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Bible Versions Debate
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?
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?
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.
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.
), 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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
you simply re-use that tense.
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
start by looking at some apparent difficulties associated with writing
an extreme dynamic equivalence
translation (i.e. a paraphrase) and then calling the result
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
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…
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
(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:
Exodus 19:6 God gave “the words”
which Moses was to speak to
are a large number of other such verses.
For just a selection, see this footnote.
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).
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.
(Again, I’m not trying to quote any particular version here;
I’m just giving a literal translation of the original texts for now.)
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”
; see also Luke
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
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.
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
Used For Paraphrases
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
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:
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”.
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
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
) 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).
the Bible states that Jeremiah was commanded by God to show the people
all the “words” of God (Jer.
). 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.
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:
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?”.
‘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.
Intricacy Of God’s Word
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
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
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 his “quiver” 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…
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
B – The Bible is multi-faceted
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.
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.
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.
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
C – There is a beauty in the wording and style God uses
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).
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
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:
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.
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?
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).
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
NT Quotes of
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
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.)
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.
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”.
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
Is it Really
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’.
are some further dangers with versions that use dynamic equivalence:
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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
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
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:
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”.)
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
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
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.)
(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).
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.
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.
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?
 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.)
 This is sometimes called “verbal equivalence”.
 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
 The strictly correct term here is “receptor language”.
 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
 All Scripture is, according to 2 Tim. 3:16,
‘inspired of God’ – literally ‘God-breathed’ – i.e. out
of the mouth of God.
 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.
 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.
 In case the reader is wondering, I come to the
matter of the Septuagint in a later article in this series.
 This book was republished in 2003 by The Banner of
 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