“is a word-for-word translation unbiblical?” — part 2

Another illuminating example is Deut 6:5 — the greatest commandment. Again there’s little substantial difference evident between the MT and the DSS:

ואהבת את יהוה אלהיך בכל לבבך ובכל נפשך ובכל מאדך

These reflect a tripartite division of “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (NASB). The LXX follows this quite literally, preserving the tripartite division of heart, soul, strength:1

καὶ ἀγαπήσεις κύριον τὸν θεόν σου ἐξ ὅλης τῆς καρδίας σου καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς ψυχῆς σου καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς δυνάμεώς σου.

However, when we look to the NT the words are translated differently. Here are the final words of each instance:

Matt 22:37
ἐξ ὅλης τῆς καρδίας σου καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς ψυχῆς σου καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς δυνάμεώς σου
Mark 12:30
ἐξ ὅλης τῆς καρδίας σου καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς ψυχῆς σου καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς διανοίας σου καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς ἰσχύος σου
Luke 10:27
ἐξ ὅλης [τῆς] καρδίας σου καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ ψυχῇ σου καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ ἰσχύϊ σου καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ διανοίᾳ σου

As you can see, there are slight variations in each instance. Most significantly, Mark and Luke specify four parts against Matthew’s (and the MT’s and LXX’s) three. There is, unsurprisingly, considerable discussion over the source and significance of these variations, much of it speculative. What we do know, however, is that these each represent translations from the original (perhaps through Aramaic if they recall Jesus’ words). As such, they provide a further point for examining the translation methodology endorsed by the NT.

So what can we say? Many commentators agree that these texts all express a merism for the entire person. Today we might translate “body, mind, and spirit” (if not for the new-age overtones). Furthermore, the variations between versions do little to diminish this impression. Instead, they likely cater to different audiences and their understanding of the constituent components of a human being.

But what of the significance of the variations for our understanding of translation methodology? First, it is clear that Mark’s and Luke’s versions cannot easily be reconciled with a “word-for-word” or “formal equivalent” approach. Both these examples can be considered more “dynamic equivalent” translations of the Hebrew than “formal equivalent” (although these exist on a spectrum), and yet both are authorised by the NT. This has some significance for arguments about inerrancy, for it undermines claims that the text must be transmitted at the word level rather than at the level of meaning (a claim which I suspect is confused by the frequent translation of the nouns דבר and λογος by “word” in English when context frequently requires a meaning something like “message”).

In the end, the expectation that an accurate translation reflects the very words of the original in a thoroughly formal equivalent manner is spurious. The oft-cited claim that dynamic equivalent translations “change” the words of the original is nonsensical, for a translation changes every word of the original from the source language to a target language. What the examples cited here indicate, however, is that the NT authors and the LXX translators were often happy to preserve the meaning they saw in the text more than merely the form of the words, and sometimes even at the expense of the form of the words.

So is a word-for-word translation unbiblical? No, there are too many examples of the NT adopting word-for-word translations of OT texts. The NT does not reflect a consistent translation methodology, undermining any case that one particular modern approach or translation is superior to all others when such is assessed only on the methodology employed. Consequently it is not possible to claim that a dynamic equivalent translation is unbiblical either!


1. Some manuscripts record διανοίας in place of καρδίας, a variation reflected among the NT quotations (see Paul Foster, “Why Did Matthew Get the Shema Wrong? A Study of Matthew 22:37” SBL 122.2 [2003], 319).

“is a word-for-word translation unbiblical?” — part 1

11th century Hebrew Bible with targum, perhaps...

Image via Wikipedia

OK, that’s just a catchy title for this post, but let me explain the issue I want to highlight. There are great debates about which translation methodology is best all over the web (including on this very blog, see here and here). Is a literal “formal equivalent” translation better, or is a “dynamic equivalent” translation better? Or perhaps even a foreignising translation! What is generally lacking, however, is an examination of whether a particular translation methodology is endorsed in Scripture itself.

