I reached for my headphones. Not the little white ones, but the massive half domes deep within my bag. A table away from me in the cramped café, two souls were projecting a conversation in volumes fit for a lecture hall.
My hand stopped short. I found myself eavesdropping. And as I did, my annoyance melted into compassion.
The woman sat leaning hard against the wall, as if the chair itself was not enough. She told of cancer and medical bankruptcy—the sort of life-unraveling events when body and finances break at the same time. “Sometimes I wonder if God and Satan made a bet on me,” she sighed at the end of the story.
Knowing it wasn’t my place to keep listening, I donned my headphones. But her words, I wonder if God and Satan made a bet on me, drained my focus.
In Job 1, as our English translations currently have it, Satan walks into the heavenly court. God points out Job’s righteousness—that nobody on earth fears God and turns away from evil like him. Satan then answers that this is only because God has so blessed Job with riches and health. Take those things away from him, Satan says, and he’ll “curse you to your face.”
“Very well, then,” God responds, “he is in your hands; but you must spare his life” (Job 2:5–6).
Countless readers throughout history have read this passage and scratched their heads. Why would Satan be allowed to stand in the presence of Yahweh—and to challenge him? If Satan can take away everything from Job, why shouldn’t he do the same to us? Do Satan and God make bets?
Speak of the Devil?
Few contemporary Job commentaries—even conservative evangelical ones—think we should be translating the character in Job as “Satan.” Neither does The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (HALOT).
The literature of Israel’s neighbors contains many stories in which sages in a king’s court offer wisdom. A common character appears: an “adversary,” “accuser,” or “challenger.” He hadn’t jumped the fence to get in, and he certainly was not an uninvited guest. He was an adviser in the gainful employment of the king—albeit with a job description a bit different than the other sages.
Not unlike the role of some strategists and consultants today, the adversary’s job was to play out the plans of the king and poke holes in them to foresee possible failures. The point was to catch an error in the king’s court before it played out on the field, causing the king to lose face—or battles. And if all Israel’s neighbors had stories and characters like this, might not the Hebrews as well?
The word for this and other accusers in the Old Testament is hassatan—the satan. It’s not a name but an office. Just like “the prophet” and “the warrior” are not names of specific people but biblical roles, so hassatan was a role that many different characters played depending on the circumstance.
Sometimes evil characters played the adversary. Sometimes righteous characters took up the role. In Numbers 22, an angel of the Lord played the satan against Balaam for the glory of God. In Job, then, that character is not the Devil but a “devil’s advocate.” He has no particular vendetta against Job. He’s not there because God might be prone to error, but so God can answer why the righteous praise him and do good.
As McMaster Divinity College Old Testament professor August Konkel told me, “Treating hassatan as the Devil gives the perception of a dualism in which God and the Devil make equal claims on a person’s life and that sometimes the Devil wins.” What’s important in Job, he said, is “the concept of a holy and sovereign God in control of all events of our lives.”
Nevertheless, translators (even the rabbis who translated the Old Testament into Greek) for thousands of years assumed that the term the satan was a reference to the Devil. So its “the” was removed and Satan got capitalized as a proper name.
That’s understandable to a point. Those earlier translators were largely unaware of the common adversary role in ancient Near East courts. More bewildering is that today’s Job scholars who write in their commentaries that the accuser “is not the Devil” are the very same Job scholars on the translation committees for our most popular English Bible translations. And in those Bibles, the accuser remains Satan with a capital S.
What in heaven is going on?
One key reason is that translation committees are inherently conservative. “That’s sort of a deep impulse that we have,” said Mark Strauss, vice-chair of the Committee on Bible Translation, which is responsible for the New International Version. “The church has been the repository of truth for so long that it’s important to maintain that tradition.”
When dealing with the Word of God, we don’t want to recast lightly an interpretation the whole world has chosen since Jerome’s Vulgate when some scholars find a similar word in some Ugaritic manuscripts.
So it requires a supermajority of a translation committee to change a previous edition’s translation. Even if the Job scholars on the committee agree, they have to convince scholars outside their specialty to vote their way. This means changes that go against tradition don’t happen often. When they do, they can be a very big deal.
Bibles and blowtorches
After three and a half centuries with the King James Version, the hype over a new English translation in 1952 was palpable. Many were arguing that the Revised Standard Version (RSV) would unite English-speaking Protestants and Catholics with a Bible in contemporary language.
Instead, the translation intensely angered many Christians. The battle centered on one of the most famous texts in Scripture, Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (emphases added throughout).
Both the Virgin Birth and the Incarnation are foreshadowed in this verse written so many centuries before Jesus.
But in the RSV, the verse reads: “Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanu-el.”
