Diversity of Modern Translations pt 5 – Updating the King James Version

When I started this series of posts, I had no idea it would attract such invective. There has been a lot of criticism and even a fair bit of ridicule for the versions I have included and the ones I have not. Let me reiterate for all the readers – this series is what it is. Some versions people think should be included haven’t been included. Some positions people think should be taken haven’t been taken. It is perfectly fine to disagree with the content of these articles. Your disagreement will be noted.

On to the final post, “Updating the King James Version.”

In the first post of the series, we explored the major revisions of the Authorized Version or King James Version of the Bible (AV or KJV). More than one commenter noted the absence of the New King James Version (NKJV). I intentionally omitted the NKJV from that post because it is part of a different line of thinking than the other revisions (RV, ASV, RSV, NASB, NRSV, ESV). The NKJV is different for a number of reasons:

  • The translators attempted to retain as much of the KJV wording as possible.
  • For the most part, the translators adhered to the same textual tradition from which the KJV was rendered.
  • The translators were overwhelming conservative evangelicals  – which was not true of most of the other revisions (except the NASB and ESV).
  • The translation itself was not intended to be a standard version – for use in all English-speaking denominations.

Although various of the other revisions might share one or two of these characteristics, the NKJV is the only one which intentionally employed all of them.

A Brief Contextual History

The New King James Version came about because of some conversations that Arthur Farstad (who was later responsible for the Holman Christian Standard Bible) had with prominent conservatives in the late 70’s. These conversations culminated in the publication of the New King James Version in 1982, but the conversation that spawned it came out of a broader context that we need to explore.

You might think that this information is extraneous, but it does have a direct bearing on the reasons the NKJV was developed.

Getting to the King James Version…

The original King James Version was actually an overhaul of William Tyndale’s translations of the previous century. Tyndale had the misfortune of doing his work during the reign of Henry VIII, who hated Protestants, even after he became one in the 1530’s. As a result, Tyndale worked in exile, and his New Testaments were smuggled into England. He was eventually burned at the stake, but his work continued to influence English translation works.

Henry VIII died, followed quickly by his son Edward VI. Then came his slightly mad, Catholic daughter Mary and then his long-lived and intriguing youngest daughter Elizabeth I. She ruled for decades, but eventually also died – leaving no heir. Her cousin once removed, James VI of Scotland, was summoned to take the throne of England.

In 1603, James was on his way to take his throne in London as James I. He made a number of stops along the way, ostensibly to hear from supplicants but actually just to avoid the outbreak of plague in London. At Hampton Court, James heard from a number of Puritans who made a number of requests – all of which he denied except their request for his sponsorship of a new translation of the Scripture. This was nothing new. Both Henry and Elizabeth had authorized Bibles.

This project however was massive, spreading over Oxford and Cambridge’s campuses. James made a few easily followed rules, and the translators were supplied with copies of the Bishop’s Bible as well as permission to draw from several other English Bibles. The work took the better part of seven years and in the end, the result is a masterful work of translation and English composition. It is truthfully, as I have pointed out before, the last translation into English that has forced English to conform to the original texts rather than the other way round.

…and then Stopping?

After the 1611 publication of the KJV, there were several small revisions made to the English text – usually correcting spelling or printer’s errors but also some minor reworking – until 1769. One assumes that these revisions should have gone on but they did not. (To be fair, there were some minor corrections that went on, but nothing ‘official’.)

For some KJVO advocates, this is because the text reached perfection and needed no further work. But if you look closely at the history of the world during the period between 1769 and Arthur Farstad’s suggestion of a revision of the KJV over 200 years later, you see something more was going on in the world.

The Rise of Modernity…

A lot of things happened shortly before and after 1769 which altered the world forever, most of which never get discussed in the Bible version debate. Chief among them, there was a shift in Europe to a new view of the world – what became modernity. This shift had many reasons, but ‘religion’ was becoming something of an anathema in academic circles. Theology became more and more anthropocentric. Textual studies became increasingly concerned with nuance and minutiae. Biological and cultural evolution became all the rage in academic circles.

In short, Western mankind felt like they were ‘growing’ out of the need for religion. One of the most stunning event that gave credence to this was the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. It struck while thousands were in church, and people were killed in their pews. Those who escaped to the shoreline were drowned by a massive tsunami. Theologians of the time wrote extensively about the event, asking how God could possibly allow this to happen.

Although not necessarily the cause of the rise of modernity, it was things like it that gave credence to the ideas of deism and ultimately humanism. The Age of Modernity was one in which religion and ‘intellectual pursuits’ became distinct. Particularly in Europe, academia questioned everything about faith and turn radically against it.

