Paraphrasing in the Bible

by Glenn Conjurske

One of the most conspicuous differences between the old English version and the “New” versions which seek to replace it lies in the amount of paraphrase which they contain. The King James Version is generally free from unnecessary paraphrasing. The New American Standard (NASV) and New International (NIV) versions are filled with paraphrasing, from beginning to end. The NASV continually paraphrases individual words and phrases. The NIV does the same, but goes much further, even paraphrasing whole sentences, while it also frequently drops words and phrases from the original, leaving them untranslated, and adds numerous words of its own, none of which are put in italics. The New King James Version (NKJV) is much more conservative, but not near conservative enough, for it often follows the other modern versions in rejecting the literal translation for a paraphrase.

To translate is to use a word of the same meaning as the original word which we are translating. This, of course assumes that we know the meaning of the original word, and that there is an equivalent in the language into which we translate. Touching this point I need only say that when the language into which we translate is English, it will be an extreme rarity to find a word in the originals for which we have no equivalent. All the stories which have been bandied about, therefore, about primitive languages which have no word for love, or for God, are nothing to the purpose, and are no excuse whatever for paraphrasing in English. English is a language singularly rich in every way—-not only in the common matters of human life and experience, but in theological language also—-so that generally speaking the words of the divine originals will be found to have not merely one equivalent in English, but several or many of them.

To paraphrase is to rewrite. It is to substitute one word or phrase for another

—-that is, to substitute a word with another meaning than that of the word which is before us in the original. It is generally to substitute an interpretation or an explanation in the place of a translation. Examples of paraphrasing are as follows:

In Genesis 13:15 the literal translation from the Hebrew is, “and to thy seed,” but in all three of the popular modern versions we find a paraphrase instead of the word “seed.” The NIV has “offspring,” while the NASV and the NKJV both have “descendants.” These are not translations, but explanations. Yet in Galatians 3:16, where Paul refers to this verse, and makes so much of the fact that it says “seed,” in the singular, and not “seeds,” in the plural, all three of these versions are forced (to make sense of the passage) to abandon their paraphrase, and revert to God’s words, “seed” and “seeds.”

In Psalm 2:12 the Hebrew says, “Kiss the Son,” but the NASV reads “Do homage to the Son.” This is not a translation, but an interpretation, or an attempted explanation. (The NIV and the NKJV translate literally here.)

In Deut. 13:6 we find the phrase “the wife of your bosom,” but here both the NIV and the NASV defect from the literal rendering, the former having “the wife you love,” and the latter, “the wife you cherish.” (The NKJV translates literally.) These are not translations, but explanations, and moreover, they are wrong explanations. She is the wife of his bosom whether he loves and cherishes her or not. When King Henry VIII was contriving to murder his unfortunate wife, Ann Boleyn, he neither loved nor cherished her, but still she was “the wife of his bosom.” The same expression is used in Deut. 28:54, where we are told a man will have an evil eye toward the wife of his bosom. But these versions will no more translate the figure “to have an evil eye,” than they will the word “bosom.” The NIV therefore gives us here the unlikelihood of a man having no compassion on the wife he loves, while the NASV gives the absurdity of a man being hostile to the wife he cherishes. (The NKJV translates “the wife of his bosom,” but follows the NASV in its other paraphrase, “be hostile,” and turns the very same phrase into “refuse” two verses later.) And in this we see one of the great dangers of paraphrasing. As long as we translate the words of God, giving always the nearest and best equivalent of the original word, we leave every man free under God to understand those words as best he can, as far as his own spiritual wisdom will allow him. If we translate the words, “his eye shall be evil…toward the wife of his bosom,” then every man is free to understand them according to his own spiritual ability. But as soon as we give an explanation of the words instead of a translation, then every man is bound to our understanding of the place, whether we are right or wrong.

In I Thes. 4:4 the Greek reads “each of you to know [how] to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honour.” So it is translated in the interlinear Englishman’s Greek New Testament. The NIV, instead of translating this, must endeavor to interpret it. They give us therefore, for “know to possess his own vessel,” “learn to control his own body.” But “control” is not a translation of “possess,” nor is “body” the equivalant of “vessel.” Some will no doubt contend that when Paul wrote “vessel,” he meant thus to indicate the body. Very well, but if the translator can understand that, so can the reader, and Paul did not write “body,” but “vessel.”

