Wednesday, December 28, 2011

On Reading the Bible in 2012

This is the time of year when people make resolutions to read through the Bible in the coming year. If this is your intent, I hope this post will be of some help to you. Even if this is not your intent, I hope this post will be of some help to you.

First, there is nothing magical, or even necessarily particularly sanctifying, about reading the Bible through in a year. If you recognize from the beginning that the important thing is to read regularly in the Bible, with prayer and meditation, then reading through it in a year becomes simply a helpful tool to accomplish that goal. There are any number of “read through the Bible in a year” programs. Justin Taylor discusses some here: For those who have had trouble in the past reading through the Bible in a year, the Plan for Shirkers and Slackers might be the place to begin. If you have a smart phone, the youversion Bible app has more than 200 different reading plans available. You can even set it up so that it reminds you each day to do your reading. There are also a number of reading plans available at the Zondervan website: the Beginning...

If you look at the Zondervan list, you will notice that many of the plans are not plans that will take you all the way through the Bible in a year. Rather, they are limited plans that deal with more focused goals. If you are new to Bible reading, I suggest you might start with one of these plans, such as the 180-day guided tour. This plan gives you an overview of the Bible in six months. Or you might want to begin with the two-week guided tour and then move on to some of the 30-day plans. The main point is to get yourself into the Word daily in a useful fashion.

Recently, a friend on Facebook was asking about smart phone Bible reading plans. Another friend cautioned against one of the plans that takes you straight through from Genesis to Revelation, since you get stuck for days on end in the Minor Prophets. I understand the point that this person was trying to make: that finding helpful material for meditation in the Minor Prophets (or even in the Major Prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel) can be difficult. However, I think it reflects some level of ignorance about the Minor Prophets. It also highlights, however, the fact the many sections of the Bible are difficult to read and to effectively meditate on, because we are not sufficiently familiar with what we are reading. Thus, we feel like the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40), who said, “How can I [understand], unless someone guides me.” There is nothing wrong with admitting that we don’t understand what we read, and that we need some help.

So where do we go for help? First, I recommend against study Bibles. I find that they offer minimal help, usually the least help when you want it the most. Instead, you should invest in several practical commentaries that you can read along with your Bible reading. That may slow down your Bible reading, but that’s all right. The Bible Speaks Today series from IVP has a number of useful volumes, as does the Welwyn commentary series from Evangelical Press. These are non-technical commentaries that are designed to help the reader understand and apply what he reads.

May you have happy Bible reading in 2012.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Punctuating the Bible: Ephesians 4:11-12

In speaking, we indicate emphasis and pauses simply by the way we pronounce the words. Punctuation and other ways of marking a text are used to attempt to accomplish with the written word what it cannot do, that is, imitate the spoken word. Thus someone might say the three simple words “I love him” in three different ways. He might say, “I love him,” putting the emphasis on “I,” which is indicated here by putting “I” in italics. The meaning communicated is that “I” as opposed to others, love him. Or he might say, “I love him” putting the emphasis on the verb (again, indicated here with italics). Thus the meaning is I love him as opposed to “hate” or “like” or “put up with.” Or he might say, “I love him;” communicating the idea of loving that particular person as opposed to others. The pauses and emphasis indicated by punctuation therefore help clarify the meaning of what is written, in place of the emphasis provided by voice and facial expression in conversation.

The importance of proper punctuation is well-illustrated in Lynne Truss’s recent bestseller, Eats, Shoots & Leaves. This is particularly pointed out in the publisher’s note (p. xv) to the effect that the book is written in English English as opposed to American English, and so follows the rules of English rather than American punctuation. All of this is to say that the punctuation of the text of the Bible in English serves an important interpretive function that might be easily overlooked by the causal reader.

Ephesians 4:12 provides a useful example. For context, I have also included verse 11. In the KJV, the verses read, “11And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; 12For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:” Notice that the commas in verse 12 indicate three purposes for the work of the officers listed: perfecting the saints, the work of the ministry, and the edifying of the body of Christ.

In the NKJV, the passage reads, “11And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, 12for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” In this version, there is only one comma in verse 12, indicating a two-fold purpose for the work of the officers: equipping the saints for the work of ministry and edifying the body of Christ. The whole range of modern translations, from the NASB to the NLT, does exactly the same thing that the NKJV does, indicating two purposes for the work of the officers.

The modern reader probably reads only one English version, and for the most part probably pays little attention to the punctuation. Therefore, he might not notice the different possible understandings that the verse provides. Next time we will look into the matter of determining which punctuation of the verse is probably right, why, and what it means for the reader.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Biblical Languages and Gender: Final Thoughts

First, ordinary English still uses “he” for the generic third person. The only people who don’t think so are those who are committed to “gender neutrality” or those who are forced by their work and connections to use gender-neutral language. If you think that is not the case, try listening to the conversation at a local diner sometime (and I don’t mean Starbucks). The conversation will be liberally sprinkled with the generic use of “he.” Or ask some college or seminary professor who is trying to get his students to write in gender-neutral English. It doesn’t come naturally, and students will generally not do it unless forced to. Or ask some editor for a publication that requires gender-neutral language how many times he has to direct an author to clean up his language.

Second, the use of gender-neutral languages in Bible translation gives the reader the impression (however unconscious that may be) that the ancient Israelites and the early Christians had the same phobias about language that we do. It isn’t true. The Bible is filled with generic uses of masculine forms for generic reference.

Third, the use of gender-neutral language often hides the use of singular pronouns by turning them into plurals. These changes often introduce meanings into the text that were not there originally, or remove understandings that are originally in the text.

Fourth, the use of gender-neutral languages in Bible translation seems to me to be an attempt to make a Bible that we are more comfortable with. Here’s a secret. The Bible was not intended to be a book that we are comfortable with. It is intended to confront us with our sin and to call us to repentance. It is also intended to call into question our assumptions about what the world is and how it works; about who God is and how he works. It is intended to challenge our world-views and to correct them. When Paul says in Romans 12:2, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect (NAS),”he means that our minds are to be changed by learning from God’s word how to think properly about all things. It is intended to overcome the corruptions of our thinking that sin has brought. How can it do that if we are constantly changing it to make it more comfortable for us?

I do recognize that there is a need for Bible translations that are “simple language” translations, both for those who are new readers, and for those for whom English is a second language. But it should be made clear that such versions are not reliable as guides for serious study of the Bible, and that the reader should seek to progress in his understanding beyond the basics that such a translation is able to provide.

A final aside: Why, in a translation, should translators change measures into modern equivalents? For example, some modern versions use feet and inches in place of cubits. But the ancient Israelites did not think in terms of feet and inches. They thought in terms of cubits. In some sense, the modern reader is required to get into the head of the ancient text in order to understand it. That is not helped by putting modern equivalents into the body of the text. If you must, put them in a footnote, or in an appendix at the back. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Biblical Languages and Gender (3)

We left off last time with the gender-neutral treatment of Psalm 1. In addition to what I mentioned last time, there is one more element in the first verse that the gender-neutral versions cover up. That is that the beginning of the verse says “blessed is the man.” The word translated man is ish in Hebrew, and it means specifically a human male. It can sometimes be translated husband, particularly when used in connection with its feminine counterpart isshshah, which means woman or wife. Does this mean that women are specifically excluded from consideration in Ps 1? No, because ish is sometimes used inclusively (for example, 1 Chron 16:3 “and he distributed to every man [ish] of Israel, both men [ish] and women [ishshah]. In addition, the context of the psalm makes it clear that any person is in view here. The noun also has the definite article (the) attached to it. Hence, “blessed is the man.” It may well be the case that by the use of the definite article the psalmist has in view at least an allusion to the Messiah. As Andrew Bonar says in his Christ and His Church in the Book of Psalms, “Can we help thinking on Him as alone realizing the description in this Psalm? The members of his mystical body, in their measure, aim at this holy walk; but it is only in him that they see it perfectly exemplified.” The possibility of seeing this is left open to those who are reading a “gender-specific” version, but it is completely removed from the readers of the TNIV, the NLT.

