Paul’s Sentences And Ours

Several months ago, Dr. Clark emailed me, saying: “We are still interested in your reflections on media culture,” in reply to an earlier thread I composed about Israel’s Shema and God’s use of language—not image—to promote true knowledge of him. This brief essay also addresses one aspect of the religious use of language, particularly in Bible translation.

Three aspects of linguistic capability are: useful vocabulary stock, sentence length, and use of subordinate clauses. Literate adults are more capable in all three areas than are young children. Young children are more likely to create compound sentences, connected with “and” than they are to produce complex sentences connected by various conjunctions or adverbs. My thesis is this: many English translations today are, effectively, children’s Bibles or youth Bibles that use infantile/childish sentences, though they do not honestly say so.1

Example one:2 Eph 1:15–23 is a single sentence (a prayer) in Greek, with 19 verbs. English translations have this many:

KJV: 1
RSV: 1
ESV: 2
NIV: 5
HCB: 5
The Message 8
NIV Readers Version 22

Example two: Eph 5:18–24 is a single sentence (an imperative) in Greek, with 10 verbs. English translations have this many:

KJV: 4
RSV: 4
ESV: 4
NIV: 7
HCB: 3
The Message 9
NIV Readers Version 14

Greek, of course, is capable of very complex sentences; it is highly “hypotactic,” as some linguists put it. Subordinating some clauses to the main clause is one of the particular linguistic virtues of Greek. English translators do not always find it easy to translate a single Greek sentence with a single English sentence (see example two above, though one could easily have rendered this in one or two English sentences). On other occasions, with a little effort, a single sentence in Greek can indeed be successfully translated into comprehensible English (see example one above, KJV and RSV).

The matter is not inconsequential. Did Paul pray for one thing (example one), a single thing that he qualified in a number of ways; or did he pray for five things, eight things, or twenty-two things? Did he command one thing (example two) that he qualified in a number of ways, or did he command three things, four things, seven, nine, or fourteen things? Did he command the Ephesians to be “filled with the Spirit,” and also to sing, make melody, be thankful, be submissive, etc.; or did he command them to be filled with the Spirit, and then give some examples, suggestions, or descriptions of what it means to be filled with the Spirit (interpreters call such qualifying participles “epexegetic,” because they explain what the previous imperative means)?3

I still employ the standard Roman Numeral outline format in my public lectures. I do so because, for me, it permits me to make clear what I regard as matters of coordinate/equal importance, and matters of subordinate importance. Each level of indentation is subordinated to other matters, by way of clarification, explanation, example, or evidence.4 This distinction between what is of equal importance or subordinate importance is one of the most basic and important aspects of human reasoning. 

In everyday life, the distinction between equal importance and subordinate is commonplace. George asks his mother if she will take him and his friend Chuck to the skateboard park. She replies: “Yes, I will take you and Chuck to the park, if you first clean your room; be sure to put all the dirty clothes in the hamper and hang the towels on the towel rack.” When Mother goes to inspect the bedroom, the dirty clothes are in the hamper and the towels are hung. However, magazines are strewn about the floor, a half-eaten banana is on the bed (which is unmade), and four (unpaired) pairs of shoes lie indiscriminately about the room. Guess what? There is a park delay. The fundamental imperative was to clean the room; and even though Mother had specified some of the particular examples of what constitutes a clean room, George knows perfectly well that her list of examples was merely that—a list of examples—and that the fundamental duty was to clean the room, of which dirty clothes and towels were only aspects of that greater reality. George is unsurprised that the room does not pass inspection, because he knows perfectly well that “clean the room” means “clean the room,” and whatever particulars are mentioned for special attention does not vitiate the general imperative. The ability to discern the difference between primary importance and secondary importance is a routine part of ordinary life; to treat everything that is said as though it were of equal importance would constitute a kind of linguistic autism; we just would not be able to understand one another.

Translators, therefore, should be very wary of concealing or blurring the distinctions made between the primary and the secondary, between matters that are of equal importance or subordinate importance, and should ordinarily only break up biblical sentences when there is no way to retain their syntactic integrity in English. The “trend,” as it were, in recent translations, is consistently in the direction of briefer and briefer sound-bite sentences, as the translators follow the decline in English literacy that has attended the visual (photograph and television) world of the twentieth century and the digital (frequently distracted) world of the twenty-first. ESV, NIV, NRSV, and many other translations end Ephesians 5:21 with a period and begin a new sentence (and even a new paragraph!) at verse 22: “Wives, be subject to/submit…,” though there is no verb at all—participle or indicative mood—in the verse, it merely says, “wives to your husbands, as to the Lord,” qualifying the earlier participle “submitting to one another” from verse 21. Such translators unwittingly contribute to the demise of language competence by concealing the true capacity of our language to employ subordinate clauses nearly as elegantly as Greek does. 

