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Blomberg, Craig. L. Can We Still Believe the Bible? An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos, 2014. 287 pages, pb.

Blomberg’s Can We Still Believe in Bible? blog tour continues here at Reading Acts with Chapter 3, Can We Trust Any of our Translations? Visit the Can we Still Believe website for the rest of the schedule as well as a chance at a free copy of the book as well as the “grand prize” of five books from Baker Academic.

Since I teach undergraduate Greek and Hebrew in a Bible College, I am often asked what the “best Bible translation is.” Unfortunately this is sometimes an attempt to pick a fight, since my questioner has already decided that the KJV is the only Bible inspired by God, or that the TNIV is a liberal attempt to emasculate the church, etc. Everyone who teaches the Bible in Church or a Bible study dreads the phrase “but in my Bible it says….” Everyone has a smart phone has access to dozens of translations at any given time, and sometimes they shuffle through the translations until the find one that says what they want it to say. Why are there so many English Bible translations?

The third chapter of Blomberg’s Can We Still Believe the Bible? concerns just that question. Blomberg is well prepared to comment on translation methods. He has served on the Committee for Bible Translation since 2008. This group is responsible for the revisions of the NIV resulting in the NIV 2011. He served on the NLT translation committee for Matthew and he was one of the reviewers for the ESV New Testament as well as a reviewer for the HCSB as well.

Blomberg’s main point in this chapter is that all major Bible translations are sufficiently faithful to the original Hebrew or Greek text so that the reader is able to learn the foundational truths of Christianity accurately (85). This true for any translation, including historically important translations like the Vulgate or the KJV or modern translations like the ESV, NLT and NIV. In order to support this contention, he makes six comparisons of an older translation and a newer one for the eleventh verse of the eleventh book (1 Kings, Song of Solomon, Micah, Acts, 2 Timothy and Revelation). This results in three Old and three New Testament examples and a variety of genre (prose, poetry, narrative, prophesy, epistle and apocalyptic). By compared translations, Blomberg concludes that there is little difference in meaning between an older translation and a new one. Even Bibles with distinctly different translation methods are not wildly different. So why are there so many different translations?

Translation Methods

Blomberg gives two extremes in translation method. First, some translations use a “formal equivalence” method of translation. The goal is to accurately translate the meaning of words into a target language. While this is sometimes described as a “literal” translation, there will always be some freedom for the translator to adapt the biblical language to English grammar and style. As any beginning Hebrew or Greek student knows, word order in the original languages is sometimes radically difference than English. No English translation preserves that word order, nor would it want to! Examples of this method include the KJV or the ASV, although the ESV is Blomberg’s primary example.

Can We Still BelieveSecond, the other extreme is “dynamic equivalence.” This is an attempt to translate “thought for thought” in order to make the meaning clear in the target language. This type of translation will break long sentences into smaller ones, attempting to make the thought of the original writer clear in the target language. This means that some of the subtle nuances will be lost, but the goal is a readable, aesthetically pleasing translation. Blomberg’s main example is the NLT for this method.

A third way seeks to use the best of both of these methods while avoiding their faults. This has come to be known as “optimal equivalence.” All Bible translations fall somewhere between the two extremes, translations that use this method attempt to accurately translate the meaning of the text and preserve the clarity of the original writer’s thought.  Both the NIV and the HCSB attempt to take into account the meaning of the text without sacrificing clarity.

Blomberg uses James 2:1 as his example verse in his discussion of translation method. In each case, the meaning is clear even if it is expressed slightly differently in each case. He concludes that none of the major translations fail to communicate James’ thought (100). The differences in English translations have no bearing at all on our confidence in the original Greek text. The differences are in method and style chosen by a translation committee. Blomberg himself has served as a translator or reviewer for translations in each of these three categories. One method is therefore not “better” than the other, even if someone prefers the NIV over the ESV or the NLT over the HSCB.

