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Questions: Bruce, What Bible Do Evangelicals in Non-English- Speaking Countries Use?


I put out the call to readers, asking them for questions they would like me to answer. If you have a question, please leave it here or email me. All questions will be answered in the order in which they are received.

Kate asked:

One of your recent columns made me wonder about something, and now that you’ve asked for questions, here it is. In non-English speaking countries, what do evangelical fundamentalists use for their guidebook? An ‘approved’ translation of KJV, or some other version of the bible?

There was a time when American Evangelicals (who are inherently Fundamentalist — please see Are Evangelicals Fundamentalists?) primarily used the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible (1769 edition). A small percentage of Evangelicals used the Revised Standard Version (RSV) or the New American Standard Bible (NASB). Beginning in the 1960s with The Living Bible, Evangelicals began using non-KJV translations: the New King James Version (NKJV), New International Version (NIV), The Message (MSG), and the English Standard Version (ESV), to name a few. This ushered in the Bible translation war. Personally, I used the KJV, NASB, and the ESV at different points in my ministry. The more right-leaning sects, churches, and pastors are, the more likely they are to use the KJV.

The Bible translation war has been going on for almost seventy years. While I was unable to find any study on which translations Evangelicals use, I will venture an educated answer to this question: fewer Evangelicals use the KJV than ever, while Christians on the far right of the Evangelical spectrum have turned using the KJV into an unwavering article of faith. I candidated at one Southern Baptist church in Weston, West Virginia that wanted me to become their pastor. I used the ESV in my trial sermons. The pulpit committee told me that they really wanted to call me as their next pastor, but an influential family in the church had objected to me using a non-KJV Bible. Not wanting to upset this family, the committee asked if I would only use the KJV. Knowing how cantankerous KJV-only adherents could be, I said no. As a result, the church declined to call me as their pastor.

Evangelicals spend billions of dollars of years evangelizing, through missionary endeavors, non-English speaking people. This includes providing these people Bibles in their native languages. (Most major people groups already have Bibles in their respective languages.) For example, my wife’s cousin and her husband, Toree and James “Jamie” Overton, are Bible translation missionaries in India for Worldview Ministries. Their objective?: translating the Scriptures into the heart language of a people is required for effective church-planting movements and discipleship . . . a focus on unreached people groups and a purposeful strategy to reach them is required if we are to be in complete obedience with the Great Commission.

Some Evangelical Bible translation ministries use the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic (and other) manuscripts to produce Bibles in native languages. This is long, hard, arduous work, as any linguist can tell you.

Some translation ministries, however, only use certain manuscripts to translate the Bible into native languages. Take Worldview Ministries. Here’s a screenshot of their translation methodology:

worldview ministries bible translation

Got all that? Lurking behind this world salad is King James-onlyism and the idea that only certain Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic manuscripts are the divinely preserved and authoritative Word of God. Other manuscripts and translations are rejected out of hand and considered corrupt. These claims are patently false, but are common in certain corners of the Evangelical world.

In Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) circles, it is not uncommon to find Bible translation ministries using the KJV as the foundational text for translation. Instead of translating the Greek/Hebrew/Aramaic manuscripts into native languages, the 1769 revision of the King James Bible is used for translations into native tongues. Such translators believe the KJV is the inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word of God. Yes, an inspired translation. Evidently, God speaks KJV. Thus, it makes “perfect” sense to translate the English KJV directly into other languages. The problems with this approach are beyond the scope of this post. Needless to say, I can hear my linguist friends banging their heads on the walls of their offices. Translation is hard work, and this KJV-to-Native-Language approach is a shortcut that leads to inaccurate translations.

The goal of these translations is evangelization. Hundreds of millions of dollars a year are spent translating Bibles into native languages. Evangelicals seek out people groups without a Christian Bible in their native tongue. Then they spend years learning the languages so they translate Bibles into native languages. Once completed, these Bibles (usually the New Testament or the Gospel of John) will be “freely” distributed and used to save “sinners.” Personally, I view such efforts as con artists selling unwary people that which they don’t need. In the case of my wife’s cousin and her husband, why do native Indians need Christian Bibles? Why not leave them alone? Why try to turn them into Western Christians? Wouldn’t money be better spent feeding, clothing, and housing people? Instead, such ministries “prey” on non-English speaking natives. Evangelicals like nothing better than a missionary story about third-world heathens being saved. Open come the pocketbooks and out come the credit cards to finance what I call Evangelical busy work; unnecessary efforts to conform native people into the image of white American Christians.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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    And all the Christian schools in Canada that were geared to whitewash native children, have left thousands of dead children to attest to the care Evangelicals really have for them.

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    Funnily enough, the official Bible translation body in my home country claims that they work with both Catholics and Protestants so their Bible “does not favour a particular interpretation”. Even though the Catholics do have their own translation body, they also recognise the translation made by this “official body”, including the translation made on the Deuterocanonical books.

    Spooky, last time I checked, the idea of “Evangelicals and Catholics together” does not bode well with most Evangelicals (and traditional Catholics, I guess).

    And Bruce is correct, that translation body claims that they use the original language manuscripts, although they don’t say which ones (probably for ecumenical reasons, as I mentioned above).

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      Slight correction: I remember that those Bibles contain the extra bits at the end of Mark, and John 8, and that additional part about the Trinity in 1 John 5. So I guess they rely on the Textus Receptus. Probably, I’m not a Bible scholar, Bruce can correct me on this.

