Translations of the Bible Into English

You decide to buy yourself or someone else a Bible, so you run down to the nearest bookstore—but they have so many different translations, you don’t know where to begin. Here is something that might help: a list of modern translations that you are likely to find in a bookstore, with a description of their major advantages and disadvantages. Remember, this is just my opinion.

What exactly is a “standard” Bible?

Which translation does Ken use?

The deficiencies of inclusive-language translations

You can read about how to develop a good Bible reading plan.

The English Standard Version

The English Standard Version uses the same scholarship, texts, and techniques as most other modern translations. It was translated by a group of scholars representing a diverse group of denominations, most of which are conservative on social and political issues. It is published by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers, which is not affiliated with any denomination or Bible society. This translation has an enthusiastic following among some of the readers of my web site, but I don’t find it particularly compelling. (The term ‘standard’ in the name can give you the wrong impression.)

Disadvantages

The English Standard Version uses archaic constructions to produce a text that sounds more literal than it really is. For example, Hosea 9:1 in the English Standard Version reads, “Rejoice not, O Israel” where the equally conservative Holman Christian Standard Bible reads, “Israel, do not rejoice.” The translations are equally literal. Perhaps I should say, “Write not archaic language, O translators!” So this translation only makes it halfway into modern English. Genesis 12:1 reads, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house,” which seems more literal that the same passage in the New International Version, which says, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household”; however in this case, the NIV is actually more literal, because no one seems to have “kindred” these days, and in modern usage, “leaving your father’s house” implies that you are living in your father’s spare bedroom or basement, which is not what the ancient text means. Most Bible translations cannot resist finding their viewpoints on contemporary social issues in the ancient text. The ESV is not an exception. It is just as circumspect of conservative sensitivities as the New Revised Standard Version is of feminist concerns. In other words, I find as much to dislike in the ESV as in the NRSV, but for opposite reasons.

Advantages

The translators use the best texts, scholarship, and techniques that are available to modern translators. They attempted to be as literal as possible, while still producing a clear English text. They do not render Greek gender-specific words as generic or plural English words, which means that passages such as Hebrews 2 have the same meaning for the modern reader as they do for the ancient reader. The text sounds dignified and biblical. If you consider yourself socially conservative, nothing in this Bible will cause offense.

The Good News Bible
(also called Today’s English Version)

The Good News Bible is a project of the American Bible Society to render the Bible in a form that unchurched people can understand.

Disadvantages

For people who attend church regularly and are familiar with the Bible, the fact that the Good News Bible does not use traditional religious vocabulary is a disadvantage. Since clarity is the overriding goal of this translation, it often seems to be inaccurate when compared to other translations, but it is in fact an accurate translation.

Advantages

The Good News Bible is written at a very low grade level and is consequently very easy to understand. It is excellent as story book. In fact, the Old Testament can be read from Genesis to 2 Kings as easily as a novel.

The Holman Christian Standard Bible

Since all Bible translations that contain the New Testament are Christian by definition, the odd inclusion of the word “Christian” in this translation’s name seems either to be redundant or to imply that the other translations aren’t truly Christian! However, the name does make sense if you know that Holman Bible Publishers is indirectly owned by the Southern Baptist Convention. Modern fundamentalists refer to themselves as evangelicals and often use the word Christian as an exclusive term to refer to themselves. However, this is not a Southern Baptist translation, or even a fundamentalist translation. The translators represent a large number of denominations. They used the latest technology, the best methods, and the best of contemporary textual criticism in their work. I think their respect for the biblical text keeps them on the straight-and-narrow, making this a solid translation for all Christians. (The term ‘standard’ in the name can give you the wrong impression.)

Disadvantages

I haven’t found any significant disadvantages to this translation yet, but if and when I do, I’ll add them here. However, one does bear mentioning. Most modern Bible translations avoid capitalizing pronouns that appear to refer to the deity to avoid forcing an interpretation on the reader. Despite that, this translation follows the traditional practice of capitalizing third-person pronouns that refer to the deity—but they go beyond that and capitalize first- and second-person pronouns too, which doesn’t seem to add anything but visual clutter.

