Ben Witherington on Choosing a Bible translation

David asked for some notes from Ben Witherington’s talk On choosing a Translation.

Ben opened with presenting the usual three different types of Bible translation.

Literal – NASB

Idiomatic – RSV, NEB, NIV, NRSV, KJV

Paraphrase – Message, NLT

He commented that you need to avoid sectarian translations or any translations that were promoting a particular platform, such as the Mormon or JW translations. Team translation is much to be preferred above a translation by one individual in order to ensure greater expertise and less bias.

He warned against using a paraphrase or more interpretive Bible for study although it may be useful for devotional purposes. He also was not in favour of overly literal translations.

In particular, Witherington did not recommend ancient English translations and he gave two examples of the difficulty which could be caused by this. One was of a young girl who wondered why God was an “awful” God, and the other was a mentally handicapped man who could not understand why the scripture said, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” “But I want him,” he said. “Why shouldn’t I want him?” So Witherington warned, “Do not rely on an ancient translation or even an updated ancient translation.” He put great emphasis on the use of modern English.

His next point was that the Greek word anthropos means a “human being” or “humankind” and the translation that one chooses should follow this pattern. These would be the Inclusive NIV or the NRSV.

He then went on to discuss a variety of Bibles which one may prefer depending on the style of the liturgy. The more formal ones are the NEB, Jerusalem Bible or the NRSV. At the other end would be the Good News Bible.

I don’t think he mentioned any more translations than these, except oh yeah, there was a taped segment of a chapter from the Aussie Bible. There is more on Nathan’s blog. I certainly concur with many of the comments there. In sum, Witherington said to chose a translation that is as close to the Greek as possible, which means translating anthropos as “human being” (or an equivalent term) and not “man,” and a translation in good modern English.

PS There is also a good post and a great thread beneath it here. What fun!

13 thoughts on “Ben Witherington on Choosing a Bible translation

  1. Peter Kirk says:

    In Ben’s charts as shown by Nathan he also lists NKJV and Good News (presumably he means the Good News Translation, formerly known as TEV) under “Idiomatic”. It seems very strange to me that he makes no distinction between RSV and Good News, while distinguishing between the much more similar pair RSV and NASB.

    Interesting also that he doesn’t list ESV. Could that be because he regards it as among “sectarian translations or any translations that were promoting a particular platform”? Or is it just that, as TC suggests in a comment, this presentation predates the publication of ESV?

  2. Chaka says:

    Thanks for the summary. I haven’t listened to the lecture yet, but I’m surprised that Witherington lumps the NLT in with the Message as a paraphrase. There is a difference between the Living Bible (a one-person paraphrase like the Message) and the New Living Translation (a committee translation like the NIV).

  3. Suzanne McCarthy says:


    I was happy to see that Nathan had posted the charts so I didn’t go back and add those other translations in. I am pretty sure that this video was made before the ESV. Its not recent. The main point seemed to be to promote modern English inclusive language Bibles.

  4. Nathan Stitt says:

    Brian asked BW3 on his blog about the date of the lecture and BW3 said that it was old (ie. before the latest round of translations were published).

  5. Kevin Sam says:

    Peter, I agree. It really surprised me to see N/RSV and NKJV lumped together with idiomatic translations like the TEV. For a prof who teaches biblical theology, he should have made more detailed distinctions. And are REB and NJB really formal!?

  6. Suzanne McCarthy says:

    My impression was that this video is about promoting inclusive modern language Bibles, it is not about the chart.

  7. Iyov says:

    No, the video postdated the ESV. The Aussie Bible was released in 2003. He managed to put in five minutes of that (I must say, that is extraordinarily lazy of him as a lecturer) so that dates the video 2003 or after.

    The ESV was first released in 2001, the first versions of the TNIV (of which he is ignorant — he keeps on talking about the “Inclusive Language NIV”) in 2002.

    He kept on talking about the NEB and never once about the REB. That was odd. He also talked about the JB rather than the NJB.

    I have to say, I think this is a guy who hasn’t bothered to update his lecture notes in the last 20 years, except to learn how to play a CD.

  8. Suzanne McCarthy says:


    Thank you for confirming what I suspected. His omission of the ESV was deliberate then. Witherington has been a long time promoter of gender accurate Bibles. I understood this presentation as an opportunity to say in half an hour what he could have said in one sentence. Use a gender accurate Bible.

    Personally I found his stories engaging and the Aussie Bible was new to me, so I enjoyed it. However, it was not an academic lecture of any kind.

    I am going to suggest, based on what I have read on his blog previously, that Witherington is emotionally involved in the TNIV – ESV conflict and has been directly impacted by the anti-TNIV statement. This statement appears to me to be related to slander. It has caused some real pain for people and Witherington is one of them.

    This is only an educated guess but I believe that he does not mention the TNIV by name because it is simply so incredibly painful to him that it has been slandered.

    I do think that the Christian community needs healing in this matter and this can only happen if the anti-TNIV statement is withdrawn. People should write to the general editor of the new ESV study Bible and ask him to do so.

  9. Peter Kirk says:

    Iyov, your detective work is interesting, but apparently wrong. As you can see here, I asked Ben Witherington about the date of the lecture. He says it is from 1996, which makes sense of the choice of Bible versions listed, and adds:

    As for the Aussie Bible, it was available in audio long before 2003.

  10. Peter Kirk says:

    Suzanne, you may be right that Ben Witherington is personally involved in the ESV-TNIV dispute. But he has clarified that the reason for not mentioning either version in his lecture is that it predates both versions.

  11. Iyov says:

    Peter, that link is to your profile page.

    Still, I can’t understand reference to the NEB in 1996.

  12. Suzanne McCarthy says:

    It makes more sense if the lecture predated the ESV and TNIV. However, I don’t think I completely misrepresent his position. But… I am saying this as my opinion only.

    He was obviously encouraging a modern English style.

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