What Bible Should We Use For Study?

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A number of years ago I asked a friend what kind of Bible he owned because I wanted to give him a modern translation as an aide to his understanding. He looked at me with some confusion and responded, "What kind of Bible? Well, I guess, the Holy Bible." At the time I responded with a knowing "Ohhh." Since then I have given a great deal of thought to what we mean when referring to a book as the "Bible" and how we might determine which of the many versions is "Holy."

As most of us know, there are many kinds of Bibles and aides to understanding the Bible. But which one should we use for study? In order to answer this question we need to understand the basic nature of the Bible. The Bible is a collection of books inspired by God though the Holy Spirit working in the lives of holy men who were allowed to reveal God’s plan of salvation which is seen most clearly in the person of Jesus Christ. The Bible was written in three different languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Since few people today speak or read these ancient languages, if we are to share the Good News about Jesus Christ with the world, it is necessary to translate the Bible into the many different languages of the world. Now here is the challenge. How can we be certain of the accuracy of a particular translation? At this point we must consider the various theories of translation in order to decide which ones most accurately convey the original words and meaning of the Bible in our own language.

Literal Translation: Here, the goal is to come as close as possible to the vocabulary, word order, and grammar of the "original language" when translating to the "receptor language." Such translations include the King James Version (KJV), the English Standard Version (ESV), and the New American Standard Bible (NASB). The benefits of such a translation may include accuracy in word studies, fidelity of theological concepts, and uniquely beautiful language forms. Some of the special problems associated with literal translations may include archaic words or phrasing and somewhat unfamiliar grammatical constructions. The NASB is a very accurate modern translation and though formal, it is largely free of archaic language.  The ESV is described as an "essentially literal" translation, which strives for a "word-for-word" correspondence using modern language. Because of its accuracy and readability, many churches that champion a literal translation are now switching over to what is seen as the best translation available. In regard to the venerable KJV, we must recognize that this first-rate translation was completed when the English language was at its zenith, it is still the most widely used translation in the world, and its unparalleled beauty of expression will remain embedded in our language forever.

Dynamic Equivalent Translation: Here the goal is to translate the words, idioms, and grammatical constructions of the original language into the modern equivalents in the receptor language for contemporary readability. Such translations include the New International Version (NIV) and the New American Bible (NAB). The prime benefit of such a translation is the overall conceptual accessibility through current language, grammar, and style. Some of the special problems associated with this form of translation include inaccuracy in certain word studies, imprecision of some theological concepts, and poetically diminished expression. With all that said, the NIV may be the most widley used translation after the KJV. For those desiring a dynamic equivalent translation with reasonable accuracy then the original NIV (1984) is the right choice.

Paraphrase or "Free" Translation: Here the goal is to interpret and render the original meaning through contemporary words and expressions. Such translations include The Living Bible (TLB), JB Philips Translation (JBP), and The Message (TM). The means of achieving the goals of a paraphrase may include renderings that bridge the "language barrier" for those unfamiliar with Biblical terms and ideas, or readings that offer "fresh perspectives" on scriptures thought to be too familiar. While such versions may have their place, we should never confuse such "free" methods of treating the scriptures as a Biblical translation. To illustrate, consider the efforts of a faithful preacher of the Word. Such a preacher will first declare what the Bible says, then carefully explain what the Bible means, and finally show how the Bible applies. In so doing he will use every form of expression available to convey the full meaning of the Biblical text; however, if his sermons were recorded in a book, how many of us would be comfortable calling it "The Word of God?" Though we may use a paraphrase as a supplement to the Bible, we must never depend on it as the primary source of the Word of God.

Special Concerns on Translations and Paraphrases:

The original manuscripts: Each of the translations mentioned above is based on authoritative manuscripts written in the original languages. There is much that could be said about the small percentage of variation found within these manuscripts, but that would be outside the scope of this discussion; however, Sir Frederic Kenyon summarized the situation well, "It cannot be too strongly asserted that in substance the text of the Bible is certain" since "every doubtful passage is preserved in some one or other of these ancient authorities." (Evidence That Demands a Verdict, Josh McDowell, 1979, p.45) Therefore, no essential teaching of the Bible is in doubt due to these variations and further, nearly all of the variations are indicated in the textural footnotes of many modern translations.

Gender-Neutral Translations: Today, with the various modern sentiments on gender roles, there are some who are willing to alter the words and meaning of the original text of the Bible to fit their preconceived notions. This can be seen in the so-called "gender-neutral" versions of the Bible. The goal of such a "translation" is to correct the supposed "male-dominant" and "patriarchal" world-view of the Biblical authors. There are many reasons to reject this low view of scripture, not the least of which are the Biblical assertions that, "all scripture is given by inspiration of God" (2 Timothy 3:16) and, "everything that was written in the past was written to teach us" (Romans 15:4).

