The Better Bible Was Written To You

I’ve put together a collection of essays from my Lingamish blog about how to read, interpret and apply the Bible. The result is The Bible Wasn’t Written To You, a free electronic book available in many formats.

One of the things that this book affirms is the power of a good Bible translation. Some people have this idea that Bible translations are hiding secrets from readers that can only be uncovered by reading the original languages. While I will be the first one to affirm the need for scholars to master Biblical languages, I think that for the layperson, dabbling in Biblical languages almost always does more harm than good. If you look at any of the major English translations to come out in the last century, they’ve been produced by large groups of highly trained professionals. Conspiracy theories abound about one Bible’s or another’s hidden agenda, but that’s just hogwash. Bible translations don’t hide the truth, they reveal it. And that truth is clearer to you when reading in your own language than if you were reading the Bible in its original languages.

Another thing this book talks about quite a lot is reading the Bible “Christianly.” How should New Covenant people read and apply the First Covenant? Not everyone has been satisfied with my solution, but I think that in most cases my approach to reading the Bible acknowledges the revolution brought on by the incarnation while also allowing us to read the Old Testament without twisting it to fit into New Testament shapes.

I hope that BBB readers will read this book and tell me what you think. My experience as a reader and writer on this blog has influenced much of what is contained in this book. The download is free.

UPDATE: The book is free but you’ll need a coupon code. Find the latest coupon code at

Click on the image or this link to see download options.

48 thoughts on “The Better Bible Was Written To You

  1. John Hobbins says:


    What I like best about this collection is the fluster and bluster of your style; it moves the reader and forces her to take sides.

    What I liked best about the first time around is that your comments were embedded in an online conversation. Will it surprise you if I say that I prefer the original “uncut” posts, and will continue to link to them rather than to the book?

    Since I am an Old Testament geek who thinks that New Testament only Christians are the last thing we need – the only Christians who stood up to Hitler were people like Bonhoeffer and Vischer and Barth who considered the Old Testament far more than shadow and warning, and preached and acted accordingly, I have a fundamental disagreement with you.

    In addition, I am convinced that your antinomian Jesus and Paul are figments of your late Protestant imagination. But maybe that proves your point: only your better Bible, the Bible of your dreams, was written for you.

    That has always been my main objection to the translations preferred by the BBB Board of Directors: CEV, NLT, and to a lesser extent NIV domesticate God’s Word. They give the Bible such a familiar ring that people don’t notice that its contents put a huge question mark over almost everything they hold dear.

    I hear you saying this: the “other” Bible, that strange book full of teaching that challenges hippos and lions and sheep alike, wasn’t written to us or for us, and can safely be set aside.

    Maybe I misunderstand, maybe you are just being a roadrunner in your book, in the hopes of luring us coyotes off the cliff. Or maybe I get your main points. I agree with a few of them, such as: a little Hebrew and a little Greek are a dangerous thing. It’s just that I’m convinced that it is even more dangerous for people to read a “truth made clear” version of the Bible, without at least comparing that version with more literal translations, and commentaries thereto.

  2. David Ker says:

    Thanks, John. A book suffers from not having a comment section at the end of every chapter. But it has been a challenge for me to try to herd all my headless chickens into the same corral and try to make them all sing more or less from the same sheet.

    “Seeing Double” is a chapter that I think clearly advocates what you claim I’m arguing against. In that chapter I say the first task of a careful reader is to read a passage in at least two versions, one more formal and another more idiomatic and see how they differ.

    Thanks for reading and continuing to challenge my fuzzy thinking.

  3. Marshall Massey says:

    “Conspiracy theories abound about one Bible’s or another’s hidden agenda, but that’s just hogwash.”

    Interesting. I myself find it hard to deny the evidence that historian Christopher Hill trotted out in his book The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Reformation* (Allen Lane / The Penguin Press, 1993), to show that both the Geneva Bible and the Authorised (“King James”) Version embodied clear social and political agendas. I wonder whether you have studied this topic?

    Highly paid professionals gave us the Dred Scott decision, the cigarette ad, the hydrogen bomb, Deepwater Horizon, and Fukushima Daiichi. What such examples suggest to me is that, while high pay and professionalism may be reasonable assurance of strong technical skill, neither the pay nor the professionalism may be enough to guarantee good judgment. Alas, when it comes to producing translations of scripture, the translators’ judgment is one of the things that really, really concern me. With all due respect!

  4. Mike Sangrey says:

    That has always been my main objection to the translations preferred by the BBB Board of Directors: CEV, NLT, and to a lesser extent NIV domesticate God’s Word. They give the Bible such a familiar ring that people don’t notice that its contents put a huge question mark over almost everything they hold dear.

    John, and others, I’d like to challenge you to think in more than one dimension. And, to be clear, I don’t mean to be condescending, like somehow I’ve arrived–no way! It’s just, when I read your comment, I immediately thought, “That’s strange, we’re in fairly strong agreement in the second sentence. But, the first sentence we’re at opposite poles. What’s up with that?” That made me think of two dimensions.

    In any case, I think defining what is really a huge issue in two dimensional space would lead toward a truly beneficial solution. Though the solution is still remarkably difficult to achieve.

    What if? (This will probably not “publish” as expected.)

    Exegesis and Communication

    In my opinion, the CEV is in the lower, right quadrant. I think it suffers from a verse oriented exegesis. I think the NLT is in the top, right quadrant, though I still think it needs improvement in the exegesis. Perhaps it’s at the bottom pixel of the ‘i’ in “Communication.”

