They Changed My Bible Again . . and Again . . . and Again

A few times a week my computer tells me that one piece of software or another has been updated and that I need to download the new versions lest my computer start spewing sparks. I usually don’t notice the differences afterwards, but I’m sure that Big Brother has made sure that my computer is now safe from those who would trample truth, justice, and the American Way.

I did notice one recent update, though. I use Accordance for my Bible software, mostly because it uses the same Greek NT grammatical database tagging and search formatting that had been used by the old Gramcord software. I started using Gramcord somewhere around 1990 on an old DOS computer, and stuck with it for years until I converted to Appleism and had to find a mac-based language search program. So my Accordance update informed me that I would have the latest revisions of the ESV on my computer.

Apparently, no translation is perfect. Shock me.

The ESV, which appeared in 2001, has already been revised once, in 2007. One passage that is of interest to those, like us, who think the Lord’s Supper is pretty important is 1 Cor 11:27. The 2001 edition read, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.” In 2007 this was changed, however, to “. . . will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord.” The latter is closer word-for-word to the Greek, but what does “guilty concerning the body and blood” mean? In other words, if people can’t make sense of it, is it still a “translation?”

It seems, however, that the 2007 revisions were insufficient, so a whole new set has recently been released, and are available here. While not as far-reaching as the changes made to the 2011 edition of the NIV, it has become standard practice for Bible translation companies to release “updates” software-style: tweak a few things here and there, release the update, and sort out compatibility issues later, release another update, repeat. Pretty soon we’ll have NIV 2011.1.2.3 and ESV 2011.4.2.

The ESV 2011 revisions are not huge; most are slight adaptations, a word here or there, and many seem to move closer to the Greek or in interpretive interest rather than aiming for a word-for-word correspondence style. A few things are worth noting, though. “Gender-neutral” issues have become quite the bogey-man in recent years; while the ESV 2011 revisions are by no means a wholesale shift to “gender-neutral” renderings, there are some in evidence. For example, the ESV 2007 at Mark 8:24 reads: “I see men, but they look like trees, walking” becomes “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Some alterations are interpretive. The strangest one may the translation of δοῦλος / slave. It seems that a large number of the occurrences of δοῦλος have been changed in the latest revision to “bondservant.” In 1 Cor 7, for example, the word “bondservant” replaces “slave” in all four examples. What on earth a “bondservant” is, I’d like to know. You won’t find it in any standard Greek-English lexicon. Even so, the revision is not consistent. There are about a dozen occurrences of the stem (δουλεύω δουλεία δοῦλος) in Galatians, but almost all of these are all left as “slave” or “slavery” – perhaps it would be to confusing to translate the verb δουλεύω (e.g. Gal 4:8: “do not be enslaved”) as “bondervanted” which, of course, is not a word in English. Or again, to translate δουλεία (e.g. Gal 5:1 do not submit again to a yoke of slavery”) as “bondservantness” or something would be nonsense – you’d have to make up a word to keep the textual links. But at Gal 1:10, where Paul calls himself “slave of Christ” the ESV chooses to use “servant.” Confused? So am I. The most egregious examples show up in Philippians – and this goes back to the original ESV and even the KJV. In Philippians 1:1 Paul and Timothy are δοῦλοι, but that is translated neither as “slaves” nor as “bondservants” but as “servants.” So there are three different words used in the ESV 2011 revision to translate a single Greek word. And when we get to the great Hymn of Christ in Philippians 2 Jesus Christ – the ultimate slave —  is, weakly, a “servant.” Of course there are huge issues with how post-Civil War Americans hear the word “slave,” and there are shameful examples of slavery still practiced in our advanced and enlightened age. But I would prefer to let the vocabulary be used consistently, and then help the reader sort out what “slavery” actually entails in the ancient world. A great place to start is with John Nordling’s commentary on Philemon, BTW.

I’ve rambled on a bit, but I hope you see the problem. We now have revision upon revision, layer upon layer of translations, all with the same name. This causes several problems. First, you might want to brush up on your Greek (I didn’t check the revisions in the OT, but you’ll probably need to brush up on your Hebrew, too). At least sort out what a “bondservant” is supposed to be – I think the Apostle would be scratching his head, and your people probably will, too. Second, the ESV that I have on my computer is not the ESV that I have in my Lutheran Study Bible. Whether the revisions are good, bad, or indifferent, you might want to check before you cut-and-paste from your Bible program or website. The text you use might be different from what the people in your Bible study have in front of them, whether in hard copy or pulled up on their tablet. Third, get used to having plastic, malleable texts of the Bible. The online world is teaching us that notions of a “perfect” or “original text” are modern, industrial, mass-produced constructs which are impossible in our digital age. Texts change all the time, even texts of the Bible.

