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?
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.
Second, 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.
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).
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.