What is the best bible translation?
This question has come up a number of times on shows like Tenak Talk. Invariably the answer is that there are no English translations of the bible which are going to replace learning the original Hebrew, and there are many good reasons to take such a statement with it’s full weight. However, there are a few translations which come up again and again in these discussions. There is also the question of which bible translation is most scholarly, the kind of bible you would need if you went into seminary. This is a practical concern. And, for Noachides and those looking to convert, this is a practical concern. One has to have a bible, but which one?
English Bible Translation History
I’m not a historian, but it goes something like this:
First there was the Wycliffe bible of 1382 and then the Tyndale bible of 1535, which was the first complete English bible. These bibles were then used as base texts, alongside original sources, to produce three other bibles all at around the same time; The Douay-Rheims bible was a major Catholic translation attempt from the Latin Vulgate of Saint Jerome (345–420) which began in 1589 and completed in 1609. During this time, the protestants also began a translation project which became known as the the Geneva Bible, completed in 1599. The Geneva Bible was a literary masterpiece which drove the previous “Great Bible” of 1532 off the shelves. In response the Church of England re-translated their bible using the Geneva bible as a base text, in order to maintain sales and popularity. It worked, and today the King James Version has completely eclipsed the Geneva Bible.
The King James Version translation began in 1604 and was completed in 1611. The King James Version is important because it became regarded as a masterpiece of literature, in stead of the Geneva Bible, in terms of presentation, phrasing, style and word choice; of course, this bible was functionally similar to the Geneva Bible, in that during translation the earlier Wycliffe and Tyndale bibles were used as a base text, and Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts were used only when deemed necessary.
Yet problems with the translation would soon become known. An example would be how the KJV translators mistranslated ‘wild oxen’ and ‘rhinoceros as ‘unicorn’. Some of the underlying Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek had been so badly mistranslated that the wording needed to be changed. What’s worse, some of it had been used to establish doctrine and the Church began to realize it was flying on autopilot. As a result many other bible translations began to appear, such as Young’s Literal Translation of 1862 and the Complete Darby Bible of 1867 (completed by 1890). These bibles, however, were somewhat unreadable. And by the 20th century it became apparent that the language of the KJV was in dire need of repair. The KJV had actually been under a continuous editing process since 1611; by 1804 there was in production an “Authorized Version” (AKJV) with the original (already by that time unreadable) English updated to the more ‘modern’ English of the 1800s. Next by 1901 the American Standard Version had been completed, which updated the AKJV and related translations into modern ‘American English’. The language was still archaic in some regards, but it read well — similar to the KJV — with updated English and in general was a much better translation.
Various translations would come and go over the years, until 1952 when everything changed. In 1952 the Revised Standard Version was published by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches. That’s important — the 40 million member (in 1952!) NCC is the largest Christian organization in the United States, and represents a partnership between 38 major Christian faith groups such as the mainline Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, African-American, evangelical, and historic peace churches. That’s over 100,000 local congregations and 40 million members. To put this in perspective, the SBC (Southern Baptist Convention) today holds just over 14 million members. That’s a weekly attendance of roughly 15 million vs. 5 million. So the RSV was a big deal. But what was even more of a big deal was that the RSV made a striking attempt to include the most recent advancements in translation and theology into the bible, and people didn’t like it. The problem was that — as mentioned before — the KJV translators had at times butchered the theology of the original text — an example is Isaiah 7:14, which should read something like “Do you see this young woman before you? She is pregnant now, and here’s a sign; before her child grows up, your enemies will suddenly be defeated”. However, in order to shoehorn Jesus into a place he does not belong, they rewrote this as “Behold, the Virgin will give birth to a child…”
The issue is that this isn’t about the existance or validity of Jesus or the New Testament, it’s just about the validity of the Hebrew scriptures. Selectively reading the Septuagint doesn’t enter into it either, because of the context and meaning of the whole sentence in the whole passage. This isn’t just about one word. It’s also not about Jesus, to see Jesus you have to read the New Testament. So, in an attempt to reinforce the authentic meaning of the Hebrew the way anyone who knows Hebrew would read it, they pissed off a lot of people.
What’s worse, as time went by, language in some circles changed very quickly and the masculine pronoun “He” became considered sexist. As a result, the NRSV was created which attempted to introduce gender neutral language into the text. This gave the text a ridiculous word-feel and the translation fell into obscurity; hoist by it’s own petard, it’s own desire to be cutting edge.
However the RSV as a translation was too important to simply let go. In 2001, the ESV (English Standard Version) was released using the RSV-1971 as a base text. The goal of the ESV was simply to “re-correct” such passages as Isaiah 7:14, maintaining the “purity of Jesus in the Old Testament”. Thus in the ESV it reads, once again as before, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” What a pity. I mean, did anyone call Jesus “Immanuel?” No. Some people just couldn’t take the hint.
