Saturday, March 2, 2013

Which Bible Translation?

Which Bible Translation?

Bob Rakestraw
“The Benediction Project”


Until Jesus returns, Christians will continue to make new translations, versions, revisions and editions of the Bible. (For the purposes of this essay I am using these terms more or less interchangeably, even though they have different meanings in academic studies.) On the one hand this is a good thing, in that it shows the great interest in and respect for the Bible. It also may indicate (and I hope it does) that those responsible for these new versions believe that as language changes and recent archaeological discoveries cast new light on the ancient biblical manuscripts and languages, we should be reading, studying and meditating in the most accurate Bible in our language.

On the other hand, since the Bible is the best-selling book of all time, many publishers—religious and otherwise—want a piece of the financial pie regardless of the message of the Bible. There are other motives as well for producing a new version, not the least of which are ideologies and agendas (such as how to render faithfully the original languages with respect to both male and female readers), and commitment to certain translation principles (such as literal, paraphrase or somewhere in the middle).

Every Bible version worthy of its name should have as its overarching goal the honoring of God. Second to that should be the producing of a Bible that is as faithful as is humanly possible to the intentions of the original writers as these may be discerned by careful study today.

Not every Bible version on the bookstore shelves or online sites needs to be in your personal book collection, no matter how “essential” or “indispensable” its promoters say it is. Such a requirement would take a good chunk of our income regularly and probably force us to build or buy more bookshelves. I’d rather have one or two excellent translations than eight or ten that are not of the highest quality.

Before I go on, however, I want to put your (possibly troubled) mind at ease. Whichever Bible version you have been using, in whatever language, as long as it was produced with God-honoring intentions, you will not be led astray if you are searching sincerely for God’s truth. The Lord said in the book of Jeremiah, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (29:13).

Throughout the millennia, God’s people all over the world have yearned for the Bible in their own language, since most people on earth do not know the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek in which the Bible was written. Many hundreds of translations, therefore, have been made in many (I hope all, very soon) languages, to meet this longing for God’s word. Some of these translations were not well done by today’s scholarly criteria. Yet multitudes have read them and have come to salvation through the Christ presented in their pages. And they have learned how to live the life of the Spirit as God intends.

For example, the Bible of the early church for most Christians was the Septuagint, a translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek that is, except for the Pentateuch, not a high-quality piece of workmanship. As an illustration, the writings of the prophets are often rendered in paraphrase (a free-flowing departure from the original in order to make the meaning more clear, yet which often changes the original intention of the writer). Yet this was the Bible Jesus used when he referred to the scriptures in Greek, and this is the main Bible the Spirit of God used to “turn the world upside down” through his followers!

 Another example is from the time of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. The Bible that God used to show Martin Luther the way to peace of mind and salvation through faith in Christ alone was an inferior translation known as the Latin Vulgate. And yet the Reformation—ignited by Luther—was another turning of the world “upside down.”

It is far more important to read and meditate in the one not-so-great Bible translation you may possess, with a heart open to hear and follow all of God’s truth, than to have a half-dozen excellent translations you never use or which you use only for intellectual pursuits. Ideally we will have both: an excellent Bible translation and a heart and mind yearning for God and his truth.

To conclude this much-too-brief introductory piece I want to mention the versions that I recommend and use most. My favorite by far is the New International Version, copyright 2011. I highly recommend the 2011 edition because it is a significant improvement over the earlier editions of the NIV. The same is true for a study Bible: the best is the NIV Study Bible, 2011 edition. I intend, as far as I know now, to use this study Bible as my main Bible for the rest of my life. I know two of the three editors well, and think highly of them and the third editor. You will always benefit by consulting this version, as well as the Study Bible notes (over 20,000 of them), even if you do not use this version as your preferred one.

Two other versions that I recommend are The New Revised Standard Version (a very accurate, reasonably literal translation) and the New Living Translation (also accurate and very readable, but using paraphrase more). If you use the NIV Study Bible (2011) and the NRSV (latest edition) for studious work, and the NLT (latest edition) for situations when an easier-to-read translation is preferred, you will likely do well for years to come.

There are many other worthwhile Bible versions and study Bibles on the market, and I think it is good for you to become familiar with as many of them as possible. But do not feel compelled to purchase every new, “must-have,” Bible version that comes on the market. There will probably be a new “indispensable” version within the next few years! We do not need more Bible versions, especially in the English speaking world. Revisions, of course, are beneficial as language changes, but the many millions of dollars spent every year to produce and advertise new Bible versions in English would be much better used to support the translation and distribution of God’s word where little or no Bible exists in the language of the people.

And remember always that our trust in and obedience to the scriptures is far more important than certain details of translation that do not affect the overall meaning of a text. May the grace of God be with you!


Unknown said...

Bob I am enjoying reading "Heart Cries.". Thanks for your life of ministry. On this raised the issue of LXX vs. Hebrew text. As I preach through NT books I often find OT quotes from LXX that are somewhat different from Hebrew. Last week for instance in Hebrews 11.5. Enoch pleased God rather than walked with God. How can these differences be best explained to English audiences?

Robert V. Rakestraw said...

This is a test that I hope works!