Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Buying a Bible at Christmas?

Bible sales in America, this year and every year, are huge. The Bible actually is consistently the best-selling book of all in any given year, and it never makes the bestseller lists. You can tell this is a lucrative business with so many secular companies involved in the battle for Bible sales, even major University Presses like Oxford and Cambridge. Yes, its the most owned book of all time, and in far to many cases the least read or studied. If salvation was based on just owning a Bible, America would be a truly Christian country for sure. Alas, it's not so simple as that.

At Christmas time, the Christian buyer is presented with a bewildering array of Bibles to choose from and so I thought it might be useful to give some guidance for Bible buying. Now of course when I say Bible, I am in the first instance referring to the Biblia Hebraica and the Greek New Testament-- that's actually the Bible in its original languages. But for most folks in America the Bible is simply synonymous with their favorite translation. This is in many ways a dangerous equation since every translation is already an interpretation of the original language text, and no translation is perfect (no, not even the King James by a long shot). Bearing in mind then that we are dealing with English Translations which are more or less faithful, more or less interpretive of the original language text of the Bible, how should we pick our Bibles?

Well the first thing to say is--- one size (and type) does not fit all. Different translations are done for different purposes and different audiences. So a better first question than "Which Bible should I buy?" is "Who am I buying this for, and what do they already know when it comes to the Bible, the Christian faith etc.?" You will also want to ask the question-- "What age range was this translation written for?" Different Bibles target different audiences. You need to be aware of this before you walk into Billy Bob's Christian bookstore and plunk your money down on the counter. In other words, you need to come as an informed consumer-- informed about the different Bibles, and informed about who you are buying it for.

Bibles range in scope from very paraphrastic (e.g. The Message or the Living Bible), to idiomatic translations (e.g. NRSV, TNIV, NEB, Jerusalem Bible, NKJV, TEV-- in fact most translations fall into this camp) to nearly literal translations (NASB and a few others). Here is not the place to debate the literal vs. non-literal issue of translation, but you should be aware that there is no such thing as an absolutely literal translations because: 1)English is a very different, and non-genderized language than the Biblical languages (i.e. we don't have masculine or feminine nouns and adjectives etc. unlike Hebrew and Greek); 2) the structure of English sentences are often different than these Biblical languages; 3) there are words in these languages which have no one word English equivalent; 4) sometimes the language in the source is used figuratively sometimes literally. We could keep giving many more reasons why there is no absolutely literal translation-- and frankly you wouldn't want one because you would have to keep unscrambling the word order, the syntax, and other difficulties. The bottom line is, you want a translation that conveys accurately the original meaning of the Biblical text.

Let us suppose you are shopping for a children's Bible. The question then becomes what age of child? If you are dealing with really young children you could go for the Living Bible which was originally done as a paraphrase for children by Ken Taylor, or the Today's English Version (originally Good News for Modern Man) which is written with no words over an eight grade vocabulary. It contains none of what my Granny used to call $25 dollar words. If on the other hand you are getting a young adult a Bible for graduation or confirmation, you need to take into account what sort of reader they are. If the goal is to get them to read the Bible stories at all the Message is not a bad choice, but it is a major league paraphrase which tends to be more interpretive rather than less, compared to an idiomatic translation. I would suggest going with the TNIV.

What do I mean by an idiomatic translation? This approach to translating, while following a word for word approach if it makes sense in English, tends to go for a meaning for meaning, concept for concept approach, being sensitive to idioms in both the Biblical language and in our own.

For example, the word "foot" was an idiom in Hebrew for the genitals, in particular the male genitals. Thus when we read that Saul covered or uncovered his foot, we are talking about him relieving himself. How should the translator translate this, given that a literal translation will not convey the meaning? Here a rendering of the meaning rather than just what the text says might be preferable, given that not everyone is going to use an anotated Bible with notes.

Meaning after all occurs in contexts. Words do not really have meaning in isolation from their use and contexts. Take for example the English word 'row'. It could be a verb telling a person in a boat what to do. It could be a noun referring to a line of seats, it could refer to a fight and should be pronounced differently. Words only have meaning in contexts, and this is as true of words in the original Biblical languages as ours. Moral to the story--- Go for a Bible that best conveys the meaning of the original inspired text to the particular target audience you have in mind.

