Bible Translation Controversy (!)

I first heard it like this: “Pastor Ryan, did you hear that Wycliffe Bible Translators is doing a translation that changes “son of God” to something else so it won’t offend Muslims?”


Wycliffe has gone liberal!  Wycliffe denies the gospel!  Wycliffe is probably a terrorist sleeper cell just waiting to strike!


Let’s all just pause for a moment.  Before writing off the folks at Wycliffe we should at least consider what we do know about the situation.  In the interest of full disclosure I should mention that as part of my seminary degree in Biblical exegesis and linguistics I was required to take classes at the “Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics” which is an academic institution that serves Bible translators.  I took classes like “Theory of Translation” and “Semantics and Pragmatics” alongside present and future Bible translators, many from Wycliffe.


What Happened?

In 2005 the Bengal Injil Sharif translation team translated the phrase “son of God” with the word for messiah.  They consulted with an expert from SIL (a sister organization to Wycliffe) and decided to change the word to a phrase which reads “God’s Intimately-Unique Love One.”  This translation team is not officially associated with Wycliffe Bible Translators, but rather is part of Global Partners.  Yes, this was 7 years ago.


What’s the Issue?

Translation is hard.  Nailing down word meanings is hard enough- but finding the right word in a different language is flat out exhausting.  Not all words share the same “range of meaning.”  A great example of this is the German word schadenfreude which takes an entire paragraph in English to explain.  The issue at hand revolves around the word “son.”  The English word “son” seems very simple, but some cultures have two or three different words for son which indicate biological sonship versus social or legal sonship.  In some cultures the only or most common word for “son” only means biological son. 


Enter the phrase “son of God.”  What does this phrase mean when it refers to Jesus?  It at least refers to the intimate relationship between God the Father and Jesus.  It certainly does not mean that the Father literally sired Jesus with a human mother (think Greek mythology).  The Bengal translation team was trying to ensure that their translation did not give the impression that Jesus was physically the son of God the Father.  After consulting with an expert, they were able to find a better alternative to their initial choice “Messiah.”  They tested their translation and changed it to make sure that the understood meaning matched the original Greek thought.


What about Wycliffe?

Although Wycliffe was not officially involved in the Injil Sharif translation, they have been deemed by many as guilty by association.  Wycliffe is not liberal.  They are not changing their translations to be less offensive.  In fact, they are continuing to labor intensively at the work of Bible translation.  They and other Bible translator groups need and deserve your prayer, your support, and your money.    


Don’t Be a Statistic

One word of caution.  The statement “Wycliffe is going liberal” smells like conspiracy theory alarmism more than thoughtful, gracious, academically honest consideration of the issues.  Before we get caught up in a controversy and worst case gossip or slander our brothers and sisters let us first go the source.  As people we can do better than get swept away by a tidal wave of controversy.  As Christians, we must.


For more information on the difficulty of translating divine familial terms see here.  For the official word from Wycliffe Bible Translators see here.

Our Kids Listen to Us

I had to share this.  Recently, Zoe, a 7 year old girl at our church, had a playground accident and broke her arm.  She was brave and endured the pain.  Her 8 year old brother, Jack, helped to get the ambulance and even got Zoe a stuffed animal so she would be comforted.  That alone is enough to make any parent proud!  Before the ambulance left for the hospital Jack said to his sister- “Don’t worry Zoe, by His stripes we are healed.”

This is what I call the parental payoff.  Jack and Zoe’s parents are faithful Christians.  I know that they have spent time trying to teach the gospel of Jesus Christ to their children.  They are also “normal” – which means I am sure at times they wondered if anything is getting through.  Here, in a crisis moment, their son Jack recalled 1 Peter 2:24, and comforted his sister with truth from God’s Word.  What a joy!

As a parent who sometimes wonders if his children are receiving the spiritual instruction given to them I was greatly encouraged by this family.  If anything it reminds us to continue to train up our children in the instruction of the Lord.  I wonder if my brother was laid up in an ambulance if I would have thought to use 1 Peter 2:24 as encouragement.  I will now.  Thanks Jack and Zoe!

Why I Preach Out of the ESV

There is a plethora of English Bible translations available today.  It seems to me a new version comes out every two years (the latest is the Lexham English Bible).  The market for English Bibles is very competitive!  Here are some reasons why I have settled on the ESV for public and family use:



As you may or may not know, Bible translations can be compared on a scale or continuum of literacy.  The most “literal” translation would reproduce in English the Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic of a Biblical passage in the same exact word order.  This would make little sense (e.g., John 3:16 would read “Thus for loved the God the world, that the Son the unique He gave, so that all who believe in Him not perish but have life eternal”).  The least literal translations are basically paraphrases which attempt to summarize or restate the original without regard for the original form.  


For expository preaching a “more literal” Bible is best.  Because I depend heavily on the original languages in my study I prefer to use a translation that puts the reader in a position to consider the original without having to learn Greek and Hebrew.  You are welcome!  The ESV, NASB, and Holman Christian Standard Bible are some of the most “literal” on the market.  No translation is completely literal, as it would not make sense.  In fact, in every verse translators have to weigh the trade off between a more literal versus a dynamic translation.  



The NASB has been the standard “essentially literal” Bible translation for the last few decades.  It was originally published in 1960, and has been updated with minor changes until 1995.  The ESV translation was initially completed in 2001, and as such the translators had access to the latest scholarship available.  For example, the analysis of the Dead Sea Scrolls has only recently filtered down to the level of impacting translation.  In some places in the OT the ESV translation team had access to manuscripts and analysis that was not available when the NASB was completed.  This is no fault of the NASB translators, it is simply a matter of timing.


