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Bethel and Bible Translation: A Continuing Tradition

Bethel and Bible translation have a long history together, and two Bethel Seminary professors are continuing that tradition. Professor of New Testament Jeannine Brown and University Professor of New Testament Mark Strauss are longtime members of the Committee on Bible Translation, which oversees ongoing revision of the New International Version, and are recognized scholars and writers in their fields.

By Michelle Westlund '83, senior content specialist

July 02, 2020 | 3:30 p.m.

Translation Committee

Bethel Seminary professors Jeannine Brown (front row, left) and Mark Strauss (front row, center) and the Committee on Bible Translation met in 2017 in Cambridge, England, for their annual, ongoing NIV translation work.

Bethel and Bible translation have a long history together. In the late 1960s and 1970s, several Bethel professors were part of the New International Version (NIV) translation team: Donald Madvig, Arthur Lewis, and Ronald Youngblood (Old Testament), and Walter Wessel (New Testament). Youngblood, Bethel Seminary professor of Old Testament and Hebrew emeritus, was a renowned biblical scholar and member of the Committee on Bible Translation from 1976 until his death in 2014.

Bethel faculty continue to be an integral part of Bible translation efforts. Two Bethel Seminary professors—Jeannine Brown, professor of New Testament and director of online programs, and University Professor of New Testament Mark Strauss—have long served on translation teams, as well as making significant contributions to biblical scholarship through their research and writing. Here, they share their thoughts on the task of Bible translation. (Responses are collaborative unless a speaker is indicated.)

Tell us about your involvement in Bible translation. Which translation teams have you been a part of, and for how long?

Mark: I served on translation committees for the New Century Version (NCV), the Expanded Bible, and presently as vice-chair of the Committee on Bible Translation for the New International Version (NIV). I’ve written or edited various articles and books on translation, including Distorting Scripture? The Challenge of Bible Translation and Gender Accuracy (1998), How to Choose a Translation for All It’s Worth (with Gordon Fee, 2007), and The Challenge of Bible Translation (co-editor, 2003). I’ve spoken at a number of Bible translation conferences—in New Zealand, Thailand, and the U.S. 

Jeannine: I have consulted on a few translation projects over the years including the New Century Version and the Common English Bible. I have been a member of the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT) for the last 10 years. This involvement with the NIV is a long-term commitment; the team meets every year for ongoing revision of the NIV.

Why is the continued task of Bible translation so important? 

A translation is never finished. There are two main reasons. First, language continues to change. This is particularly true in the modern world, where words, phrases, and idioms can change meaning over time. A well-known example is the change in the meaning of the word “gay,” whose primary meaning used to be “happy,” “fancy,” or “luxurious.” A man who comes to church wearing “gay clothing” (James 2:3 KJV) does not mean the same thing today as it did in 1611, when the King James Version was first published. Two rather humorous examples of words whose meaning has changed in recent years are “booty” and “thongs.” In the 1984 NIV, 2 Chronicle 14:14 read, “They plundered all these villages, since there was much booty there.” This obviously doesn’t work today, so we changed it to “plunder” in the 2011 revision. Similarly Judges 16:8 in NIV 1984 said that Delilah tied up Samson with “seven fresh thongs.” This was changed to “seven fresh bowstrings” in 2011. Most language changes are not this dramatic, of course, and in most cases we are just trying to make a passage clearer and more accurate for the reader.

The second main reason for changes are advances in biblical scholarship. Sometimes further research will change the consensus of biblical scholarship on a particular passage. One example of this is in Luke 2:7, where almost all scholars today affirm that the word translated “inn” does not mean an ancient hotel (there would have been no inns in a tiny village like Bethlehem). It more likely means a guestroom in a private residence. So whereas the NIV 1984 read “She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn,” the 2011 revision reads “…because there was no guest room available for them.”

“The work I do as a translator for the NIV is the weightiest work I do as well as some of the most fulfilling.”

— Jeannine Brown, Professor of New Testament, Bethel Seminary

What actually happens when translation teams meet? Give us a snapshot of what it's like when you meet and make decisions.

The Committee on Bible Translation (CBT), composed of 15 Old and New Testament scholars from around the English-speaking world, meets annually (for a week or so) for ongoing revision work. During the year, we review the NIV text and each member is able to make proposals for improvements. We also receive proposals from people outside of the team. Before our meeting, we review all proposals, study the particular text and context of each, and come to the meeting prepared to discuss them. 

During the meeting, we walk through each proposed change and, after appropriate deliberation, take a vote on that proposal. The voting policy is quite conservative: It takes a 70% vote to change the current NIV text. So there is a commitment to changing only what needs to be changed for accuracy and good, contemporary English expression. 

