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Sunday, August 14, 2005

What is the most accurate English Bible version?

I think everyone wants to use a Bible version which is accurate; I have never heard of anyone who prefers to use a Bible which is inaccurate. Many English versions specifically are advertised as being "accurate" or "highly accurate" or "literally accurate" (NASB), etc. The ISV promotes itself as the "the most readable and accurate Bible translation ever produced," and perhaps it is. It is a good translation. Dr. David Alan Black, a good Greek professor who also has an excellent understanding of English, was a main translator for the ISV New Testament. And his competence with both languages shines through in the ISV wordings.

There are perhaps twenty English Bible versions which can be easily purchased today. Obviously, many, including myself, want to use the most accurate one. Which is it?

That question is nearly impossible to answer. For one thing there are different ways to define accuracy. Exegetical accuracy does not always result in accuracy for the reader, particularly if the translation wording obscures or distorts that exegetical accuracy. An example, Jesus calls Herod a "fox." All my life, whenever I would read that part of the Bible, I assumed, from the translation, that it meant that Herod was foxy, that is crafty. But increasing numbers of Bible scholars state that that is not what Jesus meant at all by saying Herod was a fox. Animal names used as metaphors have different meanings in different languages. In English we refer to a crafty person as being foxy. In other languages different animals are used to represent craftiness. So if an English translation of what Jesus said uses the word "fox," is that translation inaccurate. It is accurate in that it uses the English word "fox" for the same animal that Jesus referred to. But it is inaccurate in that Jesus did not mean that Herod was crafty when he referred to Herod as a fox. Instead, Jesus meant something like "Herod is insignificant." Jesus was asserting that he was not afraid of Herod. Somehow an accurate translation must make clear what Jesus meant by calling Herod a fox. There are various ways this can be done, including using a footnote which would say something like "In the Semitic language and culture of Jesus' time, a fox was considered insignificant, a weakling.

Accuracy in translation is a complex issue. It involves several different parameters. It can refer to copying the form of the original to the target language as closely as possible. But if doing so communicates the wrong meaning, as does the English word "fox," can we still say that a translation is accurate. On one level we can, the level which some people consider so important, namely, that the translation "says" what the original text says. But then we have the problem that "saying" what the original text says gives the wrong meaning. And giving the wrong meaning doesn't sound like any kind of accuracy to me. It is at least necessary to have a teacher help us "re-translate" in our minds every place in our Bibles where what the translation "says" is not what it actually "means." Many of us have heard such statements from pulpits in the past, such as when a pastor who uses the KJV has to say, "Well, now, the word "let" here does not mean "let" today; but when this Bible was translated this word "let" meant "prevent." Of course, if a Bible teacher has to re-translate very many words, it creates a significant communication burden for the teacher, the student, as well as the translation itself. Bible readers cannot read their Bibles with confidence that what they "say" is what they "mean."

There is a lack of scholarly consensus on the meaning of some wordings in the biblical source texts. This results, sometimes, in different translation wordings because different translation teams choose different valid exegetical options.

Another issue is that there are disagreements about the text source texts to translate from. For the New Testament, some argue whether it is better to use an eclectic text or the Majority text (or even the Textus Receptus). For the Old Testament some prefer to tilt toward the LXX (Septuagint), while others prefer to tilt toward the Massoretic Text.

There are many accurate Bibles today. In fact, I would suggest that most Bibles today have a high level of accuracy. Some inaccuracies that have slipped through have been discussed more than others. But every Bible version has some inaccuracies. But nearly every Bible version is quite accurate, as long as we understand what kind of Bible version we are using and if we need to do any re-translating of what it says so that we get the right meaning.

So, what is the most accurate English Bible version you can use today? It may be impossible to say. Largely, the answer depends on how we define accuracy. But even then, with the various definitions of accuracy, we can still trust the Bibles that we use. On the whole, almost every Bible we can purchase is accurate, in one way or another. And God in his grace ensures that even Bibles with some (unintended) inaccuracies (and that includes each one) are used to glorify him and bring his good news to others.

Categories: translation accuracy, Bible versions



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