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The Bible Versions Debate
Part 1: Methods of Translation

by Dusty Peterson

 

 

 

Introduction  

Christians rightly believe they should promote the acquisition of, and obedience to, the truth.  They also believe that the Bible is God’s truth given to man as a means to guide us in the way He would have us live.  Throughout the centuries the Bible has been translated from the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek languages in which its various parts were originally written, into every major language on earth.  The most prolific translations have been into English.  The question obviously arises, which English Bible version or versions should we use?  Which are the most reliable?  Do they all give the truth?  If not, which do – and how can we tell?  Which would God have us use?  

An extremely wide variety of English versions of the Bible exists today, from The Bible in Basic English to the Jehovah’s Witness New World Translation, and they can differ from each other in numerous places – and in seemingly non-trivial ways.  Can they all be the truth?  And if not, which ones can be called the truth?  Where should we draw the line?  

Some people feel the issue of Bible versions to be unimportant.  I plan to respond to this suggestion in other ways later, but please consider the following for now.  If we are essentially to trust our reward in heaven and even our eternal destiny to the teachings in a book, it does seem wise to check whether or not our favoured version of that book is reliable.  God sometimes requires His servants to put their very lives on the line for the sake of truth, so surely the question of whether or not a given Bible version is a trustworthy representation of the truth is of more than a little significance.  

We are called to invest a good deal of our time in our Bibles, so a little balanced investigation into where our Bibles actually came from seems a sensible activity.  After all, God commands us to test all things (1 Thess. 5:21 ), so it is only proper that we test those things that claim to be His Word.  And we have little to lose, for if we find that our favourite version is fine then we can use it with more confidence, but if we instead find some problems, then we are much better placed to deal with them.  

At its core, the whole issue of Bible versions condenses into two areas: firstly, how to determine the correct original readings (i.e. working out how the contents – the books comprising the Bible – appeared in their original languages when they were first written), and secondly how to translate these contents into the language of the target readership – in our case, English.  (These two areas reflect the two sides of an ‘interlinear’ Bible – i.e. how to get the Hebrew & Greek column right, and then how to rightly populate the column holding the English equivalent.) Although I will obviously be discussing both of these areas, I want to look at the latter first because this will assist us when we come to the former.  

Opening Comments  

A lot of knowledge is required in order to effectively address the subject of Bible versions, but this first article covers an aspect of the issue which requires almost no technical background.  It addresses only the question of whether we should translate the Bible in a word-for-word way, or instead lean towards creating an interpretation of the Scriptures for easier understanding. As we will see, this matter has real consequences.  

These two types of translation have been given various names over the years. For simplicity, I’m going to employ the most widely used terms – i.e. ‘formal equivalence’ for the word-for-word type, and ‘dynamic equivalence’ for the interpretive type. (Any other type of translation essentially just draws from these first two types in differing proportions and to differing extents.)  

By the way, I will need to use a handful of uncommon terms in these articles.  However, I am keeping their quantity to a minimum – i.e. using only those that are needed in order for us to be able to discuss this issue profitably with a good range of people. I will also be sure to explain such terms.  On those occasions where I have felt able to replace a technical word or phrase with something more familiar, I have supplied the original, strictly correct term in the footnotes.  

The phrase ‘dynamic equivalence’ could be defined as attempting to convert the scriptures on a thought-by-thought basis rather than a word-for-word one. It is generally seen as an attempt to bridge the cultural divide between the ancient Middle-East and modern-day man.[1]  

In contrast, let me define ‘formal equivalence’ as having two features.  Firstly it seeks to render the original words as literally as possible into another language.[2]  So, if a team of translators needed to convert a Greek word into English, they would choose the English word which was the best equivalent available.  If necessary, they would join two or more English words together – which is how we came to get the term “lovingkindness” for example.[3]  

The second aspect of ‘formal equivalence’ is that you render the original FORM (e.g. the original grammar) as literally as possible into that of another language.  So, if you have a verb at one point in the original text, you would seek to translate it as a verb in English too.  And if the same tense in a given part of the original text happens to exist in the target language,[4] you simply re-use that tense.  

That then is a summary of the ‘formal equivalence’ and ‘dynamic equivalence’ methods of translation. The question is, how should we view these two approaches?  (Incidentally, if you already have a firm position on this matter, please don’t worry; I do intend to look at the key arguments used for and against both types.)

