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

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.

John Through Old Testament Eyes

The Old Testament presents true Judaism as tenaciously monotheistic. No god compares to the One God who is in a category by himself. In fact, the gods of other nations are actually no gods at all. Worship of them is absolutely forbidden.

Then how could the Jews who first followed Jesus believe he was the divine Son of the Father, and still defend the monotheism that is so strongly proclaimed in the Old Testament? That was the challenge John took up in his gospel.

Karen Jobes keys in on this central question in John Through Old Testament Eyes, the second in a set I am the series editor for—the Through Old Testament Eyes New Testament Commentaries. One way John presents Jesus as divine is by using Old Testament metaphors, images, and symbols that are said to be characteristic of God (such as judge, king, and shepherd). But John does not collapse the divine Father and Son, suggesting these are simply two names for the same person. After all, he (and Jesus) say clearly that the Son was sent by the Father.

How then does John maintain his monotheism? One way, as Jobes writes, is by redefining what monotheism means—as the unity of the divine Father and the Son. They are, for example, one in will and one in glory.

This is not the only question Jobes addresses. She ably covers the entire gospel, its structure, and various themes. All the while she emphasizes the richness of Old Testament background, motifs, and literary patterns that illuminate the fourth gospel.

Personally, I have found this approach most rewarding. When puzzling through difficult passages in the New Testament, I often find that the Old Testament roots of those sections provide the “aha” moments that resolve the mystery.

The gospel of John is often the first encounter that people have with the Bible. As a college student, like so many others, Karen Jobes was transformed by it. That love for the book is wonderfully married with the skills of a seasoned scholar, resulting in this readable and enlightening book.

Seeing the Bible with New Eyes

I have a one-question survey that will reveal with near perfect accuracy whether or not you are an individualist. Set? Here it is: Would you readily consider allowing your parents to arrange a marriage for you?

Those of us from a Western culture would never give this the slightest bit of serious consideration. But in collectivist cultures (which make up the majority of the world), people answer yes to this all the time.

Or perhaps slightly less dramatically, what about this? Would you expect your extended family to decide where you go to college? Maybe your nuclear family but definitely not your extended family. Right? Yet this is common in Latino/a and Asian societies.

For individualists, a collective culture is, well, like being in a foreign country. And that’s why, as the authors of Misreading Scripture With Individualist Eye contend, we so often misunderstand the Bible which comes out of collective cultures. We persistently read it through the lens of our own individualistic mindset.

With many stories of their own experiences in the Middle East, Asia, and elsewhere, the authors unpack how kinship, patronage, brokering, honor, shame, and boundaries are all hidden in plain sight in the Bible. A few examples.

Why does Matthew spend all that time laying out Jesus’ genealogy? Because honor often comes from your family, your family’s history, who you are related to. To be descended from Abraham and David brings great honor (Mt 1:1).

Why does Nicodemus come alone at night to talk with Jesus? Not because he feared the other Pharisees. Rather he didn’t want to inadvertently shame Jesus publicly by asking a question that might be seen as a challenge to a teacher he clearly respected (Jn 3:2).

When Jacob gives Rachel’s son, Joseph, the multicolored coat, the other sons aren’t jealous because he got a better Christmas gift? No. It was much more serious. They realized this meant Joseph was going to be treated as the first-born and get their father’s inheritance. They were angry that their side of the family (all being sons of Leah) would be dependent on Joseph’s generosity, which seemed unlikely from this arrogant kid. This is not an individual’s rags-to-riches story. It is a story of kinship and family reconciliation. Both sides forgive the other for the wrongs they did.

The discussion on shame is especially illuminating because we often only have one definition of shame, and it’s bad—something to always be avoided. But in Scripture and much of the world, there is also a good kind of shame that seeks to nudge people in the community back into proper behavior. It’s kind of like our conscience. Having a sense of shame beforehand can keep us from acting wrongly, not just feel bad after acting wrongly. The book offers multiple examples of when shame creates a path for restoration—which is good shame. When it seeks to exclude and cut others off, that is bad shame.

From a Western perspective, we might see patronage as creating unhealthy dependence, even being oppressive. But those inside see it as providing protection, meeting needs, giving security. Yes, it can be abused, but the problem then is not the system but the people in it.

Our lack of a corporate sense can minimize our commitment to the church and even to family that the Old and New Testaments assume. I am not just saved, you see. The Bible says I am also saved into a community.

The point of the book is not to expunge our individualism. That wouldn’t be possible in any case. Rather, we have much to learn about what the Bible is really saying by putting on collectivist glasses. And we have much to learn about living biblically from our brothers and sisters in the faith who come from such backgrounds.

I received a prepublication complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions here are my own.

credit: Joseph Redfield Nino from Pixabay

Crazy Jesus . . . or Crazy Like a Fox?

Sometimes Jesus made statements that sound just plain crazy.

