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Martyred for the Gospel

Martyred for the Gospel
The burning of Tharchbishop of Cant. D. Tho. Cranmer in the town dich at Oxford, with his hand first thrust into the fyre, wherwith he subscribed before. [Click on the picture to see Cranmer's last words.]

Collect of the Day

The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany.
The Collect.

O LORD, we beseech thee to keep thy Church and household continually in thy true religion; that they who do lean only upon the hope of thy heavenly grace may evermore be defended by thy mighty power; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Daily Bible Verse

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Why There Is No Perfect Translation of the Bible

Chester Beatty XII, leaf 3.  Public Domain Photo.



Why There Is No Perfect Translation of the Bible

Charlie J. Ray, M. Div.

I have become increasingly frustrated with Bible translations in general. Why would that upset me? The main issue is finding a good translation for public worship and a standard translation for Bible study, teaching, preaching, and general exhortation. Unfortunately no such translation exists. Every translation has flaws. So if a congregation or a denomination makes a commitment to one particular translation for public preaching and teaching, the flaws of that particular translation then become influential upon individuals. In other words, when the pastor or others with more theological training do not instruct the members of their flock or Sunday school class or small group about issues in translation and textual criticism, the result can be bad theology.

Even more to the point, pastors and theologians often have an agenda other than being as objective as possible when exegeting a text for their sermons or formal writings. Dumbing down the issues for a Sunday sermon may seem like the right thing to do—after all it is application that really matters—but that is not necessarily so. Keeping folks in the dark for the sake of brevity and keeping within the time frame of a Sunday sermon does not justify preaching wrong doctrine or bad theology.

The best translations are literal translations. However, literal translations are often hard to understand since the word order and the thought patterns in Greek or Hebrew do not always translate easily into English as the idioms often differ. Translations today are often too interpretative; that is they offer a translation that is actually commentary rather than strict translation, word for word.

Interpretative Translations of Problem Verses

Although I do use and prefer the English Standard Version, I am increasingly dissatisfied with it. Why? Although the ESV is usually a close approximation of what the Greek New Testament text actually says, there are many places where the ESV is as interpretative as other translations that use the dynamic equivalency theory of translation. The dynamic equivalency theory is basically the idea that where a wooden, word for word translation does not make much sense in English the translators are justified in imposing on the text their commentary or interpretation of what they think the text means. The ESV is as guilty of this method as the NIV or the New Living Translation. A good example of that is Revelation 13:8,

and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain. (Revelation 13:8 ESV)

The more literal translation of the Authorized Version and the New King James Version have:

And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. (Revelation 13:8 KJV)

All who dwell on the earth will worship him, whose names have not been written in the Book of Life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. (Revelation 13:8 NKJ)

By now you are asking why I am being so picky about nothing. The answer is that this issue is not as simple as it appears. In Greek the word order is not necessarily the meaning of the sentence as it is in English, although in general the word order does matter in Greek as well. The deciding factor for me on this particular verse, however, is that the entire thought of the object of the verse is in the same case and gender, indicating that the word order agrees with the English thought as a whole. In other words, the KJV and NKJ get it right while virtually every other translation, including the NASB, gets it wrong. Here is what the Greek looks like:

καὶ προσκυνήσουσιν αὐτὸν πάντες οἱ κατοικοῦντες ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς, οὗ οὐ γέγραπται τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ ἐν τῷ βιβλίῳ τῆς ζωῆς τοῦ ἀρνίου τοῦ ἐσφαγμένου ἀπὸ καταβολῆς κόσμου. (Revelation 13:8 NA27)

To see an interlinear view of this verse click here: Revelation 13:8 Biblos Interlinear Bible. The Biblos website is particularly helpful for the person who has not been trained in reading Greek or Hebrew. The interlinears at least allow a physical viewing of the text with appropriate parsings of verbs and formations of nouns and adjectives. There is also a transliteration of the Greek into English letters so that at least the word can be understood. Anyone looking at this interlinear can then see that what I have put into bold in the Greek verse above is the flow of thought of the literal translation. The literal verse in translation says: “of the lamb of slain before foundation of world.” A better literal translation supplies the missing English articles: “of the lamb [which was] slain before [the] foundation of [the] world.”

