A new English Bible translation? No, ENOUGH already!

A few words from the heart about Bible versions in English, mixed with lists, parables, and personal anecdotes! Offered as proof that we might want to CALL A MORATORIUM on new Bible translations in English.

One, the Parable of the Banquet. You and your family gather for a huge feast, perhaps American Thanksgiving. They wheel out the turkey, stuffing, potatoes, five side dishes, breads, pickles, olives, sauces, and you take helping after helping.

But don’t push back from the table just yet! Because then they bring out the roast goose, with chestnut stuffing. 20 minutes later, it’s a whole ham. Then moose steaks. Then a huge smoked salmon. Then, since it’s not the same as regular turkey, a smoked turkey. Don’t forget the vegetables! Venison is next. Forty kinds of pie, and they offer you a slice of each, along with plum pudding and Indian pudding.

But wait! Only then do they bring out roast beef and a leg of mutton. Then corned beef and cabbage with potatoes and carrots. And the Stuffed Four Bird Roast with duck, guinea fowl, pheasant, chicken. Then to honor our brethren in Latin America, tamales, chicharrones, torrejas. And so on, for a total of 450 dishes in all. (Remember that number, please!).

The working hypothesis seems to be: if sitting down to a banquet is good, then, sitting down to an exponential banquet must be ten, a hundred times better.

“Wow,” says Uncle Ted, loosening his belt. “You could feed a whole village in Africa for a year with this spread!” And ironically, he’s right – because staring in through your dining room window, there are a dozen starving people, their eyes fixed on your table.

Two, an Anecdote – The Abbreviations Page. A few months ago, I skimmed through a book on the Christian life. I also looked at the Abbreviations page, which shows the reader that, NIV means New International Version and so forth. It revealed that the author had used about ten versions of the Bible. But what is this? Fully half of them were versions so recent that I had never before heard of them. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach, because of:

Three, some World Statistics. There are over 7000 languages in the world today. The full Bible has been translated into only 700 of them. Over 2000 languages have nothing of the Bible in them. None. No Psalm 23. No John 3:16. Zero. This is a stat that interests me, since I serve as a Bible advisor for Wycliffe Associates. Our goal is to help people groups around the world to produce the very first Bible translation in their own language. Many languages beyond English already have options: Bible Gateway lists six versions in Bulgarian! And three each for Croatian and Vietnamese! There are multiple Bible versions in the world’s major languages, for example, French, German, Russian, Portuguese, Spanish.

From https://www.wycliffe.org.uk/about/our-impact/

Four, another Statistic – How many versions of the Bible in English? Wikipedia says the number stands at a whopping 450! Most of which you have never used, or which have gone out of print, but if necessary you could hunt up a copy online. The high number is, in part, because there has been a strong tradition of Bible reading in English.

How many English Bible versions? Let’s just say, lots and lots.

Five, a Proposal. And keep in mind, I have friends who work on English Bible translations, and they might come across this post! Nevertheless:

Perhaps it is our duty to ensure that, before the English-speaking church has its 451st “dish” to choose from, that the rest of the world gets at least 1 plate of food? Hence, I suggest a moratorium on new English translations of Scripture.

Six, a Criterion for new Bible versions: “urgent necessity.” That is, for every case, might we ask, Is this new version urgently needed for the church to thrive? “Ah but you see,” they invariably say in the promotional material. “OUR translation is different! It fulfills a need for the English-speaking church that the other versions simply do not fill! It has a niche audience!” I retort that, a Christian community that has had 450 Bible versions (that’s an average of a new one, every single year, for almost five centuries, by the way) can surely survive – thrive! – on what already exists. In fact, a short while back, I had occasion to read some passages from the first English Bible that was translated from the original languages: the Tyndale/Coverdale Bible, published in 1535, came out a few years after the first such modern version (Luther’s German New Testament) and predated the King James by many decades. Here is a brief sample: “And as Moses lift up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the son of man be lift up, that none that believeth in him perish: but have eternal life. For God so loveth the world, that he hath given his only son, for the intent that none that believe in him should perish: But should have everlasting life. For God sent not his son into the world, to condemn the world: But that the world, through him, might be saved.” (John 3:14-17) (See this site for the whole Tyndale/Coverdale, updated with modern spelling). If the English-speaking church had only Tyndale/Coverdale, it would already possess more of the Bible in its own language, and of higher quality, than what exists for the majority of the languages of today’s world.

