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The Passion Translation. But really the problem is…

I hadn’t heard of The Passion Translation until a friend got in touch wondering whether we should be reading it. It’s a contemporary “translation” of the New Testament, along with the Psalms, Proverbs, and Song of Songs, produced more or less single handedly by Brian Simmons. It’s available on Bible Gateway.

The work has generated a lot of controversy since it came out in 2015. I’ve looked at bits of it and can’t say I’ve found anything really outrageous. There are certainly some idiosyncrasies, some rather preposterous “insights” into the meaning words and phrases; there is perhaps an egalitarian bias, and the language has a distinctly charismatic colouring to it. But I haven’t yet come across anyone complaining of serious theological or doctrinal error. Am I missing something?

Generally, critics seem to be more concerned about Simmons’ methodology and the question of whether The Passion Translation can really be classified as a translation. The criticism seems broadly justified, but much of it simply reinforces a more fundamental problem with modern popular translation of the New Testament and the commentary that goes with it.

Translation by mind-bypass

Simmons talks about the translation process as an intensely spiritual or charismatic experience. He was commissioned by Jesus, he has been shown around the library of heaven, he received a “spirit of revelation,” supernatural insights were downloaded directly into his mind, the translation does a “mind-bypass” and goes directly into the heart, and so on.

Is that just rhetoric? Is it meant to be taken seriously? I don’t know.

There is a well-stocked sub-genre of modern single-person translations of the Bible or parts of it, many of which will have a distinctive purpose or spin, from Young’s Literal Translation and the Darby Bible to Eugene Peterson’s The Message and Tom Wright’s New Testament for Everyone. Perhaps one day I will publish my own Narrative-Historical New Testament. Who knows?

Anyway, it looks to me as though The Passion Translation is The Message for the New Apostolic Reformation crowd (dubbed “America’s Own Taliban” by Al Jazeera) and (neo-)charismatics more generally. The key question here is not so much who wrote it as who was it written for—and if mainstream evangelicals can have their own misleading woolly version, why shouldn’t they? James Snapp is less sympathetic.

An Aramaic New Testament?

Simmons makes repeated reference to Hebrew and Aramaic versions of New Testament passages in such a way as to suggest that the Greek texts are actually translations of these originals. This is very misleading, if not plain wrong.

It has been claimed that the late medieval Hebrew Shem Tov Gospel of Matthew—a work of anti-Christian polemic—was based on an original Gospel written by Matthew in Hebrew, for which there is some evidence in the writings of the church fathers. Irenaeus says that “Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect” (Against Heresies 3.1.1).

The Aramaic New Testament to which Simmons refers is in the Syriac Peshitta, which is generally dated to the second century AD at the earliest. Syriac tradition, however, holds that “the Church of the East received the scriptures from the hands of the blessed Apostles themselves in the Aramaic original, the language spoken by our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and that the Peshitta… has come down from the Biblical times without any change or revision.”1 But there is no historical evidence to support this, and I don’t think any New Testament scholar would give arbitrary textual priority to the Peshitta.

In 2007 David Bauscher published an English translation of what he believes to be the “original Aramaic New Testament as first written by The Apostles and Evangelists.” It has also been suggested that Simmons was dependent not on the Aramaic text of the Peshitta but on an English translation by Victor Alexander, at which point it all starts getting rather murky.

Jesus presumably spoke Aramaic most of the time. But apart from the odd expression that has been preserved (“Talitha cumi,” “Maranatha”), no Hebrew or Aramaic originals of the New Testament documents exist. Paul was obviously bilingual (cf. Acts 21:37-40), but certainly wrote in Greek. It is likely that Aramaic was more prominent in early church communication than we typically appreciate, but the only New Testament available for translation is the Greek one.

Homonyms

One of the key linguistic insights supposedly revealed to Simmons was that Hebrew and Aramaic words are often homonyms, by which he means that they have multiple meanings. Andrew Shead gives some examples from Simmons’ translation of the Psalms.

Since Simmons is aiming primarily for exuberance and intensity rather than anything like a systematic theological angle, the outcome of the method seems mostly fanciful and innocuous. For example, Jesus’ last word from the cross in John’s Gospel is tetelestai, meaning “it is finished” (Jn. 19:30). Simmons notices that the unpointed Hebrew equivalent is klh, which can also mean a “bride.” Isn’t that sweet? “He gave his last word for his bride. Then he gave birth to her because blood and water, which comes from childbirth, came from his side. It is finished. But for whom did he finish it? It was for the bride. He died for the bride.” Therefore, he translates, “It is finished, my bride!”

