The first thing that happened in the history of the church was translation (Acts 2:1-11)…translating the New Testament is, in fact, something each generation ought to be doing.1 [N.T. Wright]
We discussed why this series of essays is important in light of modern scholarly attacks on the Bible here.
We discussed why it is reasonable to conclude the Protestant Old Testament has the right 39 books here.
We discussed why we can be confident our 27 New Testament books are the ones God wants us to have here.
We discussed how we can be confident that the content of our NT books is correct in spite of delays in writing them, gaps in time in manuscripts and mistakes in manuscripts here.
Christian Unity Lost In Translation
Since the Bible was not written in English, or any modern language, this step to producing a Bible is extremely important.
This article will be different than the other six in one key way: the other six have issues more commonly attacked by opponents of the Bible while the issue of translation has caused fights and quarrels between Christians themselves. There are enough arguments out there about translation of the Bible to make your head spin and anyone with a Christian background like mine is not unfamiliar with the king of all Christian debates (at least in recent history): the debate over the King James Version of the Bible. I don’t aim to make your head spin. I aim more to explain as much as I can with facts, although my opinion on some issues will be impossible to withhold. I really do not mind debating either, but know the point of this series is to defend the Bible, not create conflict within Christianity.
Received Text, Critical Text, What’s the Difference?
Since almost all Bibles use the same source (the Masoretic Text)2 for the Old Testament, I will speak to the differences in modern translations in what manuscripts they use for the New Testament. That is where the bulk of the translation conflicts lie.
As mentioned in our last essay, there are about 5,800 Greek manuscripts we have with which to work. But that does not mean every translation uses the same exact manuscripts as a starting point. Most famously, the KJV uses a handful of manuscripts to translate the New Testament that became known as the Received Text, often referred to by its Latin name, the Textus Receptus.3 This is what my favorite historical Christian, Erasmus (which I will name my first son if I can wear my wife down), had to work with in the early 16th century in compiling a New Testament4.
Taking advantage of more and earlier and (to many scholars) better manuscripts, modern translations use a more eclectic collection from which to translate the Greek of the New Testament into English. Many modern translations work off 27th revision of the Nestle-Aland Greek text. But at least two translations which my wife and I use regularly–the NET Bible and the Holman Christian Standard Bible–use a different yet still eclectic group of manuscripts as a base5.
Authorized But Not Eternally So
I will spare you a lengthy and bloody history (and present) of the debate as to which translation has the best manuscripts from which to work. But since the KJV has been the premiere Bible for Bible translations, I will discuss issues relating to it. Even though the KJV has less manuscripts, the argument for the Textus Receptus (TR) is–to say it simply and in part–that it contains manuscripts of better quality and more orthodox than the ones used by modern translations. The belief is that the TR text family represents the best of the what we have and does not take out words like “Christ” in Romans 16:20 (the accusation being heretics removed it when copying) or the direct mention of the Trinity in 1 John 5:7–essentially the only place where we can find an explicit mention of it in the Bible.6
Personally, I have no real issue if someone wants to say that the KJV base (the TR) is better than modern eclectic Greek Texts. Nearly everyone who has taught me Greek and Biblical Interpretation disagrees, but I do not care that people believe such. It is something intelligent believers support and I will not disparage them.
You’ll Have To Try Harder Than That to Remove The Trinity From My Bible!
But to take to the level of KJV only-ism is too far. Nearly all genuine scholars from all over the world respect the manuscripts that non-KJV Bibles use. And manuscript issues aside, you get the exact same doctrine from the NIV, or NASB, or ESV, or NLT, as you do from the KJV. Every modern translation that I use teaches that:
- Jesus is God
- The Holy Spirit is God
- There is only one God
- Jesus was sinless
- Jesus died as our substitute for sin
- Jesus rose from the dead to defeat death
…and literally hundreds of other things I believe with all my heart soul, mind and strength. I do not need the KJV’s rendering of 1 John 5:7 to believe in the Trinity. I have John 8:58, 2 Corinthians 3:16 and Deuteronomy 6:4 (and dozens of other verses) to teach it to me, in any translation I use.