Translation & Interpretation  

Let’s start by looking at some apparent difficulties associated with writing an extreme dynamic equivalence translation (i.e. a paraphrase) and then calling the result ‘Scripture’.  Obviously there could never be said to be much of a problem with writing a paraphrase of the Bible, but certain difficulties do appear to arise when someone then insists that the resulting document is itself Holy Writ.  (Please note that I am talking here only about Bible versions which are total paraphrases.)  

By definition, a paraphrase is an interpretation of the overall text rather God’s specific words converted directly into English. Now, many folks are sure there is no problem with this – as long, of course, as the people writing the interpretation are sound believers. The trouble is that the Bible itself seems to say that God attaches unusual importance to His actual words  

There are opposing arguments which I will address shortly, but for now I need to point out a few of the scriptures which indicate that God cares about His actual words – and which therefore suggest that anyone seeking to translate His ‘Word’ must have reverence for each of His specific words. (At this point I need to quote from the Bible, but whichever version or versions I use at this stage will unavoidably upset someone. Since it is not necessary for me to upset anyone at this very early stage, I’ve decided to avoid quoting any published version but simply to give a literal rendering of each passage.)  It turns out that there are too many Bible verses extolling God’s actual words to repeat them all here, but please consider these few examples:  

In Exodus 19:6 God gave “the words” which Moses was to speak to Israel .  It appears as if the Lord would not have been content had Moses simply delivered an interpretation of those words. God gave Israel the law and then required Israel to set up great stones and to write on them “all the words of this law” (Deut. 27:3; see also v8) – rather than to write the thoughts behind those words.  Moses told the people to set their hearts to “all the words” which he passed on to them (Deut. 32:46), rather than just the concepts underlying those words.   

Moses then said Israel was to command their children to “observe to do all the words of this law” (Ibid), and he immediately followed this by telling God’s people that these “words” represented their very life (v47).  The Lord effectively confirmed this when He led Moses to say that any Israelite who doesn’t seek to obey “the words of this law” is cursed (Deut. 27:26).  After Moses’ death, Joshua read “all the words” of the law to Israel (Josh. 8:34 ) rather than merely giving the ‘gist’ of those words.  

There are a large number of other such verses.  For just a selection, see this footnote.[5]  I realise there wasn’t a cultural divide to overcome at this stage of Israel’s history, but it still seems interesting that God placed so much emphasis on His precise words.  And He continued to do so after major cultural shifts had occurred, for, even in the ‘New Testament’ epistles, He required believers to revere the specific “words” He had uttered thousands of years previously (2 Pet. 3:2).  

Let’s briefly reflect on a few more instances, from both Testaments, of the importance of God’s actual words.  The Psalmist noted how “sweet” God’s “words” were to his taste (Psa. 119).  Indeed, he exclaimed that they were sweeter than honey (v103).  A few verses later he stated that the “entrance” of God’s “words” give light (v130).  In the New Testament, Jude 17 urges us to remember the “words … spoken before by the apostles”.  Most famously of all perhaps, Matthew 4:4 tells us that man shall not live by bread alone, but by “every word” that proceeds from the mouth of God.[6]  (Again, I’m not trying to quote any particular version here; I’m just giving a literal translation of the original texts for now.)  

At this point I feel I ought to mention one or two cautionary Bible verses about this whole matter. God actually said of His people Israel that He would persecute them – and not just with the sword but also with famine and pestilence – because they had “not hearkened to [His] words” (Jer. 29:19-20).  For anyone who would like a New Testament example, Christ Jesus said He will be ashamed of anyone who is ashamed of His “words” (Mark 8:38 ; see also Luke 9:26 ).  

Now, obviously we can’t all learn ancient Hebrew and Greek in order to get the original words of the Lord, but supporters of the ‘formal equivalence’ type of translation argue that the next best thing is surely to have those words converted as literally as possible to their English equivalents.  They would say it is permissible to write a paraphrase of the Bible, but can we truly call the result Holy Scripture?  

In closing this section, I find the following points quite helpful.  The word “translate” has a specific definition.  It means “to turn from one language to another”, not “from one culture to another” or “from one era to another”. The word “translate” comes from two Latin words and literally means “to carry across” – in the same sense that you might pick up a basket of fruit and carry it across a road.  To translate, then, means to do nothing else to the thing but carry it to the new location. You don’t add, drop, or change any of the contents. That’s not the job of a translator.  

Any mathematician will tell us that “translation” in the world of geometry involves moving something to another location and performing no other operation on that thing.  What I’m getting at here is that if we do perform any operation on the Bible text other than the minimum required to carry it across into English, then we are at perfect liberty to call the end result an “interpretation” of the Bible but not actually a “translation”.  I know of some useful commentaries on the Bible, but it does seem that we need to distinguish between translated Scripture and man’s interpretation of Scripture.

