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The Impact of Changing Language on the Unchanging Word of God

Language changes. No one disputes the fact that words like “alien” and “thong” have come to have different meanings than they did thirty years ago.

What impact does that have on the Bible as the inerrant, unchanging Word of God?

It’s hardly a new problem. When the King James version was translated in 1611, contemporary language of the day contained words like jangling, subtil, holpen, and vaunteth. Real oxen and goats were described in Scripture as unicorns and satryrs, words we now associate only with mythological creatures.

One man was so frustrated with the impact of the archaic language on reaching unbelievers with the Gospel, he ranted to his pastor, “We’ve translated the Bible into a couple thousand tongues. And when we run out of languages, someday we’re going to translate it into English!”

It was a valid complaint. The year was 1955 and Howard Long, a Seattle engineer, was discovering that as he shared passages of his King James Bible with nonbelievers—which he often did in trying to lead them to Christ—they weren’t draw in by the beauty of the Elizabethan English. Instead, they were confused and repelled.

One man Long was witnessing to laughed so hard he nearly fell out of his chair, calling it the funniest thing he’d heard in years. Any further opportunity to talk about spiritual things was lost. Long was understandably upset.

After Long’s vent to his pastor, the clergy said, “If you feel so strongly, why don’t you do something about it?”

It was all the encouragement he needed. After ten years of writing petitions, rallying committees, and enlisting the help of pastors and scholars across the denominations, Long saw his vision gaining traction. In 1965, a cross-denominational gathering of evangelical scholars agreed to begin working on a new, clearer translation of the Bible. A year later, the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT) was formed to oversee the creation of this new translation with stated goal of making the translation accurate, beautiful, clear, and dignified. They enlisted the help of the New York Bible Society (later known as the International Bible Society and now Biblica).

Watch: The amazing contribution made by the KJV around the world—and why we still need contemporary versions today. (1:05) Footage courtesy KOAA.

Instead of attempting to update an existing translation like the King James Version, the CBT made the decision to begin from scratch, using the very best original manuscripts. The process took another decade as the committee assigned four translators and an English-style consultant to each book of the Bible, while another team of five Bible scholars reviewed their work.

The result was the New International Version, published in 1978.

And the problem was solved—but only for a season.

Why? Because language continues to evolve.

Watch: Why keep updating the Bible? (2:25) Footage courtesy KOAA.

According to Stephen Cave, Chief Ministry Officer at Biblica, there are words in Bible translations current thirty years ago that get today’s teenagers laughing behind their hands. An example he gives is the word “booty,” used in a version of the NIV translation published in 1984. “MTV wasn’t all that popular yet,” Steven says, adding that today “you don’t want the word ‘booty’ appearing in your Bible, because it means something totally different” than it did more than three decades ago.

Another example? Hans Combrink, Vice President of Global Translation at Biblica, says of the 1984 NIV translation of Judges 16:7, “We read that Samson says, ‘If anybody ties me with seven fresh thongs, I will be weak as any man.’” Explaining that while the phrase made sense in the 70s and 80s, the meaning is lost today. “Thongs now refer to women’s underwear.”

Examples like these are the reasons that the original NIV translation released in 1978 has undergone two updates, in 1984 and again in 2011. (In the 2011 version, Judges 16:7 has been updated to refer to “seven fresh bowstrings that have not been dried.”)

Today the CBT, which was tasked with overseeing the NIV translation in the mid ‘60s, continues to safeguard and update the text. The CBT is self-governing, remaining separate from any church body or denomination to avoid any bias or outside influence. The fifteen members, all of whom are firm believers in the inerrancy of God’s word, are learned scholars from a cross section of evangelical denominations.

They meet every year to review and debate proposed changes based on how modern English is spoken around the world, not just in the United States.

The most recent convening of the CBT took place in June over the course of a week. In fact, the first two videos in this article were produced by KOAA Channel 5 from their coverage of that notable event, which was held at Biblica headquarters in Colorado Springs.

Biblica is just as passionate about making accurate, contemporary translations available to non-English speaking people, with a focus on translating the Bible into the top 100 strategic languages reaching more than 80 percent of the world’s population.

Combrink says, “Research has shown that more than a third of all Christians coming to Christ did so through the reading of the Bible. So the Bible is foundational not only for church life worldwide, but also for global missions.”

He adds that Cameron Townsend, the missionary-linguist who founded Wycliffe Bible Translators, made this profound observation: “The Bible, in the mother tongue, is the most important missionary because it does not need a furlough, and it is never considered a foreigner.”

No one wants to see souls lost because they found themselves unable to translate a phrase including holpen, distracted by thong, or unimpressed by the relevance of a text that mentions unicorns.

While language changes, the life-changing message of the Word of God never does.

Would you like to join with us in giving people the opportunity to be transformed by Christ? Partner with Biblica today.


Biblica Staff
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