My first favorite Bible translation

Posted: 21st June 2008 by ElShaddai Edwards in Uncategorized

Kevin Sam at New Epistles has blogged a great question, picking up on some thoughts that Gary Zimmerli recently wrote about his return to the NKJV translation. In his post, Kevin asks:

I’m interested in hearing what was your first main bible translation? And how do you feel about it now?

I started to write a reply, but it quickly got too long for a reasonable comment, so I’m posting back here.

To answer Kevin’s question: my parents gave me a NASB Open Bible for my 13th birthday (and which I still have). I had read bits of other translations, notably the green Living Bible and probably some from my dad’s NIV, but the NASB is what I matured as a Christian with for almost 20 years. Why my mom and dad gave me a NASB instead of an NIV, I have no idea – perhaps one was more accepted at our local church or maybe they were more interested in giving me the Open Bible materials for self-study…

As for how I feel about it now, the NASB has become a reference book of sorts. Because I am, as an English speaker without Hebrew or Greek knowledge, forced to rely on inherently errant translations to read God’s word, I have the responsibility of choosing between different translation styles and philosophies, recognizing the limitations of each. As part of that decision making process, I no longer believe that accuracy is limited to or constrained by a “literal is best” approach and so I’ve been moving toward more functional translations in idiomatic English as my primary translation choice.

I want to be perfectly clear that I am in no way denigrating the original texts. There is surely a place for the study of these texts by those qualified to do so. I am not and I don’t share the belief that it is my obligation as a Christian to learn Hebrew and/or Greek. The Holy Spirit speaks in all languages (Acts 2:6) and there are all languages spoken before God’s throne (Rev 7:9-10). God’s word likewise can be proclaimed by his people in all languages.

All that said and reigning the discussion back to the original topic, I’m actually more intrigued by the question Kevin asked in his post title:

What is your first favorite bible translation?

For all those years with the NASB, I can’t honestly say that it was my favorite – for one thing, a “favorite” suggests that a comparison has been made and I never really compared the NASB to anything else. Call me ignorant or what have you, but it was *the* Bible and that was enough for me.

However, the seeds of a “favorite” were sown in college when I was required to use the New English Bible (NEB) for a OT history course. The style obviously was very different and eventually I wasn’t able to covertly use my NASB in the classroom discussions. That NEB stuck with me after college and eventually I found the Revised English Bible. Where once the Bible’s poetry and epistles just blankly stared up at me from the pages of the NASB, they came alive in the REB and it became my first favorite Bible translation.

It’s not the most modern text by today’s standards and maybe not even the most accurate, whatever that means, but it is the translation that speaks to me and the one that I reach for to read God’s word. I also appreciate newer translations like the HCSB and TNIV, and use them regularly in my studies, but the REB is my favorite.

  1. Damian says:

    Interesting post. I also appreciated your post on the inherent errancy of translation.

    But what I find curious is that over my walk I’ve moved in the opposite direction: Beginning with New Living and Message translations, because they were easier for me to read and understand earlier in my Christian walk and I didn’t understand the importance of study, and then moving to the NIV and then the NASB later, when the importance of study (and hence closer translations) became apparent to me.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Damian. I guess I didn’t really pick my starting point – the NASB was given to me by my parents. Back in those days, I didn’t know much about different translations, so I never really considered something “easier to read”.

    For me, it was pretty easy to slip into the “literal is best” mindset and keep on using the NASB. I’ll try to put some thoughts together on more of the “why” behind my move toward functional translation – on initial reflection, it has very little to do with the Bible itself…

  3. Damian says:

    I look forward to your thoughts.

    Unlike you, I’ve always been aware of translations – it’s more the way I read my bible that’s changed.

    My childhood bible was a GNB, and as a teenager I went through an Amplified stage (studying/cross-referencing seemed difficult, the Amplified seemed easy). The more bible I read, the easier it was to read NLT and Message.

    When I began studying rather than reading, I started reading NIV, and then only recently the NASB, as I like the Greek-Hebrew word study in the NSAB.

    I’ve been through a lot of bibles, now that I think about it. But my point – I find it interesting that you didn’t consider translation as an issue, whereas it’s something that always interested me.

    As I said, I look forward to your further thoughts on the matter.

  4. I find it interesting that you didn’t consider translation as an issue

    I would restate that as I didn’t know about translation as an issue, at least not to the point where I thirsted for understanding why Bibles were different. Obviously that’s changed…

  5. Damian says:

    My apologise for my misunderstanding, Elshaddai – I didn’t mean any offence.

  6. No offense taken or apology needed. Ironically, all of this discussion and searching out multiple translations has been pointed toward finding one “modern” translation that I am comfortable reading and studying from, at least for general everyday use.

  7. Damian says:

    In that case, I think you’ll be hard-pressed to find a single translation to meet all of your needs. I’d stick to different translations for different seasons. But I wish you the best of luck :).

  8. Of course, one translation won’t meet *all* needs, but I still think it’s important to have one that you can take with you and trust. And ultimately, given that we’re dealing with something that’s not a perfect reproduction of the Hebrew and Greek, I really do think that trust is the core issue: what translation do you trust to communicate the word of God to you?

  9. I feel like a man without a translation. I know I like the HCSB. This pretty much explains it for me and things you’ve written. Even with the criticism I’ve read, which I have appreciated, I find I like it more and more as time goes on and am 98% sure I’ll switch to it.

    But I haven’t read so much of it yet that I feel like I know it well plus I’m waiting for the update next year to pick out an edition that I really want and transfer my own notes.

