Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

You are here

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Is There an Evangelical Bias in Translation (Mark 5:23)

Sometimes we translators are accused of having an evangelical bias, of altering the translation of a passage to make the New Testament not contradict itself, or artificially conforming a New Testament citation to its Old Testament source.

It is an interesting charge, and is somewhat based on the assumption that the New Testament contradicts itself or that the New Testament authors were not able to quote their Old Testament accurately.

Mark 5:23 provides a good example of the former. This is the famous crux when it comes to inerrancy. Was Jarius’ daughter dead, or almost dead, when her father was speaking with Jesus?

The NASB translates, “My little daughter is at the point of death” (also ESV, NRSV); the NET has, “My little daughter is near death.” However, the CSB has, “My little daughter is dying” (also NIV, NLT). The Greek is ἐσχάτως ἔχει, ἐσχάτως meaning “to being at the very end, finally” (BDAG). The parallel in Luke 8:42 has the imperfect ἀπέθνῃσκεν.

The conflict is that in Matt 9:18 Jarius says, “My daughter has just died” (ἄρτι ἐτελεύτησεν). ἄρτι means “ref. to the immediate past, just (now),” and τελευτάω means “come to an end, die.”

This is not the time to deal with the synoptic issue, but I do want to point out a difference. To my ears, there is a considerable difference between “near death” and “dying.” The latter can refer to anyone in the process of dying; “near death” emphasizes that they are at the very point of death. Both are legitimate translations, but “near death” softens the contrast with “just died.” The synoptic problem still exists, but it is not as pronounced, so why not translate ἐσχάτως ἔχει as “near death.” It actually is closer to the Greek than “is dying.”

The fact of the matter is that there are often multiple ways to accurately translate a passage. If two options both have a claim to legitimacy, then why default to the one that causes a conflict (or a greater conflict) with another passage? Is that not an non-evangelical bias?

(On a side note, I watched my mother die over a five year period. My big brother was reading C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, and when he finished the last page and looked up, mom and stopped breathing. Given mom’s gradual decline and soft passage into eternity, there was virtually no difference in the minute before death and a minute after death. We often refer to a person as “dead,” even though they are still breathing but their death is an assured conclusion; other times we speak of someone being “as good as dead.”)


Dr. M. This example shows that Evangelical bias does not exist. Certainly, reading all the Synoptics it would be easy to take the fuller account in Luke and compress it with the result, that in Mark his daughter is dead. Instead, at least all the translations listed, were faithful to the text in Mark! The faithfulness of Evangelical translators sometimes requires us to search the scriptures, but in my view this is a good thing. Tim

To me, it's clear there was a conversation between the father and Jesus. The gospel writers selected parts of the conversation. I don't think they were intending to record everything that was said between the father and Jesus. I think that it is quite possible that both statements were said by the distraught father.

The story in total tells us about Jairus going to Jesus and asking him to go with him to cure his daughter, who was dying. After that moment Jesus started following him to his house, but Luke tells us that something happend in their way and Jesus take some time with the woman who touched his garments to get cured of her health problem. Then someone came and told Jairus's daughter was already dead (Luk.8:49) but both of them continue their way to cure the girl. It could have been without any contradiction that both statements had been said, first at the beginning and the second one when the news of the girl's death were told. The stories complement each other and that's how we came to know the name of the man. There's not need to change the statements at all, but get the story on all the accounts as a whole, and understand the wording. (Sorry for my English; Spanish is my first language).

Having just translated the New Testament from a layman's perspective I see translation biases in almost every translation. For example, Jesus is often said to have risen from the dead in English. Can anyone show me where the dozen or more references to him being raised from the dead use active verbs? Consistently they are passive "He was raised" not "He arose". Lazarus was raised from the dead and Jesus was raised from the dead. Jesus had the power/authority to take up his life or receive his life back? Once again translation bias in John 10. And one more to show that evangelical translation bias exists. In Romans 1:4, was Jesus declared to be the Son of God or was He appointed/ordained to be the Son of God?

This is one of the strange things in translations, and I think the passive is really important. I will be raising this issue on the NIV. Passives are considered "weak" in terms of English style, but in this case that should not override an important theological statement.