Editor's Note: This is the third part of a series examining different aspects of Bible translation, inspired by the recent controversy surrounding Wycliffe Bible Translators and its translation for a Muslim context. While The Christian Post series will not be focusing exclusively on the Wycliffe controversy, the topics in the series are related to the situation and are helpful to understanding the complicated nature of Bible translation.
Eminent New Testament scholar and Bible translator Daniel B. Wallace recently spoke with The Christian Post about his work with the New English Translation (NET), choosing beneficial translations and grappling with what he believes are some of the more harmful misconceptions, myths and lies about Bible translation.
Dr. Wallace is professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, where he has taught for more than 25 years, and is Executive Director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, established in 2002 for the purpose of digitizing Greek New Testament manuscripts. The New Testament scholar, whose Greek grammar textbook is used at seminaries across the U.S., has served as a consultant on four Bible translations, and most notably worked as the senior New Testament editor of the NET Bible — which he says is "the translation that translators like."
Below is a transcript, edited for brevity, of Dr. Wallace's interview with The Christian Post, in which he also discusses both positive and disturbing trends he has noticed in Christian theology, as well as his hope for future generations of biblical scholars.
CP: Describe briefly the work that you do and why it's significant.
Wallace: My emphasis has been in especially three areas in the New Testament. Textual criticism is one, Greek grammar is a second and the third is what's called exegesis, or interpretation of the text in the Greek text. I teach a class on Romans for example, which is an exegesis verse-by-verse going through the Greek text in Romans because I think that's the most important letter we have in the New Testament. [Martin] Luther felt it was so important that every Christian should memorize the whole thing, word for word. He had just recently done the translation of the Bible into German so they had not even had the opportunity to memorize it. … That's a very important document.
On Greek grammar I've tried to analyze what the language is all about so that we can have a better sense of what these biblical authors are actually saying. Textual criticism deals with the question of what did they originally write, and to try to determine that in light of the thousands of textual differences that we have among the manuscripts. So trying to sift through all the data and get back to the original wording is really what textual criticism is all about. I've been doing that since 1979, I've been working in that area as well.
CP: What was your role as the New Testament Editor on the NET Bible?
Wallace: First of all, what I had to do was determine who would be the people to do the original translations, and I translated a couple of the books. We assigned the books of the New Testament to people who had spent years teaching those various books from the Greek New Testament, so they knew the texts well. This is a little different from how translations typically work — they just get people who are well-known scholars to do the work. But we tried to find the very best people who had spent time in that particular book. So we got a Matthean scholar to translate Matthew and a Markan scholar to translate Mark, and so forth.
But then, once the translation is done, there's a number of things that have to be done at the ending stage. For example, place names need to be spelled the same way throughout the whole New Testament, and that's the job of the Editor to make sure that they are done that way. One of the things that we did with the NET Bible that, from all that I understood has never been done before — and I've consulted with other translators of major translations — and that is we went through Matthew, Mark and Luke in the Greek text in what's called a synoptic parallel. Matthew, Mark and Luke are known as the synoptic Gospels, that is they are viewing the life of Jesus from the same or a similar perspective, while John's is quite different, and there's a lot of overlap in material between Matthew, Mark and Luke. So what we did, is we looked at the Greek synopsis and I color coded that so if you have identical wording between two Gospels it got one color, depending on which two it was; identical wording between all three would get a different color; almost identical wording you'd get underlining. It was fairly complicated, it would take about 500 hours to do that.
Then, an assistant editor went through all that and made comparisons with the Greek synopsis and the NET Bible to make sure that what we were saying was... if the Greek is saying exactly the same thing in two or three Gospels, then we probably should say the same thing in our translation. I think it was a major achievement. We saw translations that, for example, would speak about the servant girl who spoke to Peter, where he denied the Lord (mentioned in Matthew, Mark and Luke) … and each time, we saw some translations where they translated exactly the same Greek word differently three different ways. There's no reason to do that, but because they had not done a careful examination of the parallels, they were not able see that they had done this kind of indiscriminate changes that they made to the text.
CP: What were the other Bible translations for which you've served as a consultant?
Wallace: The first one I worked on was the New King James Version. I was a proofreader by working directly for Dr. Arthur L. Farstad who's the senior editor of it. I did that while I was in seminary back in the late 70s, and made about 200 suggestions on the translation. Then I've been a consultant for the ESV, and I was also an outside consultant for the TNIV. I've also been a consultant for the HCSB.
CP: Which translations do you prefer for personal Bible study?
