124. Discovery Bible Study (DBS)

Responding to Theological concerns about Disciple Making Movements #2

Critics of Disciple Making Movements (DMM) have raised biblical and theological concerns about some DMM principles and practices (DMM P&Ps).  Because Fellowship International (FI) has adopted and adapted DMM P&Ps with the desire to be used by God to catalyze kingdom growth around the world, such critiques should be taken seriously and answered with care. The previous article on Obedience-Based Discipleship (OBD), this article on Discovery Bible Study (DBS), and the following article on People of Peace (POP) attempt to address three significant critiques with the invitation to respond as we participate together in the missio Dei.

Theological concern: Discovery Bible Study (DBS)
Obedience-based discipleship (OBD) uses an inductive or discovery method of Bible reading where participants discern the meaning of a passage in a group setting through interactive engagement with a passage of Scripture. Usually, these groups follow some form of Discovery Bible Study (DBS) that uses a set of open-ended questions suitable for any passage of Scripture. For example, a core question is “What does this passage reveal about what God is like, what God wants, and what God is doing?” Each meeting is led by a facilitator who reads out the questions and encourages others to respond. The DBS process I prefer is available here.

Discovery methodology prioritizes the engagement of participants, both believers and seekers, to discern the meaning of a Bible passage rather than depending on the prepared explanation of a teacher. Three concerns raised by critics are that (1) people who do not have the Holy Spirit are guiding others in Bible study, (2) without appropriate spiritual oversight by a mature believer, participants will misunderstand or misapply Scripture, and (3) DBS displaces teaching and proclamation so that these spiritual gifts are not given appropriate biblical emphasis.

In response to these concerns, this article will

  1. Describe the three key issues found in public critiques of DBS,
  2. Affirm those convictions that are consistent with Fellowship International’s theology,
  3. Describe the DBS dynamic,
  4. Provide a summary explanation of how Fellowship International’s use of DBS is theologically consistent and appropriate,
  5. Introduce the theology and hermeneutic used in the discovery method, and
  6. Provide examples of how DBS is being used in missions along with reasons why these accord with the way God’s Spirit brings transformation.

A. Summary of the case against DBS

The following DBS critique is summarized from podcasts by Berger & DeMars and articles by Morell, Kocman and Vegas, and Rhodes’ book, No Shortcut to Success. Bibliographic information can be found in the list of references.

The use of this methodology as the primary disciple-making practice has drawn criticism for three reasons:

  1. Unbelieving facilitators: It is inappropriate for someone who is not a professing believer to facilitate a Bible study because they do not have the Spirit of God guiding them. This is unheard of in the New Testament. If DBS is the way people are discipled in DMM, then unconverted unbelievers are engaged in the process of making “disciples” and thus disciple-making movements are being encouraged where there is no conversion to the gospel.
  2. Lack of Spiritual Oversight: Related to the previous concern, but examined separately, is the practice of encouraging Bible study without the oversight of a mature believer. Such a practice is spiritually irresponsible because people can easily misunderstand or misapply Scripture.
  3. Disparagement of preaching and teaching: In DBS, discovery is emphasized while teaching and preaching are disparaged as “knowledge-based discipleship,” as if obedience can be separated from knowledge. The biblical pattern of evangelism is proclamation, not inductive Bible study. After Pentecost the apostles engage in preaching and teaching. They never promote the idea that believers, let alone unbelievers, should facilitate a self-corrected, untaught, Bible study. The biblical methodology is proclamation by Holy Spirit-appointed believers in whom the authority to teach rests. Historically Protestants hold that evangelism is carried out by the preaching of the gospel, not by the study of God’s Word by unbelievers.

B. Fellowship International affirmations of theology

  1. Unbelieving facilitators: Since teaching, prophesying, and evangelism are all described as gifts of the Spirit given for the building up of the church (Eph 4:11-16), it is inappropriate to appoint, promote, or encourage an unbeliever to take on the position and responsibility of teaching others the Bible and the message of the gospel.
  2. Lack of Spiritual Oversight: Mature believers should take seriously their responsibility to give guidance to seekers who are pursuing Jesus and to new believers who are learning how to live out their covenant with Jesus (1 Tim 4:11-13, 2 Tim 4:1-2, Tit 2:1-15). It is irresponsible to refuse, ignore or downplay such interaction and oversight.
  3. Disparagement of preaching and teaching: Since teaching, prophesying, and evangelism are all described as gifts of the Spirit given for the building up of the church (Eph 4:11-16), the proclamation and teaching of God’s Word is to be encouraged, not disparaged.

C. The DBS Dynamic

An understanding of the DBS dynamic is important for clarity before responding to the critiques.

DBS is a method of Bible reading, not teaching: The facilitator creates an environment for people to engage God’s Word directly so that all can discern together how the character, will, and mission of God are revealed in the text.

Discovery at the heart of disciple making: Fellowship International views the discovery method as the heart of disciple making because a deep and appropriate engagement with God’s Word brings transformation as people conform their lives to the revelation of God’s character, will, and mission. DBS emphasizes that the primary and authoritative source for the proclamation of the gospel and the teaching of who God is and what he wants is Scripture itself; God’s self-revelation is the foundation of a true relationship with God. The primary focus of DBS is that both believers and seekers will know how to read, interpret, and respond to God’s Word.

Facilitators not teachers: DBS facilitators are not teachers but participants who hold a posture of submission to God’s Word along with others, expecting a sacred message they can understand. A facilitator provides opportunity for God’s Spirit to act as the teacher rather than being the one to explain what the Bible means.

Anyone can facilitate. Because DBS is primarily a way to come to know God’s character, will, and mission by reading the Bible and discussing the implications, all group members are encouraged to take turns facilitating. This is as simple as following a one-page outline of instructions and questions.

DBS is a means for all believers to be disciple-makers: Fellowship International interprets the Great Commandment as applicable to all believers. Therefore, all believers are called to be disciple-makers and DBS is a clear process that any believer can use to engage interested people – seekers or believers – so that they have opportunity to reflect on what God has revealed.  Not all believers can be teachers, but all can become disciple-making facilitators.  Being a facilitator is not an authoritative position, but a method by which people are exposed to the Bible as God’s self-revelation.

DBS prioritizes the apostles’ teaching and proclamation: DBS is a simple, reproducible method of Bible reading that engages people directly with God’s Word rather than by removing the reader from the text by one degree through the filter of a human teacher.

The discovery process empowers participants to develop their theology:  Since participants read God’s word primarily as God’s self-revelation, they are gaining a biblical understanding of who God is.  The message in a passage of Scripture is not interpreted or claimed as a direct communication from God to the reader but as a revelation of God’s character, will, and mission. From that understanding, an appropriate application can be determined. See below for an introduction to the theology and hermeneutic of the discovery method.

DBS allows for intercultural catalyzing:  Because people discover for themselves the meaning of God’s word, the cross-cultural worker does not need to cross the cultural bridge with their own understanding of God’s word; instead, they create access so that others can read God’s Word for themselves.  This does not negate the need for language and cultural learning, but it provides a pathway into significant disciple-making engagement of God’s word even before the cross-cultural worker has mastered communication skills.

D. How Fellowship International’s use of DBS is biblically and theologically appropriate

Fellowship International believes that DBS is an appropriate and effective disciple-making practice for both believers and seekers because it is centered on God’s Word. The specific critiques mentioned above are now addressed:

1. Unbelieving facilitators: Some have expressed concern that DMM practitioners are encouraging people who are not yet committed followers of Jesus to take spiritual leadership within a Bible study. This would be in violation of the concern laid out in the pastoral letters that spiritual leaders be committed followers of Jesus (e.g., 1 Tim 4). Fellowship International affirms this concern. However, DBS, while an important disciple-making process, is primarily a Bible reading method suitable for anyone, whether believer or seeker. Furthermore, the facilitator is not considered a spiritual leader but a fellow participant, although the hope is that the person will become a committed believer and develop into a spiritual leader.

In FI’s DMM approach, all people whether believers, unbelievers, or seekers, are encouraged to read and engage God’s Word in any setting. The reading of God’s Word is always a good thing and should not be discouraged. The hope is that unbelievers will become seekers, seekers will become believers, and believers will be strengthened in their faith to become mature disciple-makers. In DBS, the authority of the message remains in God’s Word, not in the facilitators or participants. They are the recipients and the ones discovering what God has revealed. It is the Word alone that speaks authoritatively.     

Because facilitation of DBS is a means of reading Scripture with others, it is appropriate for a non-believer to take on a facilitation role and everyone is encouraged to take their turn by following the DBS aims and questions. It is normal for one person to instigate the gathering of the group to guide and monitor the DBS process – referred to in this article as the “facilitator,” even though others are encouraged to facilitate during a meeting – but they do not have the authority of a teacher.

2. Lack of Spiritual Oversight: A key DMM principle is to multiply DBS groups among people who have the desire to discover God’s character, will, and mission by engaging Scripture. Establishing a new group requires someone capable of being a facilitator, either a believer who embraces Jesus’ command to be a disciple-maker or a seeker who wants to read the Bible with their friends or relatives. Where movements are happening, people are establishing their own groups (e.g., reading the Bible at home with their family) even without the instigation of a DMM practitioner.

The history of missions has been founded on God’s Word.  A lack of oversight by mature believers should not be a reason to keep God’s Word from people hungry to learn. In many places, people are being exposed to God’s Word through technology that does not allow for oversight (internet, radio, Scripture distribution). While not ideal, such realities do cause us to rely on the Holy Spirit, especially when we are not able to follow up, like Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch who continued alone back to his home country (Acts 8). DBS anticipates and provides for rapid distribution of the gospel message through a simple, reproducible method of reading to understand and obey that helps seekers understand how to engage God’s Word appropriately and with impact, even without oversight.

To make oversight the limiting factor for the spread of the gospel seems inappropriate in light of New Testament patterns. The apostle Paul expressed thanksgiving for the spread of the gospel (1 Thess 1:8-10), even when it was accomplished through those who were less than sincere (Php 1:15-18).

Nonetheless, in the normal course of catalyzing a disciple-making movement, the DBS process is instigated by a DMM practitioner who continues to monitor and debrief the primary facilitator of a group. This spiritual support and oversight allow the disciple-maker to gauge how the group is engaging God’s word, not by taking responsibility for the group, but through interaction with the facilitator. This approach requires a deep faith in God’s Word and confidence in the Holy Spirit to guide the process as the facilitator is encouraged and empowered. This not only aids the multiplication of groups who engage God’s Word, but also establishes a means for the intentional training, teaching, and disciple-making of facilitators. In addition, the disciple-maker can challenge facilitators concerning their own personal faith response.  If a person has not yet made a commitment to Christ, that will be an essential part of the conversation.

3. Disparagement of preaching and teaching: Some have expressed concern that proclamation and teaching are discouraged in the DBS process, noting that the New Testament clearly describes proclamation and teaching as the primary ways people were introduced to the gospel. Three responses:

a. DBS is not a forum for teaching:
Fellowship International affirms the importance of teachers, prophets, and evangelists in the building up of the church and does not discourage or disparage such gifting. However, proclamation and teaching are discouraged in a DBS context because such actions undermine the discovery process that is essential to develop a conviction that anyone can read and interpret Scripture sufficiently in order to discover God’s character, will, and mission.

Preaching and teaching must be true to the authority of Scripture and DBS equips people by developing a familiarity with Scripture so they can engage and even evaluate a teacher’s message based on their understanding of God’s Word.

DBS can also be a welcome correction to an unhealthy dependence on preachers and teachers whose knowledge and competence encourage believers to become passive and rely on the insights of the teacher rather than exploring the Word for themselves. DBS mitigates the concern that people may come to faith with a desire for salvation but without a commitment to obey. Trusting the instruction and guidance of teachers rather than exploring Scripture in order to obey weakens the disciple. DBS begins with and maintains its focus to know God’s character and conform to his will and mission. “What you win them with is what you win them to.” 

The claim that personal engagement of God’s Word through a discovery process is a legitimate priority for a disciple is based on the Protestant doctrine of the perspicuity of the Bible[1]. This doctrine assumes that God intended to communicate a message for all people through his prophets and apostles who were guided by the Holy Spirit in what they wrote, and that he was successful – 2 Tim 3:16-17, Heb 4:12.  Thus, anyone who reads God’s word with care and sincerity can discern God’s message, especially in the self-correcting environment of a group. Through DBS people learn that they can read and discover God’s self-revelation with understanding and confidence. Rather than assuming a position between God’s Word and listeners in order to explain and interpret, facilitators together with all participants, submit themselves to the authority of Scripture. The Holy Spirit remains the teacher; the facilitator and the participants, are the learners.

At the same time, while personal engagement with God’s Word is necessary and foundational for disciples, it is not sufficient because the input of believers who can teach is also important. Such teachers are a gift from God to Christ’s body and are to be encouraged as they help others understand God’s Word and grow in their discipleship journey. Such teachers complement the personal engagement of God’s Word, but should not undermine or become a substitute for personal discovery.

b. DBS promotes direct engagement of the apostles’ proclamation and teaching:
Despite discouraging a teaching posture for DBS facilitators, DMM practitioners encourage people to engage the record of proclamation and teaching in the New Testament. At the time of the book of Acts, proclamation was necessary for people to hear the gospel because the New Testament was not yet written or collated. The New Testament was written by the apostles through the prompting of the Holy Spirit to expand the proclamation of the gospel beyond verbal messages to written text. Reading the Bible is therefore a form of hearing Jesus’ and the apostles’ proclamation and teaching. DBS, therefore, does not downplay proclamation and teaching; it is exposing participants to a God-given, inspired means of proclamation and teaching found in the text itself.

There is much to be learned from other believers about the way of Jesus and how to live in the kingdom of God, and apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers (APEST – Eph 4:11-12) are all gifts to the church for this purpose. We must never quench the Spirit by discouraging those to whom God has given these gifts but give them full scope to fulfill the task God has called them to. A fuller and deeper engagement of God’s Word is gained through the supplementary gifts of preaching and teaching, as long they enhance and do not undermine the primary engagement of Jesus’ and the apostles’ teaching through a discovery process.

c. DBS prioritizes disciple-making over passive listening:
All believers are called to be disciple-makers who make disciple-makers (Mt 28:19-20). This responsibility is effectively carried out in a group setting through a discovery process as participants work out the meaning of God’s message and its implication for their lives. This follows the pattern evident after Pentecost when believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42) and were often “together” (Acts 2:44,46) for fellowship and worship. The testimony that the “Lord added to their group others who were being saved” (Acts 2:47) likely implies that seekers joined with believers to engage that teaching. Furthermore, the apostles often addressed the whole church in their epistles (e.g., 1 Thess 1:1) indicating that all believers were expected to engage the apostles’ teaching directly, not just through the authority of a local leader. Engaging the apostles’ message in our time occurs first through such readings of the New Testament as DBS offers.

While DBS provides a foundational pathway by which seekers can become disciples and believers can be strengthened in their faith and become involved in making disciples, this process does not displace preachers and teachers within the body of Christ. Rather, it emphasizes the priority of Scripture reading that needs to be complemented and supplemented by the guidance of Spirit-filled believers whom God appoints for such ministry. The discovery process is how disciples are made and the responsibility for this task is not limited to those with APEST gifts.

E. An introduction to the theology and hermeneutic of the discovery method

DBS promotes an important hermeneutic: the Bible as revelation. The Bible is an authentic, necessary, and sufficient revelation of God’s character, God’s will, and God’s mission within cultural, historical, and geographical contexts that are different from the contexts of today’s readers.  The Bible also provides an authentic, necessary, and sufficient representation of humanity and the human condition described within diverse cultural, historical, and geographical contexts. Both unfamiliarity with the biblical contexts and the inevitable influence of the reader’s personal worldview and cultural assumptions challenge the ability of the reader to interpret and apply Scripture. These challenges indicate that to understand the text the reader needs (1) familiarity with the Bible, (2) community support to interpret and apply God’s Word, and (3) teachers and scholars.

The role of DBS is to (1) expose people to God’s Word, (2) guide people to read God’s Word as his self-revelation, (3) help people read the Bible with understanding and confidence, (4) ensure that the Bible is read in community, and (5) challenge participants to respond to what they have discovered. DBS demonstrates a high reliance on the perspicuity of the Bible, the work of the Holy Spirit, and a community of believers and seekers. When the discovery process happens regularly over time an ever-increasing familiarity with Scripture is developed.

The following diagram shows the interpretive process used by DBS:

The Bible is not read in order to find a direct application to life as if contextual interpretation is not needed (bottom arrow). At least two cultural contexts need to be considered: the biblical culture and our own culture. Because of this reality, a direct connection between the Bible and our situation is not possible. Instead, Scripture is viewed as the revelation of God given in another time and place and through a different cultural lens (left arrow). The discernment of God’s revelation in a passage then shapes our beliefs as we integrate the revelation into our theology and belief system (top arrow). Only then does that belief find application as it is expressed through culturally appropriate actions (right arrow).

DBS encourages respect for and integrity with God’s Word as authoritative because the participants read and understand the meaning of a biblical text rather than using a variety of texts to support a particular doctrine. At the same time, readers in a group context are guided to self-contextualize the revelation of God as they explore how these truths can be expressed in their lives. This is a foundational practice for any congregation to become the hermeneutic of the gospel (Newbigin 1989:222) and so moves the group towards a self-identification of “church.” At the same time, this practice does not exclude contextualization of the gospel by outsiders, nor does it undermine or exclude God’s gift of apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers (APEST). DBS allows the text to reveal God to seekers and to empower believers so that they have confidence in what they read, and it demonstrates a crucial process for how to use God’s Word to assess the truth claims of those who teach so that they are not led astray.

F. Examples of how DBS is being used in missions along with reasons why these accord with the way that God’s Spirit brings transformation.

A DBS Case Study in Pakistan
Papu is a believer in Pakistan from a Hindu background whom I am coaching according to DMM P&Ps. He has 13 men from different villages that he calls People of Peace (POPs).  Four are baptized believers, the rest are seekers from a Hindu background who are learning about who Jesus is and what God’s Word teaches. On Sundays they meet as a group. During the time together Papu engages them in a discovery process of Bible reading. He teaches a story to the illiterate men based on a passage of Scripture that is read by the literate men. The men take turns repeating the Bible story until everyone repeats it adequately.  Papu and the POPs then go through a set of DBS questions to work out the meaning and significance of the story followed by a challenge to respond in a manner that fits with what they have discovered about the character, will, and mission of God. These questions are always the same, allowing for this process to be repeated with any Bible story or passage, and for the men to repeat the process when they return to their villages.

During the week each of the men is required to repeat the story or read the passage with their family and/or friends, ask the DBS questions, and then challenge the group members to respond. Papu visits the villages of his POPs and oversees their efforts to guide others in a discovery reading of God’s Word.  These facilitators are not training to be teachers; they are like the woman at the well (Jn 4) telling people in their village what Jesus has said. The goal for the people of Sychar was not to continue learning from the woman but to turn to Jesus and learn from him. Similarly, the POPs point to Scripture so that people can hear God speak and then learn to respond.

DBS and Bible Translation
As a Bible translator, I am intrigued by the history of Bible translation and the stories of the opposition and struggle faced by those who sought to provide the average person access to God’s Word in their own language. In session three of the documentary series, The Adventure of English, the presenter explains how the Bible came to be translated into vernacular English.

At the time of William Tyndale, a Latin translation, which people could not understand, was the Bible of the church. During worship services, the priest would read passages silently so that the ordinary people would not hear, and a bell would sound to let them know when the reading was complete. The Bible was considered too sacred for their ears.

Meanwhile, outside the ornate cathedrals, people were entertained by mystery plays, similar to children’s advent plays today, that were loose portrayals of Bible stories, performed in the vernacular English. These were entertaining but poor reflections of the biblical text.

It was in this context that Tyndale envisioned and worked towards an English translation of the Bible from the original languages[2]. When a Bishop argued that it was harmful for people to have God’s law, Tyndale responded, “If God spares my life, in a few years a plowboy shall know more of the Scriptures than you do” (Brandon 2016).

Once the translation was complete, a group called Lollards who were dedicated to the reformation of Western Christianity, traveled around England secretly distributing handwritten copies of the English Bible at risk of imprisonment and execution. This conviction to give the Bible into the hands of the common person, written in their mother tongue, has been a key commitment of missionaries throughout the era of modern missions. The Gideons movement is an example of the conviction that the Bible should be made available to all so that anyone can read God’s Word for themselves.

Getting the Bible into the hands and thoughts of the average person drives DBS and is based on the belief that the foundational method for the proclamation and teaching of the gospel is God’s Word itself. Familiarity with and love for God’s Word cultivated through DBS ensures that the primacy of Scripture is established from the beginning of the seeker’s journey and that the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ remains the believer’s supreme teacher (Mt 23:10).

