Friday 23 January 2015

Which English Bible translation should I use?

We are so blessed, even spoiled shall I say, in the English speaking world with a disproportionate amount of material on every given subject in the English language. This is true also regarding Bible translations. However, we must ask whether all Bible translations are equally valid and what should I do when people challenge me regarding the translation that I or a church use?

Two issues come to mind initially.

1. What is the philosophy of the translators or the publishers for a translation?

There are three main approaches to translating which is an art. We believe that it is the original biblical manuscripts of Koine Greek, Hebrew and the small sections in the OT in Aramaic which are immediately inspired. This does not mean that we have a loss of confidence in a good English translation, but this fact must be borne in mind. My wife is Dutch and there are quite simply some words in Dutch which are very difficult to translate. You need to know the mood, the context and Dutch culture to fully understand them. The English love definitions, but some things are not understood just by definition alone. This is also true of the meaning of the biblical languages to a degree.

Here are three different approaches to Bible translation:

A. Some translations seek a literal, but readable translation and these include the ESV, the NASB, NKJV and KJV. This is the ideal in my opinion and I have never preached regularly from any other translation than these.

B. A dynamic equivalent translation includes the NIV. The problem with this approach is that the NIV will substitute words, for example adultery with sexual immorality or something like that, to help the modern reader grasp what is being taught. However, the original text has a much more precise word in mind. This has led in my view to the NIV having a "blunted sword" which lacks precision and clarity.

C. A paraphrase. Sometimes these come close to falling into rank error and a serious mishandling of the original text. For example the Message, the Living Bible and other translations like them, loosely paraphrase the Bible into ultra-contemporary language and miss the biblical ideas. For example the Message was first published in around 1999/2000, but it is already out of date in its language use.

The definite preference is for category A for a reliable translation and certainly one for use in public worship, public reading and preaching.

2. What about the so-called King James only controversy?

With the development of new translations, there has been a defence in some circles of the King James Bible. Some have claimed that the KJV is the only inspired translation in English. This has been developed further by some advocates, who seemingly infer that the NKJV is the only ideal translation for the church. Well time does not permit an extensive assessment here, but I recommend a book by James White called: "The King James Only Controversy: Can you trust the Modern Translations?".

Often in the Christian church fundamentalist assertions are made which sound good, but they cannot stand up to the test of rigorous scrutiny. The KJV and NKJV use an old Greek manuscript called the Textus Receptus which was compiled by the Dutch humanist Erasmus. Some claim that this is the only reliable Greek manuscript. However, since this early 16th Century Greek text was compiled, there have been huge manuscript discoveries which make for a much more enhanced Greek text (Note the 27th Edition of the Nestle Aland Greek Text). Fundamentalism often makes assertions based on guilt and this camp can often assert that unless you follow them at each and every point, then you are disobeying God. It may sound plausible, but it can lead to guilt-ridden untested assumptions.

When the ESV came out I was delighted. I had been using the NKJV for preaching for a long time. R. C. Sproul asserted somewhat enthusiastically that the ESV was "the translation he had waited for all of his life". After using the ESV for almost 10 years I largely agree. I do not agree with the ESV's translation of the phrase "only Son" such as in John 3:16 and elsewhere, when the original Greek word there should be translated as "the only begotten Son". But, this is why we need ministers trained in the original languages.

I hope that this post is of some help. My aim is always pastoral in these blog posts and sometimes my goal as here, is to "massage wrinkles" and avoid unnecessary divisions in the body of Christ, ones which need not be. As ever, feel free to put forward comments on the blog and put a differing point if needed.

Revelation 22:18-19 "I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book".

KJV = King James Version
NKJV = New King James Version
NASB = New American Standard Bible
ESV = English Standard Version

(Note that a major oversight in the KJV only argument, is that truth must be communicated in the language of the day in a given situation. The KJV is archaic Elizabethan English which no one speaks today, except in parts of Yorkshire :-) ).

(A second Note: I have no issue with anyone preaching from the NKJV, NASB or ESV in public worship. But I will push back strongly when people try to infer a superiority of any one of these fine translations against another, in a way that is divisive or one that undermines the true unity of the church).

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