God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Exploring the Bible Videos

I’m thrilled to announce the beta version of my latest project: Exploring the Bible videos. The site is a growing collection of short text-based videos about the Bible, frequently focusing on translation issues.


The first three videos (also available on YouTube) are:

Longer than a soundbite and (much) shorter than a lecture, each video presents a single idea in two or three minutes.

These first three videos mirror blog posts I’ve written (here, here, and here).

My hope is that these videos will be an effective way of discussing the text of the Bible, because the medium of video makes it possible to display the text as I talk about it.

Please let me know what you think.

I’ll also be grateful if you can ask a few friends or colleagues to take a look — particularly if they don’t follow this blog — so I can get a sense of what these videos are like for people who encounter the material for the first time.



March 28, 2011 Posted by | announcements, translation practice, translation theory, video | , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

Do you talk this way at home?

I recently observed master teacher and musician Kenny Green telling children about the Jewish month of Adar.

“Once Adar begins, we increase our happiness,” he explained, using the usual terminology. Then he added with a self-mocking grin, “yes, I talk that way at home, too.”

There’s a Hebrew verb hirbah that means generally “to do/have/make a lot.”

For example, in Genesis 3:16, God punishes women by hirbahing their pain in childbirth; the usual translation is “multiply” or “increase,” though it’s not clear that there was originally any pain to be multiplied or increased. I think the point is closer to “you will have severe pain” than to “you will have more pain.”

In Genesis 34:12 we find the imperative in the context of “hirbah to me greatly the dowry and gift — I will give it.” I think the point here is, “no matter how high you make the dowry….”

In Psalm 78(77):38, the verb appears before an expression that probably means “to show restraint,” and there the NRSV translates, “often [God] restrained his anger.”

The core meaning of the verb is what “multiply,” “increase,” “make high,” “frequently,” etc. have in common. We don’t have anything like this in English.

The Rabbis used the verb in expressions like, marbeh tz’daka, marbeh shalom, commonly translated “the more charity, the more peace” or even less felicitously, “the one who increases charity increases peace.” “Charity leads to peace” is the point. (Marbeh is the present tense of hirbah.)

This brings us to the tradition of the month of Adar. “From the time Adar enters, we marbeh in happiness.”

It’s a pretty simply concept. “Adar is the time of happiness.” Or, perhaps more poetically, “Happiness abounds in Adar.” A reasonable translation of the Rabbi’s statement might be, “From the time Adar begins happiness abounds.”

By contrast, the usual translation (“we increase our happiness”) is barely English, and a variation, “we have an increase in our happiness,” seems more reminiscent of a sterile scientific experiment than of joy.

Kenny Green correctly noted that his own customary speech made sense only to people who already knew what he was saying.

More generally, I think Bible translations frequently end up as incomprehensible English, but because some people already know what the translation is supposed to mean, they don’t realize that their translation doesn’t say it.

One easy way to see this is to use the grammar of the translation in a new, secular context.

For example, “once July enters, we increase our free time.” It’s barely English.

Similarly, going back to John 3:16, “I so do my homework…” doesn’t mean “this is how I do my homework.”

I think Kenny’s approach can be a useful guide in translation. After you’ve worked through the ancient vocabulary and grammar, and after you’ve crafted an English rendition that you think captures the original, a reasonable question might be, “do you talk this way at home?”

February 4, 2010 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , | 9 Comments

So, What? John 3:16 and the Lord’s Prayer

Scripture Zealot reminds us that the usual translation of John 3:16 is wrong. The Greek there doesn’t mean, “for God so loved the world…,” so the line shouldn’t read (NRSV) “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Watch my “Exporing the Bible” video about John 3:16.

The translation used to be right, though, when “so” between a subject and a verb meant “in this manner.” The word “so” is meant to translate the Greek outos, and the point of John 3:16 is that “God loved the world like this….” or “God loved the world in this way….” or “This is how God loved the world.” (Don’t confuse “outos,” meaning “so,” with autos, which means something else.)

The word outos appears hundreds of times in the NT, including in the introduction to what has become known as the Lord’s prayer. Most translations get the word right in Matthew 6:9, as for example, “after this manner” (KJV), which is needlessly awkward but still generally accurate; “in this way” (NRSV); “like this” (ESV); variations on “this is how” (NAB, NIV); etc. (Outos doesn’t appear in the introduction to the “short Lord’s prayer” in Luke.)

So John 3:16 should read along the lines of, “for this is how God loved the world…”

The meaning of John 3:16 is not generally a disputed point.

The authors of the KJV knew what outos meant, but in their 400-year-old dialect (it wasn’t 400 years old then — but it is now), “God so loved…” meant “God loved in this way….”

The translators of the ESV knew it, too, and they even added a footnote to John 3:16: “Or For this is how God loved the world.” I can only guess that they didn’t change the KJV because in this case they valued tradition over accuracy.

The current translations are as wrong as it would be to render Matthew 6:9 as “you should pray this much….” instead of “you should pray this way….”

Other versions also seem to prefer tradition over accuracy when it comes to John 3:16, even when they do not adhere to the KJV translation tradition. The NLT rewrites the line, but their rendition, “For God loved the world so much that….” is a rewrite of the wrong meaning. The Message gets it wrong, too, with “This is how much God loved the world….” So does the CEV: “God loved the people of this world so much….” In other words, these three translations rewrote the wrong meaning to make the wrong meaning more accessible.

This pattern is interesting, and, I think, important for understanding the field of Bible translation. We see that in practice Bible translation is not simply translation applied to the Bible (though many people think that it should be).

Cases like these — where the Greek is easy to understand and generally undisputed — show us that even the most knowledgeable Bible translators can have trouble breaking free from their familiar, if wrong, translations.

February 4, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 40 Comments