This happened even as imperial ambitions motivated the European powers to expand ever outward into ‘unknown’ lands. The British Empire in particular expanded immeasurably. Human progress seemed to be moving onward unchecked and often with nothing more than a nod in the general direction of faith.

It is a mistake then to assume that the KJV was not revised after 1769 because it had reached perfection. One has only to sit in a liturgical Anglican church and you realize that the Church of England is frozen in its heyday – frozen in Tudor and Jacobean England. The KJV was reasserted as the English Bible after the English Civil War and the Commonwealth failed miserably, and the English welcomed back their monarchy in the person of Charles II in 1660. Revisions picked up again, but then faltered with the coming of the House of Hanover and particularly with the rule of George III. Modernity made church, even a state church, purely perfunctory. Why revise a Bible which worked perfectly well with a religion that was increasingly pressed to the margins?

(The same was not true in America where once printers were freed from the British Crown’s right to the printing of the KJV, they printed it with typical American gusto. Unfortunately, in their rush, they often misprinted it as well. It wasn’t until the late 19th century and early 20th century that it all got sorted out on this side of the Atlantic.)

And when the task of revision was undertaken in the 1881, it was undertaken by men of Victorian England – men who saw their own society as the pinnacle of humanity’s march toward perfection. They believed their science was superior to anything that had come before it, and the translation they produced (and the texts they used to produce it) were symptomatic of their times. This is neither good nor bad. It simply is.

The turn of the 19th to the 20th century was often heralded as the age of mankind’s greatest accomplishments and advancement. We as a race believed we had overcome all opposition, discovered all there was to know and were all around doing just fine. If there was a God, he would soon show up to pat us on the back for setting up his perfect kingdom for him.

…and the Fall of Modernity

And then, the world descended into war. First it was small local conflicts which grew into greater conflicts. In 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Este was assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia. Austra declared war on Bosnia. Before the end of the year, virtually the entire known world west of the Urals was at war. Four years later, 15 million people were dead.

The enlightened human race had left 15 million of their own people dead on battlefields, fighting a war which (and I don’t have time to go over all of this) had been fought off and on since the 9th century. What’s more, the victors subjected the losers to a so harshly unjust peace that inevitably war broke out again. This time, it truly was a world war – raging on every continent except Antarctica and ending with another 60 million people dead, including some from mass genocide and others from the only detonation of atomic bombs in warfare.

Clearly, ‘modern’ man was not all that progressive. The only thing he had evolved was better weapons to kill more of his fellow man. The myth of modernity began to fall apart, and in its wake came a movement of trying to make sense of things. This movement, known as postmodernity, has gone many different directions; but perhaps its most fruitful has been the attempt to recover what was good and true prior to the rise of modernity.

Reconnecting with the pre-Modern KJV

This brings us to Arthur Farstad and the NKJV. Frustrated with the numerous modern revisions of the KJV, Farstad and company proposed that a translation committee skip over the work of the previous revisions and go back to the KJV. The translation would be a minimal update utilizing what they called complete equivalence – a form of formal equivalence that permitted dynamic translation only when absolutely impossible to avoid.

The NKJV Preface contains a very telling statement, linking their own postmodern world with the academic pursuits of 17th century England:

Although the Elizabethan period and our own era share in zeal for technical advance, the former period was more aggressively devoted to classical learning.

Notice the connection, perhaps unconscious, to a period that the translators acknowledge to be superior to their own. The modernists would never have made such a concession, but the translators do so freely.

They state their reverence for the work of their predecessors, while subtly denying the quality of the works that lie between them and the present day:

The real character of the Authorized Version does not reside in its archaic pronouns or verbs or other grammatical forms of the seventeenth century, but rather in the care taken by its scholars to impart the letter and spirit of the original text in a majestic and reverent style.

While KJVO advocates often criticize the NKJV for not maintaining their standard of a Bible translation (namely, replicating the KJV exactly), the NKJV translators were doing their best to strike a middle ground between the knowledge that English had changed since the 17th century and a desire to return to the pre-modern faith which the KJV reflects.

(Author’s Note) Some People Don’t Like the KJV…

And that’s ok. The NKJV is not a perfect redux of the KJV. You can’t capture lightning in a bottle. For me personally, the NKJV feels like a fuzzy KJV. It is hard to explain, but because I grew up with the KJV, I actually struggle with the NKJV. The English Standard Bible feels, to me, more like a formal translation than the New King James does. But that’s a preference and it has more to do with my style of thinking/preaching/worshiping than it does with the quality of the work.

The NKJV is definitely a step backward in the right direction, in my opinion. I would love to see the work continue on the KJV, reworking and taking into consideration our growing knowledge of koine Greek without having to completely retranslate it.

