Modern Bible Translation
A question was brought up recently regarding translations. Since the Bible is the inspired, infallible, inerrant, and sufficient Word of God, does that extend to our translations? To begin, we do not want to articulate a position that says you must use the Greek and the Hebrew in order to grasp the meaning of the Scriptures. That would violate the law of the perspicuity of Scripture. It would be the equivalent to agreeing with the Roman Catholic Church when they insisted that all Scripture be read in Latin and the Mass be conducted in Latin. We do not expect that all church members will learn the original languages. We would be absolutely delighted if that were the case and nothing would thrill us more than to teach language classes on the congregational level, but that is just not a practical expectation. God gave us the Hebrew and Aramaic of the Old Testament because they were the languages that were commonly spoken. That is the same reason why God used Koine Greek for the New Testament. If God wanted the Bible originally in the language of the people then it would stand to reason that He desires translations in the modern languages of the people. The inspiration of Scripture pertains to the original manuscripts or autographs and that perfection does not extend to any translation – that includes the Septuagint as well as Latin Vulgate and even the King James Bible. This is one of the reasons why we have so many translations; every translation is an attempt to push back to the original texts as closely as we can.
There are two polarities in Bible translations; we might imagine them as opposite ends of a line. On one side we have an accurate word-for-word representation of the original Greek or Hebrew. On the other side is readability in our modern language. Every translation is a mix of the two approaches. Some translations lean more toward the literal while others are more of a paraphrase. Sometimes that happens to extremes such as The Living Bible and The Message. There is even a Bible called The Word on the Street, written in a unique, urban style.
Ideally, a translation should be as literal as possible while still maintaining as much readability as possible while not doing violence to the original base-line text. Sometimes decisions have to be made whether to stay with a literal – though stilted and wooden – reading or season the translation with language readily accepted by the masses. This is not typically an easy decision to make and why many translations employ a large and diverse group of translators.
What about the Bible that you are using? The King James Version and its predecessors, the New American Standard, the English Standard Version, the Holman Christian Standard, and the New King James Version are all roughly literal translations. Remember, some non-literal decisions are made every once in a while out of necessity. We already gave a few examples of non-literal or paraphrase approaches. In our opinion, a paraphrase may not even be a true Bible because it is simply putting the Bible in someone else’s own words. Many translations fall somewhere between these two approaches. Such examples would include the New International Version, the New Living Bible, and the New Revised Standard Version. It might be okay to use some of these middle of the road Bibles for devotional reading (You certainly will not be consigned to hell because of it,) but they are not great for serious Bible study or doctrinal teaching.
Our recommendation is that you stay with a literal Bible translation that does a good job of preserving the text in modern language. That modern language requirement kind of boots the King James Version off the radar screen since it has a great deal of archaic language. Also, we would like to take note of textual families. There are two basic Greek texts from which every copy of the New Testament is translated: the majority (or Byzantine priority) text and the eclectic (or critical) text.
The King James Version, the New King James Version, and all Bibles older than the KJV utilize the majority text, the Textus Receptus, or the Byzantine Priority text. This is one family of Greek texts. They represent a very late but large collection of Greek manuscripts. We do not feel that this is a safe approach. (Think of the telephone game and you will get why this is not a reliable approach. Remember from childhood? You hear a sentence and turn to your neighbor and repeat it and so on and so on. By the end, it is hardly recognizable.) We prefer the maxim, “manuscripts ought to be weighed rather than counted.” The texts underlying these translations are subject to greater erroneous readings and in some cases lacking in any manuscript evidence. Let the buyer beware.
The second type of Greek text that is used today is called the critical Greek text or the eclectic text. All readings available have been considered; the most ancient texts have been consulted. It is not that they ignore the Byzantine readings, they weight them for quality rather than counting them. After all evidences are evaluated, they then assembled the current eclectic text. These are manuscripts such as the UBS and the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testaments. There is a much higher accuracy rate when you compare manuscripts from different time periods, different regions, and different text families. It is on this basis that we prefer the modern Bible translations.
Since we have removed the King James Version and similar Bibles from consideration due to text type, what is left for us to consider? Well, if you want the extreme in word for word translations, you can always use an interlinear Bible. We do not recommend that as the reading is the worst in being artificial and unreadable. The interlinear is not truly helpful for a variety of reasons. One translation that has been used very successfully for many years has been the New American Standard Bible, a very faithful literal translation. When you want something that accurately reflects the Greek or Hebrew verbiage, the NASB is an excellent choice. However, some have found its reading a bit cumbersome; it definitely has a stilted feel to it. (Although, if you are transitioning from the KJV, that quality may help it feel comfortable.) We do recommend the NASB, but there is an even better option available now in terms of literal translation and readability; the English Standard Version (ESV) is our preferred choice. We have been using it steadily for over 10 years. It is definitely readable, making it useful for both serious Bible study as well as devotional use. It has preserved a very strict word-for-word approach. Since we believe that God has inspired the words of the original manuscripts, we dare not take liberties in reflecting those inspired words. The ESV makes an excellent resource for any application; it also memorizes well. The Holman Christian Standard version is a reasonably good choice for many of the same reasons.
Whatever Bible translation you select, we would recommend one of the more literal versions. They just do better justice to the inspired Word of God. Our preference would be the ESV, but you may find the NASB or HCSB to be just as helpful in your personal Bible study. Of course, if you are up to it, use your Greek and Hebrew. Just make sure you are reading your Bible and listening as the Lord speaks to you through His Word.
What translation of God’s Word do you typically study and why?