The context of the pericope or passage is the beast who deceives. The antecedent of the “it” of the ESV and the “him” of the Authorized Version and the NKJV is the “beast” of verse 4. The obvious point of the verse is that those living on earth who are not written in the book of life will worship the beast. It is highly interpretative to read into the verse that this writing of names took place before the foundation of the world, although that is a possible meaning which would fit with the Calvinist view of God's decrees to election and reprobation made before the foundation of the world, i.e., before the creation of the world. But that is not what the literal wording in Greek says. The emphasis of the Greek is that the lamb was slain before the foundation of world, or before creation. Given the difficulty of such a “rough reading” the translators have taken it upon themselves to fix this obviously irrational break in thought and to read a subsequent verse into this verse to make a more smooth reading:

The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to rise from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. And the dwellers on earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world will marvel to see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come. (Revelation 17:8 ESV)

The verse in Greek says:

Τὸ θηρίον ὃ εἶδες ἦν καὶ οὐκ ἔστιν καὶ μέλλει ἀναβαίνειν ἐκ τῆς ἀβύσσου καὶ εἰς ἀπώλειαν ὑπάγει, καὶ θαυμασθήσονται οἱ κατοικοῦντες ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς, ὧν οὐ γέγραπται τὸ ὄνομα ἐπὶ τὸ βιβλίον τῆς ζωῆς ἀπὸ καταβολῆς κόσμου, βλεπόντων τὸ θηρίον ὅτι ἦν καὶ οὐκ ἔστιν καὶ παρέσται (Revelation 17:8 NA27)


As you can see from the Greek text in bold, the construction of “whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, is a completely different sentence in Greek. For one thing, “the book” in Revelation 13:8 is in the dative case while Revelation 17:8 has the neuter accusative case. Secondly, the phrase “of the lamb slain” is completely missing in Revelation 17:8. It is therefore irrational to read Revelation 13:8 as if it actually says what Revelation 17:8 says. The two verses do not say the same thing since Revelation 13:8 is particularized with the additional “of the lamb slain” intervening between “of the names written” and “before the foundation of the world.” One can justly conclude that the majority of translations are here reading their own commentary into Revelation 13:8. As evidence of that I can point to a commentary note in the New English Translation:

27 tn The prepositional phrase "since the foundation of the world" is traditionally translated as a modifier of the immediately preceding phrase in the Greek text, "the Lamb who was killed" (so also G. B. Caird, Revelation [HNTC], 168), but it is more likely that the phrase "since the foundation of the world" modifies the verb "written" (as translated above). Confirmation of this can be found in Rev 17:8 where the phrase "written in the book of life since the foundation of the world" occurs with no ambiguity. (See NET, Revelation 13:8 Click on note 27 in verse 8 to see the context).

The comment in the New English Translation footnotes explains why the majority of modern translations interpret this verse the way they do. However, such interpretative translations are unjustified. Amazingly, even the more literal NASB mistranslates Revelation 13:8,

8 And all who dwell on the earth will worship him, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain. Revelation 13:8 (NASB)

The only way to justify this as a translation is to reorder the wording or syntax to fit a preconceived commentary on the text. A better approach is to let the text alone and let commentators and exegetes reach their own conclusions. It is also better to let the common reader to struggle with the meaning of the text than to unjustly hide the problems of understanding the text from the average reader. The Greek grammar and the word order itself favors the view that “the lamb is slain before the foundation of the world.” The reason translators do not like this literal reading is their own bias against the possibility that election and reprobation take place before the foundation of the world. When the book of life is taken along with God's decree that the lamb is determined before the foundation of the world to die only for the elect—that is, particular election and particular atonement—the thought contradicts the theology of the Amyraldians and the Arminians that Christ died universally for every single indivdual. The literal meaning of the text implies particular reprobation, particular election, and particular atonement! In other words, God reprobates and elects individuals before the foundation of the world (Romans 9:11-13; Ephesians 1:4-5, 11). The plan for Christ to die for the elect individuals chosen before creation also precedes creation (Genesis 3:15 KJV; Revelation 13:8 KJV). In short, it is this coupling of predetermined election and reprobation with a particular atonement rather than universal atonement that causes modern translators to read their own biases into the text.

