Myths about Bible Translation

This is from Daniel Wallace’s list, and there’s plenty here to discuss. Dan has discussion and examples for each.

What are the most common myths about translation you encounter?

1. Perhaps the number one myth about Bible translation is that a word-for-word translation is the best kind.

2. Similar to the first point is that a literal translation is the best version.

3. The King James Version is a literal translation.

4. The King James Version is perfect.

5. The King James Version was hard to understand when it was first published.

6. There has never been an authorized revision of the KJV.

7. The Apocrypha are books found only in Roman Catholic Bibles.

8. Homosexuals influenced the translation of the NIV.

9. No translation can claim to be the word of God except the King James Bible.

10. Modern translations have removed words and verses from the Bible.

11. Essential doctrines are in jeopardy in modern translations.

12. “Young woman” in the RSV’s translation of Isaiah 7.14 was due to liberal bias.

13. Gender-inclusive translations are driven by a social agenda.

14. Red-letter editions of the Bible highlight the exact words of Jesus.  

15. Chapter and verse numbers are inspired.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Andrew

    In my experience these myths are not common except in extreme fundamentalist circles.

    Lately, in more mainstream circles, it seems to me a marketing myth has arisen around the ESV as an ideal version of ‘as literal as possible, as free as necessary.’ When I translate, I often find examples where they clearly have been much freer than necessary, sometimes more so than the NIV. This past month, when working through Ephesians 1, I was shocked when translating Eph. 1:5 and 1:10. Given the signifiance of in him / to him, it seemed strange to have some of them dropped and/or rearranged.

    I still like the ESV, but it seems to me occupying space fairly close to the NIV, not some idyllic position between NIV and NAS.

  • Stephen W

    #15 – Damn. I have a version with no chapter or verse numbers (and the books are in a different order too!)

  • http://scilla.org.uk/ Chris Jefferies

    Surely everyone knows by now that the KJV was good enough for Paul and therefore it should certainly be good enough for us…

    But more seriously, I’d encourage everyone to do what Andrew (1) clearly does, try a bit of translating yourself. It’s easy to do this at a simple level today, the tools are out there on the web. Biblos.com is a great resource with Hebrew and Greek versions available, interlinears, Strong’s numbers linked across, and a host of translations available.

    There are caveats, obviously. It’s wise to be cautious. A knowledge of Jewish and Greek thought patterns, society and detailed knowledge of grammar and idiom would be essential for serious efforts at translation.

    But anyone can have a stab at it. It’s interesting, fun to do, and it certainly illuminates the difficulties that translators face and helps to refute most of the myths listed above. Have a go and regard it as an educational exercise. It’s easier to do than most people think, at least at a basic level. And it can be fascinating to compare your own efforts with the published versions.

  • http://www.schooleyfiles.com Keith Schooley

    Very, very few people are hard-line KJVers anymore, so Wallace seems to be tilting at windmills a lot in this list. Many of the statements are vague enough to be not clearly true or false–for instance, what do the words “literal” and “best” mean in #2? And surely some people do have a social agenda in advocating for gender inclusiveness, even though accuracy in translation also sometimes demands it (anthropoi and adelphoi include women). A “social agenda” is not necessarily an incorrect or unbiblical agenda.

  • Greg D

    When I used to be a fundamentalist years ago in the early 90s, I’ll never forget when those within my circle were touting the release of a new book entitled, “New Age Bible Versions” by Gail Riplinger. The premise of the book was that all new modern translations were inspired by Satan pushing a New Age agenda. Sadly, I still hear remnants of this twisted ideology that all new Bible translations are either socio-politically motivated, have become politically corrected, or of the devil himself. I even have friends that stick to the KJV only of the Bible not so much because they believe it to be the inspired word of God, but because they think it is a purely translated version from the Textus Receptus and not the Latin Vulgate. Furthermore, there is debate that the NASB and the ESV are the most accurate word-for-word translation while the NIV is the most accurate phrase-for-phrase translation.

    I myself venture into the ESV and NKJV every once in awhile. But, in most part I’ve been and remain NIV-positive for 20+ years. Not because I believe it to be the most accurate translation. But, because this version simply resonates with me the most. It was the first Bible given to me when I became a believer and it has stuck with me ever since.

