“Let it Go” and Bible Translation Philosophy

Many people are looking for a “formal equivalence” translation of the Bible, even if they don’t use that nerdy term. They want a Bible that translates the Greek and Hebrew into English as accurately as possible, following the original intent of the original words as closely as possible. That’s good.

But, how do you do this?

People have different philosophies of translation, and we see that in Bible translations. Some folks try to stick very close to the structure of the original language (e.g. the NASB), while others try to catch the flavor and meaning, even if they have to use a bit of creative license (e.g. NET, NEB, NLT).

Some well-meaning pastors and bible teachers passionately defend a “formal equivalence” translation philosophy. I get what they’re saying, but I don’t agree. But, first, here’s a good definition so we understand what we’re talking about:

Formal equivalence: a theory of translation that favors reproducing the form or language of the original text, not just its meaning. In its stricter form, this theory of translation espouses reproducing even the syntax and word order of the original; the formula word for word translation often implies this stricter definition of the concept.

Leland Ryken, Understanding English Bible Translation: The Case for an Essentially Literal Approach (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009; Kindle ed.), KL 186-188.

I like this definition. It has good motives. The main drawback is that this kind of translation philosophy will often produce cardboard English; a stilted, artificial, and extraordinarily formal text. That’s why the NASB isn’t very elegant.

I could go on … but I have an example for you. It’s not a Bible verse; it’s something entirely different. I want you to watch (and read) the subtitles for Disney France’s official version of the mega-hit single “Let it Go,” from the movie Frozen. The subtitle function in YouTube uses a formal equivalence translation philosophy when it renders the French lyrics into English. Listen, and tell me what you think!

You know the real lyrics to this song; they’re colloquial and make intuitive sense. When we speak and listen, real meaning isn’t so much in the individual words, but in the vernacular words, phrases and contemporary context which shapes and gives meaning to this speech.

You either know or hate this song. But, I know you’ve heard it. Read the subtitles, and learn what a formal equivalence translation philosophy can do to a poetic work. Here’s a preview of the first chorus:

Liberated! Delivered!
I will never lie again
Liberated! Delivered!
It’s decided! I’m leaving!
I left my childhood in Summer
Lost in winter
The cold is my price for freedom

Consider why some pastors, translators and bible students are less than sold on a full-throated, formal equivalence translation philosophy.

Here it is (if closed captioning isn’t already on, turn it on) …

A Word About Bible Translation Philosophies

montoyaIf you’re a Christian who has paid attention, you’ve probably heard strong opinions from Pastors or other Christians about various English Bible translations. Maybe you’ve heard the NIV is a “liberal translation,” because it’s “gender-neutral.” Perhaps you’ve heard the NLT is a paraphrase. And so it goes.

There’s nothing wrong with the major English Bible translations. I don’t care which one you read and use; KJV, ASV, RSV, NIV, NRSV, NEB, REB, NASB, MEV, LEB NET, Phillips. Take your pick. In the end, most disagreements come down to what you believe about (1) translation philosophy and (2) which printed, Greek New Testament text is the best. I wrote a long article about bible translations a while back to briefly address some of these concerns.

Today, I want to talk about translation philosophy. If you ask an informed Christian, she’ll probably tell you there are two camps:

  1. Formal equivalence, or “word for word” translations. This approach tries, as much as possible, to retain the original word order in Greek and Hebrew.
  2. Dynamic equivalence, or “thought for thought” translations. This philosophy seeks to convey the meaning of the word or phrase, and isn’t as tied to the original word order.

This is all wrong. Wrong. Not right. Wrong.

Most Christians in America aren’t fluent in a second language, and haven’t studied languages. I understand, and I’m not blaming anybody. But, the result is that Christians who say these things are usually repeating what others have told them. They often really don’t know what they’re talking about. This kind of argument works best as an abstraction, as a pie in the sky philosophy. When you put the fancy ideas away, and actually try to translate a Bible passage yourself, life gets tough.

Here’s a simple example …

What does “bless” mean?

