liberal translation

I make a lot of typos the older I get. Normally, you could suspect me of intending to type “literal translation” for the title of this post. But I actually intend to write about liberal translation, specifically liberal Bible translation.

Not too long ago I read a post by a fellow blogger in which he referred to the “liberal CEB”. CEB is the Common English Bible which was recently translated and is currently being published.

So, I wonder: What is there about the CEB that would cause a serious Bible scholar blogger to refer to it as the “liberal CEB”?

Various possiblities have come to my mind:

1. Perhaps the CEB translation team is theologically liberal and allows their theology to bias the CEB translation.

Let’s look at two test passages that are often used to check for a liberal bias in a Bible:

a. Isaiah 7:14: The CEB translates this verse as:

Therefore, the Lord will give you a sign. The young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel.

Some conservatives consider translation of Hebrew almah in this verse as “young woman” instead of “virgin” to be liberal. But is it, or does it actually reflect accurate biblical scholarship? Some people still debate this question, but many theological conservatives no longer do, recognizing that the Hebrew word almah truly does refer to a young woman of marriageable age, whether or not she is a virgin. Some English versions translated by theological conservatives actually use “young lady” (NET) or “young woman” (ISV) for their translation of Is. 7:14.

But does the question of the Bible and the virgin birth of Christ rest solely on translation of Is. 7:14. No. Consider the following: During my childhood the RSV was railed against as being “liberal” because it translated Hebrew almah in Is. 7:14 as “young woman” instead of “virgin.” Theological conservatives thought this meant that the RSV translators did not believe in the virgin birth of Christ and so they downgraded “virgin” to “young woman.” Yet, in Matthew 1:22,23 the RSV translators retained the word “virgin”:

[22] All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
[23] “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and his name shall be called Emmanuel”
(which means, God with us).

If the RSV translators had truly wanted to show non-belief in the virgin birth of Christ, they should have not used the word “virgin” in the Matthean quote of Isaiah 7:14. Something else, perhaps accurate scholarship, might have been at play in the translation of Is. 7:14. And, over the years, many conservatives have come to accept the RSV as a good translation, acceptable for use by conservatives. In fact, conservative theologian Wayne Grudem convinced conservative young Vern Poythress to use the RSV as his main study Bible. Years later the two of them were on the translation team to create the ESV, which is regarded as a theologically conservative revision of the RSV. It turns out that the amount of text changed from the RSV to the ESV is extremely small.

What’s the point here? It is that it’s questionable to make broadstroke generalizations about theological bias of a Bible translation team based on translation of Is. 7:14 and a few other verses. One needs to look at a translation as a whole as well as individual verses to try to determine if there is any theological bias. What you think might be a liberal translation of some verse may be shown to be an accurate translation, especially when you find other verses in the translation which continue to support whatever is your own theological viewpoint.

b. 2 Tim. 3:16, 17: These verses are about God’s part in the “inspiration” of Scripture. The CEB translates it as:

Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good.

Conservatives who critique Bible versions often study the translation of 2 Tim. 3:16 to see if it exhibits a liberal bias. A translation that says “All scripture is inspired by God …” would be considered theologically appropriate. A translation that says “All scripture inspired by God …” would be considered to have a liberal (neo-orthodox) bias. (That is, not all scripture is inspired by God. But scripture is inspired if and when it inspires the reader.)

2. Theological orientation of the translators. Perhaps the blogger was not suggesting that the CEB translation itself was “liberal” but that its translators are. It is a common belief that if a translators theology does not align with mine, that translator cannot translate with theological integrity. But Bible scholars who translate often rise above their own theological biases and translate the text itself, not disturbed by their own theology. Let’s look at the CEB translation team to see if they might be theologically biased, perhaps even as they translate.

I have interacted some with the CEB team, especially its dedicated director, Paul Franklyn. I either know or know about some of the other translators on the CEB team. The ones I know or know about are theologically conservative: Cynthia Long Westfall,  Joel Green, and David deSilva. There are probably many more. If Paul Franklyn and his project sponsors really wanted to produce a “liberal CEB,” I don’t think they would have invited conservatives to be on the translation team.

There is much more that could be said on this topic, but this is enough for today’s post and the time available to me.

Is the CEB a “liberal” translation? I find no evidence of it from my own study of this new translation and extensive editorial comments I submitted to the CEB team? I would caution all of us to be prudent in how we evaluate any Bible translation? We should especially avoid broadbrush characterizations of a Bible version. We may think we find a bias in translation of one or more verses. But if we study a translation longer, we usually find that translation of other verses throw doubt on our initial evaluations.

I would, once again, caution all of us to be prudent, also, about what we write on our blogs. Blog posts are picked up by Google and other search engines. Blog posts take on a permanence that we may not want when we look back upon what we have written with the advantage of further growth and study on our part.

Promotion and criticisms of new Bible versions are interesting for more than just their content. I often wonder how much of a new Bible version has actually been read and carefully studied by those who are quoted in advertising promoting it and those who criticize it. On this blog we want to be better evaluators of Bible versions. Better evaluations can lead, ultimately, to better translations of the Bible.

44 thoughts on “liberal translation

  1. White Man says:

    It’s an axiom of debate that both sides must first agree on a definition of terms. I don’t see that either side has yet defined “liberal”, which means that we are not yet at the level of debate, just that of discovery.

  2. Joel H. says:

    Your post prompted three thoughts, two general in nature, and one about Matthew 1:22-23 specifically.

    1. Accuracy and tradition frequently come into conflict in Bible translation. (Perhaps the clearest case is Psalm 23. “Shepherd” is a pretty bad translation there, but tradition seems to trump accuracy for almost everyone.) I think that just choosing accuracy over tradition in some places might be liberal bias. That is, it’s a liberal viewpoint that dictates that Bible translation should be guided by the science of translation more than by tradition.

    2. I don’t think any person or committee can reasonably reevaluate every single word of a Bible translation, so any new translation has to perform a triage of sorts, deciding where to focus research energy. Some errors leap off the page, and those usually get corrected in a new Bible translation. But other errors reveal themselves only after prolonged study. And it seems to me that this is the biggest source of bias in Bible translation: People will often choose to focus their energy on passages that they either really like or, especially, really don’t like.

