One Bible, Many Versions

All good translations make the meaning as clear to the English reader as they can.

Many evangelical Christians say they prefer reading “a Bible translation that is literal.” It sounds so reasonable: Just translate what the Bible actually says in the original, word for word. However, two versions congratulate themselves for being the most word for word, the English Standard Version (ESV) and the New American Standard Bible (NASB). In fact, neither is more literal than other versions. That is understandable, says Dave Brunn. All good translations make the meaning as clear to the English reader as they can; translations are “meaning-based” and follow a valued principle called “dynamic equivalency.” terms that the translators of the ESV and the NASB have pledged to avoid.

Dave Brunn is the author of One Bible, Many Versions.[1] Dave and his wife were missionaries for 20 years in Papua New Guinea, with a fine mission agency, New Tribes Mission (now called Ethnos 360). Brunn translated the Bible into the Lamogai language. When he returned to the US, Brunn became aware of criticisms made against some Bible translations, that they were not word-for-word translations. The critics began a new translation project, the English Standard Version, that would be more “essentially literal” instead of “meaning-based” or based on a “dynamic equivalent” translation model. However, as Brunn points out, the ESV is just as meaning-based as other translations. This is perfectly fine, says Brunn, because all translations are meaning-based. The ESV has not been able to admit that this is so.

“How literal should a Bible translation be? Are literal versions the only valid versions?”[2] Brunn, writes,

“I have found that some of the widely accepted litmus tests of faithful and accurate translation at the heart of this debate were based on English grammatical features that are nonexistent in the Lamogai language.”[3] In these cases, a literal translation from Lamogai into English is not possible. Similarly, there are features of Hebrew and Greek syntax and vocabulary, the languages of the Bible, that do not exist in the English language. Thus, a literal translation into English is not possible, and is not even a good idea.

The New American Standard Bible (NASB) translation, which Brunn thinks highly of, is described by its publishers as the most literal of translations. Likewise, the English Standard Version (ESV) says it is “essentially literal.” How do they compare with the Revised Standard Version (RSV) and the New International Version (NIV)? Here are some comparative texts.

  • The Hebrew word barak, bless, occurs more than 300 times in the Old Testament. In four cases, however, the ESV translates barak as“curse, the exact opposite of “bless.” So do all the other translations. and all other translations. This is fine, Brunn comments, but the choice of the word “curse” in English is hardly a literal translation. All four examples are in the book of Job:

Job 1:5 Literal: “Perhaps my children have sinned and blessed God in their hearts.”

. . . blessed God in their hearts.Cursed God in their heartsCursed God in their heartsCursed God in their heartsCursed God in their hearts

Job 1:11, 2:5 Literal: “He will bless you to your face.”

He will bless you to your face.He will curse you to your face.He will curse you to your face.He wil curse thee to thy face.He will curse you to your face.

Job 2:9 Literal: “Bless God and Die.”

Bless God and die.Curse God and die.Curse God and die.Curse God, and die.Curse God and die.

The translator knew that the Hebrew word “bless” was used here as a euphemism “curse.”[4] None of them translate barak literally because they want to reader to understand what the author of Job meant.

  • “In my autumn days.” What picture comes to mind when you hear the phrase “in my autumn days?” For most English speakers it evokes an image of an elderly person heading into the final season of life. But that is not what this Hebrew phrase means in Job 29:4. The NASB translated it “in the prime of my days.” The NIV and EST both translated it “in my prime.” The word autumn in this Hebrew metaphor refers to the time of greatest fruitfulness. The translators of every major English version recognized the fact that a literal word-for-word translation of the form of this metaphor would distort the meaning of God’s word. This is very similar to the practice of paraphrasing, which is “giving the meaning in another form.”[5] Paraphrasing is what the ESV and the NASB said they will not do.

Job 29:4 “When I was in my autumn days….”

In my autumn days.I was in my prime.I was in my prime.I was in my autumn days.I was in my prime days.

“In translation, it is sometimes necessary to set aside the literal in order to stay true to what the author intended. In situations where a choice must be made between reflecting the form or preserving the meaning, meaning consistently takes priority—even in the most literal versions of the Bible.” [6]

  • The term “my heart” appears many times in the English translation of “my kidneys.” It is well-known that the Hebrew phrase “my kidneys” will not do for the English language audience. Here are the ways English versions translate the Hebrew word for kidneys:
Job 19:27 My kidneys faint.My heart yearns.My heart faints.My heart faints.My heart faints.
Psalm 16:7 My kidneys instruct me.My heart instructs me.My heart instructs me. My mind instructs me.
Psalm 73:21 My kidneys were pierced.My heart was grieved.I was pricked in heart.I was pricked in heart.I was pierced within.
Psalm 139:13 You formed my kidneys.My inmost being.My inward partsMy inward parts.You formed my inward parts.
Revelation 2:23 I am he who searches the kidneys and hearts.I am he who searches minds and hearts.searches mind and heart.searches mind and heartsearches minds and hearts.

