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Against the Theory of ‘Dynamic Equivalence’

by Michael Marlowe
Revised, August 2010

Introduction
Among Bible scholars there is a school which is always inquiring into the genres or rhetorical forms of
speech represented in any given passage of the Bible, and also the social settings which are supposed to
be connected with these forms. This approach is called form criticism, and it was developed largely by
German scholars in the early twentieth century. Among these scholars, whether they be German or
English-speaking, one constantly hears German phrases. The social setting is called the Sitz im Leben.
The “oracle of salvation” introduced by “Fear not” is the Heilszusage, and so on. When I was in the
seminary learning about all this, I at first wondered why it should be necessary to use these German
words; but then I learned that the German words are used because they are recognized as technical
terms, and the English equivalents are not. Students were expected to learn the terminology of the field,
just as in any other field of study.
Likewise, there were many Greek and Hebrew words to be learned. These were the “technical terms”
of the Bible itself. The professors often warned us students about the important semantic differences
between various Greek and Hebrew words and their closest English equivalents. The Hebrew word
‫( תורה‬torah), for instance, was not always equivalent to the Greek νομος (nomos) or the English law,
and the Hebrew ‫( נפש‬nephesh) did not always refer to the soul, etc. Anyone who has been to a
theological school knows very well how often points like this are emphasized by scholars.
I mention this at the beginning of this book on Bible translation because I want the reader who has not
been exposed to this kind of study to know how much is made of words and their precise usage in
theological schools. Ministers in training cannot go through three years of seminary without being
impressed with the undeniable differences between Hebrew, Greek, and English, and with the delicate
problems of translating many key words of the Bible into our language. It is not a simple and easy task.
Indeed, it is not fully possible, and that is why ministers are taught the biblical languages in seminary.
It is easy to get carried away with fine distinctions. Scholars are often accused of losing their common
sense in a multitude of hair-splitting distinctions, and of using foreign words and difficult terminology
merely to impress the unlearned. In some cases this undoubtedly happens. We also must be on guard
against the elitist attitude taken by many in the Roman Catholic tradition, which in its extreme form
caused the Roman Catholic Church to oppose the translation of the Bible into English in the first place.
But I want to suggest here that those who are not used to careful study of the Bible may easily fall into
an opposite error: the error of despising many distinctions which really do make an important
difference in our understanding of the Bible, despising the role of trained teachers in the Church, and
generally failing to recognize the bad effects that arise from vague and loose words on any important
subject. The Bible is a very important book, and it deserves our utmost care. And if we believe that
every word of the Bible is inspired by God, how can we be careless of these words?
I also mention form criticism, with its emphasis on the text’s situation in life, for another reason: I
believe that a translation of the Bible must take account of the “sociological setting” in which the Bible
came to be, and in which it belongs: namely, the Church of Jesus Christ. The translator must remember
that this book was given to the Church and it belongs to her. And this fact, this Sitz im Leben of the
Bible as a whole, is not without some consequences for our methods of translation.
1. The Bible in the Church
And all the people gathered as one man into the square … and Ezra the scribe stood on a
wooden platform … and Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was
above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed the Lord,
the great God, and all the people answered, Amen, Amen, lifting up their hands. And they
bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. Also Jeshua,
Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad,
Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people
remained in their places. They read from the book, from the law of God, clearly (1) and they
gave the sense, (2) so that the people understood the reading. — Nehemiah 8:1-8 (ESV).

This passage from Nehemiah gives an account of the day when Ezra and
his fellow-ministers of the Word gathered the people together and began to teach them the contents of
the “Book of the Law of Moses.” It says that they read from it distinctly, and that they caused the
people to understand the meaning of the words. Jewish tradition says that this was the beginning of
those translations into Aramaic called Targums, free renderings of the Hebrew which were used by
Jews in later times to explain the meaning of the archaic Hebrew text. But it is unlikely that such a
translation is referred to here, because farther on in the book we read of Nehemiah’s indignation when
he discovered that some of the children of the Jews who had married foreign women could not
understand “the language of the Jews.” (3) Nehemiah was not inclined to provide a translation for such,
but rather, turning to their fathers, he “contended with them, and cursed them, and smote certain of
them, and plucked off their hair, and made them swear by God …” (13:25) Hebrew was not forgotten
by the Jews so quickly during their short captivity in Babylon. At a later time they did forget their
mother tongue, but in the days of Nehemiah this had not yet come to pass. This passage therefore
describes a situation which is very familiar to us as Christians. The people come together. The Scripture
is read to them in portions, followed by explanatory comments. We would call it “expository
preaching.” This is how most Christians in all ages have acquired a knowledge and an understanding of
the Bible. But there are other ways:
And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians,
who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was
returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to
Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah
the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can
I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Now the
passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this:
He was led as a sheep to the slaughter;
And as a lamb before his shearer is dumb,
So he openeth not his mouth:
In his humiliation his judgment was taken away:
His generation who shall declare?
For his life is taken from the earth.

And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about
himself or about someone else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this
Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. (Acts 8:27-35.)
Here is a situation which is also familiar to many of us. The man is alone and reading his Bible.
Probably he is reading the Septuagint version. In any case, he is having a problem understanding the
passage that he is reading. When Philip comes along he asks the man if he understands the passage, and
the man readily admits that he is in need of help. It is for this purpose that the Lord has sent Philip to
him, who explains the passage he is reading and several others besides.
What do these two situations have in common? Both of them involve a Bible, an audience or reader,
and a teacher appointed for the purpose of explaining the Bible. It is taken for granted that the Bible is
not self-explanatory, and that the common reader or hearer stands in need of a teacher. The prologue to
Luke’s Gospel states that it was written “that you may have certainty concerning the things (λόγων)
you have been taught.” The word translated “you have been taught” here (κατηχήθης, katēchēthēs)
pertains to a course of instruction in religious matters, κατήχησις, katēchēsis. The Gospel is thus
presented not as a substitute for catechesis, but for the further education and confirmation of one who
has already been catechized. (4) And in addition to this teaching ministry in the Church we encounter
several statements in the Bible declaring that the Bible cannot be rightly understood by those who lack
the Spirit of God. Jesus says to his questioners, “Why do you not understand my speech [λαλια]? It is
because you cannot hear my word [λογος]” (John 8:43). And Paul declares, “these things God has
revealed to us through the Spirit … we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is
from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God … connecting spiritual things
with spiritual.” (1 Cor. 2:10-13, a passage which we will have more to say about below). Some things
in the Bible require much patient reflection to be understood.
In the writings of John we even find things that seem deliberately mystifying. In the eighth chapter of
his Gospel, the whole point of the dialogue between Jesus and “the Jews” is to show how incapable
they are of understanding his sayings. Over and over again “they did not understand” what he was
talking about (v. 27). When he says, “the Truth shall set you free,” they answer that they have never
been slaves to any man. When he denies that they are sons of Abraham, they protest that they were not
born of fornication (v. 41). When he says “if a man keep my word, he will never see death,” they think
that he is speaking of physical death (v. 52). Because their minds are stuck on the level “of this world”
(v. 23), they take everything in a worldly literal sense, and they cannot understand his metaphorical
language. They are unregenerate, born “from below,” and “not of God” (v. 47). Many other passages
make this same point in both the Old and the New Testament.
The relationship, then, between the Bible and its intended readers is not simple and direct. It is
conditioned by the reader’s relationship to Christ and to his Church. The Bible itself declares that it is
not easy to be understood by all.

2. The Bible apart from the Church


“My own mind is my own church”
Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason
Our observation that the Bible is a difficult book to those who are outside the church does not sit well
with many people these days. “On the contrary,” they say, “the Bible is really quite simple: it is all a
matter of translation. The old literal method of translation, which makes for such hard reading, is to
blame. But if we will only put the Bible in simpler and more idiomatic English it will need no
explanation. People who are unfamiliar with ‘church jargon’ might then read and understand it with
ease.” This is the basic presupposition of the method of translation called “dynamic equivalence.”

The name of Eugene Nida, an American linguist, is usually mentioned in connection


with this method of translation, because it was he who coined the phrase “dynamic equivalence.” He is
generally regarded as the seminal theorist behind it. Nida was for more than thirty years (1946-1980)
the Executive Secretary of the Translations Department of the American Bible Society, and during this
time he published a number of books and articles explaining and promoting this approach. (1) But in
fact there is little that can be called original in Nida’s books. His contributions were more on the
practical side than on the theoretical. He gathered up a number of ideas about language that were
current among linguists in his time, he applied them to the task of Bible translation, and he presented
these ideas in a very engaging and understandable way. He was essentially a popularizer of theoretical
ideas and principles that might serve to bring some methodological discipline into “the pioneering
efforts of missionaries translating the Scriptures for remote, primitive tribes.” (2) His books are packed
with examples of translation problems drawn from the experience of missionary translators who were
trying to put the Bible into the local languages of South-American and African tribes (most of which
lacked even a system of writing at the time), and his examples show very plainly that if people were to
have the Bible in these languages, in versions that were to be immediately intelligible to the
uneducated, the only practical approach to the task was to use a paraphrastic method. Reading his
books, one gets a vivid impression of how difficult the task is, and how wrong it is to think that an
essentially literal translation could be produced in these languages in their present state of
development.
For our purposes, it is important to notice that Nida was not primarily concerned with English
translations. He was preoccupied with the problems of translating the Bible into the tongues of
primitive tribes who were at that time being reached for the first time by Christian missionaries, and
with the need for new approaches to deal with the kind of linguistic constraints that made translations
into these languages so difficult. This missionary orientation is conspicuous in Nida’s writings on the
subject. But it should also be noticed that in addition to the purely linguistic constraints that he
discusses, Nida also imposes some constraints which are non-linguistic in nature. These come from his
philosophy of ministry, in particular his conception of the task of the missionary translator. Nida
believed that these missionaries should be unaffiliated with churches, and not at all concerned with the
planting of churches, or with the perpetuation of any tradition of biblical interpretation.
Our communication is primarily sowing the seed, not transplanting churches. It is lighting a
spark, not establishing an institution. This does not mean that the communication of the full
revelation of God is unconcerned with the church; but the indigenous church we are
committed to, whether in central Africa or central Kansas, is not the church we have
structured, but one raised up by the Spirit of God. It is not enough for us merely to
“indigenize” our own structures, by trying to insist on the superficial criteria of self-
governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating. Many churches have these characteristics
but still do not fit within the society where they exist. The development of an indigenous
church will always be the living response of people to the life demands of the message. The
source of the information, unless he is a full participating member of the society in
question, is never more than a catalyst, but as such he is nevertheless an indispensible
factor in the divine process. (3)
From this and other similar statements we can see that Nida was concerned with producing versions of
the Bible which might even be useful outside the context of any established church—outside of or prior
to any teaching ministry, that is. Obviously, such a version could not be one which required
explanations or any introductory preparation of the readers; the versions would have to be made as
simple and idiomatic as possible — not only because of the nature of the languages into which it is
being translated, and not only because of the primitive cultural state of the people who spoke these
languages, but because the teaching ministry of the Church was simply left out of the equation. Nida
asserted that “the real test of the translation is its intelligibility to the non-Christian,” and he even
maintained that “there certainly must be something wrong with the translation” if phrases in it are
misunderstood by “illiterates who have not been under the influence of the missionary’s teaching.” (4)
The Bible is simply delivered into the midst of a society, in such a form that it may be immediately
understood by the common people. Here Nida is making statements as a missiologist, not as a linguist;
and he is using a particular philosophy of ministry as the basis for his philosophy of translation.
The influence of this rather questionable missiology on translation theory is noticed by D.A. Carson,
who also suggests that an institutional bias is at work:
A great deal of Bible translation work has been tied to missionary movements. This is less
true, of course, where Bibles are being produced to meet the needs of established
ecclesiastical bodies. Still, it is very largely true, and from a Christian perspective this is a
good thing.
What is perhaps overlooked is that this reality in turn influences the way translators think of
their task. Translators commissioned by the National Council of the Churches of Christ to
produce the NRSV will not see their role in exactly the same way as will translators
struggling to produce the first New Testament for a remote tribe in Papua New Guinea,
precisely because the envisioned readers are so different. I do not mean that the respective
cultures of the two reader groups are very different. I mean that one translation effort is
overtly and immediately interested in evangelism, and cannot think of its task apart from
that goal, while the other serves a more established constituency. Internationally, however, a
far greater proportion of translators immediately serve the missionary and evangelistic task
than otherwise, and so the preponderance of thought and research and publication in the
area is inevitably shaped to serve this large group. When we delve into this literature on
Bible translation theory, and try to understand the way it works out in new Bibles, we are
being influenced to think of the priorities of translation in a certain way.
I wonder if Bible translation theory has been shifted a little too far in the direction of
simplification and clarity (even when the source text is obscure), precisely because the
unstated assumption is that the only evangelistic ‘agent’ for the particular target group will
be the Bible itself. Indeed, for all of its history the Wycliffe Bible Translators has adopted
the policy of not sending out pastors or more traditional missionaries, of not setting up
schools and hospitals and the like. Traditional missionary endeavor has been left to other
organizations. This single-eyed commitment to Bible translation has been remarkably
productive. However, it may slightly skew the vision of the translators themselves. We
cannot help noting that when Paul established churches in highly diverse centers of the
Roman Empire, he quickly appointed elders in every place. He did not simply distribute
copies of the Septuagint. The New Testament that translators are putting into the vernacular
frequently describes and mandates the tasks of pastors and teachers and evangelists. Of
course, this does not rule out a place for specialized ministry, in this case the work of
translation. But unless such work is coordinated with other work, it may take on a
disproportionate importance. And it may establish a certain expectation of what all
translations ought to be. (5)
I would not minimize the problem by using the words “little” and “slightly,” as Carson does, because it
must be said that many inaccuracies in the new versions are not so little, and the thinking behind them
must be more than slightly wrong. Carson does not seem to be aware of how deep-rooted the
theoretical problems are. But I think he has caught sight of one of them here. In a passage we have
quoted above, Nida said that “establishing an institution” is not the purpose of “our” communication.
But this “our” cannot include pastors, because obviously the founding of churches is a primary concern
of the missionary pastor. A pastor does not merely come to strike a spark and then depart. Nida is
speaking as a representative of the American Bible Society, and perhaps for other similar parachurch
organizations, such as the Wycliffe Bible Translators, whose interests and goals are not coextensive
with those of the Church. They have their own agenda, and their own institutional interests. One
Wycliffe official states that “theological education has not typically been a part of the curriculum” of
Wycliffe-sponsored translators, who “were not supposed to become too involved in local church affairs,
and especially in its duties to teach, baptize, and theologize.” (6) Nida’s theories are designed to serve
those interests and goals. The question is whether those institutionally-defined goals are fully
compatible with the interests of the Church. It may not be in the best interests of anyone to hurry
forward with a translation project before anyone who speaks the language has acquired a decent
theological education, or before anyone who does have such an education has learned the language well
enough to do the translating. One translation consultant working in the Far East reports:
… it has been the author’s experience, while conducting training workshops for mother-
tongue translators in various countries, that the translators themselves generally do not
understand why John the Baptist called Jesus a lamb. Those who are more aware of the
background of the Bible often guess that the point of similarity is “gentleness,” which is not
the intended point of similarity in this metaphor. (7)

From the standpoint of an educated pastor the situation described here must seem absurd. How can a
translation do justice to theologically important details of the text, when the translator is ignorant of
biblical theology, having no education in the subject? Native speakers of the language who can read
English have been recruited to translate the Bible (from a simplified English version provided by the
ABS or Wycliffe consultant) because the native speakers are the best judges of what will be idiomatic
and clear in their language. But their education is so defective that they have no idea why John the
Baptist called Jesus “the Lamb of God.” This is what we have in translation projects set up by the
missionary Bible translation agencies today, in accordance with their priorities and in line with Nida’s
view of missions. Naturally, the books and articles on translation theory that have been published by
these agencies are designed to justify these methods.
The problems here are more than theoretical. At bottom they are theological. They stem from a
defective ecclesiology. We note that the most prominent advocates of “dynamic equivalence” come
from Baptist and Anabaptist backgrounds, where a minimalist ecclesiology tends to downplay the role
of ordained ministers and blur the distinction between churches and parachurch ministries. Nida
himself was an American Baptist, of the “moderate” type, and he surrounded himself with like-minded
people. Kenneth Pike, who served with Nida as co-director of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, was
also a Baptist. Charles R. Taber, Nida’s co-author for the book The Theory and Practice of Translation,
started out in the Grace Brethren church and ended up in a Campbellite association, whose “restoration
movement” ecclesiology is more like an anti-ecclesiology. The chief translators of the Mexican Spanish
Versión Popular (1966) and the Good News Bible, with whom Nida worked closely, were Baptists. The
same is true of the chief translator of the Contemporary English Version. The New Living Translation is
a revision of a paraphrase done by a Baptist, Ken Taylor. The paraphrase was made popular by a
Baptist evangelist, Billy Graham. The revision was done by editors in the publishing concern founded
by Taylor, which is controlled by Baptists. We are aware of the fact that not everyone involved in the
production and promotion of these version was a Baptist, and that some of the most strident critics of
these versions have also been Baptists, but nevertheless we do notice that the initiators and major
figures in this movement are mostly Baptists. Probably this has something to do with the tendency of
Baptists to become preoccupied with evangelism and numerical growth, often by the use of innovative
but questionable methods. But we are also reminded of the populist streak in the Baptist heritage,
which includes much preaching about the evils of clericalism, the futility of “head knowledge,” and the
sufficiency of “the Bible alone.”
“The Bible alone” in this modern Baptist context does not mean what the early Protestants meant by
sola scriptura in the sixteenth century. In the theology of the Magisterial Reformers the slogan sola
scriptura was shorthand for their teaching that only the Scriptures could be relied upon as absolutely
authoritative, as distinguished from the merely human traditions or inventions that had come to
dominate religious life in the Middle Ages. It was not an assertion of the “autonomy of the vernacular
Bible,” with the implication that commentaries should be rejected as “superfluous props,” as one
modern missiologist puts it. (8) It pertained only to the original text in Hebrew and Greek. Of course
Luther and others did aim to provide vernacular translations which would faithfully represent the
original, but their translations of the Bible included a good deal of explanatory material in prefaces and
marginal notes. It is said that Tyndale once claimed that he would make “the boy who drives the
plough” know Scripture better than his Popish adversaries did, (9) but to this end he supplied the
ploughboys with prefaces and footnotes. His preface to the Epistle to the Romans (which was for the
most part a translation of Luther’s) was longer than the epistle itself! The makers of the Geneva Bible
included thousands of explanatory marginal notes. These early versions were in fact “study Bibles.”
Luther and Calvin gave much of their time to writing commentaries, catechisms, and theological
treatises. The “Bible alone” idea of modern American evangelicalism derives not from the venerable
Reformers of the sixteenth century, but from American sectarians and revivalists of the early nineteenth
century, who discarded everything in the Protestant heritage that was not congenial to American
libertarianism, individualism and egalitarianism. (10) In this indigenization of Christianity the assertion
that the meaning of the Bible is (or ought to be) clear to the common man was actually more important
than any particular determination of the meaning. No matter how discordant the interpretations grew,
the one thing that could not be questioned was the idea that the right interpretation was obvious.
Within the subculture of a long-established church it is possible to maintain the illusion that the Bible
does not need to be explained, because people who have been raised in the church forget how many
explanations they have absorbed over the years; but when the Bible is taken outside the church, the
error of this notion becomes painfully obvious. At that point, the modern “Bible alone” idea, which
insists that the common man can understand everything in the Bible without any help from an educated
class of teachers, can be maintained only by the use of a highly interpretive and simplified Bible
version. If we were to follow the example of the early Protestants, we would solve the comprehension
problem by placing explanatory notes in the margin, but this would only undermine the idea that no
explanations are needed. We might then expect a movement in the direction of paraphrase wherever
there is a reluctance to acknowledge the explanatory role of pastors, teachers, and interpretive tradition
in general. However, if the Bible is going to be separated from the church ministry and sent forth to
speak for itself, we had better be very careful about what is being presented as “the Bible alone.” If the
translation is grossly inaccurate or biased, it cannot go unchallenged. If we find that a body of theory
has been designed to justify such treatment of the text, and its proponents deploy it in the defense of
every bad and biased rendering, then that whole body of theory cannot go unchallenged either.
I would first of all challenge one of the theological presupposition of the theory: the idea that the Bible
precedes the Church. This is an alluring idea for us Protestants, because it agrees with our idea that the
Church is founded on the Scriptures, not the other way around, as in Catholicism; but in fact Nida’s
idea represents an extreme position which does not comport with other elements of Protestant
ecclesiology. Strictly speaking, the Bible as we have it did not precede the Church. The Church was
founded by the oral ministry of the prophets and the apostles, which is incorporated in the Bible; but
the writings which we have in the Bible in their present form are addressed to the Church as already
founded. This is evident even on a superficial level, in the forms of address used throughout the
Scriptures; and it is true at much deeper levels also, in the many things that go unspoken or
unexplained in the Bible. There is much in the Scriptures which cannot be understood—not even in a
“dynamic equivalence” version—without preparation of some kind.
At the first verse of Genesis, one popular study Bible notes that “the Bible begins with God, not with
philosophic arguments for His existence.” This is well said. The ministry of Moses and the prophets
was to Israel, not to modern agnostics, and so their writings take much religious preparation for
granted. The first sentence of the Bible assumes that the reader believes in God. In New Testament
times the apostles enjoyed the advantage of what theologians have called the preparatio evangelica,
“preparation for the gospel.” This groundwork was laid not only by the writings of the Old Testament
and the influence of Judaism, but also by parallel religious developments of the ancient Mediterranean
world. To give just one example, when Paul arrived in Greece he did not have to teach anyone that after
death a person might pass into a blessed afterlife. The idea of paradise was already familiar to the
common people, as an element of their own religious culture. (11) The great question to be answered by
Paul was, how could a person attain this blessedness? On many subjects the inquiring Greeks and
others were asking the right questions, at least. The most serious communication problems that
ministers have today are usually connected with a lack of such preparation. The good news of God’s
mercy means nothing to impious people who feel no need for it, and it is often misconstrued by the
superficially religious, who take it for granted. This problem is not caused by “church jargon” in Bible
versions. It makes no difference whether we translate ἄφεσιν with “forgiveness” or “remission” if the
hearer does not even accept the idea that he is a sinner. The ministry of the Law therefore is a necessary
preparation for the ministry of the gospel (Romans 3:20; 7:7). Although Paul’s mission was to the
Gentiles, his gospel was most readily received by those Gentiles who had been prepared to hear it by
attending worship services in the synagogues of the Jews, as persons “who fear God” (Acts 10:2,
13:16, 26, etc.).
Even where such preparation is not lacking, Protestants have never supposed that people could be
converted to Christ merely by giving them copies of the Bible. Everyone knows that the gospel must
first be preached, and that people must be introduced to the Christian faith and the Bible by various
summaries and explanations, whether they be written out in the form of catechisms, or conveyed from
the pulpit, or included in editions of the Bible. The Protestant Reformation came about through much
more than the mere circulation of copies of the Bible. The Church does not spring from the Scriptures
in the simple manner that Nida envisions, and God did not intend for it to do so. The Bible is much
more than a “spark.” It is not a rack of cartoonish tracts, to be picked up willy-nilly by mildly interested
individuals who are unwilling to give time and effort to understanding it.
The focus on individual Bible-reading that we see in Nida and other champions of “dynamic
equivalence” does not even make much sense in the context of tribal missions. Private book-reading is
rare enough among the common people even in civilized countries. It would be very unwise to make
evangelism or discipleship depend much on independent Bible-reading. A strong teaching ministry,
conducted by educated pastors, is absolutely necessary. A theory of translation that assumes the absence
of this ministry is expecting us to eliminate the one thing that cannot be missing. There is no biblical
warrant or apostolic precedent for the idea of a merely literary mission; and as John Wesley said, “The
Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.” In the days of the Apostles very few people could possess
copies of the Scriptures, and most would never have heard the Scriptures read without a teacher’s
comments. There was no such thing as “the Bible alone.” Only in our era could a private Bible-reading
scenario become the focus of attention, and predictably enough this is the focus in a publishing
organization based in America, where a rampant spirit of individualism has been destroying all sense of
community for the past century. People are assumed to be reading the Bible at home alone, in their
leisure time. And so of course the idea comes that the translation of the Bible must be made free of
difficulties, easily understood throughout. It should be unambiguous, simple, and clear even to the
“first-time reader” who has not so much as set his foot in a church. But however much these versions
may smooth the way for such a lonely reader on the sentence level, they cannot solve the larger
questions of interpretation which must press upon the mind of any thoughtful reader, such as question
asked by the Ethiopian in Acts 8:34. After all the simplification that can be done by a translator is done,
there is still the need of a teacher.

3. The Language of the Bible


Now as we have chiefly observed the sense, and labored always to restore it to all integrity,
so have we most reverently kept the propriety of the words, considering that the Apostles
who spake and wrote to the Gentiles in the Greek tongue, rather constrained them to the
lively phrase of the Hebrew than enterprised far by mollifying their language to speak as
the Gentiles did. And for this and other causes we have in many places reserved the Hebrew
phrases, notwithstanding that they may seem somewhat hard in their ears that are not well
practiced and also delight in the sweet-sounding phrases of the Holy Scriptures. — Preface
to the Geneva Bible (1560).
So said the makers of the Geneva Bible in their preface. It is very interesting that the Puritans who gave
us this version would find in Scripture itself their guidance for a method of translation. The Apostles
themselves were translators, after all. They did not give us a complete translation of the Old Testament,
choosing rather to use the familiar Septuagint in their ministry to the Greek-speaking nations; but in a
number of places where they quote from the Old Testament they do not use the Septuagint, and give us
their own rendering. From these examples we can see readily enough that the inspired authors of the
New Testament favored literal translation, with Hebrew idioms and all carried straight over into Greek.
(1) And why? Undoubtedly they believed that there was something significant in every word of the
Scripture, as do some of us today. In any case, the Bible was certainly not written in idiomatic and
colloquial Greek, as some defenders of dynamic equivalence have claimed. A truer estimate is made by
E.C. Hoskyns:
The New Testament documents were, no doubt, written in a language intelligible to the
generality of Greek-speaking people; yet to suppose that they emerged from the
background of Greek thought and experience would be to misunderstand them completely.
There is a strange and awkward element in the language which not only affects the
meanings of words, not only disturbs the grammar and syntax, but lurks everywhere in a
maze of literary allusions which no ordinary Greek man or woman could conceivably have
understood or even detected. The truth is that behind these writings there lies an intractable
Hebraic, Aramaic, Palestinian material. It is this foreign matter that complicates New
Testament Greek … The tension between the Jewish heritage and the Greek world vitally
affects the language of the New Testament. (2)
I do not think that the promoters of simple everyday language in Bible translation have any
appreciation for the important conceptual differences which uncommon “biblical” phrases and words
often serve to convey. In the Good News Bible at 2 Cor.12:2 we read, “I know a certain Christian
man.” The expression εν Χριστω “in Christ” is often rendered “Christian” in this version. But they are
not really equivalent expressions. The phrase “in Christ” conveys a whole package of meaning. It
implicitly teaches the relationship of the man to Christ, and emphasizes Christ himself over the man. It
makes a metaphysical statement: the man is in Christ. They are in vital union with one another. (3) The
man is not merely one of a category of people who go by the name of “Christian” as a descriptive
adjective. This is important. It is not trivial. The language teaches us something that cannot be
translated into banal newspaper language. This is the kind of thing that is always being discarded in
“dynamic equivalence,” and the cumulative effect of so many changes like this is that it prevents us
from entering fully into the concepts that are unique to the Scriptures. We are allowed to remain in the
newspaper-world of twenty-first century America, and this is not for our benefit.
The Scriptures say in several places that God spoke his words through or by means of the prophets. For
example, in Matthew 1:22 we read that the Lord spoke δια του προφητου “through the prophet,” and in
Hebrews 1:1, εν τοις προφηταις “by means of the prophets.” This manner of speaking is meaningful. It
is not equivalent to the expression, “God’s prophets spoke his message to our ancestors” as in the
Contemporary English Version at Hebrews 1:1, or “the Lord’s promise came true just as the prophet
had said” at Matthew 1:22. These renderings do not convey to the reader the emphasis on God as the
initiator and author of the prophetic message, and it does not convey the concept of mere
instrumentality on the part of the prophets. The word “through” is a little preposition which carries a lot
of meaning here.(4) But the literal translation was avoided by the CEV translators because they thought
it too difficult. Barclay M. Newman explains, “The use of through with persons or abstract nouns has
been rejected by the CEV translators because doing something ‘through someone’ is an extremely
difficult linguistic concept for many people to process.” (5) Indeed this manner of speaking may seem
strange to someone who is unfamiliar with the concept of inspiration which it expresses, but in such a
case would not this verse and several others like it, as literally translated, serve well as a means of
explaining inspiration?
A similar case is in John 3:21, “But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly
seen that his deeds have been wrought in God” (RSV). In his commentary on John’s Gospel, Westcott
explains that the phrase “wrought in God” (ἐν θεῷ ἐστιν εἰργασμένα) means that the works of a
believer are produced “in union with him, and therefore by his power. The order [of the Greek words]
lays the emphasis on God: ‘that it is in God, and not by the man’s own strength, they have been
wrought.’” (6) Compare this with the New Living Translation: “But those who do what is right come to
the light gladly, so everyone can see that they are doing what God wants.” This is indeed simpler and
more natural-sounding than any literal rendering could be; but the meaning of the Greek, as explained
by Westcott, is completely hidden by it. Instead of the believer working with and through God (ἐν θεῷ)
to bear the fruit of righteousness, he simply does “what God wants.” Even worse is the rendering of
Today’s New International Version: “… so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has
been done in the sight of God” — in which the words “sight of” have been inserted quite arbitrarily. In
both versions the distortion of meaning is caused by forcing the statement into something that sounds
more idiomatic in everyday English.
In the passage quoted from E.C. Hoskyns above, he mentions the presence of “literary allusions” in the
Bible. In literary criticism, an “allusion” is an indirect reference to something written by another
author, as distinguished from a direct quotation. One standard handbook of literary terms defines
“allusion” as follows:
A figure of speech that makes brief, often casual reference to a historical or literary figure,
event, or object. Biblical allusions are frequent in English literature … Strictly speaking,
allusion is always indirect. It attempts to tap the knowledge and memory of the reader and
by so doing to secure a resonant emotional effect from the associations already existing in
the reader’s mind … The effectiveness of allusion depends on there being a common body
of knowledge shared by writer and reader. (7)

It is perhaps misleading to talk about the allusions in the Bible as a “literary” phenomenon, however,
because the allusions in the Bible are not just artistic literary touches to be appreciated by those who
read the Bible “as literature.” In Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen and John Milton’s Paradise Lost
there are many allusions to the epic literature of pagan antiquity, but these literary allusions do not
carry the same religious significance as their allusions to the Bible. They did not believe the pagan
myths and legends to which they allude. In the same manner some authors of the Victorian Era allude
to the Bible without any serious religious purpose. Their allusions are merely literary.
A more serious purpose is served by allusions when an author uses them to signal the tradition of
thought to which he belongs, and within which he wants to be understood. In my reading on the subject
of translation theory, I recently encountered a fine example of this kind of allusion in the second
paragraph of Werner Winter’s essay “The Impossibilities of Translation.” (8) Winter begins:
It seems to me that we may compare the work of a translator with that of an artist who is
asked to create an exact replica of a marble statue, but who cannot secure any marble. He
may find some other stone or some wood, or he may have to model in clay or work in
bronze, or he may have to use a brush or a pencil and a sheet of paper. Whatever his
material, if he is a good craftsman, his work may be good or even great; it may indeed
surpass the original, but it will never be what he set out to produce, an exact replica of the
original.
In a nutshell, we seem to have here all the challenge and all the frustration that goes with
our endeavors to do the ultimately impossible. We know from the outset that we are
doomed to fail; but we have the chance, the great opportunity to fail in a manner that has its
own splendor and its own promise.
The word “splendor” in the last sentence is certainly an allusion to the classic essay in translation
theory by José Ortega y Gasset: “the Misery and the Splendor of Translation.” (9) Winter, who is
writing for an audience of scholars who would be familiar with Ortega’s essay, effectively brings it to
mind by using the unusual word “splendor” in this context. We notice then how Winter’s essay takes
up, confirms, and develops the ideas about translation expressed earlier by Ortega.
Allusions to Scripture in sermons often greatly deepen the meaning. An example of this kind of
allusion may be seen in the first words of Charles Spurgeon’s sermon “Feeding Sheep or Amusing
Goats?” which begins with the clause, “An evil is in the professed camp of the Lord …” The word
“camp” is used here instead of “church” because Spurgeon is comparing the Christian church to the
camp of the Israelites before they came into possession of the Promised Land. In particular, he would
bring to mind the story of the sin of Achan (Joshua 7), which brought a curse on the whole camp and
prevented the Israelites from prevailing against their enemies as they were coming into the land. It was
necessary to eliminate the sin in the camp before proceeding. For those who are familiar with the story,
this is all brought to mind by the phrase “evil … in the camp.” Communication like this can take place
only in the context of a highly developed religious culture. As one Jewish historian has observed, after
the rise of Puritanism in England a whole “complex of images and metaphors which were understood
and recognized” could be invoked merely by the use of “a partial biblical phrase, a sanctified word or
two,” and such phrases and words may even give to the thoughts expressed ”the stamp of divine
authority.” (10)
This is what we find in the writings of the Apostles. They “speak as the oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11).
Their language is thoroughly imbued with images and verbal reminiscences of the Old Testament. They
habitually draw upon Scriptural models and patterns as they apply the Word of God to their situation.
Some of the allusions in the New Testament are so obvious that very little knowledge of the Old
Testament is required to perceive their meaning. When John the Baptist says “Behold the Lamb of
God” (John 1:29, 36), this is an allusion to something in the Old Testament, and the meaning of it
would have been clear to any Jew of the first century. It expresses the atoning purpose of God in Christ,
by comparing him with the sacrificial lambs of the Mosaic Law. This does however require some
knowledge of the Old Testament to be understood. The New Testament contains hundreds of such
allusions to the Old Testament, some of them more obvious than others. Some depend upon just a word
or two, when an unusual expression or combination of words serves to bring to the reader’s mind
something in the Old Testament. They often consist of verbal echoes that are muffled if not completely
supressed in English translations. When John the apostle says that ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν
ἐν ἡμῖν (John 1:14) his use of the uncommon word ἐσκήνωσεν suggests much more than the reader
might suppose from the common English rendering “dwelt among us.” The word means “tabernacled,”
and it has some important Old Testament associations. (11) To the original Greek readers—who would
have been familiar with the traditional Greek version of the Old Testament—this would probably have
brought to mind how God had promised to “tabernacle” in the midst of his people (κατασκηνων Joel
3:17, κατασκηνωσω Zechariah 2:10, κατασκηνωσει Ezekiel 43:7, comp. σκηνωσει in Revelation 7:15,
21:3). The allusion thus further emphasizes the divinity of Christ, which is one of John’s main purposes
in the Prologue.
In Galatians 1:15 most scholars are likely to agree that there is an allusion to Jeremiah 1:5. (12) When
Paul says that God set him apart “even from the womb” of his mother, and called him to preach
“among the Gentiles (or, nations),” one is reminded of the word of the Lord to Jeremiah: “Before I
formed you in the belly I knew you, and before you came forth from the womb I consecrated you; I
have appointed you a prophet unto the nations.” The allusion is signaled here by the use of the Hebraic
expression “from the womb” (ἐκ κοιλίας, comp. ‫ מבטן‬or ‫ )מרחם‬in connection with being sent “to the
nations,” and the effect of this allusion is to suggest that Paul conceived of his calling as being like the
prophet Jeremiah’s. But the allusion is weakened if the words that constitute the verbal link are not
translated literally. In modern versions we have in Galatians 1:15 the renderings “before I was born”
and “from birth” instead of “from the womb.” These renderings expresses the sense in a general way,
but the very generality of them weakens the allusion, which depends upon distinct verbal cues. In many
cases this loss is wholly unnecessary. Readers who are not very familiar with the Old Testament would
of course fail to recognize the allusion in cases like this, and we admit that the literal rendering “from
the womb” may seem rather odd or unusually graphic for modern Americans; but few readers will fail
to see that it means “from birth” or “from before birth,” (13) and if the verbal correspondence with
Jeremiah 1:5 is preserved, the allusion may be noticed in due time.
Words that are unremarkable, bland and ordinary can never be very allusive. In order to be allusive,
words must somehow stand out and point to a special context elsewhere. Translators who are more
interested in making the text “idiomatic” for the reader than in preserving significant verbal
connections like this have practically erased most of them from the New Testament in recent Bible
versions.
Consider Acts 5:30, which in the New Living Translation is rendered, “The God of our ancestors raised
Jesus from the dead after you killed him by crucifying him.” (14) Literally Peter’s words are, “The God
of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree.” This expression as literally
translated ought to give some pause to the reader. Why does Peter say “hanging him on a tree” (επι
ξυλου) instead of “crucifying him”? Anyone who has read Galatians will know where the unusual
phrase comes from, and what it means. It is from Deuteronomy 21:22-23, quoted in Galatians 3:13-14,
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us; for it is written, Cursed is
everyone who is hanged on a tree.” See also 1 Peter 2:24 and Acts 13:29. And so by this phrase
“hanging him on a tree” Peter evokes the whole theology of the cross! But apparently the translators
missed it, or found this to be unimportant. By flattening out and simplifying the language they have
caused the reader to miss this thought-provoking allusion.
In 1 Peter 1:13 the expression “girding up the loins of your mind” was rendered “prepare your minds
for action” in the 1978 New International Version, and “with minds that are alert” in the 2011 revision.
Nida caims that this expression would “surely be meaningless if rendered literally.” (15) We grant that
Peter’s use of the peculiar “girding up the loins of your mind” may at first sight seem clumsy and even
a little weird to many people. It certainly is not idiomatic in English. But neither was it idiomatic in
Greek. Peter deliberately uses this Hebraic expression as a way of bringing to his readers’ minds the
words spoken to Israel concerning the Passover: “and thus you shall eat it, with your loins girded, your
shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand” (Exodus 12:11). This would have been one of the most
familiar passages of the Old Testament to a Jew like Peter, because it was recited every year at the
Passover holiday. One commentary on the Greek text here states that the reference is “unmistakable.”
(16) But readers of the NIV (and most other modern versions as well) will miss it entirely. Instead of an
accurately translated verbal allusion, they are given an “equivalent” expression.
Someone may ask, What exactly is gained when we see an allusion to the Passover here? Isn’t Peter’s
main purpose here to exhort his readers to be prepared, and doesn’t “prepare your minds for action”
serve this purpose well enough, without an allusion to some ancient Jewish commemoration? In answer
to this, we must concede that those who have never identified with the Israelites will gain little. But for
a Jew who has been taught to identify with them, (17) and for all those who are able to identify with
Israel on that night, it can make a very great difference when an allusion invites them to do it. The
effect of an allusion like this—when it is recognized as an allusion—is to add a whole new dimension
of meaning. The few words of the allusion are invested with all the historical and religious associations
of the passage alluded to, and so the amount of meaning gained by allusions can be very large. We
might compare a sentence without allusions to a house built up in the usual way, with individual
boards, bricks, and panels being fasten together on site. These pieces correspond to the words of a
sentence under construction. But when an allusion is introduced, the construction goes modular. A
prefabricated “living room” arrives on the truck, and at one stroke, a large and complex module of
meaning is added to the sentence. The same meaning might perhaps be built on the construction site,
but it would require several chapters of additional text to build it there, and there is no reason to do that
if the prefabricated unit already exists in the reader’s mind, to be summoned by an allusion. Of course
the reader must have the “module” in his head, or else the allusion fails; but the writers of the New
Testament assume that their readers’ minds are stocked with the usual “modules” of popular Hellenistic
Judaism.
Another allusion in 1 Peter which will be missed by readers of some modern versions is in 4:12-19.
Here the 1978 NIV renders the Greek word πυρωσει in verse 12 as “painful trial” instead of the more
literal “fiery ordeal,” and in verse 17 the word οικου is rendered “family” instead of “house.” These
renderings are defensible enough in the immediate context, and we grant that some readers may be
helped by a translation which explains that “house” often means “family” in Scripture, but it may be
doubted whether any considerable number of Bible-readers really need this explanation, and, as so
often happens in paraphrastic renderings, the “helpful” interpretation here really hinders the reader’s
ability to discern the correct meaning. As Dennis Johnson points out, “a proper application of the
principle of context in word studies must give attention not only to the word’s immediate literary
context but also to more distant literary contexts to which the author may be making conscious
allusion,” (18) and he convincingly shows that there is an allusion here to Malachi 3:2-6, “… he is like a
refiner’s fire … and he shall purify the sons of Levi … that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in
righteousness.” The reader who is familiar with this passage from Malachi will catch the allusion to it
in 1 Peter 4 when the phrases “fiery ordeal” and “house of God” are in the translation before him, but
who would perceive it in the NIV? The phrase “house of God” may refer to the “family” of God in
some contexts, that is true, but here we see that it is probably an allusion to the Temple, with which the
Church is being compared.
An extreme example of this erasure of allusions is found in Isaiah 31:5 in the Good News Bible. In the
last clause of this verse, Isaiah uses the Hebrew verb ‫פסח‬, lit. “pass over,” which occurs elsewhere
only in the Passover narrative of Exodus, chap. 12. The allusion may be seen in a literal rendering:
As birds flying, so will the LORD of Hosts defend Jerusalem;
Defending also he will deliver it;
And passing over, he will make it escape.

When Isaiah says that the Lord will cause Jerusalem to escape (that is the proper meaning of the hiphil
of ‫ )מלט‬from destruction by “passing over” it, he is of course alluding to that great deliverance of the
children of Israel, when he “passed over” their houses while slaying all the firstborn of the Egyptians,
allowing them to escape from death. But apparently the translator of the Good News Bible regarded this
last clause as a mere repetition, adding nothing meaningful to the preceding one. Therefore, being
warned by Nida that “in most parts of the world … receptors are often irked by what they regard as
obnoxious repetition and tautology in Semitic poetic forms,” and following his counsel that
“synonymous expressions” in adjacent lines may be deleted if they serve only to impart emphasis, (19)
he left out the whole clause:
Just as a bird hovers over its nest to protect its young, so I, the LORD Almighty, will protect
Jerusalem and defend it.