Other KJV Updates

There are a number of alternative KJV’s in circulation – the 21st century KJV, the Modern KJV (1963) – but they are generally one-man or small group updates of the KJV. the Modern KJV is available in e-sword, but I am not sure if it is still available in print.

These are not translations but edits of the KJV – just as there were a number of edits made by various publishers in America during the 19th century, and they don’t even approach the NKJV in scope or in sales.

Diversity of Modern Versions, pt 4 – Paraphrases

The word paraphrase literally means “spoken alongside.” To paraphrase is to take statements and rephrase them – not necessarily in a simpler way but in a more easily understood way. Often a paraphrase does not reflect the full content of the original statement, but it aids in comprehension.

For example, the general theory of relativity is an enormously complex idea. It baffles even the most intelligent people. Any version of the general theory you encounter on PBS or the Discovery Channel is a paraphrase of the theory – a rephrasing so the general public can understand the concepts even if they cannot grasp the details.

You can therefore easily see the very real potential for error in the paraphrasing of the Scriptures. Much of the Scriptures, particularly the New Testament, is elaborate theological thought. There is often quite a bit of high level thinking involved, and while the Scriptures are available to all, not every idea can be reduced to its simplest components.

Those thoughts aside, paraphrases of the Scriptures are often wildly popular. The most recent, the New Living Translation, consistently ranks as the 5th best selling English translations. Paraphrases are often used in commentaries and Bible study books because they are infinitely quotable and have a ‘feel’ to them that appeals to a popular audience.

As we have in the previous posts in the series, we will look at these various translations through the lens of their own prefaces.

The Living Bible

There were paraphrases before Kenneth Taylor completed The Living Bible (TLB) in 1971, but they were never as widely circulated or accepted. Taylor was working at Moody Press when he published The Living Letters, his paraphrase of the Epistles. This proved popular enough that he was able to leave Moody Press and establish his own publishing company, Tyndale House and publish his completed paraphrase under its imprint.

The Living Bible is a paraphrase of the American Standard Version of 1901, and was never intended to be considered a translation. According to Taylor, it began with his children. In an interview in 1979, he said:

All too often I would ask questions to be sure our children understood, and they would shrug their shoulders…I would paraphrase it for them and give them the thought. It suddenly occurred to me one afternoon that I should write out the reading for that evening thought by thought, rather than doing it on the spot during our devotional time. So I did, and read the chapter to the family that evening with exciting results—they knew the answers to all the questions I asked!

The impetus of the complete paraphrase was Billy Graham’s sponsorship of The Living Letters. The Billy Graham organization eventually bought and distributed over 600,000 copies of The Living Letters in 1962 alone. This provided the capital for what became Tyndale House.

Originally, there was an entry here for the New Living Translation.
I have since moved it to the post on Dynamic Equivalence.
I was ambivalent on including it here in the first place, and the consensus seems to be for a reclassification.

The Message

Eugene Peterson is very uncomfortable with his paraphrase The Message being used as if it is a formal translation.

When I’m in a congregation where somebody uses it in the Scripture reading, it makes me a little uneasy…You can’t tell people they can’t do it. But I guess I’m a traditionalist, and I like to hear those more formal languages in the pulpit. (Christianity Today)

In 1991, Peterson was pastoring Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland. For most of his adult life, he had been reading the Scriptures in the original Greek and Hebrew, and as he taught, he would often make ad hoc translations based on his knowledge. After retiring from Christ Our King, he was persuaded to turn his ad hoc translations into a full translation of the Scriptures and over the next twelve years, he worked to create The Message.

Unlike The Living Bible, The Message was paraphrased from the original languages. It was never intended to be used as a study Bible or even a standard translation:

My intent here (as it was earlier in my congregation and community) is simply to get people reading it who don’t know that the Bible is read-able at all, at least by them, and to get people who long ago lost interest in the Bible to read it again. But I haven’t tried to make it easy—there is much in the Bible that is hard to understand. So at some point along the way, soon or late, it will be important to get a standard study Bible to facilitate further study. Meanwhile, read in order to live, praying as you read, “God, let it be with me just as you say.”

Peterson’s paraphrase has a vibrant English. It is as if it is being spoken in every day language, complete with word choices and syntax. It is uniquely the Scriptures in Peterson’s words, and he freely admits that limited scope.

Because of its popularity, The Message has been increasingly used exactly as Peterson intended it not to be used. Many books and Bible studies quote Peterson’s words as if they are Scripture.

Other Paraphrases

There are other paraphrases of the Bible in English, chief among them J. B. Philips’ New Testament in Modern English and The Berkeley Bible but these have very limited scope and appeal. Paraphrasing is nothing new, and some of the first glimpses of the Bible in English are paraphrases, often in the margins of Greek or Latin texts.

