3 Reasons Not to Panic over Bible Translation Revisions

dont-panic-esvCrossway recently released the English Standard Version in a 2016 “Permanent Text” edition (the updated text will be free for Logos users who own the ESV). The ESV, it was announced, would remain “unchanged forever, in perpetuity.” As Christianity Today rather cheekily titled its article on the new edition, “Bible Translation Becomes Unchanging Word of God.”

I wrote a lengthy article on this topic, most of which is below; but yesterday, after much internet chatter, Crossway reversed their decision.

I’m glad perpetuity didn’t last very long, even if it meant I had to scramble to edit this piece, because now I get to agree with these brothers and sisters in Christ at Crossway whom I love and appreciate so much. I felt that they were humble and even eloquent in their statement. They now plan “to allow for ongoing periodic updating of the text to reflect the realities of biblical scholarship such as textual discoveries or changes in English over time.” They clarify that “these kinds of updates will be minimal and infrequent,” but they insist (rightly, I think) that “fidelity to Scripture requires that [they] remain open in principle to such changes.”

There was parallel Internet chatter when the NIV 2011 came out, and it seems to me that many people were alarmed not so much by individual revision choices but by the whole idea that their beloved translations might be changed in the first place.

Concern is certainly understandable—this is the Bible we’re talking about. But I encourage lovers of Scripture not to panic. What, indeed, are the negative ramifications of the continued, minor revision of a much-read, much-preached-from, and much-memorized Bible translation?

Yes, there may be some confusion if the pastor carries an edition different from that of people in the pew (though that will be rare given the sheer number of words in the Bible). Yes, it can be frustrating to have memory verse cards that differ in a few places from printed texts. And yes, bronze plaques in church lobbies are difficult to revise.

But translation revisions are unlikely to bring total collapse of people’s faith in Scripture, start nuclear war, or get Philip Pullman hired by the Lewis estate to write an eighth Narnia book. I encourage people to look on the bright side. I actually think periodic revisions in the ESV (or NIV, or NASB, or any other good English Bible translation) provide an opportunity for helpful reflection on what Bible translations are and what they’re supposed to do for us.

Positive ramifications

In fact, all of the negative ramifications that I can think of turn very quickly into positives if the church will remember three simple things:

1) You have a pastor

Almost every Christian to whom I’m writing has a pastor. Many or most of you have pastors who have studied Greek and possibly Hebrew. If you are disturbed by the changes or difficulties or apparent discrepancies in a given Bible version, send him an email. God gave him to you to shepherd you, and confusion over what the Bible says is a genuine spiritual need. Give him a chance to help you with it.

If people I teach and preach to ask me questions about why a particular verse is translated a particular way—and I wish they would do it more often—I’m thrilled to be handed such a fantastic teaching moment. Bible translation is difficult; I should know, I’m doing it now for a Bible publisher. My job is to use the full resources of modern punctuation—especially em dashes, colons, and semicolons—in the New Testament, and it has proven to be even more challenging (and enriching) than it seemed when I did similar things as academic or devotional exercises. Other people are going to read my work as part of Scripture. What an awesome privilege and responsibility! I’d love the chance to explain what I’m doing to others. (I’ll resist the urge here.) I’m betting your pastor will feel the same way about the Bible he’s dedicated his life to teaching to others (Ezra 7:10). Give him the opportunity to use his training and gifts (Eph. 4:11–14), and if he feels unqualified to answer a particular question hopefully he has the email addresses of his seminary professors.

Yes, it is possible that a translation committee will choose a less than ideal rendering somewhere. Revision may even make a particular English version worse here or there according to one measure or another (readability, euphony, lexicography, etc.). But in all my years comparing major Bible translations in multiple languages, I’ve almost never come across a translation which was flat out impossible or undeniably linked to a heretical theological agenda. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have their retranslation of John 1:1, but I’ve never seen the like in the major translations used by mainstream American Christians. If you think you’ve discovered a place where a translation is wrong, talk to your pastor about it.