Once he was explaining why he taught in parables. The reason he gives in Mark 4:12 is this—so that, “they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!” In quoting here from Isaiah 6, Jesus makes it sound like he doesn’t want people to repent, to turn to God, to be saved. What in the world could he possibly be talking about?

Greg Beale’s We Become What We Worship helps us untangle this mess while walking us through an important theme that spans both Testaments. The book of Isaiah condemns Israel for its idolatry, for worshiping statues that can’t speak or hear. Israel’s punishment? She was sentenced to become like the idols she worshiped—deaf and blind.

That theme is found also in Exodus, the Psalms, the Gospels, the writings of Paul and elsewhere. As Beale often summarizes in his book, we become like what we worship whether for ruin or renewal.

His analysis of the golden calf episode in Exodus is especially instructive. The rebellious people were described as being like a stubborn, “stiff-necked” heifer. The use of “stiff-necked” in Deuteronomy, Hosea and elsewhere is particularly connected with idolatry, not just general disobedience. They turned into what they worshiped.

Yet our ruined state need not be permanent. Isaiah also tells us this condition will be reversed. A day is coming when “the deaf will hear the words of the scroll, and out of gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind will see” (Is 29:18). This theme is echoed through the New Testament as well. Yes, the punishment is intentional but not eternal. Its purpose is to get the attention of sinners so they do turn to God.

The whole of Isaiah is the context of Jesus’ statement about the people experiencing the same punishment of being blind and deaf that their ancestors suffered for their idolatry. The blindness caused by using parables was likewise intended to be temporary, not perpetual–a shock treatment to push his hearers back to their Lord.

Beale’s book makes the case that God created us essentially to be image bearers. If we do not reflect God, then we will inevitably reflect something else in creation (305).

What might even God’s people today be worshiping besides the true God? To find out, we can ask what we (individually or corporately) are like today. Are we focused on methods or message, on tradition or truth, on character or success, on winning or being winsome, on justice for the world or justice for me? What we give priority to matters. We’re choosing who we will be today and tomorrow.

image credit: Pixabay kryzoxstv

Want to Know Jesus Better?

The Old Testament has taken a lot of hits in recent years. And it’s understandable when all people see are harsh rules and religious wars. It can seem so unenlightened if not downright wrong.

Let’s admit it. The Old Testament is a foreign country. Even when translated it can seem like it’s in a different language. We also find strange customs that often don’t make sense, and odd names that are hard to keep straight.

The solution, of course, is not to dump the Old Testament but to work to understand it, to learn more about those customs, that ancient history, how their literary genres are different from ours. But why? Why is it worth all that effort?

Because rooted in the Old Testament is our Christian understanding of mercy, justice, compassion, peace, faithfulness, forgiveness, creation, holiness, truth, and more. Without all that, our Christian faith is gutted.

More to the point, if we don’t understand the Old Testament, we can’t understand Jesus.

Fleming Rutledge quotes a radio preacher who said, “If you want to know what went on in Jesus’ mind, read the Old Testament.” And then she goes on to say, “There are many things that we do not know about Jesus, but of this we can be sure: his mind and heart were shaped by intimate, continuous interaction with the Scriptures. If we are to have ‘the mind of Christ’ (1 Cor 2:16), we need to know the Old Testament.”*

Did Jesus say we should avoid the Old Testament? Minimize it? Take scissors and paste to it? What he said was this:

  • The Old Testament is about him (John 5:39).
  • We can avoid error by knowing the Old Testament (Mark 12:24).
  • Through the Old Testament we know why the Messiah had to suffer and then enter his glory (Luke 24:26)

It’s simple, though it is not easy. It takes some work. That’s one reason I wrote Mark Through Old Testament Eyes. We need to immerse ourselves in the Old Testament for its own sake, just as Jesus did. But it is also true that if we want to know Jesus better, we have to know his Bible.

*Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), p. 107.

The Grand Landscape of Scripture

When it comes to the Bible, scholars and non-scholars have something in common. We can both get lost in minutia.

Academics can get lost in the details of philology and morphology. The rest of us are prone to proof-texting, ripping verses or phrases out of context as if the Bible were a book of disconnected timeless truths or a mere handbook for living.

When we miss the big picture, Chris Wright and Gary Burge come to our rescue with excellent companion volumes—The Old Testament in Seven Sentences and The New Testament in Seven Sentences.

Each offers seven grand themes sparked by iconic verses in the Bible that help us see the majestic vista of God’s work. Wright’s choices from the Old Testament are creation, Abraham, Exodus, David, prophets, gospel, and wisdom. In the New, Burge walks us through fulfillment, kingdom, cross, grace, covenant, spirit, completion.

