“It’s in the Bible!” But which one? The good book is available in an unprecedented number of translations, versions and forms. Leaving aside translations into most of the world’s languages, English versions alone are numerous and growing.

They include new translations wholly or significantly from original sources, such astheNew Jerusalem Bible. “Revised” translations of the English Bible from the Tyndale Bible to the King James Version include theNew Revised Standard Version and the New King James Version.

“Modern” or contemporary language versions range from theNew English Bible (more recently edited and reissued as the Revised English Bible), theGood News Bible(Today’s English Version), and the Bible for Today’s Family, a Bible marketed to people new to the English language. There are also many paraphrased or abbreviated Bibles and a great many individualized Bibles carrying a logo, institutional blessing or affirmation of a particular personality.

Many Bibles are published with study notes or marginal commentaries. These often create a template of interpretation that supports a creed or point of view. Familiar examples have included theScofield Reference Bible, which supported the editor’s unique views, and the once ubiquitous Red Letter Edition Bible, which highlighted Jesus’ words in the text.

A contemporary example is titled theNew King James Version Holy Bible—Baptist Study Edition. Its editors promise that it contains “accurate, detailed scholarship in the Baptist tradition”—to some Baptists a seeming contradiction in concept.

A unique category is represented in the popular New International Version, which was undertaken with two purposes. The first was to remain faithful to the tradition of the English Bible from Tyndale to theKing James Version. The second was to clarify confusions and awkward texts and, especially, to create a reliable text for use by a conservative, often fundamentalist, constituency.

At NIV’s inception in the 1960s, its translators were “united in their commitment to the authority and infallibility of the Bible as God’s Word in written form.” Now a new version, Today’s New International Version, will include generic language where the meaning of the text intended to include both men and women, though it will not change exclusively male reference to God. Controversial reaction to this new volume illuminates the challenge of biblical translation.

The Bible has shaped and maintained the Christian tradition. Therefore, receiving, translating and transmitting an accurate, authoritative Bible is critical. It is also a challenge.

Three separate but related issues present obstacles to achieving effective translations. First, the texts to be translated have to be determined. Second, texts must be understood and clarified in the source language itself. Finally, the texts’ meanings must be accurately and effectively expressed in the language to which it is translated. The identity of sacred texts is of historical record. The Hebrew Scriptures were defined by the first century and were essentially adopted by the early Christians. By the end of the fourth century, church leaders agreed to include 27 books later commonly titled the “New Testament.”

But debate has continued about the authenticity of some texts or textual fragments, and about the relative importance of some books. Luther, for example, relegated four books to lesser status and placed them at the end of his German Bible. Roman Catholic Bibles include several books not accepted as canonical by Protestants. And each generation of scholars has argued that some materials not included should have been.

Clarifying the meaning of biblical texts has become more complicated and controversial over the last century. First, modern scholarship has yielded new information about the historical and cultural contexts of biblical materials. Second, a variety of “critical” methods of dealing with the texts, especially in light of new information, has encouraged new or different insights into textual meaning. These have frequently created or fed theological controversy.

Finally, a translation into a specific language ultimately must choose one of two major strategies: It must either reflect the structure, phrasing and meaning of the language of its source, or it must attempt to present a clear and natural expression by using contemporary phrasing and, often, idiomatic expression.

Staying faithful to structure and form usually means awkward, unfamiliar expression in the recipient language. But striving for natural, idiomatic expression risks diffusing the meaning of the text, or adding meaning or nuance not present in the source text.

Choosing a Bible is therefore partly a matter of faith—in the scholarship, tradition, purpose and theological perspective represented by the translators.

Partisans in theological controversy tend to choose a Bible commended by leaders of their cause. Others, however, would find it useful and rewarding to use several translations.

Everett C. Goodwin is senior minister of the Scarsdale Community Baptist Church in Scarsdale, N.Y.

Order Goodwin’s books from Amazon!
Baptists in the Balance: The Tension Between Freedom and Responsibility
The New Hiscox Guide for Baptist Churches

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