Posts Tagged ‘read’

1170196_78561358A question popped up the other day. “If the Bible is the Word of God, which one is the right Bible? Which one – which version – can I trust?” I thought it was a brilliant question, and one that people should ask more often! This person had thought-out one of the problems with having so many versions of the Bible available in English. And the more I thought about it, the more I wondered how many other people have the same question.

In the last hundred years, there has been a huge increase in the number of different translations that are available. At the beginning of the 20th Century, the King James Version was still the standard, at least as far as the public was concerned.. But two things happened. Firstly, Biblical scholarship was helped by the discovery of a lot of different ancient manuscripts. These helped to both confirm the accuracy of what we have now, and to shed better light on the original texts. That in turn enabled translators to make more accurate choices.

Secondly, the nature of the English language itself changed; more and more people needed to learn English – often as a second language – and the flow of 1600’s English (in both grammar and vocabulary) became more obscure. For one famous example, Genesis 25:29 – “and Jacob sod pottage”. To any modern reader, that looks like either a misprint or something pretty horrible. It isn’t.  Today there are Bibles to suit almost any level of literacy, from the very easy-to-read to intermediate, all the way through to the Greek and Hebrew languages themselves (and some don’t even have subtitles!). So now we can read that “Jacob was cooking stew.” Much more pleasant to contemplate than sodding pottage.

But that doesn’t answer the issue completely – if they all claim to accurately translate “from the ancient tongues”, why are there so many different translations? Which is right? And if some are more “right” than others, does this mean that there are any Bibles that are wrong?

To un-complicate a tangled issue, there are several schools of thought used by the various Bible translation groups.

At one end of the scale, there are Bible versions which reach for the closest possible word-for-word accuracy. The translator “seeks as far as possible to capture the precise wording of the original text and personal style of each Bible writer.[1] The technical name for this is “formal equivalence”, and the overriding goal is the most precise choice possible for each word.

On the other end of this scale are the Bible versions that attempt to give the reader a thought-for-thought accuracy, where the translator tries to give an accurate account of the sense of the sentence or paragraph as a whole. Sometimes this may mean stepping away from precise word-for-word accuracy. “Since this translation is intended for all who use English as a means of communication, the translators have tried to avoid using words and forms not in current or widespread use[2] – which is where it may lose some of the very fine detail – but the goal is that a reader can understand the complete thought, or concept, with as little trouble as possible. This is known as “functional equivalence“.

Some translation groups deliberately aim for the middle, with the intent of using the best from both camps – this is termed “optimal eqivalence“.

Isn’t it better to have word-for-word accuracy? Logically, yes – if one language could be switched to another, easily, without losing something in the original. Realistically, that’s almost impossible. Different languages have different rules of grammar, and individual words don’t always translate neatly enough for a direct word-for-word translation to easily make sense. For one example, let’s look at a  verse. Mark 1:32-33 is a good enough example. The Greek reads as follows:

 Opsias de genomenairs, hoete edu ho hairlios, epheron pros auton pantas tous kakoes echontas kai tous daimonizomenous. Kai hair holei polis episunairgmenair pros tehn thooran.[3] 

The Greek of the New Testament is an ancient type known as Koine. Which means that you can’t exactly take it to the Greek embassyor the fish-shop for a translation – Koine is a “dead” language, no longer spoken today. So (at least for the exercise) you’ll have to take my word on the translation. The literal word-for-word rendering is: Evening and (but?) having come, when set the sun, they were bringing toward him all those sickness-having and those being-demon-possessed. And was whole the city gathered-together at the door[4].

While that’s… umm, interesting (at least for an academic), it would be pretty taxing to read more than a couple of paragraphs in that style. Reading it aloud in church would be a labour, and it would be just as tortuous for the listener. It obviously makes far more sense to interchange some words, and adjust the word order: That evening, after sunset, all those who were sick and demon-possessed were brought to him. And the whole town gathered at the door. This would be classed as word-for-word accuracy (even though it isn’t quite word-for-word).

Some people will still find that a clunky sentence. People who are not naturally strong readers, or people who have English as a second language, may find the next sentence more natural to understand: The sick and the demon-possesed were brought to him in the evening, and everyone gathered around the doorway. This would be a translation classed as thought-for-thought. It is far simpler, although it could be argued that – in the effort to make things easier to read – I’ve lost a bit of precision along the way.