    In my own case, for example, I find it hard to care about the details of the sacrifices in Leviticus. So my guess is that there are all sorts of translation errors there, and I’ll never notice. But in Jewish tradition, Leviticus was considered the most important book. (That’s why it’s in the middle of a Torah scroll.) Jewish children traditionally started Bible study with Leviticus. It’s my own bias that focuses my attention elsewhere.

    More generally, to the extent that liberals and conservatives care about different things, they will also focus their energies in different places.

    3. Specifically regarding Matthew 1:22-23 and its reference to Isaiah 7:14, I think everyone agrees that changing “virgin” to “young woman” for alma in Isaiah 7:14 is “accurate biblical scholarship,” but the decision to prefer that scholarship over tradition is liberal.

    More importantly, though, in this case I think the key is understanding the connection between Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:22-23. In particular, the verb plirow there, commonly translated “fulfill,” is better translated along the lines of “matches.” (I have more here: “What Happens to Prophecies in the New Testament?“) It’s perfectly possible for Matthew 1 to refer to a virgin even if Isaiah 7:14 does not. After all, the names don’t even match. As I say in the post, “Matthew had no problem juxtaposing, `…you are to name him Jesus’ (1:21; NRSV) and `…they shall name him Emmanuel’ (1:23; NRSV).”


  3. Nemo says:

    If the RSV translators had truly wanted to show non-belief in the virgin birth of Christ, they should have not used the word “virgin” in the Matthean quote of Isaiah 7:14.

    Liberal scholars do not try to undermine clear teachings of the NT by giving obviously wrong translations, Wayne. There has to be some plausibility to the rendering. They are not utterly shameless. And that’s why liberals don’t eliminate “virgin” from Matthew’s quotation. It is just too obvious that for Matthew’s purpose the word “virgin” (after the LXX rendering) is important in the quotation. But this presents no great problem for liberal hermeneutics, because liberals have always maintained that the NT writers misinterpreted the OT. And that, of course, is why conservatives object to “young woman” in Isaiah 7:14. It is apparently designed to support the liberal contention that the NT interpretation is wrong.

    It turns out that the amount of text changed from the RSV to the ESV is extremely small.

    You’ll notice, however, that Isaiah 7:14 was changed, which comes as no surprise. Conservatives still see the “virgin” there, not just any old “young woman,” and the RSV rendering is still seen as liberal.

    Some English versions translated by theological conservatives actually use “young lady” (NET) or “young woman” (ISV) for their translation of Is. 7:14.

    It’s the rendering, not the personality or reputation of the translator, that really matters. But with regard to the translators, you must also take care with the word “conservative,” so as not to confuse it with “evangelical.” Because many persons who are called “evangelical” these days are not very conservative, and “conservative” means different things in different traditions. A conservative Calvinist might even say that there is no such thing as a conservative Dispensationalist, because Dispensationalism is itself a novelty.

    I often wonder how much of a new Bible version has actually been read and carefully studied by those who are quoted in advertising promoting it and those who criticize it.

    Very little, I’m sure. But who has time to study all these new versions?

    There are probably many CEB renderings that could be associated with liberal hermeneutics, if we had the time to go over it with a fine-tooth comb. I notice the rendering in Genesis 1:1. You probably know that the “When God began to create” interpretation is seen as being contrary to the creatio ex nihilo doctrine.

  4. Nemo says:

    I think everyone agrees that changing “virgin” to “young woman” for alma in Isaiah 7:14 is “accurate biblical scholarship,” but the decision to prefer that scholarship over tradition is liberal.

    Joel. Obviously not everyone agrees that “young woman” should replace “virgin” in English versions, or that “young woman” is the only rendering that represents “scholarship.” (Ever heard of E.J. Young? J.G. Machen? F.F. Bruce?) I think your analysis here is a bit skewed.

  5. John Meunier says:

    I’m not sure about “liberal” but it does appear to side with the “faith of Jesus” side of the debate vs. the “faith in Jesus” in key passages in Romans.

    As a United Methodist, I note as well that it takes away many of our Wesleyan words. In Thessalonians, for instance, where the NRSV/NIV use “sanctify” or “holy” the CEB used some form of “dedicated to God.” This may be a good translation of the underlying term, but it certainly throws a big wrench in conversations about Wesleyan theology. The CEB generally does the same thing with “perfection.”

    None of this would be remarkable, perhaps, if the United Methodist Church were not a key translation partner and promoter of the translation.

  6. CD-Host says:

    I’m going to come down on the side of the CEB is liberal. I don’t disagree with you that Isaiah 7:14 is accurately translated as young woman, but translating in line with scholarship is liberal. To be blunt:

    Liberal = Translation should be done with the best possible scholarship.
    Conservative = Translation is a function of the church. Translations should be done with the best possible scholarship in service of the church.

    Conservatives redefine quality scholarship so that the best quality scholarship is somehow outside the realm of the acceptable. When liberals and conservatives split they did so precisely over the issue about what to do regarding scholarship that was not in accord with theology, i.e. how much weight to give to tradition. That is in fact what defines the conservative Christian movement, a rejection of the scholarship of the mid 19th century.


    No the CEB isn’t radical. But if you consider NAS vs. NJB, ESV vs. NRSV, NIV2011 vs. REB, I think its fair to treat NLT vs. CEB in the same light.

  7. CD-Host says:

    It’s an axiom of debate that both sides must first agree on a definition of terms. I don’t see that either side has yet defined “liberal”, which means that we are not yet at the level of debate, just that of discovery.

    Well put WhiteMan. I’d use “liberal” here to denote the theology of the mainline churches. That is Auburn Affirmations:

    1) The Bible is not inerrant. The supreme guide of scripture interpretation is the Spirit of God to the individual believer and not ecclesiastical authority. Thus, “liberty of conscience” is elevated.

    2) Denominations should not dictate doctrine.

    3) Due process for doctrinal disagreements.

