From: Theology’s Impact on Translation: KJV to NRSV Return to Home
By Roland H. Worth, Jr. © 2013
Popular Protestant Theology
in the Translations
Just as we found Catholic scholars interjecting the theological convictions of their system into their translations, the fact that human nature is consistent would argue that the same phenomena is found among Protestant translators as well. From the days of the King James Version until today, it has been alleged that doctrines that must properly rely on exegesis have been inserted into the text itself.
Most commonly, this has been protested because the objector rejects the doctrine under consideration as itself unbiblical in nature. However the criticism does not have to originate from such a source: An individual may be perfectly convinced that Calvinism, for example, is clearly taught in the Scriptures but still repudiate any effort to “sugar coat” the proof texts by making them plainer than God originally made them. The same is true of any other alleged slanted wordings: An individual may be convinced of the theological truth of a belief while rejecting any effort to substitute “pseudo-translation” for the necessary chore of interpretation.
The reader may be surprised at some of the examples presented, but what may seem needless quibbling to that individual may be the source of heart-felt protest to others who are equally sincere. Likewise the proportion of individuals concerned with any of these slantings may well vary from one religious movement to another and from one century to another. On the other hand, it is desirable to know that these objections exist and to be alert to them in future translations as well.
1. “Baptism” or “Immersion”?
An intense amount of conflict raged in the nineteenth century over the proper “form” or “act” of baptism. Although it changed the practice of only a minority, it did seem to channel scholarly opinion toward a consensus. As the result, few scholars today would question the statement that in the New Testament era immersion was the norm and any variation from it, even if regarded as proper, represented a distinct minority of the cases. Many would go even beyond that and assert that total submersion in water was the only accepted practice and meaning of the word commonly rendered “baptism.”
It was a recognition of this fact of the nature of Biblical baptism that led to “immersion” Bibles being proposed and translated. To the proponent, such editions made clear an important point deliberately left obscure in mainline translations because of its potentially explosive doctrinal impact: “If the word actually means immersion, why isn’t it our norm?”
To the advocate of the immersion rendering, “baptism” merely puts the Greek word in English letters and does not provide the meaning of it even though it is easy enough to do. To actually translate “baptizo” would require the use of such terms as bury, dip, submerge, immerse according to the context. Hence the reason that versions that actually translate “baptizo” are called “immersion Bibles.”
Alexander Campbell was a pioneer of such efforts. He brought out his own version and revised it several times as the “Living Oracles” translation. He was also an early advocate of textual criticism: Merely the presence of a reading in the KJV was inadequate to guarantee its acceptance as genuine in his version. He wanted to know whether that was actually sufficient manuscript evidence that the wording existed in the original manuscripts of the New Testament as well. This was an extraordinarily radical course for his time and place (N. 1).
Any translation using the word “immersion” was guaranteed to be a controversial one, but these efforts labored under what was perhaps even a heavier burden, the inability of multitudes to think of any translation deserving the label “word of God” except the KJV. Campbell himself summed up the problem in an article he ran under that very title, “The Word of God:”
So badly taught are many Christians that they cannot think that any
translation deserves the title of the Word of God except that of the King James
Version. That King James’ Version needs a revision is just as plain to the learned
and Biblical student, as that the Scotch and English used in the nineteenth
is not the language now spoken in these
He certainly has not been the last to protest this frame of mind!
In the Christian Review of March 1837, the Baptist minister Octavius Winslow attempted to derailed the growing fervor for a Baptist / immersion translation. Later in the same year he combined this with new material in a book he entitled Objections to a Baptist Version of the New Testament (N. 3). We need to examine some of his major arguments not just out of historical curiosity but also because they are often germane today when contemporary efforts are made to promote such a translation.
His first argument might well be called the status quo argument: The King James Version is the established translation even among those highly critical of it on this particular point:
The veneration and respect due to antiquity, may be fairly urged as a
reason, why the authorized English of the Bible, should be permitted to remain as
it is, unaltered and unimpaired. . . . For more than two hundred years have we, as
Baptists, stood by the side of this common version. It has formed the rallying
point of the denomination, the vocabulary, from which we derive our name—the
authority which we have at all times produced in support of the distinctive
principles which that name involves. . . .