Advantages

On the whole, this is an excellent translation suitable for casual Bible reading, serious study, and for use in public worship. The translators stayed in the middle ground between word-for-word (‘literal’) and thought-for-thought (‘dynamic equivalent’) translation techniques. While they do not use masculine terms where the Greek is gender-inclusive, they also do not change Greek gender-specific terms into English generic terms, nor do they pluralize singular forms. This means that passages whose meanings are often distorted in ‘inclusive-language’ translations, such as Hebrews 2, still have their original meaning. (See Slavery and Sonship for more in-depth information on how inclusive language can go awry.)

J B Phillips
(New Testament only)

J. B.Phillips, an Anglican clergyman, first began paraphrasing the epistles of the New Testament into modern English for his church’s youth group, which met in bomb shelters during air raids in World War II. He eventually completed the entire New Testament, and later revised it into a true translation.

Disadvantages

Many editions of the J. B. Phillips New Testament lack verse numbers. The wording is significantly different from other translations. Earlier editions are too British for Americans.

Advantages

The J. B. Phillips New Testament gives unique and accurate insights into the New Testament.

The King James Version
(officially called the Authorised Version)

The King James Version was an academic tour-de-force in 1611, at which time it was a hotly denounced modern translation. In some quarters today it is the only acceptable translation, even though the translators in 1611 explicitly stated that they looked forward to future scholarship to correct whatever errors they may have made.

The King James Version originated when a group of Puritans presented King James with a petition requesting reforms in the Church of England. Since the petition had a thousand signatures, it was called the Millenary Petition. This led to the Hampton Court Conference in 1604 during which one of the Puritan leaders proposed a new translation of the Bible, with the rationale that most of the existing English Bibles had serious imperfections. The king readily agreed and assembled the brightest and best Bible scholars in England to undertake the project. They were dismayed at first when the king announced he would personally manage the project, but they were pleasantly surprised when it turned out that he had an excellent background in the subject. The resulting translation was made mandatory for the Church of England over many protests from the clergy. Because books were extremely expensive in those days, well out of the reach of the common person, the law also required every church to keep a copy on display 24 hours a day, so that ordinary people could come in and read the Bible at any time. The Bibles were generally chained to the reading desks to prevent them from being stolen when no one was around. The cost of replacing a stolen Bible in those days could easily bankrupt a local parish.

It isn’t generally known that the translators contined to issue corrections to the King James Version for several decades after 1611. Outside of the United Kingdom, the King James Version is in the public domain, so there is no standard text. Different printers standardize on different versions. Of course, the printers revise the spelling, punctuation, and capitalization to conform more or less to modern standards, because otherwise you would not be able to read it.

Disadvantages

The King James Version is almost incomprehensible to anyone who has not been brought up on it. For example, the word comfort means strengthen, suffer means let, let means prevent, and prevent means precede. Some verses are completely incomprehensible or misleading; for example, Psalm 5:6, 1 Kings 11:1, and Ezekiel 27:25. The textual scholarship underlying the King James Version has been superseded in the last two centuries. Most US editions do not include the Apocrypha, the translator’s footnotes, or the translator’s preface, all of which were part of the original edition. Many US editions contain the epistle dedicatory, which was the translators’ cover letter presenting it to the king.

Advantages

In current printings, publishers have updated the spelling and punctuation, which makes the text readable by people today. For people who were brought up on it, this is an excellent translation. For newcomers to the Bible, it is a puzzle. It is suitable for study as long as you are familiar with the language. It is widely known and available, and very inexpensive. The copyright is still valid in the United Kingdom, but in the United States and elsewhere it is in the public domain. The King James Version makes a distinction between the second person singular (thou, thee, thy, thine) and the second person plural (ye, you, your, yours) which is not easy in modern English. If you think that ‘thou’ and ‘you’ are synonyms, or get ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ mixed up, or don’t understand the difference between ‘ye’ and ‘you,’ this is not an advantage.

The Living Bible

The Living Bible is the work of Kenneth N. Taylor, who in 1954 began paraphrasing scripture for use in family devotions. The first complete Living Bible appeared in 1970. It has been revised many times and appears in many different versions.

