Consideration of Contexts in the Translation Philosophy of the NET Bible: Discussion and Examples

Assistant Editor, NET Bible


The ultimate objective of the NET Bible is to be accurate, readable, and elegant. The interplay of these three qualities has produced a translation that is useful to many different Christians from different traditions and walks of life. However, translation work does not occur in a vacuum. Although the NET Bible is not related to any prior translation, either as a direct revision or conscious imitation, it continues a long, vibrant history of English Bible translations. Within this living stream of tradition, many things have occurred. The English language has changed, so of necessity certain phrases which were elegant and powerful years ago are no longer so and must be modified so that they communicate effectively to today’s readers. Our understanding of the language of the Bible has improved greatly, so now we are better able to translate the original texts. Cultural and historical problems have been explained more fully. All of these factors work together to enable the translator to produce an English version that speaks more clearly to the contemporary reader than those versions that came before. It is the prayer of the translators and editors of the NET Bible that this translation will in fact do just that.

Within the history of English Bible translation, however, many concepts, verses, and phrasings have remained static. This is usually grounded in a belief that the traditional wording is the best way to translate the underlying text, but often there are other reasons for this stability. Theological interpretations can be imposed on a text and thereby freeze the translation when in fact there may be compelling reasons for a different rendering. Research into biblical languages often reaches an impasse, and translations may remain static simply because our understanding of the language has not progressed enough to find a better alternative. Sometimes texts are static because of the readers: certain texts become so well known and loved that translators and editors are reluctant to change them for fear of causing offense. If different English versions translate passages similarly because of consensus about the meaning and the best translation equivalent, the tradition has reached a state that is worthwhile to maintain. But if different English versions translate passages similarly for the wrong reasons, then Bible readers are not helped in their task and ultimately God is not honored.

The NET Bible has translated many passages in ways similar to other versions, but sometimes in ways very different. In fact, the editors have fielded many comments and questions about particular verses that are different from other English versions.1 Consequently, it is appropriate to explain the translation philosophy of the NET Bible as it relates to the above issues and to illustrate that philosophy from various passages. Of the three principles mentioned above, accuracy is the one that will be the focus of this discussion. The translators and editors have worked to make the NET Bible accurate, but within a very specific context and framework. The NET Bible seeks to be accurate by translating passages consistently and properly within their grammatical, historical, and theological context. The interplay and proper understanding of these three contexts has produced some distinctive translations within the NET Bible. By explaining these we hope to help the Bible reader understand more fully the translation task undertaken to produce the NET Bible, but even more importantly to understand more fully the Bible itself.

The Role of Contexts in Translation

As a translator approaches a passage there are a number of contexts that must be considered. They can be summed up under three broad terms: grammatical, historical, and theological.

Grammatical context involves a natural, accurate understanding of the language of the original text which provides parameters for how language functions and which meanings are possible and probable for a given text. This is what most naturally comes to mind when translation work is done. It is the primary work of the translator to determine what meaning is expressed in the original language and how that can best be expressed in the target language. Understanding in this area has improved immensely over the last several years, especially with the advent of computer tools for language study. One of the primary goals of the NET Bible has been to stay abreast of current research in this area. The footnotes in the NET Bible often refer to recent articles, books, and dissertations that have new data regarding how biblical languages function. As our understanding of these languages improves, naturally it will affect the translation of particular passages.

Historical context involves an understanding of the peoples, cultures, customs, and history of the times in which the Bible was written. As with the grammatical context, the historical context provides parameters for understanding the meaning of passages in the Bible and how they should be translated. It looks at the historical background and events of the text to provide a good balance for possible interpretations and meanings of a text.

Theological context is the understanding of God and his work that a particular author would have at the time he wrote a particular passage of scripture. In a manner similar to historical context, theological context provides parameters for deciding upon the meaning of a text and the best way to translate it. The Bible was written over a period of about 1500 years. During this time, theological understanding changed dramatically. Moses did not know and understand God the way Paul did. This does not mean that Moses knew God in a wrong way and that Paul knew him the right way; it simply means that God had revealed more about himself over time, so Paul had a fuller understanding of who God was and what he was doing in the world. When translating an earlier passage of scripture, the translator should take into account that the theological understanding of the author will be different from that of a later author.

