Which Are More Accurate: Literal or Non-Literal Bible Translations?

We may hate to admit it, but if we’re honest with ourselves, even our favorite English Bible translations can at times be clunky. Here’s an example I was just teaching about in adult Sunday School. Check out the three phrases I bolded: “your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 1:3).

“Labor of love” sounds natural enough—but only because it’s a stock phrase in contemporary English, borrowed straight from the KJV. The other two phrases, however, don’t sound like anything I would ever say. When was the last time you thanked a coworker for their “toil of hardship”? We just don’t talk like that.

But there’s a good reason the words I bolded are still in many of the English Bibles on our laps. To understand why, we need to read the Scriptures in the language of the Lamogai people of Papua New Guinea.

If you don’t happen to be one of the 4,000 or so people on the planet who speaks Lamogai, Dave Brunn will help you out.

Lessons from a missionary Bible translator

Brunn is a missionary Bible translator who helped bring the New Testament into the Lamogai language. His deep experience with a non-Indo-European tongue qualifies him eminently to deliver a helpful insight about the Greek genitive, and about Bible translation in general.

Brunn writes,

We have all been told that New Testament Greek is a precise language. That is true in some areas of the language, but it is not true of the genitive construction. (One Bible, Many Version’s, 138)

Especially if you commonly use more “literal” English Bible translations (NASB, ESV, NKJV, RSV, etc.—the kinds that preserve original language ambiguities), you’ll recognize the genitive construction—and you’ll recognize it even if you don’t know Greek. It goes like this:

X of X

Brunn comments that the “genitive in Greek is commonly used to show simple possession, and in those cases, it is straightforward.” Here are a few biblical examples (run this search to find them all for yourself):

He entered the house of God (Matt 12:4)

I am the God of Abraham (Matt 22:32)

The precious blood of Christ (1 Pet 1:19)

But, Brunn points out, “in other contexts, the Greek genitive often has two or more possible meanings.” In other words, it isn’t precise. It is at times inherently, purposefully ambiguous. He points to 1 Thessalonians 1:3 (NASB), and note the three genitive phrases:

…constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father.

The NASB follows the Greek quite literally when translating these genitives. And English (in part, Brunn says, because English is in the same language family as Greek—and in part, I’ll posit, because the Bible has influenced our mother tongue) can kind of handle the literalness.

But literal translations of these genitive phrases are particularly bad in Lamogai. Brunn says,

In Lamogai, a literal translation of these three phrases would sound like nonsense. For example, the phrase “labor of love” would sound like “labor that is possessed by love.” And “steadfastness of hope” would sound like “steadfastness owned by hope.”(138)

That would be gibberish. Gobbledygook. Greeklish.

The grammar of Lamogai doesn’t permit a literal translation here, as English (again, kind of) does. Lamogai forces the translator to make an interpretive decision among various options. The translator has to figure out what “labor of love” means before translating. Brunn lists out the options:

  1. They labor because of God’s love for them.
  2. They labor because of their love for God.
  3. They labor because of their love for others. (138)

If some Christians consider it a mark of faithfulness that a Bible translation preserve inspired ambiguities, then at least in Lamogai, at 1 Thessalonians 1:3, it’s impossible. The translator must choose.

And here’s the real insight in Dave Brunn’s point about the genitive (emphasis mine):

On one hand, it might be safer for a translator to leave [a] phrase ambiguous because we do not know for sure which meaning Paul intended. On the other hand, *if hundreds or even thousands of other languages require that an interpretive choice be made, is it wrong to do the same thing in some English versions? If preserving the ambiguity of the Greek genitive were a requirement of faithfulness and accuracy, wouldn’t God have made sure that every language in the world was capable of fulfilling that requirement? *(139)

It isn’t necessarily faithful to translate genitive constructions with “of.” It’s merely useful—at some times, not all, and for some Bible study purposes, not all.

Testing a hypothesis in Logos

So I’ve got a hypothesis: one marker of the “literalness” or lack thereof of a Bible translation is how often it uses the word “of” to translate possessive genitive phrases—in other words, how often it’s willing to sacrifice a little English readability in order to maintain a little inspired ambiguity.