But if a translation revision—or the differences among separate translations—sparks a question, that’s a good thing.

2) Our English Bible translations are good, but not inspired

One big reason, I think, why people become alarmed about changes in Bible translations is that they assume a simple, mostly correct, but still flawed syllogism: 1) if this Bible in my hands is God’s word, and 2) God’s word is perfectly reliable, then 3) it can’t change.

I totally feel the intuitive power of this reasoning, but there’s a flaw in it which is subtle yet important: translations (the Bible in your hands) are God’s word, but in a derivative and secondary sense. We can’t wiggle out from under the authority of God’s word by saying that it resides only in the Hebrew and Greek, that the English will never capture it. But orthodox bibliology is clear and has been for centuries (see Richard Muller’s excellent discussion of this issue in volume 2 of his Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics): it’s only the Greek and Hebrew that are divinely inspired (2 Tim 3:16), not the Tagalog or Urdu or Japanese or Marathi or English.

God has chosen not to inspire any translations in any language, so smart and good and godly people are going to disagree over some of the finer points of translation. And that disagreement, far from being threatening, is a good thing. When it occurs among people who truly love the Lord and know the Bible, they will all have good points to make. They will all have useful and edifying perspectives on the one Word of God, and probably on English and Urdu, too.

Should ἀγάμοις (agamois) in 1 Cor. 7:8 be translated “the unmarried,” as all English translations I could find render it, or “widowers,” as major commentator Gordon Fee has suggested? The very question will stir up good investigation and remind us that God has chosen to give us his precious Word through translations made by gifted but limited humans. If someone is bothered by scholars voting on the text of the (English) Bible, what are the alternatives? I can think of only two: either having just one translator or having an inspired translation. The latter is bibliological heresy, and I don’t see how the former is better than a committee.

I grew up in a church which felt strongly that there was only one reliable English Bible translation (I will let the reader guess which one). I love those who first taught me God’s word, and I can never be bitter against Christian men and women who loved me like they did and do, even if I now disagree with them. But we do agree on this: the Bible nowhere promises a perfect or inspired translation.

I believe that there are many riches among the numerous excellent English Bible translations at our disposal. Far from confusing me, my Text Comparison tool in Logos has aided my understanding of the Bible over and over. One of the main things I use Logos to is compare Bible translations.

Yes, we are called to “guard the good deposit entrusted” to us (2 Tim 1:14), but I actually see that as an argument for using 1) multiple translations that are 2) periodically revised, not for keeping what we have perpetually unchanged. In other words, I agree with the Crossway’s latest statement.

3) “Vulgar” language is a moving target

And that, in turn, is because of the most important reason translation revisions in general need to continue. Here it is: like a housewife, a translator’s work is never done.

It is good, not lamentable, to have an assortment of English Bible translations—especially if they lie on a continuum from more literal to more interpretive. I want the major evangelical versions (NASB, ESV, NIV, CSB, NLT, NET, etc.) to stick around, because each has found a useful spot on that continuum. I personally would like to see periodic revisions (every 30 years? 50?) built into the charter of every one of them. If a given translation is still in use, if money can be found to pay for the translators’ sandwiches (Luke 10:7), and if English has continued to change, every translation needs to be updated—because of the principle for which William Tyndale gave his life, the principle the Westminster Confession of Faith puts this way: the Bible should be “translated into the vulgar language of every nation.” This statement reflects a central Reformation principle, and the Westminster divines cite Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians to support it: “If with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said?”

Indeed.

But “the vulgar language of every nation” is a moving target. “Vulgar” is an obvious case in point: it no longer commonly means what it did to the Westminster divines in such a context. It is now positively misleading. What the Westminster divines meant by “vulgar,” of course, was not Seth Rogen or Gilbert Gottfried so much as Peter Jennings and John McWhorter. The English Bible should be keyed, at the very least, to the general standard set by the sorts of prominent writers and educators and journalists who make up the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. (Note: there are no theologians on the panel, and I have begun a small campaign to get them to pick me. Note also that British and Singaporean and Kenyan editions, if such there be, may be keyed to their respective dictionary usage panels.)

