David Mathis continues his excellent series of short videos on Bible study with this entry on the English Bible. He encourages us to read our English Bibles with confidence; we are not missing out on God’s word if we don’t know Greek or Hebrew.
At the LogosTalk blog, Mark Ward has posted some much-needed insights into Bible translation—directly from the quills of the KJV’s own translators. Would you believe they never expected the KJV to be very well-received? Or that they knew it wouldn’t be the ultimate English translation of the Bible? Or that they expected better and different translations to come along in future generations?
Ward first translates the original preface to the King James Version into modern English. Then he reflects on some lessons we can learn from it about Bible translation. In particular:
- People don’t like change.
- Watch out for petty objections.
- No translation is perfect.
- People must have the Bible.
I find especially helpful Ward’s comments on the way uninformed readers today love to make sweeping generalizations about what is the “best” Bible translation or “best” way to translate segments of the Bible:
The KJV translators anticipated waves of abuse from the great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents of today’s internet trolls. If there’s one line in the KJV preface that has come to mind over the years more than any other, it’s this from the second sentence: “Cavil, if it do not find a hole, will make one.” In other words, by sentence two the KJV translators are already complaining archly about the human propensity to let petty objections destroy something good.
Every Bible translation involves approximately 327 gazillion decisions about word choice, word order, textual criticism, assonance and consonance, meter, theology, tradition, typography, the current state of the target language, and numerous other factors. Someone, somewhere, is going to dislike just about every choice of any significance—particularly if it is an innovation overturning an established tradition. As the KJV translators say, “So hard a thing it is to please all, even when we please God best, and do seek to approve ourselves to every one’s conscience.”
I think (I hope) most Christian people have a sense that it is indiscrete to offer unsubstantiated opinions about pork futures in Australia (Market’s goin’ up ten points this year!) or the best fabric blend for patio table umbrellas (80% polyester, 10% elastane—that’s what I always say!). But somehow sweeping generalizations about the NIV (They’ve given in to gender politics!) or the ESV (They’ve given in to gender politics!) are permitted, even from people who’ve never read either side in significant translation debates.
It’s not wrong to have opinions about Bible translations: it’s wrong to speak opinions boldly about complex matters when you haven’t done the work to back them up. Internet commenters and cavil-hole makers of all sorts, be warned: the KJV translators are on to you.
If you can see any piece of yourself in Ward’s criticism, I highly commend his reflections to you.
Disclaimer: The Amazon link above is an affiliate link. If you click it and buy stuff, this blog will receive a small commission at no extra cost to yourself. If you choose not to click the link, we promise not to accuse you of giving in to gender politics.
The Christian Standard Bible hit with a vibrant ad campaign early in 2017, and a Study Bible version along with it. How does it stand under the hype? As this study Bible is my first exposure to this translation, my review has two parts: the translation itself, and this edition of it.
The CSB Translation
I am more than impressed. I often see Bible publishers promoting their translations as both “readable” and “accurate,” and sometimes I wonder whether they understand those terms the same way I do. Of course, some translations legitimately succeed in both areas, and the CSB is one of them.
The CSB has the courage to mess with a beloved verse to make it more clear:
For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
Yet every piece of the sentence is there. This is no paraphrase. This is a translation, and one that translates the Bible into the kind of English normal people speak normally in 2017.
If you’d like more examples of the CSB’s accuracy and readability, especially side-by-side with the ESV, see Jeff Medders’s helpful article, “Why We are Moving to the CSB at Redeemer Church.” Though Medders falls prey at times to the myth of literal Bible translations, much of his analysis hits the mark. I can’t unilaterally decide to switch to the CSB in my church and collegiate ministry, but I am eager to lobby for consideration of such a switch.
So I’m very thankful for this translation. You may be seeing more of it on this blog. But what about the CSB Study Bible itself?
The CSB Study Bible
Unfortunately, I am less than impressed. But there’s still much to celebrate. The CSB Study Bible has everything you’d expect in a study Bible: study notes, occasional articles, charts, maps, sketches, book overviews, and lots of cross references. And amid the standard fare, a few things stand out.
- The book overviews are concise (almost always two facing pages) and focused on the most useful background information.
- The maps in the back of the Bible are re-printed next to the relevant text. For example, the first map in the back, showing Abraham’s route of migration, is also printed right next to the text of Genesis 12.
- While many of the articles have material that could be found in just about any study Bible (such as genre introductions or manuscript traditions), quite a few seem fresh and unique (for example: “Messianic Expectations,” “The Bible and Civil Rights, and “Opportunities and Challenges in Global Missions”).
What could be better:
- I haven’t been able to read all 16,124 study notes, but those I have read (from a selection of testaments and genres) seem to largely lack careful observation of the text. They focus on interpretation, but without the observation, the interpretation goes unsupported.
- In addition, the study notes tend to assume a certain theological spin, and without communicating any awareness of doing so. For example, on Psalm 87:5-7: “Despite the inclusion of Gentile nations, the Lord would appoint Israel to a special position of leadership in the eschatological kingdom because of her birthright (Is 60; 62:1-5).” Assuming such a view on the future of Israel and the “eschatological kingdom,” without having the space to sufficiently prove it, unfortunately trains readers to narrow their perspective and marginalize dissenters. This tone could have been much improved with a simple, “Despite the inclusion of Gentile nations, many see here a divine appointment of Israel to a special position…” With only 3 more words (which I’m sure could be trimmed even further), greater charity could be extended on less certain matters.
- Word studies. This volume has 368 of them, scattered throughout the text, interrupting what could have been a fine study session. These “word studies” consist of a paragraph listing many (or sometimes all) of the different ways a certain Hebrew or Greek word could be translated. Unfortunately, the word studies do almost nothing to aid the reader’s study of the text at hand (the text on the top of that page) and therefore distract the reader from observing, interpreting, or applying these passages in context. Please be careful when you use tools like study Bibles, and don’t let them take you away from the inspired text!
I’ve added the CSB Study Bible to my Study Bible Buying Guide (which you can find anytime on the Resource page). It ranks in the top half of study Bibles I’ve reviewed and would be a fine choice to assist your OIA study of scripture. You can find it on Amazon.
I’m eagerly awaiting a reader’s version of the CSB, as I think this translation will lend itself to ravenous consumption.
Disclaimer 1:1: Amazon links are affiliate links, so if you click them to look at stuff, you’ll send a small commission our way at no extra cost to yourself. And the Hebrew word for “look” is navat, which “may involve just physical vision or include internal processes like approval, trust, or remembrance” (CSB Study Bible, p.1430). I’ll let you look back at the first sentence of this disclaimer and decide which way to best understand the word.
Disclaimer 1:2: The publisher sent me a free copy of the CSB Study Bible in exchange for an honest review.
Because this blog is for ordinary people, who don’t typically know Greek or Hebrew, we don’t write much about translation issues. But once in a while there’s an opportunity to speak to an issue that impacts ordinary Bible readers broadly. One such issue is the popular, yet misleading, assumption that some English Bible translations are more literal than others.
Bill Mounce, Greek scholar and author of one of the best-selling Biblical Greek textbooks, wrote recently about translation philosophies, and the popular misconceptions of what they mean. Mounce has served on translation committees for both the ESV and the NIV, so he’s well qualified to comment on a variety of philosophies.
Speaking about the two main categories, he writes:
Most people say there are two translation camps, formal equivalent [word-for-word] and functional equivalent (or dynamic equivalent) [thought-for-thought]. The longer I am in translation work, the more I see how simplistic this division is.
There actually are five methods on translation with three sub-categories for the handling of gender language. Translations are all on a continuum, overlapping one another, and hence it is misleading to picture them as different points on a line. I am guessing, but for example, about eighty percent of the ESV and the NIV are the same, once you account for different translations of individual words.
Mounce goes on to explain that, except for a few interlinear Bibles (which aren’t really English translations), no English Bible is literal.
The word “literal” should never be used of any other form of translation since all of them, every single one, despite their marketing, rarely translate word-for-word. They will say they translate word-for-word unless it does not make sense or misinforms, but that is a red herring argument. They are never consistently word-for-word, unless you can find a translation that translates John 3:16 as, “in this way for loved the God the world so that the Son the only he gave in order that each the believing into him not perish but have life eternal.” No Bible on the market is “literal.”
Mounce goes on to describe more nuanced categories of translation, which should inform how we think about our English Bibles. In addition, he addresses the matter of gender language, arguing that there is no English translation in existence that is “gender neutral,” and we should not ignorantly use the term to describe any well-known, modern English Bible.
Mounce’s full article is useful and easy to read; it uses no Greek. Check it out!
To build your confidence in your English Bibles, we don’t often get into issues of translation from the Hebrew and Greek scriptures. But Jesse Johnson wrote a recent article at the Cripplegate about why English Bibles should translate God’s personal name as Yahweh instead of the typical “the LORD.” Johnson walks through each argument presented in the prefaces to most English translations about why they keep the superstitious Jewish tradition of not using the name God revealed to us. And then he gives his own reasons why the personal name, and not the title, should be used.
My favorite part is when he answers the objection—often considered the trump card—that we don’t actually know how YHWH would have been pronounced, since its vocalization has been long lost.
This misses the point. We don’t know with “certainty” how any of the Hebrew words were pronounced. I’m not even sure Yahweh spoke Hebrew to Adam in the garden anyway. How did Adam pronounce Eve? Is it the same way Americans do it? We can’t even agree on how to pronounce Isaiah, much less Yahweh. But the solution is not to render Isaiah as “ISH,” and it is certainly not to replace Isaiah with “The PROPHET.”
One commenter on the post asks why Johnson is okay with “Jesus” over the original “Yeshua.” Johnson replies:
At least “Jesus” is a name, not a title. Imagine replacing every use of Jesus with “The SAVIOR.” Wouldn’t that undercut his personhood? I think so.
And, btw, your point about Yeshua — Jesus is exactly the argument that should be made for Yahweh. Nobody says Jesus was pronounced that way, yet we don’t blink about using it. But then we change a name that is thousands of years older than that? Ba humbug.
Johnson’s arguments explain why I repeatedly refer to God as Yahweh in my Exodus series, and why I will continue to do so when I read the Old Testament out loud.
In the English-speaking world, we are blessed with a wealth of good translations of the Bible. For most of church history, this was not the case.
Chances are you have a few translations you prefer, and occasionally switching between these versions in your devotional reading can prove eye opening. You see a phrase or scene from a slightly different angle, and you have a fresh appreciation or insight as a result.
Bible study leaders can also use multiple translations of the Bible to great profit. But it’s best not to introduce variety too early in the process.
When Not to Use Multiple Translations
In your personal study of a Bible passage, I suggest you stick to one translation. Because different translations have different philosophies and tendencies, switching between Bible versions at this stage in the process will slow you down.
At this blog we advocate an old method of Bible study called Observe-Interpret-Apply (OIA), and when observing we suggest you pay attention to words and grammar (among other things). Observing all that a passage contains can be a tall order—bringing in alternate translations might double or triple your work!
For your primary Bible, consider something closer to a word-for-word translation (“formal equivalence”) than a thought-for-thought translation (“dynamic equivalence”). Since Bible study should focus on the words of the original authors, we should use a translation that does as little interpreting as possible while still making sense of the text.
Note: If you’d like an explanation of some of the most popular Bible translations, Daniel Wallace does a decent job here.
When to Use Multiple Translations
After observing the text and working through the answers to your interpretation questions, you should have a sense of the main point of the passage. You may also have some questions you weren’t able to answer.
At this point I usually read my passage in multiple translations. I find software like e-Sword or websites like Bible Gateway perfect for this, because they allow you to view several versions in parallel. For example, here’s the first chapter of John’s gospel in the ESV, NASB, and NIV.
