Three Recent Bible Translations: A Literary and Stylistic Perspective

By Ritchie, Daniel E. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Three Recent Bible Translations: A Literary and Stylistic Perspective


Ritchie, Daniel E., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


When I ask advice about travel, a car, or any other costly purchase, I hate it when the salesperson says, "So, what are you looking for?" If I knew the answer, I would not have asked in the first place. I want the authority figure to guide me to the best product around, that is all. The salesperson recognizes, however, that his products satisfy a range of different needs, and without knowing that I want good gas mileage and reliability rather than aesthetic appeal and quick acceleration, he cannot recommend the Focus or the new Thunderbird.

"What Bible do you recommend?" is now the same kind of question. In the 1950s and 1960s, the choice for Protestants was largely between the KJV and the RSV. The NASB and NIV complicated our response, but rightly or wrongly many of us felt we could still give an authoritative answer. It seemed like a straightforward question. After all, ours is a faith that is dependent on an authoritative book. But which one is it?

To complicate matters, we live in an age that recognizes no authority, or at best multiple authorities. New readers are profoundly shaped by this, and by the visual and digital cultures that thrive on variety and change. It is therefore neither accidental nor lamentable that Bible translations are proliferating in our age. The energy that these three translations have harnessed are signs of faithfulness, not decline. We will need several different kinds of Scripture in the coming decades. "So, what are you looking for?"

If you need to be shaken up a bit, or you are buying for a friend who is more familiar with the Simpsons than with Samson, you will want The Message, Eugene Peterson's translation. At his best, Peterson is the J. B. Phillips of this generation, presenting God's message in some of the most effective language of our day. The New English Translation, or NET Bible, is a study Bible. With nearly 60,000 footnotes on the literal meanings of Greek and Hebrew words and the relevant translation issues, it will be especially helpful to missionaries, translators, students, and expository preachers. Its virtual place of publication (www.netbible.org) highlights the NET'S self-understanding as "leverag[ing] the internet" to enable people worldwide to overcome the cost of biblical materials. A free electronic copy of the NET Bible may be downloaded from its website. The English Standard Version (ESV) is an evangelical updating of the Revised Standard Version (1952, 1971). It will appeal to readers who want a translation that is both more literal and elegant than the NIV, but do not require a gender-inclusive translation. I doubt many readers will entirely lay aside their NIV, NLT, or any other translation they have grown to love or rely on, but many will include these Bibles in their reading. What they read will depend upon what they are looking for.

Evaluating the styles of these versions is ultimately inseparable from the translation and theological issues at work in them. To begin nearer the fountainhead of English translations, we owe the much vaunted style of the King James Version (1611) to its theological imperatives, not to a stylistic goal. Ironically, its translators went so far as to disregard the literary style of contemporary English. Their literary sense, David Norton writes,

was totally subordinated to their quest for accuracy of scholarship and translation. . . . Much of the quality of the [KJV] as English exists because the translators and their predecessors strove for something other than stylish English. Their fidelity to the originals transmitted some, perhaps much, of their alien but real literary quality into English.1

If you have read the prose of the late 16th or early 17th century, you know that Norton is correct. The King James Version reflects neither the flowery "Euphuistic" prose of Lyly, nor the "Ciceronian" structure of Hooker; neither the sinuous rhetoric of Donne, nor the harsh directness of Martin Marprelate. …

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