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Galatians 2:16 – A Problem in Translation and Theology

Galatians 2:16 – A Problem in Translation and Theology

I wanted to write a quick note here as this relates to my study tonight, as well as illustrating quite a number of translation problems. Here is our text, with CEV (NOT CEB) to the left, NRSV in the center as a “literal” comparison, and NLT to the right. I’m copying the NRSV notes as they highlight the issue.


But we know that God accepts only those who have faith in Jesus Christ. No one can please God by simply obeying the Law. So we put our faith in Christ Jesus and God accepted us because of our faith.


yet we know that a person is justifiedd not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.e And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ,f and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.
Notes: d. Or reckoned as righteous and so elsewhere. e. Or the faith of Jesus Christ. f. Or the faith of Jesus Christ.
(The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Ga 2:16). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.


“Yet we know that a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be made right with God because of our faith in Christ, not because we have obeyed the law. For no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law.”

Tyndale House Publishers. (2013). Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Ga 2:16). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.

If you look at notes e & f which are identical, you’ll see the problem. The Greek text can justifiably be translated either as “faith in Christ,” that is, our faith directed to Christ, or as “the faith of Christ,” Christ’s faithfulness to us. That’s not an insignificant difference. The NRSV does well here by translating one way and footnoting another. The problem is that people rarely read footnotes. In a Dynamic Equivalence (or functional) version the translator is obliged to make a choice. You cannot clearly express the meaning of the original in a new language if you have not understood it. Having understood it (you think), there is always the possibility that you have misunderstood it.

This is another important reason why I urge people who study the Bible in translation to both use more than one and also to read translator’s footnotes. They can be critical.

(See for some comparisons.)

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 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!

Translating Metaphors and the NLT of Isaiah 43:2

Translating Metaphors and the NLT of Isaiah 43:2

is43-2I am very slow to criticize translations in broad terms. Every time I point out what I consider to be a problematic rendering in some Bible translation, someone will ask me if they should discard that version in exchange for a more accurate one. Any translation will contain renderings that can be questioned. In many cases there were people on the translation committee who questioned the chosen rendering. Translation has a great deal of art to it. Keep that in mind as I criticize this rendering in the New Living Translation.

Here’s the NLT of Isaiah 43:2 —

When you go through deep waters,
    I will be with you.
When you go through rivers of difficulty,
    you will not drown.
When you walk through the fire of oppression,
    you will not be burned up;
    the flames will not consume you. (via

Now I think the NLT has captured some of the meaning very clearly. The interesting thing is the translation of the metaphors. The words [of difficulty] and [of oppression] are not explicit in the Hebrew. Now the metaphor probably justifies this reading as a good option for understanding the text. My problem with it is that the metaphor is, in my opinion, equally comprehensible in English as it is in Hebrew. That is, in reading this passage, an English-speaking reader would probably feel free to choose from the same set of events or experiences that might be referenced by the metaphor.

On the other hand, the modern reader might tend not to see the same range of literal understandings. “Through deep waters” doubtless would evoke the Red Sea (Sea of Reeds) and possibly the flood. “Through rivers” would likely evoke the story of crossing the Jordan, while “fire of oppression” might well draw on the story of the three Hebrews (Daniel 3), though of course based on dating, that story might even be said to draw on this. In this way the NLT rendering takes away some literal connections to the narrative of Israel’s history/traditions which might easily be missed.

The three metaphors are each translated with a different impact. The first, “deep waters” is left literal. This is perhaps due to the flood, Red Sea (Sea of Reeds), and the Jordan. In the second case we break out the metaphor, though it is closely parallel to the first, but we break it out in a generic sense, “of difficulty,” which says to the reader, “Don’t take this literally, but it has broad application.” Finally, in discussing fire, we get very specific, and say, “fire of oppression.”

But does not that third option reduce the potential for the English reader to less than the Hebrew intends? Yes, sometimes translators have to make this sort of choice, but in this case, I think we take a passage that can be clearly understood when rendered in a largely formal fashion, and actually diminish its impact with explanatory prepositional phrases.

This isn’t a terrible rendering, but at the same time, it struck me as not being one of the better ones in the NLT.


Review: NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible – Hebrews

Review: NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible – Hebrews


#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 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.


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.

Deuteronomy and Introductions Redux

Deuteronomy and Introductions Redux

Study Bibles and CBCA second law and a second note on introductions to biblical books. Goes together, no?

I completed my reading of Numbers along with the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary yesterday and today read the introduction from the section on Deuteronomy. In it the author, Eugene H. Merrill (professor at Dallas Theological Seminary) argues forcefully for Mosaic authorship and for an early (1446 BC) date for the exodus. In school I learned 1445, but the majority position is that the exodus occurred in the mid to late 13th century, and critical scholars in general would reject at least direct Mosaic authorship in favor of a date of writing in the 7th century BC.

