Of Bible Translation Wars And Bible Shortage Woes

I really wanted to share my views regarding the new ESV Permanent Text Bible translation. But I have no theological qualifications that can warrant me a sit in the heated debate. Above all, I don’t know the difference between Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew.

Here’s the background story.

The Crossway Board that is responsible for the ESV Bible translation decided that their latest updates will be the last. This means that the ESV Bible will not be updated or revised in the duration of the copyright. That’s not a problem since according to a 2012 survey less 14℅ people use the ESV. Right?


In the past two weeks, theologians, Bible scholars and theoblogians have been exchanging words without end because of how the ESV Bible translation committee chose to render Genesis 3:16.

Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.

Replacing for with contrary to and and with but started a theological war. And justifiably so. That simple change significantly altered the meaning of the verse. And theologians like Scott McKnight were quick to suggest that the change was made to favor complementarian theology.

If true, what is the difference between a Jehovah’s Witness Bible and the ESV since both Bible translations give weight to a particular doctrinal position?

So, as a Bible user who doesn’t know the difference between a seminary hall and a church pew, I chose to keep quiet and watch. I chose to read every article I found on the matter. Articles by people who labeled the Crossway board as arrogant and those that believed the decision was noble.

7 Lessons On Bible Translation I Learned From The ESV Permanent Text Controversy

Discover why choosing a Bible translation matters

But I had an ulterior motive. I took this ESV controversy as an opportunity to learn about the importance of choosing the right Bible translation in my personal Bible study.

We have an appropriate saying in ChiShona, panorairwa mwana wamambo muranda terera-when the prince is counselled a servant you should heed in secret.

1. Literal Bible Translations Have Limitations

Word-for-word Bible translations like ESV and KJV are excellent Bible reading resources but they have limitations because of the complexity of language. A good example is the ChiShona saying above. The literal translation should read:

During the counseling of a king’s son the servant should listen.

Unfortunately, this rendition ignores the position of a servant in a Shona chieftaincy. A servant isn’t allowed to listen to the conversations between the royalty and their advisors. Unlike the KJV, the ESV attempts to include the historical background of a text in selecting the best word-for-word Bible translation.

2. Bible translation is glorified Bible interpretation

Reading the Bible is Bible interpretation. And the Bible version you use in your Bible study is a culmination of how the translation committee interpreted each Bible passage. Let’s go back to that Shona proverb.

The Shona culture is patriarchal so I made three critical assumptions.

  1. The child is being counselled on governance or character.
  2. An heir to the throne is being counseled.
  3. And the child is male.

During Bible translation, the translation committee makes such assumptions based on the historical context and the content of the passages. Using Occam’s razor it’s obvious that the quality or accuracy of a Bible translation is determined by the number of assumptions each member of the translation committee bring to the table – more assumptions, poor accuracy.

3. Thought-for-thought Bible version may miss the thought

Confronted by the shortcomings of word-for-word Bible version, you might want to choose a paraphrase Bible translation. Examples of such Bible translations include the CEV, NIV and NLT. They’re easy to ready but at what cost? Can you consider this dynamic equivalency translation of the Shona proverb:

A member of the secret service should listen carefully when a child of the president is given advice.

This thought-for-thought translation is understandable to people who don’t know the Shona culture. Yet, it robs the reader the opportunity to learn and appreciate the Shona culture. Understanding the cultural context of a Bible passage will help you in knowing the author’s intent.

4. Your Bible was not translated from the original manuscripts

You probably heard people say that the Bible is corrupted because we don’t have the original manuscripts. It’s true we don’t have the original manuscripts. We don’t have the original manuscripts, Moses, David, Solomon, Habakkuk, Esther, Ruth, Matthew, Mark or Paul wrote. The manuscripts we have are copies of copies of copies but we can trust them.

But that doesn’t mean the Bible is corrupted. Like the DNA replication process, copying the books of the Bible was traditionally done with great faithfulness. Several ancient manuscripts have been found and the level of faithfulness found in the copies is amazing. However, one Bible translation might slightly differ from another depending on the manuscripts used for translation.

5. Use several Bible translations during a Bible study

When I came to Christ, I joined the KJV-only band. I believed all Bible translations were corrupted except for the KJV. But with time, I adopted the ESV. However, during my Bible studies, I compliment it with the Young’s Literal Translation, the NASB, the KJV and the NIV. I don’t use NLT but I like The Message.

It’s beneficial to use different word-for-word Bible translations to avoid the dangers of the ESV Permanent Text Controversy. During my Bible study, I first read the ESV and check some parts of the text in a different word-for-word Bible translation like the NASB and KJV. I use thought-for-thought Bible versions to check if what I understood from the passage agrees with other believers.

6. I should take a class in Bible languages

My ignorance about how the ESV Bible translation committee translated Genesis 3:16 baffled me. My dream is to one day write a book on Bible interpretation that could help pastors and church members in developing nations. As a result, I felt inadequate and I knew something was missing in my Bible study.

If I get $1,194.00, I will enroll for a Biblical Languages Certificate ($749 course and Zimbabwe internet fees at $89 per month) offered by Zondervan Academic. By the end of the program I would be able to tell the difference between Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew. But importantly, I will be able to check on my own what a passage says in the original manuscripts.

7. Some people don’t have a Bible

Last Sunday, I travelled to a country church in a village called Nyandeni near Gwanda, Zimbabwe. I enjoyed the music and traditional Ndebele dances as men and women offered praise to God. The sermon was on hearing God’s voice and the preacher emphasized the importance of reading the Bible.

But there’s a shortage of Bibles in the church. People in this community do not know care about English Bible controversies. They only want a good Bible to read and sadly most of them can’t afford to buy the Ndebele Bible. A Ndebele Bible cost at least $10.00.


As the debate on Genesis 3:16 rages on, what are you doing to enrich your personal Bible study? You and I have two options. We can choose a side. Or we can focus on learning how to understand the Bible.

It’s important to know that understanding the history of the Bible will help you to become better in Bible interpretation. Therefore, you need to know the theological background of the Bible translation committee. And you also need to know whether the Bible version is a thought-for-thought, word-for-word or in between.

There’s nothing like the best Bible translation although they’re several bad translations. But you also need to remember they’re millions of people who don’t have access to a Bible. And the good news is this: God has appointed you to be an answer to a prayer of one, two, ten or hundred people.


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