The Myth of Literal Translation


In the Western world the term “literal” is used to refer to the way an expression is supposed to be understood. As translator David Bellos explains, “The distinction between the literal and figurative meanings of words has been at the heart of Western education for more than two millennia. The literal meaning of an expression is supposed to be its meaning prior to any act of interpretation, its natural, given, standard, shared, neutral, plain meaning.”

A few years ago I had a slight obsession with bible translations and finding the most “literal” ones. In my mind this meant translations that were translated word-for-word as much as possible. I held that this type of translation retained the original meaning, and therefore truth, to the highest degree without translators’ own interpretations and theologies getting in the way.

This was probably a result of my often hearing christians say that “we need to read the scriptures literally unless it is impossible to do so” (figurative interpretation was generally considered a bad thing, unless it was necessary to get a passage to conform to “orthodox doctrine”).

A simple observation, however, will reveal the absurdity of this way of thinking.

Many Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic (the languages the scriptures were written in) words and phrases have no equivalent to enable a word-for-word translation. For example, the scriptures contain about 200 different kinds (and even more occurrences) of figures of speech that, when translated literally, do not communicate the intended meaning. Some words and phrases found in biblical languages are so foreign to modern languages and cultures that, to truly understand their usage, we need a whole paragraph explaining their meaning. This is never done, however, because it would make reading the scriptures rough and tedious (and sales would decline). (There are “study bibles” containing notes, but these are hardly sufficient to explain the wide range of words, idioms, parables, etc., and most often no explanation is given anyways, as if the literal meaning communicates the intended meaning.)

The early church didn’t have a fixed theological language; they created it as they spoke and wrote. Yet this was not a linear process since even within a single language, sentences and even words can mean different things to different people. Thus pretending biblical words in their original language are always used with the same meaning across the Old and New Testaments is naive and yields inaccurate understandings. Inversely, even if a word is found in two separate passages in a translation, it often will have been translated from different words in the original language, helping to confuse readers and distancing them from comprehending the text.

Our understanding of expressions (including individual words) are initially (at least) formed through interpretation; we hear a person say something, interpret what they meant by it, then attach some meaning to it. As time passes and we experience expressions being used more, we refine our understanding of their meaning. Hence, a “literal” meaning of an expression prior to any act of interpretation varies at best and is unlikely to exist.

Therefore, the idea that we should read the scriptures as literally as possible, except where it is “obviously” (which is completely subjective) figurative, is ridiculous.

David Bellos writes, “…all that is actually meant by calling something a literal translation is a version that preserves meaning in grammatical forms appropriate to the language of the translation.” But since each language has different grammars, the meaning will not be perceived the same. This is true even if there were perfect equivalents for every word.

We need to free ourselves from traditional assumptions underlying our understanding of language, such as the following (which cognitive linguistics consider to be false):

  1. Metaphors are figurative ways of stating what could otherwise better be said literally.
  2. Definitions and conventional everyday language are literal.
  3. Only literal language can be true or false.

When you allow yourself to read the scriptures with this kind of freedom, you’re eyes will be opened to understand them in new and more accurate ways.


Also see:

The point of the scriptures is not literal truth

Hyperbole in the scriptures


The Nonexistence of “The Bible”


The phrase “the bible” comes from the Greek “ta biblia” meaning “the books.” Indeed, it is a collection of “books” (writings that can be categorized into genres such as historical record, love poetry, ancient biography, and epistle).

But truth be told, there is no “the bible”. There are only bibles – different translations based on different interpretations from different collections of manuscripts transcribed by different transcribers to form different canons.

There’s an Italian saying, “traduttore, traditore.” Translated this says, “translator, traitor.” Essentially it means that perfect translation from one language to another is impossible. Even the translation of this saying demonstrates its truth, as the full rhyming of the two words is lost in the English. This saying holds even truer for extinct languages, such as Koine Greek (the primary language the New Testament was written in), because it is impossible for people such as ourselves to grasp them to the extent that we do our native tongues (as the original writers and readers did).

Every translator is also an interpreter, because there is no translation without interpretation. It is impossible to translate without preconceived notions and biases interfering, regardless of whether their interference is intentional or not. Further, translation trivializes the currently popular doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy/infallibility because such properties do not carry over into translated products. Even if the original manuscripts, which are forever inaccessible to us, had such properties, their transcripts and subsequent translations (what we have) are not.

