In my other life, I am the editor of Faithlife’s Bible Study Magazine, and one of my first acts as editor was to give myself a column: “Word Nerd: Language and the Bible.” They said I could. I also turn all the columns—plus a few that aren’t in print—into YouTube videos for the Logos Bible Software YouTube channel. Like and subscribe and all that.
One of my first videos was on an obscure feature in the NASB, little asterisks that indicate when they translated historical presents (like, “Jesus goes into the city”) as pasts (like, “Jesus went into the city”). Good English just demands past tenses, even though the Greek is clearly in the present tense. It just sounds so breathless, so weird, even though it is, yes, possible to match the Greek with an English present. The fact that even the NASB couldn’t bring itself to translate these “literally” shows that forms don’t match one-to-one across languages.
FWIW, using the magic of Logos Bible Software, I was able to count the number of times the KJV translators translated historical presents as present vs. past. It was a mix. They didn’t have a specific policy they consistently followed.
Literaler is better
But they could have. They could have been more literal. So could the NASB 95. All major modern evangelical translations could have reflected more of the forms of New Testament Greek more often than they did. If they did, they would have been following a principle that I hear assumed all the time, but rarely enunciated and never spelled out in detail. Goes like this: “Literaler is better.” In its strongest form, the form in which I usually see it, it goes like this: “Literal equals moral.” In other words, it’s wrong to use something other than literal translation strategies. People don’t spell this out in any detail so much as assume it. I did, when I first sat down as a then-new seminary students to evaluate the then-new ESV against the NASB that my pastor used.
INCREDI-NASB to the rescue!
Now, I like to reductio people’s stated linguistic principles to absurdum levels. I like to see if the principles people sometimes so confidently assume about Bible interpretation and translation actually work—and work and work and work. If you keep them going and going ad infinitum, do they end up causing nauseams?
In my Word Nerd video, I imagined the creation of an INCREDI-NASB, a superhero Bible that collected all the nerdy Bible conventions one could dream up. And oh, could I dream. Blue highlights for grammatically masculine words, pink for feminine ones, gray for neuter. Single underlines for singular words, double underlines for plural ones. Little dots and dashes connecting words that were alliterated in the originals.
This is all clearly absurd. I mean, right? So absurd that everyone will realize the INCREDI-NASB is a totally made up superhero, that I love the NASB and use it regularly, that no one at the Lockman foundation needs to sue me or anything because we’re all Christians here—right? This is a specific kind of nerdy, niche, hyerbolic satire. The point is: no one would actually do these things in an English Bible translation? Right?!
A common trap
Apparently they would. Because I get this same style of argument all the time. I hear it from the KJV-Only folks, who argue that if contemporary English no longer marks second-person personal pronouns for number (I’m talking about you), we’re just going to have to stick with the more literally accurate five-hundred-year-old forms, thee and ye, even if many people today (not least those in KJV-Only churches) don’t actually know that ye and you are always plural.
But I also hear this “literaler is better” principle from lots of my conservative brothers—and, uh, kind of from people I think ought to know better like… You know, I just can’t bear to say their names. I don’t want this to be personal. But I have heard it from one of my own favorite theologians, and from a world-class expository preacher.
“Literaler is better” is a common trap. As with many common traps, there is some truth set in this one as bait. We’ll get to that. But first we have to reductio.
Let’s reductio to absurdum levels
That was a long intro, I know. There are many things that can be said on this topic, many arguments to make. But the one I’m making in this piece is precisely what I just said: a reductio ad absurdum. I want to show that if this principle is applied consistently, it results in absurdities. All major evangelical translations match the forms of the Hebrew and Greek very, very often. It is the baseline for them all, even the NLT. This is what I take “literal” to mean when most of its proponents don’t really define it: matching Hebrew and Greek linguistic forms with standard, corresponding English ones. All major translations do do this. They just tend to move away from those forms under perhaps three major pressures: 1) when English demands it, as is frequently the case in word order, for example; and 2) when communicating the meaning demands it, as is frequently the case with idioms, figures of speech, for example; and 3) when the presumed audience demands it, as with translations aimed at seventh graders, new believers, or even elementary schoolers.