  • http://thesometimespreacher.com Andy Holt

    I was once told to burn my NIV because it was translated by lesbians. This, and most of the other myths, are perpetuated by the KJV-only crowd, which as Keith (4) pointed out, is growing smaller and smaller. The more I study, the more I find myself drawn away from the “most literal” translations and toward those that try to capture the thoughts of Scripture and translate them into modern language. The cultural gap between the context of Scripture and our own is too wide, in my opinion, to be bridged by literal translations.

  • Ron Newberry

    While I agree that the KJV only group is small, it is very much alive and well in my neck of the woods. They get rabid over the NIV and all others. It is sad that such ignorance is still alive in the 21st century.

  • http://byzantium.wordpress.com Kullervo

    I like the KJV best for aesthetic reasons.

  • Phil Miller

    I grew up around some fairly fundamentalist people, but even then I never really knew KJV-only was a real thing until much later. I remember hearing people joking about it growing up – I heard the whole “if it was good enough for Paul” joke from pastors, too. I always just assumed that anyone who did really think that was probably long dead. I remember driving around town when I was in college thought and seeing a “KJV-only” on a sign at a Baptist church, and I was shocked. It was like seeing a real-life dinosaur!

    The funny thing to me right now is that I occasionally see some hardcore neo-Reformed people who treat the ESV in the same way. They really, really don’t like the NIV. And don’t even think about saying anything good about The Message!

  • http://meaninginhistory.blogspot.com/ mark

    Yeah, obviously no translation is, or can be, perfect–any will always be second best to the original. Any serious reader will want to either get familiar with the original or–since that is certainly no easy task–at least use available research/reference tools to serve as a control check on whatever translation you use.

    Here are my preferences. For an old style NT I like the 1941 “Confraternity” revision of the Catholic Challoner-Rheims version. Yes, it’s outdated now, as are any translations of that vintage, but anyone who likes the KJV style will be very pleasantly surprised at the simple elegance of this one, as well as its accuracy.

    Of other Catholic versions, I find the NAB to be too uneven–although if you can find a copy with the original version of the Psalms, I like that. I tend to favor the JB, otherwise.

    For the OT I like the JPS’ Tanakh (1985). Of Protestant or ecumenical translations I like the NEB and its descendant REB. One advantage that the New American Bible (NAB) has is that it is heavily footnoted, more so than most “study” Bibles, and that it has a very thorough system of cross references to not just direct references and parallels but also passages that are more allusive in nature. This can be very helpful for study, even when you’re not using the actual text of the translation. For example, even if I’m reading the Greek or another translation of the OT, I will sometimes grab the NAB and check its references. “Freer” translations such as the NEB and REB would benefit from more notes.

    Re the supposed myth that “Gender-inclusive translations are driven by a social agenda,” I would say that the real myth is the notion that such translations are NOT agenda driven. Obviously systematically gender-inclusive translations are not true to either the original language nor reflective of cultural conditions. One oughtn’t, however, be dogmatic about such matters without careful study of each passage and the words used. Two examples. The “golden rule” at Lk :31–the “others” in “do unto others” are actually “anthropoi.” But before anyone is to quick to say, Well, of course, “anthropoi” included women, there is another passage (and I’m sorry, I’d have to do some concordance work to locate it) in which reference is made to an “anthropos” being circumcised on the sabbath. Ah, here it is–Jn 7:22. So obviously “anthropos” has a masculine bias. Or so I would argue. I believe if I had the time I could also come up a passage from Paul in which “aner” is used in what appears (to me, at least) in a rather inclusive sense–which also says something about cultural conditions. So I prefer non-agenda driven translations and translations that are liberally or even heavily footnoted.

  • http://meaninginhistory.blogspot.com/ mark

    Re my previous post, for anyone who’s interested it can be very enlightening use a concordance to track the varying senses in which “aner” and “anthropos” are used. While there is obvious truth in the usual “male” “person” dichotomy, what you’ll find is that that is still a generalization that can’t always be relied upon. As my example re how both words are used with “circumcize” shows.

