How Close are we to the Bible?
The theological basis for evaluating translations
The arrival of the new English Standard Version of the Bible (ESV)
has brought to the surface many underlying issues about our English
language Bibles, and what we should expect from them. A mass of
How literal should a translation be? Is it possible to exactly reproduce
into English the ancient Greek and Hebrew of the Bible? And even
if we could do that, what if that translation was so difficult that
most people couldnt read it? Would that be a good
translation? How simple should we try to make the Bible? Are the
difficulties involved in rendering a 2000 year-old text into modern
English so severe that we really have to re-write the
Bible to make it relevant and understandable to modern people?
These questions are by no means simple. They take us into the murky
waters of the theory of language and meaning, and how God communicates
with us, and us with each other. Rest assured, I will not try to
solve all these imponderables in this paper.
What I will do is look at one fundamental issue that lies be
hind much of the modern debate about translation, and that is: How
close are we to the world of the biblical text?
In other words, is it a relatively simple thing for us to gain access
to the meaning of the biblical text as 21st century people? Or is
the linguistic, historical and cultural distance that separates
us from the 1st century so vast that translating the Bible into
a form that we can understand is quite a difficult task? Are we
close to the people of the 1st century or distant from them? Are
we in a profound sense united with them or divided from them?
Our answer to this question will determine our basic approach to
Bible translation, and indeed our approach to Bible reading and
preaching, as will become apparent below.
The unity of all humanity
According the biblical world view, all humans have a great deal
in common with each other because of the twin doctrines of creation
The doctrine of creation tells us that God created the world as
a good, orderly, habitable place in which humans could live, work
and prosper. The created order has certain abiding features and
structures that are givens, because God put them in place. There
are certain things in our world which are good because
God made them to be good, and likewise certain things
which are undesirable and evil. There are relational
structures--such as man and woman and marriage--which
are created by God for humanitys good. In Gods world
there is work and love and human relations and rest and beauty and
sex and language, and much more.
The human capacity for language is worth noting in particular, and
is important for our understanding of Bible translation. God created
us to be like him in being able to speak, in being able to name
things. He gave our minds the capacity to think about the world
conceptually, and the ability to represent those conceptions to
one another through speech, and writing.
More than this, because the created world (including ourselves)
has an order and a rationale, we can share perceptions of the world,
and so understand one another. Because the world is an orderly place,
created by God to be that way, we can understand it, name it and
talk about it.
In other words, the created order is the playing field
upon which all human history has been played out. And it is a moral
playing field as well as a physical one. What is right and good
and beneficial in the creation is so because of Gods creative
purposes; it is part of the order he has put in place.
This means that all of humanity--in all places and at all times
in history--has something very profound in common. We all live and
work and love and exist on the same creational playing field. Adultery
is wrong and harmful because it distorts and damages the order of
relationship (called marriage) that God has created.
It is wrong in Egypt in 1500 BC and it is wrong in China in 2002
AD. Laziness is wrong and harmful in Israel in 800 BC, just as it
is in Australia in 2002 AD, because it goes against the created
structures of the world (such that humans should gain their bread
by working for it, and should be loving towards others by not being
a burden on them).
But that, as they say, is not all. The doctrine of redemption adds
an important element to the fellowship of all humanity. We not only
all exist on the same playing field, with its structures and boundaries
and norms; we are also all playing in the same game. Human history
is linear and purposeful. It has a beginning and an end and a rationale--and
that rationale is the plan of God to unite all things in heaven
and on earth under one head, even Christ (as Eph 1 puts it). Gods
cosmic plan to make Jesus Christ the Lord of a redeemed people in
a new creation is the game that were all part
of. And as of now we are deep into the second half, with not much
time left on the clock, and the result a foregone conclusion (the
victory having already been sewn up not long after half time).
All of human history bears a relation to this plan, and gains its
significance from it. We understand the history of Old Testament
Israel, for example, not just in terms of them being fellow human
beings living in the same world as us, but also in terms of their
place in Gods unfolding purposes. This is why some things
that were appropriate to them may no longer be appropriate for us.
Were on the same playing field, but were operating at
a different time in the game.
Even so, it is the same game, the same plan, the same unfolding
purpose of God. The biblical writers assumed this. When Jesus quoted
Scripture to the Sadducees, he said, "Have you not read what
was said to you by God: I am the God of Abraham, and the God
of Isaac, and the God of Jacob" (Matt 22:31). Jesus assumed
that what God said to Moses (recorded in Exod 3:6) also directly
addressed the Sadducees, some 1300 years later. The fact that more
than a millennia has passed, and that cultural, historical and linguistic
changes had taken place, did not alter the fact that what God had
said back then to Moses was still utterly true and relevant to the
1st century Sadducees.