The more functional translations simply increase the frequency of #1 and #2, out of a desire for clearer communication to whoever is in their imagined group #3. But what if INCREDI-NASB came in and stopped them? What would our Literaler than Thou superhero do? (By the way, his examples will stick mostly to Greek because that requires less homework for him and he is a poorly remunerated superhero.)
INCREDI-NASB would mark number in personal pronouns with the same single and double underlines I proposed in my Word Nerd video for relative pronouns. So the KJV-Onlyists would be satisfied, because you (singular) would know the number of every single second-person pronoun. Also countless adjectives would now get number identifiers, helping you know what nouns they are modifying.
INCREDI-NASB would assign colors to all the Greek verb tenses: yellow for present, blue for perfect, orange for imperfect, crimson for aorist, chartreuse for future perfect, and burnt sienna for pluperfect. We don’t have to do a total reductio here, because often the English forms match up just fine with the Greek ones. For example, “In the beginning was the Word” is imperfect in Greek and imperfect in English. But in the famous phrase in Paul, “God gave the increase,” the verb is imperfect—and only one major translation reflects this. So I guess in the cheaper version of the INCREDI-NASB, only those places where English translators feel they absolutely must stray away from Greek and Hebrew verb forms will be marked with these colors.
INCREDI-NASB would make sure to say "the Jesus" whenever there is an article in front of his name in the Greek. "Then the Jesus came from Galilee…" "Then the Jesus went throughout all the towns and villages." This will sound odd in English, of course, but no one will misunderstand the reference. And they will get every bit of information from the Greek. Literaler is better.
Translators are forever straying unnecessarily from the inspired word order of Greek sentences. INCREDI-NASB would fix these errors. Sometimes English just can't bear the Greek word order—especially with postpositive particles like gar and de, which for us simply HAVE to go at the beginning of clauses, not in slot two as in Greek. But INCREDI-NASB thinks that people just need a little help, and they’ll be able to see how important it is to stick with the Hebrew and Greek word order everywhere possible. If it isn’t really possible, we need to make it possible. As one YouTube commenter told me just the other day, “Our philosophy of translation is to make the Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic the standard, not the English.” So a little explanatory note in the introduction will help readers see that, because literaler is better, some sentences are just going to have to be awkward.
Whom for sent the God the words of the God speaks, not for out of measure he gives the Spirit.
Sometimes even the rather literal KJV turns articles in the Greek into indefinite articles in English. In one of the most famous examples, this has the publican in Jesus' little parable saying, "Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner"—"a sinner" instead of "the sinner." INCREDI-NASB will correct the KJV. The KJV also had Satan bringing Jesus up to “a pinnacle of the temple,” when very clearly the Greek says, “the pinnacle of the temple.” INCREDI-NASB would achieve perfect consistency in the use of articles. It will be so easy: if the Greek or Hebrew has an article, so will the INCREDI-NASB. If it doesn’t, INCREDI-NASB will blast it out of existence with his Literal Ray. Here’s one quick sample passage:
Our Father, the one in the heavens…
Like they are children, the ones in the marketplace sitting.
Depart from me, the ones who work the lawlessness.
Also, the KJV is continually adding indefinite articles where the Greek has, quite literally, nothing. INCREDI-NASB could take these out in his sleep. For example, “Paul, apostle of Jesus Christ through will God to the saints the ones in Ephesus.”
Finally, and this decision has proven controversial in the hyperbolic satirical YouTube video community, INCREDI-NASB would decline personal names the way Greek does; that is, it would make clear something that English translations never, ever bring out: the grammatical cases in which our Lord’s name appears. If literaler is better, and if literal even perhaps equals moral, then we cannot flinch when it causes odd stares. The fact is that “Jesus” show up in the nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, and vocative cases, and you can’t always tell from English translations precisely which case is being used. So… we could do "Jesus" for nominative,"Jesu" for genitive, "Jeso" for dative, "Jesun" for accusative, and an innovation of INCREDI-NASB’s own invention, “OJesus” for vocative. Put the ending on the beginning of the word, and its meaning is more intuitive in English. While he’s at it, I guess INCREDI-NASB could decline any word whose case, in his judgment, isn't obvious from context. In the cheaper version I guess we could just footnote these.
