Reading The Bible for Yourself 1

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. Confused? Have no idea what we’re talking about? Fair enough.

The Bible was originally written in three languages—the Old Testament in Hebrew (the language of the Jewish nation); Aramaic (one of the languages of the region, but only a few portions of the Old Testament are written in it); and the New Testament was written almost entirely in Greek which was the language of trade, culture, education and so on throughout the civilised world of Jesus’ day—like English is today. Even better—most of the New Testament was written in Koine Greek—or “Westie Greek” – the common tongue.

The process of translating the Bible is not all that simple—it’s more than swapping the words over—the aim is to get the concepts and ideas across as much as the words themselves. Imagine trying to explain space exploration to a hidden tribe in Papua New Guinea and you get the idea—if they have no concept of space, let alone NASA or space travel—how will you tell them about it in their language? It’s far more than swappin words when the words don’t exist to swap with. I remember one of our lecturers at college (Moore) saying than in one particular tribe they considered that emotions and feelings came from the liver – whereas we would tend to say “from the heart”. To them “from the heart” just doesn’t mean what we think it does in English, and “from the liver” doesn’t work either because that’s not how they understand it to work. Fun!

All the different versions are attempts to bring the meaning of the original text into our modern language. There are three basic types.

  1. Translations which aim to translate the original text, structure and content into modern language.
    • Translations are divided into two different types as well – or two schools of thought on the best way to bring the text forward to the modern reader. Formal equivelence which aims for accuracy of the text – commonly called word-for-word translations… and Dynamic equivelence which aims for accuracy of ideas – commonly called thought-for-thought translations.
  2. Transliterations which try to bring the meaning of the text forward but not the text or structure. The Good News Bible, The Message and JB Phillips are all this style—easy English versions. Without for a moment seeking to denigrate these versions – each has it’s value – but, especially for the maturing Christian, the problem with transliterations is that you aren’t reading what God caused to be written but only someone’s interpretation of that. Commonly these transliterations are not from the original text (not always – for example “The Message”) and do they smooth out the text to make even the hardest passages simple of even simplistic. That raises all sorts of questions. In my opinion they are worthwhile for young children and possibly very new Christians, and they have a place in ministry amongst poorly educated or maybe in ESL type ministries. And – to be completly frank – if you are faithfully reading a “Good News” Bible I don’t want to say stop it – well done – keep going. But maybe if you have beena  Christian for a few years it might be time to put it aside in favour of a Bible that gives you more direct access to the text of the Scriptures as originally given. The transliterations might have a place in Bible Study but for most Christians we should move on from the ‘milk’ of a transliteration to the ‘meat’ of a translation.

The Translations

When we come to the translations—the RSV, NRSV, NASB, KJV and NKJV, and the NIV (New International Version) are the main ones in use—especially the NIV which has become the de-facto standard in evangelical churches. The NLT and ESV have gained some ground in recent years and there are new versions such as the new NIV (not the NIV84 which is being fazed out) and the Holman Christian Bible. If we take the NIV apart a little we see that it has become the de-facto standard because it is an excellent version that is relatively easy to read. But it also has problems, as do they all.

The problems usually have to do with the assumptions being made by the translators. The NIV translators wanted a very readable translation so they applied the techniques of modern English to the translation. A couple of examples;

  • In the Greek New Testament many sentences start with words that link sentences and ideas together—”for”, “but”, “and”, “also”. This can change the whole meaning of connected verses—for example in Greek there is a “for” at the beginning of Romans 1:18, connecting it to verses 16-17. In English we tend not to do this, or if we do not very often—so the translators moved things around to make it read according to the standards of English—and many times simply removed the connectives.
    • Romans 1:16-18 “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”… FOR … 18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness,…” (The Holy Bible: New International Version. 1996 (electronic ed.) (Ro 1:16–18). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.)
  • The Greek New Testament will often repeat the same word to get the point across—again this is not on in English so the translators used different words to translate the same Greek word, thus missing the repetition of a single idea. For example, in Romans 1:3, Paul says that Jesus was descended from David “according to the flesh”.  ‘Flesh’ is an important word in the rest of Romans, and its appearance in the opening verses is very significant. However, the NIV translates it ‘human nature’ in 1:4, and ‘sinful nature’ elsewhere in the book. As a translation they are not technically incorrect—but by making these choices we should be asking whether they loose a vital ingredient in what Paul is saying.
  • A third problem is that where the original text carried a number of possible meanings, the NIV irons out the ambiguities to present one simple meaning to the reader, often by adding extra words. This makes for simplicity and clarity, but places the responsibility for interpretation in the hands of the translator, rather than the reader. And what if the translator makes the wrong decision? Or what if the text deliberately carries a number of layers of meaning? The possibility of sorting it out is removed from the reader, in the interests of simplicity. As an example, sticking with Romans 1, the NIV uses the phrase “righteousness from God” in Romans 1:17. In the Greek, the phrase is actually “righteousness of God”, which may mean either righteousness from God or the righteousness which belongs to God (that is “God’s righteousness”). Which did Paul intend? Or did he phrase it that way because he wanted to include both ideas? The NIV is not wrong; “righteousness from God” is a quite legitimate translation, but it is not the only legitimate one. And by shutting off other options, the reader is taken further away from what the text of Scripture actually says.

In all this the NIV is still one of the top translations and a very worthwhile one to purchase and read. Next issue we’ll look at the other translations and their strengths and weaknesses.

One response to “Reading The Bible for Yourself 1

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