Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Gurry about the various translations of the Bible.
Topics of conversation include:
Dr. Peter Gurry (@pjgurry) serves as Assistant Professor of New Testament at Phoenix Seminary. He's also co-director of the Text and Canon Institute, as well as an elder at Whitton Avenue Bible Church in Phoenix, Arizona. Dr. Gurry is a graduate of Moody Bible Institute, Dallas Theological Seminary, and earned a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge. He is the author of several books, including Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism (IVP Academic, 2019), and Scribes and Scripture: The Amazing Story of How We Got the Bible (Crossway, 2022).
Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.
Brian Arnold (00:18):
Have you ever walked into a Christian bookstore looking for a new Bible, and you go to the Bible section and there's tons of different options? And you start to look at all the different Bible translations and ask yourself the question—why do we have so many different translations? Is there one that's better than another one? Which one maybe gives me the most accurate reflection of the original text? Which one's the easiest to read and understand? Well, if you have ever had those questions, we want to answer that for you today. Here to help us understand Bible translations is Dr. Peter Gurry. Dr. Gurry is assistant professor of New Testament at Phoenix Seminary. He's the co-director of the Text and Canon Institute, and he serves as an elder at Whitton Avenue Bible Church here in Phoenix, Arizona. He holds a PhD from Cambridge University, and he teaches courses on Greek Language and New Testament Literature. Dr. Gurry has written multiple books, including Myths and Mistakes, and one coming out soon called Scribes and Scriptures: The Amazing Story of How We Got the Bible, which is co-authored with another Phoenix Seminary professor, Dr. John Mead. Dr. Gurry, welcome again to the podcast.
Peter Gurry (01:23):
It's great to be back.
Brian Arnold (01:24):
So our big question today is this—why are there so many translations of the Bible? So let's actually just kind of set the historical context, right? The Bible's written in three different languages, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, which were the languages that the people spoke at the time. God was speaking in a language he wanted people to understand. Since then, the Bible's been translated into other languages as well, including English. So maybe even go back all the way to the 14th century and tell us a little bit about the translation of the Bible into English.
Peter Gurry (01:57):
Sure. So from pretty early on, the Bible's been translated into other languages. The earliest Bible translation is what we call the Septuagint, which is the translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek. And then once Christianity comes along, the New Testament—along with the Old Testament—gets translated into other languages like Latin and Syriac and various other languages as well. So if you want to fast forward to the fourteenth century, we have a few English translations before that, translations of the Bible, but they're very piecemeal. They're only a little bit here, a little bit there. Or in one case, it's a translation of the Bible, but it's just English words written on top of the Latin words. So you can't really even read it left to right, because it's following the Latin order. But then a guy by the name of John Wycliffe comes along and John Wycliffe is a professor at the University of Oxford, and he begins to write a lot. And he has various criticisms of the church of his day.
Peter Gurry (02:48):
And one of them is that he thinks that people ought to have the Bible in their own language. And that leads to what we call the Wycliffe Bible. It's not certain whether John Wycliffe himself actually translated any of it, but he certainly encouraged it and was a fan of the idea. But in any case, by the end of the 14th century, we end up with two translations of the English Bible. They're both Wycliffe translations, one is a revision of the other one. And it's in old English, so if you were to try to read it today, it would be very hard to read because both the vocabulary and the spelling and the syntax is very old.
Brian Arnold (03:21):
Yeah, I had to read Wycliffe—just in other treatises—in the original, and it is quite challenging.
Peter Gurry (03:25):
Brian Arnold (03:26):
It's like reading Chaucer.
Peter Gurry (03:27):
It's like Chaucer, that's right. Yep. So don't think, you know, Shakespeare. We are way beyond Shakespeare here. Think Beowulf, right? Just that kind of English. Yeah.
Brian Arnold (03:35):
Right. Or Chaucer, like I had mentioned. Yeah. And then, right after Wycliffe, you get somebody like Tyndale. And his story is quite remarkable.
