A Holy Bible?

Recently there has come from the Oxford and Cambridge University presses the Old Testament section of the New English Bible. The New Testament was published already in 1961, and 7 million copies of it have already been sold. This allegedly completely new translation is now complete, therefore; and it is being widely hailed both in the secular and the religious press, and, according to reports, is selling at a fast pace. 

Not infrequently questions are directed to me, either orally or in writing, as to the value and the trustworthiness of the various new versions, translations, and paraphrases of Holy Scripture which are on the market nowadays. Time was when about the only choices worth mentioning were that old stand-by, the King James Version, and the American Revised Version. But today versions, translations, and paraphrases of all or parts of the Bible have become almost a dime-a-dozen. All of them try to make their claim for the preference of the Bible reader and the student. Because of the popularity of the NEB in particular and of the multiplication of versions in general, a few comments are here offered. 

In the first place, what is meant by the various terms,translation, version, and paraphrase? 

Briefly, they may be distinguished as follows. A new translation goes back to the original manuscripts of the Bible, compares them according to the science of textual criticism, and, in the light of the available knowledge and discoveries in the area of Biblical studies, attempts to reproduce the original texts of Scripture as accurately and understandably as possible in another language—for us, English. A new version is essentially a revision of an already existent translation. This revision is not a wholly new work. It may include some corrections in the translationfrom the original texts. It may also consist of clarifications and corrections of the language of the English text itself. Usually both elements are involved. But there is a great deal of emphasis today upon versions which feature modern, or contemporary, English, ifi djstinction from the English language employed in our King James Version. The contention is made that theglizabethan English of the KJV is outdated and irrelevant and is difficult to understand for the reader of the twentieth century. A paraphrase is different. It does not claim to be an accurate translation of the language of the original. Neither is it a mere casting of the language-of another version into contemporary English. A paraphrase is a recasting of the thought of the Bible text into language which is supposed to clarify the meaning. It is evident, therefore, that a paraphrase is much more in the nature of a commentary. Thus, for example, in the meditation in this issue, I paraphrase the expression of Isaiah 44:3, “I will pour my spirit upon thy seed, and my blessing upon thine offspring,” by the words, “I will pour my blessing upon thy seed through my Spirit.” This may very well be a legitimate commentary and explanation—as, of course, I believe it is in the above instance—but it is neither a translation nor a version, and, consequently, not the Bible itself. 

In the second place, a few general observations may be made with respect to all three—new translations, new versions, and paraphrases. 

1. All change is not improvement. We live in an age when change for change’s sake has almost become a rule. Besides, it seems to have become the common opinion that the old is inferior and must be discarded, and that in our highly educated and scientific twentieth century we can do everything better than anyone has done it in the past. To begin to combat this conceited notion as far as the world in general is concerned is almost hopeless. The twentieth century world is infatuated with its own greatness, its own advances, its own learning. This spirit has also infected the church. This is true rather generally with respect to things ecclesiastical and theological. The old liturgy and the old confessions are no longer good; they must be discarded and replaced. And this is a serious indictment for the simple reason that it appears frequently to go on the assumption that not the Spirit of God but the spirit of man guided the church in the past. I am suspicious that in the whole business of multiplying versions of Holy Scripture there is something of this same attitude. This does not mean, of course, that one must per se be opposed to all change. But change should come about slowly and cautiously, and, above all, only where there is a solidly founded conviction that the change truly is improvement: 

2. It should be kept in mind that there is no such thing as a purely objective, unbiased translation, version, or paraphrase. This is true, first of all, from a formal point of view. Thus, for example, the NEB claims to be a brand new translation. I suppose it is a new translation in as far as that is possible. But anyone will have to admit, for example, that if these translators had any kind of thorough acquaintance with the King James Bible, they could not fail to be influenced (either for good or for ill) even sub-consciously by that knowledge. But what is more serious is the fact that every translator or version-writer has a fundamentalspiritual bias. He is either a believer or an unbeliever. He is either a higher critic, or he is not a higher critic. He either holds to verbal inspiration and the absolute authority of Scripture, or he does not. And this will make all the difference in the world both as to his approach toward Bible-translation and as to the translation or version which he produces. Thus, for example, it will make a great deal of difference whether a translator or version-writer believes in the deity of Christ or denies it. It will make a large difference whether he holds to the historicity of Old Testament events or whether he conceives of them as myths—sometimes very subtle differences. It is even true of a paraphrase, which is essentially a commentary, that it will make much difference whether the paraphraser is Arminian or Reformed. And, by the way, as far as paraphrases are concerned, they are not for general usage. They belong on the library shelf with the rest of the commentaries—not in family worship, not in any kind of public Scripture reading. They are, if they have any value at all, strictly study books. 

3. One should not be easily impressed by the cry for relevance and for a contemporary English version. In the first place, this writer is generally unimpressed by the modern cry for relevance, and finds not infrequently that it is in fact a cry for watering down the gospel and making it palatable to the natural man. In the second-place, it always seems to me that the very clamor for a Bible which is written in so-called up-to-date language is in flat contradiction to the vaunted high educational level, the learned character, of our age. Are we indeed so learned that we cannot understand King James English any more? In the third place, this whole matter is extremely relative. How soon, for example does language become outdated? How often must the various versions be discarded and replaced with more up-to-date versions? Every ten years? fifty years? one hundred years? In the fourth place, I do not believe that in the average Bible-reading and Biblestudying home, that is, a home where the Bible is daily read and studied, there is any great difficulty with the language of the King James Version as such. And when, then, I weigh the disadvantages and dangers of many a new version or translation over against the relatively tiny amount of difficulty with the English language of the King James Version, my vote is in favor of retaining that King James Version for consistent use in the covenant home. And, by the way, do not underestimate the value of consistent use and consistent study and consistent training in the use of just one version in the home from childhood up. The same is true of church and of school. When a child grows up, then there is plenty of time to begin to make use of various other translations or versions for study purposes. 