This tendency to employ less adult language in Bible translations will be defended by some as intended to be evangelistic, to reach—as the NIV preface said—“young and old, educated and the uneducated,” and I do not doubt or deny the intention, nor do I regard such intention as improper in itself. I do regard the practice as unnecessary and cynical. The very Pauline letter that we have been considering, a letter with his most rich, most complex syntax, is the only one in which he addressed directly the children in the congregation (“Children, obey your parents” Eph 6:1)5. Paul did not have less concern for children than we do, nor less concern for their well-being nor the well-being of adults with limited linguistic competence. Paul knew that few people have the privilege of studying language formally; we learn it by hearing others employ it, and our own competence in understanding and employing our language grows by exposure to those whose command of English is superior to our own.6 Paul expressly addressed children, therefore, in the very letter in which he employed his most complex Greek syntax; and did so because he rightly knew that the only way they would develop adult linguistic ability was to be exposed to it.

The authors of the Westminster Shorter Catechism had a similarly charitable view of young people. B. B. Warfield put it this way:

“The Shorter Catechism is, perhaps, not very easy to learn. And very certainly it will not teach itself. Its framers were less careful to make it easy than to make it good. As one of them, Lazarus Seaman, explained, they sought to set down in it not the knowledge the child has, but the knowledge the child ought to have.”7

We need not, and perhaps dare not, regard ourselves as more charitable towards young people than Paul or the Westminster Assembly.8

Commercial forces have sometimes promoted their translations as making the Bible “easy” (or “easier”) to understand, which is perhaps a reference to their less-mature syntax, and a reduced vocabulary stock. The Bible will never be easy to understand. Sixty-six books written over a millennium and a half constitute a single narrative of creation-fall-redemption, and some things in them were “hard to understand” (2 Pet 3:16) by the very generations present when they were written. Other passages were regarded as being mysterious (Eph 5:32), and still others (Jesus’s parables) ordinarily required explanation even for the closest disciples. The Bible commends Rahab the harlot for prevaricating (while apparently overlooking her chosen profession! Heb 11:31); and approvingly records that the prophet Elisha cursed small boys who taunted him, doing so “in the name of the Lord;” and that “two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys.” (2 Kings 2:24). We cannot make such a Bible easy to understand; we can only make it appear to be easier to understand, by “translating” it in such a way that its rich complexity is removed. We might make Rembrandt “easier” by digitally removing all the blues from his paintings, but then he would no longer be Rembrandt.

The past half-century has witnessed a fairly substantial amount of Bible translating, especially compared to the previous three centuries. The same time period has also witnessed some very candid, public discussion of translation principles, notably in the introductions of the NIV and ESV, for example. There has been less candid discussion, in my judgment, about the linguistic competence of the target audience, a target that is not only continually moving, but continually moving backwards in its language ability. People discuss—sometimes with more heat than light—“literal” translations, and “dynamic” translation theory, but I hear little discussion of whether the public is better served by translations that enhance and ennoble our language. In my cynical moments (i.e. when I am awake), I have projected myself a half century into the future, when I imagine opening a then-new translation of the Bible that reads, in its entirety, “See God save! Save, God, save!”


1. To its credit, NIV did come close to admitting this: “During the process, it (the NIV translation) was also tested for clarity and idiom by various kinds of people—young and old, educated and uneducated, ministers and laymen.” (Preface, original NIV NT, ©1973). The honesty of the NIV is commendable; the unbiblical nature of their endeavor is obvious, however, because “young and old” people do not employ language in the same manner. We all would have known this even if the apostle had not said so: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (1 Cor 13:11). Perhaps this is the place, however, to indicate that the 2011 revision of the NIV is so superior to its earlier editions (though not necessarily in its use of subordinate clauses) that I recommend owners of the earlier versions to replace it with the new one.

2. The two passages I have chosen are, to the best of my ability to discern, representative of the tendencies of the translations I selected as illustrating the point. KJV ordinarily represents the Greek syntax closely; RSV and ESV run a very close second; NIV and HCB move further from the original syntax (yet inconsistently so, as the two selections indicate).

3. I do not insist that the participles be understood epexegetically, if convincing reasons are proffered for understanding them differently. My point is that, at a minimum, the translation itself should not take the epexegetic option “off the table,” as it were. English readers are not given the option of taking the matter as I take it, because the English translations have removed the interpretive possibility.

4. In my last several years of teaching at the college level, when students asked how to prepare for their final examinations, I reminded them that my lecture outlines (available on the network) were in standard Roman Numeral Outline format, with the major points on the left margin, and less-important points indented from the major points. Several students had an “Aha!” moment, because they had not known this before, probably due to the unfortunately widespread over-use of PowerPoint™ in American education.

