Is Your Bible Free Of Bias?
William D. Barrick, Professor of Old Testament wrote in 2001: “Biblically based theology has no choice but to be wedded to Bible translation. One’s theology is heavily dependent upon one’s understanding of Scripture in translation, whether it is one’s own or that of a published version. On the other side of the coin, Bible translation is inextricably linked with theology. As evangelicals we tend to guard ourselves with the dictate that the Scriptures in their original languages are the final authority in all matters of faith and practice. In reality, however, an OT theology teacher must communicate with his students via some form of translation. The students themselves will interact with theological teaching on the basis of the translations with which they are most familiar.” “Translation affects theology just as much as theology can affect translation. The translator must be keenly aware of the interaction of the two disciplines.” (THE INTEGRATION OF OT THEOLOGY WITH BIBLE TRANSLATION, TMSJ 12/1, Spring 2001, pp. 15,30)
The same can be said of the New Testament, if not more so. With this in mind, let’s examine the theological background of some well-known versions.
English Standard Version: “The doctrinal perspective of the ESV Study Bible is that of classical evangelical orthodoxy, in the historic stream of the Reformation. The notes are written...within the broad tradition of evangelical orthodoxy, the notes have sought to represent fairly the various evangelical positions on disputed topics…..” (Introduction, p. 10, ©2008) “All [the scholars and advisors involved] are committed to historic Christian orthodoxy. […] “And so to our triune God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), and to his people, we offer our work ….” (p. 12)
According to thegospelcoalition.org: “On the Christian Booksellers Association 2014 listing of top selling Bible translations, the ESV ranked fifth in dollar sales and fourth in unit sales. During the past 15 years, the ESV has distributed more than 100 million print copies as well as more than 100 million electronic copies.”
New International Version: “The Committee has also sought to preserve a measure of continuity with the long tradition of translating the Scriptures into English.” (2006) “Doctrinally, the [NIV] Study Bible reflects traditional evangelical theology.” (1985) Hence, a leading Bible translation gets its source of interpretation from “traditional evangelical theology.” What if this ‘traditional theology’ is wrong to start with?
Wikipedia says: “In 2009, the New Testament scholar N. T. Wright wrote that the NIV obscured what Paul the Apostle was saying, making sure that Paul's words conformed to Protestant and Evangelical tradition. He claims, ‘I do know that if a church only, or mainly, relies on the NIV it will, quite simply, never understand what Paul was talking about,’ especially in Galatians and Romans.” Some of Wright's specific objections concerning verses later in the chapter (Romans 3) no longer apply to the 2011 revision of the NIV.
In Romans 9.5, the 1985 NIV Study Bible read: “Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.” This version offers an alternate translation: “Or Christ, who is over all. God be forever praised! Or Christ, God who is over all be forever praised!” A footnote adds: “Christ who is God. One of the clearest statements of the deity of Jesus Christ found in the entire NT, assuming the accuracy of the translation (see NIV text note).” (Italics added) The NIV Study Bible team of 1985 should be praised for openly admitting that popular renderings which cater to its evangelical base, like the one above (Rom. 9.5), are dependent on the personal exegesis of the translator. Notwithstanding, the 2011 revised edition conveniently removed this acknowledgment. Yet, many individuals are tempted time-and-again to use this Scripture as a “proof-text” in religious forums.
According to a source (CBA), the NIV has sold more than 450 million copies worldwide. Best-seller? Yes! Bias free? What do you think?
NWT: Frequently, Bible versions use the platform to promote their theological agendas. The NWT pushes 1914 C.E. as the time “Jesus hurls the serpent, Satan to the earth.” (Appendix B1) Also, this version wants everyone in their organization to believe there was a “governing body” precedent to justify the current authoritarian structure of their organization. (Acts, Outline of Contents, p. 1459) Furthermore, the name “Jehovah,” lacking in the oldest Greek manuscripts (with the exception of “Jah” in Revelation 19), is used for kyrios throughout the Greek Scriptures. There is some basis to believe the divine name appeared in the original autographs, which may justify its use in places where the Greek text quotes the Hebrew Scriptures (e.g., Ps. 110:1 – Mt. 22:44, etc.). However, at other times, the NWT Committee added the name arbitrarily without any background or evidence, seemingly done by a personal whim. The NWT is not alone in promoting theological doctrine. It has plenty of company. Is the Bible the place to thrust such independent speculations?
The Common English Bible is hailed as an interdenominational translation. Hence, they claim:
“The translation is sponsored by the Common English Bible Committee, which is an alliance of denominational publishers, including Presbyterian (USA), Episcopalian, United Methodist, Disciples of Christ, and United Church of Christ representatives. […] The CEB is truly a Bible created by churches and for the Church. ” (1st page of “Preface,” ©2013) Now, do you think all the denominational support makes this version less biased than the others?