The Christian Bible, uniquely among religious books, does actually tell us something about translation. The reason is that the NT was written in Greek while the OT was written in Hebrew and Aramaic, and the NT quotes the OT in translation. This means that it is possible to analyse the type of translation methodology which finds approval in the NT. This, in turn, may allow us to draw some inferences about modern translation methodologies and how appropriate they are!
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four centuries of the king james version: the funny bits

Unless you’ve been hiding away you’re probably aware that the King James Version of the Bible is now 400 years old. People everywhere are making comment on this fact and offering observations and well-considered thoughts. In many respects it is remarkable how well the translation has stood the test of time, but it does nonetheless show its age. One manifestation of its age lies in portions within the text which, to the contemporary reader, don’t quite sound quite as they perhaps ought to have.

Here are a couple of examples:

Acts 5:1-6

1 But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession, 2 And kept back part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and brought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles’ feet. 3 But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land? 4 Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God. 5 And Ananias hearing these words fell down, and gave up the ghost: and great fear came on all them that heard these things. 6 And the young men arose, wound him up, and carried him out, and buried him.

That’s right. Some theologians like to say that God gave us free will, he did not make us mindless automata, but here’s evidence to the contrary: Ananias was a wind-up man!

Ezek 43:11

And if they be ashamed of all that they have done, shew them the form of the house, and the fashion thereof, and the goings out thereof, and the comings in thereof, and all the forms thereof, and all the ordinances thereof, and all the forms thereof, and all the laws thereof: and write it in their sight, that they may keep the whole form thereof, and all the ordinances thereof, and do them.

As far as I can tell, that’s the verse with the greatest abundance of thereofs of any in the entire KJV.

reviewing cbmw’s review of the 2011 niv

CBMW (an organisation which stridently opposed the TNIV) has posted a preliminary evaluation of the 2011 NIV. Unsurprisingly they conclude that “we still cannot commend the new NIV(2011) for most of the same reasons we could not commend the TNIV.” However, I think there are a number of problems with their analysis which I’d like to raise here in order to provide a little perspective.
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niv 2011/tniv and ecclesiastes 11:1–2

John Hobbins raised the 2011 NIV’s rendering of Eccl 11:1–2 (although it really just retains the TNIV’s translation and so isn’t a new feature of this translation). The 2011 NIV/TNIV render these verses as follows:

Ship your grain across the sea;
after many days you may receive a return.
Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight;
you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.

The interpretation is promoted by a number of commentators, in particular Gordis, Delitzsch, and Longman. Of course, as others have noted, the translation is somewhat tendentious — offering far more interpretation of the text than is normal elsewhere in the NIV family of translations. A rendering which more closely reflects the Hebrew is this:

Cast your bread on the surface of the water,
for after many days you may find it.
Give a portion to seven, or even to eight,
for you do not know what trouble may come upon the earth.

Traditionally the passage has been understood to refer to alms-giving or charity. It also appears to reflect a similar proverb in the Egyptian Instruction of Onkhsheshonqy, which reads:

Do a good deed and throw it in the water,
when it dries up you will find it.1

The 2011 NIV/TNIV understand the text to refer to maritime trade. לחם is understood to refer to merchandise or to grain, and the second verse supposedly advises spreading the risk of such trade.

While this may be a legitimate interpretation of the passage (more on this below), is it a legitimate translation or does it move too far down the spectrum by excluding possibilities inherent in the Hebrew? Read on for more…
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first impressions of the 2011 niv

The new revision of the NIV translation is now available online at Bible Gateway, and this has prompted some discussion. Facilitating discussion are a couple of sites listing differences between the various revisions of the NIV.

For first impressions it is most obvious to begin with the beginning — Genesis 1. The 2011 NIV follows the tNIV more closely than it does the original NIV, differing from tNIV primarily in its use of gendered language (preferring, for example, “mankind” over “human beings”). In most other respects the 2011 NIV is superior to the original NIV in Genesis 1: “vault” is better than “expanse” for the Hebrew רקיע, and the purposeful “so that” in 1:26 is better than the old NIV’s simple “and.”

If the changes in gendered language in the 2011 NIV satisfy those who vehemently opposed the tNIV for its attempt to employ more gender neutral language, the if the remainder of the text reflects similar improvements over the original NIV as those reflected in Genesis 1, the new translation should be a good upgrade.

Of course a single chapter comparison does not make a comprehensive assessment, and I’m already aware that the 2011 NIV preserves the tNIV’s poor translation of Eccl 11:1 (h/t John Hobbins). On that verse I may make a further comment in the coming days.

