The Passion Translation: A Review of the treatment of Hebrews


The Passion Translation

A couple of weeks ago I came across a review of The Passion Translation of the Bible (https://thinktheology.co.uk/blog/article/whats_wrong_with_the_passion_translation). The review raised some concerns in my mind so I thought I ought to take a look at it. The website says, “The Passion Translation (TPT) is an excellent translation you can use as your primary text to seriously study God’s Word.” If that is the case it needs to faithfully render in good English the thoughts and ideas in the original text. It claims to do this, combining, “the best aspects of what is called formal and functional equivalence Bibles. It is a balanced translation that tries to hold both the Word’s literal meaning and original message in proper tension.” If it does this it is properly suited for serious study. Since I am more familiar with Hebrews than other parts of the NT I thought I would examine his treatment of Hebrews and test this.

The website (https://www.thepassiontranslation.com/) describes it as “a new, heart-level translation that expresses God’s fiery heart of love to this generation using Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic manuscripts, merging the emotion and life-changing truth of God’s Word.” Of course every translation must use these manuscripts, since the OT is mostly in Hebrew, with a few parts in Aramaic (none of which appear to have been translated yet) and the NT is in Greek. As I worked with Hebrews (and as I read the other review and the website) I discovered that what the translator (Dr Brian Simmons) means by “Aramaic” is the Peshitta, a translation of the NT into Syriac, that probably reached the form in which we have it in the fifth century AD. The earliest manuscripts we now have of the Peshitta are from this century and the sixth. That is quite late as manuscripts go.

Now Syriac is not Aramaic, although the two languages are very similar, albeit using a different script. When working with the Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch some years ago I found that transliterating the Syriac into Aramaic script, made it more readable to me, although I am by no means an expert in Syriac and I find it difficult to read. It is good that Simmons has worked with the language and is able to translate it into English. However, since it dates from the fifth century AD, while it is useful for OT text criticism, as it predates the Masoretic text, the basis of all recent English translations of the OT, by about 500 years, it is of limited use for NT text criticism. This is because we have Greek manuscripts that predate it by more than 200 years. Indeed the papyrus manuscript P46 which contains most of the first 10 chapters of Hebrews is dated around 200 AD. Nevertheless, Hebrews in The Passion Translation (and in other NT books) contains numerous footnotes referring to the “Aramaic” (by which Simmons means Syriac).

So why would TPT want to use the Peshitta when working with the NT? The website says,

It is widely known that Aramaic was the language Jesus, the apostles, and the earliest Christians spoke. It was the dominant language in most settings Jesus taught, probably the first language of most Galileans outside urban areas and the common tongue of most Judeans. It was the lingua franca of the Middle East until around the third century. Recent biblical scholarship has begun tracing many of Jesus’ teachings back to an original Aramaic source. Some even argue the original Greek manuscripts [of the Gospels] were translations of even more original Aramaic sources … Dr. Simmons compared both Greek and Aramaic translations throughout this monumental project … We believe using the original ancient Aramaic sources in addition to the original Greek ones adds an important lens through which to read God’s Word and understand His revelation of truth and love. We trust you will find the nuance added by the Aramaic to bring a greater clarity to the inspired text...

It is probably true that Aramaic sources lie behind the Gospel sayings of Jesus. One scholar who championed this was the late Maurice Casey, former Professor of NT at Nottingham University, who worked on Mark’s Gospel and Q (the proposed source behind the sayings of Jesus that appear in Matthew and Luke but not Mark). But while Aramaic sayings may lie behind some of the sayings of Jesus, we don’t have any of them. Casey was limited to having to back-translate Greek into Aramaic, and he had no way to verify that his back translation was any good.

More importantly, the Peshitta is not the Aramaic behind the Gospels, it is a later translation into Syriac from the Greek NT. And if Simmons thinks by going to the Peshitta he is getting closer to the original words of Jesus and the Apostles he is mistaken. He is going further away. And while it might be OK to speculate on the Aramaic background of the Gospels, it is certainly not OK for a book like Hebrews, since there is no evidence that it was written in any language other than Greek, aside from the (quite clearly mistaken) idea of Origen that Paul wrote it in Hebrew and Luke translated it into Greek. I think the website is quite misleading here. The uninitiated reader will be thinking that she is getting closer to the original when she is not.