5. Indeed, the syntax is so unusually complex, compared to Paul’s other letters, that many more-liberal scholars routinely denied Pauline authorship on this ground. Such scholars overlooked, however, the nature of amanuenses in scribal cultures, but they were right to observe how complex Ephesians was/is.

6. I myself read the essays of people such as Joseph Epstein and (the late) Roger Scruton in the feeble hope that some of their competence may rub off on me, as well as their wisdom.

7. “Is the Shorter Catechism Worth While?” in Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield, vol. 1, ed. John E. Meeter (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1970), p. 381, emphasis mine.

8. Nor need we fear that the Elizabethan English of the King James Version—whose textual basis I carry no brief for—is unintelligible to the youth in the church. Over a decade ago, the local High School put up notices about auditioning for Shakespear’s Hamlet (in its original Elizabethan English) that would be performed later in the term. Over one-half of the juniors and seniors auditioned for the play. Perhaps this might be the place to say, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

©T. David Gordon. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. Pardon my laughter – the closing sentence does indeed seem prophetic given the recent trajectory of translation. But the essay in whole is sobering – have we already “dumbed down” the Bible to such a degree that personal Bible reading risks a regression in understanding? Did Wycliffe, Tyndale, even Luther himself set us on the wrong path? Or can the Holy Spirit work even through imperfect translations, as I believe?

    • Gerhart,

      No, I think that Wycliffe (who was not working from the original languages), Tyndale (who was working from the original languages) and Luther (ditto re languages) did a very good job of getting the Bible into English. There’s very little “dumbing down” in those translations. This is a fairly modern problem. Take a look at Luther’s essay on translation.

    • Dr Clark, isn’t “don’t” some sort of typo? You don’t really mean, do you, that they didn’t do a good job in getting the Bible into English?

  2. Thank you, Dr Clark, for bringing this to our attention. This kind of over-“simplification” can also introduce internal contradictions in the translation that aren’t in the original, e.g., between Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of the ancestry of Joseph, especially if it’s not done in the best way possible, i.e., “Joseph was, as was supposed, the son of Heli”, though not perfect, would have been infinitely better than simply “Joseph was the son of Heli”, which we find in so many modern translations (sadly, not only English ones). Arguably, “Adam was, as was supposed, son of God” might also have been better – I would hold this latter open to discussion!

  3. I always carry a copy of Luther’s translation of Scripture in addition to my English version. The problem with English is that it is difficult to discern where the plural is being addressed versus where the individual is being addressed. Our pastor was preaching from Titus Ch. 3 last Sunday and I noticed immediately, thanks to Luther, that in one sentence Paul switched from the singular, addressing Titus, to the plural, addressing the congregation. Sad but I don’t think the English Speakers realized this. Luther matches up quite well with the KJV BTW, I’ve often wondered if the KJV translators used Luther in their work?

    • Wesley,

      It would have been unusual for 17th-century Englishmen to have German. They read Luther in Latin. To a certain, important degree Tyndale mediated Luther to a lot of Englishmen and his influence on the AV/KJV was considerable. Daniell wrote that the AV is 90% Tyndale and the other 10% was a mistake.

    • All Reformation English Bible translators would have helped by Luther, but only Coverdale, who knew virtually no Hebrew (and, possibly, also Rogers) would have relied on him entirely (Job 19:26 is more accurately translated in the Geneva and KJV than in Luther, Coverdale, and even Tyndale – who wrote something else again – and most modern versions, because the Hebrew for “skin” is masculine, whereas that for “this” is feminine).
      As for a proper distinction between you-singular and you-plural, even the vulgate got that one right, so no one would have needed to rely on Luther for that!

    • for “would have helped by Luther”, please read “would have been helped by Luther”

    • David Daniell wasn’t always QUITE right, e.g. Job 19:26 is more accurately translated from the Hebrew in the Geneva and KJV than even in Tyndale, but I think he was referring mainly to the KJV’s gentrification and old-high-churching of the English used.

    • Perhaps we should advocate the Southern “y’all” be introduced to English Bible translation efforts. . .

    • or even people just getting it into their heads that thou and thee and thy and thine are second person singular, and, in Reformation English versions where these are used, ye, you, and yours are second person plural?

  4. Mr. McCoy,
    You are so right about the pronouns. I used to befuddle my students at Gordon-Conwell by saying, “Believe it or not, one of the most important aspects of Bible interpretation is the pronoun.” They ordinarily did NOT believe it, by the way, or anything else I said…

    • This former TDG student was listening very carefully in his Galatians class, which helped me to resolve my covenantal confusion concerning the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, thus helping me to become a Presbyterian.

