Posted by: alisonwalley | 17 May 2009

What version? Choosing a Bible

Does it matter what Bible version you read? You’d think that as long as you can understand what you’re reading, it wouldn’t really, but it’s surprising how worked up people can get about it.

Today we have an amazing number of different translations in English. Sometimes I think we need to remember how fortunate we are. After all, the first person to translate the whole Bible into early modern English from the original languages was burnt at the stake for having dared to put such a dangerously subversive book into the vernacular (William Tyndale in 1536).

After that aside, let me go back to the versions. Is this important? Well, it is if you consider a certain version to have seriously mistranslated particular phrases. A good historical example was in the early sixteenth century when the New Testament was translated from the original Greek by Erasmus (into Latin, but a new Latin translation). Where the old Latin translation of Matthew 4:17 had Jesus saying “Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is near”, the new translation had “be penitent” – in other words “repent”. Now that’s a very different meaning which opened up a new kind of response to God; not an external act, but an internal relationship.

So many people quite rightly get worried if they think a Bible translation is giving away some of the original implications and especially affecting faith. The Revised Standard Version was shunned by many because it translated 1 John 2:2 as “and he [Jesus] is the expiation for our sins”, rather than the King James’ “propitiation for our sins”. More modern translations have put it “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (the New International Version in this case).

Does this matter? Well, yes, we do need to read an accurate translation. But, as I’ve already said, we have plenty to choose from. If you want some ideas on choosing a Bible to read, then you can’t do better than read the excellent article “Choosing an Adult Bible” on the Good Book Company’s website. I’m not going to repeat what they say!

I just want to point out that though God’s word can speak to us in any version of our own language (yes, even the 1611 King James Version), the original languages of the Bible were the common ones of their day.

So what does that say about choosing what Bible to read? We do need to choose one which translates the original languages faithfully and accurately, but we do also need to read one which communicates to us in our own language without that language jarring on us. Language style is important, as is sentence length. When I read in the New King James version of Mark 8:1 that “in those days the multitude being very great and having nothing to eat…”, I think ‘who uses ‘multitude’ in that sense today? “During those days a large crowd gathered” (NIV), makes lots more sense!

Oh, and what versions do I read? Usually Today’s International Version (the inclusive language is a problem to some, but I prefer it) or the New Living Translation.

tyndaleAnd just to remind you of the perils of Bible translation, a woodcut of the martyrdom of William Tyndale. His last words are said to have been “Lord, Open the King of England’s eyes”. By the end of the decade, Bibles in English were placed in all the churches in England with instructions for it to be read by all.

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