A Millennial’s Thoughts on Bible Translation

This post is especially for millennials, from a millennial.

Biblical translations are a fickle subject. Many people have opinions on which translations are the most “correct” or “orthodox”, which is great – but a little scholarship might change your opinion. Let me take a crack at it.

So, I’m going to walk through some common mistakes or misunderstandings that tend to sneak up on people concerning translations. These bolded statements are from conversations that I have had with students my age. A majority of this conversation will be focused upon the New Testament side of things, because, well… I don’t know Hebrew very well!

“I read the King James Version because it’s the most reliable translation.”

Sorry. The KJV is poor in quality compared to biblical texts in the 20th/21st century. I promise I do not have a prejudice against “thy” and “thou”. The KJV is a “literal” translation from Hebrew and Greek into English, which is a great thing. The only problem is that the KJV only used a few older Greek manuscripts in the creation of the New Testament. To be a bit more technical, the KJV uses almost solely the Textus Receptus, while we now use a dynamic, critical text, which means we have an overwhelming amount of researched Greek texts that have helped us create a more reliable New Testament. It’s not the KJV’s fault, but we just have a better Greek text to translate from.

“The Douay-Rheims is the most ‘Catholic’ Bible.”

Sigh. I’m sorry, Grandpa. This is not true either! The Douay-Rheims is a literal translation from the Latin Vulgate into English. Why is that an issue? Let’s be very clear here – the New Testament was written in GREEK. The Latin Vulgate, although beautiful, is also not the best translation in the world. The Douay-Rheims is a translation of a translation. You do not need to be a critical scholar who compares the critical Greek text and the Latin to understand that translating a translation cannot be as literal as starting with the first translation. Also, reiterating my point in the KJV post, our Greek texts are better now than in the time of Jerome. I am very aware that Jerome was closer to the time of Jesus than we are, but he also had limited resources. We translate from Greek instead of Latin for a reason.

So, which translation is best?

This question is mostly subjective. It depends on your goal of reading the text: are you reading devotionally or are you wanting a more literal translation? The New American Standard Bible, which is a Protestant Translation, is one of the most literal translations. It is the English text that I compare my personal Greek translations with. The New American Bible (RE) is one of the standard Catholic Bibles according to the USCCB, and it is a strong translation. The New Jerusalem Bible is more on the functional side than the literal side, but is also a very popular translation. If you would prefer a more language-inclusive text, the New Revised Standard Edition is a fantastic option. Do not worry, the Holy Spirit will not be emasculated if you do not refer to it as a “he”.

Fast Fact

  • There is an entire field dedicated to the study of finding the most reliable text. It is called textual criticism. Why is this necessary? We do not have a single original manuscript or copy of any of the biblical texts.

I hope this helped clear up any lingering misunderstandings about translations. Please drop me any other questions you might have in the comments!

 

Alex Blechle is a MTS student at St. John’s School of Theology and Seminary, and a Graduate Assistant for the Pray Tell Blog. Alex graduated from Manhattan Christian College in December of 2016 with a B.A. in Theological Research and Bible & Leadership.

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28 comments

    1. Hi Dave,

      The ESV is a great translation. It was widely used in my undergrad, especially with my pastoral major friends. It’s right in the middle, and has a great place in the Church.

    2. Oxford University Press recently had their ESV w/apocrypha go out of print, however, Crossway, who holds the rights to the ESV, recently announced that they are seeking an ESV-CE with imprimatur from a non-US bishops conference. Same thing happened last year with an official NLT-CE.

  1. “The New American Bible (RE) is one of the standard Catholic Bibles according to the USCCB, and it is a strong translation.”

    I fear it is my children who are millenial age, but I’ll venture a comment. Alex, probably you are too young to have read the voluminous and wide-ranging output of the late Rev. Richard John Neuhaus when he edited the ecumenical journal “First Things”. He was not one who loved the NAB translation. Here he is from 10 years ago – this particular article may be of interest because it is on the passage from Matthew that is the appointed Gospel for this coming Sunday. (I hope this is not behind a subscriber wall.). Neuhaus, in his writings, could be more vituperative than gracious, and some of that comes across in this piece.

    https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2007/07/70-or-x

    1. I am not a fan of the NAB; it doesn’t sing, as it were. ESV and RSV are my preferred translations, less lumpy than the NAB.