    4) None of the 5 fundamentals

    Inerrancy of the Scriptures
    The virgin birth (and the deity of Jesus)
    The doctrine of substitutionary atonement
    The bodily resurrection of Jesus
    The authenticity of Christ’s miracles

    required for ordination. Alternative “theories” of these doctrines are permissible.

    5) Liberty of thought and teaching, within the bounds of evangelical Christianity is necessary.

    6) Rejection of second order separation, and often rejection of first order separation.

    As an aside #6 IMHO is really the key for my personal definition.

    Fundamentalist = 2nd order separation
    Evangelical = 1st order separation
    Liberal = neither.

  8. mgvh@ltsg says:

    I had not been aware of the ‘liberal’ translation issue with 2 Tim. 3:16, 17. Of all the English versions I have available to check, the only ones I could find that translate with the idea of “all Scripture inspired by God is…” (instead of “all Scripture is inspired by God and is…”) are those of Wycliffe (1388), Tyndale (1534), and Coverdale (1535), Douay-Rheims (1899), and the ASV (1901). That didn’t seem like the usual list of ‘liberal’ suspects, and the Douay-Rheims suggested to me that something else might be going on. So, a little more checking indicates that (other than the ASV) it is more of a textual issue than a translation one that centers around whether there is a conjunction after the “God-breathed.” I can’t find any Greek manuscript that omits the kai, but it turns out that the conjunction et is missing in the Clementine Vulgate (1590 and later). I’m guessing that Wycliffe, Tyndale (?), and Coverdale either had or were influenced by a Latin version that omitted the et. Without the et, Wycliffe’s translation of the Latin is quite right: “For al scripture inspirid of God is profitable to teche…” (The ASV, using the Greek, renders the kai with an “also,” but it still is not a good translation: “Every scripture inspired of God is also profitable for teaching…”) Maybe there is something even further back in the history of this verse where the conjunction is omitted, because the Peshitta also omits it and translates as: “Every writing that was written by the Spirit is profitable for teaching…” (Magiera translation)

  9. Clark Coleman says:

    “(Perhaps the clearest case is Psalm 23. “Shepherd” is a pretty bad translation there, but tradition seems to trump accuracy for almost everyone.) ”

    I cannot come up with any justification for this statement. Why is “Shepherd” a pretty bad translation?

  10. Wayne Leman says:

    Everyone, please remember that the first of the BBB guidelines is:

    “Support claims with evidence.”

    I opened a can of worms with this post about the claim that the CEB is “liberal,” although I still believe that it is appropriate to question that claim.

    However, I still expect comments on my post to focus on the post itself. I consider defining “liberal” acceptable, but not any extended debate about what is and isn’t liberalism. I consider it unacceptable on BBB to label denominations or individuals as liberal without evidence. And this really isn’t the forum for such evidence.

    It is not enough to claim that the CEB is liberal. There needs to be evidence from the CEB translation itself that it is liberal. Again, I have not seen that evidence. I challenge others to provide it if they are going to claim that the CEB is liberal.

    Guilt by association with liberals is not evidence. We are dealing on BBB with a Bible translation, not with denominations or even individual translators, unless we have proof that the denominations influenced particular liberal translations in the CEB and that theologically liberal translator on the CEB team translated in a way that resulted in wordings which are theologically liberal.

  11. Wayne Leman says:

    CD-host, I basically agree with how you define “liberal theology,” but I disagree with you that it defines the theology of mainline churches. There are theologicaly conservative churches (local bodies) within mainline churches, just as there are theologically liberal ones. And within local churches there can be liberal or conservative individuals. I am not aware that the 5 fundamentals you list in your #4 are denominational in nature. Rather, they are fundamentalist in theology. In other words, I think it is dangerous to make broadstroke statements about denominations; there are theological tendencies within denominations but they are not categorical or defining of those denominations. There are still, for instance, some UMC churches which are evangelistic (hold altar calls, etc.). There are many pastors of mainline churches who believe in the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, and his bodily resurrection. These are not theologically liberal pastors. And there are many mainline churches who do not want any theologically liberal person to be their pastor.

    So, I conclude that a claim that because the CEB is promoted by mainline churches and therefore the CEB is theologically liberal is untrue. Let’s deal with the CEB itself, not broadstroke claims about the denominations that are funding and promoting the CEB. Let’s deal with the specific claim that the CEB itself is liberal, and provide evidence for that claim. That is what this post is about.

    The CEB translates in Matthew that Mary, the mother of Jesus, said she was a virgin. That is not a liberal translation. A theologically liberal person might translate the verse that way and not believe it, but that doesn’t make their translation of that verse liberal.

    The CEB translates resurrection passages in a way that brings no doubt to the idea that Jesus actually died and then actually came back to life. There is not a hint of a theologically liberal suggestion that Jesus did not really die so he did not really come back to life.

    We could go on and on examining the CEB to find out if there are any theologically liberal wordings. I suggest that we will not find any. But if I’m wrong, I am, in my post, inviting people to provide the evidence. Guilt by association, associating the CEB with theology of mainline churches, is not evidence that the CEB itself is liberal.

  12. Nemo says:

    Let’s deal with the specific claim that the CEB itself is liberal, and provide evidence for that claim.

    I did just that in my reply above. I explained why “young woman” is considered a liberal intepretation in Isaiah 7:14, and I also explained why the CEB rendering of Genesis 1:1 is considered liberal.

  13. Wayne Leman says:

    Respectfully, Nemo, I don’t think you provided evidence. Evidence supporting one or another translation in the Bible has to come from the biblical languages. You’ll need to deal with the Hebrew word almah and the question of the Hebrew participle in Gen. 1:1.

  14. Nemo says:

    I could do that. But I see you prejudge the issue by referring to “the Hebrew participle” in Gen. 1:1. What makes you think בָּרָא is a participle?

    I want you to understand that this and many other interpretive issues cannot be settled by linguistics alone. Theology does make a difference, and it cannot be excluded.