So how does Simmons deal with Hebrews? First he provides quite a good introduction. The first page is called “at a Glance” and gives details of Authorship (unknown, but possibly Paul, Barnabas, Apollos or Priscilla – fair enough, although I wouldn’t opt for any of these myself); Audience (Christians converted from Judaism – that is the traditional view, but problematic as there were not two religions called “Christianity” and “Judaism” in the first century, and besides “Judean/Jew” are ethnic identifiers, while the identifier “Christian” transcends ethnicity. “Judeans/Jews who were followers of Jesus” would be a better description, noting that when Jews became followers of Jesus they didn’t cease being Jews); Date (50-64 AD, fair enough, although I think 50 is too early, maybe mid-sixties); Type of Literature (“a sermon in the form of a letter” – this too is a popular view, but problematic as recent scholarship has shown that we know almost nothing about the shape of first century sermons; I prefer the traditional designation of “letter”); and he provides an Outline, which I generally agree with.

The next page is headed “About Hebrews,” and enlarges on the previous page. I was somewhat nonplussed to read that

Hebrews means, ‘those who crossed over.’ We have passed from shadows to substance and from doubt to the reality of faith. What once was a symbol has now become substance, for all the pictures of the Old Testament have found their fulfillment in Jesus.

I totally agree with what he says about symbols and their fulfilment, but I take issue with deriving that from the etymology of the word “Hebrews.” Etymology is a very unreliable guide to meaning. The word “Hebrews” does not mean “those who crossed over” at all. Had he said “the name ‘Hebrews’ sounds like the Hebrew verb ‘to cross over’ he would have been more correct, although it doesn’t add much – but there isn’t that much to add. The noun “Hebrew” appears in thirty-four times in the OT as an ethnic identifier, distinguishing such people as Abraham and Moses and the Israelites from people of other ethnicities. It appears in four times in the NT, also as an ethnic identifier: in Acts 6:1 to distinguish some Hebrew widows from some Greek ones and in 2 Cor 11:22 and Phil 3:5, where Paul identifies himself as a “Hebrew”. In none of these references does the notion of “crossing over” add anything. Moreover, since the first evidence of the book being called “to the Hebrews” is in manuscript P46 (about 200 AD), it looks like an educated guess by some scribe wondering how to classify a NT letter that was not addressed to any community or individual (like Paul’s letters). He may have extrapolated from the contents that the audience looked like they were Judean followers of Jesus. As far as we know the author did not call his letter anything.

I have five issues with The Passion Translation.

First, in many places the text has been expanded with unwarranted words that have no foundation in the text. Rather than bringing “God’s fiery heart of love and truth to this generation, merging the emotion and truth of God’s Word” as the website says, Simmons has added fiery adjectives and other phrases into the text. I give a few examples
Hebrews 5:14 is twenty words in Greek, nineteen in the NIV and twenty-one in the NRSV. The Passion Translation is forty-one words.
NRSV
NIV
TPT
But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.

