Is the Bible the best way to promote Christianity?

I have posted on my own blog Gentle Wisdom a two part series Is the Bible the best way to promote Christianity? – part 1, part 2. In this I discuss issues about the perspicuity of Scripture, and the barriers to understanding it, which lie behind many of the discussions we have been having here at Better Bibles Blog. It is good that we don’t discuss at BBB the theology underlying Bible translation. But these issues are important, and so I offer my blog as a place where I would welcome an appropriate discussion of them.

N.T. Wright: Lost and found in translation

N.T. WrightABC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, has published an interesting essay by Bishop N.T. Wright entitled Lost and found in translation: From 1611 to 2011. This includes a well balanced critique of the Tyndale and KJV heritage and some interesting material on Bible translation principles, on which he seems much better informed than many biblical scholars. But there is no mention of Wright’s own forthcoming New Testament translation, now renamed The Kingdom New Testament.

Here is a taster of what Wright writes:

Translations must be concerned with accuracy, but there are at least two sorts of accuracy. The first sort, which a good Lexicon will assist, is the technical accuracy of making sure that every possible nuance of every word, phrase, sentence and paragraph has been rendered into the new language.

But there is a second sort of accuracy, perhaps deeper than this: the accuracy of flavour and feel. It is possible, in translation as in life, to gain the whole world and lose your own soul – to render everything with a wooden, clunky, lifeless “accuracy” from which the one thing that really matters has somehow escaped, producing a gilded cage from which the precious bird has flown.

Thanks to Eddie Arthur for the link.

USA Today: Has the Geneva Bible made a huge comeback?

Geneva Bible title pageDavid Ker claims that

Those who actually read the Bible prefer the KJV.

But in fact the passage he quotes from an article in USA Today seems to say something different:

82% of those who read the Good Book at least once a month rely on the translation that first brought the Scripture to the English-speaking masses worldwide.

That translation was of course the Geneva Bible, massively popular in the British Isles and the new American colonies in the late 16th and early 17th centuries – and there were no “English-speaking masses” anywhere else at the time. I see that the 1587 Geneva Bible is available for the Amazon Kindle for a mere £2.08, here in the UK. But I was surprised to see the suggestion that it had massively outsold all other Bible versions put together, even among the restricted sample in question.

But perhaps David is simply misleading us with his post. (Normally I would point out factual errors in a blog post in a comment on the post. But as he closed comments on this post before I even had a chance to read it, I have no choice but to make my comment in a separate post.) After all, the title of the USA Today article is “Bible readers prefer King James version”, so perhaps that is the version it is meant to be about. But then the article gives statistics apparently about a different version. Perhaps it is simply that the USA Today reporter is confused and ignorant of her subject matter, and doesn’t know that it was only in the late 17th century, in the wake of huge state intervention in the church, that the KJV became dominant.

David also fails to note a very important point, that the survey was apparently restricted to the USA. I suppose one would expect that from USA Today, but since David chose to quote the words “the English-speaking masses worldwide” he really should have made it clear that the sentence in which these words are found refers only to a small part of these masses.

Actually there is a more serious problem with the USA Today article, which was pointed out by Kenny who was lucky enough to get to comment on David’s post. According to the press release from LifeWay, the actual survey results are that

more than half of all American adults (62 percent) own a KJV Bible. … A full 82 percent of Americans who read the Bible at least once a month own a KJV.

But USA Today has changed “own a KJV” to state that that is the version that the 82% “prefer” and “rely on”. The fallacy is clear when one reads on in the press release to find out that

Americans who read the Bible at least once a month own an average of 5.8 Bibles.

Very likely for most people these multiple Bibles are in various versions. So it is presumptuous and indeed quite false to suggest that 82% of those Americans prefer or rely on just one version. Among my collection of several different versions, I own a KJV which was my mother’s confirmation present, and another which I had at school, but I rarely read either. Kenny’s story is similar, and so very likely is that of huge numbers of Christians among “the English-speaking masses worldwide”, and even of quite a few in the USA.

I wouldn’t expect anything better from USA Today. But here at BBB we really should try not to spread further this kind of misinformation.

