Translating the Faith
Margaret Aymer is the academic dean and the D. Thomason Professor of New Testament Studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
Kaela’s parents and the congregation made promises to guide and nurture her; yet Kaela was also nurturing us.
In memory of J. Michael Morgan, who taught many about the English Bible
Why Do We Translate?
“Translations are the devil’s way of confusing Christians so we don’t all read the same Bible.” Quite a theological treatise from my Lyft driver as he drove me to the airport. Many people share his suspicions, neatly summarized in the quip: “If the King James Version was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.” Multiple Bible translations raise suspicions about accuracy and about the motivations of the translators. Which is the “right translation”? Which should I use in my sermon preparation, in my devotions? Which should we buy for the pews? Devil or no, my driver correctly named many Christians’ reactions to translations as confusion. Here, I hope to allay some confusion and to offer you some tools for your ministry.
. . . Translated . . .
Translation of the church’s Scriptures begins over three hundred years before the birth of Christ, a century after the death of the megalomaniacal Macedonian monarch Alexander the Great. Alexander’s realm stretched as far east as the Ganges River and encompassed parts of northern Africa, western Asia, and southern Europe. When he died, his generals divided his realm among themselves. Greek, the language of Macedonia, became the common (or koine) language among these kingdoms, quickly outstripping other languages. Among our Jewish forebears, Greek outstripped even Hebrew and Aramaic, the scriptural languages.
Of necessity, the Scriptures of Judaism—those that Christians call the “Old Testament”—were translated from Hebrew and Aramaic into Greek, beginning about 250 BCE. This translation became known as the Septuagint.1 The Septuagint matters to this conversation because it was the early church’s Bible, the New Testament writers’ Scripture. New Testament references to the Scriptures often directly quote or substantially paraphrase the Septuagint.
As Christians, then, we inherited both a translated Scripture and the act of translation as a practice of faith from our theological ancestors. Indeed, without translation, neither they nor we would have retained our stories of faith. We are a faith that began in translation, that was built upon a translation, and that carried this practice of translation down throughout our history.
. . . And Always Translating . . .
Every Pentecost Sunday, some brave soul attempts to read aloud the list of nationalities in Acts 2:9–11: “Parthians, Medes, Elamites . . .” and so on, a story about the translation of the gospel into multiple languages through the power of the Holy Spirit. Ordinations often feature the story of the first deacons in Acts 6, which begins with a conflict between Greek-speaking widows and Hebrew-speaking widows. And notice this: whenever the Gospels include Aramaic words, they provide a translation. For example, in
Mark 5, when Jesus raises a child from death by saying “‘Talitha koum,’” Mark helpfully adds, “which means, ‘young girl, rise.’” Jesus may have spoken Aramaic, but Mark’s audience does not understand it. If Mark wishes to provide the Aramaic words, he must also provide a translation.
These New Testament writings indicate that translation was practiced within the earliest Christian gatherings. As the church grew, so did the need for translation. For the New Testament canon alone, scholars know of early or medieval translations into Latin, Syriac (a language widely used in Mesopotamia), at least seven variations of Coptic (the language of Northern Africa), Armenian, Georgian, Gothic (a Germanic and Scandinavian language), Ethiopic (the language of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Sudan), and Slavonic (the language of the Balkans). These translations predate any available English language translation!
Thus, Christians have always translated. Our translations built bridges to other cultures, other children of God who would become believers and members of the household of faith.
Translation and Accessibility
Accessibility lies at the heart of scriptural translation. William Tyndale, one of the earliest English translators of the Bible, reportedly quipped that he wanted to ensure every boy at the plough knew the Scriptures as well as—or even better than—the Pope in Rome! Translations make Scriptures accessible by building language bridges between words and cultures.
But cultures and languages are not static. They change and evolve, and with them so must translations if the church wishes to keep the Scriptures accessible to the people of God.
Consider this line of Scripture:
And if I part all my goods into the meats of poor men, and if I betake my body, so that I burn, and if I have not charity, it profiteth to me nothing [italics added].
