This coming Sunday – the second Sunday in Advent – used to be celebrated as Bible Sunday in the UK. Although now in the UK Bible Sunday has been shifted into the autumn (this year 30 October was designated as Bible Sunday), I have decided to revert to the past observance and write about Bible translations.
As a child I grew up with the Authorised Version of the Bible – The King James version as the Americans describe it. Although today you can still hear the Authorised version in Oxbridge chapels and Cathedrals, almost without exception local churches have rightly opted for modern translations. I say rightly for three reasons: firstly, we now know that the Authorised Version is based on the best manuscripts available; secondly, because the language of the Authorised Version is no longer spoken today; and thirdly, because there are better versions of the Bible available today.
Of the range of modern translations available, most Protestants have gone for American translations of the Bible. The New English Bible given to me at my ordination in a bright red leather binding– and now, in its updated form known as The Revised English Bible – never really took off: in part because you need an ‘A’ level in English to understand some of its language. What for instance does the phrase ‘the effulgence of his glory’ (Hebs 1.3) mean to the ordinary worshipper? In part too because when there was an option between two different ‘readings’ of the text, the NEB/REB always seemed to adopt the quirkier of the two options: for instance in Mark 1.41 the NEB prefers ‘In warm indignation Jesus stretched out his hand’ and leaves as a footnote the alternative reading ‘Jesus was sorry for him and stretched out his hand’.
My preferred study Bible is the New Revised Standard Version, which although American in origin, is also available in an Anglicized form. In my opinion it is the most accurate in translation and is used in British universities. I like it, not least because it retains the cadences of the Authorised Version – and I use it for personal study. But not only is it a little wooden, it is also full of terminology and phraseology which would not be readily understood by most churchgoers.
For this this reason I often read from the Good News Bible when I am taking a church service. The GNB was the brainchild of an American Baptist missionary who wanted to produce an English Bible for people whose first language is not English. Adopting the linguistic principle of ‘dynamic equivalence’, it uses standard, everyday English. Looked down upon by many, it is the most understandable of all English Bibles for general use. Indeed, in my ‘Quiet Time’ at the beginning of the day when I normally follow the ‘Communion’ lectionary readings of the day, I often consult the GNB to see how it has rendered the various readings.
Since the arrival of the GNB there have been other simplified Bibles: for instance, there is The American English Standard Version and British Word Come Alive paraphrase of the New Testament produced by Martin Manser.
I confess that the one version I do not like is the New International Version – which I sometimes rudely call the ‘Nearly Inspired Version’. Favoured by Evangelical Christians, when the NIV first came out, the American translators sometimes opted for the translation which fitted in best with their theological presuppositions. In this regard I always think of Romans 16. 15 where the best manuscripts have Julia listed as one of the apostles, but initially the NIV opted for the secondary reading of Julias, a man. Since then the NIV has been through several revisions. However, theology apart, I do not like the way in which the same Greek word can be translated differently within the same passage.
Then there is The Jerusalem Bible produced in 1996 by Roman Catholics, which was based on the French Bible de Jerusalem. Since there has been the New Jerusalem Bible (1985) and the Revised New Jerusalem Bible (2019). I appreciate the footnotes which accompany the study edition of the RNJB, recognising that whatever version of the Bible we use, footnotes are not part of the inspired text!
Finally, let me mention The Message by Eugene Peterson. More of a paraphrase than a literal translation, there are times when in my judgment too many liberties are taken with the text. Yet there are times when it well and truly ‘hits the spot’.
In conclusion, the English-speaking world is well and truly blessed by the variety of English versions of the Scripture. For that we should give thanks – whatever the time of the year.