Is it Wrong to Call Modern Bible Translations “the Word of God”?

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Expanded on August 9, 2017 from original article

According to the Westminster theologians, the original Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament manuscripts penned by the prophets and apostles were “immediately [directly] inspired by God” and “kept pure in all ages.” The Greek and Hebrew copies of the original manuscripts that we possess today are “authentical,” and they are the Word of God (Westminster Confession of Faith I:8). But the manuscript copies and translations were not directly inspired. Nevertheless, God promises to keep his Word pure throughout the ages, as in Isaiah 40:8, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” Jesus affirms this in Matthew 5:18, “Until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (see also Psa 119:89, 152, 160).

Transmission and Translation

Therefore, the transmission and translation of the Scripture in many languages of the world (see Acts 2:7-11, Neh 8:7-8), though not inspired, were “superintended” and “preserved” by God. There are at least two events in Scripture where the Word of God was translated as they were preached. One is in Nehemiah 8:7-8, when the exiles who returned from the Babylonian gathered before Ezra the priest. He read the whole Law of Moses before all the people, most of whom likely did not speak Hebrew, but the priests “helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places … and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”

On Pentecost Sunday, when the apostles preached the gospel in Acts 2:6-7, we read that people coming from different nations heard the gospel translated into their own languages, “and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?’”

The Spirit of God guaranteed the accuracy of the thousands of manuscripts and translations in doctrine, worship and practice. If God inspired every single word originally written by the authors, would he not take the utmost care in preserving those same words, even if they were translated by fallible men? Therefore, faithful translations in our hands today, even with a few inaccuracies because translators and copyists are imperfect sinners, are still the Word of God. So we should not dismiss all contemporary translations too hastily. They have their problems to be sure, but many of them are “generally accurate, reliable and readable.”

Some Scripture texts are not clear in meaning, and there are also variants in the manuscripts. But these variants are miniscule. The existing 10,000 manuscripts of the Old Testament and over 5,000 manuscripts of the New Testament are 99.9 percent accurate. And none of these variants affect any of the basic Christian teachings. Compare this with only 95 percent for Homer’s Iliad, and only 90 percent for the ancient Indian epic Mahabharata.

Also, there are no translations without interpretive bias, because interpretation is necessarily a part of the translation process. For example, the New Testament writers often quote the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, even when they knew that it was not perfectly accurate. Still, the New Testament writers considered it the Word of God. For example, in Jeremiah 31:32, the last clause says, “although I was an husband unto them” (KJV). The Septuagint renders it, “and I regarded them not,” and so does Paul in Hebrews 8:9.

Translations “Good” and “Bad”

The Latin Vulgate was the “authorized version” throughout the medieval age, followed by the Tyndale and King James Bibles, then the non-English and the modern English translations. They all have inaccuracies, so would we say that the early church, the medieval church, and the Reformation church were wrong in saying, before they read from these translations, “This is God’s holy and inerrant Word”? Do the churches worldwide today have the Word of God in their own languages, even if their translations are more inaccurate than our English translations? If they’re not reading the KJV, but a Bible in their own language, are they reading the Word of God? How were the people of God throughout the New Testament age saved if they were not reading the Word of God, but only “distortions of the Scripture”?

Having said this, there are “good” translations and “bad” translations. Generally, the good translations are those that are more or less literal, because the translators strove to render the original as literal as possible. Bad translations are those that are form-based or paraphrases, because they try to convey ideas, not words, in the original into the translations, and these ideas are sometimes their own interpretations.

However, all translations, including all English versions, share a few things in common: (1) No translation is pure word-for-word, since no one language corresponds perfectly to any other language. (2) All translations prioritize meaning over wooden literalness. (3) All versions strive to be grammatically correct and naturally-flowing in their own languages.

Two examples will suffice. The First Commandment is usually translated by “word-for-word” versions as, “You shall have no other gods before me,” when the original Hebrew says, “You shall have no other gods before my face.” The original meaning is conveyed, but we know that many people who have never read the Bible would be thinking, “What does before my face mean?” Or consider Luke 22:53, when Jesus spoke to the Jews who arrested him. The English Standard Version (ESV) translates Jesus’ words as, “But this is your hour, and the power of darkness.” Because of this literal but wooden translation, a reader would not understand what Jesus was saying. The New American Standard Bible (NASB) translation is better understood, “But this hour and the power of darkness are yours.” The New International Version (NIV) is also better, “But this is your hour – when darkness reigns.”

Since no one language corresponds perfectly to any other language, every translation involves some degree of interpretation. In the example above, the ESV favored a wooden translation over interpretation. The result is limited readability. On the other hand, both the NASB and the NIV have some degree of interpretation in avoiding a wooden translation. Naturally, a paraphrase translation involves a high degree of interpretation. So the translation committee has to decide what a text means before translating, which is actually interpretation.