In our day and age, the KJV no longer enjoys that monopoly of support. Even if it did, many of us would remain dubious of retaining it as the dominant translation since we often have to translate the KJV’s English into “real” English before we even attempt to interpret it. By requiring us to engage in this extra step, the KJV becomes a hindrance to the communication of God’s word. Because the KJV remained adequate (in Winslow’s day and ours) to many people’s study of the Scriptures, should not result in scorn being cast upon those who are candid enough to admit that it is inadequate for their own study.
Winslow’s second argument is more convincing, perhaps because beginning here he deals with practical objections to immersion translations rather than attempting to rebut the need for any new translation at all: He stresses that “baptize” is correctly translated in a sufficient number of passages to make plain its true meaning.
For example: “dip the tip of his finger” (Luke ) and the garments “dipped in blood” (Revelation ). To these and other texts the truth seeker has been directed and thousands grasped the message. “What this version has accomplished, it is capable of accomplishing yet again. . . .”
His third argument is, essentially, identical: that the power of God has so worked even through the misleading transliteration “baptism” as to lead many to the Lord. “What more do we expect from a Baptist version of the New Testament?”
His fourth objection is that any such translation would, of its nature, land up “being an individual, and therefore an irresponsible one.” He regards the proposal—to read a tad between the lines—as an effort at self-promotion by the would-be translators. He also expresses doubt that the vast majority of Baptists would accept any set of proposed translators and, if somehow accepted, whether the quality of their work could be meaningfully assured.
Winslow hits on some real problems here: the work of any translator (or small group) has a tremendous built-in danger of bias and “bending” the text in the direction of the doctrinal eccentricities preferred by the translators. Good will and good intent does not guarantee good translation, even if “bending” of the text is avoiding. There is an “art” to translation and not all who know a language will be good at it.
But if one seeks a wide-based translation effort, where does one obtain the required number of qualified scholars? To secure credibility in the world at large, participation by “non-immersionists” would clearly be required as well, but how many of them would be willing to participate in a project that might mockingly be dismissed by their own coreligionists as “parochial” in intent?
In the final objection (in the original article), he returns to his initial rejection of all new translation efforts: Since his fellow Baptists would not be able to agree to its wide use, the promotion of the translation would “sow the seeds of discord and disunion among brethren now happily agreed in upholding” the King James Version.
The most powerful objection Winslow lodges is included in the supplemental material he added when he expanded his extended article into book form: Even where baptize is translation “immersion,” it hasn’t gotten people to practice it. He writes of this phenomena:
It is generally known that Luther’s version of the New Testament, now the
standard translation for German Protestants, has the words in dispute, translated.
It is likewise understood at least among Baptists, that the German Translation is
strong for immersion, and that Luther himself was so. But out of the twenty
of German protestants in
dunkers, are found to practice immersion in baptism.
If a translation is to be so potent as some would represent, why has not
Luther’s version kept the Lutherans right? Why, with their translation staring
them in the face, have they continued almost with one consent, from the days of
Luther to this time, in the practice of sprinkling or pouring? The question admits
of only one reply. The translation has been of no avail to restrain or correct their
practical aberrations. Neither would a translation do us any good.
An extremely good paradox for our contemporary advocates of immersion Bibles to meditate upon.
This is a convenient label to bring together objections that center upon renderings needlessly or improperly favoring the practice or doctrine of whatever church(es) is (are) dominant in a given culture. The Catholic usage of “penance” instead of “repentance” in the Douay version is an obvious example of a rendering selected because the term automatically arried with it a reference to an ongoing practice of that particular church.