Attention to English Style

After the ESV translators worked to ensure faithfulness to the original text, they took great care to consider the English style of their translation.  Like the KJV translators 5 centuries ago, they wanted their Bible translation to have a beautiful sound to it.  Thus they tested their translation for reading in a public setting and memorization in private.  In places where the NASB might seem choppy in English, the ESV translation team tried to improve the English syntax and flow.

Staying Power

Finally, I felt it was very important to consider the staying power of a translation.  Not every new translation of the Bible will last.  The ESV has enjoyed not only critical acclaim and pastoral endorsements, it has sold well.  This means that the ESV is readily available in any Christian book store and in many different formats (children’s Bibles, teen Bibles, various study Bibles, smartphone, etc.).

Best and Worst

One of my least favorite translation choices in the ESV is the rendering of Philippians 2:5, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.”  I take the two prepositional phrases “in/among yourselves” and “in Christ Jesus” to be parallel.  I would say, “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus.”  The ESV translator added the pronoun “yours” to clarify that we have been given the example of the right attitude in Jesus.  This is true, but not the best reflection of the original syntax.  Even here the meaning of the verse is not greatly affected.


One of my favorite translation choices in the ESV is Ephesians 1:18a, “having the eyes of your hearts enlightened…”  It has always frustrated me that the NASB started a new sentence there.  This choice made it sound like the opening of the eyes of your hearts was a new prayer request, when in reality it is a subset of the request in 1:17 that we would have the Spirit of wisdom.  This was very clear in the ESV translation.


There is no such thing as a perfect translation.  You have no doubt heard me say in a sermon “I would prefer to have this verse read like this…”  Given that reality, I think the ESV is the best choice in light of all available options for a translation to be used in public reading and preaching.  This is not to suggest that other translations are not helpful or necessary.  There will be times when the NIV or NLT or even a paraphrase will be needed.  The ESV stands on the shoulders of the KJV, the RSV (literally), the NASB, and every English translation that has come before it.  No doubt in centuries to come it will need to be updated or replaced.  For now, it is an excellent choice for an English Bible.

Why You Need to Know About the Dead Sea Scrolls

Last week I was able to go with Ray Goodwin to Discovery Times Square to see the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit.  It was my third time seeing an exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and this one is excellent.  The display is on until April, and I would highly recommend you go.  ”Wait a minute pastor Ryan,” you might say, “I’m no geek.  Why should I go see some dusty old manuscripts?”  This is a good question.  Here’s a shot at an answer:

What are the Dead Sea Scrolls?

The Dead Sea Scrolls are a group of manuscripts found in caves in the cliffs on the northwest coast of the Dead Sea in Israel.  They contain mostly Old Testament books and date roughly from 150 BC to 70 AD.  There is a great story as to how they were discovered, but it’s too long to tell here.  Suffice to say the initial 7 scrolls were found quite accidentally by some Arab shepherds in the late 1940s.  In all 972 texts were found.  They were essentially the scriptures and commentary library of a group of Jews living around the time of Jesus.

Why do they matter?

Study of the Dead Sea Scrolls is very important for at least 3 reasons:

1.  Trustworthiness of the Old Testament-  The Old Testament contains books written from 1500 -400 BC, but the oldest complete copies of the Old Testament we have date to around 1000 AD.  What if the texts were corrupted?  Changed?  Could we have it wrong?  The Dead Sea Scrolls provide for us copies of virtually every Old Testament book that are 1000 years older than what we had.  When we compare them what do we find?  The OT as we know it is remarkably consistent with what this group had 2000 years ago.  This confirms the reliabilty of the OT and adds some good old fashioned archeological evidence to prove it.

2.  Improvement of Old Testament Research- In the places where the Dead Sea Scrolls do differ from what we had (for example, the Dead Sea Scrolls text of 1 Samuel has a few additional verses at the beginning of chapter 11), they help us to analyze what we have.  These differences are minor and often incidental, but they provide important data as we work hard to ensure we have the Word of God as He gave it so many years ago.

3.  Historical Background of the New Testament- The Dead Sea Scrolls that aren’t biblical books provide for us an invaluable peek into the thought and theology of one Jewish group at the time of Christ.  Messianic expectations were high as was dissatisfaction with the Jewish religious establishment.  As we study the life and teaching of Jesus this information is a key aide to reconstructing the culture in which He ministered.

What will I get out of seeing them?

It’s different for every person.  The exhibit has much more than just the selection of manuscripts.  In essence, they try to “bring Israel to you.”  You will learn about the history of Israel and see real artifcats that bring to life the Bible in a way second only to going to Israel.  Knowing the history of the Bible brings to color details that you may only have seen in black and white.  Your faith will be confirmed, and you will be better equipped to read and understand the Bible.

There is a permanent display of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Jerusalem at the Israel museum.  That is a bit further than Times Square.  I would highly recommend you take a day and go see this display while it is here.  In fact, I’d love to go with you.  I always love watching the Dead Sea Scrolls help someone’s faith come to life. 

Notes: The audio guide was helpful and is probably worth the extra $7.  The display itself is probably ideal for students High School age or older.  Definitely check out the web site for information on when and how to go.  Ray and I spent two and a half hours in the display.