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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!


NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible

NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible

NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (Front)A little over a week ago I reviewed the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible using the Olive Tree electronic edition. On Tuesday I received my hardcover copy from the publisher. (Note: I received this copy free of charge in exchange for an honest review. No other strings were attached!) This is not an extraordinarily new experience in Bible editions, but it is a good one.

The Bible is 6″ x 9″, so fits nicely on all my disorderly stacks of books. It’s about 2 1/4″ thick, which makes it substantial, but not the largest Bible I use. The picture at the top shows it in my (not necessarily its) natural environment. That’s my actual desk, and so you can see it in comparison to the other study Bibles I have around it. You can click on the image to see it in high resolution. These days I rarely carry a physical Bible to church, other than my Greek & Hebrew testaments (I have years of marking and marginal notes in them), so I don’t worry that much about theimg_20160908_141131 physical size of a study Bible.

These days I rarely carry a physical Bible to church, other than my Greek & Hebrew testaments (I have years of marking and marginal notes in them), so I don’t worry that much about the physical size of a study Bible. That said, I can say that I prefer working with the electronic edition of this Bible, even though I am not well-acquainted with Olive Tree software. There is a great deal of information to present, and the size of an edition is always a compromise.

NIV CBSB with 12 point fontIn this case, the text is small (as is common with study Bibles). The image just below shows it by comparison with my own Revelation: A Participatory Study Guide, which is printed in a 12 point font. The notes appear slightly smaller, though I’m not good enough to say for certain, and the impression may be created by a different (sans-serif) font for the notes. This note on text size is not intended as criticism, but it is one of the major reasons I prefer to use an electronic edition in which I can set font size. This is a problem for just about every study Bible out there. There is so much information to be included that something has to give. Having done page layout on a large number of books myself, I understand this completely.

The biblical text is printed in two columns with reference notes in the center. This is a classical style of presentation, but not one of my favorites. Again, I should emphasize that nobody can avoid all criticisms for the layout of a text. Doubtless others would complain about a single column with notes on the outer margins, for example. The double-column format is so standard that I have only a couple of Bibles that don’t follow it. An excellent example is The Jewish Study Bible (JPS Tanakh Translation), which uses a single column for the text with notes consistently in a narrower column to the right. I find their edition quite friendly.

There are a variety of excurses and notes included directly in the text section, besides the standard notes which are in two columns at the bottom of the page. The notes supplement and follow-up on the introduction, generally providing information that is applicable on a wider basis, i.e. not to just the text in question. For example, just before the text of Isaiah we have an introduction to “The Oracles of the Prophets,” followed by a short introduction to the book of Isaiah itself. But about three pages in we have a nearly three-page section titled “The Historical Background of Isaiah,” which provides a great deal of helpfNIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (Hebrews)ul information that will also relate to others of the prophets.

But just after these sections, on p. 1122, is an inset titled “Dating Methods.” No, this is not for those of you interested in origins and how rocks and fossils might be dated. Rather, it presents the basics of how one tries to place a particular oracle at a particular date. This is a tightly packed, extremely useful essay. Everyone should read it, no matter what portion of the Bible you’re studying. That’s why I chose Isaiah for this brief tour!

I mentioned that I will comment on some more specifics regarding the book of Hebrews. I will do so, but this past week has been intense, and I didn’t yet get to it. Nonetheless, the picture to the left at this point is the introduction to the book of Hebrews. I will go through that introduction in more detail in a post I hope to publish by Saturday.

Having the physical copy of this Bible in my hands makes me completely comfortable in recommending it. It’s easier to scan the portions I’m not emphasizing. For example, in using an electronic version I rarely “leaf through” the book, and thus might have missed the excellent introductory material for Isaiah. My main concern with study Bibles is that people tend to take the word of the note writer as to the meaning of the text. It’s certainly appropriate and valuable to get the opinions of others, but when one doesn’t find out why the writer believes a certain thing, one is left with either accepting it on authority—surely the author of such a fine volume would have his facts straight!—or having to dig elsewhere for that background information. That’s the value of this type of explanation.

For a few more notes on study Bibles in English, see my aer.io store collection.

 

Review: NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible – Hebrews

Review: NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible – Hebrews

Introduction

#contextchangeseverything – yes, it does. But how?

With the vast array of Bible study materials that are available in the English language comes a problem. How does one choose what materials are worth my time, shelf space (or HD space!), or money? If you search my blog for posts about study Bibles, you’ll find that I have a love-hate relationship with them, and it tends to be mostly hate. Nonetheless, I own—and use—a variety of study Bibles, and you’ll even see some positive reviews.

The reason for the hate side of the equation is that far too many people purchase a study Bible that’s recommended by someone they trust, or even written by someone they trust, not to mention randomly selected from a bookstore shelf and then accept what the notes say because they are written by biblical scholars after all. I recall being accosted by a church member some years ago who asked me about the notes on a particular text. I can’t even recall which text it was. Her problem was that she couldn’t figure out how the meaning presented in the note could be extracted from the text itself. I strongly recommend asking just such a question! I asked her if she’d considered the possibility that the note could be wrong. That was a revelation for her.

What I recommend is that a reader make sure to get study Bibles that are written from different perspectives and use them as an aid, not as a source of the answers. To some extent one should study the Bible text first, and then the notes, but sometimes one can read background material first. A study Bible that provides notes that tell you directly what the passage means can be quite convenient, but also quite misleading.