The translators of some other versions use the word “spare” instead of “pass over” for ‫ פסח‬here, and
translate the hiphil form of ‫ מלט‬as “rescue” (RSV, NRSV, ESV), which is better than nothing, but still
inadequate for the purpose of conveying the allusion. (20)
In all of these examples of lost allusions, the loss is caused by a philosophy of translation which seeks
to eliminate anything unusual in the diction. Because allusions depend upon relatively uncommon
expressions that stand out from the immediate context and point to another, they are bound to suffer
this fate in a version that systematically “normalizes” the style and diction.
This tendency to normalize anything that strays from the beaten path of everyday language affects not
only allusions, but all sorts of interesting linguistic features of the text.
In Isaiah 57:15 there is a striking expression in the Hebrew text: ‫( שכן עד‬shokeyn ad), lit. “he who
inhabits eternity,” which theologians commonly point to as an expression of God’s transcendence. God
is not bound by time, nor does he live within time; rather, he transcends time and space. He “inhabits
eternity.” (21) D.A. Carson calls this memorable phrase one of Isaiah’s “fine expressions that stretch the
imagination” of readers, as they ponder the transcendence of God. (22) Unfortunately, the reader of the
NIV will not encounter Isaiah’s expression here. Instead of “he who inhabits eternity” the NIV has a
rather unsatisfactory and prosaic rendering, “he who lives forever.” This is certainly easier to
understand, but it is not equivalent to the original. It would be better to translate literally, and advise the
reader that one should “never expect that what is sublime, immense, and extraordinary in the original
language will be easily and immediately comprehensible in the translation.” (23)
In Mark 1:12 we find a typical example of the NIV’s tendency to turn what is semantically sharp and
colorful in the Greek text into something very bland in English: “the Spirit sent him out into the
desert.” Here the Greek αυτον εκβαλλει, lit. “pushed him out,” is translated as “sent him out;” but this
is unsatisfactory, because the Greek word carries a connotation of command and compulsion, which is
why more literal versions try to express the meaning with “drove him out” (ESV), “impelled him to go
out” (NASB), etc. One of the NIV translators later recalled that this expression was the subject of
irreverent levity at the committee’s meeting, with some of the editors “facetiously wondering what kind
of a car the Spirit used” to “drive” Jesus into the wilderness. (24) But Mark’s word is no joke.
Commentators have often observed that it is a strong word, descriptive of our Lord’s “sense of
urgency” (Meyer) his “intense preoccupation of mind” (A.B. Bruce), and the “dynamistic” working of
the Spirit in Him (F.C. Grant). (25)
Words that are normal and ordinary for the average modern reader inevitably convey only thoughts that
are ordinary for such readers. But what if the things expressed in the original are not ordinary for
modern American readers?
Recently while giving a lesson on the topic of modesty I referred to 1 Timothy 2:9, where the Greek
text has the phrase μετα αιδους και σωφροσυνης. These are words that ancient authors commonly used
in their teachings about personal virtues, and they describe attitudes or states of mind, not merely (or
even primarily) outward actions. The first noun here, αιδως, denotes a capacity to feel shame, in a good
sense, as opposed to shamelessness or impudence. In modern English versions it is usually translated
“modesty,” but “bashfulness” may sometimes be a more adequate way of expressing its connotations.
John Wyclif’s “shamefastness” is nearly perfect, and would still be the best rendering if that word had
not become obsolete. (26) The second noun, σωφροσυνη, denotes an habitual self-regulation or
moderation of desires and thoughts, as opposed to mania, self-indulgence and excess, and it is usually
translated with “sobriety” or “self-control.” My purpose in referring to these words was to emphasize
that “modesty” in the Bible is not merely outward compliance with some dress code, but a state of
mind characterized by a capacity for shame and self-inhibition, and that the biblical authors connect
this cultivated “sense of shame” with virtue and honor, especially in the case of women. This is a
commonplace of exegetical writings, and it needs to be emphasized, because it is so foreign to the
modern liberal ethos that dominates our society. (27) My students on that occasion had copies of the
NIV translation, and so I asked them to turn to that place, expecting to find something close enough to
build the lesson on. But to my surprise, I found that μετα αιδους και σωφροσυνης was translated “with
decency and propriety.” Evidently the translators felt that these prissy words would be in some manner
equivalent to the original. (28) I suppose they are the sort of words that a modern American would fall
back on when recommending clothing that is suitable for Christians. But they do not begin to convey
the meaning of Paul’s words. People associate “decency” with conformity to minimum standards of
social behavior, and “propriety” with things like proper etiquette, but Paul speaks of something much
more personal — a virtuous sense of shame, coupled with self-control. The problem here is not just
about an archaic word that needs to be updated, it has to do with an ancient moral concept that has no
name in the modern idiom. I am not sure what should be done in this case. Even “modesty” seems very
inadequate. Perhaps we need to reclaim the word “shamefastness.” But there is no use pretending that
“decency” will convey the meaning of αιδως. The inadequacy of colloquial modern English in this
instance brings to mind an observation of J.D. Michaelis:
Some virtues are more sedulously inculcated by moralists and philosophers when the
language has fit names for indicating them; whereas they are but superficially treated of, or
rather neglected, in nations where such virtues have not so much as a name. (29)

Perhaps most serious of all is the normalizing treatment that χαρις (charis) receives in some modern
versions. This word lies at the heart of the gospel message, and I think it is no exaggeration to say that
its translation and interpretation is crucial to a true understanding of Biblical theology in general. The
first English versions of the New Testament translated it “grace,” and this English word has been used
in most translations right up to the present day. In English dictionaries the range of meanings for the
word in biblical and ecclesiastical contexts is given under the heading of “theological” usages, as in the
Oxford Universal Dictionary:
6. Theol., etc. a. The free and unmerited favor of God … b. The divine influence which
operates in men to regenerate and sanctify, and to impart strength to endure trial and resist
temptation … c. The condition of one who is under such influence … d. An individual
virtue or excellence, divine in its origin.

All of these “theological” senses of the word are quite old, dating from the period of Middle English (c.
1150-1450), and are well-established in our language. None of them is obsolete. Nevertheless, certain
linguists who think that readers cannot understand what is meant by “grace” in the Bible have urged
translators to use “kindness” and “favor” instead, and so that is what we find in the Good News Bible,
the God’s Word version, and the New Living Translation. But the χαρις of God is much more than
kindness or favor. As James Dunn says, “In Paul … χαρις is never merely an attitude or disposition of
God (God’s character as gracious); consistently it denotes something much more dynamic—the wholly
generous act of God. Like ‘Spirit,’ with which it overlaps in meaning (cf., e.g., [Rom] 6:14 and Gal
5:18), it denotes effective divine power in the experience of men.” (30) Again, Louis Berkhof says it
ordinarily denotes the “operation of God in the heart of man, affected through the agency of the Holy
Spirit.” (31) It is probably true that many non-Christian readers will not understand “grace” in this
biblical sense, and will think that it means “graciousness.” We do think, however, that the biblical
meaning of “grace” can be gathered easily enough from the context in many places, even if the reader
does not make use of an English dictionary, or have the benefit of explanations. Substituting “kindness”
for “grace” only ensures that the reader will not understand what the biblical authors mean by χαρις.
One gets the impression that the editors of the New Living Translation did not understand it either: Acts
4:33, “God’s great favor was upon them all;” 11:23, “he saw the proof of God’s favor;” Romans 1:5,
“given us the privilege and authority;” 3:24, “God in his gracious kindness;” 5:17, “gracious gift of
righteousness;” 5:20, “kindness became more abundant,” and so on, throughout the New Testament. We
notice that in Romans 6:14 the word “grace” is used, but the translation ensures that the word will not
be understood as a divine influence: “for you are no longer subject to the law, which enslaves you to
sin. Instead, you are free by God’s grace.” This makes good sense within the framework of a false
interpretation of Paul’s gospel, and a popular one, to be sure; but it differs substantially from what Paul
means by ἁμαρτία γὰρ ὑμῶν οὐ κυριεύσει, οὐ γάρ ἐστε ὑπὸ νόμον ἀλλὰ ὑπὸ χάριν — “For sin shall not
have dominion over you, for you are not under law, but under grace.” By ὑπὸ χάριν “under grace” he
means not “freedom” or “forgiveness” but a condition in which one is subjected (ὑπο) to the
sanctifying influence (χαρις) of the Holy Spirit, which breaks the dominion of sin in the heart, more
than the Law ever could. (32) The New Living Translation, by injecting the word “free,” and using the
word “grace” in the sense of “kindness,” practically converts this into the opposite of what Paul really
said.
We should have thought that a long-established English word which perfectly corresponds to the
meaning of the Greek would be cherished by translators, even if some readers might need help
understanding its “theological” sense. But no. Because the perfect word in this case is not sufficiently
ordinary, and hence might not be understood by everyone, a more “everyday” word is used, as being
the “closest natural equivalent,” though it obviously fails to convey the true meaning in many places.
The reader of these versions has not been required to enter into the conceptual framework of the Bible
as it is expressed over and over again in its phraseology; he has been deprived of the opportunity to
perceive the network of allusions and verbal associations which give the Bible such richness of
meaning; and he is protected from exposure to anything very demanding or unusual. The reader is left
in his own familiar and everyday world of thinking. And this is the whole purpose—and the explicitly
stated purpose—of those who are promoting “dynamic equivalence” in Bible translations. The whole
idea is to present nothing to the reader which is strange. Nothing foreign or “offensive.” Nothing
evocative. Nothing which requires a pause for reflection, orientation, and discovery. Nothing that
stretches the imagination. (33) I submit that this theory of translation is not only unscriptural, but self-
defeating and perverse.

4. Transculturation
Apologists for “dynamic equivalence” commonly make a distinction between it and “transculturation,”
which involves an adaptation of the text not only to the language but also to the cultural and historical
context of the modern reader. Robert Bratcher, the chief translator of the Good News Bible, makes this
distinction while criticizing Eugene Peterson’s The Message:
Peterson goes beyond the acceptable bounds of dynamic equivalence in that he will often
divest passages from their first-century Jewish context, so that Jesus, for example, sounds
like a twentieth-century American. Look at Mt 5.41-42: ‘And if someone takes unfair
advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff.
Live generously.’ No longer are we in first-century Judea, where the Roman occupation
troops had the right to require Jews to carry their packs. In Jn 2.4 the money changers in the
Court of the Gentiles become ‘loan sharks.’ Besides indulging in transculturation, Peterson
at times pads the text with additional details for increased vividness and drama …” (1)

It must be said, however, that Nida’s own explanation of the goals and characteristics of a “dynamic
equivalence” version makes this distinction somewhat questionable. In his book Toward a Science of
Translating (1964), he introduces the theory thus:
Since “there are, properly speaking, no such things as identical equivalents” (Belloc, 1931a
and b, p. 37), one must in translating seek to find the closest possible equivalent. However,
there are fundamentally two different types of equivalence: one which may be called formal
and another which is primarily dynamic.
Formal equivalence focuses attention on the message itself, in both form and content. In
such a translation one is concerned with such correspondences as poetry to poetry, sentence
to sentence, and concept to concept. Viewed from this formal orientation, one is concerned
that the message in the receptor language should match as closely as possible the different
elements in the source language. This means, for example, that the message in the receptor
culture is constantly compared with the message in the source culture to determine
standards of accuracy and correctness.
The type of translation which most completely typifies this structural equivalence might be
called a “gloss translation,” in which the translator attempts to reproduce as literally and
meaningfully as possible the form and content of the original. Such a translation might be a
rendering of some Medieval French text into English, intended for students of certain
aspects of early French literature not requiring a knowledge of the original language of the
text. Their needs call for a relatively close approximation to the structure of the early
French text, both as to form (e.g. syntax and idioms) and content (e.g. themes and
concepts). Such a translation would require numerous footnotes in order to make the text
fully comprehensible.
A gloss translation of this type is designed to permit the reader to identify himself as fully
as possible with a person in the source-language context, and to understand as much as he
can of the customs, manner of thought, and means of expression. For example, a phrase
such as “holy kiss” (Romans 16:16) in a gloss translation would be rendered literally, and
would probably be supplemented with a footnote explaining that this was a customary
method of greeting in New Testament times.
In contrast, a translation which attempts to produce a dynamic rather than a formal
equivalence is based upon “the principle of equivalent effect” (Rieu and Phillips, 1954). In
such a translation one is not so concerned with matching the receptor-language message
with the source-language message, but with the dynamic relationship (mentioned in
Chapter 7), that the relationship between receptor and message should be substantially the
same as that which existed between the original receptors and the message.
A translation of dynamic equivalence aims at complete naturalness of expression, and tries
to relate the receptor to modes of behavior relevant within the context of his own culture; it
does not insist that he understand the cultural patterns of the source-language context in
order to comprehend the message. Of course, there are varying degrees of such dynamic-
equivalence translations. One of the modern English translations which, perhaps more than
any other, seeks for equivalent effect is J.B. Phillips’ rendering of the New Testament. In
Romans 16:16 he quite naturally translates “greet one another with a holy kiss” as “give
one another a hearty handshake all around.” (p. 159)
In connection with this last paragraph, we would also notice what Nida said in an earlier book about the
kind of interpretation conveyed in the example from Phillips. In a chapter on “Symbols and Their
Meaning” in Message and Mission (1960) Nida describes one type of meaning thus:
What do authorities in circumstances later than the original communication say that M [the
message] ought to mean to R [the receptor], quite apart from what S [the source] may have
intended? Here can be treated the exposition of the “holy kiss” and “tongues” in our
present-day churches and the meaning of the Constitution of the United States for present-
day American life. Few Biblical expositors interpret Paul’s admonition of the holy kiss as
immediately applicable to our congregations. And the judges of the Supreme Court know
quite well that their interpretations have for many years gone far beyond what the founding
fathers intended—though not necessarily different from what some of them would have
prescribed were they living today. (p. 85)
We would prefer to see the word “significance” used rather than “meaning” for this kind of pragmatic
use or interpretation of the text, to avoid theoretical confusion. (2) But Nida does not make such a clear
distinction, and regards the attempt to communicate this variety of “meaning” as a legitimate part of the
translator’s task. Although it may represent a “degree” of dynamic equivalence which some may not
wish to attempt, he does not rule it out, but instead includes Phillips’ “hearty handshake” (as an
equivalent for “holy kiss”) under the term “dynamic equivalence” as a good example of what the
approach might entail in practice. And it is hard to see how this could be approved on the same
principles that would rule out Peterson’s “takes unfair advantage of you” (as an equivalent for “forces
you to go a mile”). In fact it really seems to us that of these two, the former is more of a “transcultural”
rendering than the latter. Peterson at least refrains from turning the original saying here into something
specific to our culture, and merely generalizes the thought. We might call this de-culturation. But the
“hearty handshake” is unquestionably an instance of transculturation. It is a relatively unimportant
instance, but in view of the fact that Nida himself chose to illustrate his theory with it, one can hardly
claim that his theory rules out any kind of transculturation. And moreover, his description of the
method’s goal even seems to require this kind of adjustment. It aims “to relate the receptor to modes of
behavior relevant within the context of his own culture.” Other statements in the same chapter show that
this call for cultural accommodation is not a mere slip of words:
In contrast with formal-equivalence translations others are oriented toward dynamic
equivalence. In such a translation the focus of attention is directed, not so much toward the
source message, as toward the receptor response. A dynamic-equivalence (or D-E)
translation may be described as one concerning which a bilingual and bicultural person can
justifiably say, “That is just the way we would say it.” … since a D-E translation is directed
primarily toward equivalence of response rather than equivalence of form, it is important to
define more fully the implications of the word natural as applied to such translations.
Basically, the word natural is applicable to three areas of the communication process: for a
natural rendering must fit (1) the receptor language and culture as a whole, (2) the context
of the particular message, and (3) the receptor-language audience. The conformance of a
translation to the receptor language and culture as a whole is an essential ingredient in any
stylistically acceptable rendering. (pp. 166-7.)

Here Nida twice repeats his dictum that a dynamic translation must be adapted to the culture as a
whole. If left unqualified, the practical implications of this principle are enormous. But to be quite fair,
we must hasten to add that Nida also warned against attempts to completely “naturalize” the text. He
writes:
No translation that attempts to bridge a wide cultural gap can hope to eliminate all traces of
the foreign setting. For example, in Bible translating it is quite impossible to remove such
foreign “objects” as Pharisees, Sadducees, Solomon’s temple, cities of refuge, or such
Biblical themes as anointing, adulterous generation, living sacrifice, and Lamb of God, for
these expressions are deeply imbedded in the very thought structure of the message.
It is inevitable also that when source and receptor languages represent very different
cultures there should be many basic themes and accounts which cannot be “naturalized” by
the process of translating. (pp. 167-8.)
A key phrase here is “all traces.” The idea is that transculturation is theoretically desirable and should
be carried to a certain point for the sake of “dynamic equivalence,” but unfortunately, not everything
can be “naturalized” for the modern reader without seriously compromising the meaning of the text,
and so the cultural accommodation cannot be perfect. After giving some examples, Nida leaves it to the
wisdom of translators to discern what other “foreign” features of the text should be allowed to remain
in a Bible version.
In The Theory and Practice of Translation (1969), written by Nida and Charles Taber, we find more
warnings against cultural transformations of the text that would involve major distortions or loss of
meaning:
The best translation does not sound like a translation. Quite naturally one cannot and should
not make the Bible sound as if it happened in the next town ten years ago, for the historical
context of the Scriptures is important, and one cannot remake the Pharisees and Sadducees
into present-day religious parties, nor does one want to, for one respects too much the
historical setting of the incarnation. In other words, a good translation of the Bible must not
be a “cultural translation.” Rather, it is a “linguistic translation.” Nevertheless, this does not
mean that it should exhibit in its grammatical and stylistic forms any trace of awkwardness
or strangeness. That is to say, it should studiously avoid “translationese”—formal fidelity,
with resulting unfaithfulness to the content and the impact of the message. (pp. 12-13.)
A conscientious translator will want the closest natural equivalent. It has been argued, for
example, that in present-day English a natural equivalent of “demon-possessed” would be
“mentally distressed.” This might be regarded by some as a natural equivalent, but it is
certainly not the “closest equivalent.” Moreover, “mentally distressed” is a cultural
reinterpretation which does not take seriously the cultural outlook of the people of Biblical
times. (p. 13.)
There are situations, however, in which culturally strange objects must be retained because
of their symbolic values. For example, one cannot dispense with a term for sheep or lambs,
for these animals figure so largely in the entire sacrificial system. Moreover, there are
important analogies employed in the New Testament, e.g., Jesus Christ as the Lamb of God.
Similarly, though crucifixion may not be known in the local culture, the use of some
expression for “cross” and “crucifixion” is essential, though it may be necessary to provide
some fuller explanation in a glossary or marginal note. (p. 111.)
We may then contrast a linguistic translation, which is legitimate, and a cultural translation
or adaptation, which is not. This is because we believe in the significance of the historical
events and situations just as they occurred. It is the job of the pastor and teacher, not of the
translator, to make the cultural adaptation. (p. 134.)
Probably these statements were prompted by criticism received from persons who objected to Nida’s
statement in Toward a Science of Translating that a Bible translation should be adapted to “the culture
as a whole,” and to his use of the Phillips paraphrase as a model. He uses now a rendering from the
Phillips paraphrase as a bad example: He says the rendering in Luke 13:1, “a woman who for eighteen
years had been ill from some psychological cause” (πνεῦμα ἔχουσα ἀσθενείας, lit. “having a spirit of
infirmity”) involves the introduction of “information from some nontextual source, and especially from
some other cultural milieu.” It shows “the introduction of cultural ideas which are at least absent, if not
foreign, to the culture of the text.” (p. 134.) But these cautionary remarks are not different in kind from
the ones he made concerning “foreign objects” in his earlier work. Although a thorough-going
application of the principles of “dynamic equivalence” actually requires transculturation, he recognizes
that in general this is not acceptable, and so he tries to define the limit of legitimate application of his
principles by drawing a line between “linguistic” and “cultural” adjustments of the text.
However, as Nida himself recognized and even emphasized in some places, it is not really possible to
draw a line between “linguistic” and “cultural” matters. In an essay on lexicology published in 1958 he
wrote:
Whatever we may personally think of structural analysis as divorced from meaning or of
the influence of grammatical categories on thought processes, we must certainly admit the
close relationship between language and culture. Language cannot be properly treated
except in terms of its status and function as a part, a process, and, to some degree, a model
of culture, with a high degree of reciprocal reinforcement. Though one may not wish to go
all the way with Whorf, nevertheless, one cannot escape the fact that language seems to
provide the “grooves for thought” in the same way that cultural patterns constitute the
molds for more general modes of behavior. (3)
This means that in the realm of lexical semantics any attempt to enforce a theoretical distinction
between “linguistic” and “cultural” matters is unrealistic and even fallacious. The meanings of words
and sentences can never be abstracted from their cultural setting and then conveyed in other languages
without loss or change of meaning. Translations can make the meaning of the original accessible to
people in other languages, but only if the reader understands that it is a translation he is reading, and
that everything in the translation must be understood according to the context of the original work. The
reader cannot simply stay where he is in his own culture, and have the meaning transferred to him
there. He must enter into the world of the text. In the previous chapter I gave several examples of
distorted meanings to illustrate this point, and many more will be given below. I will also show
repeatedly that the demand for “complete naturalness of expression” (which continues to be
characteristic of all versions produced under the banner of “dynamic equivalence”) constantly pushes
the versions in the direction of deculturation if not transculturation. This happens even if the translators
do not intend for it to happen, because culture will always have an effect on what is considered
“natural” in any language.
It seems that it was natural enough for a woman to call her husband her “lord” in the days of Abraham,
for we find in Genesis 18:12 that “Sarah laughed within herself, saying, After I am grown old shall I
have pleasure, my lord being old also?” The Hebrew word translated “lord” here is ‫( אדני‬adonai), and
this definitely means “lord,” “master,” or “owner.” It is unlikely that this noun would have been used
merely in the sense “husband” without the implication that the husband was in some sense the owner or
master of the wife. Someone might argue from the usage here that “husband” should be recognized as a
separate sense of the word adonai, but the evidence for this is very weak, and so the Koehler-
Baumbartner Lexicon does not give a sense of husband for it, and lists Genesis 18:12 under the sense
“master.” (4) Obviously this will not sit well with some modern readers, because it is “politically
incorrect” when transfered to the modern context; but it is just the sort of thing we would expect in the
context of ancient Hebrew society. A scholar might even dispute the genuineness of a text which does
not contain such clear signs of agreement with the historical context. We could almost date the modern
versions also, by their suitability in the modern context, when we find that in several of them Sarah
does not call Abraham “lord,” but only “husband” (RSV, NEB, JB, TEV, CEV, NCV, NRSV). Perhaps
the translators of these versions feared that their readers would not understand that “my lord” is Sarah’s
way of referring to her husband. Or perhaps they were guided by the idea that the text should be
translated “the way we would say it,” even if they thought readers would probably be able to
understand what Sarah meant by “my lord.” But whatever reason might be given for it, this only
illustrates how the culture determines what is natural to the language of a people. We grant that a literal
translation of Sarah’s words is not natural in modern English. But her use of “lord” is meaningful, as
Peter points out in 1 Peter 3:6. If it is not possible to convey the meaning of her words in language
which is natural to modern American readers, then it follows that we must abandon that principle of
translation. For the sake of the meaning we must use language that is not natural for the receptors. And
this is the way it has to be, not because of some mindless literalism, but because of the indissoluble
connection between culture and semantics.
People who are already familiar with the Bible and its background may not realize the extent of the
changes that would be necessary for a version which really aspires to be “dynamically equivalent” for
those who are completely ignorant of the cultural setting. The problem here is not even primarily
verbal. For instance, in an old version of Judges 12:14 we read that Abdon the son of Hillel judged
Israel for eight years, “and he had forty sons and thirty sons’ sons, that rode on threescore and ten ass
colts.” The Good News Bible modernizes this language by saying that he had “forty sons and thirty
grandsons, who rode on seventy donkeys,” but the meaning of this will not be any clearer to modern
readers if they do not know that having many sons, and riding about on a donkey, were status symbols
in Israel at that time. The forty sons could not have been possible without multiple wives, a sign of
great wealth. We know that the infant mortality rate in ancient times was more than 50 per cent, even
among the wealthy. Ludwig Köhler informs us that “Marcus Aurelius [Emperor of Rome] had thirteen
children, but the majority of them died young. Sultan Murad III (1574-95) had one hundred and two
children, but at the time of his death there were only twenty sons and twenty-seven daughters still
living.” (5) Only when this kind of information is provided can the reader really appreciate what the text
is designed to convey. American readers who are unfamiliar with status symbols of the second
millennium before Christ are likely to associate donkey-riding with poor hillbillies and other rural folk
of low degree. Having many sons, by several wives, is not a sign of status in modern Western society.
So it cannot be taken for granted that uneducated readers will intuitively understand that the purpose of
the statement is to indicate how wealthy, blessed, and prominent this man was. Implicit in this
statement is quite a bit of cultural information. It is not hard for a teacher to explicate it, but what can a
translator do with this verse to make explanations unnecessary? If any reference to the donkeys is
retained, the reader needs to be brought into an ancient setting where riding on a donkey was a luxury.
Familiarity with ancient agriculture is necessary to understand many things in the Bible. As just one
example of this, consider the complex metaphor used in Micah 4:11-13.
And now many nations are assembled against thee,

That say, Let her be defiled, and let our eye see its desire upon Zion.

But they know not the thoughts of the Lord,

Neither understand they his counsel:

For he hath gathered them as the sheaves to the threshingfloor.

Arise and thresh, O daughter of Zion:

For I will make thine horn iron,

And I will make thy hoofs brass:

And thou shalt beat in pieces many peoples:

And thou shalt devote their gain unto the Lord,

And their substance unto the Lord of the whole earth.

Why is the “daughter of Zion” (Jerusalem) suddenly transformed into a beast with horns and hoofs in
this passage? Because in ancient times, the sheaves of the harvest were often threshed by driving oxen
over them on the threshingfloor. Thus the nations who know not God shall be threshed, as the wheat is
beaten from the chaff by the hoof of the farmer’s ox. Now, this metaphor should be interpreted, and a
Christian preacher would do well to explain it in a spiritual sense, after the example of Edward Pusey:
The very image of the ‘threshing’ implies that this is no mere destruction. While the stubble
is beaten or bruised to small pieces, and the chaff is far more than the wheat, and is carried
out of the floor, there yet remains the seed-corn. So in the great judgments of God, while
most is refuse, there yet remains over, what is severed from the lost heap and wholly
consecrated to Him. (The Minor Prophets, 1885.)

But the translation of the passage cannot and should not be adapted to the limits of someone who does
not know anything about threshing. It is very instructive to see how this passage is handled in some
“dynamic equivalence” versions. In the New Living Translation, instead of “Arise and thresh (‫)דוש‬, O
daughter of Zion,” we read “Rise up and destroy the nations, O Jerusalem.” In the Good News Bible
we find, “People of Jerusalem, go and punish your enemies! I will make you as strong as a bull with
iron horns …” Likewise in the Contemporary English Version, “Smash them to pieces, Zion! I’ll let
you be like a bull .…” These loose translations depart from the threshing metaphor in the Hebrew text,
presumably because the translators felt that it would not be understood. Instead of a literal translation
of ‫דוש‬, “thresh,” which implies the ox, two of them substitute the figure of a rampaging bull. Although
both figures involve an animal with horns and hoofs, the meaning is quite altered. And in the rendering
of the New Living Translation we note how “destroy the nations” clashes with the observation made by
Pusey, that “the very image of the ‘threshing’ implies that this is no mere destruction,” and practically
excludes it. Thus readers and preachers alike are paying a high price for this pottage of “equivalence,”
which is really no equivalence at all.
The meaning of many expressions in the Hebrew Bible cannot be conveyed in ordinary English without
explanations. One literal translation of Jeremiah 7:29 reads,
Cut off thine hair, O Jerusalem, and cast it away,

And take up a lamentation on the bare heights;

For the Lord hath rejected and forsaken

The generation of his wrath. (ERV)

Here the translators of the English Revised Version have done what they could. The words O
Jerusalem have been added to express the force of the feminine singular forms used in the sentence.
These forms are used because Jeremiah is employing a common trope in which cities are figured as
women (cp. 6:23). When he tells Jerusalem to cut off her hair he is partly alluding to an ancient
mourning custom — a form of self-humiliation practiced by women in extreme demonstrations of
mourning, like the tearing of garments. (6) But a marginal note on “thine hair” indicates that a more
literal rendering of the Hebrew word ‫( נזר‬nezer) is “crown,” which provides a clue to even more
meaning. Actually the primary meaning of ‫ נזר‬is “consecration,” as symbolized by a crown or by the
uncut hair of one who has made a Nazarite vow. When used in reference to the hair of the Nazarite, it
denotes the hair as a sign of consecration. (7) Only here does the word seem to be used in reference to
the long hair of a woman. The word ‫ שפים‬shephayim “bare heights” probably refers to the barren and
wind-swept hills of the Judean Wilderness east of Jerusalem. We note that the word is used here for
poetic reasons, indicating not only a desolate location away from Zion, but also one which is bare, like
the head of the mourner. (8) Even casual readers of English versions might discern that the complex
figure used here, of a defiled and grieving Jerusalem crying out in waste places, symbolizes the
desolation of the coming exile. But an English translation cannot convey all that Jeremiah means by
“cut off your nezer.”

Nida has said that “the relationship between receptor and message should be
substantially the same as that which existed between the original receptors and the message.” But how,
exactly, can the message of Jeremiah 7:29 be so translated? Let us try to imagine what could be done to
make this verse seem “natural” to a reader living now, in a location like Ohio. This reader has never
heard anyone speak to a whole city as if it were a woman. He does not, of course, live in Jerusalem. He
has never heard of a woman cutting her hair in mourning, and he is not sure what a “lamentation”
might involve. Does it mean crying? He doesn’t know a Nazarite from a Jebusite. There are no “barren
heights” in Ohio. And perhaps he does not accept the idea that God sometimes gets angry. I think this
would describe the average person in my home town. Just how are we supposed to make the message
of Jeremiah here seem “natural” to him and his culture, like something he hears every day, expressed
“just the way we would say it,” while also seeing to it that there is an “equivalent effect” when he reads
our translation?
The impracticality of these goals should be obvious in this case. We can modernize the language
somewhat, using “your” and “has” instead of “thine” and “hath”; and perhaps instead of “take up a
lamentation” we could have “sing a funeral song,” as in the Good News Bible. But this does not bring
us very far in the direction of Nida’s goals. Our naive reader will only wonder what is meant by “a
funeral song.” At the last funeral I attended we sang Jesus Loves Me, because it was the favorite song
of the deceased; but this is not the kind of song that Jeremiah has in mind. Few people in America have
ever heard anything like the ‫( קינה‬kinah) to which Jeremiah refers, a heart-rending elegy sung at
funerals in ancient Israel. There is nothing even remotely equivalent to it in modern American culture.
We cannot make this verse say things “the way we would say” them if it says things that we never have
any occasion to say. How can a distortion or loss of meaning be avoided in the attempt to make all this
seem “natural” to our reader, when it is inherently not natural to him or his culture?

The New Living Translation makes things easier here with its “weep alone on the
mountains,” but much of the meaning is lost in this paraphrastic rendering. Instead of the poetic “bare
heights” we have “mountains” — as if the barrenness of the location were not an important part of the
meaning intended by Jeremiah. The articulate “lamentation” is reduced to mere weeping alone. This
reduction of meaning is typical of the “dynamic equivalence” versions. While claiming to make the
meaning accessible, they make much of it inaccessible. In theory, the purpose is to convey the meaning
to everyone; but in practice, anything that requires an explanation for the average reader is simply
eliminated.
The hard truth is, there is no easy and familiar form of colloquial language that can express in English
what Jeremiah says in the Hebrew. The use of familiar words like “song,” “weep,” and “mountains”
only prevents readers from recognizing that Jeremiah is talking about something that is unfamiliar to
them—something outside their experience, which they must learn about. I do not think it is unrealistic
to expect people to learn things about the ancient culture and geography of Israel while reading the
Bible. Ordinary readers of the Bible will pick up items of knowledge like this from a properly
translated and annotated text. The word “lamentation” will convey the meaning of kinah if readers infer
its biblical meaning from other places in which the word is used, as in the Book of Lamentations. The
very unusualness of the word will suggest to them that it refers to something unusual or even foreign to
their experience, and will facilitate the linguistic process whereby English words acquire biblical senses
in the mind of the reader. The meaning of nezer is more difficult to convey, but it can be explained in a
footnote. The “bare heights” (shephayim) can be explained with a map and a picture. The advocates of
easy-going “dynamic equivalence” will naturally scoff at this old-fashioned method, which requires the
reader to avail himself of the help provided in the margin, but the patronizing and reductionistic
tendencies of their own method are much too obvious to be denied.
The impracticality of attempts at “dynamic equivalence” become even more obvious if we turn our
attention to units of discourse larger than the sentence or paragraph. Readers of the Bible will find that
in order to understand it one must give up any expectations that the narratives will be composed
according to modern Western conventions. This is one of the common expectations of naive readers,
and it generates many problems for them. Take, for example, the famous question about Cain’s wife. In
Genesis 4:17 we read “And Cain knew his wife,” before the existence of any woman (other than Eve)
has been mentioned, and so the skeptic captiously asks, “Where did Cain get his wife?” The answer is
simple (he married a sister), but many are temporarily baffled by the question, because they would have
expected at least some mention of the fact that daughters were born to Adam and Eve before one is
abruptly brought on the scene as Cain’s wife. The reader has to reckon not only with the fact that the
sons of Adam would have only their own sisters to marry, but he must also get used to the fact that the
narrators of the Bible tend to omit things that we would certainly not omit if we had composed the
stories. The difficulty felt by readers here arises from false expectations about the Bible’s literary form,
and it disappears only when it is recognized that the biblical writers felt no need to mention the birth of
daughters, (9) or to explain the existence of Cain’s wife. When these narratives were first written and
compiled, they satisfied the expectations of an ancient Near Eastern audience; but nothing short of a re-
writing of the Bible, after the manner of Sholem Asch’s The Apostle or Walter Wangerin’s The Book of
God, could bring them into line with modern expectations. It is for this reason that works of biblical
fiction like Asch’s and Wangerin’s have been written. They alone can satisfy the culturally-determined
expectations of modern readers.
The New Testament presents similar problems, and it assumes that the reader is familiar with the Old
Testament, or at least with some important elements of Jewish religion based on it. Paul’s argument in
Galatians 3 is addressed to recently-converted Gentiles, but it would not have made much sense to a
reader who did not already know who Abraham was. Even the title χριστος “Christ” would be
confusing to Greeks who knew nothing about the Old Testament, because the sense “anointed one” is a
Hebraism introduced by the Septuagint, used only in Jewish Greek, and the custom of anointing kings
was unknown outside of Judaism. In ordinary secular Greek the word χριστος was an adjective
meaning “to be used as an ointment,” specifically a pharmaceutical ointment. So “Jesus the Christ”
would have meant “the ointment Jesus,” if it meant anything at all to the heathen. But it seems that they
commonly confused χριστος with χρηστος, meaning “benevolent,” and understood it as a name. (10)
Despite this, we do not find in the New Testament any explanation of the term, or any avoidance of it.
The writers simply required readers to know what “Christ” means.
The New Testament also assumes that the reader is familiar with many aspects of ancient Jewish
culture that cannot be learned from the Old Testament. Luke’s use of the phrase “a sabbath day’s
journey” in Acts 1:12 assumes that the reader is familiar with the Jewish custom of limiting travel on
the Sabbath day to about two thirds of a mile (two thousand cubits, to be exact). (11) And the knowledge
assumed by the writers consists of far more than isolated bits of information like this. Consider what
the reader must know to understand Matthew 12:38-41.
Then certain of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, Teacher, we would see a
sign from thee. But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation
seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet:
for as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale; so shall the Son of
Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh shall stand
up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for they repented at the
preaching of Jonah; and behold, a greater than Jonah is here.

In order to fully understand these three sentences, readers must know who the scribes and Pharisees
were, and what kind of “sign” they were asking for. They must know the story of Jonah, and of Christ’s
death and resurrection. They must also know the meaning of the phrases “Son of Man,” “the
judgment,” “adulterous generation,” and “heart of the earth” — the last two being understood as figures
of speech. If I were giving an unhurried lesson on this passage, I would also like to explain that
“generation” does not express all that is meant by γενεα here, because γενεα refers not only to a group
of people born at about the same time, but also to people of a common origin and nature (something
like “brood” or “kindred”). And I would think readers must have some explanation about how Old
Testament stories present types of the Messiah, in order to understand why Christ focuses on the “three
days … in the belly of the whale.” Again, what can a “dynamic equivalence” version do to convey all
this?
I chose this last example (Matthew 12:38-41) because Nida himself, in a sentence we have quoted
above, mentioned the “Pharisees” and the “adulterous generation” concept as examples of “foreign”
elements which cannot be converted into something more familiar to modern Americans without a loss
of meaning. To say that they are “deeply imbedded in the very thought structure of the message” is a
rather obscure way of putting it. A better way of describing this linguistic situation would be to say that
these words have meaning within the context of first-century Judaism that they cannot retain when
taken outside the whole interconnected system of people and ideas that constitutes the religious culture
of the time. The phrase “adulterous generation” serves to invoke a concept developed in the writings of
the prophets, that the people of Israel have violated the terms of their covenant with God like an
adulterous wife, and have estranged themselves from the covenant, like the Gentiles who worship other
gods. Jesus, who speaks as a prophet here, describes the γενεα that “desires a sign” in these terms
because he is comparing them (unfavorably) to the heathen people of old Nineveh. One cannot convert
“adulterous” into “faithless,” as in the New Living Translation, without losing important culturally-
specific content. The complex metaphorical concept represented by the phrase “adulterous generation”
is a cultural specialty for which there is no ready-made equivalent in other cultures and languages.
Again, Nida recognizes this in the case of “Pharisees” and “adulterous generation,” in his short list of
“foreign objects.” But the point I would make now is this: the same may be said for all of the things I
mentioned in connection with Matthew 12:38-41 above. None of the key words of the passage can
retain their meaning outside the total context of people and ideas to which they belong. Acknowledging
a few terms as exceptions really misrepresents the situation, because the meaning of words and
sentences in a discourse like this cannot ordinarily be abstracted from the cultural context. The mind of
the reader must become acculturated to the world of the Bible to get the meaning.
“Foreign objects” that require some degree of linguistic acculturation are especially abundant in the
words of Christ. In the dominical saying recorded in Matthew 11:11 and Luke 7:28 we find the
expression γεννητοις γυναικων “those born of women” used in reference to humanity. This is a
Hebraism, corresponding to the phrase ‫ ילוד־אשה‬used in Job 14:1, 15:14, and 25:4. The expression
used in these places is not idiomatic in secular Greek or English, and doubtless many readers who are
unfamiliar with idioms of Scripture will fail to perceive its import, but it is not merely another way of
saying “all who have ever lived,” as the NLT translates it in the Gospels, or “humanity,” “human,” or
“who in all the earth,” as we find it translated in Job. In Scripture the facts pertaining to the birth of a
man are supposed to indicate his nature. Therefore ‫ אדם ילוד־אשה‬is not just a pleonastic way of
saying ‫אדם‬, “mankind.” It refers to man according to his condition from birth, or even according to his
inherited nature, which is often associated with weakness and impurity in Scripture. The meaning of
“born of woman” includes the concept expressed elsewhere in Scripture by “that which is born of
flesh” (John 3:6, compare 1:13) and “born according to the flesh” (Gal. 4:23, 29). (12) If we translate it
simply as “humanity,” the most interesting part of the meaning is neglected and made completely
invisible to the English reader.
Someone may object that a more literal translation leaves the uninformed reader in no better position,
because the background information must be supplied in either case. But it is only the promoters of the
“dynamic” approach who claim to remove the need for such a learning process, by making the text
immediately understandable to people of widely different cultures. We grant that a smoother path is
made for the reader when awkward and foreign-sounding expressions like “those born of women” and
“sons and sons’ sons” are converted to something which flows better in our ears. But even small
adjustments like this, which might seem to be only a matter of style to many, often leave out part of the
meaning, or involve little transculturations which distort the meaning in subtle ways. (13)
In Matthew 1:19 the New Living Translation describes Joseph as Mary’s fiancé. But the Greek says, ὁ
ἀνὴρ αὐτῆς, “her husband.” The Jews made no distinction between a husband and a fiancé. In fact they
would not even have understood what we mean by fiancé. They observed a custom more accurately
called betrothal, and for them the state of betrothal was tantamount to marriage, and legally binding.
The only thing lacking in betrothal was the physical consummation of the marriage. The NLT’s use of
fiancé here is anachronistic and misleading, because it implies that the relationship was like a modern
engagement. We see the same thing in Luke 2:5, where Mary is described as Joseph’s fiancée. The
word μεμνηστευμενη here denotes not a modern-style “engagement” but a state of betrothal. This is a
good example of why it is impractical to try to translate the Bible into a form of English which is
entirely natural for “today’s readers … while also accurately communicating the meaning and content
of the original biblical texts,” as the version’s preface claims. A modern and familiar style is suitable
for modern and familiar ideas. But very often the ideas of the biblical text are not modern, and they are
unfamiliar to modern people who have not received any prior instruction in the historical background
of the text. It would be better to translate ὁ ἀνὴρ αὐτῆς accurately as “her husband” and μεμνηστευμενη
as “betrothed,” and to provide an explanation in a footnote.
There are other places in this version where the marriage customs have been accidentally modernized
through the use of modern expressions. In ancient Israel, a girl was “given” to a husband by her father,
usually when the girl was about sixteen years old; and so in the Hebrew text of Deuteronomy 7:3
Israelite fathers are instructed, “You shall not give your daughter to [a Canaanite’s] son, nor take his
daughter for your son.” But the NLT paraphrases this sentence, “Do not let your daughters and sons
marry their sons and daughters,” as if the father had only to “let” a son or daughter marry. Now,
presumably the NLT translators had the Hebrew text in front of them and were able to read it, and yet
they chose not to translate it literally. Why? Is it because they felt that modern readers would not be
able to understand what is meant by “giving your daughter”? This seems unlikely, because we all know
what it means when a father “gives a daughter” in marriage, and we even make fathers go through a
ritualistic giving of the bride in our wedding ceremonies. The expression may be old-fashioned, but it is
understood. It seems that the NLT translators avoided the literal rendering here because they wanted to
use a more modern-sounding and idiomatic expression. “Do not let your daughters and sons marry …”
is more idiomatic in modern English, to be sure, but there is a cultural reason why this is more
idiomatic today: it reflects modern Western realities of courtship, engagement, and marriage.
The most important kind of cultural background information concerns items of mental culture, which
often cannot be conveyed in quick explanations. Take for example the usage of the word αληθεια
(“truth”) in John’s Gospel. This has been the subject of many discussions among scholars, and not all
agree in their conclusions; but one thing agreed upon by all is that John’s usage is anything but
“modern” or even common in its day. When John quotes Christ saying Εγω ειμι … η αληθεια “I am the
truth” (14:6) he is not just using some idiomatic Greek expression meaning “I am truthful.” Εγω ειμι η
αληθεια is no more idiomatic in Greek than “I am the truth” is in English. In two places we find
αληθεια used as the object of ποιεω (“do the truth,” in John 3:21 and 1 John 1:6), apparently after the
pattern of the Hebrew expression ‫עשה אמת‬, which means “keep faith,” i.e., “act faithfully” (Genesis
32:10, 47:29, Nehemiah 9:33). (14) This may indicate that John’s αληθεια bears connotations, at least,
derived from the Hebrew equivalent ‫אמת‬. But the dualistic meaning attached to αληθεια in Hellenistic
philosophical writings — eternal spiritual “reality” as opposed to the unsubstantial and temporary
things of this world — is clearly intended in most places where the word is used.
“My kingdom is not of this world … You say that I am a King. For this I was born and for
this I have come into the world—to bear witness to the Truth. Everyone who is of the Truth
hears my voice.” (John 18:37)

The meaning of these pregnant words, concerning a spiritual kingdom, to which those who are “of the
truth” belong, cannot be adequately conveyed by any English translation if the reader is not familiar
with the background of Jewish-Hellenistic thought, in which αληθεια “truth” and αληθινος “true” refer
to “the realm of pure and eternal reality, as distinct from this world of transient phenomena.” (15) We
have no word or any stock phrases that could evoke the Hellenistic concept of αληθεια in modern
colloquial English, because it is mystical and foreign to anything that might be expressed in an ordinary
conversation. For most readers of the Bible, who lack this background, an explanation is necessary.
What we find in versions that try to make explanations unnecessary, by use of “equivalent” expressions
that are easily understood by everyone, is something rather different from the true meaning. For
example, in John 18:37 the New Living Translation has, “I came to bring truth to the world. All who
love the truth recognize that what I say is true.” This banality is the “closest natural equivalent” that the
translator could find in the conceptual scheme of uneducated modern people—but it is not equivalent to
the original, and it will only interfere with a teacher’s efforts to convey what Jesus is really saying here.
A true understanding requires some study or instruction, in which the English word “truth” receives a
“biblical” sense borrowed from αληθεια in its Hellenistic milieu. Any English words used for this
purpose must be adapted and bent to the meaning of the ancient Greek. There is no possibility of
conveying the meaning in “Common English.”
It sometimes happens that the “common English” requirement works indirectly to avoid or suppress
certain biblical attitudes and ideas. In most versions of the Bible it will be noticed that the people of
God are sometimes called “the saints.” The words commonly translated thus are ‫ קדשים‬in Hebrew,
‫ קדישין‬in Aramaic, and ἁγιοι in Greek. When these words are used in reference to people, they mean
the people set apart and sanctified or consecrated to God. Our word “saint” began as “sanct,” borrowed
from Latin (sanctus, holy one), as an exact equivalent for the original words. But in the New Living
Translation ‫ קדשים‬is translated with such phrases as “the Lord’s people” (Psa. 34:9), and ἁγιοι as “his
very own people” (Rom. 1:7), “God’s children” (Rom. 12:13), “God’s people” (Phil. 1:1), “believers”
(Rom. 8:27) “Christians” (Rom. 15:25), and so forth, in which the basic idea of sanctification goes
unexpressed. The same is true of the Good News Bible. Clearly the reason for this is that modern
Christians do not usually call themselves the “saints” or “the sanctified ones.” And a translation that
adheres to habits of “common English” must use words as they are commonly used today.
But why is it that we do not we call ourselves “the saints” or “holy ones”? Probably because in our
modern church culture it would be seen as presumptuous, or perhaps we just don’t feel that we deserve
the name of saints. It is a name that makes some uncomfortable demands upon us. This same feeling, a
thousand years ago, may be one reason why some began to reserve the term “sanct” for only the holiest
Christians, so that “saint” came to have the ecclesiastical sense: “persons who are formally recognized
by the Church as having by their exceptional holiness of life attained an exalted station in heaven”
(Oxford English Dictionary). The history of this word illustrates the fact that ordinary language is not
always to be accepted as theologically neutral. It is shaped by our culture, and it sometimes promotes a
culturally-determined mentality that is incongruent with the teachings of the Bible.