    2. Neuhaus accuses the US bishops of being the reason that the NAB is the only approved translation for liturgy, saying it is because they want the revenue from its publication. He totally ignores the fact that the 1989 RSV was approved by the US bishops. The approval was revoked by the Congregation for Divine Worship, a casualty of the language wars.

      1. That is correct. Though the conference has had an unfortunate trigger-happy approach to deploying copyrights, that’s not the reason for the NAB.

      2. I confess I have difficulty following the sagas of approved, unapproved and approval-rescinded texts passed back and forth between the US and Rome, but is the 1989 RSV commonly known as the NRSV?

        http://www.praytellblog.com/index.php/2014/03/16/liturgical-translation-some-are-more-equal-than-others/

        At any rate, I agree with you that Neuhaus didn’t reach for a more charitable explanation. This wasn’t the only instance of lack of charity on his part toward the bishops.

      3. http://www.cccb.ca/site/images/stories/pdf/revisedlectionary_backgrounder.pdf

        This is the Canadian bishops’ description of the process of revising their lectionary so they could continue to use the NRSV in their liturgy. The Adoremus timeline gives the impression that the NRSV could not be used in US or Canada, but it was not exactly that. The US bishops chose not to use NRSV (under some coercion) but the Canadian bishops chose to continue using NRSV though with some adaptations.

      4. Jim

        Correct. I realized that timeline lacked that level of detail, but couldn’t quite remember it to feel certain in relaying it accurately. Thanks.

  2. Karl, many thanks for that Adoremus link. It confirms something that I thought I had recalled from those days: it was actually the CDF (surely under Cardinal Ratzinger), not CDW, that instigated the “unapproval” of the NRSV and other translations for liturgical use. I guess the CDW get blame (if that is a blameworthy thing) for going along with that program.

  3. Anyone who thinks that the RSV edition edited by Ignatius Press is the ideal (as this article recommends) needs their brains testing. Apart from the inferiority of the text, the publishers are impossible to work with, it seems. These are two reasons why this has now been dropped from the (RC) English Language Lectionary project. Prior to that, ESV was the choice, despite its origin in US Evangelical Protestantism. Now, it seems, ESV is back on the table. Heigh ho. And all the while the scholars tell us that NRSV is the best translation out there (and it is, from the point of view not only of biblical scholarship but of public proclamation, inclusive language……).

    So why has NRSV not been espoused before now? For the universal Church, because CDWDS does not like it. Why does CDWDS not like it? Because of problems referring to antetypes of Christ in the Old Testament. Datapoint: almost all of these occur in the Psalms. But the NRSV psalms are never going to be used because we’re all going to be using whatever the ultimate version of the Revised Grail Psalter turns out to be, if indeed this ever reaches a conclusion (rumours say that this is close, but we are already nine years on from Abbot Gregory Polan’s 2008 version which was thought to be final, and a lot of changes have flowed under the bridge since then and continue to do so). So the best translation is being held up on a technicality, and the prospect of a revised Lectionary seems as far off as ever. In the meantime, the US Bishops, who make a lot of money in royalties out of the militaristic NAB translation, also seem as far as ever from accepting that a common Lectionary among all English speakers would be a good thing.

    1. Hi Paul,
      I was going to complain about the RSV omitting too many prepositions from the Greek text, but your statement was probably more helpful. I translated the book of Colossians for my Greek III class, and I began the course with comparing my translations to the RSV, but it was excruciating because it omitted so many words!! It was like reading a completely different text sometimes. I was always told that the RSV was superior, especially after Ignatius’ study Bible came out….

      Fr. Ruff just passed along a book called “The Making of the NRSV of the Bible” by Metzger, Dentan, and Harrelson. Apparently the RSV is talked about a lot in there – I might have a post in me after I read it!

    2. It’s certainly true the Ignatius Press editions for home use, at least the one’s I’ve seen, are relatively terrible from a user perspective. One might get the feeling one is not really supposed to read them….

      I would love to have the option of an NRSV without the inclusive language editorial layer (along with one with it). But, so far as I am aware, none such is available, and it’s lack is a minus, not a plus. I write that as someone who spent years in the trenches on behalf of inclusive language, including on a committee charged with rendering an inclusive language adaptation of the Lectionary….

      1. The thing is that the NRSV comes with textual notes which indicate not only textual issues and options, including which manuscript is being used for a particular rendering, but it also indicates where inclusive language is being used. Metzger pointed out that the textual notes are integral to the text itself, and they must be published in every edition of the NRSV. Even the majestic Saint John’s Bible contains those textual notes. So, if one doesn’t like the inclusive language decisions, most likely the literal Greek or Hebrew is right there on the page in a note.