The gender-neutral versions regularly replace masculine singular pronouns with plural nouns and pronouns. In this fashion, subtle details of the text are regularly lost. For example, there is a very interesting set of usages in John 2:25-3:1. In the KJV, the passage reads, “And needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man. There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:” In the NRSV it reads, “and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone. Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.” Every occurrence of “man” in the KJV reflects an occurrence of the Greek word anthropos (man, mankind) in a singular (as opposed to plural) form. Every use of anthropos has been removed in the NRSV. But John has created a subtle connection between the end of chapter 2 and the beginning of chapter 3, as follows, “And he did not have need that any should testify concerning man, for he knew what was in man. But there was a man from the Pharisees, named Nicodemus.” Jesus knows what is man, and so a man comes, and Jesus is able to speak to his heart, and get to the heart of the situation. He does this throughout John’s gospel, as we also see, for example, with the woman at the well. But if someone is reading the NRSV, he will never pick this up.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Biblical Languages and Gender (2)

Like Greek, Hebrew nouns and adjectives have gender. Unlike Greek, they occur only as masculine or feminine. There is no neuter gender in Hebrew. In addition, there is a small number of nouns that sometimes occur as masculine, and sometimes as feminine. As an example, when the English Bible reads “people” on the basis of the Hebrew word ‘am it is reflecting a masculine noun. So those poor Israelite women had to suffer the pains of knowing that there was no way in their language to “include” them, as the very word that referred to the people as a whole was masculine in gender. Perhaps to emphasize the point that noun gender has nothing to do with sex, most body parts that occur in pairs are feminine in gender. The exception to this rule is the word for “breast,” which is a masculine noun.

Also unlike Greek, Hebrew verbs have gender. So in the Book of Ruth, if one passage says, “Ruth said” and another passage says, “Boaz said,” the form of “said” will differ between the two occurrences, since Boaz is masculine and Ruth is feminine. The only point at which this is not the case is with first-person (I/we) forms of the verb. Further, Hebrew generally uses masculine verbs forms for a mixed-gender subject, whereas a feminine verb form always implies a feminine subject. Or, as one of the standard Hebrew grammars puts it, “A feminine verb form can indicate that the subject noun is feminine, but nothing certain can be inferred from a masculine form (Jo√ľon-Muraoka, ¶89b). Another way to put it is that the masculine verbs forms are not necessarily gender-specific, while feminine verb forms are. In short, Hebrew uses masculine forms for generic references.

Pronouns are the only parts of speech in English that are “gender specific” in terms of how that term is usually defined. “She” is used for specifically female, “he” refers to male or generic, while “it” generally refers to things. Idiomatically, some things are referred to by masculine or feminine pronouns. So, for example, boats are usually called “she/her.” I don’t know enough about the history of the language to account for these exceptions. Until the latter part of the twentieth century, “he” and “him” were regularly used, and were understood to be used, in generic cases. That is, in a situation where the sex of the subject is unknown, “he” was used. For example, “When the reporter calls, tell him I’ll get back to him.” Though the pronoun “him” is used, there no expectation that the reporter was actually a male. In the 1970s, certain feminists began to insist that using the masculine pronoun in this fashion did in fact deliberately exclude women. Despite the fact that no one had ever thought so, this philosophical silliness quickly took over academic circles in the USA and, more slowly, in Europe. For some reason, it also quickly infected the area of Bible translation. Hence, as early as 1976 (the publication date of Today’s English Version (also known as the Good News Bible), some attempt was made to eliminate the generic use of masculine pronouns.

I will conclude today with one example, and then move on in the next posts to consideration of further examples. Psalm 1:1 (KJV) says, “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.” Notice that the only specifically masculine term in the verse is “man.” In order to eliminate that reference to “man,” the TEV says, “Happy are those who reject the advice of evil men…” In order to eliminate “man” as in the KJV, the translators introduced a plural (the original is singular). They then proceed to introduce “men” where none stood before. It is curious that “evil men” is acceptable (are only men evil?), but “the man” is not.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Biblical Languages and Gender

From James Taranto’s column at the Wall Street Journal on October 27, 2011:
“One of the things we most loathe about feminism is its effect on the language. Self-appointed feminist language cops make a pretense of aiming for "gender neutrality," but in fact their aim is to make language ugly and unnatural so that you constantly have to think about their ideology. When the traditional terms are gender-neutral, such as "chairman," they insist on changing them ("chairwoman" or "chair"). Only when the traditional terms are gendered do they want to neutralize them, such as calling actresses "actors."”
This move toward forcing general English usage into “gender neutrality” has been going on for nearly half a century. It is rampant in colleges and universities and other centers of higher education. Academic publishing is replete with it. In many cases, academic journals or book publishers indicate that submitted manuscripts must be written in gender-neutral language. “Man” is not acceptable unless you are referring specifically to a human male. “Mankind” is not acceptable under any condition. You must use “humankind” instead. And this is simply the tip of the iceberg.
Unfortunately, this movement has profoundly affected the Bible translation business. Even the translators (or perhaps editors) of the ESV, which is not a gender-neutral translation, felt compelled to add a footnote saying “Or brothers and sisters” everywhere the Greek New Testament reads adelphoi (traditionally translated “brothers” or “brethren”), just to make sure no one felt left out.
From my perspective, there are two fundamental problems with this enforced move to “gender neutrality” of “gender inclusiveness.” First, it is a politically motivated corruption of language. I will not go into that here, but I suggest you find a copy of George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” and read it carefully. Then reread 1984. Then ask yourself if this is the kind of world you really want to live in. The second problem is that it also corrupts the biblical languages, and makes it more difficult for the reader to actually hear what the Bible is saying.
For those who don’t know anything about New Testament Greek or Old Testament Hebrew, I want to give you a little background, starting with English. First, gender is a grammatical category, not a sex category, though that distinction has been corrupted over the last half-century. English nouns, adjectives, and verbs do not have gender. In practical terms that means that you do not use a different form of “say” with “Susie said” than you do with “John said.” It also means that you don’t use a different form of “green” when you say “Susie was green with envy” than you do when you say “John was green with envy.”
In New Testament Greek, any noun belongs to one of three genders (again, remember this is a matter of grammar, not of sex): masculine, feminine, or neuter. Adjectives may appear in any of the three genders, but they have to correspond to (grammarians usually speak of “being in agreement with”) the gender of the noun they modify. So if you want to say “green tree” you have to use a neuter form of the adjective “green” because the noun dendrov (tree) is neuter. On the other hand, if you wanted to say “a little green man” you would have to use masculine forms of “little” and “green” because the two nouns in Greek usually translated “man” are both masculine in gender. Greek verbs, like English verbs, do not have gender.
Next time we will talk about Hebrew and then move on to how these things affect the way we read our English Bibles and how we are to understand them.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Matthew 18 and the Other Matthew 18

This past Thursday in chapel we had a very fine message from one of our seniors on the parable of the man who owed 10,000 talents. He referred to it as “the other Matthew 18” because Matthew 18 is so readily identified with the “church discipline” section in vss 15-20. As I reflected on the message, I began to wonder what the relationship is between the “church discipline” verses and the following material.

This material, at least as it is laid out in Matthew 18, is unique to Matthew. This is part of the fourth of Matthew’s five extended discourses of Jesus. This fourth discourse begins with the question posed by the disciples as to who is the greatest in the kingdom. Jesus begins by speaking of the little ones of the kingdom, and the warning against being stumbling blocks. He then moves to the church discipline passage, then to Peter’s question, and finally the parable. Hagner, in ISBE, characterizes the theme of this discourse as discipleship and discipline. While there is certainly that aspect to the passage, it seems to me that the greater emphasis is on the issue of sin and dealing with sin in the context of the kingdom. Jesus uses the question of greatness to draw attention to the little children. He then warns against being a stumbling block to them, i.e., sinning against them, or causing them to sin. This draws forth the summary of how sin is to be dealt with.

