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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 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!

REB Module for e-Sword

REB Module for e-Sword

I previously reviewed e-Sword and found it a pleasant surprise in the free Bible software category.  Note that my review was written in 2006, within a few days of my starting this blog, and a great deal has happened since then.  Hopefully I will manage to write an updated review soon.

But there is more exciting news.  I got an e-mail today from Thought-Sight Consulting regarding an REB module for e-Sword.  You can go straight to the purchase page here, but the first page I linked has a great deal of valuable information.

Many of us object to paying for modules to add to free software, but if you want the REB, you’re going to have to pay.  It’s under copyright, and the publishers are not giving permission for free distribution.

More Study Bible Comparisons – Introduction to Romans

More Study Bible Comparisons – Introduction to Romans

I haven’t written on this for a bit, and I wanted to note some differences between three of the major study Bibles I use in terms of introductions to books.  I’m studying Romans right now, so I thought I’d compare there.

In comparing words, I get myself a quick approximation of the average line length in words, and then multiply by the number of lines in a particular section.  That is not very precise, but it is good enough for comparison.  As with those pesky political polls, consider close numbers to be more or less equal.

I’m going to briefly compare three study Bibles that I personally reference in my studies.  My primary use for these is to get a quick overview of certain representative points of view, and I include a number of others as well.  This particular use may influence how I see each one.

Oxford Study Bible

The first is the Oxford Study Bible.  Based on the REB and including the Apocrypha, this Bible has proven to be extremely useful to me over the years and my copy is well-worn.  Overall, however, its comments tend to be brief and to deal more with technical and critical issues than with theology.  Its Romans introduction is around 190 words, and gives us a fairly standard protestant view of the theme of Romans.  It does not date it very precisely, giving a range of 48-58 CE, and indicating it was probably written after Galatians.  The notes on the first chapter give new meaning to the word “concise” but do cover the most important issues.  They take up around 240 words.

NLT Study Bible

The NLT Study Bible has become a regular companion for me to help me keep track of the scholarly evangelical position in outline form.  It proves its usefulness with over 2100 words of instroductory material on Romans.  I’m not entirely surprised by this huge difference, as Romans is a pretty critical book in the evangelical community.  The introduction is divided into:

  • Setting
  • Summary (with the standard inset outline and timeline)
  • Date, Place, and Occasion of Writing (around AD 57)
  • Paul’s Purpose in Writing
  • Interpretation

This is then followed up by over 1200 words in the notes on the first chapter.  The notes are, unsurprisingly, very evangelical, as would be expected.  I believe they would be very useful to a pastor preparing a sermon, or a Sunday School teacher preparing a lesson.  The pastor in particular would be added by the list of additional reading.

New Interpreter’s Study Bible

The New Interpreter’s Study Bible falls between these two.  Its introduction runs a bit over 1,000 words plus a more detailed outline than that provided by the NLT Study Bible.  It also dates the book to 57 CE, and provides a fairly standard protestant discussion of the themes of the book.  It also has just over 1,000 words in the notes to chapter 1 plus an excursus, The Righteousness of God, running a bit over 100 more.

In general I find all three of these Bibles useful.  The Oxford Study Bible and New Interpreter’s Study Bible include the Apocrypha, which I like, but which also makes them a bit more tight on the space.  There is also some difference as to what is included in introductory material, and what is including in general articles.  One of the great features of the Oxford Study Bible, for example, is around 190 pages of general articles written by some quite well-known scholars.

There are obviously many things that go into choosing a study Bible.  I hope that these few notes will help those especially who are buying on the internet and can’t spend hours looking through an actual copy.

Comparing Study Bible Introductions to Luke

Comparing Study Bible Introductions to Luke

A few weeks ago I began looking at the new NLT Study Bible, and indicated that I would use it and then comment as I went along rather than writing a review as such.

Introductory Comments

Since I’m looking at the manuscript for a new study guide to Luke that that I intend to publish, I decided to compare this study Bible with a few others that I consult regularly to see which was best suited for certain purposes. In this case, my primary purpose is making a recommendation to readers of the study guide who are generally expected to be serious lay Bible students, but not Biblical scholars.

