Podcast: How to Translate the New Testament (Peter Williams)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Translating the New Testament

Today's episode is a conversation with ESV Translation Oversight Committee member Dr. Peter Williams on translating the New Testament, the differences between modern English and biblical Greek, the trickiest books in the New Testament to translate, and Jesus’s masterful (and, at times, clever) use of language in the Gospels.

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Topics Addressed in This Interview:

01:13 - The Day Job of a Bible Translator

Matt Tully
Peter, thank you so much for joining me today on The Crossway Podcast.

Peter Williams
Great to be with you.

Matt Tully
Today we’re going to talk about the dynamics of translating the New Testament into English. You currently serve on the Translation Oversight Committee for the ESV. But before we get into what that role looks like, tell us a little bit more about your current day job.

Peter Williams
I head up something called Tyndale House in Cambridge. It’s not the publisher in Illinois, but it’s a research center in Cambridge where we seek to study the Bible at the highest level—the doctoral level and above—in service of the global church. People come from around the world, and we have Britain’s best library of the Bible (one of the best in the world) where people come and study and build each other up. We also run projects out of that, because when you got an institute you can actually carry out research projects. We produced a Greek New Testament with Crossway, and there are other publishing and research projects we are involved in. I get to research and conceive of those projects, rub shoulders with brilliant people who love the Lord Jesus and also really study the Scriptures at a very deep level. I get to share that with people. It’s an exciting job I’ve got.

Matt Tully
We often think about Christian ministry and work associated with evangelization and social work to practically help people who are suffering, but there is a real value in some of the distinctly evangelical scholarship that you all are doing there on behalf of the church ultimately. One other thing you do is you serve as chair of the International Greek New Testament project. Could summarize what that is all about?

Peter Williams
It’s a very long-standing project that has been going for most of a century to produce very high-level critical editions of the New Testament in Greek and all of the surrounding transcriptions of manuscripts and so on. It has had strengths both in the UK and US and now much more internationally than that. There are many different institutions involved. It’s not a confessional work, so it draws together scholars from many different backgrounds. I dread to think of all the hours that are clocked up in the different projects that come up under the egis of that. Whether it’s editions of John in Greek or in Latin or in Syriac, all sorts of work is being done. In fact, what’s been worked on for the last twenty or thirty years is on John, and it will be the most thorough investigation of the manuscript of any New Testament book ever.

Matt Tully
Wow. This raises the issue that—and I’ve heard people talk about you in this way—that, obviously, this level of research and study into these ancient manuscripts and documents requires such an awareness and familiarity of the biblical languages. I’ve heard that you know something like six or more different languages. Is that true? How many languages do you actually know?

Peter Williams
Let’s put it this way. I’m looking up words in English all the time. People can get a wrong sense of what it is to know an ancient language. Of course, we don’t know how to order an ice cream in an ancient language. We’re not fluent, and you can look stuff up. The great thing is, ancient people don’t criticize your pronunciation so you can study these things in your own time. Also, they’re really tools. I think sometimes people have this idea that some biblical scholars are sort of quasi-omniscient and they just know everything about the Bible. The truth is, every single one of us is massively out of our depth. Even an absolutely top lawyer is going to ask colleagues for information on areas of law that they don’t specialize in. It’s the same with the Bible. You just have to think about the masses. There are quite not as many as a million words in the Bible; but you think about each of those words, thousands of manuscripts of the New Testament, thousands of the Old Testament—and that’s just manuscripts without starting about every single archaeological artifact. There are just so many biblical scholars, and no one can master that all. It’s just not possible, within a seventy or eighty year lifetime that might give you forty or fifty years of study (if you’ve been given the strength by God to do that), to know all those sorts of things. I think we need to dispel this myth that omniscience is a communicable attribute of God. It’s absolutely not. We really got to emphasize our ignorance a lot more.

Matt Tully
That’s really a helpful nuance, and I think you’re right. It kind of dispels a myth that lay people, who it’s all Greek to them—literally—they are struggling at times and they think about this. What impact has computer technology and the ability to leverage the power of a computer—and the Internet, perhaps, to understand these things—how has that impacted the work of a translator?