  5. What translations would you recommend out of the myriad of English tranlsations available today?

  6. The current translations vary in quality, but they are all necessarily bad (because, on the charitable assumption that some of the earlier English translations “got it right,” any other translation does NOT get it right, because it varies from the “right” translation). ESV is ordinarily good (though I wish it and other translations would not translate “Elohim” as “angels” in Psalm 8, missing entirely the imago Dei theology of the chapter); the 2011 revision of the NIV is an enormous improvement over the previous versions of NIV; the Holman Christian Bible has some really good dimensions (including being one of the only to correctly translate the Hebrew “ldawid” as “Davidic,” leaving the possibility either that it was written BY David or ABOUT David, which is entirely more likely, but “Davidic” preserves the ambiguity of the Hebrew prefix “l” nicely). From 1984 at Gordon-Conwell to my retirement last year from Grove City College, in my NT classes I just used the “Gordon Perverse Version” from the hip.

    • Could I get a licensed copy of the GPV at your convenience, haha? In all seriousness, your comment was helpful as was the article. Thank you.

  7. Scott,
    We not only have, as you say, “a number of reasonably good translations,” but we also have BibleGateway, where one can open a passage, then select “Open in all English translations,” and compare/contrast, at least to avoid/evade constructing a doctrine or practice on the basis of something that is idiosyncratic (at least without further study).
    T. David

    • T. David: Good to “see” you after retirement! A couple of questions occurred to me as I read your essay.
      1) How do you define “translation”? I’m not looking for a defense of your definition, but just a statement of it.
      2) How do you identify sentences in the original text, especially given the absence of capitalization and punctuation in it? I pick up hints in your essay, but it would be better to have the sentence markers that you use stated in your own words.

  8. RSC says, “…in my judgment, about the linguistic competence of the target audience, a target that is not only continually moving, but continually moving backwards in its language ability…”

    Amen! And as a result many are turning to paraphrases…unfortunately. I know of one instance where the scripture reading at the opening of a Sunday morning class is done using a paraphrase and the reader refuses to change. Meanwhile, everyone sits there with either an NIV or ESV translation in front of them, struggling to follow his reading.

    • Oops! When I said “RSC says” I should have said “David Gordon says.” I’m blaming that error on age + incomplete reading of the post…what can I say?

  9. Fowler,
    I don’t think I have any (consistent) definition of “translation;” I suppose I just regard it phenomenologically as people attempting to render in one language what was crafted in another.
    As to sentences, I am not sure I agree with the so-called “imperatival participle.” I do believe that, in Greek, when an otherwise-ordinary clause has no verb, we can either borrow the verb from the previous clause or insert the copula. You may recall my arguing (in WTJ) that the copula should be supplied at Rom. 9:32 rather than the verb “pursue,” so that the clause would read identically with Gal. 3:12, “The law is not of faith…”, rather than “they pursued it not of faith.” So, the “imperatival participle” is nothing but an “imperatival adjective,” since the participle is a verbal adjective. A complete sentence requires a predicate of some sort, and there are only rare occasions where it can be omitted successfully (such as in clusters of moral exhortations, where an adjective–verbal or otherwise–can stand as an implied imperative.

    By the way, in the last decade or so, I have seen a number of unconventional uses of English, even in published/edited material, one of which is sentences without verbs. The most common marginal comment I put on student papers in my closing five years of teaching was “A sentence needs a verb,” and I encounter this in published writing almost weekly. I suspect the phenomena of texting (and other digital “communication”) is partly responsible for this, as well as the over-exposure to unedited English. When I was a child (during Lincoln’s presidency…), I don’t think I ever read anything that was un-edited. Admittedly, the Hardy brothers were not the Brothers Karamazov, but there were no mis-spelled words or ungrammatical constructions in those books.

    Semi-finally, perhaps the most important safeguard in interpretation is context (Scott Hafemann always told his students “Context is King.”) It is always safer to include more context than to remove it; so if there is any question about whether a clause “belongs” to a previous clause, it should probably be included; to treat Eph. 5:22 as a new sentence (much less to treat it as a new paragraph) borders on being irresponsible.

    Finally (though my funeral has not quite yet begun…), I loved the practice of the KJV of italicizing any English words that were not in the original, but deemed necessary to make sense in English; this at least alerted readers to the possibility of reading the passage otherwise. I could live with Eph. 5:22 being treated independently of 5:21 if it were clear that the added verb was just that–added.

    T. David

  10. “R. Scott”: Thanks for the reference to Baugh’s work. As I’ve read his Ephesians commentary, I’ve seen the makings of a comprehensive approach. I’ll look back at that WTJ article.