The Apostle Peter is wrapping up his discussion of the so-called “household” or “station codes,” and he wrote this to sum up every Christian’s responsibility to live in a holy way in a pagan world (1 Peter 3:8-12). Here’s one excerpt from that section:

Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love of the brethren, a tender heart and a humble mind. Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling; but on the contrary bless, for to this you have been called, that you may obtain a blessing (1 Peter 3:8-9, RSV).

Tell me, what on earth does “bless” mean, in this context? I want you to explain it to me. I want you to consider the context, consider why the phrase repeats in the same sentence, and tell me what “bless” and “blessing” mean. I’m waiting …

Still waiting.

Well, I’ll go first. Here’s one thing you should always remember:

  • There is no such thing as a “literal meaning.” Literally (heh)! 

Every word and every sentence depends on context for clarity. Words have tons of different meanings, but the context tells you which meaning is right. You already know this, instinctively. You don’t even realize you know it, but you do.

Think about the word “tons” (which I conveniently put in bold so you’d see it). What is the “literal meaning” of that word? You don’t know, do you? You’re thinking on it now, and you’re realizing it all depends on how the word is used, aren’t you? Merriam-Webster’s dictionary says:

  • The word could refer to a metric unit of weight, or
  • It could mean a large quantity of something, or
  • Various quantities of storage capacity for maritime shipping

So, there is no literal meaning for a word or phrase – context is everything. Now, when you look at a dictionary, you get what linguistic nerds call a gloss. This is a generic definition that covers a lot of ground, but doesn’t even begin to explain the word well. For example, you could say the gloss for the word ball is “a rounded mass or shape.” But, that really doesn’t tell you much. There are tons of ways (see what I just did!?) to use the word ball in the English language.

  • “George and I went to the ball last night! He looked so handsome in his tuxedo!”
  • “We left the kids at home last night, and went out on a date. We had a ball!”
  • “Hey, Jeff, wanna play some ball with the guys this Saturday?”
  • “For the last time, Sherri – you’ve got to keep your eye on the ball! What’s wrong with you, lately?”

When you come to the Greek participle εὐλογοῦντες, the normal gloss means bless. Yay. How wonderful. What on earth does this mean? Well, when you consider how the word is used in the New Testament and contemporary Greek writing, you have two basic options:

  1. It can mean something like “be kind.”
  2. It could also mean “to invoke God’s blessing upon.”

Which one is it, here? Because Peter goes on to say Christians were called to inherit blessing (i.e. “divine favor”) from God, it makes sense to understand the participle to have the same sense, here.[1] That is, it seems Peter is using the term “bless” in the same way both time he uses it, in 1 Peter 3:9.

Once again, here is Peter’s argument – consider which usage best fits the context:

Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling; but on the contrary ——–, for to this you have been called, that you may obtain a ——–.

Is Peter telling them to be nice to hostile unbelievers? Or, is he telling them to invoke God’s favor upon these hostile outsiders? Christians have been called to do this, whatever it is. As a result of God’s calling, Christians will obtain … whatever this is. It seems obvious the second option is the one we want; to invoke God’s divine favor.

But, how should we translate it? Should we render it as bless? 

The rendering “bless” is standard Biblish in our Christian vocabulary. It’s meaningless. You’re used to seeing it, because it’s comforting and familiar. But, does the word bless here actually communicate anything at all? What does it mean?

We’ve just found out that, in this context, it means a Christian shouldn’t return insult for insult, or evil for evil. Instead, the Christian should ask for God’s favor on the offender. So, perhaps we should just translate it that way! This is what my translation looks like:

You must not make it a habit to repay evil for evil, or insult for insult. But, instead, you must always repay by asking for God’s favor on the person, because you were called to all this, [and] as a result you’ll obtain God’s favor!

We shouldn’t be captive to glosses that don’t explain what the word actually means. Deliberate ambiguity isn’t a virtue when the context is rather straightforward.

Some critics would say my translation philosophy here is dynamic equivalency. I reply – I love you, but you really don’t know what you’re talking about.[2] A dynamic equivalency translation would actually go one step further, and ask the question, “what does it mean to ask for God’s favor on the person?” The answer, I believe, is to pray for the person’s salvation. So, a true dynamic equivalent translation would render this something like, “you must always repay the person by praying for his salvation …” So, there.