Tyndale actually keyed his Bible to a “lower” standard, however, and I tend to agree with him. His famous words to some now-forgotten prelate ring through the centuries:

If God spare my life, ere many yeares I wyl cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture, than thou doust.

If we believe Tyndale was right, then we need to be willing to listen to modern plow boys who have trouble reading our favored Bible translations (and I don’t mean only the KJV). The Bible is given not just to prominent people but to the whole world God loves, including the hoi polloi, the children, and “the least of these.” In English we can afford to have a spectrum of translations: ESVs and NASBs for the writers and educators and NLTs and NIrVs for those without so many educational advantages—and maybe NIVs and CSBs for when everybody’s together. But no Bible translation should fail to reflect the way living people actually speak and write. And that changes. Gay, anyone?

God chose to speak the language of the people. As C. S. Lewis, someone with a subtle feel for different forms of ancient Greek, once wrote in an inimitable essay on “Modern Translations of the Bible” (which you simply must read),

The New Testament in the original Greek is not a work of literary art: it is not written in a solemn, ecclesiastical language, it is written in the sort of Greek which was spoken over the Eastern Mediterranean after Greek had become an international language. (251)

Without erasing the cultural and historical gaps that exist between us and the biblical authors (there should still be unfamiliar things like “eunuchs” and “mandrakes” in English Bibles), we still need to insist that our English translations sound like us. As Lewis says,

If we are to have translation at all we must have periodical re-translation. There is no such thing as translating a book into another language once and for all, for a language is a changing thing. If your son is to have clothes it is no good buying him a suit once and for all: he will grow out of it and have to be reclothed. (252)

Permanent text editions

If the ESV were to stop being revised, we’d need to be prepared as an English-speaking Christian church to give it up some day the way we’re giving up the NIV 1984, to relegate both to a back shelf in the library used by biblical scholars but not normally accessed by those without specialized knowledge of Greek, Hebrew, and English. Vernacular translation is that important.

Someday, any Bible translation that doesn’t get revised will contain words, sentence structures, and even perhaps punctuation and typographical features that English speakers no longer use—just like “chambering” and “besom” have dropped out of our vocabulary since the KJV was translated, just like we no longer say “this work goeth fast on” (Ezra 5:8 KJV), and just like we no longer have the option of omitting quotation marks the way Tyndale and Wycliffe did.

More dangerously for understanding, however, any translation that doesn’t get revised will contain words, syntax, and punctuation/typography that English speakers use differently. Maybe the reader of the future will have better resources at his disposal, but right now historical sentence structure and punctuation conventions are almost impossible for the non-specialist to look up in a reference work. And then there are the words which will still be used in the future but which have added, dropped, or amended their senses. Those will be hard to spot; that future reader may read right past them without realizing he’s missing something. And we have no way of knowing which of our words will mean something different to him—just like the KJV translators could never have known that “halt” in 1 Kings 18:21 would mean “stop,” not “limp,” to every modern reader I’ve ever asked. “Prevent” in Psalm 18:5 is another good example. (10¢ Logos credit to the first person who figures out what I mean with that one—and if you want more examples, I’ve got a book coming out next year with Lexham on this topic.)

I’m glad the ESV will continue to be revised over the years, and I don’t mind that my boxed, calfskin, single-column Heirloom edition will differ here and there from my ESV in Logos—because the principles of this article should not be forgotten henceforth and forevermore.

mark ward
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.

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Comments

  1. Steve Spearing says:

    Thank you for your article. It is wearisome at times trying to explain to people that there is not always an equivalent word from one language to another. In the Biblical context, not an english equivalent fora Hebrew or Greek word. Or, that some of our english words have changed in meaning over the years.