Peter then poses a question for Jesus which seems at first glance not really to follow from the “church discipline” material. He asks Jesus how often he is supposed to forgive his brother. How did Peter get there from church discipline? I think the transition is from the issue of dealing with someone who won’t admit his sin (the church discipline verses) to the issue of someone who does admit his sin, but then sins again and again, each time asking for forgiveness. Note that in both cases, the issue starts with someone who sins against a brother. Jesus’ answer astounded Peter. But where does Jesus’ response come from? I think it is a deliberate allusion to Lamech’s violent statement in Gen 4:23-24. In other words, Jesus is saying that his disciples need to be the opposites of Lamech. By the way, the difference between “seventy-seven times” (TNIV and some others) and “seventy time seven” (most English versions) is not a difference in the reading of the Greek text, but rather a difference in how what is there is understood. The Greek in Matt 18:22 is identical to the Septuagint of Gen 4:24. The Hebrew of Gen 4:24 is clearly “seventy and seven” rather than “seventy time seven.”

From this statement regarding our need to be forgiving when brothers sin against us, Jesus move to the illustration of the parable. The point of the parable, of course, is to emphasize that we are to forgive others as Christ has forgiven us (Eph 4:32).

Monday, October 31, 2011

Punctuating the Bible

The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew and Aramaic (the Aramaic portions are as follows: Ezra 4:8-6:18; 7:11-26; Daniel 2:4-7:28; Jeremiah 10:11, and two words in Genesis 31:47). The New Testament was written in Greek. The original Hebrew (and Aramaic) manuscripts were written without vowels and without punctuation. The fact that vowels were not written is not as problematic as it might seem, due to the character of the Hebrew language. In fact, most Modern Hebrew is also written without vowels. Vowels are inserted only when necessary to prevent possible misunderstandings. At least in the Hebrew manuscripts, the scribes did have spaces between words. For an example of such Hebrew manuscripts, see

The earliest Greek manuscripts were written in all capital letters (called uncials), and were written without spaces between the words but with some punctuation, though the punctuation seems not to have been used consistently. For an example of such a manuscript, see In the Middle Ages, Greek manuscripts began to be written in a cursive script called miniscules. These manuscripts at least had spaces between the words, and a more sustained use of punctuation. For an example, see

Over the course of the Middle Ages, the Hebrew scribes that preserved and copied the biblical text developed a system for indicating the vowels in each word. These scribes are known as Masoretes, and the text they produced is the Masoretic text. In addition to this vocalization system, they developed a system of accents for the text. In this system, each word has its own accent. The accents serve three purposes. First, the accent indicates which syllable in the word is accented. Second, the accents serve as a sort of musical notation, indicating how the text is to be chanted. Third, the accents serve somewhat like punctuation. This system is still found in modern printed editions of the Hebrew Bible.

The punctuation in modern editions of the Greek New Testament comes in part from the punctuation found in manuscripts. In addition, punctuation is added by the editors of the Greek text.

The punctuation of English versions of the Bible is dependent in part on the punctuation indicated by the Hebrew accent system and on the punctuation of the Greek text. However punctuation in English is different and more extensive than punctuation in either Hebrew or Greek. Thus, the punctuation of English versions is determined by the translators and editors of the particular version. Thus, for example, Ephesians 1:3-14 (one extended sentence in Greek) is divided into three sentences by the KJV, and up to fourteen or so sentences by some of the modern simple language translations. But this punctuation is a matter of editorial choice. So for example, in Eph 1:4, the KJV reads, “that we should be holy and without blame before him in love:” The ESV reads, “that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love” (with the sentence then continuing into verse 5). The difference between the two renderings is that in the KJV, the phrase “in love” is understood to go with what precedes, as is indicated by the punctuation. In the ESV, the phrase “in love” is understood to go with what follows, again as indicated by the punctuation. In this case, the KJV is supported by the punctuation as it is found in the 27th edition of the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament. Most modern English versions, however, do the same as the ESV. In this case, the interpretational difference may be minimal. But where you put the comma, or whether you even use a comma, is not always so simple.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Translational Annoyances

Since I teach one of the Biblical languages, I am frequently asked which English Bible translation I recommend. I sort of cheat, answering that as far as I am concerned, the NKJV, the NASB, the ESV, and (if you pay careful attention to the words that have changed in meaning in the last 400 years) the KJV all have their strengths and weaknesses, but they are all about equally good. The main point here is that there is no perfect translation of the Bible. Those that I have listed do most things well, but no biblical languages scholar would be entirely happy with any one of them. I doubt that even members of the translation team for one of those versions would be entirely happy with everything the version does. Part of that is due to the fact that most translations are committee work, and a translation has to please everyone involved: the editorial staff as well as the members of the translation team. So if one member of the team likes a particular rendering of a given passage, but the other team members do not, he loses out. Likewise, the editorial team may tell a translation committee that a particular passage just doesn’t work and they need to go back and change it. So the editors are happy, but the translators are not. I’ve been told, for example, that the translation team for one particular version was trying to figure out what to do with 1 Sam 25:22 (and the other passages where the KJV uses the now offensive term “piss”). They wanted to do something that would indicate that the word here was not just one of the normal Hebrew words for male. However, they were told in no uncertain terms, “There will be no pissing in my Bible.”

All that being said, probably most biblical scholars have particular passages in particular versions that simply drive them nuts. I call these translational annoyances. One of these popped up for me in recent months as I was reading through the CEB. For a variety of reasons I think the version is a particularly odious translation. As a character in Connie Willis’s novel Doomsday Book said, “The King James may be archaic, but at least it’s not criminal.” So you would expect that I would find a lot of translational annoyances in it. But one in particular stuck out to me. Col 4:15 says, “Say hello to the brothers and sisters in Laodicea.” I realized, of course, that this was the CEB way of saying “greet,” and I figured that the translators thought “greet” was too sophisticated a word for this particular translation. So I looked back to Phil 4:21, expecting to see “say hello to.” Instead, I found, “Greet all God’s people in Christ Jesus.” So I thought, “Well, maybe Paul used a different word in Philippians than in Colossians.” So I looked. No. Same word in Greek in both passages. So I looked at all the passages where that same form is used. I found no consistency in translation. About half of the passages have, “Say hello to.” The other half have, “Greet,” except for Matt 10:12, which says, “Say, Peace.” To my mind this is simply fundamentally bad translation. At the very least, all of the occurrences in the Pauline epistles should have read the same. But the careful reader of the CEB is going to think that the Greek uses different words, apparently because the translators and the editorial team of the CEB couldn’t get together on a reasonable consistency in the translation of a simple Greek word.

Of course, the CEB is not the only offender in this. The NLT sometimes uses “greet” and sometimes “give my greetings to.” It is particularly grating in Romans 16, where apparently the NLT translators couldn’t stand the fact that Paul used the same term sixteen times in the same passage, so they decided to change it up for the reader. 

Monday, October 24, 2011

Bible Translation and Editorial Consistency

One of the fundamental difficulties in any translation work is for the translator to enable the reader to hear the “voice” of the original writer. A recent translator of The Three Musketeers commented to the effect that he found earlier translations of the work, particularly nineteenth-century translations, made the work much less accessible than it was in the original. He therefore strove in his translation to convey in English the style of the original French. In a book of such length as The Three Musketeers it is fairly easy over the course of the novel to convey something of Dumas’s style. In the Bible, it is a much more difficult task. For one thing, the translators are faced not with one book, but with sixty-six, and from as many as perhaps forty writers. Further, even the longest books of the Bible (Jeremiah, Genesis, and Psalms are longest by Hebrew word-count) are far shorter than even an average novel, let alone a novel such as The Three Musketeers. Even the three together would make only a very short novel (about 60,000 words total, about 120,000 in the KJV, which would make a decent-length novel). However, the three books have very different styles (in Hebrew). A proficient Hebrew reader would be able to tell within a few verses which of the three he was reading from if he was given an unidentified portion to read. But it can be difficult to make those stylistic differences apparent in English.