In this context, the participle εὐλογοῦντες means “to invoke God’s blessing upon” someone. This isn’t a tenuous interpretation; it’s pretty straightforward and I can make a very, very good case for it. Shouldn’t a translation seek to bring this across?

Don’t take my word for it. Listen to Bill Mounce, the author of the most popular first-year Koine Greek textbook in America. He wrote this in a short article, entitled “The Myth of Literal Translation:”

May I encourage you not to be deceived by this idea of choosing an English Bible so that you can see the underlying Greek structure. You will be led astray on every verse. If you want to get that close to the Greek, I know of a couple Greek textbooks that will help you get there (grin). If not, then understand that all translations have to smooth out the Greek to make it understandable English, and read it with that in mind.

Keepin’ it real

I could say a whole lot more, nuance my position a bit, and offer up all the appropriate caveats about translation philosophy.  But, I won’t bother here. I’ve said enough to make my point, and any theologians reading this already know what those caveats are anyway.

Let’s recap:

  1. Don’t take a simplistic stance on a Bible translation philosophy – it’s complicated.
  2. Most Pastors or leaders you listen to either never learned Greek, or have allowed themselves to forget most of it. Even if they use it, many of them don’t do much beyond word studies. It’s very rare to have a Pastor who actually does translation himself, and can interact with exegetical commentaries and argue syntax in  meaningful fashion. So, the chances are the person who’s giving you information about bible translation philosophies is well-meaning, but really doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
  3. There is no such thing as a “literal meaning” of a word. I mean that literally. Get it?
  4. A bible translation shouldn’t be afraid to ignore a gloss and render the clear meaning of a word or phase, if the context is clear and straightforward.

So, don’t be afraid of the NLT. Don’t be afraid of the NIV. Don’t be afraid of the KJV or the RSV. They’re good translations.

Notes

[1] Actually, there is real disagreement about how to translate the last bit of 1 Peter 3:9, but I won’t bother to go into that here!

[2] Any interested Christian should read Leland Ryken’s book, Understanding English Bible Translations – An Essentially Literal Approach. With some caveats, I appreciate his approach to the issue and agree with his “essentially literal” philosophy.

My Translation of Micah 5:1-3

The prophet Micah wrote a wonderful prophesy about Jesus Christ, the One who would come forth for God to be the ruler par excellence in Israel. I’ve spent some time translating the passage from the Septuagint; the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures which Jesus and the early Christian used. I plan to write a bit about this passage soon. For now, I’ll just leave you with the translation.

There are some differences from the English translation in your Bibles, because they’re translated from Hebrew, not Greek. The verse numbers from the Septuagint are also different, sometimes. This is one of those times. In your English Bibles, this passage will be Micah 5:2-4. Here, it’s Micah 5:1-3:

Micah 5(1-3)You can find more of my pitiful translations from the New Testament, the Septuagint and an ancient creed or two here.

All About Bible Translations

stack-of-BiblesI think the best way to do figure out what a confusing passage means is to compare English bible versions. We have lots of them, and they’re usually good. Some have different goals, and they’re translated with these goals in mind.

In this post, I want to provide a brief overview of some common English bible translations that I think are helpful for Christians. Along the way, I’ll give some brief answers to common questions about bible translation. Here goes . . .

Why so many English versions?

There are many reasons. First, Christian translators and scholars are eager to always improve English translations; to fashion a new and better translation that speaks to the “common man,” and all sorts of other spiritual stuff. That’s good.

Also, Christian publishers want to market their own materials using their own proprietary translation. Who can blame them? It’s easier for Crossway, for example, to have its own translation, rather than potentially having to pay to use somebody else’s translation in the books it publishes. So, while the translators and scholars have noble goals, what’s even more true is that these scholars wouldn’t ever get the chance to fashion their new “ultimate” English versions unless a publisher thought it’d be worthwhile to sell the finished product.

Each major Christian publisher has commissioned and produced its own translation.

  • Zondervan has the NIV.
  • Crossway has the ESV.
  • Broadman & Holman have the CSB (formerly known as the HCSB).
  • HarperCollins has the NKJV; Thomas Nelson actually produced the thing, but it was bought by HarperCollins.
  • Tyndale House owns the NLT.