When we are dealing with the idiomatic translations, which for the most part are the most widely used and most popular, there are a variety of factors to keep in mind. Principle One: All other things being equal, a team translation will be much better than an individual translation. Why? Because no one person is an expert in the meaning of every verse of the Bible. Thus Eugene Peterson's or Ken Taylor's paraphrase or J.B. Phillips translation done all by himself, is less likely to be accurate at all points than a team translation.

Principle Two: But of course not all teams are created equal. For example, the team which, with Lancelot Andrewes translated the KJV in 1611 were only as good as their skills in the Biblical languages and in the English of Shakespeare's era, and more to the point could only be as good as the original language manuscripts that lay before them. The truth is, we have far better and earlier manuscripts of both the Hebrews and the Greek texts of the Bible today than they did back then, and so can produce a translation much closer to the original wording than they could have done.
You might want to read Alistair McGrath's fine book on the history of the KJV.

While we are dealing with the KJV it is well to point out that we don't speak olde englishe, yea verily, anymore. There is an issue of archaic English if you are a KJV only person, and you discover that you have to end up retranslating the English of the Bible since English is a living language. I once had a young lady in Sunday School in Durham England ask me why the Psalm says "God is an aweful God...." I tried to explain that the word aweful in 1611 meant full of awe and wonder, whereas today it means bbbbbbbbad to the bone.

There is a good reason to give persons an up to date translation not an archaic one. The Bible is hard enough to understand without having to deal with archaic English. What about the NKJV? Well it overcomes the archaic language issue for the most part, but alas, it doesn't do a better job with the text criticism. There are consequences to knowing the Vulgate and the Majority Text and the Textus Receptus do not represent the earliest and best text of numerous Biblical verses. If you do a translation that pays too much hommage to any of these later texts, then you are ignoring the evidence from 2nd and 3rd and 4th century papyri and codexes that indicate that the original text did not have this word or that phrase, and so one.

The question you must ask is--- do I want what the original inspired writer wrote PLUS NOTHING, or do I want to sing "if it was good enough for grandma, its good enough for me"? In my view those who know something about the history of the English translation of the Bible (for instance knowing how much of the KJV was cribbed from William Tyndale's translation), know that English translations are a work in progress. There is no way you can start acting as if a particular translation was dropped from the sky by God without error. There are no inspired translations, only inspired original language texts, which we are still in the process of recovering.

I personally would recommend for pulpit and pew use, and for Bible study for young adults or adults one of the following Bibles--- TNIV (first choice, done by an excellent team of Evangelical scholars), Jerusalem Bible ( particularly if you want a Catholic Bible that has the OT Apocrypha), NRSV (less preferrable but still good, and done by a theologically broad group of translators, and too tied down to the RSV as well, which was of course a revision of the KJV), the New Living Translation (not to be confused with the Living Bible. Its a bit too paraphrastic for my taste), TEV (especially for congregations mainly composed of those without college degrees).

Translations to avoid: 1) The New World Translation (this is the Jehovah's Witness translation, and it makes a mess of the Greek in various places; 2) the ESV-- an attempt to push back the clock and the culture in the direction of the old KJV. Go with the NKJV if this is your orientation, its much better; 3) Amplified Bible-- not bad as a tool for Bible study, but too confusing to be read in church or used as a Pew Bible-- its too paraphrastic frankly.

If you are into using multiple decent translations of the Bible The Evangelical Parallel New Testament published by Oxford is a very useful tool, and a comparison of the translations shows where there are difficult verses, and why any Bible study leader needs commentaries to make sense of the text especially with difficult verses.

Happy Christmas Bible Shopping. Find something that fits you or your audience!


loverOfTruth said...

As far as I know, the original copy of the bible does not exist. So where do these translations come from ? Translations of translations ? I can understand a litter difference in translations but why should there be significant difference meant for different audiences ? GOD's message should be ONE and for ALL the same. Right ?

