Tag Archives: Bible Translations

Church and the English Bible


In this post from our series on the study of church, we take a minor detour to look at how our English Bibles came to translate the original Greek word ekklesia (which we looked at last time) as the word church, which we examined in another post.

If you’re struggling to find any practical significance with this, despite some of the related links posted in The Importance of Studying Church consider the following:

William Tyndale (1494-1536) was the first man credited with translating the Bible into English.  Up to this point, the Bible had primarily been in Latin (The Vulgate, Jerome ~383 A.D.) thereby restricting its readability to the priests and clergy only.  Tyndale, working off of the Greek New Testament translating work performed by Erasmus (and Luther), translated the Bible into English directly from the original language sources.  He was able to translate the New Testament from Greek and half of the Old Testament from Hebrew prior to his death as a martyr.

Tyndale is considered the “Father of the English Bible” and has been referred to as the Apostle to England.  Born near the border of Wales, he studied at Oxford in 1510, where the aforementioned Erasmus was teaching.  He became a master of Greek and Hebrew under Erasmus as well as becoming fluent in 7 languages.  In 1515, Tyndale studied at Cambridge, and may have encountered some of Luther’s early teachings.  He was ordained to the priesthood in 1521, but expressed his frustrations with the failure to make the Scriptures available in the common language of the people.  This was another similarity between Tyndale and Luther.  In a famous quote, Tyndale summarizes this frustration, “I will cause a boy who drives a plow to know more Scripture than the Pope.”

Mentioning Tyndale as the Father of the English Bible isn’t meant as a slight to the excellent work performed by the Morning-Star of the Reformation, John Wycliffe (1382).  However, Wycliffe lacked access to the Greek and Hebrew, thus basing his English translation on the Latin Vulgate, essentially becoming a translation of a translation.  It’s likely that his work did not excel in popularity like that of Tyndale because the printing press had not yet been invented.  Nevertheless, his influence should not be minimized.

In 1523, Tyndale applied to the Bishop of London for permission to translate the Scriptures into English, but was denied.  Despite the rejection, he undertook the effort in an underground manner in Germany, an area now known for its sympathy for Reformation.

Tyndale’s English translation of the New Testament, completed in 1525, challenged some of the core doctrinal beliefs which had been established and maintained by the Catholic Church through their use of the Latin bible and the distinction they maintained between clergy and laity. For this reason, his NT translation was smuggled into England.  In an effort to undermine the spread of the English NT, the Bishop of London ordered all the copies to be purchased, a plan which backfired and went on to fund a second edition.

Some such challenges, by Tyndale, which threatened the institutional Catholic Church can be found in his decision to translate the word presbuteros to mean “elder” rather than “priest”, an obvious undermining of the Catholic priesthood.  Additionally, Tyndale favored the translation of metanoeite as “repent” rather than “do penance”, again a clear assault on the Catholic doctrine of penance.  Both of these preferences, and we may add, more accurate translations, by Tyndale are represented in our modern English translations.

Those aside, and others, most significant to our discussion here, was Tyndale’s insistence upon translating ekklesia as congregation, not church, a hill he literally chose to die on.  Until then, the popes, priesthood, and councils of Catholicism had dominated the people and kept them under their authority as a hierarchical institution known as the Roman Catholic Church.  If one were unable to find the word “church” in their Bible, which they were now able to read in a common language for the first time, then clearly the authority of the Catholic Church would have come into question.

Using the word church in this way, was an authoritarian move that pointed to the universal, visible, institution that sought to expand its dominion throughout the world, by force, not the gospel.  In essence, Tyndale was rightly returning the power to the people, the assembly, or congregation, and stripping it from the visible institution which had grown apostate in the centuries since the Apostolic era and most notably since the 4th Century reign of Constantine.  In 1536, Tyndale was martyred under the reign of King Henry VIII.  His last words were “Lord open the King of England’s eyes”.

Now we must ask, if Tyndale’s other changes were incorporated into our other English translations, why do we still find the word “church” as the translation for ekklesia in every single modern translation?  In short, it’s because during the Reformation, the reformers, such as Luther, did not offer a clean break of the “church” from the sacral society of the State.  Instead, the church, if we may use that word now, became more formally wed to the State and the interest of the State to constrain the people became an even bigger problem than when they were under the banner of the Catholic Church.

