Theological Bias in Translation

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DR. DON WILKINS: B.A. UC Irvine, M.Div. Talbot Seminary, Th.M. Talbot Seminary, M.A. UCLA, Ph.D. UCLA. He has worked with The Lockman Foundation (TLF) as a senior translator since 1992 on the NASB.

Theological bias has a negative connotation as something to be avoided, and in general, I think it is. But I do not think it would be realistic to argue that Bible translation can be done without theological bias. It is not simply a matter of whether the translator has a theological agenda or not; there are passages in which all the choices of wording necessarily reflect theological positions. Furthermore, if we are going to be completely objective, even orthodoxy is a bias. That is, it is by definition an opinion that inclines or prejudices the translator toward a particular choice of wording when his choices all have theological implications.

At best, I would argue that theological bias ought to be avoided when it is possible to do so unless there are mitigating circumstances, and that in all cases a biased choice must be defensible lexically and grammatically. “Mitigating circumstances” include the audience for the translation at the top of the list. The NASB, for example, is produced for orthodox (evangelical) readers, so when it is necessary to choose theologically relevant wording, the choice will be compatible with orthodoxy. Probably the best example is any passage relevant to the deity of Christ. If, hypothetically, there are two equal options and one supports his deity while the other does not, the former will be preferred.

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1 John 5:7

On the other hand, indefensible choices cannot be supported just because they favor the preferred position. A good example is the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity as found in 1 John 5:7 of the KJV. It is a great proof text, to be sure, but is also completely lacking in credible manuscript support; therefore most modern Bible translations treat it as non-scriptural.

For the sake of discussion, let’s assume just for a moment that no bias is good, and that the best translation would be bias-free. Would we have someone who believes in God do it, or an agnostic or atheist? Did you notice how I capitalized “God”? I suspect that if we had an atheist do it, “god” would be lowercase, unless we required him to capitalize it. An agnostic might do half uppercase, half lower. And how would either distinguish the “true” God from “false” gods? Why should there be anything special about “the god of Israel” or even “the god of heaven and earth”? The atheist would affirm that all gods are the stuff of myth, and the agnostic would not deny it.

I’m sure you see my point. At some level every actual or potential translator brings bias to the Bible. The task is not to eliminate it, but to keep it in check, and to hold the translation (and the translator) accountable to the OL’s. If you are a lay person you may find this difficult; I encourage you to consult your minister, who is a professional on the subject. For now, I’ll examine a number of key passages that I hope will be of help, after I first make a recommendation.

 My recommendation is that you read whatever preface, foreword, and/or introduction may be at the front of your Bible. Even if you’ve done this before, it is a good idea to do it again every year or so as a refresher, because the material at the front of the Bible will inform you of any special formatting it may have. Some of the formatting may have to do with theology. As always, I can speak with experience in regard to the NASB. All personal pronouns found there that refer to deity are capitalized. Some other translations do the same, and many do not. No Christian will contest that God should be capitalized when referring to the true God–the Trinitarian Father–nor for that matter, that “Father” should be capitalized when it refers to God.


However, to capitalize all personal pronouns referring to Jesus or to the Holy Spirit, as well as to God the Father, was a policy decision reflecting the orthodox view of the Trinity, i.e. the equality in deity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I say it was a policy decision because there are other translations (e.g. the NIV) that do not follow the same practice but support the same theology. Some might call this policy a “good bias,” and it is certainly preferred by NASB readers.

John 1:1

Now let’s look at the key passages. Let me start with two in the Gospel of John that have been taken as key proof texts for the deity of Christ: John 1:1 and 8:58. As far as the English is concerned, John 1:1 is all about capitalization and the tiny word “a,” which in grammar is called the indefinite article. I will do a word-for-word translation, but in this case,  I’ll keep the Greek for “God,” which is theos:

In [the] beginning was the word, and the word was with the theos, and the word was theos.

To clarify a couple of points, as we saw earlier in chapter 4, “the” is added before “beginning” to smooth out the English, and there is actually emphasis based on word order that I am not following here. Also, for strict objectivity, I haven’t capitalized “word,” though of course it refers to the Son.

