Which Bible version?

A young woman sends a note by messenger to the love of her life, her new husband . . .

“Behold, thou art fair, my beloved, yea, pleasant: Also our bed is green.
The beams of our house are cedar, And our rafters of fir.”

While the messenger is on his way, he decides that he could add some clarity by rephrasing . . .

“How handsome you are, my lover! Oh, how charming! And our bed is verdant. The beams of our house are cedars; our rafters are firs.”

The messenger passes the improved version on to a servant in the young man’s household who, considering the new version’s content, decides that surely, the young woman didn’t mean to say exactly that. So he produces his own version:

“What a lovely, pleasant sight you are, my love, as we lie here on the grass, shaded by cedar trees and spreading firs.”

Message after message go back and forth, ‘helped’ by the interpretive assistance of messengers and servants. Eventually, the couple is reunited, and discovers how their heartfelt, poignantly considered love notes were altered. What might their reaction be?

As you may have guessed, the original quote above is from the Song of Solomon, 1:16-17, in the King James Version (KJV). The second is from the New International Version (NIV) and the third from the New Living Translation (NLT).

The issue in this passage, along with thousands of other verses in the Bible, is not what the original language (Hebrew) said, which is transmitted quite faithfully in the KJV English, but rather what modern interpreters, using the principles of dynamic equivalence, believe would be most understandable to the low level intellects (their perception) of Christians today.

There are two huge issues regarding the fidelity of Bible translations:

1. Did they start with trustworthy texts? Are they using, for example, the Hebrew Masoretic text for the Old Testament, or do they depend on the Septuagint whenever they find it convenient? For the New Testament, are they using the extensive family known as the Received Text, or is their foundation the ever-shifting sand of the Critical Text, sourced by a mere handful of lately-discovered, mutually contradicting, and obviously corrupt documents?

2. Once settled on the underlying Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic text, do they render it as faithfully as possible into English, respecting the Author’s choice of words, or do they insert interpretation and commentary via word choices designed to be ‘helpful’ to the unbeliever, novice, or literarily deficient.

This blog is about issue #2. I summarize issue #1 in Section 8 of my 10 Most Deadly Heresies essay, which includes references that should be part of your library.

Here’s a quick overview of the problem with the versions of the last 50 years. The ESV (English Standard Version) and NASV (New American Standard Version) are accurate translations of the Critical Text; therefore, they have errors and gaps simply because they use the wrong underlying text. The ESV is more ‘literary’ – we’ll discuss what that means later – while the NASV is more awkward. The most popular versions, however, like the NIV (New International Version) and the NLT (New Living Translation), start with a corrupt text and then play interpretive games with the English translation, deliberately dumbing down the language, despising the literary qualities chosen by the Holy Spirit, aiming to please a grade school level reader. In contrast the KJV uses the underlying texts that God has preserved through the millennia and was translated by scholars who worked hard both for accuracy and for preservation of the original and inspired literary qualities of God-breathed Scripture.

Here are just a few quick examples of the corruption that occurs via issue #1:

1 Cor 1:18 (KJV) – “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.” The NASV, the NIV, and the NLT substitute “being saved” for “saved,” as if it’s a gradual process, as if Paul subscribes to Roman Catholic doctrine.

Matthew 18:11 (KJV) – “For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost.” This verse is missing in the modern versions, or relegated to a footnote, with the excuse that the “oldest manuscripts” don’t have the verse. That illustrates the reliance of the Critical Text on the two corrupt manuscripts Aleph and B.

Similar excuses produce the disappearance of the last 12 verses of Mark’s Gospel, Acts 8:37 (which teaches that baptism is restricted to believers, not infants), and 1 John 5:7 (the clearest revelation of the Trinity in the Bible). But hey, this is a big subject – see the references in my “10 Heresies” essay.

From this point forward we’re on issue #2. I’ll walk through some of the nuggets I’ve gleaned from Leland Ryken’s outstanding book on the subject, The Word of God in English: Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translation. Ryken is not an ancient language guru, but rather a literary scholar and part of the ESV translation team. He is NOT a KJV guy, since he sees the Critical Text as superior to the Received Text. Except for that hole in his head he would likely be a strong KJV advocate, because he repeatedly praises the beauty and literary excellence of the Authorized Version.

