God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Miracles and Wonders

Are there miracles in the Bible?

The KJV uses the word “miracle” (or “miracles”) less than 30 times. The ESV, only about a dozen. And the NAB half of that, even with the apocrypha. Yet the word appears over 150 times in the NLT. So miracles pervade the Bible only in some translations. Why?

What’s going on, I think, is this:

The most common use of “miracle” in English is to refer to something (good) that science can’t explain. So it’s a miracle when a patient lives in spite of a deadly disease, or — depending on one’s view of the details — when a sea splits to let a people leave oppression. Miracles, by this way of thinking, are extra-scientific events.

But there was little science when the NT was written, and even less in the days of the OT. So to an ancient author, the splitting of the Red Sea would have been in the same category as, say, an eclipse. And neither of them would have been miracles, because — there being no science — neither one could have been considered extra-scientific. They were “wonders,” but they weren’t “miracles.”

So one approach holds that the word “miracle” is an anachronism in Bible translation, no different, really, than “neuron” would be. This is why many versions prefer “signs,” “wonders,” and even “portents” to “miracles.” (Though in many translations it seems that “miracle” was sometimes mechanically replaced by another term. For example, the ESV takes the KJV’s “John did no miracle” [John 10:41] and turns it in to “John did no sign.”)

The other approach suggests that we might know more about the text than the original authors: what if what the ancients considered “wonders” were really miracles, only they didn’t know it back then? (I think this question applies whether or not one believes the literal truth of the text. Before the text can be believed or not, it has to be understood.) Should a translation reflect our improved understanding?


October 25, 2009 - Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , , ,


  1. I think what we need to also ask is, what do these words mean in English? I think sign as used by the Bible is not a natural English meaning anymore, or at least a rare one. If it works for Christians that’s only because they are familiar with it.

    Comment by Dannii | October 25, 2009

    • I agree. “Did a sign,” at best, is a technical use of the word “sign.” At worst, it makes no sense.

      Comment by Joel H. | October 26, 2009

  2. […] has a great question, The KJV uses the word “miracle” (or “miracles”) less than 30 times. The ESV, only about a […]

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