Monday, September 3, 2012

Choosing an English Translation of the Bible

In choosing which English version of the Bible to use, one is wise to consider the differences between various translations. These differences might include (1) the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, or whatever other version, upon which the translation is based; (2) the time period in the development of the English language during which the translation is made; (3) the “philosophy” of the new translation, i.e. whether the translators opted to stay as close to the original wording as possible, or whether they opted to use expressions more in keeping with current cultural usage; and (4) the theological-cultural bias of the translators. Here are some considerations:

(1) The King James translators of 1611 used the “received” or Alexandrian text of the Greek New Testament that was transmitted through the Middle Ages. Since then other, more ancient, manuscripts such as the Sinaiticus and Vaticanus have been rediscovered and made the basis for printed editions of the Greek New Testament. The Hebrew Masoretic text was stabilized in the early Middle Ages, but since the King James was issued new discoveries, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, have in some cases suggested that the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament (the “Septuagint”) may preserve an earlier version of some passages than what appears in the Masoretic text. Additionally, some English versions for Catholic use were translated from the Latin text, not directly from the Hebrew and Greek. These differences in the “original” texts used for the English translation will occasionally produce differences between translations, although in most cases the differences are not theologically significant.

(2) Obviously, the time period in which the translation is made also governs the choice of English words used, because the meaning of English words can change over time. For example, today the word “should” suggests an “ought to,” whereas originally it meant simply a future possibility. As an example, when we read Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go,” the meaning originally was not advice to bring up a child in the correct way, but a warning that a child must not be allowed to grow up however he wishes. “Prevent” today means to restrict or hold back something, whereas originally (in the King James) it meant simply to “precede,” or ”go before.” Thus when we read, in Psalm 119:147, “I prevented the dawning of the morning,” the meaning is not that the speaker kept the sun from rising, but that he arose before sunrise.

(3) The translation philosophy also produces differences between translations. Some translations try to hold closely to the original language's wording and word order, as far as that makes sense in an English sentence. Examples of such translations are the King James (KJV), the Revised Standard Version (RSV, 1952), the New American Standard Bible (NASB), and the English Standard Version (ESV). Other translations pursue the “dynamic equivalence” philosophy, trying to reproduce not the original wording but the original idea as it might be expressed in today's culture. This often results in paraphrase that doesn’t reflect the wording of the original languages. Examples are the Living Bible, the New Living Translation (NLT), and Peterson’s“The Message.” The New International Version (NIV, TNIV) seems to try to strike a medium between these two approaches.

(4) Finally, theological and cultural bias of the translators produces differences in English versions. The prominent example of this is the use of “gender-neutral” language where the original text might use a word we, today, consider “male.” Such versions will use “they,” for example, instead of “he” in a verse describing a recommended action or behavior, in order to generalize the application. (Never mind that “they” is plural, not singular!) Or they will read “brothers and sisters” where the original uses the word for “brothers,” which was understood to be all-inclusive. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) is an example of this type of translation, though the gender-neutral approach also shows up in the TNIV, NLT and elsewhere. “Liberal” denominations, obviously, prefer such versions because they fit into their particular cultural agenda.

My personal preference is to use a more literal modern version (RSV, ESV) for personal study and public reading, and to do the cultural transition to the possible meaning in today’s world through teaching and preaching. The Bible was not written in casual, conversational language but was written for public use in worship, or proclamation within an assembly of people. The writings of the prophets, for example, were largely composed orally as poetry and then presented in a public setting as a word of judgment or encouragement for the community. Jesus’ teaching was probably composed for repeated declaration in the various places he went during his ministry, which is why we have variations of the same teaching in the different Gospels. Even the letters of Paul were meant to be read in the churches and circulated among them. So the Bible, when read publicly as in a worship service, should have a certain “ring” to it that elevates it above ordinary conversational speech. The RSV-ESV type of translation is better in that setting. For individual reading to supplement that, the “dynamic equivalence” versions can be helpful as long as the reader keeps the translators’ bias and intention in mind, and does not take the translator’s wording as an indication of the precise meaning of the original text. (Admittedly, the precise meaning is, in many cases, a matter of interpretation regardless of the operative translation philosophy.)

In some ways the particular English version doesn't matter that much if the interpreter (teacher, preacher, private student, etc.) has a concept of what John Wesley called “the whole scope and tenor of Scripture.” It is always a temptation to over-interpret specific verses, or even specific words, and neglect the sweep of the Bible's overall message. That message comes through regardless of the particular translation used. Certain biblical themes need to be kept in view regardless of which passage we are trying to expound. Examples of these over-arching themes are creation-restoration, covenant, mission, promise, blessing, dominion — and, of course, these themes all overlap.

The Bible is a witness to the long-range purposes of the Creator, as expressed through these themes. Focusing on differences between translations, verse by verse or word by word, can take our eyes off the big picture, in the same way that focusing on issues that divide denominations or doctrinal traditions can divert our attention from the overall thrust of Christian faith.