Categories
Bible Essays

Choosing Translations for Bible Study

{The original version of this post appeared on Anabaptist Perspectives.}

I discuss these ideas with Kyle Stoltzfus and Reagan Schrock in this podcast.

A preacher should have as much money in his library as in his pickup truck, or so says a pastoral advisor to my church. Those charged to regularly teach the scriptures need good tools for study. So do the rest of us. Not all of us will spend thousands of dollars on commentaries or devote years of our lives to studying the Greek and Hebrew languages in which the scripture was written. But, as Christians, we all must be students of the Word.

Fortunately, the most important tools for Bible Study are inexpensive and easy to obtain, at least for English speakers. The tools I have in mind are the Bible itself, in its multiple translations into our native language. Bible translations can be a confusing subject. There is an alphabet suit of different translations available like the ASV, CEV, ESV, KJV, NAB, NEB, RSV ….and the list goes on! What we should remember is that this represents an embarrassment of riches for English speakers. In this article I focus, not on choosing a bible for primary use like public reading and memorizing, but rather on assembling a small collection of translations for study purposes.

Choosing a set of translations for Bible study

Bible apps make it easy to compare many translations of a given verse. This is helpful, but I still advise getting two or three translations in print. You will become familiar with these select translations, and it will be easier to pore over passages, or to read extensively, with a book in front of you. If you don’t own at least two or three translations in print, what should you purchase to build your library? If you have several translations and want to add a few more, how do you know what translations will best complement your existing collection?

Of all the translations on the market, many fall into families, or natural groupings. You want to aim for a balanced collection by choosing Bibles from various groupings. One family of translations consists of those that derive from King James Version of 1611. This includes the NASB, the ESV, the NKJV, and NRSV as well as the older RSV, RV, and ASV and a host of other minor translations. (Don’t worry, the table below imposes some order on this confusing alphabet soup!) While these translations will vary among themselves, it is helpful to compare them to another translation that is not a derivative of the familiar KJV.

Another grouping of English translations is those done by Evangelical scholars. The ESV, NIV, CSB, NET, NLT and others reflect the biblical scholarship of the modern Evangelical community. On the one hand Evangelicals are generally committed to a high view of scripture and to understanding scripture in line with historic Christian orthodoxy. This makes careful translations by Evangelicals a good choice for studying the Bible. On the other hand, even the most careful translations are inevitably affected by how the translators understand scripture and its teachings. For this reason, we do well to include translations from other branches of the Christian church and other scholarly communities.

The following table marks out four quadrants based on these two ways of grouping bible translations. The top left lists versions which derive from the KJV and have been translated by Evangelical scholars. The top right lists translations derived from the KJV, but not reflecting modern Evangelical scholarship. The bottom left represents other translations done by Evangelical scholars. The bottom right lists some other modern translations. At a minimum you should own at least one translation from each row and at least one from each column. Ideally your study collection would include one from each quadrant.

EvangelicalOther
KJV basedNASB
ESV
NKJV
RSV
NRSV
OtherNIV
CSB
NET
NEB
REB
NAB
It is helpful to own at least translation from each row and at least one from each column. Ideally your study collection would include one from each quadrant.

Notes on the Apocrypha and the Septuagint

You should have a copy of the Apocrypha. Most contemporary Anabaptists don’t consider it part of the Bible, but reading the Apocrypha provides an important background for understanding the New Testament, and you will frequently see it referenced by earlier Christian writers.  Most translations in the right-hand column are available with editions that include the Apocrypha.1 (For two contrasting perspectives on the Apocrypha see the Anabaptist Perspectives Episodes by David Bercot and Stephen Russell.)     

It is also helpful to have a translation of the Old Testament derived from the Septuagint. Before the time of Christ, the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek. The New Testament, itself of course written in Greek, often quotes the Greek Septuagint. Several English translations of the Septuagint are available and adding one to your tool kit is not a bad idea. (Learn more about the Septuagint in this episode from Anabaptist Perspectives.)

Notes on Translation Issues

One reason to study from multiple translations is so that we don’t blindly follow the quirks of any given translations. Diversity is protection. Nonetheless, a basic understanding of some differences among translations can be helpful. I will offer a few comments here that might stir you to further research.

Gender Language in the Bible: Should translations be “gender-neutral.”