    Placing something like the ASV is quite difficult. It’s definitely on the left side. However, since it does not communicate very well, the reader can not determine the level of quality of the exegesis. Surprisingly, the exegesis performed to produce a literal translation is the more hidden. In some ways, the exegesis is left as an exercise to the reader. Though a literal translation such as the New World Translation shows that literal translations do result from some level of exegesis. Unfortunately, to a large degree, the reader still must complete the exegesis through the lens of an Englishfied Hebrew or Greek–a task an order of magnitude more difficult than utilizing the original (I’m specifically thinking of things like discourse markers which are quite opaque in a literal translation).

    Also, something like the NET translation, with all its footnotes, might place it above the ‘t’ in “Communication” in the top, left, quadrant.

    I’ve often seen, and reflected on the observation, that a clear translation makes the exegesis clear while a literal translation tends to introduce English-oriented ambiguity, and English-oriented linguistic error, allowing for multiple and varied exegetical results.

    I’ve been of the opinion for quite some time that the only way to improve communicating a sound exegesis to the reader is to make the exegesis clearer. It’s not to water it down and thereby make it familiar. It’s to use clear language. The goal is high quality exegesis with high quality communication as the vehicle.

    Of course, (and I’m referring to what I understand you to be saying) the problem with that is, it would expose the huge question marks. Or, to use David’s metaphor, it would “reveal the secrets.” Unfortunately, when the secrets are too clearly revealed, the reaction is too often to shoot the messenger of the exegesis–which in this case is the translation. It would be far wiser to wrestle with the exegesis itself, evident in the translation, but with exegetical tools–particularly, linguistic ones. Sadly, we too often argue over the translation choices in terms of a translation methodology. And such an argument doesn’t lead to a solution. It either places us in the top left quadrant or the bottom right.

    So, I think we need to wrestle along two dimensions. It’s not a linear cline from literal to functional. There’s an exegetical dimension that must be considered. (I also think this speaks to Marshall’s comment, which I think is relevant.)

  5. John Hobbins says:

    I would love to see the following be a standard format for posts on BBB:

    A discussion of a passage in which the advantages and disadvantages of various kinds of translations are played up.

    KJV, RSV, ESV, and/or NRSV on the one hand;
    TEV, CEV, NLT on the other hand,
    not to mention median translations like NIV.

  6. John Hobbins says:


    Thanks for a splendid explanation of the BBB party line.

    I think you are right: the kind of translation I like best leaves the exegesis to the reader to a significant extent. It is almost as if a literal translation speaks in parables. That is a huge plus and a huge negative at the same time.

    But literal translations contain within them a great exegetical tool; they tend to be concordant. They cohere, sometimes too much. A lot of old-school exegesis – both the best and the worst – depends on the “code” of that concordance.

    Which is why I would take your chart to a new level and ask a different question: on the basis of what kind of translation is the exegesis of the reader best served?

    My answer: exegesis is best served by a thorough knowledge of the ancient languages and the cultures they transmit.

    Failing that, work with wooden translations and word for word commentaries; *compare* the results with NLT or whatever your favorite exegetical translation is.

    I think the simpler grid relied on in the following post is germane:

    I am a Puritan – in translation, not in life. In life I am more like Barney, “I love you, you love me,” and just want to get along.

  7. Mike Sangrey says:

    My answer: exegesis is best served by a thorough knowledge of the ancient languages and the cultures they transmit.

    Absolutely! 🙂

    And you had said,
    literal translations contain within them a great exegetical tool

    Yes they do. 🙂

    Failing that[thorough knowledge of ancient languages…], work with wooden translations and word for word commentaries; *compare* the results with NLT or whatever your favorite exegetical translation is.

    That’s a good start, in my opinion. However, I would push that further by asking a simple question (but one that has a difficult answer):

    What other skills does such a “Bible user” need?

    I think this question gets very close to what David is getting at when he says, “I think that for the layperson, dabbling in Biblical languages almost always does more harm than good.

    I agree with David’s assessment; but, I deeply want to see a way of helping both the person who simply wants to understand the Bible for their everyday life as well as deeply wanting to provide a way for the motivated student to do the heavier lifting.

    So, to restate my question above, what’s the road map that would
    1. Provide to the layperson a list of the needed skills he/she needs to develop;
    2. Provide a metric by which a person (lay or otherwise) could assess their literal Bible exegetical abilities?

    I think the simpler grid relied on in the following post is germane: Puritans and Cavaliers

    Since I believe that high quality communicating of a high quality exegesis “stress[es] fidelity to the text”, I think that paints a false dichotomy.

  8. Peter Kirk says:

    But literal translations contain within them a great exegetical tool; they tend to be concordant. … A lot of old-school exegesis – both the best and the worst – depends on the “code” of that concordance.

    Indeed, John. The basic point I was trying to make in my post on Thursday Literal Bible translations: crutches for bad teachers? was about how the worst of exegesis relies on concordance. I would agree that good exegesis can also rely on concordance – but then a good exegete knows the original language and so does not have to depend on the dubious and often misleading concordance of “literal” translations.

  9. David Ker says:

    Since much of the Bible is stories told with a didactic purpose, it’s good to read a translation that reads well. I’m not speaking of the epistles here but the Gospels, Acts, much of the Old Testament benefits by being read in the most idiomatic of translations. If what I’m saying is true then CEV or Good News, or something similar is really your best bet for getting to the heart of the stories of the Bible. When we read Greek or Hebrew or any language that isn’t our heart language there is a tendency to focus on the immediate form and miss the flow of the text. That’s why I can’t agree that wooden translations and a bunch of exegetical heavy lifting are in some way of benefit to a reader of the Bible.

