On English Bible versions

[An old friend, in ministry, asked me on Facebook for advice on choosing a new Bible version for a church; my comment became an essay, so I thought I'd move it here.]

The first thing to say is that, as English speakers, we are blessed with several extraordinarily good Bible translations; compared to almost anyone else around the world, our riches are embarrassing – in fact, have you considered keeping your old church Bibles and giving the money you would have spent to Wycliffe, Bible Society, or another Bible translation ministry?

That said, the decision which Bible version your people will read is a serious one for a minister to take. Particularly if your church is active and successful in mission, you will be putting a version in the hands of new converts which may well become their lifelong companion, and which will probably give them the words they breathe out as they die. You are right to take that responsibility with the utmost seriousness.

(I should say that I am not a Biblical specialist, but I have a number of friends who are, and I read Greek and Hebrew well enough, so I think I can have some reasonably informed opinions.)

So, what are the choices? There are many, and the difference between them is far too often mis-stated. You will very regularly hear/read the contrast between ‘word-for-word’ and ‘thought-for-thought’ translations, usually with a recommendation of the former. But there is no such thing as a ‘word for word’ translation of the Bible into English, and if there were, it would be unreadable.

(Here’s my word-for-word translation of John 1: ‘In beginning was the word, and the word was near the god, and god was the word. This was in beginning near the God. All through him began, and without him began neither one he began. In him life was, and the life was the light the men. And the light in the darkness shone, and the darkness him not overcome…’ It borders on gibberish. Hebrew is far, far worse.)

Another question that gets thrown around is ‘gender inclusive language’. This is often presented as an all-or-nothing decision; in fact it is not, and almost every modern version sits somewhere on a spectrum. There are three points at play:

  1. The Biblical languages can distinguish between ‘man’ meaning ‘male human’ and ‘man’ meaning ‘generic human’ quite well; English traditionally could not, so used ‘man’ for both senses; in recent years, ‘man’ meaning ‘generic human’ has become obsolete (it is marked as such by the OED) in English; so how do we translate?
  2. Biblical languages can also use a masculine generic for a generic. The classic case here is Paul’s use of the Greek adelphoi, which properly translates ‘brothers’ but is, very obviously, used to refer to all members of the church to which he is writing, female and male. In contemporary English, ‘brothers’ will inevitably be heard as ‘brothers (not sisters)’; so do we translate ‘brothers and sisters’? A similar issue arises with pronouns: can we in English use ‘he’ to mean ‘any human person’ any more?
  3. Most controversially, God is generally referred to by masculine pronouns – and (in the NT) the Holy Spirit almost always by neuter pronouns, as it happens. Do we speak of God/God’s Spirit as ‘he’ or ‘it’ or using some other term?

No mainstream translation departs from speaking of God as ‘he’ (there was something called ‘the Inclusive Version’ published in 1995; you’ll do well to track copies down these days…); on the other two issues every major translation of this millennium leans heavily towards the gender inclusive, although generally not on every text/word (in one particular case, there was/is a rather misleading publicity campaign that shouts loudly about the translation not being gender-inclusive, although it actually makes lots of obviously gender-inclusive translation decisions…).

Given all that, there are three directions you might go for a church bible in a mainline British evangelical congregation. Something from ‘the KJV family’; the most recent NIV; or a different recent translation.

One family of translations stands consciously in the tradition of the King James Version, mediated through (variously) the Revised Version, the American Standard Version, and the Revised Standard Version. Amongst the modern versions here are the New King James Version, the New Revised Standard Version, and the English Standard Version. The NRSV is, for me, clearly the best of these three: its translation decisions are generally more accurate, and its English reads better; it is also the translation of choice in most university departments of theology and Biblical studies.

I would counsel strongly against the NKJV: the Greek text from which the NT is translated is the one used for the original (1611) KJV, and ignores manuscript discoveries and advances in text criticism since then (there are marginal notes indicating the differences, but for a Bible to be read in church, it is important that the main text is trustworthy and appropriate). The ESV and the NRSV are directly comparable: both are, in effect, relatively light updatings (5-10%?) of the old RSV; in both cases, other than rendering ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ as ‘you’, most of the other changes are in the direction of inclusive language (a quick search on Accordance suggests something near 700 examples of ‘man’ in the RSV being replaced with something gender neutral in the ESV, for instance). Style will always be a somewhat personal judgement, but I think that, of the two, the NRSV consistently reads better; where there are differences of substance in translation, in every case I have looked at, the NRSV is a better rendering of the Greek or Hebrew. (The ESV is currently in its third (2011) edition; as far as I am aware, the original 1995 Anglicanized edition of the NRSV has not been amended). The ESV’s one significant advantage, now rapidly passing, is that it had the best app by far for non-touchscreen Kindles.