This is a touchy one. Until the last few decades, the English language allowed free use of the “generic masculine.” Pronouns like “he” and “his”, and even the word “man”, could be used to refer to a person of unknown gender. In many cases a phrase like “any man” would mean, not “any adult male,” but simply “any person.”  For better or for worse, the English language has shifted, and we can no longer say “a man” when we mean “a human.” Even using “he” or “him” when a person of either gender could be in view is a real stretch in today’s English. Translations of the last few decades have found various ways to deal with issues of gendered language. In many passages the solutions are quite simple. Other passages bring more complicated issues. For two different ways of dealing with gender issues compare the preface to the ESV with the preface to the NIV. If you take the time to read these prefaces you will also find valuable perspective on how these two translations handle the two issues discussed next.

New Testament Manuscripts

The word “manuscript” means hand copy. Thus, when we talk about Greek manuscripts we are referring to handwritten copies of all or part of the New Testament. Manuscripts date from the days of the early church all the way up to the Reformation era when they were replaced by printed texts of the New Testament. Naturally, hand copied texts incorporate slightly different variations, not only in spelling and punctuation, but also in wording. Many of these variant readings cannot be translated into English and many which can be translated do not affect the sense of the passage. However, some variant readings are more significant and involve whole verses, or in two cases, paragraphs.

Today, the most common printed text of the New Testament is known alternatively as the NA28 or UBS5. This text was compiled by carefully comparing readings from the manuscripts we have, with special emphasis on the oldest manuscripts of the New Testament. Almost all recent bible translations follow the basic pattern of the NA28 when it comes to which variant readings from the manuscripts they choose to follow. The one major exception is the NKJV which attempts to translate the exact manuscript readings which underlie the King James Version of 1611. The NKJV provides extensive notes, that allow readers to compare its textual basis to standard editions of the text of the Greek New Testament.

The Role of Paraphrase

I want to register a concern about translations that rely too much on paraphrases. I don’t have in mind the “functional equivalence” employed to various degrees by all translations, but rather renderings that prioritize what the translator thinks a passage means over precise attention to what it says.

Outright paraphrases like The Message, I regard as more of a commentary than a Bible, but of the translations on the chart above, I would call attention to what I regard as excessive use of paraphrase in the NLT. The approach of the NLT means that the theological beliefs of the translators seem to come through rather clearly. To illustrate, let’s compare two verses in the NIV and NLT.

Ephesians 4:30

NIV: And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.

NLT: And do not bring sorrow to God’s Holy Spirit by the way you live. Remember, he has identified you as his own, guaranteeing that you will be saved on the day of redemption.

It is not hard to miss the NLT’s emphasis that true Christians cannot, ultimately, fall away from God’s salvation. To do this, the NLT pulls in wording from Ephesians 1:13-14, which is why the NLT reads so differently than other translations in this verse.

2 Peter 1:10

NIV:  Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble,

NLT: So, dear brothers and sisters, work hard to prove that you really are among those God has called and chosen. Do these things, and you will never fall away.

Again, theology shows through. For the translators of the NLT, confirming our calling and election does not appear to mean taking steps to safeguard ourselves from the real danger of falling away from God, but rather “proving” that we are among the elect (who God would never allow to fall away).Whether or not you agree with the theology reflected in the NLT in these two passages, I am concerned that the wording prejudges interpretation in a way that the NIV and other major translations do not. 

Summary

What should we take away from these notes on Bible translation? Sorting out the advantages and disadvantages of various versions is tricky. Most of us will naturally end up with one translation for our primary use in reading, memorizing, and teaching. The concerns I raised about paraphrases in the NLT means I can’t recommend that translation for your primary use. However, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have the NLT in your Bible study tool kit; it can definitely be helpful. Just be aware of the issues. Don’t let the NLT (or any other translation) be the only Bible you read.

Categories
Bible Study Guides

When We Don’t Know Exactly What the Bible Says

This bible is missing verses! Differences between translations reduce our confidence in the Bible!

Some peradventure would have no variety of senses to be set in the margin, lest the authority of the Scriptures for deciding of controversies by that show of uncertainty should somewhat be shaken.

Preface to the KJV

Copies of the Bible Differ.

Some believers find this troubling. Some unbelievers think it shows the Bible is untrustworthy. In this study, you will look at various examples of where we don’t know exactly what the Bible says and reflect on the implications. At the end I will give you the KJV preface response to the idea that bibles shouldn’t have footnotes.

Different Differences

Single word changes can make a big difference. One early edition of the KJV infamously read:

Thou shalt commit adultery.

Exodus 20:14
  1. Is this a troubling error?
  2. Is it difficult to determine the true reading of the passage?

What about the following discrepancy? This exists between copies of the KJV and also between various modern translations.

he measured six measures of barley, and laid it on her: and she went into the city.

he measured six measures of barley, and laid it on her: and he went into the city.

