Was one of your New Year’s resolutions to read through the Bible this year—or maybe just to read more of it? People have asked me if it would be good to use a fairly new version called The Passion Translation this year. This is not the first time I’ve been asked about it.
On the first day of class recently, I told students they needed to bring a Bible to class every day, and then specified which versions were acceptable. One student said she read The Passion Translation and wondered if that would be okay for class. When I said no, she was deeply disappointed because she loves it so much. Since this version is gaining in popularity, I thought it would be good to go over the reasons we should put caution signs around this new version.
The Passion Translation styles itself as “a new heart level translation using Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic manuscripts that expresses God’s fiery heart of love to this generation, merging the emotions and life-changing truth of God’s Word.” It is the labor of love of Brian Simmons, who styles himself the “lead translator” of this project. From everything I can tell, he is a fine man who loves the Lord and sincerely wants to help people grow in the Lord. So, although I find The Passion translation deeply problematic, none of my criticisms of this version should be taken as disparagement of Brian Simmons personally. These critiques are about the translation not about the translator. So why be cautious about using The Passion Translation?
First of all, The Passion Translation is not even a translation but a paraphrase, and one that takes more liberties with the Scriptures than other paraphrases do. People use other paraphrases like the original Living Bible by Ken Taylor or Eugene Peterson’s The Message. Paraphrases have their place but they are problematic. By fashioning the words of Scripture into modern terms, they frequently veer away from Scripture. A good example of this problem is found in 1 Kings 20:11. In the NASB, it reads, “ Let not him who girds on his armor boast like him who takes it off,” but the Living Bible reads, “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.” The paraphrase doesn’t hurt but it’s clearly interpretive. The problem occurs when a paraphrase uses its interpretive style to take liberties with the text and teaches a particular theological viewpoint. That’s what the Passion Translation does. Brian Simmons holds to an egalitarian view of men and women in ministry and marriage, and his paraphrase reinterprets the meaning of the words to reflect his own view. He also repeatedly uses words and phrases that are significant in the hyper-charismatic world, even when they’re not in the text of Scripture.
Second, The Passion Translation is an idiosyncratic version of the Scriptures. By that I mean, it veers from the normal approach to Bible translation which uses a team of scholars to check each other’s work. This way a translation doesn’t reflect one person’s distinctive perspective but the actual meaning of the words of Scripture. All translations require some sort of interpretation—but using a translation team guards a translation from weird or problematic translations. Although Brian Simmons identifies himself as the lead translator, there’s no mention of the other translators he’s leading. It’s the work of Brian Simmons and no one else. As a result, it contains his idiosyncratic views of the Bible and not a mainstream understanding of it.
Third, The Passion Translation uses the wrong manuscripts to guide it. Although it claims to be based on the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, Simmons declares that the version’s unique translations are derived from the original Aramaic New Testament texts. Since the New Testament was written in Greek, what is he talking about? Well, he means that in the gospels, Jesus and all the other people there would have spoken Aramaic. So Simmons at times conjectures at what the Greek New Testament would have been had it been written in Aramaic. Then he uses that speculation to translate. Other times he uses the Syriac version, translated 500 years after the gospels, which is not even Aramaic, and calls this “the original Aramaic.” This approach is not a translation of the Bible but pure speculation. No other translation or paraphrase has ever done this before.
Fourth, The Passion Translation contains lexical errors, particularly in the Hebrew. The reason is that Simmons claims that he received a vision with guidance for translating the Hebrew words. The unique idea was that he should base the translation on Hebrew homonyms. A homonym is a word that sounds or is spelled the same but has different meanings. For example, in English, the word “pen” may mean an area where animals are kept or a writing instrument. We know which meaning by context. Simmons doesn’t recognize the meaning of a Hebrew word in context but claims that all the homonyms of the Hebrew words are correct and uses all of them with their multiple ideas in his translation. This special approach is unique to The Passion Translation because it is so wrong that no other translation would dare do it.
Finally, bizarre claims are made to justify The Passion Translation. For example, Simmons claims that the Lord came to him in a vision, touched his forehead and enlarged his brain, so he could understand the Bible as no one ever had before. When struggling with the Hebrew, Simmons claims an angel visited him and guided his translation. I suspect every seminary Hebrew student wishes that could happen. Simmons also claims that the footnotes of his Bible are inspired. Simmons may actually believe these assertions but they are so far-fetched and therefore, deeply concerning to me.
The Passion Translation is popular because of the way it makes people feel. But it’s far better to read the Scriptures themselves and only allow the actual, real meaning to affect our emotions. According to Hebrews 4:12, God’s Word alone is “living and active and sharper than a two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” It’s in the true words of the Bible itself that we find the power to renew our minds and change our lives. Let’s stick to that.