In Hebrew, “kidneys” is plural in each case. For example, “My kidneys faint, “my kidneys instruct me,” My kidneys were grieved,” “You formed my kidneys,” etc. The English translation “heart” requires a change in the verb to single, hardly in line with an “essentially literal” translation. Kidneys is translated “heart” in the New Testament as well. This is perfectly fine, unless the translation promotes itself as a literal translation.

Revelation 2:23NIVESVRSVNASB
I am he who searches the kidneys and hearts.I am he who searches minds and hearts.searches mind and heart.searches mind and heartsearches minds and hearts.
  • “Apple of his eye.” This phrase was popularized when the King James Version of the Bible in 1611; it does not appear in the Hebrew Bible, however. (The Hebrew word “apple” (tapuach) appears six times in the Bible, four of them in the Song of Solomon, once in Proverbs 25:11 and once in Joel 1:12.) The phrase “apple of his eye” appears six or more times in all the English translations, including those which congratulate themselves for being “essentially literal” translations.
Psalm 17:8 HebrewNIVESVRSVNASB
Keep me at the center of your eye.Keep me as the apple of your eye.Keep me as the apple of your eye.Keep me as the apple of the eye.Keep me as the apple of the eyes.

New Testament Translation Examples

  • Examples of translating “for meaning” instead of “essential literalness” can be observed in the New Testament. Here is Matthew 11:10: “I send my messenger before your face.”
Before your face.Ahead of you.Before your face.Before your face.Ahead of you.
  • 1 Corinthians 11:30 “A number of you have fallen asleep.”
Are fallen asleep.have fallen asleep. Some have died.Some have died.A number sleep.
  • Luke 2:36 “having lived with a husband seven years after her virginity.”
After her virginity.after her marriage.From when she was a virgin.From her virginity.After her marriage.

Brunn writes,

My work as a translator brought me to realize that literal Bible versions in English often take turns being the most (or least) literal among their peers. For example, we see that sometimes the NASB gave a literal rendering of the Hebrew and Greek words for ‘flesh’ but the ESV replaced them with dynamic equivalents.[7]

  • Romans 3:20 By the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight.
No flesh will be justified.No one will be declared righteous.No human being will be justified.No human being will be justified.No flesh will be justified.

Flesh or human being? Which word shall we use for sarx? It literally means flesh, but maybe the reader needs help in making the meaning clear . . .  Here is another text where sarx is not translated flesh by some translators:

1 Corinthians 1:26 “Not many of you were wise according to the flesh.”

According to the fleshBy human standardsAccording to worldly standardsAccording to worldly standardsAccording to the flesh

Brunn writes,

All these interpretive renderings are acceptable, but none is based on the principle of literal equivalence. Many Christians assume that literal versions translate each Hebrew or Greek word with a single English word. But there is no such thing as a consistent word-for-word translation of the Bible. That is because the full meaning of most words does not ‘word for word’ between any two languages.[8]

Logos means “word,” as “In the beginning was the word.” But here are ways logos is translated in the ESV:

  • Acts 1:1 In the first book (logos), O Theophilus,
  • Romans 14:12 So then each of us will give an account (logos) of himself to God.
  • 1 Corinthians 2:1 I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech (logos) or wisdom. 
  • 1 Corinthians 2:4 My speech and my message were not in plausible words (logoi) of wisdom.
  • Ephesians 4:29 Let no corrupting talk (logos) come out of your mouths.
  • 1 Timothy 1:15 The saying (logos) is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance.
  • Matthew 5:32 I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground (logos) of sexual immorality.

Sometimes logos can be translated “word.” But in the ESV we find 20 other English “dynamic equivalents.” This is appropriate, since the meaning depends on the context of each sentence. Of the 330 occurrences of logos in the New Testament, the KJV, ESV and NASB each set aside the literal translation about a hundred times.[9]

  • In Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, the word phrase “wife of Uriah” is not in the Greek (1:6). The Greek says, “David fathered Solomon, out of Uriah.” NASB, which calls itself a “strictly literal translation,” adds “the wife of Uriah” the same as the NIV and the other translations. This is perfectly normal, in order to make the meaning clear to the English reader. It is only a problem because a couple of translations vaunt themselves over the others for being a word for word translation.

Matthew 1:6 “David fathered Solomon, out of Uriah.”

David fathered Solomon, out of Uriah.David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife.David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah.David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah.David fathered Solomon by her who had been the wife of Uriah.
  • Many readers today probably do not know what the Sanhedrin was in the New Testament. Many English Bibles follow the principle of “dynamic equivalence,” replacing the original word with familiar contemporary terms:

Matthew 5:22 Anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. 