But these translators are by no means sure that Paul meant to refer to the body by the word “vessel,” and they must therefore give us an alternative interpretation—-or rather, two of them—-in the margin. Rather than “learn to control his own body,” the phrase might mean either “learn to live with his own wife,” or “learn to acquire a wife.” But none of these are translations at all, nor anything resembling translations. They are all attempted interpretations. Only one of them, of course, could be correct, and it may be that none of them are. In this place they happen to be unsure enough of their interpretation that they give alternates in the margin, but in how many other places do they interpret instead of translating, and give no indication whatever that their interpretation might not be the correct one, or that any other interpretation is possible. It is indeed difficult enough to translate without erring, but to interpret the Scriptures so truly that we may set forth those interpretations in the place of the words of God—-this is a task beyond the abilities of the best mortals on earth.

And from the standpoint of principle, a paraphrase of the word of God is not the word of God. An explanation of the word of God is not the word of God. If it is a good and true explanation it may be excellent in its own place, as in a commentary or a sermon, but it has no place in a Bible. The interpretation may be sound, and it may be helpful, but it is pernicious as a substitute for the word of God. But these modern translators may not be infallible in their interpretations. They may substitute wrong explanations and interpretations in the place of the words of God, and in that case every reader of their version is shut up to their error, and the possibility of coming to a true understanding of the place is irretrievably lost.

Who then would dare to publish a Bible full of explanations in the place of translations? Only the proud! Only the proud can have so much confidence in their own understanding that they have no fear to put their own explanations in the place of the words of God, and bind the rest of the human race to those explanations. It is the intellectual pride of modern evangelicalism which has produced these versions so full of paraphrasing.

In the first place, it is pride which in effect says, “We know better than all of the great and godly men who plied their pens in translating the Bible into English for half a millennium, from 1380 to 188l”—-for none of them paraphrased the Bible after the manner of the modern versions, but translated it literally. But such pride is characteristic of modern evangelicalism.

But this pride goes further. It says in effect, “Not only do we know better than all the great men of past generations: we also know better than all of our contemporaries.” The NASV, for example, usually refuses to translate figures of speech, but must continually explain them. This is pride from beginning to end. It is in effect saying, “We, the translators of this Bible, can understand common figures of speech, but you plebs, who must read the work, have no such ability. Therefore we will treat you to a book full of explanations, in the place of the original figures.” (Yet God’s figures of speech are often easier to understand than these men’s explanations of them, and moreover, God’s figures of speech will not lead us astray, as the explanations of these unspiritual men often do.)

But the pride which must set itself on a pinnacle above the rest of the human race is not the half of it. What these paraphrasers are in effect really saying is, “Not only do we know better than the rest of the human race: we know better than God also. We know that God filled the Bible which he wrote with countless common figures of speech, but we really suppose this to have been a mistake.” What this paraphrasing really amounts to is an attack on the divine inspiration of the Scriptures. They proceed with bold effrontery through the book of God rectifying all of the blunders of the Almighty, replacing them with shifts of their own—-their unbelief in the ability of God to speak intelligibly equalled only by their confidence in their own ability to do so.

The NASV begins in the second verse of Genesis, giving us “surface of the deep” instead of the figurative “face of the deep”—-though it seems that common Englishmen have been able to understand this simple figure ever since they read “the face of the depthe” in Wycliffe’s Bible 600 years ago. Why must it now be “surface”? And why must “the face of all the earth” be transformed into “the surface of all the earth” in verse 29 of the same chapter? And while we are asking, why is “the face of the earth” not altered to “the surface of the earth” in Acts 17:26? If we can understand “the face of the earth” in Acts 17:26, why not everywhere? And why must “the face of the sky” be altered to “the appearance of the sky” in Matthew 16:3? And why must “the face of him who sits on the throne” be transfigured into “the presence of him who sits on the throne—-and why “the face of the serpent” converted to “the presence of the serpent” in Rev. 12:14?

