Bias in Bible Translations

by Steve Ray on August 22, 2019

Translating Holy Scripture is a necessary process by which the sacred text is provided in various languages, usually rendered from the original languages. Not all translations are created equal. Some result from one scholar’s work, others the work of a committee of scholars. Some are literal while others tend toward paraphrase.

Translation resembles a sliding scale with each translation placed somewhere between the two opposite ends. On one side of the scale are the literal translations, on the other the dynamic. The literal strives to achieve the exact rendering of the original language with minimal concern for readability or modern idioms. The dynamic end of the scale attempts to provide a readable and easily understood text even if it moves away from the literal rendering of the original language. It attempts to relay the meaning more than the literal terminology.

Theological bias becomes increasingly possible the further a translation moves toward the dynamic end of the scale. It is inevitable that some interpretation is involved in translation. Some translators, to accommodate their theological persuasion, may emphasize denominational and theological points of view. Martin Luther provided a well-known example when he added the word “alone” to the word “faith” in his German translation of Romans. An extreme example is the New World Translation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses which subverts the nature of Christ through translation. The RSV renders John 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Teaching that Jesus Christ was a creature, and not the eternal Son of God, the Jehovah’s Witnesses translate the passage to conform to their heresy. Their New World Translation renders John 1:1 as, “In the beginning the Word was, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god” although the article “a” is absent from the original Greek text.

Many Protestant translations display a considerable doctrinal persuasion, even a bias against Catholicism. Though nicely written and easily readable, the very popular New International Version is a good example. Though the NIV claims to be “international” and “trans-denominational”, in reality, the scholars were limited to five English speaking countries and the committee 1 was Protestant. The “denominations” excluded Catholic and Orthodox contributors though the Preface announces a desire to “avoid sectarian bias”. In contrast, the NAB included both Catholic and Protestant scholars.

What appears to be doctrinal bias is found in 2 Thessalonians 2:15. The word “traditions” is used to translate the word paradosis by all major English translations. However, the NIV reads, “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter (italics mine).” Instead of using St. Paul’s choice of paradosis, the translators used the word “teaching” (Didache). This tends to obscure the Catholic implications of the text. (See also 2 Cor. 11:2; 2 Thes 3:6.)

In Acts 1:20, the word translated as “bishoprick” in the KJV and “office” by most other translations, is the Greek word episkope from which we get our English word “episcopal”. Peter declares that a man must succeed to the office vacated by Judas. Seemingly, to avoid the implications of apostolic succession, the NIV renders episkope as “place of leadership”. On the sliding scale of translations, this choice of words is really an Evangelical interpretation very close to the dynamic end of the scale, diminishing a foundational basis for the successive office of bishop.

A final example is James 2:24 where we read in almost every English translation, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone (RSV).” The NIV renders this verse as “You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone (italics mine).” Although the Greek word is clearly “works” (ergon), the translators of the NIV replaced it with “what he does”, obscuring the implications that seem contradictory to the Protestant doctrine of justification by “faith alone”.

Even with these examples, it must be mentioned that the NIV translation also has its surprises. According to So Many Versions?, the text and note on Matthew 16:18, stating that “Peter means rock”, is “rather surprising for a conservative [Protestant] version. The traditional conservative position is that “Peter” means a “rolling stone”.

All translations contain some influence of theological persuasion. However, some are more blatant than others. Readers should be aware of the theological standpoint held by the translators. The Second Vatican Council proclaims “Since the Word of God should be accessible at all times, the Church by her authority and with maternal concern sees to it that suitable 2 and correct translations are made into different languages, especially from the original texts of the sacred books. And should the opportunity arise and the Church authorities approve, if these translations are produced in cooperation with the separated brethren as well, all Christians will be able to use them (Dei Verbum, 22).

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Referenced Works: So Many Translations?, Sakae Kubo and Walter F. Specht, Zondervan Publishing House, 1983. p. 247.

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Suggested Reading: Divino Afflante Spiritu (“Promotion of Biblical Studies”) by Pope Pius XII, St. Paul Books. Dei Verbum (“Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation”), Second Vatican Council. So Many Translations?, Sakae Kubo and Walter F. Specht, Zondervan Publishing House, 1983. p. 247. The Translation Debate, Eugene H. Glassman, InterVarsity Press, 1981. History of the English Bible, F. F. Bruce, Oxford University Press, 1978.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Jacob August 24, 2019 at 11:58 AM

Your comments are quite true and appropriate. There is an irony here: the translators claim they believe in sola scriptura, but it is clear that the same Greek word is translated in different ways to fit with their theological preconceptions. Thus, they make themselves masters of the scriptures they claim as infallible guides. Translating the same Greek words in different ways is a rather obvious case, but there are other examples where the Greek original is truly unrecognizable in the Protestant translation, which is then not a translation but a falsification. The Jehovah Witnesses are just an extreme example of more subtle betrayals of the word of God.

Dennis Embo August 25, 2019 at 8:44 PM

I found another blatant example of NIV “scripture tampering” in the scripture read in today’s liturgy at Mass. In Luke 13:25 and 27 in every other translation Jesus says, “…He will answer and say to you, ‘I do not know where you are from…'” The NIV in both verses has Jesus saying, “He will answer and say to you, ‘I don’t know who you are, or where you came from…'”
“I don’t know who you are?” No other translation (to my knowledge) adds that phrase,. (I checked the RSV, NAB, Jerusalem Bible, NEB, NASB and NRSV.

Dave September 5, 2019 at 10:32 AM

It is important to remember that all translations are interpretations. There are several instances in the Septuagint where the Greek translators chose a Greek word that doesn't exactly fit the Hebrew original. A Protestant translator, given a choice of words, will tend to choose words in line with his theological principles. Likewise a Catholic translator will tend to choose words in line with his theological principles. Having personally known some of the NIV translators, it is disheartening to see the errors that were included. Whether intentional or not is hard to say. I'm sure Catholic translators have done the same. Jerome mistranslated Gen 3:15 with the feminine pronoun "she" in his Latin translation, leading to the view that it referred to Mary. The NAB translates it as plural "they", referring to all the woman's offspring, whereas the Hebrew original has the masculine singular pronoun "he", taken to refer to the ultimate offspring of the woman, Jesus Christ. The NAB footnote for Gen 3:15 suggests the use of the plural pronoun was an editorial decision based on a theological viewpoint.

STEVE RAY HERE: Dave, excellent Comments. Thanks!

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