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Comparing Bible Translations

Mark Ward


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.

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I Demand That You Read This Essay

Mark Ward

I’m writing in a secret BJU Press project about the particular form of dualism Francis Schaeffer called the “two-story view.” During my research today, I went back again to one of the two essays I have read most often in my life (the other is this), Stanley Fish’s “Why We Can’t All Just Get Along.” If you still read this blog and haven’t succumbed to my demands that you read this Fish essay, I implore you to do it. It’s unbelievable, it really is. As I read it again I just kept shaking my head and laughing, marveling at the insights. I’ve even made a PDF version with highlights for those of you whose brains have been decimated by the Internet. Skip from yellow to yellow and you’ll still get something good. Click here to download. If even that is too much for you, at the very least promise me you’ll read this paragraph:

If you persuade liberalism that its dismissive marginalizing of religious discourse is a violation of its own chief principle, all you will gain is the right to sit down at liberalism’s table where before you were denied an invitation; but it will still be liberalism’s table that you are sitting at, and the etiquette of the conversation will still be hers. That is, someone will now turn and ask, “Well, what does religion have to say about this question?” And when, as often will be the case, religion’s answer is doctrinaire (what else could it be?), the moderator (a title deeply revealing) will nod politely and turn to someone who is presumed to be more reasonable. To put the matter baldly, a person of religious conviction should not want to enter the marketplace of ideas but to shut it down, at least insofar as it presumes to determine matters that he believes have been determined by God and faith. The religious person should not seek an accommodation with liberalism; he should seek to rout it from the field, to extirpate it, root and branch.

Insofar as liberalism (and here Fish speaks broadly in such a way that Republicans and Democrats are both included) embodies a recognition that Christ’s kingdom doesn’t advance by the sword in this age, I’m eager to forswear physical force in my extirpation efforts. But with all the effort of my intellect, Internet-decimated though it may be, I am working to see this rival claimant to Christ’s throne routed—and I believe it can be. I’m eager to live a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty, and there’s no denying that liberalism has, for now, helped provide such a life—in America, at least. But that stability appears tenuous at the moment. It’s hard for me to imagine that it will still exist when I die. I do not, repeat, do not wish for a theocratic kingdom in this age. It won’t happen. But neither, along with Fish, can I accept liberalism’s specious claims to neutrality.

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Toggl: Time-Tracking Software in the Cloud

Mark Ward

Do you need to track your work time? I do. But my employer provides software with such a clunky interface that I simply can’t bear it and, subsequently, I’ve had a perpetual temptation not to bother providing accurate data. (The software requires you to log in practically every time you change to a new task!)

But now I’ve joined the millions of happy, peppy people who use Toggl. The best part is that you can just click “continue” next to a task you’ve recently been doing. If you’re going back to a task you haven’t done for a while, just start typing the name and it will pop up as an option.

I use it for my day job and my graphic design business.

Click here to check it out.


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Dr. Bob Jones Sr’s First Use of “All Ground Is Holy Ground”

Mark Ward


Bob_Jones,_SrThe sayings of Dr. Bob Jones Sr are legendary around my alma mater. As a frequent victim of chronological snobbery, I was ready to be critical and dismissive of these statements when I first saw them tacked above chalkboards in classrooms. But I was won over by Dr. Bob’s homespun, humble wisdom. I’ve really come to like and even treasure a few of the sayings. I often pray, “Lord, give me strong shoulders to carry a heavy burden.” And I often think, “Pray like it’s all up to God, and work like it’s all up to you.” (I do admit that my theology leads me to add, “And, in the end, admit that it was indeed all up to God.”)

Another of the sayings that I’ve thought of many times goes like this:

There is no difference between the secular and the sacred; all ground is holy ground, every bush a burning bush.

I’m not sure if this is original to him. If it is, it’s quite striking. If not, still striking. I love the very last phrase; it’s so richly allusive and picturesque.

I’m writing at BJU Press right now about this very topic, the secular and the sacred, so I wanted to find out as well as I could what Dr. Bob Jones Sr., founder of my institution, meant when he said these things. For that I needed context. And the J.S. Mack Library Archives came through for me. Below, as best the Archives can tell, is Dr. Bob Sr’s first use of this saying, in a sermon dated Sep 14, 1948—very shortly after the school opened for its first semester in Greenville (after having been in Florida and Tennessee previously). As for the context of the statement, before this excerpt he just says, “We have a great school and people tell me all the time, ‘Don’t change it.'” And after it he just says it takes backbone to stick it out at Bob Jones.

So I’m not sure if the surrounding context really sheds much light on what he meant. He was kind of rambling, as university presidents (his son took over the role in 1950) are privileged to do on occasion.

Without further ado…

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Read Your Bible, Pray Every Day

Mark Ward

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My pastor knows his people. My wife and I needed this practical exhortation to jump-start our annual Bible reading.

I do think that one of the biggest lessons I’m still learning about life in this modern world is that every choice to value something is necessarily a choice to devalue something else. If I’m going to value Bible-reading, other things are going to have to fall by the wayside (until my adolescent dream of being able to pause time is finally realized). Sometimes I, an adult Christian with a fair bit of Christian training, do need to be told by my pastor: go to bed!

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ESV Reader’s Bible Sample PDF

Mark Ward

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Crossway has finally put out a sample PDF of their upcoming Reader’s Bible. I’ve been checking the page compulsively for some months, but I can’t say how long the PDF has been up.

I’m also not quite sure what to think, because the PDF includes enough of Genesis to show that they still elected to use chapter numbers, but not enough of Genesis to show what they’ll do when chapter numbers interfere with the flow of thought, like when a paragraph extends from one chapter to another.

Chapter numbers do rub this purist the wrong way, but because they’re a concession to reality I can’t object too strongly. That is, people accustomed lifelong to the pacing provided by little numbers littered throughout the Bible text (and I am one of them!) often feel cast adrift without them. If verse numbers are a series of life preservers spread at intervals of three feet across the English Channel, using chapter numbers at least requires swimmers to go a good fifty yards before stopping.

I have a dream for this Reader’s Bible: if I ever pastor a congregation of Christians who can handle the change, I’d love to ask everyone to use this Bible for one year—both in church services and, if they’re willing, in personal devotions. Chapter numbers will probably help me in that situation, because preachers do need to tell people where to go in their Bible texts. After that year we’d reconvene and talk about our experience.

I’ve been promised a review copy of this Bible, and I’ll let you know what I think when I hold it in my hands. I think I may finally have the “Bible for Life,” for my life, that I’ve been looking for.

Two little notes:

  1. I do like the (expected) choice of Lexicon as a typeface, the same font used for the ESV Study Bible and the ESV Single-Column Legacy Bible which I’ve been using for a year or so.
  2. If you haven’t read and signed my Bible Typography Manifesto, now’s the time.

ESV Reader's Bible excerpt

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