Disadvantages

The Living Bible mixes the author’s interpretations with text, making objective study impossible unless you agree with Kenneth N. Taylor’s views. It is strongly tendentious, as the author often inserts wording that has no basis whatsoever in the original text in order to conform it to fundamentalist viewpoints on end-times, sexuality, politics, and social policy. (For example, compare Jude 7 in the Living Bible with Jude 7 in the King James Version and notice how much extra text they inserted.) Depending on your views, you may see the Living Bible as clarifying the meaning that is already present in the text or as imputing meaning into the text that is not there. Essentially, the Living Bible does the interpreting for you. Even some fundamentalists find it controversial.

Advantages

The Living Bible is easy to read and it makes a good story book. Many editions explain the nature and purpose of the paraphrase.

The Message

The Message, like the Living Bible, is a paraphrase rather than a translation. The difference is that The Message is very recent and that Eugene Peterson, the paraphraser, worked from the original languages. Eugene Peterson has taught biblical languages on the post-graduate level and is a respected theologian with pastoral experience. Like J. B. Phillips, he is well qualified to undertake a paraphrase.

Disadvantages

The Message is not suited for serious Bible study since the paraphrase, by its nature, obscures terminology and some implications of the text.

Advantages

The Message is as accurate as a paraphrase can be—take that as a caution—and it is easy to read and understand.

The New American Bible

The New American Bible is principally a lay-oriented Roman Catholic Bible translation, although some non-Catholic scholars were involved. It is primarily the outgrowth of an encyclical by Pope Pius XII (Divino afflante Spiritu) which encouraged Bible-reading among Roman Catholics.

Disadvantages

The New American Bible is not as good as the Jerusalem Bible for serious study. The notes have a distinct Roman Catholic flavor, which can be a disadvantage for people who are not Roman Catholics.

Advantages

This is a very good Bible for the lay Catholic. The notes have a distinct Roman Catholic flavor, which can be an advantage for Roman Catholics or for people who are not Roman Catholics themselves, but wish to inform themselves about the position of the Roman Catholic church on specific passages.

The New American Standard Bible

The New American Standard Bible was the project of the Lockman Foundation, which sought to produce an accurate, readable translation. The translators came from a wide variety of evangelical backgrounds. (The term ‘standard’ in the name can give you the wrong impression.)

Disadvantages

The New American Standard Bible does not lend itself well to reading out loud to an audience. The drive for accuracy led to some peculiarities in the renderings. There is occasional emphasis on relatively minor grammatical points.

Advantages

Excellent for serious study, very accurate. The current edition that you find in bookstores has been updated for improved readability.

The New International Version

The New International Version is the product of evangelical scholars from a wide variety of church backgrounds under the auspices of the New York Bible Society International.

Disadvantages

The New International Version has a slight premillennial tinge. For example, the Greek word thlipsis is only translated as tribulation in contexts that fit premillennialism. However, that is not much of an obstacle. A Lutheran publishing house even issued a study Bible based on the New International Version, even though for the last 400 years Lutherans have considered any form of millennialism to be a heresy. The New International Version has a number of innovative renderings here and there. For example, a single Hebrew word is rendered valley, gorge, river, ravine, or brook in different passages.

Advantages

The New International Version is an excellent translation into very good contemporary English, very suitable for study and reading out loud. It is a good translation for scholarly study, because it is one of the two translations in the most scholarly Bible commentary, The Interpreter’s Bible. The word international in the name means that the translators took pains to make sure that their work would be usable in any English-speaking country on the globe, although it appears in versions with American and British spelling. The Psalms are rendered poetically.

The (New) Jerusalem Bible

The (New) Jerusalem Bible is the product of the best Bible scholarship in the Roman Catholic Church.

Disadvantages

The (New) Jerusalem Bible’s wording is often clumsy and opaque to non-scholars. This is a matter of English style rather than accuracy in translation. The notes have a distinct Roman Catholic flavor, which can be an advantage for Roman Catholics or for people who are not Roman Catholics themselves, but wish to inform themselves about the position of the Roman Catholic church on specific passages.

Advantages

The (New) Jerusalem Bible is an excellent scholarly work for serious students of the Bible, especially Roman Catholics. The notes have a distinct Roman Catholic flavor, which can be a disadvantage for people who are not Roman Catholics.

