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An Abridged History of Modern English Bible Translations

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  • Information An Abridged History of Modern English Bible Translations

    This is a repost of an article that a friend of mine wrote on modern English translations. I hope that it helps with some of the conversations on translation. I haven't read it in depth, so I don't necessarily agree with all of it, but I thought it might be helpful. I claim no credit for it.

    "The New International Version- (NIV) The goal of the NIV was to create a translation in modern English that could be understood by every English speaking person, across countries, cultures, dialects, and regions. To this end, the NIV uses only “international English,” that is, it limits it's vocabulary to those words that are common to all English speaking countries and regions. It also attempts to avoid slang as well as 'academic' words that some people may not know. This makes it ideal for reading in public. It is also good for witnessing to people in other cultures and those who are learning English as a second language. However, it may not be ideal for personal study for native speakers because the language can seem awkward and stilted, and it avoids using the full spectrum of vocabulary to convey its meaning. The translation from the Greek is very accurate, although not as literal as some translations.

    The New Living Translation- (NLT) The NLT uses a “thought-for-thought” mentality in translation, but avoids paraphrase. It is excellent for quick or light reading of large sections of Scripture, but because it is less literal, it may not hold up as well in verse-by-verse or word-by-word study. It is translates difficult verse to be less misleading, and is 'gender-sensitive,' meaning that when the Greek uses masculine pronouns to refer to both men and women, they are translated into English neuter pronouns. For example, 'everyone' instead of 'all men' or 'no one' instead of 'no man.' [God still receives masculine pronouns.] This makes it an ideal first Bible for a new Christian. Because it uses simpler 'everyday' English, it is a faster read, and is better for children and young adults than other translations. If you have trouble understanding the Bible you read, you might consider trying the NLT.

    The New American Standard Bible- (NASB/NAS) The NASB is perhaps the most accurate literal translation available in English. It uses high quality manuscripts and modern, scientific methods of translation and textual criticism. It stretches the English language to convey as much of the original meaning of the grammar and vocabulary as possible. Because it does this, it uses a very large vocabulary, and readers may be unfamiliar with some words. Furthermore, the attempt to be extremely faithful to the original text can make the sentence structure awkward or redundant. This Bible is ideal for verse-by-verse or word-by-word study, but it may be difficult for some readers to read large passages out of the NASB without getting lost. It eliminated the use of archaic English, but kept the thee/thou/thine in reference to God in the poetic sections of the Bible.

    The King James Version [Authorized Version]- (KJV/AV) Many people are under the impression that this is the 'original English bible.' This is not true. There were at least dozen popular English Bibles in circulation before the KJV was publish, but King James felt it would be beneficial to produce a new, 'state sanctioned' version to consolidate the power of the Church of England. This Bible was translated by a small council of eight scholars appointed by the King. This council used only a few manuscripts of poor quality and showed poor knowledge of Biblical language as well as translation technique. In many places, the council borrowed from the work of existing English translations. In addition, the council shows theological bias (towards the Anglican Church) and political bias (towards the King.) Two different versions were produced in the original printing, because two different printing presses were used. The versions contradicted each other in several places, and both were riddled with errors. The language is archaic, and even a error-proofed version would not be accurate in modern English because of the shifts in meanings of words. While the 'literary quality' is excellent, the accuracy is poor. The Bible is not always (or even often) of poetic excellence, and the translators tried to 'fix' this by changing simplistic letters and speeches into elegant prose. Very few people who use the KJV are using the original 1611 edition.

    New King James Version- (NKJV) The NKJV attempts to modernize the language of the AV without changing the textual basis or principals. While it is considerably more accurate than the KJV, it shares some of the bias and inaccuracies.

    Revised Version- (RV) In 1885 scholars attempted to correct many of the mistakes in the AV, and produced this revision. They had benefit of more an better manuscripts as well as some modern translation techniques. However, the translation is slavishly word for word, which can sacrifice the some meaning in English. The translation is significantly more accurate, but still shows some of the problems of the KJV. It is, however, more reliable than the NKJV or the KJV.

    The American Standard Version- (ASV) This is more or less the RV in American English. It is superior to the RV and AV, but inferior to modern translations in its accuracy. The language is more modern but still somewhat outdated.

