Saturday, January 14, 2012

Squeamish Translating – Summary

Do You See What I See?

So… have the translators of the NASB and the NIV been squeamish when it comes to the word “naked”… or the concept of nakedness?

As I’ve said along the way, no one passage can “prove” that such a bias really was affecting the translating work. However, The cumulative impact of multiple passages betrays its presence.

Some may well discount every example that I’ve given, finding reasonable justification for the translations as rendered in each case. To be sure, none of the examples that I’ve given are completely and utterly unreasonable.

For the one who believes that nakedness really is morally offensive to God, there would be little or no motivation to find fault with the passages as they are translated by the NASB and NIV.

By the same token, however, those of us who believe that nakedness is not morally offensive to God will be motivated to look more critically at the texts to see if there really might be a bias at play.

But regardless of which side of the issue we each start on, our deepest concern should be that our English translation accurately renders the meaning found in the original text. I hope that all of my readers (on either side) will place that priority above their current or preferred perspective.

A Review of the Evidence

In the table that follows, I give a summary of each of the five passages I’ve presented as evidence of squeamishness about nudity in the new translations. For each passage, I’ve given the translations one of four “grades” reflecting their fidelity to the original Greek text. Here’s what I mean by the four words I used:

  • TransparentThere is no evidence of any squeamishness towards nudity; the Greek text is translated very directly with no attempt to hide the possibility that literal nakedness was possible.
  • UnclearThe translation is reasonable and may not indicate any squeamishness, but the English words chosen are not generally associated with nudity and the plain reading would not produce a mental picture that includes nudity for most people today.
  • Obscured – The English translation is such that would definitely preclude the formation of a mental picture that included nudity.  Squeamishness is strongly suspected.
  • Misleading – Words and/or ideas not found at all in the original Greek text have been added to the English translation, resulting in a meaning that is actually in conflict with what the author wrote. In these cases, the squeamishness about human nudity led to an intentional alteration of the inspired text.







John 21:7b

Peter fishing naked





John 13:4-5

Jesus washing feet





1 Cor. 4:11

Writing Scripture naked





Luke 17:7-8

Servants coming in from the field





1 Cor. 12:23-24a

Referring to the Genitals




Some may disagree with the severity of the squeamishness that I have assessed on the NASB and the NIV in these passages. But there is no denying the trend that is in evidence here.

Additional Evidence

In addition to the data above, a simple search for the word “naked” or “nakedness” in the English translations also gives evidence that the “N-word” is taboo to some extent in the NASB and NIV.

Instances of “naked” or “nakedness in the English New Testament:

  • KJV – 18 times.
  • NASB – 13 times.
  • NIV – 9 times.

The trend is obvious. A closer examination of the specific passages will reveal that where the nakedness was “bad,” the NASB and NIV did not hesitate to translate the Greek word gymnos by its English equivalent, “naked.” But if the incidence of nakedness was not associated with a negative context, different English words were used, several of which I have highlighted in these articles.

Many who read the NT in new translations claim that the Bible always speaks of nakedness in a negative way. However, the NIV used the N-words only half as many times as the KJV. If my analysis is correct, that means that for all the times that gymnos or a related word appears in the Greek but not in the NIV, the NIV translators did not consider the context negative enough to use the English word, “naked”!

Negative Nakedness

To demonstrate how the NIV does not shrink away from the “N-word” when the context is negative, let me quote from Rev. 3:17-18

“You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.” (NIV)

A passage like this gives apparent credence to the belief that nakedness is offensive to God… that nakedness is always shameful and sinful. But how can we know that is really true if non-shameful and righteous instances of nakedness which appear in the original language Scripture text have been consistently excised from the English translations of the Bible?

The very same Greek word, gymnos, which appears here in Rev. 3:17-18 is used to describe the fishing disciple Peter in John 21:7b. It is the root word for the term that Paul uses to describe himself while writing to the Corinthians in 1 Cor. 4:11. Was Peter or Paul “shameful”?

From the perspective of the inspired text, shamefulness cannot be the inescapable result of nakedness. Sadly, however, a survey of the English Bible in NASB or NIV would not correct that mistaken notion, for only the negative citations of nakedness are found there.

The error is then compounded because too many people have failed to show the same diligence of examination and study on the issue of nakedness that they typically do studying any other topic in the Bible (see The Unchallenged Belief).

This is Not Just an Oversight

The evidence that I have presented here is not simply a matter of translators making little mistakes in the translation or their inability to determine the most accurate words to use. The trend is too consistent to be an accident or oversight.

