Why Are Bible Translations So Different?

How should gender language be handle in Bibles? Are some translations liberal and others conservative? Is it okay that I like some versions and not others? Why are Bible translations often so different? Which ones are most accurate? Isn’t a literal translation always the best?

Reading and studying the Bible has been a revered practice for centuries. Yet often we take for granted that it is there, not realizing the complex and fascinating process involved in making it available. Mark Strauss, who has been involved in many translation projects, pulls back the veil on all this in 40 Questions About Bible Translation, a book that models clarity and good sense. His volume is packed with so much helpful information that it is hard to summarize.

Translation begins with finding the oldest and best ancient manuscripts from earlier centuries. While most scholars agree, even in this a minority don’t, and that can lead to differences.

Then, besides knowing Greek and Hebrew, translators must know ancient cultures and how they used language and figures of speech. Consider, for example, how translations sometimes render phrases in ordinary language and sometimes don’t:

♦ “If he is alone, there is news in his mouth” meaning “he brings good news” (2 Samuel 18:25 ESV/NET)
♦ “Putting everything under his feet” meaning “under his authority” (Psalm 8:6 NASB/TLB)
♦ “I send My messenger before your face” meaning “ahead of you” (Mark 1:2 NKJV/NIV)
♦ “Having lived with her husband seven years from her virginity” meaning “after her marriage” (Luke 2:36-37 KJV/NASB)
♦ “His father . . . ran and fell on his neck” meaning “he hugged him” (Luke 15:20 ASV/CEB)

Strauss offers many such examples throughout the book to help us understand how Bible translators go about their important work.

Another reason for many of these differences in Bibles is the philosophy of translation. All “versions agree on two fundamental goals of translation, accuracy and readability” (p. 22). But it is nearly impossible to do both 100%. So some translations will aim primarily at accuracy (preserving the original language as much as possible), and others primarily at readability (making it understandable to current readers), while a third group tries to find a happy medium between the two.

We might think that word-for-word translation would be the best option, but often it is not. A literal word-for-word translation of Romans 7:23 would read, “I see but another law of members in me.” Yet no translation reads like this. If readers are confused, then the meaning is not communicated accurately. All versions, therefore, mix a word-for-word approach with readability to some degree or another. As a result, no translation is or can be literal.

Another challenge translators face is that a single Greek or Hebrew word can have multiple meanings. To illustrate, Strauss considers some meanings of the one English word board (see pp. 85-86):

A flat piece of wood (n.)—“Saw that board in half.”
A control panel (n.)—“Check the circuit board.”
A leadership team (n.)—“The board voted on new officers.”
Various flat surfaces (n.)—“skateboard,” “surfboard,” “blackboard”
Daily meals (n.)—“Does that include room and board?”
To get on a vehicle (v.)—“It’s time to board the plane.”

So a judgment call (that is, an interpretation) is always made on which meaning is intended for a particular Greek or Hebrew word, usually based on context.

While the differences in Bible versions can be confusing, it’s important to remember the advantages. It means we have a variety of translations well suited for different purposes–some for public reading, some for study, and others for devotional reading. In addition, if we come across phrases like “holy kiss,” “with . . . a double heart,” “make their ears heavy”—we may be left a bit befuddled. By comparing different translations, we can sometimes get a better sense of the range of meanings in a text. 40 Questions charts dozens of translations along a continuum to show how they each wrestle with the balance of accuracy and readability in different ways.

Space doesn’t allow me to mention all the interesting factors that go into translation which Strauss explains with such finesse. Just a few of the other topics he addresses include:

♦ The strengths and weaknesses of different translation philosophies
♦ How different ancient copies of Bible books help in translation
♦ Why there have been so many different translations over the centuries
♦ What has happened with gender language in the Bible over the last thirty years

Given how much is packed into this volume, it is now the basic go-to resource for what’s behind Bible translations.

*Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of the book from the publisher. My opinions are my own.

Image: Peachknee on Pixabay

Stories of Beauty, Imperfection, and Grace

Goodness, truth, and beauty—pursuing these three famous ideals are core to our health as individuals and as communities. I confess, however, that I probably pay least conscious attention to beauty. It seems to matter less than the others, to make less of a difference.