Some of the things I look for include coverage of the critical data, particularly the traditional critical methodologies of form, source, and redaction criticism. In Luke, we would look for some discussion of the synoptic problem. Of course we’re looking for the history behind the book, the date it was written, authorship, historical background, and some chronology. I would generally expect to find most of this in a mainstream scholarly study Bibles such as the New Oxford Annotated Bible.

All of that can be interesting information, but lay readers are likely to want to get to the meat of the matter–for them, at least–and look at some applications. Here we look for discussion of overall themes and application of the material to a particular community. In this area also we’ll find the greatest variety of material. An edition may include devotional thoughts on the text, going beyond direct application to reflection.

Finally there are the “extras,” maps, illustrations, charts, and cross-references. I list “cross-references” as an extra simply because almost all study Bibles have some, and there is quite a bit of variation in how these are done. I’m not going to get into much detail on that in this post.

I’m going to leave the NLT Study Bible until last, since it is the focus here, and first write a little bit about each of the other Bibles to which I compared it.

The Learning Bible (CEV)

I frequently recommend this study Bible to new students, because it provides an introduction to some of the serious themes of Bible study with a minimum of pain. Some people might call both the CEV, on which this study Bible is based, and the style of the notes “dumbed down.” I would disagree. “Dumbing down” is a pejorative phrase that gets applied to a variety of materials, including material that is clarified for non-specialists. Writing for non-specialists always appears a bit weak to those more specialized in the field.

The Learning Bible introduction to Luke includes material on authorship and date. It discusses sources in a very general way, but does not go into detail on critical issues. (There is some additional information in the introduction to the gospels as a group.) It spends the greatest amount of time on themes in the book. While it doesn’t get generally devotional, it does provide notes on application both in the introduction and in the early text of the book. There is very little chronological information.

In terms of extras, there are extensive illustrations, carefully selected cross-references and a variety of notes with icons indicating the general category. The editors clearly made a serious effort to make this Bible user friendly. The one downside to that effort is that all of the material and its layout result in substantial volume, not likely one you’ll carry to church with you. It’s easily the largest of the study Bibles I’m comparing here.

The Oxford Study Bible (REB)

This is one of my personal favorites, both because I like the REB translation style, and because I find the notes helpful for the type of study I do quite frequently. You will find substantially more discussion of critical and textual issues in introductions and in the notes here, while you will find less application. Themes that are discussed are more purely exegetical and less in terms of application to the community. I find almost nothing in the notes that is devotional.

In the case of Luke, there is little in the introduction to Luke on critical issues, but this is again covered more in the introduction to the four gospels together. There is less discussion of themes, the outline is less thorough than the one in the Learning Bible, but the notes are more detailed, and there is no effort to limit vocabulary. Illustrations are generally nonexistent, except for a few maps in the back, and there is very little on chronology in the gospels.

I should note here that one would not expect any study Bible to be strong in all areas that I have laid out in my introductory remarks. Such a Bible would require multiple volumes. Different study Bibles are suitable for different purposes.

New Oxford Annotated Bible

I include the New Oxford Annotated Bible, not because it is one I use that regularly. (Note that I link to the more current third edition, but I’m commenting based on the 2nd edition that I have on my shelf.) I generally prefer my Oxford Study Bible. Rather, it is the required Bible for those studying for the United Methodist ministry, at least in our conference. (I’m not really well enough acquainted with the system to comment more generally, though I’ve gotten the impression this is pretty widespread.)

In some ways it is more comprehensive than the Oxford Study Bible. It’s joint introduction to the four gospels is more extensive, and it discusses themes in more detail in the introduction to Luke. It discusses critical issues in some detail for the lay reader. It also includes more information on chronology. In general, however, I would make the same comment on the notes that I make on the Oxford Study Bible–they don’t get too much involved in application to the community as such. I personally like it that way. I’ll make my own applications, thank you very much! But for those who are looking for a shorter path to sermon outlines, it will not be as helpful as a couple of others.

Holy Spirit Encounter Bible

You may think this one is out of place in this list, and you’re right. I wanted to include a Bible that displayed the kind of devotional material that none of these other Bibles do. If you lead study groups or teach Sunday School classes, you will likely encounter students who use such Bibles. They are not bad in themselves, but I do believe there is a danger of imbalance in the themes of scripture.

