Good Bible translations will demonstrate that they have paid attention to the way God’s gift of language actually works. They won’t propose impossible linguistic ideas or promise special insight into “what God really meant” in the originals, insight no other translations provide. They won’t baptize one language as specially divine.
If you find an English Bible translation on your Christian bookstore shelf, it’s almost certainly good. Buy it. Read it. Trust it.
But there are some “bad Bibles” out there, Bibles you won’t find careful evangelical biblical scholars recommending. In my last article I discussed Bible translations that give in to sectarian impulses. In this article, I discuss the second major category of bad Bibles: crackpot translations.
I’ll drastically qualify that word “bad” for some of these; and “crackpot” is about as nice a thing to say as “sectarian,” I’m afraid. Perhaps I should say instead, “idiosyncratic.” Some Bibles are indeed just odd; they rely on ideas about Scripture that are just weird—the kinds of ideas that make you purse your lips and glance from side to side, looking for a way out of this conversation ASAP, the kinds of ideas that get weeded out when translators must have accredited degrees and work in a group with checks and balances.
I have a soft spot in my heart for idiosyncratic evangelical Bible translations. I think they are, from one perspective, a great problem to have. The Bible is such an absorbing interest of American evangelicals that we produce extraneous Bible study resources. (I don’t see Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox doing this, though I admit I may simply be ignorant here.) And I assume these idiosyncratic projects usually don’t do much harm. But if they’re not “bad” in the consequentialist sense, they’re not good either. And they merit our attention here. I will give, again, four examples.
1. The Amplified Bible
I hope I don’t offend anyone, but the Amplified Bible is a good example of what I’m talking about. When I first encountered this Bible edition as an 18-year-old, I was intrigued to have provided for me in such a convenient format the “fuller meaning” of the Hebrew and Greek I hadn’t yet studied at the time. It was as a young college student that I bought the Comparative Study Bible, a four-version parallel Bible including the KJV, the NIV, the NASB, and the Amplified. But I didn’t end up using that last one much; it came to feel like the editors were just piling on English synonyms in all those many brackets that fill (and clutter) the Amplified Bible. Who possibly is helped by adding that parenthetical to the following sentence?
We ourselves (you and I) are Jews by birth. (Gal. 2:15a AMP)
And how many readers will understand that systematic theology, and not “the true meaning of the Greek,” has been inserted in a bracket into this statement?
If, in our desire and endeavor to be justified in Christ [to be declared righteous and put in right standing with God wholly and solely through Christ] … (Gal. 2:17 AMP)
(I chose the first two examples my eyes fell upon when I opened the Amplified at random.)
What I came to like about the Amplified was actually that, because its interpolations made it so much longer than the other Bible translations, it opened up margin space at the bottom of pages for me to take notes in. My purposes would have been better served, however, if the column taken up by the Amplified had simply been left blank.
After I learned Hebrew and Greek, I came to feel that the Amplified was mostly harmless but that it raised false expectations among readers—readers who thought they were getting deeper insight than they really were. This isn’t entirely its fault, but the Amplified Bible inserts interpretation into the text in a way that, I discovered, misleads lay readers into thinking that they’re being told something from the Hebrew or Greek that traditional English translations obscure.
2. את Cepher
Cepher is an English Bible translation far weirder than the Amplified. The progenitor of Cepher—whose name I don’t care to give but who, I note, claims to have a doctorate but provides no details regarding it that I could find—is fascinated with the alleged power and depth of the Hebrew language in a way that echoes the Tree of Life Version (discussed here). But he takes his fascination to a level I can only call, well, idiosyncratic—and he places his most eccentric idea on the very cover of his Bible edition. We’ll get there; first, some other oddities in Cepher.
In the introduction to Cepher, we are given examples of the many Hebrew words that are transliterated rather than translated in this volume.
Another wonderful [Hebrew] word we have elected to use in the text is the word yachiyd (יחיד) which in its use declares tremendous meaning. In its first use, we find it in Bere’shiyth (Genesis) with the instruction to Avraham, saying: … “Take now your son, your yachiyd Yitschaq, whom you love.”
But yachid just means “only.” It does not have tremendous meaning. It should not be transliterated in an English Bible at all; it should be translated. But Cepher gets weirder as it traces this “wonderful word” throughout the Hebrew Bible and into the New Testament. At the end of its discussion of the Hebrew word for “only,” Cepher’s introduction says,
It is with these considerations that we have made the following change: “For Elohiym so loved the world, that he gave his yachiyd, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
So a Hebrew transliteration into Roman characters is inserted into an English translation of a Greek sentence. From the middle of this language mélange, two key ideas are dropped out: where is the word “Son”? And where is the “begottenness” that forms such an important part of the doctrine of the eternal generation of that divine Son? I’m not saying the editors in charge of Cepher undercut Trinitarianism on purpose; I doubt that, honestly. My guess is that they are so fascinated with the nifty possibilities provided by faux insights into Hebrew that they got carried away.
Cepher does this with other Hebrew words that, it alleges, “carry … additional meaning” beyond what English is capable of communicating. This is why we get Hebrew transliterations elsewhere in the Cepher New Testament. In John 17, for example, Cepher has Jesus praying that his disciples “all may be yachad,” the Hebrew word for “one.” Exactly whom or how this helps is to me very much unclear.
Cepher also “restores” many Hebrew names by making more tortuous transliterations of them than we already possess in the English Bible tradition (is Avraham really more deep or accurate or even Jewish than Abraham?). Moses is Mosheh in Cepher; Joshua is Husha; Jesus is Yahushua. And Jesus’ name gets a fanciful etymology that contradicts what the angel Gabriel told Mary. Instead of “Yahweh saves,” Cepher says that Yahushua means “Yah is He who makes equal.”
The Cepher intro also finds impossible phonemic connections between Hebrew and English, connections that aren’t really there—like seeing the English word “hell” in the Hebrew word the KJV translates as “Lucifer.” This is a game a clever person could play all day long in every language of the world. It is crackpottery.
My last complaint about Cepher (though I could go on, I assure you) regards a Hebrew word on its cover. It’s just two characters long; you could pronounce it “et.” But it’s actually not a word, per se; it’s a grammatical marker indicating that what follows is a direct object. It’s kind of like the practice in German of capitalizing nouns. It’s rare that this is truly needed; it’s just something biblical Hebrew does.