Somewhere betwen the two extremes, I could choose to phrase it: After sunset, the sick and demon-possessed were brought to him. And the whole town gathered around the doorway. This is an example of “optimal equivalence” – a good middle ground.

Which is most accurate? That’s a question I’ll leave you to answer. Even the most literal translations can’t use word-for-word, as you can see. Compromises do have to be made so that (once again) people can plainly understand the Word of God, the Bible. But those compromises are small – very small – and in no way result in a Bible that can’t be trusted. Which Bible version is the RIGHT version? The one that you can understand most clearly, the one that you will have no trouble reading through every day.

If you have a high reading level, aiming for a translation that values formal equivalence is a good idea. If your reading level is more street-level, look for a version that tries for the best thought-for-thought translation.  The preface of almost every Bible will have the translator’s aims laid out pretty clearly. Have a read through a few passages.

Simply put, it’s really important to realise this: it’s vital to have a Bible that you can understand. God has chosen to speak to man though the Bible – the Bible is the place  where God tells us what he wants us to know about himself, and it contains all the things we need to learn to be saved from destruction.  You can put trust in any common Bible translation. But it’s imperative that you can comfortably read and understand your Bible. It’s that simple.


[1] Preface, English Standard Version. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Bibles, 2001. “Translation Philosophy”, p. vii

[2] Preface, Good News Bible, Today’s English Version. New York: American Bible Society, 1976. p.viii

[3] I couldn’t find how to write in Greek on WordPress, so I’ve transliterated from the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum GraeceI ed.XXVII. For the sake of simlicity, I’ve spelled phonetically rather than use the normal conventions (again, WordPress limitations).

[4] This translation – and the two following are my own. If you’re a Greek scholar, feel free to offer any suggestions or corrections!

Bible and Cross by Billy Alexander

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800px-Old_book_bindingsI strongly suspect that inside a majority of houses a Bible can be found lurking somewhere. Jammed in between other stranger-delivered books like the Book of Mormon and the Baghavad Gita (“As It Is, With A Forward By George Harrison”). Great-granny’s carefully-preserved King James black-leather-bound monster with illustrations by Gustav Dore, inherited for years, with no-one game to remove it from the house. Nestled comfortably alongside Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time”, Shakespeare’s works and other essential pieces of important literature which never actually get read – but no-one should be without.

But what is, exactly, that thing sitting in my bookshelf?

It is, of course, a remarkable book. For those who view the Bible as (purely) a collection of literature from the Ancient Near East, that’s actually a good starting point. It’s a collation of sixty-six books of wildly varying literary genres. Its contents range from soaring, soul-searing poetry to essays in existential angst (long before Kierkegaard gave it a name), from grand epic storytelling to detailed census records, from deeply personal studies on the nature of suffering to delicate and subtle erotic poetry. There are accounts of atrocity, anger, destruction, terror and mayhem. There is also mercy, peace, tranquility and deep, deep compassion. And that’s just the Old Testament – the “first half”, if you like. We haven’t even considered the wisdom of Christ as viewed through the lens of the four Gospel writers, or Paul’s new perspective on theology (no apologies to N.T. Wright), or the wild imagery of John’s Apocalypse.

The reasons for its enduring literary legacy hardly need repeating – this book is unique.

For the Christian reader the Bible is much, much more than even that. If you’re reading this, and you aren’t a Christian, I’ll try and explain why we cherish it so deeply. Hold the scepticism aside (for the moment, anyway) – it pays to understand why we think the way we do. Even if you disagree, understanding  this will hopefully start explaining why we say and do what we do.

This is the Word of God. This is where the One who made the universe, and everything in it, tells us His mind. It is the way that Yahweh Elohim – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Father of Jesus – has chosen to show Himself most clearly. We believe that this has been passed from the mind and the heart of the Living God to the minds of men and into recorded, written language. Whether given to human writers by divine prophetic vision, by hard toil and research, or by multiple authors and editors (and there’s ample evience of all of the above), we hold that what we have in front of us has been breathed out by God, and has been breathed-in by man.

The great apostolic theologian, Paul, wrote to his protege Timothy, and he reminded him that “from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. All Scripture,” he continues, “is breathed-out by God, and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” [1]

For teaching. For reproof and correction. For training. A while ago I worked for a company that had about 180 retail outlets. The sheer volume of instructional data was phenomenal – training material, operations manuals, product information, business and marketing campaigns – all with the aim of teaching, training and laying down rules, limits and consequenses. As someone who had the responsibility of writing some of the training manuals and work methods, I can tell you that the material adds up, accumulates… and gets heavy.

