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Five Myths About Bible Translation

There’s an old Italian proverb that warns translators about jumping in to the task: “Traduttori? Traditori!” Translation: “Translators? Traitors!” The English proverb, “Something’s always lost in the translation,” is clearly illustrated in this instance. In Italian the two words are virtually identical, both in spelling and pronunciation. They thus involve a play on words. But when translated into other languages, the word-play vanishes. The meaning, on one level, is the same, but on another level it is quite different. Precisely because it is no longer a word-play, the translation doesn’t linger in the mind as much as it does in Italian. There’s always something lost in translation. It’s like saying in French, “don’t eat the fish; it’s poison.” The word ‘fish’ in French is poisson, while the word ‘poison’ is, well, poison. There’s always something lost in translation.

But how much is lost? Here I want to explore five more myths about Bible translation.

Myth 1: The Bible has been translated so many times we can’t possibly get back to the original.

This myth involves a naïve understanding of what Bible translators actually did. It’s as if once they translated the text, they destroyed their exemplar! Sometimes folks think that translators who were following a tradition (such as the KJV and its descendants, the RV, ASV, RSV, NASB, NKJB, NRSV, and ESV) really did not translate at all but just tweaked the English. Or that somehow the manuscripts that the translators used are now lost entirely.

The reality is that we have almost no record of Christians destroying biblical manuscripts throughout the entire history of the Church. And those who translated in a tradition both examined the English and the original tongues. Decent scholars improved on the text as they compared notes and manuscripts. Finally, we still have almost all of the manuscripts that earlier English translators used. And we have many, many more as well. The KJV New Testament, for example, was essentially based on seven Greek manuscripts, dating no earlier than the eleventh century. Today we have about 5800 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, including those that the KJV translators used. And they date as early as the second century. So, as time goes on, we are actually getting closer to the originals, not farther away.

Myth 2: Words in red indicate the exact words spoken by Jesus of Nazareth.

Scholars have for a long time recognized that the Gospel writers shape their narratives, including the sayings of Jesus. A comparison of the Synoptics reveals this on almost every page. Matthew quotes Jesus differently than Mark does who quotes Jesus differently than Luke does. And John’s Jesus speaks significantly differentyly than the Synoptic Jesus does. Just consider the key theme of Jesus’ ministry in the Synoptics: ‘the kingdom of God’ (or, in Matthew’s rendering, often ‘the kingdom of heaven’). Yet this phrase occurs only twice in John, being replaced usually by ‘eternal life.’ (“Kingdom of God” occurs 53 times in the Gospels, only two of which are in John; “kingdom of heaven” occurs 32 times, all in Matthew. “Eternal life” occurs 8 times in the Synoptics, and more than twice as often in John.) The ancient historians were far more concerned to get the gist of what a speaker said than they were to record his exact words. And if Jesus taught mostly, or even occasionally, in Aramaic, since the Gospels are in Greek the words by definition are not exact.

A useful distinction is made between the very words of Jesus and very voice of Jesus, known as ipsissima verba and ipsissima vox, respectively. Only rarely can we say that we have the very words of Jesus, but we can be far more confident that what is recorded in red letters in translations is at least the very voice of Jesus. Again, if ancient historians were not as concerned to get the words exactly right, we should not put them into a modernist straitjacket in which we expect them to be something they were never intended to be.

Myth 3: Heretics have severely corrupted the text.

This myth is usually promoted by King James Only folks who assume that the manuscripts that came from Egypt were terribly corrupted. A more sophisticated approach seeks to demonstrate this in passage after passage. For example, would orthodox scribes begin the quotation of Isaiah 40.3 and Malachi 3.1 in Mark 1.2 with “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet”? The alternative reading, found in the majority of manuscripts, reads “As it is written in the prophets.” But the earliest, most widespread reading is “in Isaiah the prophet.” It looks as though the later scribes were troubled by this attribution and they ‘corrected’ it to be more generic so as to include Malachi.