Even though it did not adequately express the Biblical connotation of the Greek, the interjection of the term into the scriptural text appeared to give the practice the explicit endorsement of Holy Writ. They could even provide “book, chapter, and verse” where the Scriptures taught “penance.” How could the Protestants be so blind? Primarily because that wasn’t what the underlying Greek term meant in the first place even though it had been (mis)translated this way.
A. The battle over “church”
If ever we could call a term a “church word,” surely it is the word “church” itself!
Accuracy would require “congregation” or “assembly.”
What we have called “ecclesiasticalism” flew under the label “prelatism” in the days of the KJV itself and for long afterwards. It motivated strenuous attacks on the reliability of the version. The best example is this very word “church” that we are discussing. When called upon to defend it, Archbishop Richard Trench spoke in these terms (N.4):
If not in all, yet in nearly all, those passages which are most objected to,
we have merely followed versions preceding, and those not exclusively the
Bishops’ Bible or Cranmer’s, but Tyndayle’s and the
with any very strong sympathy for our Church government. For instance, it was
That, indeed, is an effective rebuttal of the accusation of intentional translation bias on the part of the KJV, but it is far short from a vindication of the adequacy of “church” as a replacement for “congregation!” At this stage of history, however, replacing “church” with it would probably be more confusing to readers than retaining it.
B. The accusations over substituting “overseers” for “bishops”
Early critics pointed to the “strange fact” that the word translated “bishops” in other passages was rendered “overseers” in Acts 20:28. Its use in Acts 20, though, would clearly point to there being a multiple number of “bishops” within one congregation, in blatant contradiction to Anglican practice. Over 200 years after the KJV was published, Trench could refer to this argument of theology bending translation with the observation” it has often been said” (N. 5).
Trench attempts to rebut the charge of translation bias with this observation: “But so clear is it that [the Greek word] is here not the technical name of an office, but the expression of the fact of oversight, that Tyndale, Cranmer, Coverdale, the Geneva, had all so rendered it before” (N. 6).
An effective rebuttal of the bias accusation charge but, again, hardly a convincing defense of the adequacy of the rendering: Far more than “the fact of oversight” is under discussion in the text; rather, the presence of those who exercised that oversight, i.e., of those who held the “office” exercising the oversight. Since “bishops” had been used of these office holders” in other passages, one would most naturally anticipate its use here as well.
Both of these examples are well worth remembering, whenever the charge of theological bias is lodged. In some cases the accusation is valid. In other cases the indignation is misplaced because the contested readings are based on a pre-existing precedent from earlier versions. Yet there remains the considerable issue of—precedent or not—whether it is genuinely an adequate wording to convey the point. Because you follow someone else’s bad example, does that transform you into a “saint”?
Consequences of such disputed renderings as these. Since we have, so far, only been putting the emphasis on the KJV, this is a good place at which to draw attention to how severe and vehement were the accusations based upon such examples as those above. There was even a serious movement under foot to produce a new, replacement translation!
. . . An unsuccessful attempt was made in the Long Parliament of 1653 to
secure further revision. The errors of the Authorized Version, through careless
editing and proof-reading, but still more what were called its “MIS-translations”
and its “PRELATICAL language” contributed toward the movement. . . .
A bill was brought up in 1653 but no steps were then taken. This effort
aroused considerable interest, and in 1657 a Commission was appointed to take
the matter in hand. Many meetings were held at the house of Lord Commissioner
Whitelocke, the holder of the Great Seal, but before the report of the Commission
was received, dissolution put an end to the Parliament. (N. 7)
C. The insertion of post-Biblical “church” holidays
In Acts 12:4 the KJV notoriously mistranslates: “And when he had apprehended him (the apostle Peter), 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.” If a contemporary translation perpetuated that blatant a mistranslation, many hyper-critics would be foaming at the mouth in anger and demanding that the entire translation be branded as unreliable! After all, the real word here is “Passover”—a far cry from Easter!
In all fairness to the KJV, two things should be noted.
