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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Bible Translations

Don Stewart :: What Is a Paraphrase?

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What Is a Paraphrase?

Bible Translations – Question 2

Though many people think a paraphrase is the same thing as a translation, this is not the case. While a translation attempts to tell the reader what the original text says, a paraphrase attempts to tell the reader what the passage means. Therefore, a paraphrase is more of a commentary on the text of Scripture than it is an accurate rendering of what the text actually says. Thus, the difference between a paraphrase and translation must be understood.

There are a number of important points which need to be made about paraphrases. They can be summed up as follows:

1. There Have Been a Number of Paraphrases Released

Throughout history, there have been a number of popular paraphrases of Scripture. The first known paraphrase of the New Testament in English was done in the year 1653 by a man named Henry Hammond. The work was titled A Paraphrase and Annotations upon all the Books of the New Testament.

A number of paraphrases were done in the 20th century. For example, in Britain, there was the extremely popular work of J. B. Phillips, titled Letters to Young Churches (1947). The English scholar F.F. Bruce paraphrased the letters of Paul in a work titled, The Letters of Paul: An Expanded Paraphrase (1965).

In America, Greek scholar Kenneth S. Wuest paraphrased the New Testament in three volumes (1956?59). His work was titled An Expanded Translation of the Greek New Testament. By far, the most popular paraphrase of Scripture was Kenneth Taylor’s The Living Bible (1970).

2. Examples of the Difference Between a Translation and a Paraphrase

We can appreciate the difference between a translation and a paraphrase in the following examples:

First Kings 20:11 is rendered as follows in the King James Version:

And the king of Israel answered and said, Tell him, Let not him that girdeth on his harness boast himself as he that putteth it off. (1 Kings 20:11 KJV)

While the King James Version gives a translation of the original Hebrew, the translation is not that clear. The New American Standard Bible renders the same verse as follows:

Then the king of Israel answered and said, “Tell him, ‘Let not him who girds on his armor boast like him who takes it off.’” (1 Kings 20:11 NASB)

This makes the verse somewhat easier to understand.

The Living Bible translates this verse as follows:

Don’t count your chickens before they hatch. (1 Kings 20:11 The Living Bible)

As can be readily seen, this paraphrase has nothing to do with what the original Hebrew said. It paraphrases the language so that the reader can get a better understanding of the meaning of the text.

3. Holy Kiss, Handshake or Hug?

Another example of the difference between a paraphrase and a translation can be seen in the rendering of a passage in First Corinthians. The NIV gives a literal translation of the Greek:

Greet one another with a holy kiss. (1 Corinthians. 16:20 NIV)

The Living Bible paraphrases this as follows:

Give each other a loving handshake when you meet. (1 Corinthians 16:20 The Living Bible)

In the Message by Eugene Peterson, it reads as follows:

Pass the greetings around with holy embraces! (1 Corinthians 16:20 The Message)

It is interesting to note how the American culture has changed since 1971 when Taylor paraphrased the Living Bible. Handshakes have now turned into hugs!

Paraphrases Can Be Useful

Just as commentaries are useful to help explain the meaning of the text to the reader, paraphrases do the same thing. They can help explain difficult words or phrases that sound strange to the modern reader. The message of the Bible can come alive in an entirely new way through the use of a paraphrase. Therefore, a paraphrase can be extremely useful as a help in understanding the biblical message.

Paraphrases Have Their Dangers

While paraphrases make interesting reading, and can be quite useful in bringing out the meaning of the text of Scripture, they also have their dangers. Since a paraphrase is not the same as a translation, but is more of a commentary, reading a paraphrase is not the same as reading the Bible. Unfortunately, this is not often understood. Many people who read a paraphrase assume they are reading the exact words of the Bible. The meaning of the text that is given in the paraphrase is assumed to be the meaning of the text of Scripture. However, as we have emphasized, this is not necessarily so.

Therefore, the Bible should never be read or studied by only using a paraphrase. If a paraphrase is to be used, then it should be used with one or more translations of the Bible. This way, the reader will be aware of other possible meanings of the text than the one contained in the paraphrase.

To sum up, while paraphrases are useful, they have their limitations.

Summary – Question 2
What Is a Paraphrase?

Today, people read the Scripture in either translations or paraphrases. However, a paraphrase is not the same thing as a translation. While a translation attempts to relate what the text of the Bible says, a paraphrase attempts to explain the meaning of the translation. Therefore, the paraphrase is more like a commentary.

While paraphrases can be helpful in understanding the meaning of the text, there are dangers with using them. For one thing, the person paraphrasing may not understand the correct meaning of a certain word or phrase and consequently inserts something into the biblical story that was not meant to be there. Thus a paraphrase should only be used alongside a genuine translation. It should never be used by itself when one is studying or reading the Bible.

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