So, let us read the first sample paragraph supplied to us by our favorite superhero Bible translation, INCREDI-NASB.
Beware but the righteousnessen of you not to do before the menon for to look at them. If but not indeed reward not you are having before the fathero of you the oneo in the heavens.
And a second:
Grace to you and peace from Godu our father and Lordu Jesu Christu. Blessed the God and father our the Lordu, Jesu Christu, the one having blessed us in the past in all spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christo.
Okay, I’ve reductioed.
Upping the ante
Here’s my point in prose: You can almost always go more literal in Bible translation. You can always say to some pansy Bible translation, “Oh—you call that literal? Just watch this!” INCREDI-NASB once outliteraled an ESV translator for fifteen hours straight, till there was actually no English left except the letters. (And INCREDI-NASB pointed out that the letter “o” looks the same in Greek and in English. If we could just alter the shape of a few more letters, we’d get even closer to a perfect translation!)
Nun de, adelphoi, ean eltho pros humas glossais lalon, ti humas opheleso, ean me humin laleso e en apokalupsei e en gnosei e en propheteia e en didache. Homos ta apsucha phonen didonta, eite aulos eite kithara, ean diastolen tois phtongois me do, pos gnosthesetai to auloumenon e to kitharizomenon; kai gar ean adelon phonen salpingx do, tis parasekeuasetai eis polemon.
Literaler feels better—people always want to hear that they’re getting a word-ford-word Bible translation—because a literal translation philosophy seems to take the human element out. No fallible human judgments need stand between us and God. And I get this temptation. Humans can mess up Bible translation on purpose. Just look at John 1:1 in the Jehovah’s Witnesses translation. Of course it’s the most extreme of KJV-Only brothers who reductio this concern to absurdum levels. The Ruckmanites actually believe that the KJV corrects the Greek, that it solves ambiguities God unfortunately inspired. One of them wrote a book called, The Certainty of the Words: How the King James Bible Resolves the Ambiguity of the Original Languages. Did you catch that? These folks believe in “double inspiration,” the idea that God inspired the original writers and then inspired the KJV translators. They take the human element out of Bible translation. Why God even used 50-plus 17th-century Anglican translators is a mystery. He basically wrote the 1611 KJV with his own finger on immense tablets that poor King James had to lug down the steps of the Tower of London in multiple trips.
This double inspiration idea is a very, very old one. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, was said very early on to have been produced by seventy-two translators who all worked in separate rooms, translated the entire Old Testament, and came out with identical translations. This could happen only if God inspired these men. Historians recently discovered that this story was invented by a pre-incarnate appearance of Peter Ruckman. To this day, Eastern Orthodox Christians use the Septuagint and not the Hebrew as the basis of their translations.
The truth in the trap
I promised earlier that I would talk about the truth in this “literaler is better” trap. Here are a few points: First, it is often best to translate literally, especially in English, a language related to Greek. That’s because translations can indeed stray from the intentions of the biblical authors by doing too much interpreting.
Second, I myself tend to prefer to “start” my Bible study with translations that bear more traceable relationships to the forms they translate. There’s something about establishing a baseline from which to work. I see the more functional translations as illuminating the formal ones. But then I never do fail to read the more functional ones. They are not thereby rendered unnecessary for me.
Third, I was trained to exposit the text, and all my models used formal translations to do this. I could exposit any good translation anywhere on the spectrum, but in my tradition, the one I was trained in, I know best how to do this—especially in the New Testament—with more formal translations. They are suited to the close analysis practiced by the expositional method.
Fourth, I think literaler keeps the translators safer. Literal renderings keep them from some of the knife-like tongues the KJV translators warned about in their preface. And when possible, it’s often best to stick with tradition. I like tradition! I like it! Hear me? Come to a church service at my church. I like the KJV tradition. And we use the ESV, a translation in the KJV tradition.
