Not that long ago, Bible readers had fewer choices. Today, with a proliferation of specialized Scriptures such as the Extreme Teen Bible and numerous study editions, there seems to be a Bible for every walk of life.
Perry Yoder, a Bible scholar who teaches at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., believes it’s clear why so many different Bibles are out there.
“I think they’re big moneymakers,” Yoder said.
In today’s Anabaptist churches, three English translations have emerged as favorites – the Revised (and New Revised) Standard Version, the New International Version and the Authorized, or King James, Version.
Controversy surrounding Today’s New International Version, an inclusive-language edition released this spring, has called fresh attention to people’s preferences in Bible translations.
Among mainstream Mennonites, the NRSV tends to appear in seminaries and congregations associated with seminaries, while the NIV is popular with other congregations. The King James, once the English translation for all Anabaptists, is now mainly used among more conservative branches.
Because of its modern innovations and gender-neutral language, “the NRSV was stereotyped as a liberal Bible, so the NIV was seen as the evangelical response,” Yoder said.
Use of the earlier RSV, with its similarities to the KJV, began in some Mennonite congregations in the 1950s. The NIV became popular quickly after its appearance in the 1970s.
And each time a new translation appeared and came into use, a flurry of arguments typically ensued over euphony, accuracy and theological soundness. This has happened again with the appearance of the TNIV.
Bible scholars say translation is not an art of scientific precision. “Any translation is a translation of meaning,” Yoder said. “It’s not a translation of words.”
This is why Yoder believes new translations often can be important. With improved Greek texts to work from in the 20th century, modern translators can present more accurate and well-rounded editions.
This, Yoder said, should be an assurance to those who worry about the Bible becoming diluted or miscast by subsequent versions.
“English translations are not infallible. Sometimes [translators] make stronger decisions, sometimes they make weaker decisions for whatever reason,” Yoder said. “But it seems to me that those with a high view of inspiration and revelation would want to get the most pristine text.”
Myron Augsburger would agree.
“Translations are themselves an interpretive venture,” said Augsburger, a well-known evangelist and former president of Eastern Mennonite University at Harrisonburg, Va. “The infallibility is not in the words but in the meaning. . . . Word-for-word inerrancy is not possible.”
Augsburger also sees the value in gender-neutral language, not only from an accuracy viewpoint but for its social inclusion.
“I think we need that so that no person feels left out,” Augsburger said.
Though he used the KJV from childhood well into his ministry, Augsburger today uses the NRSV and the NIV almost interchangeably, as well as consulting other editions, such as the J.B. Phillips translation.
“The NRSV gives me quite a bit of satisfaction,” Augsburger said, noting that he had read through parts of the new TNIV and had liked what he saw.
Still, because of the vast amount of memorizing he did early on, all from the KJV, Augsburger said he tends to quote while preaching from the Authorized Version, though with occasional paraphrases here and there.
Like Yoder, Augsburger sees fewer people memorizing Bible passages today than when most churches used the KJV. The contemporary language of recent translations just doesn’t match the majestic tenor and syntax of the KJV – a quality some see as indicative of the translation’s divine imprimatur.
“If I have any gripe, it’s that [the modern translations] destroy that,” Augsburger said.
Yoder said: “Most people don’t have the foggiest idea about accuracy. But the Bible is great literature, and sometimes translations just butcher it.”
Lynn Jost sees memory work slipping away as well.
An associate professor of biblical and religious studies at Tabor College at Hillsboro, Kan., Jost said he still requires memory work from some of his students.
“But since we don’t have a standard translation anymore,” Jost said, “I’m afraid memory work has pretty well passed away.”
Jost said among Mennonite Brethren congregations, the KJV went out in the 1970s and was replaced for a time in some places by the New American Standard Bible, a translation that attempted a close, literal reading of the original Greek New Testament.
“Also during that time, in that season when people didn’t commit to any particular text,” Jost said, other translations, such as the Living Bible, also became popular.
Today, he said, MB churches in the United States tend to favor the NIV, while Canadian congregations gravitate toward the NRSV. Jost sees the advantages of both.
“The NIV is pretty readable, [with] no stilted language and mostly accurate,” Jost said. “And I like the NRSV for its inclusive language, its more polished language.”
Though the variety of English translations can be confusing for some, Jost sees benefits mixed in with what are often perceived as contradictions.
“Obviously the strength is in being able to understand what the text is saying,” Jost said. But he believes the proliferation of so many translations, and of so many diverse presentations of the text, can and may have already gone too far.
In addition to remaining faithful to the Bible, Jost said, stewardship and using resources to help those in need are other Christian virtues.
“Now that we’ve got several good translations,” he said, “how much is the Christian community helped by another translation?”
This column was reprinted with permission from the Mennonite Weekly Review.