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Saturday, June 03, 2006

Bible translation inaccuracies

Critics of various English Bible versions sometimes point to certain translation wordings as being "inaccuracies". It has been my experience, so far, that it is actually rather difficult to prove that a certain translation wording is actually inaccurate. Typically, what is claimed to be an inaccuracy is, rather, a difference of opinion about how the original biblical language text should be interpreted and then translated. This does not at all mean that everything is relative when it comes to translating the Bible. Genuine translation inaccuracies are possible and they have made their way into some Bible versions. But they are not nearly as common as claimed.

Here is one translation error that I am aware of in the KJV:
And when he had apprehended him, he put [him] in prison, and delivered [him] to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people. (Acts 12:5)
The word "Easter" is not an accurate translation of the Greek word pascha of this verse. The correct translation, as found in all other translations, as far as I am aware, is "Passover." I have seen arguments from some KJV advocates that "Easter" is not an inaccurate translation, but I think those arguments have more to do with trust in the KJV itself than accurate understanding of the Greek pascha. The English word "Easter" did not originate until six or so centuries after the resurrection of Christ, which is celebrated at Easter. The word "Easter" probably comes from the name for a pagan celebration of spring and a goddess named for that celebration. Use of the word "Easter" in the book of Acts strikes me as a historical anachronism. That is, Easter is a name for a holiday which did not exist during the time the events in Acts took place.

Many Trinitarian Christians claim that the New World Translation of John 1:1 translates theos at the end of the verse erroneously as "a god," instead of "God." But Greek grammar allows for the NWT translation, so it cannot rightly be called a translation error if we base our evidence for whether or not something is a translation error solely on the facts of the biblical language text.

Dr. Wayne Grudem and those who help him have claimed 910 errors in the New Testament of the TNIV and a total of 3,686 inaccuracies in the entire TNIV. But examination of their claims of TNIV translation "inaccuracies" likewise shows them to be matters of differences in interpretation, ideology, or translation philosophy preference, and not actual translation errors supported only by the facts of the biblical language texts. I hope to blog on the purported TNIV "inaccuracies" in the future, sometime when I get a break in my currently heavy work load.

I have for quite some time wanted to compile a collection of genuine translation errors in English Bible versions. These need to be translation wordings which a consensus of biblical language scholars agree, apart from ideological or theological considerations, are not supported by the facts of the biblical languages. What are some such translation errors that you are aware of? Would you please help me create such a list in the comments to this post.

13 Comments:

At Fri Jun 02, 03:46:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Is "Easter" in Acts 12:4 KJV really an error? It looks strange to us now. But in its own time it may have been justifiable in one of a number of ways. At that time the word might have been used to refer to the Jewish Passover. Or, since the Jewish Passover was not well known in England where at the time there were no Jews, this might have been a valid cultural substitution. Or indeed it might have been a considered exegetical decision (although one which modern exegetes would probably not agree with) that the festival which King Herod had in mind was in fact the celebration of the Resurrection, and not the Jewish festival referred to in the previous verse - in other words, "a difference of opinion about how the original biblical language text should be interpreted".

You point out that "The English word "Easter" did not originate until six or so centuries after the resurrection of Christ". This is true, but the same is probably true of every other English word (at least those of Anglo-Saxon origin). That is not a reason to avoid them in a translation into a language which didn't exist at the time of Christ! The issue is not when the word originated, or its derivation (even if from a pagan goddess), but what it refers to.

I am writing this to reinforce your point that "it is actually rather difficult to prove that a certain translation wording is actually inaccurate"!

On the other hand, there surely are such things as real errors in Bibles. I found an interesting Wikipedia page on Bible errata. Coverdale's "bugges", the Great Bible's "treacle" and the Geneva Bible's "breeches" reflect strange but probably genuine exegetical opinions. The other errors listed here are probably simply printers' errors, but perhaps this is the only type (or typo) which can unambiguously be called error.

 
At Fri Jun 02, 04:12:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Is "Easter" in Acts 12:4 KJV really an error? It looks strange to us now. But in its own time it may have been justifiable in one of a number of ways. At that time the word might have been used to refer to the Jewish Passover. Or, since the Jewish Passover was not well known in England where at the time there were no Jews, this might have been a valid cultural substitution. Or indeed it might have been a considered exegetical decision (although one which modern exegetes would probably not agree with) that the festival which King Herod had in mind was in fact the celebration of the Resurrection, and not the Jewish festival referred to in the previous verse - in other words, "a difference of opinion about how the original biblical language text should be interpreted".