We will return to this subject further below but for now let us
note what fundamentally unites humanity: we all live and exist on
the same playing field (creation), and are part of the same game
The division of all humanity
The Bible is also quite clear as to the source of the divisions
that exist within humanity. Put simply, the problem is sin. The
entrance of sin into the world destroyed the harmony of Adam and
Eve, not only with God, but with each other. Before long, brother
murdered brother, and the enmity and hostility of humanity towards
each other was established as an incorrigible problem.
At this basic level we are divided from each other because of the
selfishness and sinfulness of our hearts.
At another level, however, we are divided from each other because
God determined that we should be. At the tower of Babel, humanity
banded together to make a name for themselves, but God had other
ideas. In confusing their languages, God frustrated the ability
of humans to cooperate together in opposition to God. The capacity
for language was still there, and our ability to describe the world,
and to relate to other people was still there. But in the confusion
of our languages, a barrier was erected that prevented us from completely
understanding each other and cooperating together to shake our collective
fist at God.
It is important to note, however, that even this division within
humanity took place on the one playing field (of creation), and
was in fact part of Gods redemptive game plan. His purpose
was to separate the peoples of the earth, and to choose one
of them (Israel) through whom to bless and redeem them all. As Acts
17 makes clear, Gods division of humanity into different nations,
to live in different places, was all part of his ultimate plan--which
culminated in Jesus Christ.
This is why Paul could stand up in the Areopagus and proclaim that
Gods purposes as Creator and Redeemer were utterly relevant
and pressing for a bunch of cosmopolitan, first century Greek philosophers.
The God who made heaven and earth was now calling on all people
everywhere--regardless of their language and culture--to repent,
and submit to the Lordship of the resurrected Jesus Christ.
And one day, as the vision of Revelation tells us, a great multitude
from every nation and every tongue will once again be as one, worshipping
together before the throne.
What does all this mean for Bible translation?
The above may seem very big picture, but it has very
direct and important implications for Bible translation.
a. Translation is worth doing
Bible translation is worth doing, because what God has said will
be both understandable and relevant to all of humanity. Since we
are all on the same playing field, and part of the same game, and
since God created that field with all its structures and rules,
and is totally in charge of the progress of the game, then what
God says (about the field, and about how we are to play the game)
will be true, clear and relevant to all humanity in all places and
at all times in history.
The traditional name for this idea is the perspicuity of Scripture--that
is, that Scripture will be clear and readily understandable by the
person who, through Gods Spirit, humbly seeks to hear and
obey. This latter qualification is important, because the problems
that do occur in our understanding of what God says are not due
to his ability to communicate, nor to the relevance of his communication,
but due to our dullness of heart, our distorted rationality, the
confused and false ideas weve adopted, and our general rebelliousness
b. Translation is treason
The second implication is that no translation between two languages
will be perfect. As the Italian saying goes, translation is
treason. Because of Babel, we do speak different languages
and live in different places, with different habits of dress and
customs. These surface differences mean that we will struggle to
exactly represent the words of one language into another, and will
never do so with complete accuracy and perfection. No Bible translation
will be perfect, including the NIV, the new ESV or the venerable
KJV. There will always be imperfections and glitches.
All the same, because the underlying structures of the world are
the same--that is, we are all on the same playing field playing
the same game--translation will be possible. Because of the perspicuity
of Scripture, we will expect Gods communication addressed
at a particular time to a particular cultural setting to speak clearly
to our own (the human capacity for language being one of the ground
rules of the game).
c. The modern rejection of the biblical view
We need to recognize that, since the Enlightenment, modern thought
has fundamentally rejected the doctrines of creation and redemption
as outlined above. This has yielded enormous problems in seeking
to find a solid theoretical basis for knowledge, language and morality,
to name just three. Without an underlying creational order to the
world, and without an over-arching plan that makes sense of human
history, modern thought is left largely with fragmentation, uncertainty
and ultimately relativism. In terms of human nature, culture and
history, there is no playing field, no rules and no game. There
is just a vast expanse of grass, with no boundaries, upon which
a multitude of different groups are doing their own cultural thing,
without any necessary connection between them.
Of the many implications that flow from this Enlightenment view,
the one that most concerns us is the enormous distance that is put
between us as 21st century Westerners, and the Bible, written thousands
of years ago in the Middle East. On the wide, boundary-less expanse
that is the modern view of the world, we are so separated--by time,
by cultural habit, by thought-pattern, by moral sensibility, by
language, by technology--that it is difficult indeed to imagine
how the Bible might speak clearly and relevantly to the 21st century
person. This is because, according to this view, there is nothing
in principle to connect us.
d. The influence of the Enlightenment view on Bible translation
As is so often and so sadly the case, Christians have been much
influenced by the Enlightenment world view that has dominated Western
thought over the last hundred years. We have come to accept the
presupposition that there is indeed a vast chasm that separates
us from the ancient world. Many books on Bible reading, interpretation,
preaching and hermeneutics simply assume this to be the case.
