Because today is the birthday (1920) of Robert G. Bratcher, the primary translator of the American Bible's Society's Today's English Version, also known as the Good News Bible, I want to explore the question of why we have so many different translations and paraphrases of the Bible today.
For many years after the King James Version was published in 1611, it was in effect Christianity's official Bible. Even Jews relied on it. But in the 20th century, because the English used in the King James -- though often poetic -- became increasingly inaccessible, scholars recognized a need for translations into more modern language. (Some folks, however, continue to believe that the King James is the Bible God wants everyone to read. As a woman once told the curator of the Quayle Bible Collection at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kan., if it was good enough for St. Peter, it's good enough for her.)
As this process or producing new translations began, it also became clear that older manuscripts were being discovered. When the King James Version was written, the oldest available manuscript was from roughly the year 1000. Now we have manuscripts -- from such sources as the Dead Sea Scrolls and other findings -- that are hundreds of years older than that. Older means closer to the original.
Each group of translators almost certainly will say that its work has produced the most accurate and readble text available, and once such people have devoted so many years of their lives to arguing over the exact meaning of a Hebrew word or a Greek phrase, it's hard to blame them for thinking they finally have it the way the original author meant it. But, in reality, some of the choices of words used in the translation represent contemporary theological positions as much as original meaning.
For instance, the New International Version generally is recognized as a Bible more in harmony with Christians who would call themselves theologically conservative, while the New Revised Standard Version is more generally accepted as having a mainline character. The New American Bible has become a favorite among Catholics today and is the one offered on the Web site of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Sometimes you see theological positions in choices about whether language is gender-inclusive. The NRSV, for instance, tends to use more inclusive language than does the NIV. Some scholars say that the King James and other versions tend to use masculine language even when the original Greek and Hebrew is inclusive or at least not specifically masculine.
One of the newer translations I like a lot -- the New Living Translation -- has some really clear and insightful language. But I find that it tends to see things very much through a modern Christian perspective instead of reflecting the times in which the Bible first was written. For instance, when the Apostle Paul writes to people who are followers of Jesus, he often uses the term "the brothers." But the NLT often translates that as "Christians," even though there weren't any Christians in Paul's time. The first time that term was used, in fact, it had a derogatory meaning. Only later did members of the Jesus movement appropriate the term for themselves.
There will continue to be newer translations of both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Bible that is used by Christians for many reasons. And the translations will take various approaches. Some will attempt quite literal translations while others will go for a meaning-for-meaning translation. In addition, we'll continue to get paraphrases, such as Kenneth Taylor's The Living Bible and Eugene Peterson's The Message, which I really love.
What's important to remember is that, with few exceptions, there aren't major differences in the wording of these translations (not paraphrases, but translations). Each tries to be faithful to the original. The disagreements come about mostly in how one reads Scripture -- whether literally or metaphorically or in some combination of the two. To suggest that the existence of dozens of translations means there are dozens of conflicting versions is simply wrong. Rather, the conflicts grow much more out of one's hermeneutics, or the approach one uses to interpret Scripture.
I'm sure Bratcher could have told you all this, and still can. He's still alive at age 89, the folks at the American Bible Society tell me.
(The photo here today shows just a small sample of the Bible translations in my own collection.)
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ADVICE FOR RELIGION JOURNALISTS
Almost everyone, it seems, has some advice for the media. Here's some from a Catholic archbishop. I think he's right when he says journalists too often don't understand how churches work. What's your major complaint about press coverage of religion? And what do you most like (besides, of course, my blog).
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A CORRECTION: On my April 14 blog, I included a note (now removed) about a display called "Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race." I said that it was running now through June 10 at the National Archives and Records Administration Building at Union Station in Kansas City. Well, I was about a year off. It runs from March 16 to June 10, 2010. So mark your 2010 calendars now to see this exhibit about Nazi policies.