A paraphrase is a tool, and as Eugene Peterson points out, it is never intended to replace a more formal translation. Sadly, many people use these paraphrases as if they are sufficient – often producing a sort of pop Christianity without the depth and power that a full study of the Scriptures releases.

One Post Left

The final post of this series will focus exclusively on one translation – the New King James Version. As I have previously pointed out, this translation is unique among the pantheon of modern translations. The final post will include the NKJV as well as the other modern attempts to produce a revision of the KJV while ignoring the rest of the KJV tradition of formal translations.

This char is linked from Biblica.com and obviously biased toward the TNIV/NIV, which are patently not as balanced as the creators of the chart believed they are. But the chart does show the basic scale of translations. There is a much better one that used to be on the Christian Book Distributors website, but it has since been taken down.

Diversity of Modern Versions, pt 3 – Formal Translations

As mentioned in the previous post, original translations can utilize either dynamic equivalence (idea-for-idea translation) or a more formal equivalence (word-for-word translation). These are not hard and fast terms since even the most formal translation will sometimes translate an idea instead of the words. Even the King James version translated the Greek ?? ??????? as “God forbid” , following the Hebrew formula ?? ?????, rather than its literal meaning of something like “let it not be!” (The term actually seems to be the direct antonym of the Hebrew ???.) So when we are classing translations as dynamic or formal, we are really placing them on a spectrum.

If you draw a horizontal line and label the two ends as formal and dynamic, you could place every English translation of the Scriptures somewhere on the line. The King James Version would be on the formal side, but not completely formal. The only completely formal translations would be those that appear in interlinear editions of the Scriptures, and these are not exactly easy to use for regular reading. More formal translations like Young’s Literal Translation are virtually indecipherable in English.

On the other side of the spectrum, we have paraphrases like the Living Bible or the Message. These are entirely dynamic and will be dealt with in the next post in this series.

Translations like the King James Version or the English Standard Version try to strike a balance, leaning toward formal equivalence. What we would class as dynamic translations are on the other side of the balance, leaning toward dynamic equivalence.

Original, recent formal translations are much less common (and arguably less popular) than more dynamic translations. They do exist, however. I am going to focus on three. (Keep in mind that most formal translations available today are revisions, which were dealt with in a previous post. You will find the entries on the RV, ASV, RSV, NRSV, NASB, and ESV here, and the article on the NKJV is still forthcoming.)

Holman Christian Standard Bible

The Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) was published in 2004. It began life as a few personal translations by Arthur Farstad, the general editor of the NKJV. He was encouraged to develop the project into a full translation, but died only months into the project. Ed Blum took over the general editorship of the project and steered it differently than Farstad had envisioned. Blum said:

He [Farstad] wanted to do a MT translation of the NT. The Southern Baptists who were paying the freight, they agreed to do a parallel translation. We would do a critical text translation, and we would have an electronic MT translation that would be given to Art at the completion of the project. Unfortunately Art only lived 5 months into the project, and so that was dropped. So, our translation is based on the Nestle text. (Source)

Arthur Farstad believed that a New Testament translated from the Majority Text (not the Textus Receptus) was needed among conservative Christians. Because the ESV and other newer translations followed the ‘Critical Text’, he felt a Majority Text Bible would be widely accepted. His death, however, sent the project in another direction and instead of the MT translation Farstad envisioned, the HCSB followed newer Greek New Testament manuscripts to satisfy the demands of the SBC which was financing the project.

In the preface, the publishers explain their translation philosophy:

The HCSB has chosen to use the balance and beauty of optimal equivalence for a fresh translation of God’s word that is both faithful to the words God inspired and “user friendly” to modern readers.

The HCSB is certainly more formal than dynamic in its translation. It uses a form of educated English and is written on a high school level – as opposed to many dynamic translations which are written in grade school English.

The HCSB is considered by some to be a ‘Baptist’ translation and erroneously thought to have been done so the Southern Baptists could use it instead of the NIV in their Sunday School curriculum. This is patently false, although the HCSB has a growing popularity among Southern Baptist Churches.

To be honest, I did not know much about the origin of the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) until I began this series of articles. One of our readers mentioned some links in a comment that are worth exploring.

The New English Translation (NET Bible)

Arguably one of the more innovative translations, the NET Bible is difficult to categorize. It features both dynamic and formal equivalence, often swapping the two between notes and text. Because of the online format, even the distinction between text and notes is blurred.