Keep in mind that Luther himself refused to use the German word for church (kirche), preferring instead for “the congregation of the saints as the people or company of God.”  As significant as Luther’s efforts were in ushering in the Reformation, in practice, his break from the institutional church was only half-hearted.  Instead, it paved the way for the new Protestant “Church” to become even stranger bedfellows with the State.

If you struggle with that, simply ask how it was that Martin Luther was able to oppose the Catholic Church and still live, meanwhile countless martyrs who opposed the new mixture of church and state were brutally murdered? (he was actually protected by the civil magistrate) I’ll pick this theme up later as we approach the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.

Tyndale’s Bible was completed and published as The Matthew’s Bible in 1537.  It maintained the translation of ekklesia as congregation.  In 1539 a second major publication of the Bible was made called The Great Bible which likewise maintained this same translation.  However, in 1557 the Geneva New Testament produced by William Whittingham was the first to use the word church instead of congregation and the rest they say is history.  Later, because Protestantism became the official state religion of England, the Church of England, under the rule of King James likewise chose to retain the word church in the most widespread English translation, The King James Bible, 1611.

King James (James I – Scotland) had a list of 14 specific instructions to the translators of the King James Bible, who by the way were all from the Church of England.  Number 3 states,

3. The old ecclesiastical words to be kept; as the word church, not to be translated congregation, &c.” 

In this way, James was able to reassert ecclesiastical (church) authority which had been held by Rome prior to the Reformation.

In conclusion, it’s not difficult to see the motives behind retaining the translation of “church”.  It was for power, authority, and money, not because church was the best translation of ekklesia.  Tyndale and Luther recognized this and made a statement to the world in their translation choices.

So then we return to our original question, is church an ekklesia?

First, we must conclude that the word church is not an accurate translation or portrayal of what the Scriptures are talking about when it uses the word ekklesia.  Primarily this is because we read our modern conception of church into the Scriptural translation of the word and arrive at the meaning, just as those in the 16th century did.  Unfortunately, it has become the proverbial “loaded word”.

Second,the true meaning of church is “belonging to the Lord”, while the true meaning of ekklesia is an “assembly or gathering”.  While the former may be an accurate description of the people of God, unfortunately, as we’ve seen its use is certainly not constricted to this meaning.  The latter is communicating something different, or at least nuanced, namely that Christ’s ekklesia is an assembly or gathering.

Third, because the use of church is so widespread, its usage is not going away, therefore we must be careful to define what it is. Reciting Kittle again on this point, “This does not mean that we should banish the words ‘Church’ and ‘congregation’ from our vocabulary. Apart from the impossibility of such an undertaking, there would be no sense in forfeiting the wealth of meaning proper to these terms. What is needed is that we should grasp the precise significance of the word ekklesia, since at this point linguistic sobriety will help us to the true meaning and bearing from the standpoint of biblical theology.” (pg. 505, footnote 6)

Whether we prefer to use the word church or congregation/assembly/gathering may not matter as much as what meaning is intended behind it.  Because we have a cultural tendency to be sloppy with the usage and meaning of our words, there are inherent dangers in simply throwing around the word church without properly defining what the new Testament intends by ekklesia.  Simply put, ekklesia does not convey all that our modern use of church has come to convey.  It is never used in Scripture as a building.  Certainly never used to refer to a denomination.  It is, depending on context of course, used as an assembly or gathering of people and specifically an assembly by God in Christ when so designated (conversely, see Acts 19:32,39,41)

The question now is, what are the ripple effects from this?  Anything?  Or is the whole discussion pedantic?

I suggest we continue probing God’s Word and humbly submit to what we find, even if it costs us our precious traditions.



*For an excellent overview of the English Bible by Daniel Wallace including Wycliffe and Tyndale see this link https://bible.org/seriespage/1-wycliffe-king-james-period-challenge

Behold Our God


In 2011 I was serving as the interim youth group minister at my local church. In order to inform the other youth workers and leaders on the direction and leadership that they should expect during my interim role, I called a meeting and a member of senior leadership attended also. One of the first items of business was to unify our usage of Bible versions and in doing so distance ourselves from the latest version of the New International Version (NIV), around which there had already been much debate over the neutering of language and shift to gender inclusive language. At the time, there had already been much discussion within our local body and broader evangelicalism concerning this latest version. I’ve written elsewhere about the differences in translations, including a brief background of translation philosophy to help determine which translation is right for you.

