Lecture 35: Which Translation is Best?
Course: Textual Criticism
Lecture: Which Translation is Best?
A. Influences behind Modern Translations
In our last lecture, we looked at Mark 16 and before that, it was John 8 and some other notable problems. Now I want to summarize this in a very pragmatic way in looking at various translations. So, why are there so many modern versions of the Bible? Or, another question, what is the best translation used today? This isn’t just related to textual criticism but other issues as well. I want to paint a picture as to what is going on with the modern translations. There are three major influences behind modern translations. Beginning in 1881 and following we have a new text to translate from which was really an old text. When Westcott and Hort did their serious work behind their revised version, it wasn’t that they had more of an ancient text they were using, like Loftman did exactly fifty years earlier. They used a more ancient text that was immediately translated into an English Bible. The Revised Version of 1881 was the first English translation done by a committee in two hundred and seventy years since the King James Bible. And consequently, it was a bad translation, but it had a good textual base. So, there was a new text to translate from. A second major influence in 1895 there was some new information about the language that came about. This was due to a German pastor by the name of Adolf Diceman who wrote a little book called Student Bible Studies. Adolf examined published papyri of the New Testament. There are also new philosophies of translation that have occurred in the 20th century in what is the best way to translate ancient text. So we have textual information and philosophical information that is behind the modern translations.
So, Westcott and Hort had these older manuscripts, these better manuscripts that they used which was something other than the Textus Receptus. In the hundred and thirty years since they did their work, scholars have now found quite a few papyri, well over a hundred since that time, which have contributed to our understanding of the original text of the New Testament as theories get refined as well. Gunther in 1953 started reasoned collectivism, more than sixty years after the time of Westcott and Hort. This is when reasoned collectivism actually began. So, Westcott and Hort got us on the right track of thinking through how they relate to each other to come up with the best text for the New Testament. Then there is the informational basis has been important in the discovery of papyri. These began to be discovered by a by college students, Grinfield and Hunt who ended up becoming brilliant professors wrote multiple volumes on papyri discovered in a small town in Egypt through excavations. There was a fairly large Christian community there and about half of our New Testament papyri come from that location. They would look through the garbage heaps and burned out building and other areas of the remains of a civilization that used to be there. It was Adolf’s basemen, this pastor in Germany, who was looking at some of these papyri that Grinfield and Hunt had published. More than thirty years earlier, one New Testament scholar commented that if only we had the ancient letters that people wrote to one another, then we would have that which comes the closest to the language of the New Testament. He was a Cambridge professor. I would like to imagine that he was probably giving the lecture and below him were these very letters that he wondered about, but I don’t really know whether that was the case or not.
So Diceman was looking through this published list of Papyri and he sees a word, ‘Kiron’ which meant greetings. I remembered seeing this in Acts 15 and James 1. James said greetings; it is the only two times that word is used in the New Testament which was used by James in greeting people. Diceman
thought that he had never seen this elsewhere. So, what that British professor had hoped for was found in the papyri. He found other words also. Eventually, he had discovered so many words that were in the papyri up until his time the language of the New Testament was so sacred and special because five hundred of the five thousand words in the Greek New Testament wasn’t found in any other literature before this time. Diceman found four hundred and fifty of those words in the papyri. What he had seen was the language of the people spoken in a conversational way, now reduced to writing. The New Testament is not literature in one very real sense; it is conversation. It isn’t written on the highest literary levels but instead it is written in a way that is real and passionate. What we began to realize that the language of the New Testament was the language that people spoke. Translation therefore, needs to be in the language that people understand, but the King James Bible was increasingly perceived as archaic. Then there were linguistic studies started in 1916 by Ferdinand De Sorcere where he is arguing about how we think about language. Diceman was really the main idea but when linguistic studies started with James Bar in 1961 with an increase in exegetical studies.
We have a textual basis in regards to Westcott and Hord’s view and we have the information basis in regards to Diceman and linguistic studies and then, translational theory where scholars are not in agreement. Some argue for a formal equivalent while others argue for a functional equivalent. So, there
are those who feel that a translation needs to be closer to the wording of the original if at all possible. They would argue for a literal word for word translation. There is no such thing as a literal word for word translation. If it is literal and word for word, it isn’t a translation. You might have the same words but it isn’t a translation because it isn’t English or whatever language you are translating it into. Then, there are those who want it to be so functional or dynamic, you can’t tell what the original text says. They are interpreting the words and giving you their interpretation of the meaning at certain points.
B. Three Approaches to Translation
There have been three approaches to translation that have occurred in the last four hundred years. Three priorities are given: one is given to elegance. Do we want this to be good literature? The King James reaches the peak on that. The second is given to accuracy; the Revised Version thought that they had the mixture of the King James and the king truth. They wanted to have an accurate translation, but it was the ugly daughter as no one liked the Revised Version of 1881. The American Standard Version that came out twenty years later was with much more readable English. They wanted it to be accurate and that era lasted until the 1970s. In 1978, the NIV translation really pushed for readability along with the New English Bible. So, you have these three competing ideas: elegancy, accuracy, and readability. Yet, they all overlap to some degree but not totally.
