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”:
 All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
 “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.