Formal equivalence translations have an advantage over functional equivalence translations at this point, because of the attempt to follow the Hebrew (or Greek) fairly closely, and to maintain consonance as much as possible, (Consonance is the practice of translating a given Hebrew/Greek word by the same English word when reasonably possible to do so.) Functional equivalence translations, on the other hand, tend to be simple-language translations, which limits, for example, the use of technical terminology, and tends to paraphrase or replace idioms in the original with “equivalent” English idioms.

A further problem for functional equivalence translations is that they tend to prefer short, choppy English sentences. In some places, that works. Hebrew narrative, for example, tends to consist of short clauses, sometimes no more than a word or two. The reader should understand, however, that it is possible to put a whole English sentence, albeit a simple one, in one word. The English sentence, “He offered it up as a burnt offering” is two words in Hebrew. However, when it comes to Paul’s letters, the functional equivalence translations lose the ability to represent Paul’s style. As is often observed Eph 1:3-14 is one sentence in Greek. The KJV turns that into three sentences. The NLT turns it into fourteen sentences in three paragraphs. The CEB also turned it into fourteen sentences, though they have retained the one paragraph. Certainly not a real representation of the sentence Paul wrote.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Lord of Hosts

Last time, I was arguing that “hosts” in this title probably does not refer to angels, but rather to the hosts of Israel. It is pertinent to this contention that the word “hosts” when used apart from this phrase and in the plural always refers to human armies, most commonly to the armies of Israel. So, for example, Ex 12:41 says, “all the hosts of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt.” Deut 20:9, when speaking of the armies of Israel preparing for battle says, “then commanders shall be appointed at the head of the people” (literally: they shall appoint princes of the hosts at the head of the people). 1 Kgs 2:5 speaks of the “two commanders [princes] of the hosts of Israel.” Psa 68:12 says, “kings of armies [hosts] did flee apace.”

The title “Lord of hosts” occurs one hundred forty-five times in the books of Isaiah and Jeremiah. It occurs over fifty times in the much shorter Book of Zechariah. It occurs fourteen times in the two chapters of Haggai and twenty-four times in the four chapters of Malachi. The usage in the prophets accounts for the vast majority of the uses of the term in the Old Testament, and it is used consistently with the nation of Israel in view. This would seem to lend weight to the idea that the focus is not on angelic armies, but rather on human armies, in particular the armies of Israel.

Interestingly, when the word “host” is used in such a way as to indicate the possibility of the “host” being angels, it occurs in the singular. Thus with the cryptic text in Josh 5:14ff, it is the prince of the host (singular) of the Lord who appears to Joshua. Likewise, in 1 Kgs 22:19 “all the host of Heaven,” host is singular. It is the same case in Psa 103:21 and Psa 148:2.

What can we conclude from this? I think first, that the reason hosts is singular in regard to angels is due to the fact that they are considered a single army. Israel, on the other hand, was made up of twelve tribes, each providing its own army [host]. Hence the God of Israel is the Lord of the hosts of Israel, a perfect image of the Old Testament church militant.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Lord of Hosts: Lord of Heavens Armies?

The KJV rendered the Hebrew phrase yhwh tseba’ot by the English phrase “Lord of Hosts.” Since then, most English versions have simply followed the KJV. More recently, however, especially with the rise of “simple-language” versions, the phrase has begun to disappear from English Bibles. Admittedly, there is nothing especially sacred about the translation Lord of Hosts. Many people today may not even know that “host” in the seventeenth century meant “army,” or “great multitude.”

Thus, several of the newer versions have sought a translation that communicates more effectively and more accurately the meaning of the Hebrew phrase. Thus the New Living Translation (NLT) renders it as “the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.” The new Common English Bible (CEB) renders it “Lord of Heavenly Forces.” God’s Word translation uses “Lord of Armies.” The Good News Bible, the NIV, and the TNIV all render it as “Lord Almighty.” The New Century Version and the Contemporary English Version render it “Lord All-Powerful.” But how helpful, and how accurate, are these translations?

The NLT and CEB translations are clearly equivalent. Further, they add to the idea of army or force the idea that these are heavenly forces. The first word in the Hebrew phrase is Yahweh, the divine name. The second word in the phrase is a plural form of a noun that means “army” or “warfare.” Hence God’s Word translation Lord of Armies, omitting the idea of heavenly forces. The NLT and CEB are probably influenced by the fact that angels are sometimes referred to as a “host.” This appears, for example, in 1 Kings 22:19, where the prophet Micaiah says that he saw the Lord sitting on his throne with all the “host of heaven” standing by him. The reader should notice, however, that in this and similar verses, the word “host” is in the singular, and it is specifically identified as “the host of heaven.” Further, the Lord is not referred to as Lord of Hosts, but simply as Lord. When “hosts” is used in the plural (apart from the phrase Lord of hosts), it refers to the armies or military arrangement of Israel or other human armies. By usage, then the NLT and the CEB seem to be wrong in implying that the term is in reference to heavenly armies. In fact, one of the standard Hebrew lexicons says, “the thought of angels and stars as army of God is later.” Based on the views of the scholars who produced that lexicon (Frances Brown, S. R. Driver, and C. A. Briggs), it would appear they thought it unlikely that such a use (heavenly armies) appeared before the period of the exile. Even a more recent work (New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis) seems to find the evidence for such a view lacking.

The evidence for Lord Almighty or Lord All-powerful is even scantier. The NIDOTTE says, “Another approach would take ‘hosts’ as a plural of intensification or majesty, particularly in view of the LXX translation of hosts as ‘Almighty.” But such an abstraction lacks convincing evidence.”

When the reader further considers that Lord of Hosts does not appear in the Bible until 1 Samuel, it would seem to indicate that the epithet is particularly connected with the rise of the Israelite monarchy, particularly under David. Hence it refers to the armies of Israel as the covenantal hosts, or armies, of the Lord.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Is the CEB the New NRSV? (2)

Technically, the answer to that question is, “No.” The CEB is not being done by the Division of Christian Education of the NCC, which holds the copyright on the NRSV. Instead, according to the CEB website, “The Common English Bible is a distinct new imprint and brand for Bibles and reference products about the Bible. Publishing and marketing offices are located in Nashville, Tennessee. The CEB translation was funded by the Church Resources Development Corp, which allows for cooperation among denominational publishers in the development and distribution of Bibles, curriculum, and worship materials.  The Common English Bible Committee meets periodically and consists of denominational publishers from the following denominations: Disciples of Christ (Chalice Press); Presbyterian Church U.S.A. (Westminster John Knox Press); Episcopal Church (Church Publishing Inc); United Church of Christ (Pilgrim Press); and United Methodist Church (Abingdon Press).”

In other words, it is being funded by five denominations, all of which are currently member denominations of the NCC. It simply seems odd to me that they would not be using the NRSV. Perhaps the motivation is simply to have a simple-language translation that meets all the current sensitivity requirements, such as gender-neutrality. There are already several simple-language translations available that are gender-neutral. The Today’s English Version is probably the oldest (1976). There is also the New Living Translation (1996, the latest edition is 2007),  The Contemporary English Version (1995), and the NIV2011. All three, however, still use “Son of Man” in reference to Christ. The CEB uses “the Human One.” I suppose these three versions are insufficiently sensitive to gender issues.

Are we moving into a new era of English Bible translation? Are we headed toward a “niche” mentality, where each denomination or cluster of denominations has its distinctive translation? The HCSB and the CEB seem to point in that direction. Roman Catholicism has always had its own versions, currently the New American Bible, which appeared in a new edition earlier this year. That would be expected, however, because the Catholic Bibles will include the apocryphal books, and not in a separate section the way the KJV had it. But outside the mainline churches and the SBC, churches are small enough that supporting a translation distinctive to the denomination (or even to a group of related denominations) would be difficult. For now, the NLT, the NIV (and perhaps its 2011 version), and the ESV will probably continue to dominate the evangelical market. The NASB and NKJV will continue to have their niches for a time, but who knows for how ling.

