paraphrases and translations


Paraphrase is the merger of translation and exposition. If the exposition is wrong, then the paraphrase must be false. It is here that attractive style and `simplicity’ can be seductive. The Living Bible (LB) reading of Mark 10:17 is: “What must I do to get to heaven?” This paraphrase is concise and direct—but entirely false. The phrase “to heaven” has no counterpart in the Greek text. It is a common NT phrase in contexts different from Mark 10:17. So the Spirit should have used it here, but did not. The exact translation is: “What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” (KJV and RSV). The LB paraphrase crudely thrusts `heaven going’ on to the Greek, whereas the text is concerned with the quality and duration of future life, not its location.

Today the KJV is out of fashion. Yet even with a rare term the KJV translators intuitively sensed the precise meaning, and were scientifically thus more exact than the New English Bible (NEB) translators, as revisers now admit. The fact that a version is modern does not imply that it is linguistically an advance on an earlier version.

It is interesting to note that there were widely circulated paraphrases of the Old Testament in Palestinian Western Aramaic (e.g. Targum to Job) and in Greek in the centuries before and including the NT era. Yet none of these were used by Jesus or the apostles when preaching or expounding. When they employed the Old Testament in preaching, they also used a literal, archaistic style of translation which exactly mirrored the ancient Hebrew and Aramaic which they were quoting. This should be our precedent. It made demands on Jesus’s audience. It will make demands of ours. If Scripture is hard for some eyes, this is not proof that wrong translation is causing difficulty in understanding; the difficulty could be one of will. Perhaps we should clarify our exposition at this stage—not eject our translation.

The KJV contains a number of obsolete words and expressions, but this does not prevent us from understanding them. “And it came to pass” is obsolete, yet understandable. The “once upon a time” of the NEB (a cue for the `fairy story’) —tself `dated’—is hardly an improvement. Much of Biblical language was in a special type of archaic style when it was originally revealed, in addition to its original use of `everyday’ language of that time.

However, it must be admitted that some people do find the archaism of the KJV a barrier, where terms are used that are not merely obsolete, but unknown to the reader. It is often our privilege to preach the Truth to people who use English as a second language. Obviously a good modern translation will often be clearer to them than the KJV. When this is the case, then the RSV, which has removed these archaisms, can be helpfully employed. The RSV makes substantial use of the KJV —being a revision of it and so it does not contain most of the drawbacks mentioned above and associated with many modern versions. It combines freshness with a degree of literality. Yet linguistically it is inferior to the KJV. It was the linguistic and literary genius of William Tyndale that laid the foundations of the KJV and determined its major form. This is not sentiment. As the English scholar, C.S.Lewis, pointed out. Tyndale was the best prose writer of his era (in his own writings, as well as Bible translations) even superior to Sir Thomas More.( Note however that the RV is based on the Wescott and Hort Greek text and not the “Received Text”