DBS and Bible Correspondence Courses
The Pakistan Bible Correspondence School (PBCS) invites Muslims to study the Bible.  A series of lessons are sent out that consist of Bible passages and simple questions. Early on in my ministry I studied one series to help me learn the Sindhi language and religious vocabulary (I even received a certificate!). Whenever a person signs up to study the lessons, they are sent a copy of the Sindhi New Testament with the hope that they will read it, perhaps even together with family or friends. The basic introduction of the courses is supplemented by the staff of PBCS who travel to meet students, engage their questions, and give further teaching. One of their tools is DBS as they encourage seekers to effectively engage and respond to the good news of Jesus Christ.

The point of these illustrations is to demonstrate that DBS is being used as an effective and appropriate Bible reading tool for seekers and believers alike.

There is a claim that we remember 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, 30% of what we see, 50% of what we see and hear, 70% of what we discuss with others, 80% of what we personally experience, 95% of what we teach others (Dale, We Remember). Whether or not these percentages are accurate, the concept resonates. The more we engage God’s Word with others in order to understand and obey, the more we will retain and the greater the impact will be. DBS lays out some foundational practices for the sincere disciple who desires to follow Jesus fully. It is only one methodology and it is not sufficient for the building up the body of Christ. Leaders, pastors, and teachers are needed. What DBS provides is a foundational and impacting process through which disciples are made and who then know how to go on to become disciple-makers themselves. The goal is to adopt, adapt, and supplement such methodologies so that the body of Christ will be built up and there will be a missional impact of disciple-makers making disciple-makers.


[1] Brackett (2010) informs us that both the 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith and the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith state, “…Those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.” On p. 37 footnote 5 Brackett provides a list of the eight key points of the doctrine.

[2] John Wycliffe had translated the Latin Bible into English more than a century earlier.  That translation had been outlawed in England (Wycliffe Bible Translators).

List of References

The Adventure Of English – Episode 3 The Battle for the Language of the Bible – BBC Documentary.

Berger, Russell & DeMars, Sean (2021). Episode 63: Obedience-Based Discipleship: Is it Biblical? Defend and Confirm Podcast. https://www.podbean.com/site/EpisodeDownload/PB112062DRUZ3N

Brackett, Kristian (2010) “The Perspicuity of the Scriptures:  Presupposition, Principle or Phantasm” in KAIROS – Evangelical Journal of Theology, Vol. IV. No. 1, pp. 31-50

Brandon, Steve (2016). The Plowboy. https://enjoyinghisgrace.wordpress.com/2016/01/27/the-plow-boy/

Dale, Edgar. We Remember.  https://uh.edu/~dsocs3/wisdom/wisdom/we_remember.pdf

Kocman, Alex (2021). Is ‘Obedience-Based Discipleship’ Biblical? https://www.abwe.org/blog/obedience-based-discipleship-biblical

Morell, Caleb (2019); Book Review: The Kingdom Unleashed, by Jerry Trousdale and Glenn Sunshine.

Newbigin, Lesslie (1989). The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns.

Rhodes, Matt (2022). No Shortcut to Success: A Manifesto for Modern Missions. Wheaton: Crossway.

Vegas, Chad (2018). A Brief Guide to DMM.

“William Tyndale: A Master Translator.” Wycliffe Bible Translators.                        https://wycliffe.org.uk/story/william-tyndale?gclid=CjwKCAjw5MOlBhBTEiwAAJ8e1nAJ16UKZvMkSmzJ-LbpXz4bPRayytra9IJCNEM4tYbrBKEYITCpDhoCh4cQAvD_BwE

Additional resources related to DMM controversies

Coles, David (2022) Book Review: Matt Rhodes, No Shortcut to Success: A Manifesto for Modern Mission

___________ (2021) Addressing Theological and Missiological Objections to CPM/DMM in Motus Dei: The Movement of God to Disciple the Nations. Ed. Warrick Farah. Littleton: Wm Carey Pub.

Jolley, Ken (2020) 111. Exploring Vegas’ Critique of DMM. https://impact.nbseminary.com/exploring-vegas-critique-of-dmm/

Naylor, Mark (2020). 109. Defending DMMs: A response to Chad Vegas. https://impact.nbseminary.com/109-defending-dmms/ 

___________(2020). 110. Response to Stiles’ Critique of DMMs. https://impact.nbseminary.com/110-response-to-stiles-critique-of-dmms/

___________(2020). 112. DMM Critiques addressed at FI Summit 2020. https://impact.nbseminary.com/dmm-critiques-addressed-at-fi-summit-2020/

___________(2021). 114. Does DMM suffer from NA pragmatic arrogance?https://impact.nbseminary.com/114-does-dmm-suffer-from-na-pragmatic-arrogance/

Watson, David L. & Watson, Paul D. (2014). Contagious Disciple Making: Leading Others on a Journey of Discovery.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Waterman L.D. (2019). A Straw Man Argument to Prove What God Shouldn’t Do: A Critique of Chad Vegas’ “A Brief Guide to DMM”

Yinger, Ken (2020) 113. We are all Heretics,


122. Evaluating Atonement Metaphors

The Atonement Metaphor Evaluation Tool introduced here has been developed from the course “Contextualized Communication of the Cross” which I have taught since 2012.

It is not uncommon to hear gospel presentations that are either incomplete (e.g., “Jesus died to bring us to God”), inconsistent (e.g., “Jesus took our punishment so that we could be adopted as God’s children”), incomprehensible (such as my initial attempt to present the gospel in a Sindhi setting[i]), or even misleading (such as reducing Jesus’ suffering and death to an example we are to follow). This post introduces the Atonement Metaphor Evaluation Tool which can be used to  assess metaphors for completeness, internal consistency, and biblical integrity, as well as for resonance[ii] with the intended audience.

The tool uses a technical and rational approach to ensure that we do not confuse our listeners with inadequate presentations of the gospel. At the same time, I want to emphasize that explanations of the cross are not the heart of the gospel – Jesus is. Eternal life is relational (Jn 17:3). If we are “in Christ” (relationship) we have a heavenly father (relationship). This is important because the point of telling the story of the cross is not primarily to understand how Jesus saves us. The cross is not just a transaction, an accomplishment, getting something done, a gift, or a benefit for us. The story of the cross is told to lead people to faith and a commitment to Jesus, not just so we can appreciate what he did for us, to receive the benefits and then get on with our lives.  Faith in response to the gospel is analogous to a wedding ceremony. A wedding is not about signing a certificate to make the relationship official. Getting married is about giving yourself totally to someone else in a covenantal bond. The mechanism of the wedding ceremony is an important part of the process , but comparatively minor; the relationship is everything.

The goal of atonement metaphors is not to understand how the cross “works.” Rather the point is to recognize and express the hope of the cross which leads to commitment to Jesus. A focus on an intellectual, theoretical mechanism for the cross can be deadening – like a bride absorbed with the details of the wedding rather than the significance of the relationship. The purpose of a gospel presentation is to provide a vision of the cross that leads people into relationship with the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Nonetheless, the importance of the gospel invitation compels us to provide a clear, comprehensible, and resonating explanation of the meaning of the cross.

Integrating Text and Context for Gospel Communication

Any presentation of the gospel that introduces people to the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection requires the interaction of two primary factors. First, the message needs to be shaped so that it does not come across as an irrelevant or strange idea to the intended audience and instead resonates with them using familiar language and concepts. Everything they hear is processed through cultural filters which includes their values, needs, concerns, and interests. The goal for the evangelist is to discover contextually sensitive metaphors of the cross that make sense in light of the way the people relate to each other and to the ultimate purposes of life. We see this contextual sensitivity in the New Testament through the variety of explanations and images from everyday life that are used to describe the impact and meaning of the cross. Baker and Green[iii] identify 5 categories of biblical metaphors borrowed from the public life of the ancient Mediterranean world that illustrate this principle:

  • Court of law (e.g., Justification)
  • Commerce (e.g., Redemption)
  • Personal Relationships (e.g., Reconciliation)
  • Worship (e.g., Sacrifice)
  • Battleground (e.g., Triumph over evil)

Paul’s reference to an altar with the inscription “To an Unknown God” in his speech in Athens (Acts 17:23) is an example of such contextual sensitivity. Paul uses an image of a judge (court of law language) to call people to repentance and faith claiming that the basis for Jesus’ authority to judge is grounded in his resurrection from the dead (17:31). The art of creating receptor-sensitive resonating metaphors has been discussed in previous posts.[iv]

The second primary factor is integrity with God’s word. An appropriate metaphor will truthfully communicate the meaning of the cross in a manner that faithfully represents biblical teaching.

An atonement metaphor is a lens through which we adequately describe God’s acts of resolving sin and of bringing humans back to a life-giving relationship with God. It is only as we are reoriented to God through the cross that our relationship with self, others, and the world can find true fulfillment and purpose.

“Atonement” used as an Evaluation Tool

The tool used to evaluate the appropriateness of an atonement metaphor and as a guide for the development of such metaphors is derived from the definition of “atonement:”

In Christian thought, the act by which God and man are brought together in personal relationship. The term is derived from Anglo-Saxon words meaning “making at one,” hence “at-one-ment.” It presupposes a separation or alienation that needs to be overcome if human beings are to know God and have fellowship with him. As a term expressing relationship, atonement is tied closely to such terms as reconciliation and forgiveness.[v]

From this definition, atonement can be summarized to include five distinct aspects: atonement is “an act /which removes /the cause /of separation /resulting in restoration.” This becomes an evaluation tool by which metaphors can be gauged for consistency and coherence. For example in a “deliverance” metaphor:

  • “Act” refers to the divine action that achieves atonement (e.g., deliverance)
  • “Removes” describes what the “act” accomplishes (e.g., raised from spiritual death),
  • “Cause” refers to what caused the “separation” (e.g., sin),
  • “Separation” refers to the problem that requires correcting (e.g., spiritual death),
  • “Restoration” is the result of the atoning “act” (e.g., alive in Christ)

By considering the five distinct aspects of this “deliverance” metaphor, the communicator of the gospel can ensure that there is consistency between the aspects in order to provide a coherent presentation. Each aspect can then be evaluated to see if it maintains integrity with God’s word and resonance with the intended audience.

To aid in the evaluation or construction of atonement metaphors, an Atonement Metaphor Evaluation Chart has been prepared which focuses on both primary factors: resonance with the audience, and integrity with God’s word. In addition, it provides an important logical assessment to determine if the metaphor used to describe the “act” is consistent with the explanations for “separation” and “restoration.”

The content of the metaphor is considered using the five aspects of the Atonement Evaluation Tool within five columns: “an act /which removes /the cause /of separation /resulting in restoration.” The following questions are asked:

  • Column 1: What is the divine act that achieves atonement?
  • Column 2: How is the removal of the cause of separation explained?
  • Column 3: What is the cause of the separation?
  • Column 4: How is separation itself described?
  • Column 5: What does restoration look like?

The appropriateness of the metaphor is considered by referencing the rows. In each of the five columns the metaphor is evaluated to determine if it

  • Maintains integrity with God’s word,
  • Resonates with the intended audience, and
  • Fits together and logically makes sense.

The chart guides us through a step-by-step evaluation of atonement metaphors so that we can avoid dissonance, that is, a lack of logical connection due to mixed metaphors. For example, if the “Restoration” is that God adopts us as children and the “separation” is that we are estranged from God, it would then be inconsistent to suggest as the “act” that Jesus died to pay our penalty. There is cognitive dissonance because “Restoration” and “separation” depend on a relational metaphor, while the “act” is forensic. In order to maintain metaphorical consistency, the “act” requires a relational metaphor (e.g., as our true and faithful “older brother,” Jesus brings us back into relationship with the Father). Alternately, “Restoration” and “separation” could be adjusted with a forensic image (e.g., we are guilty and deserve punishment – “separation” – but Jesus pays our debt so that we can go free – “restoration”).

Each section of the chart can be evaluated  to determine the appropriateness of each aspect of the atonement metaphor as it relates to biblical integrity (first row), resonance (second row), and logical consistency (third row).


The first example is an exegesis of a Bible verse from the English Standard Version without a particular audience in mind. It demonstrates how the gospel message is shaped for the 1st century Jewish context, using images and language that have significance for that audience (which the ESV seeks to represent through its choice of English terms). The second and third examples demonstrate the contextualization of the gospel message for a Papua New Guinea tribe and for a people group in a Pakistan context respectively.

  1. Romans 3:23-25 ESV

“…for all have sinned (cause = turned away from God – Rom 3:10-18) and fall short of the glory of God (separation = unworthy, unholy), and are justified (restoration = made right with God) … through … Christ Jesus, whom God put forward (act) as a propitiation (wrath removed) by his blood (act: blood = death), to be received by faith.”

  • Act(1) – God offers (“puts forward”) Jesus
  • Act(2) – Jesus’ blood (= sacrifice / death)
  • Removes – the wrath of God (“propitiation”)
  • Cause – sin (= rebellion, turning away from God’s path – Rom 3:10-18)
  • Separation – falling short of the glory of God (= unworthy, unholy)
  • Restoration – made right with God (“justified”)

It is unlikely that the language of the ESV (justified, propitiation, blood) would be understood by, let alone resonate with, the average English speaker; explanation and paraphrasing would be needed. Nonetheless, the terminology in the original language had a history and conveyed images that would have been understood by the readers. Without explaining “how,” Paul declares that Jesus’ sacrifice (blood) removes “sin” so that the wrath of God is no longer directed towards those who have faith in Jesus, and so they are made right with God. While the immediate reference may be to a sacrificial metaphor[vi] (Jesus’ blood removes sin and thus saves from God’s wrath), a penal substitution metaphor could also be used to explain the gospel message in the verse for an audience that has a strong legal presence (like in individualistic Western contexts).

  1. Peace child[vii]

In Don Richardson’s first attempts at telling the gospel, the message was incomprehensible to his audience. In fact, according to their value system, Judas was understood to be the hero. By using their tradition of the “peace child” as a gospel analogy, Richardson identifies Jesus as a significant and respected part of their culture.

  • Act – God sent the divine peace child (who was killed) and resurrected him to show his determination and desire for reconciliation
  • Removes – the estrangement
  • Cause – (implied offense or disaster in the past – communal)
  • Separation – at war with or estranged from God (communal)
  • Restoration – peace and blessing

The theme of this metaphor is reconciliation (cf. The Prodigal Son) and is internally consistent. Rather than an individual orientation calling for personal repentance, the focus is communal. “Sin” is not focused on specific moral actions, but on being estranged from God. The estrangement is removed by embracing the Peace Child (= Jesus) as God’s representative with whom they identify and to whom they conform their lives.

  1. My Epiphany[viii]

My initial communication of the cross used a Penal Substitution metaphor which did not make sense as good news to the listeners because it presented God as less gracious and less willing to forgive than God as portrayed in Islam with the titles “All Merciful and All Gracious.”

  • Act – Jesus took punishment to appease God as Judge
  • Removes – took our punishment on himself
  • Cause – because of the wrong things we have done
  • Separation – condemnation before God requiring punishment
  • Restoration – God no longer condemns but gives favor

After realizing that the metaphor I was using did not communicate a resonating message of the gospel as good news, I chose the image of the New Adam in Romans 5.

  • Act(1) – Jesus identifies with us in the incarnation
  • Act(2) – Jesus identifies with us in our shame and death
  • Act(3) – Jesus’ resurrection opens the way to God for all who are “in Christ”
  • Removes – takes on the consequences of our choices / disobedience
  • Cause – shame for not living as God requires
  • Separation – estrangement, no status as children
  • Restoration – Jesus brings us into relationship with God as Father through the resurrection as we gain our new identity of being “in Christ.”

Rather than judicial, the new metaphor is relational with the dual themes of restoration and reconciliation. Restoration of the status that God intends for humanity as images of him, and reconciliation to him as our Heavenly Father. This strongly resonates with Sindhis who welcome the vision of God as Father who loves them and desire their best.


[i] See CCI post No. 85: Shaping the Gospel Message so that it Resonates.

[ii] Resonance refers to the way the hearers perceive and respond to the relevance of a message. Resonance goes beyond comprehension to describe the impact of the message upon the faith (worldview, values and beliefs) of the reader or listener.

[iii] Baker, Mark D. and Green, Joel B. 2011. Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts, 2nd Edition. Downers Grove: IVP Academic. P. 41.

[iv] See CCI post No. 85: Shaping the Gospel Message so that it Resonates, 87: Making the Gospel Understandable and 88: The significance of Metaphor in Communicating the Cross of Christ.

[v] Lyon, R. W., & Toon, P. 1988. “Atonement” in Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 1, p. 231). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[vi] After a lengthy analysis of the use of the Paul’s term for “propitiation,” Leon Morris concludes that “the balance of probability is strongly in the direction of seeing in ιλαστηριον in Romans 3 a general reference to the removal of the wrath of God, rather than a specific reference either to the mercy-seat, or to the Day of Atonement ceremonies” (The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, Third Edition, 1965. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. P. 198).

[vii] See the summary of Don Richardson’s Peace Child metaphor in CCI post 88: The significance of Metaphor in Communicating the Cross of Christ.

[viii] See CCI post No. 85: Shaping the Gospel Message so that it Resonates.

120. Sindhi Bible Translation: A Translation that Resonates

Reprinted from  NBSeminary.ca

“Oh, we don’t use that New Testament translation in our work.”

It was 1990, early in my work with the Sindhi Old Testament translation team when an evangelist to his own people among the Hindu tribes stunned me with that declaration.

Hu Addleton had begun work on the common language Sindhi New Testament in 1972, and through the persistent efforts of Ralph Brown and a team of Sindhi translators and reviewers, it was completed in 1985. The Sindhi NT had been published by the Pakistan Bible Society and was being distributed in the majority Muslim province of Sindh, Pakistan. During that time there was a movement to Christ among Hindu tribes and many churches were planted. I had imagined that the newly published NT in easily accessible Sindhi would play a key role in making disciples of these tribes, and so I was shocked to find that the translation was not being used.

“Why don’t you use it?” I asked.

“Because it is full of Islamic names and terms, and Hindus find this offensive,” was the reply.

A Bible translation that resonates

His honesty helped me realize that it is not sufficient to produce a translation that is clear and understandable, it must also resonate with cultural and religious norms. If we ignore that reality, the translation may not be accepted and years of careful translation effort would be wasted.

The terminology used in any translation comes with “baggage” that impacts readers on different levels, including emotional, political and intellectual.

Hindus and Hindu-background believers in the Sindh read Scripture from their position as marginalized people dominated by the Muslim majority. So even though the meaning of the text might be plain, the Islamic religious terminology used in the Muslim Sindhi New Testament creates an emotional reaction of distaste and rejection. The message is clouded by their reaction to the words used to communicate that message. Consider the reaction if a pastor read John 3:16 in this way in an average Canadian church: “For Allah so loved that world that he gave…” (Allah is used by many Christians worldwide to refer to God, e.g., Malaysia).

Bible translation for distinct religious groups

I continued the conversation with my evangelist brother wondering, “How do you give the gospel to Hindus if you can’t read the Sindhi New Testament to them?”

Pakistan is a country of 90+ languages. The national language is Urdu, the regional language of the Sindh province is Sindhi, and within the Sindh are many tribal groups each with their own distinct language. In the Sindh, the language of commerce and schooling is primarily Sindhi, with significant use of Urdu as well. When tribal Hindu groups meet, the common language used is Sindhi. However, among Protestant believers, the most popular Bible is in Urdu, a well-crafted formal version that is often difficult to understand even for Urdu mother-tongue speakers. For Hindu tribal people, many of whom are illiterate, Urdu is, at best, their third language. So I was disturbed by his answer, “We read to them from the Urdu Bible and then explain what it means.”

The insufficiency of this answer and the need for a Bible translation that resonates with Hindu Sindhi speakers bothered me as we continued work on the Sindhi Old Testament translation (geared towards a Muslim audience) until its completion in 2007. At that time, a team was formed for the creation of a Hindu Sindhi New Testament in parallel with a revision of the Muslim Sindhi New Testament. The hope was to prepare a New Testament translation with two versions geared to different audiences, yet similar enough that in joint meetings of believers there would be unity in the form, style and phrasing of the text.

Bible translation for distinct sub-cultures

We had the added complication of creating a Hindu Sindhi version that would be acceptable to, and helpful for two different groups: the tribal Hindu background believers whose mother tongue is not Sindhi, and those (not from a tribal background) whose mother tongue is Sindhi. Our team consisted of an experienced Muslim Sindhi who had worked for many years on the common language Sindhi New Testament, a Hindu mother-tongue Sindhi speaker, and a Hindu-background tribal evangelist who is fluent in Sindhi as his second language. I led the team as the “exegete” who was responsible for engaging the scholarship and resources to ensure an accurate translation. Our goal was to work together to prepare a version of the Sindhi New Testament that was suitable for a Muslim audience, as well as a version that would be acceptable to both mother-tongue Hindu Sindhis, and believers living in the Sindh who were from a tribal Hindu Sindhi background.