You point out that "The English word "Easter" did not originate until six or so centuries after the resurrection of Christ". This is true, but the same is probably true of every other English word (at least those of Anglo-Saxon origin). That is not a reason to avoid them in a translation into a language which didn't exist at the time of Christ! The issue is not when the word originated, or its derivation (even if from a pagan goddess), but what it refers to.


Good points, Peter. I wanted to focus on whether or not "Easter" was a valid translation of pascha or not. I think my referring to the origin of the word "Easter" detracted from that focus.

I'm sure that early Christians celebrated the resurrection of Christ before there was a holiday that we now call Easter. That's not my point, of course.

You have suggested that "Easter" might be a good cultural substitution for the concept of Passover. Your point is valid and something worth debating. The fact that the Acts verse is the only place where the AV/KJV translators used the word "Easter" in the entire Bible raised my eyebrows, but it is not definitive.

I appreciate your bringing in these additional ideas about "Easter". It does show, as you point out, how really difficult it is to find genuine errors in Bible translations. Most Bible translators are very careful in their work. We may not agree with all their decisions but it is difficult to prove from the biblical languages that their decisions rise to the level of being translation inaccuracies. I wish that Dr. Grudem would use some other term for translation wordings about which people disagree. I'm sure we could find a number of translation wordings in the ESV, which Dr. Grudem helped work on, with which we would disagree with, but I'm not sure I could call any of them a genuine "inaccuracy."

 
At Fri Jun 02, 05:38:00 PM, Blogger Ian Myles Slater said...

Other European languages use something derived from "Pesach" where English has "nativized" the Christian holy day to Easter -- which may have been just a name for the season, evidence for an actual goddess being rather hard to come by. And in "Passover" English has a loan-translation as a name for the older pilgrimage festival, and its modern Jewish version.

Some over-eager translators whose acquaintance with spoken English was less than ample, or with limited exposure to other religions, have sometimes introduced the phrase "Jewish Easter" into texts which were perfectly clear to begin with, in contexts where "Passover" would be the obvious alternative.

I think this happened several times in articles by the meticulous A.J. Wensinck, who was even kind enough to thank those responsible for correcting his imperfect English!

Defining "mistake" in the KJV will depend on first consulting reliable histories of English to see what was intended -- e.g., whether "apple" still meant "fruit" in general. But, obsolete vocabulary aside, it does perpetuate a certain number of obsolete understandings, which can give a misleading impression.

For example, "ashishah" is now understood to mean "raisins" or "cake of raisins," but in KJV it is a flagon: "a flagon of wine" in 2 Sam. 6.19 and 1 Chr. 16.3, "flagons of wine" in Hosea 3.1, and just "flagons" in Song of Songs 2.5. This follows the understanding of the Geneva Bible of 1560, which actually had "bottel" instead -- which, being more common today, would probably not have given rise to the argument that "flagon of wine" meant "cake of raisins" in 1607, and still does (which I have encountered.) I've never tried to trace it farther back.

 
At Fri Jun 02, 07:20:00 PM, Blogger R. Mansfield said...

I have a friend who is Greek Orthodox. He refers to Easter as Pascha. It makes you wonder if the words weren't used synonymously in Elizabethan English.

 
At Fri Jun 02, 07:29:00 PM, Blogger Bill Combs said...

"It has been my experience, so far, that it is actually rather difficult to prove that a certain translation wording is actually inaccurate." I think that is very true, Wayne, especially with most modern versions. I think we have a better chance of spotting real errors in an older translation like the KJV.

In the case of Easter I think Peter's suggestion is most likely correct: "Or, since the Jewish Passover was not well known in England where at the time there were no Jews, this might have been a valid cultural substitution."

Still, I myself would fault the translators at this point and consider "Easter" an error. Of course, the famous KJV-only proponent Peter Ruckman claimed that "mistakes in the A.V. 1611 are advanced revelation!"

