Mark Strauss, 40 Questions about Bible Translations

Strauss, Mark L. 40 Questions about Bible Translations. 40 Questions and Answers Series. Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel, 2023. 352 pp. Pb; $24.99. Link to Kregel Academic

In 1998, Mark Strauss wrote Distorting Scripture? The Challenge of Bible Translation and Gender Accuracy (IVP; reprinted by Wipf & Stock 2010). Since then, he has co-edited The Challenge of Bible Translation (Zondervan 2003) and co-authored How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth (Zondervan 2007).  In addition to numerous articles published in peer-reviewed journals and magazines on Bible translation, Strauss currently serves as the vice-chair of the Committee on Bible Translation, the group of scholars responsible for the New International Version. This new contribution to Kregel’s 40 Question series deals with the theory and practice of Bible translation and the history of the English Bible and contemporary Bible translations.     Bible TranslationsThe first section deals with the necessity for and the goals of Bible translation. Strauss contrasts the two dominant methods used today, formal equivalence with functional. He provides ample illustrations drawn from various Bible translations of both methods and questions 31 and 32 offer examples of modern English translations in each category. Formal equivalence tends to be more literal, and the method aims to reproduce the form of the original Hebrew or Greek text. Functional equivalence (also known as dynamic equivalence) seeks the sense of the text to reproduce the meaning of the original Hebrew or Greek. Strauss offers a summary of the strengths and weaknesses of both methods., Although functional is the dominant translation method today, both styles have their place.

The second section deals with preparing to translate. The two main questions are canon (what books to include in the translation) and which manuscripts to use. Both issues are worth exploring further (see, for example, Kregel’s 40 Questions about the Text and Canon of the New Testament).

The third unit is the longest and is divided into several subsections. He discusses how translators deal with words and combinations of words, figurative languages, and idioms. For example, should translators translate the idiomatic expression “opens the womb” (which is what the words are) or “firstborn” (which is what the phrase means)? Compare Exodus 13:2 in the NKJV and the NIV. Translators struggle to reflect the artistry of Hebrew poetry in English. How does a translator reflect irony in the original text? What about sarcasm?

Translators need to deal with cultural issues such as euphemisms. For example, in 1 Kings 18:46, Elijah “girded up his loins” (KJV). Should this be translated as “tucked his cloak into his belt” even though none of those words appear in the Hebrew Bible? Translators must also decide what to do with the weights and measures found in the Old and New Testaments (cubits or feet?) This is especially a problem with money. Should a translator translate a word talent “75 pounds” or even “a sum of money”? For the famous widow’s mite, the word in Mark 12:42 is literally lepton, a Roman coin with very little value. Should this be translated as “two small copper coins” (ESV, NIV, NRSV), which make a “penny” (ESV, NRSV) or “a few cents” (NIV)? Or should the word be translated as a mite (KJV) worth a farthing (KJV)? Maybe the translators should use lepton and explain the coin in a footnote.

One of the most controversial issues that translators must deal with concerns translating gender the Bible with gender-inclusive language. Strauss devotes an entire chapter to the history of NIV revisions. Why is this an issue? Hebrew and Greek nouns have gender, but this is not true in English. In addition, a word like “man” can refer to a male person (John 1:6), but it also can refer to a person (Mark 7:15, “nothing outside a man” means “nothing outside a person,” both male and female). Translators must decide whether to translate man as humanity, fathers as ancestors, brothers as brothers and sisters (when it clearly refers to the entire congregation), and sons as children (when it clearly refers to both genders).  Most modern translations have some level of gender-inclusive language, and Question 20 treats over-inclusive translations.

The fourth section of the book deals with the history of the English Bible up to the King James version. Strauss asks if the King James Version is the most accurate Bible. He suggests it was when it was first translated. However, the presence of archaic language leads to many inaccuracies, and there are problems with the manuscript evidence available to the translators of the King James Version. He reviews the history of revisions of the King James version, which attempted to deal with these shortcomings. This unit also briefly summarizes various Roman Catholic translations and summaries of modern “natural language translations” such as Weymouth, Moffatt, and the popular The Message. Strauss gives examples of Bible translations using formal and functional equivalence. Question 36 discusses “radical recontextualizations.” Some of these are fun, like the Cotton Patch Version (a paraphrase using a Southern dialect). But others may, in fact, be dangerous. Strauss mentions the Passion Translation, which makes so many changes to the original text’s meaning that it was removed from This section could be improved with more critique of the Passion Translation and a note on Bibles like the New World translation, which was made by the Jehovah’s Witnesses to support their own doctrine.