To be fully accurate, I’d have to examine every genitive in the New Testament. I confess I haven’t done that. For now, however, I’ll just take the first step in confirming (or not) my hypothesis: instead of examining, I’ll count.

Let’s search Logos for every possessive genitive phrase in the Greek New Testament, and let’s see which English translations use the word “of” the most often when translating those phrases. I’m predicting that the more literal English Bible translations will probably do so more often than will the less literal ones.

Logos Bible Software can search not just for genitives but, through the Lexham SGNT Syntactic Force Dataset, for specific genitive constructions such as possessives. How?

  1. If you know the search terminology, you can type it directly:

{Section <SGNTSyntacticForce = poss. gen.>} INTERSECTS of

  1. If you are a normal person with normal proclivities and a social life and you therefore don’t know the search terminology, just call up a search window, and a search cookbook will appear showing you how to run dozens of searches. The possessive genitive, however, isn’t currently one of them (though the genitive absolute is).
  2. So my favorite way of searching for a very precise grammatical feature in Logos is generally to find it first in the Bible text, right click it, select that grammatical feature (because the text of Scripture is so thoroughly tagged), then run a search for it. That’s what I did to find the genitives of possession.

I took the search terminology thus created and then added “INTERSECTS of,” which searches for the places of “intersects” those genitives of possession. That’s how I got this search:

{Section <SGNTSyntacticForce = poss. gen.>} INTERSECTS of

I ran the search in my top Bibles and graphed the results. This is what I found:

I win. The more literal translations use “of” in possessives more often than the less literal. Notice that the NIV column is shorter than the other columns in every one of the first six books of the New Testament. But all major English translations (I checked) use “of” in genitive phrases. Hundreds of times (even if you take out some of the New Testament’s stock phrases such as “kingdom of God”). The differences among these translations are of degree, not of kind. (New hypothesis even before I’m fully done confirming the first one: the same will be true of και (*ka*i) and being translated with the word “and.”)

Conclusion

Somehow even when I try to stay in equine-free zones (and I don’t try very hard), my hobby horses manage to come trotting in. I see in all this genitive stuff another good reason to End Bible Translation Tribalism. It’s valuable to use Bible translations that preserve ambiguities, especially if you haven’t used them before. It’s important to puzzle through the meaning of genitives such as:

  • “steadfastness of hope”
  • “fruit of the Spirit”
  • “obedience of faith”

It’s also valuable to use Bible translations that eliminate ambiguities and choose good interpretive options for you, because the whole point of translation is understanding. Even if you end up disagreeing with the less literal Bible translation in your hands, its interpretive renderings of these phrases will force you to think about what they mean:

  • “Enduring hope”
  • “Fruit the Spirit produces”
  • “The obedience that comes from faith”

A fully word-for-word translation is an impossible ideal; it can’t exist in any language, and this is particularly true if that language isn’t already similar to Greek or Hebrew by being related to them. As Brunn says,

If the only faithful translation is one that is primarily word-focused like the NASB, ESV or KJV, then most of the world’s languages cannot have a truly faithful translation [because they’re not in the Indo-European language family like Greek or the Afro-Asiatic family like Hebrew]. That would mean the majority of languages designed by God are inherently deficient, unable to communicate spiritual truth in a way that is faithful to the original.

What kind of Bible translation is best, literal or not-so-literal? At least when it comes to genitives of possession, I’d say: Yes.


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. As a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary I took both Greek and Hebrew and still translate each daily. However, I have found the NLT to be the best for me to use. Just my experience, but the “thought-for-thought” translation is what I prefer to use. Thanks for sharing this post.

  2. I think Brunn is framing the question wrongly: “On one hand, it might be safer for a translator to leave [a] phrase ambiguous because we do not know for sure which meaning Paul intended. On the other hand, *if hundreds or even thousands of other languages require that an interpretive choice be made, is it wrong to do the same thing in some English versions? If preserving the ambiguity of the Greek genitive were a requirement of faithfulness and accuracy, wouldn’t God have made sure that every language in the world was capable of fulfilling that requirement?”

    This isn’t a matter of being faithful or unfaithful. It’s a matter of better or worse. In every translation there are trade-offs, and some languages will require more trade-offs than others. But to recognize this does not lead to the conclusion that because ambiguity cannot be maintained in language X it need not be maintained in English.