Wallace: It depends. I think that English speakers should have more than one translation. If we have in our background a history of Christian thought in the Western world, especially in the English-speaking world, it's part of our tradition and it's important to own a lot more than one translation. I do recommend that every English-speaking Christian have a King James Bible. There's nothing that compares to it in terms of its elegance and its cadence and the beauty of its language. … But it's not the most accurate anymore. So it's elegant, it's easy to memorize out of even though the language is archaic, but it's not always real clear and it's not always real accurate. So I also recommend a study Bible that is following the Greek and Hebrew texts pretty closely. There are two that I especially recommend — the NET Bible, of course. One of the reasons the NET is valuable is because it has more footnotes than any other Bible in any other language in history — over 60,000 footnotes. …
We've got three different kinds of notes in there. One is text critical which deals with textual problems in a far more detailed way than you'll see in any other Bible translation. Others will say "other ancient authorities read this word," and the NET Bible might have half a page of notes discussing the textual problem, listing the manuscripts on both sides, telling why the editors went in one direction instead of the other — so it's a very helpful apparatus for textual critical notes.
A second kind of note is what's called a study note, and that is the various interpretations to
special problematic passages. We've found that translators for other translations told us that they could not have done their work without using the NET Bible notes, it became that helpful. So we kind of view it as the translation that translators like. The third kind of note is what's called the translator's note where we list the different ways in which the words can be translated.
Basically what the NET Bible does is, anybody who wants to understand their own translations better, the NET Bible helps them see the kind of decisions that were made and what the other options are for them.
The ESV is the other one that I recommended as a really good study Bible. It's got some nice cadence to it. Leland Ryken, who's professor of English literature at Wheaton College, worked on it as a stylist making sure that its kind of understated elegance, it's memorable. For the 21st century, it comes about as close to duplicating the elegance of the King James Bible as can be done today. I think it's also an accurate translation. I think the Old Testament especially is very good, but the New Testament also is a good translation. Those are the ones I'd recommend for study Bibles.
Finally, I'd recommend a reading Bible. One that you should read a paragraph at a time, a chapter at a time, to really get a feel for the flow of a discourse or a narrative. The NIV is exceptional for that, it's also a good study Bible, too, but the NIV is very good for that. So is the New Living Bible, the Revised English Bible and even the Message is good along those lines.
CP: What would you say are some of the most harmful misconceptions, myths or lies about Bible translation?
Wallace: It's hard to tell exactly... maybe one of them would be that translations that are not done by evangelical Christians or conservative Christians are all bad.
I believe the Spirit of God has so worked over the text of the Bible and the transmission of the text, that even when you get translators that don't believe the Bible is the word of God it's hard for them to mess it up. I think even a translation that's done by people who might be great scholars but may not be Christians can often be very very good translations. A sort of an example of this is the NRSV – although there were several Christians who were on the translation committee, there were also people who were not Christians on it. That's also a very very good translation. I think sometimes we get hostile to certain groups and assume that they are wholly against really what the Bible is really about.
Another myth that I think is very harmful is to think that orthodox scribes have severely corrupted the text. This is the view that Dr. Bart D. Ehrman holds to pretty strongly, and he and I have had three debates with each other over this issue. I think he's overstated the case about how much Orthodox Christian scribes corrupted the text early on.
The opposite kind of a myth, and this is typically held by King James-only folks but others of that ilk, is that heretics have severely corrupted the text, ancient scribes have severely corrupted the text by taking verses out. I think that's a myth that really is harmful for Christians to think that, because they get into the mentality of being suspicious of everything that's out there. The reality is, it's not that heretics took verses out, it's rather that the Orthodox added verses by way of clarification as to what was going on in the text, but it doesn't really change the fundamental theology of the New Testament.
CP: The NRSV also includes the apocryphal writings, correct?
Wallace: There's an NRSV that doesn't have it and the NRSV that does have it. They've got the papal imprimatur on it, which means that the pope has said this is a good, official translation for the Catholic Church and that's the one with the apocrypha in it. Protestant Bibles had the apocrypha in them until the middle of the 19th century, but they would separate out those books by putting them at the end of the Old Testament. If Catholic Bibles integrate them into the Old Testament, they'd call them the Deuterocanonical books.
I'd encourage Christians if they can get a translation with or without the apocrypha, it's always best to get one with the apocrypha. So if you're going to get the NRSV, get one with the apocrypha by all means because that tells you a lot about the intertestamental history, that 400-year gap from Malachi until John the Baptist. It''s important for us to know what happened in that intermediate time... First and Second Maccabees are especially important for telling us some of that information – we know where Pharisees came from, where synagogues, or Sadducees, this kind of thing. You get into the apocryphal literature, you start seeing some of those things emerge and you understand why the New Testament era looks so different from the Old Testament.