It’s unfortunate that there are many translators who are liberal in their view of the Bible. They don’t believe in the inspiration, inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture, saying that it is full of mistakes, contradictions. They view the Bible as an obsolete document whose writers have outdated culture and worldview. One example is Today’s New International Version (TNIV). This translation has surrendered to the feminist and politically-correct movement. The TNIV rejects the use of the generic “he,” which led it to reword about 3000 verses in the Bible. And it avoids using “brother,” “son,” and “father” in generic contexts. These changes often alter the original meaning. And to be inclusive, it changes the original singular pronouns into plural.

For example, in the NIV, Revelation 22:19 says, “And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy…” In the TNIV, we read, “And if anyone of you takes words away from this scroll of prophecy…” The difference here is big. The NIV reference to “if anyone” is anyone in the whole world, while the TNIV reference to “if anyone of you” is any of the writer’s readers.

KJV Most Accurate?

But what’s really sad is elevating the 1611 King James Version as the best and most accurate translation, when it also has many inaccuracies. For example, in Acts 12:4, it uses “Easter” (a word which most evangelicals today mistakenly say is pagan), instead of the original “Pascha” (Greek) or “Passover” (English), to be more readable to the common 17th century reader. In Judges 15:19, “an hollow place that was in the jaw” should be “the hollow place that is in Lehi.” In Judges 19:22, “sons of Belial” are not sons of the devil, but should be “worthless men.” The “house of God” in Judges 20:26 should be the place name “Bethel.”

And for today’s English readers, the KJV is the least readable. The average reader will have no idea what some words mean in context. The average reader will have no idea what some words mean in context, for example: “reins” (Psa 7:9; Jer 17:10), “suffer” (Matt 19:14), “careful” (Luke 10:41), “bowels” (Phil 1:8), “fetched a compass” (Acts 28:13), “pineth away” (Mark 9:18), “wit” (Exo 2:4), “wist” (Luke 2:49), and “wot” (Gen 21:26). In all, about 300 words in the KJV no longer have the same meaning today.

Here are three concrete examples of the KJV’s unreadability. In 2 Thessalonians 2:7, it says, “He that letteth will now let.” Who will understand this? Only if one reads the NIV, “the one who now holds it back will continue to do so.” Or what does “superfluity of naughtiness” mean in James 1:21? Read the ESV, where it says, “rampant wickedness.” What about 1 Corinthians 16:13, “quit ye like men”? Read the NASB, and you’ll figure it out, “act like men.”

Three Not Recommended Versions

Which translations are the worst? I would mention three, in the order of “worseness”: Today’s English Version or the Good News Bible, The New Living Translation, and The Message. All these translations are inclusive and gender-neutral. The other problem with the original NLT and The Message is that they were written by single individuals. All other translations were done over many years by committees of Biblical scholars. While these three translations are also paraphrases, the NLT and the Message went overboard in their paraphrasing.

In Matthew 7:23, Jesus warned false disciples about using his name to perform signs, but Jesus says, “And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (ESV). The NLT renders it, “But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Go away; the things you did were unauthorized.’” There’s a big difference in “declaring” and merely “replying.” Because its liberal, Arminian translators focus on God’s love, the NLT avoids mentioning God’s wrath and hell. Jesus’ declaration in Matthew 7:23 is that he will send these hypocrites to hell, “Depart from me.” And they will be condemned because their works were not just “unauthorized,” but because they are “workers of lawlessness,” wicked rebels against God’s law.

The Message renders Matthew 7:23 even worse. In its depraved translation, it says, “And do you know what I am going to say? ‘You missed the boat. All you did was use me to make yourselves important. You don’t impress me one bit. You’re out of here.’” Being sent to hell is utterly different from “missing the boat” and “you’re out of here”!

The Message also translates Matthew 9:23 extremely freely. The NASB and almost all other versions say, “[they] saw the flute-players and the crowd in noisy disorder.” But The Message renders it, “[they] pushed their way through the gossips looking for a story and the neighbors bringing in casseroles.” What a distortion of God’s Word! Even sadder is that Wycliffe Bible Translators endorses the use of these three twisted versions in their Bible translation projects all over the world. What kind of Bibles then are other language groups getting?

Therefore, what we should seek is a good, consistent, readable, essentially literal translation. My favorites, in order of preference, are the English Standard Version, New King James Version, the New American Standard Bible, and the New International Version. For most Bible studies, two or three versions would be helpful. Pastors and congregations who use these versions must not doubt that what they are reading is “God’s holy and inerrant Word.”

Note: R. Scott Clark’s “When Bible Translations Disappoint” is a helpful resource for this article.

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