Attributed to Edward Fitzgerald, translator of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
I know the above quote sounds sexist to our 21st century ears, but I believe it gets the point across. (Of course, my wife Uni is an exception, both beautiful and faithful.)
I have received many questions regarding Bible translations, a few in just the last few days, so I feel I need to say a few things on the topic.
It seems that nowadays we are flooded with a plethora of new Bible translations, as well as updated older ones. Add to these the specialty Bibles – Bibles with notes which relate to a particular theological or social or occupational perspective. And no Bible teacher or preacher who is of any worth can get along without a “study” Bible with his or her notes to guide the reader. And, of course, each of these specialty Bibles is published in a number of translations.
It’s confusing and, I fear, discouraging to many readers. So what do we do? Where do we begin? How do we know which ones are best? And what about my dear old KJV?
Well, first of all, we should note that translation is not a new phenomenon. The Bible was being translated before it was completed.
To my knowledge, the earliest translation of the Hebrew Old Testament is the one known as the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX). This was a translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek. There are different theories and accounts of it origin, but we do know that it was completed by the second century B.C. That’s 200 years earlier than the events of the New Testament and its writing. The LXX is important to us for a number of reasons.
n We have manuscripts of the LXX that, until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) in 1947, were hundreds of years older than any existing Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament (known as the Masoretic Text).
n The LXX sometimes agrees with, sometimes disagrees with the Masoretic Text. In some of those areas of disagreement it agrees with the DSS.
n The LXX was frequently the text quoted by the writers of the New Testament which was written in Greek.
n The theological terms, even the names of God, used in the New Testament, are the terms and names used in the LXX.
n While we cannot claim that the text of the LXX is inspired, I believe that its use in the New Testament gives legitimacy to the use of translations.
The King James Version
As far as our dear old KJV, this is the Bible I first read (MY BIBLE). I read it at least a dozen times and have quite a few portions of it committed to memory. But I no longer use it except for occasional reference (I have a copy of the original 1611 edition on my desk) for the following reasons.
n It is one among many translations and was so even in its own day. Though many refer to it as “the Authorized Version,” it was authorized by an English King, not directly by God.
n The language, though it may sound majestic, is simply archaic. The Bible was originally written in the language of the people who could read it at that time. The New Testament especially, was written in koine or common Greek, the language that ordinary people spoke. And the KJV was written in the language spoken by the English speaking people of its day.
n It was translated from later Hebrew and Greek texts, the texts that were available in its day. Since then many older manuscripts have been discovered. These are the texts from which most of our modern translations are made.
n The NKJV, though a quite accurate translation, uses the same old texts that the original KJV was translated from, and sometimes sacrifices readability simply to keep the “feel” of the KJV.
Modern Translations and Paraphrases
Even though I do most of my study in the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament, I also use English translations. My favorite is the New American Standard Bible (NASB) which I first met forty years ago. I still believe it is the most accurate translation available. It is getting a bit old and has been updated, but many find it stiff. It was the Bible used in the Bible Study Method classes I taught at the College of Biblical Studies in Houston, because of its accuracy and because we wanted every student to be reading from the same text.
I also use the Jewish Publication Society’s edition of the Tanakh and I am currently reading the New Living Translation.
I believe that much of the frustration felt by many is the question, “Which one(s) can I believe?” If I can be a voice of hope, I can confidently say that when it comes to the basic truths of the Gospel, no translation will lead us astray. There are, as far as I know, no “conspiracies” to deceive us as some die-hard King Jamesers would have us worry about.
One of the most important considerations to note is that translations could be placed along a line from the extremely accurate to the extremely paraphrastic. For purposes of study, I believe that we should look to the more literal translations, even though they may not be easy reading.
Use the paraphrases for rapid reading. Many read like novels. I would cautiously recommend them for first-time readers. Paraphrases often attempt to replace ancient Hebrew or Greek idioms with the idioms that are more easily understood by the modern English reader, and we should remember that while this may aid in our understanding of obscure ideas, it can also introduce ideas that are foreign to the context.
Here are a few of the translations I am familiar with, from the most literal to the most paraphrastic.
n The New American Standard Bible. It is still, I believe, the most accurate, though it’s growing old and weary. One of its best features is that it attempts to consistently translate each Greek or Hebrew word by the same English word.
n The Holman Christian Standard Bible. I have not read this one, but my wife Uni has. We have had many discussions on its merits and it seems in most areas to be as accurate as the NASB, but with a bit more updated language.
n The Revised Standard Version. The RSV never received acceptance with evangelicals, because of a perceived “liberal bias” though it is quite accurate. Though it too is getting dated; the New RSV should bring it up to date.
n The New King James Version. This one has its own unique problems (see above).
n The New International Version. The NIV is extremely popular, reads well and is quite literal, though its smoothing out of rough texts can cause some misunderstandings.
n The New Living Translation seems to be an attempt at bridging the gap between a paraphrase and a translation. It is easy reading though and has clarified a few matters for me.
n The Good News Bible was popular back in the 70’s, but seems to have disappeared. It was translated using the concept of “Dynamic Equivalence,” the use of modern English idioms for ancient Greek or Hebrew ones, sometimes with humorous results. I love it.
n The Living Bible is a one man paraphrase and, as far as I know, makes no claims at being a translation.
n The Message is a popular paraphrase and is apparently easy reading, but the reader should beware and compare it with more literal translations.
The above comments are not meant to be scholarly, but come from my own experience reading, translating and comparing, as well as attempting to be of help to those who read. I believe I have a fair knowledge of both the Hebrew and Greek texts and have been reading and studying the Word for well over a half a century.