Peter Williams
It’s absolutely huge in terms of all of the information that you have together. There’s been a culture shift, for instance, in the area of manuscripts because nowadays every Tom, Dick, and Harry, as we might say, in Britain has seen pictures of manuscripts. So actually, it’s no longer an arcane thing that you have to go off to a library to do. A lot more people are able to read the sorts of script you get in manuscripts. So there have been significant changes like that, including the massive data, of course. But at the same time, it’s too much data. Just as you can have so many different experts on a pandemic, you can have so much overwhelming information on the Bible and it’s very hard to process. One of the skills is also knowing what not to read as well as what to read. That’s important. No biblical scholar nowadays is able to read all of the commentaries on a whole significant section of the Bible. People tend to get more and more specialized so that you don’t just specialize in Colossians, you specialize in a particular aspect of Colossians. Of course, a Bible translator needs to do the whole thing, whether it’s Jerome or William Tyndale who didn’t live to complete most of the Old Testament, but you have to have that overview. I think that’s important.

08:40 - An Interest in Ancient Biblical Languages

Matt Tully
How did you first get interested in the biblical languages? For many of us, that does feel like a very foreign thing. We think only the pastors and professors can do it. What was it that first piqued your interest?

Peter Williams
I’ve been blessed. I’ve only ever had a secular education, but I’ve had very good teachers in that. I had two particularly inspiring teachers at school (what you might say high school) where I was able to start Latin at age twelve and Greek at age fourteen. I had particularly good teachers, so that got me thinking about biblical languages early on. I’m not quite sure, but I may have read the entire New Testament in Greek before I went to university. It’s one of those things where I then did Hebrew and Aramaic at university. I had wanted to become a Bible translator, wasn’t thinking about the translation of the Bible into English—

Matt Tully
Then what were you planning at the time?

Peter Williams
I just wanted to be ready to translate the Bible for people who had not yet heard it, and then later on I also saw that there was a great need for biblical scholars. That’s what I’ve tried to be.

09:51 - Connection to the ESV

Matt Tully
How did you first get connected to the English Standard Version?

Peter Williams
At Tyndale House where a lot of the work on the ESV was done, my predecessor leading the institution was Bruce Winter. He was on the ESV Translation Oversight Committee, so I naturally connected with the ESV work there. When Lane Dennis of Crossway invited me to join, I was delighted to do so, but it’s been a relationship that’s developed over a significant amount of time. It’s been since the early 2000s I would say. I wasn’t in the very first group that produced the version that came out in 2001, but I’ve been involved since then.

Matt Tully
What has been your role on the committee? I think many of us lay people have a general sense for what a Bible translator does, but the details are very vague and fuzzy. What does your work actually look like?

Peter Williams
It’s really been overviewing the editions from 2001, 2006, 2010 (or so), and 2016. Obviously, the committee needs to meet before a somewhat slightly revised issue (rather than edition) of the ESV comes out. The difference between 2001 and 2006 is not great, but it is greater than the difference between any other subsequent issue because things are being more settled on. There’s a certain amount in which the style sheet and the basic principles of translation have to be decided beforehand. One could say the ESV also aims not to be a weird translation; it aims to be a translation that stands in the tradition from William Tyndale onwards. The great thing is some of the ESV committee decisions got made centuries ago when people wrestled with how to translate something. Sometimes the English language has changed and you need, therefore, to change the English equivalent, but sometimes it hasn’t, so that’s where it’s possible to do that. You can take a case like fishers of men. It’s very interesting that, of course, fishers was the old word, then fishermen became more common, and actually fishers is coming back now as people are thinking, Well, we shouldn’t just have a word that says ’men’. It’s actually a very good equivalent of the Greek. But you have to think about so many different factors. You have to think about how it sounds, the rendering of the original so that people are having some transparency to that, any misunderstandings people could get—there are lots of different factors that come to an intuitive committee decision about how to translate something. Of course, one gets outvoted. With twelve or so people on a committee, everyone on that committee has known what it’s like to be in a minority of one against eleven or so. That’s a good, humbling experience, and it also stops our personal oddities making their way into the translation. That’s one of the great things about translating as a committee.

Matt Tully
I think that dispels some of the misconceptions we often have about the work of a translator or a translation committee. Namely, that it's pure science—that there’s a clear, right answer every single time and that there’s no art to the work of a translator. Would you say that’s not the case and that there is a real subjective art to the work?

