Still we see the lie

This time of year I spend a lot of time doing textual criticism of Christmas carols. Tracking down the “authorized version” of the songs we have sung for generations can be quite challenging. And it’s interesting how many similar issues pop up that we face in Bible translation.

Even in those cases where we know the correct words errors can slip in. I was looking through a songbook my wife and I made fifteen years ago and it contains this shocking statement of disbelief:

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see the lie!

Now, how did that error sit unnoticed for fifteen years?!

Last night during rehearsal for the Christmas service at our church, the daughter of our flutist was singing that second line, and I asked her, “What does THEE mean?”

She wasn’t sure. Which of course didn’t stop her from singing along with gusto. Finally her mother helped her out, “It means HIM.” To which I nodded, and then she shook her head and said, “It means YOU!”

There are of course many, many examples of strange lines in hymns that make absolutely no sense to modern speakers of English. What do cattle do when they are “lowing?” Is it the same as a “lowly manger?” And what is a “yon” virgin?” Young? Yawn? And why is she round?

The preacher for Christmas day requested that we sing, “Thou Who Wast Rich Beyond All Measure.” It is a beautiful hymn based on a French carol:

Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love’s sake becamest poor;
Thrones for a manger didst surrender,
Sapphire-paved courts for stable floor.


The congregation where we worship is composed mostly of African college students and young families. So my wife was quite reluctant to try to lead them in singing strange things like “Thrones for a manger didst surrender.” Thankfully she discovered a very nice updating of the carol in modern language:

Lord, you were rich beyond all splendor,
Yet, for love’s sake, became so poor.
Leaving your throne in glad surrender
Sapphire-paved courts for stable floor.

Now, all the archaic language has been removed and it’s mostly intelligible. Notice that the plural “thrones” have been changed to “throne.” I think updating the language works on this carol because it’s not very well known. Imagine if someone tried to change the words to O Come, All Ye Faithful! Would you be able to enjoy singing something like, “Come, all you faithful ones?”

A final example of updating archaic songs is Corde natus ex Parentis, which you might know as “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.” The textual evolution of this hymn is fascinating. It started life as a 5th Century Latin poem. By the 10th Century it had become part of the church’s sacred music. It was translated into English sometime in the 1850s by JM Neale who was also responsible for giving us (afflicting us with?) God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and Good King Wenceslas.

My wife has been patiently teaching me and our children the parts for Of the Father’s Love Begotten. It is really beautiful and if you modernized the words I don’t think I would be able to sing it. In fact at one point I suggesting that we sing one of the Latin verses. The English is so strange sounding that Latin wouldn’t seem out of place!

Corde natus ex parentis
Ante mundi exordium
A et O cognominatus,
ipse fons et clausula

A final example of textual difficulty (Didn’t I already say “finally?”) is in a more modern carol, Amen (Mary had a baby):

Mary had a baby
Wrapped in a manger

My wife wanted to change it to something like “lying in a manger” but I put my foot down. Tradition! The 1965 Impressions version has “wrapped in a manger.” So of course that’s the way it needs to be. I’ve had a tough time tracing the original lyrics on this song. Sidney Poiter also sings “wrapped in a manger” in the 1963 movie Lilies of the Field. Here’s the scene:

I think looking at Christmas carols is a helpful exercise in thinking about Bible translation. It shows that there isn’t an either/or answer to the question, “Which is better clarity or tradition?” Traditional wordings are very important. But after a while we don’t “see the lie” which is hidden in obscure language. It makes sense to us old fogies but is giving wrong meaning to the younger generation or those who speak other varieties of English.

Here’s the answers

Yesterday (Disagreeable nouns) I posted some examples of “disagreeable nouns” in English translations. And I included a few examples of my own just to see if you were awake.

Here are the four passages I listed with the problems highlighted and explained.

1. The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. (Matthew 1:1, ESV)

There’s an ambiguity here because of the use of the word “son.” Does Jesus have two fathers? Or maybe Jesus is the son of David who is the son of Abraham. Better to say something like, “Jesus Christ, the descendant of both David and Abraham.”

2. Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. (Mark 2:13, NIV)

This isn’t ungrammatical but there is a switch in pronominal reference. A crowd (singular, it) came to him and he taught them (plural, referring to people). This is very common in the Gospels. You’re always hearing something like, “Then the disciples came to Jesus and said, ‘Master…'” I always imagine the 12 disciples speaking in unison.

3. One day Zechariah’s group of priests were on duty, and he was serving God as a priest. (Luke 1:8, CEV)

Now this is an error. Agreement with a noun phrase is with the head noun. So it should be “group of priests was.” This is a very common “error” and people make it all the time while speaking. Still, it’s pretty amazing to find an error in the CEV unless this is some kind of British English that I’m not familiar with.

4. 1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2The same was in the beginning with God. 3All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1:1-3, KJV)

Peter caught the error on this one. Pronouns tend to refer back to the most recent, logical referent. So if I say, “Yesterday, I saw Wayne having coffee with Peter. He was looking great.” In this example, “he” refers to “Wayne” since he’s the most active referent. But if I said, “Yesterday, Wayne introduced me to Peter. He’s a stock broker on Wall Street.” You would know that “he” refers to Peter.

But in this passage from John, Word is an “it” (generally speaking) while God is a “he” so we expect the pronouns in verse three to be referring to God. But “Word” is the participant in focus so I think that even though the Greek is ambiguous that the pronoun was understood to be referring to Word and not God.

In Nyungwe, Word (fala) and God (Mulugu) come from different word classes so the pronominal reference forces you to choose which you are referring to. I remember the translators going back and forth on this one for a while.

Finally, my errors. Several people caught this error:

Here’s some examples (Should be “Here are some examples).

But nobody caught the other error which was the last word in the post:

Can you tell me what each of the errors are?

And to leave you with one last error. The title of this post contains an error.

Thanks for participating. Have a great week!

Disagreeable nouns

  1. The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. (Matthew 1:1, ESV)
  2. Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. (Mark 2:13, NIV)
  3. One day Zechariah’s group of priests were on duty, and he was serving God as a priest. (Luke 1:8, CEV)
  4. 1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2The same was in the beginning with God. 3All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1:1-3, KJV)

I read the BBC News online and there’s an element of British grammar that sounds really weird to me. Here’s some examples:

France were stunned,

Somehow Wales were still pressing, (Source: Wales 8-9 France)

It’s not ungrammatical for British English but as an American, I expect to see “France was stunned.”

I’ve listed four Bible passages and each of them has something “wrong” with it. And I’ve also included at least one grammatical error in this post. Can you tell me what each of the errors are?

It’s the thought that counts: Eugene Nida and Bible translation

Nathan at ThinkChristian has a post on Eugene Nida and his influence on modern Bible translations.

“As someone who loves language and linguistics, I appreciate Nida simply for putting linguistics back into the equation for translators and not conceding the turf of translation to scholars concerned first with theology, dooming us to clunky, wooden and archaic translations. Had he simply raised the question of what linguistics has to do with Bible translation, Nida would have made a major impact.”

Read:It’s the thought that counts: Eugene Nida and Bible translation

The rise of “face fell”

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Mark 10:22, NIV

HA HA!  Your face fell off!

This is a strange little expression. The original Greek is strange (or at least rare). And the history of the use of “face fell” as an idiomatic expression for, “become sad or gloomy” is really weird.

Let’s begin with the English expression and work back toward the Greek expression.

Here’s what the ngram chart looks like for the words “face fell”:

The expression was almost unheard of until around 1860 when it began to ascend in use until it peaked at the beginning of the 20th century. Then it slowly began to decline in usage until around 1980 where it turned around and started being used again. After about 2000 it ascended very rapidly.

In the early part of the 20th century the expression seemed to have two main uses:

  1. to rest your head, usually on someone’s shoulder.
  2. to change the expression of your face showing sadness or a sense of impending calamity.

Starting in the 1980’s examples seem to be mostly about the second sense. I haven’t looked at it in depth but that seems to be the general trend.

This brings up a big question: Why did “face fell” rise? Could the NIV translation, first released in 1973 and 1978 have exerted an influence on writers who began to use the expression in their own writing? I suppose it’s possible.

I had always assumed that there was some Greek expression behind this that caused the NIV translators to use this expression. But all the English translations that predate NIV simply say something like, “Hearing this, he was sad.”

So we have a translation mystery here. Why would the NIV translators use an uncommon idiom to translate the original expression in Greek? NIV was so influential that when NLT came out they used the same expression. WEB translation is also guilty of following the NIV.

