Question from a reader in Taiwan that was published in the “Readers’ Perspective” column of Jerusalem Perspective 21 (Jul.-Aug. 1989): 2.
Being a new Christian, I have had difficulty deciding which Bible to read. I had been strongly advised to read only the King James Version as being the best translation available. Upon discovering, however, that it was revised in 1881-1885 (Revised Version), and again in 1952 (Revised Standard Version), I settled upon the Revised Standard Version in the belief that anything revised should be better. I also use the New International Version Study Bible, which I find very helpful. However, I have begun suffering doubts about the accuracy of the translations I am reading and have again been in search of what is considered THE most accurate translation. I have even considered taking the original advice given me about the King James Version, but recently discovered that there is a New King James Version available, making a decision still more frustrating. Naturally, I desire to read and understand the Word of God with the greatest accuracy possible. My question, quite simply, is which English language Bible would you consider and recommend as being the most accurate translation?
David Bivin responds:
f I wanted to respond flippantly, I might say, “It depends on whether you are an optimist or a pessimist.” If you replied, “An optimist,” I would come back with, “Then all modern English translations of the New Testament are excellent!” If you replied, “A pessimist,” I would reply, “Then they are all dreadful.” However, yours is a serious question that raises a number of complex issues. A simple answer would not be helpful.
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The following English versions usually are the most accurate: For the Hebrew Scriptures: The Holy Scriptures (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1982); The Bible: An American Translation (University of Chicago Press, 1935); New American Bible (Thomas Nelson, 1983). For the New Testament: New International Version (Zondervan, 1978); Modern Language Bible (Zondervan, 1969); New English Bible (published jointly by Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press, 1970).
James Moffatt’s The New Testament: A New Translation (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1913, revised 1934) has always appealed to me because Moffatt correctly rendered Matthew 6:22 as, “The eye is the lamp of the body: so, if your Eye is generous…” The Modern Language Bible: The New Berkeley Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1945, 1959, 1969) also can be very helpful, particularly because of its illuminating notes.
Probably the most successful attempt to capture the words of Jesus in English has been Charles B. Templeton’s Jesus: The four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, combined in one narrative and rendered in modern English (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973). Templeton, a Canadian journalist, assisted by an editorial committee that included David Noel Freedman, made a tremendous effort to translate the many Greek and Hebrew idioms of the Gospels into idiomatic English. However, even inspired translating will not overcome an insufficient understanding of one of the Gospels’ Hebraisms or the Jewish background to one of Jesus’ sayings. For instance, the translators of Jesus rendered Luke 4:22, “…some were impressed, said complimentary things about him, and remarked about the grace of his speech,” whereas the text probably means almost the exact opposite: “But all testified against him being shocked at the shameful words he spoke.”
Note the The New International Version‘s tendentiousness when translating the Greek word for the tassels on Jesus’ outer garment. (See my “The New International Jesus”).
The above list of translations may leave you confused. The truth is that nearly all English versions of the Bible are helpful, but leave much to be desired. Unfortunately, no translation can ever capture the full meaning of the original.
Especially when it comes to the Synoptic Gospels, which may reflect a Greek translation of a Hebrew source, there is as yet no satisfactory translation. If the Greek Synoptic Gospels are descendants of a Hebrew biography of Jesus, then even the greatest translator cannot succeed if he or she is oblivious to or ignores the Hebraic idiom of portions of these Gospels. No matter how well a New Testament translator knows Greek, if the translator is unacquainted with, for instance, the Hebrew idiom “bad eye” = “stinginess” found in Matthew 6:23, he or she will not be able to render the passage correctly. If the translator is unaware that in Hebrew the same word serves for both “city” and “village,” then he or she will use “city” when translating passages that speak of Jesus’ hometown, although Nazareth was just a small Galilean village in the first century. If the translator is unaware that in Hebrew there is only one word for both “sea” and “lake,” then he or she will use “sea” instead of the more correct “lake” when translating Gospel passages that refer to the “Sea of Galilee.”
It needs to be added that the quest for a perfect translation of the Bible should not replace one’s search and hunger for God. After all, we do not study Scripture as an end in itself, but as a means. Our interest in Scripture springs from a deep desire to know more of God’s will and ways.