For example, take a look at the two verses from The Holy Qur'an in 3 different translations :

Al-Qur'an Verse : 002.255

YUSUFALI: Allah! There is no god but He,-the Living, the Self-subsisting, Eternal. No slumber can seize Him nor sleep. His are all things in the heavens and on earth. Who is there can intercede in His presence except as He permitteth? He knoweth what (appeareth to His creatures as) before or after or behind them. Nor shall they compass aught of His knowledge except as He willeth. His Throne doth extend over the heavens and the earth, and He feeleth no fatigue in guarding and preserving them for He is the Most High, the Supreme (in glory).

PICKTHAL: Allah! There is no deity save Him, the Alive, the Eternal. Neither slumber nor sleep overtaketh Him. Unto Him belongeth whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is in the earth. Who is he that intercedeth with Him save by His leave? He knoweth that which is in front of them and that which is behind them, while they encompass nothing of His knowledge save what He will. His throne includeth the heavens and the earth, and He is never weary of preserving them. He is the Sublime, the Tremendous.

SHAKIR: Allah is He besides Whom there is no god, the Everliving, the Self-subsisting by Whom all subsist; slumber does not overtake Him nor sleep; whatever is in the heavens and whatever is in the earth is His; who is he that can intercede with Him but by His permission? He knows what is before them and what is behind them, and they cannot comprehend anything out of His knowledge except what He pleases, His knowledge extends over the heavens and the earth, and the preservation of them both tires Him not, and He is the Most High, the Great.

Al-Qur'an Verse : 002.256

YUSUFALI: Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And Allah heareth and knoweth all things.

PICKTHAL: There is no compulsion in religion. The right direction is henceforth distinct from error. And he who rejecteth false deities and believeth in Allah hath grasped a firm handhold which will never break. Allah is Hearer, Knower.

SHAKIR: There is no compulsion in religion; truly the right way has become clearly distinct from error; therefore, whoever disbelieves in the Shaitan and believes in Allah he indeed has laid hold on the firmest handle, which shall not break off, and Allah is Hearing, Knowing.

By the way, the Qur'an still exists in its entirety in the original language. Read how ... http://www.iol.ie/~afifi/BICNews/Sabeel/sabeel3.htm

For a friendly discussion please visit my blog @

Wayne Leman said...

Ben, this is a good post, irenic, wise, and helpful. I agree with your comments on the ESV. I have just linked to your post from a post on my blog.

john alan turner said...

Any thoughts or suggestions on a good study Bible?

Paul W said...


Thank you for this. I wonder what your opinons are on the New American Bible, Revised English Bible, Holman Christian Standard and Contemporary English Version are.

Of course, I realise that there are now so many translations that you can't discuss everything.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Ben, I'm with Paul W. Could you give us a short take on the versions he mentions? Particularly the CEV since someone who who wants a Bible that's easier to read than the TNIV was asking me for a recommendation.

Sleep-Deprived said...

Thank you for that VERY helpful post. There is a similar discussion in the Gordon Fee, Douglas Stuart book How to Read The Bible for All Its Worth. But I especially appreciate your recommendations for a translation for really young children.

Layman said...

Professor (or other informed contributor),

I used the NRSV but prefer the New American Standard Version. I noticed that the NASV was not in your list of faves but also not in the list of ones to avoid. Could you give us a little more feedback on the pros/cons of that translation?

Thanks for the post in any event. As my wife (sleep-deprived) has made an appearance to say, very helpful.

Ben Witherington said...

The NASV is a bit wooden for my taste. I prefer a translation that reads well consistently in English, and not much attention to the literary and poetic dimensions of the text seems to have been taken with that translation. The CEV is fine especially for the young, although I prefer the Good News Bible on that score. I prefer simple English, to simplistic and jargonistic English and slang. If I want a dialetic paraphrase the Cotton Patch Bible is fine ya'll.

David A. Carlson said...

Have you considered the NET Bible


Ben Witherington said...

