Tyndale On Mark's Gospel : Studies in Mark, Pt. 43

About two years ago, I heard the great Wesleyan thinker Abraham Smith give a lecture; it was quite pleasant. Yesterday, I began reading an essay of his; it too, was quite enjoyable. In the essay, he said a number of things about Bible translation that got me thinking and spurred me on to write this post.

I want to make a few comments, following Mr. Smith, about Tyndale's translations of the Gospels, in particular, Mark's account. In many ways, the giant known as Tyndale made significant gains with his translations but when it comes to Mk., he also did a number of things that were clearly setbacks. Here are a few examples:

In his 1525 edition, Tyndale totally imported his own context in to Mk. 14 and thus, skewed the passage. For instance (you can read it all HERE for yourself), Tyndale repeatedly uses the word "ester" (easter, see: 1, 12, 14, 16) instead of "Passover". In 14.12, Jesus is even the "ester lambe" (easter lamb). Of course, when he does this, he totally removes any and every Jewish inkling from the passage and Christianizes or better yet, anachronizes it. Undoubtedly, Tyndale was making the text "approachable" or "relatable" for his audiences but in doing so, he only created more problems. I trust that you can see the problem with this and that I don't have to explain it!!!

In other places, for instance in Mk. 1, as Smith points out, Tyndale has John the Baptizer railing against the Catholic Church (talk about anachronistic!). That is, The Baptizer comes preaching a "baptism of repentance" (not a phrase Tyndale himself would arrived at using his Latin work where the word is poenitentium) and not a "baptism of penance". Just as well, Tyndale was quick to change the word translated as "confession" (again, because of the Catholic Church) to the word "acknowledge". He did this with other terms such as "priest", "elder", "Church", etc.

For me, this is an interesting case study in how translations are always interpretations and that both are always biased. As the infamous saying goes, "No translation is completely innocent." Even that great thinker whose name belongs to a publishing house now, had his own biases and his own theology informing his translations. For me, this is just a reminder that when we read, we must converse with scholars of different eras, theological stances and whose interests and specialties are unlike our own. In doing this, we do not eradicate our presuppositions but usually, we are forced to acknowledge them. I believe that even the author of Mark's Gospel would own up to that much.


  1. I understand the problem here but what are we to do...compose our own translation?

    Also, I have heard people use this argument to try and discredit the Bible as well as Christians using it as an excuse not to read it.

  2. Jason, let me answer each of your questions:

    1) As far as composing our own translations, this is a "yes" and "no" answer. When going back to the Aramaic, Greek and Hebrew, we have to try to let those terms speak out of their own times. We cannot just change them like Tyndale did and substitute a Christian holiday in place of the Jewish one that is in the text. But "no" we aren't to compose our translations out of thin air or apart from the original context. For example, if we didn't know what we did about Jewish Passover, Jesus' death would make way less sense.

    2. As for people using the argument I'm making to try to discredit the Bible, well, on one hand they have every right to do that and sometimes, they are right. To go back to my example, if they wanted to discredit Tyndale's translation--much like I did--they have every right to. But they must go one step further and look at the bigger picture. We know that in the Jewish, Greco-Roman context of the NT, what the NT writers were really trying to get across.

    3. I'm not sure how Christians could use this as an excuse not to read but I'm sure they have. Christians often come up with any excuse not to read the Scriptures. And honestly, that's probably more of a discredit to the Bible than anything. So, if they're making up an excuse, well, that's on them and unfortunately, it's egg on every other Chrsitian's face too. But context only helps us understand interpreters better, not worse. I could use the example of Eugene Peterson's "The Message" translation. It is urban and contemporary in many ways. But so much of it is wrong. Standing back and looking at his translation, I can see where he is attempting to reach the culture of his day but that doesn't mean all he says is right. The same is true for Tyndale and any other translator/translation. Even Mark, as I said, cannot be exempted from his culture, as his document clearly reveals.

    Did that answer your questions?

  3. I think that did answer my questions but I do have some comments:

    1)Should all Christians become versed in Biblical language? I wasn't trying to suggest we compose out of thin air - I was asking if all Christians should learn Biblical language/culture and compose their own translation from the original context. This would be quite difficult - or is the point that all Christians should realize there are "mistakes" in translations?

    2)I agree, they do have that right but how do we defend the Bible in light of that? I guess what I mean is all translations will have errors so how do we defend Scripture knowing that? We probably dont know where all the translation's errors are in every translation so couldnt a non believer assume we just don't know what is real and what is not?

    3)There are so many excuses aren't there! Good comparison Michael.

  4. Jason, to reply:

    1) In an ideal world, I would say "yes, they all need to be versed in biblical languages" but that's only ideal; it will never happen. But this is where my view of "gifts" comes into view. I agree with Paul that some are to be teachers, pastors, etc. For those persons, I do think it is good (not necesarry, but surely good and helpful) to know the languages. To get to part b of your question, as far as constructing our own translations: "Yes". In fact, this is what helps bible scholars see many new things. To give an example, for hundreds of years, scholars could read one verse the same way over and over. Then, someone comes along who has been studying the biblical languages and innocent of what everyone else has already said, offers a new translation. This might open up discussion among scholars and lead us in the direction to see if they were right or wrong all along. Either way, we are better at understanding the text and it's meaning.

    2) The trustworthiness of the Bible does not depend on a few debatable definitions or translations. However, that is part of it. Another part is the person's life. Are they committed to Christ, living for God, loving others, etc.? Again, these types of questions often go further than the others, like those about texts. But the textual aspect is important. I would say that no one translation can be trusted on its own. That's why I keep saying we need to read other translations, the grk, heb, aramaic, etc., commentaries, journal articles, etc. All of these things are put in place to help keep people honest. In short, what these things do is they kind of put a limit on people going too out of bounds with translations or not going far enough. No one translation is good enough on its own but because one is not good enough does not mean that "none" are good enough. It is the same with congregations or denominations. Many voices are needed so that we can get a fuller perspective. That's why I would encourage people to read a number of translations when trying to get the most meaning out of the text.

    3) yes. and thank you.

  5. Thanks, from your replies it seems you are a definite advocate of all Christians learning Biblical language.

  6. yes, i advocate it but i don't necessitate it or belittle if someone if they don't know the languages.