Bible translation process

The first common language New Testament (1980) was completed without the aid of computers. The new Hindu Sindhi NT translation and the revised Muslim Sindhi NT translation have had the advantage of powerful Bible translation programs as well as access to many resources and scholars (including Northwest’s own Dr. Larry Perkins).

The translation was done in stages: several chapters of the 1980 Sindhi NT were sent to Hindu Sindhis so they could suggest alternative terms for Islamic vocabulary. Hindu terminology for words like God, son, spirit, almighty, promise, prophet, apostle, grace and love were suggested and a draft translation was created. Two members of the team read through the text and made grammatical corrections and other adjustments suitable for a Hindu audience. Then came the hard work of doing an exegetical check on both versions, slowly and carefully rephrasing the Sindhi for clarity and accuracy through the whole New Testament.


And now we are ready to celebrate! The Hindu and Muslim versions of the common language Sindhi New Testament have been completed in the fall of 2021 and are ready for publication. Both versions are now freely available for Android devices through the Kalaam i Muqaddas app, and printed versions will be also be available.

We pray that God will use his word powerfully among the people of Sindh leading many to become followers of Jesus.

115. Sindhi Bible Translation Celebration!

Reprinted from Northwest News November 2021

Celebrating the completion of a Bible translation

“Oh, we don’t use that New Testament translation in our work.”

It was 1990, early in my work with the Sindhi Old Testament translation team when an evangelist to his own people among the Hindu tribes stunned me with that declaration.

Hu Addleton had begun work on the common language Sindhi New Testament in 1972, and through the persistent efforts of Ralph Brown and a team of Sindhi translators and reviewers, it was completed in 1985. The Sindhi NT had been published by the Pakistan Bible Society and was being distributed in the majority Muslim province of Sindh, Pakistan. During that time there was a movement to Christ among Hindu tribes and many churches were planted. I had imagined that the newly published NT in easily accessible Sindhi would play a key role in making disciples of these tribes, and so I was shocked to find that the translation was not being used.

“Why don’t you use it?” I asked.

“Because it is full of Islamic names and terms, and Hindus find this offensive,” was the reply.

A Bible translation that resonates

His honesty helped me realize that it is not sufficient to produce a translation that is clear and understandable, it must also resonate with cultural and religious norms. If we ignore that reality, the translation may not be accepted and years of careful translation effort would be wasted.

The terminology used in any translation comes with “baggage” that impacts readers on different levels, including emotional, political and intellectual.

Hindus and Hindu-background believers in the Sindh read Scripture from their position as marginalized people dominated by the Muslim majority. So even though the meaning of the text might be plain, the Islamic religious terminology used in the Muslim Sindhi New Testament creates an emotional reaction of distaste and rejection. The message is clouded by their reaction to the words used to communicate that message. Consider the reaction if a pastor read John 3:16 in this way in an average Canadian church: “For Allah so loved that world that he gave…” (Allah is used by many Christians worldwide to refer to God, e.g., Malaysia).

Bible translation for distinct religious groups

I continued the conversation with my evangelist brother wondering, “How do you give the gospel to Hindus if you can’t read the Sindhi New Testament to them?”

Pakistan is a country of 90+ languages. The national language is Urdu, the regional language of the Sindh province is Sindhi, and within the Sindh are many tribal groups each with their own distinct language. In the Sindh, the language of commerce and schooling is primarily Sindhi, with significant use of Urdu as well. When tribal Hindu groups meet, the common language used is Sindhi. However, among Protestant believers, the most popular Bible is in Urdu, a well-crafted formal version that is often difficult to understand even for Urdu mother-tongue speakers. For Hindu tribal people, many of whom are illiterate, Urdu is, at best, their third language. So I was disturbed by his answer, “We read to them from the Urdu Bible and then explain what it means.”

The insufficiency of this answer and the need for a Bible translation that resonates with Hindu Sindhi speakers bothered me as we continued work on the Sindhi Old Testament translation (geared towards a Muslim audience) until its completion in 2007. At that time, a team was formed for the creation of a Hindu Sindhi New Testament in parallel with a revision of the Muslim Sindhi New Testament. The hope was to prepare a New Testament translation with two versions geared to different audiences, yet similar enough that in joint meetings of believers there would be unity in the form, style and phrasing of the text.

Bible translation for distinct sub-cultures

We had the added complication of creating a Hindu Sindhi version that would be acceptable to, and helpful for two different groups: the tribal Hindu background believers whose mother tongue is not Sindhi, and those (not from a tribal background) whose mother tongue is Sindhi. Our team consisted of an experienced Muslim Sindhi who had worked for many years on the common language Sindhi New Testament, a Hindu mother-tongue Sindhi speaker, and a Hindu-background tribal evangelist who is fluent in Sindhi as his second language. I led the team as the “exegete” who was responsible for engaging the scholarship and resources to ensure an accurate translation. Our goal was to work together to prepare a version of the Sindhi New Testament that was suitable for a Muslim audience, as well as a version that would be acceptable to both mother-tongue Hindu Sindhis, and believers living in the Sindh who were from a tribal Hindu Sindhi background.

Bible translation process

The first common language New Testament (1980) was completed without the aid of computers. The new Hindu Sindhi NT translation and the revised Muslim Sindhi NT translation have had the advantage of powerful Bible translation programs as well as access to many resources and scholars (including Northwest’s own Dr. Larry Perkins).

The translation was done in stages: several chapters of the 1980 Sindhi NT were sent to Hindu Sindhis so they could suggest alternative terms for Islamic vocabulary. Hindu terminology for words like God, son, spirit, almighty, promise, prophet, apostle, grace and love were suggested and a draft translation was created. Two members of the team read through the text and made grammatical corrections and other adjustments suitable for a Hindu audience. Then came the hard work of doing an exegetical check on both versions, slowly and carefully rephrasing the Sindhi for clarity and accuracy through the whole New Testament.


And now we are ready to celebrate! The Hindu and Muslim versions of the common language Sindhi New Testament have been completed in the fall of 2021 and are ready for publication. Both versions are now freely available for Android devices through the Kalaam i Muqaddas app, and printed versions will be also be available.

We pray that God will use his word powerfully among the people of Sindh leading many to become followers of Jesus.


Bio: Mark Naylor (DTh missiology) is Coordinator of International Leadership Development (CILD) with both Fellowship International and Northwest Baptist Seminary @ Trinity Western University (Langley BC). He and his wife, Karen, served as missionaries to the Sindhi people in Pakistan with Fellowship International from 1985-1999. Mark works part time on Bible translation projects in the Sindhi language through Zoom and occasional trips to Pakistan. His primary responsibility is the professional development of Fellowship International missionaries so that they may be “Competent as Intercultural Change Agents” (CICA) in countries where FI missionaries serve. He oversees training for intercultural disciple making through the Northwest Immerse program.

94. God as Artist: Expressions of Goodness

In the Beginning: the Word

When I was a young boy, one of the mysterious verses in the Bible was John 1:1, “In the beginning was the word.”  I remember puzzling over this phrase and thinking it must mean the Bible, because that was “God’s word.”  But when I realized that the Bible was written long after “the beginning,” I began to wonder if it referring to one special “word” (maybe “Jesus”?) that God spoke.  Of course, most people just looked ahead in the passage and said, “The answer is in verse 14: ‘The word became a human being.’  It’s Jesus!”  But that won’t do; we cannot substitute “Jesus” for “word” in verse 1 because that undermines John’s message. He wants us to first think about “word” before we get to the incarnation. We are not intended to equate the “word” with Jesus until we get to that verse.  The amazing revelation is that this “word” – whatever it is – actually becomes a human being. But in order to appreciate why this is astounding, we first need to understand John’s use of “word” as something other than Jesus in verse 1.

Translating the “Word”

In order to translate, we must first understand

When casually reading the Bible, we can skip over phrases that are puzzling.  However, that is not true for Bible translation. In order to translate, we must first understand.  Currently our Bible translation team is engaged in a review of the Sindhi New Testament1 and is partway through the book of John. So when we read, “In the beginning was the Word,” we had to think through what “word” referred to.

John does not begin his book with Jesus, a man who was born and lived in Israel 2000 years ago.  He doesn’t start with the Messiah, the chosen one of God to bring salvation to the nations, which is where Matthew starts. He does not commence with the title “Son of God,” which is Mark’s preference.  Instead, John describes something other than the man Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God.  He turns our attention to the “word.”  But what is it that we are to understand?

It is surprisingly difficult to obtain a clear meaning of this term.  Commentaries and theological dictionaries tend to provide English equivalents of the Greek word, logos, such as wisdom, teaching, speech, reflection, knowledge, truth, the fundamental law and order of the universe, understanding, comprehension, and rationality.2 But while these are all legitimate terms, they are not sufficient to allow us to grasp the significance and impact of John’s phrase.

Another approach is to explore the equivalent Hebrew words used for logos in the Greek translation of the Old Testament – after all, that was Jesus’ and John’s Bible at that time.  In the Old Testament, God’s “word” refers to a revelation of his character and will, a declaration of truth, or a command.

These insights are the basis for the Sindhi translation of “kalam” – that which God declares, the message that God speaks – used for a Muslim audience. The Scriptures are commonly referred to among Muslims as God’s kalam.  For a Hindu audience, on the other hand, we used the word “vachan,” which refers to a promise, God’s declaration that cannot be broken, his covenant. However, these legitimate translations still do not bring us much closer to understanding John’s purpose in using this phrase to set the stage for the climatic declaration that “the word became a human being.”

pay close attention to the context

Fortunately, there is a way to discover John’s meaning. An important translation principle is to pay close attention to the context.  The primary context used by John is the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis.  The meaning of “word” in John 1 is drawn directly from the image of God’s creative activity. In the first verses of Genesis, God’s Spirit is “moving” over the chaos, a reference to the formless, empty, dark ocean. It is as if God is studying a blank canvas and since God is a God of order, not of chaos, and of light, not of darkness, something magnificent happens.

God as Artist

Creation is God’s artwork that reflects his character and nature. When he speaks, he expresses himself and light appears. God reveals himself in the form of light – and it is good. God then separates that light from the darkness because light, as an expression of his goodness, reflects his holy and pure nature: “God is light and in him is no darkness at all” (1 Jn 1:5).

As God continues to speak, he expresses his goodness in visible, tangible forms, and the world comes into being.  He separates the waters (chaos) and brings land (order).  Again he says, “This is good.”  Finally, he creates human beings.  We become expressions of God, little icons created to reveal the goodness and character of God. This time God says, “This is very good.”

CS Lewis plays on the picture of God as artist in the Narnia series.  In the founding of Narnia, Aslan brings the world into being through a song.  It is an art form that expresses Aslan’s heart, passion, will, and desire.  A deep singing voice brings out the stars; the grass grows through the sound of gentle, rippling music, while lighter notes produce primroses. All this beauty comes out of the lion’s mouth – the word, the expression of Aslan.3

The Word: God expresses himself

With that image in mind, consider this rephrasing of the first verses of John’s gospel:

In the beginning God expressed himself,
He revealed his nature and his goodness.
And that expression which resulted in light and goodness, truth, order and beauty was with God,
It surrounded him, was part of him, because it showed who God was,
It was God’s nature and character overflowing into revelation.
God’s act of expressing his goodness was from the beginning.
In fact, everything was made by God as he revealed his nature.
Nothing was made that did not make him known in some way.
Everything has the stamp of God on it.
All creation says, “This is what God is like.”
In addition, when God expresses himself, when he speaks, when he reveals who he truly is, the result is life.

The “word” shows us God, is God; and God is good.

What does it look like in real life?  How can we grasp this grand picture of God expressing his glory and goodness and beauty so that it means something to us personally?  God answered that question for us:

The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, Generous inside and out, true from start to finish (John 1:14 msg).

God shows us what he is like in a language we can understand

God shows us what he is like in a language we can understand.  He expresses himself in a way that makes sense to us, in a way that can be heard, and seen, and touched (1 Jn 1:1).  Jesus is “God with skin on,” a living, walking, breathing, talking human being who reveals God. We look at Jesus and see God.  When Philip said, “Just show us the Father, that will be enough,”  Jesus replied, “Philip, open your eyes. When you look at me, you see God” (Jn 14:8-9, paraphrased).


  • 1 As a Pakistan Bible Society project, a translation of the Sindhi New Testament is being prepared for a Hindu audience, while simultaneously reviewing the version for a Muslim audience completed over 25 years ago.
  • 2 Brown, C 1971. The Occurrence and Significance of logos and legō in the NT in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol 3. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1106-1119.
  • 3 Lewis, CS 1955. The Magician’s Nephew. Harmandsworth: Puffin books, 93-99.

78. Gamble on the Redeemer: Culture and Bible Translation

Meaning is Determined by Culture

ruth21I recently gave a message from the book of Ruth focusing on the meaning of the Hebrew concept of go’el, the “kinsman–redeemer” (NIV), which is one of the key themes of the book.  While struggling to find the best way to communicate the reality that the meaning of the term is dependent upon the underlying cultural context, I realized that a comparison of Bible versions provided a means to that end, while also revealing the difficulties of the task of Bible translation.  The diversity between the translations also underscores the importance of comparing translations when studying the Bible in order to come to a fuller understanding.  The translations used are Today’s New International Version (TNIV), Today’s English Version (TEV) and the English Standard Version (ESV).  Exegetical and cultural analysis is used to demonstrate how the underlying context determines the meaning of the verse.  The examples also serve to illustrate the contrast between the translation principles used by these versions.

Naomi’s Intention – Ruth 3:1

One day Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, said to her, “My daughter, I must find a home for you, where you will be well provided for. (TNIV)

Some time later Naomi said to Ruth, “I must find a husband for you, so that you will have a home of your own. (TEV)

Then Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, should I not seek rest for you, that it may be well with you? (ESV)

All three translations communicate the basic idea that Naomi’s concern is to secure Ruth’s future. The translation of “rest” (ESV) comes from the idea of “resting place,” or a permanent residence, thus the translation of “home” in the TNIV and TEV.  The translation of the ESV connects the underlying Hebrew word to other references, such as Deut 28:65, which refers to a “resting place for the sole of your foot,” a Hebrew idiom for a permanent residence.1 A key theme of the Old Testament and of Ruth is the “land,” and the identity and security that comes from having a recognized family or tribal plot.  The strength of the ESV translation is the theme of “rest,” which resonates strongly with the nation of Israel’s history as a people in search of a place to call their own (Deut 26:5, Heb 11:9).  The weakness is that the meaning of the idiom does not carry over clearly to the modern English reader.  A natural understanding of Ruth 3:1 from the ESV would be that Naomi is concerned about how hard Ruth is working gleaning the crops, as described in chapter 2.  She would rather Ruth “rest the sole of her foot” by sitting down and relaxing.  However, that would be a misreading of the text.

The meaning of Naomi’s statement… is the intent to provide Ruth with a husband

On the other hand, the TEV picks up on the broader theme of patriarchy.  Security and identity (ie. the essence of the concern for “rest”) for the women in that culture depended upon their relationship with the male members of their family.  Without that connection, there was no future or meaning to a woman’s life.  Naomi could not even redeem the land that was in her husband’s name (Ruth 4).  This is the point of chapter one in which Naomi’s disaster of losing all her immediate male relatives is recorded.  It is the reason for her insistence that Orpah and Ruth return to their Moabite families.  Patriarchy, as a defining aspect of the culture of that day, is illustrated well by the description given in Deuteronomy 23 that only adult male Israelites were counted as citizens of the nation. Thus, Naomi’s concern for security and identity for her daughter-in-law in this verse is ultimately dependent upon Ruth’s relationship to a man.  The meaning of Naomi’s statement, which is evident from the following events, is the intent to provide Ruth with a husband.

the meaning of any text does not primarily reside in the individual words

These versions illustrate well the reality that the meaning of any text does not primarily reside in the individual words, nor even in the syntax that relates the words to each other, but in the underlying culture.  Language is a window onto the relationships, values, beliefs and worldview of a people group, but without an appropriate level of understanding of the cultural context, the meaning of any given text cannot be understood.  However, once the original context is understood, translators are able to present the meaning as related text in another language and context.  In particular, the TEV, by recognizing that the meaning of Naomi’s statement is highly dependent upon the context within which she speaks to Ruth, is able to communicate the intent of the passage cross-culturally in a way that is clear to the modern English reader.

Ruth’s Intention – Ruth 3:9

“I am your servant Ruth,” she said. “Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a family guardian.” (TNIV)

“It’s Ruth, sir,” she answered. “Because you are a close relative, you are responsible for taking care of me. So please marry me.” (TEV)

“I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wings over your servant, for you are a redeemer.” (ESV)

ruth_boazIn this verse, the ESV and the TNIV have chosen different vowel markings to determine the translation of “wings” or “garment.”2 The phrase is a Hebrew idiom without natural correspondence in the receptor English language, and so the TEV provides the meaning as “taking care of me.”  Moreover, in order to clarify the meaning as it relates to the cultural drama being played out in this passage, the TEV explicitly states: “please marry me.”  For the modern English audience, the scenario of a woman secretly coming to a man in the middle of the night can be easily misunderstood. In placing herself in a vulnerable and potentially disastrous situation, Ruth was not being sexually provocative (a la Hollywood).  Her intention was to cast herself upon the mercy of a patriarch in hopes that he would take the one action that would provide her with the status and identity that gave meaning and security to women in that culture – as a wife. Once again, the full meaning of the Ruth’s plea is tied to the context in which the words are said.

goelThe term translated as “family guardian” (TNIV), “close relative” (TEV) or “redeemer” (ESV) proved to be an extremely difficult concept to represent in our Sindhi Bible translation, and we spent hours trying to shape the text in a way that would do it justice.  The problem is that this concept is absent in both Sindhi and English cultures.  No one word or phrase can carry the weight of meaning represented by four Hebrew letters (go’el). Furthermore, the meaning of the word is, as with the examples above, revealed only through an understanding of the cultural dynamic.  The male members of the Israelite community of that time had all the rights and powers.  Even as the branches of a tree only remain green when attached to the trunk, so women and children were totally dependent upon the patriarch of the family.  Only the patriarch had the power to rescue the female members of the family and raise them to a position of honor and security.  This function of the patriarch was so crucial to the life of the Israelites that they had a separate term (go’el) to describe it.

this phrase does not plumb the depth of meaning and significance the concept held for Naomi

ESV’s “redeemer” captures the power to ransom, but does not communicate the important family aspect.  TEV’s “close relative” provides the family connection, but does not communicate the power of the patriarch that makes this relationship significant.  TNIV is perhaps the best by providing a phrase that communicates both sides of the concept with “family guardian.”  But even this phrase does not plumb the depth of meaning and significance the concept held for Naomi in Ruth 2:20 when she first holds out hope of deliverance, or for Ruth in Ruth 3:9 when she uses the term to ensure her actions are put in the right context.  It is the importance and significance of that patriarchal role that allowed Ruth to make such a high stakes gamble upon the redeemer.

Boaz’s Intention – Ruth 3:10

3:10 “The LORD bless you, my daughter,” he replied. “This kindness is greater than that which you showed earlier: You have not run after the younger men, whether rich or poor. (TNIV)

“The Lord bless you,” he said. “You are showing even greater family loyalty in what you are doing now than in what you did for your mother-in-law. You might have gone looking for a young man, either rich or poor, but you haven’t. (TEV)

And he said, “May you be blessed by the LORD, my daughter. You have made this last kindness greater than the first in that you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich. (ESV)

Family Loyalty

The word translated as “kindness” (ESV, TNIV) and “family loyalty” (TEV) is another term that refuses easy interlingual transference of meaning.  Similar to the previous examples, this is a concept dependent upon the relationships and values of that culture.  The Hebrew word is chesed and refers to love expressed by loyalty and “faithfulness to a promise or a covenant,”3 despite the cost to oneself.  It goes deeper than kindness by being an action that faithfully affirms, supports and builds up the community.  Thus David’s common plea in the Psalms for God to save him for “the sake of your steadfast love” (Ps 6:4 – ESV), which is an appeal based on God’s mercy and faithfulness towards the people that he has chosen for his own.

Naomi and Ruth live in a communally oriented society and the value of faithfulness and personal sacrifice for others in the clan is greatly appreciated by Boaz.  The “first” (ESV) or “earlier” (TNIV) kindness refers to the “family loyalty” shown to Naomi (as made clear in the TEV).  That is, Boaz is not praising Ruth for being kind to her mother-in-law, so much as he is affirming her decision and action to maintain family loyalty.4 It is this value that he praises her for when she approaches him.  Because her husband had been a close relative of Boaz, marriage to Ruth and the resulting progeny would allow the name of the father to continue on.  The sensitivity of Ruth to hold this as a worthy value to live by is what gives her actions the meaning and impact that propelled Boaz to action.

“Family loyalty,” which is expressed through marriage to a deceased husband’s relative, is not a western value.  Yet it is integral to the cultural dynamic of this story of the interaction between Ruth and Boaz. It provides the meaning and significance both to their dialogue and to their actions. Thus, it is incumbent upon the Bible translator, whose goal is communication, to provide appropriate clues within the forms of the receptor language that will enable the reader to comprehend those cultural aspects from which the biblical text derives its meaning.

