On Errors in Bible Translations

Preachers and critics of various Bible translations frequently refer to specific translations as “errors” and even make lists of errors in various translations.

In fact, I have heard preachers with very limited knowledge of biblical languages announce to their congregations that a certain translation in a Bible version is totally wrong, and yet the preacher is able to provide the correct translation.

Thus I am careful with the use of the word “error” when reviewing Bible translations. All human works are subject to human errors, so a translation can, in fact, be wrong. The critic or the preacher presenting the text can also be wrong.

Here are some levels I consider:

  1. The actual, definite error. This usually results either from a failure of the proof-reading process or even historically from the typesetting process. It’s just a mistake. In case of an individual translation, it can be a result of the translator simply misunderstanding the text. A good example of this was provided for me by a preacher who, realizing I was in the audience, announced to his congregation that a certain verse should be translated in a certain way because Greek aorist verbs always meant continuous action, while imperfect verbs referred to action at a particular point in time. This reverses the simplified discussion often given in beginning Greek classes, where students are told that an aorist verb refers to action at a single point (punctiliar) while imperfect verbs refer to continuous action over time. And that is horribly oversimplified, and doesn’t really tell you how to translate a verse. That statement was an error. Just wrong.
  2. A technical disagreement about the language. There are differences of opinion on what particular words mean. An example might be interpretation of the word “head” in Ephesians 5:23. I have a definite opinion on this and might tend to say that those who disagree are in error, but there are reasonably sound linguistic arguments for more than one interpretation.
  3. A disagreement about the text. This results from understanding manuscript variations differently. You can see an extended, well-written discussion of such an issue in a discussion of Mark 3:14 on bible.org. This sort of thing should be referred to as a disagreement again, not an error.
  4. Disagreements in the choice of English words. I can illustrate this with an experience of my own. I wrote a study guide to Hebrews, now out of print awaiting my completion of corrections for a second edition. I was teaching from my own study guide and talking about the word often translated “perfection” in Hebrews 6:1. I commented that I thought “maturity” might be too weak of a translation. As I drove home I had this nagging feeling that something was off, and so when I got home I consulted my own translation as contained in the study guide, where to my consternation I found “maturity.” Oops!
  5. Differences in expressions of theological concepts. A good example of this is the use of hilasterion in Romans 3:25. There has been considerable controversy over whether this should definitely be “propitiation” or if some other word/phrase represents it better. Your theology will strongly influence your preference.

I would suggest to pastors and teachers that they try to avoid expressions that will suggest to the people in the pews that they can’t reasonably rely on the translation they hold in their hands, at least as long as that translation is not extremely eccentric or sectarian. It’s also good to have some humility on declaring the work of a committee of scholars to be in error based on a couple of years of seminary Greek or Hebrew.

This doesn’t mean you can’t comment, but it’s much better to use phrases like “I would prefer” or “I think the ______ version expresses this better.” Especially when your interpretation is somewhat out of the mainstream, acknowledge that fact.

We can express our preferences without driving people away from scripture by telling them they can’t discover these things for themselves. Oh, and I will continue to repeatedly suggest that people who don’t know the original languages use multiple English translations to help them understand the range of possibilities.

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