The New King James Bible

There is no real connection between the King James Version and the New King James Bible except for the name, the textual basis of the New Testament, and some similarity in the language. It was the brainchild of Sam Moore. He purchased his son a brand-new leather-bound King James Bible embossed with his name, but the boy couldn’t understand it and asked his father if he could make a Bible he could understand. After prayer and market research, he assembled 130 scholars to undertake the translation. Sam Moore is the CEO of Thomas Nelson, the publisher of the New King James Bible.

The New Testament of the New King James Bible also appears in the Orthodox Study Bible.

Disadvantages

The New King James Bible sounds like a modernized King James Version, because it isn’t completely modern English. Its New Testament is based on the Greek text called the Textus Receptus, or “Received Text,” rather than the modern critical text that most modern translators use. (The Textus Receptus also underlies the New Testament of the King James Version.) If you live outside the United States, please note that King James Version is the American name for the Authorised Version.

Advantages

Although the New King James Bible, like all other translations, is not perfect, it is a more accurate rendering of the Greek than the King James Version and is less likely to puzzle the reader. This is an especially good translation for people with a Wesleyan or Eastern Orthodox background, or who are skeptical of modern textual criticism. The New Testament of this version was included in an Eastern Orthodox study Bible.

The New Living Translation

The New Living Translation is a revision of the Living Bible to transform it from a paraphrase to a true translation.

Disadvantages

The New Living Translation still interpolates text in places that address or seem to address modern issues, but is not as excessive as the Living Bible. It is still mildly tendentious in favor of distinctively fundamentalist teachings.

Advantages

The New Living Translation is easy to read and it makes a good story book. It is a huge improvement over the Living Bible and it can even be used for study.

The (New) Revised Standard Version

The (New) Revised Standard Version is the direct descendant of the King James Version. (The term ‘standard’ in the name can give you the wrong impression.)

Disadvantages

The initial editions of the Revised Standard Version were controversial and were too liberal for many evangelicals, but questionable renderings have been repaired in recent editions. It has clumsy English syntax in places and some poor word choices. For example, in the New Revised Standard Version, people weep. In modern English, no one weeps anymore, they cry. The Psalms are not poetically rendered and don’t lend themselves well to responsive or unison reading. The New Revised Standard Version’s attempts to be gender-inclusive leads to occasional misleading translations.

Advantages

The Revised Standard Version is pretty much the standard in seminaries, and it is one of the two translations in the most scholarly Bible commentary, The Interpreter’s Bible. The New Revised Standard Version has attempted to remove spurious gender bias, but has damaged the meaning in some places. It has fewer controversial renderings than before and has excellent scholarship. It is available in an edition that contains every book that is considered canonical by any major Christian group.

The Orthodox Study Bible

The Orthodox Study Bible is unique among all the translations on this page, because its Old Testament comes from the Septuagint, not the Hebrew text. The Orthodox Study Bible contains the first translation of the Septuagint into English since the nineteenth century.

In biblical times, the city of Alexandria, in Egypt, was famous for its voluminous library, its schools, and its intellectuals. It also had the largest Jewish community in the Diaspora, that is, anywhere other than Judea. When Mary and Joseph took the infant Jesus to Egypt, this is most likely where they settled, so Jesus’ early education took place in the Alexandrian school system, which was the best in the world at the time.

Since Alexandrian Jews spoke Greek, they undertook a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures about two centuries before Christ. It is called the ‘Septuagint’ because there were about seventy translators. The Septuagint was well entrenched as normative Scripture for Greek-speaking Jews by the time of the events in the New Testament. Since Galilee was a Greek-speaking territory, the Septuagint was normative Scripture in Galilean synagogues and for Jesus and His disciples. We know that because the New Testament quotes the Septuagint, not the Hebrew scriptures.