Enter Russ Ramsey and perhaps the finest book I’ve read this year—Rembrandt Is in the Wind. He offers a wonderful presentation on the worth and importance of beauty in our lives. But he does much more than that.

Ramsey is a consummate storyteller. In nine chapters he highlights nine artists from the last five hundred years of the Western world. In each he tells the story of the artist, or of a particular artwork, or of the subject of the art. The tales and their backstories are fascinating and engrossing. Ramsey weaves together mysteries, human drama and more into compelling tapestries.

We learn the hidden flaw in one of the most famous masterpieces in the world, as well as discovering the long-held secret of Vermeer’s paintings. We see how the revered work of one artist contrasts so thoroughly with his disreputable life, while also unearthing how an African American artist subverted the standard genres and expectations of his day. Finally, we are confronted with a woman who, inexplicably for some, abandoned the path leading to the pinnacle of her art.

Still I am not doing justice to this marvelous book. Ramsey infuses each chapter with remarkable insights into the artworks themselves and the people he portrays. And more than that, with understated artistry, Ramsey weaves in moving reflections on what it all means for our humanity and our lives before God.

Here is a book of wisdom, of grace, and of beauty.

How to Understand Revelation (2)

How do we interpret the Bible correctly? One key is to understand the genre (type of literature) a particular book or part of a book is written in. We know poetry uses images and parables are fictional. So we don’t interpret either genre literally.

One of the most difficult Biblical genres for modern readers to understand is that of apocalyptic literature. It’s difficult because almost no one uses this genre anymore. The following excerpt from Mark Through Old Testament Eyes (pp. 233-34) offers some help.

Apocalyptic literature is a genre that typically uses prophecies and visions to describe end times or other major cataclysmic events on the world scene that have religious significance.* Common themes include hope for the future in dire times, persevering faith in the midst of suffering, and coming judgment along with the victory of God. Such literature is not necessarily about the end of all human history or of the space-time universe. Often it concerns other critical episodes where God acts in history. . . .

Such literature is also characterized by vivid—what some would consider wild—imagery and dramatic metaphor. Dragons and other fantastic beasts, for example, often make prominent appearances. The purpose of such imagery is to break us out of our limited, human perspective that mere propositions and direct, literal speech cannot achieve. By touching our emotions and imaginations, these writings move us to see God and his work in the world in fuller, deeper ways. The prophets do not want us to get lost in intellectual analysis of the details of their visions but to be profoundly transformed by the overall effect that their writings create. They want to touch the heart, not just the mind.

Daniel and Revelation are the two most prominent examples of this kind of literature in the Bible. Other Old Testament books also have some apocalyptic sections or characteristics, like Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Joel, as do a number of noncanonical books like Enoch and Baruch. . . .

Old Testament writers, for example, used the image of the earth or heavens shaking when God provided a victory for his people (Jdg 5:5; 2 Sa 22:8; Ps 46:6; 77:18). In none of these cases were there actual earthquakes nor did the earth melt, which we know to be the case since we are all still here. Were the prophets somehow mistaken? Was the Bible wrong? Only if we mistake the genre they were writing in.

The prophets also used this imagery of a shaking earth to describe God bringing judgment on his own people (Isa 2:19-21; 24:19-20; Jer 4:23- 24; Joel 3:16). When judgment came, it was likewise not accompanied by earthquakes but by Babylonian armies or those of other regional powers. . . .

The images of the earth or heavens shaking was used by the prophets to emphasize the magnitude of God’s action, the immensity of the change and destruction that was being described. We might call the assassination of a major world figure an “earth-shattering event.” But we do not mean the planet broke in pieces. Neither did Old Testament writers.

This is the literary and religious tradition that Jesus operates in when he answers the disciples’ questions about the destruction of the temple in Mark 13. And these are the Old Testament eyes through which the disciples would have seen his answers as well.**

As I said in the last post, the goal of reading the Bible is not to interpret it literally. The goal is to interpret it correctly. Understanding the type of literature we are reading is a great place to begin.

