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The Politics of Bible Translations

The Politics of Bible TranslationsScot McKnight posted an interesting article on his website Jesus Creed today. Even though I’m Australian, and not American, this post resonates with me, and Scot’s observations are similar to my own.

Here’s an excerpt (with minor edits):

The Bible you carry is a political act. By “Bible” I mean the English translation of the Bible you carry. Because the Bible you carry is a political act the rhetoric about other translations is more about politics than it is about reality.

The reality is that the major Bible translations in use today are all good, and beyond good, translations. There is no longer a “best” English translation but instead a basket full of exceptional translations.

The world in which we live, however, has turned the Bible you carry into politics. So here goes my political overview of English Bible translations at the general, stereotypical level; and it goes without saying that there are exceptions for each:

The NIV 2011 is the Bible of conservative evangelicals.
The NLT is the Bible of conservative evangelicals.
The TNIV is the Bible of egalitarian evangelicals.
The ESV is the Bible of complementarian conservative evangelicals.
The NASB is the Bible of conservative evangelical serious Bible students.
The NRSV is the Bible of Protestant mainliners.
The RSV is the Bible of aged Protestant mainliners.
The CEB is the Bible of Protestant mainliners.
The KJV is the Bible of African Americans (in my experience at TEDS, NPU and Northern) and, of course, others.
The Message is the Bible of those who are tired of the politics (and like something fresh).

You can read the rest of Scot’s post, and the lively conversation that follows it, here.

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. Scot is the author, or editor, of fifty books, and is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. (Source)


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Posted October 1st, 2014 . Categories/Tags: Bible Translation and Interpretation,

Unkind, judgemental, bizarre, and off-topic comments will be deleted.

8 comments on “The Politics of Bible Translations

  1. Erik Weaver says:

    I hope you are mistaken. I personally prefer the NRSV, in the Catholic edition. I note you did not list Catholics. Perhaps they don’t read the bible, being Catholic? (Since we are speaking of stereotypes, heheh.) I self-identify as a former Protestant who is now Catholic. So I have my feet in both worlds in my later adult years.

    But the NRSV is just a starting point for me. I switch between several translations, and if studying the Hebrew Bible, I switch to the Jewish Study Bible.

    And in any event, one of the Interlinear Bibles is pretty much a required reference if one wishes to get very deep into the text.

    In the Hebrew bible I want to know *which* name of God is being used, for example. Also, having just been looking into Genesis chapter 2, it is useful knowing where ha’adam is being used, where ish and ishshah are being used, etc. The use of these specific words is important.

    In the New Testament, referring back to the Greek is very important. Often there are a variety of words which may be translated into English, and not uncommonly, the English offers fewer shades of meaning.

    These are all examples of word choices in the original language that really make a difference.

    I have yet to find an English translation that gets all these points “right.” I don’t even think that is possible. Therefore, I find I need to have several good (ok, generally excellent) translations, as well as an Interlinear Bible (Hebrew and Greek) and access to Strong’s correspondence, or similar tools. And these days, we have access to all of this online.

    So, while I half-way think I understand the point you are making, I really think it can be better defined as folks who believe there is any *one* English translation are rather missing the larger point.

    I’m not saying everyone has to try to read in the original languages. I’m not even saying everyone has to use an Interlinear Bible as a reference. But I am trying to say, if one chooses *not* to, it should be done with the understanding they are reading less of the meaning than is available.

    *All* English versions are translations, and in a great many cases if we want to study (instead of read) we do need to get into the original language. Few can ever hope to become fluent in Hebrew and Greek, but I think a great many of us can learn a great deal, and many will find it is well worth the relatively little extra time and effort required.

    And those who choose not to, should understand they are reading approximations of the original languages. Which is fine, so long as one doesn’t pretend otherwise.

    • Marg says:

      Hi Erik,

      Your comment reminds me of Scot’s final point in his post (which can be found on his site): “Each of these Bibles is good. Let’s use them all, and rejoice that we have such wonderful access to the Bible.”

      I rejoice that we have easy access to so many excellent translations, as well as access to excellent resources that help us with our study of the biblical text.

      I found Scot’s generalizations interesting, and they line up reasonably well with my own general observations.

  2. Marg – I think the Bible is, in all its incarnations and especially the original, a political work. It demands from us recognition of the whole body of humanity and its many sores and wounds, none of which are adequately pressed out with oil (Isaiah). It demands of us policy to help rather than to dominate (Psalms 146). It demands of us a recognition of what is not transient or valued only with money. It is above all a book about governance (Psalms 96-99), from Israel as example (Psalms 89), to the use and abuse of power as depicted in Revelation. It is not thrones, dominations, principalities and powers that we worship and the mediation is no longer through such angels (Hebrews 1).

    • Marg says:

      Beautiful words, Bob. I understand what you’re saying.

      The reason Scot’s words resonated with me is that I have strong feelings about some English translations because of their political motivations and “tribal” associations. For example, I avoid using the ESV which is described as “unashamedly complementarian” and only employed male translators. And I think a few translation choices in the NLT are deliberately biased.

      Having said that, Scot’s reminder that the rhetoric surrounding some of the more well-known English translations are about politics and not reality is worthwhile as we are blessed to have so many excellent translations, which include the ESV and the NLT.

  3. judy says:

    Perhaps not really relevant to your discussion…but today I was researching the word “liberty” on a Bible site…25 times you will find this word in the KJV…in EVERY OTHER VERSION IT WAS FOUND 19 OR LESS TIMES. in the NIV only ONE TIME in Leviticus 25:10.

    I use several versions for comparison…but LIBERTY is such a beautiful word…why would they change it? Freedom, largeness, or a wide place replace it in some…but I miss the resounding ring of LIBERTY….it has such a revolutionary feeling to it…a breaking free feeling that no other word carries…by comparison, freedom feels as if we have arrived…but have we? We fight for liberty and then we rest in freedom and then we move into a wide place…kind of in a descending order, in my mind anyway! 🙂

    In the end, if you are right, we can say that those churches are made up of people who are led to read these versions. My former church defined itself by a certain version and did not think kindly of those who didn’t use it…worse still was one church where everyone read aloud from their own various versions…it was chaotic.

    Perhaps we should read the version that is IN us…the one that has been translated into our words and actions…what version is that? And who wants to read that version? Is our version like Christ? i.e. “my yoke is easy and my burden light” or do we “bind heavy burdens” on others by our version?

    • Marg says:

      Interesting. I wonder if that’s an American thing? I personally don’t see a difference between “freedom” and “liberty”, except that “liberty” isn’t used as much as “freedom” in my society.

      I think we can fight for freedom and rest (and rejoice) with liberty. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” springs to mind (2 Cor 3:17).

      I totally agree that some of the tactics used to pressure people to use just one particular English translation can be binding people with a heavy burden.

  4. […] The Politics of Bible Translations […]

  5. Brother. Pauly Thomas says:

    God Bless you Sister,
    I am interesting read it.
    Your articles are faithful messages from Scripture

    Thank you.

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