Let me start by saying that I love the Bible. I’ve read it many times, in many English versions. Over the past 10 years or so (since I am disabled with chronic pain and am basically bed-ridden most days) I have taken on the task of learning Greek and Hebrew and studying the manuscripts we have available that are used to make up our modern-day Bible. (The contents of the manuscripts and detailed digital photos of them are available online. A google will get you to the right places.)
And I believe the Bible as we have it today CONTAINS the word of God. But not every word, phrase, and idiom in it IS the word of God. I believe that ultimately it was written by hands of men, copied by the hands of men, translated by the hands of men. And anytime men are involved, there are problems. Translation errors, contradictions, variations in the manuscripts we have discovered… in spite of what some teachers want you to believe, these are very real issues in producing English translations.
To make matters worse, we have the publishers who are currently producing Bibles. The NIV, the NASB, ESV, and most other English versions on the shelves at your local Christian bookstore are produced not exclusively by scholars, but also by the publishers, who then own the copyright of the translation. The NIV, for example, was produced by Zondervan, a huge publisher in the Christian book industry. They own the NIV. They selected, hired, and guided the translators. The translation committee included salespeople who guided the translation of certain passages because they wanted to have Bibles they can sell.
This process is true of nearly every version on the shelf. With the glaring exception of the KJV which is in the public domain (and even then doesn’t much resemble the KJV in 17th century English when it was first produced), every version on the shelf is owned by a publisher that wants to make money. And as such, the publisher has, at times, made the version fit the beliefs of the people they want to buy them rather than strictly translate the passage in context and in light of the historical context of the author.
Now, in all fairness and transparency, my evidence for this is purely subjective. All I have is my experience as a manager of a local Christian bookstore for a company that recently completely shut down, went out of business (Family Christian Stores). I have no documents to show you because they don’t exist and the inter-company emails were closely guarded and I am sure they have disappeared with the computer servers they ‘lived’ on. So this is my story. But I encourage you to do your own study of translation methods and the publishing companies who produce English translations.
Zondervan had produced a new study Bible based on the NIV, the Archeological Study Bible. You can still get them, a leather-bound copy is about $100.00 on Amazon. I have one that I got as an award for selling them in my store. And while I have not read through every single note in it, the non-Biblical contents are very interesting, if a little far-fetched in some places (such as claiming to know where Noah’s Ark currently is).
That contest is what I want to talk about. Since it was made by Zondervan, who produced and owned the copyright on NIV translation, the NIV was the only version out could get the Archeological Study Bible in. (That may have changed, I don’t know, but at the time, when it was first introduced, that’s what it was.)
Our job at the store level was to sell. We had a quota, it would be part of my performance review whether I met that quota. But then there was the contest. If you met the quota your store was automatically entered into the Zondervan contest. The award was a genuine (rather than the cheaper bonded) leather-bound copy of the Archeological Study Bible (ASB) engraved in gold with your name. It was a contest for managers so while my sales associates were expected to sell them, their sales went to the store total and the award was only for managers.
And I didn’t have an issue with that. That’s how retail works. You sell things. As a manager, you’re expected to sell what the home office tells you. And we did. We did our jobs. We did it well. You might call me out for bragging, but I was good at managing my store. Our sales increased every month that I was the manager, I was often the top manager in my district. I loved my job.
So, at the time, I didn’t think much of the scripts Zondervan gave us to sell the ASB.
Scripts. Like we were actors in a play. “If the patron says XYZ, respond with ABC”.
The demographic for the ASB was teachers and ‘serious Bible students’. Preachers, pastors, priests, and ministers were the ones we were encouraged to ‘push’ the sale on. But then, like now, the abundance of Bible purchasers were very conservative evangelical Christians. And preachers, pastors, priests, and ministers of very conservative evangelical churches are very set in their ways. Typically, they aren’t looking for a new study Bible, they want to replace the one that they’ve always had, that they’ve always taught from, and are not interested in making a change.
But we were expected to sell to them. It was DEMANDED that we sell to them. So we did. We read the scripts and we did our job.
Here’s one typical transaction, as scripted by the salespeople at Zondervan (I can’t promise this is 100% accurate as it is from memory):
*customer looking at Bibles*
Me (or one of my staff): Good afternoon (say customers name if you know it), it’s a great day! Are you looking for a Bible for yourself or someone else?
Customer may say: I’m the pastor at XYZ church, my old (study Bible name) is wearing out, I need a new one.
(While normally at this point you would ask what version or translation they are looking for, you must not bring that up at this time.)