Yet this shouldn’t get us too worked up. Before the invention of the printing press a mere 550 years ago, the few people who could read and even fewer people who had access to a written biblical text were quite well aware that there were differences in the hand-copied manuscripts. Read through Jerome, Origen, Tertullian, or Augustine. All of them comment on differences in the manuscripts. Did Mark the Evangelist write Mark 16:9-20? Neither Origen nor Eusebius thought so, but you’ll find it in your Bible. Nevertheless, even with a biblical text that was different from manuscript to manuscript (or year to year as we have today), the church was able to hear the voice of the Shepherd, follow him faithfully, and preach Christ. Even with the manuscript mess. And we can do the same – KJV, NIV ESV and more, and all the revisions in between. Read the text. Hear the Shepherd.





15 responses to “They Changed My Bible Again . . and Again . . . and Again”

  1. eric Avatar

    Could you update this please? It seems to be outdated already.
    Standard answer to the question, “which Bible is the best one?”- It’s the one you read.
    Not that you shouldn’t be aware of the changes or translation approaches, but ultimately, the one that you read is going to show forth Jesus.

    1. Noah Avatar

      My grandfather was a pastor who had to learn German to go to the seminary. While I was in seminary, a gentlemen came to my parents home and gave me my grandpa’s German Bible. After spending a couple years moving boxes of books, I decided that that book was pretty worthless to me. My parents didn’t quite agree at the time. They kept it and now 8 years after, they have moved and are trying to clean house. I now have my grandpas German Bible. Can I read it? Well, it depends. Probably best to say that I can’t. Would I like too? Well, of course, who wouldn’t love to be able to utilize another language.

      Eric’s response got me thinking. I do agree that we can get lost in translation, but I also believe that we should be asking what it means to read. I serve a community of people who are less prone to be strong readers. We’ve begun to think about translations in that we’ve worked with 3 different ones. The translation that we currently use in worship is probably the most readable (what does this mean?). It’s readable in the sense that it uses common English words and fits more of their reading level.

      Upon these decisions, I asked some leaders in our church body why one translation over another (Why ESV over others). When asked about readability, the response for the translation requiring the most complex vocabulary (ESV) was that….it’s extremely readable…..we have children memorizing it and singing to it.

      Again, what is readability? On one hand, I can read my grandpa’s German Bible, but I cannot understand it at all. I know not any German. I can read a Shakespearean Bible translation and get it for the most part, but the reason for that is my education, study of, devotion to, and association with the translation I grew up reading. I can read a literal Greek translation better than most, but I still have to dig into the meaning.

      The question amongst these discussions is what is “readable”. I think we must be cautious not to forget the Holy Spirit and understanding of the Bible being God’s voice and communication to us. I think that is what Eric is saying by reading it. Don’t allow these questions to keep you from reading.

      One thing that has happened in the congregation I serve is that with the changes in translation, people are talking about the word changes. The next thing they know, they are talking about God. Initially, I didn’t see this as a positive aspect, until I saw a conversation around coffee go from local affairs, to words uses in the texts of worship.

      Thanks for the updates on ESV. I don’t think I’d know anything about it if it wasn’t for a few of your posts and comments.

    2. Jeff Kloha Avatar
      Jeff Kloha

      Yeah, I know, Eric, it is outdated. They came out with ESV 2011.4.4 last night. Check your computers.

      If we can get our people to focus on the big picture (Christ) and not get concerned if they have the “right Bible”, great. I get this question almost every time I do a workshop or Bible study somewhere, though. The problem we have today is not inaccurate translations, it is people who either don’t read the Scriptures or read it inaccurately. You can find a lot of that on the internet. Or did I miss the end of the world, as some guy keeps predicting?

  2. Erik Herrmann Avatar
    Erik Herrmann

    It’s hard to read one’s tone or intent in such posts but your comment does sound a bit “snarky”–“outdated” seems unwarranted. Perhaps you can elaborate. In any event, the fact that you and I have a Bible to read is the result of people who have cared about such questions as Kloha raised and bothered to translate it into our language. You may be disinterested in the topic but that’s only because others have done the hard work so that you have the luxury to be so.

  3. David Oberdieck Avatar

    Try the NASB. Their last change, I believe, was in 1995.

    1. Jeff Kloha Avatar
      Jeff Kloha

      And the KJV hasn’t changed (much) since 1769. Except they took out the OT apocrypha.