But one of the key problems for Bible students in the 21st century western world is the extent to which our culture is different from that of the world of the Bible. Very frequently what seems quite plain to us is not at all what the Bible writer is trying to say because we simply don’t share enough of those norms. I have come to believe that I have benefitted more by coming to understand human culture and language over the last 30 or so years than I have by learning the biblical languages. I do not mean to underestimate the value of learning Greek and Hebrew, but if my language learning had not been enhanced by the study of linguistics, history, sociology, and anthropology, it would have been of little value.

Pastors frequently proclaim that “the Greek word ____ means” or “the Hebrew word ____ means” and then build their exegesis on what is essentially simply another gloss. This makes people believe they have been enlightened by the ancient languages, when they have actually simply transferred their 21st century attitudes and presuppositions to a set of sounds they are told is Greek or Hebrew. Understanding a language means to some extent understanding a culture. Similarly understanding a text means understanding something about the person or persons who wrote it and the audience for which it was intended.

This is the key element that I believe a study Bible can provide. Certainly cross-references and historical connections are important, but letting the reader know how people in that time and place lived and thought is much more important.

NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible

Olive Tree with NIV Cultural Bible
NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible on my Android Tablet

(Note: I am basing my notes on the Olive Tree Bible software edition provided to me free of charge as I did not receive my print edition. I will not make comments on the layout or usability of the print edition.)

Thus I come to the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. They use the provocative (and obviously true) URL contextchangeseverything.com. I should note here that there are many types of context. There is a literary context, historical context, linguistic context, and (among others) cultural context. We usually think of context in a fairly narrow linguistic sense. A word study might be done by finding a variety of sentences that use a particular word. We know that when Jesus says, “Go and do likewise” we need to look at the context of what has been commanded. We can’t grab some other activity and make that the command of Jesus instead.

Study Bibles generally examine a range of these ideas as well as proposing interpretations for difficult passages, often without providing enough information so that the reader can follow the logic. The final reader is left with the simple logic that the skilled scholar who wrote the study notes concluded X, so X must be correct, an assumption that will be severely shaken in many cases if one compares other Bibles written by skilled scholars.

The Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible aims to help you understand the Bible writers, their audience, and their times. In the notes you will find direct connections between ancient culture(s) and the text itself. Rather than just being told that a certain phrase means a certain thing, you will be given the reason why one might come to that conclusion. This is no guarantee that every interpretation is correct; that would be expecting the impossible. (Which perfect one of us would make the determination in any case?) What it does mean is that for most explanations in the notes in this Bible you can follow the logic path. If you want to, you can do deeper research, and the notes are specific enough that you’ll be able to do your search, Bible dictionary reference, or deeper study in a commentary or at a good library.

Since I’m not reviewing the Bible overall, but rather looking in particular at one book, I won’t spend more time on an overview. Let me simply say that I’m delighted with the intent, and quite impressed with the implementation. There are obviously limitations. This is a study Bible, not a multi-volume commentary or an encyclopedia. It would be easy to complain about what’s not there. In my review of the book of Hebrews, I believe that the editorial choices made were quite good. I would doubtless have chosen differently in some cases, as would just about anyone, but that’s only to be expected.

On to Hebrews

To study Hebrews most effectively using this Bible, start first with the introduction to the Old Testament. Why? Because Hebrews displays an interesting interplay between the text of Hebrew Scripture, seen generally through the LXX translation, and then interpreted in a particularly New Testament light. The details of how these elements interact require some discussion, and that’s why you study and compare, but you need to understand the sources. The introduction discusses 12 issues in which we will see the world differently, and I think all of these issues will impact your reading of Hebrews.

While reading the text of Hebrews you can use the links (if you’re using Bible software) or follow the references to Old Testament passages. You cannot impose your own exegesis of passages of Hebrew Scripture on Hebrews, but it is important to know not just the text that is quoted, but also its literary context that might be brought to the audience’s mind by the reference, and also by ways in which that text might have been understood. It is not sufficient to treat the Old Testament quotations in Hebrews as words used in the context of Hebrews. Of course, the context of their use in Hebrews is the most definitive when we determine how the author of Hebrews intended them, but we need to do everything possible to get into his (or her) world in order to understand that context.

This is the value of a volume like this. I’m currently reading a commentary on Hebrews that is more than 600 pages. I have another on the shelf in front of me that is of similar length. It’s hard to back off and get an overview of the forest using those commentaries, though both are extremely valuable. What I enjoyed with the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, even as someone who has read the book of Hebrews many times, and studied the works of many commentators on it, was this broader view. Having dealt busily with the trees, putting each leaf under a microscope, it was nice to get so much material easily available. (This is a general advantage with study Bibles over detailed commentaries, at least the better ones, but the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible excels).

Content Comparison

study bible stackI’m going to compare the content of several study Bibles I have on my shelf. Where I give word counts, they are loose estimates based on line counts and my eyeball count of average words per line. The Bibles I’m using to compare are: The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV), The Orthodox Study Bible, The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, The NLT Study Bible, and of course the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible.

First, let’s compare sheer quantity of text. First, the introduction. (I’ll add a note on approach.)

NOAB: About 450 words, no outline, though an outline can be extracted easily from the notes. The approach of the notes is often technical. Users complain that they don’t get enough theological help.

