The Old Testament was written in the language of its writers, which was Hebrew, and the New Testament was written in the language of its writers – or at least the dominant language of commerce and culture – which was Greek. The Bibles we read are translations of those languages into the English language.
So every Bible is, by necessity, a translation.
As with any translation from one language to another, there is often some freedom in regard to the most appropriate word or phrase that can be used to convey the actual Greek or Hebrew word. Further, a language such as English is in constant flux. We use different words, or give different meanings to words, all the time.
This raises an important question: Does it matter which Bible we use?
Yes, it does.
In the days of King James, they used words like “thee” and “thou.” That was contemporary for them. We don’t speak that way anymore, so the King James translation, while beautiful, is not as easily understood as a more “modern” translation.
By modern, I mean newer translations from trained teams of linguists which better capture the original meaning of the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts in light of the ever-changing dynamics of modern language.
Why would you use a translation that is so dated you need to offer a translation of the translation?
Those who treat the King James edition as sacred, as if the Apostle Paul himself spoke King James English, fail to understand the nature of a translation. There is nothing more sacred about that translation than any other, and if its language is so cumbersome to modern ears that it becomes an impediment, then it makes no sense to continue using it.
As for the many newer translations that exist, I have long enjoyed the New International Version (NIV). I was not as much a fan of the subsequent TNIV; the degree of gender neutrality was not only unnecessary, but often did violence to the clear intent of the original text. But the original NIV was one of the better translations of our generation.
Another good translation, even newer than the NIV, is the New Living Translation (NLT), a work that took a popular paraphrase (the Living Bible) and brought it to translation status while keeping the easy reading that paraphrases tend to provide. I find myself using the NLT more than the NIV of late in my teaching because I find some of the language of the NIV sounding a bit dated to my ears.
Many like the English Standard Version (ESV) because of its focus on giving a strict word-for-word translation. I won’t get into accuracy arguments, but I find it a bit wooden and bereft of literary flourish. Also, the best translating does not always bind itself to strict word-for-word translation, particularly when the languages themselves are quite different from one another.
Of course, the most stunning achievement in recent years may be The Message. Yes, it is a paraphrase, and some are averse to paraphrases, but I think it depends on the skill and knowledge of the one doing the paraphrasing. Eugene Peterson, the writer behind The Message, is virtually without parallel in bringing the scholarship and literary ability needed to such a project. Like many, I found reading The Message so fresh and engaging it was like reading the Bible for the first time.
But as much as I enjoy The Message, I would say to read paraphrases for your personal enrichment, but do not use them for serious study. While I would argue that those who preach and teach should feel free to use a good paraphrase in relaying Scripture, it should only be after they have done the due diligence of ensuring that the paraphrase being used is true to what an actual translation would provide. Further, that the paraphrase actually conveys the text better in light of the language and understanding of the audience at hand.
All to say, continually updating our translations is a good thing, and those who are attempting to put Scripture forward in today’s culture should make ample use of them. Because we know what happens when Scripture is made clear:
“For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires.” (Hebrews 4:12, NLT).
But first, we have to get the “clear” part.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to http://www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.