Before I leave this sub-point, I will add that I strongly encourage you to read more about this since as a blog-type essay it only scratches the surface of the issues. And I do not say this only in the sense that you educate yourself on manuscripts and translations. Read biographical information on William Tyndale. Read about Eramsus. I assure you, my desire to name a child such an odd name is not simply founded in Erasmus’ translation of the New Testament (or how weird my name is). Church history matters a great deal. Educate yourself.
Translation Theory: You mean we fight about this as well?
A few years ago, Dr. Matthew McAfee, a professor of Bible and Greek at Welch College (my alma mater) told me and the other pastors of my church that the KJV is often hard to read not simply because it has older English but also because they tried quite hard to translate things as literally and as word for word as possible.
Thanks to Eugene Nida in the middle of the 20th century, some modern translations decided to do more “thought-for-thought” translation7. The premise of this is simple: It serves people better to hear or read a translation that sounds more like the language it is written in than the one it is translated from. It is a different approach than “word-for-word” in that it is less literal (and in many cases less “wooden”) and more easily readable.
Me, A Name, I Call Myself…
I’ll give you an example using Spanish. Keep in mind this is very simplistic and much translation is way more complex than this, but my goal to get your appetite for this going and not to parse a bunch of Greek.
Spanish says: “Me llamo Gowdy.”
Now, if you asked me to translate that into English, I’d say without any hesitation, “My name is Gowdy.” But those who know Spanish or are very clever can probably point out that a more literal translation would be “I call myself Gowdy.” Or, at its most literal, “Me I call Gowdy.” In theory, a word for word translation would say “I call myself…” and a thought for though would say, “My name is…”
Another more complex example: there are times when a Spanish speaker from some countries will ask “Que tienes?” and mean “What’s the matter?” or “What’s wrong with you?” even though literally that means, “What do you have?” A literal translation would go with the latter in theory while a ‘thought-for-thought’ may use one of the two prior translations that sound better in English. The problem is that saying “Que tienes?” and translating it “What’s the matter?” assumes you know that is what the speaker means when perhaps they actually do mean “What do you have?” There are more risks, to be sure, in thought-for-thought translation. But this philosophy of translation says that the reward of a reader hearing things more naturally in their first language is worth it.
Literally The Correct Use of ‘Literally’
You can see from this example the advantages and disadvantages to each take on translation. If you are too literal, things are nonsensical and at times you cannot understand them at all (and there are interlinear Bibles out there that show you how hard the Bible is to read if translated literally– including word order–into English from the original languages). Even if you are reasonably literal it still may hurt the reader’s ability to appreciate the message and ideally would require notes of explanation for things like idioms. Yet not literal enough stands more a chance of not accurately representing the first language. This, in essence, is the debate and it has been going on for decades.
I am not a Greek expert by any means, so I shan’t pontificate on that. But I do teach English as a second language and have studied Spanish for 10 years, Polish for five and did take Greek in seminary. I say that to say that I have thought about translation a lot and have had to translate many many times in my life. And my preference leans towards thought-for-thought. I much prefer a Bible translation that says “a day’s wage” instead of “a denarius”8. When I translate the sermons at my church for Spanish speakers, if the pastor says something is a “piece of cake” for an easy task I will always say that it’s “pan comida” (eaten bread) because that is the equivalent in many Spanish speaking countries.
Of course the Bible is different than a sermon. And that is partly why this is such a big deal. But to me I think the idea of word-for-word being “better” is unfortunate thinking and has infiltrated the American church, with people exalting the ESV and NASB–two very literal translations–as superior to others. But as many people in Christianity have concluded, I think the “best” translation depends on your goal. I do love the NASB if I want to study deeply. But if I want to read a huge chunk of a book of the Bible in one sitting I will get out the NLT, which is far less literal and hence, easier to read. (As evidence, I once read through the NASB in 45 minutes a day in finished in 10.5 months. I did the same with the NLT and it took me four months).