Seven, a Rhetorical Question. Why put the huge amount of dollars, scholars’ time and energy, and other resources into yet another English Bible? What if we put just some of that money into paying for a whole new translation for a whole new audience? (The cost to produce a whole Bible in a language that has never had a single verse in it’s first version is less than $20,000; that is, a pittance compared to the production of a new version in English). There is an ethical question here, since much of the world is starving for the Bible while we have more options than we can possibly use.

Eight, Another Image. Although it is useful to have several Bible versions to hand in a small group Bible study, it is jarring when every member arrives with a different translation. But beyond that: a medium-sized church could gather on Sunday, and every man, woman, and child could in theory have a unique Bible version.

Nine, a Software Search. I use, daily, the Logos Bible Software, where I can compare various translations of a text. And such comparison is a necessary step of Bible study. But I invariably find that 3-4 translations are more than sufficient! 450 versions will not shed a hundred times more light than those 3-4. For example, I ran a search to see how various Bibles render a verse, chosen at random, 2 Cor 3:1a. This is part of what came up:

  • Are we beginning to commend ourselves again?
  • Are we beginning to commend ourselves again?
  • Are we beginning to commend ourselves again?
  • Are we beginning to commend ourselves again?
  • Are we beginning to commend ourselves again?
  • Are we beginning to commend ourselves again?
  • Are we beginning to commend ourselves again?
  • Are we beginning to commend ourselves again?
  • Are we beginning to commend ourselves again?
  • Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? – Yes, you counted right – that’s 10 versions that had, verbatim, “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again?” Plus:
  • Are we beginning to commend ourselves afresh?
  • Do we begin again to commend ourselves?
  • Do we begin again to commend ourselves?

And then some variation:

  • Are we beginning to praise ourselves again?
  • Do we have to show you our qualifications again? 
  • Does this sound as if we were again boasting about ourselves?
  • Are we beginning all over again to produce our credentials? 

All to say that, if some individual, committee, denomination, or publishing house mentions they are going to produce a new Bible translation, the first question we might ask is, WHY??

And yet, there are people right now who are translating the Bible into English, yet again!

Ten, a Bad Feeling About This. Wow, and to think that I was only going to suggest we put a cap on the number 450! But what do I see? That already in the 21st century there is a long list of new Bible versions! I am not even counting the existing versions which will probably be revised and improved numerous times in the 21st century (at the moment, for example, the NASB and the NIV).

I am far from certain this is a complete roster, since every time I looked online I turned up yet another. My conclusion: of the following 30 or so new Bible versions since the year 2000, I see none that were truly needed, to say nothing of urgently necessary.[1]

Eleven, the List. Let’s start with two that market themselves as being for the 21st century, even though they came out a little earlier:

KJ 21, KJV 21st Century. Basically, the KJV with a few cosmetic changes to remove a few outdated words. You can buy a leather-bound copy on Amazon for $59.95. My objection: if the KJV contains a few outdated words, why not just put out a glossary as a pdf file that people can print off and put in the back of their KJV? KJ 21 is marketed as better than the New King James Version (1982), which I already thought was a fine update.

TMB, Third Millennium Bible, 1998, for the 21st century. Also, just an update of some vocabulary of the KJV.

CEB, The Common English Bible, 2011. This is a serious version by serious scholars.

CSB, The Common Standard Bible, 2017. Which is a new update of the HCSB, Holman Common Standard Bible, 1999.

ISV, International Standard Version, 2011 edition.

NET, The NET Bible, 2005 edition. Another “serious” new translation.

LSB, Legacy Standard Bible. This is a project by John MacArthur. It is basically a melding together of the 1977 and 1995 NASB versions, which in turn are based the 1971 NASB, and eventually, the American Standard Version (ASV) of 1901. The 1977 and 1995 editions are still available, by the way, so this will be only a “best of both worlds”; and it was an NASB that was published before the 2020 NASB update. That will make, let’s see, four available NASBs: 1977, 1995, LSB, 2020.