I could go on, but you get the point. But, the providential end result is that we have a lot of English bible versions. They’re usually all good. You should make use of them.

What are the differences between translations?

Generally, there are two issues readers should be aware of; NT textual basis and translation philosophy.

New Testament textual basis

There are basically three options for bible translators and scholars to use when it comes to the New Testament; (1) the Textus Receptus, (2) a Byzantine text, or (3) an eclectic text.

The Textus Receptus is a compiled, printed Greek text which began life in 1518 as an edited, printed compilation of perhaps a half-dozen Greek manuscripts containing the New Testament. The earliest of these dated from the 10th century. This printed edition was revised several times, but it continued to be based on very few Greek manuscripts. This is the first printed Greek New Testament, and its dominance lasted nearly 400 years. You can still buy a copy of one version of the Textus Receptus today, from the Trinitarian Bible Society. The KJV, NKJV and Modern English Version (MEV) are based on the Textus Receptus.

The Byzantine text platform is an edited, compiled, printed Greek text based on the vast majority of Greek manuscripts. However, most of these Greek manuscripts date from the Middle Ages, which means they aren’t very early at all. There are at least three printed, compiled Greek New Testaments based on the Byzantine text, all of them published within the past 40 years. There has never been a major English bible translation done from the Byzantine text, so don’t bother looking for one.

The eclectic (or critical) text is an edited compiled, printed Greek text based on a whole host of factors, from early manuscripts and later ones, too. It doesn’t strictly favor earlier Greek manuscripts or later ones, but in practice the earlier manuscript copies are often given more weight. It evaluates differences in Greek manuscripts on their own internal and external merits, and chooses the reading which makes the best sense. Different editions of this critical text have been published for over 100 years. Every major English bible translation (except the KJV, NKJV and MEV) is based on this eclectic text.

Some Christians passionately believe in the Textus Receptus, and the KJV whose New Testament comes from that Greek text. They may tell you all other Bibles are perversions. They’re wrong.

What are the differences between these different Greek New Testaments?

There are lots of spelling variations of different words, which are usually meaningless. There are lots of other meaningless odds and ends. The most striking differences are in (1) the longer ending of Mark, (2) the section from 1 John 5:6-8 which reads “and these three are one,” and (3) the story of the woman caught in adultery.

The Textus Receptus has all three of these. The printed Byzantine texts usually don’t count the “and these three are one” bit from 1 John 5:6-8 as being original, but have the other two. The eclectic printed texts don’t include any of these, because they aren’t in the earliest Greek manuscripts.

These are very complicated issues, and there are other less significant differences, but these are the most noteworthy. In fact, if you pay attention, I guarantee you’ll see notes in the margins of your Bible in the New Testament which read something like “other, later manuscripts include . . .” This isn’t a secret.

For some excellent information about this entire subject (which scholars call “textual criticism”), see these wonderful short lectures by Dan Wallace; look under the “textual criticism” heading.

Translation philosophy

It’ll be very challenging to write about this in a few paragraphs, but I’ll give it a shot. Modern English translations ran a whole gamut, from very literal to very free with their translation philosophy. This chart should make things clearer:

types-of-bible-translations

You may have been told that more “literal” translations are more accurate. You may have even been told that “thought-for-thought” translations are “liberal.” No. No. No. No.

Some translations seek to render the Greek word order as closely as humanly possible, believing this is the best way to translate. The NASB is the best example. This translation is so faithful to the original word order, and is so fearful of making any interpretive decisions, that it reads a bit like cardboard. In some places, it is very difficult to understand.

Other translations seek to make things clear. They’re willing to sacrifice a nearly word-for-word equivalence in order to make the idea crystal clear. The NLT is the best example. A child can read this translation with no problem. I know adults with low reading levels who benefit greatly from this translation.

Which one is best? All of the above. Let me give you an example; look at these samples from a wide variety of translations. They march in order from more “word for word” to “thought for thought.” Pay particular attention to the portions I highlight and underline, and watch how the sense changes between translations, from rigid English to freer, looser and clearer English:

  • NASB: “Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation,” (1 Pet 2:12).
  • ESV: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation,” (1 Pet 2:12).
  • RSV: “Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation,” (1 Pet 2:12).
  • Mine: “Always keep your whole way of life pure among the unbelievers, so that as they speak evil about your pure way of life as though you’re criminals, because of your good deeds (which they’re watching) they might give honor to God when He arrives,” (1 Pet 2:12).
  • NIV: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us,” (1 Pet 2:12).
  • NLT: “Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God when he judges the world,” (1 Pet 2:12).

