Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Steamrollers and DNA


The Living Bible (1971) is a paraphrase of the Christian Scriptures by Baptist preacher Ken Taylor. Taylor based his paraphrase on the 1901 American Standard Version (ASV) translation. Dynamic and highly readable, The Living Bible became a bestseller. I suspect that it has actually been read by many people who might otherwise find the Bible difficult and intimidating.

I remember, years ago, discovering an anachronism in Taylor’s text. In the forty-first chapter of Job, the Lord, speaking from a whirlwind, describes the mythical monster called Leviathan. Here is Taylor’s rendering of verse 30:

His belly is covered with scales as sharp as shards; he drags across the ground like a steamroller! 

For comparison, here is the ASV text on which Taylor based his paraphrase:

His underparts are like sharp potsherds: He spreadeth as it were a threshing-wain upon the mire.

Even though there were no steamrollers in Old Testament times, I think that Taylor’s paraphrase is an improvement on his source. What the heck is a threshing-wain anyway? Because The Living Bible is a paraphrase, Taylor’s anachronism doesn’t trouble me. I find the theological biases of The Living Bible much more bothersome than the appearance of modern heavy road construction equipment.

When I went googling to find Taylor’s steamroller reference, I stumbled across another biblical steamroller. This one is found in Eugene Peterson’s The Message. Peterson calls his work a translation because it was made from the original languages. Like The Living Bible, however, The Message is highly interpretive and idiomatic. I like it a lot, but prefer to think of it as an English paraphrase made from the Greek and Hebrew texts.

Peterson's steamroller shows up in Daniel 11:22, which describes a “contemptible” ruler, probably Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Here is Taylor’s rendering:

He'll come in like a steamroller, flattening the opposition. Even the Prince of the Covenant will be crushed.

And for comparison, here is the same verse from my go-to Bible, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV):

Armies shall be utterly swept away and broken before him, and the prince of the covenant as well.

Because it is the nature of a paraphrase to be vivid and interpretive, I don’t object to the steamrollers in The Living Bible and The Message.

New Rule: From now on, the appearance of a steamroller in a version of the Bible immediately qualifies that version as a paraphrase.

As a participant in the Common English Bible “Thank You-Come Again-I Promise” Blog Tour, I will soon receive a free copy of the Common English Bible (CEB). I have also been able to give away a free copy of the CEB to a reader of this blog each week for the three months of the tour. So far, I have given away 3 copies of this newly published translation. I would not take part in the blog tour if I didn’t actually like the CEB. There are translations out there that I would not help to promote.

I have been reading the New Testament in the CEB translation. I started a few weeks ago at Matthew and am now poised to begin Revelation. I have had occasional quibbles with the CEB’s translation choices, but that is par for the course. And my quibbles have only been quibbles. Overall, I have found the CEB New Testament to be a clear and lively translation from the Greek.

Last night I read the Johannine Epistles and was surprised to find an anachronism in 1 John 3:9:

Those born from God don’t practice sin because God’s DNA remains in them. They can’t sin because they are born from God.

Just to be clear, DNA was unknown in the first century when 1 John was written. DNA was not discovered until 1869, and its double helix structure was not described until 1953. DNA in this verse is a glaring anachronism.

A footnote in the CEB offers “genetic character” as an alternative to DNA.

For comparison, here is the same verse from the NRSV:

Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God's seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God.

The NRSV’s “seed” is a rather literal translation of the Greek word σπέρμα (sperma). This word has a range of meaning that, according to the Bauer, Danker, Arndt and Gingrich Lexicon, includes “seed of plants....descendants....genetic character, nature, disposition.”

I think that 1 John is saying that Christian believers have undergone an ontological change. Their sinful nature has been replaced by God’s sinless nature. This change goes right down to their very marrow, their seed, their DNA. The CEB’s anachronistic translation brings this meaning out in a powerful and striking way. It is clearer and more vivid to a modern reader than the NRSV’s more literal “seed.”

But it is an anachronism, and probably better suited to a paraphrase than to a translation.

What do you think? Are anachronisms permissible in translations if they accurately render the meaning of the original text, or should that kind of interpretation be left to preachers and the writers of footnotes?

I am not a gambling man, but if I were, I would bet that the second edition of the Common English Bible will not include DNA in 1 John 3:9. The pictures of the steamroller and DNA were both found at wikipedia.


  1. I think anachronisms are very helpful; certainly family members of mine have really enjoyed reading 'The Message,' when they did not read the Bible previously, and both of them commented along the lines of how much it now made sense to them. I think the best approach is using several translations, but if someone is not willing to do that, then having a translation that reaches across the millennia is better than having a translation one doesn't read at all.

  2. Hey Pastor!

    It's an interesting topic! And a thorny one. What is a translation anyway? It is to put into one language a thought or idea expressed in another, right? I am thinking it isn't necessarily to find an equivalent word. Or is it? But typically I think of a translation of the Bible as being more word for word - and at least an effort to be that - and a paraphrase to be more idea for idea. So if "snow" is a completely foreign concept to the intended reader, a truly faithful translation would have to say, in effect, "tough cookies! "Snow" is what the word is supposed to be!, and "snow" is what you are going to get!" Where a paraphrase would find something of equivalent brightness and purity and "whiteness." I suppose either one could be more or less faithful to the original!

    So when I pick up what is considered a faithful and accurate translation (by whom?! What are THEIR biases???), I have the impression I get to wrestle with what it MEANS based on the words chosen to express it. Where, when I pick up a paraphrase, a layer of "what it means" has been added. Is that better? It depends on if the translator got the "what it means" right! It's tricky business!

    Fortunately, we have the Holy Spirit to help us come to know what it truly MEANS - the truth and reality that the words - in whatever language - are trying to point us to!

  3. PS I'd love a bible if you have an extra one! Lol!

  4. Thanks for your comments, StoryGuy. You too, Anonymous!

    I'll have a Bible to give away this week. Check back tomorrow!

  5. I have talked to a number of people about this translational anachronism. One friend made a good point. He said that translating "sperma" as "DNA" closes off other possible interpretations that the Greek allows. For example, the "seed" might be the Word.