As implied above, these three concepts form a limited hierarchy. Grammatical context is the most important because it deals with the nuts and bolts of the language which convey meaning which ultimately can be translated. For example, in English one cannot communicate to a reader that the sky is blue by writing, “The tree is green.” The words and phrases that make up this sentence can only communicate a limited meaning, and this is defined by the grammar, the syntax of the phrases, the meanings of the individual words, and other similar considerations. Understanding the grammatical context is the most important task of the translator, for the meaning is found in these words and phrases. The translators and editors of the NET Bible translate a passage with precedence given to the grammatical context. The historical and theological context provide a reasonable system of checks and balances; they help the translator decide what is the most probable meaning of the original text and how that meaning should be translated. They do not drive the translation; instead they guide it so that the most probable meaning is conveyed.

A very important concept for understanding the translation philosophy of the NET Bible and how these three contexts work together is progressive revelation. Simply put, progressive revelation recognizes that God reveals himself—his nature as well as his word, plans, and purposes—over time. He did not reveal everything about himself and what he was doing in the world all at once; instead he graciously revealed more and more as time went on. Later revelation serves to complement and supplement what has come before. The relation of this reality to translation work creates a great deal of tension, especially as it relates to the theological context, because certain earlier passages are clarified by later ones. Does the translator render the older passage with a view to the clarification that the later passage brings, or does the translator concentrate solely on the native context of the older passage? The translators and editors of the NET Bible have generally chosen to do the latter for a variety of reasons. A translation that takes into account the progress of revelation will be true to the three contexts discussed above. It is also very beneficial to the Bible reader to have the progress of revelation accurately represented in the translation of particular texts. This helps the reader see how God has worked through the centuries, and it helps the reader to stand more accurately in the place of the original recipients of the text. Both of these are very instructive and inspirational, and they help the reader to connect with the text in a more fulfilling way.

Examples from the NET Bible

What follows is a discussion of particular passages in the NET Bible—how they have been translated and why. The goal of this section is to show how the translators and editors have put the aspects of the translation theory discussed above into practice. The translators and editors believe these issues are important for readers of the Bible to grasp, so all these passages have extensive notes regarding these issues.

Genesis 3:15

Genesis 3:15 has had a long history of interpretation. At issue presently is whether this text refers to a single entity in conflict with another single entity, or whether groups are in view. The text of the verse in the NET Bible is as follows:

And I will put hostility between you and the woman and between your offspring and her offspring; they will attack your head, but you will attack their heel.

A cursory reading of this passage indicates some major differences between the NET Bible and other traditional translations of this passage: the pronouns used here are plural, while many other translations have singular pronouns (“he will attack your head…”). The editors have received several comments about this verse, most of which point to this difference and ask whether it is valid since it seems to preclude a common interpretation of this verse, namely, that Jesus himself is in view. Here is where the interplay between the three contexts and progressive revelation is useful in determining the proper meaning and translation of this verse. The grammatical context is a primary factor in determining the meaning: the noun translated as “offspring” is a collective singular noun, meaning its grammatical number is singular but in reality it represents more than one thing (analogously, the word “army” in English is similar). The singular pronoun and verb which follow agree grammatically with this collective singular noun. To clarify the collective sense of the pronoun, the translation uses the English plural pronoun “they.” The theological context, informed by progressive revelation, supports this translation. At this time, the future coming of the Messiah had not been revealed, neither to the initial participants of the narrative nor to the author of the book. Therefore, it would be foreign to the original context to bring that meaning back into the passage in translation. The grammatical context and the theological context work together to yield the present translation. This is not to deny that Jesus came and eventually defeated Satan at the cross through his death; that is proclaimed clearly in later passages. However, that concept is foreign to the grammar and historical setting of this passage.

Isaiah 7:14

This verse has also seen a great deal of discussion in the history of interpretation. The text of the verse from the NET Bible is as follows:

Look, this young woman is about to conceive and will give birth to a son. You, young woman, will name him Immanuel.