    The Revised Standard Version- (RSV) This is a revision of the ASV using better manuscripts and techniques. It is more accurate and uses more modern English, however, it still lacks the accuracy of modern translations.

    The New Revised Standard Version- (NRSV) This is a revision of the RSV. It is more free from bias, and uses significant advances in manuscripts and translation techniques. It also attempts to modernize the English. It is an extremely accurate, literal English translation. This is a good Bible for people addicted to the KJV, as it derives itself from that tradition but is much more accurate.

    The Contemporary English Version- (CEV) This is a major revision of the AV into modern English. It attempts to convey the original meaning of the KJV in modern English, however, scholars used the today's best Hebrew and Greek manuscripts to correct the errors in the KJV due to lack of good manuscripts, lack of understanding of ancient language, and bias. It is a good thought-for-thought translations, comparable to the NLT, but in the tradition of the KJV.

    The English Standard Version- (ESV) This uses the RSV as it's starting point, but uses the best of modern scholarship to produce the most accurate literal translation possible. It is possibly as accurate or more so than the NASB, and is slightly more fluid. This is an excellent modern translation, and especially good for those desiring to stay in the tradition of the KJV. The ESV is somewhat well know for producing Bibles in a plethora of styles and colors, with artistic designs on the front.

    The Holman Christian Standard Bible- (HOL/HCSB/HSB) This is an excellent quality translation in modern English. It is literal in nature but seeks to use the vernacular of the 21st century. It is of comparable quality to the NASB and the ESV.

    The Amplified Bible- (AMP) This Bible, in the tradition of the KJV, uses brackets and dashes to try to convey the full meaning of key words. While the idea was interesting, it can be extremely confusing and difficult to read. Also, it incorrectly assumes that each word in the text brings the full range of its meaning to bear in a particular passage. Rather, often (in Greek especially) a word brings only one of its connotations or definitions to the text, and this is guided by context. Because of this, it is easy to see messages in the Amplified Bible that were not present in the original manuscripts. Also, the punctuation can give the reader the impression that they are free to choose the meaning of a word or phrase that they like best, which is not a correct method for interpreting the Bible.

    The Message- (Mss/MES) The Message is not a valid translation of the Bible. It is an excellent commentary on the text and is good when read with the Bible as a commentary, however, it is not the Word of God. It was written by one man, Eugene Peterson, who wrote it in order to eleborate on passages for his children. He never intended it to be used as a Bible, and I would suspect he would be/is appalled by the degree to which it is marketed and used as a Bible. The Message is not authoritative in any sense.

    The New World Translation- (NWT) Better known as the Jehovah's Witnesses' Bible, this was produced in 1960 by that sect. It is marred with obvious, intentional mistranslations which reflect the theological bias of the Jehovah's Witnesses. It is inconsistent in its translation, translating certain phrases sometimes one way, but sometimes another. For example, in John 1, the NWT translates “θεος” (God) “a god” because it is not proceeded by the Greek definite article. Since Greek has no indefinite article, the JW claim that when the definite article is lacking, an indefinite article must be inserted. This is simply not true. While an indefinite article could technically be inserted, there is no grammatical reason that it must or should be, nor is there evidence to suggest that the author so intended. In fact, in Greek, “τις” and “εις” are commonly used as indefinite articles, and had the author wanted to say “a god” he could have used one of these articles. Furthermore, in most of the rest of the NWT, the JW translate “θεος” (without a definite article) to mean “God,” not “a god.” It is only in passages referring to Jesus that they mistranslate it in order to promote their doctrine that Jesus is not God. If “θεος” were proceeded in the text by a definite article, like so: “ὁ θεος” it would translate “The God” not “God” so it is understandable that the author did not include “ὁ” before “θεος” This Bible is extremely inaccurate.

    *Comments on quality of translation with reference to “Modern English Translations” by Dr. Ron Sauer, Ph.D., University of Manchester, England."

    In Christ,

    P.S. I have the original author's permission to post this article anonymously, so I hope it's okay that I don't cite him. He is uncomfortable with his name being used on the internet.
    “The Bible is essentially an open, artistic, imaginative narrative of God’s staggering care for the world, a narrative that will feed and nurture into obedience that builds community precisely by respect for the liberty of the Christian man or woman.”

    -Walter Brueggemann