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Monday, December 23

Why do translations use antiquated terms like “gospel”?

Someone just sent me the following. “I’m particularly interested in communicating Scripture in terms that the average person on the street can understand. So it bothers me that our translations are stuck on a fossilized word like ‘gospel,’ which means nothing to most people (and even many Christians!). Why not be consistent in translating euangelion as ‘good news.’ That may at least cause people to ask the question, ‘Well, what IS the good news?’ As it is, I believe people hear ‘gospel’ and dismiss it as ‘religious talk.’”

A couple thoughts. The words “stuck” and “fossilized” imply motive or competence, perhaps unintentionally, which becomes an ad hominem argument, which is never good. It says that there is something wrong with translators who apparently do not know they are “stuck” in the past or they intentionally want to stay “stuck” in the past. We need to be careful at how we word questions and what our words imply.

The fact of the matter is that this is a constant area of discussion, not only in the NIV but also the ESV and I would assume all other translations, especially the NLT. We are all conscious of the role of technical terminology and both its good and bad effects on understanding.

A good example is ἱλαστήριον. You can use technical terminology and be specific: propitiation, expiation, atoning sacrifice. In order to understand almost any translation of this word, you are going to have to pick up a dictionary and study. This is not an option for the NLT given their translation philosophy, so in Rom 3:25 they write, “sacrifice for sin,” and in Heb 9:5 it is “place of atonement.” Of course, even these phrases are unintelligible to someone outside the church (and many in the church).

Or what about παράκλητος? Translations like “Advocate,” “Helper,” and “Counselor” are all struggling to find the appropriate English word, and none exists to truly translate παράκλητος, so we use the best term we can find and expect that people who want to understand the Bible, like any ancient or truly significant book, will be willing to study. Bible translations can’t be reduced to the lowest common denominator and be expected to meet the needs of the church.

Theology also needs labels. How do you teach or preach without terminology? Every area of discipline has technical terminology that is necessary for communication. In my mind, this is one of the problems of using the NLT; it removes terminology whose meaning is not immediately apparent to the non-informed reader, which may help at first but I think hurts in the long run.

This issue of technical terminology is part of a translation’s philosophy. In the ESV the rule was that if someone could figure out what a word meant without being a biblical specialist, we were okay with the word. The Bible is worth studying. In the NIV it is more an issue of clarity of meaning and how we talk today. I address this in some depth in my new seminar on BiblicalTraining. You can check it out here: The actual discussion is lesson 3 (Principle 2).

Also, I would argue that “good news” seriously under-translates εὐαγγελιον. “Good news” in English is not a technical term. It just means you have some positive information. But the gospel is “the” good news, the best news there has ever been, focused on the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the call to repentance. “Good news” misses the specificity of the kerygma.

Words are important. We hang on them. Preach on them. Communicate with them. This mean we should be careful in how we phrase questions and in how we communicate the wonderful truths of the gospel.

(By the way, I am not just picking on the person who asked the question. This topic comes up repeatedly. Many people love to question what they do not understand. I was talking to someone last week, and they claimed the NIV “skipped” a verse. The fact of the matter is that the NIV didn’t “skip” a verse; its translation was different enough from the translation the person regularly used that he didn’t see what the NIV was doing. But a translator isn’t going to “skip” any of God’s words. At least, none that I know.)


Great post Bill...I really like how you've handled this kind of question -- thanks so much for the blog...I do not always have time to reply, but I want to let you know that I appreciate the blog, your thoughts, your time that you sacrifice to share with us, and for your ministry and heart for the Lord and His Word. You are a blessing to many of us, and to me personally! Thank you!

Dr. Mounce, I do apologize for my choice of wording in my question. It was completely unintentional to imply motive or competence. In retrospect, I see that I was complaining about inanimate print on a page, while you personally know the hard work, prayer, discussion and difficult choices on the part of the team of translators. I will be more careful about my choice of words in the future when arguing with a translation and be mindful that there are real people behind it! I appreciated learning that it is an area that prompts a lot of discussion. Here's follow up question about "good news" under translating εὐαγγελιον. Do you think that when the four Gospels were written, the word had taken on a technical Christian sense by that time, or would the original readers still have brought to the text their own understanding from its secular usage? Thanks again, Rob Bailey