Making Sense of Bible Translations
As Greenville College is a Christian college, specifically of the Free Methodist tradition, the Bible is often used in classes, ceremonies, chapels, and personal situations. The Bible is important to Christians because how we read the scriptures God has provided for us will greatly impact our faith.
The professors at Greenville College are excellent at finding was to help students approach the difficulties involved in Bible translation. Dr. Ben Wayman stated in a recent interview that one of the most important things for students and Christians to remember when reading the Bible is that every one of our English translations is itself an interpretation of the Greek text. Many people do not realize our modern English Bibles are translations and hence, interpretations of the Greek manuscripts which were themselves copies of the earlier scrolls and letters. They may not even know how the Bible they carry differs from the one their neighbor carries or their church has stocked in the pews. There are a large number of English translations of the Bible that are readily available to anyone. Enter any bookstore or do a quick internet search, and you will find option after option for translations you should use for your personal Bible reading. Bible Gateway, a popular online Bible site, has over 50 translations available and dozens of translations in other languages. This is definitely a helpful resource, but why? What are we to do with all of these many translations that are all around us?
NRSV – New Revised Standard Version
The Harper Collins NRSV Study Bible is the standard Bible Greenville College religion classes provide as a textbook. Why? The NRSV is regarded as a fairly literal translation, however, with a liberal twist at times. It is developed and modernized in a way that maintains truth while still offering readability. After interviewing several people involved in Greenville College’s Religion Department, I found that they stand by the decision to use this translation as our course standard. The Harper Collins Study Bible we are provided with in classes provides a combination of voices within the footnotes and commentary, and as an added bonus, it includes the Apocryphal books. These books are not canonized by all Christian traditions, but are still seen by many as helpful or respected. This translation provides familiarity to most students coming from a Christian background, while still providing valuable information and helpful translation. It is also worth noting that the NRSV maintains a gender-neutrality not found in many other translations as it refers to God. This is something appreciated by some scholars, but also criticized as less accurate by others. Overall, the general consensus on the NRSV is that it provides a solid go-to translation of the Bible for both personal study and other less formal settings.
NIV – New International Version
The NIV is possibly the most popular translation among Evangelical Christians today. As you can see in our handy chart below, the NIV can be found right in the middle of literal word-for-word and liberal though-for-thought. One of the major benefits of the NIV is its readability. It does not stick to the original languages in the same way some of the others on our list do, but the way it reads is popular among modern Christians. A favorite of many, the NIV is one of the most used translations in churches as pew Bibles.
ESV – English Standard Version
Here in the ESV, we have another significant translation, and one that is gaining popularity as a standard within churches. I know my home church switched from NIV to ESV as the pew Bible within the last several years. As one of my personal favorite translations, the ESV is on the literal side of the translation scale, and is appreciated by many for its readability while maintaining the more literal translation style. The ESV certainly expects the reader to be at least somewhat familiar with Christian vocabulary, which could certainly be a negative for some readers.
NASB – New American Standard Bible
The NASB is known as the most literal of our common English translations, it is a go-to translation for personal study. However, some Bible scholars recommend to not use it so readily in a worship setting. The vocabulary is at times advanced, leading to a more formal sentence structure many modern readers are not as comfortable with. Some would say it is best appreciated silently as opposed to reading out loud. This is troublesome as both religion professors I interviewed recommended the Bible be read with other Christians, preferably those that have different insight than you. However, the NASB is a valuable addition to our lineup of translations, and certainly has its place.
KJV – King James Version
The KJV and it’s tag-along NKJV are extremely popular for modern Christians. The KJV is a fairly literal translation, and has been a standard for hundreds of years. However, the 17th century English and sentence structure often gives modern readers fits. The NKJV updates some of the vocabulary, but the sentence structure is still often clunky. There is difficulty here in that the KJV is an older translation, and many of the manuscripts that it draws from are not as ancient (and therefore not as accurate) as the ones Bible translators have used for more modern translations. The NKJV is also more of an update to the KJV than a new translation itself, so it holds on to some of the same issues. However, there is certainly a beauty to be found in the poetic style the KJV gives us. For many Christians, this is what the Bible should sound like.
The Message is not a translation. It is a paraphrase. It is a retelling of the stories that we read in the Bible. The beauty found in The Message is that it helps modern readers understand that the Bible tells the complete story of God’s love for humans. By abandoning verse numbering and ignoring some pericope boundaries, The Message makes it easier for the reader to read a larger passage without stopping. The biggest question for many Christians is exactly what place do paraphrases such as The Message hold? Dr. Wayman explained to me he often uses it when trying to get a different perspective on a familiar passage. Verses such as John 3:16 are known by so many people, so if we want to get something new out of it, why not see what The Message has to say? Professor Ruth Huston offered the idea of giving The Message to new Christians. She suggested that you don’t always want to overload them with the most literal translations, because they will not benefit as much from an intense Christian vocabulary. Get them to love the story of God’s love, and then move from there. It should not be held in the same regard as translations such as the NRSV or NASB. However, it does have its place for Christians and can be helpful as a transitional material.
We have already established that every translation is an interpretation, because it forces the interpreters to make decisions as far as what word(s) would be best in a specific case. Because of this, some of the most valuable translations to us are ones that many people had a role in interpreting. Both Dr. Wayman and Prof. Huston gave me an emphasis of reading the Bible together. Our scriptures are meant to be read in community, and it is often when we have multiple voices together that we can learn the most. So while The Message’s paraphrase was done mostly by Eugene Peterson, the ESV was created by a committee of over 100 people, and the NRSV was done by a smaller group of 30. This does make a difference, and it is worth comparing how the process of translation worked for each translation that we have available.
Because we have so many translations available to us, and once we have recognized each one interprets the scriptures a little bit differently, we have the opportunity to compare translations and use that to our advantage.
When talking to the professors I interviewed and mentioned earlier, they seemed to be fairly similar in their position on what to use alongside each other. They both included the NIV, NRSV, and NASB as great translations to pull out. The NIV because it is extremely popular within the audience of students. The NRSV because it is what the school uses and they are familiar with its tendencies. And then, the NASB often gives a different approach than the others. Prof. Huston also said that whenever we are able, it is best to go back to the original language that the scripture was written in. If you are able to read Hebrew or Greek, go for it! But that could also mean trying to go back and use a Jewish English translation of the Old Testament. She also recommended comparing the translations of different traditions. Pull out the NIV as the popular version for the evangelical. Pull out a Catholic Bible. Pull out a Jewish Old Testament. Doing this will give us a broader understanding of what the Bible can teach us, as well as help us understand how different people have interpreted the teachings.
In conclusion, what translation of the Bible you choose to use will change depending on who you are and what situation you are using the Bible for. The important thing for us to remember is that the variances in translation do not need to scare us. The Bible is a gift from God, telling us the story of His unfailing love for us. Translation should not take away from our reverence for the scriptures, and we must always remember He is the ultimate author. Also, we should approach the difficulties involved in translation as a way to answer questions, build our faith, and prepare to share our faith in a more capable way. Next time you open your Bible, consider pulling out a second translation and compare the different word choices.