Don’t rely on one Bible translation!

A BibleQuick bit of obvious advice today: Don’t rely on a single translation of the Bible when you’re doing some serious Bible study. Today I was preparing a sermon on John 1:19-34. And, because I’ve been learning New Testament Greek over the last couple of years, I feel like I needed to get my money’s worth by looking at the passage in Greek first.

Anyway, as I was looking at the text and reading the commentaries I noticed that I actually preferred the NIV reading of the text over the ESV. This may not sound like much, but the ESV is often held up as a good example of a ‘literal’ translation for serious study as opposed to the NIV (which is a ‘dynamic equivalence’ translation – i.e. it’s less ‘literal’ but is designed more to convey the sense of the original language). I think many people who move in evangelical circles in the UK hold up the ESV as an example of a good, faithful translation – while the NIV seems to have moved a little bit out of favour.

But I think there are a couple of examples where the NIV gets it right over the ESV in this passage. Firstly, v24 is treated differently in both translations. The ESV translates it as a paranthetical remark, whereas the NIV links it more explictly with the clause in v25. What’s interesting is that in his commentary, Carson goes for a translation more like the NIV’s – and I think I agree with him. It does seem to make more sense to me: the Greek grammar is a bit unusual here but I think the NIV translation is probably preferable.

Secondly, the ESV – again, bearing in mind that its major selling point is that it is a literal translation – makes an unusual translation decision between v19 and v34. Here, two Greek words (μαρτυρία and μεμαρτύρηκα) which stem from the same root martyr- (where we get the English word from, and meaning something like ‘testify’ or ‘witness’) are translated differently. v19 has ‘testimony’ and v34 ‘borne witness’. I think that’s an interesting decision: although conceptually the link is there, verbally it has been obscured a little. This is significant because I think the whole passage is talking about testimony, using several different words, and it seems those two words form the bookends around a little section in John. The NIV goes for ‘testimony’ and ‘testify’, which I think maintains the verbal link better as well as the conceptual.

So, as I said: don’t think one translation is always right. If you’re leading a home group or preparing a sermon or generally trying to understand a Bible passage, it’s always worth at least checking in a few translations to see if it brings something out you might not have spotted otherwise.

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16 thoughts on “Don’t rely on one Bible translation!

  1. NIV is not a dynamic equivalence translation, despite what some of its enemies say. There is a spectrum from literal to dynamic translations, and NIV is only about 20% of the way from literal to dynamic – whereas ESV is already 10% of the way. Compare NIV with a truly dynamic equivalence translations like GNB or CEV, and you will realise the huge difference.

    I could add that I dislike ESV for its deliberate use of archaic language, and for its glaring and deliberate departure from literalism in its renderings of Greek anthropos, which is translated gender neutrally (as it should be) except when (e.g. 2 Tim 2:2) it suits the translators’ theological presuppositions to stick with the older rendering “man”.

    • Peter, I wondered if you would see this! It’s always good to have someone comment who knows what they’re talking about 🙂

      I agree with you about the ESV and archaic language – one sometimes has to wonder the translators spoke English as a first language.

      On gender-neutral language, I bought an ESV earlier this year which sticks consistently with “man” but each time footnotes it with a note to the effect that it can be gender-neutral. I don’t have it with me now but according to the online version, 2 Tim 2:2 includes that footnote. My older edition here doesn’t have that footnote, so they must have changed it.

      • Phill, I know there have been some updates to ESV. If they have made it more consistent in ways like this, that is good, and a reasonable translation decision given their general translation philosophy of being as literal as they can be without being too incomprehensible. I suspect I would still have issues with some of their decisions on gender related language, but I don’t want to get into an argument about this now, or here.

        • Peter, I have no desire to get into an argument with anyone over gender-neutral language. I think I’m probably more in agreement with you than you might imagine.

  2. Hi Phill. So you’ve noticed that different versions or translations change the meaning, format, text in the bible…. I though the bible hadn’t changed or didn’t have different versions? ;p …. hmmm….

