Friday, November 26, 2021

English Bible Translations: Favorites

      But be people who do the word, not merely people who hear it and deceive themselves. Someone who hears the word and doesn’t do it, you see, is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror. He notices himself, but then he goes away and quickly forgets what he looked like. But the person who looks into the perfect law of freedom, and goes on with it, not being a hearer who forgets but a deer who does the deed — such a person is blessed in their doing.

-James 1:22-25 (The Kingdom New Testament, 2011)

This is the tenth post in a series on the development of the English Bible. The series starts here, if you’d like to go back and review the older posts.

     I thought I’d finish up these posts with a list of five translations I find myself using the most. Some of them we’ll have looked at already. A couple will be new. I’ll also include a list of three digital Bible study resources I use regularly. I’m including these, not because I think anyone ought to necessarily use what I use, but because it can be challenging to make heads or tails of the sheer number of translations, revisions, and paraphrases available in English. My list includes the translations I’ve found myself coming back to again and again.

     First, a word about criteria. I choose to use — or not to use — a Bible translation for basically two  reasons:

A solid base text. All of the “witnesses” to the biblical text — full and fragmentary manuscript copies, versions in ancient languages, and quotations from church leaders older than any known manuscripts — need to be compared and collated. None are exactly alike, and so a lot of detective work has to be done to figure out what the original texts of the Bible actually said. The scholars who have done this work have produced Hebrew Old Testaments and Greek New Testaments with significant variant readings noted called critical editions. They’re the bases on which all good English translations rest.

     The introductions of most Bible translations will indicate which critical editions were used. Most modern translations come from some edition of the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece (Greek New Testament) and Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (Stuttgart Hebrew Bible). These are considered state of the art. A few translations (like the KJV and NKJV) use Greek and Hebrew critical editions considered by most scholars to be less reliable. A few (the ESV is an example) use critical editions that differ from, but are not necessarily less reliable than, Nestle-Aland or BHS.

Readability. I’m looking for contemporary language, nothing archaic. I prefer a translation that sounds more or less like people speak and write today. The Bible was originally written in the contemporary language of regular people, and I think a translation should be as well. There’s no reason at all that an accurate English translation of the Bible shouldn't be understandable to anyone who understands English. Especially for public use, I want a translation written at a 7th grade or below reading level. (Almost all modern translations are.)

So, roughly in order of usage, here are my top five English translations:

  1. The New International Version. For me, the NIV hits the perfect sweet spot of literalness and readability. Those who prefer more literal translations will tell you it’s too paraphrased, and those who like paraphrases will tell you it’s too literal. That suggests to me that it occupies a solid middle ground. It’s versatile, equally good for personal devotional reading, deeper study, and public use. It benefits from having been around a long time, and from having plenty of resources for improvement. Its 2011 revision smoothed over some rough spots. It’s a committee translation, which guards against bias. It’s available in most every digital platform and in countless formats and editions in binding and paper. 
  2. The New English Translation. (Not to be confused with the New English Bible!) Also called the NET Bible. This isn’t one I’ve mentioned so far, but I use it nearly every day. It’s a fairly free translation from 2006 that sometimes settles on some interesting or odd readings, depending on your perspective. For me, its chief feature is a set of extensive notes — almost 61,000! — that contain more word-for-word readings, explanations for the translation adopted, possible alternate translations, and excellent study notes. It’s also a committee translation. The really great thing about it is that the translation and its notes are available for free online. It’s also available in Bible study software like Accordance. You can buy a binding and paper version as well, if you prefer. 
  3. The New Revised Standard Version. This is a more literal but very readable translation, in the best tradition of the King James Version. A revision of the Revised Standard Version, it’s a frequent choice for pew Bibles in mainline Protestant and some Catholic churches. It’s also a committee translation that incorporates Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox and (for the Old Testament) Jewish scholars. Again, it’s available in most every digital Bible study platform, and in binding and paper in a huge variety of formats.
  4. The New Living Translation. In fairness, I should mention that my son works for the NLT’s publisher, Tyndale. That being said, I’ve used the NLT since it was published in 1996, long before they employed him. It isn’t as free as the translation it originally aimed to revise, the Living Bible, but it’s still a very free translation, bordering on paraphrase. (Though it includes notes that often provide more literal translations.) That isn’t a negative, though; sometimes comparing the NLT with a more literal translation gives me a new insight into a passage that I hadn’t considered before. It’s a committee translation, like the others on my list so far.
  5. The Kingdom New Testament. This one you likely haven’t heard of. It’s a New Testament-only translation by N.T. Wright, originally from his very accessible series of commentaries on the New Testament. Wright, formerly Anglican Bishop of Durham and now a senior research fellow at Oxford, is one of the pre-eminent New Testament scholars of our time. He is also a good writer and has a strong commitment to the authority of the Bible for the church. Wright’s translation is very British (as you’d expect) and free. It will surprise you in places, and in other places make you scratch your head, but all in all it’s a translation I get a lot out of. I’ve most recently read through the New Testament in this translation.

     I could probably do another post on digital resources, and maybe I will sometime. The best variety of translations are on websites like Bible Gateway and YouVersion — both have 60 or more English translations available. Both also have reading plans, study guides, and other resources that you can use individually or with others, as well as useful mobile apps that give you access to Scripture from your phone or tablet. Monthly subscriptions give you access to other resources. 

     I also use Accordance Bible software, available for Mac, PC, iOS, and Android, which offers different modules that include numerous translations, commentaries, study notes, atlases, lexicons, dictionaries, and other resources, all cross-referenced with the text. Currently, the starter package is on sale for $49.95.

     I hope this series of posts has been a blessing to you. If you’re struggling to read the Bible, maybe a new translation will help. If I can be of assistance, leave a comment or contact me.

     May God bless you as a doer of the word.

Friday, November 19, 2021

English Bible Translations: The Twentieth Century, Part III

      Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are a listener when you are anything but, letting the Word go in one ear and out the other. Act on what you hear! Those who hear and don’t act are like those who glance in the mirror, walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are, what they look like. But whoever catches a glimpse of the revealed counsel of God—the free life!—even out of the corner of his eye, and sticks with it, is no distracted scatterbrain but a man or woman of action. That person will find delight and affirmation in the action.

-James 1:22-25 (The Message, 1993)

This is the ninth post in a series on the development of the English Bible. You can read about the reasons for this series here, and the second installment on John Wycliffe here. The third post on William Tyndale is here. The fourth on The Geneva Bible is here. The fifth on the King James Version is here. The sixth on nineteenth century English translations is here. The seventh and eighth on twentieth century translations are here and here.

     As we have noticed, twentieth century English Bible translations fall roughly into three categories: committee translations that remained more or less faithful to the wording and rhythms of the King James Version, committee translations that had little to no attachment to the King James Version tradition, and new translations by individuals. In this post, we’ll look at some important translations by individuals. 

     The advantage of a committee translation is that committees provide diversity and prevent quirky and idiosyncratic translations. With an individual translation, there’s no such protection. Many of the twentieth-century individual translations are more paraphrase than true translation. To some degree, any translation is a paraphrase, but for our purposes a paraphrase is a restatement of the biblical text  as an aid to understanding. In that way, paraphrase usually borders on commentary. 

     That’s certainly true of The Living Bible, a paraphrase written by Kenneth Taylor and published by Tyndale House in 1971. Taylor originally created The Living Bible to aid his kids in understanding the Bible. He used the American Standard Version as a base text, and didn’t consult any of the original languages; he simply rewrote the ASV using contemporary vocabulary, figures of speech, grammar, and measurements.

     The Living Bible has sold over 40 million copies, and has been translated into about 100 languages. It had its critics, however; some found fault with what they called “dumbing down” of the biblical text. Bible scholars mostly ignored it, and some church leaders criticized it for perceived doctrinal biases.  

     You can see a good example of some of the strengths and weaknesses of The Living Bible in its handling of 1 Peter 3:18. The NRSV renders the verse: “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit…” 

     The Living Bible reads: “Christ also suffered. He died once for the sins of all us guilty sinners although he himself was innocent of any sin at any time, that he might bring us safely home to God. But though his body died, his spirit lived on…” While the language is contemporary and understandable, it clearly interprets more than it translates. (Note how it explains what “the righteous for the unrighteous” means.) Some of its interpretations are debatable, as when it renders “put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit” as “though his body died, his spirit lived on.” That reading leaves in question the bodily resurrection of Jesus, incorrectly makes “flesh” equivalent to “body,” and assumes that “in the spirit” is a reference to Jesus’ human spirit and not the Holy Spirit.

     In the late 1980s, Taylor and Tyndale House Publishers invited a team of 90 Greek and Hebrew scholars to revise The Living Bible. It was published in 1996 as The Holy Bible: New Living Translation.

     Another example of a paraphrase written by an individual is The Message, by Eugene Peterson. Peterson was a Presbyterian church leader in Maryland who felt the need for a translation that would “bring the [Bible] to life for…those who hadn't read [it] because it seemed too distant and irrelevant and those who had read [it] so much that it had become ‘old hat.’” He thought of his translation as an extension of his work as a pastor: "always looking for an English way to make the biblical text relevant to the conditions of the people."   

     The Message uses American expressions and slang to a degree not seen in any other translation. A vivid example is found in Peterson’s translation of the Lord’s prayer: “God, Our Father in heaven, reveal who you are. Set the world right; do what's best— as above, so below. Keep us alive with three square meals. Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others. Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil. You’re in charge! You can do anything you want! You’re ablaze in beauty! Yes. Yes. Yes.”

     As you can see, the translation is very interpretive in some places: “reveal who you are” instead of “hallowed be your name,” “set the world right; do what’s best” for “your kingdom come, your will be done.” The Message can open up new understandings of biblical texts, but sometimes at the expense of other possible meanings obscured by its choice of words. On the whole, The Message is probably best as a secondary Bible, not one used for serious study and reading. 

     A few other less well-known twentieth-century individual translations probably deserve mention.   

     The Bible: A New Translation was published by Scottish theologian and minister James Moffat in 1922. Moffat’s intent was “to offer the unlearned a transcript of the Biblical literature as it lies in the light thrown upon it by modern research.” C.S. Lewis and Martin Luther King, Jr. often used Moffat’s translation. The translation was one of the first to tend toward paraphrase. It was quirky in that Moffat rearranged the order of chapters and verses based on his judgments about the content, authorship, and historicity of the texts. He also used different typefaces throughout the first five books of the Old Testament to indicate his opinions concerning a widely-held (and now outdated) theory about authorship. These quirks make it a difficult translation to use, though it is very readable and understandable. (Though the “modern” language now sounds a little dated!)

     In 1931, Edgar Goodspeed, a professor at The University of Chicago, published The Bible: An American Translation. Like Moffat, Goodspeed’s intent was to offer a translation “based upon the assured results of modern study, and put in the familiar language of today.” As the first Bible translation to use an “American” English, Goodspeed’s translation was controversial, but influenced the others in this post. It was also influential for  J.B. Phillips, who in 1958 published the very popular The New Testament in Modern English, originally written for the youth group at the church he pastored. 

     English translations of the Bible need to be accurate — true to the original text — and they need to be understandable. But it isn’t quite that easy. A translation that is very true to the original text but not understandable is not accurate, because it doesn’t communicate the message of the Scriptures to people. All translations grapple with the necessity of being understood. As the ones we’ve looked at show, all aim to keep the words of God from “going in one ear and out the other”so that we can “act on what we hear.”

     May we be faithful. 

Friday, November 12, 2021

English Bible Translations: The Twentieth Century, Part II

      Do not deceive yourselves by just listening to his word; instead, put it into practice. If you listen to the word, but do not put it into practice you are like people who look in a mirror and see themselves as they are. They take a good look at themselves and then go away and at once forget what they look like. But if you look closely into the perfect law that sets people free, and keep on paying attention to it and do not simply listen and then forget it, but put it into practice—you will be blessed by God in what you do.

-James 1:22-25 (Good News Translation, 1966)

This is the eighth post in a series on the development of the English Bible. You can read about the reasons for this series here, and the second installment on John Wycliffe here. The third post on William Tyndale is here. The fourth on The Geneva Bible is here. The fifth on the King James Version is here. The sixth on nineteenth century English translations is here. The seventh on twentieth century translations is here.

     As we noticed in the last post, twentieth century English Bible translations fall roughly into three categories: committee translations that remained more or less faithful to the wording and rhythms of the King James Version, committee translations that had little to no attachment to the King James Version tradition, and new translations by individuals  

     In the last post we looked at twentieth century translations within the King James Version “family.” In this one, we’ll take a look at several committee translations that are distant relations at best.  

     The first of these chronologically was the New English Bible, published by Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press (1961 New Testament, 1970 Old Testament). It was translated by three committees of biblical scholars and a panel of literary advisors to help shape the English. The result was a striking translation of beautiful English style that was unlike any English Bible that had come before it.

     The New English Bible was based on the theory of dynamic equivalence; instead of translating word-for-word, the translation committees used a "thought for thought" strategy, translating the meanings of phrases or whole sentences instead of individual words. C.H. Dodd, a member of the translation committee, explained that the translators "...conceived our task to be that of understanding the original as precisely as we could... and then saying again in our own native idiom what we believed the author to be saying in his.”

     As an example, John 1:1 in the Revised Standard Version says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” which is unchanged from the King James Version. The NEB, on the other hand, translates: “When all things began, the Word already was. The Word dwelt with God, and what God was, the Word was.” While it isn’t as literal a translation of the Greek, and doesn’t sound like the KJV, it’s still a very accurate and arguably more understandable translation.

     The NEB was generally well-received when it was published, but it has its drawbacks. It’s very British in style and vocabulary, which can make it less useful for Americans. The NEB also fairly frequently rearranges the order of verses and chapters to line up with the translators’ opinions about the original text, which can make it difficult to use. A 1989 revision, called the Revised English Bible, removed many of the Britishisms and most of the rearrangements of the text.

     Around the same time, in America, another attempt was being made to disentangle the English Bible from the Tyndale/King James Version style and vocabulary. This completely new translation has gone by several names: The Good News Bible, Today’s English Version, and currently The Good News Translation. It was developed by the American Bible Society to respond to a need among missionaries in Africa and the Far East for an English Bible that was easy to understand. The GNT New Testament was published in 1966. The Old Testament was published gradually between 1970 and 1975. In 1976, the full Bible was published as The Good News Bible: The Bible in Today's English Version

    The GNT also follows a thought-for thought translation philosophy. For example, Exodus 15:25 in the Revised Standard Version says: “And he cried to the Lord; and the Lord showed him a tree, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet.” The word sweet there is a good literal translation of the Hebrew, but it can be misleading to English speakers. The point isn’t that the water became sugary, but that it was no longer “bitter”and became drinkable. The Good News Translation reflects this in its translation: “Moses prayed earnestly to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood, which he threw into the water; and the water became fit to drink.” The GNT also translates “piece of wood” instead of “tree,” though the Hebrew can be translated “tree” — presumably so English speakers don’t picture Moses uprooting a whole tree and throwing it into the water! 

     Strong sales of the GNT showed that there was a market for a somewhat freer but more readable translation. Our next translation tapped into that market to ultimately become the first to displace the King James Version as the best-selling English translation in the world. The New International Version, published in 1978 by the International Bible Society (now called Biblica), was developed by a committee of 15 evangelical scholars on the principles of dynamic equivalence. In addition to using the standard scholarly Greek and Hebrew texts as the basis for their translation, the committee also consulted many other sources, especially in the Old Testament. Extensive notes on the text are included, especially where compelling alternate readings are found. 

     The NIV has been criticized (as every translation is) for some of its choices. While in some places it is free, it is often quite literal as well. Some areas of critique have included translating the word sarx in Paul’s letters as “sinful nature” instead of the more literal “flesh.” (But most English-speakers today think of the physical body when they think of “flesh,” and that’s not all that Paul has in mind when he uses the word.) In some cases, the NIV does interpret instead of simply translating, as in Luke 11:4, where the NIV has "for we also forgive everyone who sins against us" instead of the more literal "for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us” (though the context indicates that the “debt” is wrongs committed against the one praying).

     The NIV was updated in 1984, 1999, and 2011. There was also a 1996 revision in the UK that incorporated gender-neutral language, but it wasn’t published in the US due to significant opposition from evangelical groups. Many of those revisions were finally incorporated into the 2011 update and/or in 2005’s Today’s New International Version. The NIV has also been the basis for countless study Bibles and specialty Bibles. It has sold over 450 million copies, and is the best-selling English translation in the world.

     As we’ve seen, the Tyndale/KJV tradition dominated English Bible translation for centuries. Translators were wary of sounding too different from the Bible that all Protestant readers — and many Catholics — were accustomed to. But the many twentieth century English translations that updated or departed from the KJV style remind us that Bible translation should be ever-evolving. Jesus said that his words never change; but as language changes, so does the way we hear him. A Bible translation is only successful to the degree that it makes God’s unchanging words known to always-changing human beings.

Friday, November 5, 2021

English Bible Translations: The Twentieth Century

      But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if any one is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who observes his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But he who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer that forgets but a doer that acts, he shall be blessed in his doing.

-James 1:22-25 (Revised Standard Version, 1946)

This is the seventh post in a series on the development of the English Bible. You can read about the reasons for this series here, and the second installment on John Wycliffe here. The third post on William Tyndale is here. The fourth on The Geneva Bible is here. The fifth on the King James Version is here. The sixth on nineteenth century English translations is here.

     The 20th century was a good time for English Bible translations. The nineteenth century had produced great individual — if quirky — translations, though the King James Version was still the dominant English translation as the new century dawned. The Revised Version/American Standard Version had offered Bible readers the possibility of reading the Bible in more modern English grammar and style, though it had stopped short of full modernization to pay homage to King James. The 20th century, though, would bring the English Bible fully into, well, the 20th century. By the end of the century, there would be so many English Bible versions that it could be confusing. But most all were good, and many were excellent.

     Broadly, twentieth century English translations fall into three categories. There were some committee translations that remained more or less faithful to the wording and rhythms of the King James Version. There were some completely new committee translations that had little to no attachment to the King James Version tradition. And there were some new translations by individuals.  

     The first group of translations we’ll look at largely sit in the King James Version/American Standard Version stream. While the English is updated and the Greek and Hebrew texts they’re translated from are more reliable, these translations use rhythms and word choices where appropriate that echo, match, and sometimes default to the King James Version. If you’re accustomed to the King James Version, any of these will feel and sound like largely familiar territory.

     The first of these was the Revised Standard Version. Completed in 1952 (the New Testament was finished in 1946), the RSV was undertaken by the National Council of Churches, a union of 38 US denominations with the goal to produce a translation of the Bible that would "preserve all that is best in the English Bible as it has been known and used through the centuries" and "put the message of the Bible in simple, enduring words that are worthy to stand in the great Tyndale-King James tradition." 

     The RSV translation committee, a panel of 32 biblical scholars, used the standard Greek New Testament text of their day, the 17th edition of Nestle-Aland, and the standard Hebrew Masoretic text of the Old Testament. The RSV, however, was the first translation to make use of any of the recently-discovered Dead Sea Scrolls in translating the Old Testament, specifically Isaiah. The RSV also replaced archaic pronouns (“thee”/“thou”, “thy”/“thine”) with modern ones, except when referring to God.

     The RSV was widely used among mainline denominations, but was criticized by many conservative church leaders for its translation of Isaiah 7:14 — “Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanu-el.” Every other English translation to that point used the word “virgin,” which fits with its use in the Gospel of Matthew as a fulfilled prophecy of Jesus’ birth. The Hebrew word almah, though, means a young woman — who may or may not be a virgin. Some conservative preachers were so incensed by a translation that they claimed undermined the Virgin Birth of Jesus that they burned RSV’s in their pulpits. This led one of the translators to joke that, in contrast to the fate of William Tyndale, who was strangled and then burned at the stake for his work," it is happily only a copy of the translation that meets such a fate.”

     The RSV has been revised twice itself. Its first revision, also by the National Council of Churches, was completed in 1989 and published as the New Revised Standard Version. The committee worked to create a translation that was “as literal as possible, as free as necessary.” The translation became known, positively by some, negatively by others, for its use of gender-neutral language wherever the text doesn’t intend to specify gender:

KJV — “And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…’” 

NRSV — “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…’”

    A more “conservative” revision of the RSV is the English Standard Version, completed in 2001 by Crossway, the publishing arm of Good News Ministries. The ESV doesn’t use gender-neutral language as extensively as the NRSV, and has become popular among Christians who feel that the NRSV’s gender-inclusive language goes too far. The ESV was also marketed as being much more literal than versions like the NRSV and NIV, though that claim doesn’t always hold up to scrutiny. 

     In 1971, a private interdenominational Christian ministry, the Lockman Foundation, published the New American Standard Bible, a new English translation using the most current Greek and Hebrew texts but based on the wording and translation principles of the American Standard Version. The NASB translation committee was made up of scholars in the Bible and biblical languages across a spectrum of denominational backgrounds. It was offered as an alternative to the RSV. The translation produced is very literal in a “word-for-word” way that often preserves Greek and Hebrew word order, syntax, and figures of speech (“coals of fire” instead of “burning coals,” for instance). In service of this aim, it sometimes sacrifices readability. It was updated in 1995 and again in 2020 to smooth out the English, update figures of speech, and modernize archaic pronouns that refer to God.

     In 1982, with the four-year-old NIV beginning to overtake the King James Version, Thomas Nelson published the New King James Version. The intent of the translators was to update the vocabulary and grammar of the King James Version, while preserving its style and literary beauty. Unlike the other translations mentioned here, the NKJV reverted to the use of essentially the same Greek New Testament text as the KJV had, largely ignoring nearly 400 years of biblical studies and leading to the NKJV including readings that most modern translations regard as not original.

     The proliferation of English translations of the Bible in the 20th century was good for Bible readers. It also made it necessary for Bible publishers — often for-profit corporations — to differentiate themselves. They usually did this by marketing themselves as more accurate or more readable than the competition. Of course, the translators of most of these translations were all working from the same texts and with the same commitment to creating an accurate and readable Bible translation.

     We should be thankful to live in a time in which the Bible is so accessible to English-speakers. Next time we’ll look at some other more recent developments in Bible translation.