• Which Version?
  • Examin bible In a day of many Bible translations pastors may expect to be questioned about the version they use. The English Standard Version is used in the pulpit at Christ Reformed Baptist Church. While we do not insist on members using the same translation, some may wish to examine the question of Bible versions more closely. Others may wish to understand why we have made the selection we have made. What follows are a set of assumptions we should bring to our consideration of this question and a brief examination of some criteria with which we may evaluate the various translations.
  • Presuppositions
  • 1. The Bible in its original form is the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God. When we consider the Scriptures, we are considering words written by men, but they were men “carried along by the Holy Spirit.” In other words, there is a Divine Author behind the human authors of the text of the Bible. It is right to call it God’s Word, since He breathed it into the human writers. Since God knows all and does not lie, the Bible contains no error, and since God also possesses all wisdom, the Bible does not mislead or misinform in any way.
  • 2. Though the original text of Scripture has disappeared, the Word of God has been preserved in many manuscripts. We do not have the original scrolls on which any of the books of the Bible were written. Furthermore, since there are at least minor disagreements between the thousands of ancient manuscripts which we do have, we cannot say that God has absolutely prevented His Word from being misquoted. However, the remarkable consistency which does exist between those manuscripts is proof of God’s promise that He has maintained His Word in the world, so that men might come to know Him.
  • 3. Since they are not inspired, translations are neither inerrant nor infallible. While God told us in the Bible that the Holy Spirit led the writers of Scripture, at no point did He promise to similarly inspire the translators of the Word. This means that no translation can be trusted entirely and without any scrutiny whatsoever. Translations may contain error due to the imperfections of the translators. Consequently, any version could potentially mislead the church and produce false doctrine.
  • 4. Translations are nonetheless valid, and Christians ought to use them. It would be easy to suppose that we should not use translations, and that the church ought to rely for teaching solely on those with the capacity to read the original languages. However, the Bible itself proves that this is not so. The apostles clearly used the translation of the Old Testament into Greek in their teaching and preaching. We know this because they quoted it extensively in the New Testament. Of course those passages which they quoted were thus drawn under the umbrella of New Testament inspiration, but nothing suggests that the whole translation was inspired. If the apostles used translation to make the Bible accessible to their culture, we have a mandate to do the same.
  • 5. A Christian equipped with a proper translation may know the revealed truth of God. In fact, if God approves the use of translations in the communication of His Word, then we know that the illumination of the Holy Spirit, which is essential in all Bible reading and study, can and does accompany the reading and study of translations. The Christian is not at the mercy of the trained scholar, but can and should study Scripture for himself and examine all teaching in its light.
  • 6. The purpose of a translation is to communicate clearly in the reader’s language the intended message of the inerrant and infallible Word of God. Translations clear the way for those who do not know Greek and Hebrew to hear God’s Word. While they are imperfect vehicles, good translations largely succeed in communicating the intent of the original. We trust the illumination of the Spirit to make up the difference, but we would not presume to select a poor translation in the hope that God will make it plain.
  • 7. Proper translation of the Bible is essential. Given that we are dealing with God’s Word, a message essential not only to a God-honoring life but also to our very salvation, we cannot afford to misunderstand it. Since in our day and culture we primarily know that Word through translation, we must have good translations. None is perfect; consequently Christians and churches will differ on what is best. However, we must engage in the crucial work of examining and evaluating translations in the endeavor to use the very best available.
  • First Criterion: Translation Philosophy
  • Many Christians approach their Bibles assuming that the translation they have is a word for word rendering of the original Greek and Hebrew. Consequently they are disillusioned and confused at the remarkable differences between versions. They may wonder whether translators are involved in some grand conspiracy to obscure the revelation of God.
  • The frustrating reality of translation is that texts can almost never be rendered word for word in another language. Different languages consist not only of different words, but of different grammatical rules, different sentence structures, different forms of analogy and metaphor, and different cultural references. Even the simple meaning of words can be bewildering. Do you imagine there is or ever has been another language in which one word means an aquatic bird and a way to avoid being hit in the head? Yet we use the word “duck” without ever worrying about which meaning is in view! It is not so easy when a word in another language has a wide range of meanings.
