E pluribus unum… In search of a common Bible

The HCSB has been getting some deserved blogtime recently, with Gary Zimmerli continuing to comment on his experiences sharing the translation with other Methodists, including his mom, and a new contributor to Better Bibles, David Lang, expressing his preference for the HCSB after years with the KJV, NIV and NASB. In contrast, Doug at Metacatholic found little to like in the text or the philosophy behind the translation.

Which ordinarily I would be very interested to read and comment on in light of my recent endorsement of the HCSB. But a recent discussion with Gary has cast clouds of doubt over the whole translation issue. Essentially the question boils down to what it would take to create a common Bible translation that was acceptable and used by *all* major Christian groups. Gary and I both like the HCSB text and neither of us belongs to the Southern Baptist Convention. But plenty of others have found it easy to criticize the text from the stance of being critical about SBC and its more conservative social platform. (Aside: Gary has previously written about the need to “stop questioning the motives of those who want to bring us the Word, and look at the translations for what they are” and it’s worth reading his comments if you haven’t already.)

So what would it take? What would it take to create a Bible that was acceptable to liberals, conservatives, baptists, methodists, lutherans, evangelicals, twice-a-year church goers, traditionalists, fundamentalists, catholics (little “c”), Catholics, Orthodox and whatever other labels you want to apply to Christians as the body of Christ. What kind of Bible would emphasize the central truths that we share and remain accessible to all in spite of our differences?

Like any decent project, you start by assessing what’s out there. What Bibles are being used? Which translations are officially recommended or not recommended? What are the objections to those translations? Are those objections based on linguistics or ideology? What changes could be made to an existing translation to satisfy critics and still retain the essential “flavor” of that edition (for example, the changes to the RSV that constitute the ESV)?

These are some of the questions I’m planning to explore in the hope of finding potential for common ground somewhere. For me personally, I would rather use a text that I have quibbles about if it unites the majority of Christians than use a text that fragments and creates further division among the body. To grossly paraphrase from Romans:

“So then, we must pursue what promotes peace and what builds up one another. Do not tear down God’s work based on individual translation differences. God’s word is good and inspired in all translations, but it is wrong for you to cause others to stumble in their faith by what you read from your Bible. It is a noble thing not to use masculine generics, thoughtful idioms, or anything else that makes other Christians stumble.” [Romans 14:19-21]

I realize that this endeavor is rather “pie in the sky” and highly unlikely to bear the fruit that I’m hoping to discover. But the process is the end and rather than engage in speculative criticism, I’m hoping to learn a few things along the way in terms of translation and denominational dogma.

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10 Comments

  1. Posted July 25, 2007 at 1:19 PM | Permalink

    I would rather use a text that I have quibbles about if it unites the majority of Christians than use a text that fragments and creates further division among the body.

    I agree. But the way in which both HCSB (thanks to Doug for this link) and (implicitly) ESV are being promoted as serving a particular agenda, that of the Colorado Springs Guidelines, makes it very hard for either of these translations (whatever their quality) to become a focus for unity rather than division and sectarianism. I suppose the quality of the texts can shine through the murk of agendas in the long term, as happened when RSV finally became acceptable to evangelicals, but it will be very difficult while some ESV translators the official HCSB website continue to push this line.

  2. Posted July 25, 2007 at 4:39 PM | Permalink

    If you add a few more desiderata (the English Old Testament be acceptable to Jews, the entire translation be acceptable to secular scholars) then you have described the desiderata of the the RSV (expanded edition) and NRSV. These received the imprimatur, so they are acceptable to Catholics and were approved by several Orthodox groups. The NRSV received wide acceptance from Evangelical (although not Fundamentalist Evangelical) groups at the time the translation was released. And of course, Mainline Protestant groups and secular scholars have long embraced both the RSV and the NRSV.

    Of course, you know what happened later. A number of Jewish translations (notably the NJPS and ArtScroll) became dominant in the Jewish community. American Catholics tend to use the NAB (although more traditional Catholics prefer the Challoner Douay-Rheims or the RSV Catholic edition.) Eastern Orthodox tend to use the NKJV and are producing their own new English translation of the Septuagint. Evangelical translations have fractured into multiple streams: most popular being the NIV, the NLT, the NKJV, the NASB, the ESV, and the KJV. Mainline Protestant translations include the GNT and the NRSV. And then smaller Christian fringe groups (e.g., the Russellites) have their own translations.

