What Makes a Bible Translation Really Bad? No translation is perfect. But really bad translations are idiosyncratic and mislead innocent Bible readers. Mark WardIf you find an English Bible translation on your Christian bookstore shelf, it’s almost certainly good. Buy it. Read it. Trust it. But there are some “bad Bibles” out there, Bibles you won’t find careful evangelical biblical scholars recommending. In my last article I discussed Bible translations that give in to sectarian impulses. In this article, I discuss the second major category of bad Bibles: crackpot translations. I’ll drastically qualify that word “bad” for some of these; and “crackpot” is about as nice a thing to say as “sectarian,” I’m afraid. Perhaps I should say instead, “idiosyncratic.” Some Bibles are indeed just odd; they rely on ideas about Scripture that are just weird—the kinds of ideas that make you purse your lips and glance from side to side, looking for a way out of this conversation ASAP, the kinds of ideas that get weeded out when translators must have accredited degrees and work in a group with checks and balances. I have a soft spot in my heart for idiosyncratic evangelical Bible translations. I think they are, from one perspective, a great problem to have. The Bible is such an absorbing interest of American evangelicals that we produce extraneous Bible study resources. (I don’t see Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox doing this, though I admit I may simply be ignorant here.) And I assume these idiosyncratic projects usually don’t do much harm. But if they’re not “bad” in the consequentialist sense, they’re not good either. And they merit our attention here. I will give, again, four examples. The Bible is such an absorbing interest of American evangelicals that we produce extraneous Bible study resources. 1. The Amplified Bible I hope I don’t offend anyone, but the Amplified Bible is a good example of what I’m talking about. When I first encountered this Bible edition as an 18-year-old, I was intrigued to have provided for me in such a convenient format the “fuller meaning” of the Hebrew and Greek I hadn’t yet studied at the time. It was as a young college student that I bought the Comparative Study Bible, a four-version parallel Bible including the KJV, the NIV, the NASB, and the Amplified. But I didn’t end up using that last one much; it came to feel like the editors were just piling on English synonyms in all those many brackets that fill (and clutter) the Amplified Bible. Who possibly is helped by adding that parenthetical to the following sentence? We ourselves (you and I) are Jews by birth. (Gal. 2:15a AMP) And how many readers will understand that systematic theology, and not “the true meaning of the Greek,” has been inserted in a bracket into this statement? If, in our desire and endeavor to be justified in Christ [to be declared righteous and put in right standing with God wholly and solely through Christ] … (Gal. 2:17 AMP) (I chose the first two examples my eyes fell upon when I opened the Amplified at random.) What I came to like about the Amplified was actually that, because its interpolations made it so much longer than the other Bible translations, it opened up margin space at the bottom of pages for me to take notes in. My purposes would have been better served, however, if the column taken up by the Amplified had simply been left blank. The Amplified Bible was published in 1965 to provide “clarifying shades of meaning” to Hebrew and Greek words. Source After I learned Hebrew and Greek, I came to feel that the Amplified was mostly harmless but that it raised false expectations among readers—readers who thought they were getting deeper insight than they really were. This isn’t entirely its fault, but the Amplified Bible inserts interpretation into the text in a way that, I discovered, misleads lay readers into thinking that they’re being told something from the Hebrew or Greek that traditional English translations obscure. 2. את Cepher Cepher is an English Bible translation far weirder than the Amplified. The progenitor of Cepher—whose name I don’t care to give but who, I note, claims to have a doctorate but provides no details regarding it that I could find—is fascinated with the alleged power and depth of the Hebrew language in a way that echoes the Tree of Life Version (discussed here). But he takes his fascination to a level I can only call, well, idiosyncratic—and he places his most eccentric idea on the very cover of his Bible edition. We’ll get there; first, some other oddities in Cepher. In the introduction to Cepher, we are given examples of the many Hebrew words that are transliterated rather than translated in this volume. Another wonderful [Hebrew] word we have elected to use in the text is the word yachiyd (יחיד) which in its use declares tremendous meaning. In its first use, we find it in Bere’shiyth (Genesis) with the instruction to Avraham, saying: … “Take now your son, your yachiyd Yitschaq, whom you love.” But yachid just means “only.” It does not have tremendous meaning. It should not be transliterated in an English Bible at all; it should be translated. But Cepher gets weirder as it traces this “wonderful word” throughout the Hebrew Bible and into the