The Septuagint is more messianic than the Hebrew text, which meant that early Christians could easily mine it for proof texts to make converts. They were so effective that the rabbis standardized on the Hebrew text for the synagogue scrolls, and the Septuagint fell out of use among Jews. Many lay Christians accused the Jews of editing the Hebrew text to make it less messianic. (See Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, chapters 71-73.) This is hardly possible, because the Jews have too much respect for the text to do such a thing. The motive for this accusation was mainly emotional: Christians were under persecution because the rabbis had disowned the church as a Jewish sect, making it an illegal religion; therefore, Christians were quick to accuse the Jews. Since the switch took place in reaction to Christian use of the Septuagint, my guess is that there was more than one Hebrew text to choose from and that the rabbis chose an accurate text whose phrasing was less conducive to Christianity than the Hebrew text underlying the Septuagint.

The Septuagint was the canonical Old Testament of the ancient church, and has remained so in Orthodox churches to this day, which explains its presence here in the Orthodox Study Bible.

In the early fifth century, Jerome translated the Bible into Latin for western use. He switched to the Hebrew text for the Old Testament. His translation, called the Vulgate, became the standard Bible of the Roman Catholic Church until well after the Protestant Reformation. Therefore, under Jerome’s influence, Catholics and Protestants use the Hebrew Scriptures for their Old Testament. However, Jesus, the apostles, the New Testament, and the ancient Church all used the Septuagint as their Old Testament.

Even though this is a study Bible, I have included it in this list because it contains the only modern translation of the Septuagint, which is not available separately.

Disadvantages

The Old Testament in the Orthodox Study Bible does not match the Old Testament in any other Bible, because this is the only English-language Bible in existence that uses the Septuagint as its Old Testament. The footnotes do not represent the findings and opinions of modern western scholars, but the historical use of the texts in eastern Christian theology. If you are a seminary student, your professors may object to using it in Old Testament studies, because it is not the Hebrew text, and because the footnotes Christianize and allegorize the Old Testament text. Within the bounds of academic study, they do have a good point.

Advantages

The Old Testament in the Orthodox Study Bible gives better insight into the New Testament, because it is the version that the New Testament writers read, used, and quoted. It can give depth and context to the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament and in the theology and interpretive techniques of ancient Christianity and contemporary Orthodoxy. Since Jesus, the apostles, the New Testament, and the early Church Fathers all use the Septuagint as their Old Testament, one could make the argument that the Septuagint is the canonical Old Testament for Christians.

Today’s New International Version

This is a completely new translation that follows in the footsteps of its parent, the New International Version. It contains minor revisions and changes that all seem to be improvements, with the exceptions I’ve noted below.

Disadvantages

While I am all in favor of the English translation being as gender-inclusive as the Greek (for instance, the most accurate translation of αδελφοι is ‘brothers and sisters’), most ‘inclusive-language’ versions go too far, changing gender-specific Greek words into generic or plural English words, which changes the meanings of passages such as Hebrews 2. This translation is not an exception. (See Slavery and Sonship for more in-depth information on how inclusive language can go awry.)

Advantages

The text of the TNIV is eminently readable, just like its parent translation. In essence, this is an inclusive-language version of the New International Version. It has the same advantages.

Which Bible will I find in the pew rack?

It is interesting to see how the various translations are distributed among Christian bodies. There are exceptions, but the following are general tendencies in the United States.

  • Roman Catholic churches use the New American Bible in worship and in instruction.
  • Protestant congregations that belong to the big-name historic denominations, or whose pastors have attended big-name mainstream seminaries, generally tend to use the New Revised Standard Version.
  • Protestant churches that belong to smaller denominations, or that have more conservative theological, social, or political views, generally tend to use the New International Version.

Those are the big three. Some others are as follows:

  • The New King James Version is popular in Methodist, Wesleyan, and Orthodox churches.
  • The New American Standard Bible is popular in independent churches that are heavily into Bible study during worship.
  • Today’s English Version occasionally appears in the pew racks of churches, often those with moderate to liberal theological, social, or political views.
  • The Authorised Version (the King James Version in the United States) is still the preferred Bible in some congregations. Generally they are independent or they belong to loosely organized denominations.

What exactly is a “standard” Bible?

There are organizations that set the official standards for such things as weights and measures, electrical equipment, and other such things. For example, electrical devices in the United States have to meet the standards of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association and must be approved by Underwriters Laboratories. However, there is no organization that issues standards or tests the accuracy of Bible translations. So that brings up the question of what the word “standard” could possibly mean in the name of a Bible translation.

