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The Matrix Bible?

"The Matrix?"

I recently expressed my consternation at the New King James Version’s rendering of  part of Isaiah 49:1 which a colleague had quoted in an email.

The LORD has called Me from the womb; From the matrix of My mother He has made mention of My name.

Having looked into it I found that matrix is the Latin word for the womb, but I don’t know what the NKJV team were thinking when they used it as a revision for the KJV’s use of ‘bowels’ !  I suppose it was probably before the science fiction film came out, but at that time the word matrix for most people conjured up images of difficult maths lessons rather than anything to do with the womb.

Here’s my response to the question which followed  – “Which translation do you believe is the best?”:

It is a good question and one that I am asked fairly often when I express my opinions about Bible translation. It is actually hard to give a simple answer since different translations have advantages and disadvantages. I believe that good translation involves paying attention to three criteria – accuracy, clarity and naturalness. These three are not easy to balance correctly, but I would say that some of our English translations do a much better job than others.

Hopefully, clarity and naturalness speak largely for themselves but accuracy isn’t so obvious. Just because the form of a translation is more like the original language (Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic) does not mean that the translation is more accurate. For example it is well known that Paul used some very long sentences in his writing with lots of connecting words holding the phrases logically together (there was no punctuation used at the time). Some have therefore translated using similarly long sentences, but by doing so have made something which is very difficult to read and so obscured the meaning. The problem is that English speakers don’t usually speak in this way, so we find such sentences hard to read aloud or listen to with understanding. To translate what Paul says accurately we need to do our best to decide what he meant his readers to understand and attempt to get our English readers to grasp the same meaning as far as possible. Since English generally conveys meaning using shorter sentences and phrases to indicate the logical relation between them, we will do better to follow the usual English style rather than the Greek style. That being said, someone studying the Bible using a meaning based translation may miss certain aspects of the original languages which are still apparent in a translation which stays closer to the Greek form.

Personally I think we can benefit greatly by looking at multiple translations using different translation philosophies if we are doing in depth study, but for day-to-day reading and public reading in church I think we are better served by the best meaning-based translations. In the our office we are currently reading through the whole Bible in the New Living Translation. In most places the translators have done a good job of making the Bible easy to read and comprehensible, which is more than can be said of many translations.

I personally don’t accept the arguments of those who insist on the King James Version as the only legitimate translation in English. Even in its somewhat modernised forms such as the NKJV, I have less confidence in what I am reading as being close to what God gave through inspiration because of the limited number and quality of biblical manuscripts used to produce Erasmus’s ‘Received Text’ on which they are based. That said, I don’t think there are any areas where significant doctrine is greatly affected.

I do find modern form-based translations such as the ESV, NASB etc. helpful when used alongside of other translations as an aid to understanding the form of the original languages, but I don’t think they should become the standard adopted by evangelicals. I wrote about this a few months ago.

I spent quite a few years using the New Living Translation as my main Bible after having been brought up largely on the NIV and still frequently use both, but I mostly use the NET Bible (Bible.org) as my main Bible text. I find that switching to a new version from time to time helps me keep thinking about what I’m reading especially in familiar passages. I particularly appreciate the NET’s extensive notes on translation issues – though it does make it very fat and heavy to carry. These days I mostly read the Bible online or on my phone which lets me compare several translations.

The question of which translation one uses has become something of a shibboleth for some evangelicals which is a shame. In the end, the best Bible is the one you can read, understand and apply.

Of course much ink both physical and virtual has already been spilled on this subject and not all of it usefully, but if you want a starting place to find more articles and books on the subject you could try this page on the useful biblicalstudies .org website.

I also hope that many of the people who like me express strong views about English Bible translation will apply some of their passion and concern to meeting the needs of the millions of people in the world who don’t have any of God’s word in a language they can understand. This is from Wycliffe UK‘s site:

How many languages have Scripture?

2,479. Of these, 451 have a complete Bible, another 1,185 have the New Testament. 843 others have at least one book of the Bible.

How many languages still need translation?

In addition to more than 1,300 active projects, work needs to begin in over 2,200 languages.

How many people have no Scripture?

200 million speak these languages where translation still needs to begin.

In how many languages have Wycliffe been involved in the completion of a New Testament or Bible?

759. Over 107 million people speak these languages.

How many countries are affected by the work of Wycliffe?

Almost 100. This includes work among people who live outside their traditional homelands.

These figures are up to the end of September 2009 and come from Wycliffe International.

‘John Doe’ found in Bethlehem

I really appreciate the NET Bible as a translation and even have a printed copy with all its helpful notes on translation. But even the best translations have their faults. To my ears at least, this one is hilariously anachronistic: From the NET Bible – Ruth 4:1

Now Boaz went up to the village gate and sat there. Then along came the guardian whom Boaz had mentioned to Ruth! Boaz said, “Come here and sit down, ‘John Doe’!” So he came and sat down.

Have any Americans reading this ever addressed anyone in conversation as ‘John Doe’? For me as a Brit, John Does are almost exclusively unidentified bodies in CSI!

Apparently in an earlier NET version, the kinsman was addressed as “Mr So-and-so” but this was changed because it was felt that “John Doe” better suited the legal setting. I think “Sir” would do just great.

Burning Bibles for Halloween!

Amazing Grace Baptist Church in North Carolina are planning an alternative to Halloween. Of course lots of churches have been doing that for years, but this one is a bit different. Here’s the announcement from the church’s website:

Halloween Book Burning Has NOT Been Cancelled!

Burning Perversions of God’s Word

October 31, 2009   – 7:00 PM – Til

This event is not open to the public. Only our members and those by special invitation from the pastor are welcome. All others are tresspassing, this includes the media.

Great Preaching and Singing

We are burning Satan’s bibles like the NIV, RSV, NKJV, TLB, NASB, ESV, NEV, NRSV, ASV, NWT, Good News for Modern Man, The Evidence Bible, The Message Bible, The Green Bible, ect. These are perversions of God’s Word the King James Bible.

We will also be burning Satan’s music such as country , rap , rock , pop, heavy metal, western, soft and easy, southern gospel , contemporary Christian , jazz, soul, oldies but goldies, etc.

We will also be burning Satan’s popular books written by heretics like Westcott & Hort , Bruce Metzger, Billy Graham , Rick Warren , Bill Hybels , John McArthur, James Dobson , Charles Swindoll , John Piper , Chuck Colson , Tony Evans, Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swagart , Mark Driskol, Franklin Graham , Bill Bright, Tim Lahaye, Paula White , T.D. Jakes, Benny Hinn , Joyce Myers , Brian McLaren , James White, Robert Schuller, Mother Teresa , The Pope , Rob Bell, Erwin McManus , Donald Miller, Shane Claiborne, Brennan Manning, William Young, Will Graham , and many more.

We are not burning Bibles written in other languages that are based on the TR. We are not burning the Tyndale, Geneva or other translations that are based on the TR.

We will be serving fried chicken, and all the sides.

If you have any books or music to donate, please call us for pick-up. If you like you can drop them off at our church door anytime. Thanks. 828-648-0213

Shame no one else is invited, I’m sure the fried chicken will be great! However, I wouldn’t bank on finding much evidence of God’s amazing grace among those who gather for the bonfire. Let’s pray that some of them will read and understand their King James Versions at least, and realise that their bonfire is giving off much more heat than light to a world that is dying for lack of the knowledge of God. Sadly they are merely bringing ridicule to God’s name and fuelling the fires of unnecessary divisions among God’s people.

Eddie Arthur points us to a good post by Pastor Matthew that unfortunately these people will probably never read.