4. Finally, it must not be overlooked that to an extent the ordinary Bible reader is at the mercy of the translators. He has no way of checking up on the accuracy or inaccuracy of a given version. The most he can do is to compare various English renderings, or consult a commentary; and the result is that frequently he is left in a quandary as to which is the correct rendering. From this point of view, I recommend the King James Version, not only because it is generally speaking a good, accurate version, but especially because it is orthodox and free from some of the open errors and subtle tendencies of many more recent versions. Now what about the New English Bible specifically? In the first place, many of the changes are both exercises in trivia (something at which scholars seem to be adept) and utterly unhelpful. Here is an example. In Ruth 3:11 in the KJV Ruth is called a “virtuous woman.” In the NEB she is called a “capable woman.” But already a well-known scholar, Cyrus H. Gordon, argues that she should be called a “lady,” with the connotation of belonging to the “senatorial” or ruling class, (Cf. Christianity Today, March 27, 1970, p. 7). Now translators could probably argue ad nauseamabout the precise nuances of the Hebrew term used here. Quite possibly the term has something in it of all three translations; quite possibly, too, there is no single English term which fully expresses the Hebrew term. Yet, in all probability something is lost which should not be lost (in the light of Proverbs 31) when the rendering “virtuous woman” is rejected. Thus there may be many relatively unimportant points at which the translation is supposed to be improved. Yet not only are points like this so minor as to make it unnecessary to produce a new translation, but it is also questionable whether what is gained actually outweighs what is lost. It is better, in my opinion, to leave questions involving the fine nuances of the language to commentaries and exegetical studies. 

In the second place,—and this is far more serious—with the translators of the NEB what is called “conjectural emendation” is an accepted principle. What is this? In simple language, it is a changing of the text by a kind of educated guess in instances where it is not clear to the translators. It seems to me that this plays havoc with Holy Scripture. It is not translation, but arbitrary guess-work. Nor, it seems to me, is it consistent with an acceptance of the infallible inspiration of Scripture. There is a very flagrant example of this mentioned in Christianity Today(March 27, 1970), p. 13. There we read:

Conjectural emendation is an accepted principle. Where the translators feel that the text does not make good sense as it stands, they alter it to provide a meaningful translation. Thus

Genesis 9:26

reads, “Bless, O Lord, the tents of Shem. . . ,” with a footnote stating that the Hebrew reads, “Blessed is the Lord, the God of Shem.”

Now this is sheer and arbitrary wrecklessness with Scripture. There is, moreover, not even the semblance of a good excuse in this instance even to make one of these “conjectural emendations.” The text, as does all the text of Scripture, makes perfectly good sense; and what is more, in this instance that perfectly good sense is right on the surface. To this writer, one instance of this kind is sufficient to condemn the entire NEB. This changes it from a Holy Bible to an Unholy Bible. 

In the third place, I offer a few instances, by way of comparison, in which this new translation presents some rather radical departures, departures which either deny or leave open for denial cardinal truths, and which, to my mind, betray an unbelieving bias. In each instance the New English Bible is quoted first, and then the King James Bible. The reader may easily notice the significant changes. 

NEB— Gen. 1:1, “In the beginning of creation, when God made heaven and earth, the earth was without form and void. . .” 

KJV— Gen. 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void. . .” NEB— Ps. 23:4, “Even though I walk through a valley dark as death, I fear no evil, for thou art with me, thy staff and thy crook are my comfort.”

KJV— Ps. 23:4, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” 

NEB— Ps. 23:6, “Goodness and love unfailing, these will follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.” 

KJV— Ps. 23:6, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.” 

NEB— Isaiah 7:14, “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign: A young woman is with child, and she will bear a son, and will call him Immanuel.” 

KJV— Isaiah 7:14, “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” 

NEB— Isaiah 9:6, “For a boy has been born for us, a son given to us to bear the symbol of dominion on his shoulder; and he shall be called in purpose wonderful, in battle God like, Father for all time, Prince of peace.” 

KJV— Isaiah 9:6, “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.”

NEB— John 1:1-3, “When all things began, the Word already was. The Word dwelt with God, and what God was, the Word was. The Word, then, was with God at the beginning, and through him all things came to be; no single thing was created without him.” 

KJV— John 1:1-3, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.”

In all of the above instances, I can see no significant improvement in readability. But I can see some very critical departures in the translation—critical enough to make me want to shy away from the use of this New English Bible. I do not recommend it. I warn against it. 

But let me end on a positive note. Use your King James Bible. Use it faithfully. Use all of it. Use it in family worship. Use it in personal devotions. Steep yourselves in the knowledge of it. Read it. Study it. Sometimes 1 am suspicious that the fact that we have difficulty in finding a less familiar book when it is announced in our worship services is a dead give away that we are indeed so unfamiliar with the book itself that we do not even know where to find it. Does this come from disuse? Read your Bible,—all of it! Teach your children to read it,—all of it!