Tri-County church of Christ, Watertown, NY, North Country

October 15, 2003, Vol.3, No.20.
Two new articles every two weeks. Bible Question? E-mail us.
THIS ISSUE: "Translations: Dynamic Equivalence or
Essentially Literal
" (see below)
and "
The Names of God"

Translations: Dynamic Equivalence
or Essentially Literal

by Keith Sharp

Bible translationsModern English translations of the Bible follow one of two philosophies of translation: "essentially literal" or "dynamic equivalence."

Briefly stated, the theory of dynamic equivalence in Bible translation emphasizes the reaction of the reader to the translated text, rather than the translation of the words and phrases themselves. In simplest terms, dynamic equivalence is often referred to as thought for thought, translation as compared to essentially literal, translation.... (Ryken 13).

An "essentially literal" translation strives to render the original Hebrew and Greek words with their English counterparts while adapting the original grammar to English grammar.

1 Corinthians 4:9 exemplifies the differences. The New King James Version, an essentially literal translation, reads, "For I think that God has displayed us, the apostles, last, as men condemned to death; for we have been made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men." Literally translated, both as to words and word order, the passage reads, "For I think that God us the apostles last set forth as appointed to death. For a spectacle we became to the world, both to angels and to men." (Berry). The essentially literal NKJV gives us the Greek words in English but in readable English order. But The New International Version, a dynamic equivalence translation, renders the verse thus:

"For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men."

The verse is longer because explanatory words and phrases have been added: "of the procession," "in the arena," and "whole." These added words are not italicized to indicate to readers that they are interpolations, words added by the translators that have no Greek words in the original behind them. The NIV translators as a matter of stated policy add to the divine text without indicating to the reader when they have done so.

This illustrates one major problem with dynamic equivalence versions. The NIV may well be right that the apostle is using the conquered prisoners in Roman victory processions as an illustration of the plight of the apostles, but it is still commentary rather than just translation. The student has no way of knowing just by reading his Bible what is the inspired text and what is uninspired comment.

The NIV is probably the most conservative and least offensive of the dynamic equivalence translations. But here is a statement from the preface to The New International Version:

The first concern of the translators has been the accuracy of the translation and its fidelity to the thought of the biblical writers. They have weighed the significance of the lexical and grammatical details of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts. At the same time, they have striven for more than a word-for-word translation.

Please carefully note that the translators made a deliberate differentiation between the "words" of the original text and the thoughts of its writers. This is crucial.

In the nineteenth century biblical liberals made this distinction concerning the inspiration of the text. They contended for thought inspiration. Isaac Errett, a nineteenth century leader in the Christian Church, claimed, "... God did not purpose, in inspiration, anything beyond a transmission of His thoughts in the words of men." (Lectures. 148) The context will confirm that Errett was denying verbal inspiration, the belief that the Holy spirit gave the biblical writers the very words they wrote, and affirming thought inspiration, the belief that the Holy Spirit revealed God's thoughts to the writers and left them to express these thoughts in their own words. It is obvious that this would deny the authority of any and all words of Scripture. Why can I not truthfully say that dynamic equivalence translators, while affirming verbal inspiration, translate as though they only believed thought inspiration?

The fact is God gave the writers of Scripture the very words they wrote.

Moses and Aaron well illustrate the nature of divine inspiration. When the Lord first sent Moses to Pharaoh, He explained to Moses concerning Aaron, "Now you shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth...." (Exodus 4:15) When God repeated this commission, He told Moses, "Aaron your brother shall be your prophet." (Exodus 7:1) A prophet speaks the very words God puts in His mouth.

When Moses gave the law to Israel, He "told the people all the words of the Lord...." (Exodus 24:3) "And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord." (Verse 4) The Lord didn't give Moses thoughts for the man of God to put in His own words. He gave Moses the very words.

Balaam called his revelation the "utterance of him who hears the words of God...." (Numbers 24:4)

Speaking for the Lord and prophesying of Christ, Moses declared:

I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him. And it shall be that whoever will not hear My words, which He speaks in My name, I will require it of him. (Deuteronomy 18:18-19)

The Psalmist praises, not just the thoughts of God, but the words that reveal them. (Psalm 12:6; 119:103,130,139,160; 138:4).

When the Lord commissioned Jeremiah to be a prophet, He informed him, "Behold, I have put my words in your mouth." (Jeremiah 1:9, et al). Jeremiah even gave a vivid picture of the inspiration of Scripture: "Then Jeremiah called Baruch the son of Neriah; and Baruch wrote on a scroll of a book, at the instruction of Jeremiah, all the words of the Lord which He had spoken to him." (36:4)

The Lord commanded Ezekiel, "You shall speak My words to them, whether they hear or whether they refuse, for they are rebellious." (Ezekiel 2:7)

The Son of God decreed, ""Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away." (Matthew 24:35) He spoke "the words of God." (John 3:34; 17:8) His "words ... are spirit and they are life." (John 6:63,68)

In one of the most significant passages in Scripture concerning inspiration, Paul thus described the inspiration of the apostles:

For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God. These things we also speak, not in words which man's wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. (1 Corinthians 2:11-13)

The Holy Spirit gave the apostles both the "things" (thoughts) of God and the words of God in which to express these thoughts.

Paul constructed an argument on the fact that one word in the Old Testament is singular rather than plural (Galatians 3:16).

The apostle commanded Timothy, "Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus." (2 Timothy 1:13)

Jude enjoined, "But you, beloved, remember the words which were spoken before by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ...." (Jude 20)

Finally, the beloved John drew the book of inspiration to a close by writing, "Then He who sat on the throne said, Behold, I make all things new., And He said to me, Write, for these words are true and faithful.," (Revelation 21:5; cf. 22:6-7,10) He then solemnly warned:

For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book. (Revelation 22:18-19)

We must not add to or subtract from even so much as one word of the divine revelation!

God gave us the very words that express His thoughts. When we study an English translation of the Scriptures, we should have, not what scholars think the Lord meant, but what the Lord actually said. If we don't understand what He said, we can consult commentaries. But the only thing that is authoritative is what He actually said - the very words. Use as your primary study Bible one that is essentially literal.

Works Cited

Berry, George Ricker, The Interlinear Literal Translation of the Greek New Testament.
Missouri Christian Lectures 1883.
Ryken, Leland, The Word of God in English.

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