    P.S. Marshall, I loved your comment! Lots of truth there. 🙂

  10. John Hobbins says:

    Hi Peter,

    Sorry to have missed your post. Crud, I don’t have enough time on my hands to keep up on everyone. Why didn’t you cross-post that here?

    Now I want to write a post entitled: Exegetical Bible translations: crutches for lazy exegetes?

    If a preacher preaches from The Message for example, I can rest assured that she will relate virtually no exegesis at all, just a bunch of pleasant anecdotes.

    Peter, both us have had enough linguistic training to know that a lot of exegesis does not pass linguistic muster. In most cases, however, it doesn’t matter, for reasons I set out here:

    Though concordance is often abused, lack of concordance is a huge loss for the serious exegete. It’s a tool of great value if used with circumspection.

  11. John Hobbins says:


    First of all, a third of the Old Testament is in poetry. If you care about the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, not to mention the prophets, why even bother with CEV or TEV?

    Still, I really need people like you and the late Wayne Leman to keep me on my toes when I translate. I still need to revise my translation of Psalm 19 based on your comments:

    But note this comment by a 20 year old college student; she says:

    I really like the way you translated this Psalm. It’s very poetic, which is how I think Psalms should be, unlike my student Bible which translates it in a way that is easier to understand. I feel like your translation gives it more feeling.

    I also believe that NLT Ruth is unacceptably cavalier with the diction of its source text. My own sense is that the stilted syntax of ESV should be cleaned up. If done with care, we would then have a fluent translation of the prose of the Bible in the King James tradition.

  12. David Ker says:

    John, you wrote: First of all, a third of the Old Testament is in poetry. If you care about the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, not to mention the prophets, why even bother with CEV or TEV?

    This is very true and my great struggle with CEV/NLT. I read Psalms in the Message if at all possible.

    Your claim about formal translations is demonstrably false. In many cases, (I’ll take Fermat’s excuse for not listing them here) KJV and the ilk are very idiomatic (at table). Their stilted language gives the impression that we’re somehow reading a sort of foreign language, but as I said in my previous comment we still really need to be able to get carried away in the flow of a text, and here I would include the Epistles. Some people have the mental hardware to take a disjointed translation, footnotes, commentaries and etc. and arrive at comprehension. But I think they would get there a lot quicker, not denying the weaknesses in idiomatic translations, by using idiomatic translations.

  13. Mike Sangrey says:

    I think exegesis based on English concordance would be a waste of time in most cases. Also, the tools are readily available for anyone wanting to do original language concordance research. Even if one doesn’t know the original languages at all (other than the alphabet script), it seems to me that one can still “piece it together.”

    Also, building any theological statement or any practical application from inter-textual concordance is, in my opinion, completely ill-founded. Such things need to be built from the “flow.”

  14. Mike Sangrey says:

    Heavy lifting is pre-translation. If one can’t express the result of heavy lifting in idiomatic English, one has yet to sufficiently understand the text one is performing the heavy lifting on.

    I should balance this statement by saying that arriving at an adequately succinct English rendering requires English skills, too, not just heavy lifting skills.

  15. Wayne Leman says:

    David John referred to:

    the late Wayne Leman

    Creak! (Just the sounds of old bones shifting in the grave. Don’t mind me.)

    But if a dead man might speak, there are three important principles for a real estate agent: location, location, location Bible translation team: audience, audience, audience. Most translations serve the general population, not specialists in theology or exegesis. Therefore, a translation needs to be in the language of the general population, not in the language of specialists, just as the original biblical texts were, for the most part, in the language of the general population, not in the language of specialists. If the language of a translation does not flow well, using the natural discourse patterns of the speakers of that language, then the narrative, poetic, and logical patterns of the biblical language texts cannot be accurately communicated to those who read that translation. A translation which uses English words but Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek syntax or discourse structure is not yet a translation. It is, instead, like Ephraim, “a cake half turned” [a half-baked cake?! 🙂 ].

    Concordance is an important feature to preserve if the meaning of a form in the biblical texts was intended to be concordant. Clearly (IMHO, anyway), parallel passages from the synoptics or anywhere else in the canon need to be fully concordant if they use the same words (with the same meaning) and the same syntax and pragmatics. There are other situations where words have the same meaning in different passages and so the same translation words should be used for them. But when the semantic ranges of the biblical words and target language words are not the same, there cannot be concordance if we also want accuracy.

    A translation should not require anything more of its readers than the original texts required of their hearers/readers. This does not mean that the original hearers/readers got everything the first time they heard/read those texts. Nor does it mean that everything was easily comprehensible.

    David is right: the Bible was not written to us. But translations of it should not sound so foreign that their users can wonder if the Holy Spírit is not powerful enough to help the translators write naturally in their own languages, just as the HS was powerful enough to inspire the original authors. Or to put it in the words of the Bible translation consultant pioneer, John Beekman, “Don’t blame the Holy Spirit if you don’t do an adequate job translating the Bible into a language.”

    One of the greatest defects of most English Bibles is that they were written by scholars who are not native speakers of the English spoken by their target audiences. Whoever has ears to hear should listen! 🙂

    The CEV and NLT are not the best English Bibles. But they sure are closer to being true translations to English than are versions which are not written using standard English(es) forms. Yes, as Mike points out in his chart, these more idiomatic translations suffer occasionally from exegetical flaws. But so do the more literal translations which don’t adequately communicate to most English speakers what their non-English form combinations attempt to communicate the meanings of the form combinations of the original biblical texts.

