Good and bad bible translations.

by K.W. Leslie, 02 January

I realize people are gonna find the title of this article through Google or one of the other search engines, and are gonna be vastly disappointed I haven’t provided an easy-to-use chart establishing, “These translations are good and holy and inspired of God… and these translations are the product of an international conspiracy of devil-worshipers,” or some other such extreme. You want fear-ridden nutjobs, you’ve come to the wrong blog.

Nope; today’s rant is about the bible translations I wind up reading through—and getting irritated by—when I do my bible in a month thingy every January. That’s right; I don’t merely suggest you do it, and leave you with a big pile of reading material. I do it too. I pop over to Bible Gateway, pick a translation I’m not all that familiar with, and get to readin’. Sometimes I start in December, while it’s still Christmas. Sometimes later in January. Still tend to get it read within 3 to 4 weeks.

Most of the time it works out okay. I pick an unfamiliar translation, read it in its entirety, and now I can experientially tell you what it consists of… unlike some nimrod who reads a few passages and jumps to a conclusion; usually an angry one. Fr’instance a decade ago I read the Message back to front. So now, when people ask me what I think of it, I can say, “I read it,” and not just mean a book or two, or assorted chapters; I read it. And…? And I like it. It’s good. I don’t agree with all the translation choices, but I’m never gonna agree with all the translation choices. But it’s good. Feel free to use it for casual reading, devotional reading, or even in church. It’s not gonna bite.

It’s not infallible. No translation is. When you do serious bible study, do not use only one translation, the Message included, without double-checking it against many other translations. (Even when you know biblical languages: Make sure your interpretation isn’t too far afield from all the others!) But again: Casual, devotional, church, Twitter: Use it. Have fun.

Then there are the translations I don’t care for. And yeah, even if you found this article for other reasons, you’re probably gonna be curious about my take on them. You’re looking (in vain) for a perfect translation, and you wanna eliminate a few contenders. Or you’ve already convinced yourself it’s the King James Version, but you spitefully wanna know why other translations suck, just so you can bash ’em a little more. I don’t wanna enable you, but at the same time I don’t wanna encourage publishers to crank out bad bible translations. So I’ve got mixed feelings… but I’m plowing ahead anyway.

The Amplified Bible.

This year I’m reading the Amplified Bible, second edition. The New Testament came out in 1958, and the whole in 1965. Basically it was the 1901 American Standard Version with bible scholar Frances E. Siewert’s notes inserted, not as footnotes, but directly into the text. Hence her version of John 3.16 looked like yea:

John 3.16 AMPC
For God so greatly loved and dearly prized the world that He [even] gave up His only begotten (unique) Son, so that whoever believes in (trusts in, clings to, relies on) Him shall not perish (come to destruction, be lost) but have eternal (everlasting) life.

When you translate Greek into English, you gotta pick one English word—sometimes two or more—which best fits the meaning of the original Greek word. But sometimes there are several ways to best fit the meaning of the Greek word. Igápisen can be translated “greatly loved,” but it can also be translated “dearly prized,” and rather than pick one, Siewert figured why not include both? So that’s what we find all over her edition of the Amplified Bible: Multiple ways of saying the same thing. Sorta like you wedged a bit of a Greek or Hebrew dictionary into the text.

Sometimes that’s a good thing. Sometimes not. Sometimes a one-word translation is a valid translation. Just because a word can mean multiple things doesn’t mean it does, and users of the Amplified Bible often try to claim they do. They’ll even preach sermons on ’em. There’s a three-point sermon in the fact “believes in” in John 3.16 is implied to mean “trusts in,” “clings to,” and “relies on.” Even though “trusts in” is the one meaning which fits best.

Adding to the confusion, for the second edition the publishers decided to take an occasionally-used feature and do it way more often: Interpretation.

Check out the way the Amplified Bible depicts Jesus’s teaching on the good eye. First edition (AMPC, meaning “Amplified Classic Edition”) on the left; current edition’s on the right.