    I agree that the original text are inerrant, I also believe that the Holy Spirit is more than capable of guiding in translations to other languages.. The truth of the gospel will be proclaimed around the world.

    A number of years ago I had a man stop by my study who was looking for a church. He asked a number of questions, then he got to the “big” question. What translation of the Bible do you use? Needless to say he was a, “King James” only man. While I appreciated his great devotion for God’s word, I was also saddened by his narrow scope of understanding when it comes to translating. I have no doubt that he sincerely loved God. I did push a little further and handed him a New Testament off from my shelf and shared with him that if he wanted to get really technical we all ought to be reading this. He opened it up and of course it was a Greek New Testament. Needless to say, I never saw him again. I imagine that he was able to find a church that filled his need. Again, I want to stress that I believe that he loved God with all of his heart and desired to have a close walk with Him.

    God, I thank you for those to whom you have given the ability to translate your word into languages that we can understand. In the name of Jesus — Amen.

  2. I agree there is no perfect translation however I do sympathize with those who were memorizing NIV1984. It was a shame that it is no longer available in any electronic form. Why not let those who want the NIV1984, continue to have access to the version they have spent so much time memorizing? It doesn’t sound very Christ-like, it seems to be more about money or political correctness.

    • I have the NIV 1984 in my Logos library as a separate resource.

      What I always say to people suspicious that money or political correctness is driving a new translation (or, in this case, a revision) is that they ought to take a look at the ministry history and character of the translators in charge. I’ve met Doug Moo personally, but long before that, while reading his Romans and other commentaries, his dedication to teaching the Bible to others became clear. And that dedication rendered criticisms of his motivations for work on the NIV implausible. Criticisms of translations are criticisms of people, Christian people. That makes me pause before believing the worst.

      • Excellent point I wasn’t thinking of Doug Moo, I agree the work he puts into his commentaries is excellent. I was thinking of Harper Collins making groups like the Bible Gateway remove access to NIV84.
        What would be the point of removing all digital access?

        I personally use the ESV for my studies but would appreciate access to NIV84 in my Logos library for continuing my memorization.

        Thanks again I will keep in mind the individua(s).

        • Okay, I believe I misunderstood you just a little: you were thinking particularly of the decision to retire the 1984 NIV, not so much the decision to put out a 2011 NIV. I confess I don’t know the ins and outs of that decision. I could speculate… So I will just for a second: if the NIV truly needed to be revised after 27 years (and I think it did), then you want to encourage people to adopt the new one so as to discourage division. I speculate not because I think I’m right, but to demonstrate how easy it is to believe the best in this case.

          Are you sure you don’t have the NIV 1984? More power to you on Bible memorization. My own kids are memorizing Eph 6 in the NIV 2011 right now in their homeschool group. I wrote it out on huge pieces of card stock.

          • Billy Brand says:

            Our church changed to officially using the ESV because we could no longer access the NIV84. I like and agree with your article. I am unhappy about the “taking away” of the ’84 edition as well. If understanding the Bible in your own vernacular is important, how do you (they) justify taking away the Bible translation (NIV84) that is understood by those in their fifties or sixties and forcing them to read one they don’t understand. Even though the meaning of words shifts, individuals who use those words don’t always shift with them. And to force them to use newer translations isn’t helpful.

          • This is a good point, and a reason to keep translation revisions, as the ESV statement says, “infrequent” and “minimal.” I suggested in this post every 30–50 years.

            However, different people are going to come in at different places on that cycle. Revisions every few decades do mean some people will have to adjust. Thankfully, adjustments should be relatively easy if translations keep their revisions “minimal.” The English language is, in my opinion, unlikely to change radically during our lifetimes, so only minimal revisions should be necessary.

          • Billy Brand says:

            10 cent credit question. To confront not prevent. To oppose as in hostility or competition.