WEB, World English Bible 2000. Like the ESV, RSV, NASB 1977, NASB 1995, LSB, the upcoming NASB, and the NRSV, this is yet another revision of the American Standard Version.

The Voice, 2012.

The Message, 2002, a paraphrase by Eugene Peterson.

Open English Bible, in progress.

LEB, Lexham English Bible, 2011.

TEB, Transparent English Bible, in progress, by an actual scholar, James Tabor. He prefers a hyper-literal method of translation (that is, it is not readable English). For example: “These are the bringings-forth of the skies and the land in their being created. In the day of the making of YHVH ELOHIM, land and skies, and no shrub of the field was before that on the land, and no plant of the field had before that sprouted – for YHVH ELOHIM had not made rain on the land, and there was no soil-man to service the soil.” (Gen 2:4-5).

KNT, Kingdom NT: A Comprehensive Translation. This was produced by another renowned New Testament scholar N. T. Wright.

MEV, Modern English Version, 2017. Not to be confused with the other MEV, which came out in 2013, see below!

EHV, Evangelical Heritage Version 2017. A Lutheran project.

LSV, Literal Standard Version, 2020, the only Bible, they say, that is “strictly literal and in modern English.”

And finally, The Restored New Testament, 2009. Done by a real scholar, but since it includes non-canonical books it is not really a New Testament.

Twelve, to Catch our Breath and Recap. I could not imagine that any of the above were “urgently necessary”; and certainly not worth the resources that could have been invested in one of the 2000+ languages, spoken by millions, which to date have zero Bible verses. And, I would insist that any new Bible version be able to prove, not that it “fills a niche” – because all versions arguably do – but that it is urgently needed. That the English-speaking church must have this new Bible version; that the resources, labor and money put into producing, printing, and distributing it were more wisely spent on this project, rather than put into a language that has no Bible. I would propose that –

Whenever a publishing company feels it wants to produce a new version, I challenge them to earmark some of its earnings to sponsor a Bible translation in 2 or 5 or 10 languages which have yet to hear their first verse in their own tongue.

Perhaps some are already being generous in this direction, and I am unaware of it.

Note. And I’m not even going to talk about the many specifically Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox, or Messianic Jewish versions (e. g., the Tree of Life Version); nor the various and useful translations of the Septuagint; nor sectarian versions, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses full revisions of the New World Translation: in English in 2013; in Spanish in 2019. Or special editions or study Bibles.

Thirteen, an Insinuation. I dislike raising this possibility, but it is appropriate: how many of the new Bible projects (particularly those I will mention below) are the fruit of someone who feels that, in order to be taken seriously, they must put out their own Bible? The derogatory “vanity project” is usually used of rich celebrities or businesspeople, who have a lot of money to invest in something that promotes their “brand”: the rich kid with marginal talent who releases her own club album; the actor who produces a film to showcase his name; the reality show that brings a celebrity to the small screen; the rapper who brings out his own brand of vodka. I cannot make the judgment on each of the following list, but I suspect five or six of being vanity projects, as well as one or two on the above list.

Fourteen – a Vital Question for our next list. Does knowing some Greek (a few semesters, or the ability to use the Strong’s Concordance and Dictionary) qualify you to be a translator of the Greek New Testament (NT)? No! Translation is a science. Being a sincere but untrained Bible translator is just as dangerous as being a sincere but untrained designer of suspension bridges or a manufacturer of food supplements. People who try their hand at translating the NT tend to hit another hidden reef: they have been reading the NT their whole lives; and so they already know what it is supposed to say when they read μακάριοι οἱ πραεῖς, ὅτι αὐτοὶ κληρονομήσουσιν τὴν γῆν: it means “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Besides which, the translator has the “answer key” (various English versions) wide open at all times! In that case, the “translator” is like the little one who pretends to “read” her story book aloud, but Mother knows it’s by memory! So here’s a test: Anyone who claims to be able to translate the NT into English ought to be able to read, with just a dictionary, an unknown passage from the Greek text of, let’s say, Josephus, Philo, Plutarch, Marcus Aurelius, or Clement of Alexandria. In fact, here is a little test I have set out; any true “translator” should have no trouble deciphering it.