In the course of presenting these positions and his basis for them he makes the statement (p. 449) that “there is absolutely no objective evidence that compels a late provenance for the book.” I would first point out that it is useful to realize that evidence rarely compels, especially in historical situations such as this. Secondly, there is evidence that would point to the composite nature of the book and some that would suggest a later historical setting. Certain Merrill, along with many others, has provided explanations for this apparent evidence, but having provided an alternate explanation, however convincing it may be to the one providing it, does not make the evidence go away.

I like to look at introductions in various study Bibles. I’m not sure why, as the usual result is simply to raise my blood pressure a bit. In this case I have at hand The Oxford Study Bible, The Jewish Study Bible, The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, and the NLT Study Bible. Out of these, only the NLT Study Bible would tend to agree with Merrill. That count is not important, however, because it doesn’t constitute a good survey of quality scholarship on the issue.

The problem with the lot of these is that they each assert their position with confidence and provide a couple of notes on things that favor that position, but give very few reasons why anyone might disagree. If you read the conservative introductions, you might well conclude that the critical scholars who disagree are just perverse, while if you read the more critical introductions, you might not be aware that there are modern conservative scholars who would hold to such views as a 1446 BC date for the exodus or Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy around 1406 BCE.

You may think I’m being unfair, as each introduction must be short, especially in the study Bibles. Merrill’s can be somewhat longer as he is writing for a substantial commentary on just three books of the Bible. But my point is not to chastise the scholars for their positions or for espousing them in their introductions. I do find their language a bit intemperate, and I would also point out that it doesn’t take many words to indicate that other scholars disagree with at least some indication of why that might be.

My interest is in what you do about it. I’d suggest strongly that you don’t surround yourself with books that agree with you and that come from scholars that are in your own religious/denominational tradition. I am generally convinced, though I wouldn’t use “compelling” for any evidence, that the Pentateuch, including Deuteronomy, is a composite text containing some ancient traditions, but built up with case law and later additions and adaptations. Yet I will carefully read Merrill’s commentary as I also read through the Hebrew text. What’s more, I can predict right now that I will learn a great deal from Merrill’s work.

The reason I can do that is that I’ve read this introduction, and while I disagree with the dating and authorship section, it is followed by a discussion of structure and themes that is extremely helpful. I frequently encounter the idea that a certain writer is just a liberal, or too conservative for me, so why should I read his material. We could go for “iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17). But I think perhaps Provebers 27:21 is better:

The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold,
    so a person is tested by being praised. (NRSV)

Or as I translated it for a Tweet (I like literal in this type of poetry):

I really need to read someone saying that there is “no compelling evidence” for the position I hold. If I only read The Oxford Study Bible, The Jewish Study Bible, and The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, I would never be pushed to look more closely at the evidence.

I think it is particularly important in using study Bibles, because people seem to get the idea that whatever is in the notes is what “scholars” believe regarding the passage. They often also decide that if “scholars” believe it, then they must too. But scholars as a group rarely agree on anything. It’s one of their best features, because they all want to refine things and find some new, good ideas. The results are sometimes crazy, but nothing like as bad as the results of not doing so.

Introductions are hard to write and often don’t prove that useful. But using a range of them can be quite enlightening!

A Note on Translations and Commentaries

A Note on Translations and Commentaries

CBC based on the NLT
Are we veiling the commentary with the translation used?

As I’ve been reading a commentary based on the New Living Translation (NLT), it has been interesting to note how the commentators differ from the readings of the translation on which the commentary is ostensibly based.

For example, as I finished reading the section on Numbers today (pp. 217-443), written by Dale A. Brueggemann, I noted two important translation notes.

  1. 35:12, in which the NLT refers to “relatives” rather than to the singular “goel” or avenger/redeemer, a translation that the commentator says “… may be misleading” (p. 426n). Certainly potentially misleading and may cause one to miss connecting thoughts built on this concept.
  2. 35:20, in which two points are noted. First, the NLT adds “a dangerous object” which is not in the Hebrew source, and also omits “while lying in wait,” which is in the Hebrew. The latter omission the commentator calls “this telling qualification” (p. 427n).

It’s not surprising that a commentator will work for the source text, of course, but it’s interesting to note. You’ll find this sort of disagreement in almost any commentary where the author is required to use a particular translation. Sometimes one could almost say “with the ___ version included” rather than saying it’s a commentary on that version.

With a dynamic equivalence translation, however, the odds are greater that there will be a certain tension between commentator and English text. This is not really surprising. Is it problematic? For many, this disagreement is an argument in favor of more formal equivalence translations.

It seems to me, however, that a formal equivalence translation, besides allowing for misunderstanding, such as when it verbally translates some idioms, also simply leaves greater room for one to imagine the translation agrees with one’s own approach, even when it’s simply a bit ambiguous.

