Modern Bible Translations: Correcting Some Misconceptions
On the Online NET Bible Study group I just started on this site, this issue came up, and I didn't want to get too far away from the heart of that study; so I decided to explore this issue a little further on my blog.
One of the members of the group voiced a concern that is often heard today. Considering the proliferation of modern translations of the Bible, it's not too surprising. I'm sure others have heard it: "I don't like the modern translations, because they are getting farther and farther from the original. Why would God inspire more than one version of His words?" There are other variations on this theme, including "I like a translation to 'sound' like the Bible, with Biblical language," or "How can they change the Word of God?"
There are a couple problems here. For one thing, several of these statements are evidence that the person has a basic misunderstanding of how Bible translation actually works. They seem to believe that there was one correct or original English version of the Bible (for argument's sake, let's say it was the King James), and that the modern versions take that version, and adjust it, simply to modernize the language. So, obviously, the more updates one does of the "original," the farther and farther the text would get from that original version. But that's not really how it works. In fact, our beloved King James translators took the best manuscripts they had, they borrowed lots of the phraseology from versions that already existed (Tyndale, Bishop's, etc.), and they did the best job they possibly could with the sources at hand. The translators of the NIV, though, did not begin with King James and adjust it where necessary. Ditto the NET or the CEV, or a host of other modern translations. They take many more Greek and Hebrew texts than the KJV translators had, they borrow some (but not a lot) of the earlier versions' terminology, and they render those original languages into the best English they can come up with. Some of it sounds a bit like the KJV, but most of it does not. Sure there are families of translations: the RSV, NRSV, NASB, and ESV are all roughly inheritors of the King James tradition, whereas the NIV and the NET are more original.
As far as the question of "Why wouldn't God inspire His Word in English in the same way forever?" that question betrays a gross misunderstanding of how language works. Today's language is vastly different from the English of a few centuries ago, and even more vastly different from the Hebrew and Greek of thousands of years ago. Translation always, always, always is more than simply rendering one word into its analogue in the new language. Did God speak to the authors of Scripture in Hebrew and Greek? Well, in a sense, yes. The authors of Scripture heard God in their language. We all hear God in our own language. Try as hard as I may, I cannot hear God speak to me in Spanish or German. My language is English.
Then there's the issue of liking the way the older versions "sound," wanting the Bible to "sound like the Bible." I can certainly empathize with that wish. I recall when my mother first heard a Christmas pageant at the church I grew up in, and they used the Living Bible as their text, rather than the King James. When she heard Mary was "pregnant by the Holy Spirit," she just about blew a gasket! "Pregnant!!! What happened to 'with child'?" Those were her very words. But I can't remember the last time I received an electric bill that said, "Thou shalt pay Nashville Electric Service one talent of silver." I have never told friends, "I hope ye have a great day." Fans of the King James Bible rarely address each other in the cadences of Jacobean English. Why would God want them to? God cannot be relegated to 17th century English, or 20th century English, or 16th century German.
One last thing: the objection of "Why did they remove that from the <fill-in-the-translation> Bible?" I don't have room to get into all of the intricacies of textual criticism here, but suffice it to say, it seems more important to try to determine what the original text actually said, than to simply make it say what it has aways said in our lifetime. The famous Johanine Comma may be one of the best examples of this. King James Bibles all have a verse at 1 John 5:7 that says, "For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one." Nice straightforward reference to the Trinity, isn't it? But look up the same reference in most modern Bibles, including the NET. It's not there! Why would anyone take that out?!? Many KJV fans have cried foul, and why not? Well, the problem is, all the best manuscripts existing do not have that verse in them. There is virtually no textual support for that reading anywhere. So should something that was added to the Bible many centuries after John wrote his original be added to the Bible, just because the King James translators had it in their texts? Well, if you're a KJV Only person, you will shout "Yes!" Those of us who really would like to read what John wrote may strongly disagree. I mean, I could add to the end of Revelation, "And lo, God told me, there shall come one Bible in a future tongue, that beareth the name of a king. And that shall be my hallowed Word." And I could say, "See? There it is? God predicted the King James Version." Every Bible reader in the world would say it's not the Word of God, and they would be right.
Before I finish this blog post, I would like to point out that I am a huge fan of the King James Version. I still think it's one of the greatest things ever to be written in English. I am amazed that, even 400 years after it was written, it is the second best-selling translation on the market. Only the NIV outsells it. That is a tremendous testament to its enduring worth. And yes, I do think there are modern translations that are...not so good. But we've got to use our brains, the brains that God gave us.