Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Bible Versions

I've had a couple of conversations with people lately on the subject of Bible translations, so I thought it might be profitable to share some of my thoughts on the different translations, and which I think are the best ones. I know this is a sticky subject, and I'm going to try to be as charitable to all sides as I possibly can. In my Sunday School class and church, we have probably a half dozen translations on an average Sunday. I don't see anything wrong at all with this; in fact, in some cases, I think it can be very good to help understand a passage better. So I'm going to lay out some of the issues I see with Bible translations, and some of the things that might be good for you to think about if you're considering buying another Bible.
There are two major issues to think about when you get ready to buy a new Bible: accuracy and readability. The best Bible translations are a combination of highly readable and highly accurate, and I think there are several translations that fit that bill.

There are several things to think about when you're looking for the most accurate translation of the Bible. One is how the Bible was translated, and the other is from which texts the Bible was translated. The King James Version and the New King James Versions of the Bible, along with most of the versions that are more than a couple of hundred years old, were translated mainly from the Latin Vulgate Bible. At the time of their translation, these were the best texts of the Bible we had, and they are still very good. But since that time, older versions of particular texts have been discovered. These newly discovered, older texts, are remarkably similar to the ones we had before, but here and there, you will find some textual differences. Most of them can be accounted for through transcription errors (we didn't have copying machines back then), but some of them appear to be things that might have actually been added later, after the apostles wrote them. In most of those cases, they appear to have been added to help add to the understanding of a particular passage.  Nevertheless, in some of the newer versions of the Bible, you will find verses or parts of verses missing that were in older versions like the KJV. That's because they just can't be found in the older manuscripts.

Now, before we go any further, understand that very few of these "missing verses," actually change the meaning of the particular texts. And none of them take away any major doctrines from the Bible itself. If they've been taken from one place, don't worry. You can find them somewhere else. Whether you read a King James or an NIV, all of the doctrines of the faith are in there.

So the first thing you need to decide when you're looking for a Bible is whether or not you would prefer something translated from the Vulgate Bible, or something that was translated from the more newly-discovered, older texts. I believe that is a question that is up to each particular person to answer, based on your comfort level. If you grew up on the King James, and feel comfortable with that, and are uncomfortable with some of those parts of the KJV being missing from newer translations, you probably want to stick with the KJV, or if you want something more readable, the New King James Version.

If however, you believe that the older texts probably provide the most accurate rendering of what the apostles originally wrote, then you can begin looking at some of the newer translations. But there are several things to think about when you begin to do that. Specifically, how were these newer versions actually translated? There are two ways to do it:

1 - Word for Word - in this situation, the translators did their very best to capture what the original Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew texts were saying, by being as literal as possible with their translations. The upside to this it is more likely to be an accurate rendering of what the originals actually said. The downside is that sometimes things get lost in the translation, because languages don't always translate perfectly word for word. Here's a non-biblical example. In French, the phrase "com ci, com ca," literally means "like this, like that." But if you took French, you know that it doesn't mean that at all. If you ask me how I am, and I say "com ci, com ca," I don't mean, "like this, like that." I mean, "I'm doing ok."
Word for word translations include the King James, New King James, New American Standard, English Standard Version, and Holman Christian Standard Bible.

2 - Thought for thought - in this situation, the translators do their best to capture exactly what the originals meant, even if it doesn't perfectly capture what they said. The upside is, generally speaking, these translations are much more readable. The downside is, depending on how far you go with this process, it can become highly interpretive, and instead of saying what the originals say, the translators say what they think the originals were trying to say. Thought for thought translations include the NIV and TNIV, the New Living Translation and Living Translation, and the Message. Now, the NIV is much more literal than is the Message, so there is some variation on just how "thought for thought" a translation can be. The NIV is true "thought for thought." The Message is basically a paraphrase, based on what the author thinks.
I’ve separated these Bibles into two categories, but it’s probably better to put them on a continuum, from most literal to least literal. Here’s a graphic from Zondervan that does just that! (click to enlarge)

So now you have to decide which of these ways of translating the Bible the best way is. I can see arguments for both sides, but at the end of the day, I choose what I believe is the accuracy of word-for-word translation over the readability of thought-for-though translations. But that doesn't mean I think you need to throw out your NIV Bibles. There is plenty of room for weighing all of the factors here and coming to a conclusion that one of any number of translations might be best for you. For example, based on all of the factors listed above, here are my favorites.

Group A - English Standard Version, New American Standard Bible, and Holman Christian Standard Bible

I personally use the
ESV. I’ve been using it for several years now, and really like it. I find it to be the best combination of accuracy and readability that I’ve found. But I also really like the HCSB. If I hadn’t been using the ESV for several years, and was looking for a new Bible translation, I would seriously consider it. The NASB is also a very good, literal translation, that might be slightly more difficult than the ESV or the HCSB. The ESV and HCSB also have excellent study Bibles, the two best I’ve seen.

Group B - King James Version, New King James Version
I will go as far as saying that the King James might be the greatest Bible translation of all time. It’s stood the test of 400 years of time, and has been used greatly by God during that time. The text of the KJV is highly accurate, using the texts that it uses. I find it to be a very difficult read though, because it was written in the language of its time and place, which of course is 17th century
England. The New King James is much easier, but is still retains some of the clunkier King James sentence structure. I also believe there are some places where newly discovered, older manuscripts improve upon the KJV manuscripts. If you are looking for a new Bible, I wouldn’t recommend the King James, for those reasons. If you already own a King James, and like it, I also wouldn’t recommend changing, especially since that is what you will hear from the pulpit in our church. I know it helps some people to be able to keep up with the pastor that way.

Group C - NIV and New Living Translation

Both of these translations are very readable translations, but I have some concerns about the thought for thought translation process. Nevertheless, I think both can be highly profitable for study. I used the NIV for years, and it was very helpful to me. Reed's first Bible was a New Living Transation, and I found it to be very readable. Let me also note that the NIV was revised last year, and the translators used more “gender inclusive” language. Here’s an example: where the original texts say “brothers,” the NIV now says “brothers and sisters.” When “brothers” was referred to in this way during the time of the Bible, it included women too, so the purpose of this is to help people understand that. But there are a lot of concerns, which I share, about the idea of adding things to the original word. If you are looking for a new Bible, I might not recommend the NIV, but if you already have one, I don’t think it’s worth changing over, either.

Group D - The Message

You will find people who absolutely love The Message, because it is very readable and engaging, and in many places, brings out the meaning of passages very well. However, there are places where you have to understand that the translator, Eugene Peterson, is really giving his thoughts on what he believes the passage means. It's much more subjective than any of the other translations you would find. I would use it only as a supplemental Bible, as a help when you come upon more difficult passages in other versions.

In an average week, I will probably study out of 6 or 7 of these translations, comparing them to one another to try to get a better idea of what the passage is saying, and which of the translations gets it most right. I use the more literal translation for my primary study, and use the more thought for thought translations when I need to understand a passage better. A great place to do this is www.biblegateway.com.

This was not an attempt to cover every issue of Bible translation, so I'm sure there are something I left out. If you'd like to ask questions, feel free. Otherwise, take what you need from this, and discard the rest. I hope this helps you the next time you go to buy a Bible.