Academic exegesis is that form of interpretation which copies academics or authority figures. The Lord Jesus Christ cut through this in His teaching.
Academic exegesis is seen in the translation of several biblical passages. Bible versions are the product of teams of academic translators pooling their collective knowledge to produce a final decision on the translation of particular texts.
It is easy to demonstrate that when a significant translation, such as the New International Version, makes a break from a traditional translation, then subsequent versions will follow, on the principle that new research has identified an improvement.
However, these are not always improvements but such is the bias of academia that academic exegesis kicks in to cement the new translation as the new standard, inhibiting independent thought and establishing a new paradigm.
Those who are unfamiliar with translation may think that this criticism is too strong. So it might help to give an example of academic imitation. For a long time it has been recognized that Jn 5:39 is not a command ‘Search the Scriptures’, as the King James Version suggests, but a comment ‘You search the Scriptures’, meaning that in spite of their searching of Scripture the Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day did not realise that the Scriptures spoke about Jesus. The variations in translation can be viewed by clicking here. So far, so good.
However, what about ‘My witness is not true’ Jn 5:31? A quick review of twenty versions, old and new, shows that there is very little variation among them in translating this. Yet most commentators know that there is a difficulty with this text. As it stands, it appears as if Jesus raises the possibility, for the sake of argument, that He may not be telling the truth. Is this even likely? Jesus plainly contradicts such a thought in Jn 8:14 ‘Jesus answered and said unto them, Though I bear record of Myself, yet My record is true.’ So there are various attempts at explaining the verse. My point is not which interpretation is correct, but that in spite of all the academics pouring over this verse none of the versions have translated it as a rhetorical question. The proper translation is: ‘If I bear witness of Myself, is My witness not true?’ which makes much more sense than the statement ‘My witness is not true’ – the uniform translation in all versions I have consulted. Jesus asks a rhetorical question, ‘Why should My witness not be true, even if I bear witness of Myself?’ Later He will challenge them in a similar vein: ‘if I say the truth, why do you not believe Me?’ Jn 8:46.
Why have none of the versions translated it as a rhetorical question when the Greek text is in this form? Bible translations are produced by teams of academics, so how have they not analysed the Greek text for themselves and discovered this? Have they been so busy studying the commentaries and weighed up the opinion of other scholars that they have not done their own exegesis? Studying commentaries is not exegesis of the text, but relying upon academia, the very thing that Jesus exposed.
This appeal to authority is what the scribes did in Jesus’ day – so when He cut through their academic exegesis and explained the proper meaning of Scripture, ‘the people were astonished at His doctrine: for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes’ Mat 7:28-29 and Mk 1:22. This mistaken emphasis is similar to that form of theology which is not ‘the study of God’ theos-logos but ‘the study of theologians’. This variety of theological study overlooks God and studies theologians, and it does not reckon someone to be a theologian if one does not know these theologians. Similarly we have translators who overlook the Bible and study other translations; how else do we account for imitation which overlooks the biblical text?
Proper exegesis of this passage in Jn 5:31 would have yielded the result that the negative statement of all extant English translations cannot be correct, even before analysising the Greek text. Like Jn 5:39 the Greek text in Jn 5:31 has legitimate alternative translations. So why have so many teams of translators followed each other along only one of these alternatives? The answer is either that they have not considered the alternative or that they were too frightened to break out of the consistent consensus of academic opinion. Neither option is commendatory.
Why call it academic exegesis? 1. because it is not exegesis, which does not need any qualifying adjective. 2. when something goes wrong with exegesis, there must be a reason for it. The commonest error is eisegesis, which is the very opposite of exegesis. 3. in this case, the error arises because of an overweaning fear of breaking out of the academic consensus, so that ‘academic’ exegesis is an appropriate adjective.
It is interesting that Jesus goes on to deal with the overweaning regard for worldly honour that prevents people believing in Him, taking Him at His Word, and following Him fully as a disciple Jn 5:44.
This is only one of many examples of academic exegesis in Bible translation, in which academics are controlled by their peer group and are too frightened to do their own exegesis, resulting in academic imitation, which Jesus broke through in His time, and which we must continue to assess in our time. God willing, I hope to return to this subject with more examples as time permits.