Thus in the USA today, the most popular bibles look something like this:
- The King James Version (KJV, 31%)
- New Internaional Version (NIV, 13%)
- English Standard Version (ESV, 9%)
- The New King James Version (NKJV, 7%)
- The Amplified Bible (AMP, 7%)
- Christian Community Bible (CCB, 4%)
- New American Standard Bible (NASB, 3%)
- New Living Translation (NLT, 2%)
- Revised Standard Version (RSV, 2%)
- Contemporary English Version (CEV, 2%)
- New American Bible (NAB, 2%)
- Other (9%)
- Not Sure (8%)
Given that the NLT is a paraphrase and the CCB is a bible intended for ESL (English as a Second Language) students, such as in the Philipines where it was created, it’s safe to say that if the best English bible isn’t the KJV, NIV or ESV, or one of the relatives, such as RSV or AMP, it’s not on this list. And in fact it isn’t. But first let’s find out some possible contenders.
The Amplified Bible
Let’s let the Amplified Bible speak for itself here by quoting it’s information page on BibleGateway; What is the Amplified Bible?
The AMP was the first Bible project of The Lockman Foundation. Its goal was to take both word meaning and context into account to accurately translate the original text from one language into another. The AMP does this through the use of explanatory alternate readings and amplifications to assist the reader in understanding what Scripture really says. Multiple English word equivalents to each key Hebrew and Greek word clarify and amplify meanings that may otherwise have been concealed by the traditional translation method. The first edition was published in 1965.
The AMP is based on the American Standard Version of 1901, Rudolph Kittel’s Biblia Hebraica, the Greek text of Westcott and Hort, and the 23rd edition of the Nestle Greek New Testament as well as the best Hebrew and Greek lexicons available at the time. Cognate languages, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and other Greek works were also consulted. The Septuagint and other versions were compared for interpretation of textual differences. In completing the Amplified Bible, translators made a determined effort to keep, as far as possible, the familiar wording of the earlier versions, and especially the feeling of the ancient Book.
And so we see, then, that the AMP is a revision of the ASV.
How is it on theological grounds? Although (using Isaiah 7:14 as a litmus test), it reads a disturbingly familiar “the virgin will conceive” despite the underlying Hebrew, The footnote to Isaiah 7:14 reads,
Isaiah 7:14 This prophecy of the virgin is declared in Matt 1:22, 23 to be fulfilled in the birth of Jesus. There has been a great deal of discussion over the Hebrew word found here for virgin (almah) and the word that Matthew uses (parthenos). The latter refers unambiguously to a virgin, while the former (almah) has been said to refer to a young woman, in contrast to the Hebrew word bethulah, which is the equivalent of the Gr parthenos. It has also been noted that the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew OT, has parthenos here for almah, and that Matt 1:23 is taken from the Septuagint. Some have wondered why the Septuagint translators used the more specific word parthenos. It is fair to say that this question is the result of oversimplifying the vocabulary and misinterpreting the distinctions. The Hebrew words almah and bethulah can actually refer to the same kind of woman; almah is a youthful woman of marriageable age, one who has not yet had her first child, while bethulah is one who has not been touched in an intimate way. Furthermore, in the present context it would be unthinkable to infer that the woman might have had sexual relations outside of marriage. So the well-known translation of “young woman” for almah, while technically not incorrect, can be viewed as too ambiguous for the Hebrew word and the context. Parthenos was an appropriate choice in the Greek. Another word, kore (for “girl”) could have been used, but it has a wider range of meaning than the Heb almah (Mark uses a related word, korasion, to translate Jesus’ Aramaic word talitha). It should also be acknowledged from a theological perspective that when Matthew cites the verse with parthenos, he thereby authenticates it as inspired.“
This at once presents and acknowledges the error, while confirming it by placing the new testament in a position where it is able to shed light on the old testament. This presents serious problems to anyone trying to use an AMP; you will always have to “read between the lines” of the AMP to discover the truth for yourself, even when it is so clearly presented as above.
Therefore, simply because this bible is prone to acknowledging the serious issues, we will place it on our list.
What is the NIV, or New International Version?
The initial vision for the project was provided by a single individual – an engineer working with General Electric in Seattle by the name of Howard Long. Long was a lifelong devotee of the King James Version, but when he shared it with his friends he was distressed to find that it just didn’t connect. Long saw the need for a translation that captured the truths he loved in the language that his contemporaries spoke.
For 10 years, Long and a growing group of like-minded supporters drove this idea. The passion of one man became the passion of a church, and ultimately the passion of a whole group of denominations. And finally, in 1965, after several years of preparatory study, a trans-denominational and international group of scholars met in Palos Heights, Illinois, and agreed to begin work on the project – determining to not simply adapt an existing English version of the Bible but to start from scratch with the best available manuscripts in the original languages. Their conclusion was endorsed by a large number of church leaders who met in Chicago in 1966.
A self-governing body of fifteen biblical scholars, the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT) was formed and charged with responsibility for the version, and in 1968 the New York Bible Society (which subsequently became the International Bible Society and then Biblica) generously undertook the financial sponsorship of the project.