    I once got an email from an atheist who asked me how I knew that the plural form אֱלֹהִים in Genesis chap. 1 referred to just one God, rather than a collection of gods. I said I understand it to be singular in sense because the verbs are singular. He then suggested that the singular verbs might be collective in sense, and pointed out the “Let us make man in our image” in verse 26. I had to admit that the verb there is plural, but I explained that it was either a royal plural, or a reference to the counsels of the trinity, or perhaps a way of including the heavenly court of angels in the process. He scoffed at all that, as being some sort of traditionalist evasion of uncomfortable facts, and insisted that I had no good reason to read אֱלֹהִים as a singular in that verse. I replied that the context demanded it. He replied with an assertion that the work is composite, so that ordinary expectations of internal consistency do not apply.

    The truth is, my interpretation of this whole chapter is affected by my theological knowledge and beliefs. But I consider my theological reasons to be very good reasons, even compelling reasons, for the interpretation. The atheist seemed to think that theology does not have any legitimate place in the interpretation of the Bible.

    So do you agree with the atheist? Or are you going to admit that theology has a legitimate role?

  15. Peter Kirk says:

    Nemo, I suspect that it was Wayne’s mistake to call Hebrew bara a participle. I have looked at this issue in Hebrew and I think everyone agrees that it is a finite verb, masculine singular, to be understood as “(he) created”. The issue is as follows: The verse can be translated hyper-literally “In-beginning-of created God the-heavens and the-earth”. The slightly odd form of the very first word bereshit suggests that this “beginning” is not absolute, that something else must follow it – but this could just be an error in the pointing for the absolute bareshit “in the beginning” which happens to be the Samaritan Pentateuch reading. But in recent years some people have put forward the idea that the meaning is something like “In (the) beginning of ‘God created …'”, with the subject, finite verb and object taken as an otherwise unmarked subordinate clause. The problem with this understanding is that it is entirely unique in the Hebrew Bible.

    Your atheist friend was quite wrong about elohim. A clear distinction can be observed between this (morphologically plural) word used with a singular verb and clearly referring to the God of Israel, and the same word used with a plural verb referring to non-Israelite plural gods. He can only deny that by denying the basic monotheism (or at least henotheism – worshipping one God while believing others exist) of the ancient Israelites. And the whole Hebrew Bible disproves that hypothesis. I don’t know why your atheist doesn’t just say the author of Genesis got it wrong. After all he can hardly be atheist and believe the Bible is inerrant!

  16. CD-Host says:

    OK lets give a few places where the CEB is liberal.

    1) The use of “Messiah” in the NT. There has been a running debate for a long time about how Jewish were the NT authors. Liberals in general try and make them more Jewish, conservatives often tend to go with a variant of replacement theology. Staying faithful to the reading of Hebrews / Romans approach that Judaism is the burned out dead husk of a religion that Christianity is coming out of.

    I’m a fan of dynamic translation and I’d be rather hesitant to casually move between Messiah and Christ for fear of shifting theology.

    2) In Matt 2:2 the wisemen come to honor Jesus not worship him.

    3) Luke 2:33 Joseph is Jesus’ father (though the ESV uses this one as well, so perhaps it has become archaic not conservative)

    4) Deut. 6:6 where they went with mind over heart.

    5) Eph 3:15 “every ethnic group”??? Why would we suspect that Paul (or the redactor of Ephesians…) would even know what an ethnic group is?

    6) 1 Peter 2:2 “grow into salvation”.

  17. CD-Host says:

    Wayne —

    I think you were reading what I wrote too casually. I wasn’t claiming that everyone in mainline denominations takes anti-fundamentalist position on every issue. Rather what I said was that they consider these positions to be legitimate positions. I suspect the vast majority of mainline pastors believe in the virgin birth, but they don’t believe that those who deny it should be cast out / denied ordination. That is the key distinction.

  18. Nemo says:

    I think everyone agrees that it is a finite verb.

    It must be, if you accept the masoretic pointing.

    … The verse can be translated hyper-literally “In-beginning-of created God the-heavens and the-earth” …

    That’s a literal translation only if you take בְּרֵאשִׁית to be in the construct state. And if you do that, the CEB rendering follows as a matter of course.

  19. Peter Kirk says:

    Nemo, I think the argument is that, again if you accept the Masoretic pointing, bereshit looks like a construct state. But it could be absolute but indefinite, i.e. “in a beginning”. But would that imply that there was more than one beginning? Or can an indefinite noun be used for a unique event in that way? Or is the Samaritan tradition more reliable here than the Masoretic pointing? From what I remember, Hebrew scholars are divided on this but there doesn’t seem to be enough evidence for the unique construction found by the CEB translators. So could they have chosen that rendering because of doctrinal presuppositions? Who knows?

  20. Nemo says:

    I think the argument is that, again if you accept the Masoretic pointing, bereshit looks like a construct state.

    That’s too simple.

    Peter, some years ago I spent two or three days writing a paper about all the grammatical issues and all the opinions of commentators that are relevant to this question of interpretation. It is beastly complicated. I could OCR scan it and post it all here in a series of comments. But this is not the place for that. There are exegetical commentaries that address various aspects of the issue in a technical manner for those who are interested, and who have a good working knowledge of Hebrew. Here I only wanted to advise Wayne that the translation of this verse has theological implications, and that the interpretation adopted by the CEB translators does represent what may be called a “liberal” orientation, in the modern context. Readers of this blog who are really familiar with theological literature will know how true this is.

  21. Wayne Leman says:

    Nemo responded:

    I could do that. But I see you prejudge the issue by referring to “the Hebrew participle” in Gen. 1:1.

    Nemo, I wrote incorrectly when I called it a Hebrew participle. If you can, please ignore my label (I have deleted it), and just go with my intention which was that we deal with the linguistic issue of the Hebrew in Gen. 1:1.

    And I do agree with you that there are theological implications for translation decisions. But I consider it impossible for any of us to divine the theological motives, if there are any, of any Bible translators when they choose any linguistically and exegetically legitimate translation option. Impossible, that is, *unless* they choose to state what their motivation is.