Matthew 6.22-23 AMPC
22 The eye is the lamp of the body. So if your eye is sound, your entire body will be full of light.
23 But if your eye is unsound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the very light in you [your conscience] is darkened, how dense is that darkness!
Matthew 6.22-23 Amplified
22 “The eye is the lamp of the body; so if your eye is clear [spiritually perceptive], your whole body will be full of light [benefiting from God’s precepts]. 23 But if your eye is bad [spiritually blind], your whole body will be full of darkness [devoid of God’s precepts]. So if the [very] light inside you [your inner self, your heart, your conscience] is darkness, how great and terrible is that darkness!

Yep, the verses got just a bit longer. Pity the poor people who like to memorize verses in the Amplified.

But otherwise it’s handy, innit? It’s like a built-in biblical commentary. Too bad it’s wrong.

As I explained in my article, “good eye” and “evil eye” were first-century idioms for generosity and stinginess. Something you’d know if you read the Mishna; something you wouldn’t if you hadn’t, and either the translators of the Amplified hadn’t… or they did, but still liked their interpretation of “spiritually perceptive” and “spiritually blind” better.

Now, any interpretation can be wrong. I’ve certainly been wrong. Of course, when I learn better, I ditch my misinterpretation and teach from my corrected knowledge. Which is easy to do when we’re working with bible commentaries: We know commentators aren’t infallible, so we’re willing to pick ’n choose from their teachings when we recognize this. Problem is, when you’ve got a bible translation where the commentary is right there in the bible text, it gets a little harder. A student with an Amplified Bible is gonna object, “But my bible says it means ‘spiritually perceptive,’ not ‘generous’”—and seldom recognize there’s a difference between the textual authority of the words outside and inside the brackets. I know from experience: They don’t think, “The brackets are just opinion.” They think, “The brackets are part of the bible.”

There’s a reason Moses told the Hebrews not to add or subtract words from the Law, Dt 4.2 and why John warned the readers of Revelation not to monkey with the words of his book. Rv 22.18-19 (End Times timelines do so count.) It’s because we bible-believing Christians base our lives on these books, and a misinterpretation will misdirect our lives. As they do so often whenever we take the text out of context. But it’s way worse when you take your out-of-context idea, and stick it within the text of the scriptures themselves. Basically you rewrote God.

Thankfully the Amplified doesn’t get it wrong—as far as I can tell; again, I might be wrong—often. And it’s really inconsistent about where and how it amplifies words. The New Testament is amplified and padded like crazy; the Old Testament way less so, except in popular books like Genesis and Psalms. There are huge stretches in the Histories and Prophets which really could use amplifying.

The Orthodox Jewish Bible.

Back in 2013 I read the Orthodox Jewish Bible. Don’t let its title fool you: It’s not published by Orthodox Jews, but by Philip Goble, a Messianic Jew—which is why it includes a Brit Khadašá/“New Testament.” And if you stumbled over the words Brit Khadašá, you’re gonna stumble over a lot more than that when you read the OJB. Half the translation is in Hebrew. Untranslated Hebrew. The assumption is you already know Hebrew.

John 3.16 OJB
For Hashem so had ahavah (agape) for the Olam Hazeh that Hashem gave the matanah (gift) Is 9.5 of Hashem’s Ben Yechid Ge 22.12, Pr 30.4, 8.30 so that whosoever has emunah in him may not be ne’evad (lost, perish, be ruined with destruction), but find Chayyei Olam. Da 12.2

The whole bible is like this. I’m not kidding.

Hebrew is my third language, after English and Spanish; and I learned ancient Hebrew. Not current Israeli Hebrew. Nor American Synagogue Hebrew, which is what Goble uses extensively. So reading the OJB felt like a combination of dyslexia and cataracts. After two weeks of pure stiff-necked struggle, I gave up and read the ESV instead. (Again.)

There are two kinds of Messianic Jews. There’s the practicing Jew who’s become Christian, and is thrilled to be Christian, ’cause rightly-taught Christian grace makes religion way more fun than their rabbis ever taught it. No more need for ritual cleanliness; now they can eat bacon, ham, oysters, cheeseburgers, and turn on the bathroom light on Sabbath instead of whizzing in the dark. (Okay, maybe they were already breaking all these rules. But now they don’t have to feel so guilty about it.)