5. Giants and Windmills

In the famous story of Don Quixote, a Spanish nobleman who has


been reading legends about giant-slayers, among other things, goes forth to live the life of romantic
adventure. Coming upon some windmills on a plain, he sees them as giants, and attacks them. One
might say that the windmills were the closest thing to giants in his environment. But what a difference
there is between giants and their “closest equivalent”! Still, he goes from one adventure to the next,
“translating” the stories he had read into real life, using whatever equivalents he can find around him.
I would describe Nida’s theory as Quixotic, in the sense that it leads to many incongruous
identifications. A translator should not be trying to bring the original message into a present-day
context to make it directly “relevant,” if in fact it does not belong in the present. Cultural differences
are not just an inconvenient barrier to conveying “the message” to modern people. The original
message itself pertains to the original situation, and it cannot always be abstracted from its situation
and transferred to another setting, as if the cultural context were just some accidental stage-scenery.
The attempt to “naturalize” a text that comes from so long ago, and so far away, is bound to come to
grief. Readers should instead be conscious of a distance between themselves and the original receptors
of the biblical writings, because an awareness of the differences as well as the similarities is necessary
for right interpretation and application. Whether they realize it or not, all Bible-readers are interpreters
of the Bible, and they must take into consideration the historical context. This is one more reason why
the Bible should not be “naturalized” in a translation.
I do not want to discourage the natural impulse of Christians to apply the teachings of the Bible to
themselves personally, insofar as possible. This is actually very important, and I think most people do
not do enough of it. But it must be recognized that not everything in the Bible is equally relevant for
everyone.
Consider, for example, Christ’s polemic against the Pharisees of his day. It presupposes their
dominance at the time, as the established authorities in a very legalistic religious regime. In this
context, his teachings often stand out as relatively “liberal.” Certainly many of his sayings were
designed to promote an attitude more liberal than the prevailing one, concerning such things as sabbath
observance and fasting. So an “equivalent response” in our own times would be for us to become more
liberal than usual, and less careful about the Sabbath, fasting, prayer vigils, and so forth. But is that
really appropriate for us, who are already so liberal, and so much at ease in Zion? If Jesus were to
return now, I doubt that his arraignment against our generation would have much to do with excessive
traditionalism, legalism, and works-righteousness. He is more likely to convict it of complacency:
“Remember then from what you have fallen, repent, and do the works you did at first!” (Rev. 2:5). In
our effete times, harping on the evils of legalism, and using the most rigorous or scrupulous people as
bad examples, is like sparring with shadows. The opponents are now absent and largely imaginary. We
cannot edit Scripture to suit our ideas of what needs to be said today, of course; and in any case,
different things need to be said to different people within the same cultural setting; but a proper
interpretation and application of Christ’s polemic against the Pharisees comes when the reader knows
just who the Pharisees were, what the religious culture of the Jews was like in the middle of the first
century, and how radically different it was from the culture of today. The “dynamic equivalence”
principle leads instead to the transformation of the Pharisees into timeless bogeys, to be equated with
anyone in the modern Church who would criticize the prevailing complacency and lukewarmness. Or
worse still, it may lead to a facile equation of the Pharisees with modern-day Jews — who are more
like modern Episcopalians than ancient Pharisees. Ultra-observant Jews who do resemble the Pharisees
are today a marginal group which does not represent modern Judaism any more than the Amish
represent Christianity, and they do not pose any threat to the Church.
David Burke, former Director of Translations for the American Bible Society, has warned that “poorly
informed” readers are likely to interpret the polemic against “the Jews” in the New Testament as if
“Jews of all time are somehow implicated.” (1) His concern is well-founded, because for more than
forty years his organization has been promoting the idea that poorly informed readers should be able to
read (and thus interpret) the Bible for themselves. How can the reader of a “dynamic equivalence”
version avoid equating “the Jews” who persecuted the early Church with “the Jews” of their own time
and place, when the whole purpose of the translation is to produce an “equivalent effect” in “the
language of today”? Burke’s solution to the problem is to eliminate the word “Jews” from Bible
translations, so that the reader will not think of modern Jews wherever Jews are criticized in the Bible.
He boasts that Bible versions produced by the ABS have been most innovative in this regard, and
criticizes more literal versions (specifically the RSV and NRSV) for not being “sensitive to this issue.”
But Burke fails to recognize that the problem is created by “dynamic equivalence” in the first place. A
version that preserves the forms of antiquity and does not try to force the Bible into modern molds does
not invite such anachronistic equations. But when Jesus and his apostles are disguised as modern
Americans, the reader can hardly be blamed for interpreting them as if they were.
An outstanding example of inappropriate contemporization is the use of “Israelis” instead of
“Israelites” in the Living Bible (Exodus 9:4; 12:34; 14:20; 19:1; Judges 7:14; 1 Sam. 14:21; Isaiah 14:1,
etc.). The use of “Israelis” in these contexts equates the ancient people of Israel with the occupants of
the modern-day state of Israel.
But the Lord will have mercy on the Israelis; they are still his special ones. He will bring
them back to settle once again in the land of Israel. And many nationalities will come and
join them there and be their loyal allies. The nations of the world will help them to return,
and those coming to live in their land will serve them. Those enslaving Israel will be
enslaved—Israel shall rule her enemies! (Living Bible, Isa. 14:1-2)

This is congenial to certain literalistic interpretations of prophecy, to be sure; but it involves the same
kind of cultural foreshortening that would equate modern-day Jews with the “scribes and Pharisees” of
ancient Palestine. On the same principle, one might also translate ‫“( םלך בבל‬King of Babylon”) as
“President of Iraq.” But surely it is better to translate the text in such a way that readers can sense the
cultural and temporal gap that intervenes between the ancient civilizations and our own. Whatever is
proper to the ancient world should not be domesticated.
The general point made here is, not everyone should identify with the original receptors in all respects,
because these original receptors were often addressed in situations radically different from our own. If
the shoe fits, we should by all means wear it. But in order to know whether it fits or not, we must have
knowledge of the original cultural context. In Scripture there are many lessons that are always
pertinent, for which the historical setting makes little difference. But very often it does make some
difference when, where, how, why, and to whom something is said.

6. The Criterion of Acceptability


I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy,
acceptable [ευαρεστον] to God, which is your spiritual service [λογικην λατρειαν]. And be not
conformed to this age [αιωνι], but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may approve
[εις το δοκιμαζειν υμας] what is the will of God—good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)
In this passage the Apostle Paul implies that people whose minds are fashioned by the culture of the
present αιων are not acceptable to God, and that they will not discern or approve what is acceptable to
him. But many Bible-translation pundits of our time seem to have a higher view of “the age.” Some
even advocate making the Word of God more acceptable to our age by toning down or eliminating
things that might offend modern readers.
In an article published in The Bible Translator, Arie de Kuiper and Barclay Newman (1) inform us that
literal renderings of υἱος θεου “Son of God” and similar expressions in the New Testament are so
offensive to Muslims that many refuse to read a text which contains them. In order to remove this
hindrance to Bible-reading among Muslims, they suggest the use of “a functional translation, like
‘God’s Servant’” wherever such a rendering can be justified on exegetical grounds. In an effort to
provide an exegetical justification for this rendering in the first three Gospels and in the Acts, they
argue that in those books “son of God” is a Messianic title which expresses an adoptionist Christology,
not the Christology of John’s Gospel or of “the later Christian confessions and creeds.” Furthermore,
they maintain that “Jesus himself certainly did not call upon the people of his day to believe in him as
the Son of God.”
How much does a person have to know or believe in order to become a Christian? Must one
believe in the virgin birth, or in the “bodily” resurrection? Must one affirm that Jesus is the
Son of God in the full sense of the later Christian confessions and creeds? Jesus himself
certainly did not call upon the people of his day to believe in him as the Son of God — his
message was the proclamation of God’s Rule, not of himself as the Son of God.
A few observations about the content and the original setting of Mark will illustrate what
we are trying to say. Although Mark does refer to Jesus as the Son of God, the meaning that
he gives to this term is far different from what John calls upon his readers to believe about
Jesus’ sonship. One of the difficulties that we face is that Mark’s context, for example, is
changed as soon as we place it side by side with another Gospel. We immediately
understand Son of God in Mark in the light of the meaning that it has in the other Gospel(s)
to which it is joined in the NT collection. This is just as serious an error as taking a verse
out of its context and interpreting it freely, without regard for its original contextual setting.
It is in fact almost the same as the translator who wanted to remove a verse from Romans
and place it in the Gospel of John, where he thought it was more fitting. Mark’s own
context is not the NT setting, but its historical context in the life of the Christian
community to which Mark wrote, long before it became a part of the sacred collection. So
then, if on the basis of Mark’s Gospel we say that a person must believe in Jesus as the Son
of God in the sense of any of the other Gospels, we are demanding of that person a faith
that Mark’s own readers were not expected to have.
It does not escape our notice that this involves the promotion of the unitarian Christology favored by
liberals, along with the whole critical approach to the Bible that sets aside John’s Gospel as a spurious
“later” development, among other things — ostensibly for the purpose of making Bibles less offensive
to Muslim readers.
One finds this same kind of advice in the writings of Nida. In From One Language to Another (1986)
Nida and his co-author Jan de Waard advise translators to take care that their translations are not only
readable and intelligible, but also “acceptable” to prospective readers. This criterion of “acceptability”
refers very broadly to “the readiness with which people are happy to receive such a text and read it” (p.
205). In an example of how this principle should be applied, they suggest that something which is
offensive to the version’s “constituency” should be eliminated if some additional reason can be given
for its elimination:
Readability is simply a measure of the ease with which people can read a text. Intelligibility
is a measure of the capacity of people to understand the text correctly, and acceptability is a
measure of the readiness with which people are happy to receive such a text and read it.…
Acceptability of a text depends very largely upon the style, but for certain constituencies
some texts of the Scriptures may be more acceptable than others. For example, in the
Muslim world the Gospel of Matthew is generally more acceptable than the other Gospels.
For one thing, it begins with a genealogy starting with Abraham, and it contains a number
of references to fulfilled prophecy cited from the Old Testament. But for the Gospel of
Mark, Muslim anathema is waiting at the first verse when the variant reading “Jesus, the
Son of God” [sic] is put into the text. Since many scholars believe that there are strong
reasons for not considering this text as original, such a stumbling block should not be
introduced in the very first verse (Slomp, 1977, 143-50), especially if the translation is
being prepared primarily for an Islamic constituency.

Subsequently Nida published an article on “Intelligibility and Acceptability in Bible Translating“ in


which he again pointed out that “a perfectly intelligible translation of the Scriptures may not be
acceptable,” and emphasized the need for “paying greater attention to acceptability through increased
concern for more satisfactory stylistic features,” or “stylistic appropriateness.” (2) But here the main
point seems to be that “acceptability” is improved by avoiding things that are ideologically offensive.
The primary reason for the elimination of “Son of God” is to avoid offending Muslims. The text-critical
reason is secondary. (3)
Another controversial application of this principle may be seen in some recent Bible versions that aim
to suppress the “patriarchalism” of the Bible for readers who would find it offensive. In preparation for
the Inclusive Language Edition of the NIV published in Great Britain in 1996, the NIV Committee on
Bible Translation adopted a policy statement which included the following paragraphs:
Authors of Biblical books, even while writing Scripture inspired by the Holy Spirit,
unconsciously reflected in many ways, the particular cultures in which they wrote. Hence in
the manner in which they articulate the Word of God, they sometimes offend modern
sensibilities. At such times, translators can and may use non-offending renderings so as not
to hinder the message of the Spirit.
The patriarchalism (like other social patterns) of the ancient cultures in which the Biblical
books were composed is pervasively reflected in forms of expression that appear, in the
modern context, to deny the common human dignity of all hearers and readers. For these
forms, alternative modes of expression can and may be used, though care must be taken not
to distort the intent of the original text. (4)
The NIV committee also explained in the Preface of this revision that their purpose was “to mute the
patriarchalism of the culture of the biblical writers through gender-inclusive language,” and claimed
that “this could be done without compromising the message of the Spirit” (p. vii). It is to be noticed
here how the NIV translators have turned the tables on St. Paul, by saying that he and the other authors
of Scripture “reflected” (i.e. conformed to) the age, and that we enlightened modern people, being more
spiritual, have good reason to be offended by the unfortunate cultural “patriarchalism” of the biblical
text.
An examination of the new “inclusive” edition of the NIV shows that most of the “forms of
expression” that are thought to “deny the common human dignity of all hearers and readers” are
perfectly ordinary expressions which use various words meaning “man” (‫ איש‬and ‫ אדם‬in the Hebrew,
ανθρωπος and ανηρ in the Greek) and masculine pronouns to express general truths. For instance, we
find that in Psalm 1:1 the NIV committee has changed “Blessed is the man [‫ ]איש‬who does not walk in
the counsel of the wicked” to “Blessed are those who do not walk in the counsel of the wicked.”
Apparently the revisers feared that the Psalm’s focus on a “man” here would be seen as “sexist.” In
2005 this committee also produced another revision of the NIV known as Today’s New International
Version (TNIV), in which the same principles were followed. In this revision they have changed the
rendering “brotherly love” (φιλαδελφία, Romans 12:10) to “love”—removing “brotherly” from the
text. We also find that in Isaiah 19:16, where the prophet says ‫“( יה"יה מצ"ר! ים כ!נשים ו "חר! ד ופח!ד‬Egypt
shall be like women, and shall tremble and fear”), the revisers have changed the original NIV’s “the
Egyptians will be like women“ to “the Egyptians will become weaklings.” We can only suppose this
was designed to avoid giving offense to readers who might object to Isaiah’s use of a “stereotype”
about women (similarly Jeremiah 50:37, 51:30, and Nahum 3:13). Yet another “inclusive language”
revision of the NIV was published in 2011, and in this latest edition we find the same kinds of neutered
renderings that had been adopted in 1996 and 2005. Over a thousand occurrences of “man” and “men”
were eliminated in these NIV revisions, along with several hundred “fathers,” “brothers” and “sons.”
Nearly three thousand personal pronouns were neutralized. (5) In their efforts to avoid masculine
pronouns, the revisers have sometimes used a clumsy “that person” instead of a “he,” and they have
even resorted to using the colloquial “singular they”—a substandard usage never before seen in a Bible
version. Thus the 2011 revision of Psalm 1:1-3 reads, “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step
with the wicked ... That person is like a tree ... whatever they do prospers.” Proverbs 14:7 now reads,
“Stay away from a fool, for you will not find knowledge on their lips.” All this squirming to avoid “he”
is necessary to protect the “dignity” of female readers, they insist, although obviously this was no
matter of concern for the biblical writers, and even in our culture there are very few people who would
pretend to be offended by it. Just today I noticed in an Associated Press news article the following
sentences:
[After suffering brain damage] a person who used to find his way to work just by instinct
may come to rely on memorizing the route more formally. … A patient who has trouble
remembering what he sees may compensate by telling himself what he's looking at,
bringing in his verbal memory circuitry. (6)

This usage of “his,” “he” and “himself” to refer back to antecedents like “a person” and “a patient” is
quite normal, and it is familiar to everyone who reads the newspaper. The idea that it must be
eliminated from a Bible version for the sake of the dignity of female readers is an idea that savours of
fanaticism. It could only have arisen in an academic environment, under the influence of feminist
ideology.
Quite aside from the gender issue, there is something distinctively modern about a solicitude for
“human dignity” in the translation of the Bible. When the biblical authors speak of mankind in general
they are so often contrasting us with God, and emphasizing our unworthiness, that “man” and “men”
even acquire a negative connotation in Scripture. (7) What sort of dignity is gained by women who are
now expressly included in the translation of adam in a passage like Isaiah 2:9-22? The whole point of it
is to destroy any sense of human dignity. Those who want “people” to be used instead of “man” will
only have to learn that “people” are sinful and have no claim to dignity before God. We notice however
that the gender-neutralized versions tone down this severe teaching about humanity also, by avoiding
the words “humanity,” “humans” or “people” in contexts like this. The New Revised Standard Version
(NRSV) uses the quaint “mortals.” The revised NIV and the New Living Translation add derogatory
adjectives (e.g. “mere humans” in Isaiah 2:22) to avoid a contemptuous use of the word “human” itself.
Some of the gender-neutralized renderings that have appeared in recent Bible versions completely
obscure the main point of the writer. In Psalm 133:1 the word ‫“ אחים‬brethren” is used to express the
spiritual kinship of Israelites gathered in Jerusalem; but the Contemporary English Version translates
the verse, “It is truly wonderful when relatives live together in peace.” The problem is, “relatives” does
not have the connotation of closeness or the extended religious sense that “brothers” has in such
contexts. When ‫ אחים‬is rendered “relatives,” the verse seems to be nothing but a comment about the
importance of friendly relationships between cousins. The Good News Bible and Today’s New
International Version use “God’s people” here, which is referentially more adequate, but fails to convey
the kinship connotation. Again, the editors have ruled out “brothers” because they fear that it would be
seen as a “sexist” expression; but there is no other word which can convey the full meaning of ‫ אחים‬in
English.
Taken in isolation, some of these changes may be seen as naive attempts to make the text conform to
the gender-neutral style that is now expected in published books, merely because that is what many
people now expect in books. It must be said, however, that this style does not really reflect what is
normal in modern English, but has been arbitrarily imposed by editors for political reasons. Recently I
found the following sentences in a book published in 1993: “In common parlance, the term
[‘professional’] may mean nothing more than ‘skilled.’ One might observe, for example, that a plumber
did a tricky piece of repair work ‘very professionally’ and mean simply that he or she joined the pipes
cleanly and successfully.” (8) Here, by a unflinching application of some academic “inclusive language”
rule, the words “or she” have been added, in reference to a hypothetical plumber. The “or she” here is
unnatural, obtrusive, irrelevant to the purpose of the sentence, and gives the impression that the author
is determined to be politically correct, by “plastering his prose with feminist bumper-stickers,” as one
writer aptly puts it. (9)
Some writers have tried to represent this sort of thing as an attempt to make the text more “accurate” in
some sense. (10) This has led to some novel claims about the meaning of Hebrew and Greek words. It
has been claimed, for instance, that the word ανηρ (aner), which is the ordinary word for “man” as
opposed to “woman” in Greek, has a gender-neutral meaning in some contexts, and therefore it may be
translated “person” instead of “man.” (11) Naturally, this questionable assertion about the meaning of
the word in “some contexts” is promptly used to justify a gender-neutral rendering in all but a few
places. No one who knows Greek is likely to be fooled by this. It has also been claimed that the
ordinary word for “father” in Hebrew (‫ )אב‬has the gender-neutral sense of “parent.” (12) No one who
knows Hebrew will find this claim plausible, or fail to see the motive behind it. We all recognize that
such claims are designed to provide some justification for gender-neutral renderings that are demanded
for ideological reasons. Liberal scholars can make claims like this without fear of damaging their
credibility among other liberal scholars, because they all wink at it. But the statements quoted above
show that most of the NIV committee members were not prepared to sacrifice their credibility among
the more honest scholars by taking this route. They affirm what we have observed above, that the usus
loquendi of a society tends to reflect certain attitudes; and, according to their own explanation, their
purpose was to suppress the signs of “patriarchalism” which “offend modern sensibilities.” This is
honest enough, but it goes far beyond the common-sense principle that a translation should be
intelligible. It involves a theory of translation which which requires the elimination of expressions
which are potentially “offensive“ or perhaps simply unusual in the common speech of the receptors, so
that the text presents everything “the way we would say it.” This way of thinking may be illustrated by
the arguments presented by Grant Osborne, who, in defense of gender-neutral revisions, invokes
several ideas belonging to dynamic equivalence theory (which he calls “functional” equivalence):
Whether or not to use inclusive language in Bible translation is not a gender issue but a
matter of translation theory.… The true question is whether formal equivalence or
functional equivalence, as Bible translation theories, produces the best translation for our
day. Formal equivalence (sometimes called “literal translation”) believes that the original
wording, grammar, and syntax should be retained so long as the resulting translation is
understandable (KJV, NASB, and RSV are examples). Functional equivalence (also called
“dynamic translation”) believes that the text should have the same impact on the modern
reader that the original had on the ancient reader. According to this approach, it is not the
original terms but the meaning of the whole that is important, asking the question, “How
would Isaiah or Paul say this today to get his meaning across?” (the Good News Bible and
NLT are examples; NIV and NRSV are sometimes literal, sometimes dynamic). The first is
a “word-for-word” translation and the second a “thought-for-thought” translation.… The
use of inclusive pronouns in translations falls within the realm of dynamic translation
theory. In the ancient world it was common to say “man” or “he” when speaking of all
people. The influence of the KJV has made it common until recent years to do the same.
Within the last two decades, however, this is practiced less and less, and those who have not
grown up in the church can misunderstand such male-oriented language. (You do hear it
now and then in newscasts, but normally by older commentators who grew up with the
idiom.) Even if the inclusive he is retained in some stylebooks, it is impossible to deny that
its occurrence is becoming rarer or that ultimately it is on its way out in modern language.
A basic principle of all translation theory is to express the ancient text in the thoughts and
idioms of the receptor language.… Let us remember Paul's principle in 1 Corinthians 9:22
—“I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some”
(NIVI). This has become an important missiological mandate. It means that, in any receptor
culture that does not oppose the gospel, the missionary/Christian must adapt to make the
gospel proclamation accessible to the people. The task is to be culturally relevant without
being culture bound. Whenever a detail within a culture is not inimical to biblical
Christianity, the church should adapt its proclamation to that practice. Replacing man with
people or he with they does not contradict the meaning of the biblical text, while retaining
them can be, at worst, offensive and, at best, misleading to many modern people. The
American Heritage Book of English Usage states, “It is undeniable that large numbers of
men and women are uncomfortable using constructions that have been criticized for being
sexist. Since there is little to be gained by offending people in your audience, it makes
sense … to try to accommodate at least some of these concerns.” It is likely that Paul today
would not use such unnecessarily offensive language as man or he when it refers to men
and women. (For instance, see Psalm 32:1, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven,”
which Paul quotes in Romans 4:7 as “Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven,”
NIV.) This is not capitulating to a feminist agenda but exercising evangelistic sensitivity
toward those (including many evangelicals!) who can be offended by such.… The difficulty
comes when men are being addressed in the ancient setting, but men and women would be
addressed in the modern setting. In many of those instances, communication is better
served by changing the pronouns lest the modern reader mistakenly think only males are
being addressed. (13)
As in the examples given above from De Kuiper, Newman, Nida and De Waard, we see that Osborne
does not apply the “acceptability” principle purely and simply, without bringing in other considerations
to help justify the desired changes. He claims that using “man” as a translation for the corresponding
Hebrew and Greek words would be “at best, misleading to many modern people.” But this claim
appears rather weak when we look at how “man” is used in the text. For example: “Blessed is the man
who does not walk in the counsel of the ungodly.” Who could think that this verse is saying that only
men are blessed for godliness? Changing this to “Blessed are those …” is certainly not necessary to
prevent misunderstandings, or “to make the gospel proclamation accessible.” So in addition to these
statements he brings in several other concepts from dynamic equivalence theory to help justify the
revision. Here we wish to notice in particular the demand for transculturation that is implicit in the
“missiological mandate … to be culturally relevant” (i.e. conformed to this age) and the idea that an
equivalent “impact” might be achieved by adapting the text to “thoughts” of the “receptor language.”
There is much to disagree with here. But it can hardly be doubted that his quotation of the style manual
that says “large numbers of men and women are uncomfortable using constructions that have been
criticized for being sexist” comes closest to the actual thinking of the editors who have produced
gender-neutral revisions of the Bible. In the case of the NIV revision, the translators’ own explanations
clearly indicate that it was done mainly (if not exclusively) for this reason.
Again, we observe that not all proponents of “dynamic equivalence” have spoken like this. Probably
they realize that a translation theory that wants to eliminate things that are “uncomfortable” for modern
people will not be accepted without qualms by responsible Christian teachers, and would even be
rejected as intellectually dishonest by most non-Christians. The whole principle of “acceptability” is
indeed very questionable from a moral standpoint, because it seems to promote what we would
ordinarily call a fraud. The preface of the Good News Bible seems to reject this principle when it
claims that the translators were guided by a contrary principle: “Faithfulness in translation also includes
a faithful representation of the cultural and historical features of the original, without any attempt to
modernize the text,” it says. Nevertheless, it is clear that the translators are often guided by Nida’s
prescription: “the conformance of a translation to the receptor language and culture as a whole is an
essential ingredient in any stylistically acceptable rendering.” (14) There can be no dynamic
equivalence, as Nida defines it, without transculturation and modernization; and the “acceptability”
principle is quite in keeping with this goal. After all, if the original text was not offensive to its original
audience, then doesn’t “dynamic equivalence” require the translation to be inoffensive to the culture
and ideology of its intended readers also? And if we balk at this, as being manipulative and dishonest,
what becomes of the whole theory of “dynamic equivalence”?
In any case, we are bound to maintain our integrity, and the ideas about the Bible’s relationship to
culture that have brought us to these questions are clearly incompatible with a high view of Scripture.
Surely we must register a protest when people are tinkering with the Bible to remove things that are
“offensive” to other religions or to the secular culture of our times.

7. Disintegration of Biblical Concepts


Language influences thought in several ways. When we have a word for some object of thought, it
focuses and clarifies the thought. When we distinguish between things by making a distinction in
words, it sharpens our perception of the difference. When we use the same word for different things, it
tends to keep them together in the mind. The development of multiple meanings for one word (called
polysemy by linguists) usually reflects a train of conceptual associations, and is commonly spoken of
under the figure of a branching tree. Various meanings diverge from a primary “root” meaning which
may contribute something to the extended meanings. We should beware of the “etymological fallacy,”
in which the branches are mistaken for the root, (1) but below I will argue that polysemy does
sometimes establish conceptual bridges and connections between things. When a single word is used in
Scripture for things that we would ordinarily distinguish by the use of different words, we ought to
consider the possibility that the original words establish or facilitate a conceptual relationship that
would be weakened if different words were used. A translator should not hastily or unnecessarily
separate what the biblical languages put together. The regular use of a certain English word to translate
a certain Greek or Hebrew word is desirable, within limits, because it allows the English reader to see
the verbal connections that exist in the original.
The desirability of this has often been emphasized by biblical scholars who have written on the subject
of translation. For example, George Campbell:
I admit that it is impossible, in translating out of one language into another, to find a
distinction of words in one exactly correspondent to what obtains in the other, and so to
preserve uniformity, in rendering every different word by a different word, and the same
word by the same word. This is what neither propriety nor perspicuity will admit. The rule,
however, to translate uniformly, when it can be done, in a consistency both with propriety
and perspicuity, is a good rule, and one of the simplest and surest methods I know, of
making us enter into the conceptions of the sacred writers, and adopt their very turn of
thinking. (2)

To prevent any misunderstanding of my meaning here, I would first emphasize the limits of this
“concordant” approach to translation.
As Campbell says, it is not always possible to translate concordantly, using the same English word for
all occurrences of a Hebrew or Greek word. For example, both the Hebrew word ‫( כ!לה‬kallah) and the
Greek word νυμφη (nymfē) mean “bride” in some contexts and “daughter-in-law” in others, and we
cannot consistently use only one English equivalent to translate these words in every place, ignoring
the demands of the context, because we do not have a word that can refer to both. (3) Sometimes it is
impossible to translate a word concordantly even within the same context, as for example in Romans
12:13-14, where Paul uses forms of the word διωκω in two different senses, “pursue,” and “persecute.”
The word-play here cannot be fully reproduced in English.
One very important word in the Greek New Testament that cannot be translated concordantly in
English is the word λογος (logos). This word occurs often in the New Testament (about 300 times), and
it is translated several different ways in English versions. In the great majority of cases it is translated
“word,” but it ordinarily refers to a “saying” or “statement” that expresses an idea or a series of
connected thoughts, especially those which involve reasoning. Some of the connotations of λογος may
be seen from the fact that it has entered the English language as logic, and as part of the words
prologue, epilogue, and Decalogue (the “ten statements” inscribed on the “tables of the testimony”).
The suffix logy at the end of many English words (biology, theology, psychology, etc.) reflects the
meaning “treatise” or “reasoned discourse.” Λογος may also refer to a “calculation” (hence our word
logistics), “an accounting,” a particular “reason,” etc. In at least two places in the New Testament, it is
used in a special metaphysical sense, referring to the personified Λογος of God (John 1:1, 14, and in the
Johannine Comma). Although it is usually translated “word,” it does not have the sense that “word”
usually has in English: “a speech sound or series of speech sounds that symbolizes and communicates a
meaning without being divisible into smaller units capable of independent use.” That it does not refer
to the mere sound of words, may be seen in John 8:43 — “Why do you not understand my speech
[λαλια]? It is because you cannot hear my λογος.” The λογος here refers to the mental concept
expressed by the audible speech. Lattimore translates it “reasoning” in this place.
Ironically enough, some versions misinterpret this saying, by failing to distinguish the λαλια and the
λογος. The RSV (followed by the ESV) does this, and tries to give point to the saying by interpreting
“hear” as “bear to hear.” (“Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear
my word.”) The NEB effectively conveys the meaning with, “Why do you not understand my
language? It is because my revelation is beyond your grasp.” The NLT’s rendering provides an
outstanding example of how much meaning can be lost in a “dynamically equivalent” translation:
“Why can’t you understand what I am saying? It is because you are unable to do so!” Here λογος is
simply quashed, and the saying is reduced to an empty tautology, losing virtually all of its meaning. (4)
The semantic associations of λογος are also inherited by words derived from it, such as the adjective
λογικος (borrowed into English as logical). Because the word λογος acquired spiritual significance
through association with the Word of God, the derived adjective can mean “spiritual” in addition to
“reasonable.” And thus in 1 Peter 2:2 the λογικος milk would be understood as “spiritual” milk, but
λογικος also suggests a connection with the “living and abiding Λογος of God” which has just been
mentioned. And hence we find in some English versions “milk of the word” (KJV, NKJV, NASB). It is
not helpful to ask which of the alternative renderings gives the meaning; rather, what needs to be seen
is that no English rendering can be entirely adequate, because we lack a word like λογικος which
suggests both concepts, or invokes the same cluster of associations. As one scholar observes, in this
context λογικος implies that “the spiritual food the believers consume comes to them verbally through
the Word of God.” (5)
Again, it is important to bear in mind that a word often has different meanings in different contexts.
One should not try to find all of the senses of a word in every context where it occurs. But, as I hope to
illustrate with this example, it sometimes happens that the sense-distinctions we would make for the
purpose of English translation are not so distinct in the original word, which may represent a complex
concept that combines ideas in ways that English does not. Consider the following sentence from
Athanasius’ treatise On the Incarnation.
He did not merely create men as he did the irrational [αλογος] living creatures on the earth,
but made them after his own image, imparting to them a share even of the power of his own
Word [λογος]; in order that, possessing as it were certain reflections of the Word [λογος],
and being made rational [λογικος], they might be able to continue in blessedness, living the
true and only real life of the saints in paradise. (6)

This is not a mere play on words. Athanasius (who is among the least playful of authors) is linking
ideas in a way already prepared by his language. He makes these connections quite naturally in his
language because he has a set of terms that refer to “reason,” “word,” and the Logos of John’s Gospel.
It is really almost inevitable that a Greek theologian would connect the image of God with the Logos,
and the Logos with rationality in particular. Anything created as a reflection of the divine Logos must
first of all be logikos, rational. The tendency of the Greek language to combine these things is very
evident here. But the connection fails in English, because we habitually make a linguistic distinction
between the internal reasoning and the external speech, and so we have no word that refers to both.
Someone might say that the Greek vocabulary lends itself to the confusion of two different things here,
but from another point of view the Greek λογος represents a concept that disintegrates in English. In
any case, the translator who would bring the full meaning of this sentence across the language barrier
has no choice but to override the restrictions of the English language and bring over the Greek words
themselves, either in brackets or footnotes, to exhibit the chain of thinking. Despite the fact that these
same words have already been adopted into English in several ways, expressing various meanings
belonging to them, we still do not have a word that means both reason and word!
English translators have always sensed the inadequacy of their language when faced with the problem
of translating λογος in the prologue of John’s Gospel. There is no English equivalent for the
metaphysical sense in which it is used there. In such cases it may be best simply to borrow the word in
a transliterated form, as James Moffatt did in his “Modern Speech” version of the New Testament
(“The Logos existed in the very beginning …”), and allow teachers to explain the meaning of it. It
would not be the first time this word has been borrowed.
If borrowing is ruled out, and the common English “word” continues to stand in the place of λογος,
then an explanation is needed to establish a particular biblical sense for “word” here. Explanations like
this are often given in expository preaching. For example, Augustine in his Homilies (or Tractates) on
the Gospel according to St. John had to face the same problem in Latin as we do in English, because
Latin also lacks an entirely adequate equivalent for λογος. The Latin version uses Verbum (‘word’) in
John 1:1, but Augustine explains that Verbum here does not mean what it ordinarily means in Latin. The
divine λογος can be called a Verbum only if we understand that this Verbum is really more like a
cogitatio (thought) or a consilium (purpose). It is like “a word in the man himself which remains
within” (in ipso homine, quod manet intus), not the spoken word, “but that which the sound signified,
and was in the speaker as he thought of it” (quod autem significavit sonus, et in cogitante est qui dixit).
For “you can have a word in your heart, as it were a design born in your mind, so that your mind brings
forth the design; and the design is, so to speak, the offspring of your mind, the son of your heart” (Si tu
potes habere verbum in corde tuo, tamquam consilium natum in mente tua, ut mens tua pariat
consilium, et insit consilium quasi proles mentis tuae, quasi filius cordis tui). With this explanation he
invests the common word Verbum with a special biblical meaning that reflects the meaning of λογος in
Hellenistic Greek, although he does not even mention the Greek word. Any preacher today could do the
same with an English translation that represents λογος with “word.” Instead of borrowing the Greek
λογος, the English “word” can be made serviceable (if not entirely adequate) by explanations or by
contextual indications which give it a modified biblical meaning.
The vocabulary of Biblical Hebrew also includes some important words that resist translation. The
word ‫( חסד‬chesed), for instance, combines the concepts “covenant obligation,” “loyalty,” “act of
kindness” and “love” in a way that no English word can match. It denotes a kind of dutiful love,
connected with promises, family relations, and covenants; and also any action that is motivated by such
love. When attributed to God, ‫ חסד‬implies much “mercy” within the context of a covenant. The word
thus has different shades of meaning in different places; but it is not as if it meant “kindness” in one
place, “mercy” in another, and “loyalty” in another. It represents a complex concept which cannot be
reduced to just one of these English nouns in any of its occurrences. The ‫ חסד‬concept goes to pieces in
English.
The Hebrew word ‫( נפש‬nephesh) refers to the “soul” of a human being, but its connotations are not
nearly so ghostly as the English word’s are in modern usage. It denotes the soul as embodied, and so it
is used in reference to such primal bodily urges as the appetite, along with the deepest emotions. A
man’s ‫ נפש‬is what really motivates him, either spiritually or carnally. (7) Being the name for an entity
which causes a creature to be alive, it came also to be used in the sense of “life” itself, as a condition of
the body; and by a synecdoche (the most important part standing for the whole) it acquired also the
sense “living being.” (It is important to note that in the Bible, all animals have souls. The soul is what
makes any creature alive. Man is not set apart from the beasts by the possession of a soul, he is set
apart by being created in the image of God.) All of this is also true of the Greek word ψυχη (psyche),
which was used to translate ‫ נפש‬in the Septuagint, and is used in all these senses in the Greek New
Testament. Concerning the translation of ψυχη the BAGD Lexicon rightly says, “It is often impossible
to draw hard and fast lines between the meanings of this many-sided word” (p. 893), because the
different senses blend into one another, producing ambiguity, and the concept of “the soul” as an entity
casts its shadow over all the various usages of ψυχη and ‫נפש‬. As an example of this linguistic
chemistry in action, consider the following words of Isaac to Esau in Genesis 27:4.
Prepare a savory dish for me, such as I love, and bring it to me that I may eat, so that my
‫ נפש‬may bless you before I die.
Syntactically, the phrase “my ‫ ”נפש‬here is functionally equivalent to the personal pronoun “I,” or to
any other way of referring to oneself, but semantically it is not just another way of saying “I,” because
in addition to serving the function of self-reference, it refers to the soul. And this is generally true in
cases where an expression with ‫ נפש‬refers to persons. It is used in contexts where the fact that they are
living is pertinent, where a matter of life and death is prominent, or where the most primal desires of
the person are in view. In this context, both the carnal appetite and the impending death of Isaac have
made a reference to his soul especially appropriate. Obviously it means more than “I,” and so the NIV’s
“that I may give you my blessing” fails to express the whole meaning. (8) The only way to convey the
whole meaning in a case like this is to translate literally, “that my soul may bless you,” and to explain
in a note that the word translated “soul” may also refer to the “appetite.”
A more complex example is in Leviticus 17.
10 If any man of the house of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn among them eats any
blood, I will set my face against that ‫ נפש‬who eats blood and will cut it [i.e. the ‫ ]נפש‬off
from among its people. 11 For the ‫ נפש‬of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it [i.e.
the blood] for you on the altar to make atonement for your ‫[ נפשות‬plural], for it is the
blood that makes atonement by the ‫נפש‬.

This important text briefly sets forth a theology of the atonement. The first ‫ נפש‬evidently refers to a
person, but again, its function is not merely referential, it is used for the sake of its “soul” connotations.
Moreover we note that the participle and pronouns connected with it are grammatically feminine,
which gives the impression that it is the soul (a feminine noun) which eats and is cut off. In its second
and fourth occurrences ‫ נפש‬might seem at first to mean vitality or life, but in the intervening
“atonement for your ‫ ”נפשות‬it must be understood as “souls” or “selves” (the NRSV’s “atonement for
your lives” makes no sense), and this reacts upon the interpretation of the other occurrences, because
the sentence clearly equates the ‫ נפש‬of the sacrificial victim with the ‫ נפש‬of its presenter, for the
purpose of explaining how atonement is accomplished. If the word is translated three different ways in
these two verses, the connections which are obviously being made in the mind of the author are
dissolved. But that is exactly what happens in many English versions. Some versions give no indication
that a “soul” is ever mentioned in this passage. The NLT renders it thus:
10 And I will turn against anyone, whether an Israelite or a foreigner living among you,
who eats or drinks blood in any form. I will cut off such a person from the community. 11
For the life of any creature is in its blood. I have given you the blood so you can make
atonement for your sins.