OSB: About 220 words, short outline provided, stronger suggestion of possible Pauline authorship than others. Theology is consistent with that of the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

NISB: A bit more than 1000 words and a mid-length outline. The NISB is kind of the pastor’s answer to the NOAB for mainline teachers/preachers. It provides more theological reflection, a fact I receive with definitely mixed emotions, though the material is generally helpful in its place. Theology is mainline with a bit of a liberal lean.

NLT Study Bible: About 1500 words and a brief outline. Theology is strongly evangelical

NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible: About 800 words, no outline, features “Quick Glance” section. Theology is evangelical.

Now let’s consider a specific passage, in this case Hebrews 4:12-13, and look at the quantity of notes, along with a count of insets or excurses in the whole text of Hebrews:

NOAB: 21 words. No excurses.

OSB: 54 words. One excursus.

NISB:  75 words. No excurses.

NLT Study Bible: 74 words. 9 excurses.

NIV Cultural Background Study Bible: 136 words. Two excurses.

The critical value of these notes is that they are aimed at the background and at helping you draw a line from the background to the meaning. I would say that the NOAB is great at pointing to technical details, but not so much at theology, while the NISB spends less time on technical details while using much of its space to reflect on theology. The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible uses its space in drawing a picture and pointing that to possible theological conclusions without trying to be a theology text.

Conclusion

Over the next few days I will post something on a couple of my favorite passages and the specific comments provided by this study Bible. I would consider this an excellent Bible to have at hand for a study of any biblical book. In my To the Hebrews: A Participatory Study Guide (currently under revision), I recommend that a study group have more than one study Bible available. I think it would be good for a group studying Hebrews to have this one at hand. One of the reasons my own guide is being revised is that it is largely a collection of thought questions. I’m going to provide more of a basis for those questions in the second edition. But the book will still be intended for use by a study group that has available multiple resources to compare. This will be one of the few that I recommend.


Note: All of these introductions to the book of Hebrews tend to dismiss Pauline authorship, with the Orthodox Study Bible being the most favorable. My own position is that it is not possible to determine the author. I used to exclude Paul as a possibility, but have been persuaded by the writing of David Alan Black that Paul should be kept as a possibility. I publish his little book The Authorship of Hebrews: The Case for Paul.

Quick Follow-up on Hebrews 2:6-8

Quick Follow-up on Hebrews 2:6-8

I commented earlier on the difficult choices involved in translating an Old Testament reference that does not match the Old Testament passage in your own translation.

Here’s an example from the NIV1984. First, Psalm 8:4-6 –

what is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?

You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.

You made him ruler over the works of your hands,
you put everything under his feet.

Now look at this as translated in Hebrews 2:6-8 –

“What is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?

You made him a little lower than the angels;
you crowned him with glory and honor
and put everything under his feet.”

The key phrase here is “a little lower than the angels.” The usage of this line in Hebrews will reflect an alternate translation of the Greek (LXX), “for a little while lower.” The translation is, I believe, accommodated to the phraseology in the Old Testament. The NASB is pretty open about simply translated the text in front of the committee, and leaving it to commentators to deal with the difference in the text and translation.

I find this interesting, though not a major issue. It is valuable, however, to understand the approach taken by your translation. I am much more concerned with the attempt by the NIV to “fix” problems through questionable translations, such as the sudden introduction of an unjustified pluperfect at Genesis 2:19, a rendering that survived from the 1984 to the 2011 NIV.

A Gender Neutral Example – Hebrews 2:6-8

A Gender Neutral Example – Hebrews 2:6-8

A couple of days ago I discussed gender-neutral language in a post dealing with both inerrancy and Bible translation issues. Today, as I was doing some reading about Hebrews, I encountered a vigorous comment against such language in a passage in Hebrews. The passage in question is Hebrews 2:6-8, and it quotes from Psalm 8:4-6. The NIV translates the first anthrwpos as “mankind” and then huios anthrwpou as “a son of man.” They then continue with a series of plural pronouns in the explanation.

In his The New American Commentary: Hebrews, David L. Allen responds to this translation with some vigor. (Note that he is responding to the TNIV, and relying on the text of the 1984 NIV, but the text of the 2011 NIV has in it every difficulty he references in his discussion. I really can’t get the flavor of his arguments without quoting more than I’m going to quote in a blog, but he starts with two major issues. The first is that by obscuring the anthrwpos/’adam reference with a plural (TNIV uses “mortals” while NIV2011 uses “mankind”) one loses the sense of the unity of the human race through descent from Adam. Secondly, by using plural references in succeeding texts, one makes it more difficult, if not impossible, to connect this to “son of man” as a Messianic title for Jesus. Whether this was the intent of Psalm 8 in its original context, it appears to be an intent of the author of Hebrews.

Of these he says:

Third, to change the word or phrase to a more “gender neutral” expression, especially in light of the other two problems above, is simply an exercise in linguistic political correctness. (p. 240, Nook edition)

The issues here are somewhat more complex than any case I was referencing in my earlier post. When you have someone address a congregation that includes both men and women using adelphoi, the issue is more one of referent. In this case, we need to ask a couple of questions:

1) In what way was the author reading the passage? In other words, how would he have understood it in then making his argument? It seems courteous, in a sense, to render a quotation in the same way as the person quoting it intended. This is by no means uncontroversial. If an author quotes the LXX, as is done here, but the Bible translation in question translates its Old Testament from the Hebrew, what should be done? There are cases in which a translation will accommodate their own rendering of the OT verse to the translation as they have it in their OT, whether or not that fits the author. On the other hand, to have the author of Hebrews quote Psalm 8:4-6, and then have the rendering there differ from what a reader will find when he or she turns to the Old Testament in that very same Bible edition can (and will) raise questions. So it is a case of decisions, decisions, and no matter what you do, there will be disagreement.