It is also seen in our approach to Bible translating. Many modern
Bible translators now do their work on the assumption (consciously
held or otherwise) that a fairly plain rendering of the ancient
text into English will not bridge the cultural and historical chasm
that separates us from the world of the Bible. We must do more than
simply give readers access to the ancient text, through translating
it into the lexical and grammatical structures of our own language.
It is too distant, too strange. Instead, we must simplify and re-model
the ancient text so that it can communicate within the very different
world in which we now live. We must modernize the text.
There are connections here with the dynamic (or functional) equivalence
theory of translation, although we do not have space to examine
this theory in any detail. It may be sufficient to say that the
drive within modern Bible translation is to conform the ancient
text to the modern world, and this includes the attempt (which is
at the heart of functional equivalence theory) to reproduce the
same effect within the modern reader as the original reader experienced.
This seems a problematic exercise, not only in view of the theological
principles outlined above, but also because of a fundamental problem--we
do not have any access to the ancient reader to know how he or she
reacted, or what effect the text had upon them.
The key question in Bible translating
If what we have outlined above is accurate, then the goal of Bible
translation should be this: to give the reader as much access
to the ancient text as the readers linguistic skills will
Notice that the direction of this movement is from the reader to
the ancient text, and not vice versa. If we assume, on the basis
of the doctrines of creation and redemption, that the words of the
Bible will speak clearly and directly to us, because we are on the
same playing field, and playing in the same game,
then what is required is for us to gain linguistic access to the
ancient text. We do not need a cultural or historical mediator to
stand between us and the text to transform the text into something
more modern that we can relate to and understand. We do not, in
other words, need to bring the ancient text to the modern reader,
to make it more familiar, more like ourselves (because it is so
strange and distant). We simply need the linguistic tools to read
what Paul, Moses, Luke and all the rest, wrote.
The best way to do this, obviously, is to learn the original languages,
and it is important that some of us continue to do so. However,
given that it is impractical to expect all to do so, the work of
translation should focus on giving the intended readers as much
access to the text itself as the readers skills will allow.
Thus, if the intended readership of the translation is children
under the age of seven, then there will be a great many features
of the ancient text that their linguistic and intellectual abilities
will not be equipped to handle. The resulting English translation
will therefore deny these young readers access to many features
of the text, and it cannot be otherwise. The translation will be
greatly simplified and shortened. In fact, it will be a modern re-telling
of the message and story of the text, that preserves very few features
of the original at all.
In other words, there will always need to be a range of English
translations available corresponding to the different linguistic
abilities of different readers. The translation that is suitable
for an average literate adult will not usually work for children,
for teenagers, for adults with very poor literacy skills or for
whom English is a second language, or perhaps even for non-Christians
to whom we may want to introduce the message of the Bible in a more
familiar and accessible form.
The goal, however, is to give the reader as much access to the text
as their abilities will allow; to preserve as many features of the
ancient text as possible, while using the grammar and syntax of
the target language. The aim should be to maintain the logical structure
of sentences, the connections between words, the distinctive imagery
that the text uses, and so on.
It must be said that an increasing number of modern English translations
do not see this as their priority. The goal, instead, seems to be
to make the translation as simple as possible, and as modern as
possible--to drag the ancient text into the modern world, as it
were; to update its expression, even its thought-forms and referents.
This trend proceeds under the unspoken assumption of the chasm
which we have discussed above. It seeks to conform the ancient text
to the expectations and world of the modern reader in a number of
- by chopping up longer biblical sentences into shorter English
ones, without always preserving the logical connections between
the ideas, presumably on the assumption that, unlike the ancient
average reader, the modern average reader cant always cope
with longer sentences;
- by seeking to produce in the modern reader the same spiritual
effect as the ancient text produced, even though the concepts
and referents which produce that effect might be different (this
is related to the theory of functional equivalence);
- by removing or downplaying word play and repetition;
- by removing or recasting imagery and metaphors;
- by simplifying difficult arguments, and smoothing over ambiguities,
on the assumption that the modern reader will only be confused
- by completely recasting or paraphrasing the sentences to express
what the translator takes to be their meaning, but using different
or additional concepts and referents to do so (as in the case
of the very paraphrastic translations such as The Message
or The Living Bible).
Let me reiterate that all of these steps may be quite right and
necessary, if the linguistic abilities of the intended readers require
it. The Good News Bible, for example, does nearly all of these things,
and in doing so has produced an excellent translation for young
readers and those with poor English.