Observe here that not only is the “soul” missing, but also the “altar,” and any indication of the
substitution of one life for another on the altar. The substitutionary idea was expressed in the original
by verbal connections which are completely eliminated in the English translation.
No version can entirely avoid this phenomenon of translation, in which the semantic connections of
important words “disintegrate” in the passage from one language to another, but the problem becomes
most acute in versions produced under the dynamic equivalence philosophy, which demands complete
naturalness of expression in the receptor language. This demand is often incompatible with the
requirements of an accurate translation. A translator must sometimes employ the principle of
concordant rendering, even if it goes against the idiomatic grain of the receptor language, in order to
preserve the meaning. Some have argued that “soul” is a misleading translation for ‫ נפש‬because in
popular usage it does not have the range of meaning that belongs to ‫נפש‬. But what is the alternative? If
the translator gives several different renderings, according to his ideas of what the word means in each
context, then the reader who relies upon his translation will never acquire the knowledge of the general
concept that ‫ נפש‬represents. Concepts without names are like souls without bodies. They become
invisible. And furthermore, avoiding the word ‘soul’ has the effect of leaving the naive reader’s concept
of the soul undisturbed by Scripture. So we cannot agree with Gerhard von Rad when he says, “we
should refrain from translating this term as ‘soul’ wherever possible.” (9) Rather, we should refrain
from rendering it otherwise, and allow the context to indicate how ‘soul’ must be understood. In this
way the reader’s concept of the ‘soul’ will be shaped and informed by Scripture.
Fortunately, the defects of our language are not so numerous and serious that we are unable to produce
a serviceable, tolerably accurate translation of the Bible. But the linguistic capacity we do enjoy is
often owed to the historic influence of Greek and Hebrew upon English, as mediated by literal
translations of the Bible. The English word grace owes its range of meaning to the fact that for so many
centuries it was used in English Bibles as a translation of χαρις, and in this way had acquired all the
meanings of the Greek word. When such a process of linguistic preparation has occurred, it is foolish
not to use the especially prepared words. Our ability to produce a fully adequate translation really
depends upon them.
One biblical concept that has suffered unnecessary disintegration in recent versions is the concept
expressed in Scripture by the Hebrew word ‫ בשר‬and the Greek word σαρξ, traditionally rendered
“flesh” in English versions. These words refer not only to “flesh” in the narrow sense, but to creatures
made of flesh, humanity in distinction from God, and human nature in general. Often the words are
used in a pejorative sense, emphasizing the mortality, corruptibility, and weakness (both physical and
moral) of mankind. This usage is not confined to musty old Bibles, it is a recognized sense in common
use. People do not assume that “the flesh” in a phrase like “the world, the flesh, and the devil” refers
only to skin and muscle tissue, anymore than they would assume that “the world” refers simply to the
planet earth. They understand that “flesh” in such a context refers to the impulses of the flesh, that is,
the natural or instinctive desires of the body. But the NIV does not use “flesh” in that sense; it uses the
word only where it is thought to refer to the material of the body. Elsewhere it offers, as translations of
the word σαρξ, such abstractions as “sinful nature” (Rom. 7-8, etc.), “sinful mind” (Rom. 8:7), “human
ancestry” (Rom. 9:5), “human standards” (1 Cor. 1:26), and “human decision” (John 1:13). In some
places the word is not translated at all (Rom. 4:1), or its place is filled with a mere pronoun (Matt.
24:22, Rom. 3:20, 1 Cor. 1:29, etc.). One of the NIV translators, Ronald Youngblood, has responded to
criticism of its renderings thus:
To render the Greek word sarx by “flesh” virtually every time it appears does not require
the services of a translator; all one needs is a dictionary (or, better yet, a computer). But to
recognize that sarx has differing connotations in different contexts, that in addition to
“flesh” it often means “human standards” or “earthly descent” or “sinful nature” or “sexual
impulse” or “person,” etc., and therefore to translate sarx in a variety of ways, is to
understand that translation is not only a mechanical, word-for-word process but also a
nuanced thought-for-thought procedure …” (10)

We do not deny that the word has this range of meaning. Our point is, when the word is rendered in so
many different ways, the reader cannot perceive how these things are associated and sometimes even
identified in the Greek language. With regard to two of them Herman Ridderbos observes that it is an
“indication of the universality of sin, in that flesh on the one hand is a description of all that is man, and
on the other of the sinful in man.” (11) We might also observe that the same word is used for
corruptibility, sinful tendencies, and biological descent, which suggests not only the universality but
also the inheritability of the sinful nature. The whole matrix of semantic connections and connotations
is destroyed when different words are used for the different aspects of this complex concept.
Youngblood apparently believes that Hebrew and Greek readers are able to discern the intended
meaning of the word in each context, but he does not seem to recognize that the context will in the very
same way indicate the meaning to readers of English versions that translate σαρξ consistently as flesh.
Why should the defining effect of the immediate context be acknowledged for the one and not for the
other? It is as if the constraints and indications of the immediate context are not really thought to be
adequate. Readers are assumed to be incapable of inferring the meaning of the term from the context.
But is there really any basis for the idea that readers cannot perceive what is meant by “flesh” in places
where it means something more than the physical substance? In some places it quite obviously refers to
unregenerate human nature in general (e.g. Galatians 5).
More recently Douglas Moo has explained that members of the committee who revised the NIV in
2002 “thought that the word flesh in contemporary English would either connote ‘the meat on our
bones’ or (where context rendered that particular meaning impossible) the sensual appetites, and
especially sexual lust.” (12) But the special association of “the flesh” with sensual desire is not just a
quirk of contemporary English. The word σαρξ also had this connotation in first-century Greek. (13) It
is no coincidence that Paul in his list of “works of the flesh” (Galatians 5:19ff.) begins with three items
associated with sensuality. Martin Luther complained that the Latin equivalent caro and the German
das Fleisch were also commonly understood as referring either to “meat” or to “lust” in his day. (14)
But notwithstanding this, Luther found such significance in the Bible’s use of “flesh” as a designation
for humanity and human nature, that he preferred to translate σαρξ and ‫ בשר‬literally as Fleisch. (15)
The approach taken by Luther may be illustrated by comments in his Preface to the Epistle of Paul to
the Romans.
To begin with we must have knowledge of the manner of speech and know what St. Paul
means by the words, law, sin, grace, faith, righteousness, flesh, spirit, and so forth.
Otherwise no reading of it has any value.
He goes on to define these key words for his readers. The difference between Luther and the translators
of the NIV is that Luther had higher expectations of his readers, despite the fact that in his time
illiteracy was much more of a problem than it is today. (16) He did not believe that a Bible version
without explanatory notes and prefaces could convey the whole meaning while making all
misunderstandings impossible. He expected readers of his translation to read his notes and prefaces,
and he expected preachers to explain the Bible in their sermons also. But the NIV is shaped by much
lower standards and expectations, as Moo explains:
A careful reader of the Bible would no doubt eventually acquire a sense of the significance
of “flesh” in Romans. Yet, no matter what our hopes might be, how many readers of the
Bible today are that careful? If one is translating for the well-read churchgoer—the person
who goes to Bible studies where the Bible is really studied—then “flesh” is probably the
best rendering of sarx. But the unpalatable fact is that only a minority of Christians
anymore fall into that category—to say nothing of non-Christians, who, we hope, will pick
up and read the Bible. For many readers, then, translating Paul’s sarx as “flesh” would not
effectively communicate.
… Every indication is that the ability of people to read is steadily declining. If we are to
hope for a Bible that an entire congregation can use, the readability of a more contextually
nuanced translation such as the TNIV may be the best option. (17)
Moo agrees that a concordant and literal translation of σαρξ is probably best for “the careful reader”
and for those who have received instruction, but he assumes that the majority of Christian readers will
not be careful and will not receive instruction. So, careful readers are marginalized by the NIV, while
the careless readers are treated as normal. But we do not share such low expectations. We object to the
idea that the entire congregation should be using a Bible version adapted to the limitations of those who
will not read it carefully, and who are expected to learn nothing from teachers.
I wish to emphasize here that any discussion of what is thought to be best in a translation must
inevitably bring under consideration pedagogic and ecclesiastical questions for which a biblical scholar
may have no special qualifications or wisdom. There is no reason for us to think that Moo, for example,
is a better judge of what people can understand, or of what reading level is best for a Bible version to
be used by the whole congregation, or of how much explanation should be left to pastors and teachers.
These are questions that lie outside his area of expertise. I assume that we are in agreement about the
meaning of the word σαρξ. At least I find nothing in Moo’s remarks which causes me to think
otherwise. My disagreement with Moo is about his assumptions concerning the readers of the English
version, and what is best for a Christian congregation. Again, I would point out that he admits that
concordant renderings will benefit careful readers in this case.
The desirability of concordant renderings may also be seen when we consider the metaphorical
relationship that often exists between different senses of the same word. In Hebrew the word ‫שמ!ים‬
(shamayim) means both sky and heaven, and the same is true of the Greek word ουρανος (ouranos). It
is by a metaphorical extension of meaning that the word for “sky” came also to mean “heaven,” in the
sense of God’s dwelling-place. The metaphorical sense no doubt originated in the intuition that divinity
must be “above” our world, because power and authority is naturally associated with being in a
“higher” position. God is so high, he is above the clouds. This is a way of expressing the transcendence
of God, and it contrasts with pantheistic conceptions that prefer an immanent world-spirit or nature
deity. Scripture often uses variations of this “God is high” metaphor, and some events recorded in
Scripture give sanction to it. At the Baptism of Christ, “the heavens were opened.” When he ascended
into heaven, he quite literally went up into the sky. This must be understood as a symbolic action, as
Bruce Metzger explains:
Though Jesus did not need to ascend in order to return to the immediate presence of God,
the book of Acts relates that he did in fact ascend a certain distance into the sky, until a
cloud received him out of sight (Acts 1:9). By such a dramatic rising from their midst, he
taught his disciples that this was now the last time he would appear to them, and that
henceforth they should not sit about waiting for another appearance, but should understand
that the transitional period had come to an end. The didactic symbolism was both natural
and appropriate. That the lesson was learned by the primitive church seems to be clear from
the fact that the records of the early centuries indicate that his followers suddenly ceased to
look for any manifestation of the risen Lord other than his second coming in glory. (18)

This symbolism will seem “natural and appropriate” to people who ordinarily associate the
transcendent realm of heaven with the sky above, and this association is facilitated by the linguistic fact
that ουρανος means both “sky” and “heaven.” But when a language requires us to use different words
for these things, it works against the semantic association upon which the scriptural symbolism
depends. Polysemy often lays the groundwork for symbolism, and it can play a large part in
establishing mental associations that are taken for granted and seem only natural to members of a
linguistic community.
Although it may seem poetic, until recently no one thought it would be hard to understand if ουρανος
were translated “heaven” in places where it denotes the sky. But it seems that many Bible translators
now think that “heaven” must be distinguished from “the sky.” Even the NASB reflects this, by giving
two different renderings for the same word in Acts 1:10-11, and the Good News Bible consistently
avoids calling the sky “heaven” or “the heavens” even in poetic contexts (e.g. Psalm 19, “the sky
reveals God’s glory”). What is lost when the sky can no longer be called “the heavens” in the Bible?
We lose the power of a scriptural metaphor, which sets the throne of the Most High God upon the stars,
and also the symbolic meaning of Christ’s ascension. (19)
The teaching concerning death and resurrection is sometimes expressed in Scripture by extended senses
for words meaning “sleep” and “awake.” In Daniel 12:2 we read, “And many of those sleeping (‫)ישני‬
in the dust of the earth shall awake (‫)יקיצו‬, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting
abhorrence.” The word translated “sleeping” here is an adjective derived from ‫“( ישן‬sleep,” BDB
Lexicon p. 445). The word translated “awake” is a form of ‫“( קיץ‬awake,” BDB p. 884). See also the
use of these words in 2 Kings 4:31, Job 14:12, Psalm 13:3, Isaiah 26:19, and Jeremiah 51:39, 57. In the
New Testament, see the use of the verbs καθευδω (“sleep,” BAGD Lexicon p. 388) in Matt. 9:24 (=
Mark 5:39, Luke 8:52), 1 Thes. 5:10; and κοιμαω and its cognates (“sleep,” BAGD p. 437) in Matt.
27:52; John 11:11, 13; Acts 7:60, 13:36, 1 Cor. 7:39, 11:30, 15:6, 18, 20, 51; 1 Thes. 4:14; and 2 Pet.
3:4. I would also point out the parallelism in Ephesians 5:14. Surely it means something that words
which in their primary sense mean “fall asleep” are also used in reference to the death of the body. To
say that one of the senses is “fall asleep” and the other is “die” is to miss the significance that derives
from the connection of the senses. (20) For if the dead “sleep,” they will awake! As Louis Berkhof
observes, it is likely that Scripture uses this expression “in order to suggest to believers the comforting
hope of the resurrection.” (21) But the connection is lost in the NLT rendering of Daniel 12:2 (“those
whose bodies lie dead and buried will rise up”), 2 Kings 4:31 (“the child is still dead”), Psalm 13:3 (“I
will die”), 1 Thes. 5:10 (“dead or alive”), Matt. 27:52 (“who had died”), Acts 7:60, 13:36 (“he died”),
and in all places where a word meaning “sleep” is used to speak of death in the epistles. (22)
A memorable word used seven times in Jeremiah is ‫( ה!ש" כ*ם‬hashekkem), lit. “set out early.” In what
appears to be a bold anthropomorphism, Jeremiah represents God “rising up early” for the work of
sending his prophets to Israel (7:13, 25; 11:7; 25:4; 29:19; 32:33; 35:14). Lexicographers from
Gesenius on have supposed that in these places the word is used in an extended sense of “doing with a
sense of urgency” or something similar, which is not unlikely. Less likely is the recent idea that it had
also a sense “repeatedly.” (23) But however that may be, everyone acknowledges that the same word is
used in the sense “setting out early” nearly everywhere else, so it surely must have connoted early
morning activity in Jeremiah also. In the more literal versions of the Bible the word is consistently
translated “rising up early.” In the less literal versions we have the weakened renderings “repeatedly”
(NLT) and “again and again” (NIV) in Jeremiah. “Persistently” (RSV and ESV) is scarcely better. Why
not use “urgently” or “earnestly” at least? We want a rendering that gives some indication of the word’s
proper meaning. The rendering “rising up early” may not be the most perspicuous one for literal-
minded readers of Jeremiah, but it certainly does indicate the primary meaning of the word, and there is
really no compelling reason to think that it was not the only meaning of the word for the biblical
authors. Why should it not be understood as a lively and metaphorical way of speaking in Jeremiah?
When we compare English translations of James 1:3 and 1 Peter 1:7, we sometimes find diverse
renderings of the word δοκίμιον. In the Revised Standard Version, for instance, it is translated “testing”
in James 1:3 and “genuineness” in 1 Peter 1:7. We do not object to the idea that there is a slight
difference in the meaning of the word in these two places. However, the difference in meaning is
certainly exaggerated in the English here, because the “genuineness” denoted by δοκίμιον is that
genuineness which is discovered or proven by testing. This does not need to be explained to anyone
reading the Greek, because it is the same word used in James 1:3, and it is very obvious that the two
senses of the word are conceptually related. Therefore it is better to translate δοκίμιον more
concordantly as “tested genuiness” in 1 Peter 1:7 (ESV).
Earlier in this book, under the heading of “Transculturation,” I discussed the semantic range of the
words ‫ אח‬and αδελφος. The primary meaning is “brother,” but in addition to referring to one who was
born of the same mother and father, they may also refer to a “member of a religious community,”
“fellow countryman,” “neighbor,” etc., and these various senses are enumerated in the lexicons. Here
again the meaning has been extended metaphorically, and so the extended senses retain the connotation
of the primary sense, “brother.” It certainly means something that a fellow-Christian is called an
αδελφος in Scripture. Therefore, in order to preserve the meaning, a concordant rendering is desirable.
We should translate it as brother in all places. If we avoid the word brother and use expressions like
“member of the church” or “fellow-Christian” when αδελφος refers to someone who is not literally a
brother, then the metaphorical meaning is lost.
Apologists for “dynamic equivalence” typically ignore such considerations. Some have even denied, on
a theoretical level, the reality of the linguistic phenomenon we have been talking about here. One new
member of the NIV committee, Mark Strauss, has written:
First, Greek and Hebrews words (called lexemes), like words in any language, seldom have
a single, all-encompassing meaning, but rather a range of potential senses. This range of
senses is called the lexeme’s semantic range. The context and co-text in which the lexeme
is used determines which sense is intended by the author. Most words do not have a single
literal (core, basic) meaning, but rather a semantic range — a range of potential senses
which are actualized by the utterance in which they appear. Second, words normally have
only one sense in any particular context. … While there may be some interplay between
senses in various contexts, these senses do not necessarily force their meanings on one
other. James Barr speaks of “illegitimate totality transfer,” the fallacy of assuming that the
whole of a lexeme’s semantic range is somehow contained in any single occurrence. (24)
In an illustration of this, Strauss discusses various meanings of the Greek verb ποιεω (“do,” “practice,”
“make”, “cause,” “give,” etc), and belabors the rather obvious point that ποιεω cannot always be
translated the same way. And so he concludes:
The literal translator recognizes that ποιεω often does not mean “make,” but still argues
that, inasmuch as possible, the same English word should be used for each word in Hebrew
and Greek. But what is the justification for this? If the goal of translation is meaning, then
the correct question is not, Is “‘make’ an adequate translation?” but “What is the meaning
of ποιεω in this context?” and “What English word, expression or idiom best captures this
sense?” It is irrelevant whether the same English word is used in any particular case, or
even whether a whole English phrase or idiom is introduced. (25)

The issue is thus framed by a refusal to acknowledge that the primary sense of a word commonly gives
connotations to the extended senses. A semantically mercurial word like ποιεω is offered as proof of
this, as if it were typical. After a little specious reasoning we then come to a point where people are
even claiming that “member of the church” is an entirely adequate translation for αδελφος, and anyone
who thinks that it must still connote “brother” when it refers to a member of the church is said to be
guilty of a linguistic fallacy.
We are not here ignoring the theoretical possibility that a word-meaning which began as a metaphorical
extension of the primary meaning may lose its metaphorical liveliness after generations of frequent use.
There is such a thing as a “dead” metaphor, which has become merely referential in meaning, having
lost its original connotations; or if not entirely “dead,” the metaphorical force may have become
“dormant.” A good example of this would be the meaning of the verb ordinarily used for “sin” in the
New Testament, ἁμαρτάνω, which in the Illiad of Homer sometimes has the concrete sense of “miss the
mark” (i.e. in archery). Most philologists think this concrete sense is the original sense of the word, and
that the meaning “sin” arose as a metaphorical extension of the more concrete meaning. But “sin”
became the ordinary meaning of the word long before the writing of the New Testament, by which time
the meaning “miss the mark” was archaic, and would probably never occur to readers—unless of
course they were reading Homer. And so the assertion often made in sermons, that the biblical word for
“sin” meant literally “miss the mark,” is quite misleading. In the Bible “sin” denotes a turning away
from God, a disobedient and corrupt state of mind, manifesting itself in attitudes and behaviors that are
much more blameworthy than a mere failure to achieve one’s goals. To define “sin” as a “missing of
the mark” is deeply unbiblical, and the preacher who defines it thus merely on the basis of the history
of the word ἁμαρτάνω is committing a serious error of interpretation, by something akin to the
“etymological fallacy.” (26) But the same cannot be said of any statement that the primary meaning of
αδελφος is “brother,” because “brother” was the ordinary meaning of the word at the time that the New
Testament was written.
It is often hard to prove beyond any doubt what connotations a word had in ancient times. But it would
be unwise to assume that the primary meaning of a word does not indicate its associative connotations
when the primary meaning also happens to be the meaning that is most common.
Strauss is so contrary to our way of thinking that he will not even tolerate footnotes that give the
primary meanings of words. He objects to a footnote in the ESV, in which the translators indicate that
the Greek word σαρξ literally means “flesh,” though they have translated it as “human being” in the
text. He says that with this footnote “they promote a false and misleading view of language and
translation.” (27) Likewise he charges the translators of the NRSV with a “fallacy” when they give a
footnote indicating that αδελφοι literally means brothers, though they have given the gender-inclusive
rendering “brother and sisters” in the text: “This is a lexical fallacy. First, the Greek word is not
‘brothers’; it is adelphoi. Second, adelphoi does not have a literal meaning, but a range of possible
senses.” (28)
No one denies that Hebrew and Greek words usually have more than one sense, and that the context
indicates which sense is meant. Anyone who is familiar with the languages knows that these senses
often do not match up very well with English words. But theorists like Strauss and Nida fail to
recognize the true extent of the problem. They assume that it can be solved by sharply segregating the
senses and giving different renderings in different places. We, on the other hand, perceive that a variety
in the rendering sometimes creates other problems which they do not acknowledge. When the senses of
‫ אח‬are severed from one another in the “contextually nuanced” translation, much of the meaning is
lost. The same is true of ‫ נפש‬and ‫ בשר‬and many other words.
English often does have the words needed to express these meanings, but not at the conversational
“Common Language” level. Sometimes it is necessary to use borrowed words (e.g. Hades), and
sometimes we must take advantage of the “biblical” senses acquired by English words through their
usage in literal translations (“brother,” “flesh,” “heart,” “know,” “sleep,” and so forth). The earliest
English versions established these senses by using literal equivalents for the primary sense of the
words, and allowing the context to indicate the extended biblical senses.

8. Semantic Minimalism
“The best meaning is the least meaning”
Strauss’s emphasis on the range and diversity of the senses of words and his use of the phrase
“illegitimate totality transfer” reflect the influence of James Barr, whose critique of unsound
philological practices in biblical studies has greatly influenced many scholars of our generation,
especially in America. In his book The Semantics of Biblical Language (1961) Barr coined the phrase
“illegitimate totality transfer” to describe a tendency which he had often noticed in theological
writings.
A term may be used in a number of places. Let us take the example of ἐκκλησία ‘church’ in
the NT. If we ask, ‘What is the meaning of ἐκκλησία in the NT?’, the answer given may be
an adding or a compounding of different statements about the ἐκκλησία made in various
passages. Thus we might say (a) ‘the Church is the body of Christ’ (b) ‘the Church is the
first instalment of the Kingdom of God’ (c) ‘the Church is the Bride of Christ’, and other
such statements. The ‘meaning of ἐκκλησία in the NT’ could then be legitimately stated to
be the totality of these relations. This is one sense of ‘meaning’. But when we take an
individual sentence, such as ‘The Church is the Body of Christ’, and ask what is ‘the
meaning’ of ‘the Church’ in this sentence, we are asking something different. The semantic
indication given by ‘the Church’ is now something much less than ‘the NT conception of
the Church’. The realization of this is of primary importance in dealing with isolated or
unusual cases; the obvious example is ‘my ἐκκλησία’ in Matt. 16:18 (cf 18:17). In this case
the TWNT article (K.L. Schmidt) gives separate treatment to the particular passages. The
error that arises, when the ‘meaning’ of a word (understood as the total series of relations in
which it is used in the literature) is read into a particular case as its sense and implication
there, may be called ‘illegitimate totality transfer’.
We may briefly remark that this procedure has to be specially guarded against in the climate
of present-day biblical theology, for this climate is very favorable to ‘seeing the Bible as a
whole’ and rather hostile to the suggestion that something is meant in one place which is
really unreconcilable with what is said in another (the sort of suggestion which under
literary criticism led to a fragmentation of the understanding of the Bible). There may be
also some feeling that since Hebrew man or biblical man thought in totalities we should do
the same as interpreters. But a moment’s thought should indicate that the habit of thinking
about God or man or sin as totalities is a different thing from obscuring the value of a word
in a context by imposing upon it the totality of its uses. We may add that the small compass
of the NT, both in literary bulk and in the duration of the period which produced it, adds a
plausibility to the endeavor to take it as one piece, which could hardly be considered so
likely for any literature of greater bulk and spread over a longer time. (pp. 218-19)
Barr’s book does not concern translations, it concerns theological writings which tend (in his opinion)
to base their assertions on mere “linguistic fantasy” (p. 44) through the use of speculative etymologies,
and which tend to see wildly improbable significance in biblical words. In my opinion, some of his
complaints were valid and necessary. I would even say that Barr did not press his valid points far
enough. (1) But not all of them were valid. His writing on this subject is polemical in spirit, and he
tends to overcorrect, and veer to questionable positions on the other side. Like Adolf Deissmann (with
whom he has much in common), his views are distorted by an animus against systematic theology as
such, which I do not share. Most important for the present discussion is the fact that he does not draw a
line between the fantastic conceits of the “etymologizing method,” as he calls it, and the entirely
reasonable idea that polysemy commonly establishes connotations. His attack on the misuse of the
“etymologizing method” is strong and compelling; but his “illegitimate totality transfer” charge is not
so convincing. (In the paragraphs quoted above he does not even explain why ἐκκλησία should not
bring to mind a general conception of the Church in Matthew 16:18.) But my purpose here is not to
offer an evaluation of Barr. I am only interested in how his “illegitimate totality transfer” concept has
been used in the climate created by Nida’s influence—a climate which differs substantially from the
one in which Barr raised his protest.
Nida was of course interested in the implications for “dynamic equivalence” translations. In an article
on “Implications of Contemporary Linguistics for Biblical Scholarship” Nida declared that “the correct
meaning of any term is that which contributes least to the total context”:
This process of maximizing the context is fully in accord with the soundest principles of
communication science. As has been clearly demonstrated by mathematical techniques in
decoding, the correct meaning of any term is that which contributes least to the total
context, or in other terms, that which fits the context most perfectly. In contrast to this,
many biblical scholars want to read into every word in each of its occurrences all that can
possibly be derived from all of its occurrences, and as a result they violate one of the
fundamental principles of information theory. Perhaps this error is in some measure related
to the false notion that when words are put together they always add their meanings one to
another. The very opposite is generally the case. For example, green may denote a color, a
lack of experience (he is green at the job), and unripe (green fruit); and house may indicate
a dwelling, a construction for storing objects (warehouse), a lineage (the house of David), a
legislative body and a business establishment; but in the combination green house the
meanings of both green and house are restricted to only one each of these meanings. On the
other hand, in the compound greenhouse the meanings of both green and house are
somewhat different from what they are in green house. But in neither instance does one add
all the meanings of green to all the meanings of house. In such instances there is a mutual
restriction of meaning. Moreover, in combinations such as green house and greenhouse one
must not attempt to see implied in the component parts all the related meanings which these
terms have in other combinations. That is to say, words do not carry with them all the
meanings which they may have in other sets of co-occurrences. Unfortunately, however,
this is precisely what some students of the Bible would seem to imply by their treatments of
meaning. For example, some persons would like to think that in every occurrence of the
root dik-, in such forms as dikaios, dikaioo, and dikaiosyne, all of the diverse meanings are
in some way or other implicit. This would amount to saying that essentially there are no
differences between the Matthean and Pauline uses, or that despite the differences all the
related meanings are still to be found embedded in each usage. For the Greek root dik- one
might possibly argue for such a position, but surely with the Hebrew root kbd, which in
different contexts may carry such widely diverse meanings as “heavy, much, many, slow,
dull, grievous, difficult, burdensome, wealth, riches, prestige, glory, honor,” it would be
folly to support such a “syncretistic” view of semantic structure. (2)
It certainly would be foolish to try to roll together all the various meanings of words sharing the root
‫( כבד‬which would include the verb ‫כב*ד‬, the adjective ‫כב*ד‬, and the noun ‫ )כבוד‬and to assert that the
resulting mélange of meanings is intended whenever these words are used. But in fact no one is doing
this, and it can have no relevance to questions of translation. More to the point would be some
discussion of why, in the few places where the noun ‫ כבוד‬appears to have the meaning “abundance” or
“riches” (maybe four times out of about two hundred occurrences), there can be no overtones of the
usual meaning of “honor” or “glory.” Because it is not obviously contrary to the “soundest principles of
communication science” to think that even in these contexts the meaning of ‫ כבוד‬would probably have
this associative connotation, and therefore the meaning would probably be expressed more adequately
with a combination, “wealth that brings honor,” or something similar. I can illustrate this point with the
English word “honor,” which in certain contexts has a specialized sense, in relation to women, as in the
following lines from Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Book IV, canto 1:
For Amoret right fearefull was and faint,
Lest she with blame her honor should attaint,
That everie word did tremble as she spake,
And everie looke was coy, and wondrous quaint.
“Honor” in this context means “virginity.” The word acquired this specialized meaning in relation to
unmarried women because virginity was held to be especially honorable for them. But the general
sense of “honor” is not so absent in these contexts that we may substitute “virginity” without a loss of
meaning, because it means virginity as a condition of honor. Spenser even makes this connotation of
the word stand out by the use of the antonym “blame” in the same line. This description of the meaning
does not involve any fanciful “etymologizing” method, and it is the kind of observation that even the
most cautious philologist would make. It is no “illegitimate totality transfer” when I merely point out
that the connotations of the word result from the blending of the specialized with the basic meaning. I
think we might need a term for the opposite error here, in which a community or continuum of meaning
is arbitrarily broken into segments by analysis. Classical scholar Charles Martindale calls it the
“lexicographical fallacy” because of its connection with the work of lexicographers, who often seem to
be intent on distinguishing and listing as many senses as possible:
Again the metaphrast [i.e. the literal translator] will try to avoid falling prey to what might
be called “the lexicographical fallacy.” Latin dictionaries (in this they are like all
dictionaries) habitually give the impression that many common Latin words have numerous
distinct meanings; in fact, like most English words, most Latin words have one basic core
of meaning, but can be used in many contexts. A poet tends to use ordinary words in
unfamiliar contexts, no poet more so than Virgil. Translators compete with each other in
their efforts to conceal this fact from their readers by glossing over such abnormal usages.
A couple of examples … (3)
As for δικαιος, δικαιοω and δικαιοσύνη, I do not believe that “Matthean and Pauline uses” indicate that
Paul and Matthew meant such different things by them that they should be translated differently, or that
it is illegitimate for us to expect a shared concept of righteousness to be implicit in the meaning of
these words when we encounter them in the New Testament. These are not like the word “green”—they
are important religious terms. They refer not to physical objects but to ethical concepts, and their
relationship to one another is transparent. We may assume that in the context of ancient Judaism and
Christianity these words were packed with meaning, and that the three of them formed a self-consistent
and integrated set of concepts for the apostles. In any case, the determination of their meaning will
have far-reaching consequences for the interpretation of the New Testament, and I must say that I am
not willing to give this question over to translators who are very bold to insert their own “contextual”
interpretations.
Another path of influence for the same tendency has been the discussion of semantic analysis in a book
by Moisés Silva, one of Barr’s students. In a chapter on “Determining Meaning” in his book Biblical
Words and their Meaning (1983, revised 1994), Silva shows a tendency to treat words as if they had no
fixed or ordinary meanings.
… the context does not merely help us understand meaning—it virtually makes meaning. A
standard introduction to linguistic science informs us that “among the divers meanings a
word possesses, the only one that will emerge into consciousness is the one determined by
the context. All others are abolished, extinguished, non-existent. This is true even of words
whose significance appears to be firmly established.”
Dealing also with words that have multiple meanings, B. Siertsema asserts that the “final
interpretation” afforded by the context is what actually matters in communication. She adds
that only those meanings are “called up, ‘activated,’ which are at that moment intended by
the speaker or writer. The other aspects of meaning simply do not occur to us, neither to the
speaker nor to the hearer.” (pp. 139-40)
The importance that Silva attaches to the immediate literary context may be seen in his discussion of
the “lexical ambiguity” in Galatians 3:4.
A classic example of lexical ambiguity is Paul’s question in Galatians 3:4, τοσαῦτα ἐπάθετε εἰκῇ; We
may take the verb in its usual negative sense, “Did you suffer so many things in vain?” We may also
translate it in a neutral sense, “experience,” in which case the context would suggest a positive idea,
that is, the blessings brought about by the Spirit. This ambiguity illustrates dramatically how two valid
principles of interpretation can be brought into conflict. On the one hand, we could insist on choosing
the predominant meaning of the verb. That is, since all other passages in the New Testament use
πασχειν in malam partem, and since, with very few exceptions, the same holds true for Hellenistic
Greek in general, we should presume this negative sense unless the context prohibits it. On the other
hand, the principle of contextual interpretation would lead us to emphasize that nothing in the
immediate context suggests suffering on the part of the Galatians—indeed, that nowhere in the letter is
there an explicit reference to such suffering.
We are then at an exegetical impasse; no resolution is perhaps possible. However, there is an
additional consideration that may throw light on our problem. In 1953 the prominent linguist Martin
Joos delivered a paper, “Towards a First Theorem in Semantics.” In it he suggested
the rule of maximum redundancy, “The best meaning is the least meaning,” as the explicator’s and
defining lexicographer’s rule of thumb for deciding what a hapax legomenon [i.e. a word of unknown
meaning, which occurs only once in a body of literature] most probably means: he defines it in such a
fashion as to make it contribute least to the total message derivable from the passage where it is at
home, rather than, e.g., defining it according to some presumed etymology or semantic history.
At first blush, this statement may appear strange or even unacceptable, for we tend “to assume that an
odd word must have some odd sense, the odder the better.” However, a moment’s reflection on the
redundancy of natural language will persuade us that “Joos’s Law” is eminently reasonable.
Research into communication engineering has had considerable impact on our understanding of
language. In particular, we have become aware of the need for redundancy in communication. When
any piece of information is transmitted, considerable interference and distortion (noise) cannot be
avoided; if the means of communication is one hundred percent efficient, the slightest interference will
obliterate the information. In the course of a normal conversation, the hearer’s reception is greatly
distorted by a variety of causes: grammatical lapses on the part of speaker, less than perfect
enunciation, physical noises in the surroundings, momentary daydreaming on the part of the hearer. In
the vast majority of cases, the hearers do receive the information because of the built-in redundancy of
the language. Suppose, for example, that we hear a three-syllable word, but only understand the last
two syllables -terday; not only are we able to guess that the word is yesterday, but we make the guess
without any awareness that we failed to hear the first syllable. Similarly, missing a complete word
seldom bothers us because the sentence as a whole normally discloses that word. Even if we fail to hear
a complete sentence when listening to a speech, we are unlikely to miss anything that is not
automatically deducible from the rest of the speech.
Joos illustrates his point by referring to Webster’s Third’s definition of per contra, which includes the
supportive quotation, “the female is generally drab, the male, per contra, brilliant.” Assuming the user
of the dictionary has an adequate grasp of
“the” and “is” and “generally” as discursive English, plus adequate background such as the ordinary or
the technically biological and cultural pair “female” and “male,” we imagine him to be in secure
possession of exactly two of these three: drab, per contra, brilliant. (That is, any two of the three!)
Then the third is “obvious” and the solution is child’s play, both literally and figuratively.
It is literally child’s play, because as children we used precisely the method of maximal redundancy to
learn a respectable number of words; indeed, that is the method that we continue to use when we are
not consciously thinking about building our vocabulary.
Now while Joos’s article addressed the problem of hapax legomena and other words whose meaning
may be unknown, the principle is readily applicable to polysemy. In the case of πασχειν in Galatians
3:4, one could argue that the neutral sense “experience” creates less disturbance in the passage than
does “suffer” because the former is more redundant—it is more supportive of, and more clearly
supported by, the context. Such an argument is reasonable and this author finds it quite persuasive.
However, the principle must not be absolutized (Joos himself calls it a “rule of thumb”), nor can its
application in Galatians 3:4 be regarded as conclusive. These reservations do not imply that the context
does not give us the meaning; rather, as previously emphasized, it is that we are not fully cognizant of
the context. For example, it may be argued (perhaps on the basis of Acts 14:22) that the Galatians had
indeed undergone serious tribulation, that their hope of avoiding persecution made them susceptible to
the Judaizers’ teachings (cf. Gal. 6:12), and that their conversations with Paul often dealt with this
concern. If we therefore imagine that the subject was always in their mind, the sense ‘suffer’ in
Galatians 3:4 would not create a disturbance in the (broader) context. Our uncertainty then is based on
our inability to identify that context. (pp. 153-56)
Again, we would not want to deny the fact that the context really does have a decisive effect on the
meaning of words, and we would even admit that sometimes this needs to be emphasized. But Silva’s
statement that the context “virtually makes meaning” is extravagant. The “additional consideration” he
introduces by an inappropriate application of “Joos’s Law” really amounts to a denial of the validity of
the first principle, that the ordinary meaning of a word should be assumed in the absence of clear
indications of a different meaning in the immediate context. A familiar word is here being treated as if
it were hapax—a word occurring only once, whose meaning is unknown. But words are not just blanks
that acquire their meaning from contexts on the fly. In our comprehension of language we are not
usually like children guessing at the meaning of words. Words have persistent “default” meanings that
we will think of first in contexts which do not clearly indicate another meaning. “Joos’s Law” is itself
rather one-sided, as may be seen in his example of determining the meaning of per contra—because
the word contra would probably be associated with contrary by English readers, so that on the
contrary would be the first meaning tried in the context. People often assign meanings to unfamiliar
words by associating them with words that resemble them phonetically. “Etymological” inferences are
probably used just as often as contextual clues in linguistic situations like this. In the realm of scholarly
investigation also this is quite proper and normal, as Barr says, “the etymological recognition may be
used in conjunction with the context … to give a good semantic indication” (Semantics, p. 158). But
even if we grant the general validity of Joos’s “rule of thumb,” it concerns the determination of the
meaning of words which are unfamiliar to the reader, and it is not really applicable to the determination
of meaning in ordinary cases of polysemy.
An even less appropriate application of “Joos’s Law” is to be found in Nida’s discussion of “Criteria To
Be Used in Judging Translations.”
The efficiency of a translation can be judged in terms of the maximal reception for the
minimum effort of decoding. In a sense, efficiency is closely related to Joos’s “first law of
semantics” (Joos, 1953), which may be stated simply: “That meaning is best which adds
least to the total meaning of the context.” In other words, the maximizing of redundancy
reduces the work of decoding. At the same time, redundancy should not be so increased that
the noise factor of boredom cuts down efficiency. Perhaps the factor of efficiency may be
restated thus: “Other things being equal, the efficiency of the translation can be judged in
terms of the maximal reception for the minimal effort in decoding.” Because of the
diversities in linguistic form and cultural backgrounds, however, translations are more
likely to be overloaded (and hence inefficient in terms of effort) than so redundant that
boredom results.

Here it seems that the principle set forth by Joos for the determination of the meaning of hapax
legomena in a dead language is made into an overarching “first law of semantics,” which is then
supposed to have some bearing on the representation of the meaning of ordinary words in a translation,
for the sake of “minimum effort of decoding.” But the logic of all this is not very clear. Joos’s “law” is
a heuristic rule, to be used in rare cases when the meaning is wholly unknown. “Best” in this context
must mean “most probable.” But in the context of Nida’s prescriptions “best” means “easiest for the
reader,” quite apart from any determination of the meaning of the original. How did we get from one
“best” to the other? Nida does not seem to care about that, and leaves it to his readers to figure it out;
the important thing is that his advice concerning what is “best” should be associated somehow with a
“first law of semantics.”
We should reject the idea that “the best meaning is the least meaning.” It is not a principle that deserves
any special status in the work of translation, exegesis, or lexicology. None of the authors quoted here
have demonstrated that it has much validity apart from its usefulness as a heuristic rule of thumb to be
used in special cases.

9. Unnecessary ‘Help’
Several of the renderings discussed above may also be put in a large of class of paraphrastic renderings
which may be described as “unnecessary help.” For example, the NIV’s paraphrastic translation of
πυρωσει in 1 Peter 4:12-19. Obviously the NIV translators felt that they were helping the reader with
this rendering. But did they suppose that ordinary readers of the Bible are so dense that they are
incapable of understanding that “fiery ordeal” here refers to painful trials?
Many similar instances of ‘unnecessary help’ could be mentioned. For example, in 1 Corinthians
2:11-13 Paul writes:
… for the Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who among men
knows the things of a man, except the spirit of the man, which is in him? Even so the things
of God no one knows except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the
world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things freely given to us by
God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those
taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual things with spiritual.

The last clause here, πνευματικοῖς πνευματικὰ συγκρίνοντες, lit. “matching spiritual things to
spiritual,” looks like a general maxim—the kind of pithy, proverbial saying that Paul often uses to
clinch his arguments. It is capable of wide application, as for example in John Wesley’s statement: “I
then search after and consider parallel passages of Scripture, comparing spiritual things with spiritual.”
(1) But many translators have felt the need to make the statement more specific to the context. The New
Living Translation, for example, has “using the Spirit’s words to explain spiritual truths,” and its
marginal note reads, “Or, explaining spiritual truths in spiritual language, or explaining spiritual truths
to spiritual people.” There are other interpretations which might just as well have been added to the
note. But these different interpretations are not mutually exclusive, and it is likely that Paul would
endorse them all as implications of his statement. Why are the translators not content with the general
statement? Why not leave it at that, and let the reader discern the implications, the way Paul left his
own readers? The urge to explain seems to get the better of them, when no explanation is needed.
Perhaps the most common occasion for excessive interpretation is the treatment of genitive
constructions, in which nouns modify other nouns in ways that are sometimes ambiguous. In many
places we must be content to say that the genitive merely indicates a connection, the nature of which
must be discerned from the context; but these genitive constructions are often analyzed too closely in
translation.
In 2 Thessalonians 1:8 we read of the judgment that is coming upon “those who do not obey the gospel
of our Lord Jesus” (τοῖς μὴ ὑπακούουσιν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ). Someone who
demands to know if the meaning of the genitive phrase here is subjective (i.e. the gospel preached by
Jesus) or objective (the gospel about Jesus) may already be on the wrong track, because the question
presupposes that Paul himself made such a distinction, or would have cared about such a distinction. If
in fact he never made such a distinction, it will only result in a distortion of his meaning if we import
the idea that these are two different things. As one recent introduction to biblical interpretation points
out, this is not a case of ambiguity where a choice between alternative interpretations is necessary, but a
case of “inexactness,” where “the one meaning is not precise.” (2) The rendering of the Good News
Bible here, “those … who do not obey the Good News about our Lord Jesus,” over-specifies the
meaning of the genitive.
In a booklet posted on the website of the NIV’s publisher, (3) Gordon Fee and Mark Strauss find fault
with literal renderings of genitive constructions in several other versions, and maintain that these must
be interpreted for the reader as in the NIV:
Clarity can be compromised by consistently translating a Hebrew or Greek form with the
same English form. One of the most problematic of these is the Greek genitive case.
Beginning Greek students are often told to translate the genitive with the preposition “of,”
as in the phrase “the word of God” (ho logos tou theou). Here tou theou (“of God”) is a
genitive construction. The problem is that while many genitive constructions in the New
Testament can be translated with “of + Noun,” others cannot. Consider these translations of
genitive constructions (in italics) in formal equivalent versions:
“you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise.” (Eph. 1:13 NKJV)

“he [Christ] upholds the universe by the word of his power.” (Heb. 1:3 ESV)

“I pray . . . that you will know what is the hope of His calling.” (Eph. 1:18 NASB)

While in many cases the preposition “of” is a perfectly acceptable translation, in these
examples it results in an obscure or misleading translation. What, for example, does “the
Holy Spirit of promise” mean? The meaning of this phrase is the Holy Spirit who was
promised, or “the promised Holy Spirit” (Today’s NIV, NET, HCSB, NAB, ESV). We have
here what grammarians refer to as an attributive genitive.
Perhaps. But here, as very often, the interpretation offered by the translators may not convey the true or
entire meaning. Despite the number of modern versions that can be cited for this interpretation, it is not
the only one found in commentaries. For the “Holy Spirit of promise” might also be understood “the
Holy Spirit who made the promise,” or “who brings with him a promise“ of salvation, with an eye on
the following verse. It was thus that Calvin, Beza, and F.F. Bruce understood it. (4) Or it could be taken
in such a general or plenary sense that we may include both ideas, with Chrysostom: “Thus here also he
makes the things already bestowed a sure token of the promise of those which are yet to come.”
(Homily 2 on Ephesians.) Likewise Bengel: “The Holy Spirit was promised by the word; therefore
when the Holy Spirit was given, those who believed the word were sealed; and those who have the
Holy Spirit know that every promise will be fulfilled to them.” (Gnomon of the New Testament.)
Fee and Strauss ignore these other interpretations, and continue:
Similarly, in Hebrews 1:3 the ESV’s “word of his power” is nonsensical (word that his
power possesses?). This is another attributive genitive, meaning “his powerful word”
(Today’s NIV, NET, HCSB, GNT, NRSV). The NASB’s “hope of His calling” in Ephesians
1:18 seems to suggest that believers hope they will be called by God. But believers are
already called! The genitive here means “the hope to which you were called” (Today’s NIV,
NRSV, ESV).
“Word of his power” may be understood as both a genitive of source and an attributive genitive. The
“word” proceeds from and shares the quality of “his power.” This phrase is no more nonsensical than
“act of kindness.” (5) If it is understood as being only an attributive genitive, it is no more difficult to
understand than other attributive genitives in English, such as “ring of gold,” “matters of importance,”
“men of valor,” or “pearl of great price.” Although such genitives are not very common in English, and
belong mostly to formal or poetic registers, they are readily understood by ordinary people. A false
impression of unintelligibility is given by Fee and Strauss by removing the phrase from its context. As
often happens in language, an interpretive blinkering effect comes into play when an unusual or
irregular construction is put under a magnifying glass and looked at too closely, although its meaning is
not unclear when it is encountered in the flow of the text. (6) These attributive genitive constructions
may be unusual, but they are by no means unintelligible in their contexts, and rules of English grammar
do not require their elimination. Morever, the attributive genitive is not really equivalent to the more
colloquial adjective + noun construction, because it places more emphasis on the quality. In English we
sense that “ring of gold” puts more emphasis on the “gold” than “golden ring” does. The quality is
emphasized by making it a noun. “Word of his power” likewise emphasizes the “power” more than
“powerful word” does. And this is also true of Greek, as noted by the grammarians. (7)
Regarding “the hope of his calling” in Ephesians 1:18, we doubt very much that it means “the hope to
which you were called,” as Fee and Strauss confidently assert. Surely the genitive here is more
naturally understood as a genitive of source or instrumental cause, “the hope that comes with (or from)
his calling,” as H.A.W. Meyer explains: “What a great and glorious hope is given to the man, whom
God has called to the kingdom of the Messiah, by means of that calling.” So once again, we must say
that the interpretation given in NIV is likely to be wrong, while the less “helpful” literal translation—
which is not in fact difficult to understand in its context—allows the English reader to interpret the
phrase rightly.
Fee and Strauss conclude:
Consistent use of the preposition “of” to translate the genitive case represents a misguided
attempt at literalism. Clarity in translation demands that the translator consider carefully the
meaning of the text in each particular context. In these examples readers might be able to
work out the meaning of the genitive by reflecting on the sentence. “The word of his
power” is perhaps comprehensible, but it is far from clear.