  • The most significant question one can ask about a Bible version is what translation philosophy was followed. Simply put, “translation philosophy” means the set of guidelines translators follow in working their way through the sort of difficulties mentioned above. How do translators approach the task of making the literature of an ancient culture comprehensible to readers in a modern culture?
  • Translators must always commit themselves to knowing the meaning of the original and to communicating the ideas of the author. We live in a day when the study of literature has become much more focused on the response of the reader than the intention of the author. This is a confusing approach when applied to Charles Dickens; but applied to the Word of God it is disastrous. Sound translation philosophy is based in a determination to pay greater attention to the meaning of the author, which in the case of Bible translation is the message God intended to convey. Such a commitment requires a thorough understanding of the original.
  • It is indicative of the state of modern Christianity that one of the most popular versions to circulate in recent decades was the Living Bible, an acknowledged paraphrase of another translation. In other words, it was not even a translation of the original, and the author of the Living Bible had no immediate knowledge of the original languages or texts. He aimed not at a scholarly translation, but at a version easily understood by many. Unsurprisingly, this paraphrase was at many points radically different from more traditional versions.
  • The same essential critique applies to The Message, a more recent paraphrase. In this case the author knew the ancient languages and worked from them, but he chose to paraphrase rather than translate, hoping to produce a version with high emotional impact on his readers. He succeeded in producing that impact, but The Message is no serious translation.
  • Even where serious scholarly work goes into a translation the philosophy must be examined. When scholars feel they have a handle on the original meaning of the text, they must have a strong commitment to the words of the original in order to avoid inserting interpretations into their translation. To expand on the words of the original in order to help modern readers to a better understanding is to stand on shaky ground. Interpretations may seem valid, but they are not inspired and may well be incorrect. Sometimes the interpretations which translators consider obvious and uncontested in fact indicate their own theological bias.
  • The New Living Translation is a very different type of work than the paraphrases. A team of scholars worked on this translation, bringing to it their knowledge of the ancient languages and texts. However, their translation philosophy was to enlighten the reader about the text by sprinkling many interpretations throughout their version. These interpretations are meant to be clarifications of various metaphors and cultural references which exist in Scripture. As such, many of them contain good information. However, such information is better suited to a commentary. Once translators are free to interpret the text, how will they know where commonly accepted interpretation lets off and their own theology picks up? The resulting version is an intermixing of God’s Word and man’s interpretation.
  • Another way of considering the issue of translation philosophy is the importance of producing a version equivalent to the original. In other words, the translation should mean the same thing as the original. There are various ways in which translators can define equivalence. The most basic is formal equivalence, in which the words of the translation line up as closely as possible with the words of the original. This approach is safest but only works some of the time. At times equivalence must be functional, meaning that the words work the same way as the original. Since the ancient languages don’t follow the grammar or sentence structure of English, changes may need to be made from a formal equivalence in order for the text to be comprehensible. Another approach seeks what is called dynamic equivalence. Under this approach, the words may not be equivalent, but the force of the text is preserved. The argument for this approach is that cultural and linguistic differences can cause make it difficult to communicate the idea forcefully in our language.
  • While the goal of this approach may be admirable, it is nonetheless dangerous. Once again this approach opens a door for translators to transport their interpretations into the text. Among the versions once thought of as more conservative, the New International Version tended to employ a dynamic equivalence philosophy. The resulting translation, while far more faithful than the paraphrases or the openly interpretive versions, is fraught with problems. One simple way to understand this is to consider the translation of particular words throughout the NIV. The attempt to produce a version which duplicated the force or meaning of the original rather than its words led to the translation of the same word multiple ways, sometimes even in the same passage. Words, though, have meaning, and to translate one word as many different words is to obscure its meaning. Readers no longer see the repetition which the author undoubtedly intended to ring in his hearers’ ears.
  • A translation philosophy which gives the highest possible respect to the Divine Author of Scripture will be one which strives to maintain formal equivalence with the original text. The complexities of language will at times render formal equivalence impossible or useless, and a functional equivalence must be adopted. However, a firm determination to stick to the formal approach as long as possible is a necessary check on translators. Only this commitment will keep them from importing their interpretations and bias into the text. Only this commitment will provide the reader with a reliable version true to both the original intent and the original words of the Bible.