    We are not going to agree on these matters, I suspect. But we should at least be able to agree that translation audience is critical for what kind of language a person(s) uses. I think we are mistaken when we try to apply our own exegetical abilities to work with more literal translations to the abilities of the general population to do so. I would even suggest that exegesis is best done on the original biblical language texts, not on translations of those texts. The exegesis should already have been done as part of the translation process. How can we translate unless we know the meaning (at least linguistic meaning) of the original texts?

    Most speakers of a language should not have to learn exegetical skills to understand a translation purporting to be in their own language. Exegesis should, instead, take place prior to translation; translation cannot be done without exegesis. And for those passages where there is a lack of exegetical agreement, we can still use natural English in the translation choice for the text and however many alternation translations we wish to put in a footnote.

    There, for creaky bones of a late blogger, that was a rather verbose, but equally sincere and passionate, comment.

    Now I’m really late, but I can’t remember what I’m late for. 🙂

  16. John Hobbins says:


    The Message is nice, but if you want to taste the poetry of the original? The Message does not give you much of a taste. It’s not even Tex-Mex.

    “[A]s soon as you want to know how a poem works, as well as what it says, and why it is poignant or compelling, you will find yourself beginning to study it . . . Soon, it becomes almost second nature for you to notice sentences, tense-changes, speech acts, tonal variants, changes of agency, rhythms, rhymes, and other ingredients of internal and outer structure. . . . Exploring a poem under the broad headings given above will almost always lead you to a deeper understanding of the poem as a work of art, constructed in a dense and satisfying and surprising way” (Helen Vendler, Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology [Boston: Bedford Books, 1997] 127).

    A puritan as opposed to a cavalier translation of poetry is of the utmost help if you want to kiss the poem through a veil at least, in translation. Peterson doesn’t give you a pair of lips to feel through the veil; at least, they are not the lips in the Hebrew.

    You are better off with KJV, Alter, ESV, etc.

  17. David Ker says:

    Not sure who called you late but I call you great. Thanks for wise words from our beloved BBB leader.

  18. John Hobbins says:


    It’s great to hear your voice again. I believe in the power of well-timed hyperbole; I’m glad you heard me call you “late” – you were as scarce as gold for a time; it’s good to have you back.

    As far as audiences go, you have your opinion about what is best for certain audiences, I have mine, and Craig Blomberg has his (I quote from his famous rebuke of hard-core ESV haters on TC’s blog):

    I have worked on the NLT, the ESV, the HCSB and now the forthcoming 2011 edition of the NIV, at different levels, and I like them all!

    I recommend the ESV (and the NASB) for someone who can’t read the biblical languages or use the tools and wants something that majors on adhering closely to original syntax and vocabulary, though at times at the expense of clarity or facility of reading.

    I recommend the NLT for those who want something that majors on clarity and facility of reading, especially for young readers, poor readers or those for whom English is a second language, even though it at times loses precision and accuracy of translation.

    I recommend the NIV (esp. the Stewardship Study Bible edition, for which I was a consultant) and TNIV (so much of this inclusive-language debate was misinformed and/or overlooked the vast majority of good, non-gender related changes), and I will recommend the updated NIV, for pulpit use, for Sunday School teaching, in general, like Gordon [Fee] and Mark [Strauss] said, for the broadest cross-section of uses among the general populace because it does the best job of combining both accuracy and clarity of understanding, though at times sacrificing one for the sake of the other or vice-versa. . . .

    It’s this kind of positive commendation of the many good merits, with an acknowledgement of the handful of weaknesses, of each of the major translations that I would hope we would all be striving for in our speaking and writing.

    End-quote. Craig also remarked:

    It’s a sad state of affairs when we gloat over one translation vs. another. Everyone of them has its strengths and weaknesses and we are so spoiled in English to have so many to pick from. The real point of the post was to reflect on one particular passage and the intricacies of its translation and, as I concluded, to encourage people regularly to consult multiple versions rather than championing one as always (or even usually) the best.

  19. John Hobbins says:


    Re: the heavy lifting. That’s where we differ. I don’t know if you have read War and Peace. It is one of the most amazing works of literature ever written. Several new translations have come out, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. You happen to prefer the approach Briggs takes. I prefer the approach of Pevear and Volohonsky. I quote from a review by Lesley Herrmann:

    “Language changes,” writes Briggs, “and, without worshiping modernity for its own sake, publishers recognize the need to accommodate new readers by using phrasing more closely attuned to their way of speaking.” “Tolstoy’s literary style has its faults,” he adds, “such as undue repetition, grammatical inaccuracy and some sentences of excessive length.” The cavalier Briggs provides synonyms to cure the repetitions, breaks up Tolstoy’s run-on sentences, and adds modern colloquialisms.

    In contrast, Pevear and Volokhonsky take the exacting approach. A brief comparison illustrates their differences.

    War and Peace opens in 1805 with a soirée in Anna Pavlovna Scherer’s St. Petersburg drawing room, where courtiers, society matrons, and diplomats discuss Napoleon’s latest efforts to dominate Europe. Anna Pavlovna confers with Prince Vassily Kuragin, a man of “high rank and influence,” proposing that he marry off his “prodigal son” to an heiress whose father is likely to die soon and leave her very rich. The idea appeals to the prince immensely, but he is far too wily to show his interest.