For three thousand years human beings of every tongue have been reading in Gen. 4:1, “Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived,” and no doubt every adult of ordinary intelligence understood it. But what is that to modern pride? We open the NASV to the place and read, “the man had relations with his wife Eve.” Pardon me, but this is contemptible. It is coarse, indelicate, offensive. Moreover, it is not the word of God. Neither, by the way, is it one whit more intelligible than “Adam knew his wife, and she conceived.” Indeed, the fabricators of this coarse reading must have had some doubts themselves about its intelligibility, for in Genesis 19:5 & 8 they must offer an explanation in their margin, of the explanation which appears in their text, of this simple figure which simple human beings have understood for three thousand years—-but I refuse to quote it. Elsewhere they give various other paraphrases in their text, as in Matthew 1:25, where they transmute God’s simple “knew her not” into “kept her a virgin,” and in Luke 1:34, where, by the reverse of alchemy, Mary’s pure “I know not a man” is debased to “I am a virgin.” Indeed, all of their substitutes for this simple and pure figure are base, and none of them are the word of God. The NIV is just as guilty on this point, and some of its substitutes for this pure word of God are so base I cannot bring myself to stain my pages by quoting them.

Figures of every sort—-eyes, hands, face, ears, mouth—-receive the same treatment at the hands of these men. They must explain and interpret them all, instead of translating them. And usually in the process they display their own incompetence and inconsistency. We have referred already to “an evil eye,” a figure which is used in several places in the Bible. Now it is a plain fact that a translator of the Bible has not the slightest need to understand this figure. He may simply translate it, and leave the understanding of it to the spiritual capacity of the reader. But this was too much to expect of these men, who seem to think themselves always wise and spiritual enough to understand and explain everything. The results of their endeavors, however, indicate otherwise. In Deut. 28:54 & 56 the NASV turns “to have an evil eye” into “be hostile.” In Prov. 23:6 they have turned “him that hath an evil eye” into “a selfish man,” (where the NIV has “a stingy man,” the NKJV “a miser,” and Keil and Delitzsch “the jealous”—-all of them interpretations, not translations—-perhaps right, perhaps wrong—-perhaps acceptable as applications, but not the word of God). Again, in Mark 7:22 in the NASV “an evil eye” is alchemized into “envy.” It plainly appears that they would have done much better to let the figure alone, and let every man understand it as he was able. They themselves apparently judged that such a course was acceptable, for they followed it themselves in Prov. 28:22, where they let “an evil eye” be “an evil eye”—-thus, as usual, by their faithful translation in one place condemning their paraphrases elsewhere. If folks can understand “an evil eye” in Prov. 28:22, why not everywhere?

In Prov. 15:30 the NASV transmutes “the light of the eyes” into “bright eyes”—-an interpretation, not a translation, and an interpretation which few sober minds are likely to endorse. (The NIV has “a cheerful look,” while the NKJV renders literally.) In Gen. 16:5 to be “despised in her eyes” must be changed into “despised in her sight.” This is only the substitution of one figure for another, and what is gained by it?

The mouth fares little better than the eyes in this version. In Deut. 17:6, “At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses” must be exhanged for “On the evidence of two witnesses, or three witnesses.” And in II Cor. 13:1 the same expression must be transfigured into “the testimony of two or three witnesses.” (The NIV has “testimony” in both places, the NKJV “testimony” in the former, and “mouth” in the latter.) Is there something wrong with translating the word “mouth”? Apparently not, these men themselves being the judges, for in Matthew 18:16 they (the NASV) present to us “by the mouth of two or three witnesses.” There, however, (as also in II Cor. 13:1), they must meddle with something else, and turn “every word” into “every fact.” This change is no more legitimate than the other. Henry Alford says on this, “rJh’ma, not thing, but word, as always.”

We could fill many more pages with examples of this sort, from one end of the Bible to the other, but enough has been said to plainly indicate the character of this version. The translators profess to revere the inspired originals as the very words of God, and therefore to adhere “as closely as possible” to them. This claim has been shown to be empty. In every instance of paraphrasing pointed out above they could, with no effort at all, have adhered more closely to the original, by simply translating the figure instead of rewriting it. They profess to have followed the same principles as were followed by the translators of the old American Standard Version, but this is also an empty claim. In every single instance of paraphrasing pointed out above the old American Standard Version has rendered simply and literally. And in not one of these instances has the old version so much as offered a note or explanation in the margin. They obviously judged that such simple figures could be easily understood by the whole human race, that God was not therefore unwise to employ them, and that it was their wisdom to let them stand as God wrote them.