This is 1 Corinthians 13:4 from the Wycliffe translation of the fourteenth century. What might it mean to “part all my goods into the meats of poor men”? The New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition (NRSVue) translates this:
If I give away all my possessions and if I hand over my body so that I may boast* but do not have love, I gain nothing [italics added].
Notice the change in this translation from the word “charity” to the word “love.” For contemporary readers charity connotes “giving to someone who does not have what they need without hope of return.” Our contemporary use of the word “love” makes Paul’s meaning more accessible for the twenty-first-century reader. Now, even a child at their computer (if not at their plough) might be able to grasp Paul’s meaning.
Accuracy and Manuscripts
Notice the asterisk at the word “boast” in the NRSVue. In the Wycliffe, that word is “burn,” a very different English verb. This points to a second reason translations change—new information about the ancient manuscripts. Over the millennia, manuscripts were copied down by hand, and sometimes copyists made changes, either correcting what they believed was an error or adding their thoughts. Usually, these were small changes, but after centuries of copying, they became part of the accepted Greek manuscripts of the Bible.
After the end of the First World War, advances in archaeology and political changes led scholars to manuscripts much more ancient than the ones used by Wycliffe, Tyndale, or the King James Version scholars. These earlier manuscripts caused scholars to amend the words of our translated Bibles out of a commitment to accuracy. In the case of 1 Corinthians 13:4 above, the manuscripts used by Tyndale contained the word kauthēsomai or kauthēsōmai, translated “I burn” or “I may burn.” The more ancient manuscripts contain kauchēsōmai, translated “I boast.” Even in English transliteration, you can see how similarly these words are spelled; in Greek, the difference amounts to one letter. Yet the difference matters: handing over my body so I may burn is not the same as handing over my body so I may boast. In the more ancient manuscripts of this text, Paul’s concern focuses on the pride of the person rather than the condition of their body.
Multiplied over thousands of verses, these small changes required new translations of the Bible. The Revised Standard Version (1946) and the many English translations of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (e.g., NRSV, NIV, NRSVue, CEB) were published to increase accessibility and accuracy for contemporary readers.
Who Translates and for Whom?
However, accessibility and accuracy only partially explain the proliferation of Bible translations in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Two other factors to consider are formal versus functional translation and theological differences in the translation of Bibles.
Formal Versus Functional Translation
Formal and functional translation represent two methods of Bible translation. Formal translations aim to translate each ancient word, even if the resulting translation is not perfectly intuitive to English readers. These translations attempt a word-for-word translation of the ancient manuscripts, granting access to ancient cadences and idioms. Functional translations aim to help contemporary readers understand the Bible, even if the translation does not preserve every word in the manuscript. These translations focus on representing the sense of the ancient authors’ words and making those words relevant to contemporary readers of the Bible.
Most contemporary translations combine these two approaches, but some lean more heavily toward functionality, and others toward formality. Compare, for example, these translations of the familiar beginning of the second chapter of the Gospel according to Luke:
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.
In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria.
About that time Emperor Augustus gave orders for the names of all the people to be listed in record books. These first records were made when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
The first of these quotations comes from the NRSVue, a more formal translation. The second comes from the 2011 Common English Bible, a translation that tries to blend formal and functional. The last comes from the 1995 Contemporary English Version, a translation geared to a grammar-school reading level that leans toward functionality rather than formality.
Each of these translations helps English-speaking readers access the Bible. However, adding little details like “in the tax lists” or “the names of all the people” may help some English readers better understand Luke’s meaning. A more formal translation better preserves Luke’s cadences, showing readers not only what something meant but how it was said.
Theological Differences and Translation
Theological and ecclesial differences have also resulted in a variety of Bible translations since the very early days of the English Bible.