2) What will your readers miss when they read your rendering? In this case we have two choices. We might leave out some understanding of the unity of humanity and the connection between a singular son of man and Jesus. On the other hand, for some readers, we might be leaving out the sense that this is humanity and not just some particular man. I know of nothing that would cover all options except for an explanatory note, and most of us are likely aware of how many people read explanatory notes.

I don’t consider this a clear case of a change of language requiring a change of translation. The word anthrwpos, as used here, is covering a different semantic range, and the translator needs to take that into account. The danger into which the NIV2011 and the TNIV have both slipped here is that they undercut the author’s presentation by using a different translation of the passage he’s building on. He chose the LXX of his time. Perhaps we should honor the idea of his choosing a translation by translating that translation in a way that matches his use.

What do you think?

On Prettying-Up the Bible (In Reply to @drbobcwcc and @RevKindle)

On Prettying-Up the Bible (In Reply to @drbobcwcc and @RevKindle)

Does the Bible need some improvements, if not in content, at least in presentation? That’s one way to put the question addressed by Rev. Steve Kindle in a guest post on Dr. Bob Cornwall’s blog. I want to make some fairly picky comments on this post. As I do so, I want you to be aware that I generally applaud the goals of this post, even while disagreeing in detail.

My previous experience with prettying-up the Bible involves the violent passages. I previously reviewed Jack Blanco’s book (I have trouble calling it a translation), the Clear Word Bible. Some of his renderings are much more comfortable reading than the original, but I haven’t been able to conceive of a paradigm that would allow me to think of them as accurate. I often think, however, that some of the violent passages of scripture are saved from revision largely because so few people read them. Numbers 31 has the advantage of being in a portion of scripture rarely consulted by Christians. When they do consult it, they are often shocked and wish it would go away.

Besides honesty (or accuracy), there is a problem with smoothing out the past. It conceals the nature of scripture, of the experience with God that comes from different people at different times. Seeing trajectories of change in scripture will change our approach to how we get from the words in the book to ethical action in our world.

Rev. Kindle is primarily addressing gender language. This is a fairly controversial topic in modern Bible translation. Translations have been excluded from certain Christian book stores because of the way the represent gender. As is often the case, however, the issue was much more how one was perceived to represent gender. The same store carried other Bible translations that used gender neutral renderings. These other versions were simply less well-known. The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood is very involved in these issues from a conservative point of view, and are opposed by the Christians for Biblical Equality. In perusing these sites, one can see that there is a great deal of weight put on these issues in church doctrine and politics.

What is unusual in Rev. Kindle’s presentation is that it comes from a progressive Christian who supports equality. He supports gender neutral language in many endeavors, excluding one:

I am all for the use of gender neutral terms for God in all church settings including sermons, liturgies, and conversations. But when it comes to inclusive language in Bible translations, I must object.

There is a valid distinction between those fields of endeavor. There is a great deal of difference between determining the way I will discuss God and the way I will translate. Do I refer to god solely with masculine pronouns? Do I avoid the use of pronouns at all? Those questions involve different issues when I am translating the apostle Paul, for example, as opposed to expressing my own theology. I am not a pastor, a liturgist, or a theologian. My studies were in biblical languages, and I’m a publisher. I’m interested in the words.

And that’s where we tend to get into trouble.

Whats in a Version?Most people, in my experience, view Bible translation as a singular effort, one with a definite, definable goal. I encounter this attitude almost every time I speak or teach or any other time someone manages to connect my face with my book, What’s in a Version?. The question I’m most often asked is: What is the best Bible version? Sometimes there’s a variant: What’s the most accurate Bible version?

But those questions reflect the problem. On the cover of my book I have a one-line answer: The best Bible version is the one you read!

Surely that’s a horrible answer! There have to be bad Bible translations, and I could be reading one of them! And yes, it’s not a complete answer, yet it does make a point. The task of Bible translation is not singular. There is no one “most accurate” Bible translation. There is no single “most readable” translation. In order to answer that common question I have to know who the questioner is. What is the best Bible version for you? I also need to know the activity in view. What is the best Bible version for you to use for devotional reading? What is the best Bible version to use in your study group? What is the best Bible version to use from the pulpit?

The reason is that one cannot transfer the entire meaning of a a source text into any target language. You are going to lose something. The question is what?

Let me take a short digression here. When I discuss loss of meaning I do not mean solely between the text of the source language and the tip of the pen (or the little pixels on the computer screen) of the translator. I mean loss of meaning between what a well-qualified reader of the source language could get from the source text itself, and what a reader of the target language can get from the text in the target language. There is no great value in a text which is accurate in an abstract sense, but is not understood accurately by actual readers. It follows from this that a translation must consider who is to read the text in order to determine how to express thoughts from the source accurately.