SanhedrincourtCouncilCouncilsupreme court
  • Translators have sometimes omitted certain Greek or Hebrew words for the sake of appropriateness. An example is the Greek word aphedron, which means “latrine” or “toilet.” It occurs twice in the New Testament (Matthew 15:17 and Mark 7:19). Compare the Greek wording with the way these versions translate this phrase.[10]

Matthew 15:17 Jesus said, ““Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then it is eliminated into the latrine (ἀφεδρῶνα)?”

Into the latrineIt goes out of the body.It is expelled.It passes on.It is eliminated.

Apparently, none of the English translations can permit Jesus to use the word “latrine.”

  • James wrote in his letter, “If a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your synagogue…(James 2:2).” However, none of the English translations chose to use the word synagogue. Dear reader, how do you feel about that?
into your synagogueinto your meetinginto your assemblyinto your assemblyinto your assembly
  • There is no “inn” in the Christmas story. Luke says that there was no room for Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus in the katalumati, or extra room. Luke knows the word “inn,” pandoxeia, and uses it in the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. But he uses the word “spare room,” katalumati , in the Christmas story. Katalumati is the word Luke uses for “upper room” in the story of the Last Supper.
No room in the katalumatiThere was no guest room.No room in the innNo place in the innNo room in the inn

The NIV is more literal in the Christmas story than the so-called literal translations. There was no hotel, no “inn,” in Bethlehem.  Joseph and Mary resided in a house in Bethlehem, probably with relatives. The ESV and the NASB suggest a phrase to make the meaning clear, which is to say they do what they say they won’t do.

  • Paul wrote to Timothy, “Till I come, devote yourselves to the public reading” (ἀναγνώσει). ESV adds the phrase “of Scripture,” as does the NIV. But “Scripture” is not in the text.
Greek 1 Timothy 4:13NIVESVRSVNASB
The public reading (anagnosei).The public reading of Scripture.The public reading of Scripture.The public reading of scripture.The public reading.
  • Blincoe: The reader would assume that the Greek word baptism is always rendered in English as “baptism.” Not so. In Hebrews 9:10 the King James Version (KJV) preserved the word baptisms; modern translations have not.
Greek Hebrews 9:10NIVESVRSVNASB
baptismois (baptisms)Various ceremonial washingsVarious washingsVarious ablutionsVarious washings
  • Peter writes “God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of nether gloom to be kept until the judgment” (2 Peter 2:4). The word hell is actually “Tartarus.” Tartarus was a common reference to “the underworld” in Greek mythology. Tartarus is used only here in the New Testament. The Christians of the first century knew Peter was borrowing a term well-known in Greek mythology. Peter borrowed from a non-Christian religion; that is the textbook definition of dynamic equivalency. Can translators borrowing religious terms from other religions, if those terms can truly explain biblical truth? That connection is lost to the English reader; it would be interesting if at least one English translation retained the literal word “Tartarus.” Alas.
Greek 2 Peter 2:4NIVESVRSVNASB

We are grateful to Dave Brunn for translating the Bible into the Lamogai language of Papua New Guinea. In doing so, Brunn gained an understanding of translation principle that perhaps only a missionary who learned another language would be aware of. He concludes with a question:

Are literal versions really literal? Why do literal versions translate thought for thought rather than word for word so often? It will become apparent that every literal version uses dynamic equivalence principles in many contexts.[11]

Thus, all good translations follow the principle of translation called dynamic equivalence, even those translations which eschew the term. How does the reader feel about this?

[1] Dave Brunn, One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013). Introduction

[2] Ibid. 20

[3] Ibid. 22

[4] Ibid. 121-122

[5] Ibid. 42-4

[6] Ibid. 43

[7] Ibid. 31

[8] Ibid. 72

[9] Ibid. 79

[10] Ibid. 113

[11] Ibid. 34-35. Wayne Grudem, a member of the ESV translation team, favors the ESV because, he says, it is an “essentially literal” Bible translation. Grudem opposes the “dynamic equivalent” translation model. You can read Grudem’s explanation here. This is so interesting, because Grudem argued for a “dynamic equivalent” translation for the Hebrew ebed (slave) to the other members of ESV translation committee. You can listen to the discussion here. I have transcribed it here:

Grudem: “When we as scholars use the word “slave” we have in mind something of the background as it was used in the Old Testament and the New Testament, and we can understand nuances of it. But for the average English reader, the word “slave” has irredeemably negative associations and connotations. In people’s minds it’s a permanent condition, whereas in the Old Testament and certainly in the time of the New Testament it’s temporary; it leads to freedom. And it was often voluntary, at least in the first century. Number 2, slavery in the Old Testament was not primarily racial, it was economic. And third, it was often a situation that had status and offered legal protection. And for those reasons I think we are importing highly inaccurate understandings of the meaning of the term.”

Dear reader, In this speech to his fellow translators, is Wayne Grudem arguing for a literal translation? Or for a meaning-based “dynamic equivalent” translation?