Common language Bible versions

I often post about natural language in Bible translation on this blog. Recently I blogged that there is a difference between natural language, which is language normally spoken or written by native speakers of a language, and common language. Natural language for someone who is highly educated and/or is able to use a high register of the language will often be different from natural language of other speakers.

Common language, on the other hand, is vocabulary (lexicon) and syntax which is shared by all native speakers of a language. The TEV (GNT) and CEV were produced as common language versions of the English language. The translation Dios Llega al Hombre is the common language equivalent for Spanish. There are common language translations, as well, in a number of other languages. Common language translations are typically made under the umbrella of one of the United Bible Societies. (The TEV and CEV were produced by the American Bible Society, one of the member societies of the UBS.)

This last weekend I charted usage of three English words for English Bible versions. These three words are “justify”, “grace”, and “flesh.” The meanings of these words, as they are understood by current common language speakers of English, is different from the meanings these words are intended to convey when they appear in English Bible translations.

Most English speakers have a meaning for “justify” that has to do with someone making excuses for their actions. We sometimes hear sentences like, “He is trying to justify his behavior.” This is not the meaning of the Greek word δικαιόω (DIKAIOW) translated as “justify” in traditional English Bibles. This common contemporary meaning in meaning to the word “rationalize.” (Some English speakers also have the meaning intended in the Bible, but because they are only a portion of all English speakers, that meaning would, by definition, not qualify as being part of common English.)

Most English speakers today understand “grace” to refer to elegance of movement or behavior. An ice skater who skates with grace is one who skates fluidly, with beautiful movement, and smooth transitions from one skating form to another.

The word “flesh” is not used very commonly by English speakers today (hits on Google are not very informative here, since Google does not compare how often a word is used by English speakers in contrast to how often its synonyms are used by them; Google does not give us the detailed statistics that we need to accurately understand word usage). I have heard it used, infrequently, in sentences such as “Oh, it’s just a flesh wound.” Instead of the word “flesh,” today most speakers use words such as “skin,” “body,” and “muscles.” Use of the word “flesh” in English Bibles is nearly meaningless for a very large percentage of English speakers.

OK, here is how the English versions translated Greek words δικαιόω (DIKAIOW), χάρις (XARIS), and σάρξ (SARKS), which have been traditionally translated as “justify,” “grace”, and “flesh,” respectively:

Rom. 3:30 Rom. 5:20 Rom. 7:5
δικαιόω χάρις σάρξ
BBE give righteousness grace flesh
CEV accepts God’s kindness thought only of ourselves
ESV justify grace flesh
GNT/TEV put right with himself grace flesh
GW approves God’s kindness corrupt nature
HCSB justify grace flesh
ISV justify grace human nature
KJV justify grace flesh
NAB justify grace flesh
NASB justify grace flesh
NCV make right with him grace flesh
NET justify grace flesh
NIrV justify grace sinful nature
NIV justify grace sinful nature
NJB justify grace natural inclinations
NKJV justify grace flesh
NLT makes right with himself grace flesh
NRSV justify grace flesh
NWT declare righteous undeserved kindness flesh
REB justify grace mere human nature
RSV justify grace flesh
SENT find innocent grace flesh
TM sets right grace old way of life
TNIV justify grace sinful nature

I was surprised to discover that NWT used common language translations for two of the three terms. My impression of the NWT had been that it was a fairly literal translation using traditional English Bible words.

I was also surprised to find that the NLT, which, overall, uses relatively natural English, retained both “grace” and “flesh”. The same surprise comes from the NCV which was designed to be an easier to read translation.

The TNIV makes no changes from the NIV in translation of the three words charted.

I am limited in what else I can say by lack of time. The rest of today I need to run errands and pack my luggage. Early tomorrow morning I leave to fly to Alaska. I will spend a week visiting my parents in their care home. Saturday will be their 62nd wedding anniversary. We will have a small family meal with them with some of their favorite Alaskan foods, clam chowder, salmon, and likely some smoked salmon.

I will have Wi-fi Internet access at the care home, so I can read comments on this blog post. As you comment, please try to stay on topic for this blog post. This post is about how three Greek words in the book of Romans are translated in English versions. This post is about how these words have been translated into common English. Common English is not slang, nor is it a dumbed down form of English. It is simply good quality grammatical English that is shared in common by all English speakers. The word “common” here is equivalent to an old meaning sense of the word “vulgar” (not the primary current meaning of “nasty, ribald”). Note the name of the Bible translation, the Latin Vulgate, where “vulgate” meant that the language used was common to all of the people, not a specialty dialect of Latin spoken or written by a sub-segment of Latin speakers.