Peter Williams
Absolutely. That’s why it requires a level of experience and knowledge with this. Translation does involve compromise. That’s not in any way demeaning translation to say that. You have to choose between different factors. For instance, when you’re translating Psalm 119 and it’s got alliteration beginning each verse with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet, we don’t render that into English because it just wouldn’t work. We’ve got twenty-six letters in our alphabet; they’ve got twenty-two in theirs. It could be done, but you would end up having to pay a very heavy price in other aspects of the translation. So that’s where you have to decide what you’re going to do. Another good example in Genesis is when it says Eve will be called woman because she was taken out of man. Thankfully, the English words do a lot of the work for us—woman and man are related as the Hebrew words are related—so the translation naturally falls out. Whereas, in a different language, one might have to do more work. Poor Jerome had vir for man and virago for the woman, which wasn’t at all a natural word to use, but he wanted to bring out that wordplay. So, it depends. Sometimes word play will come out, and sometimes it won’t.

15:55 - Differences between Ancient Greek and Modern English

Matt Tully
That’s actually a nice segue into another thing I wanted to talk about, which is related to the differences between ancient Greek and modern English. Unpack that for us. What are some of the big differences there and how do they compare to one another?

Peter Williams
I suppose first I would like to say they’re not that different. At one level, there are differences between every language. Between British and American English, we may be using the same words and meaning slightly different things. There’s just oodles of nuance between different languages. At the same time, in global terms, Greek and English are part of the same Indo-European family. There will be certain things that align between them, and that’s important. That’s a bit of a gift. It sometimes allows us to replicate one-to-one equivalence between Greek and English in a way that would be really quite hard if you were going to some of the Papua New Guinean languages that might have a very different structure. So, I think it’s worth recognizing that, and, of course, there are some words where the English word comes from the Greek word. That’s also a benefit. There is a lot of one-to-one equivalence that can be achieved; at the same time, there are all sorts of differences. The way the tense system works in Greek is a bit different, so we’re going to have to take that into account. A lot of the words will have different nuances, but that’s the same between every language. A word is not quite like a suitcase that carries everything about it to everywhere it goes. It’s more that in certain contexts different aspects of the word come out. We could think of a word like text. In the sense of text messages it is different from what someone’s text is when they begin a sermon. It’s those different nuances that will come out and they won’t entirely overlap with the English ones, so the translators have to make some choices. Are we going to be consistent in rendering this word the same way every single time, or are we going to vary a bit? I’d say that’s what we have to do.

Matt Tully
Would you say there was a default posture on that question with the Translation Oversight Committee for the ESV when the same word is being used in multiple spots in the New Testament?

Peter Williams
The way I look at it is you think about a diet. You don’t want to put on too much weight, but you do like a bit of sugar and you do like this coffee and you do like that. There are different desirables, and you start your day as a translator with a number of different desirables. One of them will be that you would love to achieve a transparent equivalence between your translation and what you’re rendering, because that is really saying, Translators, get out of the way and let the Bible readers come in and more or less see how the original works. That would be an ideal. But there might be sometimes when that’s really not going to work, and so that’s where you have some trade-offs. That’s the sort of way I would look at it.

19:35 - On the Reliability of the New Testament

Matt Tully
You’ve also done a lot of apologetics work related to the reliability of the Bible and the New Testament in particular. You’ve had multiple debates with Bart Ehrman—one of the leading critics of an evangelical view of the Bible—and you’ve even written a book with Crossway called Can We Trust the Gospels?. We did a whole interview about that topic a couple of years ago, so if anyone is interested in that, go check out that interview. But central to what a skeptic like Ehrman would claim is that when you actually read the New Testament in the original Greek and Aramaic and look at all the different manuscripts, you start to see real problems. You see real inconsistencies that maybe call into question ideas like inspiration and inerrancy. As someone who is a Bible scholar who, as we’ve established, understands these languages very well and has spent hours immersed in these languages, how would you respond to a fundamental claim like that?