    On the one hand, I’m happy to have an interpretive translation in my toolbox. On the other hand, I find it more valuable to have a translation that as much as possible doesn’t foreclose interpretive options before I recognize them.

    That aside, I think this post was helpful in showing off Logos search capabilities. Thanks.

    • But you’re a consummate Bible nerd with advanced degrees, I happen to know! “Work of faith” and “steadfastness of hope” communicate something to you that, I’d argue, they don’t communicate to people who are ignorant of Greek. I’m arguing, along with Brunn, that interpretations which refuse to foreclose interpretive options often do so at the expense of understanding—and that, in particular, literal rendering of many genitive constructions produces a kind of Greeklish that those of us who are accustomed to it shouldn’t assume is perspicuous to our neighbors.

      I don’t think he’s framing the question wrongly, in particular because of the word “some.” He’s only pleading for *moral* permission for *some* English translations to foreclose interpretive possibilities. I don’t like the “better or worse” language unless it’s followed up by a situation. Better or worse for what? You like having interpretive translations in your toolbox; so do I: interpretive translations are “better,” then, in situations where I’m having trouble understanding the literal ones. Literal translations are “better,” perhaps, for close exegetical study and for Bible teaching to middle class, educated people—in part, yes, because interpretive options are left open.

      In my experience, many good, conservative Christian people are suspicious of interpretive Bible translations because they invest moral significance in the continuum between literal (“better”) and interpretive (“worse”). I, along with Brunn, am suggesting that we invest it instead with pragmatic significance. The literal translations are better for certain use cases, the interpretive translations for others.

    • Okay, I’ve achieved a little more clarity in my thinking on this today thanks to some good comments. I think what I’m saying is that 1) we don’t always know whether apparent ambiguities are purposeful and 2) some of the (literalistic) strategies we have used in the past for translating apparently ambiguous phrases are no longer truly available in contemporary English. No one says “work of faith.” When such a construction is on its way out of English, as I think it is (more homework is needed here, I admit) it’s understandable that literal translations would hold on to it and idiomatic translations would not. It’s their respective job. But a time may come when English is like Lamogai, and we cannot say “work of faith” at all. Then English translations will have to choose an interpretation, and that won’t be bad. It isn’t bad now, either, given point 1) above: sometimes there is reasonable doubt as to whether a phrase was intended to be ambiguous. So why always go ambiguous in one’s translation?

  3. Very good stuff. Re-posted at SharperIron. Thanks.

  4. Don Johnson says:

    Mark, would the original readers have read these three phrases ambiguously, or would they intuitively know what the proper interpretation should be?

    If it was ambiguous to them, perhaps it was authorial intent? And if so, shouldn’t we try to preserve that, even at the expense of understanding?

    Maranatha!
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

    • Now *that’s* the question. And I don’t think we can always know the answer. One solution is to go for ambiguous most of the time (nobody does it all the time), another is to go for interpretive most of the time (nobody does it all the time). I like seeing these as complementary solutions rather than competing ones.

      • One more thought: I think Greeklish—almost a kind of transliteration—is a solution of last resort, and sometimes not even that. “Hades” and “Sheol” are two reasonable “Greeklish” (and “Hebrewlish”) solutions to difficult lexical questions, in my mind, even if they have the feel of cop-outs. But if no English speaker would ever say “work of faith” (and this would have to be established using a corpus search), then it isn’t a suitable translation, even if a lot of translations have resorted to it. I’m pretty close to thinking that “work of faith” is such unnatural English that it really isn’t available to translators. It isn’t English. “Faithful work” is. “Steadfast hope” is. But “work of faith” and “steadfastness of hope” aren’t. I think. Again, I’d have to do more study of English usage—and I’ve never done grammatical constructions in corpuses, only individual lexemes.

        • Don Johnson says:

          Thinking about this particular example, I think I’d have to say “work of faith” and “steadfastness of hope” was probably unambiguous to the hearers. But still, the key is to figure out what the author intended and/or the hearers heard. And then put *that* in the receptor language. That’s the tricky bit.

          • After thinking about it a lot for a few days and doing some digging, I think “steadfastness of hope” was not ambiguous—because the object of that hope is specified in the verse: Jesus Christ.