I have updated this post with further examples as they come to light, which is not difficult as there are so many:
10 Jul 2017: the NIV translates Ps 125:3 with ‘the land’, which: 1. is not the Hebrew word, 2. does not make sense; 3. is not true; but 4. it is followed by many modern versions. Why is this so? They are copying each other – not exegeting the text. In addition, and incidentally, only some versions notice that another of the Hebrew words in this text is ‘wickedness’ and not ‘wicked’.
23 Jul 2017: the Berean Literal Bible translates Acts 5:27 ‘And every day, in the temple and in every house’. Being a literal translation one might expect it to differ from smoother, more colloquial translations, so that the Berean Study Bible has ‘Every day, in the temple courts and from house to house’. The problem is that ‘every house’ is not a literal translation! ‘From house to house’ is not only a better translation, used by the KJV in Act 2:46 and followed here by most current translations, but ‘every house’ is not in the Greek text and it is plainly wrong. It is almost certain that the apostles did not visit every house in Jerusalem, and even if they did, it cannot be proven from the Greek text.
So where did these translators find their ‘every house’ if it is not in the Greek text? Could it just be that they copied the KJV or Young’s Literal Translation, normally very good as a literal translation, but in this case making the same mistake as the KJV and translating ‘and in every house’? The BLB translators knew the problem because they put every in italics, to show that it is not in the Greek text, which is more than the KJV does, but it is wrong.
Additionally, where did the Berean Study Bible obtain ‘in the temple courts’? This is not in the Greek text, which is simply ‘in the temple’. Lo and behold, this is how the NIV has translated it! Are these independent studies or could it just be that the BSB is copying the NIV? Either way, it is not translation but copying. The Holman Christian Standard Bible has ‘in the temple complex’ and other current versions are moving in a similar direction of biblical interpretation instead of translation. This is known as dynamic equivalence, which can be helpful in some circumstances, but the interpretation may be plainly wrong and it is not translation.
The role of preachers is to explain and interpret, but the Bible should be a translation and not an interpretation, although it may wish to put interpretations in the margin. This is what the 1560 Geneva Bible did, but marginal notes were abandoned when the KJV was produced in 1611. The KJV put alternative translations in the margin, but not interpretations. Since then there have been many ‘study Bibles’ produced with additional, explanatory notes, and sometimes misleading notes, but this blogpost is dealing with the quality of translation in modern versions or translations of the Bible, although academic exegesis is not confined to Bible translation.
A notable example of this copying in another discipline is computer-generated copying of mistakes. It is well-known that there are many glitches in these as the computer age endeavours to rapidly computerise older textbooks, and they will hopefully be corrected with time. However, it surprises me that no-one has yet corrected Strong’s coded G5384 philos ‘a friend’, a second declension noun, which in the nominative singular is the same as the masculine, nominative singular of the adjective. Every one of the 29 occurrences in the New Testament is a noun, but e-Sword, Scholars’ Gateway and Interlinear Scripture Analyzer each code it as an adjective, although the latter correctly codes it as a noun in three places at the time of updating this blogpost, at Lk 11:5, Lk 14:10 and Lk 15:9, which, interestingly Scholars’ Gateway has also corrected.
These can be quickly corrected, but how did this mistake arise? Thayer’s Lexicon describes it first as an adjective ‘friendly’ and cites Act 19:31 as an example. However, he goes on to describe the noun for the rest of the entry. It seems that this entry has been misread by someone. Incidentally, it is not an adjective at Act 19:31 but a noun.
