Bible Translation Danger

There is something dangerously wrong with many of the English Bible translations available, today. It may not be what you think. It is a serious problem that has crept into the Church over the course of about half a century.

The application of copyright law and exclusive economic rights to the Holy Bible has had both good and bad effects. Because the Holy Bible is the all-time number one best seller, there is considerable incentive to translate and publish new translations of the Holy Bible. Because copyright is a legal monopoly on each translation, to really compete, you need a new translation. In some ways, this can be good, as it provides incentive to improve the Bible translations. In other ways, it can be bad, as the measure of what is “improving” is largely what will make the most money for the publisher. In other words, it becomes more about what is going to sell the best than about what is most accurate. Now if what sells the best is the most accurate, there is not a big problem, here. If people are looking to spend money on just what confirms their own biases, no matter if they are right or not, it can put pressure on publishers to provide Bible translations that compromise on accuracy to sell better.

Unfortunately, with over 100 English Bible translations to choose from, people have started to believe that they somehow have a right to not only choose a Bible translation that most agrees with them, but to actually edit a Bible translation to fit their biases. I actually got a message from a friend, recently, where he bragged about using white-out and a pen to make certain modifications in his printed Bible, thinking it was more accurate that way. Worse yet, there are people who have edited Bible versions so that they fit their own ideas about who they think God is, putting popular religious or cultural ideas above the original Words of God. These become something other than a Bible translation. They become lightning rods for the wrath of God when the actual meaning is willfully changed.

That scares me. You see, I take Deuteronomy 4:2, Revelation 22:18-19, and similar passages of Scripture seriously.

When God gave Moses the 10 Commandments, there was no discussion, debate, or editing. It was just exactly what God intended, and actually written with God’s finger. Once God spoke through Moses and many other prophets, scribes were very careful to pass on exactly letter-perfect copies. For generations, it was preserved, all in the same original languages (mostly Hebrew in the Old Testament and Greek in the New Testament), and letter-for-letter the same. Sometimes scribes, being human, would mess up here or there, but never on purpose, and almost never in ways that changed meaning. They feared God, and were aware of the warnings in the very Bible they were copying. The act of copying helps one remember the Book. That is one reason why God commanded that kings make their own copy of the Law of God.

Moses carrying the 10 Commandments down from Mount Sainai as imagined by Gustave Doré. Exodus 32:15

We have the more sure word of prophecy; and you do well that you heed it as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts, knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of private interpretation. For no prophecy ever came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke, being moved by the Holy Spirit.
–1 Peter 1:19-21, World English Bible

Bible translation is hard, and full of responsibility before God to get right. It is also necessary, because there are still over 1,000 languages spoken on Earth that don’t have even a part of the Holy Bible. It is much better to reach someone with the Good News of Jesus Christ in their own language than to expect them to read a Bible in some foreign language. I’m all for Bible translation, where it is needed. The objective of Bible translation, to state what should be obvious, is to simply say or write in the language people understand what the Holy Bible says in its original languages. No more, no less.

So what is so hard about that? It requires that the Bible translators:

  • Understand both the original (source) and target (local) languages
  • Understand both the biblical cultures and the local culture
  • Have a good understanding of the Bible
  • Have a healthy fear of God
  • Be able to choose source manuscripts wisely
  • Avoid inserting their own biases into the translation
  • Care more about pleasing God than making money
  • Care more about accuracy than promoting one particular Christian denomination, social philosophy, or politics

Each of those points present challenges that could be the subject of an entire book. It is the last two points that are the biggest cause of defective Bible versions. For example, the infamous Jehovah’s Witness New World Translation intentionally alters the meaning of the Bible in several places (like John 1:1) to support their anti-trinitarian doctrine. Other translations have become the results of popularity contests, being sold based on how people like the wording rather than how accurate the rendition is. These are not all bad, of course. Even a poor paraphrase has enough truth in it that people can get saved reading it. Still, the whole consumer-centered attitude that it is each individual’s choice to determine which Bible wording is best. This is where we need to be aware that confirmation bias, prevailing cultural shifts in attitudes, and other forces threaten to reward the production of Bible versions that compromise on accuracy for the sake of popularity.

The news isn’t all bad. The deceitfulness of the human heart is not new, but God still watches over His Word to preserve it and perform it. Application of copyright law and profit motive to Bible translation is a relatively recent development in the history of the Holy Bible, and it has definitely had some negative consequences. Still, it has given some people a profit motive to promote God’s Word, and maybe spread His Word a bit more in some areas. Of course, in English, you have a choice to read a Bible translation that was not influenced by profit motive: the World English Bible. Honestly, during the translation process, several people threatened that if something wasn’t changed to be the way they wanted, they would boycott the translation. We laughed, shrugged, and kept doing what God commissioned us to do, knowing that God is our source of provision, not profits from book sales.