What is overlooked in the approach that assumes that the earlier manuscripts were corrupted and produced by heretics is the fact that virtually all Gospels manuscripts harmonize. That is, in parallel passages between two or more Gospels, virtually all manuscripts, from time to time, change the wording in one Gospel so that it duplicates the wording in another. Would heretics do this? It represents rather a high view of scripture—or, as Paul said in another context, zeal that is not according to knowledge. Further, the great majority of these harmonizations are either found in isolated manuscripts or in later manuscripts. This tells us that the tendencies of the earliest scribes was to harmonize, but because such harmonizations are done sporadically and in isolation they are easily detected. And later scribes produced their copies in great quantities in a heavily concentrated area, resulting in a more systematic harmonization—again, something that is easily detected.

This finds an apt analogy in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. When the beleaguered hobbits meet the dark stranger, Strider, at the Prancing Pony Inn, they are relieved to learn that he is on their side. He is Aragorn, and he tells them that if he had been their enemy he could have killed them easily.

There was a long silence. At last Frodo spoke with hesitation, “I believed that you were a friend before the letter came,” he said, “or at least I wished to. You have frightened me several times tonight, but never in the way that servants of the Enemy would, or so I imagine. I think one of his spies would—well, seem fairer and feel fouler, if you understand.”

Likewise, the readings of the oldest manuscripts often has a way of making Christians nervous, but in the end it seems fouler but feels fairer.

Myth 4: Orthodox scribes have severely corrupted the text.

This is the opposite of myth #3. It finds its most scholarly affirmation in the writings of Dr. Bart Ehrman, chiefly The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture and Misquoting Jesus. Others have followed in his train, but they have gone far beyond what even he claims. For example, a very popular book among British Muslims (The History of the Qur’anic Text from Revelation to Compilation: a Comparative Study with the Old and New Testaments by M. M. Al-Azami) makes this claim:

The Orthodox Church, being the sect which eventually established supremacy over all the others, stood in fervent opposition to various ideas ([a.k.a.] ‘heresies’) which were in circulation. These included Adoptionism (the notion that Jesus was not God, but a man); Docetism (the opposite view, that he was God and not man); and Separationism (that the divine and human elements of Jesus Christ were two separate beings). In each case this sect, the one that would rise to become the Orthodox Church, deliberately corrupted the Scriptures so as to reflect its own theological visions of Christ, while demolishing that of all rival sects.”

This is a gross misrepresentation of the facts. Even Ehrman admitted in the appendix to Misquoting Jesus, “Essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.” The extent to which, the reasons for which, and the nature of which the orthodox scribes corrupted the New Testament has been overblown. And the fact that such readings can be detected by comparison with the readings of other ancient manuscripts indicates that the fingerprints of the original text are still to be seen in the extant manuscripts.

Myth 5: The deity of Christ was invented by emperor Constantine.

This myth was heavily promoted in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. He, in turn, based his allegedly true statements (even though the book was a novel, he claimed that it was based on historical facts) on Holy Blood, Holy Grail (by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln). The evidence, in fact, that the deity of Christ is to be found in the original New Testament is overwhelming. A look at some of the early papyri shows this. In passage after passage, the deity of Christ shines through the pages of the New Testament—and in manuscripts that significantly predate Constantine. For example, P66, a papyrus from the late second century, says what every other manuscript in John 1.1 says—“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” It predates the Council of Nicea (AD 325), which these skeptics claim is the time when Constantine invented Christ’s divinity, by about 150 years! P46, a papyrus dated to c. AD 200, plainly speaks of Christ’s divinity in Hebrews 1.8. The list could go on and on. Altogether, we have more than fifty Greek New Testament manuscripts that are prior to Constantine’s reign. Not one of them denies the deity of Christ.

To see some of the details that expose these myths, consider the following books:

Rob Bowman and Ed Komoszewski, Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ

Ed Komoszewski, James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus

Daniel B. Wallace, editor, Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament.

