My last blog talked about getting a couple of new Bibles for Christmas even though I already have a bunch. The three reasons were that sometimes they wear out, sometimes a particular translation helps with a particular function, and sometimes it is just a matter of convenience. So in the next few blogs I am going to do a tour of the Bibles we have around since people are often interested in what the differences are.
Let me start with the big picture. I think of a translation as being like a map of the world in the sense that the world is in three dimensions but maps are in two dimensions. That is why all maps are a distortion of reality. Some make Greenland look as a large as South America, others make the countries at the equator look bigger than they actually are. Now we can either get frustrated by the fact that our maps are not perfect or we can be happy that we have lots of maps available that are perfectly adequate for what we need to do. The distortion on your map is not the reason you missed a turn or got lost the last time you went driving.
Bible translations, at the most basic, have to choose between trying to translate the original Hebrew or Greek word with a single English word each time so as to be as literal as possible or trying to capture the thought the author was trying to express and expressing it as clearly as possible in contemporary English. Both involve some distortion of the original. But the bottom line is that all of the translations I will talk about are, on the whole, good translations. As long as you are able to understand the language a major translation is using, it will be adequate for clearly communicating the main themes of the Bible. What they all have in common is far more important than the differences among them. Sometimes with “translation wars” we emphasize what makes our translation better to the point where minor differences are overshadowing the common truth that they all proclaim. When we get to heaven and are rewarded by our Father, I don’t think “nice translation choice” will be in the top 10 for any of us. Far more important is really believing the gospel and orienting our lives in gratitude to obey what we understand. Our mistakes in applying the Bible often have far more to do with the way we read it than with the translation.
So with all that as a disclaimer, there really are differences. Airline pilots use different maps than the ones in your car atlas because for the task at hand they need to minimize a particular type of distortion. In the next post I will start breaking down our inventory and the functions the different translations have.
Bible Translations, NIV and RSV
The translation I have used most is the NIV. I grew up with it, so it is familiar and it is the most commonly used one in evangelical circles so when I teach or preach it is the least distracting for the most people. People who use other translations even though the preaching is from the NIV are generally people who like comparing translations anyway. I am not sure if it is the “best” translation. Sometimes things become the standard because they are in the right place at the right time. In the 1970s there was a strong demand for a more readable translation then the King James which was written in the early 17th century and was not based on the earliest original manuscripts. Then once people get attached to something it is hard to change. Most of the scripture I have memorized is in the NIV and that is one of the main reasons for being reluctant to change. The NIV is somewhere in the middle of the translation continuum between being ultra-literal and being a mere paraphrase. It flows well for reading aloud and silently and generally does a very good job of capturing the author’s point.
The only stretch where I was not primarily an NIV person was in college and grad school. I wanted a more literal translation but thought the New American Standard Bible (NASB) was too stilted for every day use. I also wanted a study bible. So I ended up using the Revised Standard Version which was the most common alternative to the King James before the NIV came out. At the time I also remember wondering whether the NIV was “biased” in that evangelicals translated it in such a way to cover up “problem” passages. When I moved to Iowa I switched back to the NIV. It is easier to read and memorize and easier to teach from. I also decided my fears were overblown. I almost never use my duct tape repaired RSV study bible anymore but keep it around for sentimental reasons and because when I went to Zambia I was trying to take easy to read translations.
More literal Bible translations
The biggest weaknesses of the NIV come from the fact that it is not as literal. Sometimes I think that it interprets things wrongly. I don’t, for example, like “sin nature” as a translation of a Greek word that means “flesh” in Romans 6-8. I understand why they did it. They didn’t want people to think God hates bodies or that we should hate our bodies. But in the process they make it hard to see how much “body talk” is going on in those chapters. Paul talks about bodies, flesh, and “members” (body parts) constantly. I discussed this in a talk I did for Salt Company in November. Sometimes there is a repeated word or phrase that an author uses and if the word is translated several different ways you won’t notice it as much. The word “walk” in Ephesians is a key word that the NIV translates “live a life.” Thus “walk in love” becomes “live a life of love” and so on. “Live a life” is a more natural way of saying it in contemporary English, but sometimes that phrasing seems forced and so the NIV picks another one. All of this is why when I am teaching a passage I try to look at one or more literal translations.