    • On the contrary, Darren. This is simply the English translation from the original Greek. The two points I mention are very minor. The more I learn about the New Testament and its transmission of manuscripts the more confidence I think we can place in it.

    • I think you misunderstand. The “change” is only from Greek into English. That’s the same with translating any language into any other, there is never going to be 100% precision. But that has NOTHING to do with the accuracy of the Greek manuscripts of the Bible.

      The Bible hasn’t been transmitted via “chinese whispers” over the centuries. The earliest complete New Testament we have is the Codex Sinaiticus which goes back to 350AD, so at the very least we know it hasn’t changed since then! But there are also many other papyrus fragments which date from much earlier, as well as lots of quotations from the early church (in fact, I read that if all the New Testament manuscripts disappeared we would be able to reconstruct it exclusively from quotations). If you compare the number of New Testament manuscripts with others (e.g. Homer’s Iliad), the New Testament blows them all out of the water. See here or even Wikipedia.

      Plus, if the Bible *had* been changed over the years, I’d have to ask the question why it still makes sense. John, as in the evangelist who wrote the gospel as well as (probably) the letters and Revelation, has a distinct and consistent style in Greek. Luke, who wrote Luke and Acts, has another style. It’s clearer if you read the Greek rather than the English translation, but they are discernable. They also make sense as coherent units, there is a cogency of thought and approach to them. I’d suggest that was strong internal evidence that the manuscripts we have are reliable.

  3. yea… don’t agree. We’ve been through this one in one of your other posts… not starting it up again.

    • Well, you were the one who originally raised the topic by commenting…

      All I’m saying is that I’ve looked into the evidence and concluded that the Bible is reliable. It seems to me like you’ve decided in advance that the Bible is unreliable and so haven’t looked into the evidence.

  4. Look I won this argument already, I am not getting sucked in again. I thought it was worth mentioning.

    Do I need to repeat it? Ok then in brief: Currently there are around 60 (if memory serves me but you can always check back in my post for exact figures) different versions of the bible currently in use. By that I mean some versions have chapters in, out, shake it all about.

    Meaning if that is the extent of the current variation in existence, what has happened in the past 2000 years! Using logic it is reasonable to assume that the book has changed many times to suit trends and governments.

    If you cant accept that… wow.

    • “Do I need to repeat it? Ok then in brief: Currently there are around 60 (if memory serves me but you can always check back in my post for exact figures) different versions of the bible currently in use. By that I mean some versions have chapters in, out, shake it all about.”

      What you said was, the canonical number of books varies between different churches in different regions. Although the Western church has historically held to 66 Bible books, some church have a slightly different canon.

      In particular, you mentioned the Ethiopian Orthodox Church which has 81 books in its canon.

      However, as I understand it:

      1. The CONTENT of the books which match the Western canon is not in dispute. It is not true that, for example, one church has a completely different version of Matthew’s Gospel to another. They are consistent between them.
      2. The additional books are books which the church has often considered useful, but not necessarily ‘canonical’ i.e. for establishing doctrine. In fact I don’t believe they affect any traditional doctrine of the Christian faith. It’s simply not true that our understanding of the Christian faith is radically altered through the different churches.
      3. Occasionally, variations in numbers are caused by some Bibles choosing to combine books, which can hardly be called a big change.

      And, as I said, the papyrus fragments and codices that we have are early pretty early – we’re not dealing with 2000 years of history, we’re dealing with 200 (or less) of the New Testament. If our Bibles match what is in Sinaiticus (350AD), I don’t see how it’s at all valid to claim that the book has changed to match trends and governments.

      It just seems to me you’ve read one or two facts about the Biblical canon, put 2 + 2 together and made 5. Or even 105. If you’re going to criticise the Bible, at least criticise it honestly. I don’t think most atheists use the line of argument that you use, because it simply doesn’t match the facts.

  5. We ARE dealing with 2000 years of change, and the fact that churches feel that they can change add in or take away what you would consider to be sacred text that you don’t have the authority to change means that your bible is not the same that it was 200 years ago, let alone 2000.

    I’m not talking about radical differences, but alot of small changes amount to alot.

