Part VIIa: TRANSLATION — Chapter Nine: Which Bible?Related Media
Preparing the Way
Although it is hard to believe, it is a fact that in the twentieth century alone more than one hundred and thirty English versions of all or part of the Bible have appeared in print.1
For some this creates a dilemma. For others it is pure delight.
Recently at a mid-week service we were presenting and comparing several of the more common translations on the market today. In our question period one of my good friends expressed the frustration of thousands when he told us how difficult he found it to follow a Scripture reading or a speaker when a different translation was being used. Wouldn’t it be better to standardize and all use the same one?
It was quickly apparent that many shared his sentiments. But not all. One of the elders quietly offered his experience. He found it particularly helpful to hear or follow in another version. So there is the problem. What is depreciated by some is appreciated by others. How shall we resolve the problem? Must it be resolved? What should be our attitude toward the multiplicity of translations today? Is it a curse or a blessing?
But that is not all. There is another side to the problem. Since inspiration extends only to the original manuscripts, which are unavailable to us, and since textual criticism applies to our modern Greek and Hebrew Bibles, which few of us can read, how reliable is our English Bible today? Can we honestly speak of it as the Word of God? Which version is actually the best one? Which one should I be reading?
A study of the science of translation will help to answer these questions. It will bridge the gap between the ancient languages and our modern one. Hopefully it will help to settle the dust in our dilemma.
I. Three Milestones
A.D. 1384—It really began with John Wycliffe, a great man of God often called “the morning star of the Reformation.” Because of his deep and earnest concern for the spiritual welfare of the common people he sent out poor priests, called Lollards, to preach to the people of England in their own language. At that time all preaching in the churches was in Latin, the language of the Vulgate Bible but hardly the language of the people. Wycliffe soon realized that a Bible in English was desperately needed if the common people were to hear the Gospel and read the Scriptures. Under his leadership the first English translation of the entire Bible was made from Latin in A.D. 1384.
A.D. 1525—After the interval of a century and a half, the need for a revision of Wycliffe s Bible became imperative. Because church authorities in England prohibited any new English translations, William Tyndale was forced to go to Germany, where he translated the New Testament from the original Greek for the people of his generation. In A.D. 1525 the first English New Testament was published on the printing press. Copies were smuggled into England in sacks of grain and bales of cloth. Parts of the Old Testament were also translated by Tyndale before he was betrayed, strangled and burned near Brussels.
A.D. 1611—It was the many arguments that arose from the several English versions of the seventeenth century that prompted King James I to appoint fifty-four scholars to make a new version. It took about seven years to produce. Some known copies of older manuscripts, as well as some recent translations, were consulted. The primary source however, was the Greek text of Erasmus, which was based on a handful of late and haphazardly collected manuscripts. The translation was authorized by the king himself as the standard English Bible. It was first published in A.D. 1611, and became the most popular English Bible. For two hundred and fifty years it was regarded supreme among English Bibles.
However, the past century has been one of constant challenge to the supremacy of the King James Version. The twentieth century saw more than one hundred and thirty new English translations of all or part of the Bible. This remarkable phenomenon is explained by at least four factors.
First, during the past century a vast number of earlier manuscripts became available. This gave rise to the controversy in textual criticism discussed in the previous chapter. Translators have at their disposal today hundreds of manuscripts that were unavailable in the seventeenth century, and many of them are much older and closer to the originals.
Second, thanks to the work of archaeologists, our knowledge of customs, history, geography and word meanings has increased by leaps and bounds in the last century. You can imagine how that calls for revisions and translations that reflect the fine details and differences uncovered by these scientists.
Third, the science of textual criticism as well has made significant advances.
Fourth, it should be apparent to all that languages change over the course of a century. Take, for example, the change in the meaning of “gay” just in the span of our generation. Such changes alone have demanded the revision of the English Bible for the people of this generation.
These are the four major factors that account for the incredible avalanche of twentieth century English translations.
Project Number 1
Draw up a list of the strengths and a list of the weaknesses of the King James Version.
II. Dilemma or Delight?
Who has not felt frustrated by the unending variety of translations? Yet this very variety offers us a greater opportunity to grasp the original meaning of the text than was given to most generations before us. One scholar may have slightly exaggerated the case when he said an English reader could ascertain 99.5 percent of the meaning of the original text by a careful reading of a good paraphrase in conjunction with two good translations. However, his emphasis is well taken. The use of several reliable translations for comparison and contrast is of the greatest value to the student of the English Bible today. Do not despise them. Rather use them. It will be to your own personal profit.
III. An Important Question
Dare we hold up an English Bible and boldly declare that this is the Word of God? You have surely seen it often done. Is this not somewhat presumptuous and ill advised? After all, it is not the original! It is not even in the language of the original. It is a translation. It may even be a poor translation of the Scriptures. Can we speak of it as the Word of God?
If our Lord and the apostles did, why can’t we? Yes, that’s correct—the Lord and the apostles did! They most frequently quoted from the Septuagint when they quoted the Old Testament. You will recall that the Septuagint was a Greek translation, even a rather poor translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. When our Lord and the apostles quote it, they quote it as Scripture and preface their quotations with such astounding claims that it is clear they regarded it as the Word of God. If they could so address the Septuagint, we are surely at liberty to label the King James Version or the New American Standard Bible as the Word of God. We need never hesitate to speak of our English translations as Scripture—the Word of God.
This does not mean, of course, that all translations are of equal quality and worth. This is hardly the case.
IV. A Fourfold Test
In sorting out the scores of Bibles on the market today it will be particularly useful to observe carefully four critical criteria.
First: The manuscript source. Is this simply a revision of an English translation (e.g., The Living Bible), or is it a translation from the original languages (e.g., New American Standard Bible or New International Version)? If it is indeed a translation from the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, were the best possible and available manuscripts used by the translators? Have they used the oldest and most reliable manuscripts as their basis? This can often be determined by simply reading the preface to these Bibles.
Second: The theological perspective of the translators. This becomes of great importance when you realize that every translation involves interpretation. It is impossible to translate from one language into any other without embarking on interpretation. Because this is so, a translation by conservative and evangelical scholars is certainly to be preferred. The greater our confidence in the scholars, the greater will be our confidence in their product.
Third: The presentation of the person and work of Christ. Whenever a new translation comes to my desk I immediately check it out on this point. Carefully I read and reread the great Christological chapters of our New Testament—John 1:1-18, Philippians 2:1-11, Colossians 1 and Hebrews 1. The person and work of Christ form the touchstone of Christianity. Any translation that is to be respected by Christians must achieve a high level of reverence and accuracy in these central chapters.
Fourth: The readability of the translation. After all, that’s what we want it for. That is why we are giving it as a gift to a friend. It is to be read. If it is not easy to read, if it is not appealing, inviting, expressive and communicative, then it is of little value to most people. Does it flow? To be read, it must be readable.
Project Number 2
Do a comparative study of the translation of Philippians 2:5-8 in several versions of the Bible.
Recently Gerald Hawthorne of Wheaton College offered some convictions regarding translations in general that are worth repeating. There were five of them.
First, there is no perfect, inspired, best or final translation.
Second, few translators deliberately distort the message of the Bible by setting forth a particular theological viewpoint.
Third, every translation is to some degree an interpretation.
Fourth, extremely hard work has gone into translating the Bible not to enrich the translators, but to enrich the reader.
And finally, all translations worthy of use must meet three criteria: they must be based on the best manuscripts available, include the abundance of new information on Hebrew and Greek vocabulary, and be accurate.2
This still leaves us with a big question.
V. Which One?
The general guideline is well stated by Hawthorne: “Let the purpose for which you are reading the Bible determine which translation you use.”3
The Christian with several translations is very much like the carpenter with various saws, the artist with a variety of brushes, the mechanic with many wrenches or the homemaker with a dozen different salad moulds. In each case the choice of instrument is determined by the particular purpose of the worker. A variety is not only desirable, but actually essential due to the wide range of uses in each field. Imagine an electrician with only one all-purpose screwdriver. How impractical. No less practical, however, than the Christian confining oneself to only one translation when there is available a wide selection with individualistic purposes. The principle then is clear: choose your translation according to your purpose.
Let us discuss some of our more common purposes and recommend the translations most appropriate for each category. For the sake of simplicity we will not distinguish between paraphrases and translations in our discussion. To be sure, this is not an exhaustive or complete listing. It is very selective. Hopefully it will be a start.
A. For Careful Study
The New American Standard Bible (NASB), 1972
Many consider this version the closest we have to the Hebrew and Greek text. It is very literal in its translation, perhaps too literal at times to grasp the exact meaning. The stilted and unidiomatic styles make it somewhat unsuitable for pulpit use. Often smoothness and flow are sacrificed for literalness. However, for the student this proves useful over and over again.
Recently the Lockman Foundation published the New American Standard Bible update. The editorial board’s purpose in making this translation was to adhere as closely as possible to the original languages of the Holy Scriptures and to make the translation in a fluent and readable style according to modern English usage.
The New King James Version (NKJV), 1983
Preserving the flow and style of the Authorized Version of 1611, and reflecting the majority of original manuscripts, this translation maintains a majestic and reverent style while integrating present-day vocabulary and grammar.
The New Scofield Reference Bible, 1967
Although the text is that of the Authorized Version, many changes have been made in the text that are very helpful to the student. With its introductions, annotations and subject chain reference, this has become the standard study Bible of dispensationalists. It contains a wealth of valuable information for anyone who cares to study the Bible carefully.
The New Open Bible, 1990
The text of this study Bible is that of the New King James Version. It contains all the features of the Open Bible (such as The Christian’s Guide to the New Life, visual survey of the Bible and special study aids) plus 198 pages of new features.
The Ryrie Study Bible, 1976
This is available in the King James Version, the New American Standard and the New International Version; it contains annotated notes throughout the Old and New Testament as well as a harmony of the Gospels, a synopsis of Bible doctrine, topical and subject indexes, concordance, several topical essays and much more.
B. For Devotional Reading
The Revised Standard Version (RSV), 1952
The New English Bible (NEB), 1970
The Jerusalem Bible, 1966
Today’s English Version (TEV), 1976
These are among the best of the less literal translations today. They are meaning-for-meaning rather than word-for-word in their rendering of the original manuscripts, and are excellent complements to the above study Bibles. The TEV is particularly attractive to some because of its limited vocabulary and simple style.
The One Year Bible, 1985
Available in various translations, it is a wonderful arrangement of the Scriptures that enables one to read through the Bible in one year. Each day one reads a portion from the Old Testament, New Testament, Psalms and Proverbs.
The Message, 1993
It is the New Testament in contemporary English by Eugene Peterson, published by Navpress. During this past year my wife and I have been refreshed and blessed reading together through this wonderful presentation of the Scriptures.
C. For Not-Yet Christians
The New Living Bible, 1997
This is the most recent edition of The Living Bible, unquestionably the most popular edition of the Bible on the market today. Its style and vocabulary are very appealing to the casual reader of the Bible, and the message of the Gospel is clearly presented. If I were attempting to interest my neighbour or business associate in reading the Bible, I would begin with this one.
Today’s English Version, 1976
You may prefer to use Today’s English Version, with its easy vocabulary and style. The word list at the back of the edition, explaining many terms used in the text, is an attractive feature. Some feel this version is a superb example of meaning-for-meaning translation.
The New Testament in Modern English, 1972
This paraphrase by J. B. Phillips is also worthy of our careful scrutiny. It is perhaps the best idiomatic paraphrase available today and is invaluable not only to give to those who are not yet Christians, but to complement the study Bibles of the serious student.
D. For Children and Families
Holman’s Illustrated edition of The Living Bible
Children’s edition of the New International Version
The New Testament, 1975
Psalty’s Kid’s Bible, 1991
Adventure Bible, 1989
E. For Home Bible Classes
With not-yet Christians:
The New Living Bible
Today’s English Version
New International Version
With mature Christians: Encourage the use of as many different translations as possible for the purpose of comparison.
F. For an All-Purpose Bible
Is there such a book? The New International Version has all the earmarks of such a book. It is more readable than the NASB, yet more reliable than many of the freer translations.
The quality and future of the NIV is correctly assessed by Sakae Kubo and Walter Specht when they write:
On the whole, one must say that the NIV translation is accurate and clear. It does not have the color or striking characteristics of Phillips or the NEB, but it is dependable and straightforward. It is more modern than the RSV and less free than the NEB or Phillips. It will probably be used widely as the Bible for conservative Christians.4
G. For the Computer Age
The NET Bible, also known as the New English Translation, is the first of a new generation of Bible translations specifically designed to take advantage of computer and Internet technologies. This translation is now available free of charge for individual use, and can be downloaded from the Internet (www.netbible.org).
It strives for accuracy and readability, and contains thousands of notes, both for scholars and for other students of the Scriptures. It is accessible to those who may not be able to read or acquire the Bible otherwise (e.g., in China). The publishers are seeking review and criticism by scholars worldwide. Any corrections or improvements can be quickly implemented. The potential uses for such translations employing cutting edge technology are almost unlimited.
Different versions of the Bible are specifically designed to serve various purposes. How unfair it is to judge any version without ascertaining first its intended purpose. The preface of each of these versions will generally state the translators’ purpose for their work. Read it carefully. Resist the temptation to judge every version on the same basis. Evaluate it in view of its intended purpose. Then use it for that purpose in your life and ministry.
To reap the full dividends of your investment in reading and studying this chapter you must pause before you press forward. Don’t charge into the next chapter until you have gone back to the beginning of this chapter and tackled those questions once again. Can you answer them now? When you have mastered those questions and answers you are ready to press onward.
For Further Study
- Study thoroughly the historical and religious background of the King James Version of 1611.
- Prepare short biographies of the great men behind the English Bible (e.g., John Wycliffe and William Tyndale).
Bruce, F. F. The English Bible: A History of Translations from the Earliest English Versions to the New English Bible, Revised Edition. Oxford University Press, 1970.
Douglas, J. D. (ed.). The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1974.
Fuller, David Otis (ed.). Which Bible? Grand Rapids, MI: Grand Rapids International Publications, 1973.
Kubo, Sakae and Specht, Walter. So Many Versions? Twentieth Century English Versions of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983.
Lewis, Jack P. The English Bible from KJV to NTV: A History and Evaluation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1982.
1 Sakae Kubo and Walter Specht, So Many Versions? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1975), pp. 208-32.
2 Gerald Hawthorne, “How to Choose a Bible.” Christianity Today, Dec. 5, 1975, pp. 7-10.
3 Ibid., p 8.
4 Kubo and Specht, So Many Versions? p. 199.
Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word)