Literal Bible translations: crutches for bad teachers?

In a comment on the previous post here John Hobbins suggested that I cross-post here my post at my own blog Literal Bible translations: crutches for bad teachers? This is perhaps slightly more controversial than I would normally have chosen to post here, but I think it meets the BBB guidelines.

So here it is:

ESV BibleT.C. Robinson, at New Leaven, quoted Daniel Doleys writing about why he moved back to teaching from the ESV Bible. I was being a bit mischievous when I commented:

This guy is simply showing that he doesn’t understand how language work[s] and doesn’t understand the ESV. … I’m sorry to say this, but by returning to ESV Daniel is simply helping himself continue to teach and preach badly.

Of course I didn’t write anything like this without explaining my reasons, which I have omitted in the quotation above. And in a further exchange of comments with Daniel I accepted that the example he had given was not really one of bad teaching.

Nevertheless, I would claim that literal Bible translations like the ESV are often used as crutches by bad preachers and Christian teachers.

First I need to explain what I mean by “literal Bible translations”. Henry Neufeld has rightly objected to a misuse of the word “literal”. As this word is so often abused it might be better not to apply it to Bible versions, and use the more technical term “formal equivalence translation”. But that would confuse many people – and make the title of this post too long.

Anyway, I am referring here to versions at one end of the translation spectrum: ESV, NASB, RSV, KJV, NKJV and some others which are classified as more or less “literal” or “formal equivalence”. The Good News Bible, CEV and NLT are among those at the other end of the spectrum, “meaning-based” or “dynamic equivalence”. NIV is somewhere in the middle.

Now I certainly don’t want to claim that all preachers and teachers who use literal translations are bad. Some of the very best preachers use versions of this type. But there are also many bad preachers and teachers out there. And many, not all, of them prefer literal translations. There are at least two reasons why:

First, preachers can simply explain the passage and pretend they have preached a sermon. Sadly it is common for pastors, especially less well educated ones, to reject meaning-based Bible translations because they would be left with nothing to say. These preachers have been used to reading a Bible passage from a version which their congregation does not understand clearly, because it is written in unnatural and perhaps old-fashioned language, and then spending a long time explaining its meaning. Maybe this is all there is to the sermon, or there is only a token attempt to apply it to the hearers’ situation. But if the meaning is clear when the passage is read from the Bible, as it surely should be, then there is little or nothing left for the preacher to say.

Second, and this is what I was getting at in my response to the New Leaven post, literal Bible translations encourage teachers to focus on unimportant details while missing the broader flow of the text. Daniel Doleys’ example about the phrase “in the eyes” in Judges can serve as an example here. Daniel complained that NIV was inconsistent in its translation of this phrase – but seemed to have failed to notice that his preferred ESV is also inconsistent. But should such phrases be translated consistently? If the meaning and context is the same, preferably yes. But part of the argument for literal translations is that each word in the original language should be translated consistently even when the meanings and contexts are different. Some bad teachers want this because they love to discuss how specific words are used with some kind of semi-mystical meaning through the Bible or a part of it – without taking into account that these words are perfectly ordinary ones like “eyes” used in many different ways.

Now I accept that there is a place for looking in detail at how each original language word is used in different senses and contexts within the biblical texts. But this kind of study should be done from the original language texts, and the results should be shared among biblical scholars. Only bad preachers try to impress their regular Sunday congregations with insights of this kind, supposedly based on an original language word but often in fact mainly derived from translations and concordances in English, or whatever else their mother tongue might be.

So it is perhaps not surprising that most ordinary congregation members prefer meaning-based translations while their pastors try to persuade them to use more literal ones. After all, the pastors don’t want their flocks to understand the passage too clearly, or they might feel redundant!

What is the answer here? Preachers and teachers need to realise that there is much more to a good sermon than exegesis, explaining the meaning of the text. They may have to do that, of course, whatever translation they are using, but they should make that task as simple as possible by using a clear and natural Bible version. They should also realise that finding themes and connections between texts, while fascinating for scholars, is rarely helpful for general congregations. The heart of a good expository sermon must always be applying the Bible passage to the needs of the hearers. And the best translation to use is the one which makes that task most effective.

In a comment I clarified as follows:

I know I wasn’t all that clear about “finding themes and connections between texts”. I accept that there are many genuine and valuable connections to be made. I’m sure Lloyd-Jones, as a great exegete, found these. What I object to is the fascination some bad preachers have for finding purely verbal links which are probably coincidental and have no genuine theological significance.

Introducing Crumpe Bible Paraphrasers

In some parts of the blogosphere it is always April 1st, but not among the Beaker Folk of Husborne Crawley. Their Archdruid Eileen has taken on the serious subject of Yet more Bible Translations, in a post which introduces the world to Crumpe Bible Paraphrasers,

named in honour of the man who pointed out the flaws in Wycliffe’s views.

This new society, led by a certain Grafton Underwood, has the inspiring vision that

we will not rest until we have a version of the Bible for every socio-demographic group in the Western World. …

So make sure your next purchase is from Crumpe’s. A Bible written specially for you. Dedicated to your problems. And meeting your needs, in your way.

Perhaps they would like to take on the task of translating and publishing the revolutionary biblical texts found on the lead books discovered supposedly in Jordan.

CBP is apparently named after Henry Crumpe. But it sounds like he ended up accepting Wycliffe’s views. I hope Wycliffe Bible Translators and its partners don’t treat this new society as an enemy, but welcome it into the Forum of Bible Agencies.

Thanks to Eddie Arthur for the link.

Bible versions may be OK, but not at Bible Gateway

I mentioned in a comment on my last post here that I had searched Bible Gateway for the word “OK” in several modern Bible translations, and found no results. For example, my search of The Message gives the following response:

No results found.

No results were found for ok in the version(s):The Message.
Try refining your search using the form above.

You can find more about refining searches and using the search form effectively, visit the frequently-asked questions page.

However, it turns out that the information given here is incorrect and misleading, and, as I will show, that this error is quite “OK” with the staff at Bible Gateway. The word “OK” is probably not in The Message (although “okay” is), or in any other modern English Bible translation, but if it was I would not be able to find that out at Bible Gateway.

The problem is not simply with the word “OK”, because if I change the search term to “and” I get the same “No results found” message, although quite clearly the word “and” is commonly used in The Message, and every other English version. I “visit[ed] the frequently-asked questions page” (there was no direct link so I had follow a long rabbit trail to get there) and could find nothing to explain why these searches were not working, and indeed nothing at all “about refining searches and using the search form effectively”.

On 18th February I contacted Bible Gateway about this issue, and wrote:

I searched “The Message” for “ok”, with “match complete words” not checked. No results. But when I checked for “okay” I found three results. The first search should match all words beginning “ok” but doesn’t. See http://betterbibles.com/2011/02/18/modern-bible-translations-not-ok/#comment-20553.

On 25th February I received a response with the heading

Your request (#17945) has been marked as solved by our support staff.

and a message from Sandy Hall, presumably one of that staff:

Dear Peter,

Greetings from BibleGateway.com.

Thank you for contacting us. The following list of words is a sample listing of common words not recognized in a general search: a, an, the, is, of, and, by, be, for, to, this, I, O (as “O Lord”). The current search engine we use indexes all words in the Bible that are three characters or longer. It’s a technical restriction. To do more than that would index a lot more words making searches take longer and probably a lot more resources on our servers.

If we can be of any further assistance to you, please feel free to contact us again. Thank you for your interest in Bible Gateway.com. We appreciate the opportunity to serve you online.

Sincerely,

BibleGateway.com Customer Care
www.biblegateway.com

Well, it was nice of them to say so, after a week. But if so, why didn’t they say so in the original results? It would have been very easy for them to explain in the “No results found” message, or in some page with a clear direct link from that message, that the search had failed because it was for a word that had been deliberately excluded. I note also that there is not a hint of apology for giving incomplete results or misleading their users like myself.