But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

But solid food is for the mature, whose spiritual senses perceive heavenly matters. And they have been adequately trained by what they’ve experienced to emerge with understanding of the difference between what is truly excellent and what is evil and harmful.
The NIV and NRSV are relatively similar, and in my judgement faithful to the Greek text. There is nothing in the Greek text for “whose spiritual senses perceive heavenly matters,” although “heavenly matters” is in italics to show that it is an addition. But where did the rest of the clause come from? And “to distinguish between good and evil” has been expanded to, “emerge with understanding of the difference between what is truly excellent and what is evil and harmful.” “Emerge” he tells us comes from Aramaic, but “good and evil” (the knowledge of which Adam and Eve grasped) is now “truly excellent” and “evil and harmful.” The NT writers were often quite prosaic, as here. Simmons had added colour and emotion, and in so doing cluttered the text with his own ideas.
Then there is 12:28
NRSV
NIV
TPT
Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe;
Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe,
Since we are receiving our rights to an unshakeable kingdom we should be extremely thankful and offer God the purest worship that delights his heart as we lay down our lives in absolute surrender, filled with awe.
This time the verse is not that much longer. “We are receiving an unshakeable kingdom” has become “we are receiving our rights to an unshakable kingdom”, a reading that comes from the use of the word paralambano in Classical Greek. But the NT was not written in Classical Greek. And then there is selection of adjectives that appear nowhere in the text. “Let us give thanks” has become “we should be extremely thankful”; “worship God acceptably” is now “offer God the purest worship that delights his heart”; and “with reverence and awe” has become “as we lay down our lives in absolute surrender, filled with awe.” If this was a paraphrase it would have been fine, but this is supposed to be “an excellent translation you can use as your primary text to seriously study God’s Word.” Not if it expands the text like this.

Secondly, the translation distorts the text by bringing in readings from the Peshitta, giving the impression that somehow this is closer to the original. Ordinary readers who are unfamiliar with the history of the Peshitta can easily be duped.
Hebrews 5:2 is an example. This verse describes “every high priest” (like those functioning in the temple when Hebrews was written) as being “able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward since he is subject to weakness” (NRSV).
Simmons does it like this,
Since the High Priest is also one who is clothed in weakness, he humbles himself by showing compassion to those who are ignorant of God’s ways and stray from them.
There is nothing in the text for the verb “he humbles himself”, although Simmons adds a footnote that says,
As translated from the Aramaic. There is an alternate translation of the Aramaic which reads “He [Christ] humbled himself and took the sorrows of those who knew nothing and were lost, for he was also clothed in frailty [humanity].
Aside from using the Peshitta to “correct” the Greek text, this footnote will only confuse the reader, for Heb 5:2 is not about Christ at all, who doesn’t enter the argument until verse 5. This text as about Jewish priests in the first century (that the readers of Hebrews seems to have looked up to), who are conscious of their human weakness and so can sympathise with their ignorant and wayward fellow humans. The text doesn’t say they humble themselves, it just says that they are able to sympathise. Being able to sympathise and humbling yourself are quite different things.

Thirdly, in some places Simmons is just plain wrong. Hebrews 2:10 is quite complex in Greek. It opens with an impersonal form of the verb prepo (“it is fitting”), and continues with a long description of God as the one, through whom and because of him all things exist. Then it explains what it was fitting for God to do. Here the Greek word order is complex, with the main verb the end for emphasis, preceded by a qualifying phrase – “to make perfect through sufferings.” This is preceded by the object of the verb, “the pioneer of our salvation,” in turn preceded by what God was doing: “bringing many sons and daughters to glory.” I translate
For it was fitting that, when bringing many sons and daughters to glory, the one through whom and because of whom all things exist, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings
Simmons does it like this
For now he towers above all creation, for all things exist through him and for him. And that God made him, pioneer of our salvation, perfect through his sufferings, for this is how he brings many sons and daughters to share in his glory.
It is OK to break up a complex sentence like this into a couple of smaller sentences to help the English reader. I have no issue with that. But I do have a problem with the clause “For now he towers above all creation.” First, I think the “he” is God, the subject of the last sentence of the previous verse. But if so, why the “now.” Was there any time when God did not tower above all creation? Then the clause “towers above all creation,” is just not there in Greek. But there is a footnote, “[t]he Greek word prepo means “to stand out and tower above.” Wrong. The sense of prepo is “it was fitting, proper, right, or appropriate,” as in the TPT translation of 7:26, the only other occurrence of prepo in Hebrews, “He is the High Priest who perfectly fits (prepo) our need” (although there is no Greek word for “perfectly” either).

