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.

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