    Of course, the NRSV could be bettered, but it is hard for me to imagine that there could be a translation which would fare better as a “consensus” translation than the NRSV.

    Instead, I predict that with the continued use of electronic Bibles (which can easily support many different versions) that we will see an ever increasing number of translations. (As I’ve argued elsewhere, translations are economically viable even if they sell in very small numbers, and there are many groups interested in pushing their own agendas, so I see no reason to expect that the number of translations will decrease. Moreover, we still need translations that attempt to reproduce stylistic features of the original, translations of translations [e.g., more translations of the Septuagint, Targums, and Vulgate], etc.)

    The increased competition among translations means that none can ever hope to hold such a large market share as the biggies once did: the KJV, the RSV, the NIV. Today, translations that have a market share of less than 3% (such as the TNIV, ESV, or HCSB) can be considered successful. I doubt we will see a new translation anytime soon that can garner more than a 10% market share.

  3. Posted July 26, 2007 at 9:08 AM | Permalink

    Iyov, do different Jewish traditions, e.g. Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Hasidic, etc. use different Hebrew texts in a form that would be parallel to the English translations? Or is the core text consciously held apart from the rabbinic/academic interpretations? Obviously it’s not quite the same as translating into another language, but I’m curious if interpretation is ever merged into the text.

    Also, I was reading the (disputed) Wikipedia article on Jewish denominations and came across this note on post-denominational Judaism:

    They believe that the formal divisions that have arisen among the “denominations” in contemporary Jewish history are unnecessarily divisive, as well as religiously and intellectually simplistic. According to Rachel Rosenthal, “The post-denominational Jew refuses to be labeled or categorized in a religion that thrives on stereotypes. He has seen what the institutional branches of Judaism have to offer and believes that a better Judaism can be created.” Such Jews might, out of necessity, affiliate with a synagogue associated with a particular movement, but their own personal Jewish ideology is often shaped by a variety of influences from more than one denomination.

    I wonder, sometimes, if a post-denominational Christianity is possible. Though Peter rightly pointed out in another discussion that God’s Kingdom has room for difference as long as we’re united at the core.

  4. Posted July 26, 2007 at 1:39 PM | Permalink

    The Masoretic Text tends to be more standardized — the number of changes to the Leningrad Codex tends to be relatively small (one recent critical edition I looked at had 20-odd modifications to the Masoretic text — almost all single letter changes.) Compared with the textual problems of the New Testament or Septuagint, the Hebrew Bible is well standardized — certainly it is more standardized than any classical work of length that comes to mind. (Even Medieval texts, such as Summa Theologiae — or 20th century works — such as Joyce or Proust — have more textual problems than the received Masoretic text.)

    The core text is not modified in Hebrew, but if you read translations, they often differ markedly. For example, translations of text sometimes interpreted allegorically (e.g., Song of Songs) or of texts that are particularly hard to unders (e.g., Job) have markedly different translations. This is also true of Christian translations.

    The question of denominational differences is an interesting one. I believe the paragraph you quote can be safely said to be a personal opinion and not representative of general opinion. Nonetheless, there is a point to the author’s comments — in Israel, for example, people do not usually identify denominationally (in the US, there is much more identification.) Because of the downplaying of theological beliefs (in the sense of Christianity) in Judaism — the primary difference is the degree of observance of Jewish law. For example, some Jews believe in reincarnation, some do not; some believe in physical resurrection, some in spiritual — these differences do not put one in apostasy Still, I think the community differences are substantial — especially in the US — with the most insular groups being the “ultra-orthodox.”

  5. Posted July 26, 2007 at 9:09 PM | Permalink

    I believe it’s a mark of the Lord’s scripture-preserving grace that the gospel message is pretty clear in all of the major English translations and paraphrases, with the exception of the New World Translation. Some of the translations are noticeably better than others in various ways, but the main message is clear. I think that is a miracle.

    Incidentally, I like the HCSB and the ESV; have not tried the NRSV, but should probably do so. The HCSB’s translation of Acts 22:16 bothers me, because it decides that we wash away our sins BY calling on the name of the Lord. I think it’s much more likely that the verse means we wash away our sins WHILE calling on the name of the Lord, or else that we call on the name of the Lord while we wash away our sins (via water baptism). The HCSB’s interpretation of that verse seems forced to me. Yet on the whole, it’s as good a translation as I have found. Still, I don’t expect it to be widely used among people who are not Baptists.

