Thursday, April 17, 2008

Bibles which say what they mean

When the ESV Bible was released a few years back, I was surprised when someone told me that it is a good translation because it doesn't tell you what the Bible means, but only tells you what it says.

I thought about this and realised after a while that there is value in a translation which lets you see that there are interpretative choices in the original, without making the decision for you as to which interpretation is correct.

But I also felt that I need a Bible which tells me what the translator thinks the text means.

I have written before about reading John chapter 11 in the New Living Translation and discovering what Thomas meant when he said
"Let us also go, that we may die with him."

I had read this in my King James Version, my Revised Standard Version and in my New International Version, but they all say pretty much the same thing.

But the NLT translates it this way:
“Let’s go, too — and die with Jesus.”
When I looked up the verse in commentaries by Don Carson, William Hendriksen and others, they all agreed that the NLT was correct.

But I hadn't read the passage carefully enough to see that Thomas was referring to the danger of Jesus going near Jerusalem, and not to joining Lazarus, who, after all, was already dead.

It is important to know that the original has a personal pronoun, and not the name of Jesus, but it is also important to know what the passage means and who that personal pronoun is referring to.

On Sunday our minister was preaching on Psalm 7 and he referred to a similar passage where one translation translates verses 12 and 13 like this:
If he does not relent,
12 he will sharpen his sword;
he will bend and string his bow.

13 He has prepared his deadly weapons;
he makes ready his flaming arrows.

But another is more specific:
12 If a man does not repent,
God will whet his sword;
he has bent and readied his bow;
13 he has prepared for him his deadly weapons,
making his arrows fiery shafts.

Now we are told that the ESV is a version which tells you what the Bible says, whereas the TNIV is a version which tells you what it means, but in this particular instance their roles are reversed. It is the TNIV translating "literally" and the ESV which is translating more freely.

It is handy to know that the ESV is interpreting here and specifying where the original does not, and it is also useful to know what was said in the original and that it is ambiguous, courtesy of the TNIV.


Wayne Leman said...

Interesting, David. I'm sure there can also be other passages found where the roles are reversed. It just takes lots of reading and studying. Thanks for letting me know about this one.

Trevor Cairney said...

Good post David, an interesting example.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for typing this out. I use the TNIV, but am encountering a lot of people fired up about the ESV.

David McKay said...

Hi Jon
I think we should use the great resources we have in English Bibles and read as many different kinds of versions as we have time to.

Today I completed reading The Books of the Bible: a presentation of Today's New International Version and have now read through the Bible in the NIV, TNIV, New Living Translation [2nd ed], Good News Bible [Australian edition] and ESV. Each one is very helpful!

It is so silly when people say that we must all read only one version.

I'm looking forward to reading the New Jerusalem Bible for my next read-through. The translators of this version did not attempt to keep it in the tradition of Wyclif, Tyndale and the King James Version and it makes it fresh, I think.