Thursday, October 4, 2007

English Translations of the Bible

I would like to reinforce in your minds where we have come to at the beginning of the 21st century. Many of you are probably not all that aware of the fact that it wasn't all that long ago that we did not have an English Bible. Indeed, until the 16th century and the invention of moveable type, the only English translation of the Bible that was extant in the world stemmed from the work of John Wycliffe. He held that the Bible, not the pope, was the exemplar of Christianity, the sole authority for faith and practice. So his writings were condemned as heresy. In other words, it was not popular, it was heresy, to translate the Bible into the English language. As a result, this outrage was condemned by the church, and 44 years after Wycliffe died Pope Martin V had his bones unearthed, incinerated, and then the ashes were unceremoniously thrown to the wind.

As significant as Wycliffe’s contribution was, though, I think no single person made a greater contribution to the legacy of the English Bible than William Tyndale. He purposed to make the Bible available to the commoner so that a boy who drives the plough would be as familiar with the Bible as the Pope. After a lengthy imprisonment Tyndale, like Wycliffe before him, was tried for translating the Bible into the English language and was martyred. His body ablaze, he cried out "Oh Lord, open the eyes of England's king." Ironically, his prayer found an answer in King Henry VIII, who authorized an English translation of the greatest volume to be chained to every church pulpit in the land. People would come from far and wide and they would experience for the first time the reading of the Word of God.

A number of years later the Geneva Bible came along and added verse numbering to the Bible and italicized English words to enhance the literary flow of the text. That became the Bible aboard the Mayflower when it set sail for America in 1620. It was the Bible of choice for William Shakespeare and John Milton and John Bunyan, who wrote Pilgrim's Progress.

Then, of course, King James I of England commissioned an English translation of the Bible which was destined to become preeminent among English Bibles. For the next 400 years the King James Version, which was commissioned in 1604 and completed in 1611, became the most cherished Bible in the English speaking world. I think it's important to recognize that the translators themselves were the leading academicians of prestigious institutions like Oxford and Cambridge and Westminster. They had a stated mission: to deliver God's Word to God's people in a language that they could understand. They carried out that mission with linguistic artistry and stylistic majesty, and I think above all else enduring reverence for the divine Author.

This King James Version would likely have remained preeminent among English Bible translations if it were not for three principle factors: the evolution of language, progress in knowledge and understanding of original biblical languages, and the discovery of earlier and better manuscripts. Recognizing the need for faithfulness to the earliest and most reliable manuscripts, the advances in our understanding of biblical languages and changes in the meaning and spelling of biblical words, my good friend Sam Moore, who is the former president of Thomas Nelson, the leading publisher of Bibles in the world, commissioned a new English translation of the Bible in 1975 which came to be known as the New King James Version of the Bible.

This legacy of a common English Bible from Wycliffe to the New King James Version in 1975 is just one part of the story. The even greater legacy, to my mind, is God's faithfulness in preserving His Word from the time of the original writings to the present.


David Mackey said...

What about the NASB, NIV, NLT, NET, etc.?

Paulman said...

Those translations are cool, too. I'm pretty sure Hank would agree with me that each of those are wonderful translations, in their own way (and uses) :)

I'm a big fan of the ESV, myself, but I think it has pros and cons, of course, just like any other translation of the Bible. For example, I don't think a young child should be doing devotionals from the ESV, necessarily. Maybe the NLT or perhaps even a straight-out paraphrase would do better to communicate God's Word to that person (e.g. when he/she is reading by him/herself).

Maybe I'm super-sensitive to people placing too much importance on a particular translation of the Bible. It's important, to be sure, but when you start being dogmatic about a particular translation in its entirety, I think you're missing a key point. A translation of the Bible is our best effort at translating the Bible into our language. It's never going to be exactly the same as if we were reading the original texts in Hebrew or Greek; not to mention, it will never be the same as if we were the original audiences for which a particular passage of Scripture was written.

But that's ok. God knew this was going to happen. And we can still learn from His Word and He can still speak to us through our translations of His Word.

If you think we're missing out because we are getting Scripture as it passes through time (or translators), then shouldn't it follow that us Christians can't know God as well because we never lived with Jesus, or grew up in the 1st century Church? :P

Thankfully we have a God of all nations, tribes, tongues, and ages.

Tim Greer said...

Weighing in -- (I think Hank would agree, b/c I've heard him say this on his show before) -- there are a great many excellent English translations of God's word currently available; we are truly blessed to live in a time when access to the Bible is so free and easy. Here's my list of the best translations:


This ordering is deliberate. The most literal, but also the most stilted linguistically, is the NASB. The least literal but easiest to read is the NIV (but it's still acceptable as a faithful rendering). The two in the middle are probably the pick of the lot as far as the best of both worlds.

Hank's Legacy Study Bible is available in the NKJV and is a great wide margin Bible.

(The Geneva Bible and the King James Version are also good translations, just linguistically very dated.)

The Nicky said...

I agree that the more modern translations have an advantage in readability, which does indees make God's Word more accessible to more people. It is also vital that any translation adhere as closely as possible to the meanings of the original authors, so far as we can discern them. But I feel there is also room for the "paraphrase" as well.

My dad is dyslexic, and reading has always been problematic for him; as he ages, his vision is becoming an obstacle as well. So I bought him a "dramatic presentation" version on CD he can listen to and follow along with, and he enjoys it immensely. The text is derived from NIV, but the actors and dramatic sounds and effects add to his experience. He also has a large print Amplified Bible, and uses the multiple-entry format as a basis for study.

The youth pastor at our church occasionally will read from another new rendition, called "The Message", which attempts to communicate God's Truth in a format easily understood by today's less literate young people. (When did they stop teaching "reading" in the public schools? Around 1980, by my memory and as both a student and a parent.)

There are many just so many ways God has to get His Word out to the world!

Seth said...

I have to add this. While I admit there are many faithful renderings of the Bible that you all have mentioned here, there are many that seem to, note I say seem to, have an agenda. While I am not a KJV only person, the translation that comes under the most intense fire is the NIV, and of course, the TNIV, both published by Zondervan. Why were so many liberties taken with these translations? Why remove references to gender? Why remove verses entirely, rather than footnoting them as other translations do? Why the pandering to the homosexuals with rendering like, "homosexual offenders" or "pracicing homosexuals?" I don't have the answers, but so far I haven't seen the answers to the above questions answered to my satisfaction. As a result, we don't have one NIV or TNIV in my home. I have serious reservations about this particular translation.

As for paraphrases being used for study time, I sharply disagree. Opinions and agenda's are inevitable with a paraphrase, if not invited. Too many times paraphrases are based on translations themselves as well, and are not faithful to the Hebrew and Greek. There are too many easily readable translations, like the NLT by Tyndale, to settle for a paraphrase.

Once again, I'd like to thank Hank for all that he does. God is using him in mighty and small ways everyday, most he will never know about this side of heaven!