By Reese Currie, Compass Distributors
The majority of new Bible versions being produced today are what the Bible societies call “CLT’s,” for “Common Language Translations.” Such versions are all translated using dynamic equivalency techniques. “Dynamic equivalency” means that the Bible is translated thought-for-thought rather than word-for-word. This is opposed to “formal equivalency,” in which the Bible is translated word-for-word with minimal repositioning of words to clarify understanding.
This is the second follow-up article to “Comparing Bible Versions.” In that article, I examined a number of Bible translations including the New Living Translation and the Contemporary English Version. On a short test, the Contemporary English Version, a “CLT,” tested only 25% accurate to the original text of the Bible.
This is alarming in part because the Bible societies have planned a big project for the Year 2000 called “The Year of the Bible.” This project involves distributing the CEV freely, en masse, to the unsuspecting public, claiming it is the Bible when in fact, only two and a half out of ten verses fully reflect the thoughts in the original Bible text.
The thought-for-thought (or dynamic equivalency) translation technique has existed almost since the confounding of tongues in Babylon. Some of the targums were paraphrases. Targums were versions of Old Testament prophets, written for a people who had lost their knowledge of Hebrew while in captivity in Babylon. The targums are typically in Aramaic or Chaldean. The two most important targums are the Onkelos Targum, which was a full translation, and the targum of Jonathan ben Uzziel, which was just a paraphrase.
For the most part, versions of the Bible were formal equivalency translations, like the Greek Septuagint. The Syriac Peshitta, or “simple translation,” may have been simply translated but it was not a paraphrase. The Latin versions, the Itala and later the Vulgate, were translated according to formal equivalency techniques.
Portions of the Gospels and Acts were loosely rendered into English in a metric paraphrase called the “Ormulum,” made by Orme toward the close of the seventh century. It should be considered a sort of Bible-based poetry rather than a translation in my opinion. The first true English Bible version was Wycliffe’s, a formal equivalency version translated from the Vulgate in 1380. English versions of Scripture were strictly formal equivalency until the 1960’s.
With advent of movable type and the publication of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament (later known as the Received Text), a number of English versions were produced. The main versions included Tyndale’s (1525-1531), Coverdale’s (1535-1553), Matthew’s (1537), Taverner’s “Great Bible” (published in 1539 and 1568), the Geneva Version (1557-1560), the Bishop’s Bible (1568), and then the King James Version in 1611.
All of the Bibles in those days were heavily burdened with study notes reflecting the doctrinal biases of the translators with the exception of the King James Version, which was purposefully produced with no study notes at all. Perhaps this is the one thing that made the King James Version the most popular version in history. Without man’s constant interference with the interpretation of the Word of God, the Lord was able to use the King James Version more powerfully than the others, and it put the rest out of print.
During the same time period, the Roman Catholics produced the Douay-Rheims version (completing it in 1609), but it was a translation of a translation (the Vulgate), not a translation from the original languages. Also, doctrinal biases toward the Catholic faith-works system were present right in the text. The most notable of these was the perversion of the command to repent into a command to “do penance.”
In 1880, English Bible production restarted after the completion of the Westcott and Hort Greek Text, which sought to apply scientific reason to the Bible text, ignoring any and all claims of providential preservation. In a sense, the rationalism of the 1800’s was the beginning of the disrespect for God’s word that has culminated in dynamic equivalency today.
The English Revised Version was released in two parts, the New Testament in 1880 and the Old Testament in 1884. The American Standard Version, begun in 1872, was completed in 1901; of all English versions, it was probably the pinnacle of literal accuracy in translation, but the Westcott-Hort text was soon proven to be too reliant on only two of the oldest manuscripts. The underlying Greek text changed as more discoveries were made, resulting in the Nestle Greek Text, which replaced the Westcott-Hort text.
The next version of Scripture, the Revised Standard Version, completed in 1952, relaxed the standard for accuracy considerably. This prompted a conservative reaction in the 1960’s in the form of the New American Standard Bible. The NASB is a highly accurate version, although some have claimed that the text seems slanted somewhat in favor of pre-tribulation, pre-millennial eschatology. (It does not matter whether a doctrine is right or wrong – God’s word must remain unmodified to support any view, so He may lead His sheep to an accurate understanding of His word.)
In the 1960’s, dynamic equivalency got its start in English Bible translation. This was the first time that such techniques were used to perform actual Bible translation in English. The first version I know about was Robert Bratcher’s “Good News for Modern Man” New Testament, sponsored by the American Bible Society. It was a horribly inaccurate version of Scripture. From these inauspicious beginnings, the market became filled with versions, seemingly competing with each other to take the Scriptures to a state of total inaccuracy and unreliability.
