Three Recent Bible Translations: A New Testament Perspective
Davids, Peter H., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
As certainly noted in the other reviews in this series, the three translations under consideration in this review, The Message, the NET Bible or New English Translation (The NET), and the English Standard Version (ESV) differ radically in purpose and therefore tone. The NET is full of notes, both study notes and translator's notes, which include transliterated Greek, Greek characters, and textual information (including the traditional symbols of a selection of textual witnesses). In linguistic tone it has chosen to be a relatively contemporary study Bible. The ESV, on the other hand, deliberately seeks to be traditional, to emulate the stately English of the RSV and older translations. My edition came without significant notes other than central column cross references. The Message is unabashedly contemporary in its language, aiming at an audience that is, if anything, unfamiliar with the Bible. These three are diverse indeed.
In two ways all three are similar. First, all are computer-friendly. The NET is freely available on the web as well as purchasable in the Logos/Libronix system, while the other two came with accompanying CDs for use on my computer. Thus even a traditional translation is not so traditional as to be only a paper product. Since I do not carry a paper Bible outside my home and office (I have German, Greek, Hebrew, and English versions on my HP Jornada, which is always with me and far handier to use), this admission of contemporary reality is welcome. To my knowledge only the NET and ESV have a Windows CE version; perhaps the audience of The Message would be unlikely to use such a version. The one caveat I must add is that I had to install a new program on my desktop computer to run the ESV and The Message, for I did not find ESV available in my normal biblical software and chose not to pay to unlock The Message. second, all use the paragraph as the primary division of the text, The Message (in the printed edition) leaving out verse numbers altogether and the ESV putting them in bold superscript where they are not too obtrusive. The NET puts them in bold regular type with the chapter number repeated for each verse, which is a rather irritating feature if one wishes to read more than a verse or two.
When we move beyond the outward features, it is fair to ask, "How does one review a Bible translation?" Since we are not critiquing the content of what is being translated (as one might with a translated NT commentary or monograph), we need to examine the effectiveness of the translation in communicating the message of the original text. As an active scholar who both teaches seminary students and works within the context of a church, I have two constituencies in view. Thus my main consideration will be how helpful each of these translations will be to one or the other of the constituencies. Will The Message assist someone new to an Alpha course in understanding what God wishes to say to him or her? It is clearly not aimed at the seminary student or even the elders in the local church. Will the NET actually assist a pastor or serious student of the Scripture to understand it better? Will the ESV be especially helpful to some constituency in the Church? These are the questions that need to be raised. Furthermore, as the reader will quickly see, "helpful" or "assist" means both "communicate understandably" and "communicate the sense of the underlying Greek text accurately." Neither side of the balance can be neglected.
Before turning to some sample passages, a general comment is in order. When it comes to communicating the Greek text, the NET, as noted above, has textual notes. From my point of view, the limited selection of witnesses is well-chosen as far as it goes, but one should be aware that the selection is indeed limited. For example, the papyrus witnesses to the catholic epistles are absent and the Byzantine tradition is represented by a single uncial (W). The question this raises is, "Who would use these notes? …