Conclusion. 40 Questions about Bible Translations answers many common questions about how scholars translate ancient Hebrew and Greek texts into readable, contemporary language. He also provides ample illustrations drawn from various Bible translations. Strauss’s answers are not overly technical, so most readers will find this a helpful primer on Bible translation methods.

Strauss maintains a website, Engaging God’s Word.

Other books reviewed in this series:

NB: Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.



Book Review: John Goldingay, The First Testament: A New Translation

Goldingay, John. The First Testament: A New Translation. Downers Grove Ill..: IVP Academic, 2018. 262 pp. Pb; $24.00.    Link to IVP Academic

In Goldingay’s recent Reading Jesus’s Bible (Eerdmans 2017, reviewed here), he argued Jesus and the writers of the New Testament not only read the First Testament but use it as the bedrock for their theology and practice. In two other recent publications from IVP Academic, Do We Need the New Testament? (2015) and in A Reader’s Guide to The Bible (2017), Goldingay argued the First Testament is foundational for a proper understanding of the New Testament. Although he said few Christians would actually question the need for the First Testament in Do We Need the New Testament?, recent comments from Andy Stanley on “un-hitching” Christianity from the Old Testament reflect the struggle of the modern Christian reader to see the relevance of the first two-thirds of their Bible. Or worse, they are embarrassed about much of the content in the Old Testament, preferring the loving God of the New. John Piper responded to Andy Stanley (as did virtually every blogger under the sun), forcing Stanley to clarify his views and un-hitch himself from his own comments.

Goldingay, First TestamentIn order to further his goal of bringing the First Testament alive for the church today, Goldingay has produced a new translation of the Hebrew Bible. The title of the translation reflects a modern allergy to the phrase “Old Testament” since the title implies antiquated or out-of-date. It is not the “we do not need it anymore testament,” but the first three-quarters of the canon of Scripture. As I have often said to my students, we need a thorough knowledge of the literature and theology of the Hebrew Bible in order to understand the New Testament fully.

This translation had its origins in Goldingay’s Old Testament for Everyone series published by Westminster John Knox. The translation done for those popular commentaries was “substantially revised.” In the preface to the volume, he lists a series of principles for the translation, beginning with his desire to stick as closely to the original Hebrew and Aramaic as possible, using everyday English as much as possible. For example, he uses contractions and other colloquial expressions, but this is not a paraphrase. For example, most traditional Bible translate the euphemism for sex as “he knew his wife.” In Genesis 4:1, the man “slept with his wife,” and in Isaiah 8:3 it is “I had sex with my wife.” Since the goal is a translation that reflects the underlying Hebrew, occasionally, there are rough or jerky sentences, but that is the nature of the Hebrew Bible. In addition, he sets poetry out to look like poetry, a common practice in modern Bible translations. The goal is accurate translation while preserving the ancient Hebrew flavor of the First Testament.

For the name of God, Goldingay chose to use Yahweh rather than the common circumlocution Lord. Goldingay transliterates most names so they appear more akin to their Hebrew equivalents. Most of these will be apparent to readers: Mosheh for Moses, Yehoshua for Joshua, etc. For others, the first occurrence has the traditional name in brackets: Havvah for Eve, Qayin for Cain, or Ha’ay for Ai in Joshua 8. Seeing names like Iyyob (Job) and Hisqiyyahu (Hezekiah) are all quite shocking, but it reflects the actual pronunciation of these names, which have been blended through translations of the Hebrew into Greek, Latin, and English. Fortunately, he uses the traditional names for the book titles. This practice moves away from traditional spellings and traditional (easier) pronunciations. This may present some difficulty for some readers, but it is important for Goldingay’s goal of allowing the reader to hear the Hebrew sounds in the Hebrew Bible.

Although this is not a study Bible, Goldingay includes a short introduction to the history of the First Testament as well as for each book. He is not particularly concerned with traditional introductory issues in these single-page prefaces. Instead, he focuses on the main themes of the book and how the book fits into the overarching canon of Scripture.

Like most modern Bibles, Goldingay has added a short title to sections. These are often mini-interpretations, such as “How to stand tall” (Psalm 52) or “How to weave a sanctuary (Exodus 26). Exodus 1:1-19 is labeled “On how not to render to Caesar,” an appropriate title with a New Testament allusion. Others are tongue-in-cheek, such as Esther 5:6-6:4, “The girl who knows how to work her man,” or Ezekiel 37:1-14, “Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.” Some may not be helpful for someone who does not know the story. For example, Ruth 4:1-10 is entitled “how not to get overextended in property ownership.” Although that is what happens in the section for Boaz’s rival, someone reading just the heading might be led to believe this is some legislation on taxation.

