New Bible translations generate controversy
Leesburg pastors weigh in on two new versions of a worldwide best-seller.
This month, two new Bible translations hit the market, attracting a wide spectrum of responses from critics. Leesburg pastors Gary Hamrick of Cornerstone Chapel and Jim Wishmyer of Leesburg United Methodist Church weighed in on the latest versions of the New American Bible and the New International Version.
The most controversial change was the decision to translate the Hebrew word “almah” as “young woman” in the NAB’s rendering of Isaiah 7:14. Traditionally, “almah” has been translated “virgin” in connection with messianic prophecies such as the passage in Isaiah.
Hamrick found the change from “virgin” to “young woman” problematic.
“If the meaning of the language is changed to reflect that Mary may not have been a virgin, you’ve just denied the divinity of Christ,” he said. “‘Almah’ can be translated as ‘young woman,’ but in that passage, because it’s a messianic passage, it has to be left alone. It can’t be lost or distorted.”
If Mary had conceived Jesus through intimacy with a man, then Jesus would not have been sinless, Hamrick explained.
“Mary bore the seed of God and not the seed of man,” he said. “The sin nature is passed through the seed of man. If she bore a child humanly, then that child would bear a sin nature. As Protestants, we believe Mary was born into sin, chosen for an incredible, miraculous purpose. If she hadn’t been a virgin, that would have been suspect.”
“Most of the modern translations indicate that ‘young woman’ is the literal meaning [of ‘almah’],” Wishmyer said. In the past, translators have followed the King James Version’s example in translating ‘almah’ as ‘virgin’ instead of ‘young woman,’ he added.
Other changes in the NAB included “cereal offerings” being changed to “grain offerings” and “booty” being changed to “spoils of war.”
In the NIV, many of the changes served to make the text more gender neutral. For example, the word “man,” when it refers to the human race, has been changed to “mankind,” the word “forefathers” has been changed to “ancestors,” and the phrase “cravings of a sinful man” in 1 John 2:16 has been changed to “the lust of the flesh.”
“For the most part, [the other changes] make sense for the purpose of making the text more readable, without drastically altering the source language meaning,” Wishmyer said. “I appreciate the changes in general personal nouns and pronouns to make them more inclusive when referring to humanity. It moves us one more step further from the patriarchal society of the writers. As an aside, I’d like to see the same gender neutrality in reference to Satan.”
Hamrick also liked the other changes.
“When ‘cravings of a sinful man’ is changed to ‘lust of the flesh’ - I like that change. I like that phrase. I don’t mind little things like that,” he said. He compared it to replacing the “thees” and “thous” of the King James Version with “you.” “It doesn’t change meaning, it just makes it more conversational. It’s when words get changed or distorted that affect the meaning or context of a passage -- when we change ‘virgin’ to ‘young woman’--that’s when it’s problematic. We’re tampering with the word of God.”
Hamrick was saddened to hear that Zondervan would be phasing out the 1984 version of the NIV, which he teaches from, as well as the 2002 Today’s NIV. In teaching, he often draws from the KJV and the New King James Version as well, and will switch over to the NKJV if earlier version of the NIV are phased out.
“My preference is a translation that best preserves the truth according to the original intent of the original language,” Hamrick said. “My main concern is that I’m seeing a kind of political correctness and liberal theology that some of these more modern paraphrases are trying to pander to. We’re going to lose the true meaning of the text if we begin pandering to political correctness and liberal theology. It’s trending that way. That’s my biggest concern.”
Wishmyer has used the NIV primarily over the past 29 years, comparing it often to the New Revised Standard Version and the New American Standard Bible. Recently, he has also begun to use the New Living Translation and the English Standard Version. He also looks at The Message and the Good News Bible.
In choosing a good translation, Wishmyer looks at the source texts for the translation: the original Greek and Hebrew texts used. He then looks for a group of translators that come from a diverse background of Christian thought. Finally, he wants a translation that is faithful to the original languages while still being understandable by a modern English speaker.
“No translation is perfect, or perfect for everyone,” Wishmyer said. “Look for a translation that is widely accepted by scholars or theologians of differing schools. See if the text flows in a way that makes sense to you. Look for a Bible that contains a healthy amount of footnotes, textual notes, and explanatory notes. Buy at least two different translations and a paraphrase.”
Wishmyer noted the changes between a translation and a paraphrase.
“A good translation tries not to change the meaning of the original, but rather seeks to discern the meaning and then to interpret for the hearer or reader. [A translator] must be a student of culture as well,” he said. “This is one of the reasons why Islam requires adherents to learn Arabic and to read the Koran in Arabic. A paraphrase, on the other hand, usually imposes meaning on the text that comes through the eyes and creativity of the one paraphrasing; faithfulness to the original is secondary.”
Wishmyer welcomes new translations.
“Some translations lean more toward accuracy, some lean more toward readability,” he said. “Each translation invites the reader to encounter something new in the text through the eyes of the translators and the fresh wind of God’s Spirit.”
Hamrick added a note of caution.
“Words have meaning, and if we begin to tamper with certain words, then meaning is going to be altered, and truth is going to be compromised.”