CP: There's a suspicion that since the apocryphal works are not inspired Scripture that Christians should ignore them – but you say there's at least an historical value to those texts?
Wallace: Absolutely, they have very important historical value. I think sometimes Christians feel as if "well if it's not Scripture we shouldn't even read it," which is I think a terribly naive attitude, not a good attitude. I think all truth is God's truth, but we need to be involved in reading literature by Christians and by non-Christians wrestling with issues and reflecting all this against a theological worldview.
CP: What are some recent trends you've noticed, good or bad, in regard to Christianity, theology, scholarship, etc.?
Wallace: The single biggest trend that I've seen is a move into the postmodern world, where Christianity is catching up with postmodernism. Some of that is good, some of it is bad. I think what I expected as we moved into postmodernism was a better recognition of the value of the Christian faith as a viable option for how to interpret the data. I expected that because postmodernism inherently says that all truth is relative, there's no absolute truth, that they would say "okay, well you can have your truth, we can have ours" and so there would not be nearly as much hostility toward evangelical Christianity as there'd been in the past. That has not turned out to be the case in scholarship. For the most part, biblical scholars who are not Christians have a greater animosity toward the Christian faith than they did in modernism.
It's ironic because what they're doing is they're saying "all views are created equal except for the orthodox Christian view, that's one that we absolutely must reject." It's terribly ironic. There are revisions that are going on on so many issues about the Christian faith, and things that were considered to be absolutely certain before, are now being questioned. The dates of certain manuscripts, certain beliefs that Jesus suffered the wrath of God on the cross for example, that's being questioned even by evangelical Christians. Virtually everything in the Christian faith has all of a sudden come up for grabs again, as far as some people are concerned.
I think that's distressing because it's basically saying "we don't care about what is the probable view, all views are equally possible therefore we give preference to none, but we do give a non-preference to the orthodox Christian view." It's hypocritical, it's inconsistent and ultimately it's destructive because there's no value as far as the Christian faith is concerned in that worldview.
But the good news about postmodernism – this is something I'm seeing also and that I'm seeing in my students. I can tell within the first two or three weeks of a semester which students are more inclined to be modernist and which ones are inclined to be postmodern. What is really positive about postmodernism is the desire for relationship, the desire for community and the desire for wholeness and authenticity. What modernists would ask is "is Christianity true?" and that's not a postmodern question. The postmodernist asks "is it authentic, or does it work?" In some respects it's a very pragmatic question. … They're saying "I don't want to separate my mind from my heart. I want to make sure that if I embrace the Christian faith it's going to join those two together so I can be a whole person," a whole person in community with other whole persons.
I'm seeing a lot of positive come out of it, but that worldview is affecting all of biblical studies right now. You can't get into any area where it's not being touched.
CP: What 's your advice then, or what would you hope, for the younger generation that will in 20 or 30 years be taking the reigns and guiding biblical scholarship and guiding Christian theology?
Wallace: That's a major question that I have wrestled with and have done so out loud with my students in my classes all the time. Constantly reminding them that they're going to be the leaders of tomorrow, and they need to make sure to know Scripture well, ingrain it into their lives and be walking with the Lord.
One of the things that I really try to insist on is to say "look, neither modernism nor postmodernism is a biblical worldview." But I believe in what's called the communal Imago Dei, or societal Imago Dei. ... The basic belief about the Imago Dei that the orthodox Church has held is that everyone still is created in the image of God. You see that in James where he says don't murder somebody because you're murdering somebody who's been created in God's image, which is telling us that the Image of God is still part of what it means to be human. It has never been lost, it's never been erased, but it has been distorted.
Both on an individual level and on a societal level, the Imago Dei has been distorted. Modernism distorts it, postmodernism distorts it, and yet it hasn't been completely obliterated. Consequently, we can see things in our society that we can approve of, that we can say "I agree wholeheartedly with this, this is a part of how I need to think about the world. Here's something that I disagree with." What's happened as we've shifted into postmodernism is some of the older scholars are saying "well we need to get back to modernism" – no, we don't. What we need to do is recognize is that we need to be above the fray and have a Christian worldview that partakes a little bit from modernism, a little bit from postmodernism, but recognize that all things are subject to Christ and that some of these viewpoints are wrong, some of them are right and we need to have a Christian viewpoint where our minds are truly transformed by the Gospel.
I also remind them that Paul tells Timothy to preach the word in season, out of season, whether it's something that people want to listen to or not. In our postmodern, pragmatic world we have moved the Gospel in the direction of something that is feel-good theology. Rather than telling people what they need to hear, we tell them what they want to hear. That's a real danger the next generation has got to deal with, and it will have vast repercussions if they don't resist that temptation.