Scandal seized the country. Polemics flew from the presses in tract, pamphlet, and book form. A pastor took a blowtorch to the RSV and mailed its ashen remains to Bruce Metzger, the senior translator. The RSV was labeled a “Communist Bible,” and the Un-American Activities Committee of the US House of Representatives investigated members of the translation committee for Communist ties. The US Air Force even warned against using the RSV in a 1960 training manual, due to its supposed Communist commitments.
But the translation young woman wasn’t wrong. Technically, it’s as correct as virgin. The Hebrew word alma represents a sexually mature but unmarried woman—with the clear cultural expectation that she would be a virgin. As Asbury Seminary’s John N. Oswalt put it, the closest word in English might be maiden. But welcome to the translator’s dilemma: Maiden isn’t a word you’d pick if you’re going for contemporary idioms. So you have to err on one side or the other: young woman or virgin. As Southern Baptist Seminary’s John D. W. Watts said, one is wrong by being too broad and the other is wrong by being too narrow. That Jesus was born of a virgin is core Christian doctrine. But the sign Isaiah more immediately promised King Ahaz was that a woman would name a child Immanuel, not that there would be a virgin birth in the eighth century B.C.
For many readers, omitting that one word was enough to see the RSV as denying the supernatural. Bible publishers took away a different kind of lesson.
Translation committees “walk a fine line,” said John Walton, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College. “Evangelical translations are committed to good scholarship, but they also have the challenge of marketing. If the translation departs too obviously from tradition, people will write it off as ‘radical’ or ‘liberal’ and won’t buy it, in which case all the publisher’s efforts, money, and good intentions go to waste.”
So now, many Bible translation committees employ not only Bible scholars at the table but market-end professionals, whose primary concern is reception.
Not all translation committees do this. The New International Version’s committee, for example, does not. “No publisher sits with us. They have no influence over what we put in the text,” said Douglas Moo, professor at Wheaton College and chair of the NIV’s Committee on Bible Translation (CBT). This allows translators to maintain scholarly independence from market pressures.
But whether or not market professionals sit at the translation table, the market has a way of making its opinions known.
Yesterday’s today’s version
In an effort to translate Scripture in the way modern English uses gendered language, the CBT created Today’s New International Version (TNIV) in 2002.
Where the original Greek addressed the Christian church by saying “brothers,” they translated “brothers and sisters.” Where the RSV has “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law,” the TNIV has “For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Rom 3:28). These kinds of changes better reflect how the original hearers and readers of Scripture would have understood those terms.
The translators were lambasted for it. They were boycotted. They were accused of creating a gender-neutral Bible. Absolutely not, the NIV committee responded, saying it was a “gender accurate” translation.
The Southern Baptists had, by the turn of the millennium, largely adopted the NIV in most of their churches. But with this news, they embarked on a translation of their own. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, promoted the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) as one that would allow the Southern Baptist Convention to “have a major translation we can control.”
After boycotts and bad press, the sales of the TNIV were so dismal that it was withdrawn from publication. The market had been heard.
Which is not to say that the TNIV didn’t have problems. For example, “For what son is not disciplined by his father?” in Hebrews 12:7 became “For what children are not disciplined by their parents?”—messing with the image of God as one and God as Father.
In 2011, the NIV translation committee published a revised version that updated a few sticking points like that verse in Hebrews (it’s now “For what children are not disciplined by their father?”) but kept many of the decisions behind the TNIV. This time, the uproar was much quieter. Some critics had been won over. Others had moved on, to other fights or other translations. But the tide had also turned. Gender-accurate translations were becoming the norm. They are becoming tradition.
In fact, although the Southern Baptists’ HCSB was born in part to counter the agenda they accused the TNIV of employing, its most recent version, the Christian Standard Bible (CSB), made many of the same decisions that the NIV’s translators did in 2011. And when detractors within the denomination criticized those decisions, Southern Baptist leaders’ response that the CSB is “gender accurate” rather than “gender neutral” sounded familiar.
Theology versus exegesis
Translation is complicated. Words in one language often do not have a singular perfect equivalent in another. To address this, translators have been careful to choose the closest words and phrases. When confusion is possible, they sometimes add a footnote. When that is not enough, study Bible notes can further clarify the text. But these bring their own troubles.
In 2009, for the first time in its history, a study Bible won the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association’s Christian Book of the Year award. Crossway’s ESV Study Bible sold so fast they couldn’t keep it stocked.
And if you open that bestseller to the Gospel of Luke, you’ll find world-class scholarship represented in the study notes below the text. But the man who authored many of the notes is not credited as a Luke contributor.