In your years of serving on translation teams, what changes have occurred in how the work is approached and/or carried out? 

Not a lot has changed in the actual process, although the increasing speed at which English is changing has meant more frequent revision is necessary. In terms of efficiency and success, the makeup of a translation committee can determine to a great extent its success. The NIV Committee on Bible Translation has been an exceptional experience because of the high quality of people on the committee and the chemistry among members. These are some of the leading scholars in the world in their particular fields, yet there is a remarkable congeniality and mutual respect. Imagine challenging someone on the interpretation of a passage in a biblical book where they wrote the definitive commentary! How intimidating is that? You would think the potential clash of egos would be enormous in that context. Yet what is remarkable is the humility, respect, and generosity we have seen among this group. A brilliant scholar will lose a vote for their cherished interpretation, yet will be able to shrug it off and move on to the next one. We occasionally hear horror stories about translation committees where egos clash, voices are dismissed or ignored, and theological agendas control the discussion. Yet we have been blessed that there is almost none of this in the CBT, just a desire to “get it right.” This is no doubt the reason the week we spend together each year is one of the highlights of our year.

Speaking of changes, how has the committee become more diverse in your years of serving on it?

Jeannine: The CBT in recent years has been working to broaden its membership, both in terms of ethnicity and gender. When I came on the team, Karen Jobes, a long-standing member, became a good friend and mentor. She retired from the CBT, which left me, for a few years, as the only female scholar on the team. Last year, the CBT asked Sandra Richter to join the team, and this year we also have had a female scholar from Africa consulting with us, who will join us next year as well. I do feel some amount of pressure relieved when I have at least one other woman in the room. It allows me to speak for myself and not for “all women”—which, of course, I never did!

Mark: By taking the name New “International” Version, the NIV consciously identified itself as a version that was meant to be for the English-speaking world as a whole. That would include not just the U.S., the UK, Canada, and Australia, but also much of the Caribbean, Anglophone Africa, India, Hong Kong, etc., where English is widely spoken. To a certain extent, the NIV has been successful, since it is used and respected around the world. Yet we still have a ways to go for the committee to reflect this diversity. While we have one scholar from India, one from Australia, and two from the UK, all the rest are from the U.S. and Canada. Twelve are white males, two are white women, one is an Indian man. That’s not very international or diverse! As Jeannine said, this year we had a female scholar from Africa participate as an observer, and I hope she will become part of the committee. Yet we still face an uphill battle for various reasons. First, the work of European and American scholars tends to dominate the field of biblical studies. This gives the impression that the Western way of doing biblical scholarship is the “right” way. Furthermore, while we say we value diversity, all of us have a tendency to treat our perspective as objective—the way things really are. But I will never value and promote diversity until I recognize that my views of the Bible are actually deficient without the voice of others. So we do have some ways to go.

“It is so exciting to know that this work will help others hear God speak to them clearly through His Word.”

— Mark Strauss, University Professor of New Testament

What are the biggest challenges of Bible translation work? 

A significant challenge of translation work is that there is often not an exact equivalence between words or idioms between two languages. This means that we need to think long and hard about a variety of English words that could work for a single Greek or Hebrew word, depending on context. It also means that a translation is rarely ideal at every point. But, on the bright side, translations—and for our readers, English translations—do a solid job of communicating what the biblical authors intended to communicate. The differences among English translations also provide a great jumping-off point for serious Bible students for further study in the text with the help of commentaries.

What most energizes you about translation work? 

Jeannine: The work I do as a translator for the NIV is the weightiest work I do as well as some of the most fulfilling. I find it deeply gratifying to help a translation like the NIV, which has had such an impact on so many across the world, to remain true to the original meaning of the biblical text and yet stay on course with the English language as it changes from generation to generation. The team of translators I have the privilege of working with is also a delight. 

Mark: While committee work can certainly be excruciating at times, for me the most energizing times are those “aha” moments when the committee wrestles with a thorny translation issue and, after much trial and error, finally gets it right, finding the perfect way to communicate a truth of Scripture. It is so exciting to know that this work will help others hear God speak to them clearly through His Word.

How has COVID-19 changed the way translation work is carried out? 

Well, we are meeting this week via Zoom with our 15-member global team. We had intended to meet together for a full week in Washington, D.C. Instead, we are meeting four hours each day and trying to accommodate time zones for our members around the world, with our Australian colleague joining us from 2-6 a.m. each day! Our plan for next June is to meet for two weeks (twice our usual annual meeting time) to cover the lost communal work time.

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