Ep. 099: What’s With All the Bible Translations?
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NIV, KJV, NKJV, ESV, NLT, CSB, RSV, NASB, and the list goes on and on. There are multiple Bible translations of the inerrant Word of God. That might raise some questions regarding their accuracy. With us to help walk us through the story of Bible translations and answer some serious questions is Mark Ward, the author of the new book called Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible. This is a fascinating conversation and one you don’t want to miss if you’re at all interested in (or questioning) the Bible.
*Below is an edited transcription of the audio conversation.
With me today is Mark Ward. Mark received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012 and he now serves the church as a Logos pro. Thanks for being in studio again, Mark.
It’s really great to be here, Isaac. Thank you.
Yeah, last year, actually it was around this time, we had Mark with us to talk about a book that he had co-written with a fellow named Tom Breeden, and it was titled Can I Smoke Pot? Marijuana In Light of Scripture. They were just great episodes. It seems kind of funny that here you are, an expert in Bible translations and marijuana. You think about these things, right?
Some people use Bible translations and use the paper to roll up the marijuana.
Oh, I see how this works.
That’s the connection.
Okay, that’s good! Anyways, they were episodes 43 and 44 if you’re interested. Very interesting and good episodes, so I’d encourage you to listen to that.
Anyways, Mark, how are you doing?
I’m doing great. I am rejoicing in God’s goodness to me.
That’s so good. If you don’t know, if you never knew actually, we are just above the line in Canada, in Vancouver, and Mark is just below the line in a little place called Bellingham, which is like, two hours out of Seattle probably.
About an hour and a half.
An hour and a half, there you go. He works at Logos Bible Software, Faithlife. You’re called a Logos pro, so what exactly is that?
Well the people who teach us the Bible in churches need to use tools to do their study. One of the premier tools available is Logos Bible Software. I use the software personally, and have for years. They hired me on to write articles about Bible study that show off how Logos Bible Software can be useful for people. It’s just absolutely fun. For two years so far I’ve just been able to write about whatever interests me about the Bible. Logos is always related to it because it’s the tool that I use personally.
I’m supposed to be a pro in the use of the software. The truth is there’s a lot of things it can do, and I’m not equally good at them all, so I can’t admit to, claim to be a super great pro like a couple people at the company. I do try to know enough that the average user can get some help from me.
That’s cool. That’s really good. I think it was a couple months ago I was talking to Tim Challies on the show about his book Do More Better. It was about Godly productivity. He talked about the importance of tools when it comes to our daily lives. He was just saying like, “Consider your pastor. You’d want to give him the best tools that he has when he’s giving you the Word.” Just like a doctor, you want the doctor to have the best tools when he’s doing brain surgery on you as well. Just to hear you say the Logos is a great tool, it’s true, and not even just for pastors, anyone who’s just interested and wants to dive into Bible study. Right?
Exactly. There are so many Bible search and analysis tools within Logos that I use every single day, and I don’t know even how I could do Bible study in any depth without it.
Yeah. I think my pastor said that it saves him about three hours of like just other stuff, of pulling …
Flipping pages, right.
Yeah, flipping pages and all that kind of stuff. There you go. Also, Mark, just before we jump into our actual conversation here, for those who don’t know you, who are you a little bit? We know what you do now, but who is Mark Ward in kind of a more personal sense?
Well, I am a sinner saved by the grace of God, and that’s why I’m rejoicing.
The Lord has been good to me to save me from my sins, give me a good Christian wife and three healthy children, and a job where I get to write about Bible study. I have been pinching myself the last two years working for Logos. I just preached at my church for seven weeks to give my pastor a Sabbatical. I preached on Romans 8:28. I told my congregation “All things work together for good”, and in my life God simply hasn’t chosen to give me difficult trials. I don’t know why. He’s welcome to do so. I trust Him. Every stage of my life the Lord has moved me along very clearly, given me opportunities for which I’m very thankful, and one of them is to be here talking to you about some of the work that I’ve done. I definitely felt that any opportunities I’ve had for education and for ministry experience, I need to pour back into the church. PhD, all that means for me is I have hopefully some extra tools to give back to the Christian church. That’s what I’m motivated by.
That’s awesome. Thanks, Mark, for sharing that. It’s good.
Alright, well you said to me in our emails that asking you to talk about Bible translations is like asking a Canadian to talk about hockey. I’m excited to hear you talk about Bible translations then! Yeah, this is what this is all about: Bible translations. It’s a very general kind of scraping of it because we only have so long to talk about it, but I’m wondering if you could just spend some time explaining just sort of the story behind Bible translations, why we have so many today, maybe even how are they written. There’s just a lot of questions there. I want to let you take that the way that you think.