Ryken lists a number of factors that have produced the diversity of new versions over the last couple of generations, including . . .

• An anti-traditional spirit and a yen for novelty among evangelicals.
• A loss of appreciation or ability to recognize literary excellence.
• A preference for colloquialism over formality in writing.
• A consumer orientation ($$$) that drives publishers to give most readers what they want.
• A laziness in culture that tempts to make everything, including Bible reading, easy.
• Marketing (and $$$) that motivates to create yet another version for another niche market.
• Cultural narcissism that elevates the reader rather than the author . . . in the Bible version issue, that would be the ‘Author’.

William Shakespeare

Authors in other realms of literature are not scorned or disrespected in the manner that modern translators despise the intent of Scripture’s Author – the Holy Spirit. Ryken asks us to consider the outrage if Shakespeare were routinely dumbed down today. Here’s a modern rendition of Hamlet’s soliloquoy:

“To be, or not to be; that is what really matters.
Is it nobler to accept passively
the trials and tribulations that unjust fate sends,
or to resist an ocean of troubles.”

If you’re even a high school graduate . . . back in those days when English lit included a good bit of Shakespeare, you’ll note that something is wrong. Here’s the original:

“To be, or not to be – that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles.”

Ryken: “Would you look upon the first version as being Shakespeare’s play? No, you would not. If you were planning to write a piece of commentary on the play – in other words, to engage in serious study – would you use the first version? You would not, for the simple reason that you know that it is not what Shakespeare actually wrote . . . (it would be) unthinkable.”

Dynamic equivalence, the core philosophy of modern version translators, allegedly a ‘thought for thought’ as opposed to a ‘word for word’ approach, arrogates to translation what should be left to interpretation or commentary. The whole idea of ‘thought for thought’ is a scam. We humans cannot convey thoughts without words. Word choice specifies thought. “There is no such thing as disembodied thought, emancipated from words . . . When we change the words, we change the meaning.”

I enjoyed reading several of Ryken’s examples from secular literature that speak to the issue of destroying both the impact and the meaning of an author’s original intent. Consider John Donne’s famous sonnet on immortality of the soul. The two opening lines . . .

John Donne

“Death, be not proud, though some have called
Thee mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so.”

Applying the principles of dynamic equivalence and colloquialism might produce:

“Don’t be proud, death. You’re not as great as
Some people think you are.”

Yuck. And double yuck. Yet modern evangelicals wallow in such muck whenever they open their mass-marketed ‘Bible’ versions. Ryken makes the case, in carefully reviewing the admissions of the very people who serve on modern translation committees, that they have willfully . . .

• Reduced the vocabulary to roughly 7th grade level.
• Cut complex sentences into a series of short sentences.
• Dropped metaphors because the target audience is apparently too dumb to handle figurative language.
• Changed words that might be considered old-fashioned or too technical (theological) . . . you wouldn’t expect people to step up and increase their vocabulary, would you?
• Changed words to match what the Author ‘really meant to say.’ (Because they know, somehow?!?)

The result is a corrupt English text. (Actually, doubly corrupt, because they started with a corrupt Greek Critical Text.) What do you think the Author thinks about all this?

Precision in language is vital in many realms of human discourse, including love letters, marriage vows, legal documents, official reports, and even jokes and riddles! Get the wording wrong and a joke falls flat. Get lazy with contractual language and a lawsuit results. Is not the very word of God at least as important?

William Tyndale - executed for printing the Bible in English

Yet modern versions work at sounding like a backyard conversation between two neighbors. You’ll recall that the Bill of Rights and the Constitution feature precision and formality, not at all like a quick chat or an email tossed off in a hurry. Yet the Bible contains laws and covenants, in addition to precise prophetic warnings, lofty poetic language designed to reveal the nature of the Godhead, and even precise prescriptions to tell us poor sinners how to insure that our final destination is Heaven and not Hell.

Ryken analyzes a variety of dynamic equivalent translations, but in this blog I’ll focus on two: the NIV and the NLT. The NIV (1978), its New Testament derived from the Critical Text, can be judged to be on the ‘conservative’ end of the dynamic spectrum. The subsequent “Today’s NIV”, designed for gender inclusiveness, goes far beyond. The NLT (1996) is significantly more colloquial than the NIV. The mindset across the spectrum reflects a love for novelty in phraseology and an innovative interpretation of what the original ‘really means.’ In the NLT preface the committee admits, “Metaphorical language is often difficult for contemporary readers to understand, so at times we have chosen to translate or illuminate the metaphor.” Wow, are these guys going to be in trouble when they stand at the Great White Throne Judgment! The committee also “made a conscious effort to provide a text that can be easily understood by the average reader.” But it wasn’t written for only the average reader. The Bible is God’s revelation to man across a broad spectrum of theology and practice. Bible study is a lifetime quest. A translator who dumbs everything down so that nothing is difficult has lobotomized the reader.

I’ll point out here, as Ryken also does, that continual innovation has produced a great tragedy within Christendom – loss of a common Bible. It’s as if we’re all students in the same course, but we’ve all got different textbooks. Many churchgoers don’t even bother to bring their Bibles to services . . . the ‘preacher’ on stage is likely to use a variety of translations during a single message, simply to find the ones that support the points he wants to make.

John William Burgon - defender of inerrancy

If you’re an old-timer like me, have you noticed that Christians don’t memorize Scripture anymore? Bible memory work was a natural part of a church’s culture when we all used the KJV. It was much easier to memorize verses without working that hard, because whenever a passage came up, it was always in the same version. Not anymore. I would have a bit more respect for the NIV crowd if an entire church stood firm on it and promoted memory work. But colloquial versions don’t have the rhythm, the poignant word choices . . . yea, the literary qualities of the KJV. The KJV is easy to memorize. It ‘sounds’ special, different from day-to-day chat, and so is more memorable . . . as designed in the original Hebrew and Greek, literary design qualities recognized and honored by the KJV translation committee.

An example, Psalm 139:5 . . .

“Thou hast beset me behind and before, And laid thine hand upon me.” (KJV)
“You both precede and follow me. You place your hand of blessing on my head.” (NLT)

I won’t analyze it for you. (Look up the word “beset” in a good dictionary, for example.) Consider how the meaning has changed, not from a disagreement in what the Hebrew says, but in an effort to make it ‘simple’ for a modern reader, while adding a picture of “blessing” that is nowhere in the original – check the context to prove this to yourself.

Consider Romans 1:17, the phrase “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed . . .” (KJV). Is Paul referring to righteousness as a part of God’s character or as a gift to those who believe? The original is deliberately ambiguous, provoking a reader to ponder, perhaps seeing both views at once. The NLT can’t live with such ambiguity, though: “This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight.” The NLT translators have chosen for you. You’ll never need to ponder the thought or compare it to other Scriptures for deeper insight. By the way, the NIV butchers the entire verse, illustrating that dynamic equivalent translations routinely disagree with each other. But then, you have to keep changing the language, even the ideas, in order to secure a copyright for your version, and make a profit.

Why bring your Bible? Just watch the screen.

Ryken points out that the allegedly dumb evangelical audience targeted by modern translation committees does quite well in reading newspapers, magazines, and novels. Ryken cites passages from different popular sources, like USA Today, The Wall street Journal, and even Christian magazines that include material more sophisticated than the NLT or NIV. For example, here’s a passage from the classic novel, The Red Badge of Courage, which I recall was a popular choice in Junior High (!) for book reports:

“The cold passed reluctantly from the earth and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting . . . A river, amber-tinted in the shadow of its banks, purled at the army’s feet . . . one could see across it the red, eyelike gleam of hostile camp-fires set in the low browns of distant hills.”

