Which Bible version is the most authentic?

DUANE ASKS:

There are many different versions of the Bible: King James, New International Version, New Revised Standard Version, etc. Which is considered the closest to the earliest available manuscripts?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

Folks shopping for Christmas gift Bibles are well aware of the countless editions on sale, those aimed at Moms, teens, substance abusers in recovery, ESL students, and the like, and all the useful study Bibles with marginal notations, explanatory articles, timelines, maps, and indexes. However, Duane isn’t asking about such add-ons but the many English translations of the Bible itself.

The beloved “Authorized” or King James Version from 1611 is a monument of English literature that retains wide popularity, especially among Protestant Fundamentalists, some of whom champion a “King James Only” movement. The King is the sole Bible used in Mormonism. But experts note that it isn’t ideal in terms of Duane’s criterion of closeness to the best ancient texts. (The question says “earliest,” which is not always “best,” but let’s leave aside the textual technicalities.) Important ancient manuscripts were not available to the King James team, for instance key 4th Century codices and the Hebrew scriptures found among the celebrated Dead Sea Scrolls. A secondary problem is that the King’s Elizabethan language is occasionally hard for 21st Century readers to comprehend easily or correctly.

Still, something is lost with today’s profusion of modernized translations compared with the time not so long ago when generally similar and memorable phrasing was shared by the Protestants’ King James, the Catholics’ Douay-Rheims Bible from that same era, and the 1917 Jewish Publication Society Tanakh (the Hebrew-based term for what Christians call the Old Testament).

Proponents of each modern translation on the market will assert that it’s faithful to the Hebrew and Greek. Indeed, most renditions from recent decades are reliable products from well-credentialed scholars capable of wrestling with the best available texts.  Because there are so many ancient Greek New Testament manuscripts and the meaning of some Hebrew Old Testament terms is unclear, there are differences in wording among the translations, but key substantive disagreements are few.   Instead, the major differences involve the philosophy of translation and, to a lesser extent, the reading skill of the intended audience.

One approach is thought-for-thought or “functional equivalence” translation that emphasizes the text’s meaning for clear understanding. An example is the Good News Bible, a.k.a. Today’s English Version, which is especially helpful for those who aren’t fluent English readers. The other main option is more literal word-for-word or “formal equivalance” renditions.  The King James leans that way along with modern translations generally following in that tradition such as the Revised Standard Version, English Standard Version, and somewhat more literalistic New American Standard Bible.

An interesting Jewish translation by Everett Fox works to evoke the wording and feel of the underlying Hebrew. For instance, here’s the call of Abraham in Genesis 12: “YHWH said to Avram: Go-you-forth from your land, from your kindred, from your father’s house, to the land that I will let you see. I will make a great nation of you and will give-you-blessing and will make your name great. Be a blessing!”

One recent issue is the degree a Bible uses gender-inclusive language, a hallmark of the 1989 New Revised Standard Version. Traditionalists object, for instance, that the NRSV has many plural pronouns that alter the literal meaning and effect of the original singular pronouns.

Religious affiliation shapes some preferences. Evangelical Protestants embrace the best-selling New International Version. The Southern Baptist Convention sponsors the Holman Christian Standard Bible. And the U.S. Catholic bishops authorize the New American Bible. Jehovah’s Witnesses publish their own unique Bible whose anonymous editors adhered to their faith’s doctrines, such as downgrading of Jesus’ divinity in John 1:1:  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.”

Popular paraphrases such as Kenneth Taylor’s Living Bible, Eugene Peterson’s The Message, or J.B. Phillips’ elegant New Testament in Modern English aim for literary flow more than accuracy and are not true translations. Such loose versions can be helpful for fresh thinking and overview, but an actual translation is recommended for careful study of a passage.

Thanks to the computer age, www.biblegateway.com can provide Bible browsers the full text of no less than 46 English translations to search and compare, not only the modern RSV, ESV, NRSV, NIV, NASB, or HCSB, but the King James, Douay-Rheims, John Wycliffe’s pioneering and outlawed version of 1382, and the influential Geneva Bible from 1599. This Web resource has texts in many other languages. It lacks two important English Bibles, the Catholic NAB (available at www.usccb.org/bible/books-of-the-bible/index.cfm) and the Jewish Publication Society’s modernized Tanakh of 1985.

Conservative Protestant exegete Daniel Wallace offers an interesting assessment of major versions at: http://biblestudymagazine.com/preview/choosetranslationWeb.pdf

So, comments please on what’s your favorite, and why.

ADDED NOTE IN MARCH 2014:  Note this related academic survey regarding “The Bible in American Life”:

http://www.raac.iupui.edu/files/2713/9413/8354/Bible_in_American_Life_Report_March_6_2014.pdf

 

About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.


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