Peter Williams
I think we’ve got to put things into perspective. Bart Ehrman has not done an edition of the New Testament, but he has edited some early Christian texts such as the Early Christian Fathers. I would just say that if you look at the way he edits a text, and you extrapolate that to how he would edit the Greek New Testament, the Greek New Testament would not be very different from the Crossway Greek New Testament produced at Tyndale House. It really wouldn’t. I think you can rhetorically talk up stuff as if it’s big, but we’re really not talking about big stuff. And we’re not talking about anything that isn’t in modern footnotes. Modern translations typically will have a footnote at the end of Mark and the middle of John about the woman caught in adultery where they all say that the earliest manuscripts do not have these passages. It’s not a surprise, and yet the amazing thing is you can still sell books saying, Wow! Shock! Horror! You know what? These passages are not in the earliest manuscripts!—as if people don’t know this. The ESV has been issued in tens of millions—perhaps hundred of millions—of copies with footnotes at the bottom about manuscript variation. So think about this: Crossway has issued many, many hundreds of millions of footnotes that have gone around the world—possibly billions of footnotes I would guess—which each of them said there is some difference in the manuscript. So, it’s not as if Christians are trying to hide this, and other publishers, likewise, have been doing similar things. This is not a secret. But it’s also not an excessively big deal. That is, if you talk to a Christian from the fourth or fifth century—or from the fifteenth century—they would know there are differences between manuscripts. This is not something which can overturn Christianity because after all, St. Augustine knew it and he was a convinced Christian. Jerome knew it. This is not something which is in any way being seen as a falsification of Christianity until probably the twentieth century when people turned up and thought, Oh wow! This proves everything false! It’s extraordinary, really, that this is going on. You have to ask why is that going on, and I think there is this inverse relationship that’s gone on where as our knowledge of the New Testament manuscripts has got more detailed and actually, as the gap between our earliest manuscripts and the time of the New Testament has got smaller, doubts have arisen. In other words, the doubts are inversely proportional to the evidence. As more evidence is uncovered, doubt goes up. Which just shows you doubts aren’t to do with evidence.

Matt Tully
How would you explain that inverse relationship? It would seem like we should be getting more confidence in the reliability of the New Testament?

Peter Williams
If you spend too much time telling people that they’re really, really good, that they will actually get quite insecure about that. They’ll just grow to need that reassurance. There are these sorts of strange inverse relationships. But I think, obviously, the West in the last couple of centuries has increased in its doubt about the Bible, but those have been exactly the centuries when stunning things have been discovered. Calvin, four or more centuries ago, could hardly have imagined that things from the ancient Assyrian empire would be dug up, the kings and their actual inscriptions deciphered, and they would be found to be in the right place. When people trusted the Bible at the time of the Reformation, they couldn’t have imagined people digging stuff up and it exactly fitting with the level of detail we have. I know there are all sorts of debates about this, and that will always be the case. Experts will line up to say it does or doesn’t align with Scripture. But in the broad picture, it’s really stunning that anything has been discovered at all, and yet quite a few names of Israelite kings have turned up outside the Bible in the right time period. There is this thing about doubt, that it isn’t really connected to evidence.

Matt Tully
You mentioned a few minutes ago the Tyndale House Greek New Testament, published in 2017. You served as co-editor alongside Dirk Jongkind on that project. Speak to the effect that project has had on you as you think about translating the Greek into English. Has that changed how you would approach that in any way?

Peter Williams
It has, in a nuanced way. In the sense that it’s not a radical change; it’s more of a maturing. I suppose perhaps a violinist might mature in their rendition of the same piece over twenty years, and I think that can happen as you revisit some of these old questions. I had the privilege of spending a lot of two years (2015 and 2016) just reading the New Testament again and again in different manuscripts. I was particularly looking at things like spelling and accentuation. But even doing that, just the level of contact with the physical copies means that I now think entirely in terms of those, and it’s quite important to get a sense of antiquity and how things have been done differently in the past. When you copied something in the past, what would you write on? You might write on papyrus, you might write on leather. You need to get it from somewhere. Who does it? How often do you re-ink your pen? All those sorts of questions, which we don’t think about in text production today.

27:02 - Tricky Passages in the New Testament to Translate into English

Matt Tully
What would you say is one of the trickiest New Testament books—or maybe even passages—to translate into English?

Peter Williams
I do think that 2 Corinthians is quite tough because of the level of complex emotion you might be trying to render that can often seem a little bit abstract to people who are distanced from the situation that Paul was in in relation to the Corinthians. I think that can be a tricky one. Then John, which is the simplest one at one level—it’s got the smallest vocabulary. That can be difficult because it’s often speaking at two levels simultaneously. Sometimes when Jesus is talking about his Father, the audience is understanding him to be talking about a human father, and he’s talking about a divine Father. These sorts of things can work at different levels. In John’s Gospel, often the physical represents the spiritual as well. Then the translator has to decide, Which of these two levels am I going to privilege? Which am I going to prioritize? You have to decide that with capital letters as well. Are we going to say put a capital F for Father here because that’s the expectation nowadays? So, I think these are a different sort of complexity.

28:43 - Favorite Section of the New Testament to Read in Greek

Matt Tully
What would you say is a favorite section of the New Testament for you to read in the original Greek?

