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Study Your Bible in English

Study Your Bible in English

Study Bibles Galore!
Despite My Dislike, All These Bibles were within Arm’s Reach of My Desk

That is, study it in English if English is your native language, and when your knowledge of biblical languages isn’t up to the task. Face it. For most people, even those who have some study of biblical languages. Different levels of study of the languages provide different levels of benefits. But for most people, the best idea is to study the Bible more carefully and thoroughly in the language they actually know.

There’s a sense among people in the pews that knowledge of Greek or Hebrew provides some sort of magic key. This even affects pastors, who want to look up a particular Greek or Hebrew word in order to spice up their sermons or  to find the real meaning of a text. The problem is that looking up a particular Greek or Hebrew word and then wielding that definition like an axe, chopping chips out of the text, more often misleads than enlightens.

For laypeople, the approach is often to find “the meaning of the Greek” through a commentary, or even worse through a concordance such as Strong’s. A correspondent once sent me a complete translation of a verse derived from glosses (single word or short phrase translations of a term) in Strong’s, in which not one single word was translated correctly in the context. One could, however, track the English words back through the concordance to a Greek word which did, in fact, occur in the verse.

Words do not have singular meanings. It is more accurate to say they have fields of meaning, sometimes called semantic ranges. I look out the window in front of me and I see a number of things that I would call “trees,” yet they are not identical. Some are larger, some are smaller. At some point there is the transition between “bush” and “tree,” and “bush,” again, covers a range of items. The actual boundary is set by usage. Now that I live in Florida, I have to realize that Floridians call things “hills” that northwesterners would call mounds or bumps, while there’s nothing in easy range of here that a northwesterner would call a mountain.

If you have the time and inclination to learn the biblical languages, by all means do so. But if you don’t, what can you do?

Here are some suggestions:

  1. Don’t just go to the most literal translation you can find. People often believe that by using the New American Standard Bible, the English Standard Version, the New Revised Standard Version, or something similar, they are getting closer to the source language. In one way, these versions do get you closer to the original, an I don’t have a problem with using any of them. Just don’t assume that they take care of getting you closer to the original.
  2. Instead of #1, choose 3 or more translations. Try to find translations that are committee translations and represent different theological backgrounds. For example, the NASB, NIV, and NLT are all done by evangelical translation committees. They represent three different approaches to translation, but their committees are all conservative. The NASB is formal, the NIV is a kind of compromise version, while the NLT is dynamic or functional. (There are many more differences in approach to translation. Check my site mybibleversion.com and/or my book What’s in a Version?.) On the other hand, the NRSV is quite formal/literal while the Revised English Bible is quite functional/dynamic, yet the committees involved are from mainline denominations and thus more liberal. I recommend choosing your three translations to represent different theological traditions and different styles of translating. For protestants, I’d recommend including the New American Bible or the New Jerusalem Bible, which are translated by Catholic committees. The NAB is probably a bit more literal/formal than the NIV and the NJB is dynamic/functional like the NLT or REB.
  3. Instead of spending your time looking for glosses to Greek words in a concordance like Strong’s, spend more time studying relevant passages in English. Don’t find a gloss and then force it into all the verses. Rather, study each passage and look for definitions from the context. I mean definitions of the English words provided by the English context in your English Bible. So if you want to know what the “church” is, don’t worry about the definition of ekklesia in Greek. (Dave Black wrote some good notes on this the other day. If you read what he wrote about the Greek words carefully, you will see some of the difficulties in doing this sort of study unless you are very well versed in the language.) Worry about the definition of “church” (and related terms like “body of Christ”)  in English verses. How does Paul view this in Ephesians 4, for example?
  4. In order to keep from getting stuck with the work of just one committee, compare those translations. While the formal translations may be closer to the form of the Greek or Hebrew, you may not correctly comprehend what that form means. Try the options in one of the dynamic/functional versions. Then listen to the context. Many, many misinterpretations are produced by deciding what a word in the original language is suppose to mean and then forcing the verse to fit that meaning. Ask instead whether the definition you have in mind truly fits. In English, for example, the word “car” might refer to an automobile, the part of an elevator you ride in, or one element of a train. You wouldn’t take the elevator-related definition and force it into a passage about automobiles, would you? Don’t do it to the biblical text either. Consider words like “salvation,” which may refer to a moment of new birth, a continuous process of God’s work in the believer, or the eventual salvation from final death, among other things.
  5. Don’t be afraid of surface reading. Surface reading is a good starting point for study. I like to read an entire book of the Bible through before focusing on a section. That’s harder to do if we’re talking Isaiah or Ezekiel, but for most of the New Testament it’s not that hard. It’s a bit like standing on a mountain looking across a forest before trying to hike through it. You can read rapidly and you don’t need to understand everything. That’s what your later study is for.
  6. Don’t be intimidated. Those of us who read the languages also make plenty of mistakes. We’re subject to all the same human biases. I thank the Lord for the opportunity I’ve had to learn and for the gift of reading the Bible in its original languages. But none of that work gave me the right to lord it over others or to demand that they accept my view because of my study.

Above all, I encourage you to study the scriptures for yourself and listen for God to speak to you. It is the privilege of everyone, not just of clergy or scholars. Many people have given their time and some have even given their lives so that you can have that Bible in your own language. Make the most of it!


New Edition of the New American Bible

New Edition of the New American Bible

You can read about it at Unsettled Christianity.