Further, understanding comes in different forms. Do I emotionally “get” the story told? Do I comprehend the facts that are narrated? Am I swept away by the literary beauty of the passage? Can I place myself in the shoes of those whose story is told, or who might have first heard the story? All of these things are desirable to various extents at various times, but successfully conveying them is not easy. In fact, it’s impossible to do everything at once. I cannot, for example, convey the rhetorical impact of the Greek of To The Hebrews while also making every point of theology clear to an American audience.

I know readers will object that it is up to teachers and preachers to get the theology right, and they may be correct, but that is a choice in what will be translated. I could then say, “Translation X conveys the theology of Hebrews with great clarity, while translation Y gives one a feel for the literary tour-de-force executed by the author.” The author, however, was intending to convey his (or her, I must concede) theological points in a powerful and compelling exhortation. Where do I compromise?

This is why some have commented on the irenic tone of my book. It’s not that I’m such a peaceable personality, or that I am a great peacemaker, though I would love to be. The reason is that I believe that there are many possible goals for Bible translation and that there are many audiences for which one might translate. Thus there are many possible ways in which one can (and should) translate, so I have less of a tendency to condemn any particular rendering. I do not mean that all translations are equal. I do not mean that there are no wrong translations. I simply mean that there are multiple right translations within various parameters.

I am disturbed when I hear preachers and teachers refer to translations that are supported by significant numbers of scholars as “mistaken” or just as “errors in translation.” This presents the task of translation as too simple. There are many legitimate disagreements which should be referenced as such. Reserve the word “error” for a translation that cannot be justified.

But to get back to the gender issue, Bob, in his introduction brings it up,

Thus, the New Revised Standard Version and the Common English Bible will, where the translators deem appropriate, translate a word like adelphoi, the Greek word for brother as “brothers and sisters.”

and Rev. Kindle uses similar phraseology (9th paragraph from the end):

“Member” here is literally, “brother.”

I have been accused of not giving users of the word “literal” the sort of latitude I give with any other word, i.e. recognizing that words have different meanings. The problem with “literal,” especially in circumstances such as these, is that it is extremely susceptible to equivocation. As its use has developed in the language, it is often heard as “accurate” or “faithful” when those who use it intend something more like “simple,” “direct,” or “most common meaning.”

In this case I would disagree with the usage in either case. The Greek word adelphos or its plural adelphoi may have as its referent either a male person (or group of males, as appropriate), or a person of undefined gender, or a group of both men and women. It is probably significant that the masculine form was used in both cases, though it is very easy to take grammatical gender too far in translating a language in which grammatical and natural gender do not match.

Similarly, until recently (change is still in progress) we used “he” to refer to a generic person in English, and “men” and “brethren” to refer to groups of mixed gender. In groups I have been able to survey informally, there seems to be a break right around 40 years of age (adjusted for the passage of time) as to how this usage is understood. Older people will understand “brethren” as including both genders when a group is addressed, while younger ones do not. A pastor illustrated this to me very clearly when he objected to the NRSV because of its gender neutral language. He couldn’t see how “brothers and sisters” was an accurate translation of adelphoi, so he would stick to the more accurate (in his view) RSV. The next Sunday he was reading scripture and he came to a passage in Paul where the apostle was clearly addressing an entire congregation. He stopped, looked up, and said, “And that includes you sisters too!” Clearly he knew some in his congregation would not hear the passage as inclusively as it was intended.

This would apply differently in different passages. For example:

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism (James 2:1, NIV, from #BibleGateway).

The words “brothers and sisters” here translated the Greek adelphoi. I think it unlikely that James intended men in the congregation to eschew favoritism, while the women were allowed to practice it. He addresses the whole congregation. Yet if I read the usage of the English language correctly, a congregation with people largely below the age of forty would hear the passage as excluding women if we used the “literal” translation “brothers.”

On the other hand, we have James 3:1:

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly (James 3:1, NIV, from #BibleGateway).

Now here we have a historical decision to make. My belief is that there were many more women teaching in the early church than we have imagined. This is not the place to argue the point. If, on the other hand, one believes that only men were permitted to teach, this would lose historical information as translated by the NIV, as “fellow believers” is here also a translation of the Greek adelphoi. (Another interesting question is whether “fellow believers” or “brothers and sisters” is the more literal rendering of adelphoi. But I will avoid diving into the morass of meanings for the word “literal” that would evoke.)

This is different, however, from the kind of effort made by The Inclusive Bible, which changes many cases in which the original intent of the passage, by which I mean in this case the original referent, is not inclusive. The passage Rev. Kindle quotes from 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, for example, if it is original to the epistle (I believe, with Gordon Fee, that it is not), certainly is not intended as inclusive. That case is very different from either of the cases I referenced in the book of James.

These cases should be handled differently, according to the nature of the audience and the usage in the target language. Right now we are somewhat in transition on inclusive language in English, and that will complicate the work of the translator, and even the liturgist. Something that is heard one way by part of the congregation may be heard in the opposite way by another.

In addition, we need to recognize multiple goals in the use of our ancient texts. We do not translate just to convey data. We also translate for liturgy, for devotion, for prayer, for meditation, and for other goals. The particular way we handle the material at hand must take this different uses into consideration. There are certainly illegitimate translations (1 Corinthians 14:34-35 above from The Inclusive Bible, and many Old Testament passages from The Clear Word, for example) but there are also multiple legitimate goals and multiple audiences to which the translator will hope to convey something of the source text.

Audiences and the KJV

Audiences and the KJV

. . . or any Bible translation, for that matter.