The Holy Spirit Encounter Bible approaches everything with the question of how this relates to the Holy Spirit. If you used this for a single study, looking for the Holy Spirit in scripture, that could be useful. Just avoid using such a Bible as your regular reading Bible.

It should be no surprise that the introduction to Luke in this Bible includes no outline, no discussion of when the book was written, the character of the author, communities to whom it was addressed, or any critical issue. In fact, the introduction is titled “the HOLY SPIRIT in Luke” which follows a pattern used for all the books.

Rather than notes in a variety of categories or reflecting backgrounds, you find in the first few chapters of Luke several “Holy Spirit Encounter Moments,” two “Anointed by the Holy Spirit” inset boxes, one on John the Baptist and one on Elizabeth, and finally a “Holy Spirit Encounters” page that is not even related to the passages in which it is situated, but rather refers one to 1 Corinthians 12.

Now these things are not bad in themselves, but it reflects the directed, devotional approach of the Bible. A study Bible that emphasizes one theme should not be used as a regular study Bible, nor should it be used alone, because it points to the theme chosen by the editorial board, and not to the themes emphasized by the authors of scripture.

(Note that while this sounds a bit hostile, I have actually enjoyed studying a number of things in this particular Bible. I’m cautioning, not warning away.)

New Interpreter’s Study Bible

I purchases this Bible only a couple of months before I received my copy of the NLT study Bible. I was hopeful that it would have some of the theological notes that I’m used to finding in the Interpreter’s Bible or the New Interpreter’s Bible, both of which I value in their own way.

I expected essentially a New Oxford Annotated Bible with a little more theological reflection. I was wrong. This is not like either of the two “Oxford” Bibles I mentioned. It focuses on serious theological reflection. Of course, consider the word “serious” in the context of the space they have available. Nonetheless I think that for the available space, this is the best theologically oriented study Bible I have encountered.

There is much more discussion of themes. Such references are there are to critical issues come in that context, but they are really few and far between. Outlines are more detailed than any of the editions I have discussed previously. There is some material on chronology and on these broader themes in the material in the back, but if you go straight to the book of Luke (or another book), you’ll dive straight into theological themes and some application.

Despite, or more likely because of the reduced emphasis on some of the more traditional critical methodologies, literary issues receive more discussion. If I were trying to prepare a sermon and didn’t have time to dig through mountains of history in order to make up my mind, this would provide me with the shortest path from scripture to major points in my sermon outline, while still being faithful to good scholarship and theological reflection.

It is based on the NRSV, which is not my favorite, but it is not a bad version, especially for those accustomed to the KJV tradition. It is also not designed for the casual student. One should not assume that the vocabulary is light, or the treatment superficial just because it is less technical in the historical and critical sense. It is shifted from critical and historical issues to more serious theology.

NLT Study Bible (Finally!)

I finally arrive at the study Bible that got me started writing this. All in all, the NLT Study Bible is in many ways a pleasant surprise. It’s not another “light” study Bible. It’s not a devotional Bible. Ignore the hype on the cover–it’s not a revolutionary breakthrough. At the same time, it is good.

The layout is better, but note that you will get less information packed onto a page. My New Interpreter’s Study Bible manages to get much more packed into its pages, but it does so at the expense of readability. Nonetheless, for me, the NISB would win.

When I turn to the introduction to Luke, I see a map of the region in which the story takes place, a short bullet point style outline of the book. The introduction is divided up into friendly headings that lets you find what you want quickly, and there is room to add notes in the margin. The contents are a blend of the historical, literary, and theological, along with a bit of devotional here and there.

Rather than having chronology separated in an article in the back (NISB, for example), there is a brief timeline on the right hand side of the page. The theological approach is evangelical, but not extreme. The date cited for Luke’s writing is 65-80 AD (they use AD, not CE). The description of authorship references both written and oral sources, but also eyewitness accounts.

The notes are also a mix of background, theology, and application, and again the layout of the Biblical text, cross-references, and notes is quite user friendly.


Overall, while my personal study habits will not be altered by much, I will find time to consult this Bible, and I also expect to recommend it to quite a number of Bible students who are perhaps beyond the Learning Bible, but don’t really want to get into something like the Oxford Study Bible or the New Interpreter’s Bible. I will also recommend it to evangelicals who might find constant disagreement with their study Bible to be distracting. The NLT study Bible is a good addition to the Bible edition market.