The project that became the NET began in 1995 as the internet was becoming a mainstream phenomenon. The idea was to create a completely free translation of the Bible which could be made available to everyone. Originally, the plan was to provide the NET via CD-ROM (like those AOL disks everyone used to get in the mail EVERYDAY), but once the internet became user-friendly, the NET team purchased the http://www.bible.org and began to make the edition available online.

The first edition was made available in 2005, ten years after the project began. Minor revisions have continued to be made over the past five years – which is both a positive and a negative.

Each one of us comes to the Bible from a different perspective; scholars need to listen to the person in the pew as much as the layperson needs to listen to scholars…The NET Bible is a truly symbiotic effort between the insights of biblical scholars and the needs of lay Christians. The combined effect of the notes and the nine year public review process has reinforced the translation’s primary goal of faithfulness to the original languages. By creating a translation environment that is responsible both to the world’s scholars and to lay readers, the NET Bible was read, studied, and checked by more eyes than any Bible translation in history. (Preface to the NET, 1st Edition)

The unique fact that people were constantly interacting with the NET as it was translated produced an interesting effect. It is truly the first translation of its type.

Currently, there are two other online Bible projects in progress – The Free Bible and The Conservative Bible Project – but neither looks to have the widespread appeal of the NET Bible.

The International Standard Bible

Begun in the 1990’s, the International Standard Bible currently consists of a New Testament only. It is expected that the Old Testament will be completed sometime in the next couple of years.

The ISV uses ‘literary English’, intentionally avoiding idioms that might pass. As a result, it is more formal than dynamic although like the NET Bible, this distinction is blurred. The ISV translators refer to this as the ‘literal-idiomatic’ approach:

This is not because it happens to be the middle option, simply avoiding extremes, but because the literal-idiomatic translation is the only choice that avoids the dangers of over-literalness and of over-interpretation discussed above. (Preface to the ISV)

Like the NET Bible, the ISV is an online project. It is published only electronically and while not strictly open-source, it is made available through most major Bible software packages.

Trending Away from Printed Translations

As you can see, there seems to be a trend away from the printed Bible in the world of ‘formal’ equivalence. There are a few reasons for this, not the least of which is that if someone wants a formal translation those in the tradition of the KJV continue to be the best.

Another important reason is the financial risk. Christian printing houses must finance a printed Bible translation – a project that requires quite a bit of funding and effort, not to mention financial risk.

Imagine the cost of employing thirty world-class scholars for the better part of a decade. At even a modest $75,000 per year per scholar over a five year period, the bill would be around $11.25 million, and that is just salaries for the translators! Printing costs, advertisement, distribution – the overhead for such a project must be enormous. Printing houses are increasingly reluctant to do this when what will be produced will still be markedly similar to something that already exists and is widely available.

It is far easier to assemble revision committees or to adopt the work of individuals. Recovering the cost of such a massive project would take years. Even if the average profit on a printed Bible is $15, the printer would have to sell 750,000 copies just to recoup five years of direct loss in salaries to the translators.

In our next article, we will explore the ‘paraphrase’ translations which have become increasingly popular – namely, the Living Bible and its daughter the New Living Translation and Eugene Petersen’s The Message.

Diversity of Modern Versions, pt 2 – Dynamic Translations

In our last post on the diversity of modern translations, we focused primarily on a group of translations called revisions. They are works that at least purport to be revisions of the Authorized Version, originally published in 1611.

In this post, we will be looking at one type of original translations – those which employ a translation technique known as dynamic equivalence – and in a subsequent post, we will explore original translations which purport to be more formal in their translation (such as the HCSB). This is also known as free translation or idea-for-idea translation. It is a philosophy which does not attempt to maintain the flavor of the original text but is not restricting to translating the exact words.

There are some pro’s to this type of translation:

  • It allows the translator to use contemporary language without conforming to the forms of the ancient languages of Scripture.
  • The translations are generally very readable and the English is more comfortable to the reader.

There are also some con’s to dynamic translation:

  • The translation requires more interpretation from the translator than formal equivalence.
  • Difficult passages can be left ambiguous or altered, both intentionally and unintentionally.
  • It tends to not produce a transgenerational translation because idioms change and language can be outdated quickly.

You can see that dynamic translations are a mixed bag, and depending on the translators and the rigor of the translation, they come in varying qualities.

The New International Version (NIV)

Although not the first dynamic translation, the New International Version is by far the most popular. According to the Association for Christian Retailers (CBA), more NIV Bibles are currently being sold every month than any other translation (followed closely by the KJV, NKJV and NLT with the ESV rounding out the top 5). There are over 200 million copies of the NIV in circulation today.

