Friday, October 25, 2019

The Proper Use of Paraphrases

The article I posted a few weeks ago regarding the different English translations of the Bible generated a few follow-up questions. I feel they are worth exploring in their own entries, so for today, I’ll be discussing the issue of paraphrases. To add to it, I will also give an explanation of the two camps of translation style.

What is a Biblical Paraphrase?

So, what’s a paraphrase and how is it different from a translation? Generally speaking, it is that a paraphrase seeks to go beyond mere grammatical correctness. Remember that the Bible was originally written in Hebrew and Greek (with a smattering of Aramaic) and also was written between 3400 and 2000 years ago in a culture very different from our own. The meanings of their words and phrases do not always have a direct correlative in our language. Paraphrases seek to overcome that by changing the meaning of the biblical text to better match the modern setting.

I’ll use Job 40:3–5 as an example, which I chose at random. In the Christian Standard Bible (CSB), which is a true translation, it says,

Then Job answered the Lord:
 I am so insignificant. How can I answer you?
I place my hand over my mouth.
I have spoken once, and I will not reply;
twice, but now I can add nothing.

Now let’s look at the way a paraphrase, The Message, puts it:

Job answered:

I’m speechless, in awe—words fail me.
I should never have opened my mouth!
I’ve talked too much, way too much.
I’m ready to shut up and listen.

The meaning is pretty similar, so let’s focus on a particular parallel idiom. The CSB has the phrase, “I place my hand over my mouth.” The Message, on the other hand, says, “I’m ready to shut up and listen.” Ignoring that The Message changes the order of the verses, just notice the subtle change in meaning. Both forms say that Job is going to be quiet, but “shut up” is a very American turn of phrase that is not strictly accurate to the original Hebrew.

The Danger of Paraphrase

It’s a fairly unimportant example since the basic meaning is still there, simply being given a new form to match a contemporary way of speaking. But it shows a tendency in paraphrases that can be a problem elsewhere. When you are that free with your “modernizing,” you can make the text say what you want it to say rather than what it actually says. A classic example of that comes from the way The Message renders 1 Cor. 6:9–10, saying,

Don’t you realize that this is not the way to live? Unjust people who don’t care about God will not be joining his kingdom. Those who use and abuse each other, use and abuse sex, use and abuse the earth and everything in it, don’t qualify as citizens in God’s kingdom.

Now let’s compare that to the CSB again:

Don’t you know that the unrighteous will not inherit God’s kingdom? Do not be deceived: No sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, or males who have sex with males, no thieves, greedy people, drunkards, verbally abusive people, or swindlers will inherit God’s kingdom.

Here, the differences are more clear. The Message has actually changed the meaning by stripping it away in some cases and adding to it in another. The big issue in our culture, of course, is that The Message removes any mention of homosexuality. But that is not the only thing missing. Sins that are directly named in the CSB are generalized in The Message. Now, of course, this is not an exhaustive list of sins. But removing the specificity creates a gray area. Gray areas allow for self-justification. The Apostle Paul wrote what he did specifically to avoid that type of escape.

On top of that, what does “use and abuse the earth and everything in it” mean? It is hard to understand that as something other than an environmentalist statement. Now, you can certainly argue that from the Bible. We are supposed to care for God’s creation. But that is not what the original Greek of this verse says here. The author added what he wanted it to say rather than simply giving it its English meaning.

Form and Function in Translation

Before saying a final word on paraphrases, I want to stick with this verse to illustrate a related issue. Translations, in contrast to paraphrases, seek to simply transmit the meaning of the biblical text. However, they do so on a sliding scale between “formal equivalence” and “functional equivalence.” “Formal equivalence” is an attempt to render Scripture in a form as true to the original as possible. “Functional equivalence” is more interested in readability than in accuracy. Let me be clear, that does not mean they play fast and loose with meaning. Rather, terms are modernized and phrases are made more fluid.

The CSB is, generally speaking, a formally equivalent version. However, the way it translates 1 Cor. 6:9 is a good example of functional equivalence. The phrase “males who have sex with males” is actually a combination of two ideas. The original Greek uses the terms malakos and arsenokoites. The King James Version (KJV) translates them more directly as “the effeminate” and “abusers of themselves with mankind.” Paul was making it clear that both sides of homosexual behavior are ungodly, which is what comes through the KJV. The CSB eliminates the distinction because modern people do not make it.

Now, perhaps you think the CSB translators were wrong to do so. I don’t think it is an issue, but I won’t argue with you. The only point I’ll make is that this is not proof that the KJV sticks closer to the original Greek and is therefore superior. The truth is that there is no such thing as pure formal equivalence. Look at the whole text of 1 Cor. 6:9–10 in the KJV:

Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.

A little tough to read? Well, hold your horses. Let’s look at a literal translation of it:

Or not you know that unjust ones kingdom of God not inherit will? Be not led astray; nor fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor catamites, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, not revilers, not plunderers kingdom of God not inherit will.

Just so you know, I went through that text a dozen times to make sure it was right. There are no typos, it is exactly what I meant to write. And in fact, let’s take it a step further. The Greek in which Paul wrote had no spaces, no punctuation, and no difference in letter type, so the direct English equivalent would be:


To the ancient world, that syntax was legible. To us, not so much. Even the KJV had to make it functional for it to be understandable.

My point in saying all of this is that I think it is important to look for balance. We want to read an accurate version of the Bible, but we also have to be able to actually read it. For myself, I do think it is better to be more to the former side of the scale. The more formal equivalence you have, the less chance there is of meaning being imposed on the text by the translator. But for someone just starting out with the Bible, I do not have a problem with the use of something more approachable like the New International Version (NIV) or the New Living Translation (NLT). Their easier style is a good introduction.

The Proper Use of Paraphrases

Paraphrases, on the other hand, are the exact opposite. I think it would be a horrible idea to become familiar with the Bible through one of those, unless somehow no alternative were available. It would be far too easy for a new reader to become engrained with the theology of the author and think that it represents God’s word. Paraphrases are better for the devotional use of much more mature, biblically-literate Christians. They are the ones who know the actual Bible well enough to recognize changes and to use the paraphrase as a way to freshen perspective rather than to learn truth.

Many people would say that I have that backward. In fact, most of the authors of paraphrases do their work in order to make the Bible accessible. Beyond that, many older Christians look at paraphrases as being “dumbed down” and irreverent. I have to insist that both are wrong. Paraphrases are a dangerous place to start but they still have devotional value. If you have been reading the Bible for years, consider picking one up. If you are just getting started, avoid them like the plague and make sure you are reading a translation, instead. You want to make sure you are getting God’s word, not someone’s ideas. Don’t set yourself up for trouble by confusing imitation for the real deal.

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