I don’t like the NIV 2011. I’ve been clear about that from the get-go. Now, permit me to let you in on a little secret: I didn’t particularly like the NIV 1984, either. I can clearly perceive the immense superiority of the NIV 1984 over the NIV 2011. In fact, so can the owners of the NIV, otherwise, they wouldn’t find it necessary to embargo the NIV 1984 (embargoes are generally only necessary to protect inferior products from superior ones). And yet, it seems to me that of the problems that plague the NIV 2011, they all arise from the committee’s decision to apply more consistently the translation philosophy of the original NIV. In this essay I’d like to explain why I believe that the philosophy of dynamic equivalence is flawed by taking a look at one of its more prominent examples in the NIV New Testament (and, by “NIV” I mean the “NIV 1984”).
Every Bible translator has to choose how to balance the tasks of translation and interpretation. These tasks are inseparably intertwined. No one can translate without interpreting—or at least, if there is a text for which a translator can do so, it is a rare situation indeed. If you look up a word in a lexicon and find three choices, when you pick one of them you’ve made an interpretation of the text. One word in Greek can mean “touch,” “grasp,” or “set on fire.” Whenever you say that the woman touched the hem of Jesus’ garment rather than saying that she set His garment on fire, you’ve chosen one interpretation of that verse over another.
So, it is true that interpretation is inevitable in translation, and it is also true that not all interpretations are equally reasonable or likely to be worthy of our consideration. In the example that I gave above, no version of the Bible presents the “set on fire” option to readers—not even the Amplified Bible, which exists to show a variety of options in translation. Why? Because the interpretation that has Jesus’s garment being set on fire by this woman is an entirely unreasonable interpretation compared to the others and is unworthy of our consideration (although it provided a great deal of fun for me during a particular homework assignment once upon a time). Sometimes it is the job of a translator to leave certain interpretations of a phrase or concept on the cutting room floor and move on.
Also, just as it is true that interpretation is inevitable in the process of translating the Bible, it is also inevitable in the process of reading the Bible. Everyone who reads the Bible is a theologian; we’re just not all equally good at it. One good way to consider the process is this: The translator and the reader constitute a team. The translator has studied the source language (Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek), and so the task of translation is his alone. The task of interpretation is shared between them. Both the translator and the reader (and, for the believer, the Holy Spirit) are partners together in a task of interpretation that begins during the process of translation and is only finished when the reader has comprehended the text.
Here’s where the translator faces a philosophical choice: how much of the task of interpretation to entrust to the remainder of the team. A translator can choose to do as little interpretation as is necessary or as much interpretation as is reasonably possible. A translator can choose to leave to the reader (hopefully aided by the Holy Spirit) as much of the interpretive task as is reasonable, or only as much as is absolutely inevitable. In my opinion, a good translator chooses the former option rather than the latter, leaving as much of the interpretive task to the reader as is possible for a reader who has not studied at all the source languages.
To illustrate how this choice works itself out and why it matters, I direct you to the differences in the ways that the NASB and the NIV have translated the word sarx in the writings of the Apostle Paul in the New Testament.
The word sarx in Greek simply means “the muscular part of the body” and, in a usage at least as old as Homer’s Odyssey, by extension it is used to refer to the physical body as a whole. The best literal translation of the word is “flesh,” and the NASB, true to its translation philosophy, consistently uses the word “flesh” to translate “sarx.” In many places in the Pauline corpus, the NIV is also content to use the word “flesh” (1 Corinthians 15:50 NIV 2011…although I’m actually providing you with a contrast of the NIV 1984 and the NASB, you’ll have to take my word for it that the NIV 1984 uses “flesh” here just as the NIV 2011 does, since Biblica has decided to make it illegal for BibleGateway or anyone else to provide you with the text of the NIV 1984, and therefore, I cannot provide you with a link to the actual text that I am discussing).
In many other passages, however, Paul clearly means something MORE than just “the muscular part of the body” when he refers to the sarx. For example, in Galatians 5:16-18 Paul is depicting a struggle within the believer between good and evil. In a similar discussion in Ephesians 4:22-24, Paul depicts this as the struggle between the “old man” (palaion anthropon) and the “new man” (kainon anthropon). Here in Galatians, however, Paul chooses to employ a dichotomy between “spirit” (pneuma) and “flesh” (sarx). In both cases, Paul’s clear intention is to speak about a difference between the base sinful life that precedes conversion (and is therefore “old”) versus the higher spirit-filled life made possible after conversion (which is therefore “new”).
For a translator, when you face a philosophically-laden concept like this, what do you do? The NIV 1984 translates sarx in passages like this one generally by resorting to the phrase “sinful nature.” The NASB, following a more literal translation philosophy, sticks with “flesh.” I’d like to explain what might be reasons that would make a good translator consider doing what the NIV 1984 did, followed by giving my reasons why I think that the NASB’s approach is the better one.