The two books link together in another way. Wright appropriately notes how the Old Testament points to and is fulfilled in Christ. Burge regularly points out how the New is based on and rooted in the Old. In plain and engaging language, both authors provide this necessary service because we have little hope of understanding Jesus or the apostles without engaging both testaments.

The result is a complete, brief, and readable overview of the Bible. Each book provides discussion questions for each chapter. Taking one a week, then, any church or small group could in under four months lift their heads from the weeds to see the grand landscape that is God’s story.

Note: I received complementary copies of both books from the publisher. I also was responsible for signing Chris Wright to do his book for IVP, though I had retired before the book was released and did not participate in its development or final form. My opinions are my own.

Complaining and Lament

Have you ever been reading the Bible and suddenly thought, “Gee, that’s odd”?

I have been going through the book of Numbers. In chapter 11 I read how unhappy God was with Israel for complaining about their troubles in the wilderness (especially about not having meat) even after God had freed them from the Egyptians. At the same time I was reading a book on lament in the Psalms and, of course, in the book of Lamentations.

I thought, “Gee, that’s odd. In Numbers complaining to God is bad, but elsewhere lament (which essentially seems to be the same thing as complaining to God) is good. Which is it?”

I think the answer is a lesson in our tendency to take things out of context. Understanding what’s going on depends on seeing the whole sweep of the narrative in all thirty-six chapters of Numbers and the whole sweep of Psalms, not an isolated chapter or verse.

The first part of Numbers (chapters 1–25) tells the story of Israel’s rising rebellion against God after crossing the Red Sea. Though they begin with obedience, the complaining in Numbers 11 culminates in Numbers 13-14. There all but two (Joshua and Caleb) of the twelve spies rebel against God’s plan to enter the Promised Land because of the “giants” they find there. We see other examples of disobedience in Numbers 15, 16, 17, and 20. God promises that the whole generation will die in the wilderness except for Joshua and Caleb.

The second part of Numbers (26-36) begins with a census just as the first part did, but now a census of the new generation that will enter the land. In these last chapters we find hope and promise.

What we have then in Numbers 11 is not a universal prohibition against bringing our griefs, misfortunes, or even our complaints to God. Rather it is a piece of a story that denounces the ongoing life of rebellion and disobedience of Israel’s first generation out of Egypt.

Complaints to and even anger at God (that is, lament) as found in dozens of Psalms are offered in a larger context of a book about wisdom and worship. In these Psalms of lament, the act of remembering God’s past faithfulness triggers asking what in the world is going on in the present.

Even Psalm 88, the most despairing of all the psalms, is a valid expression to God even when we cannot see God on the other side. For it resides in the context of the whole book of Psalms in which we seek God’s wisdom in the midst of both sorrow and of praise.

It may seem odd to complain to God in a context of worship. But that’s not necessarily how God sees it.

photo credit: Pixabay, GidonPico (dead sea)

The Enemy of Faith

We often consider unbelief and doubt to be enemies of faith. After all, if we perpetually embrace them, we never embrace God. But a very different response can also be the enemy—certainty.

As Tobias Wolf said, “Certainty is one of the greatest spiritual problems of our time.”* When we are absolutely sure of what we believe, we may inadvertently cut God out of the equation. We rest instead on ideas, statements, propositions, logic, argumentation, and viewpoints which we think stand on their own as universal truths.

The Christian faith is full of things we do not know, however. Though we believe in the Trinity we have very little understanding of how Three can be One and One Three. We know Jesus died for our sins but exactly how faith and grace work together in the cross is something we cannot entirely know. The Bible is very sketchy on the character of heaven or hell. And as to how the universe came to be? Well, God did it but a few details seem to be missing.

Mystery is everywhere in Christianity. The Bible is God’s Word but also written by humans. Jesus is fully human and fully divine. The more we try to remove the mystery, put everything in a neat and tidy system, the more we may fight against faith. God wants us to rely on him, not on our convictions.

It’s no coincidence that the certainty of Proverbs is immediately followed by the uncertainty of Ecclesiastes. And not just because so much of both are attributed to Solomon. God gives wisdom, yes, but we don’t have it all. “No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it” (Eccl 8:17).

Certainty can engender pride and arrogance. When we are certain, we have no appreciation for human limitations. It means we have little to learn, maybe nothing even from God.

Lack of certainty is an underappreciated virtue which can make room for faith, humility, and love of others.

*Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing, April 2016.

Christmas Eve 1968

Fifty years ago next week, a manned spacecraft for the first time entered orbit around another celestial body–the moon.

The year 1968 had been a harrowing one for the country and the world. It began with the devastating Tet Offensive in Vietnam and was followed by the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy. The “Prague Spring” was crushed by Soviet tanks in August with the tumultuous Democratic National Convention a week later.

Weary and worn, we were ready for some good news. That night, Christmas Eve, the crew of Apollo 8 sent a message to everyone on earth in what has been called the most watched television broadcast in history. Here is what they said:
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