    Useful – Dont want people seeing it – what suits at the time – trend etc all the same.

    It proves that the bible is what you make of it, not the word of god but what you want it to be. It is totally open to change. And churches have clearly proved that in the past.

    Also just because no one else makes the case don’t mean it ain’t right. lol.

    Face the fact that the bible as you read it today is different to the original collation of texts.

    • Darren, the problem is you haven’t given me any evidence to back up what you say. I’ve tried to present you with evidence that the Bible hasn’t changed in 2000 years, which you haven’t responded to.

      i.e. your statement that the Bible has changed in 200 years let alone 2000 – honestly? Just yesterday, one of my lecturers at college showed us a 400 year old Elizabethan Bible that he owns. Yes, it was the same as a modern Bible. In fact, if anything modern Bibles are more accurate because we have access to better, earlier sources.

      All this makes me think you’ve just decided what to believe in spite of all the evidence. Ironic, really, given that this is exactly what atheists claim Christians do.

    • Small point – please could you not paste whole BBC articles into the comments? I am capable of reading on the original website. Plus I don’t want to get sued for copyright infringement (pretty sure that’s unlikely but you never know!)

      Bart Ehrman (who that article draws on pretty heavily) is a well known critical scholar, although as far as I know he’s a lonely voice in the sea of New Testament scholarship. Frankly that’s pretty biased reporting, and I’m surprised to see the BBC doing it. That said the BBC have been known to be anti-Christianity in the past so I shouldn’t be surprised.

      For a good rejoinder to Bart Ehrman read this interview with Daniel B. Wallace, a scholar and author of the Greek Grammar textbook we use at college – some of what he says I say here but he says it better.

      I stand by what I said about 200 years – do you not see that, so long as we have complete Bibles from the fourth century, we can AT LEAST be confident that the Bibles we have haven’t changed since then? Modern Greek New Testaments (such as Nestle-Aland or the United Bible Societies, which I use) look at a VAST range of papyri and sources and weigh up these things carefully.

      If you could only see the level of, for want of a better word, nerdiness which goes into it! These people are massive geeks. (I should know, it takes one to know one). Seriously though, the only reason we have so many textual variants is because we have so many manuscripts. That doesn’t mean that we can’t say, with a high degree of probability, what the original actually said. That’s what the scholarly process of comparing these manuscripts involves.

      It’s actually possible on some manuscripts, for example, to see the text get fainter as the scribe’s pen (or whatever) ran out of ink – usually on that manuscript the errors occur just as he had to dip his pen in ink again.

      Also, It’s not like one manuscript says Jesus existed and another said he didn’t, or anything LIKE as significant.

      There are four categories of textual variant:

      1. Spelling / Nonsense errors – this is the largest category of variant. These are basically spelling mistakes, or when a scribe writes a word which is clearly nonsense in context (e.g. a pre-computer version of a typo).
      2. Minor changes that do not affect translation – such as word order (in ancient Greek, word order matters much less than it does in English – a sentence such as ‘Jesus loves John’ could be expressed 16 different ways in Greek).
      3. Meaningful but non-viable changes, i.e. changes in a late manuscript which go against all the other evidence. e.g. a late medieval manuscript of 1 Thess 2:9 says “The gospel of Christ” whereas the other evidence is pretty much uniformly “of God”.
      4. Meaningful and viable changes. These account for less than 1% of discrepancies amongst NT manuscripts, and none of them affect anything important.

      The two biggest textual variants (or additions) which people talk about are the ending of Mark and the story of the woman caught in adultery from John 8. We lose nothing if these are dropped from the Bible, and in fact most modern Bibles will bracket these out with a note to the effect that they do not occur in most early, reliable manuscripts.

      In short, there is a massive amount of scholarship that goes on with respect to textual criticism, the discipline of analysing manuscripts. But that analysis is over minute detail, not over massive points of doctrine. We can only do that because there are so many manuscripts, more by far than any other document in antiquity.

      Anyway, I appreciate that I’ve gone on for long enough. As you say, facts are great. Just make sure you’ve got the right ones. 🙂

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