These translators likewise often paraphrase where there is no figure at all, but plain, simple speech which might be translated literally into any language on earth. So in Genesis 16:5 we read (in the NASV) that Sarai gave her maid into Abram’s arms, where the original says his bosom. What can be the reason for such a change? Surely they have nothing against the word “bosom,” for in the next place where the same Hebrew word occurs (Exodus 4:6-7) they translate it “bosom” five times, and they also use the word numerous times elsewhere, from “the bosom of fools” in Proverbs 14:33 to “the bosom of the Father” in John 1:18. They even give Abraham his bosom back in Luke 16:22, where they faithfully translate “Abraham’s bosom.” Why not Abraham’s arms? Nay, they even thrust in the word “bosom” where it does not belong, transmuting “the abundance of her glory” in Is. 66:11 into “her bountiful bosom”! At any rate it is evident that they have nothing against the word “bosom.” Nor do they seem to have any objection to the sort of use which Sarai makes of the word in Gen. 16:5, for in I Kings 1:2 they advise David to find a young virgin to lie in his bosom. Why not “lie in your arms”? In Micah 7:5 a man’s wife is said to lie in his bosom. Why not “arms”? Understand, we would not likely have half so much to object, if these men had something against the word “bosom,” and if they gave us in its place a legitimate synonym—-a real translation of the Hebrew word—-but “arms” and “bosom” are two different things. They have substituted their own word for God’s, though there was no reason to do so, they themselves being the judges. As is so often the case, their proper rendering of the word in some places condemns their paraphrase in others.

The NIV, of course, does worse, transmuting the word “bosom” into “arms” in one place, “cloak” in another, “folds of your garment” in another, “heart” in another, “side” in another, while in some places the word (or the phrase which contains it) is dropped, and not translated at all. “In thy bosom” is turned into “beside him” in I Kings 1:2. In Psalm 35:13 “My prayer returned into my own bosom” is alchemized into “My prayers returned to me unanswered.” This, of course, is an interpretation, not a translation, and it is the opposite of the interpretation which men of spiritual minds have generally given to the passage. This very well illustrates the folly and danger of paraphrasing. A man who has but little spiritual sense can produce a very acceptable version of the Bible if he will but translate, but when such a one begins to interpret, he only substitutes darkness for light.

Let those who have no belief in the inspiration of Scripture paraphrase all they please, but Evangelicals profess to believe in the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures—-that is, that the very words of the Bible are inspired of God—-that the words of the Bible are the words of God. What right, then, do they think they have to set aside the words of God, and substitute other words in place of them. They would not dare to make the same substitutions in the original texts which they make on every page of their English translations. There is not a man among them who would allow it to be legitimate to substitute pivnei (drinks) for ejsqivei (eats) in the Greek original in I Cor. 9:7, yet there it stands in the English in both the NKJV and the NIV (which also drops the second occurrence of the words “of the flock,” not translating them at all), while the NASV has “uses.” Pardon me, but this is pedantry. Englishmen have been reading “eateth” here for over 600 years, ever since Wycliffe penned, “Who kepith a flok, and etith not of the mylk of the flok?” Nobody had any difficulty with it. But lo! the modern scholars have discovered that folks do not eat milk, but drink it. And though we would not fault Paul if he had written “eateth the milk,” yet he never wrote that, but “eateth of the milk.” Now it is a fact that some things come “of the milk” which folks are accustomed to eat. Or do these scholars drink their butter and cheese? Well, no matter if they do. The fact remains that Paul wrote “eat,” not “drink,” and no one who believes in the verbal inspiration of Scripture has any right to change it to “drink,” or “use,” either. The fact that these “New” versions are so quick to substitute their own words for the inspired words of God indicates that they have no proper respect for those words as the words of God, and no proper sense or feeling that they are the inspired words of God—-their professions to the contrary notwithstanding.

There is not a man among them who would allow it to be legitimate in Rom. 8:13 to replace pravxei” (deeds) with kakopoivhsei” (misdeeds) in the Greek original, yet there it stands in the English of the NIV.

There is not a man among them who would account it legitimate or acceptable to replace the words ajpo th'” parqeniva” aujth'” (“from her virginity”) with the words metaV toVn gavmon aujth'” (“after her marriage”) in the Greek original in Luke 2:36, yet there it stands in the English in both the NIV and the NASV. And such substitutions abound all over both Testaments in these versions.