Peter Gurry (03:45):
Tyndale's story is remarkable. So Tyndale—fast forward, Tyndale is also a student at Oxford. So the movement that kind of follows John Wycliffe, known as Lollardy is still in the air at Oxford University at the time. But the Bible is not the core of the curriculum at the time. But Wycliffe really gets a taste for the Bible there. And after he graduates, he becomes a priest and starts preaching back in his hometown. And it's there that he starts to really see—the people need the Bible in their own language, and they need to be able to read it. And so he goes to London, hoping to get the approval of the Bishop of London there to translate the Bible and sell it. But the Bishop will not see him. And he realizes after about a year that not only can he not get approval from the Bishop of London, but there's nowhere in England at all that will be a home for him to do what he wants to do.
Peter Gurry (04:33):
So he leaves for Europe, which is the home of Martin Luther at that time. And Luther just a few years before that had nailed his 95 Theses to the door at Wittenberg. And so reformation is in the air. And in 1522, Luther translates his famous Bible into German, the New Testament into German in 1522. And Tyndale, then, is partly inspired by Luther. And he translates the Bible for the first time into English from Greek. So his English New Testament comes out in 1526, and among the things that make him so significant are that his English translation becomes a foundation for all subsequent English translations. So when you read something like, "Let there be light," that is Tyndale you're still reading there
Brian Arnold (05:15):
And there's some other...what are some of the expressions that Tyndale uses that we just take for granted?
Peter Gurry (05:19):
So Tyndale is...remember, the first time that the Bible is going into English from Greek. And he has a real good sense for the Greek language, and also a very good sense for the way the man on the street speaks. So he invents terms like godly, scapegoat, atonement. He's the first one to use the word atonement for theological purposes. And he's the first one that brings the name Jehovah into English, trying to get what he sees in Hebrew into English. So it's really remarkable.
Brian Arnold (05:47):
And it's the heart of Tyndale, I think, that means a lot to me. That he wants the plowboy to know the Bible. So before, a lot of people—you've got Latin masses that are happening, and so people are disconnected. So they don't have a Bible. The printing press is just brand new. So not only do they not have a Bible, but what they have—even in churches—is in Latin. And so you can imagine how disconnected people have...all they have is the kind of ritual aspects of the Christian faith. But once the Bible's put in the vernacular of the people, that's where reformation breaks out, revivals break out. Because God's Word, in the hands of people, is like a lion unleashed.
Peter Gurry (06:22):
Right. And that's what the Reformers all, I think, universally recognized. They saw that for true reform to happen, the people had to know the Bible too. It couldn't be limited to the priesthood. And that is something that theologians had argued before. There was quite a lot of resistance to the English Bible, as listeners probably know. Wycliffe was not burned at the stake, but his bones are exhumed after he dies, and burned. And then Tyndale, of course, is famously strangled and burned at the stake. And one of the concerns that theologians had about having the English in the vernacular, was that it would take the Bible away from the clergy and give it to the people. And that you would lose that distinction between the clergy and the people. And that's actually part of what the Reformers, I think, wanted to do. They actually, like you said, wanted to unleash the Bible among the people.
Brian Arnold (07:06):
Okay. So we get from Wycliffe, then we get Tyndale. What, 50, 60 years after Tyndale, you're going to get the King James Version. Which kind of begins to standardize some of—
Peter Gurry (07:17):
Yeah. So what's important is, between Tyndale and the King James are actually a number of really important translations. So you have translations like the Geneva Bible, which is the main precursor, and various revisions. You have the Bishop's Bible, which is actually the foundation for the King James Bible. You have about a half dozen or so English Bibles besides Tyndale's that come out in the intervening period. And if you read the preface to the King James version, the translators themselves say their goal was not to disparage all the translations that had come before them. They're very clear in saying—the translations that have come before us are good ones. And we hope to make one good one out of many good ones, or one singularly good one out of many. And that really, I think, was both their goal and their great accomplishment, was they did exactly that.
Brian Arnold (08:01):
But wasn't part of their anticipation that there would be subsequent Bible translations?
Peter Gurry (08:05):
They did. And they're quite clear in the preface that they realized—this is not the last word on Bible translation. In fact, I think they probably could not have imagined that their translation would last as long as it has.
Brian Arnold (08:14):
And it's still going pretty strong today. It is probably one of the most purchased Bibles, even in English today.
Peter Gurry (08:20):
It is the second best seller, in terms of Bible translations, in English. And it is, by some metrics, the most read Bible. At least when people self-report reading the Bible, they report reading the King James more than any other translation.