First, in spite of the rendering “Easter” in Acts 12:4, the KJV actually represented a drastic reduction in the number of times that misleading word appeared. Melvin E. Ellicott tells us in his The Language of the King James Bible: “Tyndale used it (spelled ester) very frequently, even referring to the paschal lamb as ester lamb. The AV revisers changed it everywhere but in the passage cited (Acts 12:4)” (N. 8).
rendering could be defended as a mere chronological reference. There were relatively few Jews in
However, if a reader knew so little as not to know what season of the year Passover occurred in, was he likely to take “Easter” as a reference to anything else than the “Christian” holiday itself? Would not such unlearned readers find in the text explicit “Bible authority” for the annual celebration of Christ’s resurrection?
think that more recent translations would be immune to this particular
error. Yet as recently as the New
English Bible, we find that Paul intended to “remain at
Oddly enough, the grim determination to defend the KJV at any cost, still leads some to passionately embrace “Easter” as the proper reading. Will Kenney argues in its defense (N. 9):
(1) It was the well established and widely used translation term before the KJV appeared and even today the 21st Century Version and the Third Millennium Bible utilize it. His reference to how these are efforts to preserve ant updated KJV style text provides ample explanation of its retention rather than constituting proofs of the strength of the word choice.
(2) In modern Greek the word still retains the usage of “Easter.” A good argument, but we are still talking koine Greek and not modern Greek. Going to a koine Greek lexicon would be the appropriate place to prove his point rather than to a contemporary dictionary. The fact that he conspicuously does not, provides ample implicit evidence that such a source will not vindicate his position.
(3) While conceding that all other usages in the NT of the underlying word invoke “Passover,” after the resurrection of Jesus it is only utilized in Acts 12:4 and in 1 Corinthians 5:7 (“Christ our Passover”). It is this usage that suggests to him a prophetic context for Acts: “It is the Holy Ghost speaking here in Acts 12:4 and telling us what this Passover celebration would come to signify for the believers in a risen Lord Jesus Christ.” Just as the Passover is a type for the Communion (1 Corinthians 5:7), in Acts 12 it becomes precedent for the annual festival of that death and resurrection.
Of course there is absolutely nothing in the text that would cause us to make the reference prophetic of what was yet in the future. Furthermore, why was what was yet in the future cause the ruler to postpone action in the here and now? Indeed, as a Christian holiday, why should he be concerned one way or another?
In spite of these arguments not working out well, Kenney does provide useful refutation for another line of reasoning that has been invoked—the alleged pagan tie-in that has been used to justify the use of Easter:
(a) There are those who contend that “Easter” refers to a pagan holiday observed by the king honoring Ishtar/Eastre. Kinney notes, however, that the terms “Eastre” and “Easter” actually do not share a common meaning and that their only commonality is that they come from the word “East” and that is where the sun rises. This is tied in with the resurrection/rising of Jesus spoken of in Malachi 4:2, which describes Him as the “sun of righteousness.” Hence the appropriateness of “Easter” as a description of the eventual memorial of the resurrected one and the loss of any possible pagan connotation.
(b) They argue that Acts 12:4 can’t refer to Passover because the event occurred before the days of unleavened bread, which were now past in Acts 12. Hence the day could not be called “Passover.” Kenney cites Luke 22:1 in rebuttal (“Now the feast of unleavened bread drew nigh, which is called the Passover;” cf. similar usage in Ezekiel 45:21) and argues that the term Passover can properly cover not only that day itself but the entire feast period. [Perhaps the critic of the Easter rendering Brian Tegart makes the argument a bit better: “the Passover sacrifice is at the end of the 14th (day) while the Passover feast is on the beginning of the 15th” (N. 10)]
(c) Kenney also argues the lack of evidence--there is no corroboration that Herod was a worshipper of this particular deity in the first place or that she even had a cult in Jerusalem, much less a significant enough one that would influence regal behavior. (Tegart provides an interesting analysis of where this Herod/Ishtar connection apparently began in the 1850s.)