Interestingly, RSV connects this passage to Genesis 4:5-6 using “countenance fell” in both passages.

What is the Greek then?  στυγνος is a very uncommon verb in Greek occurring only twice in the New Testament. The first example we’ve already mentioned. The second example is in Matthew 16:3:

and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.

Matthew 16:3, NIV

A related adjective in Titus 3:3 is translated “being hated.”

At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.

Titus 3:3

AT Robertson defines the verb, “sombre, gloomy, like a lowering cloud” in an attempt perhaps to connect the passages from Matthew and Mark.

Well, my face has fallen because I haven’t been able to solve the question of why this expression was used in the NIV or why it surged in usage in the late 20th century. But even so these kinds of studies rock my face off*. I hope you enjoyed it, too.

* “You rock my face off” has only appeared in the 21st century. It means, “I think you’re terrific.”

Some of the tools I found useful for looking at this topic are: (For parallel translations) (For interlinearizations, Greek and AT Robertson’s Word Pictures of the New Testament) (For usage of the expression “face fell” over the years) for the RSV.

Aural/oral qualities of the KJV/AV

Tim Bulkeley is looking for some help in studying the aural/oral qualities of the KJV/AV:

“My thought is to address the well-known aural/oral qualities of the KJV/AV and relate that to the possibilities of various oralities/new oralities introduced by the move to electronically mediated communications.”

I’ve attempted to look at the problem based on the concept of “chunking.” When we grow familiar with a passage we tend to run ahead and not actually read every word. This allows us to read more quickly even in the case of a seemingly “less natural” translation.

You can look at my comparison of reading fluency rates for CEV, NIV and ESV here: Reading speed of Scripture

If you’ve got some pointers for Tim on how to approach his topic, please visit his post and leave a comment: Aural/oral qualities of the KJV/AV


Using Oral Reading Fluency tests to analyze Bible translation reading difficulty

UPDATE: I’ve added a sample text to the bottom of this post for those who want to try a test.

On my FutureBible blog I’ve been looking at the subject of reader fluency as a measure of comprehension. This is based two articles published in the journal of the International Reading Association:

  • Fluency: Bridge Between Decoding and Reading Comprehension (citation) (pdf)
  • Oral Reading Fluency Norms: A Valuable Assessment Tool for Reading Teachers (citation) (pdf)

It’s quite difficult to measure how well someone understands a text. You can ask content questions such as, “Where did the people build the tower?” and “How did God stop the people from building the tower?” but these types of questions often focus on details while people, when they are listening to a story like the Tower of Babel, are often focusing on the story and its main point.

According to research done on fluency, there has been shown to be a correlation between how easily a person can read a text and how well they understand it. If that were true, then we might be able to easily test comprehension simply by testing fluency.

I’ve performed one such test and published the preliminary results. My wife and I took turns reading different versions of the Tower of Babel story in Portuguese. Each text was actually a combination of two different translations. What’s interesting about the test is that I actually made more errors reading the supposedly easier text, O Livro. O Livro was meant to be an equivalent of The Living Bible in Portuguese.

There are three possible reasons for this:

  1. O Livro is more difficult.
  2. My text started with O Livro and ended with Almeida so I “warmed up” over time.
  3. I’m unfamiliar with O Livro but have used Almeida for years.

As you can see it’s really tricky to definitively prove your results one way or the other, especially with such a small sample. The focus of my study was on speakers of a second language. But this kind of test would work equally well on testing speakers of a text that is written in their mother tongue. You might consider putting together a test like this and trying it out on your family or friends. You can make note of errors by following along as the person reads and underlining where they falter or make errors. Or if you’re feeling high tech you can record the readings and then study them later.

See my post for details on the study and please let me know if you try this test.

Read my post here: Using Oral Reading Fluency tests to analyze Bible translation reading difficulty

UPDATE: Here’s a text for you to use: ORF test for English Bible versions


  1. Print two copies.
  2. Fold one copy in half.
  3. Ask a volunteer to read either version 1 or version 2.
  4. While they read, underline places where the reader makes a mistake or stutters.

Calculate the number of errors per paragraph.

I’ve tried to pick an unfamiliar text and also split the text evenly. Let me know if I’ve made any mistakes!