Bible reading is not one-dimensional. There could be any number of goals you have when reading the Bible. That affects which translation is probably more helpful.
Some Men (or is it “People”?) Argue Over Gender Neutrality
Some who are familiar with this theme may note that I have not mentioned up to this point the debate over gender neutral language in the Bible. This covers issues like when the Hebrew or Greek says “the men” when referring to both “men and women.” The question here is whether we translate it as “the men” or as “the people” (or even “the men and women”). This has caused a riff in Christianity, especially with the TNIV earlier this century and, more recently, the 2011 NIV. The heart of the debate is whether we should try to be more friendly in translation to gender issues vs. should we bow to social and cultural pressure and even possibly hurt the translation of some verses. I have had friends and professors on both sides of this.
I will not say much on this except to cite a couple of blogs that deal with it–one on each side–and let you decide for yourself:
Translation Is Far From Boring!
Translation can be a fascinating exercise. Watching it happen every week with English and Spanish at my church has been one of the most enthralling events of my life.
So as my last sub-point I want to give an example of how translation can be interesting if you really study it and how I encourage you to learn more if you are able.
Let’s look at the wording of Mary and Joseph’s relationship in Matthew 1. The commitment level they had when Mary discovered she was pregnant with Jesus is not something that translates into 21st century American English very easily. They were not married, yet our modern American custom of “engaged” is too soft a word to explain it since breaking off their commitment was serious enough for a divorce. Look at a few options provided by major English translations:
Word for Word Translations:
KJV: Mary was espoused to Joseph…
NASB: Mary had been betrothed to Joseph…[adds note explaining “betrothed”]
ESV: Mary had been betrothed to Joseph…[adds note explaining “betrothed”]
NIV: Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph…
NLT: Mary was engaged to be married to Joseph…
HCSB: Mary had been engaged to Joseph…
Here again, we can see the strengths and weaknesses of both strategies, only this time in the Bible instead of from Spanish. Literal gives us more accurate words, yet words like “espoused” and “betrothed” have little to no meaning for most English speaking readers in the US in 2016. Yet the thought-for-thought versions do not capture the meaning of Joseph and Mary’s pre-marriage relationship. Which is best? I’m not sure and in either case you need a note explaining it better than a translation can give you. Of the above, the note in the NASB defining “betrothed” (“The first stage of marriage in Jewish culture, usually lasting for a year before the wedding night, more legal than an engagement”) is the best explanation in my opinion.
In closing, I want to offer some advice on Bible reading in regards to translation. Take them as advice and not as absolute truths:
- Agreeing with Wright9, I say that if possible, get out two English translations at a time when reading. You may have seen those big Bibles with four translations all together. I love mine.
- If reading two translations at a time bothers you, read through different versions, either by changing regularly or by changing versions after you finish one.
- If possible, get a study Bible with notes to help explain things like betrothal/engagement.
- If you know a second language, read your Bible in both.
I say all of these things because no one translation of the Bible can truly capture the Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic of the Bible. Multiple translations and languages help bring out fuller meanings. The Bible is not meant to be merely read, but studied.
But more than anything, do something to get the Bible into your daily life. We are so blessed to have so many good translations in English. Much of the world does not have this. Do not take it for granted.
Read Part Six Here.
- Taken from the Preface to A Kingdom New Testament ↩
- And even then the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls 70 years ago has affected some modern translation, as in Isaiah 53:11 in the NIV ↩
- Paul D. Wegner, Journey from Texts to Translation, 337 ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Stanley Porter, How We Got the New Testament, 171 ↩
- Wegner, 338 ↩
- Leland Ryken, The Word of God in English, 13 ↩
- Although you will notice that some translations like the NLT will give the modern meaning and then in a note at the bottom also give the literal meaning saying Greek, denarius. That is the ideal. ↩
- Wright, KNT, preface ↩