    Here’s the problem, or so it seems to me. People want to use “The Bible” as their “scripture,” their holy book of divinely inspired sayings, and for that they want it in a language that’s their own–whether modern or archaizing, for different reasons. Studying the books for what they were when written? Eh, not so much.

  • http://byzantium.wordpress.com Kullervo

    I’ve been using the Orthodox Study Bible lately, which has a new Old Testament translation from the Septuagint.

  • David Dollins

    I used the NIV 1984 for several years. Now I use the NIV 2011. Completely happy with the accuracy, readability, and balance of translation of the updated NIV. I tried the ESV some, but kept coming back to the NIV 2011. I also encourage the people I teach on Weds nights to use it. With people like Scot, Ben Witherington, Gary Burge, Douglas Moo, Gordon Fee, Mark Strauss, D.A. Carson, Scott Munger, Daniel Wallace, Rod Decker, and so many more scholars behind it and have commended it, I have total confidence that it is still the standard. Bill Mounce, who was on both the NIV and ESV committees, uses the NIV to teach his Sunday school class. He said that in his latest blog post. If I may say, John Stott used the NIV up till his death as his text of choice. And when he reissued Basic Christianity for its 50th year, he used the TNIV because it was gender accurate, which in the Intro he totally supported. By that, I know he would have gladly used the NIV 2011 also. I will leave you with what Ben Witherington said about the NIV 2011 in a past blog post … “In my view the NIV has many rivals, but no peers or superiors”. That kind of speaks for me too.

  • Kenton

    Phil Miller (#9)-

    So my church just went all-ESV, all of the time. We have some neo-reformed guys who have the ears of leadership who I figured had issues with the NIV. But I wasn’t aware that the ESV had become the version of choice among the neo-reformed crowd. Can you elaborate? What is it about the ESV that makes them giddy?

  • http://www.jesustheradicalpastor.com John W Frye

    The superiority of the KJV over all other translations is the longest standing, most absurd myth ever about the Bible (in the USA mostly). I agree the KJV cult is growing smaller, but it is still potent. Any good evangelical *Introduction to the Bible* that unpacks the textual history and transmission of the Old and New Testaments should be enough to halt KJV mania, but it apparently doesn’t. The KJV myth is driven preference and emotion. Do I think that some parts of the KJV trump the NIV? You betcha, but I do not idolize the KJV.

  • http://csaproductions.com/blog/ Brendt Wayne Waters

    I’m seeing several folks commenting here, essentially saying that “most of these myths are only spread by the KJV-only crowd, and that crowd is fast becoming negligible.” While I am happy for you that this is your experience and knowledge, it should be noted that you are blissfully ignorant, as both of your points are incorrect.

  • Phil Miller

    Kenton #14,
    The ESV has a reputation of leaning toward Reformed theology, and it seems to be the go-to choice for people who are on the complementarian side of the women in ministry debate. I don’t think it’s exactly fair to pin the neo-Reformed tag on the ESV itself, but I certainly do see most neo-Reformed folks using it a lot.

  • Kenton

    Thanks, Phil.

  • http://meaninginhistory.blogspot.com/ mark

    My experience has been that while the NIV isn’t bad, it does contain too many tendentious translations for my taste. I can live with disagreements in the matter of translations, and no translation is perfect, but I need a higher level of trust than I have for the NIV. And I say that having a regard for the scholarship of some of the people behind it.

  • PJ Condit

    The myth I hear most often about the Bible is: How can we trust an ancient document that has been translated over and over so many time?

    The argument sounds as if each new translation is built upon the last, or, the myth is accompanied with the next myth, which is that we don’t have accurate originals.

  • http://byzantium.wordpress.com Kullervo

    PJ Condit #20:

    That myth (that the Bible has been translated too many times to be reliable) is a common Mormon polemic, and ex-Mormons often hang on to it pretty tightly too.

  • McCauley

    Does anyone see, experience or feel that in response to the faulty KJV-only argument, and the sad displays of hatred from those people, there has been an attack on KJV, or a dismissal of the KJV as a viable translation for today?

  • BradK

    Keith #4,

    IIRC, Wallace is sort of a lightning rod for the KJV-only folks. He’s drawn their particular ire on several occasions and he is viewed by many of them as a “liberal scholar” who is responsible for changing God’s word. I bet he could share some…interesting emails and stories. If he is a little tough on KJV-onlyism, it is understandable. Honestly, it can be pretty tough to be sympathetic towards many of those folks.