As a ‘new translation’ intended to use modern English, some wording and style may be interesting but it is virtually guaranteed to be unusable from a theological perspective. Isaiah 7:14? “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” Are we seeing a pattern here? Yes, in the notes it mentions “Or young woman,” however by this time the damage has been done. The NIV is not an interesting translation from a theological perspective.
So far we have #1 the RSV and #2 the AMP bible. However, the RSV (and NRSV) have other serious problems. Besides the ridiculous word choice in the NRSV which destroys the style and feeling of the original text, and makes it at times difficult to read, the NRSV also butchers it’s own (even Christian) theology! A great example is Galatians 4:4-7:
4 But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. 6 And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7 So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir.
4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. 6 And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our[a] hearts, crying, “Abba![b] Father!” 7 So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.[c]
The problem with the above is that the NRSV removes the connotation of Son and son, and the idea of heir and inheritance; it also adds ‘through God’, as well as the secondary meaning of ‘child’ which is not present in the original text. As one Orthodox critique writes, “The obvious parallelism between the “Son” and “son/s” is lost. Also, the term “child/ren” does not necessarily connote the implied filial relationship, but rather, a stage of development between birth and puberty. Has fidelity to the text (and by extension, fidelity to the faith and worship of the Church) truly been preserved in the best possible manner?” My answer is no, not that I am hyper-concerned with Christian Theology or anything (I jest).
Serious theological implications are also evident in the translation of Matthew 10:38 (Liturgy for All Saints Sunday). The Greek (and RSV) is: “…he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me…” The NRSV, in a well-intended attempt to avoid the masculine pronoun, runs: “whoever does not take up the cross and follow me…” Is it the Savior’s Cross, or our own individual Cross that must be taken up? Clearly the Greek means our OWN Cross. Vicarious suffering for us by the Lord Jesus is not the intent of this verse. All of the Saints (and that’s us as well) are called to a mystical if not actual co-crucifixion, and co-suffering with the Savior in order to rise with Him and reign with Him (see Colossians 2:11-12 and Romans 6:3-4).
also many others, such as,
Another special concern to Orthodox Christians is the NRSV rendering of Psalm 51:5. This Psalm is important because it occurs quite often in the liturgy of the Church. It is also important because it is one of the instances where the Scriptures articulate most poignantly and eloquently the basis of our understanding of Christian anthropology, original (or ancestral) sin, and the theology of salvation. Remember that the O.T. for the Orthodox is the LXX. The LXX reads: “Behold, I was conceived in iniquities, and in sins did my mother bear me…” This is quite different from the Masoretic Hebrew, used by the KJV, the RSV, NKJV, NRSV, and virtually all Western Bibles, English or otherwise. The emphasis of these Western editions is that: 1) in sin and/or guilt my mother conceived me; and 2) I was born guilty / in sin; etc. Although this is typical of the theology of Western Christendom, it is highly foreign to the theology of Eastern Christendom.
The greatly loved hymn of the Divine Liturgy, “Only-begotten Son and immortal Word of God…” (attributed to St. Justinian the Great) takes as its source the term “monogenes” from John 1:14; 3:16; 1 John 4:9 (see also 1 John 5:18). This is not the place for a detailed study of this expression. However, suffice it to state here that an only child (Luke 7:12: the son of the widow of Nain; Luke 8:42: Jairus’ daughter; Hebrews 11:7: Abraham’s son Isaac) AND the Only-begotten Son of God are simply different. The Risen Lord Jesus is the pre-existent, Only-begotten God, the Son. The NRSV has taken this title and rendered it “…the Father’s only Son.” Could a greater sensitivity to the Tradition of the doctrinal formuale and hymnography of the Church have been useful in rendering the translation of this term?
In any case while the NRSV gets some things right, it was written with blind intent, and clearly gets even it’s own theology a little twisted. We prefer the RSV, then, but there are other problems. Consider Genesis 49:10. In the KJV and others it is ‘until Shiloh comes’, while in the RSV and NRSV it is ‘until it comes to whom it belongs’ or similar. Some bibles use one or the other, some use the other or one, and use a footnote to explain the other. In any case, what is a Shiloh and can we trust this translation? As a matter of fact, no. As it turns out, Shiloh was the major Israelite worship centre before the First temple was built in Jerusalem. There are other references to it all over the bible such as in Joshua 18:1. It does not mean what it says in the RSV, and leaving it untranslated and out of context has allowed many evangelical Christans to start assuming ‘it must mean Jesus,’ (since we don’t know what it means and are unfamiliar with the rest of the bible). Sad, but true.
Therefore, we conclude there is no English translation of the bible which is reliable, however, in a pinch you could compare the RSV and AMPlified bibles and try to reverse-engineer what is really supposed to be going on.
This is the end of Part 1. In Part 2, I will tell you about several new bible translations you can get today which aim to fix this mess! Stay tuned!