Fifteen. Let the Buyer Beware of the Following New Versions. We turn from the Bibles that are not urgently necessary to those that are not legitimate Bible translations. For reasons I have mentioned, I am going to have some harsh words to say: first because this is God’s Word; and second, because I hate to see people being deceived and taken for their money. One common trait of the versions above is that, legitimate ones tend to be produced by many, many scholars; which scholars have advanced degrees (doctorates typically) in the relevant fields. Vanity projects, on the other hand, are usually produced by individuals, and not analyzed by publishers which will insist on vetting their accuracy. Of course, some “translators” use their “outsider status” to prove that money-hungry theologians are trying to keep them out of the game! Or some of them make vague gestures such as, “Sure, I showed this around to Bible scholars.” And while this is not a general rule, some Lone Wolf translators on the list below are positively brimming with a sense of their unique anointing or intellectual superiority or love for the Bible. The websites boast of testimonials from (non-expert) readers who acclaim the new version as The One. But anyway – the list:

The Conservative Bible Project – Buyer beware! This is not a translation, but a paraphrase of the KJV by people who are not expert in the languages. It accuses all modern versions of a “liberal bias.” Not theologically liberal, but politically. In other words, for century after century, the equivalents of democrats and socialists have rewritten your Bible! And so the CBP will save you, since this type of “error requires [politically] conservative principles to reduce and eliminate,” for example, to “express the meaning of free-market parables” of Jesus. So, do not expect the CBP to challenge any Republican or libertarian principles! The Woman Taken in Adultery in John 8 is thrown out, in part because of manuscript evidence, but also, because political liberals like it as an argument against the death penalty. Plus, readers of the Conservative Bible need no longer be troubled by, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” How come? Because “rich man” doesn’t really mean “rich man”! So, try to imagine some Bible version whose “bias” is “fixed” by Marxists or Ancient Astronaut theorists, and you will have an idea of why this method gives nightmares to real Bible translators.

MCT, the Mickelson Clarified Translation, 2019. It is self-published, which is usually not a good sign of quality. Nor is the fact that the author is a software engineer, who took just one year of theology. That is, he is fundamentally unqualified as a Bible translator, even though his book is, his words “hand-translated”(?); I do not know what that could mean: is it hand-translated as opposed to “google translated”?

TPT, The Passion Translation, 2017. A problematic version, which I will leave to another to review. The “translator” Brian Simmons claims to have been a “seasoned linguist and missionary Bible translator” in Panama, with a doctorate. However, his doctorate is from an “institute”, not an academic institution. And as he admits elsewhere: “I had minimal background in biblical languages, so yeah, it was something that, honestly, something the Lord has really helped me with.” Nor does he claim to favor the Hebrew and Greek original, but rather the 5th century Syriac version – another language he does not know, so he has paraphrased an English version of the Syriac. If this all sounds nonsensical, it is – just enjoy the NKJV or the NIV or the ESV instead! But wait – he does say that he traveled to heaven, where he was told to produce the TPT and then sent back to earth. New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg said The Passion Translation should “come with a surgeon general’s warning of it’s potential hazards”. 

Original Aramaic Bible in Plain English, NT Psalms and Proverbs, by David Bauscher, 2010. By the way, the New Testament was not written in the particular Aramaic dialect that Jesus spoke, so the “original” in the title shows that this is a non-starter. It is put out by a known publisher of vanity projects, Lulu Press.

MEV NT, Modern Evangelical Version, Robert Thomas Helm, 2013. It asks the question everyone wants the answer to: “At a time when there are already many modern English Bible translations, potential readers may wonder, ‘Why another translation?’” The book is published by Xlibris, another source for vanity projects. As an Adventist, he holds to conditionalist immortality, and that comes through in his translation.

AEV, American English Version of the New Testament, by Vernon Mitchell, 2007. Likewise published by a vanity project publisher, Xulon Press.

Wilton Translation of the New Testament, 2010. From self-publishing medium Trafford Publishing. It is possible that he knows some Greek, but that does not qualify him as a Bible translator.

The New Testament by Charles A. Schism, 2005. His doctorate seems to have come from a diploma mill, his NT from AuthorHouse self-publisher.