  22. Clark Coleman says:

    “And I do agree with you that there are theological implications for translation decisions. But I consider it impossible for any of us to divine the theological motives, if there are any, of any Bible translators when they choose any linguistically and exegetically legitimate translation option. Impossible, that is, *unless* they choose to state what their motivation is.”

    I am not sure their motives are relevant. Let’s take a hypothetical that is not too extreme. If we were to list the top 40 verses where translations have proved to be points of controversy between liberals and conservatives, and a new translation had the “liberal” translation in all 40 verses, then the translation could be labeled “liberal” because public teaching from that translation will tend to be steered in liberal directions because of the phrasing selected.

    Notice that I did not say anything about the motives of the translators, nor did I say that there is no exegetical or manuscript basis for their decisions. But, it would be fair to call the translation a liberal translation.

    It is also true that looking at the churches that sponsor a translation, and the backgrounds and public theological positions of the translation team, is not sufficient to prove that a translation is liberal. However, we recognize in courts of law when circumstantial evidence becomes overwhelming because otherwise we have to accept an implausible string of coincidences. When liberal churches sponsor a translation, AND theological liberals do all the translating, AND the controversial verses all (or almost all) get translated in a manner that pleases liberals, you are no longer asking me to be charitable in refraining from calling the translation liberal. You are asking me to be unreasonable, and to ignore all the evidence and await some public statement along the lines of, “This is a liberal translation for liberal churches.” That will never happen even if it is true.

  23. Peter Kirk says:

    Thank you, Nemo. I realise that I have somewhat oversimplified the issues here. Indeed comments on this blog for non-specialists are not the place to discuss detailed technical issues of Hebrew.

    I suppose this is an example of a translation innovation which can also be seen as reflecting liberal theology. But we can probably only speculate on why the CEB made a change there, whereas translations sometimes thought of as more conservative have not. Did CEB change because the translators were convinced exegetically or because it fits their theology? Did others not change because they are theologically conservative or just conservative in not changing things without compelling reasons? Unless the translators themselves tell us, we cannot know. So to discover genuine signs of liberal theology in a translation we probably need to look elsewhere.

    By the way I note that CEB is not entirely innovative here in that NRSV’s “In the beginning when God created…” reflects more or less the same exegesis as CEB’s “When God began to create…”, with no proper justification in the Hebrew for the “when”.

  24. Nemo says:

    I consider it impossible for any of us to divine the theological motives …

    Wayne, biblical scholars do this all the time. For example, it has been pointed out how the LXX suppresses anthropomorphisms, offering “interpretations” of them instead of translating them literally, and we accept the idea that this probably tells us something about the theology of the translators. Same thing with the Vulgate. Do you think it’s improper to suggest that Jerome’s “supersubstantialis” for επιουσιον had something to do with the eucharistic theology of early Catholicism? I don’t think that’s unkind or improper at all. And then there’s the Targums, which tell us much about early Judaism. We do it with the Synoptic Gospels too, to discern the special interests of the different authors. Even the variations in the Greek manuscripts are sometimes best explained by theological motives. It’s all in a day’s work, discerning the theology that underlies choices of translation, revision, or redaction. So we are not suddenly blind when the version happens to be English and modern. These also show the influence of various theologies. There is nothing improper about seeing this, or talking about it.

  25. Wayne Leman says:

    Nemo, you raise important points. But we don’t have the benefit of much hindsight when trying to divine the motives of the TNIV, NIV2011, or CEB. This is something our blog guidelines have not allowed and will continue not to allow. It’s a decision of the blogging team. Feel free to disagree with the decision but we do require that you follow it to comment on this blog. I realize that it’s a gray area, but I know that *I* am incapable of divining the motives of others in my life today. I feel a responsibility to other Bible translators today not to divine their motives. It *is* appropriate to point out that a translation decision has theological implications. We can even point out what those implications are. But we are not allowed on BBB to say that someone had a specific theological motive for a particular translation choice. If it’s not clear, we moderators will help out. We won’t do a perfect job but we’ll keep trying out best to have the blog guidelines followed.

  26. Wayne Leman says:

    Clark, you have written fairly. Please see my preceding response to Nemo for what is and what is not allowed on this particular blog. Specifically, it *is* allowed to say that a particular translation option can feel liberal theology. It is *not* allowed to claim that those who chose that translation option did so for theological reasons, unless we hear from them themselves.

    It is possible for conservatives to choose translation options which could feed liberal theology and vice versa. On this blog we want comments to stick with the translation options and evaluate them, not their translators. Many Bible translators have translated objectively, regardless of their theological presuppositions.

  27. Nemo says:

    But we don’t have the benefit of much hindsight when trying to divine the motives of the TNIV, NIV2011, or CEB.

    We have the even greater benefit of being on the scene, as contemporaries.

    we are not allowed on BBB to say that someone had a specific theological motive for a particular translation choice.

    Well, it’s your blog, so I’m not going to violate your rules. But in your post you are scolding another blogger, “a serious Bible scholar blogger,” for not observing the ban on theological analysis that you impose here.

    I’m just saying, there is nothing wrong with it in principle. Biblical scholars do it habitually. Like anything else, it can be done well or poorly, and I am not making excuses for incompetent and shoddy analyis. But you can’t automatically blame someone for saying that a version is “liberal” as if it were morally wrong to even say such a thing.

  28. Wayne Leman says:

    Nemo wrote:

    But you can’t automatically blame someone for saying that a version is “liberal” as if it were morally wrong to even say such a thing.

    I was wrong to make it seem like the blogger had done or said something wrong. I’m sorry. It’s not wrong to state one’s own opinions. What I should have limited my blog post to was asking that anyone making a claim like that of the blogger back up that claim with evidence. We’ve seen the beginnings of such evidence being presented here in this topic thread.

  29. Mike Sangrey says:

    I think Wayne’s point here is that it is, in fact, empty (at least imprudent) to make broadstroke generalizations about the theology in a Bible translation based on a single verse[1]. This is especially true when considering a verse which has had the focus of controversy supported by soundly argued scholarship for each perspective. One must build a much stronger argument if one is going to speak broadly. Or the argument is empty. (Even still, in the blogosphere, anything appears allowable. We at BBB wish to hold to a much higher standard.)

