Can you trust your Bible translation? That is the question we’re answering in this special Bible study series. If we can’t trust a Bible translation, we can’t trust the observations and applications we make to our beliefs and practices.
We have looked at Bible translations in previous parts of this series, so we now want to look at Bible paraphrases.
Can we trust that what we read in paraphrases of the Bible is accurate to the original text of the Bible? Let’s begin answering that question by defining what we mean by ‘paraphrase.’
“a restatement of a text, passage, or work giving the meaning in another form” Merriam-Webster Dictionary
“to state something written or spoken in different words, esp. in a shorter and simpler form to make the meaning clearer” Cambridge English Dictionary
We can think of a paraphrase of a Bible verse being like a short commentary on that verse. The ‘paraphraser’ tells you what they think the verse means. It’s their ‘take’ on what the verse means. They might be right .. they might be wrong. That is one of the challenges with trusting a paraphrase of the Bible.
One of the first English paraphrases was A Paraphrase and Annotations upon all the Books of the New Testament by Henry Hammond in the 17th century AD. More recent paraphrases include –
- The New Testament in Modern English by J.B. Phillips (also known as the J.B. Phillips New Testament)
- The Letters of Paul: An Expanded Paraphrase by F.F. Bruce
- An Expanded Translation of the Greek New Testament by Kenneth Wuest
- The Living Bible by Kenneth Taylor
- The Message by Eugene Peterson
- The Passion Translation by Brian Simmons **
[** Though The Passion Translation is called a translation, Simmons also adds many of his own perspectives to a passage translated from the Hebrew and Greek. That’s why I included The Passion Translation in our section about paraphrases. It is one paraphrase we recommend Christians not use for reasons explained in the reference information at the end of this article.]
Who Wrote It?
So, how do you determine whether a Bible paraphrase is good to use for personal reading/study or for group or church reading/study? Ask and answer a basic question – who wrote it?
A modern English Bible translation is usually done by a group of scholars. You can look at who they’re affiliated with (e.g. denominations), what texts they use for Hebrew and Greek, and their process for translation.
A modern paraphrase is often written by one person. You can look at who they are, who they’re affiliated with, what texts they use for Hebrew and Greek (if they use original languages) or what English versions of the Bible they use, and their process for paraphrasing.
Also ask questions about the paraphraser’s theological background. Are they theologically conservative, moderate, liberal? Do they have any strong connections with groups or movements that might cause concern about how they might paraphrase the Bible?
Let’s compare some of the paraphrases using well-known Bible verses. We’ll first show you the verse or verses from the New King James Version (Formal Equivalence translation – word-for-word), then show examples of two or three paraphrases. Look for where the ‘paraphraser’ changed words, meaning of words, and added words to the word-for-word translation.
Psalm 18:1 –
New King James Version – “I will love You, O Lord, my strength.”
The Message – “I love you, God—you make me strong. God is bedrock under my feet, the castle in which I live,my rescuing knight.My God—the high crag where I run for dear life, hiding behind the boulders, safe in the granite hideout.
The Passion Translation – “Lord, I passionately love you and I’m bonded to you, for now you’ve become my power!”
New King James Version – “For with God nothing will be impossible.”
The Message – “Nothing, you see, is impossible with God.”
The Passion Translation – “For no promise of God can fail to be fulfilled.”
J.B. Phillips New Testament – “For no promise of God can fail to be fulfilled.”
New King James Version – “The heavens declare the glory of God; And the firmament shows His handiwork. Day unto day utters speech, And night unto night reveals knowledge.”
The Message – “God’s glory is on tour in the skies, God-craft on exhibit across the horizon. Madame Day holds classes every morning, Professor Night lectures each evening.”
The Passion Translation – “God’s splendor is a tale that is told; his testament is written in the stars. Space itself speaks his story every day through the marvels of the heavens. His truth is on tour in the starry vault of the sky, showing his skill in creation’s craftsmanship. Each day gushes out its message to the next, night with night whispering its knowledge to all.”
New King James Version – “and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
The Message – “Time’s up! God’s kingdom is here. Change your life and believe the Message.”
The Passion Translation – “His message was this: ‘At last the fulfillment of the age has come! It is time for the realm of God’s kingdom to be experienced in its fullness! Turn your lives back to God and put your trust in the hope-filled gospel!”
J.B. Phillips New Testament – “saying, ‘The time has come at last—the kingdom of God has arrived. You must change your hearts and minds and believe the good news.”
New King James Version – “In this manner, therefore, pray: Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done On earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, As we forgive our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, But deliver us from the evil one. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.”
The Message – “With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply. Like this: Our Father in heaven, Reveal who you are. Set the world right; Do what’s best— as above, so below. Keep us alive with three square meals. Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others. Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil. You’re in charge! You can do anything you want! You’re ablaze in beauty! Yes. Yes. Yes.”
The Passion Translation – “Pray like this: ‘Our Father, dwelling in the heavenly realms, may the glory of your name be the center on which our lives turn. Manifest your kingdom realm, and cause your every purpose to be fulfilled on earth, just as it is fulfilled in heaven. We acknowledge you as our Provider of all we need each day. Forgive us the wrongs we have done as we ourselves release forgiveness to those who have wronged us. Rescue us every time we face tribulation and set us free from evil. For you are the King who rules with power and glory forever. Amen.’”