Hi Walter: Nice to hear from you. I find the ESV quite sad at so many junctures, but not for lack of eloquence. It is certainly eloquent. Unfortunately it has an agenda to make the Bible less gender inclusive than it actually is. While I agree that there are real problems with some of the NRSV correct speak, it is an even bigger problem to call women men, when for instance, the Greek uses the term anthropos, not andros. The former term means and ought to be translated human beings-- referring to all of us, not just men. The attempt to push back the clock on the use of the term "man" besides not dealing with the fact that the English language has changed on this matter over the last four decades, does an injustice to women, who usually are in the majority in our churches. The other thing that really bothers me about that translation is that it is just a redo of the old RSV apparently without any study of the recent gains in the texts of the NT discovered in the last thirty years or so. For example, there can be little doubt now that the two ' notable apostles' referred to in Rom. 16.7 are a ministry couple named Andronicus and Junia, much like the couple Priscilla and Aquila.

Blessings on your ministry to my uncle and his family in Statesville!

As for the question about which translation I use, I use my own translation, or the British Inclusive Language NIV which is basically the same as the TNIV.

Nick said...

I would love to repost this article on my blog for many readers who would not likely find their way to yours. My audience is largely non-academic. Of course, I would fully attribute the work to you and provide a link-back to your blog from within the article. You're already on my blogroll.

The only concern with my audience, is the phrase regarding the fallibility of the KJV. I would prefer to remove the singular phrase "by a long shot" so as to avoid offending too many of the "weak brethren." d:c)

I would write my own article, but yours is so well-written, and your name is considerably more influential. ybiC, Nick

Nick said...

BTW, My blog is at Yahoo 360 not blogger.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Nick: You are welcome to use the piece, and delete that one phrase if it helps your folks,


Matt Gumm said...

I was disappointed in your review. It had at least one ambiguous statement (or perhaps a factual error), and I think you mischaracterized the nature of the ESV.

You stated that the RSV was a revision of the KJV; in fact, it was a revision of the ASV. However, were you trying to say it was in the lineage of the Tyndale/KJV (which you don't care for very much)?

As far as the ESV goes, I'm not sure I understand your statement that it "an attempt to push back the clock and the culture in the direction of the old KJV." If you're comparing it to the TNIV, then I suppose you could come to that conclusion. But if you compare it to the KJV, NASB ('79 or'95), and NKJV, I think you would find it is more inclusive. In other words, it tries to find ways to use non-gender specific language when it can (such as "one"). In fact, I would venture to say that (by some) it would be considered more inclusive than even the NIV, since the NIV uses brothers in many places. I believe that was the argument Rodney Decker made in his review of the ESV.

Your example of why the translators haven't paid attention to the textual gains in the last 30 years is this: For example, there can be little doubt now that the two ' notable apostles' referred to in Rom. 16.7 are a ministry couple named Andronicus and Junia, much like the couple Priscilla and Aquila.. I can only assume that you're referring to the statement "well known to the apostles" instead of "outstanding among the apostles." I fail to see how this is a textual decision; it seems more an interpretive one. Several translations leave it open, but others do not, including the Good News Translation.

Finally, I'm surprised at your endorsement of the NKJV over the ESV; given your preference for the critical text and inclusive language, why would you ever pick the NKJV, which has neither?

There are certainly nits to pick about the ESV, but here I think you just gave it an unfair shake.

Jacob Hantla said...

This is my first trip to your blog, likely not my last, but definitely a disappointing one. To group the ESV with the JW's? Irresponsible and misleading.

And the response "it has an agenda to make the Bible less gender inclusive than it actually is," coupled with the wholesale recommendation of the TNIV is sad as well. The ESV footnotes throughout the NT when the Greek translation to English leaves ambiguity as to the gender (i.e. when plural "brothers" could be brothers and sisters). Nevertheless, the original Greek and Hebrew (as you put it, it should be noted, as I know you are aware, that we do not of course have the autographic manuscripts, but textual criticism of the many variants to seek to determine the original).

If any Bible is said to have an agenda it would be the TNIV, actually changing his to their and him to they (singular to plural) to avoid the gender that was present in the original language (a list of all of these is available here: http://www.no-tniv.com/category.php)In doing so, not only has the original message in the original language been obscured, in many places it is completed lost. In fact, prophecies looking forward to Jesus, no longer do in the TNIV because "He" has been replaced with "they" even though the original word was singular masculine. One of the very clear things about Greek and Hebrew is gender of words. It is pretty clear, and to translate them consistently (just as has been done in almost every translation before) is certainly not an agenda; they have in fact gone above and beyond, documenting those cases in which gender neutrality was intended but could not be conveyed in English. Who has the agenda?