At Mt. 10.28, this version translates the Greek “Gehenna” as “hell.” At John 1.18, the CEB calls Jesus Christ “God the only Son.” This expression may look fine to the modern western religious practitioner, but a scholar made this valid observation: “In Joh. I.18 it is hard to see why [monogenes huios], the reading of some editors, must be translated the only begotten Son, while [monogenes theós] which is given by Wescott and Tregelles after the very oldest MSS, must not be translated the only-begotten God, but God only begotten.” (Greek-English Lexicon to the New Testament, by W. J. Hickie) The author may be suggesting here that some scholars are actually dragging the traditional interpretations into the text of John 1.18 instead of translating by the most likely word meaning as they do in other places he mentions (i.e., John 3.16,18; Luke 9.38; Hebrews 11.17, etc.). In another place (Colossians 1.15 and 18), the translators interpret the genitive construction (of, from, etc.) of these two verses differently: In verse 15, the Greek word for “firstborn” is not even applied to Christ. Instead, Christ is said to be “the one who is over all creation,” excluding Christ from being a part of God’s creative acts. At verse 18, the translators have no objection in using the Greek word for “firstborn,” and translate the genitive as expected of Christ: “the one who is firstborn from among the dead.” (Italic letters added.) Why the discrepancy? Is this a form of bias? You decide!
The Washington Post: “Most of Holman’s [Christian Standard Study Bible] contributors either graduated from or taught at a Southern Baptist seminary, and the work is committed to the conservative Southern Baptist understanding of the Bible.” “The Holman study Bible’s introduction makes clear that the translators and commentators started with fixed theological commitments and reassures readers the text is orthodox. ”
“Like the “ESV Study Bible,” the “NIV Zondervan Study Bible” affirms clear evangelical commitments.” “The theological profiles of the the ESV and NIV study Bibles are very similar. Editors of both volumes are connected to the Gospel Coalition, a network of Reformed churches. Many of the contributor to the two volumes have common affiliations at evangelical and Reformed institutions. A few scholars even worked on both study Bibles.” (Daniel Silliman, August 28, 2015)
In the case of Holman’s Christian Standard Study Bible, one Baptist belief reflected in this version can be read in their full page explanation of “Incarnation and Christology” (by Stephen J. Wellum, p. 1802). The author of this page calls Jesus “God the Son,” an expression commonly accepted among traditionalists. More importantly, these words, taken literally, appear nowhere in Scripture. Scriptures do mention “God” and “the Son” repeatedly (e.g. the Son of God, etc.), but the actual statement of “God the Son” is never stated in the Bible as such. The words do, however, appear in Bible translations promoting a particular agenda. Thus, the thought is interpolated into Scripture. The Bible simply says that “the Word became flesh”… that “God sent his only-begotten Son” to save the world. (John 1.14; 3.18) Then, where did the thought of “two natures” (God the Son) espoused by the author come from?
The same page states the author’s admission: “Later church reflection, especially at the council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) affirmed that we cannot do justice to Scripture without confessing that Jesus of Nazareth was fully God and fully man.” (Emphasis added) We have to ask: Can we “do justice to Scripture without confessing” the “later church reflection” affirmation?
The NET Bible: Of this version, Michale Marlowe, a self-proclaimed Protestant, writes: “Although the Introduction does not mention it, seventeen of these people ["Net Bible Team"] were teachers at DTS [=Dallas Theological Seminary*]; and of the remaining six, five were students at DTS. Only one (William Barrick) has no obvious connection to Dallas Theological Seminary. Some of them have no publications, and are little-known outside of DTS. Evidently the version was almost entirely a project of the members of the DTS faculty, assisted by their students.” (http://www.bible-researcher.com/net.html, 1 January 2007) (*DTS is known as an evangelical center of modern Dispensational teaching) Need I say more?
Jerusalem Bible: Michael Marlowe (q.v), claims the following in his review of this Catholic version: “The translation is little influenced by dogma (if at all), and even the annotations are of an ecumenical-scholarly character…. Traditional Roman Catholic exegesis is therefore largely absent from the Jerusalem Bible, just as traditional Protestant exegesis is absent from the Revised Standard Version. There are some notable exceptions to this rule…. 1 Timothy 2:4….” (http://www.bible-researcher.com/jerusalem-bible.html)
Both the Jerusalem Bible and the Revised Standard Version are known for being some of the least dogmatic biblical versions available. Nonetheless, both versions can’t avoid inserting their own interpretations in various places. In the JB you’ll find “hell” at Mt. 10.28 for the Greek “Gehenna,” and also for the Greek “Hades.” (Mt. 11.23; Lu. 10.15) At 1 Cor. 3.15, the JB notes: “This is not a direct reference to purgatory but several Doctors of the Church have taken it as a basis for that doctrine.” (Note d.)
In turn, the RSV uses “hell” for the Greek term “Tartarus” at 2 Peter 2:4. At Ps. 45.6 it has, “your divine throne” but at Hebrews 1.8 where it quotes the Psalm, it says: “Thy Throne O God...” Protestant beliefs do play a part in these assumptions. Do you think not?
A revision of the RSV resulted in the 1990 New Revised Standard Version. Both versions are favored by the scholarly community. The National Council of Churches, the largest ecumenical body in the United States, owns the copyrights of both versions. What do these churches believe? When we use these Bibles, are we conscious enough to the fact that we are reading the interpretations of an independent ecumenical body of religion?