          • Yes! The KJV translators chose a word which could, for them, mean what we mean by “confront.” That sense of “prevent” is no longer available to us. So through no fault of the KJV translators but merely because of the ineluctable process of linguistic change, modern English readers won’t get what those translators meant.

          • Billy Brand says:

            Here is another reason we were not happy with the switch/discontinuation of the NIV84. We are a large church with modern technology and use overhead projectors to put scripture on screen. However, we are a Bible church as well and encourage our congregants to carry their own Bibles (digital is fine too) and we provide “pew” Bibles (we don’t actually have pews anymore). The pew Bibles (hundreds of them) were NIV84. It is nitpicky, but there are nitpicky people in our congregation who want what they are reading to match with what is on screen and being read by the Pastor. This is where the financial peace comes in. We ended up switching to ESV and buying hundreds of those Bibles for the pews because of the inability to get NIV84 digitally. It was a bad decision to discontinue the NIV84 edition in my opinion. It would have transitioned naturally over time, they didn’t need to force the issue. It seemed like a marketing decision. Just my thoughts.

          • That’s a helpful story. There are a lot of practical realities people have to deal with when it comes to translation revisions.

            I still want to believe the best unless I absolutely cannot. And the only information I have access to are the statements and character of NIV translators such as Doug Moo.

  3. Thats right brother. No big deal. We should all just have that “ah ho-hum, another Bible revision/translation”. Nothing to get all up in the air about.

    • Despite the many wires separating your computer from mine, I think I detect a little sarcasm… =) And I think I deserve it. I revised this piece after you read it—and after one reader (rightly) complained that I was a little too disdainful of a very understandable human reaction to translation changes. We are indeed talking about the Bible here, the most important book there is. I’m glad people take revisions seriously. I overreacted, and for that I sincerely apologize.

      If the point of your sarcasm is, however, that we have too many English Bible translations, that’s a little hard to deny. I do not use every last one of them. I have found over time only what I said in the piece: that the best translations have staked out usefully different places on the continuum between fully formal and fully dynamic translation. Over and over, our good translations have helped me understand the Greek and Hebrew (and Aramaic) texts. I want others to have the same joy I’ve had in the insights I’ve gleaned from the translators’ work.

  4. Danny Brooks says:

    Thank you, Mark. This is a timely and helpful article. Our staff just talked through a question brought to us by one of our church members that ran along these very lines. Thoughtful, biblical instruction such as you have given here is equipping God’s people and maturing the Church. Grace to you!

  5. Many or most of you have pastors who have studied Greek and possibly Hebrew.

    More and more that is not (going to be) the case. The church I attend has two staff members who are about to finish their Masters at a major evangelical seminary and neither required languages.

    One of these staff member plans on becoming a pastor in the future.

    And recently I heard a pastor who was working on his Masters comment: “Why do seminaries need to teach Greek anymore when we have Logos.”

    • I’m sure you share my hope that you’re wrong about the future. This indeed regrettable.

      And someone who thinks Logos can replace Greek or Hebrew knowledge is simply mistaken. It can help you keep up that knowledge and put it to its best use. And there are some things it can help you do with Greek and Hebrew even if you don’t know them. But it cannot replace the all-important knowledge of the original languages.

      • * I’m sure you share my hope that you’re wrong about the future. This indeed regrettable. **

        I do. But I have been on three pastor search committees over the years and have observed that most members simply observe on his resume that the prospective pastor has a seminary degree — then (mentally) check off that qualification and continue with the evaluation.

        But nowadays, with 30 hour Masters Programs that include no original languages, a more in-depth inquiry is necessary.

        My son, for example, is working on a 90 hour M.Div. that requires multiple language classes. But unless they were particularly informed, many on pastor search committees would not understand the difference between that and the 30 hour seminary degree sans languages (as well as numerous other desirable courses for one called to be a Pastor).

        My son’s pastor, who holds a PhD. in Church History, told me that a seminary degree that requires no languages has a very large hole in it. And he laments that they are even offered.