I will continue my discussion of this Bible after I have used it some more in my personal study.

What is the Best Bible Version?

What is the Best Bible Version?

There a teacher’s saying that there are no bad questions, except the ones you don’t ask. There’s another saying that says that once you know the right question, the right answer will follow. As with many one liners, these two seem to clash.

On the front of my book What’s in a Version?, I have printed the line, “The best Bible version is one you read.” That saying suffers from the same problems as any one liner. It may quite easily be construed in ways that would make it quite false.

On the other hand, such sayings do have the value of making us think a little bit about our assumptions, and even a question you might evaluate as “bad” may well help you understand an issue as you analyze the question.

Every time I have been at a show or a teaching event at which I have used or displayed my book, I’ve heard the question “What is the best Bible version?” That’s even after they look at the cover of my book. If I point to the line on the cover they’ll laugh and say, “Yes, but what is really the best version?” That question is, in a sense, a bad question. It doesn’t really have a very good answer, and that’s because of things that are lacking in the question. But it can lead us to think profitably about the question.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I can’t say what the “best” version is without asking just what the version is to be used for. For example, if you want to read extensively for pleasure and to get an overview, then I might recommend an easy reading version, such as the CEV, because it is easy to read rapidly. Yet if I were personally going to read for an extended period of time, I wouldn’t prefer the CEV. I’d more likely use the REB, or as an intermediate point, the NLT.

For rapid reading, I would regard all three translations as adequately accurate in the way they convey the general story, but they differ in style and vocabulary. Some people find the CEV very attractive. Attention has been paid to style and to how it will sound when read orally. But other people find its shorter sentences and simpler vocabulary tedious. The REB is music to my ears and to my mind, yet I find that most people to whom I read passages don’t hear the same thing I do in it.

So which of these translations is best? I go back to the line on the front cover of my book: The best Bible version is one you read–especially in this case.

No translation conveys all meaning from the source to the target language. To simplify that, when you read the Bible in English, no matter what English version you use, something will be missing over what might be received by a person reading in the source languages. (Another point that should be mentioned here is that different amounts are conveyed to the reader in the source languages depending on language and other skills.)

Here are some things that a translator might try to convey:

  • Style of the original writers
    Hebrews is written in a substantially different style of Greek than Mark, 1 John, Revelation, or Galatians, and each of those four examples differs from one another. Translations tend to obscure these stylistic differences. The CEV, for example, is aiming at an easy reading level, and will break up long, complex sentences in the Greek of Hebrews in order to make them easier to read, thus losing much of the sense of literary style in the book. At the same time, the intended audience of the CEV will probably get more of the sense of the book than they would if it was translated into a style of English that matched the elevated style of the Greek. A translator has to choose. What to you convey? What do you leave behind?
  • Literary devices
    If you want to get an argument going about translation mention literary devices. In this case I use the term broadly. In translating Hebrew poetry do I want to convey the style of Hebrew poetry, i.e. make an English representation of the structure of the Hebrew, or do I want to provide English poetry with a similar impact to that of the source? Personally, I’m happy to have translations that try for either option or a variety of compromise approaches, but the translation will be quite different depending on how one answers this question.
  • Form and vocabulary
    This issue was discussed extensively by the KJV translators. Do you want to have a single English word always represent a particular Greek or Hebrew word? How about a limited subset? This question lies somewhere near the foundation of the dynamic equivalence/formal equivalence debate.

That is just a very basic start at looking at the various questions. Every translation I have read or studied includes passages I wish were translated differently, or makes choices I wish had been made differently. Yet nearly every one has some quality I can appreciate as well.

To answer the question in the title, requires that one consider these questions, and consider the audience as well, without knowing who will read, for what purpose they will read, and under what circumstances they will read, I can’t even take a stab at saying what Bible version will be best.

The final step in choosing a good Bible version should always be to read from it under the circumstances for which you are choosing it. The best test of a tool is whether it performs the intended task.