            I’m less certain about “work of faith.” I think I like the NLT’s “faithful work” best. But then—one thing I didn’t bring up in my post—you possibly lose the Pauline triad of faith, hope, and love. So I come back to recommending the knowledgeable and continuous use of both literal and non-literal Bible translations.

        • Kevin Sellers says:

          I like the thought of ‘faithful work’ but I, personally, think that ‘work of faith’ would lean more towards the understanding phrased work that proceeds out of faith; in other words, the work is the result of the faith. What are your thoughts on this?

  5. An example of why this article is very helpful:

    Is “diaspora” in 1 Pet 1:1 a partitive genitive (“resident foreigners of [the] diaspora”), or an appositional genitive (“that is, the diaspora in . . .”)? You have to make some kind of decision.

    The idea that the NASB (for example) is more “literal” because it just goes with the standard “of the diaspora” is really not a good argument. Many times, by not making a decision and just blandly rendering it as “of,” the translators actually ARE making a decision. Everybody has to make a decision. Some are more justifiable than others. A few good, different translations can help bring that out.

  6. The statement “We have all been told that New Testament Greek is a precise language. That is true in some areas of the language, but it is not true of the genitive construction. (*One Bible, Many Version*s, 138)” is not correct. I’m quite confident a first century Koine or especially Attic speaking Greek person would vigorously disagree with this statement. The problem is not with any supposed ambiguity in the Greek. Rather it is a problem with the receptor language being used in the modern world. Language is defined by and defines every particular Weltanschauung that it exists in. The modern languages operate off of very different ways of conceiving reality than did ancient Greek whether Koine in its many different dialectical forms or classical Greek in its Attic form. The complexity therefore lies with the modern receptor language. To Paul and the Greek speaking individuals of the first century word the idea of the genitive case was rather simple and easy to understand. Interestingly, also, is the multiplicity of meanings of the English preposition “of” in either American or British English. Almost every English speaking person would find it impossible to list all of these categories of meaning, but could intuitively use most of them in oral conversation while not knowing how to explain the precise meaning just used.

    • Dr. Cranford, I agree with your final sentence—but I tend to think it undermines the rest of your comment! As my favorite linguist, John McWhorter, commonly says, people “just talk.” Even grammarians don’t have exhaustive theoretical models for describing the words and constructions that come naturally out of their mouths. Surely uneducated people of the first century were only saying what was intuitive to them and had no explicit, self-conscious knowledge of what we call “the uses of the genitive construction.” And though I think native speakers could intuit better than we can, I think that Don Johnson’s comment is apropos: Koine Greek authors of the first century could write genitive phrases that were purposefully ambiguous, just as we do today. The very fact that there are so many uses of the genitive in Greek tells me that the construction is not precise. We today, and I think they then, can’t always know with 100% certainty what an author meant, or if he meant something specific rather than ambiguous.

      Also, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that I think you’re relying on (?) to tie language to Weltanschauung is pretty heavily disputed, in my reading—though not by any means dead. Please do correct me if I misunderstood you, but my personal answer to the Sapir-Whorf viewpoint is to point to the vastly different worldviews that exist among English speakers. Native speakers of English come from not just America, Britain, and Australia—with all the worldviews contained in those nations—but from Singapore, Kenya, and Guyana. What possible worldview could be said to be shared by all those people?

      I often go back to Vern Poythress’ chapter in his book Symphonic Theology called “Words and Precision.” No language is or can be exhaustively precise (Lobjan is a failure as a usable language), and I’m somewhat skeptical that any given language can be considered more precise than another.

  7. Thanks for some more great insight Mark. Very interesting – thanks for the tips in using logos to frame searches as well – I didn’t realize I could do this with Logos.

  8. Edward Hatch says:

    I can’t speak for other languages, but preserving the ambiguity in the English translations allows people from various theological backgrounds to explain the differences on which there is uncertainty. In a previous post, Mark was unsure of how to best translate a phrase. Whatever choice he made might be debated among his peers. Why not keep ambiguity and let the pastors/teachers give the hard answers rather than the translators (who often don’t agree) try to make clear what might not be so clear? Theological bias can be as much a determiner as to which choice a translator makes as anything else. I do understand the difficulties in other languages and even in English where choices have to be made. But if they don’t have to be made, ambiguity creates a learning experience that causes the reader to dig deeper.