  • Second Criterion: Readability
  • If we simply evaluate the readily available versions of the Bible according to the criterion of translation philosophy, we are left with an excellent short list of Bible translations from which to choose. The KJV, NKJV, NASV and ESV all follow a sound translation philosophy, and all are excellent versions. Each is currently in mass production and thus easily available to the church. To choose between them, we must proceed to other criteria: readability and textual theory.
  • We would naturally assume that a well-translated version done by scholars fluent in our language would automatically be readable. To some extent this is true, but some versions are simply easier to understand than others. Two factors militate against a readable translation: one is the structural differences between two languages, and the other is the fact that languages evolve over time.
  • No two languages work in exactly the same manner. Ancient and modern languages have significant differences in sentence structure and word order. Today our word order is relatively set; we expect subjects to precede verbs. Such was not the case among the ancients. Translation from Hebrew and English is translation from an Asian language to a European one, and the difficulties multiply. Consequently, a translation that not only translated words directly but left them in the same order would nearly incomprehensible. Every translator recognizes this and “anglicizes” the text to some degree.
  • Some translations, however, strive to maintain the ancient word order, recognizing that at times that word order lent significant emphasis to the meaning. The New American Standard Version is one such translation. Many Christians have noticed that the prose style of the NASV is somewhat stilted. It may be true that the NASV is the most literal English translation in mass production, but one must ask whether that literalness is worth the struggle. The significance of ancient word order will not be apparent to English readers, so little has been gained in maintaining it.
  • The other factor complicating readability is the evolution of language. It is an observable fact that no matter how many grammar classes are taught and no matter how many rules are memorized, patterns of language change over time. We do not speak the way our great-grandparents spoke, let alone the way our ancestors spoke hundreds of years ago. Any student of literature knows this. Shakespeare’s works were not intended as high literature but as common entertainment. Only in our day after years of changes in our language have his plays become entertainment for cultural elites.
  • This poses a serious problem for Bible versions. What may be an excellent version in one century will become difficult years later. This certainly has been the case with the King James Version. Advocates of the continued use of the KJV love to say that computers have proven their version more readable, and it is true that in 1611 it was highly accessible to common readers. Even today those who have been raised on this version have little trouble reading it. However, the Bible is intended not only for children of Christian homes, but for all of society. Those who have not read the KJV from childhood will inevitably struggle with it. The fact is that people, not computers, must read the Bible, and many will struggle with a version so old.
  • The KJV and the NASV are both excellent translations of God’s Word, and either will give the reader the truth if he will work hard enough to understand it. However, both the NKJV and the ESV are equally good translations, and both are much more readable. Among translations faithful to the original, we certainly prefer those which are easier to read.
  • Third Criterion: Textual Theory
  • A final consideration in choosing a version is the decision made concerning the proper text of the Bible. Much though we would like to think that God has preserved the exact wording of the original text of the Bible without any mistakes creeping in, the facts simply will not allow this theory. Of the more than 5,000 manuscripts of all or parts of the New Testament which we have, no two are in absolute agreement. Mistakes were made by each scholar who made a hand-written copy of the Bible. This has given rise to the study called “textual criticism,” which, in spite of its ominous name, means nothing more than the attempt to figure out from all the variations exactly what the original said.
  • Many Christians have been troubled to discover that such variations exist in the manuscripts of the Bible. It seems as though this is an argument that we have no solid ground for our faith. The problem is nowhere near as great as many have feared. The great majority of the words in the Bible are recorded without any variation in spite of the multitude of different manuscripts. This is not true with regard to any other ancient writing, a fact which should cause Christians to rejoice at God’s amazing preservation of His Word.
  • In fact, if the Bible were to be translated following every different set of textual variants possible, the result would be a large series of versions which all taught the same doctrine. No essential teaching of the Christian faith disappears when a new approach to the text is followed. We need not worry about textual criticism altering the Christian faith.
