The Rejection of Pascal's Wager
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Not All Versions Are Created Equal

From the first complete translation of the English Bible in 1382 (normally attributed to John Wycliffe-c1330-1384), there are today literally hundreds of English translations of the Bible. These translations, normally called versions, are usually directly translated from the original languages of the Bible, namely Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Yet not all the translations are equally reliable. To understand this we need to know that there are two basic issues in translations:

  • The source documents. As there is not a single extant original (or autograph) copy of any of the books in the Bible, the reliability of the translation is affected directly by the quality of the source documents. For instance, the King James Version, or Authorized Version, or KJV for short, which was first published in 1611, is no longer considered reliable since it was not based on ancient texts. Modern versions are based on newly discovered, more ancient texts and well as scientific textual studies. So in general, more modern versions are more reliable than older ones.[1]
  • As fundamentalism grows, the second issue, that of theological preconception becomes very important.This is what we will be looking at in depth on this page.

The most reliable English translation of the Bible today has to be the New Revised Standard Version, or NRSV, published in 1990 It took into account all the major source texts, including the Biblia Hebraica (the massoretic text), the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Greek New Testament published by the United Bible Societies. More importantly the translation was done by scholars from various denominations (Catholic, Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox) and even include Jewish scholars. Thus there was no theological axe grinding in its translation. Of course, other good versions abound; examples include the Revised Standard Version (RSV) which is the precursor of the NRSV, the Good News Bible and the New English Bible (NEB).

Fundamentalist versions, however, are a different matter. Fundamentalist bibles include versions such as The Book, The Living Bible and The New International Version (NIV). These are translated mainly by people who believe in Biblical inerrancy and the complete infallibility of the Bible. Given below is the quote taken from the Translator's Preface of the NIV:

In working towards this goals, the translators were united in their commitment to the authority and infallibility of the Bible as God's word in written form.[2]

As the ex-fundamentalist, Dan Barker, remarked:

This is hardly an objective agenda for a team of translators! Imagine if freethinkers publish a new bible translation, prefacing it with a statement that we are "united in our commitment" to bash and disprove "God's word". [3]

Let us see how this commitment to biblical infallibility affected the translation.

Removing Contradictions by Quoting or Using Less Authoritative Texts

Some alterations seems to have been made to remove contradictions from the main text. One example:

II Kings 24:8 NRSV
Jehoiachin was eighteen years old when he became King; he reigned three months in Jerusalem

II Chronicles 36:9 NRSV
Jehoiachin was eight years old when he began to reign; he reigned three months and ten days in Jerusalem.

The NRSV did not even have a footnote at II Chronicles 36:9, implying that the main textual traditions supported this reading, although it is in contradiction to the passage in II Kings. Let us see how the NIV presented these passages:

II Kings 24:8 NIV
Jehoiachin was eighteen years old when he became King and he reigned in Jerusalem for three months.

II Chronicles 36:9 NIV
Jehoiachin was eighteen years old when he began to reign and he reigned in Jerusalem for three months and ten days.

See how the contradiction has disappeared! Have there been new discoveries in archaeology or textual criticism since the publication of the NRSV (in 1989) that the NIV took advantage of? No. The NIV I have is also a 1989 edition and is similarly based mainly on the Biblia Hebraica, like the NRSV. The truth is found in a very small footnote at the bottom of the page in which this passages appears. This is what the footnote says:

One[talics mine] Hebrew manuscript, some Septuagint manuscripts and Syriac, most Hebrew manuscripts eight.

Thus the footnote implicitly admits that the balance of evidence favours eight not eighteen. So why was the latter chosen to be in the main body of the text? Look at the excerpt from the preface again. Now one can see the relevance of Dan Barker's comments. This is not all, look through the passages with contradictions, and many have been treated similarly.

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Removing Difficulties by Translating in "Soft Focus"

Sometimes words are paraphrased to remove obvious difficulties that exist in the original Hebrew text. Take one instance of the warning of God to Adam in Genesis 2:17. I give three different versions below:

Genesis 2:17 KJV
But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.
Genesis 2:17 Good News Bible
[E]xcept the tree that gives knowledge of what is good and what is bad. You must not eat the fruit of that tree; for if you do, you will die the same day.
Genesis 2:17 NRSV
[B]ut of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in that day that you eat of it you shall die.