J.B. Phillips New Testament – “Pray then like this—‘Our Heavenly Father, may your name be honoured; May your kingdom come, and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day the bread we need, Forgive us what we owe to you, as we have also forgiven those who owe anything to us. Keep us clear of temptation, and save us from evil’.”
New King James Version – “We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified. ‘But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is Christ therefore a minister of sin? Certainly not! For if I build again those things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor. For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.”
The Message – “We Jews know that we have no advantage of birth over “non-Jewish sinners.” We know very well that we are not set right with God by rule-keeping but only through personal faith in Jesus Christ. How do we know? We tried it—and we had the best system of rules the world has ever seen! Convinced that no human being can please God by self-improvement, we believed in Jesus as the Messiah so that we might be set right before God by trusting in the Messiah, not by trying to be good. Have some of you noticed that we are not yet perfect? (No great surprise, right?) And are you ready to make the accusation that since people like me, who go through Christ in order to get things right with God, aren’t perfectly virtuous, Christ must therefore be an accessory to sin? The accusation is frivolous. If I was ‘trying to be good,’ I would be rebuilding the same old barn that I tore down. I would be acting as a charlatan. What actually took place is this: I tried keeping rules and working my head off to please God, and it didn’t work. So I quit being a “law man” so that I could be God’s man. Christ’s life showed me how, and enabled me to do it. I identified myself completely with him. Indeed, I have been crucified with Christ. My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God. Christ lives in me. The life you see me living is not ‘mine,’ but it is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I am not going to go back on that. Is it not clear to you that to go back to that old rule-keeping, peer-pleasing religion would be an abandonment of everything personal and free in my relationship with God? I refuse to do that, to repudiate God’s grace. If a living relationship with God could come by rule-keeping, then Christ died unnecessarily.”
The Passion Translation – “Although we’re Jews by birth and not non-Jewish ‘sinners,’ we know full well that we don’t receive God’s perfect righteousness as a reward for keeping the law, but by the faith of Jesus, the Messiah! His faithfulness, not ours, has saved us, and we have received God’s perfect righteousness. Now we know that God accepts no one by the keeping of religious laws! ‘If we are those who desire to be saved from our sins through our union with the Anointed One, does that mean our Messiah promotes our sins if we still acknowledge that we are sinners? How absurd! For if I start over and reconstruct the old religious system that I have torn down with the message of grace, I will appear to be one who turns his back on the truth. ‘But because the Messiah lives in me, I’ve now died to the law’s dominion over me so that I can live for God. ‘My old identity has been co-crucified with Messiah and no longer lives; for the nails of his cross crucified me with him. And now the essence of this new life is no longer mine, for the Anointed One lives his life through me—we live in union as one! My new life is empowered by the faith of the Son of God who loves me so much that he gave himself for me, and dispenses his life into mine! ‘So that is why I don’t view God’s grace as something minor or peripheral. For if keeping the law could release God’s righteousness to us, the Anointed One would have died for nothing.”
J.B. Phillips New Testament – “And then I went on to explain that we, who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, know that a man is justified not by performing what the Law commands but by faith in Jesus Christ. We ourselves are justified by our faith and not by our obedience to the Law, for we have recognised that no one can achieve justification by doing the ‘works of the Law’. Now if, as we seek the real truth about justification, we find we are as much sinners as the Gentiles, does that mean that Christ makes us sinners? Of course not! But if I attempt to build again the whole structure of justification by the Law then I do, in earnest, make myself a sinner. For under the Law I ‘died’, and now I am dead to the Law’s demands so that I may live for God. As far as the Law is concerned I may consider that I died on the cross with Christ. And my present life is not that of the old ‘I’, but the living Christ within me. The bodily life I now live, I live believing in the Son of God, who loved me and sacrificed himself for me. Consequently I refuse to stultify the grace of God by reverting to the Law. For if righteousness were possible under the Law then Christ died for nothing!”
I rarely use a paraphrase of the Bible unless it can add to my understanding of the original text. One exception is Dr. Kenneth Wuest’s An Expanded Translation of the Greek New Testament. Dr. Wuest was a professor of Greek at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago – well-known for his Word Studies in the Greek New Testament as well as his Expanded Translation of the New Testament. It is really more of a literal translation than a paraphrase, but some call it a paraphrase.
There is a disturbing trend within Christian ministry to use paraphrases in place of translations or to prefer them over translations. That is, in my opinion, a big mistake. Adding what a paraphraser wrote (if you can trust them) after reading and teaching from a good translation would be okay as long as people listening understood that the paraphrase is how one person views the meaning of a passage. The qualifications of that one person might also be explained so listeners can determine how much trust they want to place in the paraphrase.
My recommendation is for preachers and teachers not to use paraphrases in public preaching and teaching. What a preacher or teacher says or quotes from gives credibility to what or who he quotes. Leading Christians and unbelievers in an audience to think of paraphrases as on par with good translations is misleading and can be dangerous if people depend, as too many do, on paraphrases instead of translations.
For Further Reading
Don’t Use The Passion Translation (Excellent Podcast)
We will summarize and conclude this special series in the next part of our study.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved..