Three Recent Translations of the New Testament

Of the making of Bible translations there is no end, and that actually is a good thing for two reasons: 1) we are constantly finding new info on the Greek New Testament in its earliest forms, and 2) English is a moving target, a living and developing language. If only for these two reasons we have a right to expect the continual attempt to communicate the original text in understandable contemporary English. In this particular post I want to focus on three recent translations— one by an individual, and two by a committee. The former are Tom Wright’s Kingdom Translation and The Books of the Bible, and the third is the team translation called the Common English Bible (CEB).

Let’s talk about what they share in common first. All three are idiomatic translations in modern English. The translators of all three of these new versions understand that a woodenly literal rendering of the text of the Bible can as often obscure the meaning of the text as reveal it. All three of these versions have been concerned with the readability of the translation, both silently, and out loud in places like church.

The distinctiveness of the Books of the Bible is the formatting. It leaves out verses and chapters to make the reading more smooth. This is clearly a reader’s Bible not a study Bible (it has no notes either). It has a single column format, natural literary breaks (unlike many of the chapter divisions we currently endure) and it puts Luke-Acts back together so that you read them seriatim without a detour into the Gospel of John— hooray! Rather than being an actual new translation (it is in fact the TNIV) it is simply offering a more readable format of an already popular translation. I like this, and part of the intent is so that we will see the New Testament as grounded in story and containing stories– the story of salvation history. Yes, there are separation of the various books of the New Testament, but other than that you have a clean flow of words. I would not recommend this as one’s only Bible, certainly not as a study Bible, but just for reading including devotional reading it is excellent.

As a general rule, team translations tend to be better than individual translations because no individual, however learned, can be an expert in every verse in the NT, try as they may. Unlike the Books of the Bible, the CEB is a genuinely new fresh translation, which has as its progenitor such translations as the Good News Bible (previously Good News for Modern Man). What I mean by this is that it is geared to simple English, no more than 8th-9th grade level of English, so that absolutely everyone should be able to read it. 115 scholars from 22 denominations worked on this and it was field tested by 77 specialists in 13 denominations, to avoid denominational or theological bias. While I like this translation if one accepts the limits of what it is trying to be, I find the English sometimes just too plain to convey the elegance of some of the NT. And I find annoying the translation of Son of Man as the Human One, which totally misses the allusion to Daniel 7. Still, this is a good serviceable translation done by fine scholars.

Finally there is Tom Wright’s new Kingdom NT translation. Unlike the other two translations, this is not only the work of one person, it is the work of one British person. While this is certainly an idiomatic translation in conversational (British) English, it also has an elegance to it that is lacking in the CEB. As one might expect, a translation by one person tends to have more uniformity of English style and idiom compared to translation by committee. I am thankful for the retention of the Son of Man language, though he uses it in lower case. I am going to give two samples for comparison’s sake to show you what is happening in these translations.

My first test passage is Philippians 2.4:

Kingdom Translation—- ‘Look after each others best interests, not your own.’

The Books of the Bible—’not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others’

CEB— ‘Instead of each person looking out for their own good,watch out for what is better for others.’

All three of these translations are on the right track in not making the mistake of following the rendering of earlier translations which sometimes read ‘look not ONLY to your own interests, but ALSO to the interests of others.’ The word ‘only’ is not found in the Greek text at all, and comes from the assumption of some translator that Paul couldn’t possibly talking about totally neglecting one’s own interests. But in fact he is calling for a totally other-directed focus, a totally self-sacrificial approach like the example of Christ which follows.

Of these three translations the one closest to the Greek in terms of sentence structure is clearly the Books of the Bible (TNIV) translation which connects this with what precedes and offers us the participial construction rather than beginning a new sentence at 2.4 as the other two do. And in fact I would much prefer the TNIV here to the other two because it is the clearest and works with the flow of the text better. Let’s look at one more sample, this time, Heb. 12.2:

Kingdom Translation– ‘We must look ahead, to Jesus. He is the one who carved out the path for faith, and he’s the one who brought it to completion.’

