Creative Translation: How to Sneak Theology in Through Brackets

Brackets serve a few functions when writing, all of which are explanatory.  For example, if one is quoting a work and places an ellipsis in brackets then that informs the reader that a portion of the quoted material has been skipped over.  Bracketed words or phrases are meant to clarify rather than obscure by providing additional information or explanations.  When it comes to Bible translation though,  the bracket is sometimes used as a way to sneak one’s theological bias into a text while safeguarding them against charges of mistranslation because, well, the addition is in brackets(!), and brackets are an indication that something is not original to the text itself.  A classic example is found in the New World Translation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Colossians 1:15-17:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; because by means of him all [other] things were created in the heavens and upon the earth, the things visible and the things invisible, no matter whether they are thrones or lordships or governments or authorities. All [other] things have been created through him and for him. Also, he is before all [other] things and by means of him all [other] things were made to exist,

JW Christology is essentially Arian asserting that Christ is a created being.  By inserting the word “other” into the text in brackets they are implying this very Christology in Colossians 1:15-17.  Instead of Jesus being the Creator of all things created, he is the creator of all things created other than himself who was created by God the Father.1 

But let me give another example, this time from a seemingly orthodox Christian translation.  2Thessalonians 2:1-4 in Wuest’s Expanded Translation reads:

Now, I am requesting you, brethren, with regard to the coming and personal presence of our Lord Jesus Christ, even our being assembled together to Him, not soon to become unsettled, the source of this unsettled state being your minds, neither be thrown into confusion, either by a spirit [a believer in the Christian assembly claiming the authority of divine revelation and claiming to give the saints a word from God], or through a word [received personally] as from us through a letter falsely alleged to be written by us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come and is now present. Do not begin to allow anyone to lead you astray in any way, because that day shall not come except the aforementioned departure [of the Church to heaven] comes first and the man of lawlessness is disclosed [in his true identity], the son of perdition, he who sets himself in opposition to and exalts himself above everyone and everything that is called a god or that is an object of worship, so that he seats himself in the inner sanctuary of God, proclaiming himself to be deity.

It’s no secret that Kenneth Wuest was a premillennial dispensationalist, and as such he saw something very different in ἀποστασία then most other Bible translators have seen.  As a translation he went with “departure” which is troubling enough but I suppose possible, but the bracketed portion of “of the Church to heaven” is hardly implied in ἀποστασία, especially given its use elsewhere in Scripture (LXX: Josh. 22:22; 2Chr.29:19;  1Macc. 2:15; Jer. 2:19 | NT: Acts 21:21) where it generally has reference to forsaking or rebelling. 

So the moral of the story is this: you can make the Bible say whatever you want and get away with it by using brackets!


1 Jason BeDuhn in his book Truth in Translation defends the addition of “other” by pointing out that the NIV, NRSV, TEV, and LB make additions and don’t indicate them.  He says: “Yet in many public forums on Bible translation, the practice of these four translations is rarely if ever pointed to or criticized, while the NW is attacked for adding the innocuous ‘other’ in a way that clearly indicates its character as an addition of the translators.” (p. 83-4)  He goes on to suggest that the NWT is “correct” (theologically that is).


26 thoughts on “Creative Translation: How to Sneak Theology in Through Brackets

  1. I heard that (rapture reference) in a sermon once and was totally confused as to where it could have come from…I went straight home and read every translation and commentary I could find (online)…I could not come into agreement with it!

    “So the moral of the story is this: you can make the Bible say whatever you want and get away with it by using brackets!”

    Brackets( ) [ ] { } come from the devil…

  2. No doubt the use of brackets couldn’t be an attempt at transparency in the NWT, but a precisely planned head-fake towards it whilst sneaking in the heresy.

  3. Nancy: Yeah, Wuest was unique in his interpretation here. Most premil. dispies see it as a reference to a mass apostasy that will happen before the antichrist is revealed, not the rapture of the church to heaven.

    Vlad: No doubt indeed.

    Rich: Thanks for the link. You might find it interesting to learn that the Amplified Bible is my least favorite translation.