I have complaints about

Revisiting Acts 17:26

Revisiting Acts 17:26

Yesterday I blogged about the HCSB of Acts 17:26, and in particular the portion that reads something like “made of one ______”. The KJV reads “blood” which is one of the textual variants, while the HCSB says “man” which apparently does not occur in any of the ancient manuscripts.

Since I read these lectionary texts daily for two weeks, today I encountered it in a different version, this time the TNIV, surely not one that could be accused of supporting anything like “male representation”, and it also read “man” in this case.

I’m not at home right now, so just looking at the immediately available Bible versions, I see the following:

  • REB reads “from one stock”
  • NRSV reads “from one ancestor”
  • CEV reads “from one person”
  • ESV reads “from one man”
  • TEV reads “from one human being”
  • God’s Word (GW) reads “from one man”
  • ISV reads “from one man”

I think that’s enough to see that most of the versions break where I would expect, with the exception of the TNIV. I wonder what their justification is here. It seems to me that since a number of ancient scribes appear to have provided options, but none thought of “man” here, it is unlikely that ancient readers would have understood this to refer specifically to the one man as human ancestor.

I’d be interested in comments on the reasoning behind the use of “man” in this verse.

Reading from the KJV

Reading from the KJV

I chose to do my lectionary reading today from the KJV, and specifically from an edition of the C. I. Scofield study Bible. This is an interesting exercise for me, since I grew up on the KJV. In fact, it’s no harder for me to do my reading from the KJV than from a very modern version.

There’s a great scene in The Fountainhead, in which Howard Roark is criticizing the architecture of the Parthenon in the presence of the dean of the school of architecture. The dean’s response? “But it’s the Parthenon!” That seems to be the most common response I get to comments on the KJV. People love the quality of literature it represents, and so they want to stick with it. How can I criticize it? It’s the KJV! And to be honest, a literary appreciation is a good reason to hold onto your KJV.

But very often when we appreciate something, we try to force it on others on whom it may not have the same effect. Consider the Revised English Bible. There is no modern version I would prefer to hear read aloud. Yet when I read it aloud to most American audiences, the response is disappointing to say the least. The particular vocabulary and cadences of the REB just doesn’t strike them in the same way. Thus in recommending Bible versions I have to remember that what strikes me as high literary quality doesn’t necessarily strike someone else in the same way. (The New Jerusalem Bible is another version that I love to hear read aloud, but which often doesn’t elicit the same response from others. I’m not sure why.)

Nonetheless, within proper boundaries, the literary beauty argument is a good argument for the KJV. Those constraints must include considerations of audience. A key factor in making me change from the KJV in public reading and teaching was that I noticed that young people very simply didn’t understand it. They could make out the words, but they couldn’t express the content in their own words. That is, of course, an important limitation.

I do believe that many KJV-Only teachers and preachers actually prefer this state. If their audience doesn’t comprehend the words of scripture, the teacher can infuse into them just about any meaning he prefers. Some of the things I have heard recently suggest that this is not something I imagined. Having scriptures in language the people do not understand is a great boon to those who would like to maintain power over them. It seems like we’ve tried this sort of thing before, only then it was the Latin Vulgate that was God’s gift to the church, and the sole translation of the word of God worth reading.

For enjoyment and literary appreciation–if you do, in fact, understand it–the KJV is good. For understanding by most modern church members and seekers, not so much.

The Value of REB Eccentricity

The Value of REB Eccentricity

Or perhaps I should say REB uniqueness.

One of the major reasons for using multiple Bible versions when studying the Bible in English (or any other language other than the originals) is to make yourself aware of alternate translations for particular passages. This goes beyond different ways of expressing the thought in English, to places in which the source language could be interpreted multiple ways, but even in the most literal translation, one must choose one or another option.

This morning in doing my lectionary reading, I chose the REB, and quickly found two examples: Genesis 12:3b and Psalm 121:1-2.

In Genesis 12:3, most translations use “in you will all nations of the earth be blessed” or something very similar. It is possible, however, to translate as the REB does:

All the peoples on earth
will wish to be blessed as you are blessed.

Now it happens I prefer the option presented in most other versions, but most people would not be aware of the alternate possibility unless they check a footnote, or use the REB. This is a positive value for a version which is known for accepted readings that are a bit out of the mainstream. (Note that I love the REB for my own reading; I will disagree with any translation on various renderings, and I don’t let that concern me. As long as a reading is well supported technically, I would never count it against the translation.)