The “literal is better” crowd and the more extreme “literal equals moral” crowd are not taking something bad and making it good. They are taking something good and blowing it out of proportion.
So in this little exercise I kept blowing until, I hope, the balloon popped.
The Pure Word
The KJV translators specifically rejected the idea that they had to be as literal as possible, In their preface they explain that they’re under no obligation to use the same English word to translate a given Hebrew or Greek word every time.
They were willing to use multiple English words in various places to translate the same given Hebrew or Greek word. They point to “purpose” or “intent” as stylistic options, “journeys” or “travels,” “think” or “suppose,” “pain” or “ache,” “joy” or “gladness.” They specifically said that it was best not to translate one Greek word with the same English word every time. They said,
Thus to mince the matter, we thought to savour more of curiosity than wisdom, and that rather it would breed scorn in the atheist than bring profit to the godly reader. For is the kingdom of God become words or syllables? why should we be in bondage to them if we may be free? use one precisely when we may use another no less fit as commodiously?
19th century scholar Robert Young, creator of Young’s Literal Translation, was apparently not persuaded. In 1862, Young complained about hundreds of specific instances in which the KJV did precisely what they said they would do, varying their word choice. Young called these “lax renderings.”
Young admitted that his translation principles were “to some extent new,” but he insisted that in his work those principles were “adhered to with a severity never hitherto attempted, and…the Translator has perfect confidence in their accuracy and simplicity.”
But Young wasn’t severe enough. In fact, if you think my satire was over the top, all you have to do is look at people who tried to to increase the severity levels in their literal translations.
I was lying awake after midnight dreaming up parts of this script, and I did something I almost never do: I stole out of bed, grabbed my iPad Pro, and went to the dining room table to plunk out my ideas. I turned on my favorite writing machine, and I kiddeth you not: the very first thing I saw was an advertisement for the Literal Standard Version. And listen to its marketing copy. The LSV, which is actually a revision of Young’s Literal Translation from the 19th century, is
the most literal translation of The Holy Bible, with significant improvement over previous literal translations.
But the LSV is more severe. It is literaler than the literalest translation ever made. Wow! Here’s John 3:16 in the LSV:
For God so loved the world that He gave the only begotten Son, that everyone who is believing in Him may not perish, but may have continuous life.
Ok. Not super severe. But one way in which it is more severe is that the LSV preface doesn’t give any hint, like Young did, that it’s just a Bible study tool meant to be used as a supplement to the ESV, NIV, or other translations that are actually “standards.” The impression the LSV gives is that it really intends to supplant, not supplement, more traditional kinds of translations, translations that balance form and function with a little more weight on the latter.
Things out there do get severer, and literaler. Take a look at the fairly recenty Pure Word New Testament. The private gentleman behind the project really upped the literal ante. INCREDI-NASB’s Auntie Amelia, actually, the one who used to bake cookies for him when he was little, cookies that were shaped like cooks because, well, that’s what cookies literally are and therefore should be.
I mean, who doesn’t want “the pure word,” a translation that gives you—according to the marketing copy on the site—“deeper scriptural understanding that has never before been achievable in English.” Does that raise your expectations? So here’s John 3:16 in the Pure Word New Testament.
Because, God has Loved in such a manner the satan’s world, so that He Gave His Son, the Only Begotten Risen Christ, in order that whoever is Continuously by his choice Committing for the Result and Purpose of Him, should not perish, but definitely should, by his choice, be Continuously Having Eternal Life.
If you didn’t notice, this is pure gobbledygook; you can only know what he’s doing—and doing hamhandedly, I might add—if you know Greek. I actually think it’s kind of cool that evangelicalism produces such—I’m sorry—harebrained attempts at producing Bible study resources. It means we really, really value the Bible. But the idea that this offers us all something that has never been done in English is clearly wrong. I don’t really know what the Pure Word New Testament is, but I know it’s not English.
Young’s Literal Translation and its child the LSV have genuine uses in Bible study. I’ll mention them in a bit. But our best and most important translation tradition in English, that of the KJV, set us on a better path than Young would have.