Nobody dumbed down Stephen Crane’s book for us when we were kids. Our elders expected us to step up and stretch our imaginations a bit. When modern versions excise theological terms from Holy Spirit-inspired Scripture, like ‘atonement,’ ‘redemption,’ ‘righteousness,’ and ‘sanctification,’ they hinder Christians from identifying and embracing the doctrines.

There is a vital role for interpretation and commentary, but when inserted right into the translation, God is usurped. The Bible shows us that teachers are gifts to the churches, but teachers must have the foundation of God’s actual words as a starting point. Ryken: “A good translation preserves the full exegetical or interpretive potential of the original biblical text.” If the interpretation usurps the original passage, the translator has taken on the role of priest, interposing himself between man and God.

In Psalm 24:10, the KJV renders the phrase literally as “The Lord of hosts,” invoking the imagery of multitudes of powerful angels (and / or saints), ready to do the Lord’s bidding. Both the NIV and NLT impose the interpretation of “The Lord Almighty.” That’s not what God said! The thought is different, the meaning is different, and such changes produce a different impact on the reader.

Ryken: “Literary scholars overwhelmingly regard the KJV as being the supremely literary English translation, and . . . superior to dynamic equivalent Bibles.” I would include the NASV and (to a lesser extent) the ESV, along with dynamic Bibles as “dull and vulgar,” scholar Allen Tate’s assessment of modern versions. I experienced this effect first-hand in my youth. Saved as a teen, I was given a KJV and read the New Testament straight through. I didn’t understand everything (still don’t), but the message and the language itself spoke to my heart. A few years later in college, some ‘more experienced’ Christians advised me to get up to date by using the NASV. I found it a bit easier to read, but before long I simply got out of the habit of reading my Bible regularly. Out of a conviction I didn’t fully understand, I picked up my KJV again and got back into my Bible reading. The NASV just didn’t ‘do it’ for me.

Ryken cites Thornton Wilder, who had the same experience. He was “never able to read long in any other version” than the KJV. Ryken observes that “beauty and artistry of expression are important to literature.” The literary – artistic – qualities of a translation are not as vital as accuracy, of course, but in the Bible we have literary excellence in the original, with poetic and prose styles chosen by the Holy Spirit. The translators must work to convey an accurate translation in the style chosen by the Author.

Literature offers multiple levels of significance. T. S. Eliot notes that Shakespeare offers a compelling plot at the simplest level, complex characters for the more thoughtful, word choice and phraseology for the more literary, rhythm for the musically sensitive, and meanings which unfold gradually. Modern Bible versions cut you off at the literary knees, allowing access only to the simple. Van Leeuwen writes, “The Bible is a book that communicates on multiple levels, to readers of varying levels of sophistication.” Modern translators are akin to politicians who build a vast welfare society, keeping multitudes in poverty and dependent on the next handout. Scholar Ruth Sawyer observes that “a limited, poverty-stricken vocabulary works toward an equally limited use of ideas and imagination.”

I recently spent a couple of months visiting an evangelical church committed to the NLT. The preacher’s sermons were clearly and consistently aimed at the teens, despite the congregation’s large number of adults and seniors. How did I judge that teens were the target? Word choice, repetition, elementary attempts at humor, faux exuberance, beating to death certain points that most people should get the first time . . . but the question is why? I believe his use of the NLT was a contributing factor. When you start at 7th grade level, it’s easy to camp there. Thinking back on many years of listening to sermons, I believe that there is a correlation between choice of version and sophistication of discourse.

Am I insisting on sophistication because I’m an over-educated old fogie? No, I’m insisting that God’s discourse, in all of its varied sophistication, be made available to those for whom Christ died.

I’ll end here. Ryken’s book is worth your time. He has excellent chapters that I haven’t cited here, chapters on poetry, rhythm, exaltation & beauty, and how a good translation should handle matters of clarity, connotation, concordance, and ambiguity. If you find yourself in disagreement with my overall theme, I challenge you to read Ryken and answer his arguments directly. I’d love to see you try to defend the indefensible!

– drdave@truthreallymatters.com

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