An Argument Used For Paraphrases  

Now, there are some arguments which can be used to defend the idea that a paraphrase of God’s words can be Scripture in its own right.  (Please remember that I am still only dealing with total paraphrases at this point.)  In this particular section I’m going to focus on one of the more obvious arguments, but I will be considering others in later parts of the article.  

It is said that the disciples who wrote the four Gospels rendered only their interpretations of what Jesus taught, rather than our Saviour’s actual words.  This, it is reasoned, is why His quoted words often differ among the four Gospels.  But there are some difficulties with this claim:  

(1)     One problem is that the Bible never actually describes these accounts as interpretations. In fact Luke makes plain that he is giving a strict, formal account of events rather than an interpretation of them, and both 2 Peter 1:20 and 2 Timothy 3:16 indicate that no part of God’s Word came about by man’s “interpretation”.  

(2)     The second problem with this theory is that the differences in the Gospel accounts are not necessarily a result of differing interpretations of events.  They could simply be due to the fact that the writers were inspired to write from different spiritual perspectives – e.g. John focused on the divine nature of Christ, rather than on His humanity or His kingship or His servanthood. This led the Gospel writers, for instance, to quote different portions of the same statements by the Lord.  (Some differences also resulted because the writers were referring to different – albeit similar – events.)  That the Gospels do give the actual words of Jesus, rather than a set of interpretations, is shown by numerous verses including: John 6:63 & 14:23; 1 Timothy 6:3; and Mark 8:38 & 13:31 .[7]  

(3)     A third problem with this theory is that it doesn’t seem to fit with the way God’s people were told to handle His words elsewhere in Scripture.  Godly men of old were repeatedly directed to write the Lord’s actual words rather than their interpretation of His words.  We’ve already seen several such cases.  Additionally, Moses told Aaron “all the words” of the Lord (Exodus 4:28 ) rather than simply their meaning.  Likewise, he told the rest of the people “all the words” of the Lord (Exo. 24:3; see also v8).  

Similarly, the Bible states that Jeremiah was commanded by God to show the people all the “words” of God (Jer. 16:10 ).  He had to proclaim the “words” that God gave Him (19:2), and he also had to “Write … all the words” God had spoken to him (30:2).  Another example is Ezekiel (e.g. Ezek. 2:7).  Yet another example is that of Baruch – as described in Jeremiah 36 (a chapter, incidentally, that I would recommend all readers peruse at their leisure after finishing this article).  These heroes of the faith were all led to transmit the very words of God rather than their interpretations of those words.  

If someone is adamant that the Gospel writers didn’t give the specific words of Jesus, there are still problems with thinking that the way people penned the very Word of God can be applied merely to translating it:  

(i) Even if God allowed the Gospel writers special dispensation to interpret His words in order to write further Scripture, it does not follow that this situation applies now that the Canon is closed, and (ii) When translating the Gospels at least, anyone who uses ‘dynamic equivalence’ would only be producing an interpretation of an interpretation of what was said.  As others have queried, and as even a child might ask, “Why don’t they leave it the way the Holy Spirit wrote it?”.  

The ‘bottom line’ here is that we need to have faith – i.e. faith that God’s Spirit did indeed lead the disciples into “all” truth and that He brought to remembrance what the Lord had said – just as the Lord Himself promised would happen (John 14:26; 16:13). Again, there is no problem whatsoever with someone writing an interpretation of the Bible so as to help us all understand it better.  The problem comes when they call their interpretation Holy Writ.  They should instead call it a commentary or an interpretive narration, or the like.

The Intricacy Of God’s Word  

I now need to ask whether we should be troubled only about Bible ‘translations’ which are complete paraphrases, or whether we should also be concerned about versions which involve any other man-made changes beyond those necessary to convert the original texts into intelligible English.  I’d like to follow up this question primarily by considering a feature of the Bible which is often forgotten, viz. its intricacy.  I want to look at the intricacy of God’s Word in three quick ways:  

A – Hebraisms etc add extra meaning  

To start with, when God makes a point in His Word He frequently uses metaphors, analogies, and so on, to add extra depth and colour – but also to add extra meaning.  Much of this can be obscured if we merely interpret what we consider to be the central point of the text and don’t properly take these other elements into account.  