Whether the CEB can take over the NRSV market may depend on marketing as much as on the fact that the five supporting denominations give it something of a captive audience. The NRSV is aging (already basically a generation old). Though it is gender-neutral, it is more in line with the TEV, CEV, and NLT than the CEB. If the CEB can produce a study edition aimed at the college-level Bible class, the simple-language approach may make it appealing to university professors who find their students less and less able to read at the college level.  

We live in interesting times in English Bible translation. The old days of the KJV hegemony are gone, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Mea Culpa

Apparently I was asleep yesterday morning when I wrote my post. First, the revision of the RSV came out in 1971, not 1970. And the NT of the RSV appeared in 1946, with the whole Bible in 1952 (yes, Richard, I was right about that).

Now to more substantive matters. To anyone who thought I was making a connection between the CEB and the National Council of Churches, my apologies. The relevant line is, “And there appears to be no direct connection between the publishers of the Common English Bible and the Division of Christian Education of the NCC.” To state it more clearly, so that even the possible implication is removed: There is no connection between the CEB and the NCC.

As to the “implicit support of the SBL for the CEB:” as far as I know all the modern versions available in English have been done by translation teams made up entirely, or mostly, of scholars who are members of SBL. In that sense, all of the versions have the implicit support of the SBL, though I doubt the SBL would be interested in trying to stop any of its members from participating in a Bible translation team. What seems interesting to me is the fact that the SBL has devoted a panel discussion to the CEB. I don’t think that has previously been done for a Bible translation, except maybe the NRSV. If any of my readers knows to the contrary, I’ll be happy to stand corrected on that.

As far as the panel goes, this is the situation. I was wrong about the make-up of the panel. The presenting panel (Why We Need a New Bible Translation) includes one member of the CEB editorial team, and four people not associated with the CEB. The respondents, however, are all members of the CEB editorial team. This still seems to me to be an odd arrangement. I assumed that the presenting panel would be making the case for a new translation, while the respondents would be arguing contrary. Too bad I’m not going to SBL this year.

What the CEB does not have at this point is the explicit identification with the SBL (compare the HarperCollins Study Bible). Will it come? Who knows? 

Monday, October 10, 2011

The CEB: Is it the New NRSV? (1)

About a year ago I received a complimentary copy of the CEB (Common English Bible) New Testament with a letter asking me to read it and comment. Even the letter itself made it clear that I was not going to like this Bible, and the Preface made it even more obvious. I never wrote to them expressing my displeasure. But what has this to do with the NRSV?

The whole Bible of the RSV appeared in 1952 (the New Testament had been published in 1946). Almost immediately it became the preferred translation of the academic community, as well as the increasingly liberal mainline churches. I remember that the church I grew up in (liberal Presbyterian) had RSV pew Bible in the late 1950s. In 1970, the RSV was republished with a revised New Testament. In 1989, the New RSV (NRSV) was published, this time with gender-neutral language and with a definite move toward a more functional (read dynamic) equivalence approach to translation. The old RSV had been pretty stodgy, even retaining “thee” and such in the Psalms. Each of these editions of the RSV was published in annotated editions for the academic market. The Oxford Annotated RSV seemed to have cornered the market as the go-to Bible for university Bible and religion courses. After the appearance of the NRSV, the Oxford Annotated was updated, and no doubt is still the preferred translation and edition on many college campuses. But in 1994, the Harper-Collins Study Bible appeared as a challenger to the Oxford Annotated. The H-CSB had the advantage over the OA in that the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) had explicitly identified itself with the H-CSB, and all the annotations were done by members of the Society. The HarperCollins (whether it is Harper-Collins, Harper Collins, or HarperCollins is not exactly clear to me, because I have seen all three in print) Study Bible: Student Edition made this quite evident, with the statement at the bottom of the cover: A New Annotated Edition by the Society of Biblical Literature.

Now the copyright to the RSV and the NRSV is held by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches. And there appears to be no direct connection between the publishers of the Common English Bible and the Division of Christian Education of the NCC. However, the NRSV is now more than twenty years old. In the world of modern Bible translations, that is ancient. Even with regard to the RSV, it is the longest that it has gone without a significant update (1952, 1970, and 1989). Furthermore, the CEB seems to have the implicit support of the SBL. The list of editors and translators (see reads like a veritable Who’s Who of the Society of Biblical Literature. In addition, the CEB has its own panel discussion at the annual meeting of the SBL in San Francisco (slated for Sunday, November 20 from 1:00-3:00 p.m.). The panel is a stacked deck. The presenters of “Why We Need a New Bible Translation” are all members of the CEB editorial committee. All those presenting “Responses to the Need for a New Bible Translation” are also members of the CEB editorial committee. Apparently, they don’t want any naysayers in the bunch.

Continued in the next post.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Concluding Thoughts on the KJV

Any English-speaking pastor or teacher of the Bible ought to be familiar with the KJV. By that, I don’t mean that he has read through it in a cursory fashion. Rather, that he has read it carefully and more than once. Why? First, because the KJV more than any other English version, is the heritage of the English-speaking church. For more than three centuries the KJV was the Bible of the English-speaking world. For any English-speaking pastor or Bible teacher to be ignorant of the KJV is for him to be ignorant of his history and of the history of his people.

Second, the KJV was translated at a time when English was finally coming out from under the shadow of Latin as a “respectable” language, a language suitable for scholarship, and especially theological scholarship. Thus the KJV translators regularly preferred the Anglo-Saxon word to the word of Latin origin. Perhaps the best way to see this is to read the KJV and the Douay-Rheims translation side-by-side. The latter was a Roman Catholic translation that deeply reflects its origins in the Latin Vulgate. William Tyndale led the charge in the use of Anglo-Saxon English, and for the most part the KJV translator followed suit.

Third, the KJV translators sought to make a translation “that openeth the window” (from the preface to the KJV). That is, they sought to make a translation that would enable the reader of the English Bible to see through to the original. In that, they largely succeeded. Most of the “oddities” that people remark of in the KJV are not “English.” At least, they did not reflect how English was written, or English style, in the early part of the 17th century. Instead, these oddities generally allow us to see the original. For example, the clause “and he answered and said” that appears often in Old Testament dialogue is not English style, but it is Hebrew style. It appears in the KJV, and the modern formal equivalence versions, but functional equivalence translations drop it. Compare these three translations of Gen 18:27:
KJV: And Abraham answered and said, Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes.
ESV: Abraham answered and said, "Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.
NLT: Then Abraham spoke again. "Since I have begun, let me speak further to my Lord, even though I am but dust and ashes.

The “and” which begins the verse shows us the Hebrew conjunction. The ESV has eliminated it entirely, and the NLT has turned it into “then.” “Answered and said” is retained by the ESV, but turned into “Spoke again” by the NLT. There are two different verbs in Hebrew that are commonly used in speech. The first, usually translated as “say,” refers to the content of speech, so that the reader expects a quotation to follow. The other, usually translated as “speak,” refers to the act of speaking, rather than the content. The NLT has confused the two words. The phrase “Behold now” reflects two words in Hebrew. The ESV drops one. The NLT effectively drops both, replacing them with “since” which implies a connection with what precedes that the Hebrew does not. Then, “I have taken upon me” reflects the most likely sense of the Hebrew verb. This is also found in the ESV. The NLT opts for the less likely alternative “begin.” Finally, all three struggle with the concluding phrase. The Hebrew is literally “and I am dust and ashes.” It is three words in Hebrew, with the verb “am” implied. The KJV comes closest, using six words, while the ESV and NLT use seven and eight respectively.

Thus, a careful reading of the KJV (always remembering that there are more than three hundred words used in the KJV that have significantly changed in meaning since 1611) will almost always show the English reader the structure and character of the underlying Hebrew and Greek—not a small gift to the modern audience.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Books and Articles About the KJV (2)

The Influence of the KJV

In the last post, I mentioned the address by C. S. Lewis. That work stood alone for a long time as the only consideration of the subject. However, with 2011 being the four hundredth anniversary of the KJV, many other books have been written about its influence. One that appeared this year, and which is also worth reading, is Robert Alter’s Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible. Much like Lewis’s essay, this book originated as lectures, specifically the Spencer Trask Lectures, delivered at Princeton University in 2008. Originating as it did in lecture format, the focus of the work is limited. Alter essentially deals with the issue of style by displaying what he sees as the influence of the KJV on three works of American fiction: Moby-Dick; Absalom, Absalom; and Seize the Day. Alter’s treatment is full of insight because he is not only well familiar with the American literary canon; he is also intimately familiar with the prose style of the KJV.

