Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Ask the Pastor: Why are there so many different versions of the Bible?

This is the first post in what I hope will be an ongoing series called "Ask the Pastor." The whole intro is in a post from last week, but the basic premise is that I've been starting to keep track of the theological questions I'm asked by my congregation, my friends, and my family. I get asked a lot of questions about a whole range of things and it occurred to me that it would be a great idea to keep track of the answers somehow. So along with a running file on my computer that I'll pull from for church newsletters, website, etc, I'm going to start answering the questions here on my blog too. We're starting today with one that was very easy for me to answer, but that has huge implications for how we see the Bible.

Why are there so many different versions of the Bible?

This question was posed to my by one of the teens at my church, as are many of the best questions I have on my list. We read the New International Version in church on Sunday mornings, but I sometimes slip up and read the New Revised Standard Version before my sermon because that's what we read at the last church I was at. A few people in the congregation swear by the King James Version and others like the English Standard. This is barely scratching the surface of English translations of the Bible. If the Bible is central to what we believe, why are there so many "different" Bibles out there? The Bible wasn't originally written in English, so we can't say there is one definitive version of the English Bible that is the "right" version. 

The Old Testament was written in ancient Hebrew originally and the New Testament was written in ancient Greek. Especially in the case of Hebrew, it's difficult to translate anything into another language, let alone something that can be so abstract as the Bible. Hebrew is a strange and quirky language (which is EXACTLY why I love it so much) with bizarre idioms that just don't communicate well in English, so translators have to do their best to figure out how to say certain things in English to communicate them. It's a matter of trying to balance getting the words all the there and still making sense to the modern English reader. There are words in Hebrew that could mean a bunch of different things depending on the context, and the context isn't always very clear. Greek is structurally a little closer to English than Hebrew, but it's still a difficult process. There are verb tenses in Greek that the native English speaker can barely understand, let alone put into common English language. 

The Bible has also been around for. . . oh. . . 2000 years, give or take. There were a few hundred years where the church was sorting out the canon (what goes in and what doesn't), but it's been around for a very long time in some form or another. Language changes. Just think about how differently teens today use words from how their grandparents use them or how the word "literally" is literally being redefined around us as people insist on using it to replace the word "figuratively." As language changes, we need to change how we have translated these biblical texts into English in order to make sense to the people reading them. That's why the King James may be pretty to read, but is hard to make sense of. People just don't talk like that anymore. And people in the Bible weren't going around saying, "ye" and "thy." They were talking in Hebrew and Greek and Aramaic. 

So what's the best translation?

This really depends on what you want it for. There are some versions that are considered more scholarly and better used for academic purposes. In seminary, when we're not using the Greek or Hebrew, we're usually asked to stick with NRSV or ESV, depending on the professor. At my church, we use the New International Version (NIV) because it's a pretty good modern translation that's easy to read. My home church uses the New Living Translation, which is similar to the NIV. In Bible study small groups, I often get out The Message, which is a really fun modern translation that I don't find helpful for scholarly purposes, but is really good for devotional purposes. 

If you're looking for a good translation to read at home and take to church and you can only have one Bible, I recommend getting an NIV or an ESV. If you want to dig deeper, look into a parallel Bible or a Bible app on your phone or tablet that has different translations lined up together. For a web-based Bible, I like If you want a good, free app, I recommend Youversion to my classes. For further study and investment, I like Logos Bible software. It's pricy, but if you're writing sermons or lessons, etc, it's well worth it.

The point is to find a version you like to read and read it. God doesn't have a favorite English translation that I know of. God just cares that people are reading and paying attention to what God has to say. And the Holy Spirit can reveal Jesus in any responsible translation of the Bible (I say responsible because if your odd uncle just wrote his own translation or something, there is just cause for suspicion). 

What questions do you have? They might be general questions you've been dying to ask someone or questions that this post prompted. Next time, we're going to talk communion. I've actually had two people - one from my church and one family member - ask about communion lately. Who's allowed to take communion, and what if you miss it for some reason? 

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