The Language of Culture

Culture is, in and of itself, a language

Culture is, in and of itself, a language.  It is a communication of order and significance that define the relationships we experience, whether with our environment or with each other.  Any written text that provides a description of relationships, beliefs or narrative is one expression of the deeper and fuller sense that resides within the culture itself.  Communication, and thus Bible translation, is dependent upon clarity concerning cultural dynamics, for that is where meaning ultimately lies.  God speaks his word in and through the medium that provides meaning and significance to those being addressed. That medium is their culture.

For further articles on Bible translation, see the CCI Archives.

For information on Mark’s Bible translation in the Sindhi Language see Sindhi Bible Translation.

If you would like to contact Mark please use the Contact Me form.  If you would like to leave a comment, please use the “comment” link at the bottom of this article.



  • 1 Bratcher, R.G. and Hatton, H.A. 2000. A Handbook on Deuteronomy. New York: United Bible Societies. Deu. 28:65. (Unicode version).
  • 2 The original Hebrew does not contain vowel markings, which can determine the meaning of a word.
  • 3 Bratcher, R.G. and Reyburn, W.D. 1991. A Handbook on The Book of Psalms. New York: United Bible Societies. Ps. 5:7. (Unicode version).
  • 4 deWaard, J. and Nida, E.A. 1992, 1978. A Handbook on Ruth. New York: United Bible Societies. Ruth 3:10. (Unicode version).


72. Which Bible Version is Superior? 3. How Culture Affects Bible Translation

Both literal or “word for word” translations as well as meaning-based or “thought for thought” translations are legitimate representations of the original biblical manuscripts. Each style of translation has strengths and weaknesses in providing readers access to the content of the biblical writings in their own language. The argument in these articles is that a common claim that literal translations are superior to meaning-based translations is incorrect and can be harmful to the body of Christ. Because literal translations often obscure the meaning for the average reader, insistence on using those versions exclusively or primarily serves to keep people from engaging God’s word with the clarity offered by meaning-based versions.

Both translation orientations are found in all Bible versions and so, strictly speaking, it is misleading to label a version “literal” or “meaning-based.” Literal versions also consider what the translation will mean in the receptor language, and meaning-based versions often provide translation through which the reader may recognize words and structures of the original languages. (see the IBS English Bible Translation Comparison chart in which versions are charted according to their “degree of literalness.”) The following articles seek to show that the “degree of literalness” is unrelated to the accuracy of translation and should not be used to judge one version as more the word of God than another. Accuracy must be gauged according to the success of any translation to communicate the message of the original manuscripts to its intended audience.

In these articles “version” (n) refers to a complete translated text like the NRSV (literal version) or CEV (meaning-based version), while “translation” (n) refers to the text within the version. For example, any version, whether labeled “literal” or “meaning-based” will have both styles of translation.

The author of the articles has been involved in Bible translation as supervisor of the Sindhi translation project for the Pakistan Bible Society during the past 18 years.


3. How Culture Affects Bible Translation

Reading in a fog

My son had two small New Testaments in his room.  I picked up one and without noting the version (it was NKJV1) began to read from Ephesians 3.  Both my son and I struggled to make sense of the passage. It was like driving through fog: possible, but lacking the comfortableness of clarity.  A couple of nights later I picked up the other small New Testament and discovered that it was the Contemporary English Version (CEV).  I re-read the same passage and the ease of clarity made it feel like we were driving down that same road on a bright summer day.  Because we did not have to struggle with the meaning, the relevance of the passage was easily accessible.  Compare for yourself:


For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for you Gentiles–if indeed you have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which was given to me for you, how that by revelation He made known to me the mystery (as I have briefly written already, by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ), which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets: that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel, of which I became a minister according to the gift of the grace of God given to me by the effective working of His power.


Christ Jesus made me his prisoner, so that I could help you Gentiles. You have surely heard about God’s kindness in choosing me to help you. In fact, this letter tells you a little about how God has shown me his mysterious ways. As you read the letter, you will also find out how well I really do understand the mystery about Christ. No one knew about this mystery until God’s Spirit told it to his holy apostles and prophets. And the mystery is this: Because of Christ Jesus, the good news has given the Gentiles a share in the promises that God gave to the Jews. God has also let the Gentiles be part of the same body.

God treated me with kindness. His power worked in me, and it became my job to spread the good news.

Either clarity Or word-for-word

If the purpose of translation is a representation of the form and structure of the original text, then the NKJV is the better translation.  However, if the point is communication and ease in understanding the message, then the CEV is clearly superior.  But can’t a translation have both word-for-word correspondence and ease of understanding; does it have to be either-or?  Unfortunately, due to the nature of language and culture, “either-or” is the norm in Bible translation.

there is an inverse relationship between … “word-for-word” correspondence and the communication of meaning

The English Standard Version (ESV), according to the preface on its website, “is an ‘essentially literal’ translation” that emphasizes “word-for-word” correspondence, in order to “be transparent to the original text, letting the reader see as directly as possible the structure and meaning of the original.”2 However, unfortunately for literal translations, there is an inverse relationship between maintaining the structure of the original text with “word-for-word” correspondence and the communication of meaning. To the extent that a translation maintains original structure and words, it fails to provide the meaning.  Therefore, to claim direct access to both structure and meaning is oxymoronic. It is only by using the target language structure and words (i.e., the language of the reader) that communication is achieved.

Like rote learning, repetition of the words does not guarantee comprehension.  It is only by “putting it into your own (culture’s) words” that meaning is ensured.  In the Sindh, many young boys go to school in madrassas where they memorize the Quran in word perfect Arabic.  Such a stress on the purity of the original text, while impressive, fails to result in comprehension, for they do not speak Arabic.

Cut and Uncut diamonds

literal versions of the Bible often under translate

In a previous article, I argued that there are no pure synonyms between languages; no two words will have exactly the same range of nuance.  I further argued that individual words do not carry meaning in and of themselves, but only in their relationship to other words in the sentence, and this relationship varies from language to language.  I also pointed out that information common to the original author and audience is often kept implicit in the text and thus unavailable to the uninitiated reader.  As a result, I concluded that literal versions of the Bible often under translate and thus fail to communicate (and occasionally miscommunicate) the meaning to their intended audience.3 They seek to avoid the accusation of misrepresenting the original text, thus resulting in a rendering that is often obscure.

Meaning based translations, on the other hand, deliberately choose to be precise for the sake of clarity, thus running a greater danger of misinterpretation. Literal translations can claim greater accuracy in reflecting form and structure of the original text as well as maintaining a broad possibility of nuance in the text. Meaning based translations, by limiting the possible meanings through clarification, have the greater potential to communicate the message of the text.

Literal translations are like uncut diamonds, no part is left out, but the beauty is hidden. Meaning based translations are like cut diamonds, they are shaped in order to reveal the inner light.  The value and potential of the uncut diamond requires an expert eye to be appreciated, the beauty of the cut diamond is available for all who can see.  On the other hand, shaping a diamond means that certain aspects are sacrificed in order to create an attractive diamond, while an uncut diamond maintains all the possible configurations that the artisan can discover.

Textual meaning is determined by culture

I would like to develop a point hinted at in that previous article:  Language cannot be understood apart from its relationship to the surrounding context.  Naomi’s rationale in sending her daughters-in-law back to their own people by asking, “Am I going to give birth to more sons?” (Ruth 1:11), can only be understood in the context of a patriarchal society in which a woman’s identity is dependent upon her relationship to a man.  Paul’s vow to cut his hair (Acts 18:18) cannot be comprehended without a perspective on how vows functioned in that society, how hair could be part of a vow and what the significance of such an act would mean for the participants.  All these background realities are tied up in the culture which gives the text its meaning.

culture … gives the text its meaning

Belief that literal translations are more accurate renderings of God’s word than meaning based translations is based on a misunderstanding of culture and language.  As a representation of the form and structure of the original language, the claim is true, but not in the arena of communicating the message. The idea that a reproduction of linguistic forms coupled with word-for-word correspondence will also provide accuracy and clarity in meaning is based on the mistaken assumption that cultures (including languages) are basically synonymous with each other.  If that were true then people of all times and places would think similar thoughts in similar ways with similar priorities for similar purposes, the only difference being the linguistic symbols used to express those thoughts. Where this naïve and mechanistic approach to translation breaks down is in the reality that cultures (including languages) are very different from each other; people do not think in synonymous patterns using equivalent concepts.  Even when the language is the same, indicating significant overlap of meaning between groups of people, cultures have their distinct values and ways of thinking that affect the nuances of their speech.

Therefore, getting closer to the original biblical language structure does not guarantee that the reader is better able to access the original meaning.  In fact, because of the great discrepancy between cultures, concepts, language structures and idiomatic usage, faithfulness to the original form is more likely to obscure the meaning for the reader – in the same way that an uncut diamond does not impress the uninitiated.

Ignore or Bridge the Gap

As an example, the Old Testament cannot be translated without a clear understanding of the ancient patriarchal assumptions of Hebrew society. If the translation is into a language with different cultural assumptions, such as the egalitarian orientation in Canadian society, miscommunication can easily occur. In Naomi’s case above, the average Canadian will sympathize with Naomi’s loss of husband and sons, but will not comprehend the implications of that loss and therefore miss a crucial point of the story.  The English translation of the book of Ruth necessarily uses words and concepts that, for the Canadian reader, derive their meaning from our egalitarian context and will be read that way.  But Naomi is not a woman with an individual identity who has suffered a great loss.  She is a woman who has lost her identity and purpose, because in a patriarchal system these aspects of a woman’s being are dependent upon her relationship with a man – father, husband or son.  Without this basic understanding a key redemptive phrase of the book cannot be properly understood: “Blessed is the LORD who has not left you without a redeemer today” (ESV), clarified in the TEV as “Praise the Lord! He has given you a grandson today to take care of you.”  Through the blessing of a male heir, Naomi has received a “redemption” that has meaning within the patriarchal context: her identity has been restored.

The translator cannot assume that communication of this essential point will occur through a literal translation because the cultural assumptions are vastly different.  There is a cultural gap that needs to be bridged in order for comprehension to occur.  Literal translations by design ignore the cultural gap and leave it to the reader to reach the correct interpretation.  Such translations are not incorrect, but they are incomplete and rely upon the ability of the reader to come to the right conclusion through knowledge obtained outside the text.  Meaning based translations, on the other hand, seek to bridge the cultural gap.  The danger for this translation style, on the other hand, is misinterpretation, which may lead the reader astray, if the translators have not taken the appropriate care to ensure correct communication.

Is the cultural gap that serious?

In the modern world of globalization, translation is a daily reality for most people and seems relatively uncomplicated.  A world leader speaks on the newscast and a voiceover provides the translation.  We often read translated material in our newspapers and books.  Why should this not be the same for the Bible? Is the cultural gap really that difficult to bridge?

Three important aspects need to be kept in mind concerning the translation of news stories and voiceovers in the modern context:

  1. The translator is usually completely bilingual and familiar with both cultural contexts, and thus able to provide the phrasing required for mutual understanding in both societies.
  2. Cultural contexts in this modern era of globalization have many points of commonality and understanding, or at lease exposure, in crucial areas such as technology, politics, ethical norms, and assumptions, due to ongoing exposure and interaction.
  3. When errors in translation do occur, they can be quickly corrected, or at least have alternatives pointed out by others who are equally expert in understanding both languages and cultures.

Bible translation does not have these advantages.  The original languages of the Bible are dead languages.  They are dead because their cultures are dead.  The biblical cultures, which provided the meaning to those languages, do not exist any longer. There are no longer people living in the cultures of the Old Testament or the New Testament to whom we can refer for understanding. Even the resurrection of the Hebrew language in modern Israel does not imply that they are better able to understand the ancient Hebrew writings. The modern context of Israel is a vastly different cultural context and does not provide a framework within which the meaning of the ancient text can be discerned. As a result we must rely on scholarship outside the text in order to reveal its meaning.

Remain mute when you talk!

This reality is particularly evident in the use of metaphors and idioms. A recent dialogue on Gen 31:24 in the Bible Translation chat room illustrates this point.  God commands Laban when confronting Jacob to be “careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad” (ESV).  This literal translation of an ancient Hebrew idiom is not understandable in our modern English context.  The natural understanding according to modern English usage would be that Laban is instructed to remain mute, not uttering any words at all.  What the ESV has refused to do is to bridge the cultural gap, leaving the reader with only their own context to interpret this saying.  Because the modern context is vastly different from Jacob’s era, there will likely be misinterpretation.

Meaning based translations, on the other hand, will translate using the idiom of the target language.  That is, they will choose a wording that relates to the linguistic norms of the readers’ culture.  By doing the work of bridging the cultural gap, translators allow the reader to read according to the way their language is normally used, and through this process communication is achieved.  For example, the TEV reads, “Be careful not to threaten Jacob in any way.”4

Communication requires bridging the gap

The scholarly checks and balances of a translation team are far more likely to produce the right meaning

The meaning of the text is found within the relationship of the language to the culture.  Therefore when the culture gap is large between reader and the culture within which the text has meaning – as it is for the biblical text – it cannot be bridged by the average reader without interpretive help.  While it is correct that “ ‘thought-for-thought’ [meaning based] translation is of necessity more inclined to reflect the interpretive opinions of the translator and the influences of contemporary culture,”5 it must be realized that without an interpretative approach that expresses the text within the forms of contemporary culture, there cannot be communication of meaning.  The scholarly checks and balances of a translation team are far more likely to produce the right meaning than the intuitive assumptions of the uninformed readers who can only read Scripture through the interpretive grid of their own culture.  The choice in Bible versions is not between “accuracy” and “interpretive,” but between a lack of clarity requiring exegetical skill beyond that of the average reader, and the communication of meaning in a way that has impact and clarity.


If you would like to contact Mark please use the Contact Me form.  If you would like to leave a comment, please use the “comment” link at the bottom of this article.



  • 1 The advertisement from the publishers states that “Only the New King James Version offers precision and clarity without sacrificing readability” at http://www.thomasnelson.com/consumer/dept.asp?dept_id=19700&TopLevel_id=190000 accessed Feb 12, 2009.
  • 2 http://www.gnpcb.org/esv/preface/ accessed Feb 12, 2009.
  • 3 In their preface (see previous footnote), the ESV phrases this weakness positively: “the ESV seeks to carry over every possible nuance of meaning in the original words of Scripture into our own language,” without recognizing that a lack of preciseness is another way to define the failure to communicate.
  • 4 The SIL ‘Translator’s Notes’ say: Be careful not to say anything: The Hebrew verb literally means “to say.”  However, when used with the word hiHamer “keep, guard, be careful” it has the sense of “threaten.” Taken from Translator’s Workplace, version 4.0 2002 SIL International.
  • 5 http://www.esv.org/translation/philosophy accessed Feb 12, 2009.

65. Which Bible Version is Superior? 2. Weaknesses of translation styles

Both literal or “word for word” translations as well as meaning-based or “thought for thought” translations are legitimate representations of the original biblical manuscripts. Each style of translation has strengths and weaknesses in providing readers access to the content of the biblical writings in their own language. The argument in these articles is that a common claim that literal translations are superior to meaning-based translations is incorrect and can be harmful to the body of Christ. Because literal translations often obscure the meaning for the average reader, insistence on using those versions exclusively or primarily serves to keep people from engaging God’s word with the clarity offered by meaning-based versions.

Both translation orientations are found in all Bible versions and so, strictly speaking, it is misleading to label a version “literal” or “meaning-based.” Literal versions also consider what the translation will mean in the receptor language, and meaning-based versions often provide translation through which the reader may recognize words and structures of the original languages. (see the IBS English Bible Translation Comparison chart in which versions are charted according to their “degree of literalness.”) The following articles seek to show that the “degree of literalness” is unrelated to the accuracy of translation and should not be used to judge one version as more the word of God than another. Accuracy must be gauged according to the success of any translation to communicate the message of the original manuscripts to its intended audience.

In these articles “version” (n) refers to a complete translated text like the NRSV (literal version) or CEV (meaning-based version), while “translation” (n) refers to the text within the version. For example, any version, whether labeled “literal” or “meaning-based” will have both styles of translation.

The author of the articles has been involved in Bible translation as supervisor of the Sindhi translation project for the Pakistan Bible Society during the past 18 years.


2. Weaknesses of translation styles

“In your own words”

During our time in Pakistan, my wife, Karen, went with a friend to see a doctor. With little explanation, the doctor diagnosed the friend and prescribed some pills. My wife pursued the issue further and asked the doctor the reason for the diagnosis. Speaking in English, he began to explain the illness. Something about his style of speech struck Karen as strange, until she realized what it was: the doctor was reciting verbatim from an English medical textbook! Rather than provide an explanation in his own words, he repeated a passage that had been memorized in medical school.

“in your own words”

In contrast, I remember many times as I was growing up in Canadian schools that the teacher would tell us to explain something “in your own words.” The teacher’s goal was to ensure comprehension on the part of the students. Rote repetition probably meant that the student did not understand but was hiding their ignorance behind the words of those who did. This western education method is less valued in Pakistan where rote repetition is the norm, underlining the priority given to the wisdom and tradition of the elders and scholars.

Both literal and meaning-based translations … have limitations”

Both of these orientations are reflected in my work as I check the meaning of the Sindhi Bible translation. Although I am familiar to some extent with the original languages of the Bible, Greek and Hebrew, I am far from fluent and rely heavily on the scholarship of others through commentaries and translation helps. One of my “short-cuts” is to use a literal translation, such as the NRSV, to provide an indication of the structure and words of the original manuscript. In contrast, when I am puzzled about the meaning of a verse, I do not consult literal translations because they do not clarify the sense, but only reproduce that structure and those words that have hidden the meaning from me. Instead, I turn to meaning-based translations. Because they have put the meaning “in their own words,” according to the English vernacular I am familiar with, I can often quickly discover what the verse means. Both literal and meaning-based translations are useful, but they both have limitations. The key weaknesses of both orientations are outlined below.

Weaknesses of Literal translations

a. Lack of clarity can mislead and discourage readers

ESV’s success … highlights its primary weakness

Kermit Titrud provides the following examples of awkward or misleading renditions in the highly literal English Standard Version (ESV). These examples do not constitute failure or inaccuracy of translation, for the version intentionally uses a Greek or Hebrew rather than English construction in order to provide an equivalence of the form of the original language (formal equivalence). At the same time, the ESV’s success in achieving this goal highlights its primary weakness, because communication of God’s word to those unfamiliar with the original text is sometimes lacking.

Mark 1:11 reads in the ESV, “with you I am well pleased.” Titrud asked a number of English speakers if they would ever use this phrase in addressing their children and none of them would. It reflects Greek structure but is awkward English. The form, which was natural in the 1st century, does not provide equivalent impact or significance in our context.

In Genesis 4:1 the ESV has “Now Adam knew Eve his wife.” In a discussion with teenagers, Titrud discovered that their understanding of this phrase was not in terms of sexual intimacy (its primary meaning), but in terms of familiarity in relationship. One teenager “said that since Adam was married to Eve, he of course knew her. The second one said that since Eve was taken from Adam’s rib, Adam of course knew himself. The third one said that it took him a while to really get to know her and accept her – to understand her.” This distortion occurred because the teenagers read the verse according to vernacular English, rather than recognizing the unique way the ESV uses English to reflect the constructs of the original language.

Psalm 1:1 reads: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners.” The latter phrase, “stand in the way of sinners,” if read according to modern English idiom, is a blessing on those who do not hinder sinners from committing crimes. The intent of the text is to pronounce a blessing on those who refuse to do evil.1

As mentioned in the introductory article on the two translation styles, the primary weakness of formal translations is that comprehending the meaning of the text requires a background education beyond the common day-to-day use of the reader’s language. The reader is expected to determine the correct meaning of the translated text based on comprehension of the original text. Unfortunately, few readers of the Bible have appropriate understanding of the background and context of the original text that allows them to adequately interpret the meaning. Even those with some training in exegesis and the original languages are at a disadvantage, because their limited perspective can lead them astray. We do not live in the same culture as the authors and original audience and so we do not approach the text with the same background information and assumptions. The saving grace is that there are commentaries and other Bible study guides prepared by scholars that provide the broader perspective and support required for a correct interpretation.

For example, consider Luke 1:46, 47 in which Mary says,

Soul … Spirit

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” (NRSV)

As a literal translation, these lines in the NRSV reflect the poetic structure and words of the original language, but not in a way common to the English vernacular. The reader with background understanding will recognize the parallel structure and the likelihood that Mary is using two separate words – soul and spirit – for one expression of praise from her center of emotion. A natural reading of the translation by one unfamiliar with the poetic style could be that she is speaking of two separate experiences and aspects of her being.2 Understanding of this verse is obtained, not by reading the translated text at face value in the vernacular English, but by going behind the translated text and interpreting according to the way the original writing functions. In contrast, a meaning-based translation will provide a straightforward interpretation by using vernacular English, e.g., “…how I praise the Lord. How I rejoice in God my Savior” (NLT).