The Holy Scriptures (Jewish Publication Society, 1917): “It aims to combine the spirit of Jewish tradition with the results of biblical scholarship, ancient, medieval, and modern. It gives to the Jewish world a translation of the Scriptures done by men imbued with the Jewish consciousness, while the non-Jewish world, it is hoped, will welcome a translation that presents many passages from the Jewish traditional point of view.” (Italics added.)
TANAKH - The Holy Scriptures (The New Jewish Publication Society translation, ©1985, “Preface”): “The proposed translation would… make critical use of the early rabbinic and medieval Jewish commentators, grammarians, and philologians and would rely on the traditional Hebrew text, avoiding emendations.” Thus, the interpretation of previous Jewish commentators, etc., whether right or wrong, would have a great bearing in the final product.
Jewish New Testament: The translator David H. Stern writes under “Translation Issues” ... “The Translator and His Interpretations”:
“Which raises the question of whether the translator should ‘inject his opinions’ into his translation. The Jewish New Testament cautiously answers in the affirmative, on the ground that it inevitably happens anyhow, so that the translator who supposes he ‘maintains neutrality’, merely channeling ideas from the source language to the receptor language without influencing the result, deludes both himself and his readers. For necessarily every decision as to how to render a Greek word or phrase into English expresses the translator’s opinion…. Therefore, a translator should decide what a word or phrase means (in his opinion!) and then convey that meaning as clearly as possible. ” (Introduction, pp. xx, xxi, ©1989)
The Wesley [Study] Bible (NKJV): “The study Bible is evangelical and Wesleyan. On the basic points of theological interpretation Wesleyans are in agreement with other groups of the evangelical community. Thus the bulk of the study Bible is best described as evangelical. Previous study Bibles have overlooked the distinctives of Wesleyan interpretation. The goal of the translators “was simply to explain the Bible text, showing how Wesleyans understand the teachings of Scripture and noting Wesleyan interpretation only when it is evident from the words of Scripture.” (Introduction, p. xviii, ©1990. Italics added.)
Wikipedia states that “the creation of Wesleyan-Arminianism has today developed into a popular standard for many contemporary churches.” Are Bible readers aware that some of their evangelical Bible translations actually reflect Wesleyanism, Calvinism, Arminianism, Methodism, etc, as sources of interpretation?
The Clear Word: “This is not a translation of the Bible but a condensed paraphrase for an easier reading of Scripture.” (Words by the author Jack Blanco, Retired Professor and Dean Southern Adventist University, 2005, under “Preface.”)
Being a Seventh-Day Adventist, the author of this paraphrase was likely committed to the importance of the Sabbath Day observance. This is seen in the following example of his paraphrase of Colossians 2.16: “Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to go through certain rituals, eat certain foods, keep certain feasts, or observe extra sabbaths to be saved.” (Italics added. Note the word “extra” added here.) Compare this to the reading of NRSV: “Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths [Literally: of sabbaths].”
Jack Blanco is Trinitarian, and perhaps feels uncomfortable with the explicit idea that Christ is less than God. He renders John 14.28 thus: “I’ve told you that I must leave, but I am coming back. If you love Me, you will be glad that I can go back to My Father. I’m telling you all this ahead of time so that when it happens, your faith in Me will be even stronger.”
Where then is the missing statement appearing in all other Bible translations, “I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I”? In sum, can the theological beliefs of the translator be reflected back into the translation? Certainly! It happens more often than we would like to believe.
The following book One Bible, Many Versions sums up quite nicely the whole matter of Bible translations: “All versions [including the most literal ones] translate thought for thought rather than word for word in many contexts. Some just do it more consistently than others.” (p. 30) “All translation involves a certain amount of interpretation.” (p. 166) “There are countless places in Scripture where the translators of every version were forced to make an interpretive choice. ” (pp. 168-169) “The real evidence in Scripture shows that the ideal of leaving the interpretation up to the reader is often an impossible goal to attain.” (p. 170. ©2013, by Dave Brunn. Emphasis added.)
I have barely touched this subject, which could fill the pages of countless volumes, but I hope that the reader of this page can see with just a few samples that Bible translations are not immune to personal interpretations and theological agendas. Sometimes, the translator simply cannot avoid inserting his or her own interpretation into the text. At other times, some translators in good faith focus their efforts in helping certain religious groups, at the expense of literal accuracy. It does not necessarily mean that those individuals had the initial intention of deceiving others by doing so, although the consequence of spreading religious error may be the final outcome.
All the translations above, in my view, are sincere efforts to provide the Word of God to people all over in a language that can be understood by most individuals. The truth of the matter is that Bible translations are done by imperfect humans with limited knowledge. The Septuagint translation was quoted by Jesus and his followers, warts and all. No matter, Bible translations are necessary if we want to know more about God and his purpose. We should do no less than appreciate the humongous efforts of Bible translators, regardless of their religious persuasion.