  • Greg D

    Kenton #14 – We have many at our home church who have also went to the ESV. We have some neo-Reformed folks and leaders in our church too. I think why this crowd gets all “giddy” over this version is because of the names of those who contributed to this version. Reformed scholars like: Wayne Grudem, J.I. Packer, August Konkel, Doug Oss, and countless others. Also, many leaders in the Reformed tradition have endorsed it: R.C. Sproul, Piper, and MacArthur, just to name a few. Also, several well known Reformed seminaries have endorsed it: The North American Reformed Seminary, Westminster Theological Seminary, and several others.

    Why do I know all of this? I used to be neo-Reformed and had checked all of this out prior to purchasing my ESV. My theology has since changed drastically and now lean more Arminian in my views. Nevertheless, I’ve proudly reverted back to my good ol’ NIV Bible. ;-)

  • http://byzantium.wordpress.com Kullervo

    McCauley #22: Are you asking whether people dismiss the KJV as a viable translation for today? Because they totally do.

  • Kenton

    Greg D-

    Thanks. That sounds like there’s a story there.

  • http://communityofjesus.wordpress.com/ Ted M. Gossard

    I am struggling over what was told to me in the past by a quite intelligent professor that the ESV preserves something more of the language of the Holy Spirit through word order, etc., in the translation. I used to have a confident theory of translating scripture, but not so much anymore. The best translation would preserve as much of the flavor of the original as possible, while getting the meaning or message or intent across in a similar way in the receptor language, as given to the original recipients. A tall order indeed, but it goes to show the importance of the art and science of translating scripture.

    Having said all of that, my own preference remains the NIV, along with use of the NASB and NRSV (with the Apocrypha). Of all the translations out there, I like the theory behind that of the NIV best.

    But I guess I’m at the place where I understand more the limitations in any translation. I can’t help but think of Scot’s post in the past, when he suggested we could use another translation of scripture altogether, which might show the differences of the various writings of scripture more clearly without being literal in the popular sense of the way that word is used for translating scripture. And I’m at the place where I don’t know. But I would think there needs to be something of the attempt at a dynamic equivalent. And a feel for the way it came across in the receptor language. Maybe one translation can’t achieve that.

    I guess it is like so many other things for me anymore. I may need to take a stand or teach on this or that difficult matter, but for myself I’ll try to keep first things first and not get hung up on any of this.

  • Adam

    It seems like #10 (Modern translations have removed words and verses from the Bible) could be true in a technical sense. Things like prepositions and articles are probably frequently removed because they don’t make sense in english. And obviously, if a new translation is different from an older translation you will see that “words have been removed” though it’s just a reinterpretation of the original.

    I personally state that The Message is the only translation that’s written in actual English. Every other translation is either Christianese or a hybrid like Hebrish or Engreek.

  • http://byzantium.wordpress.com Kullervo

    Whenever I’m reading the Message, I feel like it’s someone explaining what a Bible passage is trying to get across, rather than reading the passage itself. The trouble with that is you lose some of the texture and the multiple meanings in the text: it’s been unpacked so you can’t unpack it a different way. Whenever someone quotes the Message to illustrate a point, I always want to reach for a more literal translation to see the difference.

  • Andrew

    Do KJV-only people also revere the British Monarchy? What absurdist notion could back up the claim that it’s the one and only version of the Bible? Seriously people who hold that view shouldn’t be taken seriously at all. And I actually like much of the King James bible; some beautiful language in there.

  • McCauley

    Kullervo

    Yes, that’s what I was asking.

    Thanks, does this not seem equally problematic?

  • Phil Miller

    I think the reason the Message sounds so “wrong” to so many people is that we are so conditioned to hearing Scripture in formal language that we actually want more modern translations to still sound formal for the most part.

    The way I use the Message a lot of times is actually the reverse of what Kullervo mentioned. I will read a passage in the NIV or NRSV and then go to the Message to see how Peterson rendered the passage. I find it pretty helpful a lot of times.

  • http://www.rethinkingao.com Mike Beidler

    What? Nary a mention of the NET Bible?

