TranslationWhat Makes a Bible Translation Bad? Sectarian translations go too far beyond the natural bias inherent in something as complex as translating the Bible. Mark WardIllustration by Peter Gurry. Photo from iStockJune 13, 2023 ShareFacebookTwitterLinkedInPrint Level If 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. Consider this article to be like the list of possible adverse side effects that are rattled off in monotone at the end of drug commercials on TV. Hopefully you’ll never need this information. But if you accidentally buy a bad Bible at Goodwill and you develop an odd tic, you’ll know what happened. More seriously, I don’t think most of my readers will ever hold in their hands a truly “bad Bible.” But by seeing Bible translation done badly, you will gain better understanding and appreciation for the many good Bibles we have in English. What, indeed, makes a Bible translation bad? Bibles are bad—when, on rare occasions, they are bad—for two major reasons: sectarianism and crackpottery. In this article: sectarian translations. In my next article: crackpot translations. Sectarian translations are those that have more than the natural bias inherent in the effort of any person or group to do something as complex as translating the Bible. Escaping all bias whatsoever is impossible; it’s not even desirable. I have a bias toward seeing the Bible as coherent, for example. I think that’s good. But some biases merit the label “sectarian.” I won’t cover all of them, just four. 1. The New World Translation I have a regular YouTube commenter who is a courteous and intelligent Jehovah’s Witness (JW). He frequently points out places where his New World Translation, produced by the Watchtower Society in the 1950s, makes a fine rendering of a Bible word or phrase I’ve just discussed in a video. Numerous times he has done this, and I don’t remember ever having to disagree with the NWT in these instances. But the NWT earns the sectarian badge because of the classic complaints evangelicals have made about it since its release 60-plus years ago. The New World Translation is used worldwide by Jehovah’s Witnesses. Source First, the NWT manipulates John 1:1 to support the JW’s anti-trinitarian bias, turning “the Word was God” into “the Word was a God.” I’ve heard this charge my entire life, and I tried again to listen to the JW’s counterarguments as I wrote this article. I remain unconvinced. It appears to me that the argument between Christian orthodoxy and the JWs—modern Arians—over John 1:1 has never made any real advances, because they haven’t needed to. The matter is reasonably straightforward.1I say this despite the now twenty-year-old book by Jason BeDuhn, Truth in Translation: Accuracy and Bias in English Translations of the New Testament. (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2003). See Robert H. Countess, The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New Testament. A Critical Analysis of the New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1982). There’s nothing more to say: the NWT mistranslates a text that teaches the deity of Christ, and not only here.2See Kenneth J. Baumgarten and Kevin Gary Smith, “An Examination of the Consistency of the New World Translation with the Stated Philosophy of the Translators,”Conspectus Volume 6 (2008). As with the Son, so with the Spirit: the NWT regularly turns what should properly be “the Holy Spirit” into “a holy spirit” (Acts 8:15, 17–19; 10:38; 19:2; Luke 2:25; 11:13; John 20:22).3See N. E. Barry Hofstetter, “Review of Truth in Translation: Accuracy and Bias in English Translations of the New Testament by Jason BeDuhn,” Westminster Theological Journal 66, no. 2 (2004): 448. The KJV translators, in their justly famous preface, urge their readers to judge Bible translations by their predominant character. A man may be counted a virtuous man though he have made many slips in his life (else there were none virtuous, for, “in many things we offend all”), also a comely man and lovely, though he have some warts upon his hand.4David Norton, ed., The New Cambridge Paragraph Bible with the Apocrypha: King James Version, Revised edition., vol. 1 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011), xxviii. I find myself continually quoting this portion of the KJV preface as I work to smother the flames of the never-ending social media Bible wars. Some people are ready—no, eager—to distrust whole Bible translations based on the tiniest of alleged blemishes.5One KJV-Only Facebook commenter, for example, recently insisted that English Bibles must “retain the distinction between singular and plural second person pronouns”; if they don’t, “that’s a deal killer for me.” Never mind that many other grammatical features—such as the distinction between singular and plural relative pronouns—are “lost” on the trip from Greek to English. Actually: context is nearly always sufficient to communicate this distinction. But intentionally and repeatedly subverting the deity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity are rather large warts for a Bible translation to have protruding from its genuine leather cover. The NWT is a bad Bible because it is openly sectarian in multiple places that matter. The New World Translation is a bad Bible because it is openly sectarian in multiple places that matter. 