Early last year I wrote a two-part series on the evolution of the King James Bible. For over three hundred years, from its publication in 1611 until the mid-twentieth century, the King James Bible, or Authorised Version, was the most widely-read bible among English-speaking Protestants.
It’s not that there were no other translations around. There were, but none of them seemed to capture the imagination of the Church the way the King James Bible did. But the English language was changing. The ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ of the past were being replaced by the modern ‘you’. Verb endings had also changed, the ‘-th’ being dropped in favour of ‘-s’. Along with these surface changes came more fundamental changes as words shifted in meaning.
And, while no doctrines of the Church were in doubt, advances in biblical scholarship were casting doubt on some of the finer points of translation. Additional, earlier, copies of the scriptures were being discovered, and advances were being made in the understanding of ancient Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. Taken together, the time was growing ripe for a shift away from the King James Version.
That shift finally took place in the late 1970s, with the publication of the Good News Bible. Originally known as ‘Today’s English Version’, the GNB was first published in 1976 in response to repeated requests from Christians in Africa and Asia for a bible which would be easier for non-native English-speakers to read (the last few decades has seen a concerted effort to translate the Bible into as many languages as possible, allowing as many people as possible to read the Bible in their own language). What it lacked in elegance the GNB made up for in readability, and it swiftly became a success in both America and, in properly Anglicised English, the British Commonwealth.
There are two main approaches to Bible translation: Formal Equivalence, sometimes known as literal translation or formal correspondence, and Dynamic Equivalence, sometimes known as paraphrastic translation. In the former approach, the translator/s attempt to stay as close as possible to a literal, word-for-word translation from the source text, while in the latter, priority is given to capturing the overall sense of the text. For the sake of producing something which makes as much sense as possible to the reader, most translators use a combination of the two approaches.
While its beauty still sets it apart, today the King James Version has lost its dominance among English-speaking Christians. The most popular modern English-language bible is probably the New International Version, first published in 1978 and revised several times since. The work of a group of biblical scholars drawing on a range of source documents including the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, the NIV strikes a balance between formal and dynamic equivalence. The clarity and style granted by this approach is no doubt a major cause of its popularity, and it’s my favoured reading version.
Other popular translations include the New Revised Standard Version (1989), which leans towards formal equivalence; the Contemporary English Version (1995) and New Living Translation (1996), which lean towards dynamic equivalence; and The Message (2002), the work of American clergyman and scholar Eugene Peterson, who re-worked the Bible into modern idiomatic English. The result is not to everyone’s taste, and certainly shouldn’t be relied on for detailed study, but is certainly highly readable.
There are those who use the large number of different versions of the Bible available today to cast doubt upon the value of any Bible, but the reality is that language is not only constantly changing but also varies from place to place, from community to community, and even (in the finer nuances) from person to person. If God is real, and if he speaks through the Bible, then it makes sense to have Bibles which speak as clearly as possible to those who wish to receive its message. It is also worth remembering that, ultimately, the Bible may be a holy book but it is still only a book. The heart of the Christian faith is the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ, who is revealed to us not only by scripture but in our communities and in our hearts. ‘All scripture is God-breathed, and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness’ (2 Timothy 3:16), but Jesus is ‘the way, the truth, and the life,’ (John 14:6), in whom, as Christians ‘we live and move and have our being.’ (Acts 17:28a). Amen.
Do you have a favourite version of the Bible? Which is it, and why?