    Briggs renders the scene as follows:

    Prince Vasily made no reply, but being quick on the uptake and good at remembering things—qualities that came naturally to the denizens of high society—he gave a slight nod to show that he had noted her comment and was considering it.

    Contrast the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation:

    Prince Vassily did not reply, though, with the quickness of grasp and memory characteristic of society people, he showed by a nod of the head that he had taken this information into account.

    Briggs eases the reader into the world of 19th-century Russian society by making it seem contemporary, but the Pevear-Volokhonsky version will appeal to the reader who wonders what Tolstoy actually wrote and wishes he could go back to the original Russian.

    No one in 1805 would have said “quick on the uptake.” Puritans might agree with Henry James that “easy writing makes hard reading.” Pevear and Volokhonsky think that updating Tolstoy’s language in this way binds him to a specific time and place, while they set him clearly in the 19th century.

    End quote. Note that Briggs’ translation is also wordier. Absolutely typical.

  20. Wayne Leman says:

    John, I agree with you and Blomberg (and Mark Strauss who often says the same thing), that there is value in using a variety of translations. I’m not suggesting that the CEV and NLT are the best English translations. I *am* suggesting that the language of the CEV (but not the NLT, which is closer to a moderately literal translation but better than the NIV in terms of English naturalness) is closest to how a majority of current English speakers speak and write. And it has been recognized for that with an important English language award. The CEV, however, has weaknesses, as every version does. Like it’s predecessor, the TEV (GNB), it doesn’t do a very good job with some of the logical connectors of the biblical languages.

    There probably is some value for some English speakers who do not read the biblical languages to use a literal or moderately literal translation. But I don’t think the value has to do with accuracy or reflection of original genre differences. People have often *thought* they have that value but it is based on a a distorted view of language and translation principles.

    There is no ideal English Bible. All of them have various inadequacies. But the job of this blog is not to tear down any translation. Rather, the task of this blog is to encourage others to learn better translation principles so that all aspects of the original biblical language texts can be adequated conveyed in any target language. And it is also an appropriate role of this blog to point out where some version does a particularly good job translation some passage. Lessons learned from that instance can be extrapolated to translation of other passages.

    And I would suggest that we have pretty much reached a saturation point for English Bibles, at least until 2-3 more decades of time pass and the English language changes enough to call for a new translation to reflect those changes so that Bible readers can hear the message communicated to them accurately once again (since language changes can create different understandings of words which cause a decrease in communicative accuracy of translations which use older English).

    I also suggest that we have probably filled up all the ideological and other niches that English Bible users might have today. I would then suggest that the next major improvement in English Bibles will require an interdisciplinary approach among scholars with formal training in exegesis, translation theory and practice, communication theory, English literature and composition, English linguistics, discourse studies, and linguistics. As far as I know, even though linguistics and translation theory have been available as disciplines for formal study, no major English translation has been made with a team which has any members who have formal training in all of these disciplines and were able to use that training to affect the quality of the translation. I must noted that the GW and HCSB translations. I know that at least two members of the HCSB team did formal studies in linguistics. The GW team was led by a man who had a good number of years as a Bible translation consultant in Africa. The GW intro specifically claims that its translation team included insights from Bible translation theory. It’s a good translation and I have no reason to doubt their claim.

    The TEV (GNB) and CEV were strongly influenced by the translation principles espoused by Eugene Nida who is widely considered a leader not only in the Bible translation field, but in general translation studies, as well.

    I am amazed at the strange English that appears in so many English translations. I don’t think its inclusion is at all necessary for a translation to be accurate and true to the original texts in terms of culture, “distance” from cultures of today, etc. The exegetes on Bible translation teams either need to take a Bible translation course and a refresher in English grammar and literature before they translation, or else the “stylists” and “English editors” who work with them must have much greater influence over the quality of English in those translations. too often, it seems, exegetes get to “outvote” the stylists. Perhaps stylists fear that exegetes know best when exegetes may claim that some English wording that is not natural English more “accurately” reflects the meaning of the biblical language form. Or perhaps stylists themselves are unduly influenced by centuries of biblish and, like exegetes, put their knowledge of natural English on the shelf while trying to make a translation reflect the biblical languages as _____ (?) as possible, where the blank is filled in by some desired quality of language or a translation.

    At a minimum every translation team needs to study how Greek prepositions are most accurately translated to English that is produced by native speakers. Dan Wallace does a pretty good job of covering exegesis and translation of Greek prepositions in his Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. But not many English Bible versions reflect what he and some other Koine Greek teachers have pointed out in their classes for quite awhile.

    There is especially a problem with Greek “en” being translated too often to English “in” when it does not have a locational meaning. All Greek teachers have understood that Greek “en” often does not correspond to English “in” but this understanding is not consistently reflected in translations which have been produced.

    Only a couple of English translations have ever been orally checked for quality of English by the team itself before it is field tested, if it is field tested at all.

    Only a handful of English translations have been done by teams which consistently check their work to determine if it bears the marks of sounding like it was written by a native speaker of English. That is a pity. We can do better. English Bible readers deserve better.

  21. John Hobbins says:

    Hi Dannii,

    You do sound extreme in that post. It’s as if you are arguing that there is no connection between pragmatics and semantics on the one hand, and morphosyntax on the other. At the very least, you seem to deny that mimicking syntactical patterns of the source text in translation is, all other things being equal, a reasonable default strategy.

    Your position is counter-intuitive. I have worked often enough as a simultaneous translator, going back and forth in real time between three languages: Italian, German, and English.

    It’s normal to transfer syntax of the source into the target. It doesn’t always work, so you make use of workarounds. But the transfer strategy is a good general rule.