But even if we do not translate and instead read the transcripts (which are not the original manuscripts) in the languages they were originally written in, since the languages are not native to us, nor are we people living during that time period, nor do we know the full context in which they were written, nor do we have relationships with the authors – all of which were true of the original readers – our understanding of the writings would not only be limited but most surely flawed as well (in some ways, at least). This remains true no matter how much academic effort is made to study the languages.

(A note on past transcriptions and modern publications: Most past transcribers were and most modern bible publishing companies are profit-making ventures, often very profitable. To think that everyone involved in transcription and translation knew or knows Jesus personally is an assumption. Thus, we don’t know their true motivation for transcribing and translating. We would have to assume that unbiased accuracy was and is the transcribers’ and translators’ highest priority because, for example, translations that would seem to promote unpopular doctrines might be more likely to be discarded, even if they seem more accurate, since they could negatively affect sales.)

“The bible” give the impression that there exists a single authoritative entity. But if there really is such a thing, where is it? If it really does exist, please show it to me; I would like to see it!

Naw, it ain’t real. “The bible” is only a figment of religious imagination.

Some might object that ultimately it is not up to our rational minds but up to Holy Spirit to open our eyes as we read bibles. To that, I would agree. Yet I would add a question: Since it’s up to Holy Spirit, why, as has often been assumed, does it have to be through this one particular book that he teaches us truth? I don’t believe it does. God is not limited by a book in communicating with us (as the scriptures themselves attest), nor has he ever claimed that he would reveal himself to us primarily through a book (although humans have claimed so).

He communicates with and reveals himself to us primarily through Jesus.

“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…the exact representation of [God’s] being” (Hebrews 1:1-3).

Is “The Word of God” a Book or a Person?

“The bible is the word of God.”

We’ve all heard it before. But today you’re going to hear something different. The opposite, in fact.

The bible is not the word of God.

Some of you just wrote me off as a heretic, but I hope you can restrain any assumptions as to what I mean by that statement and keep reading to understand what I am and am not saying.

Here’s the heart of what I want to get at: Jesus is the Word of God.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).

“…His name is called The Word of God” (Revelation 19:13).

Now, before we go any further…

To those of you who are thinking that this is merely a matter of semantics – do not naively presume that this is merely another phrase used to refer to the bible. Language is a powerful tool that can be and is used to influence people’s thinking. And one of the reasons I am writing this is to help you see how the things you believe and the ways you think are affected by the way you hear Christians talk.

Even without any explicit mention, ideas such as the legitimacy and divine origin of the bible’s canonization, inspiration, authority, infallibility/inerrancy, that the bible is the greatest (or only) way God speaks to us, etc. are inherently connoted in the phrase “the word of God.”

Intentionally or not, this tradition of man has been used and has served to bypass critical thinking and generate a sense of credibility for such ideas. I’m not saying these ideas are necessarily wrong, but I am saying let’s help ourselves think clearly by not call something by a name that is reserved for someone else.

lewis(Note: Some say that the bible is at least the “written word of God.” But that is a presumption. The bible does not claim to be the “written word of God.” It doesn’t even say that a “written word of God” exists. People decided to make one. It is also a mistake to say that Jesus is the capital “Word of God” while the bible is the lower case “word of God” because the Greek language did not make capital/lower case distinctions.)

When you read a bible passage and come across the phrase “the word of God,” you will interpret that passage according to what you think “the word of God” means. You will derive your definition of “the word of God” from how you have heard other people use it. But if your definition is different than the original definition used when the author wrote that passage, your flawed definition will cause faulty interpretations which will in turn lead to misconceptions. (You can see this for yourself with a few verses I provide near the end of this post.)

I read the roughly 300 bible verses (NASB) that mention “word of God” or “word of the Lord” (some people refer to the bible as “the word of our Lord”). Here’s what I found: “word of God” (appears primarily in the New Testament) and “word of the Lord” (appears primarily in Old Testament) can refer to:

  • The Law
  • The voice of God
  • A prophetic word from God
  • The Gospel
  • A specific thing Jesus said
  • Jesus

Notice anything missing?

You can find “the word of God” being preached, proclaimed, spoken, heard, received, and spread, but you won’t find it being read.

In the bible, these phrases never refer to the bible or to the Old Testament as a whole (there are other Hebrew and Greek words reserved for this purpose). If you find this hard to believe, I encourage you to check it our yourself (click “word of God” and “word of the Lord” above).

Ultimately, the misuse of this phrase has distracted us from who the bible tells us is the Word of God: Jesus Christ.

“You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!” (John 5:39).