Those who insist that literal translations are superior probably do the greatest damage to people incapable of going behind the translated text to discover the meaning of the original manuscripts. For this vast majority of believers, the literal translation in their hands is often not understood, or worse they may misread the text. Even in the best-case scenario, readers are dependent upon others to provide interpretation. Because many passages are difficult to understand, the reader may quickly become discouraged or allow the comfort of familiar words to be a substitute for comprehension. Unfortunately, literal translations can convince readers that a lack of clarity in Bible reading is the norm.

b. Why Literal translations often lack clarity

But is it really true that literal translations often fail to communicate the meaning? Since every word is “breathed out” by God, should not a word for word translation that uses synonyms between languages be both necessary and sufficient to communicate the meaning?3 Although this assumption is often used to support the theory that literal translations are superior, it is based on misunderstandings concerning the nature of language.

“cat” + “hat” + “the” + “in” ≠ “the cat in the hat”

First, the meaning of a text does not reside solely in the words themselves, but in the way the words relate to each other to form ideas or thoughts. That is, in communication, the meaning of the sentence is not determined from the sum of the meanings of individual words, but by the relationship of the words to each other. For example, the meanings of the words “cat,” “hat,” “the,” and “in” considered individually do not mean the same as “the cat in the hat.” Because words do not relate in the same way in different languages, a simple word for word translation often fails to communicate the meaning.

Second, it is not true that there are equivalent synonyms between languages. No two words in any language are entirely synonymous in meaning but have their own unique range of nuance and emotion that has been shaped by history and environment. For example, the sentence “the cat in the hat” will evoke a far different image among those familiar with Dr. Seuss than among those who have not had the pleasure of reading his books.

Third, not only do words relate differently in different languages, but very often information crucial to the meaning is kept implicit because of a common understanding between author and audience. As a result, readers of literal versions must rely heavily on material external to the text in order for communication to occur. A literal translation of the sentence “He turned our place upside down like the cat in the hat,” into the Sindhi language would require considerable explanation before the average Sindhi reader would understand the allusion.

To provide a biblical illustration of the above three points, consider the description of Nimrod, “a mighty hunter before the LORD” (Gen 10:9, NRSV). This literal translation has provided a word for word representation of the original with the words “before the LORD.” Each word has meaning, but because the relationship between the words is different than in the original Hebrew, the meaning represented by this English translation is hidden; it is not obvious what it means for a person to be a mighty hunter “before the LORD.” The sum of the words do not equate with the meaning of the original.

Second, the word “LORD” is capitalized to indicate a non-vernacular stylized representation of the Hebrew name for God, “YHWH” (another stylized representation!). This is necessary because there is no equivalent for this Hebrew name of God in English. As a result, a descriptive word (lord = master) is capitalized to communicate a meaning that is not inherent in the word “lord” itself.

Third, it is the implicit information in the original setting that provides the meaning of the phrase, which is lacking in the NRSV’s literal translation. For the Hebrews, God is the ultimate point of reference and in order to express totality the biblical authors would at times refer to God. In this verse the likely meaning is “Nimrod was the mightiest hunter in all of God’s creation” (from Sindhi translation), or “in God’s sight” (NLT).

Despite this weakness, “word for word” versions often do provide a translation in which the vernacular understanding of the target language naturally carries the same meaning as the original text. Even though the intent is to point back to the original text, the receptor text in such cases also provides an equivalent meaning for the reader. Unfortunately, there are usually no signals in the text that allow the reader to know when the meaning is being communicated according to vernacular usage, and when it is not. This can result in frustration and confusion on the part of the reader when the wording does not adequately communicate.

Weaknesses of meaning-based translations

a. Lack of correspondence to form

Meaning-based versions do the work of interpretation for the reader by presenting the meaning of the original text in the vernacular language of the receptor audience. The readers are expected to gain an understanding directly from the translated text according to the way words are used in their language, not as symbols pointing back to potential meaning residing in the original text. Based on substantial scholarship and critical translation checking, the meaning of the original – the inspired message – is presented in structures natural to the reader; the meaning resides in the translated text. This consistency in the intent of meaning-based versions is helpful to readers because they do not have to wonder if a particular passage is to be understood as written or if there is background information that needs to be brought to the text.

However, as is the nature of translation, this strength has a corresponding weakness. Meaning-based translations sacrifice the representation of the form of the original in order to present the meaning in understandable ways. For example, the range of meaning of any word in one language does not directly correspond with the range of meaning of a word in another language. Because any word in the original language has a range of nuances and meanings depending on the context, a concern for communication of meaning requires the use of a variety of terms in the target language that are suitable to those contexts. So while they provide a better understanding of individual sentences or clauses, meaning-based translations do not reveal to the reader the structure or intentional word choices of the original language. The sentence provided above, “He turned our place upside down like the cat in the hat,” in a meaning-based translation would likely use a simile familiar to the audience, or ignore the reference to “the cat in the hat” as secondary to the meaning.

It is usually not possible to follow the theological development of a specific Greek term in Paul’s writings because a meaning-based translation will used a variety words depending on the context to provide clarity for the reader. For instance, Paul uses a pair of terms, pneuma and sarx (“spirit” and “flesh” – NRSV), a number of times in his letters. A literal translation will attempt to use the same English words in each case to assist the reader in recognizing the connection between the passages. In contrast, the NIV “construes sarx as ‘sinful nature’ in Rom 8, and sarkinos as ‘worldly’ in 1 Cor 3, with the result that the reader of this translation is not aware that in the original the same root form was employed…. [This translation choice] makes it more difficult to compare individual passages with parallel passages elsewhere.”4

b. Potential for Mistranslation

There are two other weaknesses to meaning-based translations that are more disconcerting. First, while meaning-based versions are more intentional than literal versions to present the meaning clearly according to receptor language usage, this increases the potential for mistranslation. “Since the translator is ‘freer’ from the grammatical forms of the original language he [sic] is more likely to exceed the bounds of an accurate translation, in an effort to speak naturally in the native language. That is, the [meaning-based] translations are capable of being more natural and more precise than are [literal] translations, but they are also more capable of being precisely wrong.”5 The primary complaint of those who disparage meaning-based versions is that they disagree with the meaning presented in certain passages. In such cases formal translations are usually obscure or encompass a number of possible interpretations.

In 1 Tim 6:17 the ESV translates “God… richly provides us with everything to enjoy.” By not clarifying the word “everything,” a potential misinterpretation is that we are to enjoy everything, even those things that bring discomfort or hurt. In order to mitigate this the CEV translates, “God… is rich and blesses us with everything we need to enjoy life.” While a correct aspect of the meaning, this limits God’s bounty to our needs, as Grudem points out, “[We] can freely enjoy the abundant diversity of God’s excellent creation,”6 which encompasses far more than what we need. While it would be going too far to call the CEV rendering a “mistranslation,” it nonetheless appears to have limited the meaning more severely than warranted in its attempt to avoid the lack of clarity evident in the (literal) ESV.

By translating Mt. 5:3 as “those people who depend only on [God],” the CEV may have mistranslated the phrase if this is not what it means (footnote: I think the TEV’s “who know they are spiritually poor” captures the essence better, but with a lesser degree of clarity). In contrast, the NRSV (a literal oriented version) with “poor in spirit” provides English synonyms and equivalent structures without clarifying the meaning. The NRSV cannot be accused of mistranslating, although to achieve this it chooses to under translate and therefore, for most people, fails to communicate because of the vast number of potential meanings. If the CEV is correct, then it not only provides the reader with the inspired message, but it also prevents the reader from coming to a wrong understanding, a very real possibility with the NRSV. At the same time, because clarity requires a narrowing of possible meanings, the danger of mistranslation remains a distinct possibility for meaning-based translations.

c. Inability to include all the possible nuances

The other major weakness of meaning-based translations, closely related to the previous, is that the full nuance of the original text is seldom, if ever, maintained. Whenever communication in translation occurs, it occurs within a new context and therefore the fullness and impact of the original context cannot be maintained. Meaning-based translations use the vernacular of the receptor audience; the meaning is determined by the context and conventions of the target people group. Elements of the original context that provided meaning for the original readers are unavoidably neglected.

In reference to the above mentioned verse, Gen 10:9, the sentence, “[Nimrod] was a mighty hunter before the LORD” (NRSV) by virtue of its obscurity, can be understood as including all the intended nuance of the original text. To provide clarity of meaning, meaning-based translations narrow the nuance to one possible image. For example, one meaning-based version has “Nimrod was the mightiest hunter in the whole world” (one edition of the NLT). While providing the probable meaning, it neglects the context of the Hebrew worldview with its reference to God. The translation “Nimrod was a mighty hunter in God’s sight” (NLT) maintains a sense of the Hebrew worldview but loses the superlative force – Nimrod as the mightiest hunter. Furthermore, these translations exclude other possible interpretations, such as the TEV, “whose strength came from the LORD.”

By virtue of providing a phrase that cannot be understood without bringing outside information to the text, the original nuance is not excluded from the translated text in literal translations, but it is not necessarily communicated by the text. Meaning-based translations, of necessity, exclude some of the nuance in order to bring clarity to the text. The translator has the choice between communicating the meaning while losing some of the surrounding nuance (meaning-based), or maintaining the full potential of possible meanings but without communicating a clear sense of the meaning (formal).

Together, greater confidence and comprehension

Though individually limited, together literal and meaning-based translations provide readers with greater confidence that they have grasped the intended meaning of the original text. Exclusive use of a literal version makes it difficult for the reader to understand the message. Exclusive use of one meaning-based translation will prevent the reader from exposure to other possible nuances of the original text. Excellent scholarship lies behind both literal and meaning-based versions so that we can read them with confidence and compare them in order to obtain a deeper appreciation of the message. Literal translations ensure that we maintain a tie to the original text as the standard for the meaning, while meaning-based translations provide clarity and comprehension.

A future article will explore the theological concerns and assumptions that lie behind the claim of some that literal translations are superior to meaning-based translations.


If you would like to contact Mark, please use the Contact Me form.  If you would like to leave a comment, please use the “comment” link at the bottom of this article.



  • 1 These examples are taken from Kermit Titrud’s article at www.geocities.com/bible_translation/list/files/titrud.doc accessed August 08.
  • 2 In his article, “Are Only Some Words of Scripture Breathed Out By God” in Translating Truth: The Case for Essentially Literal Bible Translation (Wheaton, Il.: Crossway Books, 2005, 19-56) Wayne Grudem proposes a distinction of meaning between the two lines (p. 39), but does not provide any guidance towards determining that distinction.
  • 3 Wayne Grudem states, “the Bible repeatedly claims that every one of its words (in the original languages) is a word spoken to us by God, and is therefore of utmost importance, and … this fact provides strong argument in favour of “essentially literal” (or “word-for-word”) translations….” Ibid. p. 19.
  • 4 T. David Gordon, “Translation Theory” 1985, at http://www.bible-researcher.com/gordon.html accessed July 4, 2008
  • 5 ibid.
  • 6 Grudem. p. 45.

64. Which Bible Version is Superior? 1. Two Styles

Both literal or “word for word” translations as well as meaning-based or “thought for thought” translations are legitimate representations of the original biblical manuscripts. Each style of translation has strengths and weaknesses in providing readers access to the content of the biblical writings in their own language. The argument in these articles is that a common claim that literal translations are superior to meaning-based translations is incorrect and can be harmful to the body of Christ. Because literal translations often obscure the meaning for the average reader, insistence on using those versions exclusively or primarily serves to keep people from engaging God’s word with the clarity offered by meaning-based versions.

Both translation orientations are found in all Bible versions and so, strictly speaking, it is misleading to label a version “literal” or “meaning-based.” Literal versions also consider what the translation will mean in the receptor language, and meaning-based versions often provide translation through which the reader may recognize words and structures of the original languages. (see the IBS English Bible Translation Comparison chart in which versions are charted according to their “degree of literalness.”) The following articles seek to show that the “degree of literalness” is unrelated to the accuracy of translation and should not be used to judge one version as more the word of God than another. Accuracy must be gauged according to the success of any translation to communicate the message of the original manuscripts to its intended audience.

In these articles “version” (n) refers to a complete translated text like the NRSV (literal version) or CEV (meaning-based version), while “translation” (n) refers to the text within the version. For example, any version, whether labeled “literal” or “meaning-based” will have both styles of translation.

The author of the articles has been involved in Bible translation as supervisor of the Sindhi translation project for the Pakistan Bible Society during the past 18 years.


1. Two styles

Are literal translations more accurate?

When Today’s New International Version (TNIV) was first published, I walked into our local Christian bookstore and asked the sales person, “Do you have the new TNIV?” A wary look came into his eyes and he said, “Why do you ask?” Puzzled, I replied, “Because I would like to purchase a copy.” Relieved he showed me where the books were being kept. He also explained the source of his angst: some people were coming into the store and rebuking them for carrying such a “heretical” translation.

Recently I heard a sermon in which the speaker criticized certain “meaning-based” Bible versions and promoted “literal” translations as “more the word of God.” He encouraged people to consider the common language versions, which were easier to understand, as less worthy to be considered God’s word than the more “word for word” translations.

If some translations are heretical, then we should avoid them. If meaning-based translations are truly less God’s word than literal translations, then we would do well to read versions that are more accurate. But are such claims true, or do they arise from a misunderstanding of the nature of language and the translation process?

Translations are like theologies: Human attempts to express the Divine Word

Since Babel there have always been both “word for word” and “thought for thought” translations between languages. “Dynamic equivalence,” “thought for thought” or “meaning-based” are new terminology to describe a translation style which has always existed. “Literal,” “Word for word” or “formal” describes a separate translation style which also has always existed. For example, the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint (LXX), which was often quoted by New Testament writers, has instances of both literal and meaning-based translations. As one example among many, the Hebrew word rosh has a nuance of a literal, physical “head” as well as a more metaphorical usage of “chief authority.” The LXX sometimes uses the Greek word for “head,” kephale, to translate rosh, and sometimes uses other words to describe the concept of “chief authority” in non-metaphorical terms.1

Outside of Bible translation, in the modern secular world of written translation, the meaning-based style tends to be the norm for translation, rather than “word for word.” The assumption is that rather than the structures and words of the original language, it is the meaning that is of interest to the reader. The role of the translator is to express the meaning of the original manuscript so that the receptor audience can engage the meaning according to the accepted usage of the receptor language. The goal is the communication of the message. However, Bible translation deals with manuscripts which are considered by those of us who are evangelicals as verbally inspired by God. The sacredness of the original writings is reflected in the desire of the translators of literal translations to reflect, as close as possible, the linguistic structures and individual words of the original.

Is the ordinary method of meaning-based translation suitable for the biblical texts, or does their nature as “God-breathed” require a different, more literal, style? In our human attempts to express the divine word, how should we proceed?

Literal versus meaning-based orientations in translation

Literal translations are oriented towards the original language

Literal or formal translations are oriented towards the original language. That is, for the translator, the meaning remains in the original text. The translator uses the words of the receptor language as symbols or synonyms that point to the words in the original text. While the nuance and levels of meaning will overlap to some extent, the synonym employed in the translation is intended to mean what the word in the original text means rather than the way it is used in the reader’s vernacular. Thus, when the reader reads, for example, the phrase “poor in spirit” (Mt 5:3 NRSV), they are not to relate this phrase to current English vernacular usage, as if the words have communicated the meaning as they stand (A reader unfamiliar with the literal language may attempt to interpret this according to the vernacular “low in spirits” or “depressed”). Rather, the intent is for the reader to recognize the English phrase as symbolizing the phrase, “oi ptoxoi to pneumati,” found in the Greek New Testament manuscript. It is the meaning of this Greek phrase that readers must be aware of in order to understand. The English words function as symbols which knowledgeable readers use to recognize the Greek phrase, and according to their ability to complete the translation, they are able to access the meaning. Alternatively, and more commonly, people may read the phrase according to the meaning taught them by those teachers capable of completing the translation.

It is this perspective that causes preachers to speak in terms of “this word (referring to an English word) in the original language actually means…,” even though the English vernacular meaning is clear to the hearers. In his promotion of the English Standard Version (a literal translation), Dr Packer states that the ESV attempts to provide the reader not just what was meant, but “what was said.”2 That is, the reader is to view the English words as representative of the original Hebrew and Greek words, which may or may not reflect common English usage. With literal translations, readers must be cautious in reading a word in a vernacular sense, because without some background understanding of the original meaning (or support from Bible teachers), they cannot be certain if their vernacular understanding truly reflects the meaning of the original text.

meaning-based translations are oriented towards the receptor language

In contrast, meaning-based translations are oriented towards the receptor language. That is, for the translator, the meaning of the original becomes expressed in the receptor language. Rather than using words as symbols pointing to words in the original, the words are intended to convey meaning according to the current vernacular usage. Thus when the reader reads, for example, the phrase “those people who depend only on him” (Mt 5:3 CEV translation corresponding to NRSV above), the reader is intended to read those words as expressing the meaning of the original according to the accepted and understood usage of the receptor language. With a meaning-based translation, the reader encounters the meaning directly from the translated text. With a formal translation the reader is expected to go behind the translated text and extract the meaning based on their exposure to the meaning of the original language and its meaning.

In meaning-based translations (thought for thought) the reader is not required to understand or have a working knowledge of the original language. Moreover, a theology of translation that affirms the “translatability” of the word of God assumes that the reader is able to fully access the word of God without needing knowledge of the original manuscripts, as long as the translation communicates the same meaning as the original.3 In “thought for thought” translations readers are expected to read the translation as if the words and phrases mean what they normally mean in everyday usage within their language. The meaning of the original manuscripts, with one set of words, constructs and grammatical rules, has been communicated using a different set of words, constructs and grammatical rules.

Meaning-based as “receptor language friendly”

A key difference between the formal and meaning-based translations is that the former uses the receptor language in a way that lacks compatibility with normal usage in order to provide readers with a sense of what the original language and structure was like (looking back at the source language). The latter uses the receptor language according to the common usage (receptor language friendly) so that readers can understand the meaning of the original manuscript in their own language. Thus, for example, the Sindhi translation that I am involved in does not have a formal translation for Mt 5:3 that would be equivalent to “poor in spirit.” In normal Sindhi usage that would communicate (erroneously) that the person was lacking in compassion and love. For a literal translation this would not be an incorrect rendering as long as the reader was taught to understand it as referring to the meaning intended by the original text. Of course, this would mean that the majority of readers would either misunderstand or not understand the meaning since they are not familiar with Greek, nor do they have access to a teacher who could explain the meaning. Recognizing the needs of the audience to understand the words according to the common vernacular, the phrase was translated as “humble of heart.”

For more examples and further explanation of this concept, please see the CCI article #41 “Clarifying Bible Translation.” The following article will examine the weaknesses of both translation orientations.


If you would like to contact Mark please use the Contact Me form.  If you would like to leave a comment, please use the “comment” link at the bottom of this article.



  • 1 Peter Cotterell & Max Turner state that “kephalē and archē are used interchangeably to translate the Hebrew rosh when the latter has the sense ‘chief’ or ‘head over.'” Linguists and Biblical Interpretation. Downers Grove: IVP. 1989. p. 142.
  • 2 Interview with Dr. J.I. Packer in BC Christian News, August 2007, Vol 27 #8 http://www.canadianchristianity.com/bc/bccn/0807/01bible.
  • 3 In Translating the Message (Maryknoll: Orbis. 1989), Lamin Sanneh argues convincingly for “translatability” of the message as necessary to destroy “any claims for cultural absolutism.” p. 24.

59. The Problem with Heaven

Translation seeks Communication

When our main translator walked into the translation office last December in Shikarpur, Pakistan, I greeted him with, “I have a problem with heaven.”  He laughed and responded, “Well, if you have trouble with heaven, what’s left? There is not much more to hope for!”  I explained that it was not the concept of heaven that bothered me, but the terms used in our Sindhi Bible translation.

Bible translators are not so much concerned with formal definitions of words as they are with how the translation is understood by the receptor audience.  For example, even though the English word “heaven” can legitimately describe the physical expanse over our heads, modern translations will use more common expressions such as “sky,” thus avoiding a possible confusion with God’s abode, or the popular perception of “the place we go when we die,” i.e., Paradise. The target audience’s understanding of the translation is a key guide for the translator to ensure appropriate communication of the original message.  A recent correction to the Sindhi translation of the New Testament provides an illustration.

The target audience’s understanding of the translation is a key guide for the translator

During my recent translation trip to Pakistan in Nov-Dec, 2007 we worked on the Hindu Sindhi NT translation project, which is based on the already prepared and published manuscript of the Muslim Sindhi NT.  As we compared the translated texts and rechecked the meaning of the original biblical manuscripts, it became obvious that some revisions to the previously prepared Muslim Sindhi translation were also required.

Rewards after we die?