We’ve wandered longer than the subject deserves—except as a historical curiosity. But it is certainly useful if we utilize it to learn an important lesson: virtually any textual rendering can have passionate advocates and can, upon occasion, be defended at length. That still doesn’t necessarily prove that the translation is justified, however.
D. Salvation by faith only
Salvation by faith is a central tenent of the New Testament. Salvation by fith only, however, is a deduction made from the Biblical text. The insertion of those little words “only” and “alone” put a special doctrinal slant upon the Biblical doctrine. In short, it improperly puts into the translation what should be left for exposition.
The New English Bible inserts such an unneeded word in Galatians 2:15-16: “We ourselves are Jews by birth, not Gentiles and sinners. But we know that no man is ever justified by doing what the law demands, but only through faith in Christ Jesus. . . .”
In at least two other,
non-doctrinal connections, the
Romans is yet another place where this procedure has been
carried out by the
The truth of the matter is that nothing “only” saves: they are all parts of a greater whole. Yes the bedrock and foundation is faith, without which nothing else is of any value, but without repentance, baptism, continued obedience, etc. the salvational “package” is not complete. Salvation is not a “pick and choose” situation; it is a “have everything needed” or have nothing situation.
Romans in the Revised Standard Version makes the continuance of a Christian’s salvation exclusively contingent upon faith (at least it can be read that way): “That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe.” But if faith-based perseverance is under discussion doesn’t “only” remove the need for the obedience part of the equation? The New Revised Standard Version perpetuates the inclusion: “But you stand only through faith.”
It has been pointed out by at least one writer that in some editions of the New American Standard Bible the reading of Acts is that the one who believes “has received forgiveness of sins.” This would seemingly make salvation the product of faith alone, at the point of faith.
The edition I have of the translation leaves the point ambiguous: “Everyone who believes Him receives forgiveness of sins,” without any assertion of the chronological point at which the forgiveness is received. This vaguer “receives forgiveness of sins” is also found in the New International Version, Revised Standard, and New Revised Standard Versions. In contrast, the New King James reads “Whoever believes in him will receive remission of sins.”
So many conservative Protestants in the world around us embrace premillennialism, that it would be surprising if that doctrine did not—at least occasionally—“bend” some specific renderings of Bible texts.
A. Using the New American Standard Bible as our pivot of study
Perhaps the clearest New Testament example is found in Revelation 5:10 where critics have argued that the Greek present tense is made future: “And thou hast made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God, and they will reign upon the earth.” Now if the text means that Christians were as of then already “a kingdom and priests” then one would anticipate them as “reign(ing) upon the earth” as of then as well—unless one is a firm believer in premillennialism.
reign” (and its alternative “shall reign”) is an extremely popular rendering,
however, and is found in the bulk of translations, including Young’s
Literal—which still has this strange hold on many Christian conservatives’
If wish to impose an explicit and direct time frame on when the rule occurs while conceding that Christians were already “a kingdom and priests to our God” then surely the Bible in Basic English provides a far preferable, “And have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they are ruling on the earth.”
The “future” insertion is based upon the theological judgment that the nature of Christians as a kingdom and priests will continue on earth when Jesus physically returns and that, considering the believers’ current lack of temporal power, the reign must be future and hence the “will reign.” This makes total sense but only if premillennial speculation is correct as to the nature of Christ’s reign and what happens upon His return.
In Revelation 20:4 what is interpretation is
placed in the text as if it were a translation (and we readily concede it may
even be valid interpretation): A more
correct “they lived” (as in the KJV) is replaced with “they came to life,”
making far clearer the concept of a bodily resurrection.
The same slide from translation into interpretation is found in the footnote attached to Mark 13:30: “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” Letting the language mean what it normally would mean, at least this part of Jesus’ prophecy has to refer to the events coming to past in the first century.
The premillennial use of this passage—and the more commonly used parallel statement in Matthew 24—requires the removal of this obstacle to their chronology of the establishment of Christ’s kingdom. Hence in a footnote the NASB solves the dilemma of chronology by urging “race” as an acceptable substitute rendering. (The New International Version forms the same course.) Although a surprising number of people have viewed this approach favorably it remains speculative at the best and seems produced by the need to defend premillennialism rather than anything the text actually says.