The various translations above gives us an idea of what the original Hebrew is conveying, that if Adam were to eat the fruit he'll die on that very day. The problem is that Adam did partake of the fruit (Genesis 3:6). However he did not die, in fact he lived to a ripe old age of 930 (Genesis 5:5)!

The way NIV skirted this difficulty is interesting, watch:

Genesis 2:17 NIV
[B]ut you must not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.

Can you see the theological rabbit being pulled out of the hat? Yes, by translating the passage in the "soft focus" mode, the specific curse to die on the very same day is no longer there. Thus a difficulty is removed!

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Removing Reprehensible Passages by Mistranslation

Some passages in the Bible sound represhensible. Given below is the passage taken from II Kings where the prophet Elisha used his powers to curse and kill 42 children. Just to give the sense of the Hebrew we will give three different translations:

II Kings 2:23-24 KJV
And he went up from thence unto Bethlehem and he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head. And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the Lord. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.
II Kings 2:23-24 Good News Bible
Elisha left Jericho to go to Bethel, and on the way some boys came out of a town and made fun of him. "Get out of here, baldy!" they shouted. Elisha turned round, glared at them, and cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys to pieces.
II Kings 2:23-24 NRSV
He went up from there to Bethel; and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, "Go away, baldhead! Go away, baldhead!" When he turned around and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. The two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.

The passage doesn't put Elisha (or the Lord) in good light for both seems to be responsible for the murder of 42 children. That "little boys" or "small children" are meant can be seen from the original Hebrew. According to Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible the original Hebrew word for "little" used here is qatan which means small in number or young in age and the word for "children" here is naar which means a boy (or a girl) from infancy to adoslescence. We can see that the above three versions have been quite faitful to the original Hebrew despite the theological difficulties.

The NIV however translated the same passage thus:

II Kings 2:23-24 NIV
From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some youths came out of the town and jeered at him. "Go on up, you baldhead" they said. "Go on up, you baldhead!" He turend round, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out from the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths.

The italics are mine, but it's just to emphasise the major change in meaning that has happened by using "youths" instead of "little children" or "small boys". "Youths" today can mean young men in their early twenties. Suddenly Elisha's act does not look that bad. It looks like some gangsters taunted him and he defended himself. Yet as we see above, "youth" was not meant in the original Hebrew; as the other versions attested. Thus by twisting two words completely out of its original meaning the NIV has managed to skip over another theological difficulty.

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Leaving Errors in Translation Unchanged

Apart from removing difficulties, it is obvious that the editors of the NIV keep dubious translations whenever it suites their theological preconception. Let us look at one famous example. This concerns the messianic prophecy of the virgin birth. Matthew proclaimed that Jesus' birth was in fulfilment of an Old Testament prophecy:

Matthew 1:22-23
And this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: "The virgin is with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel-which means 'God is with us'".

The prophecy reffered to by the Matthean passage above is found Isaiah 7:14. This is how the passage looks like in the King James Version:

Isaiah 7:14 KJV
Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold a virgin shall conceive, a bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

At first glance, this looks like an amazing fulfilment of prophecy. Unfortunately, the KJV's use of virgin here is a well known error in translation.

The Hebrew word in Isaiah 7:14 of the massoretic text, wrongly translated as virgin above, is almah. Now almah does not carry any explicit notion of virginity, meaning simply a young woman of marriageable age. Had Isaiah actually wanted to convey the prophecy of the virgin birth he would have used the word bethulah which does carry the explicit meaning of virgin.

As we have shown in detail elsewhere, Matthew used the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, which erroneously translated almah as parthenos. Now parthenos does mean "virgin". The correct Greek word that should have been used by the translators of the Septuagint was neanis. Thus Matthew's proclaimation was based on a mistranslation of the Hebrew word almah.

In fact in modern, more reliable versions, the correct translation for Isaiah 7:14 is used. Two examples:

Isaiah 7:14 Good News Bible
Well then, the Lord himself shall give you a sign: a young woman who is pregnant will have a son and will name him Immanuel.

Isaiah 7:14 NRSV
Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

The Good News Bible even provides a footnote explaining this:

YOUNG WOMAN: The Hebrew word here translated "young woman" is not the specific term for "virgin", but refers to any young woman of marriageable age. The use of "virgin" in Mat. 1.23 reflects a Greek translation of the Old Testament, made some 500 years after Isaiah.[4] [a]

Obviously, the implication of the above translation is enormous. It implied that Matthew erroneously attributed a non-existent prophecy to Jesus by utilizing a less than perfect translation of the Hebrew Bible. Let us look at how the NIV presents the same passage:

Isaiah 7:14 NIV
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.