The question for us here is how to handle the two occurrences of theos. It is no problem for orthodox translators, who use capital “God” in both places. The presence of “the” with the first theos is interesting, however, and could be awkward if we did not know that this construction was used routinely in the Greek as a reference to the monotheistic God of the Jews. We find it, for example, in Gen. 1:1 and 3 of the LXX (the Greek OT), where no article is present with “God” in the Hebrew.

Since the doctrine of the Trinity is part of orthodoxy, orthodox translators view the first theos construction as a reference to the Father, i.e., taking the article as a marker of identity, and thus John is stating that the Son and the Father were together at this point. The second theos, lacking the article, is seen not as a matter of identity but of quality or nature, and is easily translated “was God.” It helps that the word order, as we saw earlier, emphasizes the point, as we might expect.

To the translators of the New World Translation, however, the wording favoring the orthodox position is unacceptable. Their readers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, believe that the Son is not equal in deity to the Father. In the NWT John 1:1 reads:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.

The NWT agrees with most other translations in capitalizing “Word,” but while deity may be implied by others, it is just a personal name here. Most important, of course, is the closing construction: “was a god.” This is a “good bias” for the intended audience, but a very bad one from the viewpoint of orthodoxy. Can it be defended from the viewpoint of the Greek?

We have already seen from my WFW translation (and you can trust me) that the word “a” is not in the Greek. One question is whether “a” should be added. The Witnesses have long maintained that it is standard translation practice to add “a” (the indefinite article) when the definite article (“the”) is absent in Greek, on the ground that Greek does not have an indefinite article. They have also defended “a god” from the fact that the article is present in the Sahidic Coptic translation of John 1:1. So, they consider “was God” an unjustified translation based on bias.

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In my view, the debate over adding “a” misses the point. Notice that in the NWT, the addition of “a” is accompanied by the change of “God” to lowercase, indicating a lesser “god.” Ancient Greek did not have the distinction of upper- and lowercase letters, and the assumption that the meaning of “God” is automatically lessened by the addition of “a” is a misapprehension from English usage. What needs to be considered is whether John could have used theos twice in close proximity while giving it two qualitatively different meanings. I consider this very unlikely without any clear indication to that effect, and I can find none here.

It is even more unlikely, I think, in view of John’s emphasis on the second theos. He felt it was remarkable, or important to point out, that the Word was also theos. It seems either that he wanted to emphasize equality (but not identity) with “the theos,” or to emphasize that they were not equal, i.e. that the Word was something else. For the latter we need some indication of a difference in quality, yet if this was John’s intent, he confuses his readers by using the same word without any modifiers.[1]  Even if we were to grant that the second theos could mean “a god,” we would then expect a disjunctive connecting the clause (e.g. “but the Word was a god”), not “and the Word was a god.”[2] The Greek can only mean “and.”

If I were trying to find a compromise, I would start with the construction, “a God.” This would eliminate the debate over “a,” while maintaining lexical consistency for the two occurrences of “theos.” It would also comply with the definition of a good compromise as one from which neither side walks away happy. Obviously Witnesses would not like the capital ‘G’ in both words. To Trinitarians, it might suggest that there are three separate Gods, not one in three Persons. And everyone probably would consider it a bit awkward.[3]

I have no hopes of settling the arguments over John 1:1; I can only say that I do not believe the NWT version can be adequately defended, for the reasons stated. My full support goes to the orthodox rendering found in the NASB and other corresponding translations.

John 8:58

Let’s look now at John 8:58, a verse for which the translation is not so easily evaluated. Here is a word-for-word translation:

Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I am.”

The word “truly” is an approximation for “amen” in the Greek, which is a transliteration of the Hebrew. Since we have a fairly good working understanding of the word, it might be just as well to translate, “Amen, amen I say to you….” The word “came to be” can be understood as Abraham’s birth, and has been translated by some as “was,” i.e., simple existence.

The challenging part, however, is the clause “I am.” It is a grammatical mismatch with the dependent adverbial clause “before Abraham came to be,” both in English and in Greek. That is, the timing is off: “I am” is present tense, but it should have been past tense to have been happening before Abraham’s time. Not surprisingly, therefore, one significant ancient manuscript omits “came to be,” which would provide a little wiggle room out of the problem. But this just serves to confirm the reading “I am,” and we are left to conclude either that Jesus actually said this, or that John made a mistake in his reporting. A slip of the pen would not account for it, and we have nothing elsewhere in John’s writings similar to it, so translators and other scholars are agreed that Jesus said it.