For instance, one of the Psalms likens the children of a man’s youth to arrows and it remarks on how happy the man is who, in the literal Hebrew, has hisquiver” full of them.  Now, obviously one cannot insert children into a literal quiver; God is using a metaphor. And all sorts of additional truths are communicated through this arrangement – truths which can be missed or, worse, wiped out if someone tries only to interpret what they believe to be the primary meaning of the text…  

For example, likening children to arrows in a quiver speaks of carefully preparing them and of protecting them – and perhaps of keeping them close until they are ready to ‘fly the nest’, so to speak.  Does it not also indicate something about the way in which children can be of unusually direct – and effective – service to their parents?  How they can defend their father?  All of this and more is contained in a single analogy and could easily be lost if we attempt an interpretation rather than a pure translation.  

B – The Bible is multi-faceted  

The second aspect I want to discuss about the intricacy of God’s Word is that the Bible has more than one ‘dimension’.  Not unlike the way a movie can have a surface text and one or more subtexts, so the Bible has more than one ‘layer’.  (There is a Jewish tradition that the Bible actually has seventy layers.  I cannot confirm or deny that figure, but I can verify that Scripture has more than one layer – because otherwise it would be impossible to squeeze the details of every spiritual truth that every human has ever needed into a single, manageable-sized volume!)  The problem is that extra layers in a book are regularly achieved through the use of specific words and phrases – i.e. things which can be lost if the text is translated in an interpretive rather than a literal way.  We cannot treat the Bible like a single, linear thread.  It’s more like a solid sphere of threads all intricately and elegantly woven together.  

What I’m saying here is that the wording God has chosen for a given verse in Scripture can have been selected so that it relates in any number of ways to any number of other verses.  The Lord may, for example, have used certain wording, or even certain grammar, in a given passage in order to encourage us to recall another verse elsewhere.  A single passage can have multiple meanings and multiple applications (although these will always complement each other).  

An oft-cited example is 1 Corinthians 7:9b which reads “it is better to marry than to burn”.  If God had purely meant to use the word ‘burn’ in the sense of ‘burning with lust’ He could simply have included the words ‘with lust’ in the passage – just as He did in Romans 1:27.  By not doing so, He has allowed the passage to carry additional truths.  (There are at least two other ways in which people who cannot contain their lusts can burn!)  Ephesians 5:31-32; Isaiah 14:3-22; and Daniel 12:4 all spring to mind as passages which can have multiple meanings or applications, but the biblical prophecies about Christ’s first coming (e.g. Matt. 4:16) are undoubtedly the richest source of these.  If someone tries to write an interpretation of such passages and fails to spot all the meanings God intended them to carry, they will inevitably do unnecessary damage to His Word.  

In a sense you could liken this multi-dimensional arrangement to the ecosystem of our planet, where the living things have an astonishingly complex – and frequently unseen – dependence on each other. And, just as man is often shortsighted when trying to manipulate nature, and has often been shown to have an embarrassingly rudimentary grasp of the subtleties and complexities of God’s creation, so man must be extremely wary of breaking connections and concealed dependencies within God’s Word.  Even the most seemingly sensible, reasonable, helpful man-made change to the text will unavoidably do some degree of harm to the deliberate, complex, glorious, interwoven structure of God’s Word.  The safest solution to this is to translate the text in a word-for-word way and to trust the Holy Spirit to do His part.  

It is absolutely critical, for instance, that prophetic material be translated word-for-word, else we may well undermine a truly crucial connection.  One illustration relates to Abraham.  His being asked to sacrifice his only son was a prophetic statement about God sacrificing His only Son, but an important clue to this truth is the way in which the Holy Spirit prompted Abraham to prophesy that God would provide Himself a “LAMB” – referring, of course, to the Lamb of God who would be provided much later in history to take away the sins of the world.  But because God actually provided a ram rather than a lamb to replace Isaac on that earlier occasion, some translators have decided it would be more reasonable to drop the word ‘lamb’ in Abraham’s comment, or even to replace the word ‘lamb’ with ‘ram’ – thus substantially weakening this immensely significant prefigure of our Messiah’s wonderful, obedient sacrifice.[8]  

C – There is a beauty in the wording and style God uses  

Finally for this section, there is a powerful and intricate beauty to God’s Word.  We may think that the writings of some famous playwright, or those of our favourite poets, are beautifully crafted, but God’s Word is – by definition – in a league of its own.  Not only does this feature of Scripture tell us that God’s ways are beautiful – which is a very valuable thing to be reminded of – but it also helps us to memorize His Word (which is valuable too).  