I realize that some of you will want to express the fact that you prefer the traditional words “justify,” “grace,” and “flesh” in the Bible versions you use. It is fine if you say that, but please allow others to focus on the post’s topic of common language translation. Please follow the posting guidelines for staying on topic for this post. If you wish to discuss something that is off-topic, feel free to email me privately to suggest that as a topic for another post.

The Greek of Romans was not Attic Greek or some other earlier dialect of Greek. It was not classical Greek. The Greek of the entire New Testament was Koine Greek, which was the common language of Greek spoken and written during the time of Christ and for some time afterwards. It was not a dumbed down Greek. It was a dialect of Greek that all Greek speakers knew and understood. Good literature could be written in Koine Greek. In fact, some of my favorite Greek books were written in that common language dialect, books such as Luke (a more polished variety of Koine Greek), John, Romans, Philippians, 1 John, and several others!

Which of the English translations for the three charted words do you think communicate the most clearly and accurately to speakers of common English? (Remember, common English is different from Church English, which may have a proper place in the life and liturgy of some people.)

What are advantages and disadvantages to translating in common language?

16 thoughts on “Common language Bible versions

  1. Tim Archer says:

    sarx is one that I wrestle with time and again. I find the NIV choice of words to be less than helpful. I’d rather they merely but flesh and let us explain it than put such a misleading phrase.

    I think the ISV, NJB and REB do a better job with the translation.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  2. Bob MacDonald says:

    Thanks for all this work – it is revealing. On the subject of common, I think your definition is clear.

    justify – how about ‘make x righteous’ where x = Jew or Gentile.
    the closest in the ones you have listed seems to me to be ‘sets x right’

    grace – this needs to capture the impossible covenant mercy and lovingkindness in one word – kindness is not a bad compromise – since abounding sin contrasts well with abounding kindness.

    flesh – here we fight not with flesh and blood but with confusion in high places. CEV has done best IMO but it is wordy and could not carry effectively into the poetry of chapter 8.

    This I wrote some long time ago… Flesh and Spirit – apart from the flesh of Jesus (chapter 1) and Abraham (chapter 4), Paul introduced flesh in 6:19 and 7:18; it can be read as simply ‘the human condition’, natural limitations as RSV has, or self-preservation. But explanation is insufficient, for the true knowledge of sin comes from the gift of the Spirit – even as much as it comes from the presence of the Law. This catch-22 is clear in John’s gospel (chapter 16) and is a definite part of Paul’s character as well that he encapsulates in the word flesh. The prior uses of sarx show us that Paul has no quarrel with the physical flesh itself. The word is in use in a different sense here – but it is not unconnected, in that God gives life to this mortal body by the Spirit.

    But Paul means something different here and in line with chesed as grace, so ‘flesh’ invokes the covenant through the rite of circumcision, that sign in the flesh that we are owned by another and our loyalty (tsedekah) is outside of ourselves.

    Unfortunately – covenant language is not common but must be learned. As Paul notes in 6:17: that you who were once
    slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were delivered…

    Romans is uncommon ground

  3. Wayne Leman says:

    Bob, thanks for your kind comments on the research. You wrote:

    covenant language is not common but must be learned

    My own experience with covenant language is that it is covenant *concepts* which are not common, but they are described using common language. I’d be happy to be shown otherwise, however. I always am. I far prefer facts to ideology, even though I may get ideological at times as I preach about natural and common language in Bible translations. I really do appreciate it when others point out my errors.

  4. J. K. Gayle says:

    Yes – thanks for all the work here. Great post.

    FYI: Ann Nyland’s The Source New Testament has “make…right,” “favor,” and “body parts” respectively for the three words of Paul you note in Romans. What’s fantastic about that is this: Nyland works with non-biblical Greek texts as she translates the NT. The very old but still common Greek senses running through the NT can be retained by her common English renderings. My 17 year old daughter finds the English readable, and I like the non-biblish allusions to the Hellene words.

    It’d be fun to see how English translators have translated these same Greek words as found in the 1st Century AD novel, Chaereas and Callirhoe, by Chariton. The author’s name is a pun on χάρις. (At Mike Aubrey’s blog, I commented on how many different non-“grace” common-English words one translator used:

  5. Dan Sindlinger says:

    The Better Life Bible translates σάρξ in Romans 7:5 as “self-centeredness”, which parallels the CEV.

