By Rev. Chris Bowditch
We hear it often in church that one of the best things we can do for our personal spiritual life is spend more time in God’s word. And this is true. In Hebrews 4:12 we read that, “the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” But when you open up your Bible app, or walk into your local Christian bookstore and look at the wall of bibles you will notice there are a range of choices of bibles. This is because the Bible was not originally written in English and so there are a number of different translations to choose from. So how should you decide which one to choose from? How can you know if the Bible you were given when you became a Christian is a good translation?
Well the theory that informs the translators is for another post and if you want more information about that you begin by reading Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart’s excellent book How to Read the Bible for all its Worth. However, a good translation will have used the best copies of the original Greek manuscripts available to us today and will be honest about where there is uncertainty over certain translation issues (this will usually be shown by having an alternative translation in the footnotes).
With this basic understanding there are three translations that you should not use for personal or corporate bible study. The KJV/NKJV, The Message and The Passion Translation. See what Fee and Stuart say about the KJV/NKJV
‘The KJV for a long time was the most widely used translation in the world; it is also a classic expression of the English language. Indeed it coined phrases that will be forever embedded in our language (“coals of fire”, “the skin of my teeth”, “tongues of fire”). However, for the New Testament, the only Greek text available to the 1611 translators was based on late manuscripts, which had accumulated the mistakes of over a thousand years of copying. Few of these mistakes – and we must note that there are many of them – make any difference to us doctrinally, but they often do make a difference in the meaning of certain specific texts. Recognizing that the English of the KJV was no longer a living language – and thoroughly dissatisfied with its modern revision (RSV/NRSV) – it was decided by some to update the KJV by ridding it of its “archaic” way of speaking. But in so doing, the NKJV revisers eliminated the best feature of the KJV (its marvelous expression of the English language) and kept the worst (its flawed text). This is why you should use almost any modern translation rather than the KJV or the NKJV.’ (How to Read the Bible for All its Worth – Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart: 2003: p40)
The KJV deserves a special place in the history of the western world and is one of the great achievements of the Reformation in making God’s word accessible to the people. But some 400 years later it simply no longer stands up to scrutiny. With The Message the issues are of a different nature. Eugene Peterson wrote The Message to help make the bible more accessible. He said he wrote it for, “those who hadn't read the Bible because it seemed too distant and irrelevant and those who had read the Bible so much that it had become 'old hat’” (The Message Version Information). And to that end The Message can be great to read from time to time to give us fresh insight into what God is saying through His word. However whilst The Message has great usefulness in helping us look at a passage of scripture with fresh eyes, The Message often goes beyond the bounds of simple translation and steps into the world of commentary or interpretation, but without stating as such or making the reader aware of other translation or interpretation options. Thus Fee and Stuart say that ‘particularly eye-catching moments’ in The Message need to be checked with other translations or with a commentary before they are relied on to form something of our beliefs about God.
More recently The Passion translation has arrived on the scene. It claims to be, "a new, heart-level translation, using Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic manuscripts, that expresses God’s fiery heart of love to this generation, merging the emotion and life-changing truth of God’s Word." But much like The Message it would more accurately be described as a paraphrase. Check out this article for a deeper dive into the issues with this 'translation'.
So what translations to use for personal or corporate bible study? At Lindisfarne Anglican we use the NIV2011 and we suggest that this is one of the best translations. It is translated by a committee of leading Evangelical scholars and thinkers and is both faithful to the original text whilst being written in relatively simple and easy to understand English. So next time you're choosing which translation to read, hopefully you’ll be able to make a more informed decision that will help you delve deeply into God’s word.
How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth is available from Koorong.