A second family, familiar to evangelicals in the UK, is the NIV. The current edition of the NIV came out in 2011 (call it the 4th edition, although there is some difficulty in the history here); it updated the 1984 (2nd edition) NIV in many ways, particularly introducing consistent gender-inclusive language. I got sent a copy by a publisher (along with a style guide; if they thought I needed a style guide and a Bible, I wonder why they took my book?), and use it regularly now, particularly in public ministry in my local church, which uses the NIV. My impression is that, as a church translation, it is fine; it reads nicely, is based on good texts, and has no more translation problems than any other translation. It has the great advantage, of course, of familiarity: when it came out in the late 1970s, most evangelical churches rapidly moved to use the NIV.

If you want to go beyond these two families, there are lots of options. Some – The Message; Tom Wright’s Kingdom New Testament – are major achievements and well worth owning and using, but are probably not suited as church Bibles. Most aim at a freshness or directness that is in some contrast to the fairly formal language of the NIV/KJV tradition; or – to a similar end – they aim at using a smaller pool of vocabulary so to be easier to read for children and non-native speakers (the old Good News Bible was in this tradition). If this appeals, perhaps because of the number of non-native English speakers in your congregation, I would say the Contemporary English Version is the best of the ones I have seen by some distance; it reads beautifully, and is well-translated. There are probably several versions in this field I have not seen, however, including some of the dedicated children’s Bibles.

BibleGateway.com will let you read all these versions and many more; have a play and make your own decision, but if you want my advice start your search with the NRSV, the NIV, and the CEV. If you want to go deeper on what makes a good English translation, the go-to book is Dave Brunn’s One Bible, Many Versions - reviewed very helpfully by Eddie Arthur (who heads up Wycliffe Bible Translators, so knows a bit about the subject…) here.* (Eddie tells me he’d chose the New Living Translation as the best balance of readability and accuracy – and he knows much more than I do…)

But most of our English translations are excellent, and you won’t go very far wrong with any of them. And did I mention you could consider keeping your old church Bibles and giving the money you would have spent to WycliffeBible Society, or another Bible translation ministry?

(* My Amazon link to the book contains Eddie’s affiliate data, as I don’t affiliate and he put me on to it.)

4 Comments

  1. Rose Marie Crookes
    Nov 12, 2013

    Interesting article. I used to work for United Bible Societies in Reading UK and so was around when CEV was published by American Bible Society. Personally I DO favour the NKJV but that may be because I am familiar with the KJV, particulary for Scripture memorization; the words flow better than in the NIV or even Good News/CEV.

  2. Bev Murrill
    Nov 12, 2013

    Thanks Steve. As ever, really good plain and thoughtful blog … helpful too.

    I read my Bible through from front to back every year so I tend to change my versions every 2 years or so in order to maintain a fresh eyes approach… (yes, I know… I should give the money to the Bible Society, but I do give older Bibles away… so is that ok?) chuckle

  3. Tony Lane
    Nov 15, 2013

    “in recent years, ‘man’ meaning ‘generic human’ has become obsolete (it is marked as such by the OED) in English”. That really surprises me. Obviously no one has bothered to tell the BBC. It’s true of the rarefied domains of academia, but not of society at large. In my experience most ordinary people today are bilingual. They switch naturally and un-selfconsciously (and probably unconsciously) between geneder neutral language and traditional language.

    • steve
      Nov 16, 2013

      Looking again, I might have misrepresented the dictionary slightly. I had looked at meaning 1a, ‘[a]s a designation applied equally to particular individuals of either sex,’ which is marked as obsolete, but the ‘equally’ here carries more weight than I had noticed, when I contrast it to other meanings. 2a, ‘Man’ as referring to humanity collectively, is indicated to be still current (last listed exemplar 1994). The first overall group of meanings, ‘a human being’ is marked with a warning (‘Man was considered until the 20th cent. to include women by implication, though referring primarily to males. It is now freq. understood to exclude women, and is therefore avoided by many people.’), but not indicated to be obsolete.

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