As we have shown in these same examples, the representation of the Greek genitive with a
corresponding genitive construction in the more literal English versions should not be dismissed as a
mindless and “misguided attempt at literalism,” done merely for the sake of a formal correspondence.
Rather, it is for the sake of the meaning that the form is preserved in these versions. Fee and Strauss
recommend the “clarity” of the NIV, and clarity is certainly desirable—but it is not more important
than accuracy.
We could cite many other examples of this same tendency. One very notable one is the treatment of the
phrase δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ “righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17. Luther famously translated it, die
Gerechtigkeit, die vor Gott gilt, welche kommt aus Glauben … “the righteousness that is valid in the
sight of God, which comes from faith,” etc., interpreting the genitive in an objective sense. This
interpretation, which seems rather forced, reflects Luther’s eagerness to introduce the doctrine of
imputed righteousness. Calvin explains it in the same way as Luther (“Justitiam Dei accipio, quæ apud
Dei tribunal approbatur — I take the righteousness of God to mean, that which is approved before his
tribunal”), but he cautiously refrains from injecting this interpretation directly into the text of his Latin
translation, and gives instead a literal rendering, justitia Dei. The NIV translators, like Luther, prefer to
give a particular interpretation — “a righteousness from God” — but unlike Luther, they interpret the
construction as a genitive of author or origin. (8) There are other possibilities as well, such as
understanding it as a subjective genitive denoting either a quality or an action of God. Commentators of
the past two centuries have proposed an amazing variety of interpretations, (9) and the exegesis is
further complicated by the different meanings assigned to δικαιοσύνη, which in Jewish Greek had
acquired the sense of “covenant faithfulness.” (10) The NLT seems to be combining at least two
interpretations with its highly paraphrastic rendering, “how God makes us right in his sight.” But now I
would ask: why not simply accept the fact that the Greek genitive construction does not always demand
such an exact and specific analysis? There is no good reason to suppose that at this point Paul is saying
anything more than that “a (covenantal) divine righteousness” is revealed in the gospel, as opposed to a
merely human righteousness. The phrase itself does not express the specific ideas we find in the
translations of Luther, the NIV, or the NLT, and the immediate context does not require us to elaborate
or constrain the meaning to any one of them. If we want to know more about this “righteousness of
God,” we must read on! Not everything is said at once. (11) The Greek language does not lack the
means for saying specifically “a righteousness from God” if that is what Paul had meant to express
here. He might have written δικαιοσύνη ἐκ θεοῦ here (as in Philippians 3:9), but he did not. And when
we get to 3:26, it appears that Paul means at least two different things by the phrase “righteousness of
God” — “to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the
one who has faith in Jesus.” So here, as in many other places, the “dynamic” translations seem to be
presenting overly-specific interpretations.
In cases like this, where the meaning cannot be narrowed down without risk of eliminating part of the
intended meaning, it is best to translate the Greek genitive construction with a correspondingly
ambiguous English genitive. In Romans 1:17, δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ should be translated either
“righteousness of God” or “God’s righteousness.” (12)
In the same verse, the phrase εκ πιστεως εις πιστιν (lit. “from faith to faith”) has received much
analysis. The NIV interprets this rather cryptic saying as “a righteousness that is by faith from first to
last,” sparing readers the burden of figuring it out for themselves. But here, as often, the difficulty in
the literal rendering is not created by the translators: it lies in the Greek text. Many scholars do favor
the NIV’s interpretation, but many do not. Some understand it quite differently, and others prefer to
leave it an open question. (13)

10. Inadequate Marginal Notes


“I want translations with copious footnotes, footnotes reaching up like skyscrapers to the top of this or
that page so as to leave only the gleam of one textual line between commentary and eternity. I want
such footnotes and the absolute literal sense, with no emasculation and no padding.” —Vladimir
Nabokov (1)
Theorists and translators of the “dynamic equivalence” school are not opposed in principle to the use of
marginal notes. Nida has published an article on “Marginal Helps for the Reader” in The Bible
Translator that covers all aspects of this subject, and recommends several different kinds of notes. (2)
But the article shows that he is mainly interested in the possibility of using the margin to add
explanations to a translation which already includes in itself a good deal of interpretation. His article is
partly designed to justify this use of the margin in view of the fact that his employer (the American
Bible Society) has stipulated that translations sponsored by the Society must not contain “doctrinal”
notes. (3) The article concludes:
Marginal helps are not designed to add to the text. They are nothing more nor less than the
inevitable means by which we permit the text to speak for itself in some degree equivalent
to the manner in which it spoke to those who first received it. Helps which go beyond this
are not justified, but those which make it possible for the Scriptures to speak their message
clearly and effectively should have a place somewhere.

The reason for this strange manner of speaking, in which explanatory notes are said to “permit the text
to speak for itself,” is to be found somewhere in the baggage of ideology that Nida brings to the
subject, no doubt. Obviously the text is not speaking for itself when it is annotated, and we wonder why
this could not be frankly admitted. Probably it reflects some embarrassment about the need for
explanations, because every explanatory note is really a testimony to the failure of “dynamic
equivalence” in the translation. In any case it seems rather pointless to worry about whether or not we
should say the marginal notes “add to the text” when so much interpretation has already been worked
into the text itself—and that is our main concern here. We would emphasize the need for marginal notes
to indicate interpretations which are at variance with the interpretations embodied in the text.
In his article, Nida says that such notes should not be given in versions designed for people who “are
receiving the Scriptures in their language for the first time,” because “they have no interest in and little
appreciation of the problems of alternative readings and renderings” (p. 3) and “do not understand the
use of footnotes.” This seems rather patronizing, and it ignores the possibility that the version will be
used not only for private reading but also for instruction, by pastors and teachers who are likely to take
an interest in these matters. But that does not concern him, because “the more proficient translators
have incorporated into the text itself the type of ‘information’ which is required for intelligibility” (p.
4). In editions prepared “for the average reading public” he does recommend some few notes for
“noteworthy instances of differences of rendering.” The determination of what is noteworthy he leaves
to the translators. Of course the problem here is that these translators may not be very eager to flag their
own interpretations as possibly wrong, by mentioning interpretations contrary to their own in the
margin. Our complaint is that the versions are defective in this matter, because many noteworthy
differences of interpretation are not mentioned in the notes of highly interpretive versions.
It is generally admitted by proponents of “dynamic equivalence” that interpretive renderings can be
risky, because they tend to foreclose interpretive options that may be more correct. The standard reply
to objections based on this consideration is to point out that the translator can always use marginal
notes to indicate other possibilities. In one book co-authored by Nida and Jan de Waard, they write:
The use of marginal notes (textual, exegetical, historical, and cultural), glossaries,
references, indices, and concordances can all be of help, but rarely do they suffice to
“correct” the meaning of an otherwise misleading term. Rather than incorporate obscure,
ambiguous, and potentially misleading expressions into the text of a translation, it is far
better to provide receptors with a meaningful equivalent in the text and possible alternatives
in the margin, including, if necessary, literal renderings if this will help the reader
understand better the significance of the original. (From One Language to Another, p. 34)

And again:
Most ambiguities in the original text are due to our own ignorance of the cultural and
historical backgrounds of the text. It is unfair to the original writer and to the receptors to
reproduce as ambiguities all those passages which may be interpreted in more than one way
… the translator places a very heavy burden on the receptor to determine which of two or
more meanings may be involved. The average reader is usually much less capable of
making correct judgments about such alternative meanings than is the translator, who can
make use of the best scholarly judgments on ambiguous passages. Accordingly, the
translator should place in the text the best attested interpretation and provide in marginal
notes the appropriate alternatives. (p. 39)

Presumably the absence of a marginal note would indicate that the translator is so sure of his
interpretation that he does not think any other representation of the meaning is worth mentioning. If
this is the case, we must conclude that many “dynamic” translators have a higher opinion of their
exegetical skill than they should. Nida unwittingly illustrates this in his remarks on the expression
“righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17, which we have discussed above. Despite the fact that Paul
himself practically explains the expression in a double sense (“that he might be just and the justifier”),
Nida maintains that a translation must prevent readers from interpreting this as “a statement about
God’s own personal character.” He claims that misunderstandings of this phrase cannot be prevented by
“an informed clergy,” because he believes that too many clergymen are uninformed, and cannot be
relied upon to give the correct interpretation.
Some church leaders … have felt that translations should not attempt to bridge any
language-culture gaps but should stick to more or less literal renderings of the biblical text.
Any needed explanations would then be taken care of by an informed clergy, who could
instruct people as to the correct interpretation. In general, however, such an approach has
been woefully inadequate. In Romans 1:17 practically all laymen and many of the clergy
understand the phrase “the righteousness of God” to be a statement about God’s own
personal character rather than a reference to what God does, either in righting wrong or in
putting people right with himself. (p. 34)
This is one of Nida’s favorite examples. In an earlier work he wrote:
When a high percentage of people misunderstand a rendering, it cannot be regarded as a
legitimate translation. For example, in Romans 1:17 most traditional translations have “the
righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith,” and most readers naturally assume
that this is a reference to God’s own personal righteousness. Most scholars are agreed,
however, that this is not God’s own righteousness, but the process by which God puts men
right with himself (cf. Today’s English Version). It is the act of “justification” (to use a
technical, and generally misunderstood word) and not the character of righteousness. But a
translation which insists on rendering the Greek literally as “the righteousness of God” is
simply violating the meaning for the sake of preserving a formal grammatical
correspondence. (4)
We would not want to defend translations which are “violating the meaning for the sake of preserving a
formal grammatical correspondence,” of course, but Nida’s argument here is unfair, because it
misrepresents the motives of the translator. The literal translation is designed to preserve as much of the
exegetical potential of the original as possible—making the entire or correct meaning accessible to
readers. It is not given merely for the sake of preserving a formal correspondence, but for the sake of
the meaning. The translation itself is not “violating the meaning” when it does not make
misinterpretations impossible. But the overly interpretive translation which misinterprets or gives only
half the meaning does not do justice to the original. We notice that the Good News Bible (which Nida
calls Today’s English Version) does not have a marginal note for δικαιοσύνη in Romans 1:17. Nor does
the New Living Translation, or the NIV.
In choosing between alternatives the translator would do well to “make use of the best scholarly
judgments,” as Nida says, but this is easier said than done. Scholars have argued with one another
about the meaning of nearly everything in the Bible. In the past century, especially, it seems that every
scholar tries to make his mark by inventing new interpretations. In these circumstances the ability of
translators and editors to sort out “the best scholarly judgments” can hardly be taken for granted. One
can usually find scholarly support for interpretations found in paraphrastic translations, but they are
very often questionable, and represent only one side of a long-standing disagreement between scholars.
Sometimes they represent fads of interpretation that prevail only for a generation or two. Moreover, the
best scholarly minds in every generation are those who are able to see both sides of a question, who are
able to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty, and who suspend judgment when the resolution of some
issue is not absolutely necessary. This attitude, which leads the scholar to keep saying “on the one hand
… but on the other hand,” etc., can be rather frustrating for laymen who are looking for simple and fast
answers to everything, but scholarship does not naturally produce simple and fast answers.
Let us see what some prominent scholars say about the δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ in Romans 1:17. In his
commentary James Dunn translates it “the righteousness of God” and explains:
δικαιοσύνη is a good example of the need to penetrate through Paul’s Greek language in
order to understand it in the light of his Jewish background and training… God is
“righteous” when he fulfills the obligations he took upon himself to be Israel’s God, that is,
to rescue Israel and punish Israel’s enemies (e.g. Exod 9:27; 1 Sam 12:7; Dan 9:16; Mic
6:5)—“righteousness” as “covenant faithfulness” (3:3-5, 25; 10:3; also 9:6 and 15:8).… It
is clearly this concept of God’s righteousness which Paul takes over here; the
“righteousness of God” being his way of explicating “the power of God for salvation” (v.
16; cf. Gyllenberg, 41; Hill, 156; NEB catches only one side of it with the translation “God’s
way of righting wrong”). It is with this sense that the phrase provides a key to his
exposition in Romans (3:5, 21-22, 25-26; 10:3), as elsewhere in his theology (2 Cor 5:21;
Phil 3:9). This understanding of Paul’s language largely removes two issues which have
troubled Christian theology for centuries. (1) is “the righteousness of God” subjective
genitive or objective genitive; is it an attitude of God or something he does? Seen as God’s
meeting of the claims of his covenant relationship, the answer is not a strict either-or, but
both-and, with the emphasis on the latter. (5)

Now if Dunn is right, and the phrase means “covenant faithfulness,” then it does refer to a quality of
God’s character, as revealed in his saving purpose and action. For faithfulness is certainly a quality or
attribute. Ernst Käsemann, writing in 1979, says that this interpretation “now seems to be
predominant,” and he quite properly says it is “a variation of the older idea of righteousness as a divine
quality.” (6) The increasing dominance of this interpretation in recent decades is probably why the
TNIV revision of the NIV changed “a righteousness from God” to “the righteousness of God.”
Perhaps Nida is thinking of an earlier consensus. But if we consult the old standard commentary on
Romans by Sanday and Headlam (circa 1900) we find remarks similar to Dunn’s:
For some time past it has seemed to be almost an accepted exegetical tradition that the
“righteousness of God” means here “a righteousness of which God is the author and man
the recipient,” a righteousness not so much “of God” as “from God,” i.e. a state or
condition of righteousness bestowed by God upon man. But quite recently two protests
have been raised against this view.… There can be little doubt that the protest is justified;
not so much that the current view is wrong as that it is partial and incomplete. The
“righteousness of God” is a great and comprehensive idea which embraces in its range both
God and man; and in this fundamental passage of the Epistle neither side must be lost sight
of.… the very cogency of the arguments on both sides is enough to show that the two views
which we have set over against each other are not mutually exclusive but rather inclusive.
The righteousness of which the Apostle is speaking not only proceeds from God but is the
righteousness of God Himself: it is this, however, not as inherent in the Divine Essence but
as going forth and embracing the personalities of men. It is righteousness active and
energizing … (7)

Likewise Benjamin Jowett comments:


Viewing these words by the light of later controversy, interpreters have asked whether the
righteousness here spoken of, is to be regarded as subjective or objective, inherent or
imputed, as revealed by God or accepted by man. These are the ‘after-thoughts’ of theology,
which have no real place in the interpretation of Scripture. We cannot define what is not
defined by the Apostle himself. But if, leaving later controversies, we try to gather from the
connexion itself a more precise meaning, another uncertainty remains. For the
righteousness of God may either mean that righteousness which existed always in the
Divine nature, once hidden but now revealed; or may be regarded as consisting in the very
revelation of the Gospel itself, in the world and in the heart of man. The first step to a right
consideration of the question, is to place ourselves within the circle of the Apostle’s
thoughts and language. The expression δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ [the righteousness of God] was
familiar to the Israelite, who, without any reference to St. Paul’s distinction of faith and
works, used it in a double sense for an attribute of God and the fulfilment of the Divine law.
Compare James, i. 20.: — ὀργὴ γὰρ ἀνδρὸς δικαιοσύνην θεοῦ οὐκ ἐργάζεται [for the wrath
of man worketh not the righteousness of God]. Rom. x. 3.: — ἀγνοοῦντες γὰρ τὴν τοῦ θεοῦ
δικαιοσύνην, καὶ τὴν ἰδίαν ζητοῦντες στῆσαι, τῇ δικαιοσύνῃ τοῦ θεοῦ οὐχ ὑπετάγησαν·
[For being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own, they did not
subject themselves to the righteousness of God]. The law, the fulfilment of the law, and the
Divine Author of the law, pass into each other; the mind is carried on imperceptibly from
one to the other. The language of all religion, consisting as it must in mediation between
God and man, or in the manifestation of God in man, is full of these and similar
ambiguities, which we should only gain a false clearness by attempting to remove. Such
expressions in the phraseology of philosophy necessarily involve subject and object, a
human soul in which they are made conscious, a Divine Being from whom they proceed,
and to whom they have reference. It is generally confusing to ask to which of these they
belong. (8)

Here we see that toleration of ambiguity which is typical of scholarly interpretation. In this case the
scholars even insist upon the ambiguity. We do not find here any support for Nida’s demand for a
simple and one-sided interpretation. Instead, there is a refusal to comply with such demands. Nida
seems to have a wrong impression of “the best scholarly judgments” on this particular question: the
best judgment seems to be that the meaning of the phrase is irreducibly ambiguous. In his showcase
example Nida is recommending what the scholars call “one side” of the meaning, a “partial and
incomplete” interpretation, and a “false clearness.”
I could go on to discuss the similar of treatment of δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ in James 1:20 and other places, but
I fear that I have already overtaxed the patience of my readers by dwelling upon a subtle exegetical
question at such length. I feel it is necessary, however, to give a true impression of how much careful
thought scholars have given to questions of interpretation which “dynamic” translators have suppressed
and glossed over for the ease of their readers. Those who are familiar with the literature in which these
questions are explored will also see readily enough that simplified translations like the Good News
Bible and the New Living Translation cannot adequately represent the opinions of scholars, because the
opinions of scholars are not simple.
Nida’s argument that alternative interpretations can be given in the margin had better not be just a way
of dismissing legitimate concerns about this method of translation. Translators had better be careful to
do it. But we find time and again that they do not provide such marginal notes, even where the most
questionable interpretations are foisted into the text. In the very nature of the case, one might suppose
that translations of this type would include more footnotes than the literal versions, in order to ensure
that interpretive options and nuances are not suppressed. But an examination of the versions reveals an
opposite tendency: the “dynamic” versions tend to have far fewer footnotes than the literal ones. The
extent of the difference can be illustrated by the number of footnotes in Job, a poetic book that is
particularly rich in ambiguous lines. The following table gives the total number of footnotes in seven of
today’s most widely-used versions.
NASB NKJV RSV ESV NIV TEV NLT
474 247 127 103 102 84 31
We observe that one of the most literal versions, the NASB, has more than fifteen times as many notes
as the NLT in the Book of Job. The correlation is not proportional, but in general we find that the more
“dynamic” a version is, the fewer footnotes it contains. What is the reason for this correlation? I think a
clue is given by Nida and de Waard in the same book quoted above, when they state that “for private
devotional reading of the Scriptures people normally prefer a text which is not encumbered with
numerous references and footnotes” (p. 18). It would be more accurate to say, however, that the editors
of the more paraphrastic versions have in view a class of readers who do not want their minds
encumbered with the tricky details, alternative renderings, and nuances that might have been provided
in the margin.
The details and alternatives that are commonly neglected in the translation of Job are not trivial. For
example, in 13:15 we find the rendering “God might kill me, but I cannot wait” in the NLT, without a
footnote, and “I’ve lost all hope, so what if God kills me?” in the Good News Bible; whereas other
versions have “Though he slay me, I will hope in him” (NASB, ESV), “Though he slay me, yet will I
trust him” (KJV, NKJV), or something similar. Who will say that this is unimportant? The translators
could not have been ignorant of it, and clearly a footnote here is in order. (9)
Searching through issues of The Bible Translator (a journal edited by Nida) I found one article which
explains that in a dynamic equivalence version it is not practical to give more literal renderings in the
margin because the number of footnotes that would be required to do this consistently would be
overwhelming.
When RSV makes some adjustments from the Hebrew text for the sake of clarity or
explication, a literal rendering of the Hebrew is sometimes provided. Since GNB is a
dynamic equivalent translation, such adjustments are made in just about every sentence.
Footnotes of this type would consequently be too extensive for practical purposes. (10)

Another advises against the inclusion of many notes in a dynamic equivalence version because the
notes which give more literal renderings will collectively defeat the purpose of the whole translation.
Similar questions arise with text which is not necessarily figurative but which has
traditionally been translated formally, and which translators are unhappy to ‘lose’ by
translating any other way. They feel that they will at least be accused of ‘dropping’ familiar
verses or expressions, or of giving a ‘different meaning,’ or of ‘changing the Bible’; at
worst they may fear that the translation will be rejected. So they pepper the pages with
footnotes containing the earlier literal translation of expressions and sentences, and even
whole verses which they have in fact restructured beautifully to bring out the meaning.
Such notes of course bring the whole background of the translation project into question.
(11)

By “background” here the author apparently means the background of translation theory. The concern
is that a margin that gives too many alternative interpretations and literal renderings will only damage
the credibility of the translation.
We find then three basic reasons for the absence of marginal notes. It is said that: (1) people who use
the version will not appreciate the notes, and so they are useless; (2) the systematic inclusion of notes
such as we find in the RSV, giving more literal renderings when the translators have hazarded
interpretations, would require a note on nearly every verse; and (3) the presentation of many notes like
this would tend to invite criticism of the whole translation. These reasons combine to prevent the
margin from compensating for inadequate or wrong interpretations in the text.
In Acts 19:21 it says ἔθετο ὁ Παῦλος ἐν τῷ πνεύματι (lit. “Paul was settled in the spirit”) and many
commentators say that this should be understood as a statement that Paul’s momentous decision to go
to Jerusalem was made by the influence of the Holy Spirit. (12) But the NIV has interpreted ἐν τῷ
πνεύματι as referring only to Paul’s own spirit or mind, and so it says that “Paul decided” to go to
Jerusalem, without any mention of his spirit or the Spirit. Upon until the revision of 2011 there was no
footnote here informing readers of the other interpretation. Yet in 20:22 the same version translates
δεδεμένος ἐγὼ τῷ πνεύματι πορεύομαι as “compelled by the Spirit, I am going” to Jerusalem, without
giving a footnote indicating the possibility that τῷ πνεύματι merely refers to Paul’s mind, as they have
interpreted it in 19:21. A version should translate them alike, one would think, but in any case a
footnote is certainly appropriate. Perhaps the NIV committee did not think it would matter much either
way to laymen, who “have no interest in and little appreciation of the problems of alternative readings
and renderings,” as Nida put it. But I actually had to deal with this question once, many years ago, after
a guest speaker at my church asserted that Paul should not have gone to Jerusalem, because God never
sent him there. This speaker was not using the NIV, but he referred to the Darby version, which says,
“Paul purposed in his spirit to go to Jerusalem” in Acts 19:21, and “bound in my spirit” in 20:22
(emphasis added). Afterwards one of the leading men of the congregation strongly objected to this
teaching, and sought my opinion. I remember that a copy of the NASB served me well on that
occasion; but what if we had only the NIV to consult? With its interpretive renderings, and without the
necessary footnotes, it would not have been very helpful, to say the least.
When interpretive translators fail to indicate viable alternatives in the margin, they sometimes cause
serious difficulties for teachers, even for those who are well versed in Scripture. I once visited an adult
Bible class being taught by a young seminary-trained pastor, in which one woman asked a question
about Hebrews 11:26, which says that Moses counted “the reproach of Christ” (τὸν ὀνειδισμὸν τοῦ
Χριστοῦ) greater riches than the treasures of Egypt. Unfortunately everyone there was using the NIV,
which states that Moses “regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures
of Egypt,” and she wanted to know how a determination to suffer “for the sake of Christ” could be
attributed to Moses (even before the ministry of the prophets), and why the Old Testament failed to
mention this motive in its account of Moses. The pastor was caught flat-footed by this excellent
question, and began to stumble. He looked at me hopefully, but I could give no help, because I had
never heard such a statement being quoted as Scripture, and I had no better version of the Bible with
me to jog my memory of the verse. If Hebrews 11:26 had been quoted in a more literal form, I might
have explained “the reproach of Christ” in the way that I have always understood it; but I could not
explain the NIV’s “disgrace for the sake of Christ.” As happens far too often in modern versions, the
NIV here imposes a very questionable interpretation on the text, currently favored in some circles,
without providing readers with a note giving the more literal rendering, or in any way indicating the
more likely traditional interpretation of the phrase. (13) In its defense, one might argue that it is just
possible to interpret the simple genitive construction in this way, if we suppose that the author was
being somewhat lax in his style; but it cannot be said that the Greek genitive ever expresses “for the
sake of.” For that, a prepositional phrase is required, like δια with the accusative. The simple genitive
construction τὸν ὀνειδισμὸν τοῦ Χριστοῦ is here more naturally understood as “the same reproach that
fell upon Christ,” and this meaning is not hard to discern from a literal rendering like “the reproach of
Christ” in this context. The question raised by the woman in my friend’s Bible class would not have
been raised if it were not for the “helpful” NIV rendering, which made the true sense of the phrase
virtually inaccessible to the class; and it would not have been hard to answer if a less interpretive
rendering were given in the margin.
Now I admit that experiences like this do not happen every day, but in my line of work a version that
causes such embarrassment more than once a year does not exactly commend itself. And we cannot
always be carrying a stack of Bibles and reference works around with us. So a minister needs to have a
version that can be relied upon for all practical purposes.
Sometimes we find in modern versions “dynamic” renderings that are exegetically impossible, without
any alternative renderings given in the margin. An example of this is Matthew 12:33 in the NIV, “Make
a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is
recognized by its fruit.” The Greek verb translated “make” here is an imperative (ποιησατε), and so it
cannot be interpreted as if it were merely posing a hypothetical condition, meaning “if you make …
then.” The Greek imperative cannot function like that. It is difficult to imagine how a group of
conscientious scholars could have decided to put this in the text without a marginal note. (14) The
rendering usually found in more literal versions — “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or
else make the tree bad and its fruit bad” — is indeed not very helpful, and likely to be misunderstood;
but at least it allows a teacher to bring out the meaning clearly and deftly by explaining the word
“make” in the sense of “consider.” The NIV’s very loose rendering, on the other hand, is so unlike the
Greek that it cannot even be used as a starting point for the explanation of the verse. It is necessary to
reject the whole sentence as a mistranslation, and offer in its place a rendering quite unlike it in form.
Again, this would not be so bad if the version had included a footnote that could be used as the basis
for the explanation.
All of which goes to show how empty is Nida’s statement that a translator can always “provide in
marginal notes the appropriate alternatives.” The whole ethos of dynamic equivalence frowns at the
kind of carefulness that would supply details and alternatives in the margin, while encouraging
translators to take unprecedented liberties with the text.

11. Needless Limitations of the Vocabulary


In one of the examples cited above, I used the word “reproach” to translate the Greek ονειδισμος. This
English word, “reproach,” is today rarely heard in conversation. In colloquial speech its use is
practically confined to the phrase “above reproach,” and the word has a distinctly literary if not biblical
flavor to it. For some time now, many translators who adhere to principles of “dynamic equivalence”
have been avoiding words like this, because they suppose that words rarely used in conversation are
liable to be misunderstood. Therefore instead of “reproach,” we see “disgrace” in several modern
versions, in places like Hebrews 11:26 and 13:13. But the word “disgrace” does not have quite the
same meaning as “reproach.” The two words are very close in meaning, but “disgrace” implies some
fault, giving sufficient cause for dishonor, whereas “reproach” does not. “Reproach” has reference to
public reputation only. A righteous man might be said to suffer “reproach” (e.g. by public insults and
ridicule for his unpopular views), but we do not speak of a man’s “disgrace” without implying that his
reputation is deserved. This illustrates one of the great advantages of the English language: its
relatively large stock of words, which puts at our disposal many synonyms that enable us to make such
fine distinctions. If, however, we choose to artificially limit this vocabulary, using only those words
which are commonly used in conversation, our ability to express ourselves is greatly diminished.
Translators who avoid words rarely used in conversation, though they are generally understood by
English speakers, are limiting their own ability to convey shades of meaning in the original, and for no
good reason.
In Acts 9:22 it seems impossible to express the meaning of συνέχυννεν concisely in English without
using either the word “confounded” or “discomfited.” Both words combine the sense “defeat” with
“throw into confusion,” and that is just what the Greek word means here. Paul confounded the Jews of
Damascus with his powerful arguments. The rendering “confounded” goes back to Wycliffe, and its
fitness is so obvious that it was used by all subsequent translators up to the twentieth century. It
continues to be used in several recent versions. If it is rejected now as being too unusual for the modern
reader, what equivalent can be found in “common English”? We end up with such renderings as the
NIV’s “baffled” and the CEV’s “confused,” which express only half the meaning; or the NEB’s
“silenced,” or such paraphrastic treatments as the NLT’s “the Jews in Damascus couldn’t refute his
proofs,” which expresses only the other half of the meaning. This is what happens when translators are
prevented from using all the resources of the language. When the range of words allowed in a
translation decreases, inaccuracy must increase.
In this connection, we are told that the use of archaic language in the older Bible versions presents
problems for many people, and this is true to some extent. I once met a man who had been reading the
KJV Bible nearly every day for more than 30 years, but he did not know that “meat” in that version
means “food.” We can do without confusion like that. And who today would want to keep the
unfortunate “superfluity of naughtiness” in James 1:21? But in my experience as a teacher, archaic
words and expressions are much less of a problem than some would have us believe, and I think we
need to make a distinction between obsolete words that are not understood and archaic words that are
just old-fashioned sounding. As Richard Weymouth points out in the Preface to his New Testament in
Modern Speech, there may be good reasons for retaining “antiquated” words that are not obsolete:
But again, a modern translation — does this imply that no words or phrases in any degree
antiquated are to be admitted? Not so, for great numbers of such words and phrases are still
in constant use. To be antiquated is not the same thing as to be obsolete or even
obsolescent, and without at least a tinge of antiquity it is scarcely possible that there should
be that dignity of style that befits the sacred themes with which the Evangelists and
Apostles deal.

Dynamic equivalence proponents tend to neglect this distinction between archaic and obsolete words,
and their rejection of archaic words seems to be based more on stylistic preferences than any
requirements of intelligibility. Nida writes:
Users of the King James Version are sufficiently familiar with problems of antiquated
words. Terms such as “anon,” “begat,” “wax (old)” are either no longer used or are fast
passing out of use. All languages are strewn with such fossil words, but a book such as the
Bible, which has a living message for people of the present day, should not depend for its
meaning upon dead terms of a previous age. (1)

This rhetoric pushes beyond the commonsense point that the translation should be intelligible, to
suggest that archaic words are unacceptable because “a living message for people of the present day”
should not seem to be old. But why? Obviously the Bible is very old, from a “a previous age,” and in
fact ancient. There is not much hope of understanding it if we come to it with a hatred of things that
seem old. And I do not think ordinary people have this attitude. Rather, it seems that most people are
intrigued by things that are very old, and value them highly just because they are old. If we go to the
bookstore and look at the currently popular novels on the shelves there, we find that most of them are
set in some previous age. The same is true of the most popular movies. Why does Star Wars have
princesses, men in armor, sword fights, wizards, and medieval costumes? There is a kind of mysterious
archetypical glory on things that are ancient. There is a tendency to associate a modern style with
things that are light and ephemeral, and the archaic style with things that are weighty, permanent and
sure. Certainly the Bible associates eternity with high antiquity. Daniel calls the true God “the Ancient
of Days” (7:9, 13, 22). John says that his message concerns Ὃ ἦν ἀπ᾽ ἀρχῆς “that which was from the
beginning” (1 John 1:1). Whatever is eternal must be very ancient. It was there at the beginning of all
things. So we would not agree with the basic idea that Nida is trying to promote, and would even call it
unbiblical. The word of God is both living and abiding (1 Peter 1:23). There is something deeply
inappropriate about changing every twenty years the words of “the Father of lights, with whom there is
no variation or shadow of change,” or of the One who is “the same yesterday, today, and forever.”
We do not argue for the retention of any obsolete words in English versions. We will not defend “anon”
as a translation for εὐθέως, because this word (which was used only twice in the King James version) is
not only archaic, but clearly obsolete. Not many people know that it means “immediately.” However, it
is not true that people have difficulty with the word “begat” in the genealogies. This is easily
recognized as the past tense of “beget,” a word that is by no means obsolete. Modern versions usually
have “was the father of” instead, for purely stylistic reasons; but it so happens that “begat” (or its rival
“begot”) is a more accurate translation of εγεννησεν. If “begat” and “begot” are refused because they
seem obtrusively quaint, then the verb “fathered” is available. There is no problem of intelligibility
with any of these words. The real issue here is whether a modern and colloquial style is so important
that accuracy should be sacrificed for its sake.
Is the purpose of accurate translation met when Hebrew and Greek words for which the “dynamic”
translator can find no modern-sounding equivalent are left untranslated? This has been the case with the
Hebrew interjections ‫ ה*ן‬and ‫“( הנ *ה‬behold, lo”), and the corresponding ιδου in the New Testament, in
many recent versions. A translator who cannot bear to use any biblical-sounding word like “behold”
sometimes ventures to use “see” or “look” as an equivalent, but with results that are even less natural to
spoken English than “behold.” For example, the NIV in Matthew 24:15 reads “See, I have told you,”
and in 26:45, “Look, the hour is near.” Is Jesus pointing to a clock here? When there is nothing to look
at or see with the eyes, English-speaking people do not naturally use the words “look” and “see” as
emphasizing interjections, in the same way that the biblical authors use ‫ הנ *ה‬and ιδου. The NIV
translators evidently felt the oddity of using “see” and “look” like this in most places, but having ruled
out “behold,” they found no way of conveying the meaning at all; and so they simply left the Greek and
Hebrew words untranslated in hundreds of places (e.g., 1 Sam. 30:3, Luke 1:48). We grant that, all
other things being equal, it is usually good to use words of the common sort, rather than needlessly
archaic ones. But translators should not reject words that are understood by virtually everyone just
because they are not currently popular in colloquial speech. A translator who needlessly hobbles
himself with such a stylistic principle will often find that he simply cannot express the meaning. (2)
Sometimes the advocates of “dynamic equivalence” exaggerate the supposed need for common
language so much that it seems they think ordinary people are stupid. For instance, Nida in one of his
books explained that in Psalm 23 the old-fashioned rendering, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not
want,” was unacceptable because “many persons understand this traditional rendering to mean: ‘The
Lord is my shepherd whom I shall not want.’” (3) This is the kind of ridiculous misunderstanding that
“many” people fall into when the language of colloquial speech is not used, we are told. But perhaps
we are entitled to a higher opinion of people’s intelligence. As for those few who really do have such
problems, we wonder if it would be wise to encourage them to think they could understand much of
anything in the Bible without constant help from teachers.

12. Needless Limitations of the Grammar


The ability of translators to express the meaning of the original is hindered not only by limitations of
the vocabulary but also by restrictions of English grammar. The restricted use of the English genitive,
which I have discussed at some length already in chapter 9, is an example of this tendency. Another
obvious example is the reluctance of some modern versions to employ the third-person imperative, as
in Revelation 2:7, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” In this
sentence “let him hear” does not, of course, mean “allow him to hear.” When “let” is placed at the
beginning of the clause like this, it is not the verb; it is an auxiliary word used with the third-person
imperative verb that follows. Its function is modal. The imperative force belongs to the verb (in this
case “hear”) not to the auxiliary “let.” No one is being addressed in the second person in this statement,
either expressly or by implication. It is a command, given indirectly, in which the one who is being
commanded is referred to in the third person. In our language, this manner of speaking has an
especially authoritative and impersonal connotation; we would associate it with something like a royal
edict. It is not often used in casual conversation. At home I do not say, “Whoever left the door open, let
him shut it.” Instead I say, “Whoever left the door open should go shut it.” In line with this less formal
manner of speaking, then, the New Living Translation avoids the formality of the third-person
imperative and transforms Revelation 2:7 into a statement about the obligations of the listeners:
“Anyone who is willing to hear should listen to the Spirit and understand what the Spirit is saying to
the churches.” The formality and force of the saying is scaled down considerably here. It can be called
the “closest equivalent” only if we are working under the assumption that it must be an equivalent
expression in daily household talk; but the trouble is, Revelation 2:7 is not household talk: it is a
command issued from heaven. The connotations of a royal edict are quite appropriate here, because in
fact it is a royal edict.
In defense of the NLT rendering it might be claimed that some people who have never heard anyone
use a third-person imperative in conversation will think that “let him hear” in this context means “allow
him to hear,” and so the rendering prevents a misunderstanding. But I think that is hardly likely. This
construction is not rare in Scripture: “Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour”
(Ephesians 4:28); “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear” (Matt. 11:15); “If any man will come after
me, let him deny himself” (Matt. 16:24); “whoever reads, let him understand” (Matt. 24:15); “let not
that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord” (James 1:7); “Let not then your good be evil
spoken of” (Rom. 14:16); “Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27); “let
him glory in the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:31); “let her be covered” (1 Cor. 11:6); “let him be accursed” (1 Cor.
16:22); and so forth. It just isn’t true that people fail to understand the third-person imperatives in these
renderings. In the NLT we still read in Genesis 1:2, “Let there be light.” In Hebrew the verb here is a
jussive, which has the same function as our third-person imperative with “let.” The command is not
addressed to any second person, it is rather a performative speech act in which the light is indirectly
commanded to “be.” As Paul says, “he calleth the things that are not, as though they were” (Romans
4:17), and thus the light is summoned into being by the word of his command. This is not difficult. No
one will think that God is telling someone to “allow” light to shine.
Nevertheless, we find in modern versions some really desperate attempts to avoid the third-person
imperative. In Galatians 6:17 Pauls says, “Let no man trouble me,” but the NLT says, “don’t let anyone
trouble me” — as if the sentence contained a second-person imperative of “let” as the main verb. This
rendering is obviously wrong, and I can only suppose that it is here because some editor was going
through the text and trying to eliminate “let not” expressions for stylistic reasons.
The restriction of English grammar even causes some confusion about this in Daniel Wallace’s Greek
Grammar Beyond the Basics. In a section on prohibitive imperatives, Wallace translates 1 Timothy
5:16 “Do no let the church be burdened.” He does recognize, however, that in such an English sentence
the “let” can only mean “allow,” and so he explains that this is not the sense of the Greek: “In English
this looks as if the author is saying ‘I don’t permit the church to be burdened.’ But the Greek is
stronger: it is as if he is saying ‘I order the church not to be burdened.’” (1) Strangely, he gives the
reader no idea of what is really wrong with the rendering. It is not that the Greek is “stronger,” it is just
that the Greek verb βαρείσθω “be burdened” is a passive imperative in the third person, and there is
nothing in the Greek that corrresponds in meaning with the active second-person imperative “let” that
we have in the mistaken English rendering. All the confusion is dispelled, however, if we only translate
it correctly: put the auxiliary “let” in its proper position and leave out the “do” which makes it into a
verb. “Let not the church be burdened.” There is no need to paraphrase it as Wallace does in his
explanation. I suppose that Wallace has avoided “let not the church be burdened” as a rendering
because it seems stilted or archaic-sounding, and he wants to give renderings in modern colloquial
style, so as to help translators who are doing the same. But this restriction is totally unnecessary; and
evidently he cannot find another way to express the sense accurately in English translation. The self-
imposed restriction even prevents him from giving a clear and accurate explanation of the grammatical
facts here. It is impossible for us even to talk about a third-person imperative without using the English
construction that has always expressed it in the past.
A “dynamic” theorist at this point may protest that not all languages can do this, and so the elimination
of third-person imperatives is justifiable in theory. They should say, rather, that it is justifiable when it
is necessary. For it is not justifiable when a language does have a third-person imperative in its
grammar.