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Check out my new website: http://danielbwallace.com/

27 Responses to “Five Myths About Bible Translation”

  1. Related to myth number 2, my understanding is that the original manuscripts did not have quotation marks, so it doesn’t always seem clear whether the author intended for certain passages to be read as Jesus’s speech, or whether the author is interpreting what’s going on (this seems most evident in John, e.g., John 3:16). In these cases, interpretation was involved in determining which text should be considered a quotation, and thus red colored, but I think this is lost on a number of readers who assume that red-letter text means it is weightier, carries greater authority, is more important, etc. Which is kind of beside the point anyway, because the whole book is inspired scripture, maybe certain parts are weightier than others, but the criterion shouldn’t be merely whether we think Jesus said it. So I’m all for doing away with red-lettering.

  2. Actually, some translators have mistranslated some passages, with, in hindsight, rather ironic results (e.g. the “Wife-Beater’s Bible”, etc.). Such a travesty would not be on our bookshelves except perhaps for the novelty of it. In short, there are enough good men of solid faith and scholarship to discern and stop the mass production of a truly corrupt translation. It is part of our commission to defend the Word, which includes insuring its fidelity to the approved manuscripts.
    Regarding Dan Brown, I think his satire and ironic humor are lost on many. Regarding the Divine, “historical fact” is an oxymoron, like “scientific proof”.

  3. “Mistranslated some passages with rather ironic results”
    This is the most under estimated exclamation of the entire Bible! Try doing a study on Hell and find out why it doesn’t mean what modern Christianty proclams it to be, and why Jesus never mentioned eternal torment. TentMakers.org
    Mind boggling stuff..

  4. Michael in Dublin March 16, 2013 at 9:50 am

    In the course of his teaching Jesus would have often repeated himself using slightly different words so it is not unexpected to find these differences reflected in the gospels – differences that make no change to the essential content. It is important not to harmonize the gospel accounts but to accept that the writers were guided by the Holy Spirit to choose this wording and each must be understood in its own context with the emphasis of the passage.

    When comparing the Bible translations into English (bar say the New World Translation), there are only a small number of instances that are significantly different. An example will bear this out. The NIV translates Mark 8:29 where Peter replies as “You are the Messiah.” The Greek word is “Christ”. While this is the equivalent of the Hebrew word “Messiah” the translation would have done more justice to the original by sticking to the text and using a explanatory footnote that this means Messiah.

    But despite these all the translations agree: God is the Creator of our world and universe; Jesus is the promised Messiah who lived, died on a cross, rose from the dead; Jesus is coming again when God will finally establish his Kingdom of righteousness; we become the children of God through faith in Jesus Christ and his completed work. Much of the energy expended in fighting about which translation should be used would be far better spent in seeking to grapple with the plain and natural sense of every passage.

  5. “Much of the energy expended in fighting about which translation should be used would be far better spent in seeking to grapple with the plain and natural sense of every passage.”

    Spot on!

  6. Also to consider are the “emerging” translations (such as “The Message”) which apparently follow a new-age agenda to redefine Christ’s identity and divinity, etc.
    We must be discerning and face the reality of infiltration by Satan’s agents.
    Jesus promised the HS, which will bring us into remembrance of that which is truly from God – we have an Umpire, if you will, of what is the genuine simplicity of Christ for us.
    Lastly, I don’t care if Hell has cable TV and air-conditioning, I’m not going!

  7. Good enough here, but in your NIV 2011 review a couple years ago you used “accurate” to favor one kind of accuracy (idiomatic meaning) over another (more literal), rather than value each for what it offers. (And since “The Message” is in English, it’s a translation in that it puts the Bible from the original tongues into English even if Rev Peterson didn’t refer to the originals).
    And re Mk 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11, Burgon did his homework and made a case for those passages, even if none of his followers has reached his level. The modern scholarly majority that rejects those passages tends to publish their position without bothering to refer to anyone trying to prove it. (‘Modern theologians are like a bunch of dogs sniffing each others’ behinds’–David Chilton.) The old NIV footnote said the 2 best mss omit Mt 16:9-20. Burgon says Sinaiticus, tho early, is a bad ms (10 scribes tried to correct it), and Vaticanus has a unique gap that would hold 9-20, i.e. its scribe knew of those verses; and Burgon offers a theory as to how they dropped out of some mss. And most NT autographs went to the “Byzantine arc” around the NE Med; odd copies getting to Alexandria and its textual critics might establish an idiosyncratic local text with local ‘corrections’ there. (Tell us about a definitive refutation of Burgon?) Besides doctrinal ‘corrections,’ Greek stylists had an “Attic” fashion wave that could’ve shortened texts, and later an “Asiatic” waved that could’ve embellished them.