There are likely to be other areas where this sort of interpretative translation occurs. Therefore, it would do the modern reader well to read the AV, NKJ, NASB and other more literal translations in addition to the dynamic equivalency translations to head off these kinds of commentaries at the pass so to speak.

Establishing the Text from Greek Manuscript Evidence: Textual Critical Issues in Translation

Another issue arises when the critical editions of the Greek New Testament include a portion of a verse in brackets but still include that part of the verse. Several modern translations then take it upon themselves to disagree with the critical editions and leave that portion of the verse out. An example of this is Colossians 3:6,

On account of these the wrath of God is coming. (Colossians 3:6 ESV)

Because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience, (Colossians 3:6 NKJ)

δι᾽ ἃ ἔρχεται ἡ ὀργὴ τοῦ θεοῦ [ἐπὶ τοὺς υἱοὺς τῆς ἀπειθείας]. (Colossians 3:6 NA27)


Here again, the notes in the New English Translation are helpful:

4 tc The words ἐπὶ τοὺς υἱοὺς τῆς ἀπειθείας (epi tous huious tes apeitheias, "on the sons of disobedience") are lacking in P46 B b sa, but are found in ‌א‎‏‎ A C D F G H I Ψ 075 0278 33 1739 1881 M lat sy bo. The words are omitted by several English translations (NASB, NIV, ESV, TNIV). This textual problem is quite difficult to resolve. On the one hand, the parallel account in Eph 5:6 has these words, thus providing scribes a motive for adding them here. On the other hand, the reading without the words may be too hard: The ἐν οἷς (en hois) of v. Col 3:7 seems to have no antecedent without υἱούς already in the text, although it could possibly be construed as neuter referring to the vice list in v. Col 3:5. Further, although the witness of B is especially important, there are other places in which B and P46 share errant readings of omission. Nevertheless, the strength of the internal evidence against the longer reading is at least sufficient to cause doubt here. The decision to retain the words in the text is less than certain.

sn The expression sons of disobedience is a Semitic idiom that means "people characterized by disobedience." In this context it refers to "all those who are disobedient." Cf. Eph 5:6. (See NET Colossians 3:6).


You will note well that the NET properly includes the section that is placed in brackets in Colossians 4:6 NA27, despite the textual note that decries that decision! So the NASB leaves out “upon the sons of disobedience” in the 1977 edition but puts the phrase back in the 1995 edition of the NASB! The NIV 2011, ESV 2011, and TNIV all continue to side against the critical editions of the Greek New Testament. The Holman Christian Standard Bible and the Lexham English Bible both get this one right while the New Living Translation leaves the bracketed part of the verse out.

Bruce Metzger's. A Textual Commentary on the New Testament, says the following:

θεοῦ [ἐπὶ τοὺς υἱοὺς τῆς ἀπειθείας] {D}

It is exceedingly difficult to decide whether the words ἐπὶ . . . ἀπειθείας were added in most witnesses by copyists who recollected Eph 5:6 (where no manuscript omits the words), or whether they are absent . . . because of an accident in transmission. . . . A majority of the committee decided to retain the words in the text but to enclose them within square brackets in order to indicate a measure of doubt as to their genuineness in Colossians. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the New Testament. Corrected edition. (Stuttgart: United Bible Societies, 1975), pp. 624-625.



I have not gone into great detail about the principles of textual criticism or extant Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, which literally number in the tens of thousands.  Be that as it may, I hope the reader will see that cross checking numerous translations is an absolute necessity when studying passages of the Bible. Only by doing so can the layperson see how translators have sometimes put their own spin on the Greek text. (For more information about textual criticism look on the left sidebar of this blog under “Textual Criticism”.  Also see: Textual Criticism of the New Testament).












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