    But let’s take an example. From War and Peace again.

    First, Pevear-Volokhonsky, who deliberately mimic the syntax of the original:

    At the beginning of winter, Prince Nikolai Andreich Bolkonsky came to Moscow with his daughter. Because of his past, because of his intelligence and originality, and especially because of the weakening just then of the raptures over the reign of Alexander I, and because of the anti-French and patriotic tendencies which reigned at that time in Moscow, Prince Nikolai Andreich at once became an object of special deference among the Muscovites and the center of Moscow opposition to the government.

    Briggs, who more freely paraphrases:

    At the beginning of the winter old Prince Bolkonsky and his daughter moved to Moscow. He had become an object of special veneration in Moscow because of his past achievements, his powerful intellect and unusual character, and this, together with the current decline in the popularity of Tsar Alexander’s regime, which coincided with a surge in anti-French sentiment and Russian patriotism, now made him the natural centre of opposition to the government.

    It’s an interesting example. The information structure of source text, its fronting choices, are not respected by Briggs. The first translation is harder to read correctly, but *if* it is read correctly, the meaning Tolstoy intended shines through.

    Whereas I think the meaning cannot be captured in Briggs translation. The pragmatics of the source text, so ably conveyed by the fronted repeated “because” clauses, and the poignant adverbial phrase “at once,” are lost in the normalization of the text by Briggs.

    Beware of normalizations. At least half of what translations of the kind you like do in practice is normalization. It is a flattening operation in the interests of assimilation of meaning on the fly.

    Slow down, for goodness’ sake. A translation doesn’t have to be cash and carry. Maybe you have to read it more than once, chew it over. Why is that so awful? Old fashioned translations were not afraid to be slow-food restaurants.

    One further note. In the interests of avoiding the (to us) absurd way Russians refer to themselves, Briggs eliminates Russian patronymic conventions, and “translates” with “old Prince B.” But this introduces a tonality that is extraneous and irksome in context. Just saying.

  22. John Hobbins says:


    I understand where you are coming from. Still, I happen to agree with a movement which runs counter to the things you emphasize.

    It a movement that is resulting in a great number of translations of classics which sacrifice naturalness and familiarity of diction in the name of greater adherence to the strangeness and diction of the source text.

    Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translations of Russian classics have swept the field. They are built on principles at cross-purposes with yours.

    The two most vital recent Bible translations on the Continent I know of, the new Zurcher Bibel in German and the revised Catholic translation in Italian, are notable for taking precisely the opposite tack to the one you tout.

    The translation technique employed by ZB: “Fremdes fremd sein lassen.” A hard-hitting but correct paraphrase: what is strange to us in the source text must remain so in translation.

    The way the ZB worked is fascinating – Pevear and Volokhonsky operated in the same way:

    It’s hard to believe: the core translating team consisted of three persons. A Hebraist – the largest part of the source text is in Hebrew, a smaller part in Aramaic – prepared a base translation, which however “was not yet in German.” It was then up to an exegete to ensure that the translation was adequate to the sense of the original. Finally – this was Anderegg’s task, it required a specialist to “make German” out of the base translation. The final wording of the Old Testament of the new Zürcher Bibel was codetermined in large part by Johannes Anderegg [a professor of German language and literature] – one sentence at a time.

    When it comes to the field of translation – with editions of the Bible running from the Volxbibel [in Swiss dialect] to the Bibel in gerechter Sprache [a PC translation] to the Gute Nachricht [a DE translation, like the Good News Bible in English] – very different approaches have been taken. The Zürcher Bibel is marked by its nearness to the source text. The popular demand, that the Bible must speak “our language,” Anderegg rejects. Biblical literature by definition is not easily accessible, as if it were meant for entertainment. “Our language,” furthermore, does not exist. What actually exists is a series of trade- and group-specific languages dependent on social class and professional background. Linguistics speaks of “sociolects.”

    End quote of my translation of parts of an interview that appeared in German. For further background, go here:

  23. Dannii says:

    It’s as if you are arguing that there is no connection between pragmatics and semantics on the one hand, and morphosyntax on the other.

    No not at all. If that were the case then there’d be little problem with mimicking morphosyntax!

    At the very least, you seem to deny that mimicking syntactical patterns of the source text in translation is, all other things being equal, a reasonable default strategy.

    What I would deny is that there are very few situations which even approach being equal, and Bible translations never will be one of those. Perhaps if you were translating between Danish and Swedish, or between Arabic and Amharic it might make sense to mimick the morphosyntax seeing as their morphosyntaxes are so similar. If you were translating between too similar languages like that which also share similar genres, then it might be a really good idea because then the poetic devices could be conveyed. But that is not the situation with the Bible.

    Still, it may be a reasonable default strategy or a good general rule, mostly because it’s quick and easy. What my post was about was saying that I don’t think it adds value to a translation. And of course there are many examples where it takes value from a translation, so the only reason to use it for Bible translation that I can think of is as a time saver. There will always be times when we mimic morphosyntax, what I disagree with is the many translations which in effect advertise their morphosyntax-mimicking as a great feature. Unless the languages are very similar I do not believe that deliberately attempting to focus on mimicking morphosyntax will produce a good text.

    Your example from Tolstoy shows that information structure is very important. What it does not show is that between two translations which both attempt to be sensitive to information structure, the morphosyntax mimicking one will be better than the non-mimicking one. Further more, do you have evidence that Pevear-Volokhonsky were deliberately attempting to convey the source’s information structure, or was it just luck that it happened to work out well?