Speaking again as a translator for the NASB, I can tell you that it is NASB policy to do translation that is grammatically correct English; but this constitutes an exception. Furthermore, there is an unwritten rule of creativity for experts of any language: when you know the rules, you are entitled to break the rules occasionally for special effect. Jesus certainly would have been aware of the grammatical mismatch that he had articulated, and John knew better than to correct it.

The best thing that the translator of a literal Bible can do with this grammatical anomaly is to retain the literal present tense of the verb “I am”; indeed, it is probably wise even for DE/FE translators to do this, and this is what we usually see. But many translators have not been content with this, given the awkward grammar. They have sought the reason for Jesus’ choice of wording, and most believe that they have found it in Ex. 3:14, where God gives Moses “I Am” as the name that he is to pass on to his fellow Israelites when they ask for God’s name.

How Should John 8:58 Be Translated?

This discovery has in turn led to a biased handling of the clause in some translations (keeping in mind that “bias” is not necessarily bad). Sometimes it is seen in the text. The NASB has “I AM” in Ex. 3:14 in all capital letters both for emphasis and to reflect the fact that the clause was used as a proper name. This is typical for all translations, not just the NASB. However, in earlier editions, the NASB also had “I AM” in John 8:58 in all capital letters to indicate that Jesus had used God’s words in Ex. 3:14 as his own. The NLT does this, and probably a few other versions. Virtually all translations, with the notable exception of the NWT, cross-reference Ex. 3:14 to Jesus’ statement and some make the connection explicit with a note (cp. the HCSB).

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I think it is accurate to say that this is not a case where translators are forced to choose between one theological position and another. The connection to Ex. 3:14, if credible, just provides an explanation for the grammatical mismatch. We can attempt to make sense of Jesus’ statement without resorting to Ex. 3:14, by saying for example that he wanted to stump his opponents by using an odd construction. In the end, all the translator really has to do in this case is to provide a translation consistent with his translation philosophy, and if he chooses, he can provide Ex. 3:14 as a cross-reference. This is what the NASB translators decided to do for the updated edition.

Linking John 8:58 to Ex. 3:14 of course has the effect of turning Jesus’ words into a proof text for his deity, so the question of whether the connection is credible carries extra weight. As one would expect, the NWT translators have strongly objected to the connection, and have argued that the claim that Jesus used the Greek of the LXX translation of Ex. 3:14 is false, since the latter has “he who exists” (or more literally “the one existing”) instead of “I am.” They are absolutely correct about the LXX, which was the standard Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (i.e., the Old Testament) in the first century.

However, like the argument about “a” for John 1:1, this argument about the wording of the LXX proves to be irrelevant.[4] The LXX translators were trying to put the actual Hebrew of Ex. 3:14 into better, less literal Greek. Jesus, on the other hand, clearly chose either the literal Hebrew or a literal Greek translation of the Hebrew. Which of these he did is–to me at least–a fascinating question, deserving of a dissertation for which (fortunately for the reader) there is insufficient space here. Just to give the faintest outline of what I mean, when Jesus said, “I am,” he was speaking Aramaic, or Greek, or using the Hebrew of Ex. 3:14. John, in turn, was either translating Jesus’ words or copying them when he eventually recorded them in his gospel. In any case, I take great comfort in my personal conviction that the Bible is inspired and completely inerrant, so I can fully trust that what John wrote was what Jesus meant.

Now, it so happens that Hebrew does not have a direct grammatical equivalent of the Greek “I am” that John wrote down. The Hebrew of Ex. 3:14 is rather flexible, in fact, as one can see by looking at commentaries and comparing marginal notes on it. Ordinarily, the form that we find in Ex. 3:14 would be translated as the future (“I will be”), or occasionally as the past–technically the imperfect tense–depending on the context. So, how is it that we find “I am” in Ex. 3:14? It is a matter of contextual interpretation, which we discussed in chapter 2. While present time is not the usual meaning of the Hebrew construction, it is a possible meaning, and neither the past (“I was”) nor the future (“I will be”) would make good sense in this context.[5]

So then, let’s assume the level of bias in John 8:58 that would be represented by “I AM” in all capital letters. How should we evaluate it? If the connection to Ex. 3:14 can be justified, it becomes a proof text for the deity of Christ, and thus it is good bias from the orthodox viewpoint, or very bad bias from the opposing viewpoint.