*For a fuller discussion see T. J. Johnson, “Apocalypticism, Apocalyptic Literature,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets, eds. Mark J. Boda and J. Gordon McConville (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 36-43.
**Two excellent books introducing prophetic, poetic and apocalyptic literature in the Old Testament are D. Brent Sandy, Plowshares and Pruning Hooks (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2002) and Aaron Chalmers, Interpreting the Prophets (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015), the latter being somewhat more advanced.

Image by JL G from Pixabay

How to Understand Revelation

Recently I was with friends for a relaxed visit. In the course of our wide-ranging conversations, the topic of what God has in store for humanity came up.

I mentioned that I took comfort that the book of Revelation says (in 21:1) that there will be no more sea. Why? Because it doesn’t mean that oceans will dry up. Rather because in the Bible the sea is often considered the source of chaos, disorder, and evil, Revelation is saying there will be no more evil. Indeed, just a few verses later Revelation (in 21:4) interprets itself by referencing Isaiah 25:8 to make this exact point:

“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death” or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.

My friends were somewhat surprised at this. They thought the text said what it meant. No more oceans.

Where did I get this idea about the sea?

Regarding Mark 4:35-41 where Jesus, in the boat with the frightened disciples calms the sea, I wrote in Mark Through Old Testament Eyes (p. 101):

The sea is often the place associated with evil and chaos in the Jewish mind. Apocalyptic literature is especially full of these resonances. In Isaiah 27:1 we read, “In that day, the Lord will punish with his sword—his fierce, great and powerful sword—Leviathan the gliding serpent, Leviathan the coiling ser¬pent; he will slay the monster of the sea.” And Daniel 7:2-3 says, “Daniel said: ‘In my vision at night I looked, and there before me were the four winds of heaven churning up the great sea. Four great beasts, each different from the others, came up out of the sea’ ” (see also Ps 89:9-10).

The book of Revelation picks up this very image in chapter 13 in which a blasphemous evil beast emerges from the sea to oppose God and his people. Later Babylon’s judgment is symbolized by a millstone thrown into the sea (Rev 18:21), appropriately sending evil back into the source of the forces of chaos.

One reason Jonah encourages his shipmates to throw him into the sea is that Jonah knows the sea, being a source of chaos and evil, is the appropriate place of judgment for someone like him who has disobeyed God.

Other places in the gospel of Mark show this same understanding of the sea. It is where the demon-infested pigs rush (Mk 5:13), and it is where those who cause little ones to stumble are sent (Mk 9:24).

Part of the problem my friends had was a failure to see the category of writing the Old Testament prophets were using and how that affected their use of language–as well as when those in the New Testament borrowed their language. The prophets intentionally used the genre of apocalyptic literature which meant using dramatic symbols to make dramatic points.

Why is that important to know? Because the goal of reading the Bible is not to interpret it literally. The goal is to interpret it correctly.

Next post: How to read the genre of apocalyptic literature in Scripture, and what we should keep in mind to interpret it correctly.

Image by Joe from Pixabay

Being God’s Image

What does it mean that we are made in the image of God? Over the centuries many options have been proposed for the meaning of Genesis 1:27. Is it consciousness or self-consciousness? Or the ability to think and be rational? Maybe it is creativity, since God is obviously being very creative in Genesis 1? Could it be our spiritual nature, the ability to relate to God?*

The problem with all of these (and many other proposals) is that they are also all true of angels. Then in what sense are humans uniquely in God’s image?

Carmen Joy Imes, in Being God’s Image, lands exactly where Genesis 1 does in the very next verse. God gave the first man and woman in the garden a calling to be fruitful, to multiply, and to subdue the earth (Gen 1:28). The image of God is not a character trait nor an innate capacity. Rather it is a role, a responsibility. God calls us to be his vice regents for the world he has created.

We are not to dominate or abuse nature but to steward it. As Jesus expresses in his parable, stewards are given something that belongs to another and are made responsible to not just protect it but to use it as the owner intended (Matthew 25:14-30).

Through this lens, Imes explores what it means to be human in work, in community, in suffering, as well as in relation to creation and to the Creator. What difference does being God’s image make for the significance of our bodies and meaning in life? All these topics Imes considers in a book that is wise, readable, and encouraging.