In Mt 5:12 and Lu 6:23 Jesus encourages those who are persecuted to “rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven” (TNIV).  The word used in the original translation of the Sindhi New Testament was “bisht,” a word that parallels the western religious concept of Paradise. From the Muslim Sindhi reader’s point of view this would be understood as the conservative Islamic doctrine of Paradise, the place of eternal reward for the faithful received after the resurrection to life.  Moreover, its use in this passage would confirm the common notion among Sindhi Muslims that we can earn rewards here on earth which will be translated into pleasures to be enjoyed in the life to come; our good deeds are tabulated and rewarded in the next life. 

Sufis commonly believe that the only reward worth seeking is God himself

However, it is unlikely that Jesus intended this meaning.  “Heaven,” particularly in the book Matthew, is a reference to God’s dwelling place used for the purpose of speaking indirectly about God. The phrase “the kingdom of heaven,” for example, is equivalent to “the kingdom of God” found in Luke.  Both phrases refer to God’s rule over creation. To communicate this sense of “heaven” in Sindhi a different word than “bisht” is required.  The phrase, “Our Father in heaven” (TNIV) in Mt 6:9, was helpful in identifying a better term.  Because “heaven” in this verse cannot be confused with Paradise, the Muslim Sindhi translation has the word “Asman,” referring to the place where God resides.  Understanding this meaning of “heaven” to be the same in Mt 5:12 and Lu 6:23, the Muslim Sindhi translation has been changed to “Asman” – the residence of God – from the word meaning Paradise – the place of eternal reward for the faithful.  Unfortunately in Hindu Sindhi there is no equivalent term for “the place where God dwells,” and so the translation is more explicit and reads, “rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward from God.” 1

From Orthodox Islam to Mystic Sufism

This change of a single word represents a significant theological shift for the Sindhi reader: away from the concept of earning rewards that will be received after death, to a desire to please God and make him the appropriate focus of our concern when enduring suffering on earth.  As a result the new translation will resonate with many Sindhi people as affirming the teaching of the mystic Sufis, who are greatly revered in the Sindh.  Sufis commonly believe that the only reward worth seeking is God himself.  A popular Sufi saying is, “If God is in heaven (bisht), then I want to go to heaven.  If God is in hell then I want to go to hell.”

The following Sufi story also illustrates this understanding:

A religious leader was preaching to his students in the presence of a Dervish:  "If you do bad things you will go to hell.  If you do good things you will go to Heaven (bisht).  So do good and not evil so that you will go to Heaven and not hell."  
The Dervish on hearing this arose and went into his house.  There he wrapped one end of a stick with cloth, set it alight and began to walk through the town.  
"What are you doing?" people asked.  
"I’m looking for Heaven and hell", he replied, "And when I find them I will burn them both to the ground."
"That is absurd," they cried. "Why would you want to do that?"
"Because I have just heard religious instruction that teaches people to do good out of fear and selfishness and not for the sake of knowing God.  It would be better if those causes of greed and terror were removed so that people would only seek God for Himself and not for their own gain!" 2

Bridges for the Truth of God’s Word

But is there not a third possibility?  Must the Sindhi translation of “heaven” recall a conservative Islamic theology on the one hand or mystic Sufi teaching on the other?  Is there no “neutral,” non religious terminology that can be used to convey the biblical concept of heaven?  The answer is “No.”  By definition, the act of translation uses terminology and concepts already in use by the receptor audience, otherwise communication will not occur.  It is essential in Bible translation to ensure that the terminology used provides an equivalent meaning that is faithful to the original text.  The similarity between the meaning of the concept in the original manuscripts and the Sindhi understanding makes communication possible, while the differences can hopefully be overcome by reflecting on the meaning of the word within the greater context of scripture.

Moreover, when pre-existing teaching within the Sindhi community parallels biblical teaching, it is a cause for rejoicing. Not only is the task of translation made easier, but such teaching acts a bridge for the truth of God’s word.  When Sufi teaching is assumed true by the Sindhi reader and similar teaching is encountered in the New Testament, the result is an affirmation of the truth of God’s word and encouragement to trust the NT.

(The photo is of our Hindu Sindhi workshop participants, March 2006)


  • 1 This latter translation is still under revision.
  • 2 Both the Sufi saying and the story are from a private collection gathered from Sindhi friends during our time in Pakistan.

58. User Friendly Bibles: When Titles Mislead

section headings … can be misleading

I like section headings in Bible translation.  They are not part of the original text, but added by the translation team to assist the reader in three ways: “1. to help those already familiar with the Bible to find a passage they know; 2. to help those unfamiliar with the Bible to assimilate the text; 3. to help every reader by breaking up what could otherwise be forbiddingly large slabs of print.” (1) But there are times when the insertion of section headings into a passage of scripture can be misleading.  Even when the title itself may be accurate in its identification of the passage, the focus of the message may be distorted. (2) Furthermore the placement of some titles can actually undermine the structural unity and continuity of thought because the presence of the section heading communicates to the reader that the passage before the break is, in some way, disconnected from the passage under the heading and therefore is a “stand alone” passage with a unique message.

the section headings actually disguised, rather than illuminated the overall meaning of the passage

During my trip to Pakistan for Bible translation at the end of 2007, I was involved with a small team of translators and helpers who were reviewing a translation of the New Testament in the Sindhi language.  In our study of the Sermon on the Mount we found a number of places where section headings actually detracted from the flow of the passage and obscured the meaning.  This was not because the headings were incorrect, but because their presence between two related passages of Scripture inadvertently indicated that the passages were unrelated to each other.  In reality, the unity of thought between the passages was crucial and the section headings actually disguised, rather than illuminated the overall meaning of the passage.

Problem Section Headings: Charity, Prayer And Fasting

In the Sindhi New Testament Matthew 6:1-18 is divided into three sections each with their own heading.  Verses 1-4 is entitled “Teaching about Charity,” verses 5-15 has the heading “Teaching about Prayer,” and verses 16-18 has the title “Teaching about Fasting.”  Thus the reader is predisposed to expect three distinct messages about charity, prayer and fasting respectively.  In actual fact, the three passages are illustrative of one message concerning hypocrisy.  It would not be extreme to suggest that Jesus despised hypocrisy in religion.  Putting on a show to impress others is a constant temptation (I want people to like my sermons!) whereas Jesus instructs us to “play to an audience of One.”  One solution to the section headings problem is to provide one title for the entire passage – “Avoid religious hypocrisy” – or to express the main theme consistently in all three titles: “Hypocrisy in Charity,” “Hypocrisy in prayer,” and “Hypocrisy in fasting.”

Problem Section Headings: Light of the Body

The next section, Matthew 6:19-34, is also divided into 3 sections: verses 19-21 have the title “Heavenly Treasure,” verses 22-23 is entitled “Light of the Body,” while the remainder of the passage is preceded with “God and Wealth.” Again, while the headings are not inaccurate, they provide an unfortunate break between the passages so that the connection between the sections is obscured.  This is especially disturbing for the middle section, “Light of the Body:”

Section headings … make the Bible more “user friendly.”

The eyes are like a lamp for the body. If your eyes are sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eyes are no good, your body will be in darkness. So if the light in you is darkness, how terribly dark it will be! (TEV)

These verses serve as an illustration of the overall message that our desire is to be for God and his kingdom rather than the temptations of this world. They also act as a segue between the admonition to focus on the things of God (verse 19-21) and the argument that we cannot serve two masters. That is, if we maintain the true and central focus of putting God first in our lives, then all aspects of our life will be synchronized with reality, truth and goodness.  But if we miss out on our relationship with God as the essence of human life and purpose, then nothing can be made right: “how terribly dark it will be!”  

Unfortunately, with the insertion of the section heading, “Light of the Body,” followed with a break after verse 23, the reader is inclined to search for a meaning outside of the context of the surrounding passages.  Since the meaning is determined by the other passages, the reader can become confused by this illustration rather than recognizing it as a method to drive the point home.  Because verses 22-23 are illustrative of the surrounding passages rather than providing a separate or distinct message, it is better for the translator to avoid a separate heading at this point.  A heading can be inserted after verse 23 if the theme of the former passage is maintained.  For example at verse 19 the heading could read, “Seek God’s Treasure,” while the title at verse 24 could be, “Seek God’s Kingdom.”

Section headings are a popular and important tool that make the Bible more “user friendly.”  But the reader needs to be constantly aware that, like chapter and verse numbers, these are not part of the original text and can sometimes get in the way of the message!


(1) Referencing W. Smalley in Clark, D. and Asberg, D. Section Headings: Purposes and Problems in The Bible Translator, Vol 57, No. 4, Oct 2006, 194-203. p. 195.

(2) ibid., p. 197.

54. A Call for a Complementary view of Bible Versions

As a missionary involved in Bible translation for the past 18 years, I was disappointed with the tone of the article “‘Packer’s Bible’ now bestseller” appearing in the BC Christian News, August 2007 Vol 27 #8. During the course of celebrating the growth in sales of the English Standard Verson (ESV) – a welcome addition to a number of excellent formal translations such as the NRSV and the NASB – disparaging and unhelpful remarks were made against other translations and translation philosophies (such as the “meaning based” philosophy that lies behind those invaluable translations that provide the spiritually hungry reader with “what was meant”).

This unfortunate perspective was carried on in a sidebar entitled “’Dueling’ Translations” in which three Bible verses were presented from a variety of Bible versions. This negative and combative attitude not only confuses the average Christian and creates unnecessary divisions over minor issues, but it undermines the benefits we can gain from the multitude of translations available to us.

I trust that there is a more humble and gracious attitude on the part of the scholars who worked on the ESV than is reflected in this article and that they promote their translation as one attempt within a library of valuable and helpful translations. Rather than claiming pre-eminence for one translation (a dubious claim at best), the church is better served when such articles recognize the complementary nature of translations which together reveal a depth of meaning and nuance of the original in a way that is not possible through one single translation.

A few misleading statements warrant comment. Dr Packer is quoted as asserting that “other modern translations … deviate from what was said in several thousand places.” This implies that the other translations have erred or deliberately misled the Bible reader to the extent that their translation is a distortion of God’s word. Not only is such a claim disrespectful to equally dedicated and educated scholars, but it is harmful to those who depend on those translations in their daily walk with God. Rather than assuming that translation choices are a “deviation,” a more realistic perspective is that the variety of expressions of the original text provide a broader and deeper understanding of the message.

Dr Packer is also quoted as saying that other translations present “what was meant but not what was said.” This statement is misleading for a couple of reasons. First, it implies that the ESV provides “what was said.” However, this is not possible since what was originally “said” was given in another language. In order to provide “what was said,” one must refuse to translate and read the original text as it was written in Greek or Hebrew. Second, if a translation does not communicate the meaning of the original within the forms and concepts of the receptor language, then the translation has failed in its task. All English translations, including the ESV, must take “what was said” in the original language and rephrase it with English forms and words that provide an equivalent meaning. It is precisely this interpretive task that describes the work of translation. One difference between formal (such as the ESV) and meaning based (such as the CEV and TEV) translations is that the former takes great pains to mimic the idiom, concepts and structure of the original language with less concern for clarity, while the latter sacrifices the form of the original language in order to provide the meaning of the text in ways that communicate clearly to the modern reader. Both translation philosophies are to be valued and are complementary, rather than in opposition to each other.

According to the article the ESV website claims that “thought-for-thought translations” are “of necessity more inclined to reflect the interpretive opinions of the translator and the influences of contemporary culture.” This apparent attempt to disparage meaning based translations is a sword that cuts both ways. Translation is impossible without interpretation. Why use “60 scholars who were expert in individual books,” if their interpretive expertise was not required in a “word for word” translation? And where is the proof that these scholars are less influenced by contemporary culture than the scholars of other translations? Is the “deliberate attempt” to use simple words and make the text “dance along,” not based on the needs of the readers who live in the “contemporary culture”? Moreover, Bible translation is a movement of meaning from an ancient language to a modern one and thus must use the forms and concepts of contemporary culture in order to communicate. To pretend that the ESV is somehow a purer or more “transparent” translation than the rest is fallacious as the scholars of necessity engaged in an interpretive process to provide the meaning of the text for the contemporary culture. That is the nature of translation.

The ESV is undoubtedly as carefully constructed a formal translation as modern scholarship allows. But this does not put it into a category above other translations. Rather it is a welcome addition to other equally valuable translations. When this fact is realized, then the benefit of the ESV can be realized as it is used in conjunction with other translations. This can be appreciated by a quick perusal of the “‘Dueling’ translations” sidebar. A better title would have been “Complementary translations” for each of the translations provided a different nuance and perspective of the original that was helpful for the serious student of God’s word. One example can be seen in a phrase taken from Gen 5:2.

  • ESV: “…named them Man…”
  • KJV: “…called their name Adam,…”
  • NIV: “…he called them ‘man.’”
  • NLT: “…called them ‘human.’”
  • Message: “…blessed them and called them ‘human’”
  • TNIV: “… he called them ‘human beings’”

The unusual form of capitalized “Man” in the ESV (indicating a particular interpretation of the Hebrew word “adam”) is clarified in the meaning based and inclusive translations as “human” or “human beings.” The KJV adds a helpful nuance by transliterating the Hebrew word “adam” which alerts the English reader that this is the same word as the name “Adam.” Taken together, these translations should not be viewed as “dueling,” but as positive contributions that expand the reader’s understanding of the original meaning of the text. I trust that the promoters of the ESV will choose the humble and productive approach of encouraging English speakers to take advantage of the wealth of translations we have available to us.

51. To Sprinkle or Not to Sprinkle: Translating Metaphors

Many years before I was involved in Bible translation, I happened to be in the public library and I picked up a copy of The Three Muskateers.  A different copy of the same book was also lying on the shelf.  I opened the second copy and was astounded to find that even though it was the same book, same author and same story, it was written in a completely different way.  It took me a couple of minutes to realize that each book was a translation from the original French, but by a different translator.  I studied both of the translations a little more closely and finally chose the book that was written in a style more suited to my taste.

I cannot remember specifically why I found one translation more suitable than the other.  But I suspect that the writer of the book I chose had excellent writing skills in English and was able to present the essence of Dumas’s novel in a way that resonated with the intended audience of English readers.  The rejected copy was most likely more faithful to the original French style of writing and so failed to communicate in a manner that drew the reader into the story.  Instead the number of unfamiliar phrases and metaphors translated word for word from the French distracted the readers from the plot rather than drawing them in.

In retrospect, I believe that several lessons I later learned about the Bible, communication, translation and the need for different versions of the Bible have their root in that experience.  The comfortable, free-flowing translation I preferred, while being faithful to the original message of the author, provided the meaning of the novel in a way that was natural, exciting and impacting.  The more stilted translation would have been more accurate in exploring some of the French idiomatic styles of writing and maintaining the literal expressions from which intricate nuances and plays on words could be discerned. But it would not have been such a pleasant read, nor would the author’s original intent have been achieved of engaging the reader with the story.

We are currently working on the Old Testament translation into the Sindhi language of Pakistan.  The NT was translated some years ago.  Some colleagues recently expressed concern with the translation of one verse that illustrates the above dilemma that the translator faces.  They are preparing stories of the Old Testament following the Chronological Bible Storying method, emphasizing stories about sacrifice and blood, an aspect very relevant to a Muslim context.  This includes the practice of ritually cleaning utensils, sacrifices, the mercy seat, etc., by the sprinkling of blood.  In dealing with New Testament stories, they wish to demonstrate how this concept of cleansing becomes relevant to the cross of Christ.  Imagine their frustration to find that Hebrews 10:22 was translated into the Sindhi without the concept of “sprinkling”. While the RSV has “with our hearts sprinkled clean from a guilty conscience,” the Sindhi translation has the equivalent of “our conscience has become pure from sins.”

The writer to the Hebrews used the concept of sprinkling in a metaphorical fashion because the background understanding of the Jewish readers would allow them to recognize the reference to the practice of making an object ceremonially pure through sprinkling blood. Since the Sindhi translation uses a “meaning based” translation philosophy which utilizes the “common language” of the receptor culture (similar to the copy of The Three Muskateers I chose above), only metaphors which are common to the receptor culture are used.  Having hearts “sprinkled clean” is not an idiom used in Sindhi nor would the average Sindhi reader understand the connection.

Moreover, because the reference to “sprinkling” is actually peripheral to the meaning of the verse (the cleansing is a spiritual process and does not include a literal use of blood), the main focus of the verse is communicated without necessitating a reference to the ceremonial act.  For example, “he applied for the job three times, but struck out,” does not require an explicit reference to baseball for those who are familiar with the idiom. The word “failed” can be substituted for “struck out” without loss of meaning. In the same way, the Sindhi translation, without a reference to “sprinkling” is an adequate translation of the Hebrews phrase.  Nonetheless, as with all translations, some aspects are always lost.  In this case the metaphorical reference to the ceremonial cleansing ritual of the Old Testament is sacrificed for clarity and naturalness.  Even as I chose the translation of the Three Muskateers that provided the most comfortable way for me to understand the novel, so many Sindhis are able to access the meaning of the Bible through this translation in a way that fits with their idiomatic style.  For those who will become more serious students of the word, other versions and Bible helps will enable them to dig deeper to understand the riches of the peripheral references.

43. How Ideology affects Translation: “Gender-neutral” vs “Inclusive” Language

I admit it: I am doing Bible translation1 because I want to see the Sindhi culture change.  I want to see people affected by the word of God so that they put Christ at the center of their lives.  As people use God’s word as their guide to life they will make an impact upon those around them.  I confess: I am involved in translation as an intentional change agent.  But (and this is a big “BUT”) I want the impact of the word to be as a result of the clear, accurate and relevant communication of God’s message, not because a particular translation ideology has distorted God’s message.

“Gender-neutral” (bad) or “Inclusive” (good)?

A current controversy in Bible versions illustrates well the way ideologies shape translation.  The past century has witnessed a global movement towards equal rights and opportunities for women.  In the west male dominated terminology (e.g., chairman) is being replaced by gender neutral, or inclusive, terms (e.g., chair). This trend in both oral and written English has also affected Bible translations: the TNIV and the NRSV are two popular versions that use “inclusive” language when referring to gender2 in order to reflect the inclusive intent of the original.  For example, in Psalm 1:1 the KJV has “Blessed is the man…,” whereas the TNIV has, “Blessed are those….” Opponents to these “inclusive” translations3 prefer the term “gender-neutral” claiming that the inherent patriarchal emphasis of the original text is being illegitimately concealed.  They believe that such translations reflect current politically correct biases rather than honestly representing the intention of original.

The difficulty is that all translation and interpretation is affected by ideology. We cannot ask if ideology should affect translation, rather the question is “Which ideology should influence translation?” Similarly, we cannot ask if the translator will be involved in shaping the culture, rather we must ask in which direction will the translator shape the culture.  Inclusive language translations conform to current trends and in so doing affirm the current, politically correct, egalitarian perspective.  On the other hand, translations that reflect the patriarchal emphasis of the original language and culture also affect culture by opposing that egalitarian perspective.  The translator is caught in a dilemma: they cannot help but choose and all positions reflect an ideology.

Navigating the Ideologies

A general rule of thumb for “meaning based” or “functionally equivalent” translations, e.g., the TEV and CEV 4, is that the form of the original text is sacrificed for the sake of meaning.  For example, the structure of Hebrew poetry in terms of parallelism, alliteration, etc., is often sacrificed in the receptor language for the sake of clarity of meaning. Our Sindhi translation reflects this philosophy since it utilizes a prose style to communicate the meaning of poetic passages.5

In the case of “meaning-based” translations, therefore, the question is “Are the patriarchal aspects of the original language part of the message God is communicating (that is, God is teaching us to be patriarchal), or are these aspects merely part of the language and context through which he gave his message (that is, patriarchy is a form of the original that can be changed to provide the same message in a new context)?”  In other words, is the patriarchal aspect of the original language and culture an affirmation of God’s creation intention for gender relations, or is God accommodating to a particular societal structure?  In other words, are the patriarchal elements inherent in the original language prescriptive or incidental? If the former is the case, then we are also required to exhibit patriarchal expressions and practices in our church, home and society and this needs to be communicated in translation.  However, if the latter is the case, then the message can be rephrased using non-patriarchal conventions without losing the essential message.

Kevin Vanhoozer argues that patriarchalism as prescriptive is improper interpretation:

The question is not whether Genesis is taken to be sexist but whether its author intends to promote sexism. The meaning of a communicative act depends not on its outcome (e.g., how it is received by readers) but on the direction and [purpose] of the author’s action.  Meaning, in other words, refers to … its intended result – not to its unforeseen consequences. To display a world where men rule, as the patriarchal narratives do, is not necessarily to commend it.  The difference between description and prescription is crucial….  In any case the main point of the patriarchal narrative is not to provide a blueprint for social order but to chart the history of God’s covenant dealings with Israel.  That the patriarchal narratives would be read as, and criticized for, promoting patriarchy is an unforeseen and unintended consequence of the text, and thus not part of is meaning (i.e., not part of what their authors were doing).6

What to do with the “brothers”?