  • Paul W

    @33 My thought as well.

    One thing the NET Bible does really well is its footnotes which provide comment on various translation choices and issues throughout. I think that many Bible readers would be helped if their preferred version also had an edition with “translation notes.”

  • http://byzantium.wordpress.com Kullervo

    #31 McCauley: I certainly think so. In the exchange I linked to, I was totally flabbergasted by Steve Knight’s flippant categorical disdain for the KJV. He had no objection to the specific text I quoted, no argument that some kind of mistranslation or imprecise translation obscured the real meaning, nothing like that. My use of the KJV was completely irrelevant to his point or mine, but Steve still couldn’t help sniping at it.

    #32 Phil Miller: I think that’s a perfectly reasonable approach as well, but you are still practically using the Message as something more like a poetic Bible commentary as instead of the primary text. And I think the Message is a great and fascinating poetic Bible commentary.

  • Adam

    @Kullervo

    He’s the thing. Every translation you read has the “someone explaining what a Bible passage is trying to get across, rather than reading the passage itself” already applied. You can’t translate without interpretation. It is not possible. I work with Danish speakers and Spanish speakers on a daily basis. I see on a daily basis how english words can be used and still not be english. This is what I see in most translations; english words but not actually english.

    What Eugene Peterson does, is exactly what a translator should do. As a translator, that is his job. You are not qualified to make these distinctions because you are not a trained translator. This idea that you can “get the feel” from other translations is a really bad idea. You’re only getting the feel of the previous translator and not the original text.

    With your comment “Whenever someone quotes the Message to illustrate a point, I always want to reach for a more literal translation to see the difference.”

    I do the exact same thing in reverse. I have had WAY too many encounters where people have heard something from The Message and reacted “The text doesn’t say that!” and when they look in their favorite translation they then see that yes it does say that. In their chosen translation, they missed it because the language wasn’t fluid and required extra energy to process, so they just skip over it. With The Message, that process isn’t necessary. With The Message, you understand what is trying to be said.

    The issue here isn’t really about understanding what the author meant. For the most part, the trained professionals can get that. The issue is understanding what the reader will get out of it. This has been largely ignored. Read the details of Wallace’s first point. Be careful about what you believe about your favorite translations. They are not as accurate as you would like to believe and they are certainly not as “pure” as you want them to be. Every act of translation is an act of explaining what the original meant. If you are not trained in translation and the original language you are at the mercy of the translator.

    1. Perhaps the number one myth about Bible translation is that a word-for-word translation is the best kind. Anyone who is conversant in more than one language recognizes that a word-for-word translation is simply not possible if one is going to communicate in an understandable way in the receptor language. Yet, ironically, even some biblical scholars who should know better continue to tout word-for-word translations as though they were the best. Perhaps the most word-for-word translation of the Bible in English is Wycliffe’s, done in the 1380s. Although translated from the Latin Vulgate, it was a slavishly literal translation to that text. And precisely because of this, it was hardly English.

  • http://byzantium.wordpress.com Kullervo

    Thanks for the condescension Adam but I actually have done translation so I do realize what the issues are, and I do realize that any translation involves some kind of paraphrase. That’s the nature of linguistics.

    What I am trying to say it, a given Bible passage is alsmot always packed with lots of meanings and lots of different ideas. The Message is like an unpacked version. The problem is is that it’s only one possible unpacking. I can read the KJV, or the NIV, or the ESV and, although I realize that the translators have done some paraphrasing and unpacking already because it’s unavoidable, I can still see that the text carries more meaning. Even though some interpretation has already been done, I can see that there is still a lot of interpretation to do, which means the text can still be unpacked in a lot of different ways, and more importantly, it can be unpacked in different ways at the same time.

    When I read the Message, I see that it has been unpacked already. That’s certainly valuable to me as a reader, especially if Peterson has done a good job of unpacking. But the downside is, since it really isn’t a bible commentary exploring all the ins and outs of the text, it’s just one possible unpacking. By taking the interpretive work that much further, Peterson has foreclosed the possibility of multiple (or layered) meanings. And that’s why it dissatisfies me as a primary text: I think the cost of unpacking it that much is too high.

