A Bible version that stirs passion

Try this riddle. Q: When is a ‘Bible’ not a Bible? A: When it is a paraphrase.

Paraphrase is one of those odd jargon-y words Christians use that actually is a real word, but is most likely to turn up in polite conversation among members of the Jesus club.

“To paraphrase is to expand or add to the original words in order to enhance their meaning,” John Harris the Bible Society’s biblical consultant tells Eternity.

“Sometimes a Bible Translation requires more than one word to make the meaning clear.

“When the ‘grace of God’ is sometimes translated  these days as ‘the undeserved kindness of God’ in a modern translation like the Good News Bible, some people may strictly speaking say this is a paraphrase. But in fact it is not. It is a translation of the Greek word charis in an era when the single word ‘grace’ is no longer understood by the average person and is therefore insufficient to express what charis means, especially to people outside the church,” says Harris.

“There are, however, versions like The Message which add a lot more words and expand the text. Eugene Peterson never calls The Message the Bible. He admits that it is free form and intended to help us understand the Bible, but that it is not the Bible.”

Every so often a paraphrase comes along and grabs an audience. In the seventies the ‘Living Bible’ written by a US author and publisher called Kenneth Taylor became a rapid best seller.

The Amplified Bible was a Zondervan product that set the 1960s alight with extra words added to the basic text and a special use of fonts to make the message clear.

The Message by author Eugene Peterson has become greatly loved by doing the same thing in a manner both whimsical and devotional.

More recently The Passion Translation, written by church planter Brian Simmons, has become popular with some Christians.

Here’s how Kenneth Taylor described writing the Living Bible. “Our family devotions were tough going because of the difficulty we had understanding the King James Version, which we were then using, or the Revised Standard Version, which we used later. All too often I would ask questions to be sure the children understood, and they would shrug their shoulders—they didn’t know what the passage was talking about. So I would explain it. I would paraphrase it for them and give them the thought. It suddenly occurred to me one afternoon that I should write out the reading for that evening thought by thought, rather than doing it on the spot during our devotional time. So I did, and read the chapter to the family that evening with exciting results—they knew the answers to all the questions I asked!”

Try another riddle. Q: When is a one-man-Bible version not a paraphrase? A: When a genius writes it.

There have been genii in the long history of putting the Bible into various languages that have produced authoritative translations. Think of Martin Luther locked up in the Wartburg castle for ten months and producing the German New Testament. William Tyndale, the first to go back to the Greek and Hebrew texts to produce an English Bible and who famously told one of the clergy who persecuted him “if God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!”

There are several problems with paraphrases which Bible translators must strictly avoid. The first is temptation is to add too much to the original text. — John Harris, Bible Society Australia Bible history consultant

But by the time of the translation of the King James Bible and the virtually simultaneous translation of its Catholic cousin the Douay Rheims Bible in northern France, translation had become the work of committees, with extensive cross checking. King James insisted on it, he wanted his Bible to have real weight.

Riddle time. Q: How many scholars does it take to translate a Bible? A: More than it used to (at least in English). The authoritative translations of today are produced by committee. For example The Committee on Bible Translation which produced the NIV involved over a hundred scholars and is headed up by a well-known Bible scholar Douglas Moo, who occupies the Wessner Chair of Biblical Studies, Wheaton College.

Similarly, the ESV is produced by a group of scholars with another well-known theologian J I Packer as the “general Chair”.

“Every translation is, to a degree, a paraphrase,” is how Brian Simmons, author of The Passion Translation, has responded to criticism. “A truly literal translation would make no sense to today’s reader, since Greek phrases, clauses, word order and many other grammatical points are not the way we speak in English. So there is a necessity, at times, to change word order, phrases and even at times, clauses to fit English.”

He makes a good point. Even an “essentially literal” translation like the conservative English Standard Version does at least a little of the above. But does The Passion Translation go further?

“The task of a Bible translator is different from that of a writer of a paraphrase,” says John Harris.

“There are several problems with paraphrases which Bible translators must strictly avoid.

“The first is temptation is to add too much to the original text. This is the kind of thing The Message sometimes does, but Peterson does not claim that what he has written is the Word of God.

“The second temptation is to add things which were never there in the first place, to put explanations in the text itself. Here lies the real danger because there is always the temptation to add words which push the text towards a particular theological position.”

The Passion Translation (TPT) is a good example of this, according to Harris.

“Philippians 1:2 says: ‘Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (NIV)’

“In TPT, the same phrase reads: ‘We decree over your lives the blessings of divine grace and supernatural peace that flow from God our wonderful Father, and our Anointed Messiah, the Lord Jesus.'”

The issue is a bit obvious! Greek, 11 words. NIV 14 words. TPT 27 words.

“There are obviously many additional words. A relatively harmless addition here is the word wonderful. Yes, God is wonderful, but the original is not talking about the wonder of God and so to use the word is to add to what the Bible originally said. We cannot add words, even good words, and say it is faithful to the original text,” says Harris.

“A far more worrying phrase is ‘We decree over your lives..’ Not only are these added words, which were not in the original, but they express a particular theology. Paul, as an apostle, according to this ‘translation’, had power over the giving of the grace of God. An apostle had the power the decree that grace be given.”

If this theology is correct then other Bible passages can be found to support it. (Eternity is not debating whether Apostles are present in the world today or not). The main point is that we should not need to add extra thoughts into a Bible passage. It’s called “authorial intrusion”. And to prevent that that is why the best versions, the authoritative translations, resort to committees.

A committee big enough to have a mix of denominational backgrounds is a good idea, too.

In 2017 BroadStreet Publishing, The Passion Translation publishers announced the formation of a “an even more extensive and diverse team to review and provide critical feedback.” However Eternity understands this team is composed of one particular Christian tradition.

The “primary owners” of BroadStreet Publishing are Carlton Garborg, president of the company, and Paul Bootes, previous CEO of Koorong.

Riddle 4,. Q: You were deeply moved by what you read in a paraphrase, so that makes it a Bible? A: That’s not a riddle – God speaks in many ways, but it’s scripture that things are tested against.

Riddle 5. Q: When does a paraphrase become a Bible? A: It’s happened. Tyndale House, the publishing company founded by Kenneth Taylor author of the paraphrase The Living Bible called together a committee of 90 scholars to revise it in the 1980’s. The result was The New Living Translation, a new translation that is now Australia’s second favourite Bible (after the NIV). The story of The Passion Translation may not have ended.

Here’s what the Bible Society says about The Passion Translation: “Bible Society Australia regards ‘The Passion Translation’ to be a paraphrase or commentary and best read in addition to or alongside an established Bible translation. We do not use individual translations or paraphrases in our public material.  We do acknowledge and respect that faithful Christians hold a diverse range of theological views including which Bible translation/Bible paraphrase they consider most appropriate.”