What About Bible Paraphrases?
Paraphrases of the Bible have become increasingly popular in recent years. The Message Bible is one of the top 10 bibles sold in 2020, and the more recent “Passion Translation” is rapidly gaining traction in the U.S. thanks to some big-name endorsements.
If you watched the last episode of Biblicalish, we talked about the Bible’s translations, how the English versions came about, and the differences between a few versions.
In that video, we talked about the spectrum of translations, which go from formal and literal to more functional or conversational on the other end. We also put a few well-known translations on that spectrum and talked about some of their strengths and weaknesses.
If you want some more context around today's discussion, you might want to go back and watch that first.
Is a paraphrase a translation?
To answer that question, let’s go back to the goal of translations: to reproduce the meaning of a text from one language to another. To refine that a bit further, we might say that a faithful translation of the bible tries to reproduce that meaning without adding anything or taking anything away from it.
A paraphrase's goal is not just to translate the original text but also to make some interpretation. The difference between translation and interpretation is subtle, so I want to take a quick field trip to the field of physics, to Newton's second law of motion.
Within this law of motion, there is a concept called linear motion. “Linear motion” simply means motion along a straight line. A shape in linear motion, no matter how complex, is going to move from here to there in a perfectly straight line. All the points are moving the same distance at the same speed, not rotating, moving from point A to point B without changing shape. In the field of physics, do you know what another word is for moving a shape like that? Translate. I think that gives us an excellent picture of what translation is trying to do. We want to bring a word from one language into another without changing the shape of it.
How does interpretation differ? To interpret something means to “explain the meaning” of it. Translation wants to stop reproducing the text’s meaning, while interpretation intends to explain it to you. It goes beyond telling you what it says and tries to explain what it should mean to you or for you.
Now granted, there is a certain amount of interpretation that comes into play when we translate. We have to move these words from a language and people that is both foreign and ancient to us in the modern-day. However, translation aims to do as little adding and subtracting from that meaning as possible.
A paraphrase author, by contrast, is intentionally adding and subtracting words to restate the idea in their own words. They are reshaping the words to explain the concept from their understanding of the text. When we begin paraphrasing, we’ve moved beyond translating and into interpreting.
A translation aims to use the same words without adding or subtracting meaning.
A paraphrase aims to explain the meaning, using intentionally different words.
So to answer our question, no, a paraphrase is not a translation. Paraphrases have more in common with a commentary or even with a sermon in which the speaker takes time to explain and apply Scripture in a modern context.
Should you read them?
What you do with a paraphrase of the Bible should depend on two things:
1. How much you trust the author?
2. How do you plan to use them?
Let’s start with the author. The further away we get from the original inspired text, the more faith we’re placing on the current author to restate things accurately. A paraphrase is a reproduction; someone else’s thoughts on God’s word.
So if we’re going to place our faith in their thoughts, really their teaching, we should carefully evaluate the teacher. The teacher, in this case, is the author of the paraphrase.
How you plan to use a paraphrase also matters. Any pastor who is serious about preaching from God’s Word will encourage you to open up your Bible and check what they’re teaching against Scripture. I encourage you to do that with anything I say as well! The same is true for a paraphrase. This is one of the dangers of treating a paraphrase like a translation. What do you do when your “translation” is itself someone else’s thoughts on what the words mean?
Here’s my advice: I would treat a paraphrase and its author the same way you treat a sermon and the person preaching it.
DO check them against a more formal translation.
Make sure the paraphrase matches up with Scripture.
Twice in Deuteronomy, God warns His people not to “add or take away” from his words, his commands to them. He knew how quickly they would try to twist His words to their liking. It’s tempting to twist God’s Word to our preferred form instead of being formed by His words.
DO treat the author as you would any Bible teacher.
Consider whether you would sit under their teaching in any other context!
Consider their teachings, their witness, and make sure at no point they deviate from the gospel.
DON'T use one as your everyday Bible.
Sermons and commentaries are helpful, but they should not be the primary way you take in God’s word, and neither should a paraphrase.
Remember the people from Berea, who are commended in Acts 17, for “examining the Scriptures daily” to see if what the Apostles were teaching was true.
I hope this was helpful to you as you consider the place for paraphrases in your own life and study of God’s word!
We’re going to finish this series on Bible translations in our next publication, where we’ll evaluate several popular versions and compare one passage in multiple versions.
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 Mark L. Strauss, Distorting Scripture? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998)
 Deuteronomy 4:2, 12:32
 Galatians 1:8-9
 Acts 17:11
Biblicalish is an online publication focused on biblical literacy, and forming our thoughts around biblical ideas and not "biblicalish" ideas.