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks to both of you who wrote me further about the ESV. I will have to take a more close look it. I don't put it in the same slot as the JW translation, but I simply would not recommend it.
I do know the process that went into producing it and was not impressed, but it deserves a closer look than I have given it thus far.

The issue of idiomatic translation however when it comes to genderized words is an important one. My point was and is that even when the Hebrew or Greek says 'he' this or 'he' that. when in fact it refers to a gender inclusive group, this is not an appropriate translation, because it obscures the text rather than illuminating it.

Ben Witherington said...

As I understand it, the NIV committee did do some textual updates for the TNIV.

JT said...

Prof. Witherington:

Count me among the confused here.

Dan Wallace has recently argued that the ESV and NET translation of Rom 16:7 is based on the best textual evidence. (See http://www.bible.org/page.asp?page_id=116.)

And as others have pointed out, you specifically slam the ESV, when it's much more gender inclusive than the NASB, the NIV, the KJV, the NKJV, etc.


Jacob Hantla said...

Thank you for your kind response. Obviously wanting to make sure that the original meaning of the text comes through (wanting to make sure that when "he" is gender inclusive it is translated as such), why do you recommend the TNIV so strongly in light of the problems that I presented (he -> they, his -> their, singular -> plural)?

Matthew said...

The TNIV does make some changes to the NIV aside from the gender issue. Thankfully, they saw fit to redo their awful translation of Romans 1:17--something N.T. has been harping on for quite some time ("the righteousness of God" rather than "a righteousness from God").

Also, lest folks think that the NRSV is without evangelical credentials, in 1991, D.A. Carson wrote a review in the Reformed Theologica Journal and gave it a "B+ to an A-" and also notes that his students will recognize, due to his stingy marks, that the NRSV is a "jolly good translation".

I like the ESV because I really like the RSV. One thing we might consider is something I do: if the ESV text says "brothers" I always say "brothers AND sisters", etc.

Ben Witherington said...

Unfortunately there are several translations that are ideologically driven when it comes to Rom. 16.7 because they cannot tolerate the idea of women being in ministry, much less women being apostles. I am on record on this text already, and so I would point you to my Romans commentary and also my recent article in Bible Review on Junia. There can be no excuse for rendering this Latin name as Junias, as if it were a man's name (see now Eldon Epp's fine book on Junia). We have no evidence of such a Latin male name at all where as we have 250 or more clear examples of the female name Junia-- indeed it was a popular Roman name. The second issue is whether to render the text "notable among the apostles" or something like "notable or noteworthy to the apostles". Here the grammar is somewhat debatable but if we follow Paul's other similar constructions there can be little doubt the rendering "notable among the apostles" is far and away the most likely. The third way some have tried to neutralize this text is to suggest apostle here only means missionary of an individual church rather than apostle of Jesus Christ. The problem with this is when Paul means the former he calls that person quite specifically 'apostles of a church'. Here, as elsewhere in Paul when Paul simply says Apostle, he means someone who has seen and been commissioned by the risen Lord,like himself. Notice the reference to the fact that Andronicus and Junia were in Christ before Paul, which means they were converts in the first two years or so after Jesus' death. In sum, translations that insist on rendering this text IN SPITE of what the historical and grammatical evidence suggest are tendentious. A good pointer on this score is that in the early church the name was rendered Junia until the 13th century in copies and translations of this text, when under pressure from priests (and popes) and without evidence it was changed to Junias. Shameful.

Matthew said...

I suspect, if anyone is interested in learning more about women in the NT, that it is covered in Dr. W's book on Women in the Earliest Churches. Or, I'm sure I or one of my other classmates could E-mail you our NT 520 notes :-)

Jacob Hantla said...

I would like to point out, in followup to your previous comment, that the the ESV, the bible with the "gender agenda" does translate this Junia, whereas the NASB and the NIV render it Junias.