I don’t know if a Hebrew speaker would have picked up that polysemy in that context. John the Baptist is recorded earlier as having said, “The one who has the bride is the bridegroom” (Jn. 1:29), but there is no literary reason to connect this with the word from the cross.

There are several passages in the Psalms where klh is used with reference to the end of life: “my life is ended (klu) with sorrow, and my years with sighing (Ps. 31:10); “the wicked will perish…; they are finished (klu)—like smoke they are finished (klu) (Ps. 37:20); “My flesh and my heart may be finished (klh)” (Ps. 73:26); “my days pass away (klu) like smoke (Ps. 102:3). Do we really enhance the meaning of Jesus’ words by superimposing on what is likely to be a profoundly Jewish lament (cf. Jesus’ invocation of Psalm 22 in his complaint “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) an altogether extraneous reference to the church as his bride?

I find this reminiscent of the sort of theologically motivated interpretation of scripture that routinely allegorises the text or devises multiple levels of meaning either to remove difficulties or to justify doctrinal commitments. All traditions are guilty of it, one way or another. Of course, sometimes authors intentionally exploit ambiguities of language, particularly in poetic texts. But even then the process is not arbitrary. Meaning is never unconstrained.

My judgment would be that an allusion to the Psalms in John 19:30 would be historically, generically, and contextually plausible; an allusion to the church as bride would not be. But you pays your money and takes your choice.2

Whether the translation is literal or dynamic or a paraphrase is not really the problem

On the website much is made of the fact that The Passion Translation is a functional or dynamic rather than formal or literal translation. This is a reasonable distinction to make. Some translations are much closer to the sentence structure and lexical patterns of the original text than others. The Passion Translation purports to be a thought-for-thought translation rather than a word-for-word translation.

We believe that the essential meaning of a passage should take priority over the literal form of the original words, while still ensuring the essence of those words is conveyed, so that every English speaker can clearly and naturally encounter the heart of God through his message of truth and love.

Critics find this a bit disingenuous. Simmons holds to such a loose and permeable notion of “essential meaning” that a great deal of commentary and perhaps novelty is allowed to seep in, leaving the text swollen and sometimes barely recognisable.

But I would argue, in any case, that this misses the critical point.

A thought-for-thought translation works on the basis that meaning is found not in a sequence of discrete words but in clauses, sentences, and larger textual structures. Ironically, this works against the idea that secondary meanings may be arbitrarily appropriate—Simmons’ homonyms. The linguistic context usually determines quite narrowly how a word functions in any particular context, and the discovery of surplus meaning is likely to have more to do with the interests of the reader than the intentions of the author.

But the context in which a word is interpreted—or translated—is not confined to the text. If we take the word euangelion (“gospel”) in Romans 1:16, for example, its meaning is controlled not only by the thought being developed in the immediate passage which is being read—or translated—but by its usage elsewhere in Paul and in the New Testament, by its relation to wider Hellenistic-Jewish usage, probably also by resonances in Roman imperial rhetoric, and by the concrete historical outlook of the people who used the term.

This is where the critical fault line occurs—not between formal and dynamic equivalence but between two assumed reading communities. Whose text is it? Is the aim of translation and commentary to allow the modern reader to hear the text as it was originally heard, according to its original narrative-historical outlook? Or is it to drag the text into one of our modern worlds and make it speak directly to us according to our cultural-religious outlook?

A formal equivalence translation is more likely in practice to keep historical context in view, but there is no reason why a looser dynamic or paraphrastic method should not aim to bring out the original historical orientation and meaning of the text. It’s quite possible that when a letter of Paul was read out for the first time in a church, the letter bearer added his or her own emphasis, clarification, or embellishment.

Romans 1:16-17

To illustrate the point, let’s consider Simmons’ version of Romans 1:16-17, which is one of the examples on his translation comparison page:

I refuse to be ashamed of the wonderful message of God’s liberating power unleashed in us through Christ! For I am thrilled to preach that everyone who believes is saved—the Jew first, and then people everywhere! This gospel unveils a continual revelation of God’s righteousness—a perfect righteousness given to us when we believe. And it moves us from receiving life through faith, to the power of living by faith. This is what the Scripture means when it says: “We are right with God through life-giving faith!”

And here is a quite strict formal equivalence translation. It is fifteen words longer than the Greek text, but that is mostly for reasons of grammatical necessity.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to every person believing, to the Jew first and to the Greek, for the righteousness of God is revealed in it from faith to faith, as it is written, “The righteous will live by faith.”