Jesus is a real person. He’s not just a historical figure you read about in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. He is with you. He is in you. He is your greatest reality.

And all the bible does is point to him.

The habit of calling the bible “the word of God” exposes the modern belief that God doesn’t speak anymore; only the bible does. But the bible itself testifies that this is a lie.

word of godThis language blinds us to the reality that Jesus speaks to us outside the bible. Calling the bible “the word of God” at best undermines the significance of Holy Spirit speaking to us, and at worst denies his activity today.

When God speaks, that is the word of God. Holy Spirit can use the bible to speak to us, but, as he demonstrates all throughout the bible, he doesn’t need a book to communicate with us. The bible is good, but it can be given too high a place in our lives when it replaces the living Word and his communication with us.

God never said he would speak only through a book, nor does the bible ever claim that it is the primary way that God communicates with us, as is so often touted today. On the contrary, Jesus said that his sheep know his voice and that Holy Spirit leads us into all truth. The ultimate revelation of the Father is Jesus himself (Hebrews 1:3, Colossians 1:15). And I don’t mean the things written about Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We come to know God not primarily through a book, but through a living person whom we relate with.

God is forever seeking to speak Himself out to His creation. The whole bible supports this idea. God is speaking. Not God spoke, but God is speaking. He is, by His nature, continuously articulate. He fills the world with His speaking voice…And this word of God which brought all worlds into being cannot be understood to mean the Bible, for it is not a written or printed word at all, but the expression of the will of God is the breath of God filling the world with living potentiality…The Bible…is confined and limited by the necessities of ink and paper and leather. The voice of God, however, is alive and free as the sovereign God is free. – A. W. Tozer

Let’s finish by looking at a few passages that mention “the word of God.” I understand that it is natural for many to interpret these verses as referring to the bible, especially since that’s what many of us have grown up being told. But if you do believe these are talking about the bible, I’d encourage you to read the verses in context. You might be surprised with what you find.

“By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible” (Hebrews 11:3).

“For you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God…’the word of the Lord endures forever.’ And this is the word which was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:23, 25).

“For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe” (1 Thessalonians 2:13).

“…I have written to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one” (1 John 2:14).

“Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil…And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:11,17).

“For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do” (Hebrews 4:12-13).

Enjoy living in the Word of God, and enjoy the Word of God living within you.


Also see:

The Danger in Believing the Bible is “The Word of God”

The Scriptures vs The Word of God

Biblical Perspective?

A Manipulative God? – The Abusery of Usery

use santa
Have you ever wondered how Santa feels? He has kids asking him for presents every year, yet no one really takes the time to develop a relationship with him or even thank him for that matter. He’s just the dude to go to to get presents.

Every year, people use him.

I wonder how he feels about that?

What I’m writing about today is this language of “using” people. There’s a common use of this phrase among believers today that bothers me because it portrays a distorted view of God. Here’s the phrase: God uses us.

Let’s take a broad look at the use of this phrase, starting with some linguistic observations.

First, notice that this phrase is always used negatively when it’s referring to human beings. When we say “I feel like so and so is using me,” it always expresses a sense of manipulation and control, never anything positive.

Second, being “used” expresses a sense of unawareness on the part of the person being used as to what the user is up to. The user is using the other to accomplish some purpose, but the person being used has no part in that purpose and may not even know what it is.

Bottom line: If you’re being used, you’re being abused.

i use you

How about the bible? Does it ever express this idea?

Nope. Phrases like “____ was used by God” or “God used ____” do not exist in the Bible (at least I didn’t find any after looking at every verse using the letters “use” in the NASB, which is a very literal translation). More importantly, the idea behind it, that God is somehow controlling people to accomplish his will, does not exist in the biblical narrative.

Here are some things that the bible does say. He does things with us (Mark 16:20; Acts 14:27). We work together (2 Corinthians 6:1). We are his fellow workers (1 Corinthians 3:9). These express a totally different concept of our relationship with God than being used by him does. Instead of manipulation and control it conveys union, togetherness, and intimacy.

John 15:15 tells us that Jesus no longer considers us slaves because slaves don’t know what the master is doing. What does Jesus mean by this?

Slaves are given orders to carry out, but the master does not tell them his intentions, the “why” behind his decisions and actions. They are just told what to do.

Friends, on the other hand, disclose their plans and their heart behind it to each other. Friends don’t need to tell each other what to do because they know each other. They know the needs and desires of the other and act to fulfill those because they love the other.

And that’s what Jesus counts us as. Friends.

We are not God’s slave-laborers. We are his co-laborers.