The Earliest English Translations
Although many think of the King James Version as the “original English Bible,” translations of the Gospels into Old English date back at least to the Wessex Gospels (circa 990 CE), some six centuries prior.2 William Tyndale, executed as a heretic and an outlaw by the Roman Catholic Church, translated the first New Testament in modern English, first publishing it in Protestant Germany in 1526.3 The Tyndale New Testament relied on the Greek manuscripts developed by Desiderius Erasmus, a Dutch scholar, rather than on the Vulgate, the Latin translation considered canon by the Roman Catholic Church. Tyndale’s translation forms the basis for 80 to 90 percent of the King James Version’s New Testament.
Following Tyndale, five Protestant English translations precede the King James: the Coverdale (1535), the first translation of the entire Bible into English; the Matthew Bible, the first English Bible authorized by a monarch; the Great Bible (1538), developed primarily for use in churches; the Geneva Bible (1560), the Bible of the Scottish Reformers, the Puritans, and the Pilgrims, intended for private study and full of anti-Catholic, anti-episcopal, and anti-monarchical footnotes; and the Bishops’ Bible (1568), a subpar translation authorized by the bishops of the Church of England, free of the antiestablishmentarianism of the Geneva Bible.
These translators faced excommunication and execution for their efforts during the period of active conflict between Roman Catholics and Protestants. Still, the popularity of Bibles in English forced the hand of the Roman Catholic church, and in 1610, it published its own English translation—the Douay-Rheims—for use in English-speaking parishes.
When James VI became England’s monarch, he worked to heal some of these divisions. As part of this effort, he called together Puritans and bishops at Hampton Court in 1604 for a series of discussions. From this gathering emerged the proposal for a new translation of the Bible, authorized by King James. According to the committee, this work was not “to make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one . . . but to make a good one better.”4 Unlike the Roman Catholic Douay-Rheims, a translation of the Latin Vulgate, the translators of this version would work with Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and other ancient languages. Moreover, this translation was to be free of any commentary, anti-episcopal or otherwise, unlike the Geneva Bible.
The King James Version reflected the formal language traditions of its day, in keeping with its intended use as sacred text.5 Its language supported the theology of the Church of England, translating ekklesia as “church” rather than “congregation,” and presbyteros as “bishop” rather than “elder.” Similarly, translators supported the reading of Old Testament Scriptures as prefiguring the New Testament and chose Calvinist translation of verses in support of predestination.
Without question, the King James Version translators created a new language for the English-speaking church, both in the United Kingdom and globally. The translation’s poetic cadences, many inherited from its forebears, fundamentally shaped the language of the English-speaking church for generations. Even today, the majority of English-speaking Christians who pray the Lord’s Prayer or recite the Twenty-third Psalm do so in the cadences of the King James Version.
The National Council of Churches Translations: RSV, NRSV, NRSVue
The power of the King James Version (KJV) notwithstanding, language shifted over three centuries. Language and the new archaeological discoveries mentioned above created a need for a new translation, one with greater accuracy and accessibility.
Although previous revisions had occurred, the first substantive revision of the King James Version—the Revised Standard Version (RSV)—was commissioned by the National Council of Churches in the U.S.A in 1937 and published in 1946. The committee of white male Christian and Jewish scholars considered this work a revision, staying “as close to the Tyndale-King James tradition as it can in the light of our present knowledge of the Hebrew and Greek texts . . . and our present English understanding.”6 The RSV committee also chose to translate the Old Testament writings without trying to align them with their New Testament counterparts. Sometimes, this caused theological conundrums.
The biggest controversy lay in the RSV’s translation of Isaiah 7:14. In the KJV, Isaiah 7:14 reads:
“Therefore, the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (KJV, italic added).
However, the RSV’s translation reads:
“Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanu-el” (RSV, italic added).
The RSV translators were not heretics. The Hebrew of Isaiah 7:14 uses the Hebrew word for “young woman,” not “virgin.” Matthew and Luke derive the word “virgin” from the Septuagint translation. However, this change raised serious theological concerns, as Mary’s virginity is a central tenet of global Christianity. If Matthew and Luke were using a mistranslation, what might that suggest?