      Interestingly, the online Bible app applies a bracket around the 1 John verse, so probably they think that part is unoriginal. The other aforementioned dubious sections are left untouched.

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    MJ Lisbeth

    Here in New York, we have Spanish- and French-language Evangelical churches. I have looked at the Bibles they use . I’m not a linguist or translator, but I can read those languages well enough to see the attempts to keep the rhetorical cadences—which is what people really respond to—in the KJV.

    (Interestingly, the churches Haitian Evangelicals attend conduct their services in French, not Creole. The latter is what most Haitians speak among themselves, while French is the language of the educated and upper classes and thus has a more elevated status. I see a parallel between that division and the split between users of KJV and other translations.)

    By the way, KJV is not “like Shakespeare.” The KJV was published near the end of the Bard’s life. The differences between even his most retrograde work and KJV are stark. While the language of Shakespeare’s drama and sonnets seems archaic to modern readers, it was actually well ahead of its time and, once you start to understand what he was doing with words and syntax, it seems rather modern. On the other hand, KJV was, I think, deliberately archaic: It bears more semblance to the work of poets like Edmund Spenser who predated Shakespeare.

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    The appeal of KJV for something like culty religion is undeniable. It exudes an old timey vibe that gives gravis to it, even though it really isn’t that old compared to the original text. It seems like it came from God’s own mouth. It’s similar to using an octogenarian actor like George Burns to play God in the Oh God! movies. It looks ancient. Once you translate it into modern prose you might as well be reading “Time” Magazine. I’d also add when huckster Joseph Smith “translated” the book or Mormon, he tried to imitate the old timey sound of the KJV. (But to answer the question, evangelicals don’t even need to think about other translations, they don’t use the translations they distribute so it isn’t a problem.

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    MJ Lisbeth

    Troy— George Burns was asked why, of all comedians and actors, he was chosen to play God. “I’m closest to his age,”!he quipped.

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    I remember a lot of the older men at the Southern Baptist church I grew up in praying in KJV-style English, like saying “thee” and “thy” as if that’s the language God understands best. It definitely cracked me up.

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      This reminds me how in the Catholic church clergy tend to refer to the trinity in Latin, ‘in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti’

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    If you attend a Spanish-speaking church (I do and I was an overseas missionary in South America for almost a decade), the 1960 Reina Valera translation is the most used. It is a modern rendering of the original Reina-Valera that would be like our KJV. There are other new, better translations out there (I use La Biblia de las Américas), but the Reina-Valera 1960 is the one that is most used. Also, no matter what your opinion on Bible translation, there are a number of languages that owe the fact that they have an alphabet and written material in their languages to missionaries (Vietnamese is one example).

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      Hi Linn,

      I thought Vietnamese was written in traditional Chinese scripts before the arrival of the Jesuits, similar to Korean (before Emperor Sejong’s administration) and Japanese (before the hiragana and katakana were developed as stand-ins for Chinese characters).

      Wikipedia also told me that the Vietnamese had the Chữ Nôm writing system. It was based on composite Chinese characters (not originally present in the original Chinese) that were created to represent native Vietnamese words.

      Of course, the modern Vietnamese alphabet was devised by European missionaries. It finally took precedence over the Chinese characters, probably due to a combination of French colonial government’s backing and its better accessibility for the common people (my wild guess).

      Anyway, I am not trying to disagree with you that some languages probably owe their written scripts largely to the efforts of Christian missionaries. But I don’t think Vietnamese is a clear-cut example.

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        I’ve heard it said that in the past the survivability of a language depended on whether it had abible version in its tongue. For instance Scots Gaelic. I’ve not researched this extensively, but I’ve no reason to really doubt it.

        What does it mean? Just that the bible was a powerful political and social tool… more so in the past. Similar to how today global business is facilitated by the use of English, although that’s becoming less. Doesn’t mean magical powers, it’s just what the ruling political/societal elite are practicing, which of course rubs off to other cultures/languages for anything.

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          I agree.

          I heard that in those days, when a nobleman/monarch converted to a particular religion, all their subjects would most likely follow suit. Either for political, social, or economic reasons. Or even religious reasons, dare I say, if those subjects were already convinced by the new teachings to begin with.

          I’m not discounting that those beliefs had their own intrinsic merits, but completely attributing this immense influence to miraculous powers is a bit too much.

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          Husband was involved in a project that wrote and published a new, cool, modern welsh translation of the NT. It’s there online for any first-language speakers to download. But ”today’s young folk” as they say, are conspicuous by their absence from and interest in the bible. He moved on briefly to scots gaelic, then had to stop, but I’m guessing earnest souls are going ahead with the same thing….cos they need to ‘attract young people.’ I fully understand everyone has a ‘heart language’, one they worship in and make love in. But from my POV, in Wales, the time has long passed when there’s much interest in the welsh bible, new or old versions. Just in a few rural pockets it may be valued. English is the lingua franca of much of the world and daily, younger welsh generations watch TV, movies etc from Hollywood….it’s their choice however much they’re told they should do all they can to preserve their language. I was always intrigued that the welsh-medium high school here, totally welsh, disgorged its pupils onto a local bus I too used every afternoon. None of the loud, normal, chatty teens on board spoke in welsh, it was english all the way!

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