I focused on three aspects of this sentence; (1) “Gentiles,” (2) “speaking evil about you,” and (3) “the day of His visitation.”

Gentiles

This word could mean “Gentiles,” or it could mean “nations” (i.e. pagan nations). How should it be translated? If you believe Peter wrote his letters to primarily Jewish Christian congregations, perhaps you’d keep “Gentiles” or “nations.” The terms have a particularly Jewish flavor to them, especially in light of the OT. A Jew would get it.

But, if you don’t believe Peter wrote to majority Jewish Christian congregations, how should you render it? Does “Gentiles” really do the trick? Is that what Peter was literally getting at? They could live like demons among Jews, but if a Gentile comes along – be good? Doubt it. Peter seems to be referring to “unbelievers.”

Should it be translated it as “unbelievers?” The NLT went with “unbelieving neighbors.” The NIV and NEB chose “pagans.” The NET went with “non-Christians.” Phillips chose “surrounding peoples in your different countries,” which is clearly an attempt to retain the “nations” sense of the Greek. Lattimore chose “the heathen.” Most other English translations, which are often more essentially literal than these, went with “Gentiles.” Which one is better? Which one is clearer?

I think we need to make a distinction between meaning and clarity. The rendering “Gentiles” or “nations” is more technically accurate. But, the translation “unbelievers” is (I believe) much more clear. If something is clearer, is it not, in reality, more accurate?

Note that, in the list of translations (above), the reference to “Gentiles” drops after the first few entries. That’s because translations that trend (more or less) towards “thought for thought” realize that “Gentiles” is meaningless to the uninitiated; thus you have options like “unbelievers,” “non-Christians” and “pagans.” They realize that Peter seems to mean “unbelievers.” Which one is best? Both of them!

Speaking evil

The Greek syntax is tricky here. The NASB renders it faithfully (“so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers”), but let’s be honest – that’s a really hard sentence to understand. What on earth does this even mean? I’d rather read an inter-office memo about break-room etiquette than this.

The NASB is deliberately not trying to smooth things out; they want to stick to a woodenly literal translation. In my own translation, it’s obvious I think Peter is saying these unbelievers are slandering Christians because of their holy life, so I translated it that way (“so that as they speak evil about your pure way of life as though you’re criminals“). I have grammatical reasons for doing this, and they aren’t important now.

The point is that, as you go down the list, you see a change from wooden literalness to a drive for clarity. You might not agree with the NLT here (“even if they accuse you of doing wrong“), but at least you know exactly what they think it means. The NASB leaves it to you to figure it out, which isn’t a bad thing.

The day of His visitation

What does that even mean? In the list (above) you see the different translation philosophies very clearly. The NASB rendered it faithfully from Greek, but didn’t try to make it clear. The NLT, on the other hand, went all in for one particular meaning (“give honor to God when he judges the world“), but that isn’t literally what the Greek says. It’s probably what it means, but it isn’t what it says. Which is best? Both.

Hopefully, this crash course in translation philosophy has been helpful to you. The point is that translations are different, and you can learn a lot by comparing a few good ones.

Which translations should you compare?

Here is the short list of the ones I use. You could use others, but I’ve found these to be very helpful. You can find most of them at biblegateway.com.

