Picking a Bible
There are two kinds of decisions that every Bible Translation has to make:
1. What is the best text to be translated?
2. What is the best way to translate the text?
1. We do not have any of the original texts of the Bible – there is no copy of Genesis with Moses’ signature at the bottom. To find the most accurate text, scholars engage in “Textual Criticism”. They compare various copies and translations to determine, where the versions differ, what is the most original.
Compare the last phrase of the Lord’s Prayer in the KJV and the ESV.
King James Version – Matthew 6:13
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil:
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.
English Standard Version – Matthew 6:13
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
The King James Version was translated in 1611, in the nearly 400 years since we have discovered many older manuscripts than what was available at that time. So we can see that the last part of Matthew 6:13 was most likely added later to put a “nicer” ending on the Lord’s prayer. (Check out I Chronicles 29:11)
Most of the textual variants are not important. We have about 99.9% certainty as to what should be the text.
2. There are schools of thought on Bible translation: Literal, Free or Dynamic Equivalent.
Literal: the translators attempt to keep as close as possible to the exact words and phrases of the original language. They will allow the “historical distance” between then and now to stay.
Compare NIV the KJV and NASB on Psalm 48:1. The KJV is the most literal in saying “mountain of his holiness.” But the NIV and NASB change that to “His holy mountain”, because that is how we say it in English.
Literal versions include American Standard Version , New American Standard Version, English Standard Version and the King James.
Free: the translators attempt to translate the ideas from one language to another with less concern with using the exact words of the original. A Free translation, is sometimes called a “paraphrase” and tries to eliminate as much of the historical distance between then and now as possible. For example the Living Bible translated Psalm 119:105 with “flashlights” and Genesis 18:6 with “pancakes.”
Free Translations include The Living Bible, The Message, The New Living Translation, The Good News Bible and Phillip’s Translation.
Dynamic Equivalent: The translators try to translate the words, ideas and grammar of the old language into the form in the new that gives the best equivalent meaning. It is not word for word. It is not a free paraphrase, it is an idea by idea translation.
Compare 2 Corinthians 5:16a in NIV, KJV and NASB.
Dynamic Equivalent versions include the New International Version, The New Century Version, The New English Bible and the Revised English Bible.
Literary: These are midway between those trying to be literal and those in the dynamic eqivalent category. The New Revised Version states as a goal: “to be as literal as possible and as free as necessary.” As much of the word and structure of the original as possible is retained. When that conflicts with how English is read, it is modified.
An illustration of his is the use of masculine pronouns in generic situations. To say, “Dear Brothers” might mean both men and women in the context, so a literal rendering would be misleading.
Literary Versions include the Revised Standard, the New Revised Standard and teh Revised English.
3. Each Translation will make decisions on such matters as
1. Weights, Measures and Money. Compare Isaiah 5:10 and Matthew 18:24,28 in several translations.
2. Euphemisms. On sensitive matters euphemisms are used. I Cor 7:1 (NIV, GNB and LB translate “marry”; NASB “have relations”)
3. Vocabulary. Paul uses the Greek word “sarx”. It literally means “flesh” but it means often something more like “sinful human nature.” (See NIV on I Cor 1:26, 2 Cor 5:16, Romans 1:3 and Col 1:22 – all “sarx”)
4. What Translation should I use?
Gordon Fee and Douglass Stewart (“How to Read the Bible for All it is Worth”, Zondervan, p.28ff) suggest that you use more than one translation:
As a regular Bible for study and reading, pick one that is Dynamic Equivalent (NIV, GNB) or one that is more Literal (NAS, KJV, RSV) A Free translation is not a good study bible.
Add to your reading a second translation. If you are using a Literal, add a dynamic Equivalent, or vice versa. This is a way to get a new perspective on the Bible – but if it is a Free translation, make sure you check what you find against a more literal version.
One of these should be a study bible (NIV Study Bible, Harpers Study Bible, Student Bible, etc). A Study Bible offers you additional tools such as maps, charts, a way to look up key words, a way to cross reference similar passages, historical background and explanatory footnotes.
UPDATE – January 2012
I need to add some comments about the English Standard Version (ESV) and the New NIV.
The ESV strives to be as literal as possible while being readable. It has become very popular in Evangelical church circles, and for many through the ESV Study Bible.
Positives: Unlike some “literal” translations, the ESV does recognize paragraphs and poetic structure. I never liked the NASB’s format of puling every verse to the side, as if the bible came divided that way. It is usually readable, and they do try to retain continuity in translating the same words the same way. For example it uses “keep, keeps and keeper” in Psalm 121 for all the uses of the same hebrew root. the NIV is more free and you can miss the repetition.
I also like the ESV Literary Study Bible – it gives a minimum of literary form and outline information and lets you read the text yourself. I did scan the ESV Study Bible at the book store and found it heavy and overly laden with comments, so that the page I was reading was about 25% bible and 75% comment. I prefer a leaner bible and a couple of good reference works on the side – like a Bible dictionary and a commentary.
Negatives: The language is frequently rather poor English style, and somewhat dated sounding. This reflects the desire to be more literal, but also an older slightly dated English that the one I hear in daily life. I find that the editors have worked too hard to keep the male gender intact – often the male in Greek or Hebrew are generic, and translating male pronoun for male pronouns from original to English add s the English gender baggage to the text. Men may not notice, but women will. (Confession, I like the NRSV for this reason.)
Conclusion: I use the ESV as a good manuscript study text – it is a good source for seeing connections and sensing the structure of the original language. It is only OK for general reading, and I don not preach from it very often, unless my default NIV (old version) is inadequate. That is partly because our “Pew Bibles” are NIV.
The NEW NIV: The NIV was updated in 2011, so if you want to read the one you are familiar with that is called the NIV 84. I have not yet read the new NIV, but it does attempt to be more gender generic – that is to translate into
English as neutral when the original may have been formally masculine but was understood as generic. English worked that way until maybe 1968 and thereafter we have moved on. So I do not have a problem with the approach. There are a number of other updates and I have not read enough to draw any conclusions. You can follow the “translation” tag for posts on this question here – translations
Exercise: compare 2 or more translations of
(try this on http://www.biblegateway.com)