority placed on providing more and more English translations as opposed to providing for those who have no translation, or even don’t have the quality we have in English. But these people are doing good work for the Lord and your congregation should know about them and be thankful for them.
  • When the foundation of your difference is theological, make sure people know it. Sometimes our theology influences our translation. It could hardly be otherwise. That overlaps closely with thoroughly studying the context. If I understand Paul’s theology in one way, I am going to be influenced away from a linguistically sustainable translation that has him teaching something else. The theology matters.

But this last point leads me to my other complaint from the HCSB introduction. It’s under the heading “The gender language policy in Bible translation.”

Some people today ignore the Bible’s teachings on distinctive roles of men and women in family and church and have an agenda to eliminate those distinctions in everhy arena of life. These people have begun a program to engineer the removal of a perceived male bias in the English language. The targets of this program have been such traditional linguistic practices as the generic use of “man” or “men,” as well as “he,” “him,” and “his.”

I resemble that remark. Well, not very much. You see, I prefer “people” to “men,” “humankind” to “mankind,” and “brothers and sisters” rather than “brothers” or “brethren.” I’ve found, in surveying folks I teach, that there is a bit of a generation gap on these terms. Younger people tend to hear “men” as referring just to male persons. Older folks understand it generically. So my approach in translation is to translate as I think my audience understands the term.

I was quite amused by a former pastor of mine who complained bitterly about the use of “brothers and sisters” to translate the Greek adelphoi. In the NRSV this is done when the translators thought the referrent was a group including both genders. He preferred the older RSV because of this issue. Yet when he read from the RSV in church and came to “brothers” he’d look up and say, “That means you sisters as well!” He complained about the translation, but he knew about the problem with understanding, and his pastor’s gift kicked in to make sure nobody felt left out.

But having said that, I don’t think I’m ignoring the Bible’s teaching on “distinctive roles of men and women.” I disagree on where lines should be drawn. You may think I’m wrong, but I assure you my motivation is not to avoid the teaching of scripture. I simply read it differently.

Could we not simply say something like, “We believe that gender distinctions should be maintained in the language and have translated according to the Colorado Springs guidelines? (The introduction references these in the next paragraph.)

The issue of gender roles and gender languages is a legitimate topic of debate. What I’m suggesting here is that we don’t make this kind of issue, on either side, a matter of questioning one’s commitment to scripture or the quality of one’s work on Bible translation.

In my little charting program ( I rate translations on such issues. The point is that you can use this information to pick a translation that you are comfortable with. Find the NRSV annoying because of gender language? The ESV handles the issue differently while otherwise following a similar translation philosophy. And so on …