Monday, October 6, 2008

A Brief Look at Bible Translations

Whenever there's something available for which there are a ton of choices, I tend to ignore what's going on until I'm actually looking to buy something. This applies to things like gadgets, phones, games, and... bibles. It's been a while since I've taken any look at what translations are popular and why.

Back when I became a new Christian and did the research on what were the best translations (1985), the choices were a lot simpler. King James Version (KJV) was the most popular though archaic, the Revised Standard Version (RSV) was also popular, and the Living Bible the most popular paraphrase, but the two that stood out for serious study were the New International Version (NIV) and the New American Standard Bible (NASB). The last three had come out in the 1970's, with the NASB a fairly literal translation, while the NIV championed "dynamic equivalence", where idioms and phrases would be translated to keep the equivalent idea intact instead of a word for word translation. So I bought the NIV study bible, a copy of the NASB and was just fine for the next decade or two. More recently I've been seeing reference to a lot of other versions I don't know much about (and also seen on sites like ): HCSB, TNIV, The Message, NLT, CEV. This week I noticed a lot of buzz about a new study bible coming out for the 'ESV'. What's up with all these new translations, and why would anyone care about a new study bible coming out?

Fortunately there is no lack of information about these many versions. Many sites argue endlessly about what is the 'best' version, but others offer a good overview of the history and philosophy behind English translations.

My long-time favorite NIV had gotten into a storm of controversy not just once, but multiple times. I won't go into all the details about it, but here's the basics. In 1995 Zondervan modified the text for a 3rd-grade reading level and marketed the "Children's Bible". Shortly after it was realized that this version made extensive use of gender-neutral language that caused an uproar with James Dobson and many evangelicals. In 1998 the International Bible Society (IBS) had to reprint a kids version without the gender neutral language in 1998.  In 1996 came out the NIV: Inclusive Language Edition in Great Britain. That didn't go over well with convervatives, and the IBS was thinking about marketing it in the US, possibly as a new revision for the NIV. They ended up going with a new name for their gender neutral version, calling it the TNIV, Today's New International Version, in 2002. Surrounded in controversy from the start, and with the original NIV still extremely popular, it has not become a very popular version.

The NASB (1971, revised in 1995) is a revision of the American Standard Version (1901), produced by a company of conservative scholars in reaction to the Revised Standard Version (RSV) which was considered unacceptable among many conservative churches. The NASB intentionally interprets the OT from a Christian perspective. It's main issue is that the text is frequently awkward and unnatural, due to strict word for word adherence to the original languages. Hence it became a popular 'second bible', very good for additional study but not the best one for reading.

The Message is a paraphrase version by Eugene H. Peterson (NT in 1993, Bible in 2002) published by NavPress. Peterson was a preacher who wanted to bring alive the bible for his congregation. He started with a paraphrase with Galatians, and just kept going! The Message is particularly well suited for devotional reading, and as an extra resource which can help the reader see things in a new light. Of course for serious study, or as a primary bible, a paraphrase is not going to be the best choice.

The New Living Translation (NLT, 1996) is interesting. It's an "entirely new translation" that is an extensive revision of Ken Taylor's Living Bible (1971, a paraphrase). The goal was to have a more accurate version, a translation not a paraphrase, that was "lively and dynamic". It was significantly more accurate than the Living Bible, but still not appropriate for study. In 2004 the NLT had a second revision to "increase the level of precision" of the translation to make it an excellent general purpose version for both reading and study. 
So what is the HCSB I keep seeing in Baptist materials? Ah, the Holman Christian Standard Bible is indeed published by Lifeway, a primary publishing house for the Southern Baptist Convention. Why did it arise? It spun out of the NIV 'controversy' when in 1997 the IBS announced it would do a revision with gender-neutral language. Overal the HCSB is a bit more literal than the NIV, but far less literal than the NASB, and is easier to read. One distinctive feature is that when words are added in the English not present in Hebrew/Greek, they are enclosed in [brackets]. It also has an unusually high number of marginal notes.

The Contemporary English Version (CEV, 1995) is a simplified version for children and uneducated adults, at a 4th grade reading level. It's similar to the Good News Bible previously published by the American Bible Society(hey, that's the one I read as a kid!) Drafts were kid-tested and even the teachers found they liked it quite a bit. Popular versions for kids include this CEV, the NLT Young Believer Bible, the NIV adventure bible (and Zondervan's Beginner's Bible for ages 2-6).

Next post I'll describe the English Standard Version and the new ESV Study Bible coming out next week, October 15th, 2008.

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