    “T. David”: On #1, I can appreciate your point. Your overall remarks imply that your default setting is (nearly) formal equivalence unless intelligibility in the receptor language requires otherwise. On #2, I do recall your fine Rom 9:32 essay and your point about the copula. The rest of your comments make good sense, at least to me. Your reference to the KJV’s use of italics reminds me that the NASB editions employ italics in a similar fashion, even in JMacA’s Legacy Standard Bible.

  11. As I read my copy of the textus receptus (TR), I see that Ephesians 5:22 includes the verb ‘submit’ (it is part of the Greek received text). Since this is the case, I would think that it makes perfect sense for the KJV to begin a new sentence at verse 22.

  12. Theo,
    Great catch on the Textus Receptus; that almost certainly explains the KJV (which would have italicized the verb had they added it). The third person plural present middle imperative (identical to the hupotasessthosan in 1 Cor. 14:34) is indeed there in some manuscripts. Some have the second person plural present middle imperative, and some omit the verb entirely, so what is surprising is when ESV, NIV, et al., who embrace an eclectic text, add the verb (and or begin a new paragraph) on such slender grounds, and without a textual note.

  13. “My thesis is this: many English translations today are, effectively, children’s Bibles or youth Bibles that use infantile/childish sentences, though they do not honestly say so.”

    The New International Reader’s Version says that “people who are just starting to read . . . children . . . older people who are learning to read . . . people who have a hard time understanding what they read . . . and people who use English as their second language” will benefit from the NIrV.

    Doug Moo, chair of the Committee on Bible Translation (NIV), stated in a talk celebrating the 50th anniversary of the NIV that 35% of Americans read at or below a 5th grade level or not at all. The NIV target was the average reading level of most Americans, a 7th grade reading level.

    Mark Strauss at Bethel Seminary in San Diego has written quite a lot about Functional Equivalent Bible Translations as has Bill Mounce and Dan Wallace. Strauss says that we have a number of excellent translations. Wallace characterizes it as an embarrassment of riches.

    Lastly, I would never invest in a “new Bible translation venture” if I wanted a return on my investment. Rather, I’d invest in Schuyler or R.L. Allan who wrap ESV’s in goatskin and sell them for > $250.00 U.S.D.

  14. You may recall that, in the first footnote in my original post, I credited NIV for its honesty:
    “To its credit, NIV did come close to admitting this: “During the process, it (the NIV translation) was also tested for clarity and idiom by various kinds of people—young and old, educated and uneducated, ministers and laymen.” (Preface, original NIV NT, ©1973). The honesty of the NIV is commendable…”
    I might go further, and suggest that NIV has been extremely transparent, through the years, about its theory and practice of translation, which is also to be applauded.

    The separate (though related) question is: If RSV (for example) aimed at University-level English for a Bible to be used in corporate worship, should we have more open discussion about this particular question: what should our target audience be (in terms of language competence), and why?

    I believe NIV was/is an “evangelical translation,” in every sense of the word, possibly including the populist/anti-intellectual nature of Evangelicalism (Noll, Hatch, Marsden, Wells) and also whether the target is the individual or corporate worship. I think Evangelicalism largely conceives of private Bible reading as the “ordinary” encounter with the Bible; whereas for the 3/4 of Christian history before the printing press, such would have been impossible, and Holy Scriptures would have been encountered exclusively in the corporate assembly. Obviously, both private and corporate readings are now both possible and desirable, but perhaps public readings should retain a more-formal style.

    • TDG,
      Any comments re. R. Martin’s Accuracy of Translation and the NIV on Banner of Truth (1989)? Dynamic equivalency as the rule, ruled it out for use in public ecclesiastical setting, though it was an evangelical work.

  15. The New Century Version says this in their preface:

    “God intended for everyone to be able to read and understand his Word. The Old Testament is written in Hebrew, the language of the people of Israel. Through the use of vivid stories based on real events and beautiful poetry, it appeals to the minds and hearts of the educated and the uneducated. The New Testament was first written in the simple Greek of everyday life, not in the Latin of Roman courts or the classical Greek of the academies. Even Jesus, the Master Teacher, taught spiritual principles by comparing them to such familiar terms as pearls, seeds, rocks, trees, and sheep. Likewise, the New Century Version translates the Scriptures in familiar, everyday words of our times.”

    Why should public readings retain a more formal style?

  16. Bob.
    I probably read Martin a long time ago, but memory has failed. What I like most about NIV is their transparency about what they’re doing, but they are self-consciously “Evangelical,” which means more Pietistic than Confessional Protestant, more individual than corporate, etc., so i think NIV is great for private reading; somewhere between a translation and a paraphrase. I think the principles that governed KJV/RSV/ESV are better for corporate reading of Holy Scripture.

  17. Paul,

    You asked, “Why should public readings retain a more formal style?”