The NIV began with an idea in 1965. The New York Bible Society was tasked with the translation, publishing a New Testament in 1973 and the whole Bible in 1978. The entire text was revised in 1984, and additional variations of the NIV text were subsequently released including, The New International Reader’s Version (NIrV, 1996), the New International Version Inclusive Language Edition (NIVI, 1998), and Today’s New International Version (TNIV, 2002). These are all based on the NIV, but revised for specific functions. Particularly the NIVI and TNIV were revised to be ‘gender inclusive.’

In September 2009, it was announced that a new edition of the NIV was being prepared and that all other editions and revisions would be discontinued.

What is the NIV? The 1984 preface says this:

The New International Version is a completely new translation of the Holy Bible made by over a hundred scholars working directly from the best available Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts…

From the beginning of the project, the Committee on Bible Translation held to certain goals for the New International Version: that it would be an accurate translation and one that would have clarity and literary quality and so prove suitable for public and private reading, teaching, preaching, memorizing and liturgical use. The Committee also sought to preserve some measure of continuity with the long tradition of translating Scriptures into English.

They [the Translators] have striven for more than a word-for-word translation. Because thought patterns and syntax differ from language to language, faithful communication of the meaning of the writers of the Bible demands frequent modifications in sentence structure and constant regard for the contextual meaning of words.

Elsewhere, it has been remarked that they attempted to create a balanced translation, although the general consensus among commentators is that the NIV is more dynamic in its approach.

The Good News Translation (1976)

When the New Testament of this translation was published in 1966, it was titled Good News for Modern Man. With the completion of the Old Testament in 1976, it was officially known as Today’s English Version and in 2001, it was officially renamed The Good News Translation in 2001, although it is generally known as Good News Bible.

The translation was the work of the American Bible Society – billed as an original translation into modern (specifically American) English. It was intentionally a translation of its time:

This translation does not follow the traditional vocabulary and style found in the historic English Bible versions. Rather it attempts in this century to set forth the biblical content and message in the standard, everyday, natural form of English…The aim of this Bible is to give today’s reader maximum understanding of the content of the original texts.

In 2001, a new edition of the translation was presented (the quote above is from the 2001 forward). It was meant to update the language, because the committee felt that the language had become dated.

The GNT has often been criticized for being too contemporary. It was a translation into extremely colloquial English, employing so much dynamic in its translation that it has often been called a paraphrase. Technically, this is not true since a paraphrase is generally accepted to be a paraphrasing of an existing English version (we’ll discuss that more in the next post).

The Contemporary English Version (1995)

Like the GNT, the Contemporary English Version is sponsored by the American Bible Society. While the GNT was translated to be colloquial English, the English spoken everyday, the CEV was translated to be in the popular form of English found in magazines, books, newspapers and televisions. It was completed in 1995 and followed essentially the same approach that the GNT followed but reflects a different perspective on the English language, particularly how it is read and heard.

There is a significant difference in the appearance of the text on the page, because the lines on the right have been measured, in order to prevent unfortunate runovers. (Preface to the CEV)

The CEV has not gained a significant market, but it is currently slightly more widespread than the GNT, but probably only because it is newer.

New Living Translation

This section originally appeared in the 4th post of the series – Paraphrases. After consideration and discussing the issue with several people, I have placed it here with other dynamic translations. The difference between a dynamic translation and a paraphrase is vague, but sufficient evidence has been presented to persuade me to reclassify it.

In 1989, Kenneth Taylor and the editorial staff at Tyndale House began to assembly translators and consultants to prepare a revision/update of the Living Bible which would be more of a translation. In 1996, Tyndale House released the New Living Translation (NLT).

Although considered by many translation, the New Living Translation is based on the Living Bible and employs such a dynamic approach to the translation that is is not incorrect to refer to it as a paraphrase. (The distinction is a difficult one to make, but we have chosen to include the NLT with the Living Bible in this post because of their close relationship.)

The NLT proved almost as popular as the Living Bible was in the 70’s. It is consistently one of the best-selling translations in America and has sold millions of copies.

In 2004, a revision produced a second edition (sometimes called NLTse) which made broader breaks from the Living Bible. The second edition does not reference the Living Bible in the Preface, whereas the first edition made the connection very plain.

A Few Words about Versions Not Included

There are a number of other translations that border on dynamic equivalence. Other translations not included are minor translations which have not gotten broad acceptance.

Author’s Note

I should mention, just by way of disclaimer, that I do not care for most dynamic translations, even as tools. For awhile, we considered using the NIV as a congregation, but elected to go with the NKJV. I later personally switched to the ESV, but we continued using the NKJV in worship. In 2009, our church merged with another congregation (you can see about that on my personal blog – http://unorthodoxfaith.com) which uses the NIV as pew Bibles. As a result, I use the NIV now in preaching, but only out of necessity.