  6. Posted July 27, 2007 at 6:22 AM | Permalink

    Thanks for stopping by, Jim. That’s an excellent point about God’s grace and preserving His message. As a result of some of this discussion, I’ll probably be headed to the bookstore to find an NRSV – I haven’t spent any time with it before, so it’ll be interesting to explore that translation… probably be just what I’m looking for!

    I had to look up Acts 22:16, but I see your point. I can’t say if this is one of the places where the HCSB has done a fresh translation of the original and might actually be more accurate than the traditional rendering (as with John 3:16), or they’ve chosen a different path, introducing the word “by”, based on other criteria.

    It’s an interesting theological discussion, are our sins washed clean by the act of baptism or by consciously calling on our Lord and acknowledging our dependence on Him. The latter would avoid any hint of “salvation by works”, that is if the formal act of baptism can be considered a “work”. I always viewed baptism as an outward symbol to the Christian community that we’d accepted Christ and the salvation that He promises, but that the act of cleansing salvation (from God’s perspective) was in our confession and acknowledgment of dependence on Him. My kids were baptized as infants as a symbol of our intent to raise them in Christ, but their baptism was not salvation in and of itself. That will come when they’re old enough to consciously choose Christ (I believe that children too young to make that choice are “saved” automatically if they were to die).

  7. Posted July 27, 2007 at 2:26 PM | Permalink

    I wonder, sometimes, if a post-denominational Christianity is possible.

    Certainly. Although a lifelong nominal Anglican, I would consider myself a post-denominational Christian.

  8. Posted August 1, 2007 at 6:35 AM | Permalink

    I don’t want to derail this discussion, but should probably offer one clarifying comment on what I said about baptism. In my understanding, we’re saved BY Jesus Christ, THROUGH faith in him, and that faith must be EXPRESSED. I see water baptism as a God-given way of expressing faith in Jesus who saves. So, are we technically saved by being baptized? I’d say no. But can we be saved by being baptized? Yes, if being baptized is our means of expressing faith in Jesus who saves. It’s sort of like those who were saved by walking forward at a Billy Graham crusade or by saying “the sinner’s prayer.” Those actions don’t have power in themselves. They only have power as expressions of faith in Jesus who saves.

    Again, I’m not trying to side-track the discussion. I just didn’t want to leave the impression that I see water baptism as a work which we add to the work of Jesus.

    As for the translation of Acts 22:16, the literal Greek does not include “by.” However, we can make the English much smoother if we add “by” or “while.” The problem is which of the two words to add. If sincere Christians have traditionally disagreed on the meaning (not the grammar, not the literal translation, but the interpretation) of a verse, I’m a big fan of leaving the ambiguity in the translation. Incidentally, the only other translations I know of that follow the same line as the HCSB on that verse are the Good News Bible (if I remember right) and the CEV.

  9. Posted August 1, 2007 at 9:33 AM | Permalink

    Thanks for stopping back, Jim. For the longest time as a young adult I resisted “getting baptized” because my gut response was a rejection of the “checkbox salvation”, e.g. you can’t be really be saved until you’ve done A, B and C, that my mind had created. I had accepted Christ internally in my mind and in my heart, but being required to accept Him externally, e.g. baptism, set off red flags in my head and a powerful distaste in my heart.

    I don’t know if it was my own stubbornness, self-centered pride, the work of Satan or the restraining hand of the Spirit, but I wanted the expression of my faith to be personal and meaningful, not to meet the requirements of a church. Still, not having that box checked off actually created a lot of internal guilt over whether I belonged as part of the larger church community. I’m still not sure my motives were entirely pure when I was baptized (privately, with close friends as witnesses), but I’ve come to understand that the way I “work out” my acceptance of God’s awesome gift of saving grace is the gift that I can give back to God. Not that I checked off a theological box by having water sprinkled on my head.

  10. Posted August 2, 2007 at 6:22 AM | Permalink

    Thanks for the testimony. The goal of all Bible translations should be to lead us to salvation, to praise, to obedience, to service to God and to people.

    Back to the original topic of your post, I wonder whether it’s important to have a single translation as the standard. Most Christian groups I encounter are open to multiple translations, even if they have one semi-official translation for their teaching.

    That’s not to ignore the fact that some translations are better than others, and that some are better for specific sub-groups of people (such as college professors or new speakers of English) than are others.

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