    I believe in the sociology of ritual. From as far back as cultural anthropologists can find evidence of human cultures, they find evidence of ritual: military rites, political rites (such as the coronation of royalty, which we observe this week in England), religious rites, rites regarding birth, death, or marriage, and others. Humans have found it necessary to celebrate what is of more-than-ordinary importance, by distinguishing it from what is mundane. All of the attending aspects of such rites are intentionally designed to convey upon the event a more-than-mundane value, whether by dress, idiom, or other ceremony. I regard the weekly meetings of justly-banished sinners with the once-banishing God in anticipation of his presence-with-us in the life to come, through the mediation of his holy Son who ever lives to make intercession for us, to be the most sublime of all earthly events, and is, therefore, to appear to be such.

    (Former) students of mine, who would sometimes play guitar for church or chapel, barefoot, in shorts, always changed their garb when they got married. They cut their hair, (some of) their facial hair, they wore clean shirts, bow-ties, and shoes (“Clean shirts, and bow-ties, and shoes—oh my!”). When I attended their weddings, I would ask them whether their wedding was more significant, more to be ritualized, than the wedding between Christ and his bride. Were their vows more important than “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb. 13:5)? Then they understood.

    Evangelicals, however, tend to view Christianity in individual, rather than corporate, terms, as did the German Pietists of the seventeenth century, from which they descend; they do not, by instinct, think of corporate matters as I do, nor of the English appropriate to corporate worship/ritual as I do. But then, I am a confessional Protestant, not an Evangelical. I think their translations are proper to a form of Christianity that emphasizes the individual more than the corporate, that emphasizes private reading more than public reading. I hope it goes without saying, of course, that I wish God’s richest blessings on them, because I genuinely do.

    You also kindly quoted the preface/introduction to the New Century Version, with which I have little acquaintance. Thank you. If you are interested in my “take” on their paragraph, here it is (but only if you and others recognize that this is an in-house discussion among Christian brothers who love one another, and that we are discussing good v. better, not good v. evil/bad).

    Here is your citation from the NCV preface:

    “God intended for everyone to be able to read and understand his Word. The Old Testament is written in Hebrew, the language of the people of Israel. Through the use of vivid stories based on real events and beautiful poetry, it appeals to the minds and hearts of the educated and the uneducated. The New Testament was first written in the simple Greek of everyday life, not in the Latin of Roman courts or the classical Greek of the academies. Even Jesus, the Master Teacher, taught spiritual principles by comparing them to such familiar terms as pearls, seeds, rocks, trees, and sheep. Likewise, the New Century Version translates the Scriptures in familiar, everyday words of our times.”

    I divide my comments into their last sentence, then the others.

    1. Regarding the final sentence, which explains the aims of the NCV: The final sentence (minus the “Likewise”) is entirely fair:

    “(T)he New Century Version translates the Scriptures in familiar, everyday words of our times.”

    This explains their attempt, if not their attainment; and, of course, there will be those who agree with their aims, if not their claims. In fact, however, many of the words in Holy Scriptures (Old or New) were not at all common, and many of the words in the New Testament were not “everyday words” of those in the first century. A large amount (2/3) of the NT vocabulary occur fewer than ten times each in the NT itself, and there are many hapax legomena that appear only once in the NT, often without any parallel in any of the existing Greek literature (one individual counted 686 words that appear only once in the NT, and some of the ones I encounter once in the NT also do not appear in the LXX or the Jewish Pseudepigrapha, so it is entirely likely that they coined new words to deal with the unprecedented reality of the Word made flesh, as the Nicene Creed did with ἐνανθρωπήσαντα, “was made man/human,” a unique word corresponding to a unique phenomenon). So, in actual fact, many words in the NT are rare even in the NT itself, which was a higher, more-literary Greek than spoken Greek (even as the vocabulary in Atlantic or the New Yorker is more-literary English than the English spoken on the street, because their editors permit such usage). The vocabulary and syntax of 1 Peter and Hebrews, for instance, are far more erudite than the ordinary vocabulary and syntax of most of the other NT books (Luke/Acts remain a close second, and Luke wrote more of the NT than anyone else); there is no single style within the NT itself. The Johannine epistles have a limited vocabulary and fairly straightforward syntax; John in his Gospel employs far more synonyms than other gospel writers; Luke’s syntax is more complex in either of his books than the syntax of the other three narrative books of the NT; Paul’s syntax is more complex in Ephesians than it is in most of Galatians; etc. There is no single style that comprehends all 27 of the NT books, nor is the vocabulary of the particular authors the vocabulary of other authors. In every case, however, the painstakingly author-plus-amanuensis process of etching letters into parchment or papyrus, was much more thoughtful than the give-and-take oral communication in any culture.

