Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Back in 2003 I picked up a copy of the newly minted English Standard Version (ESV) classic reference Bible. And I admit that I was skeptical at first. I thought, “Why do we need yet another translation, especially one that is trying to squeeze into the same niche as the NASB/NRSV/NKJV?” But it didn’t take long before I truly fell in love with the ESV. When I read it, it just sounded right; it sounded like the Bible was supposed to sound. And as I learned more about the translation philosophy, I developed a deep appreciation for what the ESV folks were trying to do; sure, there were some awkward parts, and sure, there were some places where I would have done it differently, but overall I still agreed. I had just finished my seminary career where the NRSV enjoyed Vulgate status; however, I had always remained a little suspicious of some of the NRSV’s translation choices and overall philosophy. And so I thought I had found the perfect Bible in the ESV.
Fast forward to 2007. I picked up a copy of Today’s New International Version (TNIV), mostly because it was new and I didn’t want to be uninformed of what’s happening in the world of Bible translation–a world that I am passionate about. About all I knew of the TNIV was its annoying usage of the third person plural to avoid using masculine pronouns for people (e.g., “Whoever [singular] wants to be my disciple [singular] must deny themselves [plural]…” Mark 8:34). The TNIV mostly sat on my shelf until this fall when I began consulting it for sermon preparation. To my surprise, the TNIV was accurate, even in places where it was not politically correct to be so (e.g., “there was no guest room available for them.” Luke 2:7)! My heart has been strangely warmed toward the TNIV as of late; sure, there are some awkward choices, and sure, there are some places where I would have done it differently, but overall I still like what they’re doing.
And so I am torn: Which one is better? Which one should I promote in our church, give to our youth, and build our ministry around? We are an NIV church now, but what will happen when our pew Bibles finally fall apart and the youth need a good, grown-up Bible? The ESV, on the one hand, is so familiar, despite its problems. And the TNIV, on the other hand, is so fresh and accurate, yet I’m not ready to let go of the ESV either. To quote Paul, I am hard pressed between the two (Philippians 1:23)! It’s like I have become the TNIV-ESV battle in one person!
Maybe other pastors don’t torture themselves over such things, but I do. Choosing a Bible is important, especially when it has ramifications for one’s church. Of course, I know that working from the source languages is still pre-eminent, and that’s what I do week to week. But for most people, a translation is all the closer they will ever get to the original biblical texts.
So why is it so hard to choose?
I grew up in a traditional Presbyterian Church in the 1980’s (I was born in 1975), imbibing God’s Word through the venerable Revised Standard Version (RSV). We sang from the 1955 maroon Hymnbook (none of that 1970 Worshipbook stuff for us!), and we read responsive readings from its index, which were straight out of the RSV. Even the big pulpit Bible, which I thought was very impressive, was RSV. And so, as I reflect on my RSV-saturated childhood, it’s really no surprise that I prefer the sound of the ESV today. It’s like going home (I suspect this is how John Piper feels, too. He has discussed his long history with and his affinity for the RSV, although he hasn’t admitted that his preference for the RSV-ESV is purely familiarity). But is fondness enough of a reason to choose it?
A while back I read about a study that concluded that young people who are raised in a particular church tradition develop a firm sense of what is “normal” by the age of 13, and that their expectations are difficult to change. (That explains why, when I take our church’s youth to an African-American charismatic worship service or an Eastern Orthodox liturgy, they leave with eyes as big as saucers, never so glad to be Presbyterians. But I digress…) I wish I had kept a link to that study, because I believe it explains a lot when it comes to those who engage in the war over which is better–the ESV or the TNIV.
Tradition plays a very strong role in Bible translation. It’s why the ESV sticks so closely to the KJV’s rendering of Psalm 23, even though there are no fewer than 7 footnotes (!) giving the better translation. It’s why some churches are KJV-only, despite the lack of clear logic why. And it’s the reason why I have trouble shaking the gut-level feeling that the ESV is the clear heir to the Bible in English.
I hope that in all our discussions about Bible translations, we will be respectful of others, who naturally come from different backgrounds than us. And I hope that all of us who have engaged in arguments over which translation is “better” will take a moment and reflect on our own hard-to-change expectations.