Reading The Bible for Yourself 2

One of the most important decisions you will need to make in reading the Bible is which version do you read—KJV, NKJV, NIV, NICV, ESV, NLT, RSV, NRSV, NASB, Gideons, The Message, The Good News version—enough already. It’s confusing, especially if you’re new to it all. And sometimes older Christians are a bit smug about the fact that they know what all the abbreviations mean. Don’t do it—smugness is so unattractive.

Last post we looked at a little of how the Greek New Testament was written and then at the de-facto standard English translation—the NIV (New international Version). Let’s have a poke around in a few others.

For more than three centuries, the standard English translation of the Bible was the Authorised (AV) or King James Version (KJV). It was a literal translation; that is, it translated the original Greek and Hebrew word for word into English, finding the most direct English equivalent available, and retaining the grammatical structure of the original sentences as much as possible. This gave the reader not trained in the original languages the most direct access possible to the actual text of Scripture. Where the text carried several possible meanings, the KJV/AV translation reflected that, and left it to the reader to work out which meaning (or meanings) were intended.

By the turn of the 20th century, however, the KJV was starting to show its age (not surprisingly). English had changed over the course of 300 years. ‘Thee’ and ‘thou’ were no longer in common use; nor were the ‘-eth’ and ‘-est’ style endings for the verb. The vocabulary was substantially different, and the long, multi-clausal (divided by lots of commas) sentences of the KJV, that reflected the original languages so well, made for difficult reading, especially as the direction of English was towards shorter sentences.

Various attempts were made to update the KJV without changing its essential character—such as the Revised Version (RV) of 1881, which gave rise to the American Standard Version (ASV) of 1901, which in turn formed the basis for the New American Standard Bible (NASB). For a number of years the NASB has been the closest English version to the original Greek—except that it’s American rather than English.

It was the publication of the Revised Standard Version (RSV) in 1952 that marked the real beginning of ‘modern English’ translations. While maintaining a commitment to literal translation, the RSV sought to turn the original into English that made sense to modern readers. The archaic vocabulary, verb endings and complex sentence structure of the KJV were replaced with modern English equivalents. The RSV had some quirks—for example retaining ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ for addressing God, but the result was a translation that was basically literal, and stuck closely to the original, but which was readable for the 20th century person. You still find it in many churches in Australia and it is still the preferred version for many who were converted in the 50’s and 60’s. We have a tendency to love what we grow up with, to love what is familiar.

However the RSV had a very basic problem—the bias of it’s translation team towards liberal theology. This emerged at a number of important and now famous points. For example in Roman’s 3:25 the Greek states that Jesus was put forward by God as the “propitiation” of our sins—that is a payment to cause God to move away from his wrath against us. It is clearly there in the context but liberal theology finds it offensive that God would be wrathful with us and the Christ, the innocent, should have to pay the price—so they inserted the word “expiation” which basically means payment for sins. Instead of Christ dieing to appease God—cause him to turn aside from his wrath against us—Christ died only pay the penalty for sin.

Whilst this may at first not seem like much, the original word is propitiation—so whether we like the concept or not that is what we need to consider and work through. Expiation is also a Biblical word but it is not used in this passage—so the only reason to put it in the English is to change the meaning to fit your bias. My aim is to wrestle with the Scripture and to bring my thinking in obedience under them – not to try and force my way of thinking onto the Scriptures!

At another point in Romans (9:5) the team punctuated the sentence to remove the implication that Christ was God. Compare the following; “…is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever.” (ESV) and “is the Christ. God who is over all be blessed for ever.” (RSV) There is no punctuation in the Greek—it simply doesn’t exist—but the only reason to change the whole meaning of the chapter is a theological bias. And there are plenty of other examples. We still have to make choices as to which one is correct, but we should do so with eyes open rather than having that choice made from a theological position of liberalism.

However, the RSV was a very good translation: precise, generally accurate, and yet still readable. By the 1970s, however, there was a real desire to improve the quirks and liberal bias of the RSV, and produce a translation that was even simpler and easier to read. Paraphrases (taking the general meaning rather than a direct translation) such as the Good News Bible and the Living Bible were published. Ideas of ‘dynamic equivalence’ were in the air, in which the goal of translation was not to render word for word, but idea for idea. It was into this arena that the NIV was produced in the 1980’s.

In 1989, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) came along. In many ways, it was excellent. It retained all the precision and accuracy of the original RSV, avoided the pitfalls into which the NIV had fallen, and was still beautifully readable. Unfortunately, the NRSV had one major idiosyncrasy that was unhelpful. It is obsessed with gender inclusive language. In making the Bible more ‘politically correct’, the NRSV removed ‘he’ and ‘man’ wherever possible in the text, often with unfortunate results (the removal of ‘son of man’ in Hebrews 2:6 is one classic example).

Next post—where have translators been heading, the ESV and making the choice.

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