In the 1970’s, we saw the first English paraphrase since the Ormulum, masquerading as a translation, the Living Bible. Now there are hundreds, including a version of Scripture that stages the Biblical events in the American south (the Cotton Patch Version.) Such liberties were never taken in history, but they are commonplace now as some translators’ respect and reverence for God’s Word has been completely supplanted by greed and a need to be innovative.
The New International Version of 1978 is a sort of compromise, a dynamic equivalency version that is close enough to formal that it has been adopted for use by many evangelical churches. It has come as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, however, because it is selectively inaccurate, presently doctrinally biased toward baptismal regeneration and pre-tribulation, pre-millennial eschatology. Plans were made to introduce artificial gender neutrality into the NIV and release a new text. Under pressure from evangelicals who had unwisely standardized on this poor translation, the plans were dropped. The International Bible Society is continuing to forge ahead on the gender-neutral version, but it will no longer be called the NIV!
It sounds as if the death knell has been sounded for accurate versions of Scripture in English. However, in the New King James Version (1982), respect for the Biblical text and translation technique has been wonderfully restored, free of any interpretive biases and based on the same text that fuelled the Reformation, the Received Text.
The early Christian translator Jerome preferred dynamic equivalency for doing general translation, but did not use this method in translating the Bible. In 395 AD, he wrote, “For I myself not only admit but freely proclaim that in translating from the Greek (except in the case of the holy scriptures where even the order of the words is a mystery) I render sense for sense and not word for word.”
Jerome had some comments on the apostles’ use of the Septuagint. He described some inaccuracies in the Septuagint, and then stated, “Yet the Septuagint has rightly kept its place in the churches, either because it is the first of all the versions in time, made before the coming of Christ, or else because it has been used by the apostles (only however in places where it does not disagree with the Hebrews).”
It is interesting to note that the apostles compared the translation to the original, and where the translation was deemed insufficient, translated the Hebrew by themselves.
In some cases the Bible writers themselves could be shown to have translated “dynamically.” Jerome gives a number of examples, but one particular example from Mark is interesting. “We read in Mark of the Lord saying Talitha cumi and it is immediately added ‘which is interpreted, Damsel, I say unto thee, arise.’ The evangelist may be charged with falsehood for having added the words ‘I say unto thee’ for the Hebrew is only ‘Damsel arise.’ To emphasize this and to give the impression of one calling and commanding he has added ‘I say unto thee.’”
The difference I would note between Mark’s addition of words and the addition of words in a modern translation is that Mark was working as a direct associate of the apostles, and furthermore, identifies his writing as an interpretation and not a direct translation.
Finally, Jerome made a statement in his letter I found very interesting, and an excellent guide for comparing Bible versions. “As, however the letter itself shews that no changes have been made in the sense, that nothing has been added, and that no doctrine has been foisted into it, ‘obviously their object is understanding to understand nothing;’ and while they desire to arraign another's want of skill, they betray their own.”
In evaluating the CEV and NLT translations in the “Comparing Bible Versions” article, all I took as a guide was the same idea Jerome expressed, that no changes were made to the sense, that nothing was added, and that no doctrine has been foisted into it. And using this rule only, I found this was only true of the CEV 25% of the time, and only true of the NLT 58% of the time.
Today’s typical churchgoer knows almost nothing of the doctrines of his church, and it is rarely even a criterion in the decision of what kind of church to attend. Reasons to attend a church typically include family tradition, the availability of parking, the kind of music, membership demographics, the distance from home, and so forth. None of these reasons qualifies as a scriptural determinant in selecting a church. Truly, only doctrine was used as a determining factor for fellowship in the early church.
Doctrine comes into the selection of a Bible version to read, as well. Some churches claim the Bible is to be interpreted allegorically, while others insist on literal interpretation. If you believe the Bible is to be interpreted literally, you cannot possibly use a translation that is not literal and retain a logical cohesion between your doctrine and your choice of Bible. So, the first logical doctrinal requirement for using dynamic equivalency is a belief that the Bible is allegorical and does not require a literal interpretation.
There is a doctrine called “verbal, plenary inspiration” of the Bible. That means God gave a full, word-for-word inspiration of the Bible. (Verbal means word for word, plenary means complete.) This is to be contrasted with one possible interpretation of the word “inspired” which would hold that God inspired the thoughts of the Bible and not the words.
This is further to be contrasted with “infallible,” which really means God may not have inspired the whole Bible, but it is a reliable guide. Some denominations preach selective infallibility, in which the Bible is presented as being reliable in regard to doctrine, but unreliable in regard to science or history. The terms “infallible” and “inerrant” are not equivalent. To be inerrant means to be completely free of error in all aspects.
If verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture is true, then you would have to take care to translate every word of Scripture, and dynamic equivalency would be completely invalidated. If non-verbal inspiration is true, care would have to be taken to translate every thought, so dynamic equivalency could be used, it would simply have to be employed much more carefully than it is today. However, if the Bible is only “infallible,” you could really allow thoughts to fall right out without affecting the general idea or meaning of the passage, and dynamic equivalency as we find it today would be justified and acceptable.