    I’ve never banked on the terms liberal or conservative. They are too filled with what I view as empty rhetoric meant to persuade without informing.

    For example, take the statement, “The CEB is a liberal translation.” Is that close to meaning, “The CEB is a scholarly translation”? A perfectly valid understanding given the meaning of the word liberal. Or would the majority of people take it as a statement that those who like the CEB are simply theologically…well, you know…challenged?

    Using the term liberal in this later sense simply isn’t helpful. Any predominantly objective person could make the analogous argument for conservative.

    A blog posting is brief enough. Let’s not foster broadstroke disparagement. Let’s come against such emptiness. Let’s build toward an understanding of what it takes to make a scholarly translation which supports when we hold to the truth and persuades all of us to change where we are wrong.

    [1] Certainly, someone could, possibly, translate Isa. 7:14 as “When Jesus will be born, he will be born of a non-virgin, young woman.” But, no one is arguing that point. I personally find it quite insightful to read the Matthean passage with a blank space where παρθένος is, as if there is no word there. The virginity of Mary is still very obvious. Perhaps, then, the point of the Isaiah quote isn’t virginity. Perhaps it is “God is with us.” Perhaps Matthew’s point matches that point (mostly agree, Joel 🙂 ). Both Isaiah and Matthew, in the surrounding context, make it quite clear what it means to come face to face with God. It certainly divides the remnant from the group. We argue over the virginity of two women (and only one was most certainly a virgin at the birth of the child). Is it liberal or conservative to see that Matthew argues that God has put his human foot on the planet? Ironic, trick question, given the different definitions of the terms.

  30. Rich Rhodes says:

    I’ve been sitting on my hands through this discussion because it punches my buttons. I believe that we need to base our theology on the text, and not fall into the feedback loop that we read the text a certain way because our theology tells us to.

    Without denying that there is value in knowing theology, my position is that we have access to a lot more knowledge of what the language says (at least in the NT) than is generally admitted, and that, in our drive to nail down every last corner as if the NT were a theology book, we turn to theology to solve problems that should be solved (or left unresolved) on the basis of the language alone.

    E.g., when the NT author cites the LXX, you go with what the LXX says, regardless of whether that makes your theological point or not. There is a Greek words that mean virgin unambiguously, ἀκήρατος, for example, and the fact that the LXX translator did NOT use one of them is an key consideration.

    To me any theological feedback into the translation is problematic regardless of whether it accords with my theology or not.

    In saying this, I need to be clear that Biblical studies is not the same as theology (although the two often get confused in these kinds of discussions). Biblical studies informs translation by helping understand the cultural and historical context better. But as is always the case the relevant context ends at the time of authorship. To me it’s a key mistake trying to read Christian theology back into the Scripture.

  31. Nemo says:

    I need to be clear that Biblical studies is not the same as theology (although the two often get confused in these kinds of discussions) … Biblical studies informs translation by helping understand the cultural and historical context better.

    Rich, theology is nothing but coherent thinking or teaching about God and his actions. It exists wherever there is a developed religious belief, and it is a major element of the cultural context of the biblical authors. It is also one of their chief concerns, to teach about God and his actions. So you can’t flee to any theologically empty “biblical studies.”

    To me it’s a key mistake trying to read Christian theology back into the Scripture.

    If a theology is unbiblical, then it will not be helpful. But if it is gathered from the Scripture, I don’t know how it could be a mistake to see it there.

  32. J. K. Gayle says:

    There is a Greek words that mean virgin unambiguously, ἀκήρατος, for example, and the fact that the LXX translator did NOT use one of them is an key consideration.

    More positively, I think, we can emphasize the fact that even the earliest LXX readers, who surely were familiar with Homer, might have read παρθένος as also equal with ἠΐθεός, both terms paired to suggest eligible bachelorette as a variant of eligible bachelor. Even the earliest readers of Matthew (following LXX Isaiah) and Luke (reading LXX and Matthew and Q and maybe Homer) could have considered this possibility:

  33. Rich Rhodes says:

    Actually, I disagree with your definition of theology.

    (My apologies in advance to my fellow bloggers for wandering off topic some here.)

    In an ideal world, “coherent thinking or teaching about God and his actions” is exactly what theology should be. But in this world, one’s theology is more accurately characterized as one’s theory of God. And like all theories it includes not only coherence of thought, but also a significant grounding in opinion. People feel there is so much at stake in theological argument that they constantly take their trust in their theology as grounds for mistreating one another.

    So the real reason I’m trying to tease apart the theology from the translation is to get — as much as possible — the opinion out. Linguistics offers a lot of tools to do just that, by pushing further back the boundaries of what can be known about the text on the basis of the words of the text.

    A glaring example of illegitimate theology in translation, IMHO, is the Colorado Declaration. It represents the enforcing of an opinion on translation. Translate the text to favor a particular theologically based opinion. THAT’s what gets my knickers in a knot. When I’m talking about getting the order text > theology straight, that’s what I’m talking about.

    I absolutely agree that the contemporaneous theological atmosphere (both Jewish AND pagan) is crucial to understanding the text. But there are pitfalls of theological anachronism everywhere. They are often quite subtle. Nonetheless they must be scrupulously avoided. That’s how I see Biblical studies as distinct from theology. (To be more specific, Biblical studies will say, “The issue in Jesus’ day was X vs. Y. The Pharisees believed X and the Sadducees believed Y.’ Theology will say the Pharisees were right. The former is important in translation. The latter has no place there, unless the text addresses the matter explicitly (e.g., Lk. 20:27)

  34. CD-Host says:

    I think there are two things that need to be distinguished.

    1) Evidence that the translation is liberal.
    2) Evidence that a translation made liberal translation choices.

    Let me give an analogy.

    US military doctrine tends to focus on the ability of the armed forces to engage in multiple simultaneous theaters. Soviet military doctrine focused heavily on unity between ground forces and air forces, which contradicts US military doctrine. If the US army were to conduct a campaign with heavy unity between ground and air, that would still be an American military campaign regardless of whether the individual strategic / tactical choices were Soviet or American.

