A Bible Translations Series: Which Translation Do I Prefer And Why? (Part II of II)
Preface: It’s taken 10 months but I’ve finally finished the Bible translations series. If you’re interested, click here for Part I. Also, a word to the wise: When it comes to Bible translations, don’t put too much stock into the opinions of a dyslexic blog writer.
Let’s face reality. Our current world and languages are so far removed from those of the Bible that nothing approaching a perfect translation is possible. Translating it into English isn’t like putting 18th century French into 21st century Spanish where there’s endless linguistic and cultural similarities. The good news is that, from everything I’ve read and learned, almost all of the major English translations are solid. Sure, they’ve all got strengths and weaknesses that reflect their purposes and intentions,11. For example, the NIV is readable but not particularly reliable for precise theological study while the NASB is the opposite. but when it comes right down to it they do a pretty good job accurately communicating the ancient text to a contemporary audience. That’s why I’m not a translation Nazi.22. Of course, this isn’t to say that discussions of linguistic philosophy are unimportant or should be approached with apathy. On the contrary, as divinely-inspired Scripture, faithfully representing, preserving, and communicating the biblical text are tasks deserving of our utmost reverence and labor. Indeed, this must be one of our highest priorities.The sole thing I really put up a fuss about is archaic language. Even though the ol’ King Jimmy remains the official Anglican translation, I have zero patience for the KJV-only crowd. That being said, the translation I prefer is the New Revised Standard Version.
In my experience, Christians all over the ideological spectrum tend to assume two things when you tell them you like the NRSV. First, you’re not conservative, which to their mind is to say that you’re a raging liberal. Second, you’re all about the gender-neutral language because you’re a raging liberal. As for the former point, I won’t waste your time disproving the assumptions of liberalism nor rehashing my credentials as a hardlining moderate. It’s enough to just mention those things. As for the latter, yes, I like the NRSV’s treatment of gender issues but I readily acknowledge the problems with that approach. Ultimately this just isn’t a big deal for me.
People often laugh or cringe when I say this, but the seven reasons I prefer the NRSV have little to do with linguistic theory and are more existential, theological, and ecclesiastical:
- Virtually all of the other translations bring me back to unfortunate periods in my spiritual journey that I’d just as soon not relive.33.The NIV reminds me of my childhood in the Assemblies of God, which includes a healthy, suburban church in OK and a vile, rural church in MN. The NKJV reminds me of my time as an independent Pentecostal in my late teens. The NASB and NLT both bring me back my year at Moody, reminding me of the respective Dispensational literalism and theological disillusionment that I experienced there. The ESV reminds me of my Reformed days as a Piperite. The TNIV and HCSB remind me of the heresy accusations leveled against me by the Baptist fundamentalists at Toccoa Falls College. Even my beloved Philips Bible reminds of the the spiritual and psychological turmoil I faced there. It’s a bizarre experience. The closest thing I can compare it to is visiting your hometown after years away only to find yourself mysteriously thinking and feeling exactly as you did in high school. It’s as though you’re re-becoming your former self. There’s this strange spiritual-psychological link between those translations that I wish to avoid.
- I take Christ’s prayer in John 17:20-21 extraordinarily seriously. His clear desire is that the Church would be one so that the world would know that the Father sent the Son. Division harms our witness. Shame on us all for dismissing and/or downplaying the significance of that passage. Although complete unity and reconciliation within the Church will never be a reality in my lifetime, I seek to tangibly pursue it however possible without violating my conscience. What could be a more powerful show of unity and goodwill than an ecumenical Bible translation? To my knowledge, the NRSV is the sole English translation produced by scholars from each of the three major traditions–Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. Moreover, it was endorsed by 33 Protestant bodies, received the imprimatur of the American and Canadian Conferences of Catholic bishops, and was blessed by bishops within the Orthodox Church. Personally, I love the Anglicized Catholic Edition. Every time I open it is reminds and convicts me of Christ’s will for His Body.
- The late Bruce Metzger is one of my favorite scholars. He had a top-notch mind, was a true gentleman, and chaired the Committee on Translators for the NRSV. His work in textual criticism was well-respected by thinking evangelicals and frightened (or enraged) fundamentalists, all of which endears him to me.4.Plus I love his ecumenical spirit. He had the honor of presenting the NRSV to Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Demetrius I of Constantinople. I’ll avoid waxing poetically, but I will say that I couldn’t imagine selecting a more qualified and competent person for the job.4
- I’m not down with self-described “conservative translations” of Scripture.55.To be clear, this isn’t to say I’m flippantly dismissing the validity of some of the concerns prompting such efforts. What I’m saying is that it smacks of partisan and ideological bickering. And I’m especially not cool with a new translation that was produced in order to be an explicit conservative rebuttal to an earlier translation deemed to be liberal by conservatives, which is the story behind the ESV.66.Spearheaded by J.I. Packer, it aimed to be a conservative translation in the King James lineage that bypassed the supposedly liberal bias of the Bruce Metzger-led NRSV. Again, I see this as partisan bickering. On an emotional and intellectual level, rather than exciting me for the ESV that drives me back to the NRSV. In referring back to Part I, I’ll take the NRSV, Metzger, ecumenism and the Oxford Study Bible over the ESV, Packer, partisanship, and the Reformed Study Bible any day of the week and twice on Sunday.
- Whereas most translations marketed toward conservative evangelicals only occasionally contain the Apocrypha, the NRSV usually contains it. This is important to me because I affirm its deuterocanonical status.77.Coming from the Greek, deuterocanonical means “belonging to the second canon.”For those Protestants now having anxiety attacks, rest assured that it’s going to be OK. The Apocrypha’s presence within the Bible doesn’t somehow destroy the faith or undermine the biblical canon. If anything, I think it helps us honor the canon by facilitating a right understanding of it.88.At Moody I was taught about the so-called “400 Years of Silence” from Malachi to Matthew, but that label fails to do justice to the continued societal upheaval faced by the Jews. The Apocrypha’s value is immense, then, in that it bridges the narrative between the Testaments, helps rightly frame our understanding of the New Testament by grounding it in its specific cultural-historical context, and provides a basic template for understanding God’s work in the non-canonical period in which we live. In my experience, the reason conservative Protestants freak out about the Apocrypha is that it undermines their simplistic, binary categories of inspired and non-inspired, biblical and unbiblical. This idea that there might be texts that are genuinely inspired but in some lesser sense really screws with their schema, which is especially so for those holding to a 19th century, foundationalist understanding of inerrancy.
- A unique concern for Anglicans is the congruence of the Book of Common Prayer with the Bible translation used in their Eucharist services, the Daily Office, etc. Because the BCP so intimately joins worship and belief in a way that’s reminiscent of Orthodoxy, a lot of Anglicans get testy about their views on this one. That’s perfectly understandable. Personally, just like I’m not a Bible translation Nazi, so I’m not a Prayer Book Nazi. Still my favorite is the The Episcopal Church’s ’79 BCP. And wouldn’t ya know it just so happens to use the NRSV. If nothing else that makes it convenient.
- From what I understand, the NRSV is the translation of choice for most of my favorite theologians. That speaks volumes.
I conclude with a biographical memorial for Dr. Bruce M. Metzger: