One of the charges that non-Christians often raised against the Bible is that it’s been changed and changed and changed and changed and changed—thousands of times—over the centuries. Indeed they’ll say, “look at how many different versions of the Bible exist now. Just go to a Christian bookstore and you’ll find all different version. The Word of God has been changed. You can’t even know what it said originally.”
There are a lot of claims there, and we’re not going to get into all of them. But I do want to address the central claim that the Bible keeps changing today, in our context, in our lifetime. This is perhaps on on the mind of people because the ESV, the English Standard Version from Crossway Publishers, has announced that they are freezing the translation after one last batch of changes. They’re going to be revising some verses, and then they’re going to be freezing it, never to be changed again.
This has some pros and some cons I’d like to talk about. First you may think, they’re revising the Bible? Someone’s revising the Word of God? Here’s the thing, we’re not actually reading the original words, ever, in our English translations that were actually inspired by God—God breathed—and written down by the original authors. This should be evident when we think about it because English, the language, wasn’t around back then. Your NIV New Testament is not written in Greek. The Old Testament isn’t in Hebrew. We’re not reading the original words. We’re reading a translation. As much as a translation carries and brings forward what was originally said, it’s accurate.
Scholarship and Language Change
This gets into why translations are constantly being amended and revised. Translation committees and editors are constantly striving to better represent what was originally said, what God originally spoke and was written down thousands of years ago. It’s not that we’re changing in regards to culture. We’re not amending what the Bible used to say to fit a new narrative that culture is somehow forcing on us. No, what we’re doing is two things, often times, we’re saying there are better reasons that we understand now (based on research and scholarship or the discovery of new manuscripts) to translate this verse more accurately but differently. Remember the goal is to faithfully represent the original not create something new but get as close to what was original and accurate before as we can.
Sometimes these changes are based on research but another reason to continually update a Bible translation, even if you discover no new information, is that language changes. The words we use change over time. You might think, well the dictionary still has many of the same definitions. That’s true. A dictionary contains, what’s called, the denotation of a word. How it is said to work in a dictionary, how it’s denoted to work. However, as we all know words take on a connotation, how they’re used. These connotations often changes much more quickly than what’s in the dictionary.
For instance, in Shakespeare’s day if you were to eat a meal, let’s say at your mother-in-law’s house and say, “Oh, that’s awful.” She would have smiled and beamed because you meant that you were full of awe. This was a wonderful meal. Yet, what would it mean today if you told your mother-in-law that the meal she cooked was an awful meal? It would not mean that you were full of awe and it was wonderful. It would mean it was horrible. The word’s definition or actually it’s connotation too have flipped over the centuries. This is one of the reasons why the King James Bible, in addition to some textual issues, is not a great translation especially to give to someone who did not grow up reading “King James English,” or in other words, didn’t grow up in church because we don’t speak King James English anywhere else.
It’s the same way with other translations. Certain terms don’t communicate nearly as well today as they did 10 years ago. It’s actually not just terms but sometimes how we even structure our sentences that has changed over time. What we want to do, as Christians, and what the editors and translation committees behind our translations want to do is constantly be putting forward something that most accurately communicates, most clearly communicates what God spoke thousands of years ago because that’s where the truth is. The truth is not in our minds today. The truth is in the word as it was delivered through the Holy Spirit and men when it was penned down all those years ago.
That is one reason we change the translation because language changes. Now, there are a couple of things to think about when it comes to a translation. You may say why do we have so many? One reason we have so many translations is money, sadly. Not to be too cynical but if you’re a book publisher and you’re putting out curriculum and books that cite the Bible and you’re citing another publisher’s translation, you have to pay them a royalty because it costs a lot of money to make a Bible translation. A workman is worthy of his hire. It’s easier for you as a publisher to make your own translation but more than that a lot of times these publishers want to make something they think improves upon the work that was done before.
Some translations, like the New English Translation, have actually decided to give the Bible away for free as long as you’re not going to charge for it once you get it. I think that’s an awesome model. (A slight plug, I have worked and volunteered for bible.org for quite a long time and they’re the ones behind the New English Translation and I strongly recommend you check it out.)
“Word for Word” or “Phrase for Phrase”
We have a lot of translations, more than we need but one of the things that differentiates them is how their translation was done. There are two ways to translate from one language to another. (This might seem kind of dry and academic but this is actually really helpful for your personal Bible study if you know what I’m about to tell you.) There are two ways, the first is a formally equivalent type of translation. What it says is if there were six words in the original language, in the original Greek, then we’re going to end up with six words in the English Bible. If it said the sky was blue in Greek we want it to say the sky was blue in English, that type of thing. It’s a word for word type of translation. That’s what the King James is. That is close to what the ESV is, that’s what the New American Standard Bible is. Those are all pretty much formally equivalent translations.
You might think, gosh that sounds like the way to do it. God spoke and inspired these words, let’s translate each word into English and there we go. Not so fast…
Most of us have had some type of foreign language experience. I had a few years of Spanish and I remember about three words from middle and high school but what I do remember is sometimes a literal translation does not actually communicate what was actually intended in the original language. This isn’t just for things like idioms. If you say “cat got your tongue?” in France they’re not going to understand that you mean that you think they’re speechless. That’s not going to come across. It’s an idiom. You can translate from English to French, “does the cat have your tongue” but that’s not going to communicate any better. Sometimes a word for word translation isn’t the best.