A second work is David Crystal’s Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language. This work differs considerably from that of Alter. This is simply a collation and explanation of KJV idioms that have become part of modern English vernacular. The book is divided into 42 short chapters (5-8 pages each) devoted to the various KJV idioms that Crystal discovered.

On the Translation Itself

There does not seem to be much devoted to a discussion of the character and quality of the translation of the KJV, at least in book form. One of the few is Translation that Openeth the Window: Reflections on the History and Legacy of the King James Bible. This book appeared in 2009. It is a collection of essays from various members of the Society of Biblical Literature. The Society is the premier professional society in the United States for those who specialize in the academic study of the Bible. Like Gaul, the book is divided into three parts. The first part deals with Bible translation before the KJV, the second part deals with the making of the KJV itself, and the third part deals with Bible translation after the KJV. The book was published by the Society of Biblical Literature. I have not yet had the opportunity to read this book, but given that it was published by the SBL, my guess is that it is tougher reading than the other works I have mentioned. The language will be technical, because the authors of the essays are writing for a technical audience.

Another work on the character of the KJV translation is found in The Literary Guide to the Bible, edited by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode (pages 647-666). It is the essay, “English Translations of the Bible” by Gerald Hammond. The essay gives many examples, comparing the KJV to other versions. Hammond’s conclusion is: “Through its transparency the reader of the Authorized Version not only sees the original but also learns how to read it. Patterns of repetition, the way one clause is linked to another, the effect of unexpected inversions of word order, the readiness of biblical writers to vary tone and register from the highly formal to the scatological, and the different kinds and uses of imagery are all, like so much else, open to any readers of the Renaissance versions, and best open to them in the Authorized Version."

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Books and Articles About the KJV (1)

If you’ve not read the KJV before (all the way through), and these posts have piqued your interest, this post is intended to give you some further direction.

The KJV Itself

If you don’t have a copy of the KJV, I would highly recommend that you purchase the New Cambridge Paragraph Bible (sorry, Dr. Carrick, the Oxford editions just don’t measure up). It is available in paperback as part of the Penguin Classics series, or in really nice (and really expensive) leather versions. Why this edition? The editor, David Norton, has completely and carefully gone over the entire text (see his comments under “Text” in the Introduction), producing a text as close as possible to what the original translators intended. All spelling has been modernized. The font is quite readable, and it is set out in a nice single-column format. Those of you who are real history geeks might also want to consult Norton’s companion volume to this Bible, A Textual History of the King James Bible. The two volumes were originally published together in 2005.

Books and Articles About the KJV

Since this year is the four hundredth anniversary of the publication of the KJV, many books on its history and influence have been published this year. Of these histories, I recommend the following three (although almost any of the others would certainly be worth reading). First, I would mention Leland Ryken’s The Legacy of the King James Bible: Celebrating 400 Years of the Most Influential English Translation.  The first part is devoted to a brief history of the origins of the KJV. The last three parts deal with the various kinds of influence that the KJV has had over the last four centuries. Ryken is a professor of English at Wheaton College, and has written extensively on the Bible and translations. Second, I would recommend David Norton’s The King James Bible: A Short History from Tyndale to Today. Most of the book is devoted to the story of the actual production of the KJV, with the last section being a summary of the history of the influence of the KJV. The third history would be Gordon Campbell’s Bible: The Story of the King James Version 1611-2011. This is a more even treatment of the history from 1611 to the present than Norton’s and is part of Oxford University Press’s contribution (Norton’s, of course, is from the Cambridge University Press.)


In addition to these works focusing on the KJV, I would recommend Tyndale’s New Testament, edited by David Daniell. Tyndale’s work was a key precursor to the work of the KJV translators. The introduction by Daniell is full of interesting information, including pointing out that many memorable lines from the New Testament that we associate with the KJV originated with Tyndale. In addition, while many of you may have read the KJV, probably very few have read Tyndale. Since Daniell has had it set in modern type and with modernized spelling, it is quite amazing how readable it still is after almost five hundred years.

One more tidbit to throw out for this post. In 1950, C. S. Lewis gave the Ethel M. Wood Lecture at the University of London. The title of that lecture was “The Literary Impact of the Authorized Version.” For those interested, whether Lewis fans, or KJV fans, or literary types, the text of the lecture is available online at

Monday, September 26, 2011

Practical Reflections on Using the KJV

Some people, having read my preceding responses to Joel Beeke’s piece, might conclude that I think the KJV ought to be dumped on the rubbish heap of ancient Bible translations. That could not be further from the truth. However, I do think that the general usefulness of the KJV is not what it once was. Fifty year ago my home church (an admittedly liberal UPCUSA congregation) was using the RSV as the pew Bible, and the Bible they gave to students in Sunday school. Conservative congregations were still using the KJV. So how should the KJV be used today?

First, I do not recommend the KJV as a pulpit/pew Bible. Unless you have a unique congregation (such as Dr. Beeke’s), regular reading from the KJV will serve primarily to confuse and alienate the congregation. An exception to this might be at Christmas and Easter services (if your church has such) and where even the man off the street should be able to follow the Bible narratives associated with those events.

In general, however, the KJV requires a sophisticated reader, and apparently American Christians (perhaps like Americans in general) are becoming less able to handle sophisticated reading. The prominence of the NIV and, increasingly the NLT, in evangelical circles bears witness to that fact.

It is still possible for the individual reader to use the KJV profitably. In order to do this, though, you need to be willing to read it with a good historical dictionary beside you (or online, available at a few keystrokes). Many words have changed meaning, or have different nuances than they did four hundred years ago. For this reason you also need to read slowly and thoughtfully. The KJV is not the version to read if you are doing the Bible in 90 days program.

One of its characteristics is that it reflects the original Greek and Hebrew syntax more clearly than many modern translations. Thus, the KJV provides a way of reading the original for those who have no command of the original languages. For example, the style of Jeremiah is very different from the style of Isaiah. This is very clear in the KJV, but it is not so clear in the functional equivalence translations that are popular today. Those versions have reduced it all to a simple-minded sameness.

An example may help here. In Isaiah 3:19-23 (a passage I criticized in an earlier post because of the archaic words used), every “and” in the KJV represents the presence of the standard Hebrew conjunction. Most modern versions do not do that. They simply turn the series into a list, which then ceases to have any rhetorical power. The KJV, in following the lead of the Hebrew text, has a rhythm to the “list” that actually produces a good rhetorical effect, in spite of the fact that the various words are mostly unknown. Incidentally, the NASB Update, which is in general a very literal translation, misses the boat here, completely ignoring the Hebrew connective and using only commas.

One other suggestion for making good use of the KJV: buy a copy of the recorded version read by Alexander Scourby. It is the best of the recorded versions. Listen to Scourby read as you follow along. That will help you to keep pace, and it will also help you with the pronunciation of names and archaic words.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Reflections Regarding the KJV (8)

Beeke’s twelfth point is that the translators of the KJV were “men of sound religious faith.” He then calls into question the soundness of the religious faith of the translators of modern versions. It is true that the translators of the RSV and NRSV have been people by and large coimmitted to liberal theology. But neither version is used much by evangelicals. It is also doubtless the case that the religious faith of some translators of other modern versions is less than completely sound. But how does Beeke know? Has he met these people? Has he examined the depth and reality of their faith? No. He simply throws out the charge. That’s hardly just, and really is an ad hominem attack on the translators, which is then used to call into question the reliability of the translation. On what basis, for example, would Beeke call into question the soundness of the religious faith of the translators of the NKJV, the NASB, and the ESV? It seems to me that his assertion is special pleading motivated more by a devotion to the KJV than by a devotion to a fair and just evaluation of modern translations.