Do you know what your church or denomination says about the issue of the inspiration of the Bible and the interpretation of Scripture? More importantly, do you know what the Bible says about itself?
2 Timothy 3:16-17 says, “Every Scripture [is] God-breathed and profitable for teaching [or, doctrine], for verification [or, reproof], for correcting faults, for instruction [or, training] in the righteousness [or, the behavior that God requires], so that the person of God shall be fully qualified [or, perfectly fit]--having been completely equipped for every good work” (ALT). This does not support mere “infallibility.” The term “God-breathed” is literally translated from the Greek; most translations render this less accurately as “inspired.” “God-breathed” would seem to imply the words being literally spoken by God – verbal, plenary inspiration.
2 Peter 1:20,21 says, “knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.” This statement has very interesting ramifications for dynamic equivalency translations. A thought-for-thought delivery necessarily introduces a layer of interpretation of the thought expressed by the verse. When you read a dynamic equivalency version, you are necessarily reading private interpretations. By the Biblical definition presented here, that is not Scripture.
In Matthew 5:18, Jesus says, “For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.” A jot or a tittle is the smallest part of the Hebrew language. It is a mere part of a letter. The unavoidable conclusion then has to be verbal, plenary inspiration. God has no obligation to fulfill the dreams or thoughts of mere men but He will fulfill His own words. Yet, the argument could be made that this applied only to the law, the first five books of the Bible.
Proverbs 30:5-6 says, “Every word of God is pure; He is a shield to those who put their trust in Him. Do not add to His words, Lest He rebuke you, and you be found a liar.”
Proverbs 8:8-9 says, “All the words of my mouth are with righteousness; Nothing crooked or perverse is in them. They are all plain to him who understands, And right to those who find knowledge.”
In both of these passages from Proverbs, God is speaking in a way that supports verbal, plenary inspiration throughout the Bible. He is not speaking of His thoughts but His individual words, and He is verifying that His very words are present in Proverbs and in the other books of the Bible.
Nowhere in Scripture is verbal, plenary inspiration put plainer than in Jeremiah 26:2, “Thus says the LORD: ‘Stand in the court of the LORD’s house, and speak to all the cities of Judah, which come to worship in the LORD’s house, all the words that I command you to speak to them. Do not diminish a word.’” So we learn that Jeremiah was spoken to and conveyed what God told him word for word.
It would seem in light of this evidence that Deuteronomy 4:2 should be seen as a warning not only to the people of Israel but also our translators, “You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.”
Some would still argue that the New Testament is not in any place indicated as a part of Scripture, so may not fall under the same rules. This is not so! Peter lumped in Paul’s epistles and all other existing New Testament Scripture with Old Testament Scripture when he wrote, “our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15b-16). The fact that Peter compared Paul’s epistles to the “rest of the Scriptures” means that Peter understood Paul’s epistles to be Scripture as well.
Paul affirmed the word-for-word inspiration of his own writings by saying, “These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual” (1 Corinthians 2:13). So Paul was denying that his teachings were man’s wisdom, but were the very words of the Holy Spirit.
Paul affirmed Luke’s gospel as Scripture by quoting Luke 10:7 with Deuteronomy 24:15 in 1 Timothy 5:18, “For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages.’” (Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History notes, “And they say that Paul meant to refer to Luke's Gospel wherever, as if speaking of some gospel of his own, he used the words, ‘according to my Gospel’” (Ecclesiastical History, Book III, Chapter IV, verse 8)).
At times in Paul’s epistles, he will make a statement like, “But she is happier if she remains as she is, according to my judgment—and I think I also have the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 7:40). This would imply that Paul was unsure of the inspiration of what he had written in his own judgment. While this casts some reasonable doubt on the phrase, “but she is happier if she remains as she is,” it strengthens the argument for the verbal inspiration of the rest of his writings because it shows that when Paul was uncertain of his inspiration, he noted it right in the text.
The justification for dynamic equivalency, then, is based on a denial of the Bible’s own words concerning itself, that it was word-for-word inspired by God. Its acceptability is based only on the unbelief of the translators and the readers.
I will leave you with one last thought based on Deuteronomy 4:2. To quote it again, it says, “You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.” If you are having trouble keeping the commandments of God, could it be related to your translation, which adds to or diminishes from the word of God? I recommend formal equivalency not only because it is truer to God’s word, but also because it is better for you, so you may be more completely fulfilled in doing God’s will.
Dynamic Equivalency Examined Copyright © 1999 by Compass Distributors
Scripture taken from The Holy Bible: New King James Version (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Inc.), 1982
Scripture taken from the Analytical-Literal Translation of the Holy Bible. Copyright © 1999 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (http://www.dtl.org).