Problematic Translations

But not all translations are accurate. Blomberg includes a short section on “versions to “treat with caution.” He begins with two extremes. First, one ought to use caution when using a Bible translated with a “concordant method.” This is an attempt to create a word-for-word translation with no regard for idioms or syntax. This sometimes means that the same Greek word is always translated the same without regard for context.  Second, one ought to be cautious using paraphrases. He mentions The Message in particular since it is the most popular paraphrase available today. A paraphrase attempts to express a given verse in a striking, memorable way in order to give the reader a new way of looking at a familiar text.  “Serious study, teaching and preaching must never use (a paraphrase) except by way of illustration” (103).

Translations that are produced to support a particular doctrinal bias ought to be avoided. The New World Translation famously mistranslates John 1:1 to support Jehovah’s Witnesses doctrine and the Joseph Smith Translation makes arbitrary additions and modifications to the text. Blomberg includes Gen 9:21-24 as an example. The verses are modified to conform to 1 Nephi 13.26. There is “no shred of historical evidence these portions were ever removed from the Bible” (104).

Inclusive Language in Translation

Finally, Blomberg addresses inclusive translation of masculine pronouns when humanity is in view. For American English translations, this has been a contentious issue since the NIV was updated in 2005 (TNIV) or 2011 (NIV 2011). He offers the example of Proverbs 17:15: “He that justifieth the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord” (KJV). Clearly the “he” in this verse refers to any person regardless of gender. The NRSV rendered the verse “One who justifies…” and other modern translations use some other non-gendered pronoun. The 1984 revision of the NIV was nearly the only modern translation that retained the masculine pronouns for clear generic statements.

Blomberg offers a short history of that controversy which resulted after a British gender-inclusive NIV was released. A meeting of translators in Colorado Springs resulted in a set of guidelines for preserving masculine pronouns even when the context supported an inclusive pronoun. But when the Committee for Bible Translation began to work on the revisions that would result in the TNIV, they could not work within the guidelines. Instead, the NIV (1984) remained in print and the TNIV was released with a flurry of propaganda for and against the translation. Some scholars responded with scathing condemnations of the translations in journal articles or books, some scholars defended the decisions in other articles and books. The controversy was not limited to pronouns, since the TNIV chose to translate diakonos as “deacon” instead of “servant” in Romans 16:1, even though it referred to a woman, Phoebe. This was seen as letting church practice (ordination of woman) dictate a translation.

The NIV 2011 represented the next step in the evolution of the translation. If there was “any hesitation that a given masculine term in a given context might refer to males only, gender exclusive language was reinstated” (111). One complaint against the TNIV was that singular pronouns were changed to plurals, or that third person pronouns were changed to second-person pronouns. When a text read “he” but obviously meant “all humans regardless of gender,” the TNIV translated the singular “he” with the plural demonstrative pronoun, “those” or “you.” These changes were revisited in the NIV 2011 and only about two-thirds of them were retained, many in a “very different and limited way” (113). In fact, the changes that were made attempt to translate the original into a contemporary English style as demonstrated by the Collins Dictionary database. This database tracks English usage shows that what used to be called a “generic masculine” is most often expressed today with a plural pronoun (they) even with a singular antecedent. Yet changes from the TNIV to the NIV 2011 did not stop the Southern Baptist Convention from condemning the translation and producing their own translation (the HCSB).

This section could be read as a defense of the NIV 2011 because Blomberg serves on the Committee for Bible Translation. But his goal is not to defend the NIV 2011 (although he does answer some of the false statements made about the translation). Rather, Blomberg wants to show that all modern English translations are in some ways “gender inclusive” and it is inappropriate to force a text that intended to address all people (Prov 17:15, for example) to use a masculine singular pronoun. To do so would in fact distort the meaning of the original text (99).

Conclusion

This chapter has two major emphases. First, Blomberg compares Bible translation methods in order to show that there are some translations that are more “formal” or literal, in order to emphasize meaning, and others that are more “dynamic” in order to achieve clarity. All translations fall somewhere along that scale. Second, Blomberg gives insight into the inclusive translation controversy and provides a defense for inclusive translation like the NIV 2011. While this section may reflect some frustration with false information and propaganda, Blomberg offers a reasonable overview of the issues involved. A topic missing from the chapter the reading level of a translation. Some translations use limited vocabulary and shorter sentences in order to render the text more accessible to people with limited reading skills.

One thing that is challenging in this chapter is Blomberg’s observation that there are so many Bible choices for English readers. Some languages only have the older translation and a single modern translation. Perhaps the reason for this is that Bibles are money makers for publishers. The motivation for another Bible translation may not be clarity or doctrinal fidelity, but profits for the publisher.

Anyone who teaches the Bible in church, college or seminary is often asked what Bible translation is “best.” As Blomberg shows in this chapter, any of the major translations available at Bible bookstores today is accurate and will be sufficient for a Christian for both doctrine and practice.  There is no perfect translation, but compared side-by-side, all major translations faithfully render the Hebrew and Greek of the original within the guidelines of that particular translation.

NB: Thanks to Baker for kindly providing me with an advanced review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Just a quick before I leave for California.  I saw a tweet from Crossway with news that the ESV Bible App for the iPad has been upgraded to take advantage of iOS 4. This is one of the nicer Bible apps for the iPad, although I happen to like the ESV translation so I am likely prejudiced.   Here’s a link to the App Store.

 

Meanwhile I am speaking at West Coast Grace Youth Camp, Mt. Palomar, California.  I always have a great time there.  If they have upgraded the wifi since last year I should post a few updates.

John D. Currid and David P. Barrett.  Crossway ESV Bible Atlas.  Wheaton:  Crossway, 2010. 352 pages, $55.00.

The ESV Bible Atlas is a companion to the popular ESV Study Bible.  David Barrett oversaw the maps and John Currid was the Old Testament Archaeology editor for the ESVSB.  In many cases identical maps appear in both volumes.  Because of the quality of paper used in the Atlas, the same maps are easier to read and in some cases larger. For example, “The Setting of the Judges” map (ESVSB 434 / ESVA 4-15) is slightly larger, while the map “The Judges of Israel” on the next page is the same size.  It appears that the contours of the maps show mountains have been toned down for the Atlas.  But this atlas is far more than maps drawn from the Study Bible.  Dozens of specialty maps are inserted into the Historical Geography and the Regional Maps are completely new for this volume.

The volume is divided into four sections.  First, a 44 page introduction covers basic geographical regions, climate, and economy, and archaeology of the Bible. The section concludes with two pages of modern Israel maps with archaeology sites marked.

The largest section of this 352 page atlas is part two, Historical Geography (150 pages).  Like the New Moody Atlas, this historical approach is a richly illustration overview of biblical history.  There are twelve sub-sections: Before Abraham, Patriarchs, Sojourn in Egypt, Wilderness and Conquest, United Monarchy, Divided Monarchy, the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Hellenistic, Maccabean and Roman eras. Each is illustrated with larger maps covering the whole period and a number of smaller maps, illustrations, and photographs.  Unlike the New Moody Atlas, this section is not well documented.  The text is far more detailed than the IVP Atlas but will not overwhelm the laymen with details.  One unusual feature of this section is a series of computer generated maps which attempt to show the geography from “ground” level.  I am not sure these are particularly effective, but the do provide a different view.

The illustrations in the Historical Geography are excellent, although many are the same as ESVSB.  For example, the various illustrations of Jerusalem are identical: the time of David, (ESVSB 550 = ESVA 127), Solomon (ESVSB 595 = ESVA 131), etc. The illustrations in the Atlas, however, are on a single page and therefore easier to read since there is no center margin running through the picture.  The illustration of the temple is identical to the Study Bible, but twice the size (ESVA 134-35). Likewise the illustration of Zerubabbel’s Temple is much larger than the ESVSB.  I found the artistic renderings of Jerusalem fascinating and appreciate the larger size in the atlas, but I wish they appeared in a single section so I could compare the development of the city over time.