An example of how ideological presuppositions affect translation can be seen in the epistle to the church in Rome. Paul addresses his readers as adelphos, translated in the KJV as “brethren,” yet his greetings in chapter 16 make it clear that part of his intended audience is women.  For a “meaning based” translation the question must be asked, “Is Paul deliberately using a masculine, patriarchal construct to provide a message of gender segregation (i.e., this is part of the meaning)? Or is he merely utilizing the common patriarchal idiom of his time without intending to reinforce cultural gender roles (i.e., this is part of the form)?” If the answer is the former, then the translator must reflect that gender distinction in the receptor language.  However, if the intent is to be inclusive of women without making an overt statement of gender distinction, then the translator of the meaning based translation is obligated to utilize the appropriate idiom in the receptor language.

In the case of our Sindhi translation, even though it is a patriarchal culture, a translation of “brothers” implies a male only audience.  Assuming that the patriarchal aspect of this idiom in the Greek is incidental to the meaning, we provided a meaning equivalent inclusive idiom in the receptor language.  In this case we chose “brothers and sisters.”

As is the case with all translation decisions, there is a loss of content.  In the Sindhi translation the patriarchal flavor of the original context and idiom has been lost.  However, assuming that this was incidental to Paul’s meaning, based on the assumption that Paul is not advocating patriarchalism through his use of the word adelphos, this is both legitimate (because the meaning has been communicated) and necessary (because appropriate receptor language has been used).  On the other hand, patriarchal language is both legitimate and necessary for a literal or formal Bible translation which seeks to reflect, as far as is possible, the form of the original text.

Implications for translators who are shaping other cultures

Basically translators are required to make a choice from the following:

  1. Insist on patriarchal language as part of the transcultural message of the Bible. This would result in shaping the culture towards a more patriarchal society.
  2. Alter the patriarchal language of the translation according to the accepted practice in the target language.  This would affirm either the patriarchal or egalitarian bias present in the culture.
  3. Alter the patriarchal language to a more egalitarian stance than evident in the receptor group so that the culture is shaped towards that end.

Our Sindhi translation, occurring within a patriarchal society, aims for the second choice as much as possible.  Inclusive language is freely used when both men and women are intended (as with Psalm 1), but it is also natural and idiomatic in Sindhi to use the masculine singular pronoun as inclusive of women, even when the original may be grammatically inclusive.  With our basic presupposition that the patriarchal nature of the original language is incidental to meaning, we are free to utilize the conventions of the Sindhi language.  Nonetheless, we still cannot escape the ideological implications of our choices.


  • (1) Mark is currently involved in the translation of the Bible in the Sindhi language.
  • (2) The question of using gender inclusive language does not extend to using gender inclusive language for God.  We are only referring to those translations that use terminology that explicitly refers to both men and women, rather than assuming that women are included in a masculine idiom.
  • (3) Dr. Wayne Grudem and Dr. James Dobson are two notable examples.  Dr. Grudem approaches the issue from a scholarly, textual point of view.  Dr. James Dobson’s arguments are closely tied to a particular sociological understanding of the nuclear family.
  • (4) This translation philosophy can be contrasted with literal or formal translations, such as the NASB and ESV, which seek to reflect the idiom and structure of the original text as closely as possible, often to the detriment of clarity.  See CCI article 42: Clarifying Bible translation for further explanation.
  • (5) This form / meaning dichotomy, while helpful, is a somewhat simplistic as the meaning is often tied closely to the form, and poetry is a good example. Unfortunately the sense and impact of poetry usually do not translate well when the poetic form is retained.  For example, Amos 5:5 has a line with equivalent sound combinations that is impacting in Hebrew.  However, Moffat’s translation which seeks to reflect this – “Gilgal shall have a galling exile,” – sounds strained in English rather than maintaining the intended force of the original. See DeWaard and Smalley, A Translator’s handbook on Amos, (New York: UBS, 1979), p. 102.
  • (6) Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is there a meaning in this text? The Bible, the reader, and the morality of literary knowledge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 255.

42. Bible Translation as Theology

Bible Translation Shapes Faith

A missionary colleague phoned me up quite irate about a translation choice in the Sindhi NT1. A couple of Muslim friends had dropped in for a chat and asked him why Christians did not pray like Muslims by prostrating themselves to the ground. My colleague replied that the Bible speaks of worship in a spiritual sense without demanding a physical position. They pointed out that the Sindhi translation in Matt 2:2 and other places uses the word “sajado” where most English versions have “worship.” “Sajado” means to prostrate oneself in worship. I had to inform my colleague that the Sindhi translation was correct and the term in the Greek has a similar nuance to the Sindhi “sajado” indicating a physical position of prostration.

This seemingly insignificant example illustrates the function of translation in shaping and reinforcing the beliefs and practices of Christians. By obscuring the physical aspect understood by the original audience, the use of “worship” in English translations both reflects and reinforces current perspectives and assumptions about the relative unimportance of worship postures in the West. On the other hand, the NT use of “sajado” in a Muslim context may be influential in determining the assumed worship posture for an emerging church in the Sindh.

Old Wine and New Skins

Bible translations play a major role in shaping theological perspectives. In fact, if theology is understood as the way we express our belief in God, Bible translation is one way of doing theology. Ogden states that “Bible translation is a theological enterprise built on the incarnational model. It seeks to give flesh to the Word of God in a new cultural environment. It is a case of putting ‘old wine into new wine skins.'”2 The Bible is God’s revelation of himself and his will to a particular people within their cultural, historical and linguistic environment. This is the “old wine” of Ogden’s intriguing reversal of Jesus’ statement3. The “new wine skins” refers to the new translation that presents that “old wine” of God’s Word through the communication structures of a different cultural, historical and linguistic environment. Understandably, the choices made by the translators to accomplish this task have a great impact in shaping the theological perspective of the reader. Good translation is theology: foundational theology that enhances and facilitates the reflection of God’s revelation in a new context.

I have just begun checking the Sindhi translation of the Ecclesiastes. In 1:13 it reads in the RSV “it is an unhappy business that God as given to the sons of men to be busy with.” Our translators, following the meaning based translation of the GNT, wrote “God has placed within the fate of the children of Adam this great trouble that they should suffer.” While this is a very idiomatic and natural sounding translation (in Sindhi!), the theological implications of “fate” in the Islamic context of Pakistan makes this a choice that we will probably need to avoid. “Fate” in the mind of the Sindhi is incontrovertible and lacking any sense of human freedom. This is far stronger than the intention of the original writer who was simply commenting on his observation that in life human beings suffer.

The Dilemma of Translation as Theology

The realization that translation is theology presents a dilemma for the translators of the Scriptures. No language is value free. All the words of the receptor language that the translators must use carry cultural and historical baggage. These words provide a unique perspective on reality which does not allow for an untainted reflection of the language and culture of the biblical authors. Theological terms in particular have concepts and nuances tied to them that can be very different from biblical teaching. Nonetheless, if the translator is to communicate, these words cannot be avoided; the local language must be adopted as the medium of translation. The use of the Muslim Sindhi term for “God” will bring to the readers’ mind the transcendent King of Islamic theology without many of the characteristics of the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Hindu Sindhi term for God, “Ishvar,” emphasizes God as creator without the assumption of being the personal God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Yet understanding the God of the Bible begin with the use of terms that provide approximate points of reference within the common framework of the hearers.

During my last trip to Pakistan in Feb-Mar 2006, we held a workshop to discuss translation decisions for our Hindu Sindhi NT translation. One difficulty that we have yet to resolve is appropriate terminology for “prophet” and “apostle”. Hindu theology does not contain these concepts and so there are no terms that even approximate these ideas. Our Hindu Sindhi helper suggested the word “Otar” which is the description of a spiritual being that has taken on human form. Our Christian helpers informed us that both terms are commonly translated in churches of Hindu background believers as “sant” which speaks of the character of the prophets and apostles as holy or pious people. Phrases such as “chosen by God to bring his message” (prophet) or “chosen by Jesus to preach the gospel” (apostle), are more accurate but so awkward in translation and everyday use that they would likely be substituted by a simpler term like “sant”. Whichever term we choose (and we will not be using “Otar”!) the theological perspective of the people concerning the function of prophets and apostles will be shaped accordingly.

Implications and Benefits

The implication of this translation dilemma is that no one language, whether English, Greek or Hebrew, can fully communicate God’s message to us: “We see through a glass darkly” (1 Cor 13:12). Yet our conviction as Bible translators is that God’s word can be communicated sufficiently. At the same time, in cases when biblical concepts resonate well with the expressions of one particular culture – such as the significance of genealogies in some societies – a Bible translation in the language of that culture will provide greater clarity and relevance for those concepts. Together translations within a multitude of languages make up a mosaic of theology through which God continues to speak his message of reconciliation.


  • (1) I was not involved in the original translation of the Sindhi NT. However, my work on the Sindhi OT translation required familiarity with the NT as well as overseeing the occasional revision.
  • (2) p. 312. Ogden G.S. “Translation as a Theologizing task” from The Bible Translator Vol. 53, No. 3 July 2002. pp 308-316.
  • (3) Jesus referred to his teaching as “new wine” which should not be placed within the “old wine skins” of the traditional teachings of the scribes and Pharisees. See Mt. 9:27

41. Clarifying Bible Translation

Importance of Clarity in Bible Translation

In discussing Bible translation and Bible versions with a number of people in our churches I have discovered a not uncommon assumption – that the more formal or literal a translation is in maintaining the form of the original language of the text, e.g., NASB, the more accurate the translation. The saying “as literal as possible, as free as necessary”1, captures the essence of this view.  However, if the goal of translation is the communication of meaning, which seems a logical assumption, then translations that are restricted by the need to provide a formal representation of the original language will be less likely to communicate the meaning clearly.  In a sense this can result in a mistranslation in that an awkward or obscure translation misrepresents the clarity that the original languages would have given their original hearers.  Meaning based translations, e.g., Good News, view the functions of the source and receptor languages as separate and distinct in order to provide a natural and understandable translation.  The source text is read according to its linguistic and cultural assumptions in order to interpret the meaning.  The receptor language is used according to its linguistic and cultural assumptions in order to communicate the meaning.

Contrasting Formal and Meaning Based Translations

Mark Strauss provides a number of illuminating examples2.  In Matt 5:2 the NKJV translates: “Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying:….” While understandable this is an unnatural English construct that fails to recognize that the Greek idiom “open the mouth” and “speak” are used together to indicate one action.  The GNT provides the same meaning in more natural language: “and he began to teach them.”

In Acts 11:22 the NASB translates: “the news about them reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem.”  The NASB does not provide a completely formal translation since a more word for word translation of the verb would be “heard into the ears….” Nonetheless, the Greek idiom of “reaching the ears” is retained even though it is not common English.  The NLT gives a translation closer to our modern day English: “When the church at Jerusalem heard what had happened….”

ESV translates 1 Cor 6:15 as “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute?”  This literal translation of “make” (Gk. poieso) and “members” (Gk. mele) obscures the sense of the sentence which is better represented in the NLT: “Should a man take his body, which belongs to Christ, and join it to a prostitute?”

In order to provide a sense of the source language, formal translations do not fully take into account the semantic range of meaning of words in either the source and receptor languages, thus weakening their ability to communicate the meaning.  For example some translations add footnotes to words to provide “literal” meanings different from the words used in the translation, as if their translation choice has somehow deviated from an imagined core meaning of the word.  For example, in Matt 24:22, “And unless those days have been cut short, no life would have been saved…,” the NASB provides a footnote  for “life” which reads “Lit., flesh.”  However, “life” is as legitimate a representation as “flesh” within the semantic range of the Greek word sarx, and in this case provides a clearer meaning. 

ESV provides a footnote for “human being” in Rom 3:20 “For by the works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight…,” which reads “Greek flesh.” This is confusing as “flesh” is not a Greek word, but English.  The Greek is actually sarx.  Furthermore the average reader will assume that “flesh” is somehow a more accurate rendering of sarx than “human being.”  However, both terms are legitimately within the semantic range of the Greek word and in this sentence “human being” provides a more accurate translation than a consistent use of one particular nuance.

What is a Successful Translation?

A translation succeeds in its task when the readers understand the meaning of the original text within their own language.  This cannot occur through a word for word translation because words in the original text will have a dissimilar range of meaning than words in the receptor language and, furthermore, the relationship between the words (grammar, syntax) in any given sentence will be different.  In any language words have a functional relationship with each other in order to produce meaning and that relationship differs from language to language.  I cannot simply write “ball” to communicate.  I must provide a sentence structure: “I am having a ball. Cinderella went to the ball.  He threw the ball.”  To establish appropriate meaning in another language, each of those sentences would likely require thoughtful crafting since the first sentence is an English expression of an emotion state (often used facetiously!), the second sentence refers to a common fairy tale within our culture and the third describes an action upon a round object.

Consider the concept of the kinsman redeemer represented by the Hebrew word ga’al found in Ruth 2:20, “the man is related to us, one of our ga’al” and Prov 23:11, “For their ga’al is mighty.” This was a challenge for our Sindhi translation3 because this Hebrew concept of a person who is obligated to rescue their blood relatives does not have an equivalent expression in the Sindhi language.  Moreover the translation is further complicated in the Proverbs’ verse because the word is used metaphorically referring to God. A formal translation will seek to find an equivalent word, such as “redeemer,” and use that word as consistently as possible throughout the translation. However, even strictly formal translations find it difficult to translate this word the same way in both these cases due to the importance of the “kinsman” concept in Ruth and the difficulty of associating blood relationship with God in Proverbs.  Following our goal of providing a meaning based translation in Sindhi we used the descriptive phrase “rescuing relative” with a clarifying footnote for the Ruth passage. In Proverbs we avoided the idiomatic usage of ga’al for God altogether and gave the essence of the thought as “the Almighty God alone is their protector.”

By limiting linguistic and structural concerns of the source language to interpretive concerns, a meaning based translation has greater flexibility in using the receptor language to communicate the meaning in culturally appropriate forms. While both formal and meaning based translations have benefits as well as weaknesses, the clarity found in meaning based translations provides the reader with a better grasp of the meaning of the original text.


  • (1) Quoted in Strauss, Mark L. Form, Function, and the “Literal Meaning” fallacy in English Bible Translation in The Bible Translator, Vol. 56, No. 3 July 2005 pages 153-168.
  • (2) ibid.
  • (3) I am currently involved with FEBInternational in the Pakistan OT Sindhi translation project.

40. The Most Accurate Bible Translation

Accuracy requires a single standard

I remember seeing an ad for a new translation of the Bible claiming to be the “most accurate translation” available today.  Although a good marketing tactic, it is less than honest because accuracy in Bible translation is relative to the underlying philosophy and goals of the translation.  Such a claim is similar to shooting an arrow and then painting a bulls-eye around it. Each version needs to be evaluated for faithfulness to the source text according to its stated purpose.  For example, to translate “Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the LORD” (Gen 10:9), may be “accurate” for a formal translation that seeks to reflect the Hebrew idiom, but it would be “inaccurate” for a receptor focused, meaning based translation.  In contrast, to translate “Nimrod, the mightiest hunter in the world,” may be “accurate” for a meaning based translation but would be “inaccurate” for a formal translation.  Both styles of translation are legitimate, but they cannot be contrasted on the basis of “accuracy”.  Rather they reveal different aspects of the original text.1

Form verses Function

The Bible translation in the Sindhi language of Pakistan with which I am involved seeks to be a receptor oriented, meaning based translation, also referred to as “dynamic” or “functional” equivalence2.  The goal is to provide a translation that a Sindhi with a minimum of grade six education can read and understand within a non-Christian cultural context.  This is accomplished by ensuring that the function of the text to communicate a message is represented in an equivalent manner in the Sindhi language.  Our goal is that the meaning, the impact, the emotion, and the purpose of the passage intended by the author is comprehended by the average Sindhi reader.  To accomplish this we replace the forms and structures of the original text with equivalent Sindhi forms and structures.

The problem with formal translations that attempt to maintain the metaphors, structures and grammatical distinctives of the original text is that the result can be obscure, awkward and misleading.  In contrast, a weakness in meaning based translations is that they often sacrifice the flavor of the original culture for the sake of clarity and naturalness in the receptor language.  In the example of Nimrod provided above, the meaning based translation has lost the underlying Hebrew assumption of God’s omnipresence as a frame of reference, for the sake of clarity in a more secular worldview.  Our Sindhi translation manages to provide for that element to a limited extent with the translation “Nimrod was the greatest hunter in all of God’s creation.”

All translations gain and lose some aspects of the original and translators must constantly make choices concerning the implicit and explicit information available within the original text.  Formal and meaning based translations simply lose and maintain different aspects according to their distinct translation goals.  Both styles of translation are important depending on the audience and the purpose. For readings in a church service or for devotional reading it would be better to use a meaning based translation because the goal is immediate understanding and engagement with the message.  However, for a Bible study both styles can be helpful resulting in a more comprehensive understanding of the text.

Meaning based contrasted with Formal in Amos 5:5

During my last visit to Pakistan we worked on Amos 5:5. The RSV (a formal translation) has:

But do not seek Bethel,

And do not enter into Gilgal

Or cross over to Beersheba;

For Gilgal shall surely go into exile,

And Bethel shall come to nought.


In contrast our Sindhi translation has:

Do not go to Bethel, Gilgal or Beersheba

Yes, Do not at all become followers after their worship places

Because surely their inhabitants will be taken into exile

And their cities destroyed.


The RSV follows the pattern of the Hebrew in

Poetry (chiastic structure for the city names – ABCBA, as well as using parallel lines),

Grammar (a variety of verbs to express one thought: “seek, enter, cross over”),

Connotation (cities rather than people going into exile), and

Idiom (the phrase, “Bethel shall come to nought” is a play on the Hebrew word “Bethel” meaning “God’s house” and the word “nought” referring to a deserted ruin, therefore has the impact of “going to the devil”, or being wiped out3. Unfortunately this idiom mistranslates in English and has the force of  “not successful”).

The RSV is a good resource for those doing Bible study and seeking to understand the Hebrew context, worldview and poetic depth.  However several misunderstandings are possible to the casual reader: Does the variety of verbs mean that the cities are to be treated differently? What is the problem with these cities that they should not be entered into (there is implicit information here that is not stated)? Why is there no punishment for Beersheba?

However, if the goal is immediate comprehension of the message, the meaning based Sindhi translation is much clearer because

  1. It clarifies that the cities are treated the same (the parallel structure of the Hebrew poetry means that the verbs “seek” “enter” and “cross-over” are intended to have the same force).
  2. It clarifies the point that these are places of worship and that is why they are displeasing to God.
  3. It clarifies that the “exile” and “destruction” refers to the people of all three cities and not describing separate punishments for each city with Beersheba free from punishment.
  4. It picks up on the emotion of the passage through emphatic words (“not at all”, “surely”) Mimicking the poetic form of the Hebrew would not have communicated the intensity of the emotion for the Sindhi reader.

The poetic structure of the Hebrew is lost in the Sindhi translation.  But what has been gained is a natural and clear representation of the meaning.  Translation is about gains and losses.  A meaning based translation maximizes the gains in the area of clarity and understanding for the receptor audience to the detriment of form.  A good formal translation maximizes gains by reflecting the forms of the source language, but at the expense of clarity.  Just like a good tool box will have a number of different screwdrivers to deal with a variety of contexts, so both formal and meaning based translations play a role to help us discover the meaning of God’s word.


  • (1) See also Cross-Cultural Impact numbers 4 and 25 for other articles on translation issues.
  • (2) “Dynamic Equivalence” is the old name for “functional equivalence”. The term “dynamic” had a number of problems associated with it and it was decided that “functional” better expressed the translation process.
  • (3) p. 103.Waard, J. and Smalley, W. 1979. A Translator’s handbook on the Book of Amos. New York: UBS.

25. Communicating a Christian view of Bible Translation

A High View of Scripture

Walk into any store in Pakistan and almost inevitably high up in a corner the Koran can be seen wrapped up in expensive cloth and covered in fresh rose petals.  Hand a copy of the Koran to a devout Muslim and they will kiss the book reverently and then place it over first one eye and then the other.  My wife, Karen, once observed a Sindhi woman reading the Koran.  The woman was running her fingers over the words and softly speaking under her breath.  Karen was surprised because she had understood this woman to be illiterate in her own language, and now she was reading ancient Arabic!  However, further inquiry disclosed the reality that the woman was not really reading the Arabic but quietly saying “Bismallah” (in the name of Allah) as she ran her fingers over the words.
This high view of holy Scripture is based on a belief that God’s word is not just in the message communicated, but is fundamentally and powerfully present in the very form in which it was originally given.  Thus the Koran, unlike the Bible in Christian understanding, can only exist in its original language.
As Christians we not only believe that the Bible can be translated into other languages, but we welcome a multiplicity of translations, believing that the original cannot be fully represented within one translation.  A number of translation styles and emphases allow the serious student of God’s word to explore passages in greater depth than what is possible when limited to only one version.