*See my previous post here on this topic.

Confessions of a Bad Speller

I am a terrible speller. This has been true from an early age.

I remember having a test in third grade. We had to write out certain sentences, and I kept writing the word has without the h—over and over. I knew it didn’t look quite right, but I just couldn’t figure out what else it could be. Since has was in most sentences, I got a very bad grade. How embarrassing to not be able to remember such a simple word!

Another traumatic event came in fifth grade. The teacher had us all stand around the perimeter of the room for a spelling bee. Somehow I was confident I would be standing a long time. My first word was swimming, and I knew I’d nail it. Only I spelled it with just one m, and in disappointment and shame I was told to sit down. I was stunned. How could that not be the right spelling ? To this day, I still wonder if that extra m is really necessary. Would anyone seriously be tempted to pronounce swiming with a long i?

So many pitfalls. Consider weird. Does it follow the i-before-e rule or is it an exception? I can never remember. Before autocorrect, I had to look it up every time. With autocorrect I get it right, but I still don’t remember how to spell it. The list goes on:

      • occurrence or occurence
      • occasion or occassion
      • cemetery or cemetary
      • misspell or mispell

You get the idea.

After college, almost fifty years ago, I proudly called my parents to tell them that I had gotten a job as a full-time editor. My mother responded wryly in her southern twang, “Well, Andy, how are you going to know how to spell the words if you don’t call me?” Instead of running up my long-distance phone bill, in that era before spellcheck, I tacked lists of words I couldn’t remember on the cork board in front of me. Otherwise I tended to look up everything, even words I was certain of.

Is there a virtue in being a good speller for its own sake? I’m not sure. Is there value in memorizing the number pi to a hundred digits? Certainly as mental exercise. Perhaps not much more.

We need a love for words and a respect for their power. That means being careful with spelling but much more. Spellcheck won’t help us if we inadvertently write now instead of not—giving the opposite meaning of what we intend if we put down, “I am now a bozo.” Substituting principal for principle or effect for affect can trip our readers. We should pay attention to the meaning and nuances, the rhythm and sound of words. Having some familiarity with their etymology can add depth to our writing. Doing all this enhances effective and beautiful communication.

And when we do, we give space for words to cast their spell.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Style Matters

Many books on writing nonfiction advocate a clean style stripped of unnecessary words and ornate language—mine included! In Write Better I note, “Hemingway pioneered unadorned fiction a century ago. Orwell, Strunk & White, and Zinsser then took up the cause for nonfiction. And happily this approach still holds sway” (160). They rightly complain about the clutter of obscure or officious writing that hides what is being said rather than illuminates it.

But then I add this thought: “Art goes through phases, and I suppose there will come a time when spare prose will fall out of favor and something different will replace it” (161). What might that style look like?

I don’t know. But sometimes the past can give us hints about the future. The Medieval world might, for example, suggest how and why different styles rise and fall. For people in that era, the cosmos was a thing of intricate beauty, ornately crafted by the Master Artisan who wove spiritual realities into his creation. No wonder their very prose and poetic styles reflected this worldview.

And no wonder Hemingway shunned such a style. His world (and ours) is stripped bare of all but what can be seen and touched, measured and analyzed. We live in a complex, intricate universe—yes. But one of lifeless particles guided by the impersonal forces of gravity, electromagnetism, and subatomic energy. Even in our imagination so-called spiritual powers are generated by the material (think the Force of Star Wars) not the other way around.

This flattened perspective nonetheless seeks to fill the gap left by a world without wonder. So often we are beholden to the spell it weaves. As Lewis said eighty years ago, “You and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years.”*

We need new stories and new ideas to break this enchantment, to be sure. But perhaps we also need a new style of writing, a style that itself reflects a universe populated not merely with quarks and quasars, bosons and black holes but also one infused with mystery and meaning, beauty and blessing.