The problems of literal translations

Mark L Strauss

Mark L Strauss

In trying to explain to my nephew (on Facebook) why I have significant reservations about the English Standard Version, I came across this interesting survey by Mark Strauss of the kinds of problems produced by the ESV’s overly-literal translation philosophy.

Here’s part of Strauss’s conclusion:

There is an unfortunate tendency among biblical scholars—who live in the world of Hebrew and Greek—to think they are getting it “right” if they mimic the form of the original languages. The unfortunate result is a tendency to create “half-idioms” (half-English/half-Greek), transferring a few words of the original, but missing its meaning in standard English. This is what the ESV does when people speak “with a double heart” (Ps. 12:2), have “news in their mouths” (2Sam. 18:25), “go in and out among them” (Acts 1:21; 9:28), or “fill up the measure of their fathers” (Matt. 23:32). These are half-idioms—Biblish rather than English.
As noted earlier, idioms work as a whole rather than through their individual parts. In translating the English idiom, “He’s really in a pickle,” it would be a mistake to preserve cucumbers in the translation. It is not the component parts but the statement as a whole that communicates its meaning.

Some critics have claimed that the only way to protect the verbal and plenary inspiration of Scripture is to translate literally. This, of course, is linguistic nonsense. The translation that best preserves the verbal and plenary inspiration of Scripture is one that clearly and accurately communicates the meaning of the text as the original author intended it to be heard. The Greek idioms that Paul or John or Luke used did not sound awkward, obscure or stilted to their original readers. They sounded like normal idiomatic Greek. Verbal and plenary inspiration is most respected when we allow the original meaning of the text to come through.

Asking the simple question, “Would anyone speaking English actually say this?” is a good test for standard English. This simple question could transform our Bible versions and bring them in line with the finest translation practices used around the world. We must remember that the ultimate goal of Bible translation is not to give our students a “crib” on their weekly Greek and Hebrew assignments, but to clearly and accurately communicate the meaning of God’s inspired and authoritative Word.

Stirring the waters – can you trust your Bible text?

Textus ReceptusMy father-in-law usually reads from the New King James Version and we have had a few discussions over the years about this. Largely I think it is because he grew up using the King James Version rather than a strong commitment to the Received Text. These days I usually avoid returning to the issue because he’s a a godly man, a great father-in-law and he often cuts my grass for me, but I think I’m going to have to pick up the discussion again this week.

Yesterday my father-in-law was leading our church service and gave a children’s talk in which he referred to the angel stirring the waters of the pool of Bethesda. He didn’t read it out but here’s the text from the NKJV:

3 In these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water. 4 For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had. (John 5:3-4)

Realising I hadn’t heard this story since I was small and questioning whether I believed in angels healing people in that sort of way I tried to find the reference by searching the Bibles on my phone for verses with ‘angel’ and ‘water’ in them, but the search came up blank. Checking further in the excellent net.bible.org site, I see that most modern Bible versions omit the verse because it only appears in late manuscripts and often with an asterisk indicating the scribe’s doubts to its originality. The NKJV does have a footnote:

John 5:4 NU-Text omits waiting for the moving of the water at the end of verse 3, and all of verse 4.

But I’m afraid that just isn’t good enough. My guess is that my father-in-law didn’t notice this footnote, but would be very concerned to be teaching children something which has most likely been added to the scripture, so I’m going to stir the waters again. I hope he’ll still cut my grass sometimes!

Let me clarify that I am not suggesting that this throws into question the authority of Scripture. I will defend biblical inspiration of the Scriptures as originally given but am concerned that translations are not always in line with what God inspired. Textual variations are mostly small, but I recommend you compare a few reliable versions and if possible consider the original language text if you really want to study the Bible well.

My friend Eddie Arthur recently pointed out a helpful response to those who advocate the exclusive use of the original 1611 King James Version, which also deals with the question of the Received Text.  I would also want to follow Eddie’s lead in pointing out that while many people spend hours arguing about the merits or problems of our many English versions 200 million people in our world don’t have a single word of Scripture in their language. That’s why Eddie is director of  Wycliffe Bible Translators in the UK.