      2. Yes, but I am not talking about reading for study, but for contemplation, so that approach is too lumpy for contemplation. Parallel text pages could work, but would be cumbersome in practical terms (though I own my share of parallel text scriptures of divers sorts).

    3. Paul,
      You mention the inferiority of the RSV text, which is absolutely correct. The RSV, as well as the RSV-2CE (or Ignatius Bible), still utilizes an OT textual basis that largely ignores the majority of manuscript discoveries of the past 60 years, including the Dead Sea Scrolls. We even have access to books like Sirach in Hebrew. Another issue would be a book like Tobit, which the original (and current) RSV uses the shorter text, while almost every other translation since then, including the NABs and NRSV, use the longer Greek text.

      Whatever one thinks about how to utilize those manuscripts in a translation, they can’t be ignored in a modern Catholic Bible.

      1. But the NRSV has its own accuracy issues as well. I embraced it hopefully in the early 1990s, only to find it lacking too. (This especially became apparent during the years of slogging through inclusive language rendering options. That tainted my experience with the NRSV. That’s just my personal experience.)

        Understand that what is problematic for study is not necessarily so for contemplation and reflection. And song.

        Which brings to mind another angle: a Scripture that is not sung (cantillated) is like a Technicolor(TM) movie that has had the color removed. (Of course, imagining, say, being transfixed by the Book of Numbers being cantillated requires a tremendous leap of imagination for this Gentile, but overall we should remember that song is too often the missing dimension in Christian encounter with the Word.)

        All these things involve a certain fulcrum-lever choice: where to put the fulcrum under the lever, because you will gain and lose no matter what, unless you are fluent in the original languages and familiar with them. Which is beyond all but a tiny minority of people.

  4. The NABRE is a little uneven in having a NT done in 1986 and the OT in 2010. At any rate the NT is better than the original 1970 edition which was pretty klunky. This gave the original NAB a black eye.
    The 1970 OT was very good even though it was based on several volumes appearing separately over decades in the Confraternity Bible. The 2010 OT is now very accurate and up to date but, as I said, it’s a little jarring to read it with the NT which was done 24 years previously. The psalms went through an even more tortuous editorial situation. The 1991 edition of the psalms suffered a backlash. For better or worse, it’s been overhauled for the 2010 edition.
    There’s much to be said for doing the whole bible all at once but it’s not easy.

  5. One of the great blessings and curses of being a millennial is the endless options we have. I am a man of my generation and use multiple translations but my favorites are the Jerusalem Bible (CTS) and the NKJV (though it comes from a manuscript tradition that is currently not in favor and there is no CE).

    I have no major issues with the NABRE for eventual use in the Mass. I just hope that when the lectionary is revised that we have Bible to match what is heard at Mass meaning that a future edition of the NAB will also include the Revised (edited) Grail Psalms.

    1. JB or NJB? The original Jerusalem Bible was a good translation, albeit never originally intended for public proclamation. The New Jerusalem Bible is an improvement from the point of view of scholarship, but the price paid is that most of the poetry has been sucked out of it. Dom Henry Wansborough is an excellent biblical scholar, but thankfully the dry-as-dust NJB has not been approved for liturgical use.

      1. I use the Jerusalem Bible by CTS with the Grail Psalms and the Old Testament edited to use Lord instead of YHWH.

        However, there is a revision coming out of the New Jerusalem Bible.
        http://www.catholicbiblesblog.com/2017/08/revised-new-jerusalem-bible.html

        It alleges that it will take into account “formal equivalence translation for a more accurate rendering of the original scriptures, sensitivity to readable speech patterns and more inclusive language”.

        I wonder if he is trying to create a Bible that will be a competitor for lectionary use?

    1. Hi Peter,

      I meant no offense by referring to the Holy Spirit as an “it”. I was more critiquing those who are dogmatic about the language of the Holy Spirit being male, when in fact the Holy Spirit has no gender.

      I can see how my statement may have had a hint of undervaluing the HS, but truly I’m a lover of patristic exegesis – and they are big fans of the Holy Spirit (as I am).

    2. If anything, the Holy Spirit is a “she”. The Hebrew and Greek words ruach and pneuma, breath or spirit, are just two examples.

      1. I wouldn’t say that, Paul. With that framework, it would only be acceptable to refer to God in the masculine, since θεός is a masculine noun.

        Also, πνεύμα, -τος is a neuter noun.

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