13. A False View of Linguistic Development


One should not underestimate the abilities of ordinary people to learn words, or new meanings for
existing words. This was brought home to me in an interesting way recently, when one of my children
asked me to get a “thing of pop” at the grocery store. Without even thinking about it, I knew that he
meant a two-litre bottle, because not long ago I had heard my wife casually refer to one of those large
bottles as a “thing” of pop. My son had immediately picked up the usage, and he correctly perceived
that this was her way of indicating a large bottle, as distinguished from the smaller ones we usually
think of when we say “bottle.” So now in my family the word “thing” has acquired a new and highly
specific sense when referring to liquid containers. By the age of eight all my children knew the usual
English words for liquid containers in our house: cups, glasses, mugs, bottles, cans, cartons, jugs,
canteens, pitchers, etc. Their knowledge of what these words specifically refer to was gained without
effort, merely by example and inference, without anyone stating definitions.
One word they all knew by the age of five was “ark,” as in “Noah’s Ark.” I don’t remember ever being
asked what an “ark” is. It was just accepted as the name of that huge vessel that Noah built. The word is
not common in speech, and, like “tabernacle,” it is one of those biblical words that people must learn
from the contexts in which it is used. But this is no different from my son’s learning that when his
mother says a “thing of pop” she means a two-litre bottle—it is no trouble at all. And it turns out that
this unusual word “ark” is worth learning, because it represents an unusual Hebrew word: ‫ת*בה‬
(teivah), which means not really a “boat” but a box-like container or vessel. Interestingly enough, this
Hebrew word occurs in only one other place in the Bible: in the infancy narrative of Moses, where his
mother builds an “ark” to float him on the Nile. Like a second Noah, Moses is thus preserved from
death by means of an “ark” on the water. Probably Moses used the word ‫ ת*בה‬here, in the story of his
own deliverance, with Noah’s ark in mind. Of course this allusion, like all the others mentioned above,
is lost in some modern versions, because they will not use such an unusual word as “ark.”
It is true that some words that children may hear every day need to be explained to them. Recently I
found that my sons (who are 11 and 9 years old) did not know the meaning of the word “allegiance,”
despite the fact that they had recited the “pledge of allegiance” hundreds of times at school and at Boy
Scouts. The meanings of the words “republic” and “indivisible” were also unclear to them. They told
me that no one had ever explained to them what these words meant. Words like this need explanation
because they refer to concepts rather than objects. “Republic” even requires a little history lesson to be
understood; but the word often appears in newspapers and magazines, and it is really indispensible for
any worthwhile discussion of political history and ideology. I would expect any decent school to teach
its students the meaning of this word by the ninth grade. The case is similar with conceptual terms like
righteousness and redemption in the Bible. Children should not be expected to just pick up the meaning
of these words without instruction. But I would expect any Christian Education program to provide
such instruction for children before they reach the age of 15, and I would not expect children younger
than that to do any independent Bible reading. In any case, trying to explain Christian theology without
the use of such words is like trying to explain American political ideology while avoiding the word
“republic.” We do not get very far into the subject before the need for such terms becomes obvious.
Another false notion promoted by “common language” advocates is that words of Latin origin must be
avoided. We get the impression that they think these words do not really belong in the English
language. They claim that words derived from Latin are somehow exotic, unduly formal, and lack the
force of native Anglo-Saxon words. This assertion is usually made without argument, as if it were self-
evident. But is it really true? Is it true, for instance, that the word “disciple” (from the Latin discipulus,
“pupil,” “apprentice”) is just a fancy Latinate way of saying “follower”? We rather think that “disciple”
is the stronger word, more definite in meaning. A “follower” does not always know his leader
personally, or necessarily learn much from him; but the word “disciple” suggests a closer relationship,
and also conveys the idea that the relationship is that of a learner with his teacher. Probably the word
“disciple” has this stronger meaning in English because it is less common, being especially associated
with the Bible and religion, and having acquired from its biblical usage all the meaning of the Greek
μαθητης. Below I will elaborate more on this point, and argue that the most common words in a
language do not in fact have more meaning or force than uncommon words, but less. Here I am only
concerned with the unreasonable prejudice against English words inherited from Latin.
Barclay Newman, translator of the Contemporary English Version, solemnly informs us that the word
grace—which we have defended above—“comes from the Latin word gratia,” and that “the expression
‘grace of God’ did not enter the English language until A.D. 1175.” (1) The assumption here seems to be
that words or phrases unattested in English before the twelfth century are somehow illegitimate. He
complains that grace, like most of the other words he finds objectionable (e.g. righteousness and
repentance), was brought into English versions “from the Latin Bible” by John Wycliffe — “a Latin
scholar who knew little Greek.” And so we are urged to reject the word, because it came from Latin.
Again, if we had hoped that the word grace, after eight centuries of use in English-speaking churches,
and a million choruses of “Amazing Grace,” might have gained a secure place in the English language
by now, we were mistaken.
This reminds me of the patriotic encomiums to Tyndale found in some nineteenth-century British
authors, who praise his New Testament for its “pure Saxon” vocabulary, drawn from “the well of
English undefiled,” and so on. (2) Statements like this are so far from the truth, they can only be
understood as expressions of the French-hating “blood and soil” romanticism of their authors. They
seriously misrepresent not only Tyndale’s vocabulary, but also the very nature and history of the
English language. The truth is, from the fourteenth century onward it has not been possible for a
speaker of English to avoid Latin-derived words. Modern English is not merely a development of Old
English (Anglo-Saxon) in which a few expendable inkhorn terms have been borrowed from Latin along
the way. It is the outcome of a hybrid of Old English and Old French formed in the centuries following
the Norman conquest of Britain, in which much of the vocabulary of Old French was thoroughly
naturalized. The Latin-based French words came to the British Isles in such a flood that probably more
than half the words of Modern English can be traced to them. Not only that, but many native Anglo-
Saxon words have acquired meanings from their Latin equivalents. An example of this is the word
“thing.” Originally in Anglo-Saxon a “thing” was an “assembly,” but under the steady and pervasive
influence of Latin during the Middle Ages it gradually acquired all the senses of its Latin equivalent,
res, and finally its old Anglo-Saxon meaning became obsolete. (3) It has been estimated that Modern
English “has appropriated a full quarter of the Latin vocabulary, besides what it has gained by
transferring Latin meanings to native words.” (4) This momentous change in the language might be
forgotten, but it cannot be reversed. We cannot go back to a “pure Saxon” vocabulary by avoiding Latin
derivatives, because Latinate words have displaced much of the old Anglo-Saxon vocabulary. There is
nothing “foreign” about Latinate words that have been in our language continuously for 800 years; but
many of the Anglo-Saxon equivalents, if they ever existed, have become as foreign to us as German.
This may be illustrated by the fate of the Old English word for “savior.” That word was hælend (comp.
German heiland), and in Anglo-Saxon translations of scripture hælend was also used to represent the
name of Jesus. But by the time of Wycliffe this familiar Saxon word had been pushed aside by the
French sauveour, descended from the Latin salvator. A descendant of the word hælend did survive the
Norman invasion, with a more restricted meaning, in the form of our word “healer;” but the sense of
“savior” has been taken from it and given to the adopted French word. And this is how it went with
many common Anglo-Saxon words during the Middle English period. We are far beyond the point
when anyone might refrain from the use of Latin-derived words like this, which long ago became an
integral part of our language. And if it were possible, it would still not be desirable, because the great
versatility and precision of the English language is mostly due to this infusion of Latin vocabulary; as
one German grammarian has said: “The Blending of the Germanic [Anglo-Saxon] with the Romance
[Latin and French] imparts to English in general a richness of expression for all shades of thought,
possessed by no other modern language.” (5)
Even in languages which have not undergone the kind of transformation that English went through in
the Middle Ages, the borrowing of words from other languages is not uncommon. In fact the Hebrew
word ‫“( ת*בה‬ark”), mentioned above, is probably a loan-word from Egyptian (see the etymology in the
Koehler-Baumgartner lexicon). In the Greek New Testament, we find a number of loan-words from
Hebrew and Aramaic. Many Greek words entered the Latin language by means of Jerome’s Latin
translations and revisions of the Bible. (6) All the European languages have borrowed words from
Hebrew, Greek, and Latin; and many of these borrowed words are now household words in our
language: the words “Christ” and “Bible” are anglicized Greek (χριστος and βιβλια), “Amen” is
Hebrew (‫)אמן‬, and these words came into our language through ecclesiastical Latin (Christus, Biblia,
Amen). The idea that words borrowed long ago from the ancient languages should not be used in a
Bible version is unreasonable; it involves a false view of language development, and it ignores the fact
that many words have entered our language by means of Bible translations in the past.
When the translators of the early English versions could find no exact equivalent for the original words,
they did not settle for the “closest natural equivalent,” but instead borrowed words from Greek and
Latin, or coined brand new words in English. Among the many words that Wycliffe introduced (mostly
from Latin and French) were “female,” “childbearing,” “affliction,” “consume,” “horror,” “problem,”
“zealous,” “contradiction,” “glory,” “treasure,” “liquid,” “mystery,” “interpretation,” “doctrine,”
“argument,” “adoption,” “liberty,” “crime,” “conscience,” and “quiet.” Tyndale introduced “Passover,”
“scapegoat,” “atonement,” “beautiful,” “brokenhearted,” “busybody,” and “ungodly.” (7) The same is
true of idioms. Most people do not realize how many Hebrew idioms have become naturalized in
English by means of literal renderings in Bible versions. One study of Tyndale’s version of the
Pentateuch concludes that his procedure was to reproduce literally “such Semitic idioms as approved
themselves to him as easily understood and more vigorous than paraphrase.” (8) B.F. Westcott observes
that Tyndale “felt, by a happy instinct, the potential affinity between Hebrew and English idioms, and
enriched our language and thought forever with the characteristics of the Semitic mind.” (9) As Gerald
Hammond says, “the Renaissance Bible translator saw half of his task as reshaping English so that it
could adapt itself to Hebraic idiom.” (10)

14. The Shallowness of Ordinary Language


Nothing is more characteristic of life in the modern age than its shallowness. For many who have
turned to Christ in recent years, the first prompting of the Spirit was an overwhelming sense of the
sheer emptiness and superficiality of their lives. They come to a church looking for something deep and
permanent enough to give meaning to their lives. But at the same time many churches have fallen
victim to the shallowness of our age, and what visitors too often find in them, instead of depth, is an
inane and faddish “pop Christianity.” Seekers may even find that the very Word of God has been
rendered insipid and shallow by our modern translators.
“Dynamic equivalence” versions seem to have a genius for trivialization that prevails even against
some basic principles of their method. An example of this is the use of “happy” instead of “blessed” as
a translation for ‫ א!ש"ר*י‬and μακαριος in the context of blessings. J.B. Phillips used this rendering for
μακαριοι in the beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:3-12), though he used the more
appropriate “fortunate” in some other places. His “happy” has been copied by the Good News Bible and
the New Century Version. In the latter we find the ludicrous rendering, “Those who are sad now are
happy” for Matt. 5:4. The translators of the King James version used “happy” in the old sense of
“fortunate” in a few places where these words refer to the enjoyment of favorable circumstances, but
presumably the poor readers of the Good News Bible and New Century Version will understand
“happy” only in its ordinary modern sense, as denoting an emotion. Clearly μακαριος in the beatitudes
refers to something more spiritual in nature — a “blessed” state of being under divine favor. (1)
Nevertheless, it seems that Phillips and the others preferred “happy” to “blessed” here just because it
sounds more colloquial and contemporary. “Blessed” is one of those stilted and old-fashioned words
that the modernizing translators shun, as belonging to the stained-glass vocabulary of yesteryear.
Modern youngsters and non-Christians just don’t say that people are “blessed.” So we have “happy”
instead.
In front of me is a recently-published book called A User’s Guide to Bible Translations, whose author
strongly recommends the use of dynamic equivalence versions, which he calls “meaning-driven”
versions. (2) He writes:
As well as keeping the general vocabulary short and sharp to promote reading ease, there
are also specific words that readers are unlikely to meet outside the context of the Bible.
Take, for example, John the Baptist who came “preaching a baptism of repentance for the
forgiveness of sin” (Mk 1:4). Here several words are strung together, some or even all of
which may not make sense to a new Bible reader, repentance being the hardest.… Three
meaning-driven versions each tackle the word repentance in Mark 1:4 in a different way:
TEV “John … preaching, Turn away from your sins and be baptized … and God will
forgive your sins.”
CEV “John … told everyone, Turn back to God and be baptized! Then your sins will be
forgiven.”
NLT “John .… preached that people should be baptized to show that they had turned to
God to receive forgiveness for their sins.
Repentance is not a word in everyday use. It carries the specific theological meaning of (1)
turning away from sin and (2) turning toward God. The TEV highlights only the former;
the CEV only the latter. The NLT captures both, but at the cost of producing a long and
wordy sentence.
This writer—said to be a “Baptist minister in England” on the back cover of the book—seems to think
that the Greek word traditionally translated Repentance (μετανοια) in the New Testament means
nothing other than “turning away from sin, and turning toward God.” But this technical definition
leaves out the remorse, the sorrow for sin, the hearty determination to change, that are also denoted by
the word. Thayer in his Lexicon explains that μετανοια denotes “the change of mind of those who have
begun to abhor their errors and misdeeds, and have determined to enter upon a better course of life, so
that it embraces both the recognition of sin and sorrow for it and hearty amendment, the tokens and
effects of which are good deeds.” (2nd ed., p. 406.) All of this is implicit in our word “repentance.” (3)
We are aware of the fact that this stern old word, so charged with religious meaning and emotional
depth, is rarely heard outside of church. But the claim that it may not “make sense” to Bible readers is
implausible. The same writer also states that the word sin “may not be understood properly” (p. 46),
and worries that salvation may also be too hard for some readers to understand, because it is “a long
word with an abstract meaning” (p. 69).
In the New Living Translation’s rendering of Mark 1:4 we notice also that “to show that they had turned
to God” construes the repentance connected with John’s baptism as a previous or contemporaneous
action to be “shown” by the baptism. This is apparently the translator’s attempt to explain what is
meant by βαπτισμα μετανοιας “baptism of repentance” in the original. But Scripture itself does not
explain the relationship of baptism to repentance in this way. The genitive construction used here does
not specify the relationship. (4) But this same baptism “of repentance” is elsewhere called a baptism
unto or for repentance (εις μετανοιαν) in Matthew 3:11, and from this we may gather that the “baptism
of repentance” is the sacred inauguration or pledge of a life-long repentance, as Luther said, (5) and not
the seal upon a completed act, as others have represented it. For this reason Thayer and others have
explained the genitive phrase βαπτισμα μετανοιας in Mark 1:4 as “a baptism binding its subjects to
repentance.” Predictably enough, the New Living Translation not only gets this wrong, but also glosses
over the expression in Matthew 3:11, where it has “baptize … those who turn from their sins and turn
to God” instead of “baptize … unto repentance.” And it does this without a marginal note. We would
expect someone with a theological education to notice how the New Living Translation pushes a
particular view of repentance and baptism here with its paraphrastic renderings; but the only problem
that our Guide sees is “a long and wordy sentence.”
How could such faults escape the notice of a minister who is focusing on the rendering of the New
Living Translation here for the purpose of discussing its merits and shortcomings? What has happened
to theological education in England, that the only problem he would see here is that the rendering is
“long and wordy” in comparison with the other versions he quotes? One gets the impression that
advocates of “dynamic equivalence” are so enamored with the idea that everything should be recast in
some simple and colloquial way, that they fail to see even the most obvious problems in versions that
attempt it.
Quite aside from any theological qualms we may have about the wording used in modern versions, we
often sense that the “everyday” language that replaces the richer vocabulary traditionally used in Bible
translations makes the text mean less than it should. Words like “blessedness,” “grief,” “remorse” and
“sorrow” are rarely used in conversation, but they cannot be replaced with everyday expressions like
“be happy” or “feel bad” without trivializing the thoughts and feelings that the sacred authors want to
convey. We “feel sorry” about small things that are soon forgotten; but “remorse” denotes a deeper and
more enduring emotion. This is practically a law of language — words and expressions that are
common in everyday speech are associated with things that happen every day; but for things that do not
happen every day, we require other words. If those who claim that everyday English needs to be used in
order for the text to be understandable were really consistent, they would not use words like “sorrow”
or “remorse,” as does the New Living Translation in 2 Corinthians 7:9. The error of the “everyday
language” principle becomes evident, however, when it is actually adhered to and consistently put into
practice, as in the CEV.
NLT CEV

“…the pain caused you to have remorse and “God used your hurt feelings to make you turn back
change your ways. It was the kind of sorrow God to him … when God make you feel sorry enough to
wants his people to have, so you were not turn to him and be saved, you don’t have anything to
harmed by us in any way.” feel bad about.”

It is not only the discriminating littérateur who will feel that something is wrong with the CEV here.
By using such expressions as “hurt feelings” and “feel bad” the translators have substituted paltry and
commonplace emotions for those that are great and rare. They have trivialized it, and have violated a
well-established rule of language. One cannot use such ordinary household expressions in reference to
powerful spiritual convictions and awakenings.
One might as well replace the expression “they were cut to the heart” in Acts 2:37 with “their feelings
were hurt.” This would be ridiculous, but the rendering of the CEV there is not far different: its says,
“they were very upset.”
Professor Ryken of Wheaton College, in his valuable book The Word of God in English, (6) criticizes
many renderings like this from the standpoint of a literary critic, and he very aptly describes them
under such headings as “Impoverishment of language,” “How to lower the Bible’s voltage,” and “The
importance of getting the tone right.” But I wonder how many of his readers understand what is really
at stake in matters of style and tone. The difference here is not just a superficial matter of “form,”
without consequences for the “content” of the message. A real distortion of meaning occurs when
everyday household language is used to describe extraordinary things. When we speak of “hurt
feelings” and being “upset” we are referring to relatively minor agitations — the average teenage girl
gets “upset” and has “hurt feelings” several times a month — but these words cannot refer to the kind
of anguish that can change a man’s life.
Ryken emphasizes the fact that the style of the Bible in its original languages is largely poetic. The
Psalms are all written in poetic style. The Prophetic books are mostly poetry. Job and the Song of
Solomon are poetry. There are also some long poetic portions in the books that are mostly prose, such
as the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy chapter 32. In the New Testament, the sayings and discourses of
Christ often exhibit poetic features, especially the parallelism of clauses which is the distinguishing
mark of Hebrew poetry. There is good reason to think that most of his preaching was delivered in this
rhetorical form, which was associated with inspiration and prophetic speech. (7)
Nida not only acknowledges this, he even states that the Jews “placed high value on the poetic
language of the prophets,” and felt that “its very distinctiveness marked it as somehow inspired.”
Among the Jews, he says, “something in poetic form achieved greater authority because of its
distinctive vocabulary, structure, and rhythm.” (8) Evidently the prophets also felt that formal and poetic
language was most suitable for the communication of the Word of God, or else they would not have
spoken as they did. This feeling is by no means confined to Israelite prophets and their Jewish readers.
People throughout the world have connected inspiration with impressive, unusual, and even mysterious
language. The speech of sages and oracles is expected to be figurative. The book of Proverbs is full of
figures, word-plays and other clever and interesting turns of phrase, in line with the conventions of
wisdom literature. And it is a universal tendency of human beings to associate authority with a formal
and impressive style of language. As a linguist Nida surely knows this, but as an apologist for the Good
News Bible he is constrained to minimize the importance of any stylistic considerations.
Some people object to Bible translations that reflect the type of language used in
newspapers … Some people mistakenly assume that if the Bible is inspired by God, then it
should not sound like normal language. (9)

If he were speaking as a disinterested linguist here, Nida would not be trying to downplay the common
association of authority and inspiration with impressive forms of speech, by dismissing it as a
“mistake.” It is not the part of a linguist to reject as “mistaken” any common linguistic tendency or
expectation. He and his followers know full well that it is not only “some” people who would expect
divine revelations and commands to be more impressive than the newspaper. They are aware of the fact
that much of the Bible is poetic, and that most of the prose sections are written in an elevated style.
They must also know how unlikely it is that “common language” versions will ever command the same
respect as versions that imitate the formal style of the original. But the high place occupied by demands
for “naturalness” and “common language” in their hierarchy of concerns really dictates a simple
conversational style in all circumstances. The versions most favored by Nida, the Good News Bible and
the Contemporary English Version, do not even rise to the stylistic level of most newspaper articles.
The tendency in these versions is to reduce the text to a uniformly bland, prosaic, and even childish
manner of speaking throughout the Bible.
The Guide to Bible Translations quoted above tries to forestall any recognition of this by portraying as
bombastic any diction that rises above the kindergarten level:
Consider the following: “The domesticated feline situated herself in a stationary and
recumbent position on the diminutive floorboard covering.” This is an unnecessarily long-
winded way of saying, “The cat sat on the mat.” Long, polysyllabic words are harder to
understand than short words with just one or two syllables. (10)

But this parody of “officialese” does not illustrate what the author thinks it does. It does not
demonstrate that polysyllabic words are especially hard to understand. In fact they are not hard to
understand. The word “refrigerator” is not more difficult to understand than “ice box.” The words
“electricity,” “unsympathetic,” and “elementary” are not hard to understand, though each of them has
five syllables. There is no necessary connection between the number of syllables in a word and the
ability of people to understand it. The simple truth is, the words that people do not understand are the
words that they have not learned. What the example really demonstrates is the semantic cloudiness that
results from the deliberate avoidance of familiar words, and from the unnecessary use of definitions or
abstract and general terms in their place. It also illustrates rather comically the pretentiousness of trying
very hard to sound learned or official in one’s speech when simpler words would serve the purpose of
communication much better. This might be a warning to us, that we should not use vague abstract
words and periphrastic expressions when concrete and precise equivalents are available in our
language. But it gives us no reason to avoid righteousness as a translation for δικαιοσυνη, repentance
for μετανοια, and salvation for σωτηριον. These English words are exact equivalents for the Greek
words. Their degree of abstraction mirrors that of the Greek words precisely. These terms will seem
foggy and indefinite in meaning only to people who have not spent much time reading the Bible.
Before I put our Guide to Bible Translations back on the shelf, I would add one more example that
illustrates what is wrong with its advice.
One further example will again demonstrate the difference between form-driven and
meaning-driven translations. In John 15:9, Jesus gives his disciples a command: “Remain in
my love.” This is how the Greek is translated by the NIV and the NLT. The NRSV, ESV
and NASB follow the AV/KJV and have the very similar “Abide in my love.”
Perhaps surprisingly, the creators of the CEV say this was the most difficult phrase to
translate meaningfully in the entirety of their translation project. As rendered in most form-
driven translations, it is not natural English. What does it mean to remain in someone’s
love? A husband going off to fight a war does not say to the wife he is leaving behind,
“Now remain in my love, won’t you darling?” The Greek carries a two-way meaning: we
should continually remember a person’s love for us and we should maintain our love for
them. The CEV captures the reciprocal nature of Jesus’ command in its translation:
“Remain faithful to my love for you.” (p. 80.)
Here we see the hermeneutical consequences of the demand for “ordinary language.” For it does not
even occur to the Guide that Jesus is not talking about ordinary love in an ordinary way. He assumes
that Jesus is saying something that we might say, and tries to understand the expression μείνατε ἐν τῇ
ἀγάπῃ τῇ ἐμῇ (lit. “abide in the love that is mine”) in terms of what a man might say to his wife. But
the αγαπη of God in Christ is not the same as human love. Like χαρις, the divine αγαπη denotes a life-
giving power that flows from the throne of grace. It is the life of the vine, the bond of the vital union
with Christ. It is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5). It moves us and constrains
us (2 Cor. 5:14). To abide in this divine love is to remain under its influence, to be mindful of it at all
times, to keep receiving it by faith, in an attitude of entire dependence. The fruit of this love is grateful
obedience, and love for others. (11) In connection with this, it is also to be observed that the verb
μείνατε (imperative of μενω) does not mean simply “remain” here, but rather “remain living” or
“dwell.” The traditional English translation “abide” is designed to capture the latter sense. The use of
the more colloquial “remain” to represent μενω in most modern language versions fails to indicate
connotations of μενω that are highly important for the understanding of Christ’s sayings in John’s
Gospel. (12)
One must read John’s Gospel and epistles, and the epistles of Paul, in order to learn what is meant by
μενω and αγαπη in these writings. But the literal versions at least make it possible for a reader to do
this. The observation that “abide in my love” is “not natural English,” as the Guide complains, is the
kind of observation that will first indicate to the reader that there is something unusual about this
“love.” But unfortunately, the “meaning-driven” CEV only illustrates how much damage can be done
to the meaning of the text when we bring the wrong questions to it. The wrong question in this case is,
“how would we say this?” When Christ says “abide in my love,” he is saying something that we cannot
say.
This is the kind of exegetical shallowness that one often finds in modern versions of the Bible. The
“ordinary language” requirement constantly drives the interpretation down to a mundane level, where
the biblical authors are forced to say only the things that we might say in our ordinary lives.
Another example of this exegetical shallowness may be seen in the translation of John 2:4. Here Christ
responds to the request implicit in Mary’s observation “they have no wine” by saying to her, Τί ἐμοὶ καὶ
σοί, γύναι — literally “what (pertains) to me and to you, woman?” The words τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί here are a
literal reproduction of the Hebrew idiom ‫ מ!ה־ לי ולך‬meaning “what do we have between us” (as in
Judges 11:12 and 1 Kings 17:18) or “what do we have in common?” (as in 2 Sam. 16:10 and 2 Kings
3:13), and it must be said that this is not very polite. Someone who uses this expression is saying, in
effect, that he does not have anything in common with the person to whom it is said, or does not want
to have anything to do with him, his concerns, or his requests. The use of γυναι “O woman” as a form
of address is not in itself impolite, but it is a strangely impersonal way for a son to address his own
mother. Jesus is definitely putting some distance between himself and Mary here, and between his
concerns and hers. (13) After this statement we would not expect him to do anything about the wine at
the feast, but on the contrary, he immediately afterwards provides wine for the wedding guests, by a
miracle which John calls a “sign.” What is going on here?
Although Jesus appears to treat Mary with contempt if this story is read merely as the record of an
ordinary human interaction, Augustine in his exposition of it points out that the purpose of Christ’s
saying cannot be understood at that level. We cannot suppose that it was designed merely to show a
gratuitous disrespect for his mother. And so he observes, Certi sacramenti gratia, videtur matrem …
non agnoscere … procul dubio, fratres, latet ibi aliquid. “Certainly it is for the sake of a mystery that
he appears not to acknowledge his mother … beyond a doubt, brethren, something is hidden in it.”
Why, then, said the Son to the mother, “Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is
not yet come”? Our Lord Jesus Christ was both God and man. According as he was God, he
had not a mother; according as he was man, he had. She was the mother, then, of his flesh,
of his humanity, of the weakness which for our sakes he took upon him. But the miracle
which he was about to do, he was about to do according to his divine nature, not according
to his weakness; according to that wherein he was God, not according to that wherein he
was born weak. (14)
In short, he speaks thus as God. This serves one of the primary purposes of John’s Gospel, to
emphasize the divinity of Christ. Though according to the flesh he is her son, he must now be shown to
be her Lord. Furthermore, his answer to Mary is designed to indicate that he makes the water into wine
on his own initiative and for symbolical reasons of his own, which have nothing to do with the ordinary
desire for wine at a wedding feast. His interaction with Mary cannot be understood in terms of normal
human attitudes and motives when it is accurately translated. His abnormal way of speaking to his
mother, as if she were a stranger to him, signifies that his agenda has little to do with her mundane
concern about the wine running out. But the “dynamic” versions try to make it into something that will
be seen as inoffensive and normal. The primary concern of the “dynamic equivalence” translators is
that Jesus should be presented as a well-mannered son, speaking politely to his mother. And so we have
in the TNIV “mother” instead of “woman,” and the NLT eliminates the rebuff by falsely translating it
“How does that concern you and me?” This transforms the saying into a gentle and polite one, which
fulfills conventional expectations, but it happens to be the exact opposite of what he said. The
“dynamic” translators who came up with these renderings were clearly more interested in making Jesus
sound normal and polite to modern readers than in conveying the intimation of divinity that we find in
the original.
I am not unaware of the negative effect that Christ’s reply has on some readers. I once had a
conversation with a young woman who asserted that Jesus must not have been sinless, because he
evidently sinned against his mother in speaking thus. She happened to be nominally Catholic, and I
suppose she must have thought more of Mary than of Jesus in order to come to that conclusion. But I
think the problem here stems not so much from Roman Catholic Mariology as from ordinary feminine
demands for politeness which are really foreign to the purpose of the narrative. The narrative
deliberately violates the ordinary expectations of those who would see Jesus as merely human. Indeed,
“no man ever spoke like this man” (John 7:46). But like “the Jews” in chapter 8 of John’s Gospel, this
poor woman could not escape the mundane sphere of interpretation. Her low-level response to Christ’s
words fastened on their impoliteness as a human utterance, and she could not see beyond that to the
real meaning.

15. ‘An Indescribable Something More’


In an essay published in 1534, John Calvin asked:
Who sees not that there is much force in such Hebraisms as the following? “Bless the Lord,
O my soul,” — “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” — “Say to my soul, I am thy salvation.”
(Psalm ciii. 1; civ. 1; Luke i. 46.) An indescribable something more is expressed than if it
were said without addition, Bless the Lord; I magnify the Lord, Say to me, I am thy
salvation! (1)

It is sometimes hard for us to say what is lost in loose translations, though we intuitively sense that
something is missing. As Calvin says, one feels that “an indescribable something more is expressed” in
the Hebrew idioms. When “My soul doth magnify the Lord” in Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46) is
reduced to “Oh, how I praise the Lord,” as it is in the New Living Translation, something has definitely
dropped out. The NLT has tried to make the expression emphatic by adding “Oh how,” but it fails to
convey the full force of Mary’s praise. By “my soul” she means that vital essence which causes her to
live, from which the deepest feelings and impulses of her heart originate. We have discussed the
meaning of the Hebrew expression ‫“ נפשי‬my soul” above, and the fact that the NIV in some places
interprets it as just another way of saying “I.” We are glad to see that in Psalm 103:1, 104:1, and Luke
1: 46 the NIV gives a literal reproduction of the phrase. But the NLT consistently eliminates everyone’s
“soul.” In Psalm 103 and 104 we find “Praise the Lord, I tell myself”! Who does not see the
inadequacy of this? The distortion and loss of meaning is great, though it may be hard to describe to
someone who does not acknowledge it.
Joseph Addison, the famous English poet and literary critic, speaks of the peculiar “Force and Energy”
of the Hebrew idioms in Scripture:
There is a certain Coldness and Indifference in the Phrases of our European Languages,
when they are compared with the Oriental Forms of Speech; and it happens very luckily,
that the Hebrew Idioms run into the English Tongue with a particular Grace and Beauty.
Our Language has received innumerable Elegancies and Improvements, from that Infusion
of Hebraisms, which are derived to it out of the Poetical Passages in Holy Writ. They give a
Force and Energy to our Expressions, warm and animate our Language, and convey our
Thoughts in more ardent and intense Phrases, than any that are to be met with in our own
Tongue. There is something so pathetick in this kind of Diction, that it often sets the Mind
in a Flame, and makes our Hearts burn within us. How cold and dead does a Prayer appear,
that is composed in the most Elegant and Polite Forms of Speech, which are natural to our
Tongue, when it is not heightened by that Solemnity of Phrase, which may be drawn from
the Sacred Writings. (2)

The rhetorical force and pathos of the Hebrew idioms that Addison speaks of here can be illustrated
with 1 Sam. 30:3-4.
KJV: So David and his men came to the city, and, NIV: When David and his men came to
behold, it was burned with fire; and their wives, and their Ziklag, they found it destroyed by fire and
sons, and their daughters, were taken captives. Then their wives and sons and daughters taken
David and the people that were with him lifted up their captive. So David and his men wept aloud
voice and wept, until they had no more power to weep. until they had no strength left to weep.

The “behold” adds something that can hardly be described. It causes us to stop and behold the ruined
city with David and his men. It somehow brings us into the scene. The pleonastic “burned with fire”
has a peculiar force that “destroyed by fire” does not. The failure of the NIV to put a mark of
punctuation after “fire” causes us to glide through the sentence instead of pausing, to be appalled at
what had happened. The literal “lifted up their voice and wept” of the KJV far surpasses the NIV’s
“wept aloud” in pathetic force. This is what happens when the text is purged of its Hebrew idioms: it is
systematically weakened. Anyone can see that the effect is far from “equivalent” to a literal translation
of the Hebrew.
What principle of translation is responsible for this systematic weakening of the text? It is the ill-
conceived notion that everything must be reduced to the prosaic conversational style of Common
English — “just the way we would say it.”
The “way we would say it” in colloquial English tends to reflect the Stoic temper and values of our
Anglo-Saxon culture. There is a preference for cool understatement, matter-of-fact objectivity, and
calmness among Teutonic peoples, which is not shared by people of the Middle Eastern and
Mediterranean cultures in which the Bible originated. The Bible reflects their habitual way of talking
and their experience of things. The “ardent and intense phrases” that Addison notices in the style of the
biblical authors are not just a way of speaking, but a way of experiencing life.
It has often been observed that the contents of the Bible do not usually take the form of a theological
treatise. There are some portions that do resemble a treatise (e.g. the Epistle to the Romans), but for the
most part it presents its message in stories and images. The message is incarnated as it were, in very
concrete and specific ways. (3) Attributes, attitudes and actions of God are usually expressed
anthropomorphically. We do not find in the Bible a statement about God’s “omniscence,” but we do
read that “the eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good” (Proverbs 15:3). We
would strongly agree with anyone who says this means that God is omniscent. However, there is an
indescribable something more in the Bible’s way of expressing this truth. “Omniscence” belongs to the
intellectual realm of theological abstraction, but the eyes of the Lord are very real to us. Likewise the
Good News Bible’s general statement “You know everything I do” is not really equivalent to “You
know my sitting down and my rising up” in Psalm 139:2. A translator must resist this tendency to put
things in abstract and general terms, and should always try to express things in the same concrete and
particular way that the original text does.
In Genesis 45, the aged Jacob hears that his son Joseph is alive, and says, “I will go and see him before
I die.” Then God speaks to him in a night vision, saying, “I will go down with thee into Egypt, and I
will also surely bring thee up again; and Joseph shall put his hand upon thine eyes” (46:4). There is
something deeply poignant about the last sentence, with its picture of Joseph closing the eyes of his
deceased father with his hand. This is not a tired cliché in Hebrew, it is unusual. (4) The reference to his
eyes recalls Jacob’s earlier statement, “I will … see him before I die.” It is not that Jacob wished for
death, or that God needed to bring up the subject of death for some reason. Jacob knew that he would
die before many more years would pass. But he longed to be reunited permanently with his son, and
never separated again, until death. The image of Joseph closing his eyelids is designed to reassure
Jacob that this hope will be fulfilled, and so the saying is sweet to him. An effect is here produced by
the perfect concreteness of the promise, as we are transported into the scene. God’s promise is not
couched in vague, general, and abstract terms; it is expressed concretely and set before the mind’s eye
in a picture. This is one of the secrets of really effective communication.
All description and narrative, and in general all writing that seeks to make people, not only
understand, but also feel, depends upon the choice of words that appeal to the imagination.
Such words are concrete. Concrete words are those that stir the imagination by specific
suggestions of sound, motion, color, touch, taste. In short, they are words of physical
sensations. By such words alone we can make our readers sympathize with our feeling; for
these words alone will stir him to imagine himself in the scene. The specific mention of the
physical details that roused in us pleasure, pain, contentment, horror, or exultation, is the
only sure way to rouse in others the same emotion. We reach the emotions by appealing to
the imagination through words of sensation. Thus what is called force or vividness of style
depends upon the choice of concrete words. (5)

For most people, who are not especially skillful communicators, “the way we would say it” is
unimaginative and dull. But the writer who knows how to make an impression “prefers the name of the
species to that of the genus, and the name of the class to that of the species; he is always urged forward
towards the individual and the actual; his mind does not lag in the region of abstractions and formulas,
but presses past the general term, or abstraction, or law, to the image or the example, and into the
tangible, glowing, sensible world of fact.” (6)
Too often, however, we find that “dynamic equivalence” translations enforce the bland and banal habits
of common speech, by substituting generalities for the concrete and specific images of the Bible. In the
New Living Translation, the last sentence of Genesis 46:4 reads, “But you will die in Egypt with Joseph
at your side.” The image has been stripped of its details, and has lost its vividness. We find similar
renderings in the Good News Bible and Contemporary English Version. Probably the translators of
these versions believed that some of their readers would not understand a more literal rendering of this
unusual statement, and so they aimed low and gave only the gist of it, in general terms. It is hard to
explain what exactly is lost in the translation, and we do not doubt that various elements of modern
linguistic theory could be used to justify this treatment of the text, but all the “linguistics” in the world
cannot hide the fact that something has been lost.

16. A Science Falsely So Called


O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings,
and oppositions of science falsely so called, which some professing have erred concerning
the faith. (I Timothy 6:20, KJV)

“Science” as a rendering of gnosis in 1 Tim. 6:20 may not be as obsolete as some modern people think.
Tyndale used this rendering because he perceived that Paul was referring not to “knowledge” in
general, but to a formal system of teachings which pretended to confer knowledge — a system now
commonly known by the name of “gnosticism.” Many people in ancient times were fascinated by
speculative philosophies like this, especially if they were couched in enough mumbo-jumbo to give
them an air of profundity and authority. Our modern “science” is supposed to be different, being
founded on an empirical method, in which directly observable facts replace mythopoetic speculation;
but some things that vaunt themselves as “science” in our time are not much more empirical than
ancient gnosticism.
During the twentieth century many academic disciplines re-invented themselves as “sciences.” Political
philosophy gave birth to political science. Epistemology (the philosophy of knowledge) was narrowed
down and refashioned as cognitive psychology. Philology (the study of languages) gave rise to
linguistics. In these disciplines the study of human qualities and behaviors was supposed to be based on
observable phenomena, and pursued with modern scientific methods. But in some cases, the new
“sciences” turned out to be less helpful than their predecessors, and certainly less helpful than the
physical sciences after which they had been modeled. One prominent American sociologist, Robert
Nisbet, has said that after World War II the social sciences came to be dominated by people promoting
liberal ideology under the guise of science, and have been characterized by “scientific posturing” and a
“pretentious and unconvincing scientism” ever since. (1) My own experience as a college student in the
70’s tends to confirm Nisbet’s estimate of the “social sciences.” Fields like sociology are so thoroughly
infected with political ideology that undergraduates are not likely to hear anything that is not calculated
to serve some political purpose.
Although the field of linguistics (the science of language) might at first sight seem to be an
unpromising one for ideological agendas, this field also has its share of them. Those who take courses
in linguistics will first of all be taught that a linguist must never make any value judgments about
languages and dialects. If one were to say, for example, that classical Greek is a more precise language
than Hebrew, and hence better for scientific purposes, or that modern English is better than Romanian
in some other respect, a professor of linguistics would not let it go unpunished. Students are not
allowed to say things like that, because they involve value judgments. They are supposed to think (or at
least say) that all languages are equal. But obviously this principle is itself a value judgment, and has
nothing to do with “science.” It is an ideological fiction, designed to discourage cultural chauvinism
and class-conscious attitudes of superiority. As such, it may help to put students in the proper frame of
mind for disinterested inquiry and learning, but it may also interfere with their ability to say or think
things that are true.
The truth is, languages are closely adapted to the mental culture of societies in which they are used,
they differ greatly in their powers of expression, and the differences between literary and vulgar forms
of the same language are not unimportant. There are many things that cannot be transferred from one
language to another, or from literary to vulgar forms of the same language, without the need for
explanations. The meaning of some words and expressions can never be fully appreciated by people
who do not belong to the culture in which they are used. Moreover, a language not only reflects but
also reinforces the mentality of its culture; it not only conveys thoughts from one mind to another, but
also serves as a channel or instrument of thought, which tends to shape thinking along the contours of
the culture. (I explain this aspect of language more fully in another article.) A “science” of translation
cannot afford to ignore these things.
In the 1950’s and 1960’s the field of linguistics was dominated by thinkers who were more interested in
emphasizing things which all languages had in common. Language per se, and its universal
characteristics, was the focus of research. The most dominant figure in linguistics at that time was
Noam Chomsky, who formulated his theories of language in deliberate opposition to behaviorist and
cultural-environmental accounts. One historian writes:
In the background [of Chomsky’s theory] there was an assumption that communication
among people is possible, even between people who do not share each other’s language,
because there are certain formal similarities in all languages. Psycholinguistics sought to
relate these formal similarities in languages to the structure of the mind and brain .…
Chomsky himself went on to elaborate what he identified as a Cartesian theory of language,
a theory that presupposes the existence of universal, innate grammatical structures. The
result was a concrete research programme for linguistics, to search out the grammatical
universals and to trace how they underlie actual languages. This strongly stimulated the
development of the field, though many researchers in linguistics with a psychological
orientation soon questioned both the logic and the empirical content of Chomsky’s
programme. (2)
It was during this time that Eugene Nida published his book Toward a Science of Translating. Nida
aimed to make Bible translating more scientific by using principles of this universalistic “linguistics.”
(3)

In his book, Nida explains human language in much the same way that a modern physicist understands
atoms and molecules. He theorizes that people “generate” sentences by unconsciously transforming and
combining basic psycho-linguistic elements called “kernels,” which he defines thus:
kernel: A sentence pattern which is basic to the structure of a language, and which is
characterized by (a) the simplest possible form, in which objects are represented by nouns,
events by verbs, and abstracts by adjectives, adverbs, or special verbs (according to the
genius of the language), (b) the least ambiguous expression of all relations, and (c) the
explicit inclusion of all information. Each language has only 6-12 types of kernels. Kernels
are discovered in a surface structure by back transformation; they are converted into a
surface structure by transformation. (glossary, p. 203.)

The importance of “kernels” for translation theory is explained on page 39, in this manner:
Now if we examine carefully what we have done in order to state the relationships between
words in ways that are the clearest and least ambiguous, we soon discover that we have
simply recast the expressions so that events are expressed as verbs, objects as nouns,
abstracts (quantities and qualities) as adjectives or adverbs. The only other terms are
relationals, i.e., the prepositions and conjunctions.
These restructured expressions are basically what many linguists call “kernels”; that is to
say, they are the basic structural elements out of which the language builds its elaborate
surface structures. In fact, one of the most important insights coming from
“transformational grammar” is the fact that in all languages there are half a dozen to a
dozen basic structures out of which all the more elaborate formations are constructed by
means of so-called “transformations.” In contrast, back-transformation, then, is the analytic
process of reducing the surface structure to its underlying kernels. From the standpoint of
the translator, however, what is even more important than the existence of kernels in all
languages is the fact that languages agree far more on the level of the kernels than on the
level of the more elaborate structures. This means that if one can reduce grammatical
structures to the kernel level, they can be transferred more readily and with a minimum of
distortion. This is one justification for the claim that the three-stage process of translation is
preferable … (see Figure 6).

All of this seems very scientific, until one realizes that the elementary “kernels” to which everything is
reduced, and upon which everything is based, are only figments of the kind of grammatical analysis
peculiar to generative grammar. And despite the use of the “kernel” metaphor, in which these
postulated entities are compared to physical objects, they are not at all like physical objects, whose
existence can be observed or demonstrated. They refer to unobservable processes of the subconscious
mind. The existence of these kernels can no more be proven by empirical methods than can the æons of
gnosticism. So here we are in the realm of unverifiable speculations, not empirical science. Nor does
this theory have much explanatory power. The reductionistic account of language put forth here is quite
incapable of explaining how human language works to create and convey complex thoughts and
feelings. It brings to mind the lines in Goethe’s Faust about logicians who have tried to analyze human
thought by reducing it to a few mechanical processes.
In truth the subtle web of thought
Is like the weaver’s fabric wrought:
One treadle moves a thousand lines,
Swift dart the shuttles to and fro,
Unseen the threads together flow,
A thousand knots one stroke combines.
Then forward steps your sage to show,
And prove to you, it must be so;
The first being so, and so the second,
The third and fourth deduced we see;
And if there were no first and second,
Nor third nor fourth would ever be.
This, scholars of all countries prize, —
Yet ‘mong themselves no weavers rise.
He who would know and treat of aught alive,
Seeks first the living spirit thence to drive:
Then are the lifeless fragments in his hand,
There only fails, alas! the spirit-band. (4)

What Goethe calls the spirit-band (geistige Band) of the original web of thought (Gedankenfabrik)
cannot survive all the methodical dismemberment it must suffer when reduced to a series of syllogisms,
nor can it survive the similar treatment it receives in Nida’s “science of translation.”

17. Recent Developments in Linguistics


Theoretical linguistics is now in the midst of a paradigm shift, in which the basic ways of thinking
about language which Nida and his followers have taken for granted are coming to be seen as obsolete.
The old way of thinking — if anything less than sixty years old can be called that — represented
language as a kind of code which somehow carried thoughts from one mind to another. This “code
model” served well enough to describe what happens in a some very simple linguistic events (e.g.
informing someone that “the cat sat on the mat”), but it cannot serve very well as a model of language
in general. Words are not really like vessels that conduct culturally-disembodied “messages” from one
mind to another; they are more like activating signals that invoke, vivify, combine, and modify various
elements of a pre-existing and shared body of knowledge. Trying to transfer the elaborately ramified
“message” of the Bible apart from the body of knowledge it presupposes is like trying to transplant a
full-grown tree by cutting it off at the roots and sticking it into the ground in another place.
There is something absurd about the situation in which such obvious things need to be stated, against
the writings of “linguists,” who, of all people, should not need to be told how closely language is
connected to culture. But recently some linguists who have written on the subject of Bible translation
have begun to show some awareness of what is really involved in Biblical interpretation. Ernst-August
Gutt, for instance, has written several articles on this subject, in which he takes advantage of a new
development in linguistics known as “relevance theory” to promote more adequate ideas about
translation.
We all know from everyday experience that reading literature not written especially for us
or eavesdropping on conversations between people whose background we do not share
usually causes comprehension problems. This, then, being the case, how can one overcome
these problems in Bible translation?
No doubt, the first and possibly most important step is that we, as Bible translators, fully
acknowledge the existence of this problem. We need to lay aside the misconception that the
meaning of biblical texts can be successfully communicated regardless of the receptors’
background knowledge. As I have tried to point out in my book Translation and Relevance
(2000) and other writings, this idea is rooted in the code model paradigm, which lacks an
adequate understanding of the inferential nature of communication and of the crucial role
played by contextual information.
Secondly, Bible translators need to understand the true extent of contextual difference
between original and target audiences and the magnitude of the communication problems
they cause. Though context is referred to in translation literature, the vast amount of
information it often involves has generally been seriously underestimated. For example, the
opening verse of the epistle to the Hebrews (1,1) in the Revised Standard Version reads: “In
many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets (polymeroos kai
polytropoos palai ho theos lalesas tois patrasin en tois prophetais) …”
With the original readers, the Greek word prophetais (“by the prophets”) would access
presumably large encyclopedic entries, full of information about the events of the history of
Israel and of the prophets, such as Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and others. With all this
information accessible in the minds of the audience, the expressions polymeroos (“on many
occasions”) and polytropos (“in many ways”) would encourage the readers to recall a range
of events from different times that illustrated the different ways in which God spoke
through the prophets. Thus with a very few words, the author evoked in his readers’ minds
a wealth of information spanning Old Testament history, for example, the giving of the law
at Mount Sinai, God’s communications with Israel during the wanderings through the
wilderness, the miracle of the fire coming down on Mount Horeb, and the visions God gave
through Ezekiel.
At the same time, the author here leaves much to the audience: he gives no guidance as to
any particular incidents they should consider. In relevance-theoretic terms, this is a clear
example of weak communication: the author activates a wide range of information, but
leaves to the readers which particular instances to recall — Moses, Elijah, and Samuel, for
example, or Abraham, Daniel, Amos and Jeremiah — any selection satisfying the terms
polymeroos and polytropos would do. Thus there would be a rich set of weakly implicated
assumptions, that is, weak implicatures. Typically, code-model based accounts of and
approaches to Bible translation have little, if any, recognition of weaker implicatures. Bible
translation literature dealing with this particular passage, for example, does not usually
address the existence of all this information nor how the translator might succeed in
conveying it to the receptors. (1)
Biblical scholars have always emphasized the importance of background knowledge, and have never
felt a need for any formal theory of communication to justify this emphasis. To them it is perfectly
obvious that the biblical text cannot be fully understood by those who have not studied the language
and religious culture of the authors. A theory of translation that pretends to make exegetical comment
unnecessary would be seen as simply foolish and irrelevant. But a formal linguistic theory that
recognizes this fact is at least a welcome corrective to the more naive ideas that have been promoted in
the field of translation theory after Nida. One biblical scholar, C. John Collins, has therefore criticized
Nida’s simplistic code model of communication along the same lines as Gutt:
Consider what place a text has in an act of communication. It is far too simple to say that
we have a speaker, an audience, and a message that connects them. Rather, we should see
that the speaker and audience have a picture of the world that to some extent they share
between them: that picture includes, for example, knowledge, beliefs, values, experiences,
language, and rhetorical conventions. For example, I am writing this essay in English, and I
assume that you know what I mean by “the Hebrew Bible.” A text is a means by which the
speaker (or author) operates on that shared picture of the world to produce some effect (the
message) in the audience; perhaps by adding new things for them to know, or by correcting
things that they thought they knew; or by drawing on some part of it (such as their
experience of God’s love) in order for them to act upon it; or by evoking some aspect of it
for celebration or mourning; or even by radically revising their orientation to the world
(their worldview). The authors and their audiences also share linguistic and literary
conventions, which indicate how to interpret the text; for example, everyone who is
competent in American English knows what to expect when a narrative begins with “once
upon a time.” For an audience to interpret a text properly, they must cooperate with the
author as he has expressed himself in his text. (In terms used by the linguists, the
“message” includes such things as illocutionary force, implicatures, and so on.) (2)
Evidently Collins has been reading about the recent contributions of “relevance theory” to theoretical
linguistics, which emphasizes the wealth of “implicatures” (things implied or taken for granted by the
author, which must be understood by the reader to get the meaning) in almost any communicative act.
Not everyone in the wide field of linguistics appreciates this new emphasis on the importance of
“shared background” in communication. Translation theorists who have always sat at the feet of Nida
can be expected to resist any fundamental change in their theoretical orientation. But we hope it will
eventually dawn upon them that a translator can never succeed in conveying what the author of the
epistle to the Hebrews meant by “the prophets” if the reader is not acquainted with the prophetic
writings. Nor can a translation make readers understand why the New Testament begins with a
genealogy, in which our Lord is introduced as a son of Abraham, if they are ignorant of the Old
Testament. There is no magical science of translation that can make this historical and cultural
preparation for the gospel unnecessary.