  24. Dannii says:

    (Follow up)

    As I don’t speak any Russian I can’t actually tell whether the info structure was actually conveyed well by Pevear-Volokhonsky. And to be honest, it doesn’t seem to me to use English info structure principles I’m very familiar with. It’s sounds like a ramble – the “and especially” in the middle seems particularly odd and jarring. “Especially” could be a good word for conveying some info structure stuff, but using it for the third out of four phrases seems very unnatural to me.

    Register is another issue entirely. In most morphosyntax-mimicking translations I’ve read that process flattens everything into the I-am-serious-literature/I-am-concentrating-hard-exchange-student registers.

    Lastly, if time is a concern, I wonder how much longer translating propositions would take than morphosyntax. Neither are really good strategies (or at least in isolation/as the main aim), but at least the propositional translation would effectively convey the semantics.

  25. Peter Kirk says:

    John, thank you for your kind words about my post. I will take up your suggestion of cross-posting here.

    Perhaps I can risk even more controversy by saying, in response to one of your points, that I don’t think a sermon ought to include any exegesis at all. If the passage is self-explanatory, in a clear translation, then the preacher is only wasting their time and their congregation’s by explaining it. Instead they ought to move straight on to what should be the core of preaching: exposition of the passage, which means applying it to the congregation’s situation and needs. If The Message helps preachers not to be distracted by unnecessary exegesis, then it is promoting good preaching. But I don’t intend to endorse The Message, which is far from a perfect translation.

    But perhaps more worthy of upgrading to the status of BBB post are the late Wayne’s comments here. I hope he ended up so late for his own funeral that they sent him back to life to wait for a vacant entrance slot at the pearly gates – hopefully in not less than a few decades!

  26. Joel H. says:

    John Hobbins replied to Dannii:
    At the very least, you seem to deny that mimicking syntactical patterns of the source text in translation is, all other things being equal, a reasonable default strategy.

    I agree with Dannii here, and I don’t think it’s a reasonable default strategy, any more than translating with identically-sounding words would be. (For example, the Greek ho doesn’t mean “hoe,” even though they sound the same.)

    Similarly, all of my background in linguistics and translation points in a single direction: mimicking morphosyntax for the sake of mimicry is a bad idea. Rather, the better goal is to understand what the morphosyntax does in the source language, and recreate that in the target language. I have some examples here: Top Translation Traps: Mimicry.

    It’s not a long post, and it includes what I think is a pretty clear example with (Modern) Hebrew and Russian, where mimicking the word order in one creates a mistranslation into the other, and vice versa. (I like to use modern languages to test translation theory because it’s so much easier to see if the theory works.)

    Another example, not in that post, concerns English and Modern Hebrew. Passives in English almost always end up as third-person plural active verbs in Modern Hebrew. So, “my radio was stolen (from my car)” becomes, in Modern Hebrew, gan’vu li et ha-radio, literally, “they-stole to-me the-radio.” The “preserve the morphosyntax” translators might take that Hebrew and turn it into “they stole the radio to me” in Engish, in a fashion similar to the process that gave us the barely intelligible “hosanna in the highest” and other English oddities. (And then someone would give a sermon about what it means to steal “to me”…)


  27. John Hobbins says:


    No, I doubt that P-V have sophisticated knowledge of information structure theory. Very few people do, and those that do disagree on many questions of great importance.

    So yes, the example is a demonstration of the value of the mimicking strategy. As a rough and ready rule, it works from Hebrew to Swahili and from Hebrew to English fairly well. I imagine there are other languages in which workarounds have to be default strategy.

    So long as we are talking about going from Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek to English, mimickry saves translators from inadvertently messing with the information structure of the source text in the interests of clarity. I think Briggs falls into that trap in the example cited from his War and Peace translation. I could cite example after example from CEV and NLT – but Wayne has already noted this problem under the file: “not adequate in translating logical connectors.”


    I think your point of view is unfortunately common among evangelical Protestants. You apparently think that all you need is a good functional equivalent translation and a hip preacher to tell you how to apply what you read to your daily life.

    It’s you, your God, and your functionally equivalent Jesus and Paul. The rest you do without.

    I have deep reservations about your approach. When I exposit a text, I take care to situate it in (1) the larger discourse of scripture; (2) the larger discourse of the church; (3) a historical and cultural contextualization. Today is Palm Sunday. If I didn’t do all of these things with respect to Matthew 21:1-11, I would be completely AWOL.

    Whether I am reading from NLT or ESV is irrelevant except that the latter makes it less necessary for me to go back to the Greek and recover details NLT leaves to one side.

  28. John Hobbins says:


    Your examples are helpful, but I can think of other examples in which translations like NLT, CEV, and NIV restructure the source text with debatable results.

    You have said before that you think NRSV is, all things considered, the best translation out there, or something to that effect. I have issues with NRSV, but I largely concur.

    But note: NRSV as compared to CEV, NLT, and NIV works hard at mimicking the surface structure of the source text. No wonder: NRSV is, according to its own lights, “as literal as possible, as free as necessary.”

    All I’m doing on this thread is upholding that maxim.

    NRSV does the very thing you say it shouldn’t do: be literal. Thank goodness it does, although NRSV also strives to be as free as *necessary.*

    How does that look in practice? I discuss a specific example here:

    I conclude by saying:

    In my judgment, NRSV in this passage is hands down better than NIV and NLT and marginally better than ESV.

    Why are NRSV and ESV better than NIV and NLT in this instance? Because the former mimick the surface structure of the source text in an intelligent manner.