      Yes, the last revision of the NASB was in 1995. Of course, the goal of the NASB was not to produce a readable English text but one that matched, as close as possible, the word order of the Hebrew and Greek. So, since their goal was not a translation that most readers can understand or that can be read out loud for use in worship there has been no reason to change it as language inevitably shifts.

      Try making sense of Eph 1:3-14 in the NASB:

  4. Eric (but not the Eric who first commented) Avatar
    Eric (but not the Eric who first commented)

    This made me chuckle; when asked “Which is the best translation?”, I had a friend who was known to reply, “Translations are for sissies.”

    Although some translations are, indeed, better than others, the fact of the matter is that a translation that goes unread is of no value to anyone. Better to struggle through a “Revised Substandard Perversion” (to use Dr. Lessing’s terminology) than not to read the Bible at all!

    Before I had the advantage of the original languages (which is, admittedly, a work in progress), I often relied on a process of “triangulation” where I would consult multiple translations in order to try and get at the underlying nuances of a given reading. I think that probably worked pretty well to pull back the covers on the different theological bents of the various translations.

    1. Jeff Kloha Avatar
      Jeff Kloha

      A reminder to the Erics (and everyone else) that we prefer commenters to use their full names. Makes things easier (and safer) for everyone.

      I like your “triangulation” metaphor. Of course, that method may only result in “pooling ignorance.” And, the reality is that all decent translations are more or less just revisions of the KJV. Maybe we should call that method “tritransgulation” — that sort of sounds like “strangulation” of the text, which is what one does when not working with the Hebrew and Greek.

    2. David Oberdieck Avatar

      Jeff, what do you think about the Beck Bible? Our younger children use it during Sunday school. What do you feel would be a good easy reading version?

      I don’t think the NASB was very difficult on Eph 1:9f. I usually us the NASB when quoting a bible passage in my sermons. Nonetheless, there certainly are verses better read from the NIV.

  5. James Snapp, Jr. Avatar

    Greetings Jeff.

    It looks like some criticisms of the ESV are having an effect.

    The shift to “servants” is odd, but the shift to “horn” is more so, I’d say; it makes the text more literal but also a bit harder for the average reader to understand.

    JK: “The online world is teaching us that notions of a “perfect” or “original text” are modern, industrial, mass-produced constructs which are impossible in our digital age.”

    I’m not sure what you mean.

    JK: “Texts change all the time, even texts of the Bible.”

    Granted, but a change in a translation does not constitute a change to the original text. I can hold two entirely different translations — one in English, and one in Chinese — in which every letter is different, and yet that does not mean that the original text has changed.

    JK: “Before the invention of the printing press … the few people who could read and even fewer people who had access to a written biblical text were quite well aware that there were differences in the hand-copied manuscripts.”

    Yes, and they complained about that.

    JK: “Did Mark the Evangelist write Mark 16:9-20? Neither Origen nor Eusebius thought so.”

    Regarding Origen: evidence please. Where exactly does Origen chime in on that subject one way or the other? Iirc, he simply does not clearly use the contents of Mark 16:9-20, but that’s true of most 12-verse portions of Mark. (Eusebius seems to have been of two minds on the question, but that would take a while to explain.)

    JK: “And we can do the same – KJV, NIV ESV and more, and all the revisions in between. Read the text. Hear the Shepherd.”

    Certainly that can be managed. But if one rendering is superior to another, I don’t see the wisdom of diluting what is accurate by mixing it with what is almost as accurate.

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr.

    1. Jeff Kloha Avatar
      Jeff Kloha

      Thanks, James. I’ve seen your numerous contributions to the “Textual Criticism” email list.

      re the Origen reference, mea culpa. An earlier draft had mentioned a different textual problem, and I forgot to fix the reference to Origen. It is not always the case, though, that the early medieval users of the manuscripts “complained about” the variants. Origen, for one, would sometimes comment on both readings in passages where there was a variant. The point is that users of manuscripts expected there to be “problems” with their text, simply because the manuscripts were hand produced. Perfectly identical copies were impossible, because they were made by hand. Certainly the users and annotators of the manuscripts frequently added, deleted, and changed words. Whether that was to “fix” a perceived problem, a correction toward another manuscript, or some kind of gloss is usually impossible to determine. In other words, were they trying to fix their manuscript to restore and “original text”? Or were they trying to produce a “readable” or “usable” text?