Amazingly, the isn't even a footnote explaining why virgin was used! Again the implication is obvious. The adherence of the editors/translators of the NIV to Biblical inerrancy made them perpetuate an obvious translation error in Septuagint in order to "keep" the prophecy!

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Adding Words into the Bible Text

The NIV had no qualms about adding to the words of the Bible (ignoring the warning in Revelation 22:18-19!) whenever it serves their apologetic purposes.

In his most recent book The Bible in Translation (Baker Book House 2001), the respected textual scholar of Princeton Theological Seminary and chairman of the NRSV translation committee, Dr. Bruce M. Metzger, had this to say about this aspect of the NIV:

It is surprising that translators [of the NIV] who profess to have a "high view of scripture" should take liberties with the text in omitting words, or, more often, by adding words that are not in the Jeremiah 7:22 the translators have inserted the word "just" for which there is no Hebrew authority. In the New Testament at Matthew 13:32 concerning the mustard seed, they inserted the word "your" ("the smallest of all your seeds") and the word "now" in I Peter 4:6 ("the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead.")-neither of which is in the Greek text. In I Corinthians 4:9, we find in the NIV a quite considerable elaboration of what Paul actually wrote: "God put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena (the two additions have been italicised here). [5]

Professor Metzger did not elaborate on why these textually indefensible additions were made. However the theological implications are clear. Let us look at a couple of the passages Metzger cited:

First, let us look at Jeremiah 7:22, in which the "Lord Almighty" speaks:

Jeremiah 7:22 NRSV
For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.
Jeremiah 7:22 NIV
For when I brought your forefathers out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices.

Remember that Metzger mentioned that there is no Hebrew manuscript that supports this reading in NIV(i.e. the addition of "just"). Note that this addition changes the whole meaning of the passage, from negative to positive. The reason the NIV translators did so, is easy to see. For God did command the Israelites during the exodus from Egypt about burnt sacrifices. One example:

Exodus 20:22-24 NRSV
The Lord said to Moses: Thus you shall say to the Israelites:"...You need make for me only an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings..."

It is obvious then, that in the original Hebrew manuscripts, a blatant contradiction exists. Here was a passage (Jeremiah 7:22) that explicitly mentioned that God did not gave any commands on burnt offerings during the exodus that clearly contradicts Exodus 20:22-24 which equally explicitly provides a commandment from God about burnt offerings and sacrifices. Thus to save their doctrine of Biblical inerrancy, the translators added the word "just" to avoid this very contradiction!

The passage from Matthew 13:32 is even more blatant. Let us compare the NRSV and the NIV again here:

Matthew 13:31-32 NRSV
He [Jesus] put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the field; it is the smallest of all seeds...
Matthew 13:31-32 NIV
He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds...[italics added-PT]

The extant Greek manuscripts have Jesus here saying that the mustard is the smallest of all seeds, as the NRSV faithfully translates. However this statement, that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds, is a gross botanical error. For while it is true that mustard seeds are small, they are not the smallest. The orchid seed, for instance, is even smaller.[b] Of course the fundamentalist translators of NIV cannot have the divine Jesus being shown to make such a mistake, so they the word your to seeds, implying that Jesus was merely talking about the seeds available to this audience! Again it is important to note that the translators had added a word not found in the extant Greek manuscripts.

These examples should be enough to caution anyone about thinking that all Bible translations are the same. Some have theological preconceptions built-into the translation.

Other fundamentalist versions such as The Book (and the Living Bible, on which The Book is based) have similar methods of skirting through theological difficulties. To those who are interested to explore this further can consult the book Fundamentalism: Hazards and Heartbreaks by Rod Evans and Irwin Berent published by Open Court publishing.[6]

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a.The verse in Isaiah, read within its proper context, does not refer to Jesus at all. A more detailed explanation is provided elsewhere in this website.
b.According to my copy of the Guiness Book of World Records, the smallest seeds are those of the epiphytic orchids. Each seed weighs in at approximately 0.0000008 grams!


1.Metzger, Companion to the Bible, P758-763
2.NIV, p: xxxix
3.Barker, Losing Faith in Faith: p269
4.Good News Bible (ABS 1976): p673 footnote
5.Metzger, The Bible in Translation: p140-141
6.Evans & Berent, Fundamentalism: p89-94

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