My post on reading from the KJV elicited a response from Iyov, who doesn’t agree with a number of things, some of which I haven’t said. But some of them I have said, so I want to clarify just a bit.

Note that I will make a couple of comments that are direct responses, which will be headed by quotes from his post as linked above. Where I am not directly responding to one of these quotes, I am making general comments, and these comments should not be read as directed at Iyov. I agree with a number of things he says, and would prefer that readers not assume disagreement where it doesn’t exist.

I related my experience with young readers who did not comprehend passages from the KJV, and Iyov responds thus:

Neufeld’s argument is odd. Certainly we expect young people to learn material substantially more difficult than the KJV. I do understand that Shakespeare and Milton remain in the high school curriculum, and those works use language far more complex than the KJV.

I’m afraid I find his counterargument odd. I cannot comment on his hypothetical young people who have supposedly studied more complex English literature in High School, but the actual young people in front of me were not comprehending the KJV. Further, when I asked them to read from the not-so-good NASB they were quickly able to comprehend things that they did not from the KJV. The NIV was even better.

Now I don’t want to make assumptions as to Iyov’s position, but I have had many people argue that I should teach the young people to read and understand the KJV. So in response to those who have made such an argument to me, I must say that I find it ridiculous. I also like the French Louis Segond version. Should I perhaps teach them French before I teach them a Bible class? Whether the educational system should prepare them to read Jacobean English or not (and I would say NOT as a general rule), when I teach Bible class I need to start from a text they can read. If I’m going to teach them anything about a language that is foreign to them, it will be about Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic, as appropriate.

Of course there are varying levels of difficulty in the Bible, but that is hardly the point. In general use, a translation should not make the text more obscure than is necessary in order to convey the intent of the writer.

Iyov states further:

The Bible, even to those who have access to Biblical languages, is difficult. The Hebrew of the Bible is often obscure and difficult. Translations that hide this fact from readers (and this category includes the vast majority of all translations) are not accurately reflecting the text.

Again, I find this argument odd. One of the difficulties with the Hebrew text is that we lack cultural context and knowledge of the usage of certain words and constructions. In order to translate at all, one must make decisions on these matters and convey the result. There is no particular value to maintaining obscurity, except by indicating in a footnote that there are alternatives.

I’m not sure what Iyov expects translators to do with these obscure texts. Perhaps they should translate obscure Hebrew words with nonsense syllables in English so that the English reader can experience the frustration of trying to work through a difficult passage. No, that would be a bad idea. On of the tasks of a translator is to work through that sort of difficulty. He is a specialist, presenting a text to non-specialists.

Quoting Iyov again:

Even stranger is the claim the implication that the KJV allows religious leaders to “infuse meaning” through interpretively biased readings in a way that more modern translations do not.

It may be strange, though I think it is actually quite plain, and I have observed it many times. This is not, as Iyov seems to have understood me to say, the fault of translators. In fact, I regard the KJV as the greatest single achievement in English Bible translation. I fault the translators for practically nothing. Most criticisms are based, in my view, on applying a later standard to their pioneering work.

But in many modern congregations, some very near to where I live, the majority of the people do not understand the KJV, and the KJV-Only preachers tell them that the KJV is the sole word of God, superior even to the source texts in Hebrew and Greek. They then use the fact that the congregation is ill-equipped to question them as part of the process of manipulation.

The KJV was once a great translation for use in church. It is not so in present day America. In fact, I have not seen it used in any church where I would say the choice of the KJV was appropriate to the congregation in question. Hypothetically, I believe there could be such congregations. I have simply never encountered them.

One of the things I found after I left seminary, went to work in the secular market for some years (also dealing with language), and then returning to the church was that I am simply not the best judge of what a text means. I started learning Biblical languages in my teen years. I have been fascinated by history, geography, and sociology since I could read. What I read in scripture is heavily influenced by this broad exposure to the backgrounds.

When I first started teaching after returning to the church scene, I tried to teach based on what I assumed people were understanding. I found out very quickly that my assumptions were wrong. So I did something that seems to escape many people, especially scholars–I started asking my audiences what they were hearing or understanding from the scripture texts I used.

What I found was that they were very often not hearing the same thing, especially from formal equivalence versions such as the NASB (which was once a favorite of mine) or even my much favored NRSV. The situation became much worse when they used the KJV.

Many languages scholars assume that ambiguity from the source text that is translated by ambiguous English text is more faithful, giving the audience the option of choosing for themselves. (My uncle, Don F. Neufeld, who started me on both Hebrew and Greek, made this argument to me, and it took me some time to realize it was not so.) But the audience doesn’t hear the same set of options that the scholar does.

A much better approach is for the expert to make a choice, and indicate alternatives in footnotes. Now the audience can comprehend the text with a probable reading, and those who are willing to put in a very small amount of work, much smaller than would be required to learn the source languages or Jacobean English, can get good alternatives.

I recommend to my students now that they use a variety of translations, and read those footnotes. If they want to get closer to the source languages, a standard battle cry of the formal equivalence advocates, they need to learn the source languages. Formal equivalence has its place, in my view, but it does not better reflect the meaning of the text.

The meaning of a text is only properly reflected in translation if that translation is understood by the target audience. There is no such thing as accuracy without understanding. If the target audience for a translation is scholars who have some knowledge of the source language, then perhaps formal equivalence will work as it is claimed. For the vast majority of the people I teach on a regular basis, formal equivalence fails to meet that promise.