Brian Arnold (08:30):
We can think of the great ministries like the Gideons, who placed the Bible everywhere, and placed it there in the KJV, how many people's lives have been changed and impacted for Christ that way. So I think lot of people are going to be wondering—if it's the second most purchased one, what is the most purchased?
Peter Gurry (08:45):
Well, last time I checked it was the NIV.
Brian Arnold (08:47):
Peter Gurry (08:48):
So I forget...about maybe 30 or 40 years ago or so, the NIV overtook the King James.
Brian Arnold (08:53):
Okay. I just must say this. I was just in a conversation with Dr. Wayne Grudem, who was the general editor of the English Standard Version, who I think...it seems to indicate that the ESV maybe has surpassed the NIV.
Peter Gurry (09:07):
It could be. Last time I looked...it depends probably on who you talk to.
Brian Arnold (09:10):
Yeah. It's hard to get data on this.
Peter Gurry (09:12):
How you measure.
Brian Arnold (09:12):
Yeah, that's right. That's right.
Peter Gurry (09:13):
Mine are coming from the Evangelical Press Association of America.
Brian Arnold (09:16):
Okay. Well, mine's coming from a professor at Phoenix Seminary. And it really behooves us to say that, you know, the ESV, which basically is coming out of Phoenix Seminary, is the most widely used Bible version in English. Well let's get a little bit practical, in terms of translation techniques. So, you know, I'm looking at Bible Gateway, even right now, and it's amazing how many different translations there are. Things that I...you know, people have never heard of, probably. Like the Jubilee Bible. You know, some people listening might not have heard of the Holman Christian Standard Bible. Or you have the New English Translation Bible, the New International, the New American Standard. So many different translations. Put those on a spectrum for us, and how we talk about those.
Peter Gurry (10:01):
Sure. So the spectrum that's usually used to help people think through the differences in translations is the spectrum from, say, paraphrase to literal. And so on the far end of literal you might think of the King James or the New American Standard. Those are typically very literal. ESV is on that side too. On the far other side, you get paraphrases, like The Message or the New Living Translation are on that side as well. And then somewhere, if you want to think of it as the middle, are things like the NIV, the New International Version. And some other ones that could be in there too. I think in some ways that's helpful, but it's not the most helpful way to think about translation, because there's so many other choices translators face, besides just—how do we get this word from Hebrew into English? There are decisions, for example, like—who is our audience?
Brian Arnold (10:47):
Let's talk about...let's actually just enumerate them. There's five kind of decisions that you've talked about in the past, that you say—these are kind of the five decisions. So the first one—
Peter Gurry (10:57):
Yeah, the first one is—who's the audience? And to my mind, that's the big one every translator has to answer. Who am I doing this for? Obviously that starts with what language you're doing, right? If your audience is in France, you're doing a French translation. But people may not be aware, especially those of us in the U.S., because we're such a big country. But if you're doing an English translation, it doesn't stop by saying "English," because then you have to think about—is it American English or is it British English? Right? So listeners may not realize, but most modern English translations have both an American version and what we call an anglicized version. So the ESV, for example, if you buy it in England, you're getting the anglicized version. They've not only changed the spelling, but in some cases they may have changed the wording as well. Because it just doesn't work over there the way it does here. So audience is the first big question that everybody has to answer,
Brian Arnold (11:39):
You know, I want to pause right here and just say that some of the kind of battles that people can get into over Bible translation seem to say that one is superior to the other, in that if it's like a wooden, word-for-word, almost like an Amplified Bible, where it's just basically the Greek or Hebrew word coming straight over, and you can almost hardly not make sense of it—it's somehow better, because it more accurately represents the original language. Where something like The Message has been drug through the mud in terms of being too loose. How do you help counsel people through that?