I want every particle
Ok, now… What if all this made you nervous, despite the good I do see at the heart of the “literal is better” view? What if you’re still feeling like, Wait, what? There’s all this meaning in the New Testament that all Bible translators are hiding from me because they don’t think I’ll get it?! I want every participle, every preposition, every pluperfect passive pestiferous penultimate parablepsis in the Greek!
First: there’s never been a better day to learn Greek and Hebrew. Many people watching this video are from rich countries. You can study these languages on your own with countless free helps and other comparatively inexpensive ones. Try my friend Andrew Case’s Aleph with Beth. Beth is his wife. They’re a fantastic superhero biblical-languages teaching team. Try my friend Scott McQuinn’s work as one of many experts at the Biblical Language Center, where they teach biblical Hebrew and Greek as living, spoken languages. Don’t hear any of what I’m saying on this channel as a discouragement to anyone from learning Hebrew and Greek. Would that all of the Lord’s people were original language exegetes. That friend Andrew Case has a crazy dream of bringing us nearer that place. See my interview with him on this channel if you haven’t already.
Second: let’s just remember, as I say so often, who gave us this situation. Who made it so that nearly all Christians need the help of translators to read his inspired words? And who made it so that languages are so different, making perfect translation impossible? There are tonal languages and click languages and SVO languages and OSV languages and languages with a kabillion noun cases and triradical languages that can be written without vowels (that’s Hebrew) and there’s even a Nigerian tribe, the Ubang, where men and women have separate languages. They believe Adam and Eve spoke Ubang, and that God gave them separate languages. I think that’s a little bit off, but not incredibly far. It was God who set up our polyglot situation, it was he who invented at Babel languages that just did every imaginable thing differently. It was our loving heavenly Father who made it so that translation always requires tiny little compromises. God did it! So chill! Be still and know this. You apparently don’t have to know all the niceties of Hebrew and Greek to live a life pleasing to him, though you are, again, welcome and encouraged to learn!
Rather than getting annoyed at God for putting mediators between him and man, rather than seeing the Bible translation ideal as a bunch of human computers applying ironclad rules and yielding perfect results, we should accept the situation God has given us. Bible translation should be seen as a bunch of humans who must weigh competing but genuine values, genuine values that God designed to stand in an ultimately irresolvable tension. Some translations will tend in the direction of letting form override meaning a little bit; some translations will tend in the opposite direction. Actually, it’s in the interplay of these tendencies that you and I, the Bible-reading public, get the most benefit. By seeing the text from a few different angles, we see it more clearly. This has happened to me over and over and over for 20+ years. Try it. I join many Bible teachers in suggesting that you regularly read and check at least one formal and one functional Bible translation.
Third: context almost always tells you every detail of real importance. The stuff that gets “left out” is so incredibly minor. If Jesus could call some of the laws of the OT minor, like tithing on herbs, then I can call tiny pieces of grammatical information that are difficult to translate minor. For an example, I’ll just default back to the issue that got INCREDI-NASB started on all this, the fact that contemporary English does not distinguish between plural and singular in its second-person pronouns. The KJV is undeniably more “accurate” in this area of language if literaler equals better. It’s undeniably more faithful in this area if literal equals moral. But I recently tested myself to see if English translations were really letting me down.
A test for you
John 4:48 is a great example, suggested by a skilled and intelligent KJV-Only YouTube commenter, of a context in which a footnote or some other method of showing off the number of second person pronouns is necessary in languages which don't mark them. "Then Jesus said unto him, 'Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe.'" He says this to one guy, but he expands it to include all the Jews. It’s true, without some help from the KJV or a footnote—or the NKJV, which goes with “you people,” I probably wouldn’t catch this. But using random.org, I picked twenty random passages that had second-person pronouns to see if they were akin to John 4:48. I wanted to see if the context in each case was sufficient to communicate the number of the pronoun to me. I read each in the ESV first, guessed the number of the pronouns, and then checked the Greek to see if I was right.
- Acts 17:3 "This Jesus whom I proclaim to you is the Christ." I predicted this was plural. ✔ I was right!
- Rev 11:17 "We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, who is and who was, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign." I predicted singular. ✔ I was right!