In my discussion of the translations, I was unprepared for the push-back I received regarding my stance against this latest version of the NIV and my pro-English Standard Version (ESV) usage in our youth group. It’s not a perfect translation, as none are, but my choice of the ESV was based on its literal translation philosophy and its level of readability. When doing exposition, it’s been my experience that the more literal translations (KJV, NKJV, NASB, ESV) are simply easier to navigate, closer to the original meaning, and easier to explain than more dynamic translations.

One particular area of pushback from the senior leader was an off-the-cuff comparison between the antiquated language that the ESV often uses and the more modern, contemporary language of the NIV, specifically as it relates to the ESV’s use of the word “behold.” The argument against the ESV, as I remember it, went something like this: “I seriously doubt that as you are driving around with your wife that you point something out to her and say ‘Behold!’ Instead, you say ‘Look!’” Senior leader for the win, as the kids say. FTW

That public rebuke aside, the content of the statement bothered me then and it bothers me now, particularly as I heard a statement recently by Dr. Wayne Grudem explaining the ESV’s use of the word “behold” over 1100 times. In regards to the abundance of usage he states “I love them.” In contrast, the latest NIV uses the word behold 1 time, in Numbers 24:17.

But what’s in a word, as the saying goes. Is there really that big of a difference between the words Behold and Look? Take the well-known passage from John 1:29 as an example comparison:

“The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” John 1:29 NIV

“The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” John 1:29 ESV

Interestingly, the word used here ide carries with it much more significance than merely a visual observation. HELPS Word Studies points out that this Greek imperative literally means, “Be sure to see . . . !,” i.e. “Don’t miss this! It is an observable, objective fact!” Additionally, Strong’s concordance and Vines Expository Dictionary imply that this word involves a spiritual perception, again not merely the outward sight with the eyes that the word “look” carries with it.

So then, is there significance in the ESV’s decision to use the word “behold”? Clearly there is. Behold is pregnant with meaning and intensity that the word “look” simply cannot convey. In the example above, the Apostle John is not merely saying “”Look,” as in visibly observe, “the Lamb of God”. He is calling attention to Christ that people should behold, literally to spiritually perceive and embrace the Lamb of God and pay attention to who He is and what He says.

Wayne_Grudem_Photo_2014Grudem comments on the ESV translation committee’s decision to retain the use of behold:

“I find one of the primary advantages of the ESV to be more literal accuracy in the details of a translation. This is evident in the ESV’s use of “behold” in Exodus 2:6, a word which the HCSB, NIV and NLT all omit. But it translates a word in the text, the Hebrew word hinneh. In earlier translations (KJV, ASV, RSV), the word “behold” was found many times. It was the common translation used for the Hebrew word hinneh in the Old Testament and the Greek word idou in the New Testament. Both words simply mean something like “Pay attention – what follows is especially important or surprising!” Early in our translation work on the ESV, our committee discussed what to do about “behold.” We realized that in some cases there was an alternative such as “look!” or “listen!” and in a few cases that was what we used. But in hundreds of other cases, neither “look” nor “listen” seemed quite suitable (as in Exod. 2:6 above). We also found that some modern translations had just decided to leave Hebrew hinneh and Greek idou untranslated in many places where “look” or “listen” did not seem to fit (the HCSB, NIV, and NLT simply fail to translate it here). But we believed that all the words of God are important, and we did not want to leave hinneh and idou untranslated.