Misunderstanding Translations

Misunderstanding Translations

A friend drew my attention to this article on the ESV today, and I’m deeply disappointed in what I found there. I’m going to comment on some key difficulties with that article. But the author also links to this article by John Piper, which doesn’t so much surprise me, as put in context some other things that I’ve seen in his writing.

Let’s look at Piper’s article first. A few days ago, in blogging on Piper’s book The Future of Justification, and specifically on his response to N. T. Wright’s understanding of 2 Corinthians 5:21, I commented on how much Piper’s book seemed to be driven by how certain interpretations would preach. There are a set of doctrines which Piper believes, and he seems to look first for an affirmation of this reformed doctrine that he teaches, and then he’s looking for texts that he can use to preach those messages effectively. It would be easy to overstate that case, because Piper can and does use exegetical arguments for his point of view, and undoubtedly defends certain doctrines because he believes they are Biblical, but there is simply a different flavor in what he writes than there is in N. T. Wright.

But here, when he turns to Bible translation, there are simply numerous points that sound naive to a student of Biblical languages. Since I’m pretty sure Piper is not naive, I am led to believe that he is being drawn to use these arguments due to his strong views on other doctrinal points. Let’s take a look. Piper says:

. . . My biggest concern has to do with preaching. When a paraphrase becomes the standard preaching, reading, memorizing Bible of the church, preaching is weakened—robust expository exultation in the pulpit is made more difficult. Preaching that gives clear explanations and arguments from the wording of specific Biblical texts tends to be undermined when a Bible paraphrases instead of preserving the original wording on good English. And when that kind of preaching is undermined, the whole level of Christian thinking in the church goes down, and a Bible-saturated worldview is weakened, and the ability of the people—and even the pastors themselves-to root their thoughts and affections in firm Biblical ground diminishes.

You will note that he makes explicit what I have been observing. Preaching is driving him on these issues. That’s not entirely bad. The man is clearly a very gifted preacher, and he should be concerned.

But look at the next sentence. “When a paraphrase becomes the standard, preaching is weakened.” The specific example of paraphrasing that he has in view is the NIV. This is not the loose paraphrasing of The Living Bible; we’re talking about the quite conservative translation principles of the NIV. So why is it that he believes preaching is weaked? “Preaching that gives clear explanations and arguments from the wording of specific Biblical texts tends to be undermined when a Bible paraphrases instead of preserving the original wording on [sic] good English.” Did I read that right? Paraphrasing replaces the original wording, and whatever other variety of translation, presumably that used by the ESV, preserves the original reading.

Well, I have news for you folks here. I can read Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. I study from those original languages regularly. Nowhere in them is there found a single word that matches the ESV or any other literal English translation. Why? Because the English translations are in English rather than in Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic. Now somebody is thinking that Piper knows that, so he must mean something else. If you think that, please comment and show me where Piper indicates that he knows that. In fact, in the very sentence I just quoted, he points to the problem of arguments from “the wording of specific Biblical texts.” The only way that you have the “wording of specific Biblical texts” is if you have it in the original languages.

The advocates of literal Bible translation, or formal equivalence which is a more descriptive phrase, play a game of pretend. They try to get English wording that looks as much like Greek (or Hebrew, or Aramaic) wording as it’s possible for English wording to manage, and then they pretend that this is somehow more equivalent to the source language. But that assumes several things, all of which are generally not true.

  1. The meaning is primarily contained independently in the words. This is untrue. Without context, which includes the grammatical form of the words and the syntax in which they are used, one can be dangerously wrong about the meaning of a specific word. Very often the translation unit has to be the phrase or even larger in order to get the original intent.
  2. English words arranged like Greek words will suggest a similar range of meanings to the reader. Again, this is false. In fact, they will almost always suggest a different range of meanings. Context in the target language (English in this case) saves the translator over and over, because an English word that might overlap only slightly with its English counterpart can be clarified through creative use of the context. One word might be translated by a phrase. In other cases a word might be translated by a punctuation mark.
  3. The English reader is best equipped to disambiguate an ambiguous passage, thus the ambiguity should be preserved in the translation. Again, this is horribly naive. It is hard enough conveying a precise meaning for a Greek phrase or sentence in English. It is virtually impossible to convey the same range of possible meanings, with the same weighting in English.

Those are only a few examples.

Piper goes on with several reasons why literal translations should be preserved. He says: “A more literal translation respects the original author’s way of writing.” What? Again, the word “naive” comes to mind, but I have a hard time thinking it of Piper. It seems more logical that his commitment to certain doctrinal positions unduly influences him. But I can tell you that style is again terribly difficult to translate. One can aim for a similar level of formality, but actually reflecting the original style? It is actually much easier to respect the style of the original in paraphrasing. I have often thought that the only way to truly respect the style of the book of Hebrews in a translation, for example, would be to completely rewrite it into a more modern sermon style outline. That would, of course, require massive paraphrasing, and would create numerous other areas in which the translation was less reflective of the original, but it might get the picture of the high quality style of the original. What many critics of dynamic equivalent (or functional equivalence) translations fail to realize is that translation always involves compromise. You will convey some things to your readers, and others you will not.

His point #4 on the ESV, however, is bluntly a howler:

A more literal translation which preserves ambiguities that are really there in the original keeps open the possibility of new insight by future Bible readers.