18. The Overworked Translator


There are innumerable small inaccuracies in modern translations that appear to have arisen by a general
lack of carefulness. But I suspect that, as translators are pushed out of the habit of giving literal
renderings, and are expected to give more attention to stylistic matters, the work just becomes too
complex and difficult for many of them to handle. There is certainly an increase in the demands put
upon translators when they are expected to make everything not only accurate but also fluent and clear
to every reader. Probably many of them are not skillful enough in English, or are not given enough time
to do the job well. It is like a business owner asking his accountant to answer the phone, which rings
every 30 seconds. We should not be surprised to find a number of errors in the account books at the end
of the day.
In Hebrews 3:12 the Greek reads, Βλέπετε, ἀδελφοί, μήποτε ἔσται ἔν τινι ὑμῶν καρδία πονηρὰ
ἀπιστίας ἐν τῷ ἀποστῆναι ἀπὸ θεοῦ ζῶντος. Literally this says, “Take care, brethren, that there will not
be in any one of you an evil heart of unbelief, in apostasy from the Living God.” We would expect a
careful scholar to notice here the emphatic expression “in any one of you” (ἔν τινι ὑμῶν ). This is not
the same as saying “in you” (ἐν ὑμῖν). The readers are urged, collectively, to take care that no one in
their congregation, insofar as they can prevent it, should have such an unbelieving heart as to
apostasize. And so in the following verse it continues, “encourage one another … lest any of you be
hardened.” Evidently the purpose here is not to urge self-examination, but to enjoin the brethren to care
for one another’s souls. (1) But the NLT says “Be careful then, dear brothers and sisters. Make sure that
your own hearts are not evil and unbelieving, turning you away from the living God.” Thus the focus
is turned inward, with each caring for himself. The RSV and ESV also distort the sense in this direction
by adding “you” in the last clause: “Take care, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving
heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.” This is an error.
I do not doubt that the RSV translators knew the difference between ἔν τινι ὑμῶν and ἐν ὑμῖν. It only
goes to show that even the most competent scholars will produce slipshod work when they are
distracted and burdened by stylistic requirements. It is sometimes not easy, even for the most expert
scholar, to give an accurate translation while making sure the style is fluent and clear. In the present
case, the problem originated with a feeling that the last phrase must be made more fluent in English
than a literal rendering would permit. The literal rendering in the ASV (“in falling away …”) was
thought to be too awkward. (2) Therefore the translators made a limited use of the “dynamic” approach
to translation, recasting the phrase and adding “you,” mainly for the sake of a fluent and clear
expression; but in the process of making this little stylistic adjustment at the end, it escaped their notice
that the meaning of the whole sentence was retroactively altered by it. The ESV revisers have in many
places improved the accuracy of the RSV, but they failed to correct the inaccuracy here.
In the NLT we see what happens when there is no full-time accountant, and the books are being kept by
the company’s switchboard operators (“editors”). Actually, in this case, the books were first done by the
company’s receptionist (Ken Taylor), and the switchboard operators have been asked to make some
corrections, after an alarming report was received from auditors (“reviewers”).

19. The Editorial Sausage Factory


In the case of stylist-scholar teams, the usual process of translating should be reversed.
Rather than having a scholar prepare a somewhat literal translation which is then revised by
a stylist, it is the stylist who should prepare the first draft, but only on the basis of extensive
preliminary discussions with the biblical scholar. Only later is the text gone over carefully
by the scholar and various options discussed. —Eugene Nida, From One Language to
Another (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1986), p. 192.

An old saying goes, “Laws are like sausages — it is best not to see them being made.” The same thing
could be said about some versions of the Bible. People who know how they were made are not likely to
have much respect for them.
It should be made known to readers of some modern versions that not everything in them can be
attributed to the biblical scholars who are employed by the publisher as members of the “translation
team.” People tend to assume that the scholars were the actual translators of the version, and that they
are responsible for whatever is finally published. We have this picture of several expert scholars sitting
around a table and hammering out the version together, over a period of years, with very learned
discussions, followed by voting. And when all is finished, people imagine that the manuscript goes
straight from the scholars’ conference table to the printer. This is a substantially true picture of how
some versions in the past came into being. The King James Version, the English Revised Version, and
the Revised Standard Version were created by such a confidence-inspiring process. But in the case of
many modern versions, the picture is substantially false. The more usual procedure now is for a
publisher to enlist various scholars as “reviewers” or “consultants” who send suggestions for portions
of a version that is being revised by the publisher’s editorial staff. The scholars never sit down at a table
together, and there is no voting. It is really the editors who create the version, although they are usually
not scholars of any great reputation.
The rationale for this way of doing things was provided by Nida in his book The Theory and Practice
of Translation (Leiden: Brill, 1969), in which he states that “too much knowledge of the subject matter”
of the Bible is undesirable in a translator, because “theologically trained persons have special problems
in learning how to translate for a level other than the one on which they habitually operate.” So it is
better for the first draft to be produced by a “stylist” who “has some grasp of the source language but is
not a scholar in it,” and afterwards a real scholar can review it, “bringing to the attention of the stylist
errors of various kinds.” He claims that “experience has shown that it is much easier to achieve the
proper combination of accuracy and adequate style in this manner than in the more traditional approach
in which the scholar translated and the stylist corrected.” Moreover, the final draft should be submitted
to “a stylist who is not a Christian, or at least who is not familiar with the Bible.” (pp. 99-104.) In an
appendix to the same book, Nida admits that “not all reviewers will give as much time to this work as
they should” (p. 185), but he seems more interested in emphasizing that their role should be limited:
“From time to time the reviewers may be called together to discuss a specific agenda covering points
on which the translators need guidance, but they should not meet as a committee to discuss in detail all
that the translators have done. It should be emphasized that their function is supplementary and
advisory. They do not constitute a committee of censors.” (pp. 179-80.) And again: “In some projects
the reviewers have insisted on meeting together as a committee and going over the whole draft verse by
verse. This is rarely a desirable approach. Not only can such a committee spend endless hours debating
over details, but the end results are rarely as good as the work of the translators which was the basis of
the discussion. The reviewers and the consultative group (1) should remember that it is not their work to
be censors.” (p. 186.)
Now, it is certainly true that a committee of scholars is likely to produce a more literal version, and one
that requires more from the reader. But we observe here, how the corrections that might have been
made by a committee of careful scholars are disparaged as “censorship,” and how their deliberations
are dismissed as nitpicking — “endless hours debating over details.”
Under this kind of arrangement, where scholars are merely asked to make suggestions by mail, one can
never be sure whether at any given point the translation really represents the consensus of scholarly
opinion, or even the opinion of anyone who was paid to “review” the version for accuracy. The first
draft and the final decisions are made not by scholars, but by people who do not have “too much
knowledge” of the Bible to produce the kind of “dynamic equivalence” that is desired by the publisher.
English versions that have been produced by such a process include some well-known ones, including
the New Living Translation, the Good News Bible, the Contemporary English Version, and the New
Century Version. The publishers of these versions have been less than frank about it in their prefaces
and in their advertising, and for obvious reasons. They would not want the public to see their sausage-
factory in operation. The Bible version that emerges from this process is not even primarily the work of
professional scholars. The publishers have even rejected the whole concept that a Bible translation
should be made by professional scholars.

20. Dynamic Theology


In another passage of Faust, Goethe gives us a scene full of irony, as Faust sits down to translate a
passage of the New Testament.
Our spirits yearn toward revelation
That nowhere glows more fair, more excellent,
Than here in the New Testament.
To open the fundamental text I’m moved,
With honest feeling, once for all,
To turn the sacred, blest original
Into my German well-beloved.
He opens a volume and applies himself to it.
‘Tis written: “In the beginning was the Word!”
Here now I’m balked! Who’ll put me in accord?
It is impossible, the Word so high to prize,
I must translate it otherwise
If I am rightly by the Spirit taught.
‘Tis written: In the beginning was the Thought!
Consider well that line, the first you see,
That your pen may not write too hastily!
Is it then Thought that works, creative, hour by hour?
Thus should it stand: In the beginning was the Power!
Yet even while I write this word, I falter,
For something warns me, this too I shall alter.
The Spirit’s helping me! I see now what I need
And write assured: In the beginning was the Deed! (1)

As we noted above, the word λογος in the prologue of John’s Gospel presents a problem for translators.
Faust begins to tackle the problem sincerely enough, but in the end he wanders far from the meaning of
the Greek word, and sees in it only a reflection of his own ruminations on the need to turn away from
mere words to the essence of things, and to deeds. The irony is that he imagines the Spirit is helping
him, but what spirit is really present? In the room with him is Mephistopheles, the demon to whom he
will turn for help at the peril of his soul.
A translator must indeed be careful. Weighty theological lessons sometimes depend upon having a
strictly accurate translation of the Bible. A good example of this may be seen when we compare Bible
versions at Genesis 50:20. Here as Joseph comforts his brethren he makes a statement full of
theological implications. The ESV gives us a literal rendering of the verse: “As for you, you meant evil
against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they
are today.” This is truly an interesting statement, often quoted by theologians in the context of
explaining the sovereignty and providence of God behind even those events which seem to be evil. As
John Calvin explains in his Genesis commentary here,
The selling of Joseph was a crime detestable for its cruelty and perfidy; yet he was not sold
except by the decree of heaven. For neither did God merely remain at rest, and by
conniving for a time, let loose the reins of human malice, in order that afterwards he might
make use of this occasion; but, at his own will, he appointed the order of acting which he
intended to be fixed and certain. Thus we may say with truth and propriety, that Joseph was
sold by the wicked consent of his brethren, and by the secret providence of God.
Yet what does the user of the New Living Translation read here? “As far as I am concerned, God turned
into good what you meant for evil. He brought me to the high position I have today so I could save the
lives of many people.” Here there are several things that might be pointed out which vitiate the
theology implicit in Joseph’s words. We wonder how the phrase “As far as I am concerned” can be
justified here, because it corresponds to nothing in the Hebrew text and it makes the statement merely
an opinion rather than a statement of fact. This in itself is an important change in the meaning of the
verse. We notice that the phrase “He brought me to the high position I have today” has been inserted.
So instead of the bald statement that God planned the harmful action of the brothers for the good of
many (this is even clearer in the Hebrew than in the literal English), a good thing is inserted, namely
Joseph’s prosperity, as the thing that God used as the means of saving people. We see that “so I could
save the lives of many people” attributes the good outcome to the will of Joseph rather than attributing
it to the will of God alone, as in the Hebrew. But we notice especially the paraphrastic rendering “God
turned.” Gone from the verse is the mysterious secret providence of God, expressed in the words “God
meant it,” which required Calvin’s explanation, and in its place we see that the New Living Translation
has substituted the idea that God afterwards “turned” evil actions to his use. So in at least four ways in
this one little verse the use of “dynamic equivalence” has obscured an important theological lesson
which shines through in the literal rendering. Probably the NLT translator believed that he was helping
the reader to understand the verse with these adjustments, but for all the good intentions we may
attribute to the translator we perceive in this officious meddling with the text the hand of someone who
is attempting to change not only the verbal form but the very teaching of the verse into something that
is easier to understand and accept. (2)
Someone might object to this criticism by saying that the method of dynamic equivalence itself cannot
be blamed for misinterpretations. It is the fault of the translator not the theory, because the translator
must understand the original text before he can recast it in equivalent English expressions. Yet does it
surprise anyone that when so much emphasis is placed upon the ease of the reader, we find not only
easy language but also easy theology? Moreover, it is an impractical theory which requires the
translator to interpret the text so thoroughly while avoiding interpretations that flow naturally from his
own intellectual presuppositions. It expects something that we cannot reasonably expect from a human
being. In his book The Text of the Old Testament, Ernst Würthwein emphasizes the importance of
taking a psychologically realistic view of Bible versions:
For a long period the versions were approached rather naively and used directly for textual
criticism on the uncritical assumption that the base from which they were translated could
be readily determined. But the matter is not that simple. Anyone who translates also
interprets: the translation is not simply a rendering of the underlying text but also an
expression of the translator’s understanding of it. And every translator is a child of his own
time and of his own culture. Consequently every translation must be understood and
appreciated as an intellectual achievement in its own right. This is especially true of the
versions of the Bible which were produced to meet the practical needs of a community.
Most versions of the Bible have been the work of anonymous translators (usually of many
translators) who have given concrete expression in their work to the intellectual
assumptions of their age and their culture, the religious and other opinions which they
adhere to or respect, the prejudices and concerns which they adopt consciously or
unconsciously, their education, their ability to express themselves, the conceptual range of
the language they are translating into, and many other factors. We must therefore
distinguish between what comes from the original text and what is added by the translator
—a formidable task to accomplish before we can use the versions for purposes of textual
criticism. (3)

Here Würthwein is speaking of ancient versions of the Old Testament, such as the Greek Septuagint,
the Aramaic Targums, and the Latin Vulgate; but what he says concerning these ancient versions must
also be said about modern English versions. And if it is “especially true of the versions of the Bible
which were produced to meet the practical needs of a community” — i.e., versions like the Targums,
which have their contemporary readers very much in mind, and which aim to make the text highly
accessible and pertinent to them — then it is also especially true of modern English versions that are of
this same character. This warning about the use of highly interpretive versions does not lose its
relevance when the versions are modern, and it pertains just as much to simple questions about the
meaning of the Greek and Hebrew words as it does to the specialized text-critical research of scholars
like Würthwein.
Scholars never trust ‘dynamic’ translations, because they know from experience the strength of the
tendencies which lead even learned men to accommodate any admired author to their own mentality. At
one time the prestige of Aristotle was such that philosophers, at least, could hardly be trusted to quote
him accurately! In 1813 one complained “how easy it is for a translator of Aristotle (in consequence of
the unparalleled brevity which he sometimes effects) to accommodate the sense of the original, by the
help of paraphrastical clauses, expressed in the phraseology of modern science, to every progressive
step in the history of human knowledge. In truth, there is not one philosopher of antiquity, whose
opinions, when they are stated in any terms but his own, are to be received with so great distrust.” (4)
This is even more true of St. Paul, whose rapid style gives many occasions to interpreters.
We might as well notice here the role that Nida’s theories have played in recent controversies about
missionary “contextualization” of the Christian religion, reconceptualizations of biblical theology
according to the worldview and thought-forms of various cultures. In the 1970’s Charles Kraft of Fuller
Theological Seminary even used the phrase “dynamic equivalence” in reference to this, urging the
creation of “dynamic equivalence churches” in which principles of “dynamic theology” would allow
the development of indigenous “ethnotheologies.” (5) Various things which are being done under the
banner of contextualization and “ethnotheology” are clearly syncretistic. For example, missionaries
may explain the efficacy of prayer in line with Voodoo concepts about magical utterances, or Jesus
could be described as being the son of the most powerful deity already being worshiped by a tribe.
“Contextualizations” like this are now common on the mission field, even among missionaries
associated with reputedly conservative mission agencies such as the Wycliffe Bible Translators. (6)
This kind of thinking is not confined to missionary theorists and translators in primitive places.
Recently one of Nida’s disciples wrote:
I have studied how a number of theologians and preachers discuss the move from time-
bound text to timeless theological truths. I have noticed that a model that has not been as
widely used or influential in hermeneutical circles as I think it should be is the process of
Bible translation known as dynamic equivalence (or functional equivalence). The heart of
dynamic equivalence translation theory is the attempt to create the same impact in the
receptor language of those who are hearing the text now as was created in the original
audience of the text. In order to do this, Eugene Nida and others have developed a complex
model of translational theory. I recognize that this theory has both shortcomings and
strengths, and that it is the subject of considerable debate, in which I have been a
participant. The intricacies of that debate are not my concern here, though I will say that
virtually all debate over Bible translation theory today takes as its starting point Nida’s
dynamic equivalence, which tries to move from one language and context—an ancient and
sacred one—to a modern language and context. My contention is that this is the task not
only of translation, but also of theology itself, and that the procedure of one may well be
essentially the procedure of the other.
I will try to summarize the theory. The notion is that one must first determine the kernel or
heart of what is being said in the original text. In translation theory this is applied to the
sentence, but I think that the notion can be and often is extended to larger units, including
larger theological units. This requires a process of differentiating the essential from the
ephemeral, the enduring from the contingent, the pertinent from the impertinent. Then one
must put this kernel into the equivalent form of expression in the receptor language—
today’s theological language—so that it has the same effect on the present receiver as it did
on the first hearer.… We may have to return to how we formulate our theology in each day
and age, and with various receptor groups in mind, but that seems consistent with how the
original gospel message was presented; within a context, but without losing its
christological center. (7)
It might be argued that this goes beyond what Nida himself had in mind for Bible versions, but there
are many programmatic statements in favor of cultural contextualization in Nida’s published works,
with extensive discussion of examples, and it is difficult to say where he might draw the line between
dynamic equivalence and contextualization. In his books he mixes these things together so much that it
is sometimes hard to tell which of the two subjects is under discussion. In any case Nida himself clearly
wished to convey the idea that dynamic equivalence and contextualization are intrinsically related,
being two aspects of the same principle of immediate “equivalent effect” in communication, and so it is
not unfair for us to connect these things also. At bottom they are related, and our attitude toward
contextualization will have implications for our evaluation of dynamic equivalence. The root of both is
the idea that everything important in the Bible can be so thoroughly naturalized that it does not seem to
be foreign to the language and culture into which it is introduced, and that if there is anything that
cannot be so naturalized, it must not be “essential” to the message or “pertinent” to modern readers of
the Bible.
In the pursuit of contemporary relevance, the Bible translator had better beware of what spirit is
helping him.

21. The Bible for Children

Much of the support for paraphrastic Bible versions has been due to the
desire of some to provide a version which children might be able to understand. This is well-meant, but
I think it should be obvious to anyone who is really familiar with the Bible that it was not written for
children. Let us be realistic. We have always had catechisms and Bible story books for the children, and
anyone who has been involved in teaching the children knows very well that these supply more than
enough material for young minds; and they are far better suited for the education of children than any
simplified version of the Bible can be. There is only so much one can do with the Bible to make it clear
or interesting to children, and in the end a selection of passages is going to be made anyway—which, if
it is a good selection, will differ little from the selection in the old Bible Story books. I remember that
when I was a child in Sunday school we did have copies of the “Good News for Modern Man” New
Testament on hand (I still have the copy that was presented to me one “promotion Sunday”), but I also
remember that we did not use it. The catechism took up all of our time. The truth is, there is no good
reason why the Bible should be adapted for this purpose. And there is a danger in it. The danger is, the
Bible simplified for children will become the Bible of adults. I have seen “Good News” Bibles in the
pews of mainline churches. The American Bible Society had removed the cartoons for this “pew bible”
edition. And then there is the case of the Living Bible, which Ken Taylor originally meant for children,
and yet Billy Graham quickly made it into one of the most popular versions for adults. This was bound
to happen, given the mental laziness of so many people, both in the pew and in the pulpit.
The publishers of the “dynamic equivalence” versions have at any rate been very aggressive in
promoting these versions as if they were suitable for everyone, young and old, Christian or non-
Christian. The New Living Translation now is making much headway in our churches as a version for
the whole congregation, being used in the pulpit and in Bible study classes. I wonder how superficial
the preaching and teaching must be in such churches, where this simplified version is thought to be
adequate or necessary. What if a man who has been under such a steady diet of pablum happens to open
an exegetical commentary and read there the comments of a scholar, or visits a church where the Bible
is explained in some detail? He will not be long in seeing what a false impression has been given by his
easy-reading version. It is not at all as he was led to suppose. The main ideas of the Bible are indeed
simple enough, in any version; but it is very far from being true that every verse of the Bible is simple.
Moreover, if he reads any moderately detailed treatise of theology he will find that the great
theologians of Protestantism habitually call attention to linguistic details that are simply absent from his
Bible version. If a man knows the Bible only through such a version, and has been encouraged to think
that it is just as accurate as any other, how well has he been served? He has been treated like a child or
a simpleton. Is it any wonder that many educated people scoff at Christianity when even our Bibles
have been so dumbed down that they offer nothing above the level of a ten-year-old child? Is it any
wonder that we have such problems getting the interest of the men (who ought to be the spiritual
leaders of their households) when everything is designed for children? In regards to this, perhaps the
words of the old Scottish preacher, James Stalker, bear repeating.
Not unfrequently ministers are exhorted to cultivate extreme simplicity in their preaching.
Everything ought, we are told, to be brought down to the comprehension of the most
ignorant hearer, and even of children. Far be it from me to depreciate the place of the
simplest in the congregation; it is one of the best features of the Church in the present day
that it cares for the lambs. I dealt with this subject, not unsympathetically I hope, in a
former lecture. But do not ask us to be always speaking to children or to beginners. Is the
Bible always simple? Is Job simple, or Isaiah? Is the Epistle to the Romans simple, or
Galatians? This cry for simplicity is three-fourths intellectual laziness; and that Church is
doomed in which there is not supplied meat for men as well as milk for babes. We owe the
Gospel not only to the barbarian but also to the Greek. Not only to the unwise but also to
the wise.(1)
Stalker’s counsel here is to preachers, who in their sermons must engage the attention of grown men
and educated people as well as the simple. He takes it for granted that the reader will agree with him
that the Bible itself is not always simple, and is itself “meat for men.”

22. Bible Babel


For then will I restore to the peoples a pure language,

That they may all call upon the name of the Lord,

To serve him with one accord. (Zephaniah 3:9)

In the late 1950’s F.F. Bruce wrote a book on the history of English Bible versions in which he
expressed some appreciation of versions in modern English that had appeared up to that time, saying,
“may their number go on increasing!” (1) And increase they did! This was before the great proliferation
of versions that began in the 1960’s, and before the appearance of any of the modern versions that are
now to be found on the shelves of Christian bookstores. In an enlarged edition of his book published in
1978 we detect a note of concern, however, when Bruce complains that the number of new translations
of the Bible “keeps on increasing to a point where it becomes more and more difficult to keep up with
them all.” (2) In 1991 D.A. Carson observed that “from the publication of the RSV Bible [in 1952] to
the present, twenty-nine English versions of the entire Bible have appeared, plus an additional twenty-
six English renderings of the New Testament.” (3) And yet they continue to increase. Turning out new
versions and revisions of the Bible has become an established industry, with interests of its own, and
we can no longer extend a magnanimous welcome to everything that the Bible publishing industry
churns out.
The problem lies not only the number of versions, but also in their mutability. Publishers are
continually making changes in their versions, so that they do not remain the same for more than a
dozen years or so. The situation with the NIV is typical. Its New Testament was originally published in
1973. Changes were made in 1978, and in 1984. By 1997 the people who control the NIV were
revising it with “inclusive language.” Apparently they thought this revision would be accepted in the
same way that the previous revisions had been. As it turned out, however, many church leaders
objected to this last revision as frivolous, and as a capitulation to “political correctness.” Now, the NIV
is not really owned by a publisher. It is owned by a non-profit organization called Biblica (formerly
called the International Bible Society). But this organization has a very close relationship with
Zondervan Publishers, and it was reported that Zondervan executives had requested the revision. (4)
The pressure brought against the project by ministry leaders prevented the revision from replacing the
current NIV, but Zondervan got what it asked for anyway, because the revision was published under
another name: Today’s New International Version (published in 2002). The version was marketed as
being one that was adapted to the language of “consumers” between eighteen and thirty-four years old.
Prior to this, Zondervan had also caused the International Bible Society to produce a New International
Reader’s Version (1995) adapted to the language of children. So at the present time there are three
different “New International” versions being published in America. And changes have also been made
in the TNIV and NIRV versions since they were first published. But there is more: if we include the
British editions (which are not identical to the American editions), there are at least five “New
International” versions. Yet another revision of the NIV is now in the works, and it is scheduled to
appear in 2011.
This instability and variety within the NIV brand itself is not in line with the intentions of the original
NIV committee. When they began work on the version in 1967 they stated their goals in a document
which emphasized the importance of having “one version in common use.”
Only with one version in common use in our churches will Bible memorization flourish,
will those in the pew follow in their own Bibles the reading of Scripture and comments on
individual Scriptures from the pulpit, will unison readings be possible, will Bible Teachers
be able to interpret with maximum success the Biblical text word by word and phrase by
phrase to their students, and will the Word be implanted indelibly upon the minds of
Christians as they hear and read again and again the words of the Bible in the same
phraseology. We acknowledge freely that there are benefits to be derived by the individual
as he refers to other translations in his study of the Bible, but this could still be done in
situations in which a common Bible was in general use. (5)
The prospects for “one version in common use” are not good. Although the NIV has become the best-
selling brand in America (according to statistics compiled by the Christian Booksellers Association), it
has not become the version most often read by people who do much Bible-reading. That honor still
belongs to the King James Version—a version which has not changed in hundreds of years. In 1998 the
Barna Research Group found that among Americans who “read the Bible during a typical week, not
including when they are at church … the King James Version is more likely to be the Bible read during
the week than is the NIV by a 5:1 ratio.” (6) This might seem incredible to some people in the Bible
business, but it agrees with my own observations over the years. For whatever reason, people who use
the KJV tend to know their Bibles much better than those who use the NIV, despite the fact that the
NIV (in any of its forms) is much easier to understand. I have also met people who say that although
they sometimes use the NIV for casual reading, they prefer to use the KJV for memorization. And I do
not know anyone who uses the NIV for “word by word and phrase by phrase” exposition. People who
study the Bible closely have generally preferred the New American Standard or the New King James
Version over the NIV. The New Living Translation is now being used in the worship services of many
congregations that had formerly used the NIV.
In 1998 the Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention launched a translation project of
its own. At that time the President of the SBC (Paige Patterson) was asked to comment on the situation.
His reply indicated the failure of the NIV translators’ hopes: “If the Sunday School Board did
something really good, there’s enough dissatisfaction with the NIV that it might sell,” and he added,
“We have over-translated and we have ruined Bible memorization and congregational reading. We have
translation pandemonium out there. How it’s going to work out, I don’t know.” (7) When the New
Testament of this new version (the Holman Christian Standard Bible) appeared in 2001, its preface
explained that there was a need for the version because “Each generation needs a fresh translation of
the Bible in its own language.” By “fresh” they mean something completely new, as opposed to
“revisions of translations from previous generations.” If the editors believe this, then thirty years from
now they will have to say that their own version is obsolete. By then it will have reached its
generational expiration date. Also in 2001 the English Standard Version (a revision of the RSV)
appeared under the marketing rubric “Truth. Unchanged.” Six years later a revised edition appeared,
with 360 changes.
In 2003 the situation reached a high point of absurdity when the New Century Version (the least
accurate one of all) soared to the top of the sales charts in an edition called Revolve, “bringing the Bible
to teen girls in a format they’re comfortable with.” Designed to resemble the hollywood gossip
magazines sold at supermarket checkouts, this edition “shows them that the Bible is fun and applicable
to life today.”
In the meantime—what has happened to the Holy Bible? It has become a piece of merchandise. Bible
publishing has become like the popular music industry, in which the songs are given only so much air
time before they are replaced by newer ones. The Bible racks at the Christian bookstore have become
like the toothpaste aisle at the grocery store—ten brand names, with several “new and improved”
formulas, available in four varieties each. The resemblance is not accidental. In both cases the same
principles of product development and brand marketing are in operation.
Regarding the contribution of “dynamic equivalence” to this situation, we will not say that Nida is
responsible for the Revolve edition. We might connect it with the emphasis on cultural relevance and
formal accommodation that figure so prominently in his theories, but even if the publisher of such an
edition presented it as an application of “dynamic equivalence,” we should rather see it as something
wholly inspired by commercial interests. Nevertheless, the philosophy of “dynamic equivalence” has
obviously contributed to the current flood of popular versions and editions, not only by directly
inspiring many of them, but also by subverting the traditional view that continuity and uniformity are
important in the ministry of the Word. Under the new regime of dynamic equivalence, there can be no
continuity or uniformity in Bible versions, and no “standard” translation.
The theory of dynamic equivalence actually demands multiple versions and frequent revisions. Because
people differ so much in their linguistic preferences and capacities, and because colloquial speech
changes with every generation, Nida maintained that every language ought to have several different
Bible versions designed for different constituencies. In Toward a Science of Translating (1964) he
wrote:
The ability to decode a particular type of message is constantly in process of change, not
only as the result of an increase in general education, but especially through specific
acquaintance with the particular type of message. For example, at first a new reader of the
Scriptures is obviously confronted with a very heavy communication load, but as he
becomes familiar with certain words and combinations of words, the communication load is
reduced. Obviously, then, the communication load is not a fixed characteristic of a message
in and of itself, but is always relative to the specific receptors who are in the process of
decoding it.
Because of this shift in communication load, we are faced with two alternatives: (1)
changing the receptors, i.e. giving them more experience, and (2) changing the form of the
message, i.e. providing different forms of the message for different grades of receptors. In
the past the tendency was to insist on educating the receptors to the level of being able to
decode the message. At present, however, in the production of all literature aimed at the
masses the usual practice is to prepare different grades of the same message, so that people
at different levels of experience may be able to decode at a rate acceptable to them. The
American Bible Society, for example, is sponsoring three translations of the Bible into
Spanish: one is of a traditional type, aimed at the present Evangelical constituency; another
is of a more contemporary and sophisticated character, directed to the well-educated but
nonchurch constituency; and a third is in very simple Spanish, intended especially for the
new literate, who has usually had a minimum of contact with Protestant churches.
Communist propagandists, it may be noted, have engaged in a similar scaling of
translations of Lenin and Marx, making important adaptations for various grades of
background and educational experience.
If the communication load is generally too low for the receptor, both in style and content,
the message will appear insipid and boring. The failure of Laubach’s The Inspired Letters (a
translation of the New Testament Epistles from Romans through Jude) is largely due to this
fact. It is possible, of course, to combine a low formal communication load with a relatively
high semantic load (especially by the inclusion of allusions) and to produce thus a very
acceptable piece of literature or translation. The Kingsley-Williams translation of the New
Testament in Plain English is an example of a translation which purposely employs a
limited vocabulary and simple grammatical constructions, but in which the semantic
content is not watered down or artificially restricted. In the field of literature, Alice in
Wonderland and Winnie the Poo, and, in contemporary cartoon strips, Pogo and Peanuts,
provide examples of quite low formal communication loads combined with high semantic
loads. On the highest level, the power of Jesus’ teaching by means of parables exemplifies
this combination of low formal communication load with superbly challenging semantic
content.
It is possible to produce a very acceptable translation while combining high formal and
semantic communication loads, as has been done in the New Testament of the New English
Bible—an outstanding work of translation. From time to time any good literary production
must of necessity pierce the upper limit of ready decodability; but again it must also drop
below this limit in order to adjust to the periodicity which is a part of all normal human
activity.
A really successful translation, judged in terms of the response of the audience for which it
is designed, must provide a challenge as well as information. This challenge must lie not
merely in difficulty in decoding, but in newness of form—new ways of rendering old
truths, new insights into traditional interpretations, and new words in fresh combinations.
(pp. 143-4.)
Decoding ability in any language involves at least four principal levels: (1) the capacity of
children, whose vocabulary and cultural experience are limited; (2) the double-standard
capacity of new literates, who can decode oral messages with facility but whose ability to
decode written messages is limited; (3) the capacity of the average literate adult, who can
handle both oral and written messages with relative ease; and (4) the unusually high
capacity of specialists (doctors, theologians, philosophers, scientists, etc.), when they are
decoding messages within their own area of specialization. Obviously a translation
designed for children cannot be the same as one prepared for specialists, nor can a
translation for children be the same as one for a newly literate adult.
Prospective audiences differ not only in decoding ability, but perhaps even more in their
interests. For example, a translation designed to stimulate reading for pleasure will be quite
different from one intended for a person anxious to learn how to assemble a complicated
machine. (p. 158.)
Likewise in The Theory and Practice of Translation (1969) he wrote:
The priority of the audience over the forms of the language means essentially that one must
attach greater importance to the forms understood and accepted by the audience for which a
translation is designed than to the forms which may possess a longer linguistic tradition or
have greater literary prestige.
In applying this principle of priority it is necessary to distinguish between two different sets
of situations: (1) those in which the language in question has a long literary tradition and in
which the Scriptures have existed for some time and (2) those in which the language has no
literary tradition and in which the Scriptures have either not been translated or are not so set
in their form as to pose serious problems for revisers.
As will be seen in Chapter 7, in which the basic problems of style are considered for
languages with a long literary tradition and a well-established traditional text of the Bible, it
is usually necessary to have three types of Scriptures: (1) a translation which will reflect the
traditional usage and be used in the churches, largely for liturgical purposes (this may be
called an “ecclesiastical translation”), (2) a translation in the present-day literary language,
so as to communicate to the well-educated constituency, and (3) a translation in the
“common” or “popular” language, which is known to and used by the common people, and
which is at the same time acceptable as a standard for published materials. (p. 31)
I have quoted so extensively from Toward a Science of Translating here because I want the reader to
notice not only what is said but also what is not said by Nida in his discussion of the subject. The thing
missing is any admission of the fact that meaning is lost in the versions that have a low
“communication load.” By “communication load” Nida does not mean the total amount of information
conveyed by the translation, but rather the rate at which information is conveyed, as he explains very
carefully in the same chapter. To put it very simply and in my own terms, he maintains that the amount
of information can be made equivalent by paraphrastic expansion of the translation. A low
communication load conveys the same information at a low rate by extending its length. The only
downside is, a version that does this “will appear insipid and boring” to educated people. In the passage
quoted from The Theory and Practice of Translation he sends us to chapter 7 for an explanation of the
need for “three types of Scriptures.” But there we find that the only reason for this is that different
classes of people tend to prefer different styles of writing. It is only a matter of taste. (No explanation is
given for the threefold division, but this seems rather arbitrary. Human beings do not just naturally fall
into three classes. Why not four or five?) The reason for a traditional “ecclesiastical translation” is not
explained, and we get the impression that it is merely a concession to the benighted people who insist
upon having one. Another theorist of Nida’s school, William Wonderly, sees no good reason why
“common language” versions like the Good News Bible should not completely displace the more literal
“Church” translations. He attributes the preference for more literal versions within the Church to a
spirit of mindless traditionalism: “common language translations are indeed excellent for church use,”
he says, “wherever there is not a heavy pressure for the use of a version which is hallowed by church
tradition.” (8) Of course the “Church” translation is the one that causes “serious problems for revisers,”
as Nida complains, because people will not allow it to be changed lightly; but by the same token it is
the one most diligently read and studied by Christians. Nida never acknowledges any legitimate place
for tradition, gives no attention to the question of exegetical accuracy, sees no value in theological
terms, and, indeed, he completely ignores all of the considerations I have raised in this book. Even the
“literary” translations are to be judged purely “in terms of the response of the audience.”
Nida constantly focuses on the need for versions in “common” or “popular” language. The very notion
of a “common” language becomes rather problematic, however, when we find that Nida believes that
“no word ever has precisely the same meaning twice.”
If the problem of describing the area covered by a particular linguistic symbol is difficult,
the assigning of boundaries is even more so. The basic reason is that no word ever has
precisely the same meaning twice, for each speech event is in a sense unique, involving
participants who are constantly changing and referents which are never fixed. Bloomfield
(1933, p. 407) describes this problem by saying that “every utterance of a speech form
involves a minute semantic innovation.” If this is so—and from both a theoretical and a
practical point of view we must admit this to be a fact—it means that, in some measure at
least, the boundaries of a term are being altered constantly. At the same time, of course, no
two persons have exactly the same boundaries to words. That is to say, for precisely the
same referent one person my use one linguistic symbol and another person a different
symbol. The interminable arguments about terminology provide ample evidence that the
boundaries of terms are not identical for all members of a speech community. Of course,
there is a wide measure of agreement in the use of words; otherwise, human society could
not function. Nevertheless, there are significant differences of word boundaries between
semantic areas. (Toward a Science of Translating, p. 48)
He further states that “no two persons ever mean exactly the same thing by the use of the same
language symbols.”
In any discussion of communication and meaning, one must recognize at the start, each
source and each receptor differs from all others, not only in the way the formal aspects of
the language are handled, but also in the manner in which symbols are used to designate
certain referents. If, as is obviously true, each person employs language on the basis of his
background and no two individuals ever have precisely the same background, then it is also
obvious that no two persons ever mean exactly the same thing by the use of the same
language symbols. (ibid., p. 51)
Here we see the foundations of our modern Bible Babel. For there is almost nothing that cannot be
defended in one way or another, on the grounds that it may be convenient or pleasing to some
hypothetical group of people—whose limitations are just accepted, rather than challenged and
expanded by teaching.
There is something plausible about Nida’s idea that different versions are appropriate for different
sociological groups and also for different levels of knowledge within each group. It puts us in mind of
the textbooks designed for different grades in school. Obviously a second-grade text should be much
simpler than a sixth-grade text. But in an educational setting like this, the texts are not “translations” of
the same material in some other language, nor are they ever presented as such. (We note that Nida must
go to the “Communist propagandists” to find a precedent for this questionable practice.) It is not just
the verbal form of the material that changes from grade to grade, but also the content. There is no
pretense of equality or “equivalence.” The subject matter becomes more challenging and complex. So
the situation is not really comparable. And in fact a gradation of translations is not a viable option for
congregational ministry. We do have Sunday-school grades, youth ministries, small-group Bible
studies, and “new member” classes; but the adult members of the congregation cannot be divided into
grades, like students in a school, and given different versions of the Bible that are adapted to their level
of biblical knowledge. Although their knowledge is unequal, they must be treated as one body—a
sociological unit—and the teachers must help everyone to understand the Bible through an accurate
translation, “rightly dividing the word of Truth.”
Nida never did acknowledge the need for such a painstaking ministry of the Word. We even find in his
books such disparaging remarks concerning the role of teachers as this:
… in some instances Christian scholars have a certain professionalism about their task and
feel that to make the Bible too clear would be to eliminate their distinctive function as chief
expositors and explainers of the message. In fact, when one committee was asked to adopt
some translations which were in perfectly clear, understandable language, the reactions of
its members were, “But if all the laymen can understand the Bible, what will the preachers
have to do?” (The Theory and Practice of Translation, p. 101.)