Lewis especially admired how Dante achieved this. He showed “how an artist could cast a ‘counterspell’ in which the good feels weighty and attractive, a spell to overcome the ‘evil enchantment’ cast by modernity.” In Paradiso, instead of picturing an insubstantial existence of clouds and harps, “Dante’s poetry gets more concrete, more sensible, more tangible, with every step closer toward God.” The poet adds another dimension as well. “Dante simultaneously combines ‘weight’ and ‘soaring,’ and thus paradoxically renders sensible that which is beyond language.”**

We can more readily imagine how this might be played out in fiction (as Lewis himself did in The Great Divorce). But what kind of writing style might reflect this re-enchanted world? I don’t think it will or should simply go back to mimic Medieval patterns. We have to move forward in ways that are mindful of the world we have now. If you know of examples to suggest that might achieve this, I’d welcome them.

Style in writing matters. Not only do the ideas we employ communicate meaning and substance, but so does the way in which we write.

*C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (New York: HarperOne, 1980), 31.
** Jason M. Baxter, The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2022), 88, 91, 95.

Revelation Through Old Testament Eyes

Revelation is perhaps the most fascinating and least understood book in the whole Bible. There are more flawed interpretations than warts on a frog, bumps on a log, fleas on a dog, clichés in a blog, or rants from a demagogue.

When Hitler and Mussolini threatened the world, people thought Revelation predicted it. They were wrong. When the Middle East oil crisis hit in the 1970s and then Saddam Hussein occupied Kuwait in the 1990s, people thought those were in Revelation. They were wrong. This list goes on, and they were wrong.

Part of the problem is we jump right to detailed interpretation. Where will the battle of Armageddon be fought? What nations will be involved? And most to the point, when will it happen? We are consumed by curiosity about the future and end up depressed about all the terrible things we think will happen.

But we can overcome these wrong-headed approaches—by starting where the author of Revelation started. This New Testament writer was saturated with the Old Testament. In fact, Revelation is thicker with Old Testament images, motifs, metaphors, symbols, and literary patterns than any other New Testament book. If we don’t know and understand the Old Testament, the book of Revelation will forever be a mystery.

That’s why, as series editor, I was so pleased when Old Testament scholar Tremper Longman III agreed to write a volume on this enigmatic New Testament book for the Through Old Testament Eyes commentaries. Focusing our attention on this background roots us solidly so we don’t fly off into wild speculations.

Longman offers important verse-by-verse coverage, yet one of his emphases I especially appreciate is how key Old Testament books shape Revelation—Daniel, Psalms, and Ezekiel.

And consider Exodus. Why all those plagues in Revelation? They bring to mind those of Exodus whose story of rescue dominates the Old Testament. That redemption comes to completion in Revelation.

The last half of Exodus focuses on the tabernacle, the precursor to Solomon’s Temple and to the heavenly Temple which comes down at the end of Revelation. This signifies God’s presence and rule over the whole earth.

All this allows us to clear away pointless conjectures and see what the book is really about. Which is, as Tremper puts it so clearly:

Despite present trouble, God is in control, and he will have the final victory. God wins in the end even though his people at the present live in a toxic culture and are marginalized and even persecuted. This leads to a secondary theme. Hope that leads to perseverance. Starting in the letters to the seven churches but continuing through the visions, the author’s purpose is to engender hope in the hearts of his Christian readers so that they will have the resolve to withstand the turbulent present. (p. 14)

Unlike the way we often read Revelation, I find this truly encouraging.

The Persistent Myth

I feel like a rabbit trying to put out a raging forest fire by stamping out a few burning leaves. But the myth will not die.

While people before Copernicus did indeed think the sun and all the planets orbited the earth, the myth persists (even among the well-educated) that the ancients also thought all of creation was centered on humanity.

The myth lives in one author (who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty) who recently wrote, for example, that when Galileo saw through his telescope that moons were orbiting Jupiter, he “revealed that the Earth (and humanity) wasn’t the center of the universe.”