One of the practical evils of paraphrasing is found in the fact that the explanations given are often too specific. The “translators” put one facet of the thing in the place of the whole. They discover one application of a general principle, and replace the general principle with that one application of it, thus losing a great deal of the force and the application of the original. An example of this will be found in I Cor. 13:5, where the NASV turns “thinketh no evil” into “does not take into account a wrong suffered.” This is true enough, as one application of the principle stated, but the principle is much broader than that. “Thinketh no evil” may have nothing whatever to do with a wrong suffered, but may refer to a wrong inflicted on someone else, or any kind of evil in general. To think no evil may mean to have no inclination to believe an evil report, no disposition to suspect an ulterior motive, no propensity to put an evil construction upon the facts. All of this is the undoubted way of love. But all of this is thrown away by this modern paraphrase.

It is true that a number of excellent and highly esteemed commentaries may be quoted in favor of this interpretation, but it seems to me that they all stumble over the same point. They all stumble over the Greek article, which appears before the word “evil.” This is the basis of the interpretation. It is not, they tell us, merely kakovn (evil), but toV kakovn (the evil)—-that is, the particular evil which has been inflicted upon you. But I can see no soundness in this. ToV kakovn, literally “the evil [thing]” (for it is neuter), makes no reference to any particular evil thing, unless it should refer back to some specific evil thing just mentioned. Where there is no such particular evil mentioned in the preceding context, it is forced and unnatural to try to refer toV kakovn to some particular and specific evil, and the usage of the expression elsewhere in the New Testament will not bear it out. ToV kakovn is generic, or abstract. “The evil [thing]” is the equivalent of “that which is evil,” which is the equivalent of simply “evil,” in the abstract. But before demonstrating how the term is used in the rest of the New Testament, I must point out here that the article over which they stumbled to their interpretation has no more place in their version than it has in the old one. They have made the phrase more specific than the old version (and more specific than the Greek), but they have left it just as indefinite. They say “a wrong suffered,” not “the wrong suffered.” They obviously felt instinctively that it would be forced and unnatural to introduce “the evil” or “the wrong” of any sort here, as no such evil had been previously mentioned. They arrive at their specific interpretation on the basis of the fact that the Greek is definite, and yet they leave it indefinite in their translation. This might have indicated to them that they were on the wrong track.

But that toV kakovn is in fact abstract in the New Testament will be evident from a glance at other places in which it is used:

Rom. 7:21. “When I would do good, evil is present with me.”

Rom. 12:21. “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Rom. 13:4. “But if thou do that which is evil, . . . . . . to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.”

Rom. 16:19. “…wise unto that which is good, and simple concerning evil.”

III Jn. 11. “Beloved, follow not that which is evil, but that which is good.”

Now observe. The above texts give us seven examples of kakovn with the article, all that I found at a quick glance through a concordance of the Greek New Testament. In the first two of these instances the case varies from the accusative, but this affects nothing. In all of these instances the English Bible properly translates toV kakovn in the abstract, either as “evil,” or “that which is evil.” Moreover, the NASV does exactly the same, having “evil” in four of these instances, and “what is evil” in the other three—-“what is evil” being equivalent to “that which is evil.” Why then in I Cor. 13:5 do they transmute this into “a wrong suffered”? This is an interpretation, and a wrong one—-a substitution of one particular application in place of the general principle.

But there is more. The New Testament does in a couple of places speak of what may unquestionably be regarded as “a wrong suffered.” Those places are:

I Thes. 5:15. “See that none render evil for evil.”

I Pet. 3:9. “Not rendering evil for evil.”

Now observe. There can be no doubt that the italicized words do in fact refer to an actual “wrong suffered.” Yet in these places the Greek word kakovn appears without the article. And in these places, where “a wrong suffered” would have been a much more legitimate paraphrase than it is in I Cor. 13:5, the NASV never dreams of it, but renders “evil for evil,” as indeed it ought.

We observe that there is substantial loss in thus substituting explanations for translations. This is almost always so, and if these paraphrasers had any proper kind of faith in the words of God, they would no doubt feel it to be so. God may have reasons beyond our comprehension for the employment of certain words, and if we set aside those words, and replace them with explanations or interpretations, those divine reasons will be forever lost upon the readers of our version.

The sum of the matter is this: these translators have neither the competence nor the faithfulness which we might legitimately expect in those who undertake to translate the Bible. Lacking those things, a little more humility and conservatism would have stood them in much better stead, but when men so little qualified are so bent upon change, and so confident of their own abilities, the result can only be injurious. Faith will preserve men from this proclivity to paraphrase the word of God—-faith in the actual ability of God to say what he means, and to speak so as to make himself understood, and faith in the actual fact that he has done so. That same faith will lead men to reject these versions so full of paraphrasing.

Glenn Conjurske