Another way of putting my complaint with Beeke’s point is this: suppose a number of godly young men were gathered together to produce a translation of the Bible. All of them had had one year of instruction in Greek and one year of instruction in Hebrew. They could no doubt produce a usable translation. But there would be legitimate questions about the quality of the translation, due not to the question of their godliness, but due to their inexperience with the biblical languages.

Beeke’s last point is simply more in the way of ad hominem attacks on modern versions. He says, for example, “This change to new translations was often part of an effort to strip worship services of dignity, reverence, and beauty, in favour of the casual, the contemporary, and the convenient.” How does he know that? How does he know that modern versions were not motivated by a desire for people to be able to read the Bible with understanding? How does he know that new translations were not motivated by a desire to enable people to read the Bible and to hear it read without stumbling over archaic words (take a look at Isaiah 3:18-24 and ask youself if you have any idea what most of those words refer to), and becoming confused by words that have changed in meaning over the last four hundred years (for example, it helps in reading the KJV to know that “prevent” does not mean to stop, or to inhibit, but rather to go before, to anticipate). It is the case that all human projects, even Christian projects, are filled with mixed motives. That is particularly the case when large numbers of people are involved in the project. But Beeke dismisses them all with one sentence. They are really all, to Beeke’s way of thinking, driven by base motives, designing to lead people away from godliness. I ask Beeke to prove the charge. I don’t think he can do it. In all fairness to those who have devoted years of labor to the production of Bible translations that seek to honor God and make his word available in the language  of the people, he needs to stop this sort of attack on the motives of people he doesn’t know. 

Monday, September 19, 2011

Practical Reflections Regarding the KJV (7)

Beeke’s 11th reason for retaining the KJV is that it sounds like the Bible. In Beeke’s view this was deliberately aimed at by the translators of the KJV. They aimed for it to sound, in its day, a little old-fashioned, formal, as a way to command a reverent hearing. There is a sense in which this is true. The KJV was not intended to be an entirely new translation, completely separate from those already available. Instead it was to retain the best of them in a revision that would be acceptable to the entire English church. For example, many memorable phrases and verses that we connect with the KJV actually came from Tyndale’s translation, but were retained by the KJV translators.

As with some of Beeke’s other reasons, this reason doesn’t apply only to the KJV. The ESV, the NASB, and the NKJV are all intentionally a little “stuffy.” They are deliberately formal (in addition to following a formal equivalence translation philosophy). They are intended to carry the weight of being a presentation of the Word of God in English.

Beeke further argues that the unbeliever expects the Bible to sound this way. “He expects the church to speak in a way that is timeless and other-worldly.” Again, this can be accomplished without recourse to the KJV. It is true that many of the recent translations sound casual. This springs from two sources. First, it comes from the commitment to a functional equivalence translation philosophy. Second, it comes from a sense on the part of the translators that the reader ought to be able to understand the Bible by himself, as it were, without helps. Thus many of the new translations sound little different from today’s newspapers (except for the fact that newspapers arre not afraid to use technical language). But in this move, the translations lose any real sense of reverence, formality, and timelessness. There was a paraphrase of Paul’s letters that appeared in 1971 titled Letters to Street Christians. It was deliberately written in the idiom of the late 1960’s. Today it is almost incomprehensible, because popular English idiom has changed so much in the intervening forty years.
However, there is a legitimate question as to when “a little old-fashioned” moves beyond the realm of comprehensibility. In Dr. Beeke’s church context, most of the parishioners have been raised on the KJV. Many perhaps use it for their daily Bible reading. Thus, to hear it read from the pulpit causes no difficulty. However, many younger evangelicals coming into Reformed churches have an entirely different experience. They were not raised in church or on the Bible. If they were raised in church, it is often the case that the church they were raised in, or the church they have been attending, has little in the way of Bible reading. Many modern evangelical churches may go through a whole service with no more than a handful of verses being read from the Bible. To sit, then, in a Reformed service where maybe an entire chapter is read from the KJV is to listen to a different language. Yes, to many such people the KJV might sound like what they expect the Word of God to sound like—incomprehensible. For many today, the KJV is not much more comprehensible than the Vulgate was to the contemporaries of the translators of the KJV. Is that what we as pastors want to put on our congregations? It is probably the case that there are still congregations where the KJV as the pulpit Bible works. But my own sense is that those congregations are few and far between.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Practical Reflections Regarding the KJV (6)

Beeke’s seventh reason for retaining the KJV is that it is laid out in a verse-by-verse format, which is the easiest for preaching. In other words, as any minister who preaches from the text can tell you, it is easier to find a verse if the verses are laid out verse-by-verse rather than in paragraph format. It is also easier to find the verse if it is printed in single-column, rather than double-column format. Currently, the KJV, the NKJV, the NASB, and the ESV are available in verse-by-verse, single-column format. That is, the KJV is not distinctive on this point.

Beeke next states that the KJV is the most beautiful translation. While I tend to agree with Beeke, the beauty of a translation is, to some extent, a matter of opinion. Certainly in well-known passages, such as the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke, Psalms 23 and 100, and other like passages, the KJV has a resonance that most modern versions lack. The question is whether this is a matter of it being inherently more beautiful, or simply being more familiar. It may well be that the early 17th century was simply a period when English was at its highest aesthetic level. The KJV resonates, at least with the sophisticated reader. The modern formal-equivalence translations (that is, those most likely to be used by people who would otherwise use the KJV) simply don’t seem to have the same beauty. An example might help here. In 1Kgs 19:12, Elijah is at Mt. Horeb, and after the wind, earthquake and, fire, there is “a still small voice” (KJV). According to the NASB, there is “a sound of a gentle blowing.” The first certainly sounds better, and is probably no less accurate than the second.

Beeke’s ninth point is that the KJV serves as an ecumenical text for Reformed Christians. He says, “this version is used by preference in many conservative Reformed congregations.” I suppose it depends on what you mean by conservative Reformed congregations. I’ve preached in a number of conservative Reformed congregations over the last twenty years, and not one of them has used the KJV as the pew or the pulpit Bible. The days when one translation served all conservative congregations are long gone. One might wish it were otherwise, but if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

Tenth, Beeke considers the KJV a practical choice in that it “is available in many editions; with a full range of helps and reference materials, not to mention computer software; in large-type, clear-print editions; and often priced well below modern translations.” That’s true to an extent, in that finding an exhaustive concordance for the NKJV or the NASB or the ESV is not easy. Apart from that, most of the rest of Beeke’s statements applies at least as well to modern versions, especially the formal-equivalence translations. All one has to do is go to the Bible page at to find out that all of those translations are available in about as wide a range of editions as is the KJV. It is true that the KJV is sometimes less expensive than one of the modern versions for a similar edition, but that is not universally the case. Particularly with modern Bible study software, the modern versions are generally as well-served as the KJV.

Beeke’s last three reasons will require greater discussion, so I will stop here for this post.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Practical Reflections on the KJV (5)

Beeke’s third point has to do with translation philosophy. The KJV has a “word-for-word” approach (more commonly called formal equivalence today), whereas versions such as the NIV take more of a “meaning-for-meaning” approach. This latter approach was generally called “dynamic equivalence” when the NIV first appeared. But over time it has gotten a bad name. Currently the preference is to call it functional equivalence.

While it is true that the KJV takes a formal equivalence approach to translating the text, that is also true of some modern translations. The NKJV, the NASB, and the ESV all take a formal equivalence approach to translating the text. Thus there is nothing distinctive about the KJV at this point.

