Thou shalt (not) tamper with the text!

by Graham Hellier

from Signs of the Times, No. 26 - Jul 2007

'The Wicked Bible' was the name given to the 1631 printing that unfortunately missed out the word 'not' from the commandment 'Thou shalt not commit adultery'! It was reported at the time:

His Majesties Printers ... committed a scandalous mistake in our English Bible, by leaving out the word Not in the Seventh Commandment. Order was given for calling the Printers into the High Commission, where upon evidence of the fact, the whole Impression was called in, and the Printers deeply fined, as they justly merited.

An extreme case, but a reminder of the difficult task allotted to the Holy Spirit in checking the transmission of Biblical truth at every stage in the process! Take for example the less obvious problem of translators and their preconceptions. The Contemporary English Version (CEV) of the Bible is produced by the American Bible Society. It stems from a conservative evangelical stable and reflects the characteristics of this tradition, viz:

  • that the Bible is the Word of God
  • that Jesus is proclaimed as God in the New Testament
  • that obedience is a chief requirement for Christians
  • that we will be tormented in hell if we do not acknowledge Jesus, through whom alone salvation comes.

A few examples of CEV translation are here compared with the Revised English Bible (REB) - a translation recommended by all the mainstream churches and Bible Societies in the UK.

Il Tim 3:16: This is the great conservative evangelical proof text. The CEV has:

Everything in the Scriptures is God's Word. All of it is useful for teaching.

You would not guess from this that Paul's reference is to the Jewish scriptures or that there were no capital letters used in the Greek. In any case it is a mistranslation. The REB has:

All inspired scripture has its use for teaching the truth.

Another example of the CEV's use of capital letters can be seen in the translation of Isaiah 63:10 where it reads:

Then the Lord's people turned against him and made his Holy Spirit sad.

The REB has:

Yet they rebelled and grieved his holy spirit.

Philippians 2:6:

CEV - 'Christ was truly God. But he did not try to remain equal with God'.

REB - 'He was in the form of God; yet he laid no claim to equality with God.'

The Greek word 'form' (morphe) has occasioned much debate but verse 7 goes on to speak of Jesus 'assuming the form of a slave'. It does not mean that he literally became a slave nor does the earlier use of 'form' necessarily mean that Jesus was God. The CEV's use of 'remain' is not in the Greek and presents a different meaning from the REB.

The CEV uses the same terminology in the Prologue to John's Gospel: 'The Word was with God and was truly God' (John 1:1). This compares with the REB: 'and what God was, the Word was'. The distinction here may seem rather fine but it is nevertheless important. As is the case with 'Wisdom' in Philo, it suggests rather the expression of God than that which belongs to the essence of God's being. The near-equivalent 'Logos' in Stoic philosophy points to the rational principle that can be discerned in all creation. John has held back from simply writing that the Word was God. The only unambiguous statement in John is put into the mouth of Thomas (20:28), which lies therefore at one remove.

The 'I am' sayings: The CEV provides a note on these in its introduction to John's Gospel.

Jesus also refers to himself as 'I am'; a phrase which translates the most holy name for God in the Hebrew Scriptures. He uses this name for himself when he makes his claim to be the life-giving bread, the light of the world, the good shepherd, and the true vine.

This is open to question. First, Exodus 3:14 is a difficult text. The 'I am' may designate the name YHWH or it may signify a playful evasion - 'I am what I am!' Secondly, John may or may not intend the interpretation we place on it. Thirdly, in the text suggesting the likeliest link (Jn 8:58), Jesus may be making the same playful evasion!

Matt 26:65:

CEV - 'This man claims to be God!'

REB - 'This is blasphemy!'

In this account, Jesus appears to accept the designation Messiah' or 'Son of Man' and this may or may not have been taken by the High Priest to be a divine claim. In either case, the Greek does not allow the CEV translation. The translators may be influenced by John 10:33 but they should be cautious, for this is followed by Jesus' astonishing riposte that blurs the absolute distinction between the divine and the human.

Rom 3:22:

CEV - 'God treats everyone alike. He accepts people only because they have faith in Jesus Christ.'

REB - 'The righteousness of God... is effective through faith in Christ for all who have such faith'.

The CEV translators have added the word 'only' - thus stressing the exclusive nature of faith in Christ. Compare also Romans 5:15 where they speak of 'Jesus Christ alone' (CEV) though Paul's interest is rather to contrast 'the one man, Adam' with 'the one man, Jesus Christ' (REB).

I am not concerned here with the question as to whether the New Testament's claims for Christ are exclusive but with the narrower yet serious issue, as to whether such presumptions are being imported into some of the text.

Rom 3:24:

CEV - 'God treats us much better than we deserve, and because of Christ Jesus... he sets us free from our sins.'

REB - 'All are justified by God's free grace alone, through his act of liberation in the person of Christ Jesus.'

In the CEV text, the word 'because' suggests that the initiative is with Jesus, and God yields, as it were, to persuasion. The REB stays close to the Greek, making clear that it is God's action throughout. This is a characteristic shift by conservative evangelicals, where the focus on God is changed to the exaltation of the Redeemer.

Matt 11:23:

CEV - 'People of Capernaum... you will go down to hell!'

REB - 'You will be brought down to Hades!'

'Hades' is the Jewish synonym for death. The passage uses the symbolism of Sodom from the Old Testament to warn that the people of Capernaum are courting disaster. The saying is stern enough but the Greek is clear and does not carry the modern implications of the word 'hell'.

Matt 6:10: The Lord's Prayer - and therefore a passage of critical importance.

CEV - 'Come and set up your kingdom so that everyone on earth will obey you.'

REB - 'Your kingdom come, your will be done.'

Some of our evangelical friends find the patience of God rather trying. There is no suggestion in Matthew's Greek that the purpose of the kingdom is to make everyone obey God. Jesus invited us to seek justice and peace, and by our love to become the kingdom. Our hope and prayer is that God's purpose will be fulfilled and his kingdom come and that we will play our part in bringing about justice and peace.

I am not suggesting that the translators wilfully manipulate the texts. The scholars involved in both versions are, in part, conditioned by their presuppositions and tend to veer one way or another. For myself, however, I am inclined to trust the REB translators rather more for one very good reason: they seek to set aside their personal faith and to be guided by the manuscripts as handed down to us. For the authors of the CEV 'translating the Word of God... is something that grows out of their faith commitment to Jesus Christ.' (Introduction, page ix). Surprisingly, it is those who count the scriptures as having all authority who are less likely to be true to them.

Graham Hellier is a retired Church of Scotland minister and author of The Thoughtful Guide to Christianity.