  8. Get real about the Bible.
    Were there voice recorders back in the day? Were there even written records?
    Dr. Dan Wallace, top textual critic says, “The ancient historians were far more concerned to get the gist of what a speaker said than they were to record his exact words. And if Jesus taught mostly, or even occasionally, in Aramaic, since the Gospels are in Greek the words by definition are not exact.”
    History shows that the biblical authors did not put emphasis on each word to be exact as we do in our modern age where even the word “the” has multitudinous implications in a political environment, driven precisely because we do record everything. So the gospel was transmitted orally most of the time. When it was written down, it was written as an account of a happening, like telling a story. Back then they did not think in terms of exact word recordings. Think about it. In our day we demand the Bible must be inspired down to the very word because that’s how we would like it to be. Does this really make sense? Get real with the Bible.

  9. I have to also say, as I was just discussing different translations with a friend and which one/s are best/worst, that the NET Bible is a masterpiece of honesty.

  10. Theo
    I have three difficulties with the view of Dan Wallace that you have approvingly quoted:

    1. The New Testament writers were not like the historians of their time who had no knowledge of and faith in Jesus Christ. Even a comparison with the two books of Luke, who did very thorough homework, show that they are very different from the histories of his century.

    2. At the time of the Reformation it was recorded how illiterate, unschooled people were able to recall the many points of the reformers’ sermons and much of the detail. I am sure the same happened in the time of Jesus and the early Church. Those who were gripped and changed by Jesus’ words would have remembered far, far more than the general gist.

    3. While the writers were ordinary people using the language of the day with its literary features what happened with the genesis of the Old Testament continued with the New Testament – the Holy Spirit guided the writers to produce the record of God speaking through the prophets, through His Son Jesus Christ and through those he had chosen to spread the Gospel throughout the “civilized” world of the time.

    Anyone working with ancient and modern languages soon discovers this amazing feature of all languages – they can be translated into other modern languages and clearly convey the essence of the original, whether it be prose or poetry.

  11. Some have noted the utility of the greek in use at Jesus’ time and how precise it is. Perhaps this infrastructure and language were raised up to spread the Gospel to the world?
    If so, the Greeks had a word for it.

  12. re: #6 C. Barton,

    Actually, the “Wife-beaters Bible” was a comment in the margin of a decent translation. ‘wife-beater’ was not in the translation at all.

  13. Dan: thanks for the clarification. The example is poor yet my point is that we have in the Body a mechanism in place to identify and reject errors in translation. Sadly, there are publications which have obfuscations and additions which compromise the virtue and intent of the original. For example there is a “bible” now available for young women which has socially and sexually inappropriate commentary. Clearly not our Lord’s intent.

  14. See this entirely new way of translating Old Testement:

    http://withoutvowels.org

    We are too produce a new translation which will be unlike all others.

  15. As a Greek language speaker, It has seemed curious to me that all English Bible translations which I have witnessed, consistently use the word Jew[s] whereas the Greek language bible will differ significantly, in spite of the fact that parallel words do exist in the English language.

    The translations are widely and even consistently and [IMO] intentionally false when the word Jew[s] is used leaving the reader with an ambiguous understanding.
    Sometimes it SHOULD, for clarity, read “Judea n” “Judea ic”, “Jerusalem ite” etc etc.
    This has lead to wide “failures” among Christians and non-Christians alike to distinguish between followers of the the original faith of the Hebrews ie: The Torah and followers of the later oral “explanatory” ie: The Talmud.
    The later being the work of Pharisees whom Jesus described as “Whited sepulchers” and the “Synagog of Satan”.

    These false translations have culminated in today’s Christians being unable to understand the messages contained in the Bible. Even so far as being unable to comprehend Who are the True followers of God.

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