I have several issues with what they wrote in the message above:

  • This is highly confusing and inconsistent. Have they excluded from their searches all one and two letter words, or only ones they consider common? They claim to index “all words in the Bible that are three characters or longer”, but they have also excluded “and” and “this” from their search. So does that mean that some words are indexed but not recognised in searches, or should I take “all” to exclude “common words”? Why did they not give me a complete list of these “common words”?
  • “OK” is NOT a common word in any English Bible version, although it might be in a broader corpus of the language, and so there is no reason for including it in their undisclosed list of common words.
  • I note that it is not true that no two letter combinations can be searched for. I can search The Message for “qu”, indeed also for “q”, and I get a valid result for all 758 words beginning like this. Why can’t I do the same for “ok”, when words beginning with these letters are probably much less common?
  • Technically, their claim that indexing these common words is a large burden is unsupportable. Probably only around one third of the words in any English Bible version would be on any such list. That means that on any reasonable indexing strategy their indexes would grow by a maximum of 50%. They would have to index perhaps 200,000 to 300,000 more words in each of the less than 100 versions they support. Allowing four bytes per index entry that is a total of about 100 MB extra storage they would need – a trivial amount for any current server.
  • If these searches are not of interest to their users, then few people will make them and the impact on their resources would be trivial. It would actually be more of a burden to maintain a list of excluded words (which would have to be different from language to language) than to include every word.
  • If on the other hand a significant number of people, like myself, are coming to the site for searches like this, then it would surely be in the interests of Bible Gateway, and their advertisers, to support these searches – to provide for their customers what they actually want, rather than what someone at the company thinks they ought to want.

I note that in the 19th century Strong was able to index every word in the KJV, however common, using just pen and paper. Is it really too much for Bible Gateway to do the same using modern computer technology? After all, they have behind them the vast resources of the controversial Murdoch media empire: although their About page does not mention it, Bible Gateway is owned by Zondervan, which is owned by HarperCollins, which is owned by News International.

No, I’m sorry, Bible Gateway, but this issue has not been “solved”. In fact you have done nothing at all to solve it. Your response has caused me to lose the trust I used to have in your product and your website. I will be looking elsewhere in future. And I can’t help recommending readers of this post to do the same.

Modern Bible translations not OK?

It is rare for the BBC to have anything to say about modern Bible translations. So I was a little surprised to find the following, even highlighted in a side bar, in an interesting article on the history of the word “OK”:

Modern English translations of the Bible remain almost entirely OK-free.

Indeed even The Message doesn’t seem to use “OK”. I wonder if the BBC writer found any examples of “OK” in a Bible translation, or simply included “almost” to cover himself.

Could such a word have a place in a Bible translation? I would think it would work best in direct speech. Or should the word be considered too colloquial to be used anywhere?

Nephesh in Genesis 12:5

Gary Simmons asked a question on the Share page:

Alright, let’s get the ball rolling. Genesis 12:5 says that Abram left with his wife and all the nefesh they acquired in Haran. I can think of no particular reason as to why the author did not use anashim here. Why does it say nefesh?

My suspicion is that in this case a nefesh is not a person. It refers to a body or a life. What say ye?

I don’t think I can give a definitive answer, but I will make an attempt.

I think the issue here is really what nephesh means. Like many Hebrew words, indeed many words in any natural language, it has a range of meanings. The original sense in various Semitic languages seems to have been something like “breath”, although this sense is not clearly attested in biblical Hebrew. But a sense which is attested is “that which breathes”. The word is clearly used of animals, excluding humans, in Genesis 1:20 etc, and of the first human in Genesis 2:7; in Genesis 9:12 etc it would seem to include humans as well as animals.

So my suggestion for Genesis 12:5 is that nephesh there refers to both humans and animals acquired by Abraham. How that is translated into English is a separate issue.

In a separate comment Gary suggested that the use of this word implied slavery. Well, maybe some of these people were slaves. But I don’t think the word necessarily meant that. The men and women involved could also have been free servants who chose to go to Canaan with Abraham. In the cultural context that is perhaps unlikely. But I don’t think we can understand the word itself as “slaves”. On the other hand, it might have been a bit demeaning to those involved to put them on the same level as animals.