Not too long ago, this ministry received some emails regarding a small work that had been handed or otherwise recommended to them by members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The book was concerning to them for a couple of reasons: 1) It was written by a man claiming to be a biblical scholar who was, above all, a neutral observer and evaluated several translations to determine bias and fairness. 2) Among the translations he evaluated was the New World Translation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and, despite finding some flaws with it, determined that it was among the best translations he reviewed.
It is not surprising, then, that many Jehovah’s Witnesses have been offering this book to their Christian friends and family members. Many believers have been told over and again by reputable scholars that the NWT is not a good translation and demonstrates theological bias rather than biblical and linguistic scholarship. So, when a biblical scholar claims neutrality for the sake of historical truth and judges in favor of the NWT, it is hardly surprising to find such believers requesting information on such a work.
The particular book is by Dr. Jason BeDuhn of Northern Arizona University and is called Truth in Translation: Accuracy and Bias in English Translations of the New Testament. It is not intended to be a scholarly work, but rather a popular work which dispenses with the usual detailed argumentation and rigor demanded. He targets his audience those who have little to no knowledge of the biblical languages and culture.
This blog article begins a series where I will examine and review the claims of Dr. BeDuhn in his book and discuss his approach, methods, arguments, and conclusions. I am not intending on reviewing every chapter of the book as some of the arguments seemed to be peripheral to greater matters of theological import (although I am sure to touch upon some issues briefly, such as gender translation).
Dr. BeDuhn evaluates several translations and paraphrases of the New Testament intending to, in effect, grade their competency. He believes that he is qualified because he considers himself a biblical scholar and unbiased in his perspective. These are points he wishes to make abundantly clear in order to contrast himself with those who worked on the translations he reviews. The premise is that major translations are not made by biblical scholars but by reasonably competent committees with a vested doctrinal interest. Indeed, he states:
“With thousands of biblical scholars in America alone, you may think that biblical translation is mostly a scholarly enterprise. It isn’t. Although biblical scholars have been the key players in identifying the more accurate Greek text of the New Testament, most have never been involved in a bible translation project.” (BeDuhn, 9)
Dr. BeDuhn then goes on to assert that the work of these biblical scholars is usually confined to specialist type projects focused narrowly on particular passages.
By contrast, he tells us, “”Bible translation is usually undertaken by people with theological training who also happen to be reasonably competent in biblical languages.” (BeDuhn, 8)
Note that biblical translators are not necessarily biblical scholars. Just what is a biblical scholar according to Dr. BeDuhn? A biblical scholar must possess three qualities in order to be considered a true scholar: Knowledge of 1) the linguistic content, 2) the literary setting of the work, and 3) the historical and cultural setting (BeDuhn, xvi-xix).
Dr. BeDuhn believes that he is qualified because he considers himself to be a biblical scholar. Now, I am willing to grant Dr. BeDuhn the assumption of scholarship. I am a little hesitant to consider him to be a biblical scholar since I am not familiar enough with his works on biblical scholarship to be able to grant him such on his word. I did look into his background and his website to understand where he believes himself qualified.
Dr. BeDuhn has his doctorate in Manichean studies. It is neither specific to nor specialized in New Testament. However, he does have a Master’s degree in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. Thus, I am certain he has had at least two years of Greek training. And, I am aware of at least one Greek manuscript of Manichean writings that he may have worked on at the doctoral level.
I am sure he can clarify his own training and I am not attempting to poison the well, as it were, in terms of his scholarship. I only note that there is not much in the way of his writings, save one examination of a section of 1 Cor 11, and Truth in Translation (outside of online discourses) which gives any indication of his credentials as a biblical scholar. So, the reader must take him at his word when he tells us that he is a biblical scholar of the caliber he requires and, more importantly, that the translators he is critiquing, are not.
I would note, by way of contrast, that the New American Standard translators of the original and updated versions list over 50 scholars who’s doctoral training is in New Testament or Old Testament language, backgrounds, culture, etc. This will be discussed more at another time.
That said, for the sake of this discussion, and despite my noted hesitancy, I am willing to grant Dr. BeDuhn his assertion that he is the scholar he claims to be.
There is an additional claim of credibility that Dr. BeDuhn claims of himself that he does not grant others under review: He claims he is unbiased. He states on page xix, “I am a committed historian dedicated to discovering what Christians said and did two thousand years ago.” And, again, “If you are looking for my bias, I guess you could say that I have a bias in favor of historical truth, the accurate reconstruction and comprehension of the past.” He later defines bias as unrecognized blind spots, so one must wonder if he has confused motive and intention with bias in this comment.
Again, by way of contrast, BeDuhn sees translators of popular versions this way: “The vast majority of Bible translations are produced by and for specific denominations of Christianity, or cooperatively among members of related denominations.” (BeDuhn, 8) And, again, “The responsibility of making new translations rests upon people who are largely ill-suited to the task, through no fault of their own. They do not have the full complement of training.” (BeDuhn, 10)
Now, do not misunderstand Dr. BeDuhn’s characterizations of the translators. He does not assign to them malice or dishonesty. On the contrary, he contrasts malice and dishonest from bias. Biases, he argues, are unconscious assumptions or unrecognized blind spots. Thus, he does not believe that any translator is dishonest, only that they do not recognize when the translation ended and their interpretations began.
This is a fair criticism that all translators and scholars of any discipline share, but it is a little bothersome that while Dr. BeDuhn understands bias to be “unrecognized blind spots” he thinks that he has been able to inoculate himself from such a condition and he can somehow see that his “bias” is something virtuous and noble, such as pursuit of historical truth. Blind spots are so called because they cannot be seen, and thus the question is legitimately raised as to how he would see something that, by his own definition, he cannot see. Further, since these are unconscious assumptions, one must wonder how Dr. BeDuhn is sufficiently able to stand outside of himself and find the neutral ground one must accept and believe to be unbiased. Indeed, is it not a presupposed belief that there is an ability to completely remove one’s bias?
Dr. BeDuhn argues that being involved in a state institution forces one to remove bias, normally by confrontation of colleagues. But, involvement with a state institution does not guarantee a lack of bias. How does one demonstrate that the same unrecognized assumptions do not exist within the entire faculty if one is unable to see that it exists in the first place?
But, this is not intended as a discourse of presuppositionalism and the myth of objectivity. I do believe that for Dr. BeDuhn, however, to argue that he is being unbiased he has unwittingly asserted a particular philosophical bias into the equation: That full objectivity is possible. If he denies that full or pure objectivity is impossible to achieve, then he must allow that bias has, to some degree, entered into his own work. He may simply be unaware that this bias exists.
What is more important to this discussion is that Dr. BeDuhn has placed himself in a position that requires our judgment. Indeed, he pleads with us to not “take [his] word for it” (xix) but to examine his arguments and judge them on their merits.
There will necessarily be some difficulty in doing this as this is not a scholarly work. As mentioned before, it is aimed at those with little or no language/biblical training. However, despite the general and popular nature of this work, there is ample evidence to demonstrate the many problems of Dr. BeDuhn’s assertions regarding the works he critiques and leaves legitimate room for one to question Dr. BeDuhn’s own preparedness to have ranked such works to begin with.
No disrespect is intended with this review. It is, however, written with an apologetic intent to assist those who have had difficulty in addressing the various comments by BeDuhn in response to their Jehovah’s Witness friends who have placed a lot of stock in his arguments.
Our next installment will delve into specific arguments presented by Dr. BeDuhn.