An ecclesiastical setting is in view here, but Nida goes out of his way to deny any place for an
“ecclesiastical translation” in it. Instead, he explains that some teachers do not want to use the new
paraphrastic versions for teaching purposes in the church because they are selfish obscurantists, who do
not want their jobs eliminated by translators who “make the Bible too clear.” He tries to establish this
slander with an anecdote (which he no doubt heard from one of the translators he had trained) in which
certain “perfectly clear” and “understandable” renderings were rejected by a church committee. We
have no way of knowing what the “perfectly clear” and “understandable” renderings were in this case,
but considering all the problems we have seen in English versions produced according to Nida’s
recommendations, we can well imagine what sort of renderings were being rejected. Frankly, we find it
hard to believe that any Christian could have said “But if all the laymen can understand the Bible, what
will the preachers have to do?”—unless perhaps it were a joke, designed to make the translator of the
rejected version feel better. But again, Nida presents it in all seriousness as the real reason why so many
teachers prefer to use a more literal “ecclesiastical” version in ministry.
Regarding the use of an ecclesiastical translation for “liturgical purposes,” we find that Nida does not
understand why it should be so. Elsewhere he argues that a version used for such a purpose must not be
traditional, but should instead be especially “dynamic” and easy to understand:
The priority of the heard form of language over the purely written forms is particularly
important for translations of the Bible. In the first place, the Holy Scriptures are often used
liturgically, and this means that many more people will hear the Scriptures read than will
read them for themselves. Second, the Scriptures are often read aloud to groups as means of
group instruction …
If a translation is relatively literal (i.e.. a formal correspondence translation), it is likely to
be overloaded to the point that the listener cannot understand as rapidly as the reader
speaks. This is particularly true in the case of expository materials. For this reason it is not
only legitimate, but also necessary, to see that the rate at which new information is
communicated in the translation will not be too fast for the average listener. (Theory and
Practice of Translation, pp. 28-30.)
Now as for the use of the Bible in study groups, it will not be necessary for me to describe to those who
have much experience of it the problems which arise from different people having different versions in
front of them. We all know what happens. Someone reads a passage out loud, and others follow along
in their own Bibles, in whatever version they may be, and the differences between the versions
sometimes give rise to difficult questions. This problem is not severe when the different versions are all
essentially literal, having only minor differences which are easily taken in stride. But I have often had
to explain to people why so many “dynamic” renderings are incorrect. I have been involved for many
years in group Bible studies, at which various versions were being used, among them the King James,
the New American Standard, the New International, the English Standard Version, and others, all of
which can be read together without much trouble. But when such a version as the New Living
Translation is read, it is quite impossible for people to follow along in other versions. They soon lose
track and look up from their Bibles in confusion. I have seen this several times in recent Bible study
meetings. A “dynamic equivalence” version can only be used very extensively if everyone uses it. But
this is out of the question. Nor is it even possible, because these versions come and go, and keep
changing. The people who use them also come and go. They will buy their own Bibles, of course, and
they will choose between versions for their own private reading; but a teacher must use a version that is
not always going its own peculiar way. Even if I enjoyed some paraphrastic version, and wanted to use
it in ministry, I know it would not be practical to use it much in the context of a Bible study. There is no
way around it: a version that is used in common must be a relatively literal one.
There is really no need for dumbing down the Bible in the context of the worship service, where a
sermon is delivered for the very purpose of explaining the Word of God. Nor is there any reason for it
in the context of a Sunday school or Bible study group, in which someone who is able to teach is doing
it, as a “workman who does not need to be ashamed.”
In the circumstances of our society, where so many Bible versions are competing, it is not enough for
us evaluate them only according to the individual effect each may have in isolation from the others,
because they do not really exist in isolation. They must also be evaluated according to the total effect
produced by their presence together in society. If one effect of adding yet another “dynamic” version to
the mix is to worsen the confusion experienced by laymen, then we cannot just ignore this problem.
The confusion is in fact one of the effects of the version. But as a theorist Nida does ignore the
problem, because in his theory the individual readers and the versions appear not in their real-world
social context but only in an unreal theoretical state of isolation. Thus, the practical realities of ministry,
and indeed social realities in general, are left out of account.
Although our problem is not acknowledged by Nida, it is a real problem that arises every day for many
people who are trying to teach or learn what the Bible says about all sorts of things. Recently I
happened to read the daily “Billy Graham” column that appears in my local newspaper, which gives
brief answers to questions about Christian teachings. The question today was, Did people in Old
Testament times go to heaven when they died? In his answer Graham says yes, and to prove it he
quotes “the familiar words of King David in Psalm 23 — words of hope and confidence in God’s
promise of eternal life. He wrote, ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will
fear no evil, for you are with me … and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever’ (Psalm 23:4,6).”
This precious Psalm should be stored in the heart of every Christian. But what I have in mind here is a
situation where the reader of Graham’s column turns to the passage in the Bible he has at home. If that
version happens to be the New American Bible (NAB) he will find: “Even though I walk in the dark
valley I fear no evil, for you are at my side … And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for years to
come.” Likewise in the Revised English Bible he will read, “Even were I to walk through a valley of
deepest darkness I should fear no harm … and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord throughout years
to come.” It will be noticed that in this rendering there is no reference to death or the life beyond. So
what will the reader make of this? The very words which Graham depends upon for his point are
altered so that the point cannot be made. It appears now that even the final words of the twenty-third
Psalm cannot be quoted without fear of contradiction. In verse 4 the NAB and REB translators have
interpreted the Hebrew word ‫( צלמות‬vocalized tsalmaveth in the Masoretic text) in a weakened sense,
so that “valley of the shadow of death” becomes only a “dark valley.” This is defensible if we accept a
different vocalization of the word (tsalmuth), but the opinion of the NAB translators here was certainly
influenced by the common liberal view that the writers of the Old Testament did not look forward to
any life beyond the grave, in stark contradiction to Graham’s view of the matter. (9) And it is for the
same reason that they have interpreted the final phrase ‫( לארך ימים‬lit. “to length of days”) rather
minimally as “for years to come” instead of “forever more.” (10) On the other hand, the traditional
translation cited by Graham assumes that the Psalmist has in view not only this life but also the life to
come.
Although I believe the traditional rendering of these words is better, that is not my point just now. The
point is, the newspaper readers who want to know which representation of the meaning is more correct
have no way of settling the matter independently. The difference cannot even be explained without
reference to the Hebrew and without bringing in some important hermeneutical questions as well. In
the end the layman will have to rely upon a teacher or commentator to explain the options and
recommend one or the other. So Nida’s attempt to eliminate the role of the teacher must ultimately fail,
not only in the context of the Church but also in society at large. A really adequate theory of translation
would not be blind to this.
In addition to breaking society up and dissolving it into individuals, even the stages of the average
person’s education are isolated from one another in Nida’s theory. Superficially this does not appear to
be the case, because in one paragraph quoted above, Nida states that “The ability to decode a particular
type of message is constantly in process of change, not only as the result of an increase in general
education, but especially through specific acquaintance with the particular type of message.” He then
speaks of the desirablility of having “different grades of the same message” (Toward a Science of
Translating, p. 143). Further on he acknowledges the fact that “Obviously a translation designed for
children cannot be the same as one prepared for specialists, nor can a translation for children be the
same as one for a newly literate adult” (p. 158). We have compared this to educational methods. But we
find in his works no recognition of the need to move from one grade to the next, nor any explanation of
why a literate adult should not be using a version prepared for children. He even avoids saying this
outright in his discussion of “grades.” The reason is, he will not admit on a theoretical level that there
must be a loss of meaning in any “dynamic equivalence” version. Obviously there can be no
“equivalence” if the different “grades” of versions are not even theoretically equivalent, and so they
must be regarded as equivalent. But how can that be? Only if “equivalence” is defined purely “in terms
of the response of the audience,” so that “one is not so concerned with matching the receptor-language
message with the source-language message, but with the dynamic relationship” (p. 159). I would
emphasize this point because I think most people looking at this range of versions from a common-
sense standpoint will assume that in Nida’s scheme of things the different “grades” are provided so that
people can begin with something easy and progress to something more accurate. But that is precisely
what he cannot say, and does not say. He cannot admit a difference in accuracy. Indeed he is compelled
to redefine accuracy, so that it means nothing other than a Nidaesque equivalence:
Actually, one cannot speak of “accuracy” apart from comprehension by the receptor, for
there is no way of treating accuracy except in terms of the extent to which the message gets
across (or should presumably get across) to the intended receptor. “Accuracy” is
meaningless, if treated in isolation from actual decoding by individuals for which the
message is intended. Accordingly, what may be “accurate” for one set of receptors may be
“inaccurate” for another, for the level and manner of comprehension may be different for
the two groups. Furthermore, comprehension itself must be analyzed in terms of
comprehending the significance of a message as related to its possible settings, i.e. the
original setting of the communication and the setting in which the receptors themselves
exist. (p. 183)
Thus the whole concept of accuracy becomes as slippery and subjective as everything else in this body
of theory. It may be thought that Nida has a point here, in saying that the accuracy of a translation must
be measured by the receptors’ comprehension of it. But his point has validity only after we have
accepted the assumption implicit in the phrase “decoding by individuals for which the message is
intended.” The thing in view here is not translation into languages, such as German, French, English,
etc., but translation into the infinitely variable idiolects of “individuals.” If this is the goal of
translation, then it follows that accuracy can only be defined with reference to “decoding by
individuals,” as Nida says. But if the goal of the translation is to transfer the meaning from one
language to another, and the language of the receptor is defined not as his personal idiolect but as the
language of his country, then we are able to speak of accuracy in a more objective way. The national
language is everywhere a matter of public record. It is taught in schools, and described in dictionaries
and grammars. It is embodied in the literature of the nation. When judged by that fixed standard,
accuracy is not a subjective and personal matter. If an English version uses the word grace as an
equivalent for the Greek χαρις, and someone does not understand the meaning of the word grace, he
might after all look it up in the dictionary. It is in fact an accurate English translation of χαρις whether
he understands it or not. This is how accuracy has always been understood in the past. Within the
framework of Nida’s theory, from the standpoint of his individualized view of language, it might
indeed be said that if a man does not understand the word grace, then the word is not part of his
language. But we would insist that it is part of his language, if his language is English.
We note also that Nida propounds a rather novel view of “comprehension” when he states that
“comprehension itself must be analyzed in terms of comprehending the significance of a message as
related to its possible settings.” By this he apparently means that the receptor’s “comprehension”
includes his understanding of the contemporary relevance of the text, or what may be called its
“significance” for modern times. The translator is thus made responsible for presenting the text so that
its (divinely intended?) transcultural applications may be “comprehended” by everyone straight off the
page of the version. According to Nida, any talk of “accuracy” is “meaningless” apart from this
definition of comprehension.
Is it necessary for us to point out that these definitions are outlandish, and that they place impossible
demands upon the translation? For what version has ever done this, or ever could do such things? There
is something fantastic and even megalomaniacal about Nida’s vision of the role of translators and
translations, in which the whole process of religious education is taken up into versions produced by
omni-competent translators.
Nida’s refusal to admit the need for education is not strange when the theory is really understood.
Linguistic education, at least, must be excluded on a theoretical level if all languages, dialects and
idiolects are to be regarded as equal. In chapter 16 of this book I briefly mentioned this concept and
pointed out its unscientific nature, but now it appears how important this is to Nida’s theory, and a
closer look is in order. The concept originated in the 1930’s. An early example is in Leonard
Bloomfield’s Language (New York, 1933), an introduction to linguistics which was used as the
standard textbook on the subject in American universities for many years. Bloomfield writes:
For the native speaker of sub-standard or dialectical English, the acquisition of standard
English is a real problem, akin to that of speaking a foreign language. To be told that one’s
habits are due to “ignorance” or “carelessless” and are “not English,” is by no means
helpful. Our schools sin greatly in this regard. The non-standard speaker has the task of
replacing some of his forms (e.g. I seen it) by others (I saw it) which are current among
people who enjoy greater privilege. An unrealistic attitude—say, of humility—is bound to
impede his progress. The unequal distribution of privilege which injured him in childhood,
is a fault of the society in which he lives. Without embarrassment, he should try to
substitute standard forms which he knows from actual hearing, for those which he knows to
be sub-standard. In the beginning he runs a risk of using hyper-urbanisms; such as I have
saw it (arising from the proportion I seen it : I saw it = I have seen it : x). At a later stage,
he is likely to climb into a region of stilted verbiage and over-involved syntax, in his effort
to escape from plain dialect; he should rather take pride in simplicity of speech and view it
as an advantage that he gains from his non-standard background. (p. 499)
The presence of an ideology here is plain to see. We find value judgments about several things. Instead
of just stating the fact that in English we have a formal and traditional variety called “standard”
English, and describing its history, features and purposes in an objective way, Bloomfield rather
dismissively characterizes it as a form of language “current among people who enjoy greater
privilege,” and expresses disapproval of this whole socio-linguistic system of things, on ideological
and even moral grounds. He would like to encourage the sub-standard speaker to “take pride” in his
non-standard colloquial language, while actually pitying him for his linguistic disability. He expresses
the view that we cannot expect people to become proficient in standard English, and he even compares
“acquisition of standard English” to “speaking a foreign language.” People will only make themselves
ridiculous, like incompetent foreigners, by trying too hard. The whole situation is somehow a “a fault
of the society,” in which educators “sin greatly,” and so forth.
This may appear very noble and democratic in spirit, but the alleged problem is certainly overstated,
and we are left with the impression that “Standard English” serves no other purpose than to make
uneducated people feel inferior. Bloomfield should have explained that traditional standards of
language serve important cultural and linguistic purposes. We might compare Standard English with a
uniform system of federal law which makes it possible for people of different states to make
enforceable contracts across state lines. Without such a code of law, the welfare of the whole country
will suffer. Likewise the promotion of a common language will have cultural benefits, and there can be
no common language without traditional standards. Even when we recognize that the established forms
of a language are purely and simply a matter of custom, and ultimately arbitrary, that should not lead us
to think that formal standards are dispensible. They are both arbitrary and indispensible. “Law and
order” is as necessary in language as it is in the political and economic realms. It promotes continuity
and community. When there are no standards held in common, the linguistic community deteriorates,
and everything that depends upon our ability to communicate ideas declines.
The decomposition of the national language not only separates contemporaries from one another, but
also the generations. If we might use again the analogy between language and law, the point is well
made by Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790):
But one of the first and most leading principles on which the commonwealth and the laws
are consecrated, is lest the temporary possessors and life-renters in it, unmindful of what
they have received from their ancestors, or of what is due to their posterity, should act as if
they were the entire masters; that they should not think it amongst their rights to cut off the
entail, or commit waste on the inheritance, by destroying at their pleasure the whole
original fabric of their society; hazarding to leave to those who come after them, a ruin
instead of a habitation—and teaching these successors as little to respect their contrivances,
as they had themselves respected the institutions of their forefathers. By this unprincipled
facility of changing the State as often, and as much, and in as many ways as there are
floating fancies or fashions, the whole chain and continuity of the commonwealth would be
broken. No one generation could link with the other. Men would become little better than
the flies of a summer.
We have only to change one word to make the application: substitute “Language” for “State.” And it
brings to mind the claim made in one Bible version’s preface quoted above, that “Each generation
needs a fresh translation of the Bible in its own language.” The “language” referred to here is
presumably a form of colloquial English that lasts only one generation. But it took centuries for the
words “grace,” “righteousness,” “repent,” “faith,” “blessed,” and “Christ” to accumulate all the
connotations that make them so meaningful to Christians. Will these words now be unceremoniously
ditched and forgotten by a vain generation that prefers the “common language” of the moment? That
would be to “cut off the entail,” and “commit waste on the inheritance” of our Christian language. The
only Common Language that is adequate for speaking of these things is the one we have in common
with our fathers.

23. Power-Point Midrash


Until recently most people who attend church were not even aware of the existence of most of these
new versions. But in the past ten years, many preachers in the evangelical churches have been using
canned sermon series that come with Power Point slides, and these slides often use “dynamic
equivalence” versions for Scripture quotations. In this they are following the example of Rick Warren,
author of the wildly popular Purpose Driven™ line of commercial products. I have seen some
renderings on these slides which almost make me despair, they are so bad. (Some of the examples I
have used in this book first came to my attention in this way.) But people in the congregation who are
not very familiar with the Bible will have no idea how inaccurate those renderings are.
Just twenty years ago it was normal for people in most evangelical churches to bring their Bibles to
church. Their pastors would ask them to open their Bibles to the passages quoted in the sermon, and
would even wait for them to find the place. It might have been unnecessary when the point being made
was very simple, but there are several good reasons for it. First, as Tyndale observed, “I had perceived
by experience, how that it was impossible to stablish the lay people in any truth, except the scripture
were plainly laid before their eyes in their mother tongue, that they might see the process, order, and
meaning of the text.” (1) People are much more likely to understand a verse if they look at the context
of the verse in their Bibles. Second, it keeps their attention from wandering. Third, many people learn
better when they both hear and see the words. Fourth, it encourages them to make use of their own
Bibles. And last but not least, it keeps the preacher honest. But unfortunately it seems that the Power
Point slides are bringing an end to this “excellent Scottish fashion, of keeping a Bible in hand during
the sermon,” as John Broadus called it. (2) Recently I was listening to a sermon in which the preacher
wanted to quote a verse from a paraphrastic translation to make his point, but, not having a slide for it,
he felt the need to say, Don’t turn to it in your Bibles, just listen to this. Whatever his reason was for
saying this, I think we are in trouble when people are being told not to open their Bibles.
In another sermon I recently heard, the preacher put the following passage from the New Living
Translation on the screen:
At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken
throughout the Roman Empire. (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was
governor of Syria.) All returned to their own towns to register for this census. And because
Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s
ancient home. He travelled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. He took with him
Mary, his fiancée, who was obviously pregnant by this time. And while they were there, the
time came for her baby to be born. She gave birth to her first child, a son. She wrapped him
snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in
the village inn. (Luke 2:1-7)

Now, of all the things that might be said about this passage, the preacher chose to focus on the
supposed lack of hospitality shown by the innkeeper—a person not mentioned in the narrative. The
preacher introduced this character by referring to the melodramatic form the narrative usually assumes
in a Christmas pageant, in which the innkeeper behaves rudely; but he pointed out that there is a
scriptural basis for it in the word “obviously” before “pregnant.” The innkeeper must have noticed
Mary’s condition, he said, because it was “obvious.” The rest of the sermon was a lesson on the
obligation to show hospitality to those in need, especially now during the Christmas season. It was a
good sermon on that subject. However, I noticed that the one word that the preacher used as the basis of
his whole exposition was a word that had been added gratuitously by the translation, without any
warrant in the original. And in fact the sermon removed attention from the narrative’s focus on Christ,
whose lowly birth in a stable represents the amazing condescension of our God. Blaming it on the
innkeeper misses the point.
This method of handling Scripture resembles the ancient midrash of Jewish expositors, in which the
biblical narrative is embellished by the invention of characters and incidents that are more convenient
for the expositor’s moralizing than the narrative itself. Usually some verbal detail of the text is
exploited to provide an ostensible basis for the midrash, but, as this example illustrates, the midrashic
“interpretation” was often tangential or even irrelevant to the purpose of the biblical passage that was
used as a springboard. In late antiquity, the Aramaic translations of the Bible commonly used in the
synagogues (called Targums) tended to reflect and facilitate the most popular midrashic treatments of
Scripture, by adding words that gave the traditional midrash a stronger basis in the text.
This is precisely what the editors of the New Living Translation have done in this case. Or rather, this is
what Ken Taylor did in the Living Bible, and his rendering was retained by the editors of the NLT
revision. Taylor inserted “obviously” here to suggest that someone’s observation of Mary’s condition
was pertinent, as in the Christmas pageant version of the story. So the preacher’s inferences from the
translation were natural enough.
Would a more literal version have prevented this? Perhaps not. I think true exposition of the Scriptures
depends almost entirely upon the wisdom of the preacher, and a competent preacher does not depend
upon any Bible version. He ought to be in the habit of applying himself to the original. But if he does
depend upon versions, he would not be wise to put his trust in “dynamic equivalence.”
In one respect the example just cited is unusual, in that seven consecutive verses were put on the
screen. It is more usual to see only one at a time, and I think the “dynamic” versions are often used
because they lend themselves to this kind of atomistic quotation. The modern expositor, instead of
having to quote a complex thirty-word sentence for the sake of just one phrase, can now find a
“dynamic” version that chops the sentence up into three bite-sized pieces of only ten words each. The
fragmentation of the original sentence can do wonders for the interpretation and application of its
pieces. There is no more messy context to get bogged down in. One can even search in a variety of
paraphrastic translations for favorite words and phrases one would like to emphasize, using a computer
to find them, as Warren did for his Purpose Driven™ books. The beauty of using a computer program
for this kind of work is that the search-results window will even rip the verses out of their contexts for
you. Just select, copy and paste the pieces you need on a slide, and you are ready to “prove” anything.
This atomistic treatment of the words of Scripture is also very much in the spirit of ancient Jewish
midrash. People who do not compare the preacher’s remarks with a decent Bible translation, and have
only the verses of a Targum dangled before their eyes, will be none the wiser.

24. Loss of Authority


How can you say that … the Law of the Lord is with us? (Jeremiah 8:8)
It was no coincidence that the first English Bible was produced in a time of crisis, the period known as
the Great Schism (1378-1417) during which rival “popes” strove for supremacy over Western
Christendom. There was a pope in Rome, and one in Avignon. In 1409 a third pope was elected by
cardinals meeting at Pisa. Christians everywhere began to wonder how the Pope could be seen as the
ultimate authority in the Catholic Church when there are three of them, all duly elected by cardinals,
excommunicating one another. In the midst of this crisis of authority, John Wycliffe stepped forward
with a Bible, and declared that Scripture alone should be regarded as the ultimate authority, and the
standard against which all teachings and practices were to be judged. He translated the Bible into
English so that even laymen might be able to read what is written in “God’s Law,” as opposed to the
canon law of the Roman hierarchy.
A century later Martin Luther renewed this teaching of Wycliffe, and ever since, evangelical Protestants
have emphasized the supreme authority of the Bible. In 1849 one prominent evangelical minister in the
Church of England wrote:
I would to God the eyes of the laity of this country were more open on this subject. I would
to God they would learn to weigh sermons, books, opinions, and ministers, in the scales of
the Bible, and to value all according to their conformity to the word. I would to God they
would see that it matters little who says a thing, whether he be Father or Reformer, Bishop
or Arch-bishop, Priest or Deacon, Archdeacon or Dean. The only question is, Is the thing
said Scriptural? If it is, it ought to be received and believed. If it is not, it ought to be
refused and cast aside. I fear the consequences of that servile acceptance of everything
which the parson says, which is so common among many English laymen. I fear lest they
be led they know not whither, like the blinded Syrians, and awake some day to find
themselves in the power of Rome. Oh! That men in England would only remember for what
the Bible was given them! I tell English laymen that it is nonsense to say, as some do, that it
is presumptuous to judge a minister’s teaching by the word. When one doctrine is
proclaimed in one parish, and another in another, people must read and judge for
themselves. Both doctrines cannot be right, and both ought to be tried by the word. I charge
them above all things, never to suppose that any true minister of the Gospel will dislike his
people measuring all he teaches by the Bible. (1)
The minister was J.C. Ryle, who went on to become a bishop himself. Unfortunately, his views were
not shared by many bishops in the Anglican church, but I wish to point out that when Ryle thinks of
“for what the Bible was given” he thinks of an authoritative standard by which all things are weighed,
judged, and tried. I wonder how many evangelicals today think of their English versions in these terms.
Today we are in the midst of a crisis of authority that goes deeper than the Great Schism of the Papacy.
Now we have a schism of the Bible itself. The clash of versions has provided more than enough excuse
for unstable modern people to reject teachings of the Bible here and there. As one liberal scholar
observed long ago, the multiplication of versions in itself tends to subvert, in the popular mind, the idea
that the text is verbally inspired.
The work which a translation does unconsciously is often the most far-reaching. We wish to
emphasize the importance of these considerations. The partisans of a verbal inspiration are
right in maintaining that their view has been shaken in the public confidence by no other
argument so much as by the appearance of the Revised Version in other words. It called the
attention of all patently to the fact that no version was “authorized” by canons either of the
human or the divine. How significant a step this new insight was in the swift forward
movement of the last twenty years we have failed to appreciate. It was really a popular
emancipation from that literalism which could hold its ground only where there was but one
translation of the Bible. Yet this result was no purpose of the English revisers. In a like
unconsciousness these recent translators are surely achieving. (2)

It is becoming a real problem for pastors and teachers. One college course I took in English literature
dealt with the translations of the Bible, and a woman in the class gave a presentation on the subject, in
which she observed: “My husband keeps saying the Bible teaches this and that, but now that I know
how many different versions there have been, I can say, which Bible?” She rather liked the idea that the
versions disagree. That was in a secular academic setting thirty years ago, but the attitude may now be
found in the churches. Not long ago in one Bible study meeting at a Presbyterian church I had occasion
to mention the authority of the Bible, and one woman there immediately piped up: “Yes, but what
version? And whose interpretation?” It was a very good question, but, like Pilate when he asked “what
is truth?” she did not want an answer. She asked the question because she thought it was unanswerable.
Many people who profess to be Christians today do not want an authoritative text, or indeed any
authority over them.
In evangelical churches the decline of the Bible’s authority is not signaled by direct challenges like this,
but there has been a real decline of interest in the Bible as an authoritative text. The emphasis is now
shifted from what the Bible teaches to how it makes people feel.

Probably everyone who has been raised in an evangelical church has


heard at one time or another the encouragment to read the Bible that goes something like this: ”Why do
you not read your Bible? If someone sent you a love letter, would you leave it unread? Well, the Bible
is God’s love letter to you,” and so on. I have not used this exhortation myself because, aside from the
fact that it is off-putting to men and appeals only to women, it is simply false. Anyone who begins to
read the Bible from the first page will find out soon enough that it is anything but a “love letter.” It is
more like a combination history book and code of law; and even the prophetic books which do contain
some few passages which might be compared to love letters (e.g. Hosea 2:19) are in general much
more like a reading of the Riot Act than a Valentine. There is a good reason for this. The canon of
Scripture was shaped by the purpose of providing an authoritative Torah and Diatheke for the people of
God. The overarching purpose is to disclose the will of God, and to provide instruction in
righteousness, as indicated by Paul: “whatever was written in former days was written for our
instruction” (Romans 15:4) and “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for
doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be
complete … ” (2 Tim. 3:16).
This is obvious enough to those who have studied it. The Bible is mostly an anthology of books that are
designed to instruct, warn and exhort. The whole idea of the canon was to set apart a collection of
authoritative books. Many edifying books have been written, and continue to be written; but the
canonical books of the New Testament were first separated from the general run of Christian literature
and identified as Scripture so that they might serve as a touchstone for judging doctrine. They were not
selected with any other “effect” in mind. But evidently most people do not care much for authority,
doctrine, or instruction in righteousness; they cannot be induced to read the Bible if it is presented in
those terms. Most people would much rather enjoy a narcissistic emotional experience of the kind
provided by romantic movies and sentimental songs, and so the Bible is presented as something which
might also provide such an experience.
This has certainly had an effect on how the Bible is translated in some recent versions. It may be seen
most clearly in the gushing language of the Living Bible and New Living Translation (e.g. Romans 1:7,
“dear friends … God loves you dearly, and he has called you to be his very own people”). One suspects
also that the heavy emphasis on the supposed need for “common language” is largely caused by a
desire to make the whole tone of the biblical text less formal and more intimate, let us say, if not
exactly sentimental. The idea here seems to be that, if Jesus is not precisely your lover, he might at least
talk like your familiar friend. I hope it is clear from what I have written earlier that I am not insensitive
to emotional effects of style. My main point in chapter 15 was that the “common language” versions
avoid the poetic diction of Scripture that “sets the mind in a flame, and makes our hearts burn within
us,” as Addison describes it. The noble “thoughts that breathe, and words that burn” are very important
to the purposes of the Bible. However, one cannot make up for the loss of truly noble and impressive
language by an application of cheap semantic perfume, sprinkling words like "marvelous" and "dearly"
here and there to sweeten the style. I do not think I am alone in saying that the effect of this upon me is
not too pleasant: I find it smarmy and somewhat nauseating. In any case, the Bible is not a “love letter.”
It is intended to be received as authoritative Torah (instruction). It is God who speaks. A generation
which tries to translate the voice of the Almighty into the casual talk of friends and neighbors has lost
all sense of this Book’s authority.
The tendency of our times is to magnify the value of spontaneous feelings and subjective impressions,
while belittling the need for careful study and learning. The triumph of this subjective approach to
everything is nearly complete. The text has become just another medium to be used for stimulating
emotions, and the whole question of its objective accuracy and authority does not even arise.
Knowledge and even rational thought become less and less important in this atmosphere, and so
language as a vehical of thinking and instruction degenerates. Robert Nisbet in his book Twilight of
Authority has described the linguistic tendencies of our age very well:
As there are ages of growth in language, so are there ages of decline and sterility. Twilight
ages have a number of linguistic traits in common. There is a kind of retreat from the
disciplines and complexities of language. Often it is more than retreat; it is actual
repudiation of language and of the modes of thought which are inseperable from language
of high order. Corruptions abound, along with cultivations of feeling and emotion in which
language, as such, is regarded with disdain, as a positive barrier to expression of what is
important. The discipline of language comes to seem little more than sterile coercion.
Under the guise of search for the simple and the universal, or the colloquial, there is almost
a sabotage of language’s authority. I do not question that something akin to sabotage of the
old is to be found in the linguistically creative ages, for language grows and prospers on
what it casts aside as well as on what is added. But escape from the old or sterile in the
creative ages is invariably set in the larger pattern of quest for new structures, words,
phrases, metaphors, and other meanings. In the twilight periods, casting-aside becomes its
own justification. In such ages there is commonly a turning to the child, to the “noble
savage,” to the barbarian, to the demented, to all those for whom language in any rich sense
is yet to be achieved or to whom it is in some manner denied. An emphasis grows, even in
literature and philosophy, upon the special kinds of wisdom which are thought to lie in the
preliterate or semiliterate. (3)
The growing use of dynamic equivalence versions in “common language,” along with the whole body
of theory that seeks to legitimize it, may be seen as just another manifestation of these tendencies.
Indeed Nisbet’s paragraph here might even serve as a summary of all that I have said about dynamic
equivalence in this book. There is the “retreat from the disciplines and complexities of language,” there
is a “repudiation of … modes of thought which are inseperable from language of high order,” along
with “cultivations of feeling and emotion.” There is the “search for the simple and the universal, or the
colloquial.” The “casting-aside” of the old “becomes its own justification.” There is a “turning to the
child” and to the “semiliterate.” Nida’s theoretical writings begin to look like a mere epiphenomenon of
the anti-authoritarian Zeitgeist described by Nisbet. This is what the Bible begins to look like when it is
stripped of its authority.
One follower of Nida exemplifies the “turning to the child” in a most explicit way. On his blog he
argues that Bible versions must be done in our “mother tongue English,” which he defines as the kind
of “English that uses the linguistic forms and expressions … that you learned at your mother’s knee.”
“Bible versions which are not written in our mother tongue English typically impact us cognitively, and
not emotively nor volitionally,” he claims. So nothing but “mother tongue English” will do, because
when “we” speak or write to someone else for the purpose of “trying to get them to feel” something or
“change their attitude or behavior” or “worship God more intimately,” we use “natural (mother tongue)
English syntax, lexicon, discourse flow, and rhetoric to impact one another with more than just our
cognitive faculties.” (4) He maintains that “you will have to do something about what you read if your
Bible is in English that uses the linguistic forms and expressions of your mother tongue, the English
that you learned at your mother’s knee,” because this is “your English, your heart language,” and you
must get “your heart warmed by hearing God’s Word written in language that speaks most directly to
your mind and heart, since it was your first language.” (5)
Although this author describes himself as a “linguist,” his argument is much more sentimental than
scientific, and his assertions do not square with my own observations about language, feelings, and
behavior. I have observed that even children (especially boys) tend to ignore their “mother’s tongue.” A
real change of attitude and behavior is generally brought about by other means (Prov. 22:15). Grown
men do not change their behavior by getting their “heart warmed,” and not much of the Bible can be
described as “heart warming.” Far more important to reformation of life and spiritual growth is a belief
in the authority of the speaker, feelings of respect and admiration, an awakened sense of duty, fear of
shame, and so forth. And it is not even true that people get their “heart warmed” by banal forms of
language, or that “we” use such language when trying to motivate people. On the contrary, emotions
are most effectively stimulated by eloquent speakers (like the prophets). Everyday language does not in
fact impress or move people. As an illustration of this, I give below one of my favorite passages from
the Old Testament, Deut. 26:5-10, in two versions, and I invite the reader to judge which is more
impressive.
Literal version (ESV) “Mother’s Knee” version (CEV)
A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went My ancestor was homeless, an Aramean who
down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, went to live in Egypt. There were only a few in
and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and his family then, but they became great and
populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and powerful, a nation of many people. The
humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. Then we Egyptians were cruel and had no pity on us.
cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord They mistreated our people and forced us into
heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and slavery. We called out for help to you, the Lord
our oppression. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt God of our ancestors. You heard our cries; you
with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with knew we were in trouble and abused. Then you
great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. And he terrified the Egyptians with your mighty
brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land miracles and rescued us from Egypt. You
flowing with milk and honey. And behold, now I brought us here and gave us this land rich with
bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O milk and honey. Now, Lord, I bring to you the
Lord, have given me. best of the crops that you have given me.

We are not evaluating these according to the criterion of easy intelligibility just now. If that were the
main issue, the CEV clearly has some advantages, because the main purpose of its translators was to
make it easy. Rather, we are asking which of the two is most impressive. And I do not think anyone
could say that the CEV is more impressive or “heart warming” than the ESV here. Is the phrase “my
ancestor was homeless, an Aramean” more emotive than “a wandering Aramean was my father”? I
think not. And I would point out in particular the difference between “you terrified the Egyptians with
your mighty miracles and rescued us from Egypt” and “the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty
hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders.” The latter is
certainly more impressive. Why is that? Well, for one thing there is the striking imagery of the “mighty
hand” and “outstretched arm.” This is the rhetorical high point of the passage. Anyone reading it aloud
would certainly slow down and raise his voice at this point. It has real impact. It stirs up a feeling of
overwhelming triumph and admiration. Then we have the words “with great deeds of terror, with signs
and wonders.” These words have the cumulative force of hammer blows. But the effect of it is entirely
eliminated in the weak and prosaic rendering of the CEV. Presumably the translators thought their own
paraphrastic rendering would be easier to understand. Perhaps they believed that the intelligibility of
the sentence was improved by recasting it in two clauses with the verbs “terrified” and “rescued.” This
would also be in keeping with Nida’s rule that it is grammatically more “natural” to express actions
with verbs. But the effect is much weaker than the literal rendering of the ESV. I find the same kind of
thing over and over again, in every chapter, and in nearly every verse of this version. Emotional impact
is the very thing it lacks most conspicuously.
We have turned aside here from the main point I wished to make in this chapter, however, which is that
a loss of authority happens when the Bible is presented mainly as an instrument for emotional
stimulation. The “emotive” qualities of the Bible can take care of themselves quite well in a literal
translation, without being the focus of a translator’s misguided efforts. And they will not be the center
of a translator’s attention if he is properly focused on the main purpose of the Bible, which is to provide
the people of God with a translation of a divine revelation and an authoritative canon of teachings. The
“cognitive” function of language observed in traditional criteria of accuracy cannot take a back seat
while subjective “emotive” considerations drive the translation, if indeed this Book is being taken
seriously as the Word of God. Emotional stimulation (if that is what the reader really needs) can always
be supplied by devotional books and sermons. But this Book alone can serve as the ultimate authority
for all things in the church. It should be translated with that principal objective in view, with especial
care for accuracy. And we should especially disapprove of any loss or distortion of meaning that can be
defended only by unsubstantial and sentimental notions about “heart language,” or any such thing.
Tough-minded demands for precision and accuracy will prevail whenever the Bible is seen primarily as
an authority. Regarding the work of John Wycliffe and his followers, F.F. Bruce says:
The earlier Wycliffite version is an extremely literal rendering of the Latin original. …
Professor Margaret Deanesly suggests that this version was made in accordance with
Wycliffe’s conception of the Bible as the codification of God’s law, something that ought to
take the place of contemporary canon law as the basis of church order and authority. In the
formulation of law verbal accuracy is of the utmost importance. While men of learning
could still use the Latin Bible as their law-book, the less learned clerics and the lay leaders
of John of Gaunt’s anti-clerical party would have at their disposal a strictly literal rendering
of that law-book. Besides, if recourse were had to the standard glosses or commentaries on
the biblical text, in which each individual word was annotated, the relevance of these
glosses to the English translation would be more apparent if the translation corresponded to
the Vulgate word for word. (6)
“In the formulation of law verbal accuracy is of the utmost importance” goes to the heart of the matter
here. The Bible regarded as a canonical book has the force of law, even in its non-legal portions,
because it is regarded as normative—not only for church order and authority, but for all matters
pertaining to Christian teaching, faith and practice. A translation to be used for proof, in accordance
with this normative purpose of the Bible, cannot be a paraphrastic translation; it must be a version that
faithfully represents every word of the original. One eighteenth-century scholar, James Macknight,
expressed it thus:
The author is sensible that a literal translation of the scriptures, such as he hath attempted,
cannot be so elegant as one in which more liberty is taken. But, as a free translation is in
reality a paraphrase, rather than a translation, a version of the scriptures, formed on that
plan, never can have the authority in determining matters of faith and practice, which a
translation of writings, acknowledged to be inspired, ought to have; and this seems to be the
reason, why most of the learned men, who have translated the scriptures, have preferred the
literal, to the free method. In endeavouring, therefore, to make this translation as literal as
possible, consistently with the genius of the English language, the author is sufficiently
justified by the nature of the writings translated, and by the example of those who have
gone before him in the like undertaking. (7)

Theologians like to emphasize that the authority and inspiration of Scripture pertain only to the original
text in Hebrew and Greek, and not to any translation. An English version of the Bible cannot be
canonized and treated as fully equivalent to the originals. But as a practical matter, there is really no
use talking about the Bible’s authority if you are not going to give your people a reliable translation. If
the versions disagree sharply, how is anyone to know what the Word of God really says?
In my experience, those who have a high view of Scripture are quite willing to put up with difficulties,
and they will put considerable effort into understanding the text. They accept the fact that ministers are
appointed to help them understand and apply the text correctly; but it is far better in their eyes to have a
reliable translation that requires study, than to have an easy paraphrase that is not reliable. This is the
attitude expressed by Leland Ryken:
Having had a quarter of a century to ponder the matter, I have concluded that the criterion
of readability, when offered as a criterion by itself, should be met with the utmost
resistance. To put it bluntly, what good is readability if a translation does not accurately
render what the Bible actually says? If a translation gains readability by departing from the
original, readability is harmful. It is, after all, the truth of the Bible that we want. (8)

I do not see how anyone with a high view of Scripture can disagree with that.
This is not to say that the most literal rendering is always the best one for all readers. But people who
use the most readily understandable versions must also understand that many accommodations have
been made for their sake in these versions, and they cannot have it both ways. Most people understand
this intuitively. In any case, the new “dynamic equivalence” versions will never be accepted as
authoritative by educated people. Any intelligent person who takes even an hour to compare versions
will realize soon enough that the text has been simplified and extensively processed in these new
versions, and will also notice that their interpretations frequently disagree with one another — which is
really fatal to any claims of accuracy that have been made for them. Although they are easy to
understand, they are just as easily dismissed as illegitimate. In short, they lack authority. They were not
even translated with the authority of the Bible in view.
Consequently, these version cannot be used effectively in ministries that emphasize the authority of the
Bible. If a minister is going to use the Bible as an authority, by quoting it to prove his assertions in the
pulpit, he had better see to it that the version he quotes is not some fun but easily-dismissed paraphrase.
If he feels a need to say, “Don’t turn to it in your Bibles, just listen to this,” he had better not be trying
to prove something that requires biblical support.

25. A Low View of Inspiration


Biblical authority is closely connected with the concept of plenary inspiration. History shows that these
things cannot be separated. Those who believe that the text is fully inspired will insist upon its
authority, as the very Word of God. Those who think it is only partly inspired have already put
themselves above it. So we need to ask what view of inspiration (if any) is implied in “dynamic
equivalence.”
Nida himself addressed this question in one place, and he observed that the ideology of “dynamic
equivalence” is especially congenial to the so-called “neo-orthodox” view of inspiration and authority.
One must recognize, however, that neo-orthodox theology has given a new perspective to
the doctrine of divine inspiration. For the most part, it conceives of inspiration primarily in
terms of the response of the receptor, and places less emphasis on what happened to the
source at the time of writing. An oversimplified statement of this new view is reflected in
the often quoted expression, “The Scriptures are inspired because they inspire me.” Such a
concept of inspiration means, however, that attention is inevitably shifted from the details
of wording in the original to the means by which the same message can be effectively
communicated to present-day readers. Those who espouse the traditional, orthodox view of
inspiration quite naturally focus attention on the presumed readings of the “autographs.”
The result is that, directly or indirectly, they often tend to favor quite close, literal
renderings as the best way of preserving the inspiration of the writer by the Holy Spirit. On
the other hand, those who hold the neo-orthodox view, or who have been influenced by it,
tend to be freer in their translating; as they see it, since the original document inspired its
readers because it spoke meaningfully to them, only an equally meaningful translation can
have this same power to inspire present-day receptors. (1)

The truth of this can be illustrated with statements from several translators. James Moffatt, for instance,
says that his attempts to give the meaning in modern English were made easier by the fact that he is
"freed from the influence of the theory of verbal inspiration" (Preface to the New Testament, 1913).
J.B. Phillips writes:
But before I begin my testimony as a translator I must make a few reservations. First,
although I believe in the true inspiration of the New Testament and its obvious power to
change human lives in this or any other century, I should like to make it quite clear that I
could not possibly hold to the extreme “fundamentalist” position of so-called verbal
inspiration. This theory is bound to break down sooner or later in the world of translation.
There are over 1,100 known human languages, and it was during a brief spell of work for
the British and Foreign Bible Society that I learned of the attempts to translate the Bible, or
at least parts of it, into nearly all of these different tongues. I learned of the extreme
ingenuity which the translator must use to convey sense and truth where word-for-word
transmission is out of the question. You cannot talk to tribes who live without ever seeing
navigable water of our possessing “an anchor for the soul.” You cannot speak to the
Eskimos of “the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world,” or of Christ being
“the true Vine” and of us, his disciples, being “the branches”! Such examples could,
literally, be multiplied many thousands of times. Yet I have found, when addressing
meetings in this country and in America, that there still survives a minority who
passionately believe in verbal inspiration. It appears that they have never seriously thought
that there are millions for whom Christ died who would find a word-for-word translation of
the New Testament, even if it were possible, frequently meaningless. Any man who has
sense as well as faith is bound to conclude that it is the truths which are inspired and not the
words, which are merely the vehicles of truth. (2)
The logic of this argument is not entirely clear to us. But evidently Phillips takes it for granted that
anyone who believes in verbal inspiration must be in favor of literal translation. Strangely, he seems to
think that God could not have inspired anything that is not immediately intelligible to Eskimos.
Robert Bratcher—who was Nida’s protégé at the American Bible Society, and the principal translator
of the Good News Bible—has some bitter words for those who think that the words of the Bible are
inspired:
Only willful ignorance or intellectual dishonesty can account for the claim that the Bible is
inerrant and infallible. To qualify this absurd claim by adding “with respect to the
autographs” is a bit of sophistry, a specious attempt to justify a patent error … No thruth-
loving, God-respecting, Christ-honoring believer should be guilty of such heresy. To invest
the Bible with the qualities of inerrancy and infallibility is to idolatrize it, to transform it
into a false God … No one seriously claims that all the words of the Bible are the very
words of God. If someone does so it is only because that person is not willing thoroughly to
explore its implications … Even words spoken by Jesus in Aramaic in the thirties of the
first century and preserved in writing in Greek 35 to 50 years later do not necessarily wield
compelling or authentic authority over us today. The locus of scriptural authority is not the
words themselves. It is Jesus Christ as THE Word of God who is the authority for us to be
and to do. (3)

It does not surprise us that Bratcher thinks “no one seriously claims that all the words of the Bible are
the very words of God.” His work as a researcher and translator at the American Bible Society would
not have brought him into regular contact with anyone who espouses this view.
Dr. William Hull, who was a professor and Dean of the graduate school at Southern Baptist Seminary
in Louisville, Kentucky, noticed the theological implications of “dynamic equivalence” in remarks
delivered to a meeting of the Association of Baptist Professors of Religion (of which he was President)
on February 23, 1968:
… with the passing of the torch to younger hands, one notes a growing impatience to go
beyond the tired cautions of an earlier era … We cannot worry forever with the millenium,
or verbal inspiration, or the Scofield Bible. For an increasing number of restless spirits, it is
time to move on … What are the implications of widespread SBC [Southern Baptist
Convention] acceptance of the TEV [Today’s English Version]? To begin with, we have
here the employment of a much more daring translation theory than that adopted by the
RSV … Of course, Southern Baptists do not yet realize all of this … Shout it not from the
housetops, but the TEV is clearly incompatible with traditional notions of verbal
inspiration, and the theologies built thereon. It could be that Southern Baptists will embrace
the TEV with their hearts before they grasp the implications with their heads. (4)

Hull seems to relish the thought that old views of inspiration will be overthrown by gradual subversion,
as the implications of Nida’s new theories of translation secretly undermine the “tired cautions of an
earlier era.” In his view, not only the “traditional notions of verbal inspiration,” but also “the theologies
built thereon” are made obsolete by dynamic equivalence.
What could be plainer? I could add other examples. But I think this is enough to establish the point.
And I think it throws some light on the question of why the translators of the Contemporary English
Version found the Bible’s way of talking about inspiration so “extremely difficult” that it could not be
translated literally. (5)
Nida protests that “It would be quite wrong … to assume that all those who emphasize fully
meaningful translations necessarily hold to a neo-orthodox view of inspiration; for those who have
combined orthodox theology with deep evangelistic or missionary convictions have been equally
concerned with the need for making translations entirely meaningful.” (6) Nida’s use of the word
“meaningful” here is very misleading, because our main objection to “dynamic” versions is that they
fail to represent the meaning. But leaving that main point on one side for the moment, we gather that he
means that some persons who have advocated the use of “idiomatic” or “modern English” versions
have also held to the orthodox view of inspiration. That we freely concede. We think of William F.
Beck, for example, whose version of the New Testament is paraphrastic but whose opinions on
inspiration seem impeccable. But Beck’s version swarms with errors of interpretation, and we can only
suppose that he was unable to distinguish between his interpretations and the actual words of Truth.
The same is true of Kenneth Taylor, whose Living Bible is a monument of “evangelical” audacity. We
also observe that not everyone who has favored literal translation believes in verbal inspiration. Some
of the translators of the exceedingly literal American Standard Version (1901) did not believe in verbal
inspiration. (7) Even a non-Christian might favor a literal translation of the New Testament simply
because he needs an accurate translation of it for academic purposes. Nevertheless, it remains true that
“those who espouse the traditional, orthodox view of inspiration … tend to favor quite close, literal
renderings as the best way of preserving the inspiration of the writer by the Holy Spirit,” as Nida says,
and it is surely significant that he described the neo-orthodox opinion in terms that link it with his own
theory (“the response of the receptor” being the really important thing). The ideological affinities are
clear enough, the connection is enthusiastically asserted by people who are promoting the theory, and
the widespread rejection of orthodox views of inspiration does help explain why so many translators
and editors in our generation have cared so little about accuracy or traditional exegesis, while
professing to make the real meaning of the Bible clear to “the masses.”

26. Conclusion
We have shown that the dynamic equivalence method represents a departure from tradition, and from
the principles of translation used by the Biblical authors themselves. Its pretensions to “scientific”
principles of linguistics are dubious, as has been pointed out by numerous linguists and biblical
scholars. It results in a simplification of the text in which important features of the Bible are erased. It
proceeds from false assumptions about the relationship of Scripture to the Church and to the reader.
Finally, as a practical matter, we have seen that the versions produced with this method cannot “get
along” with other versions already in use.