1. The Passion Translation version of the passage is nearly twice as long as my dispassionate translation. Sometimes Simmons formats the expansion or gloss in italics to show that it is not part of the original text, but he has not done so here. Partly the inflation comes from Simmons trying to inject some excitement into Paul’s rather flat and compressed statement. “I refuse to be ashamed” is more emphatic than “I am not ashamed.” The idea of preaching implicit in “gospel” is reinforced with the gushy “I am thrilled to preach…,” perhaps picking up on “I am so excited about coming to preach the wonderful message of Jesus to you in Rome!” in verse 15. Breathless stuff!

2. More importantly, much of the extra verbiage is the result of interpretation, the attempt to unpack what is taken to be the inherent meaning of certain words or phrases. So, euangelion (“gospel,” “good news”) becomes “wonderful message of God’s liberating power unleashed in us through Christ.” That’s a definition of the gospel as it is preached in many churches today, in a contemporary and faintly charismatic idiom, and it will seem to many readers self-evident. But is it quite what Paul meant here? The quotation of Habakkuk 2:4, which we will get to, suggests not.

3. Paul says that the euangelion is “the power of God for salvation to every person believing, to the Jew first and to the Greek.” The analysis laid out in Romans 1:18-32, therefore, is specifically a critique of Greek religion and culture, comparable in many ways to this passage from the Sibylline Oracles:

It is a thousand years and five hundred more since the overbearing kings of the Greeks reigned, who began the first evils for mortals, setting up many idols of dead gods. On account of them you have been taught vain thinking. But when the wrath of the great God comes upon you, then indeed you will recognize the face of the great God. (Sib. Or. 3.551-557)

As I argue in End of Story? Same-Sex Relationships and the Narratives of Evangelical Mission, this has important narrative-historical implications for how we frame the denunciation of same-sex sexual activity in verses 26-27. This historically focused aspect of Paul’s thought is obscured when “the Greek” is translated “people everywhere” or “the non-Jew” (Rom. 2:9-10), though to be fair, the NIV is not much better: “first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.”

Another example is the translation of Peter’s exhortation in Acts 2:49: “Be saved from this crooked generation” (my translation). Simmons has obscured the reference both to first century Israel and to Jesus’ own condemnation of the current generation of Israel by translating: “Be rescued from the wayward and perverse culture of this world!” This generalises the sense of Peter’s quite specific reproach of a generation of Jews that faced national catastrophe within a few decades. A footnote records an alternative translation, which is an improvement: “Be free from and preserved from this crooked people.”

4. Paul says that “the righteousness of God is revealed” in the gospel. The Passion Translation provides an interpretive paraphrase: “continual revelation of God’s righteousness—a perfect righteousness given to us when we believe.” I won’t try to defend the argument here, but I don’t think that Paul is speaking here of a subjective righteousness imparted to people who have faith (“given to us when we believe”) as commonly assumed by Reformed theologies. Paul doesn’t say that much. More likely the reference is to God’s righteous action in history, which will take the form, on the one hand, of wrath against Israel and against Greek civilisation, and on the other, of the “salvation” of a renewed priestly people of God to serve him among the nations. The point is that Israel’s God is about to justify himself in the eyes both of Israel and the Greeks. See my book on Romans.

5. Simmons reinforces the Reformed bias by rendering the quotation from Habakkuk 2:4 in the present tense: “We are right with God through life-giving faith!” Paul adapts the Septuagint reading slightly but he keeps the future tense: “The righteous will live by faith.” The thought is eschatological. His argument, fully in keeping with the sense of the statement in Habakkuk, is that when the wrath of God comes on the ancient world, the righteous person will be saved and live on the grounds that he or she has believed that the God of Israel has given future rule over the nations to the Son at his right hand as his inheritance. That whole storyline is the good news. Again, see my book on Romans.


The stated intention behind Simmons’ approach to translation is that English speakers today may “clearly and naturally encounter the heart of God through his message of truth and love.” That in itself reflects a modern theological stance—the dominant emphasis on a personal relationship with a loving God, in this case set within a vigorous charismatic neo-orthodoxy.

The thought is there in the New Testament somewhere, but I venture to say that this was not the “passion” that drove Jesus or his followers. Jesus’ passion was for the reformation of his people, for judgment and renewal, so that the name of God would be hallowed among the nations. Paul’s passion was for the end of the profound offence of pagan idolatry and for the eventual confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations of the pagan world, again to the glory of the God of Israel.

To my way of thinking, the problem with The Passion Translation, as with much modern theological reflection, is that these powerful historical dynamics are obscured, sacrificed on the altar of a narrow and sometimes quite narcissistic personal salvationism.

  • 1. Mar Eshai Shimun, Catholicos Patriarch of the Holy Apostolic Catholic Church of the East.
  • 2. I’ve discovered that this saying originated in an 1846 Punch cartoon called “The Ministerial Crisis.”
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