Peter Gurry (12:11):
So I advise people to try to read the most literal translation that's still understandable to them. So at one point I stopped using the NASB myself, because it was too awkward. But if somebody says, well, the ESV is still too literal, the CSB and the NIV really works better, I say, go for it. For somebody who's a brand new believer, has never read the Bible, I think something like the New Living Translation may be ideal. To give you even a different category, a different audience—the NIV, back about a decade after it was first released, was revised into what's called the New International Reader's Version, which was specifically designed for young children and people who didn't speak English as their first language. So what did they do? They took all the sentences in the NIV, and without necessarily going back to the original, they just tried to shorten them and use shorter words. So I'll give you example. The Lord's prayer is, you know, "Our Father in heaven, may your name be honored. May your kingdom come. May what you want to happen, be done on earth as it is done in heaven." Which to any of us who grew up on the King James, sounds awful. That is not the Lord's prayer!
Brian Arnold (13:12):
I'm like, the word "art"—which I never use, besides drawing pictures—is not in there.
Peter Gurry (13:17):
That's right. But imagine if English is not your native language. A word like "art" doesn't make any sense. Neither does "hallowed." What in the world does "hallowed" mean, right? Or take Psalm 23. The original NIV said "he makes me lie down in green pastures." Right? Okay, that's Psalm 23. But the NIrV says, "he lets me lie down in fields of green grass." Which again, is terrible, as far as English goes, right? But if you think about it, that's much more helpful to somebody who doesn't know English well, than the word "pasture", which is not a common word in English.
Brian Arnold (13:44):
Peter Gurry (13:44):
And not a word that a new English speaker is likely to know.
Brian Arnold (13:48):
And I love the question, beginning with—who is the audience? And really, the objective is to get the Bible, God's Word, into something that is understandable for people, so that they can meet God.
Peter Gurry (13:58):
Brian Arnold (13:59):
And know him and love him, right?
Peter Gurry (14:00):
Brian Arnold (14:01):
So that's the first question. The second question is what?
Peter Gurry (14:03):
It's—will it be a fresh translation or a revision of a former translation? And listeners may be surprised to find out that the vast majority of translations in English have not been fresh, brand-new translations from the original languages. They are, rather, revisions of previous English translations, that refer to the original languages to see where to revise them. So, to take an example, the King James, the very famous King James, is not a fresh translation. The translators did not sit down with their Greek and Hebrew Bibles open and start with...and just go from there. No, they started with the Bishop's Bible, and their instructions were to use all the English translations that were available. That they found helpful. So there are places where the King James is borrowing heavily from Tyndale. There are places where it's following the Bishop's Bible. There are places where it's even following the Douay-Rheims Bible, which was the Roman Catholic Bible of the time. So most of them are revisions, not brand new ones. If I can give you an example. The ESV, okay, is not a brand-new translation. It is a revision of the Revised Standard Version, which is—
Brian Arnold (15:04):
That "R" is pretty important there, right?
Peter Gurry (15:05):
Yes. Which is a revision itself of the American Standard Version, which is itself a revision of the King James Bible, which, as I said, is a revision of the Bishop's Bible, which is itself a...so you get the picture, right? It's much easier for a translation team to start with something that's already done and revise it, than to start from scratch. The Bible is a big book, and it is a lot of work for a group of people, or even certainly an individual, to sit down and translate it from scratch. So they almost always start from a previous translation.
Brian Arnold (15:36):
Peter Gurry (15:37):
Okay, so third, then, is the question—what text will the translators translate? As we've talked about before on the podcast, we have thousands of manuscripts of the Bible, and they don't all agree, because they were copied by hand. And so translators...the first decision they have to make is—what text are we going to translate? So if I can give you a couple examples—in Mark, chapter one, verse 41, pretty much every English translation says that Jesus gets "compassionate" before he heals a man. But the NIV, the 2011 version of the NIV, says that he gets "indignant" before he does it. Why? Because there is one manuscript from the fifth century that, in Greek, has Jesus becoming "indignant". There are also a few Latin manuscripts as well. I happen to think this is a very bad decision on the part of the NIV translators, but nevertheless it illustrates the point that translators have to decide which text they're going to translate before they do. In Genesis—
Brian Arnold (16:27):
Do you know why they did that in that text?
Peter Gurry (16:29):
Yeah, because there was a very influential article came out several decades ago arguing for that reading. Arguing that it was the more difficult reading, and I think that—
Brian Arnold (16:39):
Which, can we just say for those who don't know textual criticism, the difficult reading is often the right reading. Because a later scribe's going to try to make it an easier...they're going to try to smooth over some of the rough edges.