We can thank C. S. Lewis (and Jason Baxter in The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis) for setting us straight. In the old cosmology,

humankind is at the periphery of everything that really matters. This “geocentric universe [was] not in the least anthropocentric,” because it “made man a marginal—almost . . . a suburban—creature.” It was not only that “everyone” knew “the Earth is infinitesimally small by cosmic standards” but also that the Earth was made out of the dregs, after the purer bodies of stars had been made (a curious agreement with modern speculation!). Everything interesting, festive, fiery, light, clean, and harmonious was way out there, while we, poor fools, dwell at “the lowest point” of the universe, “plunged . . .in unending cold”; the earth was “in fact the ‘offscourings of creation,’ the cosmic dust-bin,” “‘the worst and deadest part of the universe,’ ‘the lowest story of the house,’ the point at which all light, heat, and movement descending from the nobler spheres finally died out into darkness, coldness, and passivity.”*

The heavenlies were thought to be perfect. Planets and stars were perfect spheres in perfect orbits. As we come closer to earth, we see that the moon clearly has imperfections, but less than the earth which is highly irregular with its many mountains and valleys, rivers and oceans. The most imperfect of all, hell, resided in the center of the earth.

As I’ve written before, the ancients knew our place in the universe—lowly, fallen creatures in need of grace. Ironically, the modern, scientific viewpoint does not. Humanity is the apex of evolution and the conqueror of physical world. We arrogantly elevate ourselves, thinking we stand on our own.

Only in recent decades has the myth of human progress been tarnished by the twentieth century, the most violent century in human history, with over 160 million killed for political reasons. Racism and ethnic strife persist. The environment continues to be polluted.

We think the ancients have so much to learn from us. The reverse is true.

*Jason M. Baxter, The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2022), 150-51. The quotations are from Lewis’s The Discarded Image and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century.

The Stephen Colbert of Punctuation

I’m reprinting here a review of one of my favorite books from a few years back. Enjoy!

Benjamin Dreyer is the Stephen Colbert of grammar, style, and punctuation—informative while always being cheerfully acerbic.

When he tells us in Dreyer’s English to never use actually, it is “because, seriously, it serves no purpose I can think of except to irritate.” When offering examples, Dreyer also gives us cause to smile. Honorary titles should be capitalized, as in, “Please don’t toss me in the hoosegow, Your Honor.”

You’ll have fun with this book whether or not you care or know that “the verb in a relative clause agrees with the antecedent of the relative pronoun”—not least because Dreyer hates that stuff too! Even as a decades-long copyeditor he still has to look things up in dictionaries and style guides. We should too!

His stance toward the nature of rules in English is one I have long advocated to authors. They are helpful, but don’t take them too far because spoken English profoundly affects written English (eventually, usually). And he chirpily breaks, bends, and bruises them all the time—once, for example, suggesting we “give it a good think,” right there in front of God and everybody.

Memorable tips abound. How do you tell if a sentence is passive (with the likely result of changing it to active)? If you can add “by zombies” to the end. “The floors were swept, the beds made, the rooms aired out.” Yep. Passive.

And here I can now confess that I could never keep straight the rule about restrictive and nonrestrictive commas because neither can Dreyer. But he has a dandy new name for it that makes all the difference.

Use the “only” comma, as he calls it, when the noun in question is unique. So “Lincoln’s eldest son, Robert, was born in 1843” because Lincoln only had one eldest son. But if more than one son could be under discussion and must be named for clarity—no comma. Thus “Lincoln in the Bardo concerns Lincoln’s son Willie.”

He also festoons his text with, well, I wouldn’t call them explanatory footnotes. They are more like asides. After offering three acceptable options for use of a possessive he concludes with, “You choose.†” At the bottom of the page we find, “†Psst. Take the middle option.”

What every one of you is wondering, of course, is how Dreyer’s English differs from my Write Better (available October 2019, since you asked). Dreyer’s book is a wonderful journey into the details of punctuation, grammar, and use of numbers, augmented by many lists of misspelled, misused, and miscellaneous words—all whimsically annotated. I say almost nothing about these things.

My focus is on larger strategies for writing which Dreyer does not —such as, how to find openings, focus on readers, develop a structure, battle writer’s block, be persuasive, make a compelling title, increase our creativity, use metaphors, and say more by saying less. The last part of Write Better considers how the act of writing affects our relationship with God.

The two books should be enjoyable and valuable companions.