While it never has been one of my top tier of translations for regular use, I was impressed with the NAB because it combined strong idiomatic language with a fairly strong score for literal translation on the scoring system I use at MyBibleVersion.com.

In addition, I like the notes, which give a Catholic perspective, and of course the inclusion of the apocrypha.

Promising Series on TNIV, HCSB, and NAB

Promising Series on TNIV, HCSB, and NAB

I think Kevin Sam over at New Epistles has made an excellent choice in selecting these three translations to study as “intermediate” and he’s off to a good start explaining why he’s doing it.

I note his apology for the term “intermediate,” but that is not such a bad choice of language. I rate translations on a scale of one to ten for formality and similarly for functionality (see examples at MyBibleVersion.com). It is important to realize that these translation types are not narrow pathways to follow, but rather more general principles.

How one combines them in translation, for example choosing formal equivalence except for specific circumstances, can produce some interesting results. In the case of the NAB, for example, I gave a rating of 4 for functionality/idiomaticity and a 9 for formality. The TNIV is 3 and 8 in those two categories, while the HCSB is 2 and 9. This implies that the NAB is using paraphrasing and careful choice of English idioms in specific places, whilst generally following a formal equivalent line.

My practice in producing these ratings is to use a list of verses which contain idiomatic expressions and also to test the translations of sample passages for how many words are strictly justified in a formal sense. In the case of the HCSB, I’m not certain the numbers are valid, because as I read more and more of it, it seems uneven in practice. I may write a bit more on that as I go forward. With a small number of sample passages, it could be possible to get an invalid reading.

In any case, I await the remainder of this series with interest and will be comparing it with my own notes.

Finding an Authoritative Translation

Finding an Authoritative Translation

In George Orwell’s Animal Farm things eventually boil down to “all the animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

I think I can apply this to Bible translations as well as to animals, especially when one is looking for an authoritative translation. The fact is that no translation perfectly reflects the source languages. Thus, there is no translation that is the final word on the interpretation of any particular passage. The final appeal must be to the texts in the source languages, and to the best research available there.

This situation is very disappointing to many Bible students who don’t know their Biblical languages, which is the vast majority of Bible students. How can they successfully get finality about a point of Biblical interpretation from a translation? Surely there is a translation that is right all the time, that can simply be trusted. But the answer is no. No translation is ever perfect.

But are some translations “more equal” on this point than others? I would say that there are, and that there are some techniques that English speaking and reading Bible students can use in order to avoid getting caught by a translation issue. These techniques are really fairly simple, and the necessary tools are widely available.

  1. Use multiple translations
    If you compare the translation of a text in more than one version, you will be alerted to translation differences. Start with the assumption that if there is a substantial difference in the way a verse is translated, i.e. that the two translations don’t simply express the same thought in different words, then there may be a significant translation issue underlying those different versions.
  2. Make your choice of versions wisely and purposefully
    Choosing multiple versions to compare when looking for translation issues is differnt than choosing a version for your own reading or study use according to your preferences. You want to find versions that are done by credible scholars, but that differ in their approach sufficiently so that they are likely to disagree on controversial issues. I’ll list some good selections for this purpose below. In particular, be aware of the translation philosophy involved. For example, comparing the rendering of the ESV with that of the CEV may give you the idea that there is a significant translation issue, when the problem is really that one is very literal while the other is dynamically expressive. With some extra attention, you will then often find that they are both trying to convey the same message, just in a different way.
  3. Check concordances with original language references
    Many people put a great deal of weight into these kinds of studies in terms of finding or even creating new definitions, but without facility in the language in question it is doubtful that your work will be all that accurate. Such study can alert you to just where the problems are in a translation. This may not give you the final answer, but at least it may keep you from being embarrassed by finding out that you based your interpretation on a faulty translation, or that you were dogmatic about something that is really very controversial.
  4. Use commentaries
    For this purpose you need an exegetical or critical commentary. You might want to look at some suggestions for materials in my reader’s guide to Bible study tools.

Now let’s expand just a bit on which translations are “more equal than others.” If you want to catch translation problems you need to be more careful than usual in your selection. Let me suggest that your select one or more from each of the following groups. Note that the groups do overlap.

You want to avoid hitching your star to older translations, such as the KJV, ERV, ASV, Young’s Literal and so forth. These translations can be good an helpful in reading and study, but they were made without much modern research and many recent discoveries in manuscripts and language, and thus are not nearly as helpful in identifying true translation issues.

Literal Translations

You can generally avoid the older RSV as most translation issues will be reflected in the newer versions. I don’t list the New King James Version simply because its focus was to reflect the text and language of the KJV, and thus it does not present as much new information as other versions.

Dynamic Translations

Catholic Translations

Protestant Translations

Mainstream/Liberal Translations

Evangelical Translations

Jewish Translations

In this category, the one item to consult is the JPS Tanakh: The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text. I do not have this rated yet on my list of Bible translations, but it should be consulted especially in cases of interfaith dialogue.

As I noted earlier, there is ultimately no way short of learning the source languages to really be able to handle all translation issues. You will find, however, that the majority of the Bible is not that controversial in its translation. Translation issues deal with a small number of texts, though often these are the most contentious. Using multiple translations wisely will help you avoid errors and embarassment.

See also my book, What’s in a Version? and my Bible Translation Selection Tool.