Fourth, the translation sometimes derives the meaning of a word from the sum of its parts. I mentioned his derivation of “Hebrews” from the Hebrew word for “passed over” above. Another example is Heb 5:13 (NIV: Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness). The Passion Translation says “For every spiritual infant who lives on milk is not yet pierced by the revelation of righteousness.” I was mystified by “pierced” until I read the footnote, “the Greek word apeiros means ‘unpierced’,” something Simmons arrives at by referring to 4 words in his Strong’s Concordance (552, 586. 3984, 4008). Deriving a Greek word from the sum of its parts might sound esoteric, but it will often lead you astray, just like trying to work out what a butterfly is by thinking about “butter” and “fly.” Strong might have been right with the etymology of apeiros, and it might well be a combination of some of these words. But there has been a lot of work done on linguistics since Strong put his concordance together, and we now know that we derive the sense of a word by considering its use in a particular context, not from its etymology. Apeiros does not mean “unpierced.” It means “unskilled” here, as also in Josephus, Antiquities, 7.14.336, another text from the first century that uses this word.

Hebrews 1:7 contains a quotation from Ps 104:4 in the Greek OT. The quote says (in the ESV) “he makes his messengers winds, his ministers a flaming fire.” Simmons translates “I make my angels swift winds, and my ministers fiery flames.” There is of course no word in Greek for “swift”. I suppose adding the adjective is what he calls “merging the emotion and life-changing truth of God’s Word.” But if there is no manuscript evidence for “swift”, he has simply read the adjective into the text. Then he has a footnote for “ministers”. It reads “The Greek word leitourgos means ‘those who read the liturgy’ or ‘priests.’” Actually, it doesn’t. I call this “reverse etymology,” defining the meaning of a Greek word from an English word that it looks like. The Psalm verse is Hebrew parallelism where “messengers” (angels) is equivalent to “ministers” (servants). The verse is about angels, described first as “messengers” of God, and then as “servants” of God. It is not about “priests” and it is not about “those who read the liturgy.”

And fifth, the translation engages in what has been called “illegitimate totality transfer”, importing the senses in which a word in used in other contexts, wholesale to the context in Hebrews. Hebrews 1:6b is a good example. The Greek text of Heb 1:6b reads kai proskunēsatōsan autō pantes angeloi theou, which I translate “and let all God’s angels worship him”. Simmons translates, “Let all my angels bow down before him and kiss him in worship.” It is OK  to convert this to first person with God speaking, but I take issue with “bow down before him and kiss him in worship”, which Simmons justifies with a footnote to say, “[t]he Greek word used for worship, proskuneo, includes three concepts: ‘to bow,’ ‘to kiss,’ and ‘to pay homage (worship).’ All three are included here.”
Notwithstanding that BDAG (standard NT Greek lexicon) does not give “kiss” as a gloss for proskuneo, and notwithstanding that none of the fifty-four occurrences of the word in the NT have that sense, the comment that “[a]ll three are included here” is “illegitimate totality transfer”, importing all the senses in which a word can be used to a specific context.
This blog is long enough. Of course I am committed to Bible translation and committed to letting the Scriptures speak into 21st century lives, and I totally agree that the principles Simmons sets out at the start are essential if the Bible is to speak to a new generation. But he fails in the execution. I would not recommend it, and I certainly would not want anyone to use it as a study Bible. There is too much distortion of the text for that.

Comments

  1. Thanks Phil. This is well laid out and helpful indeed! Really interesting.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Clare. I was hoping I was right where I touched on translation theory

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  2. Thanks Phil for your review regarding Hebrews as it pertains (or should not) to the Passion Translation. I am grateful for the input you had in my time at Laidlaw when studying the O.T.
    Blessings :)

    ReplyDelete
  3. So many exegetical fallacies in one NT book doesn't bode well for the rest of Simmons' version. I'm guessing it wasn't peer reviewed--until now!

    Thanks for taking the time to do this, Phil, and thanks for letting us know you did so.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks for sharing this great article. Great information thanks a lot for the detailed article. That is very interesting I love reading and I am always searching for informative information like this.
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    ReplyDelete

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