Sure. Actually on my way up here I was listening to an audio book. Diarmaid MacCulloch is a church historian, and he wrote a big book on the Reformation. I felt like 2017 was a good year for me to study the Reformation. He was saying that
the Bible created the Reformation.
A lot of us kind of think of it the other way around in a way, that is that the Reformation gave us a bunch of Bibles. Really, both are true.
In the history of Bible translation there were about eight translations of the Bible made in the early centuries of the church, mostly into languages that are obscure to us,
but one of them was not and that was Latin. The Latin Vulgate translated by Jerome very early on, that ended up being the absolute standard Bible translation for centuries.
When was that one written?
You know, I was afraid you were going to ask me that because I always get it mixed up between the third and fourth centuries. But I am able to ask the internet, and sure enough, 382 is when the Vulgate was commissioned.
It faced, like any new translation, a backlash. People are never happy because any change you make whatsoever is seen as a threat. Now I totally understand that, because these are God’s words. The whole idea for a non-specialist who maybe just reads the one language of the translation, they have the idea that God’s words could be changed. It’s kind of alarming. We’ll talk more about that soon.
The fact is that language changes.
Latin changed. Certainly English has changed over the centuries. English didn’t exist in anything like its current form back in the days of the Vulgate. As the centuries progressed and as various nations in Europe established themselves and became self conscious of their status as nations that coincided with the retrieval both of classical learning in the Renaissance and of Bible doctrine in the Reformation, all of the sudden,
after the Reformation there really was an explosion of vernacular Bibles.
There was a smattering of Bible translation before that, and it isn’t actually true to say that the Roman Catholic church forbid it all. They did in England. They burned- They actually took John Wycliffe and exhumed his body and burned his bones because he had translated the Bible. Then a century later burned William Tyndale.
Ironically enough, I was William Tyndale in a play in high school and I said those famous words,
“Ere many years I will cause that the boy that driveth the plow shall know more of the Scriptures than thou dost.”
That is sort of the battle cry of Bible translation into the vernacular, the idea that the people I passed driving tractors up here in Abbotsford should have the Bible in a language that they can understand. It doesn’t mean that everything in the Bible is going to be easy. It just means that the English itself on that translation level is going to be accessible to them.
Nowadays we have, because of printing, because of computer technology, because of the development of societies, we have the opportunity to have many, many different Bible translations. The prominent ones are pretty much all done by committee.
You asked how are they produced. A group of scholars will come together under the sponsorship of some publisher or organization and they will usually take an existing Bible and revise it, because translating the entire Bible is a great deal of work, and translators need sandwiches and places to stay in hotels and that’s expensive.
The ESV for example is a revision of the RSV, which is a revision of the RV, which is a revision of the King James, which itself is a revision of Tyndale’s New Testament and much of his translation.
All English translations pretty much go back to Tyndale.
The major translations today like the New International Version, the New American Standard Bible, the ESV, the New Living Translation, these are produced by committee. The Christian Standard Bible is another good one. That tends to iron out the idiosyncrasies because
rather than multiple cooks spoiling the broth, I think it’s many cooks checking to make sure the broth is accurate.
We really have what I always call an embarrassment of riches in our Bible translations today in English.
Yeah, that’s interesting. As you’re talking, I’m just thinking about it. Would you say that because of the advancement of technology and maybe even archeology and finding out new things about old cultures, would translations today be better than, let’s say, translations 100 years ago or something like that?
The simple answer is yes, but as with any talk about translation, it is excessively complicated. Going from one language to another is this really amazing thing. I just read a whole book about translation that wasn’t even about Bible translation. It was about, for example, it spent a lot of time talking about the UN translators who will translate live. The complexities are enormous.
About a little over 100 years ago there were some archeologists who were digging around in the sands of Egypt and they discovered a treasure trove of trash. The reason it’s a treasure trove is that among these many papers was a lot of Greek written on papyrus sheets by regular people writing contracts, writing letters back home. What scholars were able to discern a little over 100 years ago was that, “Hey, this is the very same Greek of the New Testament.” It used to be thought that the Greek in the New Testament was sort of a special Christian Holy Spirit language, invested with special meaning, but now we’ve been able to see this is just the way people talked in the lingua franca of the time.
There are minor adjustments that can be made for that reason, and yes translations are better now, but I would actually say not very much better. I think the King James, which we’ll talk more about, is an excellent translation, or I would say was an excellent translation. It’s just that English has changed in 400 years, so
we need fresh translations not so much because of new scholarship, but because English itself changes.