  1. NASB. Extraordinarily literal. This is the most literal version in English today. It’s a favorite for preachers who prefer very close exposition and study. This means it’s not a pretty translation, but it is accurate.
  2. KJV. More literal translation. Old-fashioned, beautiful. May be hard to understand.
  3. RSV. More literal translation. Revision of the old ASV, which in turn was a revision of the KJV. The old standard for mainline Protestant denominations in the middle of last century. It retains “thee/thou” when bible characters address God. It’s normal English, but has an indescribable air of elegance. It’s beautiful. This is the translation I use.
  4. ESV. More literal translation. A revision of the RSV. Elegant, modern English. Very solid choice.
  5. NKJV. More literal translation. A 35-40 year-old revision of the KJV. Modern English. Clear. Solid choice.
  6. CSB (Christian Standard Bible, formerly HCSB). Literal translation. This is a completely original translation, commissioned by the Southern Baptists. It’s a good choice. It was completely revised and the update launched last year.
  7. NIV. Trends towards thought-for-thought. About 40 years old. Probably the best-selling English Bible of the last few decades. If you want clarity, combined with a commitment to stick close to the Greek text, this is it.
  8. NET (New English Translation). Thought for thought. This is not a well-known version. Produced by a team of scholars largely concentrated at Dallas Theological Seminary. It was produced for free distribution on the internet. This is an extraordinary translation, and any Christin who reads it will find it beautiful, accurate and enriching. I love this translation.
  9. NEB (New English Bible). Thought for thought. This is a mid-century British translation. It isn’t well known today. It’s a very nice translation, and their choices are often bold and striking. I like it.
  10. Phillips. Thought for thought. John Phillips was an Anglican preacher who started his own translation of the New Testament in the London underground, during the Blitz in World War 2. He later completed the entire New Testament by the mid-1950s. His translation is excellent, thought-provoking, and rewarding. He aims for clarity for the reader.
  11. NIrV. (New International Reader’s Version). Thought for thought. This is a sub-set of the NIV, designed specifically for children. My 7-yr old son uses it. It is a very good, very simple and very accurate translation. My son reads his bible aloud during our family devotions, and I am always impressed with how the translators got the meaning across in simple prose, in a way that is faithful to the Greek text. This is a very good translation.
  12. NLT. Very thought for thought. This is probably as far as you can go without falling off the cliff into paraphrase. This is a very free bible version, which makes extraordinarily bold translation choices. You may not agree with the NLT, but you’ll always know what the translators thought the phrase meant. They aimed for clarity, and they achieved it.

Should you use a paraphrase, like The Message?

No. Paraphrases are completely unnecessary, and are very nice incubators for heresy and foolishness. There are plenty of thought-for-thought translations on the market (e.g. NLT, NrIV) that are very, very, very easy to understand.

A translation actually considers the original language, the grammar, the syntax, and renders it faithfully. A paraphrase is one guy’s restatement of a passage in a deliberately simplistic manner. It’s not anchored to the actual words of Scripture, so it’s very dangerous to count on a paraphrase.

For example, this is how The Message renders 1 Peter 2:12:

Live an exemplary life among the natives so that your actions will refute their prejudices. Then they’ll be won over to God’s side and be there to join in the celebration when he arrives.

Pardon me while I retch. Unbelievers are not “natives.” Peter said these unbelievers are slandering Christians, making them out to be criminals and evildoers. That is completely gone. Poof. They don’t have sin; they have prejudices. There is no mention that these unbelievers are watching the way you live your life. God is reduced to the guy at the party who made a pizza run, and will be cheered when he returns (“Dude! Where’s the pepperoni!?”).  Eternity, coupled with God’s righteous and wrathful judgment on Satan and all who refuse the Gospel, is reduced to “the celebration.” Eternity is now a frat-party.

This is foolish, unnecessary, and cheap. You don’t need a paraphrase, and you don’t need The Message.

Wrapping Up

So, what’s the point? If you read something in your bible, and you’re confused, I want you to reach for a different bible translation. Don’t ask Pastor Google or Pastor Bing, or even (heaven forbid) . . . Pastor Yahoo. Just look at another bible translation. Have a short list of go-to comparison translations, with a whole spectrum of translation philosophies. Keep a NLT, ESV and NIV handy, for example.

For some more on all this, see this wonderful article by Mark Ward, entitled “Which Bible Translation Is Best? All the Good Ones.”

You don’t need to know Greek or Hebrew. You have a whole host of good resources in English bible translations. They’re each different. They each have different translation philosophies. But, they’re all good. Use them, use your brain, think about the text, and it’ll become clear.

Happy studying. Ciao.

Going Too Far . . .