  6. Rod Decker says:

    Hmmm. Do you really think that an average first century Greek speaker would have understood by δικαιόω, χάρις, and σάρξ what you say they mean in the NT? Yes, they were common words, but that’s only part of the question. It’s true that “The Greek of the entire New Testament was Koine Greek, which was the common language of Greek spoken and written during the time of Christ and for some time afterwards.” But that doesn’t mean that 1st C. readers understood all the NT vocabulary in the sense the authors intended without thinking through the contextual statements and explanations. If they had to do that, then is it unreasonable to expect that of modern readers? I don’t intend to argue for unnecessary complications in translation, but the arguments you juxtapose here present, IMHO, an over-simplified picture.

  7. J. K. Gayle says:

    Rod says But that doesn’t mean that 1st C. readers understood all the NT vocabulary in the sense the authors intended without thinking through the contextual statements and explanations. If they had to do that, then is it unreasonable to expect that of modern readers?

    Here’s the very complexity you’re asking for, Rod. Mike points out with his astute question (i.e., “Is it possible to not create an over-simplified picture in a blog post?”), there’s no way to pinpoint all of what an author intends. And as your immediate readers even, there are only guesses in a context. Readers of your comment using other languages in different cultures two millennia from now are going to rely on translation. They’re understanding, like Wayne’s, won’t presume that any of us now gets everything meant by any particular word you write here in 2009. But the complexity is a means to reflection and appreciation that is brought through inevitable translation. What Wayne’s post gets at here is (given how we must have translation) that some translation is better than others.

  8. asiabible says:

    Wayne, the distinction you made was between “natural language” and “common language” mentioning differences of register. But the examples are of a sub-cultural use of langauge not really register. It is not a question of how educated or “cultured” someone is, but whether they are part of the Christian sub-culture. The Bibles that use words in such “specialised” ways are intended to exclude readers who were not socialised into their culture. They are simply sectarian productions, aimed to be comprehensible only by initiates of the sect, and not really translations at all!

  9. docdeer says:

    I think the challenge is trying to find a word or two in the natural language that accurately conveys the theological depth behind these words. The only way I can think to do it is with phrases (and sometimes those need to be longer that a couple of words). And, if I’m not mistaken, that may not necessarily be a positive for translators. It does indeed present an interesting challenge.

  10. Hannah C. says:

    I can’t really think of a good word which could be substituted for grace. To me, “kindness” has the connotation of meaning well and being nice but nothing beyond that – it’s nowhere near grand enough to encompass God. I can’t think of any word which really conveys the same meaning as grace does in that context.

  11. Dan Sindlinger says:

    docdeer said, “I think the challenge is trying to find a word or two in the natural language that accurately conveys the theological depth behind these words. The only way I can think to do it is with phrases (and sometimes those need to be longer that a couple of words).”

    I agree, and that’s why I chose not to mention how The Better Life Bible translates δικαιόω and χάρις in the Romans texts listed above. Not only would I have to list the phrases that the translator (incidentally, that’s moi) used for these terms, but I would also have to explain why the translator used such phrases, and that enters into the realm of interpretation, in which there is a great deal of latitude, in my opinion.

  12. JJ Miller says:

    Dr. Decker makes a good point. I believe that using a common language translation is always going to come down to one’s theology. So, I really like the New Jerusalem’s “sinful inclinations” though someone else would be horrified. So, they tend to use another version since the term has significant theological implications. I think you see how MANY of the translations kept the most literal “Justify,” “Grace,” and “Flesh.” I think they did this precisely because it seldom offends, while some translations are simply not used because they attempted to use a common usage alternative.

    In addition, any translation is a “commentary” on the text of Scripture. Therefore, most translators are careful about choosing a common English alternative that might not carry the full range of meanings of the word most often used. So, to choose aomething else presents a problem with the accuracy of the translation.

    Translation accuracy (via range of meanings) and theological intent are both at work here and is most likely the reason that translators on even the NLT decided to keep: justify, grace, and flesh. I think they chose wisely. (BTW, look at the GREAT job the NLT does with Gen 3:16… awesome. Only NET comes close). 🙂

  13. Tim Chesterton says:

    I think the point about our personal theology intruding in interpretations is a good one. For instance, the so-called ‘New Perspective on Paul’, which has been widely influential through the writing of people like N.T. Wright, has a very different understanding of what ‘justification’ means, and the use of phrases like ‘put right with God’ does not communicate this understanding at all.

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