Peter Gurry (16:49):
That's right. We're trying to distinguish the author from the scribe. And we know that scribes tend to make a text easier. Whereas authors are...say whatever they want, <laugh> if I can put it that way. <Laugh>
Brian Arnold (17:00):
My editors have never allowed that. <Laugh>
Peter Gurry (17:02):
Yeah, well, that's true. So that gives you an example. If I give you one more, in Genesis 4:8, the English Standard Version says that Cain spoke to Abel, his brother, and then they're in a field and he kills him. Whereas the Christian Standard Bible follows the evidence of several ancient translations, including the Septuagint, so that Cain says to his brother "Let's go out to the field." And then they go out to the field. So in the ESV, you don't find out what he said. He just says...he just speaks to him, but we don't know what he says. Whereas in the CSB, because they're following the Septuagint, you find out what he says, and he says, "Let's go out to the field." So not earth-shattering, but still the translators have to make a decision.
Brian Arnold (17:40):
It's a good reminder for people to remember that there's a lot of texts kind of behind this. I mean, this is the field of textual criticism, where you're trying to reconstruct the original text, and that's a complex thing. We had Dr. Gurry on a while ago to talk about those kinds of issues. They're important. But let's go on to number four then.
Peter Gurry (17:58):
All right, so number four is—how will the translators handle culturally-specific terms? And this is where we get into that question of...where I think a better way to think about the spectrum of translation philosophies or options is rather than thinking literal to less literal, think—how much has the translator tried to bring the Bible into the modern world, or into the world that they're translating for? Okay? So here's where I always like to give a quote from Luther, okay? Luther, in translating the Bible into German, had to deal with lots of difficult Hebrew idioms. And at one point he says, "I really wanted to use kind of German that the mother uses when she's on the floor playing with her children." Right? But to do that, he says, "I wanted Moses to sound so German, that no one would know he's a Jew."
Brian Arnold (18:40):
Yeah. That's a problem.
Peter Gurry (18:41):
That sounds like a problem. And it is a problem. But at the same time, Luther, in his typical fashion, he kind of hits the nail on the head in terms of the difficulty, right? Maybe we don't like his solution, but at least in terms of identifying the problem, he nails it. Because the question is—how are we going to bring the Bible into our world? So think about—not just the Hebrew words and Greek words and what they mean—but all the cultural terms and cultural assumptions that are in the Bible. So things like a leviathan, a kinsman-redeemer, a legion, a centurion, right? Or names for diseases and animals, plants, peoples, and places that don't have immediate meaning to us today—how is the translator going to handle those? It's not as simple as saying—well, what's the English equivalent for that? It's a question of—how do we bring the Bible's world into the world of our reader that we're aiming for? And that, again, gets us back to the question of—who's the audience?
Brian Arnold (19:25):
And people want...if they want more of a literal translation, they kind of want to see stadia in there, or some sort of measurement.
Peter Gurry (19:32):
Brian Arnold (19:32):
But then how does that really connect, right?
Peter Gurry (19:34):
So the translations that try not to translate it, let's say, by keeping the kind of monetary or measurement units from the original, almost always have a table at the back of the Bible with a table of weights and measures. So that you know—how long is a cubit?
Brian Arnold (19:49):
Peter Gurry (19:51):
Because I have no idea. Right? You and I have no idea.
Brian Arnold (19:53):
Yes. That's right. Or like Matthew 18, where you've got this punishment based off of a monetary amount. I always had to do the conversion, so that people can understand when you're preaching it, what that means.
Peter Gurry (20:04):
Yeah. So take that example—the Living Bible, which was a big deal back in the sixties and seventies, said that this guy owned...let's see, let me see if I have...10 million dollars. Right? And then the other, the second servant, owned 2,000 dollars. Well, that's great. The problem is—that doesn't work in Britain. It doesn't work in Australia. It doesn't work anywhere outside of the United States, and it doesn't really work today anymore.
Brian Arnold (20:24):
Peter Gurry (20:25):
Because the numbers have changed as well. See? So translators have to think about that. Do we go really specific into the culture we're translating into? In which case, it may be outdated very soon. Right? And may limit our audience. Or do we try to use something generic? Like the one...you know, sometimes they'll say something like he owes 30 days wages for the second servant, you know, that kind of thing.