Sometimes, the quest to simplify the Bible in translation can go too far. Here is a bit from D.A. Carson on the limits of functional equivilence in Bible translation:

Functional equivilence must not be permitted to mask the development of and internal relationship within salvation history. Suppose, for instance, that a tribe has a long tradition of sacrificing pigs but has never so much as heard of a sheep. Is it in that justifiable to render John 1:29, “Look, the swine of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” I would argue stronly for the negative, not only because of the importance of historical particularity . . . but because of the plethora of such alusions preserved in Scripture across the sweep of salvation history.

In what sense could it be said that Jesus ‘fulfills’ the Old Testament sacrificial system if that system typically sacrificed lambs at Passover, all the while proclaiming that pigs are ceremonially unclean, whereas Jesus is portrayed in John 1:29 as a swine? How then will John 1:29 relate to Isaiah 52:13-53:12, the fourth servant song, or to images of the warrier lamb in the Apocolypse (e.g. Rev 5:6)? Shall we change all such references to pigs (“We all, like swine, have gone astray . . .”)?

Now that is a funny example.

  • D.A. Carson, “The Limits of Functional Equivilence in Bible Translation,” in The Challenge of Bible Translation, ed. Glen Scorgie, Mark Strauss and Steven Voth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 101.

Gospel or Good News?

dictionaryIs the Word “Gospel” Gospel?

The English word “Gospel” has a tortured and convoluted history. I don’t know this because I’m a genius. I know this because I looked at the Oxford English Dictionary. Behold where it comes from:

  • It started out as the Greek εὐαγγέλιον
  • Then it morphed into the Latin evangelium
  • Then Old English translated this as “godspel”
  • We now have it as “gospel”

Why should you care? Well, it matters when you read Jesus saying something like this:

Mark 1:15 He said, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the gospel!”

The word almost all English translation translate as “gospel” here is the Greek τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ, or “the gospel.” What does this word mean?

Hopefully, you can see the rendering “Gospel” really doesn’t tell you anything at all. The word is useless, in and of itself. It descended from the Old English rendering of the Latin, which in turn was descended from the Greek. The only place in this chain where we really have primary contact with the true definition is in the Greek – because the Old English, Latin and Modern English renderings are just derivatives from the Greek, not the actual definition itself.

So, what on earth did Jesus mean when he commanded everybody to believe in τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ? He meant they must believe the “good news.”

Who Cares?

If we translate terms consistently throughout the Bible, you can see connections easier. I stumbled across a perfect example this evening during my Bible reading:

Isaiah 52:7-10 How delightful it is to see approaching over the mountains the feet of a messenger who announces peace, a messenger who brings good news, who announces deliverance, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns!” Listen, your watchmen shout; in unison they shout for joy, for they see with their very own eyes the LORD’s return to Zion. In unison give a joyful shout, O ruins of Jerusalem! For the LORD consoles his people; he protects Jerusalem. The LORD reveals his royal power in the sight of all the nations; the entire earth sees our God deliver.

The Israelites will go into exile because of their sin. Life will be terrible. It will be hard. They’ll be punished for their sins. But, all hope is not lost. God will deliver them. Enemies will be vanquished and trampled in the mud. The tables will be turned. Because of the new and better covenant, peace, justice, holiness and righteousness will reign in all God’s people and on all the earth. The Israelites will be rescued from their exile, and led back to their own Promised Land by Yahweh Himself.

In our passage, Isaiah gives us a picture of a special messenger from God. The messenger races over the mountains toward them. He has news! He has a message! What is he bringing?

He is bringing good news.

We just saw that phrase somewhere before, didn’t we!? Interesting. How do you suppose the Greek translation of the Old Testament which Jesus and the apostles used translated this word for “good news?”

I’ll bet you can’t guess it! They translated it as εὐαγγελιζόμενος, which is the exact same Greek word (in different form) which Jesus used in Mark 1:15, when He commanded Israelites to believe in the “good news.”

Connecting the Dots

Jesus is called elsewhere the “messenger of the covenant” (Mal 3:1). He is the messenger who will bring word about God’s new and better covenant. In Isa 52:7, He is also the “messenger” who will race across mountains to the Israelites bearing the message of peace (compare the angel’s Christmas message to the shepherds). He comes preaching “good news.”

Coincidence? I think not. Now do you see why “good news” might be a better translation than “gospel?”