The Books of the Bible (TNIV) ‘…fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.’

CEB—’…and fix our eyes on Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith’

Here we have a clear blunder by the CEB, but not one without precedent. There is absolutely no word ‘our’ here in the Greek text. Like previous translations that made this goof (see the NRSV and before that the RSV), the word ‘our’ is read into the text without any warrant at all. In each of the previous examples the person in question was a model of faith, not one who tinkered with other person’s faith, and Jesus is presented as simply the last in a long line, who should be looked to and followed as a person who trusted God unto death and beyond (as should the audience of Hebrews facing persecution). This verse is not about Jesus pioneering (what would that mean anyway– to pioneer someone else’s faith) or perfecting someone else’s faith. Its about his being the climactic example of faith in the hall of faith which began to be presented in Heb. 11.1. In each case, those examples from the OT saints to Jesus are presented as paradigms of persons who trusted God. The issues is not here what Christians would call ‘saving’ faith, but rather basic trust in God.

There are many other such small comparisons I could make using interesting test cases where the text has tended to be ‘over-read’ by translators, but on this showing, the TNIV stands up, including in its Books of the Bible format, as the best of the lot. Second best, the Kingdom translation. Not merely in these examples, but elsewhere the CEB translators seem to have been too tied to the KJV, RSV, NRSV tradition of renderings.

Translators tend to be a conservative lot by trade. They do not tend to be innovators. I like all three of these translations, but I find time and again the TNIV to be the most reliable of the major translations, though I confess to liking the freshness of the Kingdom translation which has some really nice turns of phrase. The CEB is alright, but frequently too plebian in its attempt to be simple and direct, and too given to following previous major translations even when the Greek provides not warrant. The bottom line is, give me a translation that best renders the Greek in good clear crisp English— plus nothing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1846284634 Ray Pennoyer

    I have sometimes wondered whether an idiomatic translation of Hebrews 12:2 would be that Jesus “wrote the book” on this faith.

  • Paul Franklyn

    Ben, thanks for the good words on CEB; check out Daniel 7 in the CEB and you will see how the allusion to Dan 7 is not missed. Also check the blog explanation on this issue: http://www.commonenglishbible.com/Connect/Blog/ViewBlog/tabid/209/ArticleId/102/Why-Jesus-is-both-human-and-divine.aspx

    Joel Green your former colleague at Asbury has a video explanation too.

    Also double check current status of Heb 12:2 in CEB, which was adjusted when the full Bible was published: “and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne.”

  • Paul Franklyn

    I forgot to add the link to the blog explanation about Human One by Joel Green.
    http://vimeo.com/31602853

  • JM

    I like the CEB overall…but the “God’s DNA” passage in 1John is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me.

  • Jair Schalkwijk

    Dear prof. Witherington,

    I have a question about a different topic namely rapture theology. I have a question about John 14:2-3 about Jesus preparing rooms in the house of His Father and coming back to take the disciples with him. In two recent sermons the preachers saw in these verses evidence for the rapture theology. I would like to hear your thoughts on these verses since in your John commentary you only briefly discuss these verses and in your book ‘Revelation and the end times’ I can’t recall you discussing these verses in relation to rapture theology.

    With kind regards,
    Jair Schalkwijk

  • T Randall Smith

    I also tend to like the TNIV. It and the NRSV are my first choices. However, as I am sure you know, Professor, the TNIV has been jettisoned by the International Bible Society due to political correctness, having to do with the translation of anthropon. It has been replaced with the NIV 2011 which, strangely, says in the preface that it strives to match contemporary English usage in not translating anthropon as “man” when it means men and women in context, but translating it as “mankind” as being an acceptable rendering of human beings as a class; i.e., “humanity,” “human beings,” and “humankind” – more contemporary English referents than mankind. Methinks radical evangelical political correctness is still at work.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Jair: These verses simply refer to dying and going to heaven, not to a rapture, as both the Johannine context, and the use of such language in early Judaism makes clear. Early Jews did not believe in a rapture, and neither did Jesus.