Translation ABC is Version, 1 paragraph 1 plus Version 2, paragraph 2

Translation XYZ is Version 2, paragraph 2  and Version 2, paragraph 1

I chose these two translations because they are the most common versions printed in South Africa.

Here are results for the four readers I tested:

Reader ABC errors XYZ errors
B 1 6
A 4 1
H 0 2
E 2 2

Please let us know your results if you try this test on anyone!

Those who actually read the Bible prefer the KJV

Although there are two dozen English-language Bibles in many contemporary translations, the King James Version reigns even more supreme among those who actually read their Bibles: 82% of those who read the Good Book at least once a month rely on the translation that first brought the Scripture to the English-speaking masses worldwide.

USA Today: Bible readers prefer King James version

Thanks to Dan H. for sharing this interesting story on our Share page:

Far from finding the stilted archaic language to be a stumbling block, these devout readers find the KJV language to be “beautiful” and “easy to remember.”

Why look for a Better Bible when the best Bible has been with us all along?

I’d like to offer three alternative explanations for the popularity of the KJV in this study:

1. King (James) Kong in the land of the dwarves: If you look at the total number of Bibles purchased and read you would probably see that the King James is monolithic but surrounded by many translations serving diverse markets.

2. It’s Number One because it’s Number One. Long tradition has assured that the King James is well-loved and widely used. For centuries there was really no number two.

3. It’s free. Because the King James is public domain, it is widely reproduced simply because publishers don’t have to pay licenses or royalties for its use.

In January I spent several weeks reading the King James for my daily Bible reading. It was interesting. It was quite often “beautiful and majestic.” But in the end it was more like a language puzzle than a devotional exercise. I switched back to my Contemporary English Version which is quite often neither beautiful or majestic but it is clear. And based on the best scholarship and the best manuscripts. And translated with an aim at speaking to a diverse world of “englishes.”

I’m glad to hear that people are reading the Bible regularly. And I’m happy for them if they enjoy and find spiritual profit in reading the KJV. However, I feel that an archaic translation based on poor manuscripts is going to very often lead readers astray with regard to the actual intended meaning of the text.

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.

The perfect Philippians translation

I read with interest the recent discussion about Philippians 2:6-7. The re-imagining of the frame of that verse has led to a new way of translating the verse. For me, it’s always been a slightly strange expression, “consider equality with God a thing to be grasped.”

Since we’re in the neighborhood, I thought I’d bring up a few of the interesting translation puzzles in chapter 3. First, there is a radical reinterpretation of Phil. 3:9, which is reflected in the NET translation:

and be found in him, not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness – a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness.

That “Christ’s faithfulness” has traditionally been rendered “faith in Christ” and has created a lot of excitement and controversy. I’ve never thought about it very much, but recently I’ve been reading (and reading and reading… ) Philippians 3. Specifically, verse 3:8 has been very dear to me in the past six months or so as something of a life verse. And that concentration on verse 8 has made me see that the “Christ’s faithfulness” reading makes sense in the context of the whole chapter.

The other translation issue in chapter 3 is the “perfect” problem. How do you translate, TELEOS. Occuring in various forms in 1:16, 3:12, and 3:15. It seems that the NET translators tried to maintain some sort of concordance by always using some form of the word “perfect.” And the first two examples don’t sound too strange, but 3:15 sounds very strange, partly because of punctuation:

Therefore let those of us who are “perfect” embrace this point of view.

Especially in the context of all our righteousness being dung, it’s unlikely that any of us is perfect according to Paul’s theology. But I don’t think that’s what he’s saying here. Instead, those who are mature in their faith will adopt this point of view. The quote marks around perfect are what we call scare quotes these days, meaning “supposedly this thing but not really.” Again, I doubt that was Paul’s intended meaning so “perfect” is not a perfect translation.

There are many other interesting things to look at in this chapter but I will end our little tour with a question that Gary Simmons asked me on Facebook yesterday:

Would you mind a little dialogue on this chapter? I’d be very interested in hearing whatever insight you might have to share. One thing I’ve never been able to grasp is the sense of 3:16. Is it: “nevertheless [despite the fact that God will… correct you if you go astray], let us live by [the example] we’ve attained.”?

I specifically have trouble understanding the sense of both phthano + eis and stoicheo. The two words are rare and obscure to me. Could you offer any help in understanding them? Does stoicheo relate to the simplicity of living the servant life, or is that overloading the word?

What do you think?