“Understanding Bible Translations”Categories: Sermons
The last time I took the pulpit here, I preached on how to step up in our Bible reading. Much to my surprise, the part of it that attracted the most discussion afterwards was a brief comment about the translations I recommended for reading. Lauren said there were a bunch of folks furiously scribbling down acronyms, and I had several conversations afterward about it. One of those conversations was with Dr. Clifford, who encouraged me to preach on translations, so here I am!
Even though this sermon is not going to be about any particular Biblical text, it’s still going to be about the Bible. After all, our faith is founded on the premise that we can read and understand the word of God for ourselves. However, few if any of us can read the Scriptures in the original languages, so we have to rely on translations for spiritual understanding.. How reliable are they? This evening, then, let’s see what we need to know about understanding Bible translations.
First, let’s ask WHAT A TRANSLATION IS. This might surprise some, but I’ve seen a lot of confusion in this area from brethren, and it begins with the difference between a translation and a paraphrase. A translation is taken from the original languages, but a paraphrase begins with an English Bible.
Also, translation or paraphrase has nothing to do with perceived faithfulness to the text. Let me give you an example. Some years ago, I preached a sermon out of the NIV, and after the sermon, one of the elders of the congregation came up to me and commented on my use of a paraphrase in the pulpit. I told him, “That’s not true. The NIV is a translation,” which it is. However, he still didn’t take the point.
This is important because even though there are paraphrases on the market—things like The Living Bible and the Message—most of the options we’re presented with are translations. With the exception of a few that were translated by people with an agenda, they are good-faith efforts to make the word of God available to people who only read English. We don’t have any perfect translations of the Bible, and some translations are better than others, but just about all of them can teach us the truth.
Despite this, there are people who try to stir up strife about translations, and most of them are people who believe that only the King James Version is the word of God. They’re very active on social media, and they use memes like this one to cast doubt on other translations. The NIV leaves out verses??? That must be pretty bad, right?
Actually, no. This isn’t evidence of some subversive plot by atheists. Instead, it’s about the manuscript evidence on which translation is based. There weren’t as many good manuscripts available when the KJV was translated, so the translators concluded from limited evidence that those passages belonged in the Bible. However, by the time the NIV was translated, many more manuscripts had been discovered, and its translators decided from better evidence that those passages should be excluded. In my opinion, the NIV is right to leave those verses out!
This takes us to a discussion of TRANSLATION PHILOSOPHY. I think if you asked most Christians what they want in a Bible translation, they would say something like, “I want a Bible that says what the original manuscripts say.” The problem is that it’s not that easy. Translation isn’t like solving a mathematical equation. There is not a single right answer in every instance.
The first way that translators have tackled the problem of saying what the text says is with word-for-word translation. If there’s a word in Greek, the translator chooses the best English word available to represent it. This approach tends to appeal to brethren, but there’s a problem. The languages of the Bible, like all languages, are idiomatic. They use figures of speech. Most of the time, if you translate an idiom literally, the result is confusion rather than enlightenment.
Let me give you an example. In 1 Thessalonians 4:4, Paul talks about knowing “how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor”. I realize that I’m speaking to an audience of hardcore Bible students. Many of you probably recall studying this text and drawing your own conclusion about the meaning of “vessel”.
However, imagine that you’re coming to the text for the first time. Possessing one’s own vessel is a Greek idiom, but it isn’t an English one. I would guess that if you grabbed somebody off the street and asked them to interpret 1 Thessalonians 4:4, they would probably think you were talking about a jar!
As a result, all Bible translations will, to varying degrees, also use a thought-for-thought approach. They will tell you what they think the text means rather than what it says. For instance, in 1 Thessalonians 4:4, the ESV takes a thought-for-thought approach and says “control his own body”, which makes a whole lot more sense to the average English speaker. The danger, of course, is that the translators will be wrong about the meaning of the text, and the more this approach is employed, the more likely they are to be wrong.
With this in mind, let’s consider some DIFFERENT TRANSLATIONS. When it comes to translations with which brethren are most familiar, the KJV, NKJV, NASB, and ESV are more toward the word-for-word part of the spectrum, the NLT is over toward the thought-for-thought side, and the CSB and the NIV are tweeners.
Once again, there are no wrong answers here, but of those translations, I prefer three of them: the NKJV, the ESV, and the CSB. Much of this has to do with publisher support. I trust Crossway, which publishes the ESV, and Holman, which publishes the NKJV and CSB, to put out a quality product.
However, there are also things that I like about each translation too. Let’s start with the oddball, the CSB. Because of its translation philosophy, it reads much differently than what we’re used to. For instance, look at the way the CSB renders Romans 8:6. I really like this. Rather than forcing a Greek idiom into English, it uses an English idiom to explain the Greek. However, I decided not to adopt the CSB because it’s too different. If I used it from the pulpit, everyone following along in their NASB’s, KJV’s, and NKJV’s would constantly be doing doubletakes.
At the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got the NKJV, which is, unsurprisingly, a lot like the old KJV. Here’s the NKJV rendering of Romans 8:6 by way of comparison. I like the NKJV, and I’ve used it as a preaching Bible before. However, it has the same limited textual basis as the old KJV and, like the old KJV, it includes a number of verses that I don’t think should be in the Bible. That’s not a huge deal; it doesn’t materially affect the meaning. However, it’s enough to lead me to look elsewhere.
That leads me to my weapon of choice, the ESV. Here is the ESV take on Romans 8:6. I use the ESV because it’s such a good all-rounder. Its translators used all the best manuscripts, it reads more smoothly than the NASB, and it’s better for precise study than the NIV. Like every translation, it has renderings that I don’t like, but all in all, I think it’s a strong contender for a Christian’s go-to Bible.