New Testament. At the end of its discussion of the Hebrew word for “only,” Cepher’s introduction says, It is with these considerations that we have made the following change: “For Elohiym so loved the world, that he gave his yachiyd, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. RelatedWhat Makes a Bible Translation Bad?Mark WardFive Decisions Every Bible Translator Must MakePeter J. GurryThe Bible in the Language of JesusPhilip M. Forness So a Hebrew transliteration into Roman characters is inserted into an English translation of a Greek sentence. From the middle of this language mélange, two key ideas are dropped out: where is the word “Son”? And where is the “begottenness” that forms such an important part of the doctrine of the eternal generation of that divine Son? I’m not saying the editors in charge of Cepher undercut Trinitarianism on purpose; I doubt that, honestly. My guess is that they are so fascinated with the nifty possibilities provided by faux insights into Hebrew that they got carried away. Cepher does this with other Hebrew words that, it alleges, “carry … additional meaning” beyond what English is capable of communicating. This is why we get Hebrew transliterations elsewhere in the Cepher New Testament. In John 17, for example, Cepher has Jesus praying that his disciples “all may be yachad,” the Hebrew word for “one.” Exactly whom or how this helps is to me very much unclear. Cepher also “restores” many Hebrew names by making more tortuous transliterations of them than we already possess in the English Bible tradition (is Avraham really more deep or accurate or even Jewish than Abraham?). Moses is Mosheh in Cepher; Joshua is Husha; Jesus is Yahushua. And Jesus’ name gets a fanciful etymology that contradicts what the angel Gabriel told Mary. Instead of “Yahweh saves,” Cepher says that Yahushua means “Yah is He who makes equal.” The Cepher translation claims to “restores the Hebrew את” for English readers. Source The Cepher intro also finds impossible phonemic connections between Hebrew and English, connections that aren’t really there—like seeing the English word “hell” in the Hebrew word the KJV translates as “Lucifer.” This is a game a clever person could play all day long in every language of the world. It is crackpottery. My last complaint about Cepher (though I could go on, I assure you) regards a Hebrew word on its cover. It’s just two characters long; you could pronounce it “et.” But it’s actually not a word, per se; it’s a grammatical marker indicating that what follows is a direct object. It’s kind of like the practice in German of capitalizing nouns. It’s rare that this is truly needed; it’s just something biblical Hebrew does. But Cepher’s introduction finds great importance in this little non-word—and by doing so it falls into a very, very old Bible translation trap. Cepher’s intro says that this Hebrew word “has escaped translation in all English texts.” I regard that as a very misleading claim. English just doesn’t need the direct object marker to communicate which element of the sentence is the direct object. The word is “translated” properly by simply making good English sentences with proper Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) word order. In “God created the heavens and the earth,” the direct objects are utterly clear. We don’t have—because we don’t need—a direct object marker in English. But there is an almost superstitious idea abroad—and I’ve seen it among Christians who ought to know better, I’m afraid—that if there’s a “word” in the Hebrew or Greek, there needs to be at least one word reflecting it in any English translation that wishes to regard itself as faithful. This is an old trap because a Jewish Bible translator, Aquila, did almost exactly the same thing twenty centuries ago while moving from Hebrew to Greek, producing impossible sentences.1See William A. Ross and Gregory R. Lanier, The Septuagint: What It Is and Why It Matters (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021), 90–91. Cepher dials this tendency up to 11. The Cepher intro alleges that the first letter of this two-letter “word” is “a symbol of strength and is often construed as a crown of leadership.” The second letter allegedly “means the mark, or sign, or covenant.” Put all these tea leaves and animal entrails together into a pot with a crack in it, and this is what you get: meaningless untranslated and even untransliterated Hebrew in the middle of English Bible verses: In the beginning Elohiym created את the heavens and את the earth. (Bere’shiyth 1:1) This is beyond bizarre. And it is double beyond bizarre—like, actually setting up shop in a real-live bazaar—that Cepher does this even in the New Testament: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with את Elohiym, and Elohiym was the Word. (Yochanon 1:1) I feel rather confident that no plow boys will understand this, because there’s nothing there to understand. I, for one, cannot make any sense of it: “God” is not the direct object in that sentence, so why does it need a direct object marker? Get new articles and updates in your inbox. Leave this field empty if you're human: At the foundation of the Cepher superstructure, lying underneath the stratigraphic levels archaeologists