    In precisely the same way:
    a) who pays for a translation
    b) who uses a translation
    c) which goals is the translation designed to further

    are the key questions of how a translation is identified. What makes the ESV “the Calvinist bible” is not the few dozen places it leans towards Calvinist theology, though those are important. What makes it a Calvinist bible is the entire support infrastructure:
    Reformed Study Bible / ESV Study Bible
    Study materials written for reformed Christians that use the ESV.

    (2) is not the evidence that a translation is liberal. Now in the case of the CEB I think it does have some liberal translation choices but mainly the issue of conservative vs. liberal comes down to (a)-(c) not the list of verses I presented earlier.

  35. Wayne Leman says:

    After all our discussion and looking at the evidence presented, I continue to believe that the text of the CEB translation shows no liberalism. That’s my conclusion.

    After our discussion here I understand better how others believe that some wordings in the CEB might be evidence of a liberal slant. But I disagree in each case, not because I’m liberal (far from it), but because the translation choices made in each case of suggested liberalism are exegetically legitimate, with good biblical scholarship to support them. The CEB translation team are good biblical scholars.

    I also disagree, as I posted, with calling a translation liberal if it is associated with denominations which tolerate liberalism within their ranks. I don’t believe in guilt by association when it comes to Bible translating (or many other things for that matter). I, of course, do believe that Bible translators can be influenced in their exegetical choices by many factors, not the least of which is their personal or denominational theology. But having worked with the text of the CEB a lot, I continue to maintain that I see no evidence of liberal theology in the CEB text itself. We could just as easily go through any other Bible version, including the long venerated KJV, which was rejected by many when it was first published, and suggest evidence for a variety of perceived theological biases in individual verses.

    I would consider it very unfortunate if CEB sales would be influenced by public suggestions that it is liberal, if the evidence is no stronger than what has been presented in this comment thread. I do appreciate each comment that has been made, but I think we need stronger evidence to make the claim of theological bias against the CEB which has been made.

    An analogous claim of feminist influence was made against the TNIV and it resulted in low sales, a boycott in many conservative Christian bookstores, and eventually the end of production for the TNIV. Ultimately, it may be that NIV2011 is a better product because of the campaign agains the TNIV. But the content of that campaign was not supported by the kind of strong evidence that my sense of biblical scholarship requires.

  36. John says:


    I want to get clarification from someone who thinks Isaiah 7.14 should be translated “young woman” – if Isaiah was not referring to a virgin, but Matthew was (quoting Isaiah), it seems to me that one of the following must be true –

    1) Matthew was divinely correcting Isaiah

    2) Matthew was deliberately mistranslating Isaiah to say that the virgin-born Christ was prophesied by the ancient prophet

    3) Matthew was – with the best of intentions – passing on a mistranslation, and that he was just wrong and the virgin birth of Christ was never prophesied by the OT. (In which case Scripture is what the liberal says it is – merely a “record” of belief rather than the inspired Word of God.)

    Also re: the CEB – some would say translating “Son of Man” as “Human One” would be based on the liberal interpretation that Jesus was talking about His humanity – any only His humanity – and that it has nothing to do ALSO with Him as a divine being (Daniel’s “Son of Man” notwithstanding.) What say you?

  37. Peter Kirk says:

    John, there are certainly other options here. One is that Matthew passed on a mistranslation out of ignorance, but that the Holy Spirit inspired him even in his ignorance to write what was true and good teaching. Another, perhaps more likely, is that Matthew’s understanding and use of prophecy is far more nuanced than you seem to suggest, that he is not seeing in Jesus a literal fulfilment of a prediction (as he surely isn’t in 2:15) but more of a typological parallel.

    As for “son of man”, the problem with your argument is that this phrase precisely does NOT mean “divine being”, but the opposite, human being. In Daniel it was used to bring out the human, as opposed to animal, form of the being Daniel saw. In the gospels Jesus uses it to stress his humanity, as well as his specialness. This is not a “liberal interpretation” but the only plausible one, unless you follow the hermeneutic that every word that Jesus uttered is a full description of his person even when on the surface it says the opposite. I suppose that CEB uses “human one” or similar in Daniel, and so doesn’t lose the link.

  38. Clark Coleman says:

    John: I choose the option you did not list:

    4) Matthew was seeing Christ’s virgin birth as a secondary fulfillment of a prophecy that already had its primary fulfillment in Old Testament times and was not obviously awaiting fulfillment in the mind of any reader of the Old Testament. Christ was seen as the final fulfillment of prophetic passages that can be seen in retrospect as typological, even though they were not necessarily considered Messianic prophesies. For example, when the Jews embarked on the exile to Babylon, there was weeping in Ramah (Jeremiah 31:15). We know that the exile was followed by a return from exile. Similarly, Matthew uses a quote from Jeremiah 31:15 in Matthew 2:18 to draw a parallel to the suffering when Herod slaughtered infants, and in drawing the parallel he uses the word “fulfilled” in Matthew 2:17. This does not mean that readers of Jeremiah 31:15 in say, 200 B.C., would consider the passage to be prophetic, much less a Messianic prophecy. It was a statement of history at the time of exile. In this case there was not even a primary fulfillment and a secondary fulfillment; there was never even a prophecy.

    In the case of Matthew 2:15, Matthew draws a parallel to the Exodus from Egypt because the infant Jesus was taken to Egypt and back. Matthew quotes Hosea 11:1. Continue reading the context of Hosea 11:1 and you will see that it is not prophecy, and certainly not Messianic prophecy, in the sense of predicting the future. It is a prophetic message in that Hosea is delivering God’s word to a rebellious Israel in his own day. No reader of Hosea 11:1 in the time of Hosea would think that there is some unfulfilled prediction of the future lurking here.