You are not a tool in God’s toolbox. You are his lover.

Perhaps you feel that I am being too obsessive over a few words. Here are some reasons why I think the use of this kind of language matters based on the effects that using this kind of language has on people:

  • Consider what an unbeliever or a new believer will think when they hear that the God who supposedly loves them wants to use them.
  • Since God uses us, and we can’t make him use us, we just have to wait patiently for him until he chooses to use us. In other words, passivity is encouraged.
  • This kind of language implies that God’s ultimate goal is to get us to do stuff for him.
  • It sounds like God is separate from us, outside instead of inside.

Perhaps you don’t agree with or mean any of the things listed above when you talk about how “God used you.” I hope so. What most people actually mean when they use this phrase is probably along the lines of “I chose to respond to God’s working in me.”

Okay. I get that.

But intentions are not the only thing that counts in communication. What is actually likely to be communicated matters too. And this phrase does not communicate God working in us and our response. And it totally misses the internal relationship that we have with Christ and instead pictures the relationship as external.

“God using us” is simply a poor way of expressing the biblical concept of co-laboring with God. And, instead of bringing clarity, using this kind of language nurtures misconceptions.

I have often heard people pray, “Lord, please use me.” And I have good news for those people: God will not use you. Not because your not good enough, but because you are too good to be used. God’s not going to control you. He could if he wanted to, but he’s not interested. That’s why he gave you a spirit of self-control (2 Timothy 1:7).

So let’s enjoy living life with God.

Quit asking God to use you; you have the same Spirit that raised Jesus Christ from the dead living inside of you, backing you up (Romans 8:11). And you are one with that Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:17).

Don’t wait for God; God’s waiting for you.

Without God, we cannot; without us, He will not. – Augustine

This is not to say that it’s all up to your efforts. Thank God it’s not!

Simply acknowledge that you have died with Christ and now it is him living through you.

You have been united with Christ (Galatians 2:20Romans 6).

There is no usery between you and him. Only love.

And remember the best Christmas present you ever got and will ever get – God himself.


“I Need You Lord” – Our Perpetually Satisfied Need

Imagine this.

You’re about to eat a meal on the table in front of you that your mom made for you. Before you take your first bite you turn to your mom and say, “Mom, I’m really hungry.” Puzzled, your mom responds, “Well, then eat the food I made for you. It’s right in front of you. What are you waiting for?”

I believe that’s what God feels like sometimes when we say to him, “God, I need you.”

“I know buddy. But you already have me. So let’s talk, hang out, live life together. What are you waiting for?”

Yes, humans need God, and it’s important that everybody acknowledge that in their daily living.

As believers, however, we shouldn’t be telling God that we need him. Why? Because he already knows that, and he’s provided for that need.

We are never without God. We have been filled with the fullness of the Godhead (Colossians 2:9-10), and he ain’t goin nowhere (John 14:16).

“But I tell him to remind myself that I need him.”

The fact that you regularly tell God that you need him, though, shows that you don’t really need reminding.

This language is especially important for people who don’t know that they have God. If everyone around a new believer is saying “I need God” they will start to think that they do too (which is okay), but they will also start to think that they don’t have God yet (which is not okay).

In human relationships when we need something from another person we express that need by saying “I need ____” (and talking like this implies that the person saying it doesn’t yet have what they are claiming they need). It would be totally weird if someone expressed a need for something they already have – like talking about how hungry they are when there’s a meal right in front of them.

When we say we need something, we acknowledge a lack. When we say we need God, we acknowledge a nonexistent lack.

Technically, “I need God” is a true statement, but it’s silly because it’s unnatural in normal speech to say you need something you already have, and it’s unhelpful because it gets us focusing on the wrong thing.

God’s provision for you is greater than your nonexistent lack.

UnionSo. What are you waiting for?

God is fully available. Always.

He’s always with you. He never leaves. You may have forgotten about him, but he was, is, and will be always with you.

I don’t talk about needing God. I’m not desperate for him. I don’t cry out for him. I’m not looking for him. I’m not seeking him.

I’m enjoying him.

I’m experiencing life with him.

I’m not saying we are self-sufficient. Rather, we are Christ-sufficient.

“Such confidence we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God…” (2 Corinthians 3:4-5).

Let’s confess the truth.

“God, I have you!”

Let’s be thankful for what he’s provided.

“God, thank you for you!”

You are one with Christ. Enjoy your union with him.

p.s. I wonder how many “worship songs” this invalidates?


Also check out this article I found after writing this post: