Thursday, September 25, 2014


“Translations are like wives; the more beautiful they are, the less apt they are to be faithful; the more faithful they are, the less apt they are to be beautiful.”
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.)

Uni became a believer at an early age, and at the age of 11 she began reading through her Bible once a year and has ever since. When I came to faith in Christ at 18, she purchased me a Bible. It was a King James Version with all the “thees” and “thous.” I began reading it immediately and finished in about 3 months. I’ve been at it ever since and wore out that first Bible and a few more since.

I now have many Bibles (in Greek, Hebrew and English) which I read and study. My favorite is my Greek New Testament. It’s a large print Nestle-Aland critical text. The margins are marked with cross references and notes. The words have been colored by pencils according to a code known only to me. The edges are dirty. Some pages are torn and taped. The original cover is gone and replaced with a simple glued on piece of leather. It has tire tracks on a few pages. (I had left it on top of my car one morning after having coffee with a friend. I had just pulled on to the highway and got up to speed when I heard a thump, looked in the mirror and saw my New Testament being run over by a pickup truck following. I retrieved it still in mostly one piece.)
I love this book, as well as my other Bibles. They are my friends. Through the years I believe the Bible has been the major factor in my growth as a Christian. (I’m not there yet!) Though I have read many books that have added to my knowledge and growth, this is the one by which all others are judged.

I have received many questions regarding Bible translations, so I feel I need to give a few thoughts on the topic.

The Bible which we Christians believe is the Word of God was originally written in three languages.  The part we refer to as the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, the language of ancient Israel.  Modern Hebrew is spoken and read today by Israelis and many other Jews.  Some small portions of the Old Testament were also written in Aramaic, a related language.  Aramaic was the language spoken by Jesus and His disciples.  By His day it had become the common language of the Middle East.  It is still spoken today by a small number of people.

The portion we refer to as the New Testament was written in Greek, the language of the eastern Mediterranean world of its day, the language of the eastern half of the Roman Empire.  New Testament Greek is often referred to as koine (common) Greek.  It was the language spoken and written by Paul, Luke and most of those in the early church as it spread westward.

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 publishing 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 translations are best?  Which ones can we trust?  And what about my dear old KJV?

The Septuagint

Well, first of all, we should note that translation is not a new phenomenon.  The Bible was being translated even 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 or MT).
n  The LXX sometimes agrees with, sometimes disagrees with the MT.  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, although they occasionally translated or paraphrased the Hebrew Scriptures themselves.
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 by the writers of 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.  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 KJV translators, while scholars of ancient Greek, had little knowledge of koine.  Since their time, thousands of papyri and potsherds have been discovered, throwing much light on the language.
n  Many of our English word meanings have changed since 1611.

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.  The one I use now is the English Standard Version (ESV). For years my favorite was the New American Standard Bible (NASB) which I first met over forty-five years ago.  I still believe it is one of the most accurate translations available.  It is getting a bit old and has been updated, though many still 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.  My knowledge of Hebrew is not that good, so I use a double column edition - Hebrew/English.

I believe that much of the frustration felt by many is the question, “Which translation(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 continuum 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 as well as for clarification.  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.  We should be careful not to quote paraphrases as authoritative.  (I have occasionally been frustrated by students who insist, "My Bible says ..." when quoting a paraphrase.)

Here are a few of the translations I am familiar with, from the most literal to the most paraphrastic.
  • The English Standard Version (ESV).  This is the English Bible Uni and I now use the most often in our daily Bible reading and study.  It is a word-for-word translation following more in the tradition of the RSV and is more readable than the NASB.
  • The New American Standard Bible (NASB).  This is the English Bible most familiar to me.  It is still, I believe, one of 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.
  • The Holman Christian Standard Bible (CSB).  I have not read all of 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 and ESV, but with a bit more updated language.
  • The Revised Standard Version.  The RSV never received acceptance with evangelicals, because of a perceived “liberal bias” though it is quite accurate.  However it too is dated, though the New RSV has brought it up to date.
  • The New King James Version (NKJV).  This one has its own unique problems. Though a quite accurate translation, it uses the same texts that the original KJV was translated from, and sometimes sacrifices readability simply to keep the “feel” of the KJV.
  • The New International Version.  The NIV is extremely popular, reads well and is reasonably literal, though its smoothing out of rough texts can cause some misunderstandings.
  • The Tanakh.  This is the accepted Jewish version, issued by the Jewish Publication Society.  It reads quite smoothly and I'd compare it to the NIV.  It of course only contains the scriptures accepted in Judaism - our Old Testament. The Christian reader should not be surprised to find differences of interpretation in some areas.
  • The Contemporary English Version (CEV) is a translation designed for those with limited reading skills, especially for reading aloud.  Though usually quite literal it uses a limited vocabulary and simpler sentence structure.
  • The New Living Translation (NLT) 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.
  • The Good News Bible (GNB) also known as Today's English Version (TEV) 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.
  • The Living Bible is a one man paraphrase and, as far as I know, makes no claims at being a translation.
  • The Message is a popular paraphrase and is easy reading, but the reader should beware and compare it with more literal translations.  One complaint:  In every other English translation the Hebrew name YHWH is translated LORD (all caps).  For some reason the Message translates it GOD (all caps).  This can cause great confusion especially when reading aloud.
  • The NET Bible - New English Translation - is in a class by itself and does not fit neatly into the above continuum. Though available in paper it was originally designed as an electronic translation for use on the internet.  It is quite literal, but its striking feature is the extensive notes on translation - well over 1/2 of every printed page.  It is an excellent study Bible and can be used as one would use a commentary.  I use it often to check on my own exegesis.
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 half a century.

Revised and expanded, 3/8/2017.


John Kulp said...

Good post. I love most aspects of the value of having better and varying translations, with one glaring exception. For me, the many translations have reduced the common bond of memorizing scripture. The scriptures I memorized in my youth were all King James, and I could quote those in unison with a wide variety of other believers. Today my New American Standard memorization seems more difficult and less universal. I think it has led me to more meditation and discussion on concepts and contexts with a general knowledge of where they appear, and less on my memory of word for word memorized scripture.

With a NASB Bible in my iPhone including search and linked Greek text I can always find and review the passages I am thinking about very quickly.

And, I'm not sure if that move away from word for word memorization is good or bad.

Any comment?

Bill Ball said...

I must confess that I have made relatively little effort at word for word memorization. The passages that I do have in my memory bank got there from familiarity, not from conscious effort.
I fear too that the use of electronic devices in place of our brains is not necessarily advantageous.