On the opposite end of formal—word by word—is a dynamic equivalent translation. This is more of a phrase for phrase, not quite a thought for thought although sometimes it might tend that way. This tries to translate the meaning, not just the words, but the meaning from one language to another. You might think, well, I do seem partial to that word for word; that seems to be a good way to go.
You know, one of the interesting things that points us in the direction of a dynamically equivalent translation is that it does translate based on meaning. It’s doing some work for you. Here’s an example, I remember being in 9th grade and reading my Bible at lunch and coming across Romans 8 where it said the person who’s in the flesh cannot please God. I thought, well, I’m in a body. I’m in flesh. How do I get rid of my body? That was very confusing. I didn’t not understand what Paul was saying even though the word that was translated was translated in a formally equivalent way. The original Greek word Paul uses there is sarx. It means flesh, like skin and bones flesh but the way Paul uses it actually means sinful nature.
You will see some translations translate in Romans 8 and other places the word flesh as sinful nature because that’s actually what is meant. If you read that and you think well Paul says I’m in my flesh, I can’t please God, even though that’s a word for word translation you have not understood the original intent of Paul and the Holy Spirit. That’s were a dynamic equivalent translation can really be of help.
Another interesting point, the Bible that many of the Apostles and New Testament writers quote from the Old Testament was actually a dynamically equivalent translation. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew but a lot of these New Testament writers are Greek speakers and Greek writers and the Greek translation of the Old Testament they’re writing from and quoting from is often times rather dynamically equivalent, not a word for word, translation. It if it was good enough for them shouldn’t it be good enough for us?
Those are just a few points to think about on formal vs. dynamic. If you read a formally equivalent translation it’s going to do less interpretation for you. Remember that whole kind of flesh vs. sin nature thing. There’s some interpretation going on there. There’s some knowledge I need to know to bring to that verse in order to actually understand what it’s saying. Sometimes this is helpful but sometimes it’s harmful. It can be good to know what your translation is. Often times we skip the preface of most books, especially Bibles but a lot of times the preface of your Bible will tell you what was the translation philosophy behind this. Why did they translate things the way they did? Was it formal? Was it dynamic? That type of thing.
It’s interesting, some people get bad ideas about God because of using a formally equivalent translation. I remember a woman I talked with and she was convinced that God has nostrils because if the Bible said God’s nostrils enlarged well then gosh, he must have a nose. I’m trying to say no, that is a word for word translation but what that means is it’s an idiom, it means God became angry. It doesn’t mean that his physical face had a nose, which got bigger. That’s not what it means. That’s one of the concerns with using a formally equivalent translation if you’re not aware that it is a formally equivalent translation. I think formal equivalence is very helpful at understanding originally what was said but sometimes that puts more burden on us to need to interpret more.
Translations are Interpretations
This brings me my third point. The first was language changes. The second is translations have a formal vs. dynamic type of range to them and the third point is that all translations are interpretations. You might be thinking, well, if they’re striving to represent the original then how is it interpretation? Simply put, anytime you go from one language to another there is an interpretation happening. If someone were to say the word love in English and then translate that into another language that has multiple words for love they might have to make a choice as to which word they’re translating it into. That choice involves an interpretation of what the original intent was when the person said love. It’s the same way in the Bible and it’s the same way when you go from Hebrew to English or Greek to English.
Sometimes these translations actually make interpretive decisions for you that may be important. For instance, sometimes there might be a New Testament verse, which could either be translated, you were saved by faith in Christ or by the faithfulness of Christ. Those are quite different. Who’s doing the action in one? Well, in the first I am placing faith in Christ and in the second I am saved because Christ is faithful to me. The same words in Greek could be translated two different ways. That decision that’s made ultimately is also an interpretive decision.
Nonetheless I think both of those are true—faith in Christ and faithfulness of Christ—but if we want to know what was originally said only one of those, most likely, is what Paul originally intended. We have to make our best guess and that’s what translation committees do. They make the best educated decision they can to faithfully and accurately represent the original words that were penned down by the Biblical authors under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit so, so long ago.
Why does the Bible change? Because language changes, because the way people understand those same words change over time even if the words don’t change. Our goal is never to change the meaning of the words and how they’re understood and read but it’s to be always increasingly more faithful to the original manuscripts that were written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit because language changes. Sometimes formal vs. dynamic might fit better for some people than others. You might be willing to do a little more work so you read a formally equivalent translation. You have to remember, though, that all translations interpret. There is interpretation any time you go from one language to another.
My recommendation to you would be to use two translations, when you’re wanting to get a better feel on a passage. Use a formal translation like an ESV and use a dynamic translation like an NIV or something like that. Read it in both and you’ll get a better understanding of what’s really going on in whatever passage you’re looking at.
I hope this has been helpful and I hope it’s equipped you to talk with other people and say no we’re not changing the Bible. We’re trying to accurately represent the original at every point. Really, that should be our goal as Christians when we read the word is not to bring our preconceptions to it but to let the Word of God speak into our lives and for us to strive to understand what it originally meant when God originally spoke it as he speaks it to us today.