Young’s Literal has the strange translation, “Verily I say to you, that this generation may not pass away till all these things may come to pass.” As actually worded, Today’s English Bible (aka Good News Bible) catches the point of the text far better, “Remember that all these things will happen before the people now living have all died.”
B. Using the New King James Version as our pivot of study
problem of chronology affects us in Revelation 5:10 as in Revelation 20:4: “And have made us kings and priests to our
God, and we shall reign on the earth.”
Again, if they already were “kings and priests” wouldn’t their
reign already be going on. Shouldn’t the wording be “reign” (ASV,
Even so “they shall reign on earth” (RSV) and “they will reign on earth (New International Version, NRSV) are found in other widely used versions as well.
Dispensationalism (a form of premillennialism) asserts that the “he who now restrains” in 2 Thessalonians 2:7 is the Holy Spirit. The NKJV capitalized “He,” making it a reference to Deity, presumably the Holy Spirit. Lewis can not resist a gentle sarcash: “A marginal note gives ‘he’ (lower case) as an option—the only such option in the entire volume” (N. 11). Which also suggests that a conscious knowledge of the doctrinal impact of the translation was well recognized.
versions retain a reference to “he” who restrains with an occasional reference
to “one” (ASV, BBE, Today’s English Version), “someone” (Contemporary English
Version), and “the person” (International Standard Version).
The capitalization of “Antichrist” in some places in First John (; 4:3) may suggest the premillennial doctrine of one specific individual being under consideration to the exclusion of all others. However, it should be noted that it is left uncapitalized in 1 John 2:22.
heading above Romans 11:11 is “
4. Social Activism
In the late
nineteenth century there was a tremendous outburst of concern over
This happened at the very time that “Modernism” and its assault on Bible fundamentals was becoming widespread in mainstream denominationalism—Moses wrote little or nothing of the books attributed to him, there were two, three, maybe far more “Isaiahs,” prophecies were freely composed after the events, and miracles were actually blatant misrepresentations or misunderstandings of what had actually heaven. When they weren’t made up entirely.
As to what happened to Jesus’ body, who knows? When stripped of confidence in Biblical “fundamentals,” those who wished to retain at least a form of their “faith” had to redefine it in a way they could intellectually accept and the soaring needs of late 19th century society provided such an opening.
Although not always denying the existence of very real problems requiring solution, more evangelically inclined groups tended to reject this approach. They looked upon it as a dangerous downgrading of the redeeming power of the gospel and the substitution of an agenda that would only benefit those concerned in the current life and little or none at all in eternity.
Although there has been a marked diminishing of such hostility in recent decades, religious evangelicals have tended to favor a very different set of moral-political goals, even when they have become social activists.
To interject a social activist interpretation of churchly endeavor into Bible translation would be a difficult thing to do. Yet there certainly are at least a few passages that could be “bent” in that direction and there appears to have been at least an effort to do so—whether on a conscious basis or not.
In Galatians 6:10 (Revised Standard Version) we find wording very similar to that which we find in other versions: “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” The stress here is upon our taking advantage of our personal and immediate opportunities to be of spiritual and temporal assistance to others.
The New Revised Standard Version shifts the meaning: “So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” The same shift is reflected in the Revised English Bible: “let us work for the good of all.”
When we hear the popular phrases “work for justice” and “work for world peace” the meaning, customarily, is to support the organizations and projects that will produce that result. The idea that our personal effort will have a direct result on either is secondary, if present at all: Now you and I can treat our neighbor right; but you and I hardly have an impact upon whether there is a civil war 3,000 miles away!
Hence, when we come across a parallel concept, “let us work for the good of all,” it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that what is being promoted is an active social concern through various church sponsored social welfare agencies and programs that may—perhaps—someday—somehow—eventually produce societal good. And which, by pure coincidence of course, just happen to be embraced by contemporary political liberalism. This way one may freely wear the veneer of piety while the goals, in reality, seem just as much—or even far more—political and certainly with modest, if any, distinctly Christian content. (Lest non-Christians be offended.)