So, how do translators deal with this? For example, if John uses bad grammar in Revelation; an accurate translation would reflect that bad grammar. The NET Bible does that in one key juncture in Revelation 1:4 but it is put in quotes. What about other places? Should we reflect the language of an author when he is trying to communicate but he isn’t good at it? We actually have that in the New Testament. These are some of the difficult issues that translations deal with. The NIV 1984 became very popular throughout the States and Australia and Canadians; it was a hallmark in that it was a new translation, not based on the King James Bible. The New English Bible that was published earlier was another good one done also by a committee which wasn’t based on the King James. The RSV, NASB, ESV, NKJV; they are all in the tradition of the King James Bible. All of them go back to be various revisions of the King James tradition. The NIV’s hallmark is readability. It is a more functionally equivalent translation, although it was not like the message or J.B. Phillips. A million copies of The Revised Standard Version of 1952 were sold the first day. The National Council of Churches was behind it. It was hated by conservative groups. It was this reaction to the RSV that brought about most of the evangelical translations to begin with; and so many of the new translations were a reaction to the RSV.
C. Bible Translations
Let’s look at five different translations and talk a little about their history and reasons for translation.
1. The NASB
The NASB translated by Taubert Professors and Trinity Evangelical School professors and Dallas Seminary professors was done in 1960 and revised in 1995. This was a reaction to the RSV. The reaction was to how they translated one word in one verse; the word alma in Isaiah 7:14. The RSV translated as young woman. It says that a young woman will bear forth a son instead of a virgin will bear a son. They stripped away the virgin birth according to the thinking of many people. The Hebrew word alma actually does mean young woman, not virgin. The RSV was giving an accurate translation. The NASB with F.F. Bruce, a fine evangelical scholar who was the only scholar ever to be president of both the Society of New Testament Studies and the Society of Old Testament Studies. He wrote a book called the history of the Bible in English. In that book, he talked about the NASB saying that if the RSV had never come along, the NASB would have been viewed as a really good translation, but the RSV does things better than the NASB. The NASB tends to slavishly literal in places; it is the most favorite translation of many pastors who have gone to schools like Dallas Seminary, etc.; it is those schools that really get into exegesis of the Scriptures. The NASB helps them to know how to translate better. I used to think that it was a terrific translation but now I think it is good but not a great one.
2. The ESV
The ESV was meant to be a reaction to the New Revised Standard Version. The NRSV went in a different direction about women. First you have this Isaiah 7:14 verse where you have a woman in the mix and then later you have the NRSV and especially the TNIV, today’s new International Version. It looks like they were being too egalitarian trying to flex too much on the Biblical passages about the role of women in the church. You get these evangelical reactions to them; first because of one woman and then because of all women, which means that you women are always in the mixture causing problems. The ESV is a reaction to that and bought the rights to the old RSV. The NRSV was simply too egalitarian, giving women a role that wasn’t entirely according to Scripture. So, the ESV was meant to be an understated elegance kind of translation. Now, I have been a consultant for four different translations, so I can speak with some objectivity on these things. I would say that the ESV has done a superb job in its goal of understated elegance. It has tried to keep an RSV type of translation that is readable and easier to memorize. That is the elegance factor and at the same time, it is accurate and not over the top. To some extent, the ESV is in the tradition of the King James Version. You should use the ESV because it has such a better textual basis plus there are great notes.
3. The NKJV
Now, the Revised English Bible may be the most elegant translation done in the 20th century. It was done essentially by Anglian priests; C.H. Dodd, a professor at Cambridge University was the 1st editor of the New English Bible. It is a great reading Bible. It has a lot of expressions that is great to remember and think about. I don’t think it is as accurate as it could be in a lot of places. The New King James version of 1982 is a curiosity. I am going to say some negative things about it and I can say this because I worked on it. This Bible takes the same Greek and Hebrew text as the King James Bible and gives it a modern translation. The basic kind of translation that the New King James Version has is similar to the New American Standard. It isn’t as elegant as the ESV or as rigid as the NASB. The problem with it; its textual basis is so bad. Interestingly, none of the translators involved with the NKJV thought the manuscripts which they used were the best manuscripts to use and over a hundred scholars worked on this translation. They wanted it done in line with the old King James Version. It was a nostalgia thing that we need to get past.
4. The NET Bible
I was the senior New Testament editor for the Net Bible and we tried to make it elegant, accurate and readable altogether. We tried to pursue all three of these things by adding lots of footnotes. I just love footnotes and the NET Bible contains over 60,000 footnotes, the most of any Bible in the history of Bible translation. It’s free on the internet or buy leather bounded one. It has notes on the text of the New Testament and it also has study notes. Basically what we discovered with the NET Bible, regardless of what you think of this translation; it has become the most favorite translation of translators. Those who worked on the ESV said that they could not have done their work without the NET Bible. Those who had worked on the TNIV and NIV2011 said that the NET Bible was always at hand in comparing and thinking through various things. I would recommend getting the NET Bible as a great study Bible, even if it isn’t one that you would memorize from. It will tell you what the translation you are using is doing with the text. It tries to be elegant as its primary goal but barely over accuracy and readability which refers to the footnotes in regards to accuracy. These goals that we strive to work toward seem impossible sometimes because there is always something lost in translation.