have excavated so far, are thousands of cracked pots. I deny flatly—and I actually find this to be theologically important—that Hebrew carries “tremendous additional meaning” that English or Russian or Sara Kaba Dem or Lamogai or Urdu cannot. There is not—there is not—something you can know about onlyness or oneness or Jesus or hell or Paul or direct objects (!) that you have to know Hebrew to really understand. And hear me, brothers and sisters: you don’t have to say any name in Hebrew, including the name of God, to get the full power of that name. That’s Harry Potterism, not Christianity. The God who knows what you need before you ask does not demand that you pronounce everything right before he’ll listen. He’s not telling us, “You said, ‘Wingardium leviosa,’ and your prayer will not work until you say, ‘Wingardium levioSA.’ ” You can relate to God in your heart language without fear that you’re missing something essential. Projects like Cepher don’t exactly prey on this fear; they are manifestations of it. You can relate to God in your heart language without fear that you’re missing something essential. The things you’ll miss in Scripture if you don’t know Hebrew or Greek are almost always minor grammatical niceties—or, perhaps, technical details that help interpretation mainly at that technical level. You can know God and love him and obey him and have good theology without direct reference to the biblical languages—though, of course, I’m not discouraging you at all from learning them! I’m just trying to encourage those who haven’t had the opportunity not to enter a rabbit trail full of traps. 3. Pure Word Now to the third crackpot/idiosyncratic Bible: the Pure Word New Testament. This one is so odd that I think it has to be pretty harmless. But I think it has something to teach us, as sort of a reductio ad crackpottem. The Pure Word is endorsed by the president of One Path Publishing, who said, There are over 450 English New Testament translations, all containing inaccuracies that never fully reference the original Koine Greek definitions and each word’s original parsings. The Pure Word research project did just that. And what is One Path Publishing? It’s not a publisher; it’s a website for the Pure Word New Testament. And who is the president of One Path? The same man who made the Pure Word New Testament—and who just claimed that all the other English New Testaments contain “inaccuracies” and “never fully reference the original Koine Greek definitions.” The progenitor of the Pure Word—itself an arrogant title, I must say—speaks with deep gravity in his promo video, insisting that “English is a very imprecise language” and that “only recently, with breakthroughs in monadic-based translation” can we really understand the Bible “exactly the way the early church understood it 2,000 years ago.” This is all uncomfortably close to rhetoric I’ve heard among more responsible Christians; let this be a warning to us. None of this is true. And yet he sings the same note all idiosyncratic translations love to play so loudly: if we study his translation, he says, we will “receive the full meaning and blessing that Christ always meant for us to have.” But when you actually look at the Pure Word, searching for the incredible insight its marketing materials promise (or for any kind of serious definition of “monadic hermeneutics”), you get not even a cracked pot, which maybe you could piece together with superglue, but instead one of the potsherds with which Job scraped his skin. Because, God has Loved in such a manner the satan’s world, so that He Gave His Son, the Only Begotten Risen Christ, in order that whoever is Continuously by his choice Committing for the Result and Purpose of Him, should not perish, but definitely should, by his choice, be Continuously Having Eternal Life. (John 3:16 The Pure Word) This is ham-handed bunkum, from the awkward capitalization to the first-year-Greek-student over-specificity to the unexpected appearance of Satan in a verse where he actually wasn’t prowling for once. The search for the holy grail of literalness, the translation that has no errors or even that can’t be misunderstood—these are all understandable impulses, but they run aground on reality. God made translation a usually straightforward but sometimes vexingly difficult and imperfect science. And he’s still good. We don’t have to—and we can’t—step in to solve problems God does not regard as problems. 4. The Passion Translation But we’re not done. I’ve got a fourth idiosyncratic Bible to mention. It’s time to examine The Passion Translation. YouTuber Mike Winger has already done an excellent job critiquing this English Bible translation, even hiring major evangelical biblical scholars to help him. I myself have made some effort at describing the eccentric and impracticable linguistic ideas that were used to create TPT. I’ll add only a few thoughts here. I could probably have placed this version in the “sectarian” category; it does come from a portion of Pentecostalism considered extreme even by other continuationists. But I think that one of the points I’m slowly making inductively in this long article is that good Bible translations will demonstrate that they have paid attention to the way God’s