Salesperson: Have you seen this new study Bible that just came out? It’s really awesome! (Take an ASB off the shelf, the best leather-bound copy you have on hand if possible, open it to page 247 and place the open Bible in the customer’s hands, you may have to be a little aggressive to get them to take it from you)
Note: Yes the script said, “be aggressive”. And whichever page it was – I don’t remember – was a very beautiful page with full-color photographs showing some clay tablets or something that purportedly were the oldest written versions of the Ten Commandments ever found. I don’t know if that truly what they were, I never investigated the accuracy of the claims the ASB made.
Salesperson: This is just one really amazing example of what this has to offer. This is concrete PROOF of the events in the Bible! These tablets could have been held by someone that made the Exodus out of Egypt!
(Judge the customer’s response. If you showed proper enthusiasm they should respond in kind.)
I think you can see where this is going, so I won’t bore you with the rest of the script, but the interesting part came when they finally asked the big question. And to Zondervan, who owned the copyright on the NIV, it was the most important question. They didn’t want my customers to purchase a KJV, or an ESV, they wanted customers to buy the NIV. They wanted to make money.
And almost without fail the customers would ask this Big Question: “Is this available in a (KJV/NASB/ESV, etc. etc.)”
And rather than say something like “unfortunately no” or “it’s published by Zondervan, they make the NIV” we were expected to steer away from the question, avoid it. Don’t get drawn into the discussion of which translation is ‘better’ or ‘best’.
Examples of things we were told to say were: “This is newly produced by the best translation methods” (even though the NIV was more than 30 years old at this point and had not been updated in a long time.) of “If you flip to page 798 you can see how the Bible was made before we had modern methods!”
And of course, whenever you’re talking about sales, your boss or their boss will always use the time-honored phrase “always be closing”.
“If you get this today, we can put your name on it right now!” “Let me ring this up for you so you can get home with it and dig into all this good stuff!”
In other words, as soon as possible, get them to the cash register.
And it worked. People who I know had previously shown disdain of the NIV because their church was KJV-only or some other reason, were taking home an ASB.
Zondervan’s sales tactics worked. And they made money. I made money for my store. I earned the award, beating out many other store managers.
To Zondervan, it was never about accuracy or authenticity, it was about sales. I don’t remember a single bit of correspondence from Zondervan that was about anything other than us making money.
But I have more examples. Many. I won’t bore you with every single one, but there is one that changed me, changed the way I looked at the Bible and set me on my current path.
My store was literally a stone’s throw away from the northeastern border of the Navajo reservation in northwestern New Mexico. I was told (but never really investigated) that my store was the ONLY store that was available to the First Nation people in the area. A great honor and a great responsibility. They’re easily ordered online now, but at the time I was told we were the only “Brick and Mortar” place to get them.
I don’t honestly remember who produced them. I actually got to meet some of the people who did the translating, very sincere, honest men. They honestly wanted to produce a good translation. But like the NIV and every other translation, someone has to hold the copyright and make leather bound versions that look and feel nice with the gold edging and thumb tabs.
And just like the Zondervan sales, we were given a script to sell them.
But in this case, some things in the script were outright lies.
This brings us back to the Big Question. What version is it?
The true honest answer was it was the Navajo version. It was its own translation made from Greek and Hebrew sources. A new translation.
But people wanted to know, was it based on the KJV or the NIV or something else?
And there was a script for that.
“Judge the customer’s question. If you get the feeling the are KJV-only, tell them the Navajo was translated from the English of the KJV. If you feel they are open to the more modern versions, tell them the translation was made by the same scholars as the NIV. If they seem hostile to any non-native sources, assure them that it was made by local people and Navajo people.”
Again, I don’t remember the script exactly, but it was a lot like that. The problem with the script, everything, every single thing in it, is a lie.
We were openly encouraged to lie to Native American people just to sell Bibles. People who may be honestly seeking truth in a language they speak natively, we lied to them.
Even the last part. While it was made by local people, none of them were Navajo people. They were white men. Honest, sincere white men seeking to make a good translation, but white men nonetheless.
That crushed me. Bible producers only want to make money. With the exception of a few public domain versions that have been produced recently, all translations are made to make money. Not to spread the truth, to make money. Even the Navajo Bible.
And that brings me to my main point:
If you believe the Bible you can buy on the shelf of your local Wal-Mart is 100% inerrant and 100% the Word of God, you’re going to have a bad time.
Because when a company’s motive is to make money, usually for the stockholders who don’t actually work for the company, that is where their heart will be. Not in producing the best English translation, but in making the best English translation they can sell in a leather-bound edition for about $100. If a translation is produced by a committee that has a salesperson in it, the salesperson is going to have the final say, plain and simple.