As expected, the ESV Bible Atlas has a wide variety of photographs illustrating the Historical Section.  Many of these photograph come from Todd Bolen (www.bibleplaces.com) and are for the most part recent pictures. Page 143 shows Jeroboam’s altar at Tel Dan as a wooden frame and a bit less development than my visits to the site, but there are no photographs that are obviously too old to be useful.  Often photographs cover a half page and are well chosen to illustrate the text on the page.  I was particular impressed with the photos of Gamla, a site often ignored in atlases (or tours, for that matter).  A lively photo of the oldest synagogue found in Israel appears on page 253 along with an excellent artistic reconstruction on the next page (also in ESVSB, 1956).

Part three is Regional Geography (37 pages) and is more like a traditional atlas.  These elevation maps are beautifully done using Lambert Conformal Conic projections.  Mountains and valleys are clearly visible and a color scale for elevation.  Palestine appears as a two-page map followed buy two-page maps of Judea, Samaria, Galilee, Gilead, Moab and single page maps of Edom and Philistia.  Three maps of Jerusalem are included (David, Nehemiah, and New Testament period).  Each has been overlaid with Charles Wilson’s Ordinance Map via Todd Bolen.

Part four is a collection of time-lines and a wide variety of useful indexes.  One in particular merits attention.  The authors have included an 11 page index of biblical place names followed by their present day place names, location on the Palestine 1923 grid, longitude and latitude data, and the location on the regional maps in the atlas itself.  Location data can be typed into Google maps so you can examine the satellite map of modern Israel for the location.  For example, type “E 34.8490, N 31.5650″ into Google Maps and you will see the region around tel Lachish.  Using Google Earth, one can see tags for the Lachish letters with links to photographs of the site.  Try E “35.1850, N 32.5850″ for Megiddo, there are dozens of tags and links!  One drawback is only biblical places appear in this index, so Qumran, for example, does not have a listing.  But this extra information makes for an incredible learning experience.

Two things set this Atlas apart from the competitors.  The book contains a CDROM with 127 maps from Atlas and ESVSB.  The largest is 1575×2298 pixel map of the near east in the late Bronze Age (map 3.1).  The map of the Roman Empire is a whopping 2240×1463 pixels.  These maps are indexed by chapter and a web page is provided with descriptions and links to the maps.  These maps can be easily added to Powerpoint for use in the classroom.  A second added feature is a poster of the Land measuring 22×16 inches.  The inclusion of an index of cities on the map itself make this a handy tool for quickly locating key places.

If you already own the ESV Study Bible, is there enough new material in the ESV Bible Atlas to justify the extra expense?  Absolutely.  The Historical section is a worthy introduction to biblical History and the Regional Atlas goes far beyond the maps included in the Study Bible.  For the laymen or pastor, these two resources are an excellent foundation for serious Bible study.

Between summer, my dissertation, and the World Cup, I have been neglecting posting.  If you read this blog much, you know I have been using the ESV Study Bible for my Bible Survey classes and have been quite pleased with the translation and the notes. There are a few sections I disagreed with in the notes, for the most part they are well done.

The Gospel Coalition has a nice description of the forthcoming  ESV Bible Atlas. At 352 pages and 65,000 words, this is the largest Bible Atlas in recent memory.  The “look and feel” is similar to the ESVSB, the maps were prepared by David Barrett, who also did the maps for the Study Bible.  When my copy arrives, I will post a review of the ESVBA, with a comparison to the IVP Atlas and the new Moody Bible Atlas.

Crossway has 40 pages online for you to browse.  Check it out.

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