A few examples of the negative effect of such a "theory of translation" will be illustrated with the new, Inclusive Language NIV.

Genesis 1:26-27

ORIGINAL NIV (1984): Then God said, "Let us make man in our image...." So God created man in his own image ... male and female he created them.

INCLUSIVE LANGUAGE NIV: Then God said, "Let us make human beings in our image...." So God created human beings in his own image ... male and female he created them.

Here the word "man" is the correct translation, which the Bible defines as both an individual man and humanity in general. Through this faulty translation the unity of man, that is men and women, is lost and only individual "human beings" are recognized. Furthermore, we lose sight of the personal distinctions within God’s essential unity.

Psalm 8:4

ORIGINAL NIV (1984): What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?

INCLUSIVE LANGUAGE NIV: What are mere mortals that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?

Here we need to recognize the critical change in meaning. Through this incorrect translation we lose all sense of the relative size difference between an individual man as compared to the vast expanse of the heavens. Further, the NT quotation of this text in Hebrews 2:6, and its application to Jesus, who claimed for his title "the Son of Man," now appears to be in error.

Psalm 34:20

ORIGINAL NIV (1984): He protects all his bones, not one of them will be broken.

INCLUSIVE LANGUAGE NIV: He protects all their bones, not one of them will be broken.

In this scripture we have a prophecy about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, which is now lost and therefore the NT claim that an OT prophecy was fulfilled (John 19:36) likewise appears to be incorrect.

The following are some of the so-called "gender-neutral" translations: The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the New Living Translation, the New Century Version, the Contemporary English Version, the initial NIrV, and the NIVI. (For more information see:  Femme fatale, WORLD Magazine, Susan Olasky, March 29, 1997)

Problems with Interpretation in Paraphrases:
In creating a free paraphrase that is "fresh" and "relevant" to our contemporary concerns, the paraphraser frequently inserts his own interpretation into the text. Consider the following example:

John 1:17

ORIGINAL NIV (1984): For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

THE LIVING BIBLE (TLB): For Moses gave us only the Law with its rigid demands and merciless justice, while Jesus Christ brought us loving forgiveness as well.

Whereas the NIV (1984) allows for continuity between the Old Testament Law of Moses and the New Testament teachings of Jesus, the TLB forces us to see a sharp discontinuity between them. Here we need to note that the italicized words are not found in the original Greek, but are original with Kenneth Taylor the otherwise faithful Christian author of the TLB. In all fairness, the TLB preface offers the following warning, "There are dangers in paraphrases...a possibility that the translator, however honest, may be giving the English reader something that the original writer did not mean to say." Unfortunately, Eugene Peterson, author of The Message, does not offer such a warning and his paraphrase is incorrectly called a "translation of the Bible." (A Summary Critique: The Message, by John R. Kohlenberger III, Christian Research Journal, Spring/Summer 1994 issue)

Study Bibles and Footnotes:
Clearly, we cannot expect the new Christian to understand the often-bewildering world of the Bible from the onset. One of the chief solutions offered to new and growing Christians is a "Study Bible" which will often provide so many footnotes and other "helps" that the added text equals or exceeds the Biblical text itself. Clearly, such helps, when offered by a reputable Christian commentator, can help the new believer to navigate in the previously uncharted waters of Biblical revelation. However, there is a very real risk of over reliance on such helps. As stated before, we must watch out for allowing the interpretation of anyone, even a good and faithful Christian, to prohibit us from hearing God’s Word as He originally intended. Further, we can too easily become dependant on Bible footnotes, which often keep us from searching the scriptures for ourselves. Here, we do well to follow a Biblical role model for our study of the scriptures.

"Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true." (Acts 17:11 NIV)

An alternative system of helps is seen in the Thompson Chain Reference Bible. Its method of linking related scriptures through indexed chains allows one to effectively search the scriptures from Genesis to Revelation. In so doing we learn what the Bible has to say about the Bible and we learn the history of the Bible from the Bible. This is not to say that supplemental aides cannot be useful to our understanding, but until we know what the Bible itself says, we cannot judge if the "helps" have their source in the eternal Word of God or in the changing word of man. As the Apostle Peter explained:

"All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever." (1 Peter 1:24,25 KJV).

In the end, we must be careful how we help a growing Christian who will naturally "long for the pure milk of the word," that they "may grow in respect to salvation" (1 Peter 2:2 NASB).   Therefore we must be sure to offer what is "wholly the Word of God" if we would call it the "Holy Word of God."


Tim Nordgren   10/29/11