Of course for every bad choice there are also good ones. One immense improvement over the older NIVs as well as most other English translations is Mal 2:16. The older NIV presented the fairly standard:

“I hate divorce,” says the LORD God of Israel, “and I hate a man’s covering himself with violence as well as with his garment,” says the LORD Almighty. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith.

The 2011 NIV has:

“The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the LORD, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,” says the LORD Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful.

Why is this better? See my discussion in “Syncretism and Divorce in Malachi 2:10–16,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 111/1 (1999) 68–86.

a foreignising translation of genesis 1: part IV

Well, at last it is time to finish the remainder of Genesis 1. I’m sure there remains much room for improvement, so I’m still open to any and all suggestions. I’m also aware that there are parts of the text which remain susceptible to inappropriate domestication, so this is in no way intended to be a finished work!

Then God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living things, and let flying things1 fly over the land, in front of the barrier of the sky.” And God established the great sea-monsters2 and all the varieties of squirming living things with which the waters swarm, and all varieties of winged flying things. God recognised that it was good.3

And God blessed them with the words, “Be fruitful, multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let the flying things multiply on the land.” And there was evening and then morning, a fifth day.

Then God said, “Let the land produce varieties of animals—varieties of cattle, creeping animals, and wild animals.” And it was so. God made the varieties of wild animals, varieties of cattle, and all varieties of animals which creep over the ground. God recognised that it was good.

Then God said, “Let us make humankind as our representation4 to be our proxy5 so they may rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, and over the entire land as well as all of the creeping animals which creep over the land.”

So God established humankind as his representation,
as the representation of God he created that one,
male and female he created them.

Then God blessed them with the words, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the land and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea, the flying things of the sky, and all the animals which creep over the land.” And God said, “Now I give you all the crops which are on the land and all trees bearing fruit containing its seed—these shall be your food. To all the wild animals, to the birds of the sky, and to the animals which creep over the land which are alive, [I give] every green plant for food.” And it was so.

God recognised that all which he had made was now very good. And there was evening and then morning, a sixth day.

Then the sky and the land was finished, and all their entourage. By the seventh day God had finished the work which he had done, so he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done. And God blessed the seventh day and made it sacred, because on it he rested from all his work which God established.


1. In light of the apparently all-encompassing reference in the previous clause to sea-life, it seems probable that עוף here refers to more than merely birds but encompasses everything that flies (see Lev 11:20; Deut 14:19). Using “flying things” also allows me to preserve something of the parallelism of the Hebrew ועוף יעופף.

2. Translations for התנינם הגדלים include “great sea creatures” (ESV, NET), “great creatures of the sea” (NIV, TNIV), “great whales” (KJV), “huge whales” (Message). These all overly domesticate a term which likely incorporated some element of mystery: “something large lurking in the depths whose identity is not entirely clear to us.”

3. The term “good” is pretty vague, but then so also is the Hebrew טוב. Hamilton translates as “beautiful,” although there are other Hebrew terms (e.g. יפה) which may better express the aesthetic quality inherent in this English word. Perhaps “suitable” or “appropriate” would be good renderings (if Sailhamer’s emphasis on the anthropocentric nature of the narrative is correct, then God’s observation would highlight the suitability of each phase of creation for human habitation). HALOT’s suggestion, “in order, usable,” would seem to fit well here.

4. “Image” and “likeness” are difficult primarily because they incorporate millenia of theological baggage. “Representation” is nice because it incorporates the notion of physicality inherent in “image” but also invokes the idea of a representative which is inherent in the use of צלם but absent from the English “image.”

5. Obviously “proxy” fails to reflect the aspect of physical resemblance inherent in “likeness,” but I’m trying to avoid “likeness” in order to distance the translation from the theological baggage which would otherwise be imposed upon the text by the use of conventional terms. On the other hand, “proxy” nicely conveys the notion of representation inherent in both צלם and דמות.

a foreignising translation of genesis 1, part III

It’s been too long since the last installment in this series, partly due to holidays, partly due to internet problems, and partly due to being too busy, but here come the next two days of Genesis 1 at last.

Then God said, “Let the waters under the sky be collected to one place so that dry ground appears.” And it was so. Then God named the dry ground “land” and he named the collected waters “seas.” God recognised that it was good.

Then God said, “Let the land sprout plants: crops1 and fruit-trees producing varieties of fruit containing its seed.” And it was so. So the land produced plants—varieties of crops and varieties of trees bearing fruit containing its seed. God recognised that it was good, and there was evening and then morning, a third day.

