Alphabet soup (Bible study #3)

Well, I never thought I’d say this, but Google has failed me. I just gave up on a massive search to find how many English words the translators of the New International Version (NIV) used to translate the Bible.* Although I did not meet my main objective, I did discover a few helpful things:

  • There are some really nutty people on the Interwebs writing about biblical translations (especially ones who think the King James Version–which was translated 397 years ago–is still the cutting edge in biblical scholarship and modern translations are leading us along the path to destruction).
  • It’s difficult to find reputable biblical scholarship on the Series of Tubes.
  • Some Christians are just plain mean.

So, with full knowledge that I am continuing to add my voice to the wacky/sad/puzzling/repellent world of Internet biblical scholarship, I will offer my two cents on which translation to use when studying the Bible.

Cent #1: Use them all.

Cent #2: Get an Interlinear Bible.

While the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) is the primary version I read (because my church uses it during worship), I consult multiple other translations to see how they render the Hebrew and Greek texts.**  Every translation is an interpretation because the biblical languages do not fit nicely and cozily into our grammatical system.

The ancient Hebrew language exists in another universe from modern English. Ancient Hebrew thrives on ambiguity and nuance and feeling. There are often assumed words left out. There is no standard word order. There are no vowels, for that matter. Translating ancient Hebrew is like painting a picture, not solving a math problem. So different translators will come up with different translations.

While Greek is both more exact than Hebrew and more closely related to English, translators still face challenges. Some of the writers of the New Testament nearly flunked Greek 101, so their sentence structure is often confusing. Other writers aced their Greek classes and like to show off, writing compound-complex (oh, so complex!) sentences with so many nouns, adjectives, and verbs that sorting out which goes with which is troublesome. Ironically enough, the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews has the best Greek in the New Testament.

So, with the biblical languages proving to wiggle and squirm while we try to smoosh them into English,*** and with the biases of unbiased translators sneaking into their translations, reading a range of English translations is the way to go. Use the NIV for a Protestant outlook and the New Jerusalem Bible for a Catholic one. Use the NRSV for a mainline Protestant view and the New Living Version for a conservative Protestant one. Always read the King James for its poetry–they really knew how to write English in Shakespeare’s day. There are books you can buy called “Parallel Bibles” that line up several translations next to one another. There are also several good websites that put passages in parallel for you. Check out Bible Gateway for all your conservative Protestant versions and The Unbound Bible for mainline ones.

Okay, that cent turned into about a buck fifty, but my other cent will be short. Interlinear Bibles have text in the original languages with English translations under each word. Even if you don’t know the original languages, you can use this resource to compare words. Often the same Greek word will be translated with three or four different English words. Your Interlinear will show you this. On the other hand, several Greek words will be translated into the same English word. Your Interlinear will show you this, also. I’ve had sermon ideas light up and be snuffed out when I return to the original text. It’s always enlightening and even fun to piece together your own translation using an Interlinear and several English translations.

So, there’s my take on the alphabet soup of biblical translations. Remember that studying the Bible is about encountering God through the text. When you combine several different resources, these encounters can become more fruitful and they can further deepen your relationship with God.


* The reason I couldn’t find how many words the NIV uses is that (when I first conceived this post) I mixed up the NIV with Today’s English Version (or Good News Bible) which limited the number or English words in the translation. Originally, this version was produced for non-native English speakers. So, Google didn’t fail me…Adam = epic phail.

** A few chapters of Daniel are written in Aramaic, but for clarity’s sake, I will more often than not refer to Hebrew and Greek as the languages of the Bible.

*** I’m pretty sure “smoosh” is a technical term.

2 thoughts on “Alphabet soup (Bible study #3)

  1. A subject near and dear to my heart; I can’t resist muddying the waters with my own biases.

    When I study a passage (sorry, I hate the word “pericope”), I start with the NRSV because it’s the “industry standard” at least for the Episcopal Church. I never read just the NRSV though, as I remember many occasions in my seminary bible classes when the profs had to stop and correct an obvious (for a bible scholar) place where the NRSV simply blew it. The NRSV I would also criticize for sacrificing too much accuracy for the sake of political correctness. It may be helpful for newcomers who are sensitive to that sort of thing, but really, the long-term solution isn’t to change the parts of the text that offend us.

    I love the NJB and I wish more Anglicans and Protestants would give it a chance. For my money, it’s at least as scholarly as the NRSV and the translation is much more fluid and readable — and often more accurate. There are lots of misconceptions about the NJB. First, it’s a “Catholic bible” in that all the apocryphal books are there and the whole thing is arranged in the order the RC’s use, but the translation itself is neutral and should be acceptable to any open-minded Protestant. The notes, though, can slant a bit Romish, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Finally, some people still think the text was re-translated from a French translation. That’s just not true. The text came straight from the original languages, although the notes were translated from French.

    I have no use for the NIV and don’t own one. For me, the translation is so loose as to approach a paraphrase and the translators use this looseness to give the text a conservative Protestant slant. The text is easy to read, workmanly but never eloquent. If you need a version in simplified English, try the Good News Bible that Adam mentioned.

    Speaking of vigorous English, check out the Revised English Bible. I’ve only consulted this one a few times but I like what I’ve seen so far. Good writing, less literal.

    If you need a hyper-literal translation, check out the NASB. It does come from conservative evangelicals but I have to give them serious props for their no-compromises approach to translation — basically they keep as close to a word-for-word translation as English grammar and syntax permit. This can lead to some funky sentences but also keeps them from putting much theological bias into the text — it’s so literal there’s no room for it. This one can be very helpful for getting started with exegetical work.

    Finally, The Message is a paraphrase, not a translation. It calls itself that, too. I guess it can give you a fresh perspective on the text but I don’t trust it for textual accuracy or theological integrity. If you need a paraphrase of a passage, I think the best course would be to study the text well enough to write your own.

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