Then there are the practicing Christians who’ve discovered they’re of Jewish descent, and are thrilled to discover they’re Jews. And why not? They’re God’s chosen people. Dt 4.6 He didn’t have to graft ’em into his kingdom like he does the gentiles; Ro 11.17 now they can take their rightful place in it. Nice for them.

But no Jew on the planet makes a bigger deal of their Jewishness than a Messianic Jew. Often for valid reason: Practicing Jews tend to insist if you’re Christian, you’re gentile, and if you’re of Jewish descent you’ve gone gentile. They’re totally wrong, and Messianic Jews feel a strong need to make this crystal clear. But often it’s by going overboard, and behaving extra Jewish—as if behavior, not DNA, makes you Jewish. So they cover themselves in the trappings of Judaism: Kipas, tallits, shofars, Israeli artifacts, traditional Jewish religious practices (with Messiah name-dropped regularly throughout, ’cause they are Christian after all). Plus every other word from their mouths is now Hebrew or Yiddish.

Guess which of the two extremes brought us the Orthodox Jewish Bible? Right you are, bubbala: The one which has gotta drop gratuitous Hebrew and Yiddish everywhere. Just to remind us the bible was written by Jews, for Jews, and don’t you forget it.

So every biblical name is now in the original Hebrew: Not Abraham but Avrahám. Not Isaac but Yítzhak. Not Moses but Moíshe. Not Jesus but Yeshúa. (Or Yehóshua. Or Yáhushua, which some woman at my church pronounces like Yahoo-shua, which always reminds me of the search engine.) Not even God, ’cause you never wanna use his name in vain; it’s HaShem/“the [holy] name,” and whenever you do spell “God” or “Lord” you gotta use the little dash and make it “G–d” and “L–rd,” even though these are God’s titles, not his names. But I digress.

Y’notice Goble was kind enough to include the occasional English or Greek word in parentheses. So if you ever forget matanah means “gift,” maybe the Orthodox Jewish Bible will remind you. Then again maybe not. Goble assumed his readers know most of the common vocabulary words. Note Psalm 23 below, where he assumed you already know the difference between a nefesh/“soul” and a shulchan/“table,” and what tov/“good” means. You might if you took Hebrew 101. If not, maybe you’ve memorized the psalm and can fill in the blanks. And if not… well, Elohím im kulekhém.

Psalm 23 OJB
1 Hashem is my Ro’eh (Shepherd); I shall not lack.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the mei menuchot (tranquil waters).
3 He restoreth my nefesh; He guideth me in the paths of tzedek l’ma’an Shmo (righteousness for the sake of His Name).
4 Yea, though I walk through the Gey Tzalmavet (Valley of the Shadow of Death), I will fear no rah (evil); for Thou art with me; Thy shevet (rod) and Thy staff they comfort me.
5 Thou preparest a shulchan before me in the presence of mine enemies: Thou anointest my head with shemen (olive oil); my kos runneth over.
6 Surely tov and chesed shall follow me kol y’mei chaiyyai (all the days of my life): and I will dwell in the Bais Hashem l’orech yamim (for length of days, whole life).

But even if you did take Hebrew 101, frequently Goble slipped a Yiddish word in there. Like Shabbos for Šabbát/“Sabbath.” Or beis or shtetl for beit/“house.” It’s just plain strange when Jesus’s family, when they worry he’s beside himself, Mk 3.21 KJV now call him “meshuga.” Mk 3.21 OJB Not just ’cause it’s a bad translation of exésti/“he stands outside [himself],” but because it’s the wrong culture. First-century Galileans never said “meshuga.” Twenty-first-century American Jews do.

That’s the underlying problem of the OJB: It doesn’t do the job of authentically leading you closer to God’s message, intent, and heart. You wanna do that? Read and study and live the bible—in languages you know. If you want Hebrew to be one of those languages, take that Hebrew 101 class. But Hebrew shouldn’t be your veneer so you can feel more Jewish.