As I was leaving work Friday I noticed that we received copies of the new book Which Bible Translation Should I Use?.  I couldn’t resist grabbing one to look at over the weekend. The book presents essays written by four scholars advocating for a translation of the Bible they have been actively involved in. Wayne Grudem writes for the ESV, Douglas Moo for the NIV, Ray Clendenen for the HCSB, and Philip Comfort for the NLT. Each essay begins by “laying out some of the guiding principles of the particular translation before discussing 16 specific passages that will serve as a basis for comparison and the distinctive natures of the four translations.” (From the Forward, 3)

The passages discussed are: Exodus 2:5-6; Psalm 1:1; Ezekiel 18:5-9, 21-24; Matthew 5:1-3; Mark 1:40-45; Mark 16:9-20; Luke 17:3; John 1:3-4, 14, 18; John 2:5-3:1; 1 Corinthians 2:1,13; Galatians 5:2-6; Colossians 2:8-15; 1 Thessalonians 1:3; 1 Timothy 2:12; Jude 4-5; Revelation 3:20.  Each passage provides a different issue which affects how the passage is translated. I’ll give one example which involves an issue of textual criticism. The passage is Mark 1:41 and I chose this one in particular because the NIV 2011 has taken some heat for the textual variant they adopted for their translation. Although all four authors discuss the passage I will highlight the two best.

Douglas Moo for the NIV

“The versions display several differences in the way they translate this narrative from early in the life of Jesus, but one surely stands out. At the beginning of verse 41, ESV, HCSB, and NLT refer to Jesus’ ‘pity’ or ‘compassion’ as the motivation for his cleansing of the man with leprosy. But the NIV says that ‘Jesus was indignant.’ How in the world could there be such a big difference in translation? The answer is that the versions are translating different Greek texts.”

“The difference here reveals an important but somewhat hidden part of the translation process—translators must decide just what Greek words they are going to translate. The problem is that we do not have one single ‘inspired’ Greek New Testament. Rather, we have thousands of manuscripts that we have to sift through and compare. Where these manuscripts have different ‘readings’ of the Greek, we must decide which one is the most likely to have been the original word, or words, the biblical author wrote down. Now, in God’s providence, we have so much good information about the Greek text that we can usually be pretty sure about what the original Greek actually was. And even when we have doubt about the original, we should not worry. The differences are so minor that not important New Testament teaching is ever in doubt.”

“Still there are differences, even if minor, and they do affect the meaning of some specific texts. The variant in Mark 1:41 is a good example. Most of the Greek manuscripts have a verb that is accurately rendered in the ESV, HCSB, and NLT as ‘have compassion’/‘pity.’ The other option, the Greek word means ‘be angry’ or ‘indignant,’ is found in only one Greek manuscript (and several others in other languages). Why in the world, then, you might be asking, did the NIV decide to base its translation on this word? Simply because of a basic principle of textual criticism: prefer the reading that can best explain the others. In other words, we have to ask his question: as scribes copied the Gospel of Mark over the centuries, would they have been more likely to put the Greek word for ‘anger’ in place of the one for ‘compassion’? Or the reverse? The answer is clear: they would have been far more likely to substitute ‘compassion’ for ‘anger.’ The Gospels frequently refer to Jesus’ compassion as the motivation for this healings. Scribes would know this and would tend to use that language here also. Moreover, the idea of Jesus’ being ‘angry’ does not fit the context very well. For this reason the great majority of recent commentators on the Gospel of Mark have decided that the original Greek here referred to Jesus’ anger. [Moo says in a footnote here: “I have 14 Mark commentaries in my home library. Thirteen of them prefer the word for ‘anger.’”] As we saw what the man with leprosy had suffered, Jesus responded initially with ‘anger’ or ‘indignation’ at the terrible plight of people in the sin-ravaged world.”

“The point I am making here is not that the NLT, ESV, and HCSB are wrong in putting ‘compassion’ or ‘mercy’ in their texts—the textual critical issue is a tough call, and the major printed editions of the Greek New Testament (the United Bible Societies 4th ed. and the Nestle-Aland 27 ed.) both have the Greek word for ‘compassion.’ My point, rather, is that the NIV option is defensible, representing as it does the view of most scholars on the Gospel of Mark. The NLT, to its credit, while putting ‘moved with compassion’ in the text, includes the alternative in a footnote. The ESV and HCSB do not even mention this alternative, failing to alert the English reader to the reading that most scholars consider the original.” (95-97)

Philip Comfort for the NLT

“The most notable difference between the translations occurs in Mark 1:41, where three translations (NLT, ESV, HCSB) indicate that Jesus was ‘moved with compassion/pity’ (spangchnisthesis) at the leper’s request for healing. One translation (NLT) notes that some manuscripts read that Jesus was ‘moved with anger,’ and yet another translation (NIV) actually follows these manuscripts and reads that Jesus ‘was indignant’ (orgistheis) at the leper’s request for a healing. The two readings are very different! Was Jesus moved with compassion or was he indignant? First, let us look at the textual evidence. The number of manuscripts that support ‘was compassionate’ is impressive (see fig. 6 below).

Figure 6: Manuscripts Supporting ‘Was Compassionate’

Manuscript

Date (AD)

א (Codex Sinaiticus) 4th century
A (Codex Alexandrinus) 5th century
B (Codex Vaticanus) 4th century
C (Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus) 5th century
L (Codex Regius) 8th century
W (Codex Washington) Early 5th century
f 1 12th-14th centuries
f 13 11th-15th centuries
33 9th century
565 9th century
700 11th century
Syriac 2nd-6th centuries
Coptic 3rd-4th centuries
Diatessaron 160-175

The manuscript evidence for ‘was indignant’/‘was moved with anger’ is slim (see fig. 7 below).

Figure 7: Manuscripts Supporting ‘Was Indignant’

Manuscript

Date (AD)

D (Codex Bezae) 5th century
ita   (Old Latin) 350
itd   (old Latin) 450

“Most scholars believe this to be a significant textual dilemma because the variant is such an obviously difficult reading, while the text has such exceedingly strong documentation. The argument runs as thus: If ‘being compassionate’ had originally been in the text, why would any scribe want to change it to ‘being indignant’? Thus, ‘being indignant’ (or ‘being angry’) must have been original, which was then changed to ‘being compassionate.’ But we must remember that the scribe who wrote ‘being indignant’ was the scribe of D (who is often followed by ita d). This scribe (or a predecessor) was a literary editor who had a propensity for making significant changes in the text. At this point he may have decided to make Jesus angry with the leper for wanting a miracle—in keeping with the tone of voice Jesus used in 1:43 when he sternly warned the leper. But this was not a warning about seeking a miracle; it was a warning about keeping the miracle a secret so as to protect Jesus’ identity.”

“Therefore, it would have to be said that, though it is possible Mark wrote ‘was indignant,’ nearly all the documents line up against this. This is not to say that Jesus never got angry or exasperated with people; he did (see Mark 7:34; 9:19; John 11:33,38). It simply seems unwise to take the testimony of D in this instance when good arguments can be made against it, according to both external and internal criteria. As such, I think the translators of the NIV made a daring but wrong decision.” (160-62)