Validating the Christian View of Scripture

Unfortunately a variety of translations is a serious problem for Muslims.  The charge is that we have changed our Bible and the proof is in the “discrepancies” that can be readily seen between translations.  There are two possible responses to this charge.

1.  The first response is to attempt to present the Bible in the same light as the Koran – as the pure word of God “uncorrupted” by cultural influence. For example, in Pakistan there is only one Protestant translation of the Urdu Bible.  No other translation is permitted for fear that any discrepancies with the older translation will undermine the authority of God’s word.  Textual problems and verses whose translation is disputed are thus ignored and do not enter into discussion with Muslims.  If the question happens to be raised, the Urdu Bible is pointed to as authoritative, dismissing other interpretations as incorrect, without the need to reflect on its role as a translation.

The problem with this approach is that it is a false representation of the limitations of translation.  A translation never provides the full scope of the original text for two reasons: (1) the nuances and parameters of the original and receptor languages are never equivalent and (2) the cultural elements which provide the context for the modern reader’s understanding are far different than those of the original recipient of the text. While the original was inspired by God in word, form and meaning, a translation is always a human construct and is not only susceptible to human frailty and ignorance, but is limited by the lack of one to one correspondence between human languages and cultures.  While the word of God must be accepted by faith as true and authoritative, a translation should always be judged according to its ability and limitation in communicating the original message.

2.  The second approach, advocated here, is to engage Muslims in a process of education so that they might understand both the value and limitation of translations.  Unless people move past a mystical, superstitious view of the Bible to one of recognizing that it actually contains a message that can be understood in their own language and addresses them, they will not recognize the personal challenge and application.  As long as people distance themselves from Scripture by assuming that the blessing comes through a mystical relationship with the form of Scripture rather than through the comprehension and application of Scripture, they will not hear God speaking to them.

Rather than arguing for a “black and white” view of Scripture paralleling the Islamic view in which a translation is either “correct” or “corrupted,” a better approach is to promote the benefit of diversity in translation.  The following is the logic behind educating Muslims to understand the nature of God’s word in a way that recognizes both the value and limitations of translation.

Translation is Change

We first must admit that translation is change.  We cannot win the battle by proving that we have not “changed” the scriptures.  We have changed it – into another language.  We have changed the Scripture so that it is no longer hidden in Hebrew forms and words, but is revealed in the receptor language.  The argument needs to center on the issue of whether or not the original text – which remains unchanged – has been misrepresented or distorted.  When people can see that the meaning has not been distorted then they will be able appreciate the value of perceiving God’s word in a new form which a reader of the target audience can easily understand. 

Those who complain that we have distorted Scripture are making a comparison based on different assumptions.  Therefore their method of “proving” our culpability through the comparison of translations is easy to do because translations, by their very nature, are different.  Rather than pretending that all translations should be the same, we need to teach people the value of translation variety in order to gain the full message God has for us.  A prime example of this is the Septuagint (LXX), the early Greek translation of the Old Testament.  The New Testament uses LXX verses in ways that are not obvious in the original Hebrew.  For example, in Isaiah 7:14 the Hebrew word is a general description of a “young woman” which was translated as “virgin” in the LXX and taken by the New Testament author as a description of Jesus’ mother (see Mt 1:23). Rather than altering one or the other to make the meanings converge, both need to dealt with within their own settings to gain the full expression of God’s message. 

Openness is the Best Policy

Jesus said, “The truth shall make you free” (Jn 8:32).  One application of that is in openly admitting the limitations of translation.  Once those limitations are acknowledged as parameters for studying God’s word, the benefits of the variety found in translation become obvious.  Rather than hiding passages where form has given way to meaning for the sake of clarity and ease of understanding – such as the chart format used by the TEV (see for e.g. Num 7) – these need to be paraded as examples of appropriate and alternative representations of God’s word.  Such passages teach that God’s message can be communicated in a multitude of forms in a multitude of cultures precisely because it contains a message that is valid for all people.  The original message was given within Hebrew or Greek cultural forms.  Translation attempts to repack these in the forms of another language in ways that facilitate communication.

Muslims are not incapable of understanding and appreciating this approach.  In fact, because most live within a multi-lingual context, they can understand this better than many westerners who are monolingual. Most Sindhis, the people group for whom we are translating the Bible, can move effortlessly between three or four languages.  A simple example can help Sindhis grasp the purpose of this translation and appreciate it by asking them to translate the English word “love” (a word which all understand). Some will reply with one Sindhi word, some with another.  They are all correct because there is no right or wrong in the form as long as the meaning is correct. Such simple examples help people value what has been accomplished through translation.

24. An Islamic versus Christian view of Holy Scriptures

Scripture as “supra-cultural”

One of the frustrations of Bible translation in an Islamic context stems from the Muslim belief that the Koran was written in heaven and is thus “supra-cultural,” that is, it is not shaped or determined by human culture or language. Although written in the Arabic language, the Muslim conviction is that the Koran is purely the word of God and is thus perfect in word, form and message; there is no human element, and therefore no flaw in its construct.  Such thinking is the basis for the claim that the Koran cannot be translated.

A foreign journalist once asked a Muslim scholar if there was a translation of the Koran that made sense, as all the translations that he had read were confusing. This was the scholars’ response:

The Koran is untranslatable because it is sublime.  Its form and its content are inseparable.  The presence of the divine is in the words themselves, and only in those words which were given to the Prophet.  The Koran, which is the most beautiful book in the world, exists solely in those words. Therefore Islam commands its followers to read the Koran only in Arabic.  If you wish to understand the Koran, you must learn Arabic.  That is the only answer I can give you. (1)

Such thinking contrasts sharply with the Christian view of the Bible and the fundamental basis of Bible translation: The Bible can be accurately translated into any language and culture.  The theological support for this claim is the conviction that the Bible is both divine and human, both God’s word and a product of culture.  Culture and language is the medium through which God has provided his written revelation to humanity.  Even as Jesus was both divine and human, so the Bible is both human and divine: good news brought “by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven” (1 Pet 1:12 NRSV).  Even as Jesus revealed God to us as a human being within a specific historical and cultural context, so we believe that God’s word can be revealed through translation into another cultural and linguistic setting.  God’s purposes are eternal and unchanging, but the ever changing languages and cultures of humanity require an ongoing process of translation for those purposes to be revealed.

In contrast, the Islamic view of scripture preserves the original form of the untranslatable text in the daily life of the practicing Muslim through the reading and memorizing of the Koran in the original Arabic script.  This is reinforced through traditional rituals, such as the daily prayers which are performed worldwide in the Arabic language.  This belief serves as an important unifying factor in Islam as well as elevating Koranic Arabic to a level in which not just the meaning but the form contains both mystery and power.  In addition, these practices reinforce the perception of the eternal stability of the Koran from centuries past as pure and unchanging in its form.

Bible Translations: Corruption or Blessing?

The frustration for translators of the Bible in an Islamic context is that Bible translations and the Christian understanding of scripture do not measure up to this Islamic belief concerning the nature of God’s word.  No one translation can communicate all the meaning of the text as well as capture the cultural nuance and form of the original.  This impossibility is complicated by textual and interpretive variations in some passages that lead to a number of possible translation options.  Moreover, translators are forced to adopt a specific style or philosophy of translation that emphasizes one aspect of the original over others.  For example, a literal translation will seek to maintain the form of Hebrew poetry, even though it will not be the contemplative genre of the target language and thus cannot convey the same impact and meaning.  Alternatively a meaning based translation attempts to communicate the meaning of the poetry according to the style most appropriate to the receptor culture, even using a simple narrative style that sacrifices much of the poetic element.  A third option is an impact focused translation that strives to communicate the contemplative impact in an appropriate poetic style of the target language, even though certain culturally defined nuances of the original are lost.  Ps 24:7 illustrates this difference:

  1. The NRSV is a good literal translation preserving the Hebrew imagery:

Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors
that the king of glory may come come in.

  1. The TEV, a meaning based translation, provides a clearer understanding for English speakers with modern idioms. Note that the poetic address to the inanimate doors has been sacrificed to facilitate the more natural English expressions:

Fling wide the gates,
open the ancient doors,
and the great king will come in.

  1. Our Sindhi translation, also meaning based, provides further clarification that the “gates” and “doors” are not two separate entities, but refer the same part of the temple (translated from Sindhi):

O doors of the Temple! Lift up your lintels,
Yes, O ancient doors! Make yourselves tall
So that the glorious king may come in.

  1. The Message by Eugene Peterson, seeks to communicate the impact of the verse and interprets the doors more figuratively than the Sindhi translation:

Wake up, you sleepyhead city!
Wake up, you sleepyhead people!
King-glory is ready to enter.

The benefit of the variety of translation styles lies in their contrast with each other and thus the more comprehensive expression of the original meaning.  Each of these styles is legitimate and collectively provides a more complete representation of the original.  Because of their unique style and focus, they provide the student of the Bible a clearer sense and deeper appreciation of God’s message.  But it is here that the clash with the Muslim reader occurs.  When there is a perceived discrepancy between translations, the Muslim concludes that the translators have deliberately “corrupted” the Bible or else the original Scriptures themselves are not the pure word of God as they believe exists in the Koran.

How should the Christian in dialogue with Muslims about the Scriptures reply to this accusation?  There are two possibilities which will be explored in the next article.


  • (1) Jonathan Raban: Arabia Through the Looking Glass. Glasgow: Fontana 1979. p. 114.

13. Qawwali: Can Biblical Poetry be Translated?

Is Meaning Related to Form?

A colleague in Pakistan more familiar with Sindhi(1) poetry than I am, recently pointed out some similarities between the Song of Deborah in the book of Judges and a type of Sindhi poetry called "qawwali." He noted that both qawwalis and the Song of Deborah range over a number of themes, they reference but do not explain incidents, they are repetitive, and they use "vivid imagery verging on hyperbole." He further commented that qawwalis are performance pieces to be sung with audience participation.  The function of the qawwali is to make an appropriate impact upon the audience and is essentially recreated by the performer through interaction with the hearers. The performer innovatively manipulates the content with both subtle and obvious references that stimulate the people into appreciative response. Our colleague then speculated that the Song of Deborah may be similar, i.e. rather than reading material it was probably intended as a performance piece.  Did the Song of Deborah have a similar function in Hebrew poetry?  And if so would not the meaning and significance be dependent upon the form and audience participation as much as upon a cognitive acknowledgement of the historical events being referenced?  Does the silence of dried ink on paper rob the text of much of its intended impact?

Suppose we reduced a Sindhi qawwali to words in the English language and handed it to our waiter at the Swiss Chalet after church next Sunday for their opinion.  Would they experience a qawwali simply by reading English words?  Without doubt it is impossible for one who has grown up in a Canadian context to experience a qawwali from reading an English translation of the words.  In fact, the more literal the translation (following the repetition, the hyperbole, the range of themes and the Sindhi expressions drawn from local knowledge), the less the impact, the understanding and the ability of the Canadian reader to value such poetry. It would not encourage further reading of qawwalis, but rather a deep skepticism that Sindhis are indeed sane.  In fact, the question must be asked, can a qawwali be understood by someone who does not know Sindhi and does not actually enter into the qawwali experience?  In other words, a qawwali by its very nature may be untranslatable, because it does not rely primarily on words as vehicles to communicate information, but as links to cultural background, cultural responses, cultural actions, cultural expectations and subtle cultural meanings, plays on words, particular styles of emphasis etc., that are absent within an alternate language and culture.  Without those links the impact and significance of the words cannot be retained.  Pasternak, referring to translations of his book "Dr. Zhivago," stated, "Don’t blame them too much.  It’s not their fault.  They are used, like translators everywhere, to reproduce the literal sense rather than the tone of what is said – and of course it is the tone that matters." (2)

The Dilemma of Bible Translation

This brings us to the dilemma of Bible translation.  Can biblical poetry be translated?  Since we are not Hebrews but live in a time and place and culture even farther removed from each other than Canadians are removed from Sindhis, is it really possible for us to "experience" Hebrew poetry?  Can we really enter into its meaning as it was intended, which, in the nature of poetry in particular, is far more than mere words on a page?  However before we abandon the attempt, there are two options we can consider.

The first option is to find a poetry style which will provide a similar "impact" that was intended with the original poetry.  This, unfortunately, is somewhat subjective as we do not have original Hebrew poets (such as King David) with us who could lead us into an experience of the intended impact.  Instead we must use our own poetic lenses and the expertise of those who have studied the function of ancient Hebrew poetry.  We then must find (for our goal of translating the OT into Sindhi) talented Sindhi poets who are capable of both understanding the meaning and the impact of original Hebrew poetry, and who can adequately represent that in an acceptable Sindhi poetic style – written or performed.  Unfortunately for our Sindhi translation we do not have the expertise, the time or the finances to produce a quality translation of the Hebrew poetry found in the Psalms, let alone in the rest of the OT.

The second option is to assume that even though the poetry is intended to be experienced (as with qawwalis) or sung (as with the psalms), the fact that they are written down on paper indicates that they also contain an important element of communicating cognitively.  They are intended to provide information, make an impact and move people to decision making or reflection through the use of intellectual perception.  That is, the vital essence of the message can be translated into other forms, styles and languages which will result in responses, if not equivalent at least comparable, to those expected from the original readers (or singers of psalms or dancers of qawwalis).  This does not imply that form is immaterial to the meaning and significance of the message.  However, the basic assumption of Bible translation (and all translation for that matter) is that the message can be communicated by using a different form that provides a comparable meaning and significance.

The Limits of Translation

Therefore, if the Song of Deborah is some kind of Hebrew qawwali, we do not want to translate it as closely to the Hebrew as possible because, as in the Canadian example above, the result would be disastrous.  Rather than providing an equivalent understanding and impact, the cultural differences and lack of appropriate context to appreciate the purpose would result in bewilderment and misunderstanding.  Instead, by choosing the second option, as translators we comprehend the original intention and impact as much as possible and seek to represent that meaning in such a way that it leads to the appropriate understanding and response in the reader.  Due to our limitations in the language, we (the Sindhi translation team) are able to accomplish this best through the use of prose, indicating poetry through the artificial means of indented and short lines.  Poetically this leaves a lot to be desired and arguably it limits comprehension.  Practically it functions very well as the tools for writing prose allow us to manipulate the words and sentences in such a way that the reader will be able to appreciate to a certain degree the intended meaning and impact.  However it must be admitted that there is also much that is lacking, like Van Gogh’s "sunflowers" seen in black and white.  It is a true representation, but limited.  Further, more profound, poetic translations will need to be left to those with superior perceptions and talents. Perhaps one day there will be godly Sindhis with a poetic bent who are so immersed in the original Hebrew poetry that they can envision and express what they are experiencing in an equivalent form of Sindhi poetry.


  • (1) FEBInternational works in Pakistan among the Sindhi Muslim people.  Mark is overseeing the translation of the Old Testament into the Sindhi language.
  • (2) Quoted in a footnote, p. 315 of Ellington, J. "Shleiermacher was Wrong", The Bible Translator, Technical papers, Vol. 54 No. 3 July 2003.

4.   Searching for an Accurate Bible Translation

The Perfect Translation Illusion

The translation of Scripture into other languages is a cross-cultural mission activity that enjoys enthusiastic support in evangelical circles.  But curiously this support is coupled with wide spread ignorance concerning what constitutes an accurate Bible translation. There seems to be an illusion that the perfect translation is possible, one which will provide an exact representation of the text found in the original languages of Hebrew and Greek. Translations are judged according to a one dimensional scale in the attempt to find that one translation which is more accurate than all the others.  This perspective demonstrates a lack of understanding concerning language in general as well as ignoring the necessary limitations placed on a translation project by its stated purpose and philosophy.

Form Versus Message

A recent book review on the English Standard Version Bible (ESV) illustrates some of these misunderstandings1.  The article questions the accuracy of the NIV stating that its "’dynamic equivalence’ approach has always raised questions with respect to its faithfulness to the original languages."  Although the NIV may have some weaknesses as a translation, its lack of "faithfulness to the original languages" is not one of them simply because the very nature of translation demands that the forms, rules and structures of the receptor language be used in order for communication to occur.  The point of translation is to represent the meaning of the original text using the symbols and linguistic assumptions of another language and culture.  Only Muslims can be faithful to the original language of their holy scripture, the Quran, because they are convinced that it is untranslatable. They believe that the Quran remains God’s word only in the Arabic language because that is the language in which it was written when it was handed to the prophet of Islam directly from heaven. However the evangelical view of scripture is that God’s message is transcultural (for the whole world) and therefore can be communicated accurately in any and all languages.  It is this faith in the transferability and sacredness of the message, as opposed to a belief in the sacredness of form and structure of one specific language, that motivates the translation of Scripture.  The resulting translation, inevitably changed in words, form and structure, is as much the word of God as the original text as long as it accurately communicates the same meaning to the intended audience.

Accuracy is Relative to Translation Style

Although translation is far more complex than can be expressed in this article, there are basically two types of translations. Formal correspondence attempts a literal word-for-word and form-for-form translation reflecting the original styles and phrasings of the original text.  Dynamic or functional equivalence strives to present the same meaning and impact that the text would have had for its original audience to a new audience living in a different culture and using a different language.  The advantage of a formal translation is that it is helpful for those familiar with the original languages and cultures in determining the possible range of meanings allowed in the original as they engage in more comprehensive Bible study.  The weakness of a literal translation is in the frequent failure to communicate due to an awkwardness and obtuseness of language, a shortcoming which can result in an understanding contrary to the intent of the original message.  Formal correspondence translations are not good pulpit Bibles, nor are they good devotional Bibles. Functional equivalent translations, on the other hand, focus on providing the original meaning using forms and idioms natural to the receptor language so that the reader quickly and accurately grasps both the intent of the writing and the impact of the message within his or her cultural setting.

A formal equivalent translation will sacrifice impact and meaning for the sake of reflecting parallel linguistic symbols.  A functional equivalent translation will sacrifice the form in order to communicate the meaning.  As an example, Hebrew poetry is arranged in couplets with the second line often reflecting the meaning of the first line without adding further meaning.  This is not a common style for writing in English and the uninitiated will attempt (incorrectly) to gain further information from the second line when reading a formal translation. A functional equivalent translation will often telescope the two lines into one thus providing the full meaning in a common English style without confusing the reader. Because functional equivalent translations are receptor-focused they are more accurate in communicating the meaning of the Scriptures.  Because formal translations are literal-focused they will reflect more accurately the form and style of the original text.

Language Limitations in Translation

Newbigin’s2 comments concerning cross-cultural communication are as equally valid in the translation of Scripture.  He says, “a missionary or an anthropologist who really hopes to understand and enter into the adopted culture will not do so by trying to learn the language in the way a tourist uses a phrasebook and a dictionary.  It must be learned in the way a child learns to speak, not by finding words to match one’s existing stock, but by learning to think and to speak in the way the people of the country do.  A person who seeks to learn it in that way quickly discovers that the two languages are mutually translatable only to a very limited extent.  Words used in the two languages to denote the same kinds of things have very different meanings because of the different roles that these things play in the two cultures.”

The book review mentioned above reflected another basic misunderstanding in translation with the comment that "many will appreciate the ESVs commitment to maintaining consistency with the original languages when it comes to gender.  The generic ‘he’ has been retained…."  The implication is that gender inclusive translations (incorrectly labeled "gender neutral" in the article) by not formally reflecting the grammatical style of the original text are somehow less accurate.  A literal translation will usually follow the style of using the singular male pronoun when referring to people in general.  However even though this more accurately reflects the style of the original language, it is less accurate in reflecting the meaning.  A functional equivalent translation will ensure that the appropriate English written symbol is used so that the equivalent meaning of the original is communicated.  For example Paul often uses a Greek word somewhat equivalent to the English "brother".  At times the word refers only to men (e.g. 1 Th 3:2), but at other times it is inclusive of women (e.g. Rom 14:10).  However in ordinary English usage "brother" does not include women.  A receptor-oriented translation will be concerned to communicate the meaning of the original (e.g. TNIV), whereas a formal translation (e.g. ESV) will more accurately reflect the style of the original text.

Receptor Oriented Translations

Our translation of the Bible into the Sindhi language of Pakistan aims to be receptor-oriented and a functional equivalent translation with a desire to make the original meaning of God’s message clear and accessible to any Sindhi with at least a grade six education.  Thus the goal is not to introduce or perpetuate difficult theological terms (cf. many formal translations), but to provide a translation that the average Sindhi Muslim, with no Christian theological training or Bible study helps, can read and understand.  It will not help them understand the form and style of the original languages, but it will communicate God’s word so that they are able to relate the message to their lives.


  • 1  p. 17, Daniels, D, March/April 2003. Book Review: English Standard Version Bible in The Evangelical Baptist. Guelph: FEBCC.
  • 2  p.56, Newbigin, L. 1989.  The Gospel in a Pluralist Society.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.