Robert Stein is now 85 and retired after years as a New Testament professor at Bethel Seminary and Southern Seminary. He says that Thomas Schreiner, his colleague and the editor in charge of the ESV’s New Testament study notes, accepted his notes for Luke and passed them along to the ESV Study Bible’s general editor, Wayne Grudem. Stein says he was surprised later to see that Grudem, who is well known for his systematic theology textbook but is not a scholar of the synoptic Gospels, had made several significant insertions and edits. Stein told me he was “disturbed” by what he received. The edited and inserted notes were in Stein’s name, but he said he found them “not true to the Bible.”
Stein, Grudem’s former boss at Bethel Seminary, wrote an eight-page letter about the changes. Some were minor or stylistic, but some were deal breakers. “This cannot stand . . . this is simply not true,” he said. “You’ve changed the meaning, and it is no longer true to the text.”
Systematic theologians and Bible scholars have long butted heads in academies across the theological spectrum. But Stein has contributed to other study Bibles and interdisciplinary efforts and says he had never been overruled like this. His efforts at further discussion were rebuffed. “I sense that [Grudem’s] dogmatic theology ruled over the exegesis of the text,” he said. “I dedicated myself to the study of the Bible, to be true to the text no matter what.”
In a statement, Grudem said that the ESV Study Bible notes are “the result of modifications and additions suggested by at least seven different editors. It is the general policy of Crossway Books not to engage in a public discussion of specific editorial decisions.”
Stein says he wrote to those other editors: “I will not let you use my name.” He asked where to send his check back. But they told him to keep it, saying they would like to keep his study notes, edits and all. They would remove his name as a Luke contributor but credit him in a general list of New Testament consultants, where his name appears to this day.
Stein agreed to the compromise because he believed that his notes, even with Grudem’s edits, would still be better than most others they could find for the job.
He wasn’t alone in his experience. August Konkel’s commentary on Job specifically states that the accuser character in Job 1 “is not the Devil.” The ESV Study Bible notes exactly the opposite, even though Konkel is credited as one of the authors.
“My experience in doing study notes for the English Standard Version was very negative,” Konkel told me in a letter. “They not only completely re-wrote what I said, but what they supplied is simply linguistically indefensible.” Konkel did eventually sign off on the notes, despite his disagreement with the changes.
The voice of the dead
Bible publishers see their work as careful stewardship of the Word of God. They also know it is big business. The NIV has sold over 400 million copies worldwide since its inception. And it likely never would have been born if it weren’t for the RSV’s translation of young woman instead of virgin. Many of those 400 million Bible sales would have gone to the RSV if not for that one word.
Most profits from Bible sales go back into Bible translation, research, and mission work. Nobody’s translating the Bible to line their pockets. But the market still matters. And translators don’t only have to consider the market. They also have to consider the past.
“Any translation that ignores tradition is a fool,” said Bill Mounce, author of a popular series of biblical Greek textbooks. The scholars who translate our Bibles are aware of their place in history. They don’t break with tradition lightly. As renowned Hebrew scholar Bruce Waltke told me, “The voice of the dead has to be heard.”
But what if the dead were wrong? Previous eras had only fractions of the research and resources we have now. They couldn’t decipher the languages of almost any of the Hebrews’ neighbors. They were often dependent on a translation instead of the original languages. They rarely or never traveled to the biblical lands where the events took place. And archaeology as we now know it has only existed for about 200 years.
We want to avoid assuming newer understandings are always better understandings, but it’s hard not to wonder—if they had access to the evidence we have, what would their voices say?
The CBT’s Douglas Moo often tells people, “There are two things nobody wants to know: How sausages are made and how Bibles are translated.”
Even though we know the Bible comes to us in translation, it’s nicer to think that every aspect of the book we hold has descended directly from the heavens. It’s uncomfortable to remember that the scholars who compile, analyze, and translate that text are not infallible. It may be even more troubling to think of the market forces, bias, and reader response that play a role, even though we remember choosing and buying the book in our hands. Learning of the dissension and infighting is disheartening, even as we know that the best translations are often the result of iron sharpening iron.
But this much is sure: The scholars who translate our Bibles love God and love Scripture. “Every Bible translator I know is driven by a passion for God’s Word and a desire to get it right,” Mark Strauss wrote to me.
The only reason we’re even aware of these issues is because of the embarrassment of riches we enjoy.
“No other book from the ancient world comes close to the Bible’s reliability in terms of its textual transmission and the accuracy of its translation,” Strauss said.
Waltke assured me that all major Christian translations are faithful. None lead the church into heresy, he said, and all lead to the Cross.
When we pull our Bibles off the shelf, we hold in our hands the collected brilliance of more than two millennia of faithful and hard-fought biblical scholarship. And we can trust it. But that doesn’t mean the work is done.
Jordan K. Monson is a PhD student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, a former Bible translation consultant in São Tomé and Príncipe, and the pastor of Capital City Church in St. Paul, Minnesota.
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When A Word Is Worth A Thousand Complaints (and When It Isn’t)