It’s valuable for lay persons who read scripture to become aware of the fact that there are differences in the way translations are done. That’s why I frequently recommend reading from more than one translation. For example, a good counterpoint to the NLT might be the New Revised Standard Version (which also provides from more theological diversity in the translation committee) or the English Standard Version (with an evangelical team similar to that of the NLT).

Review – Tyndale Select NLT: Select Reference Edition

Review – Tyndale Select NLT: Select Reference Edition

nlt_with_spineWhen the e-mail arrived offering me a copy of this gorgeous Bible edition, I didn’t really read the material thoroughly enough or I might have declined. I’m a content man. I have one complete bookcase and parts of three more dedicated to Bibles. Very few of them are special in terms of their binding. It’s the text that drives me.

But I saw that this was the New Living Translation, and that it was in a new edition, and so I said I’d review it. I’m actually glad I did. I’ve read a few of the other reviews, and they emphasize some simple facts about this Bible. It’s a work of art. Mine is goat skin for the cover, the paper and font are magnificent. It’s truly an heirloom Bible. You can find out all these details, however, from Amazon or from the publisher. I’m going to include some pictures in my review here on my blog so you can get an idea.

Though it is an heirloom Bible it is not one of those huge books that are destined to stay on whatever table they’re placed on first. It’s easy to carry and to use. You can reference it, which is nice, considering it’s a reference edition. So while you may not feel like doing anything too vigorous around it, lest you damage the work of art, it is nonetheless quite useful as a reading or study Bible.

Those who know me can predict where I’m going next. I’m afraid I have to admit that I start to twitch when I just hold this Bible. I didn’t actually look up the price before I received it, but within moments of actually putting my hands on it, I realized that it was a more costly Bible than I imagined. I’m not going to cite the price in my review, simply because current prices change. I’ll let you follow the link and get that information from the web site. I have never owned, and rarely touched or handled a Bible that costs this much. That leaves me with mixed emotions about it. But a book review should talk about the book from the point of view of what that book was written and/or designed for. I don’t criticize the NLT for not being either The Message or the NRSV. A Bible translation is designed for a purpose, and so is a Bible edition. You can decide what is right for you. If your plan is to buy an heirloom Bible that is to last and be passed on from generation to generation, you should be looking at this one.

Did I meniont that this Bible is designed to last and to be passed down from generation to generation. In pursuit of that goal it has lovely presentation and family record pages as well.


The text is, of course, the NLT. I have a high opinion of this translation for the appropriate audience. In one sense the NLT is descended from the Living Bible. One of the weakness of the Living Bible was that Kenneth Taylor didn’t read Hebrew or Greek. He worked from the English text of the American Standard Version. As a result, while the Living Bible was very readable, it was not always as accurate as it could have been. This problem was corrected for the NLT by a highly qualified evangelical translation committee. They managed to keep the readability, though I think they lost some of the charm and all of the eccentricity. How good that was is open to question. I have linked a couple of references to the NLT to my web site where you can get some additional information and see how I rate the translation in various categories.

nlt_interior_psalm_78As I say on the cover of my own book What’s in a Version? the best Bible version is one you read. The first question should be whether you’ll be able to use and understand a Bible version. Accuracy in details is of no particular value if you don’t actually read and comprehend the accurate words. Of course, readability should not be an excuse for inaccuracy. Unfortunately, reviewers of Bible versions frequently call disagreements with their preferred translation of some particular verse “inaccurate,” when it is really just “different than I would have done.” The NLT may be different, but it is competently different.

The things that stuck out for me in this edition are first things that are missing. This is not a study Bible in the sense of one with study notes, book introductions and so forth. I am pleased with that. Too many people are treating study notes as the inspired text and ignoring the actual text. You won’t do that here. You’ll need a good Bible handbook or Bible dictionary if you want to get that sort of information.

What you do have is a single column that is a good width for rapid reading. I’ve discussed before many different approaches to reading, and I think one of the most neglected is sustained reading of quantities of the biblical text. This Bible will make that easy. I prefer that greatly to the multiple narrow columns that tend to slow me down. Further, there are quite a number of cross-references. It is possible to become dependent here, just as it is to become dependent on notes, but in this case I think most people can do with the help. The NLT translation notes are included at the bottom of each page.


In the back you have a basic concordance and dictionary. This is not a replacement for your Bible dictionary but it will give you the basics and help you find a variety of references on a topic. This is followed by a selection of maps. Again, no effort is made to compete with your Bible atlas, but for reference on the run or in your study group, the material is better than average.


While the binding, paper, and high quality construction are the distinctive features of this Bible edition, I found that it is fully valuable as a Bible for your actual use. If you do choose to spend the money on an heirloom Bible edition, and hope to pass it on to your children, this will fit the bill. With decent (though not massive) margins, you may also be able to leave your notes and your testimony in it for your children as well.