As observed above, Goldingay uses traditional names for the books of the First Testament. He also chose to use the traditional order of the books. This order is based on the Septuagint and reflects that Greek translation rather than the order of the First Testament itself. Perhaps it would be too jarring to see Ruth, Esther or Daniel moved out of their traditional place in the canon. On the other hand, this translation is intended for Christian readers, so the order of the Christian canon is understandable.

Conclusion. Some will be as skeptical of this new translation as they were when N. T. Wright released his The Kingdom New Testament or David Hart Bentley’s recent translation highlighting the “fragmentary formulations” of the New Testament “without augmentation or correction.” Others will receive this new translation for what it is, one scholar’s attempt to produce a readable translation that is faithful to the spirit of the First Testament. As Goldingay says in the preface to The First Testament, there is no such thing as a “best translation of the Old Testament.” Goldingay’s translation is an example of a faithful translation that comes from a scholar with a deep passion for seeing Christians read the First Testament in a form as close to the original Hebrew as possible.


NB: Thanks to IVP Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Translating Psalm 36:1

I have been teaching through some of the Wisdom Psalms in my Summer Bible Study series at church. Psalm 36:1 presents several unusual challenges for a teacher since translations vary greatly:

NIV: I have a message from God in my heart concerning the sinfulness of the wicked

ESV: Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart

LXX: The lawless one, to sin, says in himself that there is no fear of God before his eyes

The vast differences in the translation of verse 1 are due to the difficulty of the Hebrew text and the way the Greek translation interpreted the verse. Both the NIV and ESV provide a note with an alternate translation. Rolf Jacobson comments the first few words of the verse are “undoubtedly corrupt” (Psalms NICOT; 339 n. 3).

LXX Psalm 88:4-8

LXX Psalm 88:4-8

As in most cases, the reason for the difference is the difficulty of the Hebrew text and the way the Septuagint (LXX) coped with the difficulties. It is always possible the translator had a different Hebrew manuscript, but that is not likely the case here. It is also possible the translator did not understand the Hebrew and made an attempt to make sense of what the Hebrew text says. This could be from a lack of Hebrew skills, as most first year Hebrew students will attest, Hebrew poetry can be difficult to translate! But in this case, it seems to me the translator became an interpreter when approaching Psalm 36:1. (To complicate matters, this verse is Psalm 36:2 in the Hebrew Bible and 35:1 in the LXX.)

The first word (נְאֻם) usually refers to an oracle of the Lord, so the first line could be a title analogous to the prophets: “An oracle of transgression concerning the wicked.” The LXX interpreted this as “the transgressor, in order to sin, says to himself” (Φησὶν ὁ παράνομος τοῦ ἁμαρτάνειν ἐν ἑαυτῷ). My overly-literal translation attempts to read the articular infinitive τοῦ ἁμαρτάνειν as the purpose or intent of the verb “he speaks.” This translates the Hebrew לָ֭רָשָׁע, a noun with a prefixed preposition (“to the sinner”).

Since the Hebrew text already has a word for sin (פֶּשַׁע), the LXX translator took the second sin word as an infinitive explaining why the sinner is speaking:  “in order to sin, a sinner has to speak within his own heart and convince himself there he has no dread of the Lord.” This is the gist of the Hebrew verse as well as the LXX, although one problem yet remains, the meaning of the first word of the Hebrew text, נְאֻם. Does this mean “speak” as the LXX has, or “an oracle”?

Allen Ross represents a more or less traditional response to this textual difficulty. He translates the first line, “An oracle concerning the transgression of the wicked is within my heart” (Ross, Commentary on the Psalms, 1:779). Kraus, on the other hand, suggests the word oracle (נְאֻם) ought to be read as “pleasing” (נָעִים), resulting in the translation “pleasing is the transgression to the wicked deep in his heart” (Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 396).

Jacobson reads נְאֻם as related to the Arabic naʾama to howl, growl or the Akkadian and translates “Transgression whispers to the wicked one deep in his heart” (Psalms, NICOT, 339). Transgression becomes an evil persona who speaks into the inner person of the wicked and prevents them from recognizing the “dread of the Lord.”

A final difficulty is the Hebrew first person “my heart” (לִבִּ֑י). If the first word is not “an oracle,” then the pronoun needs to be changed to the third person “his heart,” since again based on the reading of the LXX.

In any case, the verse refers to the inner machinations of a sinner who resists the fear of the Lord and lives outside of the Wisdom Lifestyle.