The RNA singled out three events that contributed to the prominence of Bible translations in the news this past year:
- Celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the King James Version. There’s no doubt that the King James Version (“KJV”) has had an unprecedented impact on English and on religion, as well as on the practice of Bible translation, though I insist that at this point its value lies less in what it tells us about the original text of the Bible — I did, after all, call it a fool’s gold standard — and more in its historical and cultural role. (For more on why I think the KJV is now inaccurate, take my “Exploring the Bible” video quiz: “Do You Speak KJV?“)
- Criticism of the newest NIV. The NIV was officially published in 2011, but it was released on-line in 2010, which is perhaps why the RNA didn’t single out the publication of the NIV, but rather criticism of the gender decisions in it. Southern Baptists were especially vocal in this regard, and I don’t think this gender debate is going away. (Just a few days ago I was denounced by some Southern Baptists for my translation work, in particular for my suggestion in the Huffington Post that the Song of Solomon advocates equality between men and women.)
- The completion of the Common English Bible (CEB). The CEB proved hugely popular, even beyond what its publishers expected, though I like it less than many. It’s not a surprise that the translation made news. It was reprinted twice within weeks of its initial run, and has over half a million copies in print. It also made some bold decisions, like changing the traditional “Son of Man” into “human one.”
Though all three of these news items seem to be about Bible translation, I think there’s more going on.
The gender debate, in particular, seems less about translation than about the role of men and women. As I told the AP, I think the NIV is a step backwards in terms of gender accuracy in translation. The loudest complaints this year were that it didn’t take a big enough step backward.
Similarly, I think the admiration (and sometimes reverence) that many people have for the KJV has a lot to do with keeping things the way they were.
And on the other side of the coin, part of the CEB’s appeal is tied up with specifically not keeping things the way they were.
Certainly one common theme here is how we deal with modernity. There seems to be a more specific message behind the stories, too, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.
In 2008, as I was writing And God Said, I described the King James Version (KJV) as the “fool’s-gold standard” of English Bible translation. That was approximately 397 years after the watershed publication of the KJV, hardly a date worth noticing.
But today the KJV turns 400, and with that anniversary has come renewed world-wide attention to what certainly ranks as one of the most important and influential translations of the Bible ever. But some of the celebration is misplaced.
It’s not that I don’t like the KJV. I do. It’s often poetic in ways that modern translations are not. And I recognize all it has done both for English speakers who are serious about their faith and more widely. Dr. Alister McGrath is correct when he writes in his In The Beginning that the “King James Bible was a landmark in the history of the English language, and an inspiration to poets, dramatists, artists, and politicians.”
Equally, I appreciate the dedication and hard work that went into the KJV, as Dr. Leland Ryken passionately conveys in his Understanding English Bible Translation: “[f]or people who have multiple English Bibles on their shelves, it is important to be reminded that the vernacular Bible [the KJV] was begotten in blood.”
Yet for all its merits, the King James Version is monumentally inaccurate, masking the Bible’s original text. There are two reasons for the errors.
The first is that English has changed in 400 years, so even where the KJV used to be accurate, frequently now it no longer is. (My video-quiz about the English in the KJV — Do You Speak KJV? — illustrates this point.)
The second reason is that the KJV was written several hundred years before the advent of modern translation theory, linguistics, and, in general, science. Just as advances like carbon dating and satellite imagery help us know more about antiquity now than people did 400 years ago (even though they were a little closer to the original events), we also know more about ancient Hebrew and Greek now than they did 400 years ago. In fact, we know much more, both about the ancient languages and about how to convey them in translation.
Like Heinrich Bunting’s famous 16th-century “clover-leaf map” of the world that adorns my office wall (the map puts the holy city of Jerusalem right in the middle, surrounded by three leaves: Europe, Asia, and Africa), the KJV translation is of enormous value historically, politically, sentimentally, and perhaps in other ways. But also like Bunting’s map, the KJV is, in the end, not very accurate.
And those who would navigate the Bible solely with this 400-year-old translation journey in perils.
I’m thrilled to announce the beta version of my latest project: Exploring the Bible videos. The site is a growing collection of short text-based videos about the Bible, frequently focusing on translation issues.
The first three videos (also available on YouTube) are:
- John 3:16 – What does “God so loved the world” really mean?
- Quiz: Do you speak KJV?
- Thou Shalt Not Covet – Why “covet” is a mistranslation in the Ten Commandments.
Longer than a soundbite and (much) shorter than a lecture, each video presents a single idea in two or three minutes.
My hope is that these videos will be an effective way of discussing the text of the Bible, because the medium of video makes it possible to display the text as I talk about it.
Please let me know what you think.
I’ll also be grateful if you can ask a few friends or colleagues to take a look — particularly if they don’t follow this blog — so I can get a sense of what these videos are like for people who encounter the material for the first time.