The second one is in Psalm 121. Verses 1 & 2 are normally translated in a slightly ambiguous way. Is one looking to the hills for help? Is one rejecting the hills in favor of the Lord? This becomes more interesting when one seeks a Sitz im Leben for the passage. For example, if it is a processional song going toward the temple mount, looking to the hills could stand in for looking to the Lord.

The REB, on the other hand, renders unambiguously (or less ambigously, if that is possible!):

If I lift up my eyes to the hills,
where shall I find help?
My help comes from the LORD,
maker of heaven and earth.

In this case, I like the REB rendering slightly better. But my preference is not the point here. I think the REB can be a valuable addition to the library of the serious Bible student who does not know the source languages simply because it showcases some unusual readings. Of course, one hopes the student will be directed to the footnotes in all versions, as they often provide the same service.

Isaiah 49:2 – Mouths and Sharp Swords

Isaiah 49:2 – Mouths and Sharp Swords

One basis I use for comparing Bible translations is the way in which idioms are handled. It’s difficult to measure this precisely, because you have to consider several things:

  • Is the idiom as used comprehensible to modern readers?
  • Does it mean the same thing to modern as to ancient readers?
  • Is there a reasonable English (or other target language) equivalent?
  • How good is the equivalent that was selected by the translation?

Simply noting that an idiom in one language is translated by an idiom in another is not sufficient. Figures of speech work in essentially the same way and require that one ask the same questions.

In Isaiah 49:2 we have a fairly simple figure of speech. In Hebrew, this very literally reads:

He set my mouth like a sharp sword.

Now I don’t know how natural that sounds in English to others, and I’m already running another poll, but to me “sharp” and “words” do go together in a figure of speech, and using mouth for the words spoken is also pretty standard. For example, I don’t think anyone has trouble understanding “potty mouth.” I have only rarely heard that combination with “sharp,” however. There I think we more commonly use “tongue” with “sharp” than “mouth.”

So I classify the translations of the figure of speech in three categories. First would be those that translate the figure of speech or idiom completely literally. (I’d ignore the idiom if the figure of speech is common also in the target language.) The second group adjusts it somewhat to make it more comprehensible. The third translates the figure into natural, but not necessarily idiomatic language. The fourth group (of which I have no examples in this case) would provide an alternate idiom. The following list is not exhaustive:

Translating the words and not the figure

“He made my mouth like a sharpened blade;” (NJPS)

“He made my mouth like a sharp sword,” (NRSV)

Adjusted slightly

In this case, the adjustment is generally “mouth” replaced with “tongue.”

“He made my tongue a sharp sword” (REB)

Translated into clear language (drop figure of speech)

“He made my words as sharp as a sword.” (TEV) [Note here that one figure (mouth for words) is replaced, while the second (sharp) is retained.]

“He made my words of judgment as sharp as a sword.” (NLT)

“He made my words pierce like a sharp sword” (CEV) [In a sense another figure of speech is added, or perhaps “sharp” is merely enhanced, by the addition of the word “pierce.”]

“He made my words like a sharp sword;” (HCSB) [The HCSB regularly surprises me, sometimes with incredibly obscure translations, and sometimes with exceptionally clear ones.]

This comparison also raises a question with the NLT text. Should the words “of judgment” be added here? Is it perfectly clear that it is words of judgment alone that pierce like a sharp sword? On first reading, I am not happy with the NLT addition there. It makes plain something that is not plain in the text, and may even be incorrect. My mind could be changed, however.

Textual Emendation in Isaiah 49:7

Textual Emendation in Isaiah 49:7

The JPS Tanakh of Isaiah 49:7 reads, in part:

Thus said the LORD,
The Redeemer of Israel, his Holy One,
b-To the despised one,
To the abhorred nations,-b . . .

Note b reads: Meaning of Heb. uncertain. Emendation yields “Whose being is despised / Whose body is detested”; cf. 51.23.

I noticed this first when I read this in Hebrew, and found that I was not able to produce a translation that I found satisfactory. I remained in doubt. So I looked it up in a few translations. Note also that the reading adopted in the JPS text is itself an emendation.

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