Having read through the NIV in my journey to find a translation I was comfortable with, I found the language to be too simple to convey the majesty of the Scriptures’ words. I find that while it is mostly accurate, it is rarely precise or powerful.

My experience with the GNT and the CEV is very limited. I own them and have browsed through them; but they did not sing to me.

Diversity of Modern Versions, pt 1 – The KJV Tradition

It is a relatively common fallacy to classify all post-1881 translations into English as one type of translation. To put it simply, this is an oversimplification. In reality, translations vary tremendously in many ways:

  • Translational philosophy
  • Individual or committee translation
  • Composition and operation of the translation committee
  • Reason for translation
  • Dependence on a previous translation or a completely new translation
  • Underlying text choice

These situations are oversimplified in many ways in argument, and we’re not going to put together an exhaustive list of ways that they enter the conversation. Instead of arguing for or against this or that position, let us consider what the translators themselves have to say. First, we shall consider the revision translations:

Revisions of the Authorized Version

A revision translation is one which begins with the Authorized Version and attempts to update it. The degree to which they are updated varies widely. They are distinguished from the initial revisions of the Authorized Version which were more updates of spelling, additions and corrections of versification and other typesetting issues. These revisions (conducted several times between 1611 and 1769) are generally considered acceptable by King James Only advocates whereas the latter revisions come under serious criticism.

English Revised Version (1881-1885) & American Standard Version (1901)

These two translations were undertaken more or less simultaneously. Strictly speaking, they were not translations but revisions of the Authorized Version of 1611 (having last been revised in 1769).

The character of the Revision was determined for us from the outset by the first rule, ‘to introduce as few alterations as possible, consistently with faithfulness.’ Our task was revision, not re-translation. (Preface to the English Revised Version)

The American Version was more or less an American edition of the English revision but was published independently with some of the readings the American committee preferred over the English committee’s published choices. In the preface to the ASV, the American committee noted the major differences, which were mostly in the Old Testament:

  1. The transliteration of YHWH as Jehovah instead of LORD or GOD.
  2. The transliteration of sheol instead of translating it variously as “grave” or “pit.”
  3. Updated spelling and prepositional use.
  4. Several returns to the Authorized Version reading because of general usage.
  5. Changes for consistency’s sake.
  6. Limited use of marginal notes, which the RV used rather heavily.

In short, the American committee felt that the RV was too much of a departure from the AV and sought to retain some of its more majestic language while updating it stylistically and in some places textually.

We are not insensible to the justly lauded beauty and vigor of the style of the Authorized Version, nor do we forget that it has been no part of our task to modernize the diction of the Bible. But we are also aware that the rhetorical force and the antique flavor which we desire to retain do not consist in sporadic instances of uncouth, unidiomatic, or obscure phraseology. While we may freely admit that the English of the Scriptures can, as a whole, hardly be improved, yet it would be extravagant to hold that it cannot be bettered in any of its details.

These revisions were not widely accepted, although the RV was used in some versions of the Common Book of Prayer. Because it was based on the works of Westcott and Hort, who were among the translators, it caught considerable criticism who felt that their critical edition of the Greek New Testament was lacking.

Revised Standard Version (1946-1952, 2nd edition 1971)

The RV/ASV was clearly a translation in trouble. It was not as clear or as universally accepted as the Authorized Version had been. The ASV gained popularity in many American seminaries and had some influence in Britain as well. In 1928, the copyright of the ASV was obtained by the International Council of Religious Education and with financing from Thomas Nelson and Sons, they commissioned a panel of 32 translators to begin work. When the New Testament was presented by the translators, the dean of the translation committee said that it was meant to be a supplement to and not a replacement for the AV and the ASV.

The RSV was a very ecumenical translation, commissioned by a group that would become the World Council of Churches. It is generally thought of as a step backward from the ASV. In many places in Isaiah, the translators followed the newly discovered Dead Sea Scrolls simply because they were new and not for any textual reasons. They muddied perfectly clear translations from the AV and ASV.

The RSV did, however, benefit from knowledge that had not been available at the time of the RV/ASV translation.

The revisers in the 1870’s… lacked the resources which discoveries within the past eighty years have afforded for understanding the vocabulary, grammar and idioms of the Greek New Testament…The New Testament was written in the Koine, the common Greek which was spoken and understood practically everywhere throughout the Roman Empire in the early centuries of the Christian era. This development in the study of New Testament Greek has come since the work on the English Revised Version and the American Standard Version was done, and at many points sheds new light upon the meaning of the Greek text. (Preface to the Revised Standard Version)

It is unfortunate that – as F.F. Bruce would put it later – the RSV translators, “blurred some of the finer distinctions in New Testament wording which … have some significance for those who are concerned with the more accurate interpretation of the text.”