  4. As you state in your introduction “bracketed words or phrases are meant to clarify”…so why are you so quick to shout “bias” in the usage of the bracketed word “other” in the New World Translation? The Greek word rendered “all things” is “panta”, an inflected form of “pas”. At Luke 13:2
    the New American Bible renders “panta” as “all other” as do a number of other translations. Another example is Luke 21:29 where Jesus stated “…Look at the fig tree and all the other trees.” in both the New English Translation and the New Century Version. In harmony with everything else the Bible says regarding the Son of God, the New World Translation is not out of harmony with the Greek text when it renders “panta” as “all other things” in Colossians 1:16,17.

  5. Tim: I’ve not ‘shouted’ anything, nor am I ‘quick’ to charge the NWT with bias in Col. 1:15-17. I’ve read it, and ‘other’ doesn’t clarify the passage, it evinces an Arian bias. Pointing to other translations adding the word ‘other’ in other passages doesn’t somehow make the NWT any less guilty.

    Brian: Pretty much…

  6. Nick: Your premise that the NWT is “guilty” is based on the presumption that the Bible teaches that God is part of a “trinity”, and that Jehovah’s Witnesses are trying to “sneak” something in to obscure that fact. The word “trinity” doesn’t even appear in the Bible, neither does the incomprehensible concept! So there is no valid charge of “bias” when a text is translated that is in harmony with the immediate context, the overall context of the entire Bible, as well as the Greek text.

  7. Tim: No, it’s based on the insertion of the word “other” in a context where the word doesn’t clarify the meaning of the passage. And God isn’t ‘part of a trinity,’ God is the Trinity, but that’s beside the point here. The point here is that Colossians 1:15-18 presents a preeminent Christ who is creator of all that has been created. Not every “other” thing as if he himself were created.

  8. There is no scripture that implies God is “part of a trinity” or “is the Trinity”.
    There are scriptures that state that Jesus, (the “son of God” not “God the son”), was created. The immediate context of Colossians 1:15 refers to him as “the firstborn of all creation”(NAB)(NRSV), and Revelation 3:14 as “the beginning of God’s creation.”(RS) He is personified as “wisdom” in Proverbs 8:22-31 that God “created” as a “master workman”. Thus the NWT’s rendering of Colossians 1:15-18 accurately conveys the thought that Jesus was himself “created” by his “father” and is not preeminent or coeternal.

  9. Tim: Why do you keep talking about the Trinity? While the doctrine of the Trinity is true, it doesn’t need to be for Colossians 1:15-18 to say that Christ was not created. “Firstborn” (πρωτότοκος) doesn’t mean “first created” although it can and does at times have reference to being the first physically born which would mean the first physically created. It can also be used as a title of preeminence, e.g., in Genesis 48:18 (in the LXX) Manasseh is called Israel’s “firstborn” (πρωτότοκος) because he was physically born before Ephraim, but Jeremiah 31:9 (38:9 in the LXX) says that Ephraim is the firstborn because of his place of preeminence. Colossians 1:15-18 is passage is about the preeminence of Christ! Just look at the language applied to him in the passage. Proverbs 8:22-31 is irrelevant here and hardly helps your case. Revelation 3:14 doesn’t help you either, all the more since ἀρχὴ can mean “source” or “ruler.” But how can you say that Colossians 1:15-18 isn’t about the preeminence of Christ when it says so plainly?: “that in all things he might have the preeminence.” So no, the NWT does not accurately convey the thought.

  10. Nick: The expression “the firstborn of” occurs upwards of 30 times in the Bible before Colossians, and in each instance that it is applied to living creatures the same meaning applies—the firstborn is part of the group. “The firstborn of Israel” is one of the sons of Israel; “the firstborn of Pharaoh” is one of Pharaoh’s family; “the firstborn of beast” are themselves animals. Even when Israel transferred the firsborn son’s blessing from Mannaseh to Ephraim, Ephraim was still part of the group of Joseph’s sons. So in harmony with that usage Jesus can consistently be viewed as the “firstborn” of the group of all created things.

    In Revelation 3:14 where Jesus is referred to “the beginning (Greek, arkhe’) of God’s creation”, Liddell and Scotts Greek-English Lexicon lists “beginning” as its first meaning of arkhe’, not “source” or “ruler” or “beginner”. (Oxford, 1968, p. 252).

    And Proverbs chapter 8 is certainly relevant to the argument. Many Bible commentators agree that the “Son” is referred there as wisdom personified, who definitely was created and had a beginning.

    When I stated that Christ is “not preeiminent” I meant in the absolute sense of being the almighty Creator of all things. Only Jehovah, the “Father” is preeminent in that sense. The “son” is certainly preeminent as the “firstborn of all creation”, the “firstborn from the dead”, and the “head of the body or congregation” (Col 1:18), as the context shows. Moreover as verse 19 of Colossians 1 continues, “For it pleased the Father that in him should all fullness dwell;” (AKJV) He is the embodiment of divine qualities; the preeminent one in his father’s arrangement.

  11. Tim: ‘Firstborn’ doesn’t mean ‘first created.’ You seem to acknowledge that without wanting to admit it. What reference does Liddell and Scott give to Rev. 3:14? None. ἀρχὴ can mean “beginning” and very often it does (e.g., Jo. 1:1), but the context determines the meaning. Louw & Nida say:

    89.16 ἀρχή, ῆς f: one who or that which constitutes an initial cause – ‘first cause, origin.’ ἡ ἀρχὴ τῆς κτίσεως τοῦ θεοῦ ‘the origin of what God has created’ Re 3.14. It is also possible to understand ἀρχή in Re 3.14 as meaning ‘ruler’ (see 37.56). [Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, 1:779]

    Notice how they address the meaning of ἀρχή in this specific text?

    Colossians 1:15-18 doesn’t make any reference to wisdom, so no, it’s not relevant. And for a thorough rebuttal to wisdom Christology in Paul see Gordon Fee’s Pauline Christology: An Exegetical-Theological Study.

    The text presents Christ as Creator! Hence we’re back to the original point that the addition of “other” in the NWT doesn’t clairfy but rather sneaks in an Arian Christology.

    I won’t belabor the point any more since this is obviously going nowhere. Thanks for the discussion.

  12. Tim: It was fun. I post on the Trinity, Christology, Unitarianism, etc. quite often so keep checking back and I’m sure we’ll be able to take up another topic some time in the future.

  13. I quoted Wuest in my Trinity/Oneness debate with Sabin and realized while quoting my source that I wasn’t really sure how to pronounce his last name. I got away with it though.

  14. The use of brackets in biblical translation is not always done for theological reasons. I wish to comment on the use of square brackets in the Catholic New American Bible (NAB), specifically the 1986 Revised NT of the NAB.

    The Preface for the 1986 NT of the NAB says (with my added emphasis):
    “The Greek text followed in this translation is that of the third edition of The Greek New Testament, edited by Kurt Aland, Matthew Black, Carlo Martini, Bruce Metzger, and Allen Wikgren, and published by the United Bible Societies in 1975 …
    The editors of the Greek text placed square brackets around words or portions of words of which the authenticity is questionable because the evidence of textual witnesses is inconclusive. The same has been done in the translation insofar as it is possible to reproduce this convention in English. It should be possible to read the text either with or without the disputed words, but in English it is not always feasible to provide this alternative, and in some passages the bracketed words must be included to make sense. As in the first edition, parentheses do not indicate textual uncertainty, but are simply a punctuation device to indicate a passage that in the editors’ judgment appears parenthetical to the thought of the author.”

    There are two samples of this which come immediately to mind (chosen only because I recently looked at them!)
    1. In the beginning of chapter 10 of Luke, Jesus appointed and sent out seventy or seventy-two other disciples (not just the 12). The return of these disciples is in Luke 10:17-20. There is some uncertainty in the early manuscripts about the number. In both of these places the Greek UBS edition and the NAB place the word for the distinguishing the numbers (“duo” or “two”) in square brackets, i.e. “seventy[-two]”.
    2. Another place is the last verse of John 20. Here the NAB reads: “But these are written that you may [come to] believe that Jesus is the Messiah …” The UBS text has a single letter “sigma” in square brackets, i.e. “pisteu[s]ēte”, to show the uncertainly between the aorist subjunctive or the present subjunctive. This could be the difference between “coming” to believe or “continuing” to believe.

  15. Kenneth Wuest I think his last name is pronounced “Weest”. I had a neighbor with the same last name.

    I usually enjoy his translation, but I think he overstepped in that verse. He also gets creative when trying to uphold eternal security and interpret/translate Hebrews 6 and 10

  16. Jim: I couldn’t agree more!

    And I guess it depends on where someone’s from. Weest might be an Americanized pronunciation. I’ve had a German tell me that it’s pronounced Woost.

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