      I’m not sure about how you would define “original text” — part of the challenge that we face in speaking about the authority of the Bible is that “the original text” is unattainable, if by that term we mean the text that left the pen of the authors of the individual writings. If the only BIble that can be authoritative is the one that has the original Greek and Hebrew texts, and has been perfectly translated, then we will never have an authoritative Bible. This is my point about “perfect texts” and “original texts.” One can only speak of such things in a Western, industrial, publishing industry framework. As David Parker and others have pointed out, it is very difficult to define precisely what the “original text” is of even Faulkner or Shakespeare, let alone the gospels or Pauline letters. That is not to say, as some do, that we have a complete mess on our hands, and that what we have in the manuscripts is far removed from what Paul wrote to Rome, for example. But when we get down to this word and or that word, sometimes it is is impossible to make a firm decision about which reading is correct.

      And, regarding “accurate” translations, that is a whole different matter entirely. Accurate *to whom* is the key question. Translators are forced to envision a target reader with a certain linguistic background, familiarity with the biblical narrative, theological language, educational level, register, etc. What might be “accurate” to me may not be clear (and hence accurate) to someone else. Of course we aim to have that word communicate clearly, and here at Concordia Seminary students are required to pass Greek and Hebrew exams before even being admitted to the program. That is because we cannot rely solely on translations.

      Thanks for chiming in.

  6. Mark Brown Avatar
    Mark Brown

    Dr. Kloha –

    You run into this problem like in the Advent 3 Gospel. Was there 1 group of questioners (Pharisee priests, ESV), or 2 groups (priests and then pharisees, NIV)? And that makes a difference for proclamation. Especially when the version running through the preacher’s head is different than what is in the lectionary books.

    One question. Most Lutherans, but also the larger evangelical world has taken Latin Sola Scriptura as Word Alone meaning the bible alone. That becomes really frightening when the bible starts multiplying. With the flood of changes and translations, do you think we might be being forced to recover a more dangerous but more dynamic understanding of Word Alone?

    1. Jeff Kloha Avatar
      Jeff Kloha

      Hello, Mark. Yep, the John 1:19-28 passage is a good example showing that “translation” is always interpretation. Is v. 24 parenthetical, clarifying who the priests and Levites (v. 19) were sent by, or is it another group? So, how do you go about figuring out which is the right “interpretation”?

      As to the “sola scriptura” — the “scriptura” part leaves no doubt that it is emphasizing what is “written” (the reformers did not say “solo verbo dei”). Two comments, though. 1) sola scriptura is an ablative of means — scripture is a means to something else, and that something is Christ. Their point was that you cannot get to Christ by human traditions, only by scripture. Our faith is not “in the Bible,” it is “in Christ.” 2) this does not mean that we cannot get to Christ without a single, perfect Bible, or single perfect translation — you are on to something when you hint at the Lutheran theology of the Word of God as encompassing more than scripture. The Law and the Gospel, the spoken Word of God, does his work. How do you know the spoken word is the correct word? It is only if it corresponds to that which we know is Word of God, i.e., the scriptures. Deviate from those and you are no longer speaking Word of God. Now, do we have those scriptures perfectly down to the letter? The canonical and textual history tells us pretty clearly, no. But does that mean that what we have is completely fabricated and unreliable? No. Those are false alternatives, which unfortunately are usually the only two options laid out.

      Historic Lutheranism (I’d rather say historic, creedal Christianity) has always operated with a “more dynamic understanding of the Word Alone” — Irenaeus is among the earliest and clearest examples. The Word of God is both spoken and written. What might make us uncomfortable is that we cannot control the Word — sometimes, more often than we would like, the Word challenges our lives and our thinking. If it is not, then we are not reading/hearing it correctly.

  7. The Right Reverend Eric J Edwards Avatar
    The Right Reverend Eric J Edwards

    ESV 2011.5.0 available now with Apocrypha! (well, not yet anyway…)

    So, if the question is asked by those who are concerned that they have the most accurate, up-to-date texts, we can assure them that unless there is another great finding like at Qumran and some new original texts are found, like Paul’s letter to the Laodiceans, the ones that they have in their hands, on their bookshelves or under their couchs (if the contents are read/heard) are good for pointing to Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. Something Paul said to young Tim about being acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus…All scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. Or maybe that’s an outdated version…
    So I guess until the Word made flesh returns, we should stick to the written Word and be hearers/listeners and proclaimers/tellers of the Word (demonstrate a orthodox, trinitarian, Christocentric, Evangelical, creedal hermeneutic in the process) and let the Holy Spirit work to kill sin and bring to life. hmm. Ive got work to do.

    1. Jeff Kloha Avatar
      Jeff Kloha

      I thought you were left-handed, Eric?

      There is a ms. that has the title of a book “to the Laodiceans,” but unfortunately no text. And there’s that whole Marcion thing. Keep on working anyway.

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