After a lot of discussion, we concluded that there simply was no other English word that meant, “Pay attention to what follows because it is important or surprising.” But the word “behold” still carried that meaning in English. We realized that people didn’t often use the word “behold” in conversation today, but we also recognized that almost everyone knew what it meant. It was in people’s “passive” vocabulary rather than in their “active” vocabulary. So we decided to retain “behold” as the common translation that we would use for hinneh in the Old Testament and for idou in the New Testament. We were striving for literal accuracy in the details, and we recognized that these words conveyed meaning for the original reader, meaning that we did not want today’s readers to miss. Therefore readers will find “behold” 1,102 times in the ESV. Often it seems to me to add dignity and strength to important verses in the Bible, such as the following: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isa.7:14 ESV)

Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29 ESV)

Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. (1Cor. 15:51-52 ESV)

Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. (Rev. 3:20 ESV)

I have come to really enjoy the “beholds” in the ESV. They make me pay attention to what follows and ask why the author put emphasis here. And they seem to me much stronger than the great variety of alternatives that other translations use when they do translate hinneh or idou at all. For instance, in Revelation 3:20 (see above) other translations have a variety: “Listen!” (HCSB). “Here I am!” (NIV). “Look!” (NLT). It seems to me that “Behold, I stand at the door and knock” is much stronger, and more consistent.

In addition, now I actually notice “behold” from time to time in contemporary English, whether it be in a shop window with a sign that says “Behold: New low prices!” or an ad on TV that says something like, “Behold! The new Honda sedan!” This example also shows one reason I don’t put too much stock in statistical counts of word frequency such as the Collins Word Bank that was used by the NIV translators. No doubt it would show “behold” to be uncommon in modern English. But if we ask, “How did they say it back then?” we find the need to use “behold” quite frequently, because there is no other single word in English today that means, “Pay attention—what follows is important or surprising.”[1]

If that’s not compelling enough, then perhaps the song below might help (excuse the ad at the beginning). Though far from inspired Scripture, the use of behold certainly carries the same emphasis that the ESV translators were trying to convey.  After all, what would it sound like if the chorus were, “Look, our God”? Not quite the same resounding emotion.


[1] http://www.waynegrudem.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/The-advantages-of-the-ESV.pdf

Bucket Drops 9/9/11

In light of this weekend’s 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, as would be expected there are a lot of blogs and news stories devoted to remembering that tragic event this weekend.  Below, I’ve included a couple, with some other followup news.

9/11 Fueled N.Y.’s Church Planting Movement – The Baptist Press discusses some of the Church Planting and Church growth increases that took place after 9/11.  Personally, I remember the prayer services in the days after and the focus on returning to “religion”.  The article states that 40% of Manhattan’s churches were started after 2000.  The article goes on to say that while the “spiritual temperature” of New York hasn’t increased, attention has definitely been on N.Y. church planting post 9/11.

9/11 and the Rise of New Calvinism – Trevin Wax poses the question of whether 9/11 played a role in the resurgence of Calvinism and Reformed Theology.  Among his rationale for this discussion is that 9/11 “forced the ‘problem of evil’ to the forefront of theological discussions.”  A worthwhile read.

Evangelicals left off 9/11 Memorial – Justin Taylor shares a link to a post by Carl Trueman which responds to the outcry of Frank Page, President of Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee who shared disappointment over the lack of Evangelical inclusion in the 9/11 “interfaith” memorial at the Washington National Cathedral. Trueman asserts that evangelicals, more pointedly Southern Baptists, should be thankful they were not included, for they would’ve had to “compromise their orthodoxy and Protestant identity.”  I agree, the other groups represented (Episcopals?) there are not praying to the same God of the Bible that “evangelicals” do.  Unless of course Rick Warren was leading the prayer, then he could make it all inclusive, like he did hereBut he has his own service planned just blocks away.

A word about Bible translationsHere is an excellent post on translation philosophies.  Remember we looked briefly at these differences in this post .  This article goes more in-depth.  Here is an excellent summary statement from the article on “What are the advantages of a church choosing an essentially literal translation?”

“The primary advantage is that preachers, teachers, and church people will have the confidence that their Bible gives them the equivalent English words for what the authors of the Bible actually wrote. They do not need to wonder at every point where translation ends and commentary begins. They do not need to worry that important material has been omitted from the original.”

In that post I linked above, I made reference to a booklet written by Kevin DeYoung on why his church switched to the ESV.  Here is the online .pdf version of that booklet. http://static.crossway.org/excerpt/why-our-church-switched-to-the-esv/why-our-church-switched-to-the-esv.pdf

Finally, a video with Paul Washer discussing what it means to “confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord.”

Isaiah 40:15a “Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales.”