    In all likelihood, the scribal class—in the time of both testaments–had responsibility not only to copy manuscripts and read them, but also to “give the sense,” as Ezra and Nehemia did:
    Neh. 8:7 Also Jeshua, … the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. 8 They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

    Two thousand years before the printing press, no human ever imagined near-universal literacy, nor the possibility that every human would have, and be able to read, a privately-owned scroll. NCV’s editorial team has projected our own moment—five centuries AFTER the printing press—back three thousand years BEFORE the printing press (a three-and-a-half-millenium miss!), and has unwittingly assumed that the original authors of Scripture wrote to an audience of literate individuals reading privately. The authors of Scripture wrote to the visible, gathered people of God, knowing that priests, scribes, and ministers (1 Tim. 4:13) would superintend the public reading of Holy Scripture, and aid people in understanding it.

    2. Regarding the preceding sentences
    The NCV is, of course, entitled to exercise its judgment about using a fifth-grade vocabulary, a seventh-grade vocabulary, or that of a college graduate; it is less entitled to make claims about what actually happened with the Greek or Hebrew of the Bible, because there it is not declaring its own aspirations, but what others achieved. Claims about what historically happened are truth-claims, and nearly all of theirs are either unsubstantiated, or partly or entirely mistaken. Further, media ecologists suggest that, in manuscript cultures prior to the printing press, literacy was never higher than 10% of the population at large, and ordinarily far lower. The reason such cultures appreciated their “scribes” is because only their scribes could read—or copy—their manuscripts for them. Any written Hebrew or written Greek was the provenance of only 10% of the population.

    Before giving reasons for why I think the NCV editors’ claims are either unsubstantiated, or partly or entirely wrong, however, I might suggest that, even in “everyday life,” we often use technical terms; our mechanic uses them, our dentist uses them, our radiologist uses them, our family physician uses them, our knot-tieing friends use them, etc. Such terms are “familiar” to particular groups with their particular interests, but they are not “familiar” to the culture at large. Other than sailors or campers/hikers (I love hammock-camping alone in the forest), for instance, I doubt one in a hundred know what a bowline knot is, or how to tie it (or a taut-line hitch, a prusik knot, a Canadian jam knot, or a trucker’s hitch).

    For the sake of the few on Heidelblog who may be interested, here are the preceding sentences in the NCV statement that I regard as unsubstantiated, partly erroneous, or entirely erroneous, and why (and again, this is a discussion in-house, among those who love one another as brothers):

    “God intended for everyone to be able to read and understand his Word.”
    Well, I’m glad the editors consulted the Almighty for his opinion on the matter. He has disclosed no such thing to me, so I am limited to the simple matter of human history that for thousands of years (all human history prior to the printing press), literacy rates were ordinarily less than 5%, and today, over 6,000 languages do not yet exist in written form (ordinarily in small tribes of hunter-gathering peoples, whose language is entirely oral), so “everyone,” as a plain historical fact, was not and is not “able to read,” much less understand, God’s Word, or any other written document at all. For over a millennium and a half, the church of Jesus Christ spread throughout most of the earth without the printing press, during which time the only encounter with Holy Scripture was in the churches where they were read publicly.

    “The Old Testament is written in Hebrew, the language of the people of Israel.”
    If “the people of Israel” were capable of reading for themselves, they would not have needed Ezra, Nehemia, or Levites, to read it to them and/or “explain its sense” to them. Written Hebrew was not widely known among the Israelites, which is why, even as late as the first century, the Hebrew scriptures were read aloud in the synagogues. The written language of the Hebrew scriptures was not the “everyday” language of the average or typical Hebrew individual. It was a written form of the everyday, oral language, just as published English today differs in considerable degree (Atlantic and New Yorker) from the language of people on the streets, even in a highly literate culture.

    “Through the use of vivid stories based on real events and beautiful poetry, it appeals to the minds and hearts of the educated and the uneducated.”
    I can agree with this heartily, depending on what one means by “appeals to the minds and hearts of the educated and the uneducated.” Many of us find very appealing the use of our language by poets (and prosodists) whose written language is far superior to our own. I enjoy the writings of the late Sir Roger Scruton, but I would never profess to employ our “common” language as artfully as he did, or suggest that the “common” person had Scruton’s command of English. His prose was well beyond mine, and I have four earned degrees; I suspect his prose is very different from that of the typical American (or Brit), but the sensitive among them would find it “appealing,” just as we find “appealing” the music produced by those more skilled in music than ourselves. The poetry of Robert Frost or Jane Kenyon “appeals to” me also, but their use of English is not mine, nor that of everyday people like me, and I often must re-read several times to apprehend their sense. I have every reason to believe that the poetry of the Hebrew Psalter similarly “appealed to” people who could not themselves have written such if their lives depended on it, and they probably wouldn’t and didn’t understand more than the tip of the iceberg, as it were, apart from some instruction. My former colleague, the late Dr. Elmer Smick at Gordon-Conwell, had done a substantial amount of work in the wisdom literature, and even he routinely said that the Hebrew of the Psalter was extremely difficult (and Elmer was a first-rate student of the Hebrew Bible). It was probably as “special” and elevated to the Israelites as Frost’s poetry is to us; indeed we find it “appealing,” but not—surely not—because it is our everyday speech.