Right, that’s really good. Something else to think about too, and I just thought about this now, but I’m thinking, sometimes people in the West can just sort of think that sometimes they’re the centre of the world, sadly. For me, when I think about Bible translations, I’m just considering the ones that were probably formed by committees, let’s say in America. You could probably correct me on that if I’m wrong, but translations like the NIV, ESV, these kind of big translations. The question is, there are obviously multiple, multiple translations when you consider the amount of languages there are in the entire world, so when you think of the Bibles in India or in Africa, are these translations from the translations in America, like the NIV and everything, or are they their own sort of different translation? Do you understand what I’m saying?
Yeah, I do, and that’s a great question. Actually in the history of Bible translation, the very first English translation by Wycliffe back in the 1380’s was made from the Latin Vulgate. That’s kind of like making a photocopy of a photocopy. You are going to lose something.
Since the Reformation, actually I’ve been reading about this in the Reformation, Protestants and Catholics were going back and forth about this because the Catholics had tended to view the Vulgate as the absolute standard. It’s a very human thing to do, to take the thing in your hands, the Bible in your hands, and assume “This is absolutely perfect,” because we accord perfection to God’s words.
At the ultimate level, we do have to make a distinction between translation and the originals in Greek and Hebrew and a little bit in Aramaic.
The Reformers, and now Catholics agree with this, said that we need to make translations from the Greek and Hebrew originals. That is the standard around the world today.
There are some fringe translations made through other means, but the great majority of Bible translations around the world are taken from Greek and Hebrew.
Okay, that’s awesome. You just said, we like to take what’s in our hands and hopefully it’s the best, or we sort of idolize that, but help us break that understanding a little bit. Obviously some translations will get things wrong or maybe a little bit off. I was wondering if you could just give us a few examples of maybe translations that perhaps don’t say something super truthfully according to, say the Greek, the Hebrew or the Aramaic, or at least as good as it could have.
Right. I want to sort of preface my comments on this excellent question by pointing out that
if you are suspicious of a Bible translation, you’re not being suspicious of words on a page, you’re not being suspicious so much of a publisher or a printer, you’re being suspicious of people who sat down in front of a computer and did the work.
Almost all of the translations that you will ever run into in your entire life of the Bible were done by fellow Christians who go to a church very much like yours. I just want to tamp down the suspicion a little bit.
Imagine that this is your Sunday School teacher, because he is or she is. Men and women involved in these things, they are Bible teachers in the church. Maybe if they do err, and surely all people are both fallen and finite and we do err, and among the countless decisions that have to be made, surely someone is going to miss the most elegant way to translate or maybe the most precise.
As for ‘out and out’ errors, I would say they’re very rare.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses have their New World Translation, and John 1:1 has the infamous error. They’ve altered it. It says “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”, and they translate it in a way to deny Jesus’ deity. Even within the New World Translation later in John 1 in just a few verses, they can’t help but affirm Jesus’ deity.
It’s kind of hard to mess up a Bible translation if you’re at all serious.
Every Bible that’s available in a book store is serious.
As for examples of problems, John 1:1 in the New World translation is the classic example. Take the New International Version, which I think is very useful and every Christian should own who speaks English, the 1984 edition, which was the standard in all my growing up years.
I don’t have the passages in front of me but they tended to translate what is more literally translated “flesh,” like that evil, wicked part of you that Paul talks about, they translated it “sinful nature.” What they were trying to do, and this is, remember, your Sunday School teacher, he’s trying to relate the truth of Paul to people who aren’t familiar with it, but what ended up happening was overtime people started to recognize, that raises implications about, “Do people have two natures, you know, once you become a Christian you have a sinful nature and a saved nature?” That’s very awkward theologically, so they ended up going back to “flesh.”
You can read – they’re not hiding anything – you can go read their descriptions and arguments for why they’ve done what they’ve done. Douglas Moo, who is now in charge of it, happens to be in charge of the NIV committee for Bible translation, which is in charge solely of the text. He’s the top commentator on the book of Romans. Everybody in Biblical studies would know him for that. He was just very open and honest about their process, saying “Here were our motivations. Here’s why we think we made a mistake and we’re going to change it.” That’s very different from saying, “There’s a bunch of errors in there and you got to watch out.” I’m just going to say there really aren’t. Any time that you go online and see somebody complaining about the terrible thing this translation did, I guarantee if you could sit down with your Sunday School teacher, remember who did this translation, at least his explanation would be plausible.
You’re not going to come away thinking, “That was totally off base.” He or she had a good reason for what they did.
Yes. I think it’s important too. I’m really glad you said that, Mark, because it’s important to know that it wasn’t one single person sitting down and sort of putting, maybe they have this theological bias or framework that they’re sort of, you know, it’s a bias on the text. It’s complicated. I even think of recently, I saw that in the ESV the whole Genesis 3:16 change about the whole word “contrary” or “for” and different things like that. You got to understand, like you just said, there’s a committee here. They’re not consciously thinking in their mind, “Oh, I want to really mess people up.” That’s eons away from what they’re thinking. They’re trying to be faithful to the text.