    And now I want to just study the Bible and not translations.

    I’m anal retentive by nature in addition to having some other quirks even beyond that (I don’t have the DSM IV handy) and just can’t use something that isn’t on the literal side even after reading all the arguments for dynamic equivalence.

    I do like the idea of natural equivalency as you put it, but only for some reading and reference. I intend to read through the NT in the Lattimore or REB at some point. In any case the REB has been added to my reference Bible list.

  10. Yes, obviously you know how close the HCSB is to being my second favorite Bible. I really think they’ve got a good translation philosophy in picking the approach, literal or dynamic, that results in the clearest English – maybe not idiomatic like the REB, but at least understandable with modern grammatical constructions (unlike the ESV). And distinctive enough renderings that it stands out from the T/NIV as well.

    We’ll see if the ’09 update pushes the REB to side.

  11. tc robinson says:

    The HCSB is a good Bible. It’s short of being that great Bible.

  12. The HCSB is a good Bible. It’s short of being that great Bible.

    I don’t think any of them are truly great unless you’re willing to overlook quite a few flaws.

    When KJV was the only English translation in widespread use it was probably considered great, and for good reason. And back then most people didn’t have more knowledge than they knew what to do with like we have now. Now we’re translation connoisseurs and spend an inordinate amount of time in choosing and critiquing. Which has its pros and cons. Hopefully it ultimately helps us in understanding what the inspired writers were saying.

  13. Damian says:

    I’d argue that the KJV is still a great translation, just not on the literal-paraphrase scale. I think it is by far the most poetic bible – reading it aloud is a joy, it has gorgeous rhythm and a massive sense of weight due to it’s history and cultural significance.

    Probably not great for either casual reading or study, which is what Elshaddai’s looking for, but I just had to defend it.

  14. I can’t argue with you Damian. I said was because there may be some updated scholarship and because it’s difficult for many (like me) to read English as it was back then. But I would defer to you in saying it’s still a great translation.

  15. I’ve often said that if the KJV could be “redone” in today’s idiomatic English and still carry the literary qualities that Damian mentioned, it would sweep aside many other translations.

    I’ve never seriously used the KJV and all my attempts to read more than a verse or two have left me feeling befuddled and feeling like I’m spending just as much time decoding the English as I am reading it.

  16. Damian says:

    I agree it’s difficult to read – I have a strong bias because I’ve studied linguistics and the history of English, so I find it easier to read than most.

    I agree that if they made a ‘new’ KJV it would be a fantastic translation – I have to admit I resent the NKJV as, because it simply replaced old words with new, it reduced both the literary qualities and the quality of the translation.

    But, back on topic, you are very correct that in any translation you choose, you’ll have to be aware of the flaws in it, and perhaps supplement your reading accordingly.

  17. I have to admit I resent the NKJV as, because it simply replaced old words with new, it reduced both the literary qualities and the quality of the translation.

    From my limited exposure to both, I’d have to agree. Simply replacing “dost” or “doth” with “does” et al. may seem simple, but it raises as many new questions as it possibly answered.

    Roger Coleman touched on this with regards to “thee/thou” in his book about making the REB: he cites an example phrase, “the words which thou hast uttered”. Simply changing “thou” to “you” and updating the verb results in “the words which you have uttered”. However, “uttered” now sounds out of place, when it fit with the old language. A conservative change would be “the words which you have spoken”, while a more idiomatic change would be “the words you spoke”. Which of course is clear but retains none of the rhythm of the original text.

    Think about how many phrases in the KJV would have to be touched for that sort of updating, plus taking the surrounding texts into context – it’s rather overwhelming!

  18. Damian says:

    Fantastic example! Yes, I tend to agree with you there.

    My favourite story about the creation of the KJV, was that the scholars spent as much time reading it aloud as they did translating it, because it was designed to be read aloud by priests to the illiterate; this is the reason why it rolls of the tongue so easily (and I imagine why I feel it so poetic).

    I cannot imagine anyone going through that trouble in a translation, perfecting rhythm and eloquence as much as meaning. And even so, it probably wouldn’t be idiomatic at all – which might defy the point of the entire exercise. I wonder that it might just result in a version similar to those we read casually anyway.

  19. Oral reading was also a significant focus for the REB team, though they weren’t trying to emulate the rhythms of the KJV. But I agree, it’s very easy to tell text that hasn’t been written to be read aloud, e.g. most amateur speeches or lectures.

  20. Jim Swindle says:

    Thanks for asking this question.

    As a child, I used the RSV. Once I got converted, I used the NASB and was quite happy with it. Since then, I’ve enjoyed reading all or much of KJV, NKJV, NIV, HCSB. My church uses ESV. I’ve also listened through the WEB. For me, almost any of those translations is excellent. Some are better than others. I’m less satisfied with the NLT, GNB.

    My problem usually isn’t a matter of not comprehending the meaning; it’s usually a matter of not comprehending and applying the SPIRITUAL meaning. I believe the Lord has protected the translations, so that honest, non-cult translators normally end up with a translation that is sufficiently accurate to bring the knowledge of God to people who know that language. That doesn’t mean I’d recommend the KJV as the first Bible for an ESL speaker.

  21. I believe the Lord has protected the translations, so that honest, non-cult translators normally end up with a translation that is sufficiently accurate to bring the knowledge of God to people who know that language.

    I agree, Jim. There is power and usefulness in studying the original languages, but the power of the knowledge of God, e.g “wisdom”, is found in all translations.