Saturday, October 29, 2011

Choosing an English version of the Bible to read - Part 1

This is the first of two posts that consider the question of which English version of the Bible a Christian should read. This post considers the King James Version and general issues involved in translation; the next post discusses translation philosophies and other English versions. My underlying presumption is that most Christians rightly do not want to expend the time and effort to become genuine biblical scholars.

Tangentially, I have known a few evangelicals who claimed to read the Old Testament in Hebrew and a somewhat more numerous group who claimed to read the New Testament in Greek. Both groups, in fact, did not do what they claimed. They simply used an interlinear version of the Bible with the original language on one line and an English translation on the line below. This approach in reality treats the editors of the interlinear text as the authoritative interpreter of Scripture because the editors decide both what constitutes the original text (problems associated with determining the text are discussed below) and the best English translation. At best, relying on an interlinear version is misguided; at worst, this relying on an interlinear text represents bogus scholarship.

During the several decades of my ministry, a number of people have astonished me by claiming that the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible was the best English translation, the definitive English version of the Bible, or even, in one memorable conversation, the original version of the Bible.

No original manuscripts exist for any part of the Jewish or Christian Scriptures. Most of the Jewish Scriptures (basically, the Christian Old Testament) are written in Hebrew (a few passages exist only in Greek). Most of the New Testament was written in Greek (a few phrases in the gospels are in Aramaic). Contrary to what well-meaning but ignorant people have told me, Jesus did not speak English (it did not even exist in the first century!) nor Hebrew, but Aramaic, which was the language of first century Palestine. The gospel authors intended the few Aramaic phrases in the gospels as direct quotes of what Jesus allegedly said in a specific moment.

Literally, thousands of manuscripts exist for most parts of the Old and New Testaments; no early manuscript exists that includes either the entirety of the Old or New Testament. I’ve already commented upon the difficulty in translating from Hebrew into any other language because of the lack of vowels, capitals, punctuation, and spacing. The plurality of manuscripts, mostly undated, compounds translation problems. Which manuscripts are definitive? Is older always better, i.e., more faithful to the missing original or are some later manuscripts based on an earlier, more faithful, manuscript that no longer exists? Did originals ever exist or was the oral tradition, which predates the written tradition, sometimes pluriform?

Modern translations are generally better than older translations such as the KJV (finished in 1611). First, the English language has changed greatly in the last four hundred years. Some eleven hundred plus words used in the KJV have a different meaning in English today than they did then. For example, charity in the King James means love instead of its contemporary meaning of alms or welfare. The word kine, also used in the KJV, denotes the plural of cow.

Importantly, the second person thee, thine, and thou used for the deity in the KJV was the familiar form of address (this is why Quakers insisted on using these forms of the second person) rather than the more formal you and your. Today, the usage is reversed. People wrongly think that the KJV addresses God formally, the opposite of the translation’s original English meaning. The KJV translators invite the reader into a close relationship with the deity. Consequently, reading the KJV requires some translation on the part of people fluent in English, translating the text from antiquated to modern English in order to understand the translators’ intent. Alternatively, readers may accept the KJV as the definitive text and therefore the de facto original.

Second, modern biblical translators have access to far more manuscripts than did the KJV translators. The comparison of various manuscripts can shed light on difficult translation questions. The availability of more manuscripts also provides scholars, for some texts, significantly older manuscripts on which to base their translation.

Third, modern translators have a better understanding of the ancient languages, history, and cultures than did the KJV translators because of several centuries of scholarship, resulting in improved translations.

My next post on this subject will discuss translation philosophies and various contemporary English versions.

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