Then God said, “Let there be lights on2 the barrier of the sky to separate between the day and the night, and let them mark the times for days and years, and let them be lights on the barrier of the sky to shed light on the land.” And it was so.

God made the two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night—and the stars. God placed them on the barrier of the sky to shine on the land, to govern3 the day and the night, and to separate between the light and the darkness. And God recognised that it was good. And there was evening and then morning, a fourth day.


1. The expression עשב מזריע זרע is usually rendered “seed-bearing plants.” This raises the question: why the qualification about seeds, are there any plants which do not bear seeds? I suspect something more specific is on view here, and that is that the plants on view are crops and that the expression focuses on the ‘sowing’ aspect of the verb זרע. By extension, the reference to ‘fruit-trees’ probably focuses specifically on those cultivated for food. Furthermore, verses 29–30 specifically identify these plants as being for human consumption but also draw a distinction from other plants (כל ירק עשב) which are for animals. Cultivated crops are certainly in view later in Gen 2:5.

2. Note HALOT on the use of the preposition ב says “5. in association with high objects ב means upon: בחרב 1K 89, בסוסים Is 6620.” So also in subsequent uses of ב here in reference to the placement of lights on the barrier.

3. “Govern” is fairly neutral in Australian English, although I’m concerned a little over its connotations in US English where you actually have governors (or a “governator” in California), so the term may be less suitable in that context.

a foreignising translation of genesis 1, part II

For background information, read the previous post.

This translation is by no means final—it is very much a first draft with notes highlighting areas which I consider remain inadequate. Consequently I’ll be very pleased to consider any suggestions for improvement which I will gladly incorporate!

I begin with the first two days. Obviously there is much that could be said, I’ve included footnotes to points of particular interest.

When God began establishing the sky and the land,1 the land was uninhabitable,2 and darkness covered the surface of the primaeval depths.3 But the spirit of God stirred over the surface of the waters and God said, “Let there be light!” And there was light. God recognised that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. God named the light “day” and he named the darkness “night.” Then there was evening and then morning, a first day.

Then God said, “Let there be a barrier4 between the waters which will separate the waters, and let the barrier separate the waters which are below the barrier from those which are above the barrier.” And it was so. Then God named the barrier, “sky,”5 and there was evening and then morning, a second day.


1. I’m not entirely happy with ‘establishing’, but I’m aiming to go beyond ‘create’ because I think Walton probably has a point when he suggests that ברא refers to assigning a function to something, although I think he overstates his case. I don’t think the notion of “create” is readily excluded from the semantic range of the term, doing so creates(!) too many difficulties in some contexts. Consequently, I suspect that the term may refer to creating with a view to assigning function, and so I’ve lazily adopted the vague “establish everything (i.e. את השמים ואת הארץ)” to encompass the task of creating and assigning function. On Walton’s views, see his Genesis (NIVAC) 70–72; Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 181–184.

I think ארץ is best translated “land” in Gen 1, although I think that the expression את השמים ואת הארץ is a merism for everything (since there is no land at this point anyway). Unfortunately ‘everything’ is also inadequate, because ‘everything’ in the ancient world (cosmologically speaking) was quite different from everything today.

2. Although the precise meaning of תהו ובהו has long been debated, I suspect that in context here it describes the state of the world prior to the acts of God described in the remainder of the chapter—that is, before order, shape, and function had been imparted to the creation. Sailhamer argues that it means no more than “uninhabitable” (see Sailhamer, Genesis Unbound [1996] 60–66).

3. תהום is often translated in such a way as to suggest it is a simple reference to the ocean, but it almost always appears in reference to the ancient waters from which the cosmos was fashioned. Here I want to ensure the modern reader is aware that there’s more in the mind of the ancient reader than the ocean or sea.

4. For רקיע I’ve tried to choose a term which reflects the notion of a solid canopy over the world, hence “barrier.” Terms like “expanse” allow modern readers to escape the significant cosmological differences which exist between the ancient world and our own and should be avoided.

5. “Sky” is ultimately inadequate as a translation for שמים in this context since the Hebrew idea here doesn’t simply reduce to what modern English speakers mean by “sky.” However, until I can think of (or someone can suggest) a better alternative, it will have to remain for now.


To be continued…