23 Jul 2017: the NIV translates Acts 5:29 ‘Peter and the other apostles replied’, as does the Berean Study Bible. According to this translation, how many apostles are there? At least three? Possibly more? But the Greek text does not say so. The word ‘other’ is not in the Greek text. This mistake continues to repeat the mistake made by the King James Version (KJV) many centuries ago, but at least the KJV put ‘other’ in italics to alert the English reader that it is not in the original Greek text. This is one of the many advantages of the KJV for English readers. So why do these versions still use ‘other’? Could it just be that they are copying? Many versions remove ‘other’ but leave the same meaning: ‘Peter and the apostles answered’ in the New American Standard Bible and in the International Standard Version; ‘Peter and the apostles answering said’ in the Berean Literal Bible, and likewise others. None of the 25 versions I have consulted, except one, translate it properly. They all give the impression that there were at least three apostles present. The proper translation is ‘Then Peter answered and the apostles said, We ought to obey God rather than men.’ The verb ‘answered’ is a singular verbal participle, applying to Peter, and the verb ‘said’ is plural applying to both apostles. Yes, there were only two apostles – Peter and John – as demonstrated by ‘you’ in Act 5:28, which refers back to Peter and John in Act 4:18. The only correct version is the Darby Bible Translation: ‘Peter answering, and the apostles, said’. This is slightly stilted but conveys the correct sense and does not suggest that there were three or more apostles. If one version notices the difference and gets it correct, why do not the others? Are they copying? Academic exegesis? Modern scholarship is not all that it purports to be.
25 Jul 2017: in Ps 104:4 ‘his angels spirits’ has been translated as ‘winds his messengers’ and copied by current translations. I happened to exegete this Psalm in my Bible commentary a few days ago, specifically on this subject about the angels, and today I discovered this article in the Trinitarian Bible Society Quarterly Record Oct-Dec 2016, pp. 17-21 on this very subject. There is providence for you! Could it be that the translators did not understand why angels are mentioned, or that some of them did not believe in angels and took the opportunity to use another translation, or could it just be that some of them copied each other?
For those who want an easier way of assessing this example, note that the apostle Paul quotes Ps 104:4 in Heb 1:7 as ‘angels’. However, the NIV has translated Ps 104:4 as ‘winds his messengers’ but Heb 1:7 as ‘his angels spirits’. Why have other versions done the same? Is it follow my leader?
11 Aug 2017: the New International Version has translated Act 14:21 ‘and won a large number of disciples’. Most versions have ‘many disciples’. So why have all these teams of academics not noticed that the Greek word is ‘sufficient, enough’ and not ‘many’, far less ‘a large number’? Could it just be that they are copying each other and not doing their own exegesis? The meaning of the text is overlooked by this mistranslation. It means that having made sufficient disciples to begin a congregation, and considering the effect of the negative campaigning by the travelling Jews Act 14:19, Paul and Barnabas continued no further in their travels, but retraced their steps to visit the new, recently formed Christian congregations in order to establish them against this negative campaigning.
11Aug 2017: the New International Version has translated Act 14:23 ‘Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them’ although the Greek text is simply ‘they’. ‘Paul and Barnabas’ is a legitimate inference but it is an interpretation rather than a translation. So why do the New Living Translation, the Berean Study Bible and the International Standard Version also ‘translate’ with Paul and Barnabas? Is it scholarly analysis of the Greek text, or is it not rather prompted by an instinct to copy each other?
4 Sep 2017: the New International Version has translated 1Tim 3:2,12 and Tit 1:6 as ‘faithful to his wife’, copied by the New Living Translation, although not by other versions. This is not translation but interpretation and omits the proper teaching of the verse which reminds the Christian church that although those who were converted as polygamists may become members in the church, yet they could not be office-bearers, in order that the proper biblical teaching on marriage may be sustained and promoted. The New Revised Standard Version has ‘translated’ these verses as ‘married only once’, which is a doctrinal imposition upon the text, which has caused untold harm and heartache to many Christians. This is a deliberate change from the Revised Standard Version, which like most other versions has ‘the husband of one wife’, which is retained as a footnote in the New Revised Standard Version.
4 Nov 2017: Most current versions copy each other and say that Demas has deserted Paul, or abandoned him. This is not translation but interpretation, and copying each other. It is not correct, as demonstrated here.
25 Dec 2017: All 22 Bible versions I have consulted translate ‘a river’ in Job 40:23 as ‘Jordan’, the main river in the land of Canaan, although it is almost certain that this section of the book of Job was not composed in the land of Canaan nor was it speaking about a creature in the land of Canaan. Although it is possible that Moses edited the final version of the book of Job, yet there is no reason why this word should be translated Jordan. However, every subsequent Bible version has copied the lead given by earlier Bible versions. Why are they afraid to break the consensus? Is it academic exegesis? Whatever the reason, it does not help the English reader to understand the geographical setting of the book of Job. Rather it misleads them.