2. The New Revised Standard Version (Updated Edition) I wouldn’t quite say the same of the second sectarian translation, the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition (NRSVue). Consensus so far among people I trust is that this revision does not have a bad predominant character (I have not read the whole thing, I confess; I am merely reporting on the buzz). The one wart that has received real attention since its recent release is in the NRSVue’s rendering of 1 Corinthians 6:9–10: Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! The sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, men who engage in illicit sex, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, swindlers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. It is true that the two Greek words at issue here require translators to make some judgments. But into a crack of minor uncertainty the NRSVue has wedged a whale-sized obfuscation. These words almost certainly refer to the passive and active partners in a male-to-male homosexual pairing. The NRSVue is “sectarian” here because it overspecifies the first word and overgeneralizes the second—just as the sect that produced the translation, the sect called mainline Protestantism, would prefer Paul had done. One of Paul’s clear condemnations of male homosexuality is thereby removed from his writings. RelatedWhat Makes a Bible Translation Really Bad?Mark WardFive Decisions Every Bible Translator Must MakePeter J. GurryBorrowing from the KJV Bank and TrustMark Ward That wart is significant enough, I would think, to keep those of us who uphold an orthodox sexual ethic from using the NRSVue as the main pulpit Bible in our churches. But whereas I never check the NWT, I will happily check the renderings in the NRSVue in my Bible study in years to come. The (yes, mostly—but not entirely—liberal) translators behind that work appear to me to have been generally responsible and careful. 3. Certain Bible translations for Muslim nations I am a signatory of the Arlington Statement on Bible Translation, which alleges that certain Bible translations that were made for Muslim-majority languages have soft-pedaled the deity of Jesus, and specifically his status as “Son of God.” I was asked by several friends to sign the statement, but I actually resisted for quite some time—because I felt like I wasn’t hearing anything from the other side, and I wasn’t seeing the dispute laid out in any responsible academic venues. Also, I had no way of checking the offending translations for myself. I don’t like being asked to take sides without hearing from the best of all parties. But then I listened to Georges Houssney in his guest appearance on the Working for the Word podcast, with my friend (and Text & Canon contributor) Andrew Case. Houssney was obviously knowledgeable: he was an Arabic Bible translator from Egypt. He immediately won me over, and he helped me understand why I wasn’t hearing from his opponents. I signed the statement based almost solely on his testimony—and to hear more, you really must listen to Houssney. As an example of the concerns that have driven Houssney and the Arlington Statement, The True Meaning of the Gospel of Christ, an Arabic translation available on YouVersion, translates Mark 13:32 this way: No one knows when that day and that hour comes, not even the master of humanity and the angels. For Allah, the father, the All-Beneficent, the All-merciful alone possesses knowledge of the hour.6For this back-translation and all examples in this section, I am indebted to linguist Mike Tisdell. His review of La Bible en arabe tchadien contains more detailed examples. Jesus calls himself “the Son” in Mark 13:32; this translation adjusts to Muslim sensibilities and calls him “Master of humanity.” And instead of doing what Jesus did here and calling God simply “the Father,” The True Meaning adds three Muslim-friendly titles—“Allah,” “All-Beneficent,” and “All-merciful”—that don’t occur in the Greek. (To be clear: “Allah” is not exclusively an Islamic word; it is the generic word for God used by Arabic-speaking Christians. But the word “God” does not occur in the Greek in this verse.) Jesus calls himself “the Son” in Mark 13:32; this translation adjusts to Muslim sensibilities and calls him “Master of humanity.” Another Arabic translation of the New Testament is called The Honored Injil. This translation is actually paired with an English back-translation on its website, so in this same verse you can see for yourself that the Son is called “the beloved Amir,” or “Prince”; and the Father is called “Al-Malik Al-Rahman,” or “the Gracious King.” Now, the Son is a Prince, and the Father is a King; but Jesus could have used those words (in Greek) and he did not. Once again, a translation is bowing not just to Muslim preferences but to actual Islamic doctrine. I call these offending translations “sectarian” because they end up doing the same thing to the deity of Jesus that the NWT does. At best, they confuse the Bible’s picture of Jesus; at worst, they draw up the blueprints for a sect in which you can hold on to Muslim-style monotheism (denying the doctrine of the Trinity) and still consider yourself a follower of Jesus Christ. These are bad Bibles. 