An example of the beauty in God’s Word is the expression ‘the apple of My eye’.  This is a beautiful turn of phrase, but imagine if a translator said to himself “You know what? When one stops to think about the literal words involved here, this phrase is very odd – because eyes don’t have apples in them – and I’m therefore replacing it with something more easily understood”.  Now, I accept that the phrase ‘the apple of My eye’ is a rather odd expression when you just consider the actual words, but would we really want to leave our children without this beautiful Hebraism just because we might need to teach them its meaning?  
 

To Sum Up  

God’s Word is mind-blowingly intricate.  It employs all sorts of brilliant creative-writing techniques to get across extra meaning; it is multi-faceted and multi-dimensional; and its wording is supernaturally beautiful.  The very structure of each sentence is deliberate and is used to achieve various objectives.  Every word, and even every verb tense, of the original text was put there for a reason.  Let me try to bring these three subsections together in one analogy in order to underline my central point here:  

Imagine that mankind set up a long-term colony on another planet (one extremely distant from Earth), and that children were born there.  These children would never have seen the place from which their parents came, with all its beauty and intricacy and awesome splendour.  But their parents would obviously love for them to see the Earth – or, barring that (because of the practical difficulties involved), to have the next best thing.  Well, the best representation of this unspeakably intricate, three-dimensional world would surely not be a set of two-dimensional “artist’s impressions”.  I don’t think any 2-D representation could do justice to this amazing planet on which we find ourselves.  No, in this day and age the next best thing to the real thing would probably be a ‘virtual reality’ system where the whole world was precisely mapped and modeled in a computer so that one could look at it from any angle, or at any height, and study it in great detail.  

Yes, there would be bits of this model which seemed strange to the eyes of a child who had known only an alien planet.  Yes, the children would ask certain questions about the Earth and how it worked, and what various things on it were there for.  But would a loving parent really want to replace a detailed and accurate representation of this incredible world with a mere interpretation?  Would they not want their children to be able to explore the Earth as fully as possible for themselves rather than have to make do with an artist’s impression of it?  

Again, just as it would be perfectly reasonable to use a good artist’s impression of the Earth from time to time, there is no problem with making use of a reliable book which explains aspects of the Bible in order to help us comprehend it more fully.  As I say, the issue is whether you describe that book as an interpretive narration of the Bible, or THE BIBLE ITSELF.  The fact is that God’s wording has been chosen for all sorts of reasons – including very subtle ones.  Thus, any attempt at a faithful linear interpretation of the passages of the Bible is doomed because many of the hidden interconnections would be destroyed.  God has concealed all manner of treasures in His Word.  This is why King David asked God to show him more of the “wondrous things” in it (and, indeed, to help him understand it more fully) even though it was written in David’s own tongue and from David’s own cultural perspective, and even though he knew the Scriptures well (Psa. 119:18-19, 70; 1:1-2 etc).  

God’s ways are vastly higher than ours (Isa. 55:8-9) and, frankly, we are fooling ourselves if we think we can write a better Bible than He.  Again, we need to have faith – faith that God knew what He was doing when He gave us His Word.  After all, He did know it was going to need to be translated!  It would be very unwise to imagine He neglected to bear this fact in mind.

NT Quotes of the OT  

There is another argument frequently employed to defend the use of ‘dynamic equivalence’ when seeking to produce a faithful representation of God’s Word.  It is indisputable that many New Testament (NT) quotes from the Old Testament do not read as 100% formal equivalence.  The argument runs that, if this technique was good enough for the writers of the New Testament, it is good enough for us.  But as I pointed out earlier, the penning of Holy Scripture is very different from its mere translation.  What God allowed to the writers of the NT does not necessarily apply to translators of what they wrote.  Taking this argument to its logical conclusion would mean we are also allowed to teach extra-biblical things as God’s truth simply because the NT writers taught some things not found in the OT (e.g. see 2 Tim. 3:8).  It can be acceptable to paraphrase God’s Word when teaching on it – which is what the writers of the NT books were doing – but it is not acceptable to do so when merely converting His Word into another language.  