- 2 Cor 9:4 "If some Macedonians come with me and find that you are not ready, we would be humiliated—to say nothing of you—for being so confident." I predicted plural. ✔ Bam!
- Rom 11:17 "But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree…" This one's tough… Because he could be imagining a single interlocutor. But context suggested to me that he's speaking to "Gentiles," plural, so I went with plural. ✘ I was wrong! He did indeed start imagining a single interlocutor. This is apparently a thing in Paul. He does this.
- Luke 5:20 "And when he saw their faith, he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.'” Gonna have to go with singular. ✔ Bam! I was right!
I won’t take you through all 20, which I did while my family was watching a movie. You’ll just have to believe me that I got one more wrong, for a total score of 90%. A-.
If marking all these for number were truly crucial to get the meaning across, I should be getting around half of them wrong while reading a contemporary English version. It should be like a coin toss. I should be stymied by contemporary English's utter failure to mark number in these forms. But language carries redundancies. Context led me correctly in the great majority of cases. The two cases where I was tripped up (the other was 1 Cor 4:7) were both ones in which Paul was speaking to imaginary interlocutors; in other words, the sense is singular but the reference is plural: he's using an imaginary person to represent the views or situation of many people. So I really don't think I misunderstood either passage because of the tiny amount of grammatical information I missed—and missed because God made it so that not all languages handle pronouns in precisely the same ways.
I’d be happy for footnotes to handle this minor mismatch between Greek and English in those few places where context is an insufficient guide. I’m happy to leave that determination to qualified translators. What I don’t want to do is say “literaler is better” and force English into a strange mold that will cause confusion for readers. Isn’t God capable of speaking our English?
Literaler than thou
Don’t buy the latest literaler than thou gimmick. And when I say don’t buy it, I actually don’t mean don’t purchase it. Go ahead and get the LSV if you want it. I mean don’t believe the marketing copy. I see utterly no problem—and plenty of benefit, for the right readers—in hyper-literal versions. The INCREDI-NASB would help a lot of Hebrew and Greek students and, truth be known, a lot of pastors whose Hebrew and Greek is rusty. I myself have worked on forming a project to produce something kind of like the INCREDI-NASB. But my project (if it ever comes to fruition), would not claim that literal equals moral, only that literal equals useful. In some circumstances, for some readers, it’s good to have a highly literal translation. Most of those readers, I think, already know something of the original languages. They just need help using them. So such a translation is not really a translation into English; it’s a set of crib notes for Hebrew and Greek students. That’s what literal translations become over time when they get into the literaler than thou game.
I am NOT saying that literal translations are bad; our church uses one. The KJV tradition of basically literal but still very literary translation has, in my mind, proven its utility. My main translation, if you can call it that, is pretty much literal. So by critiquing the tendency to call literal better or even moral, I am not continuing the infighting among evangelicals, especially my fellow conservatives, about Bible translation. I’m trying to end it. I’m trying to end Bible translation tribalism, trying to get evangelicals to see the good in all good evangelical translations. I’m trying to change “better” to “useful.” Literal is “useful” in lots of situations. It’s a great fallback and/or starting point. But if you make it your ending point, you will never actually get there. It’s impossible.
And if literal translation is an unattainable ideal, maybe we shouldn't make it the sole ideal. Maybe we should recognize that we have to trust someone's judgment to decide on the balance of formal and functional renderings, and the race for the holy grail of a translation that gives us everything we want is like the guy who always swipes whatever direction you swipe on Tinder when you're dissatisfied with every single option. Literal is valuable, but so are other things—like understandability. Maybe INCREDI-NASB should get together with ELASTI-NIV, and we should be thankful for both supers. Both of them help us defeat the evil villain called Ignorant Misunderstanding.
A little addendum: a regular YouTube commenter offered an excellent assessment of what I’m trying to do in this piece. He said it better in a line than I did in all those words:
The lesson is: be careful how negative you are about either idea [formal vs. functional translation], because no translation is purely one or the other. “How dynamic is too dynamic?” becomes like the question, “How much is too much to spend on a nice car?”…. [The answer always seems to be], “Anything more than what I spent.”