Comparing Bible Translations

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Comparing English Bible translations responsibly is very hard work. It requires a number of skills:

  1. Comparing Bible translations requires a knowledge of Greek and Hebrew. Like most things that should go without saying, it really can’t. To be truly responsible when comparing two English translations, you simply have to know what’s going on in Greek and Hebrew (and textual criticism—in Hebrew, too, not just Greek). You can’t know with any confidence why two translations differ unless you have some facility with the original languages.
  2. Comparing Bible translations requires a knowledge of English. I don’t mean this snidely at all, but it’s not at all clear to me that some Internet pundits understand their own tongue, let alone the two aforementioned dead ones. (Can one say such a thing unsnidely?) For example, there was the prominent advocate for the King James Version who claimed that some words found in modern English Bible translations—namely deride, odious, bemoan, paramour, and the “k” in traffickedare “archaic.” (He was trying to show that modern versions use archaic words, too, so the KJV’s alleged archaisms shouldn’t be an argument against its use). Those words simply aren’t archaic, however; they can be found in any newspaper today. Considering that the KJV’s archaisms—and not just in vocabulary but in syntax—are a key point in the debate over its continued place in English-speaking Christianity, it’s fair to say that this man’s poor knowledge of English undermines his case considerably.
  3. Comparing Bible translations requires the capacity to generalize from a large number of examples stretched across 66 books translated by various scholars and/or committees of scholars, and to do so multiple times, once for each translation being compared. It’s not enough to check a few key passages, though that’s a start. And as Dave Brunn has demonstrated, it’s not enough to read the translation philosophy in the opening pages (though that, too, is a necessary start); so many big and small choices are involved in making a translation that it’s impossible to completely live up to one’s own stated ideals. Sometimes the NASB or KJV are actually less literal in a given passage than the NIV and NLT!

Bible translation reviews are like newspaper articles on climate change. Few of us have any real scientific knowledge, let alone the specialized kind required for understanding that complex issue. We have to trust that the journalist has done his or her homework. Likewise, reviewers of Bible translations are asking us to trust them—while generally providing lists of examples in which you can supposedly “see for yourself” what’s wrong (or right) with a given translation.

But I’d like to call attention to a little principle I try to live by: smart people aren’t dummies. Surely some boneheaded decisions have been made in some Bible translations. The NIV committee changed “sinful nature” back to “flesh” in the 2011 (everywhere except Rom. 7:18 and 25); they admitted they were wrong way back in 1984. But conservative translations—the NIV, HCSB, ESV, NASB, NKJV, NET, etc.—were all done by people who surely had some reason in mind when they made that particular translation choice. They, of course, rarely get to respond to reviewers. Bible translation reviews are one place where we would all do well to remember Proverbs 18:17, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (ESV).

Admittedly, my primary target here is advocates of King James Onlyism. It is no accident that those with the least training in the languages of Greek, Hebrew, and English commit the most egregious errors when discussing their interplay. And it is not an accident that the KJVO crowd tends to eschew advanced academic training.

But I’ve seen it go the other way, too. Mark Strauss, who definitely knows a thing or two about language and Bible translation (he wrote one of the most helpful things I’ve ever read on the meaning of “literal”), complained about Luke 17:35 in his review of the ESV:

There will be two women grinding together. One will be taken and the other left.

He wrote,

In contemporary English, “grinding together” suggests seductive dancing or something worse. (Perhaps both should have been taken for judgment!) Most versions clarify that this means grinding “grain,” “meal” or “flour” (cf. TNIV, NIV, NLT, HCSB, NET, NRSV, REB, etc.)

Strauss, in my opinion, has violated point two above. He let his agenda (criticizing the ESV) get the best of his English. He is committing the fallacy of a literalistic eight-year-old, who, while holding a camera, is told to “take some pictures”—and who then proceeds to go lift some picture frames off the wall and giggle. Strauss has ignored perhaps the premier rule of all linguistic communication: context is king. I grant that a reader totally ignorant of first-century agrarian customs may be confused here, though I doubt anyone will ever seriously think Jesus was speaking of a sensual dance. [Update due to justifiable reader complaint: In no way am I putting Strauss in the same category as the KJVOs; the article in which that comment appeared was genuinely helpful to me, and Strauss definitely understands English! In this one instance, however, I feel Strauss was guilty of overreach.]

One more thing: a little comment by Andree Seu in a trenchant WORLD Magazine column years ago has always stuck with me. She pointed out that the scholars will always disagree, that it does fall to us, guided by the Holy Spirit and the best study of God’s Word we can muster, to choose the right positions or risk disobedience to God. I’m not going to say that’s easy. And though education is no guarantee of one’s orthodoxy or good judgment, neither is lack of education. Other things being equal, look for a Bible translation reviewer who 1) reads ancient Greek and Hebrew, 2) has mastered English, and 3) has done his homework. It’s hard to meet any of these three criteria without substantial education.

In many ways we offend all. I can see ways in which my lack of diligence kept me from developing skills in the biblical languages that I was offered by my good teachers. God give us all grace, from KJVOs to Mark Strausses, to be sanctified even in that tricky area called our knowledge.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

7 thoughts on “Comparing Bible Translations”

  1. Unfortunately Mark Strauss has a legitimate point about two women grinding together. Having grown up in the greater New York City area, grinding was the pinnacle of the dances we knew in that day. To get a girl to grind with you was a serious level of accomplishment on the road to sexual intimacy and a sign of sexual prowess. I hope I don’t have to explain just how important that is to an uncovered teenager. Upon reading that translation of Luke 17:35 I must admit that visual of two women doing the grind flashed across my mind. This is a product of my early socialization but true nevertheless. Probably not worthy of speaking about to someone whose experience is totally foreign to this. Kind of a moot point but I had to state my opinion.

  2. Skypeace, it’s funny: I was just thinking about this little argument I made. Relevance Theory would lead me to expect that people assume that a statement will be relevant to them given the background knowledge they take to the text. I can see that people with different backgrounds would interpret the phrase differently. Likewise, people in certain primitive cultures have never seen a sheep. Bible translators, I have read, have difficult decisions to make: you can’t just replace “sheep” throughout Scripture. The image is too strongly woven throughout the whole Bible. Notes are the best way to handle this, I’ve heard translators say. We cannot erase the historical and cultural distance between us and the authors of Scripture. So I’m open to other solutions, like saying “grinding grain.”

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