After 1946, the RSV was revised twice more. In 1986, the National Council of Churches commissioned the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). This version reconsidered the translation of masculine plural nouns. English, Greek, and Hebrew writers would often use the masculine plural (“men, mankind”) to indicate all persons present, regardless of gender. For example, the Declaration of Independence famously intones: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”7 (italics added). However, in contemporary speech such language is exclusionary.8 In the NRSV, uses of masculine plurals as placeholders for people of all genders were replaced by more inclusive language such as “men and women,” “brothers and sisters,” and “people.”
In 2022, the National Council of Churches released the NRSV Updated Edition (NRSVue), a collaboration with the Society of Biblical Literature, a guild of biblical scholars that is, to quote its executive director, “agnostic . . . We are an interfaith, ecumenical, academic organization, not a religious one.”9 Some “12,000 substantive changes” were proposed.10 A committee worked together to incorporate these, and a committee of potential Bible users were asked for their feedback.11 Changes included switching from words like “leprosy” and “leper” to “skin disease,” an indication that we do not know exactly what disease is intended. The National Council of Churches will replace the NRSV with the NRSVue, allowing the former to go out of print.
The New International Version12
For many churches and seminaries, the RSV and its descendants became the adopted translation. However, some were unsatisfied, especially because of the Isaiah 7 controversy. In 1961, the Christian Reformed Church and the National Association of Evangelicals joined forces to establish a new Bible translation committee, named the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT). The fifteen men of the original committee represented theologically conservative seminaries and schools. They worked with teams of translators, all of whom affirmed a theological statement about scriptural inerrancy.
Whereas the RSV, NRSV, and NRSVue considered themselves revisions of the King James Version, the NIV was an entirely new translation. Influenced by Dr. Eugene Nida, a Bible translator and linguist, the NIV was the first contemporary translation to adopt a more functional rather than formal translation method, resulting in a translation that was, at once, theologically more conservative and more easily understood by contemporary readers.
Compare, for instance, Hebrews 1:1–2. The NRSVue translates these verses:
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.
The NIV translates these same words:
In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.
The italicized words highlight how these translators strove to choose language that was more accessible than the formality of the King James tradition. At the same time, the use of “his Son” (the Greek has “a son”) points to the theological commitments of the NIV translation team.
The NIV is still the single most popular Bible translation in the United States, even though in 2011 it was revised to include more gender-inclusive translation, akin to that in the NRSV/NRSVue.
Other translations have been commissioned for theologically conservative groups, among these the New American Standard Bible and the Holman Christian Bible. However, none has matched the NIV in its popularity.
Some Contemporary Translations: Inclusive Bible, CEB, and First Nations
Bible translations continue into the twenty-first century. Space does not allow for a full recounting of these, but I will briefly review three of them: the 2007 Inclusive Bible (IB), the 2011 Common English Bible (CEB), and the 2021 First Nations Version of the New Testament (FNV). Each of these versions represent functional rather than formal translations.
Priests for Equality, a Roman Catholic group committed to women’s full inclusion in ordination, began work on the Inclusive Bible in 1998, finishing the translation in 2007. The IB challenges paternal names for God (e.g., “Father”), and attends to sexist and classist language in Scripture. This commitment can sometimes occlude hard truths about the biblical world, especially the presence of enslaved persons in the earliest church. In Genesis 16, for example, Hagar is Sarai’s attendant, not her “slave,” and Ephesians 6 is addressed to “workers,” not “slaves.” In addition, the IB arguably presents the least objectionable translation for LGBTQIA+ Christians. Famously, the word “homosexual” was first included in the 1946 RSV.13 While it was subsequently removed in the NRSV and NRSVue, the RSV opened the door to its use both theologically and politically in other Bible translations. Rather than “homosexuals” or “sodomites” (NRSV), the IB uses the word “pederasts,” pointing to the historical realities of men who sexually abused underage, usually enslaved boys. The margin notes in the IB reflect both its full support of women and its Roman Catholic origins.