6 Jan 2018: it is possible that Lam 3:38 is another example of academic copying, because 20 versions translate this as a rhetorical question. Only two translate it as a statement, Young’s Literal Translation and God’s Word Translation, which seems more appropriate.
Those who are impatient for more information on this topic may want to read Dean Burgon’s The Revision Revised for some trenchant criticisms of myopic and prejudicial academia in his day which fed into the Revised Version of the Bible (1881), which has been the basis of almost all Bible versions since then. Although these versions have been promoted as making the Bible more understandable, and who can object to that, yet the ordinary Christian does not realise that the modern version movement has got little to do with this and more to do with unbelieving academia on the one hand and making money through sales of new versions on the other hand. Academic changes can be used to promote the need for new versions, which ‘drives the economy’ of Bible sales, which is the world’s best-seller. The 1881 text was influenced by Westcott and Hort, neither of whom believed in the inspiration of the autographic originals of the biblical text.
A summary of exegetical mistakes can be viewed here.
Some quotations and additional thoughts:
16 Dec 2017: Freeman Dyson: “The PhD system is the real root of the evil of academic snobbery. People who have PhDs consider themselves a priesthood, and inventors generally don’t have PhDs.” This is rather similar to my own aphorism: “Intelligent people can be very prejudiced, because they think they can see the answer better than others.” Such are too intelligent for their own good.
2 Jan 2018: Peter Hitchens: “academics, like almost everyone else, vote tribally and in a conformist fashion.”
8 Jan 2018: academic exegesis is based upon a human fear of peer group disapproval and it is not confined to biblical studies. Science has been hindered by the same peer group resistance to the paradigm. Aristotelian cosmology hindered advance, but lest one should think that the fear of breaking with the paradigm is confined to early periods of human history, in the early 20th century a person who believed in continental drift would have been unable to find a university post, whereas at the end of the 20th century a person who did not believe in continental drift would have been unable to find a university post. Many people are unaware of the rapid change in paradigm with each new discovery. 408 years ago today, Galileo changed the world forever by discovering Jupiter’s Moons and changed the earthly paradigm of the heavens. He changed our knowledge about ‘how the heavens go’ at the same time as the European Reformers were changing the religious paradigm ‘how to go to heaven’. Similarly, in our day the evolutionary paradigm of secular religion controls the thinking of multitudes of human beings, but with more disastrous effects.
15 Feb 2018: The King James Version (KJV) uses the expression “God forbid” twenty-four times throughout the Bible. In the New Testament this phrase translates two Greek words meaning ‘let it not be!’ God is not in the translation. However, the New International Version (NIV) continues to translate it ‘God forbid’ in Lk 20:16, while almost all current versions do not. So why is this? It can only be by retaining or copying the KJV.
There is nothing wrong in copying a good translation. That is not my point. My complaint is these academics copy what is wrong or what has no basis in the underlying biblical text, suggesting lack of biblical exegesis and simply following academic peer group opinion or pressure. Most recent translations do not use this expression and translate as ‘may it never be!’ or its equivalent. Although the NIV retains ‘God forbid!’ here, it uses variable translations in the other New Testament verses. In fact, the NIV seems to have gone out of its way to translate it in as large a variety of ways as it can, failing to show consistency even within the same chapter, possibly defending this by the need for variety. It translates ‘God forbid!’ at Lk 20:16; ‘Not at all!’ at Rom 3:4,31, Rom 9:14 and Rom 11:11; ‘Certainly not!’ at Rom 3:6 and Rom 7:7; ‘By no means!’ at Rom 6:2,15, Rom 7:13 and Rom 11:1; ‘Never!’ at 1Cor 6:15; ‘Absolutely not!’ at Gal 2:17 and Gal 3:21 and ‘May I never’ at Gal 6:14. The King James Version is at least consistent, which helps textual comparison, but the use of God’s name is unwarranted in a modern translation of this Greek phrase, and it suggests unacademic copying.