  29. Joel H. says:


    Of course there are translations that capture neither the morphosyntax nor the original intent, but that doesn’t mean that they failed because they didn’t mimic the morphosyntax.

    I also think that there’s a difference between morphosyntax and other literary devices, such as word repetition.

    No wonder: NRSV is, according to its own lights, “as literal as possible, as free as necessary.”

    And I think the first part is one of its failings.

    But at this point I fear we have strayed from the point of the post. (“Now that I’ve given you my answer, can you please remind me what your question was?”)


  30. John Hobbins says:

    Okay, Joel.

    I was worried there that your stated preference for NRSV meant that you are an unbeliever in the gospel of functional equivalence. But you are a believer. I assume you will be switching to CEB. I can’t figure out why you wouldn’t.

    If you don’t like the literalness of NRSV’s translation technique, there’s not much left to like. The very things I regard as strengths of NRSV in the example I give from the gospel of John are going to be understood as weaknesses if literalness is not a default translation strategy in your book.

    No translation to date has succeeded in doing the opposite things you seem to suggest should be done: on the one hand, restructure the source text early and often in the interests of clarity and familiarity of language; on the other, maintain surface features of the source text like repetends and parallelisms; map onto the target text the logical connections of the source text; transfer information structure in an intelligent way.

    It hasn’t been done successfully. At least not very often. If you think otherwise, cite a specific example and we can discuss it.

  31. Joel H. says:

    No translation to date has succeeded in doing the opposite things you seem to suggest should be done […]

    Right. And this was my main motivation for writing And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning. It’s frustrating and disappointing that basic translation techniques aren’t applied more widely to the Bible.

    By and large we know how to translate from one language to the other. (I’m on record as claiming that:

    “English speakers who read Ovid or Aristotle or Pushkin in translation have a better sense of the original texts than do readers of any existing English translation of the Bible,” […]

    .) But it’s been my experience that Bible translation tends to plow though in its own vacuum, seldom taking advantage of the advances in linguistics and translation theory that the last century has seen.

    And I’m not a huge fan of the CEB. (I have some discussion here.) Its wording tends to be simpler and more grammatical than other translations. But I don’t think that simpler is always better, and I don’t find that the CEB is more successful than other translations at capturing the meanings and nuances of the original.


  32. Peter Kirk says:

    John, I can agree that it is good to

    situate [a text] in (1) the larger discourse of scripture; (2) the larger discourse of the church; (3) a historical and cultural contextualization.

    So perhaps my summary of what a sermon should be was over-simplified. But I don’t see how these things depend to any great extent on the type of translation used. My objection is to the kind of sermon which focuses on the exegetical details of a passage but generally neglects these three matters as well as any application.

  33. Dannii says:

    So long as we are talking about going from Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek to English, mimickry saves translators from inadvertently messing with the information structure of the source text in the interests of clarity.

    John, I can’t agree. These languages all do info structure very differently. Greek is discourse configurational! BBB has shown many examples when translations have got it wrong, of all types, not just syntax mimicking ones.

    I’m not aware of any Bible translation which describes itself as being sensitive to info structure. Anyone know of one?

  34. John Hobbins says:


    If you find Mona Baker convincing, you at least owe yourself the exercise of reading the critiques of her approach to translation by Anthony Pym and Lawrence Venuti. For a thread that touches on the different schools of translation out there – you find yourself in Baker’s corner; I often find myself in the same corner as Toury and Pym – go here:

    I am more interested in specific examples than grand theory. Look at my John 3:20-21 post (link above) and tell me what you think. In my view, all of the necessary caveats about the dangers of grammatical equivalence lead to bad translation in that instance.

  35. John Hobbins says:


    You seem to be suggesting once again that mimickry of surface structure fro Greek to English is profoundly misleading. That depends. I argue that a lack of mimickry in the case of John 3:20-21 has led to unsatisfactory translation in NLT and NIV. Perhaps you would be so kind as to deal with the specifics of the case.

  36. John Hobbins says:


    Great. I’m glad we have reached a measure of consensus.

    But if you agree that it is important in a sermon to “situate [a text] in (1) the larger discourse of scripture; (2) the larger discourse of the church; (3) a historical and cultural contextualization,” I submit that a more literal translation is a better point of departure.

    It allows for close readings. What if I am doing a series on the Lord’s Prayer? I am almost forced to go back to KJV translation choices or use NJPSV + a translation of the NT that avoids lame paraphrases in functional equivalent Biblish if I am going to do (1) – (3) with respect to “hallowing” things.

  37. Peter Kirk says:

    John, if you want to do a proper study of how hagiazo is used throughout “the larger discourse of scripture”, and perhaps in “the larger discourse of the church”, you will find a study of how “hallow” is used in any English Bible version highly misleading. This verb is more commonly translated “sanctify” in KJV and most literal English versions, and perhaps also with words related to “holy”, which are certainly used for closely related Greek words. In this case I think you would get better concordance from some meaning-based versions, which are probably consistent or nearly so in using “holy” and related words for this group of Greek words.

    In fact the study you need to do is not so much of words, and certainly not of words in any English version, but of the theological concept of holiness and how it can be applied to the name of God.

  38. Rob Hyndman says:

    When I go to the site, I find I must pay $3.99, but you say it is free. I don’t mind paying, but I wondered if I am missing some information?

  39. David Ker says:

    Rob and Wayne,

    The book is still free if you have this magic coupon code: BJ64G

    That’s good until the end of May. After that go to for the latest coupons.

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