The Common English Bible emerged from an ecumenical coalition of mainstream and evangelical primarily Christian translators as an alternative functional translation to the New International Version. The CEB proposes a theologically centrist translation, using masculine pronouns for the Deity and not attempting to soften the few passages that have been used as “clobber passages” for the LGBTQIA+ community. Central to this work was readability in “common English.” Consider, for example, Romans 8:37, the “more than conquerors” passage. In the CEB, it reads, “But in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us.” One may argue whether this choice strips some of the poetry of the text, but “sweeping victory” does reflect common parlance. Like the IB, some of the CEB choices around human enslavement occlude the issue. Although the Ephesians text parallels more formal translations, in Genesis 16, Hagar is translated as “servant” rather than slave.
The First Nations Bible was developed by a council of First Nations translators guided by Native Intervarsity, One Book Canada, and other more evangelical leaning organizations. Its intent is a “retelling of Creator’s Story from the Scriptures, attempting to follow the tradition of the storytellers of our oral cultures.”14 As a “retelling,” this version defamiliarizes the biblical text, which allows readers and hearers to experience Scriptures in a new way. Consider the first beatitude in Matthew 5. The FNV reads: “Creator’s blessing rests on the poor, the ones with broken spirits. The good road from above is theirs to walk.” The reimagination of “the kingdom of heaven” as “the good road from above” invites all readers to shift their sense of what Jesus might be teaching here. This is not a biblical translation for those looking for more inclusivity toward the LGBTQIA+ community; however, it does invite readers into a storied world different from the one passed down by William Tyndale and his descendants.
What Bible Should I Use? Some Guidelines
Given this history, how should worship leaders and pastors proceed in choosing English Bible translations? Here are some suggestions that might help.
• Read the Preface: Prefaces to English translations contain helpful information regarding why the translation was created and by whom. This may give you insight into the theological bias of that translation; every translation has one.
• Translation for whom: Different translations serve different populations. When choosing an English translation, consider who will be using it. Will this be a gift for a pastor or seminarian, or will it be a Bible for use with grade-school children? How formal or functional should the language be?
• En Conjunto: A Latine principle states that we do things “en conjunto,” together. This wisdom can be applied both to choosing translations (create a group) and in using translations (use multiple ones). No one translation is perfect, just as no single person can represent the needs of an entire community.
• Use good resources: The Christian Scriptures are thousands of years old, steeped in history and culture. Readers should not only engage the words but the culture behind those words. Therefore, choose resources wisely. Introductory textbooks, Bible dictionaries, and commentaries written by credible scholars help. So too do Bibles with extensive notes, for example the Jewish Annotated New Testament (Oxford), which places the stories of the New Testament within their Jewish context.
Above all, I invite you to read the Scriptures, as Tyndale once wanted. These are the church’s story; they are your story. Take and read.
1. A helpful introduction to the Septuagint is Timothy Michael Law’s book When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
2. Donald L. Brake with Shelly Beach, A Visual History of the King James Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011), 25.
3. I distinguish “modern English” from “old English,” i.e., the language of Chaucer. When I am speaking of twenty-first-century English, I will use “contemporary English.”
4. Preface to the King James Version.
5. Gordon Campbell, Bible: The Story of the King James Version 1611–2011 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 73.
7. The author recognizes that the writers of the Declaration of Independence did not believe in the equality of all persons. However, the linguistic use of “men” here is intended to be universal, not gender-specific.
8. Broadway lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda highlights this in “The Schuyler Sisters.” After quoting the above line from the Declaration, Angelica Schuyler quips, “And when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’m-ma compel him to include women in the sequel” (emphasis mine).
9. This author was the book editor for the Letter of James.
10. Annelisa Burns, “An Even Better Bible,” Christian Century (February 2023): 64.
11. Burns, “An Even Better Bible,” 64.
12. An excellent article on the NIV is William W. Combs, “The History of the NIV Translation Controversy,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 17 (2012): 3–34. The information in this section largely derives from Combs’s research.
13. For more on this, see https://www.1946themovie.com/.
14. “Introduction to the First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament,” ix.