  • For this reason the textual approach of a version should not be the primary concern in choosing a translation. It is naturally the first question answered by translators because they must have a text before they can begin their work. However, excellent translations have been produced following different textual theories. Try reading the NASV, the NIV, and the NKJV next to each other. You will quickly see that the really different one is the NIV, but the NKJV is the one which translates a slightly different text. Textual differences don’t affect the final product nearly so much as translation philosophies.
  • That doesn’t mean, however, that we don’t want to know which textual theory is best. While the overall teaching of Scripture is unaffected, our understanding of certain texts can be very much affected by the textual variant (the choice made by the translator between two or more renderings of a passage in different manuscripts). Some variants make a significant difference in a passage. (Try looking up I John 5:7 in the ESV and the NKJV.) If we want to be properly informed about these passages, we need to have a translation with the best possible approach to choosing a text. While most modern versions include textual footnotes, the text used in the translation still has the greatest authority for most readers.
  • Many Christians have been told that there are two basic approaches to textual criticism: the majority text approach and the critical text approach. The idea is that the KJV and NKJV follow the variants which are found in the majority of the manuscripts while other versions like the NIV, the NASV and the ESV follow the variants found in the oldest manuscripts. This is an oversimplification.
  • In fact, the KJV was produced without much of a working textual theory. The translators followed the text available in there day, which had been compiled from the small number of ancient manuscripts known at that time. Though their translation work was extraordinary, there were certain variants which they followed which are found in neither the majority nor the oldest of the manuscripts. More recently the NKJV followed the exact same text as the KJV in order to avoid the controversy surrounding textual criticism.
  • The result is that no matter what one thinks of the theory that we should always follow the variant used in the majority of available manuscripts, no version following that theory is in mass production today. The KJV was written before majority text theory existed, and the NKJV in essence followed a theory that whatever text was followed by the KJV is necessarily correct. This suggests that the KJV possesses more authority than any version should.
  • In fact, there are reasons why Christians should question the text used by the KJV. First, it was a text compiled when many of the manuscripts of the Bible were yet to be discovered. Secondly, it was a text compiled during a time when the Roman Catholic Church exercised a frightful degree of control over scholarship. The above mentioned variant in I John entered into the accepted Greek texts of the day not from Greek manuscripts but from the Latin. It was maintained for a time in the Greek under threats of Catholic discipline! Then the main text used in the early seventeenth century was compiled without truly addressing the question of what makes one variant more likely to be correct than another.
  • Recent years have seen much study of ancient documents and their preservation. That study has been applied to the text of the Bible, particularly of the New Testament, by many careful scholars. The result has been a general consensus on what is called the “science” of textual criticism. While the resulting text is no doubt imperfect, it arises from a much earlier point in history and is consequently closer in time to the original. It stands to reason that this “critical” text will also be closer in substance to the original.
  • What impact does this have on selecting a version? One could argue that we should select a version that follows the majority variant in every case, but that version does not exist. The KJV and NKJV may follow the majority variant much of the time, but they are also grossly misleading on a very few passages. Furthermore, given the choice between the older manuscripts and the most manuscripts, seeing that the majority of existing manuscripts were produced during the last years before the printing press, we ought to opt for the older texts as more likely to be accurate.
  • The NASV and the ESV both follow the critical text. This does not mean that either of them makes the right selection of every possible variant, but they are likely to be more accurate in some passages than either the KJV or the NKJV. Again, it would be a mistake to make this the primary criterion for selecting a translation, but this is a piece of the puzzle which we ought to know in selecting a translation.
  • Conclusion
  • Once again, when we consider the available versions we should first ask which ones follow a correct translation philosophy. Of those translations widely available to the Christian today, the KJV, the NASV, the NKJV, and the ESV all meet that criteria. Of those four, the KJV and the NASV are somewhat more difficult to read, while the NKJV and the ESV present a good blend of accuracy and readability. Also, while the KJV and the NKJV follow a less reasonable approach to the text, both the NASV and the ESV follow a critical text approach.
  • The ESV withstands the examination of all three criteria. Its translation committee translated the right text in the right manner, producing a smooth and easily readable but very accurate version. For this reason it is the Bible used in our pulpit. Not every Christian needs to come to these conclusions to fellowship together, and not every member of our church uses this version, either at home or in the pew. We trust, however, that our use of this translation will be a blessing to our members and all those who come and worship with us.