  • Adam

    Kullervo,

    Let’s play this out. Your paragraph:

    Thanks for the condescension Adam but I actually have done translation so I do realize what the issues are, and I do realize that any translation involves some kind of paraphrase. That’s the nature of linguistics.

    Does this paragraph have lots of meanings and lots of different ideas? Are there multiple and possibly conflicting nuances here that you are trying to convey? Are you playing funny word games or being intentionally vague so that I could get several different meanings from your words?

    I think the answer is no. This idea of multiple unpacking is absolutely ridiculous when I apply it to your very own words. If I started to do this “unpacking” of your words, I think you would quickly correct me with “No, that’s not what I said.” It doesn’t make sense to assume that the authors of the bible had multiple meanings in mind. I’m pretty sure, that just as you have one purpose in your language, they also had one purpose in their language.

    These “lots of meanings” you are referring too are actually buried in the translation and not the original text. Look at the details of Wallace’s item #2 about unique word count. Every translation of the bible in existence uses more unique words than are actually in the original text. This is the nature of English. A good parallel is Danish to English. English has twice as many words as Danish, so a single word in Danish can have multiple words with slightly different connotations in English. Regardless, the meaning is still singular in Danish, it is only in English that we have to choose what meaning it is. It is the job of the translator to make the right choice and ensure correct communication.

    This same idea should be applied to how we translate the bible. Compare Romans 1:1-7 in both the Message and any other translation. Which one is communicating the best? The NIV of that passage uses so many subclauses and phrases that it is literally terrible english. The NIV, for those 7 verses, has a reading grade level of 16 (meaning nearly graduate level) while the Message has a grade level of 11 (meaning high school). I do not believe that Paul intended his words in Romans to be so complicated, especially a greeting.

    This is the exact point of translation and the exact failure of the translators of the NIV. I’ll be specific, this is a failure of translating into English. Yes, the individual words are accurate, but the complexity of the idea is blown beyond the original intent.

    You stated the cost of unpacking was too much, but my experience is that the cost is in the not unpacking. How many people can honestly read at a grade level 16? It’s not that many, and that includes pastors who preach from these texts. In the example of my previous comment, what is the cost of all these people completely missing passages because their sentence structure is too complex to make sense? You’re worried about one person’s bias getting through but there’s a bigger danger of people simply ignoring what’s too hard to comprehend.

    So, back to my original point, most translations of the bible aren’t in English. I’m not saying they’re wrong, they’re just not English and therefore incredibly easy to misunderstand. I have yet to find a situation where The Message has been “wrong” in its’ interpretation, but if you think there are such things then we should translate accordingly and explain why the other is not correct. Leaving it ambiguous and open to “multiple unpacking” is bad communication and bad translation.

  • Phil Miller

    It seems to me that we might be muddling the term “meaning” with something like “significance” or “application”. The meaning of the text is the idea the author was getting at when he wrote it. It’s not something we get to read into the text. As Ben Witherington says here:

    When I say ‘what it meant is what it means’ in reference to any text, but especially the Bible, I mean that the meaning is encoded in the complex of words and phrases we find in the text. Meaning is not something we get to read into the text on the basis of our own opinions or ideas. Meaning is something that resides in the text, having been placed there by the inspired author and requires of us that we discover what that meaning is by the proper contextual study of the text.

    From here: http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/2008/10/hermeneuticswhat-is-it-and-why-do-bible.html

  • Adam

    @Phil #39

    I think I agree with that, but a difference about the argument is that every time we read a sentence we automatically “read into” what is there. Therefore, the choice of words and choice of sentence structure can influence what a person sees in a particular text. A piece of text at grade level 16 is a lot easier to misread the meaning than a piece of text at grade level 11.

    So, assuming that the meaning is static, the translator must be conscious of the end reader’s ability and should translate for highest clarity. This is perhaps backwards thinking for most because we so often chase after what the original author meant with these words, but rarely do we ask “what do WE mean with these words?” It’s an important consideration and one I think we frequently ignore.

  • Ben Thorp

    Some of you might be interested in a free ebook version of Kevin DeYoung’s booklet “Why our church switched to the ESV” http://www.crossway.org/blog/2011/09/why-kevin-deyoungs-church-switched-to-the-esv/


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