Monday, August 11, 2008

No "Standard for Years to Come" Likely

I came across a post today at the NLT Blog by Keith Williams called "Bible Translation by Committee" interacting with Blomberg's post at Koinonia. I found his comments on the process of producing a translation to be very helpful, and I want to go on record affirming that I "appreciate the fact that we have multiple excellent, peer-reviewed Bible translations in English." In fact, I think that is the main reason that no single translation will emerge as "THE standard" in the same way that the KJV was for a long time or even in the way that the NIV has been for the last thirty years or so. We have too many versions to choose from now.

In the first half of the twentieth century, there were really only three versions to choose from: KJV, ASV, or RSV. From the late '60s through the '80s, the NASB ('67) replaced the ASV, the NIV ('78) was completed and became popular, and the NKJV ('82) appeared. So, when I was growing up as a pastor's kid, I knew of only three categories of bible versions that were commonly accepted among evangelicals - KJV (& NKJV), NASB, and NIV.

In the '90s, things started to change and more choices became available. The NRSV (1990) was completed but didn't displace the NIV in the hearts of most evangelicals. (It was suspect for being ecumenical and inclusive.) The first edition of the NLT was completed (1996) but didn't make much of an impact (overshadowed in the circles I moved in by the excitement over the NASB update in 1995). Other versions appeared but didn't make much of a splash either like the NCV ('87) and the CEV ('95). By the end of the '90s, the same three appear to have been the most common - KJV, NASB, and NIV.

The new millennium has witnessed a number of changes that have shifted the status quo. It's now become more accepted to use one of the more paraphrastic / dynamic-equivalent versions like the NLT, NCV, CEV, and The Message. Also, there have been some brand-new choices added to the mix like the ESV (yes, I know it's a revision of RSV '71) and the HCSB. The NLT got a second edition in 2004 and it's popularity has grown steadily since then. Finally, the TNIV was completed in 2005. There are also a couple of translation projects that are at the moment only online like the International Standard Version and the New English Translation (NET Bible).

Now when someone is thinking about buying a Bible, instead of thinking:

"Should I get a KJV? Nah, too old fashioned. NASB? Nah, that's not natural English. So what's left? Oh look an NIV!"

They will think something like: [Aside: Oh look, a natural spontaneous example of non-gendered speech - I've written "they" with an antecedent of "someone" to avoid the "he/she" issue. ]

"Should I get another NIV? Oh wait, look . . . what's this NLT Bible? I like this one. But wait, there's some other versions on this shelf close to the floor - ESV and HCSB? I've heard of those, too. I wonder why the bookstore has given so much shelf space to the KJV and NIV and so little to these? I heard they were pretty good, too. Which one should I choose??"

I'm sure Zondervan would love to capitalize on the widespread use of the NIV by getting everyone to replace it with the TNIV, but unfortunately, two things have happened to make that unlikely. First, the gender language controversy has probably put a black mark on the TNIV for many Christians regardless of whether the criticism was fair or warranted. Second, there are a lot of really good alternatives out there (and I sense the NLT is appealing to a lot of NIV users who might have been otherwise drawn to the TNIV).


  1. what, no mention of the languages the bible was actually written in? abandon all those 'commentaries' (which is what all translations are) and read the Bible!

  2. Yes, that's true. I wonder how many laypeople realize the levels of mediation between them and their text, especially the ones that think they have the very words of God in English verbatim. First, we have a translation - obviously not a straightforward enterprise since so many exist for many different reasons. Then, there's the fact that most of the translations use a diplomatic critical edition of their "original" text. A diplomatic edition means that one manuscript is chosen as the base (by convenience and completeness, not inherent merit), but most translations go off the base text, not the critical apparatus giving possibly superior variants. So, the real question is which Bible should we have them read? NIV? BHS? Or just straight from the Leningrad Codex or maybe from Aleppo? Or maybe a real critical edition like what Ron Hendel did for Gen. 1-11 is needed for the whole Bible? Then we'd have the original.

  3. Douglas,

    Thanks for the interesting post. I thought I might add that the NET bible is not only online, but you can own a hard copy of it, just go to On a side note, why shouldn't the general populace also read the New English Translation of the Septuagint? Or better yet, why not just have them read the Septuagint!

  4. Lenny, thanks for the info. I didn't know they were making print copies of the NET Bible since I hadn't seen any in the bookstore. Throwing in the Septuagint...the work of text criticism is never done. I will comment though that the New English Translation of the Septuagint is a great improvement over Brenton. And now with Codex Sinaiticus online, maybe we should just have everyone read the Septuagint. We'll have to teach them all Greek first.