    Similarly, Jesus’ virgin birth reminds Matthew of a prophecy of a birth to the prophet Isaiah and his bride. She was no doubt a virgin at the time of the prophecy, given that they were apparently not yet married by my reading of Isaiah. However, the Hebrew of Isaiah 7:14 does not stress her virginity, because that was not the point. The birth of the child was promised as a sign that “God is With Us” and thus his name was to be Immanuel. Jesus was a child born to be God With Us, which reminds Matthew of Isaiah 7, so he quotes it. Again, readers of Isaiah 7 in 200 B.C. would think they were reading fulfilled prophecy. Have you noticed that Jesus in fact was never referred to as Immanuel in his lifetime? Your reading of the language of “fulfillment” of prophecy would require that he be called Immanuel, would it not?

    I am neutral on how Isaiah 7:14 should be translated, and have no use for the translation discussed in this blog entry, nor for the CEB which you referenced. But your 3 options show a lack of understanding of how Matthew was using Old Testament parallels and how he used the word “fulfilled.”

  39. Joel H. says:


    I want to get clarification from someone who thinks Isaiah 7.14 should be translated “young woman.”

    I am convinced that Isaiah 7:14 should not read “virgin.” “Woman” or “young woman” are good choices, as I describe in detail in And God Said and more briefly here (“How old was the pregnant woman in Isaiah 7:14?“).

    Equally, I am convinced that Matthew 1:23 does refer to a virgin.

    But I think that your three options for reconciling the two are based on a false assumption, namely, that plirow, commonly translated “fulfill,” means that all of the details have to match. I don’t think they do.

    And we only have to look at other details to see this. For one thing, the child in Isaiah is named Emmanuel while the child in Matthew is named Jesus.

    More generally, as I point out here (“What Happens to Prophecies in the New Testament?”), a better translation for plorow runs along the lines of “match.” The virgin birth in Matthew matches the account in Isaiah 7:14 in some ways, but not in others.

    Finally, Isaiah 7:14 is actually neutral on the question of whether the woman was a virgin. The text doesn’t say the woman was a virgin, but neither does it say she wasn’t.


  40. Mike Sangrey says:

    Some will probably label me a Liberal, but, Joel wrote, I am convinced that Isaiah 7:14 should not read “virgin.” “Woman” or “young woman” are good choices…

    I agree. Note: No tangential liberal slur intended to Joel (for exactly the same reason as I’m not a liberal).

    He also said, “Equally, I am convinced that Matthew 1:23 does refer to a virgin.” [Emphasis mine].


    The reason I’m making this comment is because I continue to feel sad that there are people in the world that build a case against someone or some system based on a single word and hereby miss the more important theological point the Bible so clearly makes.

    Matthew starts his paragraph with the expression, τοῦ δὲ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ ἡ γένεσις οὕτως ἦν (“This is how Jesus, the Messiah, was born.”) The topic can’t be stated any more clearly. Note the word Χριστοῦ. This is not Jesus’ last name. And, more importantly for the discourse, Χριστοῦ (‘Messiah’) was very much in scope (see vs 17). The author restates ‘Messiah’ since he is starting a new paragraph and wants to keep the ‘Messiah’-‘Jesus’ connection very much in the reader’s mind. It’s the topic. The reader, cognitively, tunes their thinking to, “This author is trying to convince me Jesus is the Messiah.”

    Note also, how the paragraph ends in verse 22: τοῦτο δὲ ὅλον γέγονεν ἵνα (“This all came about that…”). What follows is a restatement using different words of the topic of the paragraph–Matthew does not want his readers to miss this.

    And to underscore this even more, note ὅ ἐστιν μεθερμηνευόμενον in verse 23 (“which when translated means…”). In Discourse Analysis this is a form of Overspecification called Thematic Highlighting. Unfortunately, the phrase is often interpreted along the lines of, “perhaps some reader might miss this, so I’ll throw this in just in case.” There are lots of things readers might miss which are, in fact, unimportant. So, an author doesn’t mention them. However, an author will overspecify something when he or she does not want it missed. To interpret this differently is to attribute Matthew with confusing the majority of his audience who already knew what he was talking about. Overspecification does not confuse the majority of an audience because they understand it as overspecification (that is, it highlights what is important).

    More relevant to the Isaiah reference, Matthew does not point out the translation issue with παρθένος (“virgin”). Matthew could have overspecified this in several different ways. He didn’t. Mary’s virginity is not the main topic. It most definitely supports the main topic. Let’s not miss that. But, it is not the main topic. The main topic has to do with Jesus being the Messiah, and the fact that God has now set a very human foot on the planet.

    This explains the “matching” (to use Joel’s word).

    That is, Isaiah’s reference was not to a virgin. This is simply because he was using the birth of a child called Emmanuel as a sign to Ahaz that Judah’s king will experience a God-visitation. If that woman was a virgin, then we have two virgin births. And, if that’s true, then the Matthean passage looses a good bit of its rhetorical power.

    And Matthew’s reference is a reference to a virgin because such a miraculous birth is clearly a sign that the people of the world are experiencing a God-visitation. That is, the Messiah has come.

    It is the Emmanual-ness which matches between the two texts. This proves Messiahship.

    I find it very sad that there’s a translation debate over the virginity of Mary (which is obviously portrayed by Matthew no matter what single word he would have used, short of out right, explicit denial). I find it sad because it focuses everyone’s attention away from the question, “Does Matthew 1:18-23 clearly answer the birth-question that Jesus is God come in human form as the Messiah?”

    Clearly conveying that proposition is what Matthew is trying to do. Do we do it as well as he?

  41. Mike Sangrey says:

    I’d like to add to my previous comment that Matthew starts his paragraph with the coordinating conjunction δὲ. We do not start paragraphs with coordinating conjunctions (here’s the English list for those readers who are not grammarians: and, but, for, nor, or, so, and yet). Greek is perfectly comfortable doing this.

    Why δὲ?

    It marks further development. It’s not an ‘and’ or a ‘but’, no matter what anyone was taught in 1st year Greek. In other words, Matthew is saying in that little word (coupled with τοῦ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ), “I just informed you about Jesus the Messiah with a segmented genealogy, now let me develop that further.”

    This is just one more thing Matthew uses to focus the reader’s attention on the topic.

  42. seo says:

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