Reading a passage like this is revealing. Staring at your main translation for hours can bake the words into your brain. But this exercise will show you the differences between translations quickly. You’ll see the vast agreement as well as the small areas of disagreement. For particular words, a variety of translations will show you that Bible translation is a difficult task!
You may be able to resolve any word-related confusion by looking at a commentary or two. Most commentators geek out over words and translations, so you’ll have no shortage of food for thought.
Preparing to Lead Your Small Group
If you are leading a small group Bible study with regular participants, it’s a good idea to note which translations those folks read. Take a look at your passage in these translations before the small group meeting so you won’t be thrown or surprised by an odd word choice.
If I notice a drastic difference between translations when I’m preparing, I’ll often point it out to my group. This “pre-emptive strike” allows me to bring the issue into our discussion if it seems important. However, it’s easy to get bogged down in discussions like this, so I usually try to direct our conversation elsewhere.
Though they can differ widely, most of the major English Bible translations are very good. And the deviations we see almost never change the interpretation of the passage. We can use the variety to inform our ideas about the author’s original meaning, but we must also remember not to freak out over the differences we see.
Earlier this year, Dr. George Guthrie wrote a wonderful piece with “6 Reasons We Shouldn’t Freak Out over Word Variations in our Modern Translations.” He addresses the concern often expressed about whether we can trust the Bible in English when there are so many differences in various translations. Yes, there are differences. Yes, sometimes the differences should concern us (when they are careless or unfaithful to the original language). But most of the differences are so minor as to be of little concern.
Guthrie gives 6 reasons for his recommendation:
- They are translations, and translations have various ways to express an idea accurately.
- Modern translations generally follow one of two main methods of translating.
- Our primary English translations are consistently very good, for which we should praise God.
- Variants in the manuscripts behind our translations do not affect the message of the Bible, neither the theological truths, nor the exhortations and commands for living.
- All the variations in wording can be studied by any person willing to learn.
- Variations in wording keep us humble, seeking God for understanding, growing in our study of God’s Word.
In addition, Guthrie offers this marvelous advice:
In reality, there is no such thing as a strictly “literal” translation, since all translations involve interpretation, all translations must render Greek and Hebrew grammar in ways that are understandable in English, and all translations have places that are “functional” in nature. At many points a literal rendering of Greek and Hebrew word order, for instance, would sound like gibberish in English!
If you’d like to understand Guthrie’s reasons better, see the full article. Check it out!
Back in December, Wycliffe Bible Translators published a short post called “The Changing Face of Bible Translation,” where they explain how mobile devices and audio technology are making the Bible more accessible to illiterate people groups. It provides a marvelous testimony to the effective use of technological trends to spread the gospel more effectively.
Reading the article reminds me that most of the Bible’s original audience would not have had personal written copies of the text. We have a tremendous luxury in our day, which I know I take for granted.
Perhaps a more frequent use of audio Bibles could help you see the text you study in different ways. Sometimes we need to hear the words, and not just see them written on a page.
A few months ago, I reviewed the excellent Reformation Heritage KJV Study Bible (RHKJV). On my study Bible buying guide, that study Bible tied for a close second place as one of the study Bibles that promotes good Bible study skills.
Joel Beeke, who led the editorial team for the RHKJV, wrote a short article in 2008 with “Practical Reasons for Retaining the KJV” translation. Though Beeke doesn’t take an extreme (KJV-only) position, Mark Ward recently wrote a response to Beeke’s points, explaining why modern translations are more helpful for modern people.
If you’ve ever wondered whether we should keep the KJV because it was the “standard English translation” for so long, or because it sounds more majestic and reverent than modern translations, you’ll want to see what Ward has to say. I stand by my recommendation of the RHKJV, but I retain significant caution with the elephant within (the archaic translation).
Disclaimer: My son, if thou wilt receive my words and click my Amazon links with thine own right hand, thou shalt supply an odour of a sweet smell when a commission from thy purchases provideth this blog with new tablets of stone upon which to engrave its writings. Blessed be ye of the Lord. But I say unto all which clicketh not: Wherefore kick ye at my sacrifice?
I’ve argued that you don’t have to reference Greek or Hebrew to study the Bible. You can observe, interpret, and apply just fine using a decent English translation (I use the ESV and NET the most).
In this post, I’d like to give an example of how knowing a bit of Greek can actually distract you from careful OIA of a passage.
In John 21:15-19, Jesus and Simon Peter eat breakfast and chat about love and lambs. Three times, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” Three times, Peter affirms his love, and Jesus calls him to be a godly shepherd.
Those who dig into the Greek text of John 21 quickly discover that John uses two different words for “love.” Jesus’ first two questions use the word agape. Jesus’ third question and all three of Peter’s responses use the word philia.
“Do you love (agape) me?”
“Yes, Lord, you know that I love (philia) you.”
“Do you love (agape) me?”
“Yes, Lord, you know that I love (philia) you.”
“Do you love (philia) me?”
“You know that I love (philia) you.”
The question arises: What is the difference between agape and philia? What’s really going on in the conversation that doesn’t come across in English?
So the student reads commentaries and consults lexicons. Many blogs address this particular question in this particular passage (just Google “agape philia john 21,” and you’ll have no shortage of reading material). Some say that agape love is the higher form of love, and Jesus comes down to Peter’s level the third time. Others reverse it, saying that by the end Peter convinces Jesus that he has the right kind of love.
The problem with this approach is that it assumes that Greek words each have a focused, specialized meaning. It approaches lexicons as technical manuals, almost as if there’s a code to be broken, and the right tools offer the key.
But no language works that way. Not English or German, Greek or Hebrew. Words certainly have histories. They have ranges of meaning. Lexicons help us to understand their range of usage.
But literature is as much an art as it is a science. Writers have agendas, but they advance their agendas by making them beautiful. So they use synonyms, turns of phrase, metaphors, and other such devices.
Referring to John 21;15-19, D.A. Carson explains:
Some expositions of these verses turn on the distribution of the two different verbs for “love” that appear…This will not do, for at least the following reasons…The two verbs are used interchangeably in this Gospel…The Evangelist constantly uses minor variations for stylistic reasons of his own. This is confirmed in the present passage. In addition to the two words for “love,” John resorts to three other pairs: bosko and poimano (“feed” and “take care of” the sheep), arnia and probata (“lambs” and “sheep”), and oida and ginosko (both rendered “you know” in v. 17). These have not stirred homiletical imaginations; it is difficult to see why the first pair should (The Gospel According to John, pp. 676-677).
If we hadn’t gotten distracted by Greek expeditions, what treasure might we mine from this passage? Note the following observations, which could easily be made from the English text.
- The setting: the scene takes place at a charcoal fire (John 21:9), the same setting where Peter denied Jesus three times (John 18:18). Charcoal fires appear in only these two scenes in the Gospel of John. It’s not an accident.
- The flow: Peter begins the chapter chasing his former vocation as a fisherman (John 21:3). Jesus wants to turn him into a shepherd (John 21:15-17). Peter gets it. Later, when he instructs church elders, he doesn’t call them to be fishers of men. He commands them to shepherd the flock of God (1 Peter 5:1-2).
- The model: Jesus wants Peter to follow him (John 21:19b). This means Peter should be a shepherd like Jesus was (John 21:15-17). This means dying for the good of the sheep, just like Jesus did (John 21:18-19, 10:11-15).
John 21 shows Jesus restoring and commissioning Peter for sacrificial leadership in the church. This much is clear even in translation.
Sure, the Greek (or Hebrew) text often reveals wordplay that doesn’t translate well. Sometimes the structure of a passage or argument is more clear in the original language than in translation. And Greek and Hebrew are simply beautiful and fun.
But the main point of a passage rarely depends on intimate knowledge of the original languages.