MLV, The Modern Literal Version, 2014, but updated from the older Charles H. Williams version, 1937. For many years, the Williams NT was one of the only alternatives to the King James. Today’s updated version makes the gut-clenching claim that, “The Modern Literal Version is the only translation which wants to be error-free.” Not “this is the best” but, by implication, it is the best because all other versions do not want to be error-free. It also claims to be “the largest Bible project in English history” with “over a million proofreaders.” It is the most accurate, that’s “math, not opinion”. Charles Williams himself had not displayed such hubris! (Btw, despite their claim to have a million proofreaders, within 1 minute, I caught at least four grammatical and spelling errors in their two-paragraph home page – four errors that slipped past a million proofreaders.) The website says it cannot find a publisher, which is not a good sign for the project. [Addendum: I have heard back from the MLV people – many thanks! – nevertheless, their description of how they “translate” the Bible left me speechless, and my evaluation above turned out to be too generous. Apparently, they use a computer to tell them what is the one “correct’ meaning for each word, and then anonymous readers write in to say whether they think it is correct or not. They specifically do not use people who read the languages!]

TPW, The Pure Word Bible, 2017. See my review here. I have saved the worst for last. I’m not sure whether to call this a vanity project or just another one of the Brent Millers’ (father and son) money-making schemes.

(Mr. Schism died in 2010. If Messrs. Mitchell, Mickelson, Miller, Simmons, or Wilton wish to challenge my suspicion that they are not qualified Bible translators, please contact me and furnish evidence that I am wrong – at which point you will receive a sincerely apology and published retraction).

Sixteen, some Math. One of the above “buyer beware” editors claimed that he had invested over 40,000 hours in the production of his New Testament. This would be about 20 years of full-time work. To begin with, I find that figure badly inflated – Luther, who had no earlier German versions to work from, finished his translation in eleven months, and he was at the same time busy with other projects. But let’s assume 40,000 hours and do some arithmetic!

(1) Instead of that project, he could have taken various degrees, including a doctorate, in biblical languages, studied the languages and manuscripts for additional years, then joined an editorial team to help produce a scholarly translation of the NT, and would probably have had years to spare.

(2) OR, and this would have had the greatest impact of all: apparently he did not need the income associated with those 40,000 hours. So – he might have gotten a minimum wage job from 1990-2010, one that paid, let’s say, $5.00/hour, and gained $200,000. Since he is earning so little, in the US he would pay little or no taxes. Now, as we showed above, the cost to produce a whole Bible in a new language is less than $20,000. Our conclusion: if he had worked at McDonalds for those 40,000 hours, and invested all his earnings in the direction of genuine Bible translation around the globe, then, instead of adding the 450th-plus New Testament to the pile – and a “translation” that should never have existed in the first place – he could have been responsible for the production of 10 whole Bibles in 10 whole languages where before there had been zero verses, and thereby blessed millions upon millions of people instead of hundreds. That would indeed have been a case of, “Lord, you gave me one talent, and look, I have multiplied it by thousands.” Instead – a wasted opportunity.

Finally: an Additional Banquet Story. Whenever we North Americans have a buffet luncheon at church, the rule (usually unspoken) is that “Nobody should go to the table for seconds until everyone has had a chance to go through the line once.” This is so important in our ethic that, most second-timers would be mortified if they realized that the people behind them in line hadn’t had a bite to eat yet.

May I suggest: it’s the same with the Bible.

[1] I would not label even the important and popular English Standard Version (2001, with other editions since then in 2007, 2011, 2016) as vitally necessary. The English Standard Version is one of several revisions of the Revised Standard Version of 1947, 1952. So is the New Revised Standard Version. In my opinion, a person who wants an updated version of the RSV might opt to use the NRSV – which is the favorite of Bible scholars for its clarity and reliability and my preferred version for study. The objection against it is that, the NRSV, NIV 2011, and New Living Translation, use “gender-accurate” translations (“fish for people”) rather than masculine nouns and pronouns (“fishers of men”). At one time, English masculine gender pronouns also served as gender-nonspecific, but they have not done so for some decades now; and gender-nonspecific is what an author in Greek would have intended. The wedge issue of grammatical gender is one more factor that prompts version multiplication, along with Textus receptus versus critical text; and formal equivalent versus dynamic equivalent translation philosophies.

“A new English Bible translation? No, ENOUGH already!” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

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