I received a very interesting question recently regarding the translation of John 12:44. The English Standard Version (ESV) translates the passage this way: “And Jesus cried out and said, ‘Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me.’”
The New American Standard Bible (NASB) renders it: “And Jesus cried out and said, ‘He who believes in Me, does not believe in Me but in Him who sent Me.’”
The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translates it: “Then Jesus cried aloud: ‘Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me.’”
The King James (KJV) renders it as follows: “Jesus cried and said, ‘He that believeth on me, believeth not on me, but on him that sent me.’”
Okay, okay, there is not a lot of difference to be found in the translations above; yet look at how the New International Version translates this passage: “Then Jesus cried out, ‘When a man believes in me, he does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me.’”
For what it is worth, the New Living Translation (NLT) and the Contemporary English Version (CEV) render this verse in a similar way to the NIV.
When I was initially asked about this, the person was doing a Bible study and comparing different translations—an excellent habit to get into—and the variation between the NRSV and the NIV was what caught her eye. She said, ‘this seems to change the meaning.’
My initial instinct was to check my Greek testament to see if there was a textual variant in play, but that was not the case. This case has to do with translation methodology. There are different philosophies in Bible translation—at one extreme being a literal translation where every word from the original text is rendered as closely as possible into English. Then, at the other extreme you find paraphrasing, where the author of the translation communicates what their understanding of a particular passage happens to be. In the middle is a philosophy called “dynamic equivalence,” which seeks to translate the passages concept for concept as closely as possible. Now there is certainly a spectrum that these philosophies cross as some are either more literal or more paraphrased than others, but this presents the broad categories at least (for more on translation philosophies see some of my other blogs in this category).
Now back to John 12:44. In the case of this verse, the word “only” is not in any of the Greek manuscripts that are available to us. But instead, the translation committee of the NIV (and other dynamic equivalence translations) felt that the inclusion of the word “only” would help to clarify the meaning of Jesus’ statement. Yet, rather than clarify the statement, it seems to confound it. In the passage, Jesus is saying to his disciples that if we believe in Him, we are not really setting our faith in him but in the Father, who sent Christ. God is one, it is impossible to put one’s faith in Jesus Christ without resting one’s faith in God the Father, and visa-versa. The same applies to the Spirit as well, the three persons of the Trinity are not separable. Jesus is speaking of the unity of the Godhead.
When you include the word “only” in the translation, the passage loses this sense of unity that Jesus is speaking of and interjects the idea that it is possible to believe in one member of the Trinity and not the others, potentially even suggesting a divisibility in the Trinity. This is opening the door to serious Trinitarian error, suggesting a divisibility within the Godhead, a form of polytheistic error.
My purpose in writing this is threefold. First, I think that it serves as an excellent example as to the differences between an essentially literal translation like the ESV or NASB translations and the dynamic equivalence models like the NIV and the NLT. My second purpose is to illustrate the value of reading multiple translations side by side in your Bible study (unless you are going to learn the original languages. While my third purpose is not to knock translations like the NIV, it is to remind folks that the NIV is not the best Bible to be working from for serious Bible study.
Please do not misunderstand me, if you love the NIV and that is the only Bible you have or the only Bible you can understand, then please read it. Read it with gusto! God will bless your reading of the NIV, the NLT, or even my least favorite, the Message. God will bless the reading of anything that approximates his Word. Even the NASB and ESV have flaws. My point is simply to say that for Bible study, where you are trying to get as close to what John (or whoever the writer happens to be) is actually writing. To do that, you ought to seek to have several essentially literal translations at your disposal to compare so that you can get a clear sense of what is being said.
One final note: as pastors we have the responsibility of teaching and guiding our flocks on the path of truth. But this responsibility does not lie with pastors alone. It resides with church leaders, with parents, and with every Christian believer. We must teach ourselves to recognize error in our culture and in our churches so that we can take a stand for the faith that was once and for all time delivered to the saints.