5. The NIV 2011
I think this translation is really terrific. It is very readable and accurate. I believe it has the best textual basis of any translation out there today. It is better than the NET Bible, although there are a couple of places that we want to change for the next addition of the NET Bible. The NIV made a change on Mark 1:41 that we were planning to institute. It is very readable but not as elegant. The biggest problem with the NIV tradition is the fact that it isn’t easy to memorize from. There is nothing that lingers in the mind with the NIV. This is the biggest weakness of it. It is a great translation Bible and also a great Study Bible; it has a great textual basis.
D. Inclusive Language
What about the inclusive language; we have talked about the RSV in Isaiah 7:14. When the NRSV was on its way to be published, there was a 1997 article called the Stealth Bible warning editors not to go in the direction of the NRSV, especially the NIV. There was a huge reaction to all this; so much so that just a few weeks later, the owners of the NIV said that they would never change it. This was a mistake. All translations needs revision every thirty to fifty years because language changes. Languages don’t just sit still. That is why in 1952, the RSV said in the Psalms that it would accept no bull in your house; no one thought of this as BS, but now in a later translation that had to be changed because has a certain implication. For me, the biggest issue in translations is how to translate so that something doesn’t have sexual innuendo or bathroom humor. This is the most difficult thing to do in translating because it is so pervasive in our society. So, Susan Laski writes this article thinking that the NIV was going to go toward a generally inclusive direction like the NRSV did. It was much milder than that. So, instead of changing it, they did the TNIV and did the NIV 2011. I was the first evangelical to indorse the NRSV in the Christianity Today magazine. I think it was a suburb translation but the general inclusiveness is troubling. The general inclusive problem creates something that is not accurate to the text and especially the language turns out to be terrible. It isn’t the kind of language anyone would ever use. The Revised English Bible which was a general inclusive translation, its language was elegant. They decided not to let gender language trump good English. I wish the RSV people would have thought about that. So, if you have a Matthew 18:15 in the NIV, if your brother or sister sins go and point out their fault; if they listen to you, you have won them over. It’s good and it’s readable and it makes sense. It isn’t problematic.
The NRSV, because of the general inclusiveness says if another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. This is terrible. The denotation is right; we are dealing with a member of the church, but how much more personal is, ‘if a brother or sister sins against you?’ The connotation is completely gone. In the original Greek, ‘if a brother sins against you.’ The NIV expands that to include sister. The NRSV is simply bad English. In 1st Timothy 3:2, I think it crosses a line. In the NIV, it has overseer; this is the same as a bishop, above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-control, hospitable, able to teach. This is the NIV2011 but the NRSV says that a bishop must be above reproach, married only once; temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable and able to teach. Notice the ‘faithful to his wife’ and ‘married only once.’ The Greek literally says a one woman man. It is kind of hard to be a one woman man, if you are a woman. So, the NRSV has crossed a line here where they are saying something that is different from what the Greek says. The NIV was unwilling to make that kind of statement. Apart from the gender-inclusive things, the NRSV is really a very fine translation.
E. Which Bible to Read
You have got to read the King James Bible, not because it is the best translation and not because it is the best text. It is the only piece of literature produced by a committee. It has stood the test of time and we have so much of our culture that comes out of the King James Bible. We need to read it in order to understand the literary heritage that English speaking people have. You also need a good study Bible. I think the NET Bible is the best available because of all the footnotes. The ESV is also an excellent one and also the NIV 2011. They all come as study Bibles; they are very good. You also need to get a good reading Bible. In doing so, I recommend that you read a pericope or paragraph at a time. That is what you are meant to do with these Bibles. The NIV 2011 does this and the Revised English Bible does this very much. The New Living Translation does this; it is even closer to a good study Bible now. The Message Bible is meant as a good reading Bible. Read the passage and get the emotional connection with the past, but don’t use it as a study Bible. A good memorizing Bible is the ESV. The King James Version is also good but the text if going to be off so many times. We tried to make the NET with lingering phrases as well, but weren’t as successful as the ESV was.
All translations are an interpretation; you cannot get a word for word translation. Every single translation has had to be an interpretation. The differences among these translations are important, but they are not essential for salvation. At the same time, there are different cars that you can buy that will get you to the same destination, but with some of them, you will enjoy the ride a whole lot more than others. I think this is the same with translations. The Spirit of God has ensured that the truth of the Scriptures can be found in any one of these translations. In fact, this is true even in heretical translations, like the New World Translation. I think I can demonstrate not only the deity of Christ to a JW in the New World translation, plus the bodily resurrection of Jesus. It is there. The Spirit of God is so superintended over the writing and the transmission of Scripture that the truth is still there. Each believer has the right and the responsibility to read the Bible in his or her own language and relate with others in the community in what it represents and how it should be obeyed. We are all believer priests and we need to think about that. As Augustine was told as he was thinking about converting to the Gospel, take it up and read!