I'm only trying to balance out the statements that you made. I would submit that the ESV does the best job among translations at actually removing the gender agenda. Running to the other extreme as the TNIV has done does not fix anything but only recreates the gender confusion in a different way, this time more damaging because it actually removes the words of the text. The following is from the introduction of the ESV to explain how they have decided to handle gender:

"In the area of gender language, the goal of the ESV is to render literally what is in the original. For example, “anyone” replaces “any man” where there is no word corresponding to “man” in the original languages, and “people” rather than “men” is regularly used where the original languages refer to both men and women. But the words “man” and “men” are retained where a male meaning component is part of the original Greek or Hebrew. Similarly, the English word “brothers” (translating the Greek word adelphoi) is retained as an important familial form of address between fellow-Jews and fellow-Christians in the first century. A recurring note is included to indicate that the term “brothers” (adelphoi) was often used in Greek to refer to both men and women, and to indicate the specific instances in the text where this is the case. In addition, the English word “sons” (translating the Greek word huioi) is retained in specific instances because of its meaning as a legal term in the adoption and inheritance laws of first-century Rome. As used by the apostle Paul, this term refers to the status of all Christians, both men and women, who, having been adopted into God’s family, now enjoy all the privileges, obligations, and inheritance rights of God’s children.
"The inclusive use of the generic “he” has also regularly been retained, because this is consistent with similar usage in the original languages and because an essentially literal translation would be impossible without it. Similarly, where God and man are compared or contrasted in the original, the ESV retains the generic use of “man” as the clearest way to express the contrast within the framework of essentially literal translation.
In each case the objective has been transparency to the original text, allowing the reader to understand the original on its own terms rather than on the terms of our present-day culture."

Matthew said...

That's interesting since translating ego eimi in John 8:58 as "I have been" can only be described as "theologically influenced". There are more of these, as well.

c.t. said...

There are no inspired translations, only inspired original language texts, which we are still in the process of recovering.

The devil himself couldn't have said it any better.

Don't buy what academics who would vainly, devilishly tell you 'they' will 'recover' the Word of God for you. They want the devil's corrupt Alexandrian manuscripts in your soul to corrupt your soul.

The King James Version is the pure Word of God based on God's preserved manuscripts. A regenerate soul knows the truth. The devil attacks the Word of God; it is the center-of-gravity of his attack against God and God's own. The devil's attack on the Word of God began in the Garden and it continues now with the corrupt manuscripts having been satanically introduced into literally EVERY modern version (perversion) of the Bible. Get the pure, undefiled Word of God into your heart. Read the King James Version. Don't listen to academics and 'scholars' who channel the devil purely and push the devil's defiled manuscripts and the modern versions based on them.

Wayne Leman said...

Ben, it's interesting to see how much debate this post of yours has generated. I'm especially interested in the feedback from those who like the ESV. I has just posted further thoughts on your post and the comments on it, on the Better Bibles Blog, which you can access by clicking on the link under my username with this comment.

Jacob Hantla said...

Joshua, I understand the common usage, but Ben was arguing that translations should not hide the original intent of the writer. Using their in place of his or her simply adds additional confusion as to the antecedant

c.t. said...

For issues regarding the manuscripts (rather than strawman issues regarding different editions of the KJV and what not) read this site:


It's a manuscripts issue. The value of the King James Version itself as a translation is a separate issue (not a small one, but a separate issue). It just so happens that the KJV is still the only translation not based on the corrupt Alexandrian manuscripts (the NKJV comes close).

Entertain the possibility (just entertain the possibility) that you currently don't know what you're talking about when you so easily and in knee-jerk fashion mock pro-KJV or pro-TR arguments. Don't worry about what man thinks of you, fear only God and decide for yourself. Read the articles at the site above to get a complete view of the issues.

Marc Axelrod said...

It has been said that the best Bible translation is the one you read.

Marc Axelrod

Ted M. Gossard said...

Dr. Witherington,
I know this is off topic. But I was wondering what you think of the apocryphal/deuterocanonical books ("intertestamental")- and if Protestants should reconsider their exclusion from our Bible.


Lassie1865 said...

I read Ben Witherington's article about Bible translation history with interest; I have been researching this issue on line for quite awhile. If you are looking for the most exact translation from the oldest extant Greek manuscripts, to to yadayahweh.com (Craig Winn)

Lassie1865 said...

Are there bones in the James Ossuary? Have they been examined? What are the actual names on the ossuray?