I remain a content person, but I can respect a true work of publishing art when I see it, and this is one.

For those interested in the text, here’s my video review of the NLT:

(Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free from the publisher for review.)

Tabulated Lists in Translation

Tabulated Lists in Translation

Elements of formatting and layout can have a significant impact on the use of a Bible translation and even the way in which it will be read and understood. Examples of formatting choices that may be very significant include paragraph divisions (not to mention the more historical, though unoriginal, chapter and verse divisions), section headings, and the often overlooked capitalization choices for divine names and titles.

In reading Numbers 13 the other day I noticed another case, which I doubt will impact interpretation very much, though I do think it impacts readability–tabulated data. In the NLT, Numbers 13:4 introduces the list of those chosen to spy the land of Canaan. Here NLT breaks out, puts headers of “Tribe” and “Leader” and presents the content in tabular form. This doubtless makes it easier for a modern reader to scan through the list.

I thought I’d check a few other translations that I had close at hand, just for fun. (This selection is neither carefully selected nor exhaustive. These are Bibles that are on my ready-reading shelves.) Providing a tabulated list are the NLT, JPS, NIV, and REB. Breaking these verses out into separate lines, while maintaining paragraph format otherwise are the NJB, CEV, HCSB, and NAB. I’m skipping any versions that do not include paragraphing, as each leader would automatically start on a new line due to verse breaks. Finally, both the NRSV and the ESV include the names in a paragraph, not broken onto separate lines. (I’m not certain if this might change by edition or if this part of formatting is protected.

This is doubtless a trivial point, but when all aspects of formatting and page layout are combined, the overall impact can be considerable. It is a good idea for the serious Bible student to be aware of the choices that are being made by translators.


My Continuing War on Study Bibles

My Continuing War on Study Bibles

Well, maybe not a war. I don’t really hate Bibles with study notes, and even recommend their use for appropriate purposes. They’re great for giving you background information, pointing out connections, and so forth. When they tell you what the text says, they are not so great. At a minimum, use more than one, and use Bibles from different perspectives.

I’ve written a number of posts including one comparing introductions to the book of Luke. To get more, just put “study bible” (including the quotes) in the search box at the upper right.

In any case, my particular annoyance today is with the NLT Study Bible, and particular it’s coverage of the Proverbs 31 woman. The lectionary this week includes Proverbs 31:10-31. Now there are many ways of looking at this passage. On my lectionary notes blog, which I rarely update, I made a few comments on the passage.

The problem I have here is that the notes are simply flat. They make no mention of how anyone could have any other view of how the passage should be read. It begins: “Proverbs ends with a powerful poem celebrating the virtuous wife.”

It then mentions that this is an acrostic, a fine thing to note, but the question is just why did Hebrew poetry use acrostics. Was it to make the poem easier to remember? As someone who memorizes scripture from time to time, even in the original languages, I’m not certain that’s an adequate explanation. Perhaps we should start with the way in which thought structure is a core part of Hebrew poetry.

I know that a study Bible has limited space. The problem is that a reader goes from text to notes and decides that the notes must contain the true meaning of the text. They bypass the hard work of interpretation and they miss out on all the possibilities.

What would I want to see in such a note?

1) The note on the structure, with some additional options as to why this might be an acrostic

2) Some comment on why the editor chose to end his collection of proverbs with this particular passage

3) Explanation of some of the background, such as what went on at the city gate, and so forth.

I find this particular note lacking in all of this.

I do want to add that this shouldn’t be taken as a criticism of just the NLT Study Bible. Many others have similar problems. This is just the one I was reading this morning. Nonetheless, in contrast, I read the notes in the New Interpreter’s Study Bible, which covers points 1 & 2 that I list above, resulting in what I would regard as a much more useful note. The Jewish Study Bible manages to cover all three.

NLT Giveaway on Facebook

NLT Giveaway on Facebook

I just got notice of this giveaway in e-mail. I may get a free gift for telling you, but it happens I already own what they’re giving away. Nonetheless, this looks like something worthwhile to enter, and besides, I like the NLT.

To quote:

Starting on November 29th until December 24th at the New Living Translation Facebook page we’re giving away lots of great prizes and something free for you just for singing up.

By visiting the giveaway entry page (located on the NLT Facebook page, the link is under the profile picture) and entering your name and e-mail address you’ll be entered to win the following prizes:

  • One random person each day will win a Life Application Study Bible Family Pack (Guys Life Application Study Bible hc, Girls Life Application Study Bible hc, Student’s Life Application Study Bible hc, Life Application Study Bible hc, Life Application Study Bible Large Print hc).
  • One Random person each week will win an Apple iPad 2!

Everyone that signs up gets a free download copy of the Life Application Bible Study – Book of Luke!

So head on over and sign up. It can’t hurt, and it could be great!