What we in America call the “King James Version” was authorized by the English Parliament for use in churches, which literally made it the “Authorised Version” and the standard for the Church of England. For that historical reason, the direct descendants of this translation have the word “standard” in their names, such as the Revised Standard Version or the New Revised Standard Version.

The inclusion of the word “standard” in the names of the English Standard Version, the New American Standard Bible, and the Holman Christian Standard Version only means that the translators would like churches to adopt it as their standard, or it indicates that they see themselves as a better alternative to the (New) Revised Standard Version. There is a “Standard Bible Society,” but the name is slightly misleading, because it is not a standards body. It is an organization that distributes and promotes the English Standard Version.

The word “standard” in the name of a Bible translation does not mean that the translation passed the scrutiny of some sort of Underwriters Laboratories for Bible translations, or that they are better or worse than translations without the word “standard” in their names. There is no standard Bible in the sense that there is a standard wrench. The word “standard” indicates either the history of the translation or the aspiration of the translators, nothing more.

Which translation does Ken use?

Occasionally I consult the New International Version, and I use the Orthodox Study Bible in sermon preparation. I use the New Revised Standard Version during worship and for Bible studies, and I always consult it when I’m studying. I like to read the Old Testament narratives and the proverbs in the Good News Bible, but I don’t like its version of the Psalms or the Gospels. I own all of these translations and many more, and I use and recommend all of them, each for a different purpose. The only exception is the Living Bible, which I only use as an example of a Bible not to own.

If you are shopping for a Bible, this might give you an idea for how you might want to kick the tires before you buy.

The deficiencies of inclusive-language translations

Today, many translators go to great lengths to avoid offending the sensitivities of people who believe that the use of masculine terms in the Bible excludes women, and they do that by using “inclusive language,” which consists of removing all masculine terms that do not refer to a specific person who is a man. This works quite well in modern texts referring to modern institutions, instruction manuals, laws, and policies, but since the ancient world had different concerns and sensitivities, this can lead to a misleading translation.

Good: genderless pronouns

In some cases, a genderless translation is more accurate. For example, in the epistles, Paul addresses “brothers.” Greek uses the same word for brothers (αδελφοι) and sisters (αδελφαι) with different grammatical endings, and the masculine form is less specific than the feminine form, as in modern French and Spanish. So translating αδελφοι as “brothers and sisters” is an improvement. There are also apparent gender biases in the text of older translations that are really just antique English. For example, the Greek words for “anyone,” “no one,” “someone,” and so forth, are all gender neutral. In the King James Version, they appear as “any man,” “no man,” “a man,” because the word “man” in those usages was inclusive to speakers of Jacobean English—but we don’t speak Jacobean English. Wherever the King James Version says “any man,” and a modern translation says “any one,” that is a better representation of the Greek meaning for a speaker of modern English.

Problematic: pluralizing the text

One of the ways to write inclusive language is to pluralize the text, because the English masculine, feminine, and neuter third person pronouns (he, she, it) share a common plural form (they). It is a very good idea to pluralize the text to make it inclusive, but only if the writer is referring to the human race, the general public, or a person whose gender is presently unknown.

However, if the writer or if historic Christian theology interprets the singular form as referring to Jesus, this technique backfires badly. For example, Hebrews 2 quotes an Old Testament text. Both the Old Testament text and the quotation of it in Hebrews is in the singular. Inclusive language translations almost invariably pluralize both passages to change the word “man” to mean the human race. In the original text and in 2,000 years of Christian theology, the writer is referring to Jesus Christ, so pluralizing that passage eliminates that meaning and makes historic Christian theology less accessible. The pluralized form can only refer to the human race, implying that we have a divine pre-existence and that our lowly predicament is now over. That is historically a heresy, and it doesn’t even make sense, since we are definitely not in control of all things.

Pluralizing the text to make it inclusive requires interpretation, and as we see in Hebrews 2, translators can make mistakes that lead to serious departures from historic Christian theology.