This book, this Bible, is unbelievably compact considering the job that it has been designed to do. And most Bibles printed today are designed to be portable, to be of utility to the modern reader, to be accessible to today’s individual. The days of gathering around the parish priest as he read Latin from an enormous book are well and truly over – the wish of the old Reformers has been granted, and almost everyone can read the Bible for themselves.

I have on my desk one of those old black monsters. It’s an 1800’s Authorized Bible, clad in textured leather (partly by design, partly by age and elements from well over a century’s use) with india-inked, gold-edged pages, that old heavy typeset that physically indents the paper… and it weighs considerably more than my city’s telephone book. Hardly the stuff of portability – although, in fairness, it was a lightweight in its day, and could fit into a saddlebag of a travelling preacher.

In comparison, a friend of mine has the same Bible stored in his iPhone, downloaded out of thin air, now lightly sitting inside his pocket. His Bible, literally weighs nothing – it’s an app. He can read it, send it, cut-and-paste bits into other documents. He can write sermons on the train, and once attempted to do the same while driving his green Kombi-van.

With these advances, themselves as revolutionary as Gutenberg’s printing press, it is good to know that the Bible is being read. Not just read, but studied, consuled, commented upon, examined, taught from, prayed over, and pondered over in solitude, in Bible-study groups, congregations and television audiences, in seminaries, universities and colleges around the world.

The Word is being read!

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[1] 2 Timothy 3:15-17 (ESV)

Old BibleRecently I walked into a bookstore in the middle of the city. I love books, and a good bookstore is a treat. This one is monstrous – browsing in here is like being let loose in an ice-cream factory with a tiny teaspoon. In both physical floorspace and range of subjects covered, this bookstore would match (and possibly better) more than a few public libraries.

In one corner was the RELIGIONS section. Considering that this wasn’t a specialist Christian bookseller, I was quite surprised at the variety of Bibles on offer. Leather, vinyl, hardback, clothback, paperback. Pocket-sized slim New Testaments to monsters that weigh more than housebricks. More initials than a Pentagon weapons program – KJV, NIV, ESV, NASB, HCSB, NLT, CEV… also on CD and DVD. Prices ranged from $5 to $250. Study Bibles, “guide” Bibles for men, women, business-people and professionals, high-schoolers, skaters, surfers, athletes. The presentations, translations and applications made for a bewildering range. 

It would be quite easy to view this range with a small measure of cynicism. After all, someone out there is making a handsome profit from selling a book that Christians believe is the very Word of the Living God. It’s a core product, central to the business and marketing strategies of companies like Crossway, Zondervan, Thomas Nelson and a range of others. It’s even available in the Penguin Classics range of literature – sitting in the unusual company of Voltaire, the Koran and Machiavelli. Clearly, there’s some money to be made.

There’s just one thing. Whether you call it “demand” or (even more horrifyingly) a “market”, it is quite clear that people still want Bibles.

People want Bibles!

In Western countries, at least, it’s quite easy to get it for free. Actually, it’s hard to think of a book more publicly, freely, accessible. There are any number of websites that allow one to read and print almost all of the main translations since the Reformation. One freely-downloadable Bible program, e-Sword, includes the 1568 Bishop’s Bible, the 1587 Geneva Bible, the 1889 Darby, the 1899 Douay-Rheims, the Vulgate, a Hebrew Old Testament, a Greek New Testament – not to mention some quite sophisticated research tools. And it’s all free!

And yet, even with the advent of such devices, there’s still a remarkable appetite for a Bible. In print. And if the range of Bibles available in this one city bookstore is a reasonable indication, the Bible-buying public is well-informed, literate and sophisticated in their requirements.

About six months before I began to consider writing this book, the newest version  for release was Crossway’s English Standard Version Study Bible. It’s a hefty book, and it’s not exactly cheap. But it caused an on-line sensation when it was released. Reviews exploded through the blog-sphere, people reviewed it on YouTube (I can honestly say that I’d never considered going to YouTube for Bible-buying advice, but it’s there – and it’s being watched), and once again the debate was re-opened into the title of “the best Bible in the world.”

In a world that appears to be more and more godless, in a world where Christianity seems as though it has been relegated to an out-of-the-way corner-shelf, the simple fact that there is still enormous public demand for the Bible is immensely heartening and encouraging.

May it always be so.

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