At this point I need to mention a principle I establish at length elsewhere.  In order to test our love for the truth, God often seems to allow a fraction of the evidence associated with any given truth to superficially appear to point away from the direction indicated by the bulk of the evidence.  (If you’re uncomfortable with this idea, please see the relevant articles on the bayith.org website.[9])  I would suggest that the arguments we have now seen in favour of using dynamic equivalence comprise such pieces of ambiguous evidence, which, when fully considered from a spiritual perspective, do not actually negate the requirement for godly translations of the Bible to be of the formal equivalence type. I would further suggest that any other arguments which exist for allowing a human interpretation of Scripture to be called “the Bible” also fall into this category of minority, ambiguous evidence which must always be viewed in the light of the much larger amount of unambiguous evidence, rather than the other way around.[10]  

                A further reason often cited for using the dynamic equivalence method is that people need Bibles which produce the same impact that the original words would have had upon their hearers.  However: (a) Is this not the job of the Holy Spirit, and of Spirit-led teachers, rather than translators?  If we are obedient to God, won’t His Spirit look after us and our needs?  (b) God’s ways are not our ways and, as we have already seen, He has said that His actual words are most important.  Man-made efforts to produce the same impact would be very subjective.  (c) This whole idea tends to view the Bible as one-dimensional.  Are we to jeopardise the impact from the other layers?  The impact of a given passage in isolation may have changed, but what about the overall impact if it is read along with the rest of the Bible (as it should be)?  (d) This argument still doesn’t mean we can call a version created using dynamic equivalence “the Scriptures”.  

In closing this section, I want to remind us that the Bible is GOD’S Word.  That means we need to treat it with enormous reverence.  We don’t have license to give man’s interpretation and call it Holy Scripture.  God repeatedly makes plain in His Word that His People are to respect His actual words, thus it becomes obvious that He wants these words supplied to them in an unadulterated way.  Apart from anything else, it’s a vital safety feature for us.  It helps us to test what we are being taught by other people – because we can check their teachings against God’s actual words.

Is it Really a Problem?  

Some readers may continue to believe that, pragmatically speaking, there isn’t a genuine problem with ‘Bibles’ that use man’s interpretation.  These folks perhaps accept that the dynamic equivalence method of translation will unavoidably do some needless damage to God’s Word, but they feel this is a price worth paying for a more easily understood Bible.  Personally I find, provided folks are suitably prayerful and respectful in their study of Scripture, that a formal equivalence version is noticeably easier to follow than is often claimed.  Once again, I think we need to have faith – faith that God’s Spirit is powerful enough to enlighten the Scriptures to each of us as necessary.  (It is also vital that we not expect to understand every verse of God’s Word the first few times we come across it!  The Bible contains mysteries and deep truths, some of which are designed to take a lifetime to grasp.)  Nevertheless I understand the desire for a written interpretation of the Bible.  As I have said throughout this article, there is no problem with someone writing such, or with a believer using such.  Just don’t call it ‘the Bible’.  

There are some further dangers with versions that use dynamic equivalence:  

(1)     They increase the temptation, as well as the scope, for translators to insert their own doctrinal bias – because things become much more subjective and imprecise when one is allowed to interpret passages rather than just translate words.  It becomes far more difficult for people to spot such influence on the text if it is ‘dynamic’.  The Word of God becomes seriously variable in people’s minds.  Who is to say whether a given interpretation is legitimate or not?  It all becomes relative instead of sure.  

(2)     Dynamic equivalence also encourages the creation of ever more versions.  This is partly due to the subjectivity mentioned in point (1) – i.e. many folks with many divergent worldviews start to want Bibles that reflect their personal positions.  However, versions also proliferate because every time there is a non-trivial change in our culture, people feel that a new translation is needed in order to accommodate it.  One risk with all this is that if several versions are used by a given church, God’s Word becomes more difficult to memorize by souls in that church because they will be hearing significantly different readings of a given passage.  (This is almost certainly going to happen if multiple subcultures are represented among the members of a Fellowship, as is often the case.)  

(3)     A product of both these first two points is that, far from removing confusion, such versions ironically introduce it – because the same passage in different versions may have substantially different (and even contradictory) readings, and it’s extremely difficult for people to be certain how correct any particular reading is.  

(4)     Versions using dynamic equivalence also tempt people to abdicate their personal responsibility before God for how they interpret His words.  Such versions discourage folks from properly ‘searching the scriptures’ for themselves and from approaching the Bible diligently and humbly – because they don’t believe they need to be careful in their study, nor seek God for understanding, if they think everything has already been given them on a plate.  

