The Problem of Heretical Bibles

Elephant in a living room

Whose job is it to police the Bible translation process to ensure that only accurate translations that are true to the original languages are published? What can be done about clearly heretical translations? What about controversial translations?

In 1901, the American Standard Version of the Holy Bible was copyrighted in the United States of America by Thomas Nelson & Sons. The copyright statement claimed that the copyright was “to protect the integrity of the text”. Since then, almost all modern English translations of the Holy Bible were published with a copyright. Copyright grants a legal monopoly on making copies or derivative works to the copyright owner. The copyright owner can grant permission to others to make copies under conditions that suit him/her/them. Usually, this permission comes with a condition of payments (royalties), but permission may be withheld for any reason or other conditions may be attached. The intention of the copyright law is to guarantee that writers, artists, etc., have a way to be compensated for their work. It is really about economic rights, and to a much lesser extent, moral rights. So how is this supposed to protect the integrity of the text? I guess the theory is that when the copyright owners grant permission to make copies, they can require as part of the conditions of permission that the text be copied correctly (i.e. unaltered). Or they can decide if they trust a particular entity to create a derivative work (i.e. revision or translation into another language), and only grant permission if they do. Nice theory, but how is it working out in real life?

If copyrights truly prevented the creation of heretical Bible translations, there would be none of them. But there are. How did that happen? First of all, all copyrights expire eventually. Everything copyrighted before 1924 (and much that was published later) has expired copyrights, and are in the public domain. Anyone can publish them and make derivative works from them and publish those. The original texts of the Holy Bible in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek are old enough that they are not copyrighted. (There are some “critical texts” that some people claim copyrights on, but non-copyrighted source texts of the Holy Bible are readily available in the source languages.) Anyone can make their own new translation from these public domain texts. Such translations may be of varying quality and varying suitability for use by different people. Some may actually be heretical. There are also many Bible translations that are in the public domain, either due to copyright expiration, copyright abandonment, or intentional dedication of the Bible translation to the public domain. There are also some that have liberal open access licenses like the Creative Commons Share-Alike license. These are wonderful in that they allow no-hassle revisions and derivative works (like good translations into minority languages). They also open a door for those inclined to do so to “bend” the translation in some way to their own beliefs, which may differ from what the actual meaning of the original texts teach. Those who fear God and regard Him as real dare not engage in such “bending” of the Bible text in the translation or revision process. Not everyone does.

What do I regard as a heretical Bible translation? Not the petty squabbles of people who prefer the KJV over the NIV, but those that intentionally give a different place to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit than the original Bible texts do. For example, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ “New World Translation” refers to Jesus as The Word in John 1:1 as “a god” instead of “God“. Not so subtle. Then there are some militant feminist or LGBTQ+ “translations” that deliberately alter God’s Word to fit what they wish was reality rather than what actually is true. I recently had someone ask me about a couple of books that I don’t really want to call attention to, but they took a good Bible translation in the public domain, and altered it to swap all genders, calling Jesus a woman, saying the Eve was created before Adam, and more. Don’t buy any book like this. Unfortunately, this last example listed “Michael Johnson” as one of the authors. I had nothing to do with that perversion. God knows that. The real author didn’t reveal her true name, so I have filed an official complaint with the publisher complaining about the misuse of my name in that case. If the public domain Bible text they used were copyrighted, they could be sued for that, BUT, they also probably would have just used another public domain Bible text and committed the same crime against God. It also would have taken time, money, and effort on the part of the copyright owner to find and take the perpetrator to court, who may or may not even be in the same country, let alone state. So copyright wouldn’t have helped in this case, but it would have caused problems for all kinds of legitimate uses.

So whose job is it to protect the integrity of God’s Word? Not mine. Although Bible societies, Bible translation agencies, and individual Bible translators have a responsibility before God to do their own work well, it is not their job to police others. That is God’s job. See Deuteronomy 4:2 and Revelation 22:18-19. I am too scared of the eternal consequences to mess with His Word.

Update July 19, 2023: the print-on-demand service and online bookstore that was selling the gender-swapped mutilated “Bible” removed it from production and sale based on my complaint of misuse of my name without permission. It turns out that inaccurate attribution is actually a violation of laws against defamation of character, trademark laws, and a violation of the terms of service for the printing and sales services. No copyright on a legitimate Bible translation was invoked in that process.