Peter Williams
I am currently writing a book largely on Luke 15, the parable of the two sons, which is just absolutely stunning.

Matt Tully
You call it the parable of the two sons and not the parable of the prodigal son?

Peter Williams
There are two sons in the parable. The prodigal is 62% and the other is 38% of the parable. The other issue we have is what went wrong for the youngest son? I would say it’s a combination of his decisions to waste his money plus what is often missed—there’s a severe famine. If he had made those bad decisions and there wasn’t a severe famine, then what would have happened? I would say he is prodigal plus unlucky. That’s an important aspect of the parable because an older brother who is looking at how they’ve got everything right and their younger brother has messed it up, tends not to think about the famine. As far as the older brother is concerned, the younger brother has wasted his livelihood with prostitutes—not that the older brother knows that because it’s not that the younger brother has been sending postcards saying he’s down at the brothel or anything like that. So, he completely factors out the famine, which is a significant thing there. I would want to say that often people who are poor through their bad decisions are not entirely poor through their bad decisions. They may be poor from bad decisions plus bad luck. Obviously, I don’t believe anything is completely by chance, but there is this thing that he happens to choose the country which happened to have a famine. It’s the only country. It was a famine in the land that he happened to choose. Well, that’s pretty unlucky. I think it’s a very nuanced parable and a very interesting parable for that reason. It challenges some of the ideas that we might want to have judging him, at the same time as not letting him off and saying, He hasn’t sinned. No, he has.

31:06 - A Positive Use for Twitter

Matt Tully
This ties in directly with something I wanted to raise with you. One of the things that I think you’re fairly well-known for—at least in an online space—are these kinds of Twitter threads that you create that do exactly what you just did. They often are unpacking and exploring in a different way, maybe well-known biblical stories—sometimes very obscure biblical stories—that maybe we would read and have no idea what to do with. We don’t know how to make sense of them. They seem very bizarre to us. You pull in a lot of these insights, often drawn from the actual biblical language itself, and help us to understand what’s going on there. I’ve just consistently found them to be fascinating, but also, to be honest, quite spiritually edifying at times. Can you speak to that? When did you first start doing those? Broadly speaking, what would you say is your goal in these long threads that you’ll post?

Peter Williams
Yes. I’ve not been doing threads recently because I’ve been writing a book.

Matt Tully
You don’t want to give away all the good material.

Peter Williams
Yeah, that’s right. Also, you’ve only got a limited number of these threads in your mind. Twitter can be a bit of a cesspool of insults. It is possible for us to say, No, we can use this platform very positively. In some ways, Twitter can be a great place for poetry. By poetry, I mean that with a character limit like that, you have to concentrate and shape the wording very carefully. So, that can be used for that purpose; it can be used to build up, to edify. There are various people who use it that way. That’s one thing that I would aspire to do. The other thing is to democratize. Some people think, This is only insight that’s available for people who’ve studied in particularly obscure ways. Actually, Jesus’s exhortation is, Let the one who has ears to hear, hear. When I talk about these things, often they are things that are quite available in an English translation. You can use multiple English translations to triangulate to see what’s going on, and it’s really a question of slowing down. For me, reading in Greek and reading in other languages is often a great opportunity to slow down and read more carefully. The danger is, with so many of the better-known stories—is we think we know them. When they’re going on in church, we literally switch off. I just know that story. The Titanic sinks, the prodigal son gets welcomed back with open arms. What more is there to say? Actually, there’s a huge amount more to say. So I think that’s where, with some of these, I’d like to say, Let’s really slow down and think about just how shocking some of this is.

Matt Tully
Part of the slowing down there, at least to me, is also maybe a greater realization of the literary mastery that is in the biblical text. I think so often we can approach the Bible, and because we believe it’s inspired and inerrant and for our spiritual edification, we can almost view it as a spiritual handbook or just a unique case that then wouldn’t have some of the literary qualities that we might often ascribe to a great poet that we love and read. Do you sense that dynamic? Is that part of why we don’t always analyze or pay attention to the text like we should?

Peter Williams
Absolutely. I think there’s a particular thing—we do not think of Jesus being clever. People tend to think of Jesus as being miraculous in a sort of Marvel hero sense—having special abilities. But they don’t think of him as clever, in the sense of the insight that he has and even the way that he tells stories. I think this is a big problem because he is the Word of God incarnate, the one from whom the whole idea of language comes from him. To think that he would not have mastery of language and have a lot to teach us about how to use language, I think it is missing a lot.


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