The only place the ambiguities are fully preserved is in the text in the original language, and it is only preserved for those willing to put in the effort to attain an adequate reading level in the source languages to truly work through those possibilities. No translation, on the other hand, can cut off “the possibility of new insight by future Bible readers” unless those readers are naive enough to assume that a translation should be the source of those new insights.

I particularly like the examples used. One is Romans 1:5, “the obedience of faith” in which presumably the ESV is doing the better job of conveying the “ambiguity” to English readers. Now quickly, all you English readers who don’t know Greek, tell me the range of meanings that are possible for the Greek genitive. How will you know what that “of” means in Greek? Well, most of you will not. Many of you will get it from a fallible preacher like John Piper (or me, in a much smaller number of cases), instead of getting it from a fallible translation committee. The problem I have here is that the fallible translation committee is probably much less likely to be in error on the matter than is any one preacher. (I use the word “fallible” so frequently because of Piper’s reference to the fallibility of translators. I think we should be aware that teachers, preachers, and of course bloggers are also fallible, and thus if the end user of our theology gets the meaning of the text from us, he is working through more layers of fallibility than if he simply used a dynamic equivalence translation in the first place.)

Now to return to the first article I mentioned, I see there most of the arguments for literal translations rehashed. But in this case there are a couple more things that need to be flagged for serious concern.

He recommends this:

A good thing to do is to purchase an Interlinear and examine a dynamic equivalent with the Greek text (or Hebrew if possible). The ESV has a reverse interlinear that is quite helpful for this. This allows you to see not just how the ESV translators did on the translation but allows you to see what the literal translation is from the Greek text. There is also an NIV edition of this of which I own myself and I believe you will be surprised to see how much of the NIV goes off from the Greek text.

This is a very dangerous paragraph. First, an interlinear will not let you know how far someone has departed from the Greek text, but rather it will tell you how far your translation departs from the interlinear representation (itself a translation) of the Greek text. All you are doing in this case is comparing one translation to another unless you actually know the language. An interlinear is just a translation–only less. It is a very bad translation. But it goes a step further than the literal translation in deception. It makes people feel that they truly are looking at the text in the source language, when they are not. (I’ve discussed interlinears before here.)

I’m going to largely skip over the material on “politically correct” translations. Suffice it to say that none of the translators of the major Bible versions are trying to be politically correct. What they are trying to do, and in the case of the TNIV doing quite successfully, is translating the intent of the Bibles language on gender into similar meanings in English. The whole debate about gender accuracy throws the entire “literal Bible” error into sharp relief.

Like both of the others I’ve quote here, however, I do not want to tell you not to use one English version or another, if it works for you. But I think both authors fail in their effort to do so, because they strongly suggest that you favor a literal version. My suggestion would be that you instead choose a Bible that you can read easily, and then also have one or two other major versions to which to compare it. Most people today are not going to learn the original languages. Piper suggests that ambiguity in the text is cut off by dynamic equivalence translation (which he inaccurately calls “paraphrasing”). A better approach would be to look at more than one clear, natural translation where you can see each rendering in context. Many English readers would never imagine all the possibilities; that’s what translators are for.

Galatians 3:2: AKOE PISTEOS

Galatians 3:2: AKOE PISTEOS

Or should I make that AKOH PISTEWS? Note that a similar question can be asked in Galatians 3:5, but I will assume due to theme that one will give the same answer in both places.

Writing an exegetical article on this verse could be quite lengthy, but I agree with J. Louis Martyn in his commentary on Galatians when he says:

. . . Paul is not asking the Galatians which of two human acts served as the generative locus in which they received the Spirit, a decision on their part to keep the Law or a decision on their part to hear with faith. On the contrary, he is asking rhetorically whether that generative locus was

  • their act in becoming observant of the Law or
  • God’s message (akoh).

— page 288 [some punctuation/formatting including Greek rather than transliterated text is mine-HN]

The specific translation of akoh pistewj depends on two factors. First, should the word “hearing” be active or passive, in other words is the thing that generates the reception of the Spirit the act of hearing, or the content of what is heard, the message? The second is how does faith relate to the message. Is it a message that is faith, or is it a message that elicits faith? Martyn (op. cit.) Romans 10:16-17, where the message is much more clearly established as that which elicits faith, and the word akoh is also pretty clearly established as passive in intent.

So how do translations compare on this. Here are some examples, showing the variety on these two points:

  • TNIV – Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard. [This agrees with the NIV, which is surprising considering the accusations of Calvinist bias in the NIV translation.]
  • REB – did you receive the Spirit by keeping the law or by believing the gospel message?
  • NLT – Did you receive the Holy Spirit by keeping the law? Of course not, for the Holy Spirit came upon you only after you believed the message you heard about Christ.
  • ESV – Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?
  • CEV – How were you given God’s Spirit? Was it by obeying the Law of Moses or by hearing about Christ and having faith in him?
  • TEV – did you receive God’s Spirit by doing what the Law requires or by hearing the gospel and believing it?

I don’t see any translation that gets quite the nuance that I see in this passage, though perhaps I’m being a bit too tense. In this case, I think the NLT actually has the best translation with the CEV and TEV following very close after.

Of course, it’s hard for translations to get everything right. In this case, however, I think that formal equivalent translations, such as the ESV really leave the English reader hanging, because “hearing of faith” cannot possibly elicit the same semantic ranger as akoh pistews, with unfortunate results.