News on Jeremiah from The British Museum

{mosimage}Here's a problem for those who dismiss prophetic books like Jeremiah as having been written long after the events they describe – from today's Times :

The British Museum yesterday hailed a discovery within a modest clay tablet in
its collection as a breakthrough for biblical archaeology – dramatic proof
of the accuracy of the Old Testament.
The cuneiform inscription in a tablet dating from 595BC has been deciphered
for the first time – revealing a reference to an official at the court of
Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, that proves the historical existence of a
figure mentioned in the Book of Jeremiah.



{mosimage}Here's a problem for those who dismiss prophetic books like
Jeremiah as having been written long after the events they describe –
from today's Times :

The British Museum yesterday hailed a discovery within a modest clay tablet in
its collection as a breakthrough for biblical archaeology – dramatic proof
of the accuracy of the Old Testament.
The cuneiform inscription in a tablet dating from 595BC has been deciphered
for the first time – revealing a reference to an official at the court of
Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, that proves the historical existence of a
figure mentioned in the Book of Jeremiah.
This is rare evidence in a nonbiblical source of a real person, other than
kings, featured in the Bible.
The tablet names a Babylonian officer called Nebo-Sarsekim, who according to
Jeremiah xxxix was present in 587BC when Nebuchadnezzar “marched against
Jerusalem with his whole army and laid siege to it”.
The cuneiform inscription records how Nebo-Sarsekim lavished a gift of gold on
the Temple of Esangila in the fabled city of Babylon, where, at least in
folk tradition, Nebuchadnezzar is credited with building the Hanging
Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. British Museum staff are
excited by the discovery. Irving Finkel, assistant keeper in the Department
of the Middle East, said: “A mundane commercial transaction takes its place
as a primary witness to one of the turning points in Old Testament history.
This is a tablet that deserves to be famous.”
The discovery was made by Michael Jursa, associate professor at the University
of Vienna, on a routine research trip to the museum. “It’s very exciting and
very surprising,” he said. “Finding something like this tablet, where we see
a person mentioned in the Bible making an everyday payment to the temple in
Babylon and quoting the exact date, is quite extraordinary.”
Since 1991, Dr Jursa has been visiting the museum to study a collection of
more than 100,000 inscribed tablets – the world’s largest holdings. Although
they are examined by international scholars daily, reading and piecing
together fragments is painstaking work and more than half are yet to be
Cuneiform is the oldest known form of writing. During its 3,000-year history
it was used to write about 15 languages including Babylonian, Assyrian,
Hittite and Urartian. A wedged instrument – usually a cut reed – was used to
press the signs into clay. This gave the writing system its name,
“cuneiform”, or wedge-shaped.
There are only a small number of scholars worldwide who can read cuneiform
script. One of them is Dr Jursa, who told The Times yesterday that the
British Museum tablet was so well preserved that it took him just a couple
of minutes to decipher.
This one – which is 2.13 inches (5.5cm) wide – was acquired by the British
Museum in 1920. Dr Jursa said: “But no one realised the connection. They
didn’t really read it.”
It was unearthed from the ancient city of Sippar, where there was a huge sun
temple, just over a mile from modern-day Baghdad. It was part of a large
temple archive excavated for the British Museum in the 1870s.
Dr Jursa, who made the discovery while conducting research into officials at
the Babylonian court, said that the tablet recorded Nebo-Sarsekim’s gift of
gold to the temple – a gift so large that it would be comparable in value
today to the cost of a large townhouse.
On hearing of the discovery yesterday, Geza Vermes, the eminent emeritus
professor of Jewish studies at the University of Oxford, said that such a
discovery revealed that “the Biblical story is not altogether invented”. He
added: “This will be interesting for religious people as much as historians.”