  • http://profiles.google.com/jaymeslackey Jaymes Lackey

    @JM – At first I didn’t like God’s DNA either but it is growing on me and here’s why:
    (1) The greek is sperma and DNA is better than God’s seed or Sperm, to me.
    (2) The context is about being born of God. Like spiritual children/ NOT Pauline adoption, but actual children of God.

    Transformational birth, like that of John 1, 3 and 1 John, needs a term stronger than what we’re used to to get at this transformation. Adoption clearly isn’t being alluded to. Sperm is too sexual. Seed is too ambiguous still with sexual overtones. DNA may be our best bet. It offends the senses of those who realize that the biblical authors had no concept of DNA, but it might be the best term.

  • http://profiles.google.com/jaymeslackey Jaymes Lackey

    @ Dr. Witherington – You don’t take issue with Wright re-arranging what the Church fathers and mothers decided as our canon? What do you think about the Canonical Approach (the order of scripture isn’t random but placed thoughtfully by our ancient church parents and sanctified by the Spirit)?

    What does Wright do with the Gospel of John? It seems to me to be another historian trying to push John out of the picture. That much Luke together might just cause me to join a commune after I sell all my possessions ;)

    BTW, loved your commentary on Acts! Used it to help prepare for a Bible Study. Very helpful. All our faiths were greatly encouraged and fortified for bolder witness in our context.

    Blessings!

  • Anonymous

    Hi Jaymes: First of all no, I do not take exception to what Tom did. There were various arrangements of the books in early canon list, including placing Hebrews in various places. Secondly, I do not agree that a certain order was determined by theological considerations. In fact, it was determined by practical considerations. There were various collections before the canon existed, for example of Paul’s letters. The arrangement tended to be from longest (Romans) to shortest (Philemon) document, precisely because matters of length and space had to be taken into account when composing an ancient document. Originally they were on rolls, not in codex form. You can also see this practical principle in smaller collections like the Johannine letters—lined up from longest to shortest.

  • http://profiles.google.com/jaymeslackey Jaymes Lackey

    Dr. Witherington,

    Thanks for your response…

    Irenaeus seemed pretty convinced that the four-foldness of the Gospel was pretty important. In my opinion, it just seems that the Gospel of John is such an important balance to the synoptics. This balance keeps us from many errors and/or heresy. It would also seem that Acts is not euangelion but a historical recording of the effects of it. Acts serves as a perfect bridge to Paul and balances Pauline theology. The Catholic Epistles seem to do the same as far as balance goes.

    I certainly defer to your expertise in the historical configuring. I am probably reading into the canon too theologically, but it seems makes sense to me.

  • Anonymous

    I am not saying that no theological concerns were involved in settling the canon. For example, Hebrews would not have gotten in at all had folk not thought it was Pauline or associated with Paul in some sense. Of course it is not by Paul, but probably a Pauline associate. As for Irenaeus 4 fold Gospel…. his argument from the four points of the compass is hardly compelling.

  • Christopher Smith

    The rearrangement of books that’s discussed in earlier comments on this blog post is actually in The Books of the Bible, not in The Kingdom New Testament. As a member of the team that helped Biblica (the International Bible Society) develop The Books of the Bible, let me comment on this a bit further. I appreciate Dr. Witherington’s observation that historically the biblical books appear in a number of different orders based on various considerations. The order only became fixed with the advent of printing. Given this long tradition of a variety of orders, we felt a freedom to present the books today in an order that we hoped would help contemporary readers understand and appreciate them better. As T. Randall Smith notes, The Books of the Bible will now be published the latest update to the NIV (2011), which replaces both the TNIV and the previous edition of the NIV. A final note: Our hope was that The Books of the Bible would be much more than just a reading Bible. It’s intended to be an all-purpose Bible, for study, preaching, and teaching as well. Using it for these purposes will require a change in habits, and perhaps even in our understanding of what the Bible is, but we believe that these will be welcome changes. Thank you, Dr. Witherington, for your appreciative notice of our efforts.


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