    “The New Testament was first written in the simple Greek of everyday life…”
    In “everyday life,” there was NO written Greek. Forty-one years of teaching Greek taught me that some books in the Greek NT are far more difficult than others. At the beginning of third semester Greek, most students can read the Johannine epistles with very little assistance; in their fifth semester, an entire year later, they find 1 Peter and Hebrews nearly inscrutable. The 27 NT books simply are not equally easy or equally difficult, but there was nothing “everyday” about writing itself prior to the printing press.

    “Even Jesus, the Master Teacher, taught spiritual principles by comparing them to such familiar terms as pearls, seeds, rocks, trees, and sheep.”
    I agree with these words, but may disagree with the sentiment implicit in them. Even his disciples did not understand either of the two parables of the sower (each of which mentioned “seeds”), nor why he employed parables at all (Mat. 13:10-23), and they were often confounded/perplexed by what he said. Yes, he used the words “seeds,” but his disciples did not understand what he meant by those words until he explained himself to them. Indeed, his hearers occasionally found him puzzling.
    Mark 9:32 But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.
    Luke 18: 34 But they understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.
    John 10: 6 This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

    Jesus may have been a good deal more enigmatic than we commonly think.

    Every translation has to make a judgment call about what level of English to employ; it is a fair question as to whether (following KJV/RSV/ESV) the editors regard the English employed in the public worship of God to be intentionally more formal (and more beautiful) than “everyday” English. I do not question the sincerity of the NCV committee, and I tend to welcome Bible translations, if for no reason than odds improve that one of them will get it right when others do not. I suspect, however, that they produced a translation designed for individual/private/familial reading, rather than liturgical/corporate reading (and probably succeeded). My only little thought is that prefaces might serve better by making this clear, as KJV/RSV/ESV do; they are candid about attempting to produce a translation suited to the public ritual of the Christian liturgy.

  18. Dr. Gordon:

    Thanks for your thoughts. The NLT goes to great lengths to make clear that it is designed to be read aloud. Unlike the NIrV, CEV, NCV, GNT and other functional equivalent translations, it does not, however, indicate that it is geared toward a lower literacy level.

    In my opinion, your directing people to Bible Gateway was very helpful. The reader can examine an individual verse in multiple translations, most of which were translated by a committee of scholars.

    I do not agree that bibles need to be written at a specific register to be suitable for church. There are tens of millions of people who do not have bibles in their native tongues but when they finally do receive one, it does not read like the RSV, NRSV, NAS, ESV, etc. I submit that they too can worship in spirit and truth as true worshippers. BTW, my interest in bible translation began when my Pastor told some guests at a Bible study that their Bible was not good enough. Imagine my shock when my Greek instructor nodded in agreement when five students rendered a Greek text five different ways and all were deemed correct.

    Re: the ease or difficulty of the NT Greek, it seems to me that God gifted our generation with a library of 66 volumes with the expectation the we understand their message. Habbakuk was instructed to write the message, to make it plain. The parable of the sower indicates that the seed does not bear fruit where the message is not understood. He that has ears to hear suggests listening in order to understand. The disciples and by extension, the Church are called to make disciples (pupils, learners). They ought to employ materials that help people understand. When I plant grass for people (my business), they need to be told over and over to keep to the top inch of the soil moist until the grass is 2″ tall. If the seed or soil dries, it’s over. I usually have to mention how much failure will cost in order to make people understand.

    Your explanation re: ritual was interesting and I will read it and re-read multiple times. You are a smart, accomplished man and I appreciate not only your taking time to write for Dr. Clark’s blog but for the interaction as well. The fact that I have some disagreements with your take on this subject will motivate me to buy your books and learn more. Usually when I learn more, my view changes! Thanks again.

  19. Dr. Gordon:

    “Jesus may have been a good deal more enigmatic than we commonly think.”

    I absolutely agree. This should be the title of your next post on the Heidelblog.


  20. Dr. Gordon,
    Thank you for this illuminating essay. You and my pastor are the only two men I know (I’m confident there are more) who properly teach Eph 5:22, that is, in light of what is said in verse 21 . Much damage has been done by well intended men who focus on verse 22 as a separate clause.

    Please keep up the good work.

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