Beeke’s fourth point is that the KJV is “a more honest translation.” By this, he means that words not in the original but supplied by the translator have been put in italics. This is not done with the NIV “lest the loose method of its translators be unmercifully exposed to view.” I don’t know if it would be possible to express this point in a more loaded or biased fashion. It is true that interpolated words are not indicated by words in italics in the NIV. The possibility is precluded by the translation philosophy adopted by the translators. I carry no brief for the NIV, but it is less than honest of Beeke to make this a point of contention. The translation philosophy of the KJV (and the NKJV, NASB, and ESV) is amenable to the indication of interpolated words by the use of italics. The translation philosophy of the NIV (and the NLT, NEB, etc., etc.) is not. Beeke’s problem here is not really with italics vs. no italics. His problem is with the translation philosophy. In short, this is not essentially a different reason than number three.

Beeke’s fifth point is that the idiom of the KJV is more precise. By this he apparently means no more than that the KJV indicates the distinction between the second person singular pronouns and the second person plural pronouns (between “thou” [2nd person singular] and “you” [2nd person plural]). On this point, Beeke is absolutely right. Both Hebrew and Greek make distinctions between the form of the second person singular pronoun and the second person plural. The KJV does also, while modern translations do not. I wonder, however, how many readers of the KJV are aware of this, and whether it makes any difference to them as they read. I do wish that there were a way in modern English of indicating the difference between the two. As Beeke says, it is often important. Perhaps modern English versions could adopt “y’all” for the second person plural.

Beeke’s sixth reason for retaing the KJV is that it is “the best liturgical text.” In other words, it is, in Beeke’s opinion, the best for reading in public worship. Maybe. It often depends on who is reading it. I would much rather hear the NIV read well than the KJV read badly. It also depends to a certain extent on the congregation. What version do they have? Do they follow along in the reading in their own Bibles, or do they listen to the version being read. My own preference is that people lay their Bibles aside when the Scripture is being publicly read, and listen to the text that is being read. That way, if there are differences between the version being read, and the version someone in the pew has, the congregant is not distracted by the differences.

I have more to say on the public reading of Scripture, but I’ll visit that at another point in the discussion.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Practical Reflections Regarding the KJV (4)

I hope you understood the discussion about the Textus Receptus, and the debate about what Greek text of the New Testament should serve as the basis for our English translations. If not, comment, and let me know. The point of that entire discussion was to show what the different texts are (TR, eclectic, and majority). To many people, it makes a huge difference what text is used. As noted last time, the KJV and the NKJV use the TR. As far as I know, almost all other English translations since 1880 have used some form of the eclectic text. To my knowledge, there is no English version based on the majority text. Beeke says, “the KJV gives the most authentic and fullest available text of the Scriptures, with none of the many omissions and textual rewrites of the modern translations.” In other words, as far as Beeke is concerned the eclectic and majority texts are inauthentic (or at least less authentic than the TR) and lacking. Also, the eclectic and majority texts have many omissions and textual rewrites.

I don’t have the space to go into a full discussion of that now, but am working on a project that will address at least some of those concerns. My own view is that the debate over the Greek text of the New Testament is, if not a tempest in a teapot, it is at least not nearly as significant as many people (including Beeke) seem to think it is.

One way of giving you a sense of what the variations are is to direct you to a copy of the NKJV. For the body of the NT, the NKJV has used the TR. In the marginal notes, the editors have indicated where the eclectic text and the majority text differ from the TR. The eclectic text is indicate by the letters NU. The NU stands for the Nestle-Aland/United Bible Societies Greek New Testament. M stands for Majority Text. For a fuller discussion, you can refer to the Preface to the NKJV. One example of differences among the texts is in the issue of spelling, especially of names. If you look at Matt 1:7, the NKJV reads, “Solomon begot Rehoboam, Rehoboam begot Abijah, and Abijah begot Asa.” The footnote to this verse indicates that instead of Asa, the NU has Asaph. Asa is what appears in the Hebrew text of 1 Chron 3:10 (apparently the source for Matthew’s genealogy) and also in the Septuagint (old Greek translation of the Old Testament). However, many Greek manuscripts of Matthew 1:7 have Asaph. Is this just a spelling variation, as the footnote in the ESV suggests, or is this an error in the NU text? It’s difficult to say, because unless it is simply a spelling variation there does not seem to be a good explanation for the origin of “Asaph” as opposed to “Asa.”

Another example is the question of “omissions.” If you look at Matt 5:27, the NKJV reads, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, You shall not commit adultery.” The footnote indicates that both the NU text and the Majority text “omit” the phrase “to those of old.” Now, it is certainly possible that the manuscripts reflected in the NU and M omitted that phrase. It is not difficult to accidentally omit something in copying. However, it is also possible that the manuscripts behind the TR added the phrase in order to make vs 27 consistent with vss 21 and 33. But it should also be noted that vss 38 and 43 lack the phrase. So is vs 27 a case of NU and M omission or a case TR addition?

In short, as I said above, I think this is much less of an issue than others appear to think it.

Next time I will move on to Beeke’s third point.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Practical Reflections Regarding the KJV (Part 3)

Erasmus continued to work on his Greek New Testament (GNT) even after its publication, and subsequent editions were published, with the fourth and last appearing in 1527. In all, about half a dozen manuscripts formed the basis for Erasmus’s GNT. By the middle of the 16th century, a French printer by the name of Robert Estienne (also known as Stephanus) had also become involved in the publication of the GNT. His last edition appeared in 1551. This text was not significantly different from that of Erasmus. Following Stephanus, Theodore Beza, the disciple of Calvin, also became involved in the editing and publishing of the GNT, publishing ten editions between 1565 and a posthumous edition in 1611. Six of those were simply reprints of four distinct editions. Beza’s work served to preserve the GNT text as it had been published by Erasmus and Stephanus. Thus by the end of the 16th century, the GNT as edited by Erasmus, Stephanus, and Beza, had become the received text (the Textus Receptus) of the GNT. The last two distinct editions of Beza (1588 and 1598) were the texts that the KJV translators relied upon.

This text of the GNT became the standard text for the next three hundred years or so, until the discovery of many more manuscripts of the GNT in the 19th century. At that point it rightly held the title of Textus Receptus. However, since 1881, the Textus Receptus has effectively lost its position as the received text. The translators of the NKJV deliberately chose the TR as the basis of their New Testament. However, no other major English translation (or even minor English translations, to my knowledge) has used the TR as the basis for its New Testament. Instead, beginning with the English Revised Version (1881-1885), English versions have used the so-called “critical” or “eclectic” text as the basis of their translations. The list includes the ASV, RSV, the Modern Language Bible, Today’s English Version, the NASB (and its 1995 update), the NIV, the Contemporary English Version, the New Century Version, and the ESV, among others. Beeke is technically correct when he says that the TR has been used by the church historically. However, it is now the case that that history essentially stopped at the middle of the 19th century, and a new received text has replaced the TR.

This brings us to Beeke’s other two claims. First Beeke states:  “Oldest Does Not Mean Best – The Westcott and Hort arguments that ‘the oldest manuscripts are the most reliable’ and that ‘age carries more weight than volume’ are not necessarily true. It could well be that the two oldest, complete manuscripts were found to be in such unusually excellent condition because they were already recognized as faulty manuscripts in their time and therefore were placed aside and not recopied until worn out as were the reliable manuscripts. This is further supported by numerous existing differences between the Vatican and Sinaitic manuscripts.” I know that Beeke was trying for brevity here. Nonetheless, it is a misleading summary of the views of those who support an eclectic text. It may be that the two oldest and and best-preserved manuscripts are well-preserved because they were recognized as faulty and not handled’ much. It may also be that they were well-preserved because those who preserved them recognized their importance and value and protected them. The fact that there are many differences between them is also misleading. There are many differences among the manuscripts that lie behind the TR.

Beeke also says: “Volume – The King James Version is based upon the Traditional Text. The vast majority of the more than 5,000 known partial and complete Greek manuscripts follow this textual reading.” This is gross overstatement. There are many differences between the TR and what is today called the Majority Text.

Beeke would have been better off to have skipped this reason entirely. It is full of loaded language that, while perhaps rhetorically effective, is less than honest. So, for example, the statement “the most authentic and fullest available text” implies that others are not authentic, and that they deliberately omit things that should be there. That has to be proven, not merely asserted. I would have expected better from Dr. Beeke.