(5)     These versions also strongly tempt people away from belief in the full inspiration of Scripture – i.e. the twin doctrines that Bible inspiration extends to the very words of Scripture (rather than just to the concepts in it) and that all of Scripture is inspired.  (The technical terms for these two things are ‘verbal inspiration’ and ‘plenary inspiration’ respectively.  If the reader questions either of these types of inspiration, I recommend J.C. Ryle’s valuable short book entitled ‘Is all Scripture Inspired?’.[11])  

This temptation to doubt the Bible’s inspiration arises because, in order to justify the creation or use of interpreted ‘Bibles’, people start believing that the original words in the Bible were merely man’s interpretation of God’s words too – rather than the actual words He gave them.  These folks can thus make themselves feel much more comfortable about writing, or reading, Bible versions which likewise use interpretation.  (Put simply, it’s a lot easier to justify calling a human interpretation of God’s words ‘the Bible’ if you can convince yourself that this is the very process by which we came to get the Bible in the first place.)  Indeed, a number of translators of popular ‘dynamic equivalence’ versions have admitted they do not believe in the full inspiration of the original Hebrew and Greek of the Bible.[12]  

(6)     Finally, translations using dynamic equivalence are fundamentally unbiblical in their own right.  (And this should cause the biggest discomfort for any true believer in Jesus.)  Why are they unbiblical?  I have three reasons for saying this:  

Firstly, dynamic equivalence invariably involves adding words to the Bible beyond those necessary to generate proper English, yet there is a clear principle in Scripture that we must not add to God’s words.  See for example Deut. 4:2 and Deut. 12:32.  Additionally the very last chapter of the entire Bible says that if any man adds to the “words” of this book, God will add to him the plagues written in the book (Rev. 22:18-19).  Some people argue that this passage refers only to the contents of the book of Revelation itself, although I would point out that the Holy Spirit knew this book would form the end of the Bible and so the passage could easily apply both to the book of Revelation and to the whole Bible.  After all, the closing chapter is extremely final in its wording and content.  But people still need to explain away Proverbs 30:5-6 which surely sets out the same principle for the whole of God’s Word.  (A literal rendition of this passage would be “Every word of God is pure … Add … not to His words”.)  

Naturally, if a translation is going to be remotely readable then words sometimes have to be added.  One reason for this is that Greek grammar is very different from English grammar.  (For example, an exact word-for-word rendering of John 3:16 from the Greek would read: “For so loved God the world that His Son the only begotten He gave, that everyone who believes on Him may not perish but may have life eternal”.  Patently this isn’t grammatical English.)  The other reason that words sometimes have to be added is that extra words can be unarguably implicit in the existing text.  All told, additional words will inevitably be required in order to make ancient Hebrew and Greek text compatible with modern English.  But adding words beyond what is absolutely necessary for this purpose is unbiblical.  And, since we are dealing with the very Word of God, I would say that even the additions necessary to make the text comply with English rules really ought to be marked in some way to show that they are not part of the original.  

Secondly, dynamic equivalence invariably involves taking away words – an activity for which God says, in the third from last verse in the Bible, He will take away that person’s part out of the Book of Life.  (Other applicable verses here include Jer. 26:2 and 1 Sam. 3:19 – plus each of the many references earlier in my article to “all the words” of God.)
And thirdly, dynamic equivalence always involves changing the words of God.  The problem here is that the Bible says that the words of the Lord are “PURE” words (Psa. 12:6; see also Psa. 119:139-140).  It likens them to silver that has been put in a furnace and “purified seven times” (Psa. 12:6).  Are we not being rebellious – and thus unbiblical – when we change His pure words for our own, miserable efforts?  

(Yet more Bible verses demonstrably prohibiting the adding to, subtracting from, or changing of, God’s words include Prov. 30:6 and Jer. 23:36.) 

Well, that’s the end of my list of concerns about using dynamic equivalence. As someone once put it regarding Scripture translation, “sacrificing precision for simplicity is NO bargain”.  There’s just one clarification I need to make because, as always, an exception exists which proves the rule.  You see, God is sovereign and naturally has the power to intervene in the translation process and make clear that He desires a less formal rendering of a particular passage.  However, this would only ever occur where the knock-on effect was not a problem and where the strictly literal translation of the passage would either: (a) result in exceptionally misleading wording, or (b) result in the obscuring of an unusually important lower-level connection present in the original language.  Because of these restrictions, such intervention by the Lord would undoubtedly be very infrequent and highly localised (i.e. only ever involving a couple of words at most in any given place).

Conclusion

Even after everything we’ve covered, some people may still say “I’m prepared to put up with all these problems for the sake of easy comprehension”.  But those people must accept that the resulting document, while potentially having value, is not the Word of God.  Not only must we not think of it as being so, we must not call it that to other people either.  How do we think it will be for those souls who have to stand before God on the last day and confess “I couldn’t really be bothered to read your actual words, even though they had already been translated into English for me; and what’s more I discouraged others from bothering to do so as well”?  