New American Standard Bible (1971, 2005)

Despite the weaknesses of the RSV, it still managed to become something of a standard in mainstream denominations. Seminarians were endlessly frustrated with it. The RSV was considered too liberal and too ecumenical. The Lockman Foundation commissioned a separate revision of the ASV, which was published in its entirety in 1971 as the New American Standard Bible.

Unlike the RV and RSV translations, the NASB was the first to be submitted to external review – a practice employed in the translation of the Authorized Version but not since.

Furthermore, in the preparation of this work numerous other translation have been consulted along with the linguistic tools and literature of biblical scholarship. Decisions about English renderings were made by consensus of a team composed of educators and pastors. Subsequently, review and evaluation by other Hebrew and Greek scholars outside the Editorial Board were sought and carefully considered. (Preface to the New American Standard Bible)

The NASB went the opposite direction of the RSV. The translating committee was made up of conservative theologians and language experts who revised the ASV text to be more literal and in keeping with doctrinal purity. Gone where the fadish translations from the Dead Sea Scrolls, replaced by the most up-to-date edition of the Masoretic text, Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia.

For the New Testament, the NASB translators worked primarily from the 26th edition of the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament. This edition was vastly improved from the 17th edition used for the RSV.

New Revised Standard Version (1989)

The NASB gained widespread acceptance, particularly in American seminaries and conservative churches. It was, however, strictly a Protestant Bible. There was no Apocrypha or Catholic edition (something done with the AV, as well as the RV and ASV). It was the first fully American version of the Bible.

The World Council of Churches decided to revise the RSV to meet this ecumenical need. To appeal to more conservative groups, they followed many of the same steps the Lockman Foundation had pioneered with the NASB. The translation reverted to the more archaic terminology (thee and thou) of the formal liturgies, but also developed ‘gender neutral’ language to accomodate the growing number of female clergy in mainstream denominations.

During the almost half a century since the publication of the RSV, many in the churches have become sensitive to the danger of linguistic sexism arising from the inherent bias of the English language towards the masculine gender, a bias that in the case of the Bible has often restricted or obscured the meaning of the original text. The mandates from the Division specified that, in references to men and women, masculine-oriented language should be eliminated as far as this can be done without altering passages that reflect the historical situation of ancient patriarchal culture. (Preface to the NRSV)

The committee states quite directly in the preface that this Bible was translated to be ecumenical, although they later also claim that it is “essentially literal.” The difficulty that arises from the tensions of trying to produce a denominationally/doctrinally neutral text while remaining literal should be obvious.

English Standard Version (2001)

Frustrated by the proliferation of translations that were more dynamic in their translation (look for these in part 2) and the liberal lean of the Revised Standard Version, a group of American conservative scholars under J.I. Packer as editor began a conservative revision of the RSV, which was published in 2001. Remarkably, Packer obtained permission from the very liberal National Council of Churches to produce a revision of the RSV.

Perhaps the highest praise for the English Standard Version comes from its critics:

I have heard a number of Christian leaders claim that the ESV is the “Bible of the future”—ideal for public worship and private reading, appropriate for adults, youth and children. This puzzles me, since the ESV seems to me to be overly literal—full of archaisms, awkward language, obscure idioms, irregular word order, and a great deal of “Biblish” …This is because the ESV too often fails the test of “standard English.” (Mark L. Strauss, 2008, Evangelical Theological Society)

As I have pointed out previously, this type of ‘intentionally archaic’ language was one of the hallmarks of the Authorized Version. Packer and the ESV translators worked very hard to produce a worthy successor of the Authorized Version, something that struck the balance between formal translation, majestic language and readability.

The words and phrases themselves grow out of the Tyndale–King James legacy, and most recently out of the RSV, with the 1971 RSV text providing the starting point for our work. Archaic language has been brought to current usage and significant corrections have been made in the translation of key texts. But throughout, our goal has been to retain the depth of meaning and enduring language that have made their indelible mark on the English-speaking world and have defined the life and doctrine of the church over the last four centuries. (Preface to the ESV)

Unlike the previous revision translations, the ESV made dramatic returns to the underlying philosophy of the Authorized Version. While not perfect (it was quietly, revised in 2007), it was translated to be a readable, theologically conservative, literal translation.

Author’s Note, Added 7/29/10, 10:22am
The question of why I did not include the New King James Version in this post has come up a couple of times, so I am adding this note to clarify. The New King James Version is a unique case which will receive its own treatment in the fourth article in this series. While a revision, it does not follow the same thread as the versions presented here. It is instead a direct revision of the Authorized Version. It will be treated separately, with notes about KJV2000, the Modified King James Version and other various (but minor) attempts.