Nakedness is taboo in our culture today. It is thought to be wrong in all cases except for marriage or medical necessity. That taboo is not found in the Scriptures as they were originally inspired. Despite that fact, the taboo is apparent in the NASB and (even more so) the NIV.

The only possible source for the taboo found in the modern English translations is the bias of the translators themselves!

I Wasn’t Looking For It…

I didn’t just invent the bias I’ve called “squeamish translating” out of the blue. I didn’t start studying God’s word intent on snooping around to see if I could find a reason to discount the Bible’s real teaching on nakedness. All I did was study the Bible diligently… reviewing every passage where nakedness is mentioned or implied. I didn’t study from just one English translation… or even three; I also looked at the original language words in the Greek (and Hebrew) texts.

I was amazed to see that not just once or twice, but every time the Bible mentioned nudity in a neutral or positive way, the nudity was difficult or impossible to discern in English… unless I was reading the KJV.

In other words, I wasn’t looking for it; I simply discerned it in the course of my investigation. I read the KJV and I read the other translations. They were different. I had to ask, “Why?” The answer I found was that the KJV was more faithful to the Greek than the NASB or NIV. Hence, the evidence of squeamishness.

Final Words

The NASB is still my favorite translation. I read it daily and it’s my preferred version for memorization. I recognize and respect the place of the NIV in Christendom today, but I have always depended more on other translations… more so now than before. While I’ve always been a little irritated by the archaic “King James” English, my appreciation and respect for the KJV have grown as a result of this study.

Like each of us, the translators are human. They—and we—live in a culture quite foreign to the one from which sprang the inspired biblical texts. It should come as no surprise that some measure of cultural bias would creep undetected into their translation work… nor is it any condemnation upon them that it should. They meant no deception and I hold no animosity toward them for having that bias (the fact is that we all have biases… most of which we are utterly oblivious to). I genuinely Praise the Lord for their work. Where would we be without it?

Whether you see what I see or not, I hope that I have caused you to rethink the Scriptural basis for your understanding of the biblical position on nudity. I hope that you will be willing to reexamine your own perspective… to ensure that you are fighting against any bias that will discolor your perception of God’s Word. To that best of my ability, that is my own aim as well.

— Matthew Neal


Squeamish Translating

Part 1 – Naked Disciples
Part 2 – An Unclothed Savior
Part 3 – Writing Scripture Naked
Part 4 – Unclothed Servants
Part 5 – Speaking of Genitals

Squeamish Translating (PDF of the entire series)


Anonymous said...

I found your reasoning quite sound and your inference of a bias against the concept of "naked" in positive and neutral situations as well founded. But I have seen the same translation bias even more extreme and in starker contrast when the word "stauros" is translated as "cross" instead of the word "stake".

Are you then willing to agree that the JW's and other groups that contend that the Messiah was nailed up on a stake and not a cross are right, or do you accept this kind of "bias in translation" as acceptable in the case of the most common symbol of christendom but not in the case of nudity?

Matthew Neal said...

Thanks for writing and your words of encouragement.

In all honesty, I have not examined the idea of a "stake" instead of a "cross" as we generally think. However, a quick look around found that Wikipedia ( gives a pretty comprehensive perspective on the issue.

I see that you're right about the fact the the Greek word for "cross" really means "stake," but it also appears that that was the term used no matter how the stake/cross was constructed for crucifixion. Sometimes they used the crossbeam and sometimes they did not.

Quite frankly, however, I don't think the actual shape of the "cross" makes any difference to our theology or our understanding of Christ's work on the cross.

In other words, I don't see any "bias" because I don't think it makes any difference. Beyond that, I don't see any bias because I don't think that a "stake" with a crossbeam (as a "cross") is historically inaccurate.

Even in English, words that start meaning one thing can mutate into words that encompass that original thing, but also other related things.

Like the word "breakfast"... it originally referred to the meal that you ate to break your nightly "fast." It kinda still means that, but now it also refers to the types of food (eggs, toast, cereal, etc) that we typically eat only at the first meal of the day... even if we are NOT breaking any fast.

Etymology alone is not sufficient to absolutely define a word.


Steve Phillips said...

Excellent work! I love when people expose this nonsense. If that exists how many more things have been tampered with to suit a particular group's opinion or doctrine?

If I may I would like to point you to an interesting article on English Bible translation through history and some liberties that have been taken.

The Great Ecclesiastical Conspiracy