The difficult philosophical question here is simply this one: What connection is there between our physical bodies and our sinful natures? Christian History abounds with bad answers to that question. There’s the neo-Platonic error that closely associates the two: Whatever is physical is inferior, and therefore a sinful nature is inherent to any physical body. This error leads to Docetism (Christ could not have possessed one of these physical bodies if He was without sin…He must have only SEEMED to have been human) and the Gnostic versions of antinomianism (Don’t worry about behavior, because that fleshly body of yours is sinful no matter what you do with it). These errors are hardly compatible with a Christian story of creation in which God creates a physical universe and declares it to be “very good,” not to mention a Christian story of redemption that involves God’s birth as a physical baby.
This error of associating the physical body too closely with the sinful nature is one that has repeatedly appeared down through the years. Whenever it does appear, its proponents make significant use of passages like Galatians 5:16-26. It is a fair statement to declare that this neo-Platonic error amounts to one interpretation of Galatians 5:16-26 (although other passages are involved in this conversation, too, as well as philosophical contributors beyond the biblical text). If a translator can, by employing a phrase like “sinful nature” rather than “flesh,” prevent people from adopting this bad, heretical interpretation of the passage, then that’s a good thing, right?
Right. But at what cost?
Because although it is erroneous to make too close of a connection between the physical body and the sinful nature, can we divorce the two entirely without doing violence to what Paul is saying? I don’t think so. There is, after all, a reason why Paul chose to use such a word as “flesh”—a word he sometimes uses simply to refer to the physical body—to speak about the conflict between our sinful natures and the redeemed spiritual part of us. Physical creation WAS “very good,” and there is nothing inferior about material existence per se, but physical creation (especially including our bodies) has been tainted by the Fall and is pervasively sinful. The body was good and could be good, but the present reality is that the very flesh of our bodies is infected with the sin-disease.
This biblical concept goes far beyond Paul’s use of sarx:
- It is present in James’s use of the Greek word melos (“member, body part”) in James 4:1.
- In the list of the “works of the flesh” that follow in Galatians 5, so many of them are connected with biological urges.
- It is present in our understanding of the Resurrection: We will have physical bodies in eternity, but the physical bodies that we now are “must be changed.” Indeed “flesh (sarx) and blood cannot” take part in this eternity (I Corinthians 15:50-53).
- It is present in purification requirements in the Torah. These value and honor human bodies as valuable and as God’s masterpiece while asserting that the actual bodies of actual human individuals are riddled with impurities that must be washed before one may approach God.
The problem with “sinful nature” is that most people, I think, pretty quickly abstract that phrase in their minds to make it something akin to the little demon sitting on one shoulder and arguing with the little angel on the other. In other words, people reading “sinful nature” pretty quickly take ALL of the physicality out of that concept, replacing it with something immaterial, psychological, and behavioral.
I think that Paul meant by sarx NEITHER “a physical body” NOR “a sinful nature,” but instead meant something more along the lines of “what a physical body is when it has been tainted by a sinful nature.” Of course, that’s a wordy, complicated translation of a single word (if I were to do a translation of the entire Bible, how many pages would it be?), and no professional translator would ever prefer a translation like this one.
The word-for-word translation of sarx, “flesh,” is superior to “sinful nature,” I think, because it is far more likely that a reader would reason his way from “flesh” to “flesh tainted by a sinful nature” than it is that a reader would reason his way from “sinful nature” to “a sinful nature that extends beyond our psychology to the very nature of our physical bodies.” When the translation removes all reference to physicality (the primary sense of the word in the source language!), what clue is there, really, to tell a reader that physicality should be some part of the interpretation?
Whether you are talking about sarx or gender-neutrality or a whole host of other issues, it is the general tendency of dynamic equivalence translations to remove interpretive options from the reader’s view. Where the translator sees a risk of misinterpretation, such as with sarx, a good translator should resist the temptation to make things simple for the reader. Trust the reader, aided by the Holy Spirit, with as much of the interpretive task as one can undertake without a lexicon and a grammar.
This is especially important because translators, even the most devout and intelligent among them, inhabit these physical bodies tainted by sinful natures. The more interpretive work that the translators do on the readers’ behalf, the more power a small group of people have over the faith conclusions drawn by a whole host of believers. As Baptists we have believed that the Holy Spirit works through the broad membership of the congregation as a preventative against the consolidation of too much spiritual power in any one or few sinful humans. Formal equivalence translations, well done and carefully worded into the vernacular, embody this principle better than dynamic equivalence translations precisely because they reserve more of the task of interpretation for the readers of the sacred text to perform.