And in spite of the best intentions of the scholars and linguists and historians on that committee, their work will still have to be something the salesperson can sell.
And I guarantee that every single translation, every single one that some company holds the copyright for, there is at least one passage and probably several, that is purposely mistranslated to fit the beliefs of the target buyers rather than being an honest, true translation into English. Every. Single. English. Bible. On every shelf in every retail location.
Worse, every Bible, in spite of claiming to be a new translation includes and continues to propagate words that were invented by the translator of the King James Bible. The most obvious example
the word “baptize”. It’s an invented word. Completely made up for the KJV. The word in Greek is “βαπτίζω” (baptizō). The KJV didn’t even really translate it. It’s “transliterated”. That means they just took the word and made it an English word rather than translate its meaning. There’s a lot of discussion as to what baptizo means, whether it means to dip or to purify or whatever. I’m not going to rehash that whole discussion here (maybe another time) but imagine what all our churches would be like if the translator had decided to translate rather than transliterate the word. What if he had chosen to use baptizo as it is meant in a pickle recipe from about 200 BC written by a fellow named Nicander. In the recipe the vegetable is to be baptizo in boiling water, then baptizo into jars of vinegar.
In that context, it means to dip. Submerge. Immerse. Completely cover. What if the KJV translator had translated baptizo as ‘immerse’?
How many denominational splits and long books and essays wouldn’t even exist today because the translator had simply said ‘immerse’ instead of ‘baptize’.
But look in the Bible you use now. Matthew 3:6 is an easy enough example. Does it say “baptized” or does it use another word?
Almost every English Bible contains the word “baptized” in Matthew 3:6, no matter the version. A completely made up word first used in the KJV. (And maybe in other, earlier, English translations, I’m a bit rusty on my history there.)
That’s just one example of how the KJV has become the basis for all English translations.
And a perfect example of how publishers influence translations to make books that will sell. No English version produced for sale today uses a real translation of baptizo. They just keep using ‘baptism’. Why? Because if they suddenly started saying the word is properly translated as ‘immerse’ (for example) then how many sales would they lose? Only people who attend churches that practice immersion baptism would buy them. They would lose half or more of their target buyers. No one from the United Methodist church, the Catholic church, Lutherans… it’s a long list. None of them would buy a Bible that would dare translate the word to mean ‘immerse’.
It is all about sales.
It is all about money.
Once more for those in the back
IT IS ALL ABOUT MONEY.
So which Bible version in English can we trust?
None. Not one. At least not 100%.
The Bible, as it exists in English is not inerrant. And it is NOT the word of God.
It is a work of men.
I don’t know about other languages. I know Spanish has the same translation issues (because we sold the Spanish versions of the NIV, ESV, NASB, etc) And I mentioned Navajo. But Chinese, Korean, I don’t know. That’s something I have yet to investigate.
So which Bible version can we trust? Can we trust any of them?
The short answer is – no. Not really. The long answer is, you have homework to do.
My experiences working in Christian retail set me on the path to figuring out the truth for myself. To work out my salvation with fear and trembling.
But I am fortunate (well, not really, but in this case…) in that I have a lot of free time and Internet access. Not everyone, and maybe even only a tiny few non-scholars, has the time I do to put into figuring out what the Bible (as it exists in the best ancient manuscripts we have today) really says. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do any homework at all.
I encourage you, along with your Bible reading, to do some other reading. And it may be uncomfortable, but I highly encourage you to seek out and read books from authors you KNOW you’ll disagree with. See it from the other side, even if, in the end, you still disagree.
The World’s Greatest Book: The Story of How the Bible Came to Be
It will give you some background on manuscripts and translation.
The Challenge of Bible Translation: Communicating God’s Word to the World
Edited By: Glen G. Scorgie, Mark L. Strauss, Steven M. Voth
This series of essays will get you deeper into the translation process. (Yes, it’s produced by Zondervan, who I have problems with as a company and as such this book does not speak unkindly of the NIV, even though it should. In my opinion.)
And finally (as a suggestion, definitely should not be the end of your study):
And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning
Dr. Joel M. Hoffman
This one is really…. well, it’s out there. Out on the fringe. As such you’ll want to take it with many many grains of salt, but as I said, look into books and authors outside your comfort zone.
After that, there are many blogs and articles and many many other things you can look into. Google will be your friend. And Amazon (or whichever bookseller you prefer.)
Read. Study. Dig. Even if it’s just a little. Figure out what the Bible really says. For yourself. You’ll be glad you did.