Over the top: unnecessary de-masculinization

Many people, including the Revised Common Lectionary, de-masculinize things that don’t need it. For example, one often hears of “The Reign of Christ” instead of “Christ the King.” I call this silly for four reasons. First, the reign and the kingdom refer to two different things. The “reign” is the act of ruling while “king” is the person who rules, and “kingdom” is the scope of a monarch’s rule, and in this case, the person and the scope are more important. Second, Jesus is a man. Men are kings. It is appropriate under the rules of inclusive language to use a masculine term for a masculine person. Third, Jesus is permanently king. We do not need to make a provision for the possibility that any other person, man or woman, will ever succeed Him in office, because such a possibility does not exist. Fourth, Queen Elizabeth II has no problem ruling the United Kingdom. Even though various people of either gender can occupy the British throne, no one refers to London as the capital of the United Reign. Now you may say this is harmless, and to a degree you are right, but it breaks continuity with traditional vocabulary, making the last 2,000 years of Christian theology less accessible. You can look up “reign of God” in the ante-Nicene theologians until you are blue in the face, but you won’t find it.

Destructive: changing ancient technical language that has no modern equivalent

Many people think that the very crucial word “son” is only a kinship term that means “male child” and thus render it “child” to remove perceived gender bias. If only it were that simple. In biblical times, “son” was a legal term that referred to the fact that a son, by virtue of being a son, held the ancient equivalent of his father’s power of attorney. If a man wanted to give a slave the authority to run his business, he had to adopt that slave as his son. There was no other way to confer a power of attorney. This meaning of the word “son” is evident in Hebrews 5:18 in which the writer compares Moses as a servant to Jesus as a Son to point out that a relationship with the son is more desirable—the underlying reason being that the father is bound by the son’s actions, but not by the slave’s actions. In both the modern and the ancient worlds, a child is by definition too young to conduct any business at all, so “child” is a bad translation under any circumstance. When the New Testament calls us adopted “sons,” it refers to our responsibilities, when it calls us “children,” it refers to our belovedness. By rendering both “son” and “child” as “child,” we get a distorted view that our role as Christians is just to let God love and cuddle us. He does, but that’s only half the picture.

The relationship between a father and a son in the ancient world had three dimensions: love, essence, and agency. There is no word in modern English that has that same triple meaning, but “son” comes closest. In our world, love, essence, and agency are separate: I can give someone my power of attorney without that person being my son, I can have a son who does not have my power of attorney, and I can give my power of attorney to someone without particularly loving them. In the modern world, love, essence, and agency are three things; in the ancient world, they were one indivisible thing. Since “son” is a legal term without a modern equivalent, we cannot replace it; instead, we must retain it and learn that an ancient son is not quite the same thing as a modern son. Paul even says that women are sons in Galatians 3, so obviously he is not thinking of a masculine meaning.

The fact that fathers and sons share the same essence and authority, and that sons conduct the fathers’ business is very important in historic Christian theology as worked out by ancient theologians. Jesus had to share God’s essence (Son of God) to share His agency (perform divine acts), and He had to share our essence (Son of man) to share our agency (perform human acts). If we understand that, we can follow Athanasius’ argument that Jesus had to be fully God to effect our salvation and fully human for us to benefit from it. Then we can also understand why the Pharisees understood that when Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, he was claiming equality with God (John 5:18). None of this makes much sense if they said it in the modern world with modern words that have modern meanings, but they didn’t. They said it in the ancient world with ancient words that had ancient meanings. If we read the Bible in inclusive language, and read that the Pharisees thought that by claiming to be a child of God, Jesus was claiming equality of God, it makes no sense, because children are beloved by their parents and subordinate to them, but if we do a little study and read it as it was written, the passage is crystal clear.

The same thing goes for the term “father.” In the ancient world, people didn’t live in suburban bungalows and commute to work. A household combined the modern institutions of family and business, and a house was both a residence and a place of business. The father presided over the business while the son carried it out. In John, we learn that the God the Father presides over the creation, and God the Son (the Word in Genesis 1:1-3) carries it out. The ancient father-son relationship entails much more than kinship and love. If we inclusify the ancient technical terms of father and son, we destroy the connection to ancient institutions that allow us to understand the theology of the writers of the New Testament.

In general, I do not recommend an inclusive-language Bible for serious study, because it obscures much of the underlying meaning and renders many passages inscrutable. Instead of transforming the Bible to accommodate the people, we should transform the people to understand the Bible.


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