However, if the linguistic abilities of the reader do not require
it, then these sorts of translation decisions are unnecessary and
unhelpful, because they needlessly deny the reader access in various
ways to the ancient text. This sort of translation will be easier
to read, because it is more modern, more familiar, more in style
like the newspaper we read in the morning. But it will not thereby
be better. It will not more effectively bring us to God and what
he is saying to us.
By contrast, the approach that seeks to give the modern reader as
much access as possible to the ancient text achieves two somewhat
- It brings us, firstly, to a world we recognize as our own, a
world that is real because of the very particulars that comprise
it. These particulars may be slightly different from our own (e.g.
tunics rather than shirts, reclining at table rather than sitting
at table), yet they are all the more recognizably real for being
so. It is not an idealized, ahistorical world, a universalised
world, but the real world that we share, the world of dusty roads,
and grassy hills, of tax and war and adultery and suffering.
- Secondly, and following on from this, it allows to hear the
challenge from outside that God brings to us by addressing us
in the real world. The uniqueness of the Bible is not found in
its historical detail and cultural setting; it is found in its
divine authorship. Through it, God speaks the truth to his creatures
about life on his playing field and in his game.
The NIV and the ESV
How does all this apply to the current discussion about Bible translations,
and in particular the new ESV? Several points should be made.
Firstly, it is obvious that in comparing the NIV with the
ESV, we are comparing two translations that give different levels
of access to the ancient text. Of the two, the NIV is the more modern
Bible. It repeatedly smooths out features of the ancient text that
the translators feel modern readers wont relate to or understand.
There are many such examples, the most well-known being the shortening
of the longer biblical sentences into shorter English sentences,
and the consequent removal of logically connective elements in the
sentences (such as conjunctions and participles). For example, of
the 144 occurrences of the conjunction gar in Romans, the NIV leaves
50 untranslated (the other occurrences it translates with words
like for, because, and so).
This is a very large of number of connectives to leave out.
The NIV also tends to iron out ambiguities in the text, remove wordplay
and repetition (in the interests of more stylish English), and replace
the concrete metaphors so beloved of the biblical writers with more
abstract modern expressions.
We should note, secondly, that these features of the NIV
are not necessarily bad things, depending on the linguistic ability
of the readers for whom it is intended, and the circumstances in
which it might be used. For some English readers, the level of access
the NIV grants them to the ancient text will be as much as their
literary and intellectual abilities will allow. For some congregations,
for some fellowships, for some age-groups, the NIV may be the best
Thirdly, we should recognize that this trend in the NIV is
not nearly as extreme as it is in many other modern translations.
The NIV is by no means at the far end of the spectrum, and indeed
the reason that it has been adopted so enthusiastically over the
past 20 years throughout the English-speaking world is that it is
so readable and fresh while offering readers more access to the
original text than many other contemporary translations.
Fourthly, however, we should also realise that this relative
lack of access to features of the ancient text is what has frustrated
a growing number of readers with the NIV. Given that the you thought
I could cope with 94 of the gars in Romans, the reader may ask,
why deny me access to the other 50? Why not let me see that they
are there, and think about what their significance may be?
If the text of Ephesians repeatedly uses the concrete metaphor of
walk to refer to the Christian journey, why not let
the modern reader see that (in Eph 2:2,10; 4:1; 5:2,8,15)? If the
phrase righteousness of God is somewhat ambiguous in
Romans 1:17, why not leave it that way rather than making the decision
for the reader (by translating it righteousness from God,
as the NIV does)?
In other words, there are numerous features of the biblical text
which modern English is well able to represent but which the NIV
fails to represent, in the interests of making the translation punchier,
simpler and more modern.
Fifthly, and finally, this is precisely what is attracting
a growing number of readers to the new English Standard Version
(ESV), to be their standard all-purpose Bible. The ESV manages to
give the English reader substantially more access to the ancient
text than the NIV, while still being eminently readable in English.
The English of the ESV is not impenetrable or difficult--it is flowing
and readily understandable--and yet it leaves an impressive number
of features in the original intact. The connectives are still there,
the participles are still there, the consistency of word use, the
ambiguity that is present in some texts, the concrete imagery--they
are all there to a much greater extent.
This, of course, is not to say that the ESV is perfect or not in
need of further improvement; nor that other translations are not
useful in different contexts. But for the Bible that will be our
public reference point, the Bible we will study and preach from
and memorize, the ESV has a great deal to commend it. It grants
us more access to the ancient than the NIV, and yet does not stretch
the linguistic skills of the average reader beyond their ability
(which is the problem with even more literal translations such as
The appeal of the ESV is ultimately a theological one. For it seems
to be based more closely on the theological principles that the
Bible contains--that God created both the world and our language,
and that the Scriptures are thus perspicuous, not only to the original
readers, but to us.