        But from what I am observing, more than a few young men entering the ministry are now taking the path of least resistance just to get the letters after their names.

        • Sigh. Preach it, brother. I’m doing my best to help.

          I won’t judge other people’s motivations—I won’t say they got their degrees just for the letters. They may have gotten poor counsel from mentors or, implicitly, from their own seminaries by way of their graduation requirements. And they themselves, though ministries, are also businesses that must respond to the demands of their market: churches (and, yes, students). But let’s focus on churches: if churches insist on educated ministers, they’ll get them. So… keep caring and keep pushing for Greek and Hebrew knowledge on pastoral search committees. Praying right now that people won’t give up on the original languages.

  6. Louise Brislane says:

    The only problem I have with the ESV which I prefer over the weakness of the translation of the NIV especially this current version is that certain verses have been dropped and although the number is there, the verse isn’t.

    I would prefer the translators to leave the verses in there at least in italics with an explanation at the bottom of the page. They may not think that they were in the original manuscripts but do we actually have any original manuscripts to go by?

    I am thinking of Phillip and the Eunuch in particular as the verse left out is the most crucial verse on the page, so they have NO right to omit it. I have written it back in on my page.

    • Louise, may I suggest that you take a look at David Alan Black’s “Concise Guide” to textual criticism?

      Rest assured: the people who have worked so hard and at such great personal cost (years of seminary, years in ministry, years of reading and hard study) to teach the Bible—and to bring us our good English Bible translations—would not “leave a verse out” for no good reason at all. Instead, they are attempting to remove minor accretions. Even if you come to disagree with their reasoning, Black can acquaint you with what it is.

  7. Ah, so maybe we’re not supposed to suffer the little children as well… :-)
    Thanks Mark for all your recent blog posts. I’m delighted to read that you’re going to publish a book. Hopefully many of your blog posts get absorbed into it, so that they’ll be available in Logos as well.

    • Thanks, Jan. Those who read my posts will recognize some of the same themes, but I’m doing some fun research right now that will hopefully provide many additional insights for readers.

  8. Mark Stinnett says:

    Wow. Great article. Fair, insightful, and encouraging.
    I have been teaching a class on the Gospel of Matthew that takes a more ‘in-depth’ look at the text (a request of our church members). While I do not normally discuss translation differences, questions arise because of the variety of translations used in class. Questions also arise from ‘margin notes’ that sometimes indicate that a phrase or verse “does not appear in the oldest manuscripts.”
    I am eager to help people understand ‘why’ translations differ and ‘why’ even the ancient manuscripts differed, but I struggle with the possibility of overwhelming folks or not giving enough understanding so that lose confidence in their Bible. It seems to be a challenging balancing act.
    I really appreciate this article (and several others you have written). It has been encouraging and helpful in giving me (a ‘vulgar’ fellow) thoughts on better ways to approach translation issues with ‘vulgar’ people.
    I appreciate your insights and the good attitude with which you express yourself. And I am looking forward to you future book.
    Grace and peace.

    • Thanks for the encouraging word.

      Yes, you’re right that overwhelming folks or shaking their confidence in Scripture are both to be avoided, and a balance must be maintained. But the balance is not between telling them the truth and failing to tell them (not that you suggested this—I’m just thinking this through), it’s between telling them details they don’t have the doctrinal and practical foundation to process and telling them fuller and fuller truth in helpful stages. What I think the existence of KJV-Onlyism (or anything-onlyism) tells us is that we’ve erred on the side of telling people nothing and letting urban legends and conspiracy theories grow in their place. We’ve got to say something.

      I’ve got some ideas on what that something is, but maybe that best belongs in another post…

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  1. […] 3 Reasons Not to Panic over Bible Translation Revisions – Is it wrong to allow modern English Bible translations to be updated over time as language changes?  As we consider the wooden phrases of the KJV, we can see that this is necessary at times. […]