by Ben Witherington | Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary
Of the making of new or renewed translations of the Bible there is no end. And I am often asked what translation should I use? But the answer to that question depends on the use that will be made of the Bible. For the serious student of the Bible who wants and loves detailed notes and cross references, maps etc. I usually recommend the NET Bible, not to be confused with the NEB. For those looking simply for a readable Bible without all the clutter around the edges of the page, I will normally recommend the long time bestseller the NIV.
The current revision of the NIV is good at various levels as it reflects the most recent scholarship, at least in its marginalia when it comes to alternate possible translations of debated words, phrases etc. Take for example the much debated phrase “pistis Insou Christou” or simply “pistis Christou.” The most recent NIV lists in the margin “the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” This is absolutely a possible translation of a phrase which literally reads “faith of Christ,” and indeed I think it should be the preferred translation in Rom. 3:22, not least because in that very same context, a little bit before this passage we have “pistis theou” as well as “pistis Abraham” and in both cases the phrases can hardly be rendered “faith in Abraham” or “faith in God” when the context makes clear some other rendering, for example “the faithfulness of God” is required. In short, I want a translation that reflects the reality that there may be several viable translations of key phrase and terms.
Another test text for me is Luke 2:7, and hallelujah the NIV correctly renders the phrase “because there was no guest room for them.” The Greek word pandeion is the word for inn (see Luke 15 and the parable of the prodigal son) and we do not have this word here. Rather we have the word “kataluma” which here, and again in the last supper story means guest room, not “inn.” Thus I found the NASB simply wrong at this point in its translation. But translators are notoriously cautious and conservative, tending to follow older translations like the KJV, rather than the latest evidence.
A third test passage for me is John 3:16. And it is precisely because this is one of the most beloved verses in the Bible that the tendency is not to mess with the older beloved translation— “for God so loved the world that…” The problem is, it is very unlikely that the connective word Οὕτως can or should be rendered “so.” The sentence instead literally reads “for God loved the world thusly / in this manner— he sent his only Son…” In other words Οὕτως is going to tell us how God loved the world, not how much he loved it. Bill Mounce has rightly fought losing battles to get the translators to render this verse properly, but still they refuse to budge. It’s interesting to see sola Scriptura Evangelicals so bound to translation traditions of old.
Another test passage for me is the so called superman verse— Phil. 4:13 usually rendered “I can do all things in Him who strengthens me.” Literally however the verse reads “For all things I have strength in the one strengthening me.” The immediately preceding verses however rule out the superman translation. Paul has said he can endure or go through all kinds of circumstances whether in plenty or in want. The issue here is not “doing” but having the strength to endure the worst of times as well as the best of times. Paul says he has learned to be content in all circumstances. This is not about accomplishments, not about climbing every mountain, winning every battle. It’s about perseverance through the strength given one by God. So at least the NIV renders this verse with a backward reference “I can do all this (i.e. the previously mentioned enduring and being content) through Him who strengthens me.” Sadly the NASB resorts once more to the superman translation, which is profoundly misleading.
There are no perfect translations. All of them have been done by faithful, but not infallible translators. And as I frequently have to tell folks, every translation is already an interpretation because words only have meanings in particular contexts, and often enough various words have various possible meanings in a particular context. It is not true that “in the beginning was the dictionary.” The dictionary is an ex post facto creations from examining the use of words in particular contexts. The dictionary doesn’t define words, it discerns there meanings in various contexts.
I have to say, some translations are much better than others. Of the team translations done by Evangelicals I’ll still take the NIV over the ESV any day of the week. In fact I’ll take it over any other Evangelical translation including the NASB, with the possible exception of the NET version. Of the team translations done by Protestants and Catholics together, the NRSV should have pride of place, not least because the text criticism behind that version deals honestly and accurately with problem texts like John 7:53-8:11 or the so called long ending of Mark.
The NIV quite rightly marks off Mark 16:9-20 as not found in our earliest and best manuscripts. The NASB mentions this fact in a tiny footnote but does not bracket or mark off this long ending, which surely is not original. As for John 7:57-8:11, it is a text looking for a home. As the NIV says when it blocks off this text within the 4th Gospel, the earliest witnesses and other ancient ones do not have these verses, and a few mss. have it or some of it after John 7:36, or after John 21:25, or after Luke 21:38, or after Luke 24:53. NASB at least puts this passage in square brackets to indicate it is probably not original to that place in the text. It is a text looking for a home.
The basic text critical principle that should be followed in such cases is “text determines canon,” by which I mean, if it’s not something the original inspired writer wrote, so far as we can tell, then it should not be in the text of that book. I personally like and think that John 7:53ff. tells a genuine story of Jesus which was one of those extra, free floating traditions about Jesus mentioned in passing in John 21:25. The same cannot be said about Mk. 16:14ff. which is a hodgepodge of later traditions added sometime in the second century A.D. long after John Mark was dead.
Bottom line— the NIV and the NRSV are still the best readable accurate translations available, along with the NET Bible.
This article was originally published on Ben Witherington’s blog, The Bible and Culture.