                I urge readers to check whether or not their favoured version of the Bible uses a degree of human interpretation and, if so, to ensure they do not view it as Holy Writ.  If their version does indeed use dynamic equivalence to any extent, I would also encourage readers to ask themselves, in the light of all we’ve discussed here, how sound the translators of their version are likely to be – and hence how sound the resulting “Bible” is likely to be.  

Do we not want to know what our God has actually said to mankind?  Surely we want to know as accurately as possible.  Obviously the text we use needs to be grammatically readable, but nothing must be changed that does not have to be changed for the sake of converting the text into true English.  

I’d like to end with one last parallel.  Now, the Bible is far more than a love-letter, but in a sense it also fulfils that role, and I want to follow up that analogy.  Imagine you are head-over-heels in love with someone who lives in a foreign country and who has tenderly crafted, and thoroughly refined, a love-letter to you – but written in a language you don’t know.  Obviously you’d go to a translator to convert the letter into English.  But would we not want the English version of it to be a word-for-word translation – i.e. one which sought to give us the closest possible verbal equivalent of our beloved’s words?  Would we really prefer the translator instead to give his personal interpretation of those precious words?  Would we not chiefly want the real thing, even if it meant doing some homework to properly understand parts of the letter from our one true love?  (More to the point perhaps, would not our beloved want us to get the real thing rather than have someone ‘come between us’ in this way?)  

Wouldn’t we feel an unnecessary distance from our beloved if his or her words and style of expression had been paraphrased rather than offered to us in a pure form?  As long as the translation was readable, we should want it to be as close as physically manageable to the original.  Any decent bride-to-be would certainly want to know what her beloved had actually said before learning what some ‘middle man’ thinks her beloved meant by what he said.  How much more should we have this attitude towards our GOD?

 



[1] The ‘dynamic’ type of translation is frequently termed “common language translation”.  It is also sometimes called “idiomatic” translation because it seeks to express the Hebrew idiom in the sort of terms which 21st century Gentiles would more readily grasp. (Collins defines an ‘idiom’ as a “way of expression natural or peculiar to a language or group”. It’s a cultural style, or manner, of expressing one’s self.)

[2] This is sometimes called “verbal equivalence”.

[3] In extremis (i.e. where a term in the original language cannot be properly reflected without using an excessive number of words), one may even need to add an entirely new term to the target language and perhaps supply its definition in the margin or in a mini-dictionary at the end.

[4] The strictly correct term here is “receptor language”.

[5] Other instances of God attaching importance to His specific words include: Deut. 6:6; 11:18; 12:28; 17:19; Ezek. 3:4,10; Psa. 119:139; Luke 4:4; and Job 23:12.  In the book of Jeremiah, God denounces those souls who disobey “the words” of His covenant rather than just the spirit of that covenant (Jer. 11:3). Indeed I would encourage readers to have a look at the first eleven verses of that chapter.  Between them they promote the specific “words” of God six times.

[6] All Scripture is, according to 2 Tim. 3:16, ‘inspired of God’ – literally ‘God-breathed’ – i.e. out of the mouth of God.

[7] If the Gospel writers also had to translate portions of statements from Aramaic into Greek, this creates further scope for legitimate differences to appear without any need for interpretation of the Lord’s words.

[8] A set of university students were once asked to read through a well-known version of the Bible which relied heavily on dynamic equivalence.  They found the read entertaining but they showed very little interest in returning to the book.  I venture to suggest that this was at least partly because all the dynamic equivalence changes had removed much of the depth from God’s Word.

[9] See the talks entitled Beware False Balances in the ‘Rubies’ section of the site.

[10] In case the reader is wondering, I come to the matter of the Septuagint in a later article in this series.

[11] This book was republished in 2003 by The Banner of Truth Trust.

[12] See for instance the examples in Accuracy of Translation by Robert Martin (The Banner of Truth Trust, 1989), p. 15.  See also the wayoflife.org article on Fuller Seminary where Walter Russell Bowie is discussed.  (I cannot endorse everything in these two resources though.)  By the way, putting the differences in the gospel accounts down to interpretation or human error denies plenary inspiration.  And putting the differing events down to the same thing denies the infallibility of Scripture.

 

 

 

The Bible Versions Debate ~ Part 2a: Materials of Value
The Bible Versions Debate ~ Part 2a: Addendum
The Bible Versions Debate ~ Part 2b: Magnitude of Problem
The Bible Versions Debate ~ Intermission: Mountain of Preconceptions
The Bible Versions Debate ~ Part 3a: Matters of Fact
 

 

 

 

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