Right, yeah. All of these committees try to be representative within a fairly large segment of the Christian church.
It depends on the translation, but you look at the NIV for example, and you’re not just looking at a bunch of Baptists sitting in a room. You’ve got your Anglicans and your Methodists and your Lutherans. We’re talking about Evangelical people who believe the gospel, who believe in the authority and inerrancy of the Bible, that’s what the NIV is predicated on.
They purposefully reach beyond one or two denominations in order to have somebody in the room who says, “Uh, I think you shaded that just a little bit in the Lutheran direction, or just a little bit in the Baptist direction.” We want that.
Do we really want the Bible to be the property of only our denomination? I don’t think so. I think we all intuitively recognize that the Bible is the property of, that is stands over, all of God’s people.
Committee translations, I think, have been a blessing to the English speaking Christian church ever since, at least the King James, which itself was a committee translation.
Interesting, yeah that’s good. Lastly, I want to ask you, Mark, how can we reconcile the fact, and this is kind of a big question here and we only have a few minutes to go into it, but anyways, reconcile the fact that the Bible is God’s inerrant infallible word (that’s what we’re told in church, that’s what we learn about in Bible college, all these different things), yet, in our hands we’re actually reading a translation? How can we reconcile those two things? How can we say that what we’re holding when I’m holding the NIV or the ESV or whatever, is God’s inspired word?
That is a fantastic question, Isaac, a very important one. We need to make some careful distinctions here.
Going back into the earliest days of the church, Christians have read God’s words in translation.
Actually, before the time of Jesus, Jewish believers were reading God’s words in translation. It’s called the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. That is what Jesus and Paul themselves and the other apostles quoted. When they quoted the Old Testament they most frequently quoted this translation. It’s not a perfect translation. We can look at the Hebrew and the Greek and see places where the Septuagint erred.
It’s so important for believers in the One True God to have His words in their heart language, because Jesus said, “Go into all the nations and disciple them all. Teach them to observe everything I’ve commanded you.” That cannot be done unless the Bible is translated.
The mere fact that the Bible is in Hebrew and in Greek, Hebrew Old Testament, Greek New Testament, means that it has to be translated, because how many people in the world understand both of those languages?
Okay, so we have to- as opposed to Islam, which has tended to view only the Arabic version of the Quran as truly God’s words, Christians have always held up a Bible in the pulpit and said, “This is God’s word,” whether it’s in English or Urdu, or my friends who are Bible translators are working into Sorocaba Dem, somewhere in Africa, I think in Chad. We’ve always said that and we need to keep saying that, because insofar as the Bible is accurately translated these are God’s Words. We’ve always viewed them that way, but the reality is that
there is a difference between the ultimate standard, the Greek and Hebrew originals, and this proximate standard, the translations.
If you feel stuck, because, “Well I don’t read Greek and Hebrew, so how can I really, really know the ultimate standard?”, listen to the advice of Augustine from way back in the time of Jerome. Listen to the advice of Myles Coverdale who picked up William Tyndale’s translation after he died and finished it, and produced the first official English translation of the Bible in modern Europe, or actually ever. Listen to my advice. We all say the same thing, and that is
use multiple good translations.
Even if one of them is a shade not quite as helpful, the other ones are going to pick up the slack.
By studying multiple ones, using that embarrassment of riches, you’ll be able to get all the meaning that the Holy Spirit intended for you.
That’s so good. I think it’s okay to say this. You can correct me if I’m wrong. When you have, let’s say, some of the more traditional translations in your house today or online or whatever, there’s no errors in them that would be a huge theological distortion of the gospel. They’re probably small, little things.
Right. If you bought this translation anywhere other … I mean if you bought it in a bookstore, it’s going to be one of the major ones. No, I can’t say every translation every listener has is.
Sure. No, of course.
I mean to say, 99.9% likely that the translation you have in your hand is great and you can trust it, without saying it’s perfect, you can trust it.
That’s so good. Thank you so much, Mark, for your time today.
Mark has just written actually a brand new book that’s not quite out yet, but it’s called Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible. It’s going to be out in the New Year, but I’m going to be putting a pre order link on the episode page as well. You’ll definitely have to check that out because he gets into translations and also about the King James Version of the Bible as well, which we’re going to have Mark back in the studio pretty soon to talk to us specifically about that translation and some of, just the issues and things that go on with that specific translation.
Anyways, thanks so much for being here today, Mark.
Thanks for having me, Isaac. Appreciate it.