Hence such altered readings provide beautiful texts by which to urge members to support various denominational social activist causes since they are “working for the good of all.” The two approaches to meeting needs (individual versus collective) may or may not be compatible, but the reading of the REB and NRSV interject a distinct social activism twist into Galatians 6:10 and removes what the text really stresses—the requirement of personal involvement when we have a way to help the parties in need. “Hands on” and not “hands off” piety in action.
5. Women as
The proper role of women in the church has been a matter of intense discussion time and again through the passing centuries. There is unquestionably a major effort being made today by militant feminists to strong arm women into being appointable to all religious positions and, ideally, actually appointed to them. In some religions this controversy is covered by the phrase “ordination to the ministry.” Whatever the label used to verbally summarize the movement, there can be no question that certain of the readings NRSV have been altered to provide increased textual support.
In Romans 16:1 (KJV) we read: “I commend unto you Phebe our sister, which is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea.” The New King James, New American Standard, and New International Version retain “servant.” Since the Greek word is a form of the word “deacon” it is possible that she may have been (in some sense) a “deaconess” as the NIV renders it in a footnote and as the original RSV renders it in the main text.
However the root idea of “deacon/deaconess” is that of servant, worker on behalf of (the church), and does not necessarily have to carry the idea of office holder. Rendering it “deacon/deaconess” conveys the implication that the person holds a formally appointed church office which involves service to others. It shifts the idea being conveyed from what one does to what one is, from one’s constructive helpfulness to holding a post that is supposed to do such things.
Rendering “servant” in Romans 16:1 allows one to opt for either the de facto interpretation or the de jure approach; rendering it “deacon” effectively excludes the former. (Should the different rendering make a difference: no; will it, of course it will, since different English words convey different shades of meaning in normal usage.) Since we don’t know which she was, the broader “servant” makes the better rendering for the main text, while a footnote noting the alternative would be appropriate so the reader will be informed.
Probably even better than “servant” as to conveying what is being said is the wording of Today’s English Version, “I recommend to you our sister Phoebe, who serves the church at Cenchreae.” This leaves to exegesis the resolution of the nature of the service and what formal position (if any) it requires and puts the emphasis where it belongs—that in the early church it was manifold more important what you did rather than what “title” you claimed.
The NRSV goes a major step beyond “deacon” by inserting a significant new footnote: “or minister.” “Minister” conveys with it (in typical English usage) the type of person formally “authorized” to stand before a group of Christians to exhort them concerning the way of God. “Deaconess” readers into the text what may or may not be there, but “minister” takes us beyond the idea of being a “servant” of a congregation to that of being an official leader, advocate, public proclaimer of the gospel, a preacher.
The Revised English Bible completely capitulates: “I commend to you Phoebe, a fellow-Christian who is a minister in the church at Cenchreae.” No footnote as to ‘deacon” or “servant” is provided.
translations made the same mistake.
The leadership connotation is put front and center in the Contemporary English Version, describing Phoebe as one “who is a leader in the church at Cenchreae.” Hence the full transition is made from one who is a “servant” and follows the instructions of others to being “a leader” who gives those instructions.
In presenting the qualifications of church elder / bishop (1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1), the clearly male orientation of the qualifications is partly minimized. In the original RSV, Paul introduces the qualification list with the observation, “If any one aspires to the office of bishop, he desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:2). The NRSV’s degenderization removes the opening “he” though it (inadvertently?) makes even more emphatic that every would be elder / bishop must meet the qualifications: “Whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task.”
If verse 2 of the original RSV rendering the explicit male orientation of the text, it would be immediately asserted that he must be “husband of one wife.” The NRSV, however, relegates this to a footnote and substitutes in the main text, “married only once.” Although a long established interpretation (rather than translation) of the passage, this change accords with the movement to open church leadership to women.