For a long time my main Bible for this purpose was the New American Standard Bible, which is as literal as they come. I still think it is a very good one for that purpose. When Anastasia does “Precept” studies, she uses our NASB. But there are a few other options now that I like as well. The two new Bibles I got for Christmas were the English Standard Version (ESV) Study Bible and a $5 Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB). I got the ESV because 1) My current study bible is falling apart 2) A number of people at my church are using it now and so I wanted to be more familiar with it and 3) there is some logic to having a more literal translation when I am in “study” mode. I am going to be teaching a course this semester on the Old Testament and am planning to go through the ESV Study Bible to check it out as I do so. I had a paperback copy of the HCSB but I gave it away in Zambia. I like it because it feels like someone took the NIV as a baseline and then make it a little more literal. “Flesh” is “flesh” and “walk” is “walk.” It also has extensive notes on alternate translations of verses. Thi s is the translation I used for teaching Romans 7 last semester because it was literal enough to get the points across but still as readable as possible. I picked the ESV over it for the study bible not so much because the translation is better but more because it looked like the notes, maps, etc. for the ESV were better.
Less literal Bible translations
You reap what you sow. Even in Iowa, no one actually talks about reaping and sowing. They talk about planting and harvesting. It is sometimes hard for those of us who have been hearing the Bible for a long time to notice ways in which the language is very different from how we talk now. The less literal translations give themselves even more freedom to understand what the author was trying to say and say it the way we would now. Compare the beginning of Hebrews 8:1 “The point of what we are saying is this” (NIV) with “Here is the main point” (NLT). Honestly, I think the NLT is better here even though the NIV is closer to the original Greek. Free translations are best when you are simply listening to the Bible rather than doing close study of a particular passage. Every night before bed, I read to Anastasia from the Bible and the NLT has become our preferred translation for that. Sometimes the NLT will even throw in a little detail that is not in the text because it is something that would have been obvious to the original audience. Several of these examples were given to me by my father in law who also likes this translation. There are some other good ones as well. I gave away my Contemporary English Version (CEV) which is similar and has worked on getting the cadence and word order right for oral reading. Right now the difference between them isn’t enough for me to justify going out and buying another one. I think I also gave away my copies of The Message. It is one of the most interesting but has the disadvantage that it was all done by one person and is very free . Think of it as Eugene Peterson’s commentary on the Bible with no explanation for why he understands the passages the way he does. That said, it is very good. If there are parts of the Bible that are hard for you to understand and so you never read them, it might be worth trying again with one of these translations. I still have both the CEV and The Message for the New Testament as part of a parallel Bible I will talk about later.
Misc. Bible translations and software
I haven’t discussed the King James in this series of blogs. I do use it sometimes, mainly for historical purposes. For my job I actually read a lot of 17th century English prose, which happens to be what the KJV is. So when I read works from that time that reference the Bible (and the generally did so a lot back then) the KJV is what they tend to quote. So oddly enough I use the KJV for work more often than for personal use. I can read that style of English fairly well, but it makes reading the Bible seem like work and the KJV is not based on the more recent manuscripts. Sometimes I use the Strong numbers that go with the KJV to look up a greek word using my Bible software.
The main Bible software program I have, Logos, I got probably 12 years ago for about $70 and it has been one of my best investments. I don’t know if Logos is the best value for the money or not, but it gives me the NIV, the old American Standard, and the KJV indexed to the greek and hebrew originals. I can search words and phrases and it has some other tools that I occasionally use. I sometimes use e-sword which has the ESV available for free and some other nice free downloads.
If I had known where things were going with Bible software, I would not have invested in some of the books I own. I have a NT word study, a couple of greek new testaments, a parallel greek-english NT, and a greek lexicon (dictionary). All of this I could have on a CD if I were willing to pay for it. Eventually I will probably break down and upgrade, by I keep assuming that some next generation software will come out so I am waiting.
I also have some parallel Bibles. One is a NT only that has 8 translations side by side (4 per page on facing pages). It has the New King James, the ESV, the HCSB, the NIV, the TNIV, the NLT, the New Century, and The Message. If I could replace the New Century with the NASB it would be perfect. There is also a parallel bible that is NASB, NIV, KJV, and NLT that I like. I don’t own it, but I have it checked out from Parks Library most of the time and it sits in my study room at the library. The big downside to it is how much it weighs, but I never have to carry it so that is not a problem. If you have an ISU card you can recall it if you would like to use it.
I think that is a good overview of the Bibles I use. Let me conclude this particular series by emphasizing something I said at the beginning, which is that what the translations have in common is far more important than the differences. With so many good translations around, the real question is how we respond to what we read.