Brian Arnold (20:45):
Yeah. I mean, I'm just going to wear my theology on my sleeve for a moment. The two words that have never been translated, that I wish they had, is baptized <laugh>, which means immersion. Right? And deacon, which means servant, because those two can become problematic in theological disputes. But let's move on. So number five—
Peter Gurry (21:03):
Number five is—how much will the translation explain itself? So we've already hinted at this with things like the table of weights and measures in the back of most Bibles. But at various points, the translators are going to try to explain their work to their readers. The most obvious way this happens is in footnotes, which lots of Bible readers may not read, but they should. But it also comes through things like headings, the titles of books, if there's an introduction to the book, if there's study notes. Are there pictures, if it's for a children's Bible, for example? All these sorts of things have been around, almost from the very beginning of Bible translation, and they're designed to help readers understand the Bible better. And they're, again, a way for the translators to explain their own work. Probably the most famous example this, or the most extreme example of this, is what's called the Net Bible.
Peter Gurry (21:47):
You can find it online at netbible.org. It's the first Bible ever made freely available online. And they got tons and tons of feedback from readers online. And that led them to put in all kinds of footnotes in the Bible. And so they ended up with over 60,000 translators notes, explaining virtually every decision that they made. Sometimes the notes are overwhelming, but I'll tell you, the people who love that translation the most—other Bible translators. Because they have to make the same decisions, and they really like to know why somebody else made the decision they made <laugh>. Yeah. So it's very popular with Bible translators.
Brian Arnold (22:19):
It's a sacred task. And I want that to lead us to maybe an overarching question. For somebody listening to this and saying—I'm building my entire life and theology and eternal hope off of this book. Can I trust it? Because it sounds like man, there's a lot of steps between God inspiring one of the biblical authors, who then wrote it, and then we've got manuscripts, and then into translation. Are we losing...is there too much lost in translation as we might say?
Peter Gurry (22:45):
Right? No doubt some things are lost in translation. The question is—how much is lost? Is so much lost that we don't know the message of the Bible? And that's where we'd say—no, not at all. If you're reading well in English, you are getting most...almost all of the message right. There's nuances that you're missing. There are things...just like we would say—look, if somebody was studying Dostoevsky, the famous Russian novelist, right? Would they say—because I've read it only in English translation, I don't know what The Brothers Karamazov is about? Of course not, right? But what we would say is—man, if I really wanted to become an expert on Dostoevsky, I couldn't just keep reading him in English alone. Do you see? So what I'd say is—the Bible in English is more than enough for what we need to follow Christ, to know what our theology ought to be. But for those of us who are called to be leaders of the church, we need to usually be those who are trained in the languages, so we can get behind the translations and know why the translators have made the decisions they have.
Brian Arnold (23:39):
So go to seminary.
Peter Gurry (23:40):
So go to seminary.
Brian Arnold (23:40):
Phoenix seminary, in particular. That's right. That's right. Okay, let me ask you just really quickly—what translation do you use? And then what is a resource that we can encourage people who might be interested on this topic to read more on?
Peter Gurry (23:53):
Sure. So, personally, when I use an English Bible, I use the English Standard Version. I like it quite a bit. There's no English translation that is perfect in my mind, not even the ESV. So there's places where I think it's wrong, and I wish they had made a different decision, but I recognize that it's a good translation and it's very good. I recommend it. As far as resources, I would love for people to visit the textandcanon.org, our website, where they can click on the articles tab and filter by all of our translation articles, and find a number of articles that are really helpful to appreciate better the work that translators have to do. I think that's a big burden of mine is to help people realize what a task it is, and how thankful we should be for how many have done it for us.
Brian Arnold (24:33):
And what I always want to move into as we close here is—pick one and read it.
Peter Gurry (24:38):
Brian Arnold (24:38):
Right? Don't just debate Bible translations and things like that. Actually pick it up, read it, be transformed by it, and get other people into it.
Peter Gurry (24:46):
That's right. We always say—the worst translation is the one you don't read.
Brian Arnold (24:48):
That's right. Good final word. Dr. Gurry, thanks for joining us.
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