The most visible issue surrounding this verse is the translation of the Hebrew word עַלְמָה (’almah). The NET Bible uses the phrase “young woman,” while many translations use the word “virgin.” The arguments center upon two main points: the actual meaning of the term as it is used in Hebrew, and the use of this verse in the New Testament. There is a great deal of debate about the actual meaning of the Hebrew word. However, in the New Testament when this verse is cited in Matthew 1:23 the Greek word παρθένος (parthenos) is used, and this word can mean nothing but “virgin.” Therefore, many people see Isaiah 7:14 as a prophecy about the virgin birth with Matthew 1:23 serving as a “divine commentary” on the Isaiah passage which establishes its meaning. The interplay of these issues makes a resolution quite complex. It is the opinion of the translators and editors that the Hebrew word used in Isaiah 7:14 means “young woman” and actually carries no connotations of sexual experience, so the grammatical context of the verse in the Old Testament is in our opinion fairly straightforward. Neither does the historical context of Isaiah 7:14 point to any connection with the birth of the Messiah: in its original historical context, this verse was pointing to a sign for King Ahaz that the alliance between Syria and Israel which was threatening the land of Judah would come to nothing. The theological context of Isaiah 7:14 is also limited: it is a presentation of God’s divine power to show himself strong on behalf of his people. The role or birth of the Messiah does not come into view here. So the historical and theological contexts of the verse support the grammatical: the word עַלְמָה (’almah) means “young woman” and should be translated as such. Within the book of Isaiah itself, however, the author begins to develop the theological context of this verse, and this provides a connection to the use of the passage in Matthew. In Isaiah 8:9-10 the prophet delivers an announcement of future victory over Israel’s enemies; the special child Immanuel, alluded to in the last line of v. 10, is a guarantee that the covenant promises of God will result in future greatness. The child mentioned in Isaiah 7:14 is a pledge of God’s presence during the time of Ahaz, but he also is a promise of God’s presence in the future when he gives his people victory over all their enemies. This theological development progresses even further when another child is promised in Isaiah 9:6-7 who will be a perfect ruler over Israel, manifesting God’s presence perfectly and ultimately among his people. The New Testament author draws from this development and uses the original passage in Isaiah to make the connection between the child originally promised and the child who would be the ultimate fulfillment of that initial promise. The use of Isaiah 7:14 in Matthew 1:23 draws upon the theological development present in the book of Isaiah, but it does not change the meaning of Isaiah 7:14 in its original context.

Passages Involving πίστις Χριστοῦ and Similar Expressions in Paul

The phrase πίστις Χριστοῦ (pistis Christou) is a difficult one to translate. The issue centers on the relationship of the genitive noun Χριστοῦ to the head noun πίστις: is the genitive subjective or objective? That is, is the emphasis of this phrase on Christ as the one who exercises faith (subjective) or on Christ as the one in whom others have faith (objective)? Traditionally these phrases have been interpreted emphasizing Christ as the object of faith; “faith in Jesus Christ” is the traditional translation. However, in recent years an increasing number of New Testament scholars are arguing from both the grammatical and theological contexts that πίστις Χριστοῦ and similar phrases in Paul (Rom 3:22, 26; Gal 2:16, 20; 3:22; Eph 3:12; Phil 3:9) involve a subjective genitive and emphasize Christ as the one who exercises faith or faithfulness: “the faithfulness of Christ.” A wider glance at the use of the noun πίστις in the rest of the New Testament shows that when it takes a personal genitive that genitive is almost never objective. Certainly faith in Christ is a Pauline concept, but Bible scholars have begun to see that in Paul’s theological thought there is also an emphasis on Christ as one who is faithful and therefore worthy of our faith. The grammatical and theological contexts are not decisive, and either translation is possible. The editors decided to follow the subjective genitive view because a decision had to be made—“faith of Christ,” a literal translation, communicates very little to the average reader in the context—and because scholarship in this area is now leaning towards this view. The question is certainly not closed, however, and if further research indicates that the grammatical or theological context proves decisive for the other view, the translation will be modified to reflect that.


The NET Bible strives to be accurate in its translation. This involves careful attention to the grammatical, historical, and theological contexts and the connection of the progress of revelation to all of these. We believe that being faithful to the original context of each Bible passage makes the reader more aware of how God works with his people, and it makes for a fuller experience when reading the Bible. It is our prayer that the NET Bible will help all who read it to know the scriptures better and then act upon what they learn.