Is the connection credible? The two constructions have grammatical awkwardness in common: “I AM has sent me” and “Before Abraham was born I AM.” Also, if Jesus had the “I AM” of Ex. 3:14 in mind, he makes the connection stronger, not weaker, by using the literal Greek for “I am” instead of the LXX’s more polished “the one who exists.”

On the other hand, the contexts are entirely different. In Ex. 3:14 “I AM” is simply the answer to a question, a verb used as a proper noun, to be accepted as the equivalent of the name of God. In John 8:58 “I am” is a verbal statement used in the normal way, except for the mismatch in timing. It is intended to correct the mistaken conclusion of Jesus’ opponents. If Jesus had used a simple past tense, saying, “Before Abraham was born, I existed,” would we make the same connection to Ex. 3:14? I am almost certain that we would not. Ironically, however, the verb form in the Greek would be a grammatical match to the Hebrew “I AM” of Ex. 3:14; so again, it is the awkwardness that seems to connect them. And if we could assume the fact of the connection, then Jesus’ use of the present tense would testify to “I AM” as the correct translation in Ex. 3:14; but that would be begging the question.

Another thing to consider in evaluating the bias is the possibility of collateral benefits or damage to orthodox theology. The same issue comes into view here that we saw in John 1:1, i.e., the possibility of confusing the Father with the Son. In 1:1, fortunately, the use of the article distinguished the two. Here, however, if the connection is valid, we have the voice from the burning bush and Jesus saying the same thing about themselves. The voice is that of the God of Israel, or more specifically from a Trinitarian viewpoint, that of the Father. Can Jesus say “I AM” without making himself the Father? Or is this a proof text that might prove to do as much harm to orthodox theology as it does good?

This is another dissertation-level issue that I will refrain from elaborating here. There are certain theological phenomena in the Bible that seem to allow overlap in the persons of the Father and the Son without actually confusing them. The “Angel of Jehovah[6]” is one, thought by many to be the pre-incarnate Christ speaking in the first person as the direct representative of the Father. There is also the possibility that whenever God appeared to man in the Old Testament, it was actually the pre-incarnate Christ. Also, in the description of the coming Messiah in Is. 9:6, we have among his several titles not only “Mighty God” but the surprising “Eternal Father.” And of course, we also have Christ telling Philip, “He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (John 14:9). So closely and intimately does Jesus represent the Father that we can expect to see him speaking as the Father. Yet he also clearly distinguishes himself from the Father.

Therefore, while I like the connection to Ex. 3:14 and its implication of deity for Jesus, and I do not think that it necessarily poses the problem of confusing the Father with the Son, I also think that there is laudable wisdom in handling “I am” in John 8:58 with restraint. A moderate approach is to put the words in plain text, while including a cross reference to Ex. 3:14, as the NASB translators did in the updated edition, and has been done in a number of other translations.

[1] An NWT advocate would of course say that we have only to insert “a.” But in the first place, as I noted, one cannot change the meaning of a Greek word this way. In the second place, John actually could have added a word (tis) in Greek that served as the equivalent of the indefinite article, or he could have used a different word or construction for “god” that could have been understood as a lesser god.

[2] It would have been anticlimactic at best to underscore the Son positively as a lesser god, since only a god could have existed with “the theos” before creation.

[3] The term “a God” actually occurs once in the NASB, in 1 Cor. 14:33. Unfortunately it is irrelevant for our discussion because it is italic (added to the text) and a different concept.

[4] It also strikes me as being a kind of “straw man” argument in that I do not think a knowledgeable orthodox apologist would make it; it would only benefit the opposing side.

[5] This has not stopped some translators who for one reason or another are fixated on elementary Hebrew grammar from choosing a form of the future. The more experienced translators who choose to acknowledge the common use of the future tense confine the option to a marginal note.

[6] It is translated “angel of the Lord” in the NASB and a number of other versions; I used the more traditional wording.

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