gift of language actually works. They won’t propose impossible linguistic ideas or promise special insight into “what God really meant” in the originals, insight no other translations provide. They won’t baptize one language as specially divine. TPT does all these things. Briefly: TPT translator Brian Simmons’ idea of Hebrew homonymy is simply linguistically impossible. To say that Hebrew words that sound the same can mean both things is somewhat like my joke about “bizarre” and “bazaar” earlier. Ha ha. Dad joke. It’s like going to the Pe’e Pe’e (peh’-ay peh’-ay) Falls in Hawaii—literally around the corner from my sister’s house—and giggling because it “also means” Pee-Pee falls. Simmons claims special insight into the “passionate heart of God,” insight he allegedly placed into his translation. But anytime I’ve actually looked at real verses Simmons wrote down in TPT, the passion of God is not something he pulls out of the text but something he adds in. Even the simple “Greet one another with a holy kiss” becomes, “Greet each other with a holy kiss of God’s love” (Rom 16:16 TPT). I’m not quite sure what that means, but I am sure that “of God’s love” is not in the Greek (nor in the Aramaic—I checked). Simmons did us the favor of italicizing these words, and there’s nothing wrong with commentary as long as people know it’s commentary—but Simmons has repeatedly claimed that these insights were actually divinely given to him and/or found in the “original Aramaic.” Simmons at least chose a new candidate for the most holy and insightful and theologically accurate language. He chose not Hebrew, not Greek, but Aramaic, a relative of Hebrew. He is no more successful in this effort than anyone else has been. We have no good reasons to believe that the New Testament was originally written in Aramaic, as Simmons alleges. Conclusion I recently saw a funny meme that showed pictures from old TV shows I grew up watching. In the picture from each show, our hero is buried waist-deep in sand, struggling and in deadly peril. The caption read, “When I was a kid I thought quicksand was going to be a much bigger problem on a daily basis than it really is.” This word is truth. In like manner: for all the terrible warnings people make about the perfidy and error of other people’s Bible translations, I’ve literally never once encountered a Bible-believing Christian who was misled in the ways predicted by the discernment gurus. I’ve never seen someone go soft on sexual sin, or on the exclusivity of Christ’s atonement, or even on dispensationalism or the rapture or whatever the fear-mongers might be concerned to protect—simply because that someone read an allegedly erroneous rendering in a Bible translation. When it comes to Bible translation: never have so many complained so much about so little. I’ve literally never once encountered a Bible-believing Christian who was misled in the ways predicted by the discernment gurus. But that doesn’t mean that everything out there is completely hunky or dory. There are some problems to spot. And I think those who are best equipped to spot erroneous or even simply idiosyncratic renderings in modern Bible translations are those who have come to appreciate, positively, why multiple Bible translations exist, and how they can help sincere students of Scripture. To such people, the “bad” Bibles out there will not pose a serious threat. Those who have the best discernment exercise that discernment as part of an overall positive vision. They don’t live in fear or believe all the conspiracy theories they hear. So I think it’s important now to say something positive about all of the Bibles I’ve called “bad” in this and my last article. Not a single one of them is completely bad. Some of the more fruitcakey ones are mostly harmless; they’re so obviously impossible that I don’t think very many people will take them seriously. And I can often make myself believe that they arise from a good but misguided impulse, an impulse to really know God’s word. Related Illustration by Peter Gurry. Photo from iStock What Makes a Bible Translation Bad?Sectarian translations go too far beyond the natural bias inherent in something as complex as translating the Bible. Mark Ward And even the more dangerous translations are still chock full of truth. Justin Taylor once gave the gospel from the New World Translation. I do not personally think that people are often led astray by “bad Bibles”; I suggest instead that it’s teachers who lead people astray. I try to keep a taciturn, academic exterior while evaluating Bible translations. But sometimes my righteous soul is qatsared nearly unto death by the kind of linguistic silliness people perpetrate upon the Bible. I feel defensive for the sheep who are distressed and confused by some of the ideas that give rise to the “bad” Bibles I’ve surveyed in this article on crackpot Bibles and my previous one on sectarian ones. Sometimes I just want to nakah some Pilishtim. I do just want to see regular Christians reading and trusting all the good English Bible translations we have. You can watch this as a video.Notes1See William A. Ross and Gregory R. Lanier, The Septuagint: What It Is and Why It Matters (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021), 90–91.