4. The Tree of Life Version The fourth sectarian Bible I’ll describe is not “bad,” not that I know of. Even to use the word “sectarian” feels a little harsh. But I regret that I must. It’s the Tree of Life Version, a Messianic Jewish translation released in 2011. A few well-known names participated (namely Richard Averbeck and Craig Keener), and the TLV has not raised any public hackles that I have seen. I’m not going to posit inaccuracies in it. But the constant use of transliterated Hebrew is nothing if not characteristic of Messianic Judaism; my inner William Tyndale balks every time I read in an English Bible words like Ruach Elohim instead of “Holy Spirit”—or “Yeshua finished all his drash,” instead of “Jesus finished his sermon.” Though I honor Abraham’s seed as, yes, God’s chosen people, God is not a respecter of languages. Hebrew transliterations are not holier or more accurate than English renderings. They’re nifty, but they don’t merit the creation of a fresh Bible translation. The more Christian groups with “their own Bible,” the more it looks to outsiders like some funny business is going on. Perhaps it’s a little self-aggrandizing or grandiose for the ESV or CSB or NASB or NRSV to put “Standard” in the names of their Bible translations, but there’s some good in this common practice: I read it as an attempt to acknowledge that the Bible is for the whole church—the whole world. The more Christian groups get to have “their own Bible,” the more it looks to outsiders like some funny business is going on. Also: sprinkling Hebrew words that English speakers don’t know throughout your Bible translation (or Christian-synagogue service) runs counter to Paul’s principle that edification requires intelligibility. This raises the question: intelligible to whom? Not just those who’ve picked up the patois. At 1 Corinthians 14:23, the TLV itself reads, If Messiah’s whole community comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and uninstructed or unbelieving people come in, won’t they say that you are crazy? The more jargon the man on the street has to master before he can understand what you’re saying in your services, the more in tension you are with 1 Corinthians 14. The TLV preface says that it was born out of a fear of seeing the Bible lose its “actual Jewish essence.” I don’t at all deny that that the Bible’s Jewishness gets overlooked or even self-consciously muted by Gentiles. I welcome better understanding of my own wife’s Lithuanian-Jewish roots. And I’ve heard a very responsible and intelligent, ethnically Jewish Presbyterian pastor make a careful case that Protestant Gentiles have something to learn from the Messianic Jewish movement. Also, I found it thought-provoking to see Torah in the place of “the law” at places in the New Testament. But replacing the perfectly legitimate English rendering “slander” (in 1 Pet. 2:1) with the opaque Hebrew transliteration “lashon ha-ra” (Hebrew for “tongue of evil”) is, I’m sorry, a rather arbitrary and linguistically suspect way of restoring people’s appreciation of the Bible’s Jewishness. The uniqueness of Judaism in its own original context was that its God, Yahweh, wasn’t just the God of the valleys or of the hills but of all the earth. And the founding promises to Abraham include precisely a prediction that through his seed, God will bless all the families of the earth. God’s own lashon is not shackled to ancient Hebrew. The TLV is produced by the Tree of Life Bible Society for Messianic Jewish. Source I’m not persuaded, either, by the TLV’s practice of replacing “Lord” in the New Testament with “ADONAI.” I understand the reasoning: it’s analogous to what ancient Jews apparently did with Yahweh.7Though actually, the linguistic situation that obtained then is not at all the one that exists in English. Ancient Jews replaced the vowels for YHWH with those of adonai; the way to do this in English would actually be something like Larsder—figure that one out and be the first to email me, and you’ll get a prize. But if Jesus himself was happy to translate both adonai and Yahweh with the Greek kurios (Lord) in his discussion of the all-important Messianic passage Psalm 110:1,8See Luke 20:42, for example. Even if Jesus was not speaking Greek when he uttered those words, the inspired (Greek) text given to us is an authoritative translation of his words. then I tend to feel safest retaining the English word “Lord” in the New Testament. And to any of the multiple translations in this article that give special focus and attention to getting the name of God just right, I observe that God himself permitted the correct pronunciation of his name (possibly “Yahweh”) to fall out of Jewish tradition—a difficult feat among that heavily traditional people, I tend to think. Related Illustration by David Fassett How Was the Pronunciation of God’s Name Lost? Part 2Ancient tradition divides on the use