    • A thoughtful comment—thank you. And I don’t disagree *for the use case that you bring up.* For preaching and teaching of educated adults I, too, prefer a literal translation.

      Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough in my affirmation of one key word in one of my Dave Brunn quotations: “some.” *Some* English translations should be permitted to be interpretive; that’s all I really claimed, and all I quote Brunn claiming.

      I feel like—and maybe I’m just misunderstanding people—people are always on the hunt for the “best” English Bible translation. As if there could be one best translation for all the use cases out there.

      And with regard to theological bias, I suppose I don’t deny that it occurs whenever one makes a translation of any kind; but when I actually do exegesis throughout the Bible (and this is true of textual criticism, too) I’m reminded frequently how non-doctrinal a lot of the statements in Scripture are. Take one of the classic stumper texts in Hebrew, which the KJV renders as, “Iron sharpeneth iron, so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.” The KJV is almost alone in including the word “countenance,” which is arguably itself not quite literal (the word is “face”). This is a commonly cited verse, and the majority of contemporary translations did not see fit to go against the KJV (and LXX and Vulgate) tradition. But a minority report out there going back centuries takes “sharpening the face of his friend” as a negative thing—making him angry or prone to violence. The literal translation is actually ambiguous, though I’ve never heard anyone take the “negative” interpretation straight from the English. This is a verse where I personally don’t think the author meant to be ambiguous; he had a clear image in mind. Is it wrong for one translation to give us a solid meaning (like the NRS’s “so a man sharpens the wits of his friend”) rather than the ambiguous-to-the-point-of-impossible literal translation we now have in most versions? Especially when this is a non-doctrinal passage?

      When I write about Bible translation, I presume a situation in which people have easy, regular recourse to multiple contemporary translations. I’m arguing that this should be a regular part of every layperson’s Bible study—along with a basic appreciation of the overall character of so-called literal and so-called interpretive translations (so-called because, as Brunn points out, no translation is perfectly consistent—see Psalm 44:14b in the NIV, NLT, NASB, and ESV, where the two sides switch places!).

      Also, and I hope to follow up on this in another post, one man’s “literal” is another man’s “Greeklish.” It’s not always clear, ironically enough, which texts are ambiguous. A good deal of judgment is required, though we’re (again) typically talking about minor, non-doctrinal points. The latitude allowed in a translation, if it is to count as a translation and not a paraphrase, is not very great, I’d say. Prov 27:17 can’t be saying, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man punches another man’s face.” I’m urging that we get all the feasible translations of every verse out to the public through our major trusted versions, which I think is what we very nearly have done. Now I just want to get people using those translations rather than being suspicious or neglectful of them (which I’m not charging you individually with doing, btw!).

      One more thing: I do think there is something of a logical priority to translations, that the more literal translations come before the less literal and are needed before them. I do like the “as literal as possible” rubric for the first Bible translation a language gets.

  9. Peter Feige says:

    Hi Mark! Great article! I am a graduate of Gordon-Conwell and I had to do the Greek and Hebrew tracks for the MDiv program. While my language skills have greatly diminished due non-usage (shame on me) I do remember quite a bit of discussion about the genitive case in Greek.

    My go-to translation is the ESV however I do have a heightened sense of alertness for such situations like the genitive case, kai, oti (hoti) and repeated words or phrases. And that is exactly why I use Logos almost daily to do some of that digging!

  10. Daniel Bos says:

    What about the genitives in Gal 2.16? Here two genitive phrases “faith of Christ” and one prepositional phrase [with eis] “faith in Christ” are all three translated in the NIV with “in”. So is Christ the object of faith or the subject of faith in the genitive phrases? Should the genitives be translated by faith in Christ or by the faithfulness of Christ? Without some help from the translator, ordinary English speaking people do not even know that it is ambiguous. The NIV puts that information in a footnote. Is that sufficient? Is it our faith that saves us? Or is it Christ’s faithfulness that saves us?

    • Anthony Furtado says:

      Excellent article and responses! I would also suggest that you don’t forget, or leave out God’s Holy Spirit! He is the one who will bring the scriptures to life in any one’s heart and mind with the proper meaning in and to any situation.