I tried to deal with the issue of errors in the KJV a few years ago, particularily in connection the KJV-only movement: http://www.dbts.edu/journals/1999/Combs.pdf

 
At Sat Jun 03, 05:36:00 AM, Blogger Henry Neufeld said...


I think we have a better chance of spotting real errors in an older translation like the KJV.


I would question the use of the term "error" for the KJV if any translation was supported by the linguistic scholarship of their time. I think that would eliminate a large number of "error candidates." One should not fault the KJV translators for not knowing things that were discovered after their time.

I would point out such inaccuracies (in the light of modern scholarship) to those who think the KJV should still be used, but I would not count them for a list of errors in translation.

 
At Sat Jun 03, 09:32:00 AM, Blogger Jeremy Pierce said...

Henry, not knowing that you're making a linguistic mistake doesn't mean you're not making one. Errors are errors regardless of your understanding of the information necessary to know that they're errors.

Are you sure the Greek of John 1:1 allows the NWT translation? I've been told by Greek specialists with no theological axe to grind that the text in its current word order and inflections can't be made to mean what they translate it as. It's not just that the traditional renderings are more likely. It's a matter of Greek grammar not allowing that translation at all.

 
At Sat Jun 03, 10:59:00 AM, Blogger M. J. Mansini said...

According to many sources, Tyndale invented the English word "Passover" to refer to the festival of the Jews, rendered in Hebrew as "Pesah", or Greek "Pascha" (amongst the many other words and phrases he came up with). This would have taken place in the 1520's or the 1530's if my memory serves correct.

Wayne, I find your comments about Dr. Grudem to be very interesting, because for me, he represents an oddity of sorts, a modern day amalgam of old time "boys" if you will. For example, in 1526 Cuthbert Tunstall preached a sermon against William Tyndales New Testament in English, in which he (Tunstall) claimed that he had identified 2,000 translation errors in Tyndales work. He also lobbied for public burnings of the books, banned selling of the volumes (he was the Bishop of London after all), etc.

Is Dr. Grudem a modern day Cuthbert Tunstall? Who knows, Dr. Grudem partakes of some of the activities that have been common to those who object throughout history to something; if, perhaps, at a different point in time, say, 500-600 years ago, Dr. Grudem had been alive, maybe we would have seen other tactics? You never really know.

All in good fun.

Matthew M.

 
At Sat Jun 03, 11:48:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Bill, thank you for your interesting article. It provides examples of what must be judged to be translation errors in KJV:

Isaiah 13:15 "joined" instead of "captured"
Revelation 17:8 "and yet is" instead of "and shall come"
Romans 7:6 "that being dead" instead of "(we being) dead" (this one is theologically quite significant)
Acts 26:14 additional words
Hebrews 10:23 "faith" instead of "hope"

But in Revelation 16:5, I think we ought to allow that Beza was making a genuine scholarly conjectural emendation rather than an error. And "robbers of churches" in Acts 19:37 might be allowable on the grounds that in KJV "church" was not restricted to Christian congregations: Acts 7:38 "the church in the wilderness" (a phrase which must have embarrassed Strong because he splits his concordance context between these words under both "church" and "wilderness").

 
At Sat Jun 03, 02:14:00 PM, Blogger Talmida said...

I know of one error in the KJV, the NKJV and the Douay-Rheims at Isaiah 40:3.

They say that a voice cries out in the wilderness: Prepare the way...

The Hebrew (and most modern translations) indicate that a voice cries out: In the wilderness prepare the way...

 
At Sun Jun 04, 01:17:00 AM, Blogger anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At Fri Jun 09, 10:25:00 AM, Blogger A None ymus said...

[I have for quite some time wanted to compile a collection of genuine translation errors in English Bible versions. These need to be translation wordings which a consensus of biblical language scholars agree, apart from ideological or theological considerations, are not supported by the facts of the biblical languages.]

If ever you do make such a list I would like to have a copy for my files.

What about a list of preferential translating; things like translating diakonos as deacon in most places except in relationship to Rom. 16:1. In reality servant is the more accurate translation since the word "deacon" was not coined until later. The meaning of servant has been lowered in order to lift up the meaning of deacon into official status. But servant was really the highest calling according to Christ.

 
At Fri Jun 09, 04:59:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

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