The mushrooming of the popularity of homosexual “marriages”—so far at least imposed usually by judicial fiat rather than popular vote—provides a different battleground of interpretation that was surely not in the minds of the translators: If it is “married only once” rather than “husband of one wife,” then a person in a homosexual “marriage” would qualify under that wording, wouldn’t they?
Although “he” and “his” are retained in the remainder of the qualifications list, would it be far fetched to argue that the “whoever” of verse 1 and the “married only” once in verse 2 are such broad terms, that they should be interpreted generically as referring to both genders?
In Titus 1, we find similar degenderization. Instead of “whoever” we read of “someone” and, once again, of being “married only once.”
Some of the NRSV’s footnote/alternate translations may also have been adopted out of the desire to open the doors of official church leadership to women. For example, the much discussed question of the “women” mentioned in the middle of the qualifications for deacon (1 Timothy ) could be, as the footnote suggests, either “their wives” or “women deacons.” However both are, properly, questions of interpretation and not translation.
In 1 Timothy 2:12, the NRSV readers: “Let a woman (footnote: “or wife”) learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman (footnote: “or, wife”) to teach or to have authority over a man (footnote: “or, her husband”); she is to keep silence.
That the married woman is under consideration is indicated by at least three factors:
(1) The example used to illustrate the point is that of husband and wife and not males and females in general (verses 11-13).
(2) The woman under discussion is one who is expected to have children (verse 15). Biblically speaking, the last thing one wants outside marriage.
(3) The instruction of “submission” itself (verse 11). Paul tells us that female submission is to “your “own husbands” (Ephesians , 24; Colossians ; and in the Pastorals, Titus 2:5), a sentiment endorsed by the apostle Peter (1 Peter 3:1, 5).
However much religious conservatives may attempt to broaden the application to a gender basis, this was not the original setting..
But this is exegesis and not translation. It doesn’t even belong in a footnote for that reason. Unless one believes that this helps weaken the text’s thrust against women teachers and thereby contributes to the diminishing of opposition to “women’s ordination.” However admitting that as the notes are “needed” would concede that promoting feminist theology rather than textual honesty played the dominate role in the translators’ decision.
Doubtless other themes (and specific illustrations) could be introduced if we wished to delve yet deeper. However, we have attempted to limit ourselves to a cross-section of the more obvious examples that easily catch the observant reader’s eye.
If nothing else, this survey should remind us to be cautious when we uncover a strange and incongruous rendering that doesn’t seem to quite “fit” what other passages say. It may be that it simply presents an aspect of the total truth that we have previously overlooked. On the other hand, careful examination of several translations—and the use of various research tools—may demonstrate that there is a very real problem with the translation itself.
N. 1 -- For a good treatment of the history of
the different editions, their special characteristics and associated
controversies, the reader will find useful Cecil K. Thomas’ Alexander
Campbell and His New Version.
N. 2 -- Alexander Campbell. “The Word of God.” In The Christian Baptist
(7 volumes in 1).
N. 3 -- Octavius
to a Baptist Version of the New Testament.
N. 4 -- Archbishop Richard Trench. On the Authorized
Version of the New Testament.
N. 5 -- Ibid., page 168.
N. 6 -- Ibid.
N. 7 -- Henry Barker. English Bible Versions.
N. 8 -- Melvin H. Ellicott. The Language of the King
N. 9 -- Will Kenney. “Easter Is Correct: Acts 12:4.” Part of the Sovereign Word website. At: http://www.sovereignword.org/index.php/will-kinneys-king-james-bible-defense-articles/41-easter-is-correct-acts-124-qreplenish-the-earthq-genesis-128. [September 2012.]
N. 10 -- Briant Tegart. “Acts 12:4 – Passover and Easter.” Part of The KJV-Only Website. At: http://www.kjv-only.com/acts12_4.html. [September 2012.]
N. 11 -- Jack Lewis. English Bible. Page 348.