of God’s name, with no clear reason why some banned it. Andrew Case As with names, so with languages. It is a very, very common thing in religion for people to invest a particular human language with divine sanctity and authority—and then with a depth and accuracy that no other language can match. Roman Catholics do this with Latin; Muslims do it with (a particular variety of) Arabic; Ethiopians do it with Geʽez; KJV-Onlyists do it with Elizabethan English. Messianic Jews have, I allege, done this with Hebrew. Again: I’m not saying that the TLV is a “bad Bible,” as in erroneous or dangerous. From what I’ve read, it’s mostly a traditional Protestant translation with a bunch of Hebrew transliterations bobbing up and down on the surface. But I will say that the effort falls completely flat for me. If you have to resort to translating the Greek New Testament back into Hebrew every so often to get people to see its Jewishness, I think you’re taking a superficial, sectarian shortcut that actually undercuts your purpose. Get new articles and updates in your inbox. Leave this field empty if you're human: The solution to sectarianism I do think Bible translations need to do what they can to avoid the appearance of sectarianism. My own beloved ESV has been charged with sectarianism on behalf of the translators’ complementarian viewpoint. Though I think this criticism is overblown, sticking with the literal/traditional translation in Genesis 3:16 probably could have saved them significant grief. In general, retreating to the literal in sticky places is a wise policy. And here’s another: I like the tradition, going back at least to the NIV, of involving many Christian denominations—from complementarians to Messianic Jews—in a Bible translation committee, as a method of both eliminating and of appearing to the public to eliminate denominational bias. I acknowledge at this point my own (inerrantist evangelical) biases, and my own fallenness and finiteness and situatedness. But I cannot sit nowhere, or in heaven; so from where I sit, some Bibles are, at least sometimes, sectarian. I’m okay checking such Bibles in my study, but I wouldn’t use them as the official translation of a church or other institution. In our balkanized Christian world, no English translation will ever be trusted by the whole English-speaking church. But translators (or rather revisers, because we don’t need any more mainstream translations) should still aim for that possibility instead of giving in to the temptations of sectarianism. The next essay will cover a second mark of bad translation that I call crackpottery. You can watch this as a video.Notes1I say this despite the now twenty-year-old book by Jason BeDuhn, Truth in Translation: Accuracy and Bias in English Translations of the New Testament. (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2003). See Robert H. Countess, The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New Testament. A Critical Analysis of the New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1982).2See Kenneth J. Baumgarten and Kevin Gary Smith, “An Examination of the Consistency of the New World Translation with the Stated Philosophy of the Translators,”Conspectus Volume 6 (2008).3See N. E. Barry Hofstetter, “Review of Truth in Translation: Accuracy and Bias in English Translations of the New Testament by Jason BeDuhn,” Westminster Theological Journal 66, no. 2 (2004): 448.4David Norton, ed., The New Cambridge Paragraph Bible with the Apocrypha: King James Version, Revised edition., vol. 1 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011), xxviii.5One KJV-Only Facebook commenter, for example, recently insisted that English Bibles must “retain the distinction between singular and plural second person pronouns”; if they don’t, “that’s a deal killer for me.” Never mind that many other grammatical features—such as the distinction between singular and plural relative pronouns—are “lost” on the trip from Greek to English. Actually: context is nearly always sufficient to communicate this distinction.6For this back-translation and all examples in this section, I am indebted to linguist Mike Tisdell. His review of La Bible en arabe tchadien contains more detailed examples.7Though actually, the linguistic situation that obtained then is not at all the one that exists in English. Ancient Jews replaced the vowels for YHWH with those of adonai; the way to do this in English would actually be something like Larsder—figure that one out and be the first to email me, and you’ll get a prize.8See Luke 20:42, for example. Even if Jesus was not speaking Greek when he uttered those words, the inspired (Greek) text given to us is an authoritative translation of his words. Mark Ward Mark Ward (PhD, Bob Jones University) is Senior Editor for Digital Content at Word by Word, the official Logos blog. He is the author of several books and textbooks including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Basics for a Biblical Worldview, and Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible, which became a Faithlife infotainment documentary. He is also a host for Logos Live and is an active YouTuber.