Ruth 3:15-16

Scholars are unsure which reading is original. The NIV reads “he” but gives this footnote “Most Hebrew manuscripts; many Hebrew manuscripts, Vulgate and Syriac she.” The NKJV reads “she” but gives this footnote “Many Heb. mss., Syr., Vg. she; MT, LXX, Tg. he.”

  1. Does the variant change the meaning of the passage?
  2. Does it trouble you?

Here is an example showcasing a rare textual footnote in the 1611 KJV.

And when he had taried among them more then ten dayes, hee went downe vnto Cesarea,

And when he had taried among them no more then eight or ten dayes, hee went downe vnto Cesarea,

Acts 25:6 KJV and KJV margin.

The note to the 1611 KJV reads “Or as some copies reade, no more then eight or ten dayes.”

  1. True or False(defend your answer): “If the KJV translators would have chosen the reading mentioned in the margin, that would prove that they did not believe the Word of God, and the translation they produced would be a perversion of the word of God.”

A Maybe more Scary Difference

The previous examples may seem trivial, an easily recognizable typo or minor differences in the details of stories. But the last two are examples of differences in the handwritten copies of scripture (manuscripts) that have come down to us. How you answered the questions above affects how you deal with bigger discrepancies. So let’s jump to one of the biggest.

Some copies of the gospel of Mark end at 16:8 while most include another section known as 16:9-20. Since most copies include this ending section, we might conclude that the copies missing it simply did not get finished. But matters are not quite this simple. For one thing, the manuscripts lacking it are quite early and generally important witnesses to the original text, second there does a exist an alternative ending for the gospel of Mark. Somebody wrote another short passage to write up the gospel of Mark. Third, the ending passage (9-20) is clearly a different section. There is an abrupt stylistic shift from the first part of chapter 16.

Several opinions exist regarding the ending of Mark.

  • Mark originally ended abruptly at 16-8 and two different endings were attached later.
  • The original ending for Mark, was lost and two different endings were attached later (neither of which was original)
  • 9-20 is the original ending of Mark.

Among those who do not think verses 9-20 are part of the original text of Mark, there are two approaches. Some would say that verses 9-20 are not part of scripture because Mark did not write them. Others argue that they were accepted early enough and widely enough that we should treat them as part of scripture, even if they were not part of the original book of Mark.

  1. How does the uncertainty surrounding this passage affect your view of scripture?
  2. How important is figuring out the exact text of scripture in places where there are variants?
    1. Doesn’t matter unless you are a Bible translator.
    2. Of minor importance.
    3. We should do our best, but not be too worried if we are wrong.
    4. Potentially a big deal.
    5. Very important! We must know the exact text everywhere!
  3. What should we teach new believers and children about textual variations? How important is it for everyone to understand the basics of how biblical texts were transmitted?

Wisdom from the KJV Preface

Here is more of the opening quote (abridged). It comes from §16 of the preface to the KJV

Some peradventure would have no variety of senses to be set in the margin, lest the authority of the Scriptures for deciding of controversies by that show of uncertainty should somewhat be shaken.
But we hold their judgement not to be so sound in this point.
For though whatsoever things are necessary are manifest, yet for all that it cannot be dissembled ((disguised)), that partly to exercise and whet our wits, partly to wean the curious from loathing of them for their everywhere plainness, partly also to stir up our devotion to crave the assistance of God’s Spirit by prayer, and lastly, that we might be forward to seek aid of our brethren by conference, it hath pleased God in His divine providence here and there to scatter words and sentences of that difficulty and doubtfulness…
Now in such a case, doth not a margin do well to admonish the reader to seek further, and not to conclude or dogmatize upon this or that peremptorily?

KJV Preface (excerpted, emphasis mine)

Suggested Reading

Vince Beiler on the Hebrew Bible. https://anabaptistperspectives.org/series/adventures-hebrew-bible

The Translator to the Reader (KJV Preface) https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Bible_(King_James)/Preface

Dan Wallace’s comments on “Aren’t the Copies of the Bible Hopelessly Corrupt?” https://danielbwallace.com/2014/03/24/can-we-still-believe-the-bible/

Categories
Bible

Phrasing the Bible

I love copy and paste. Even for Bible study. I enjoy “phrasing” passages in a word processor to help me visualize the structure of dense text, like that in the epistles.

I learned the most from William Mounce, who incorporates phrasing into his Graded Reader of Biblical Greek. Steven Brubaker taught me a similar approach in a class at Faith Builders.

I’ve compiled a few pointers of my own and several sample passages.