Is There a Preferred Bible Translation Christians Should Use?

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Late modern Americans face a plethora of choices in English-language Bible translations: the King James Version (KJV), the American Standard Version (ASV), the Revised Standard Version (RSV), the New International Version (NIV), the New King James Version (NKJV), the Living Bible (LB), the New American Standard Bible (NASB), and the English Standard Version (ESV) are just a few. For most of these, there are subsets and revisions of revisions (e.g., the NASB 95). The KJV (also known as the Authorized Version) has undergone multiple revisions since 1611, as have the others.

The question of which translation is before some of us again. 

For most Americans through the first half of the 20th century, the KJV was the English translation. The 1901 ASV had made a dent (and before that the Revised Version in the UK), and the 1946 RSV made another dent, particularly as it was adopted by the liberal mainline denominations. Among evangelicals, however, the KJV was probably the dominant translation until the 1970s, when the NASB published their complete translation. The 1970s saw a number of other translations including the LB (1971) and the NIV (1978). For many evangelicals through the 1980s, the NIV became the preferred translation. It was adopted by many churches and by some denominations.

Work on the ESV began in the early 1990s. Many evangelical and Reformed folk appreciated the NIV and the NASB but wanted a translation that was not quite as stiff as the NASB sometimes seemed and not quite as paraphrastic as the NIV too often seemed. Some of us were not comfortable either with the textual basis for the NKJV or with the translation philosophy. The ESV, which began as a revision of the RSV, first appeared in 2001. When the NIV translation committee signaled their intent to produce “inclusive language” versions of the NIV, thereby blurring the lines in Scripture between males and females, many evangelicals turned to the ESV.

As in 2001, the question of which translation is before some of us again. Rachel Miller has recently published an essay explaining why she is going back to the NASB—she does not mention the NASB95. I have had some correspondence from others about Bible translations, so it seems like a good time to revisit the question of what to do when Bible translations let us down.

The modern flurry of translations did not begin in the 20th century.

My short answer is: get used to it. The history of Bible translations, going back about 2300 years ago to the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew (and Aramaic) Old Testament, is that none of them are perfect. Later, the Vulgate was the “standard Bible” of the medieval Western church.

In some ways, the KJV fulfilled the same function in the Anglophone world as the Vulgate did in the medieval church. It was the original standard Bible. It was challenged and replaced for the same reasons that the KJV was eventually unseated: dissatisfaction with the dominant translation. It had its problems, but it was not as bad a translation as Reformation polemics sometimes suggested. Nevertheless, the issues were significant enough to warrant a new Latin version for use by Protestant professors, pastors, and students composed of Beza’s Latin New Testament and the Old Testament translation of Junius and Tremellius.

While respecting defenders of the KJV, the modern flurry of translations did not begin in the 20th century. It began in the 16th century, when Protestants produced several including the Geneva Bible, among others. Arguably, one of the principal functions of the KJV was to marginalize the Geneva Bible because of its anti-tyrannical notes.

So, Christians have been seeking to be faithful to the Scriptures in translation since Martin Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German in 1522 and Tyndale translated the New Testament into English in 1525. The current discussion arises, as Miller explains, from the decision by the publisher of the ESV to introduce controversial changes to the text. Here is a chronological comparison of the translation of Genesis 3:16b. The most straightforward translation is “your desire will be for your husband.” The meaning is cryptic.

All Bible translators interpret.

The challenge we face is not whether translations interpret the text. As one who spends a good deal of time translating and editing translations (see the Classic Reformed Theology series), it is clear to me that there is no translator who does not interpret. The real question is a matter of art or degree. When a text is inherently ambiguous, as Genesis 3:16b is, should the translator try to clean it up for the English reader or leave it ambiguous? I am arguing for the latter choice. If a publisher wants to add footnotes mentioning other options, that is perfectly acceptable. My old friend Warren Embree, who was using the NASB at the time, complained loudly (as he is wont to do) about the publisher’s practice of adding a note to a translation: “lit. x and y.” Quite reasonably, it seems to me, Warren complained that if the text may be rendered literally “x and y” then do so and leave the explanation of the text to the reader and/or preacher.

In short, sometimes translators create problems by doing too much to make the Bible accessible to the reader. The translator should accept the limitations inherent to the job. Sometimes translators become deeply convinced of the correctness of a theological explanation of the verse and it unduly influences the translation. That may be the case with the ESV’s revision of Genesis 3:16b, and it certainly seems to be the case in the choice to render “only begotten” (μονογενοῦς) in John 1:14 and 1:18 (μονογενὴς) as “one and only” (NIV) or “only” (ESV). There are good linguistic reasons for following Tyndale (1525) and the Geneva Bible (1559) by using “only begotten.” In the years since the NIV’s decision to revise “only begotten” to “one and only,” that choice now seems faddish.

There are no perfect translations. What we ought to seek is a good, consistent execution of a sound philosophy of translation. There is debate, of course, among Bible translators as to what that is, but the ESV was adopted by many Reformed and evangelical folk because it promised to follow an “essentially literal” translation. In the latest revisions, however, it does not seem to be following that philosophy consistently.

The Scriptures in the original languages are the final court of appeal.

What to do? The problems inherent in translating a text from one language to another were among the things motivating confessional Protestants in the Reformation to found schools to educate pastors and to produce a learned clergy. That vision of pastoral ministry has often been a tough sell in the USA, where pragmatism and busyness tend to trump study and learning. In the Westminster Confession 1.8, we see how much the early Reformed valued the original languages:

The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which, at the time of the writing of it, was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and, by his singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as, in all controversies of religion, the church is finally to appeal unto them. But, because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God, who have right unto, and interest in the Scriptures, and are commanded, in the fear of God, to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated into the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come, that, the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship him in an acceptable manner; and, through patience and comfort of the Scriptures, may have hope. (WCF 1.8)

The Scriptures in the original languages are the final court of appeal. Thus, we need ministers who can actually read the original languages. Ignorance of the original languages is a great impediment here. The second part of the answer then is to learn the original languages. It appears that some seminaries are moving away from this high calling just at the time when we need it most, but there are still schools where the languages are carefully taught. At my school, students are not permitted to use their English Bibles in their middler (second year) theology exams. They are only permitted to use their Hebrew and Greek texts. It is a challenge, but it can be done.

Pastors need to take the time to learn the biblical languages.

Pastor, I understand that you are busy and that your congregation may not value time in the study for you. Thus, it must be a priority to convince them that your first calling is to preach God’s Word, and to do that well you need to know (or refresh yourself in) Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Bible software is wonderful, but it is no substitute for knowing the languages. How will you know if the programmer made a mistake? It happens.

As I argued in 2002, I am arguing today: the plethora of translations is a good thing. It is an opportunity to learn from others and to be more faithful. There have never been any perfect translations, but we are blessed with many good ones. When a translation disappoints you, do not be surprised. It is a fallen world. Make sure your pastor learns (or refreshes his) Hebrew and Greek. If that is not enough, I know where you can learn the biblical languages from real experts.

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R. Scott Clark is professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California) and the author of Recovering the Reformed Confession (P&R, 2008). For more content from Dr. Clark, please visit heidelblog.net and rscottclark.org.

This article is adapted from “When Bible Translations Disappoint” at heidelblog.net.

Recommended:

Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice by R. Scott Clark

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