Versions, translations, paraphrases, and padded texts.

by K.W. Leslie, 15 March

Most English-language bibles have the word version in their title: The King James Version, the Revised Version, the American Standard Version, the New International Version, the English Standard Version, and so on.

It’s a popular way to indicate your bible is different from other bibles: You got a different version. Just like the fifth edition of a textbook might be a little different from the fourth edition: Still the same book, but a little different. It doesn’t tell a different story from other bibles, nor communicates different ideas. There should be exactly the same stories and ideas. But the way one bible puts it into English, isn’t gonna phrase it the same way as another bible will. The KJV will use 16th century English, and the NKJV won’t.

More recently, bibles are starting to be titled translations—like the Good News Translation, the New Living Translation, the New English Translation, the God’s Word Translation. It’s a more precise word than version, ’cause “version” can suggest a different point of view, and bible versions had better not present a different point of view from one another. All should be accurate translations of the original text. And all bibles are translations.

Well… unless they’re not. Sometimes they’re paraphrases.

Paraphrases—and bibles which aren’t paraphrases.

A paraphrase is not based on another language. It’s the same language; you’re retelling what someone else said, but in different words. Bible paraphrases aren’t based on the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts of the bible: They’re based on a different English-language bible. The Living Bible, fr’instance: It’s probably the best-known paraphrase, and even says “Paraphrased” on the cover. Book publisher Kenneth N. Taylor realized then-current bibles were too hard for his children to understand, and he didn’t know Hebrew and Greek well enough to translate it himself, so he simplified the text of the American Standard Version. The Living Bible isn’t a translation. Its update, the New Living Translation, is based on the original texts, so it is a translation.

Often Christians will claim a bible is a paraphrase, or simply has to be a paraphrase, because of how loose of a translation it is. That’s because they don’t entirely understand how the translation process works. It’s not decoding. A foreign language does not have precise equivalents to English-language words, and all we gotta do is plug in one word for another. Whenever the Hebrew text says the LORD “will walk on my nose,” Is 63.3, 6 we don’t translate this literally, because your average person has no clue what this means. בְּאַפִּ֔י/be-afí, “in my nose,” is Hebrew shorthand for “because my nose is burning,” and now you might recognize what it means: The LORD is angry, and is walking their way (or stamping his feet) because the Israelis have pissed him off again. Even “literal translations” know better than to be literal when they find verses like this.

So a loose translation is still a translation. Eugene Peterson’s The Message was converted into idiomatic English from the original-language texts. It doesn’t read like your “literal” New American Standard—and doesn’t have to. But this doesn’t make it a paraphrase.

Padded texts: Bibles with extra words.

However. The Message is what I call a “padded text”—like the Amplified Bible, the Expanded Bible, and The Voice. When it translates a verse from the original, its version is quite a bit longer than more precise versions, because their translators wanted to expound on the ideas a bit longer.

The Message fr’instance, when we compare Matthew 7.24 with the NIV:

Matthew 7.24 NIV
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.”
Matthew 7.24 Message
“These words I speak to you are not incidental additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living. They are foundational words, words to build a life on. If you work these words into your life, you are like a smart carpenter who built his house on solid rock.”

Yes, when Jesus was talking about his Sermon on the Mount, his bit about building one’s house on bedrock was meant to express the idea, “These words I speak to you are not incidental additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living. They are foundational words, words to build a life on.” It’s just Jesus didn’t say these words. He let “If you work these words into your life, you are like a smart carpenter who built his house on solid rock” say it for him. Peterson didn’t let them stay subtext. He turned ’em into text.

Which is fine… well, debatably fine. It kinda crosses the line between bible and bible commentary. It is what Jesus means; just about every practicing Christian agrees it’s what Jesus means. But Jesus didn’t bluntly state it, and he had his reasons why not. Partly because the Holy Spirit is meant to fill in this rather obvious blank for us; we shouldn’t need Peterson.

But anyway: Just because Peterson played fast and loose with the text, does not turn it into a paraphrase. Peterson based it on biblical Greek. And if you were a present-day Greek translator, were translating a present-day Greek-speaking patriarch’s sermon into English, and were trying to make it very, very clear what the patriarch meant, you’d likely do exactly as Peterson did in The Message: You’d add a few extra words to help clear things up, and make sure the idea got across.

I have one main problem with padded texts: It’s really easy to add your own ideas to the text, and some padded texts absolutely do this.

The Amplified Bible is a popular padded text because it claims to provide all the possible meanings of a particular verse.

John 3.16 Amplified
“For God so [greatly] loved and dearly prized the world, that He [even] gave His [One and] only begotten Son, so that whoever believes and trusts in Him [as Savior] shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

Sounds thorough. God [greatly] loves the world, which can also mean he deeply prizes the world; “whoever believes in him” can also mean “whoever trusts in him.” I should point out these amplifications are fairly obvious; one should know one means the other. But generally yeah, it does make it more clear what the text means.

Here’s the catch. Notice the text says “whoever believes and trusts in Him [as Savior].” And yes, we should believe Jesus will save us; we should trust that he’ll save us. But is that the only way we should trust and believe him? What about… obeying his commands? Following his teachings? Applying the instructions in the Sermon in the Mount, and thereby living a Christian life? If we only trust Jesus to save us, but we never bother to trust anything else he did and said, what kind of Christians are we? Are we even Christian at all? Are we even saved at all?—because if we don’t trust him in the one, do we truly trust him in the other?

Y’see, the text in the brackets might’ve felt to the editors like a good addition… but you know how people are: We’re always looking for loopholes. We do it with bible all the time. Add words to the text, and you’ve just allowed people to add loopholes to the text.

Yes, I realize certain Christians are gonna strongly object to padded texts for a whole other reason: They’re pretty sure padded texts are forbidden; that we’re forbidden to add or subtract words from God’s word. Dt 4.2, Pr 30.6, Rv 22.18 But since adding words is unavoidable when we translate languages, a better interpretation of these verses is we shouldn’t add ideas to God’s. Padding is only acceptable if we don’t deviate from the scriptures’ intended meaning. And sometimes the Amplified does this… and so does the NIV, NLT, and even KJV. Translators are human, and humans make mistakes.

So go ahead and use your padded texts, loose translations, strict interpretations, and everything inbetween. But ultimately we gotta compare multiple English translations, and see what the consensus is. Not utterly depend on any one version of the bible.