Wednesday, June 08, 2011

On Bible Translations: "Befriend Faithfulness?"

This afternoon I was flying from Boston to Baltimore after a couple of days with one of my clients and I was reading Psalm 37 in my little English Standard Version (ESV) NT with Psalms and Proverbs. While reading I came across

"Trust in the LORD, and do good;
dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness."


Befriend faithfulness?

No clue what that means.

The margin note reads "feed on faithfulness" or "find safe pasture."
I also thought, "Who says 'befriend' anymore, anyway?"

It made me want to buy the most recent revision of the NIV. There's a history behind that statement.

On my flight I was reading the ESV because I really like the translation and have read it for a long time. I'm old enough that I grew up on the King James Version (KJV) and the ESV stands in that translation tradition, being based on the Revised Standard Version which, itself, was based on the KJV. So when I read the ESV, it feels, well, KJVesque. Plus, my favorite study bible, hands down, is the ESV Study Bible (see my thoughts on that Bible here in a piece I did a few years ago for Leadership Network).

But stumbling across that seemingly archaic phrase today on the plane brought up for a me an internal debate I've been having for years: NIV or ESV?

NIV, which is the abbreviation for the New International Version, is the best-selling English translation according to the Christian Booksellers Association. Before the ESV was published in 2001, I read both the NIV and the New American Standard Bible (NASB), a translation's that's historically been accused of being so literal as to be "wooden." Part of my early enthusiastic reception of the ESV was probably because, being in the KJV translation tradition, it's phrasing is more elegant than the NASB (and, I would say, a bit more paraphrastic - and I don't mean that pejoratively).

My undergrad degree is in Classical and Koine Greek and I also have a Master of Divinity degree (though my Greek is quite rusty), but historically I've preferred the NASB or the ESV in the New Testament (which is written mostly in Koine Greek) because I could discern the Greek written beneath it and in the Old Testament I've preferred the NIV. I paint with broad brush here, but the New Testament is more analytically written with its predominant pedagogical agenda so it's suited perfectly to the more literal translations. The Old Testament, on the other hand, is primarily story and so the more paraphrastic translations (such as the NIV), in my opinion, fit it perfectly.

But I'd really prefer to read just one Bible.

I remember years ago when some guy in my church when I was going to seminary bound together a Hebrew Old Testament and a Greek New Testament, so I suppose I could bound a NIV OT and a ESV NT, if I could find two volumes of the same size.

But, short of that, reading "befriend faithfulness" on the plane nudged me back toward the NIV camp and so I determined that after I landed I would drive to my local Christian Bookstore and price one of the many Bibles with the newest revision of the NIV that was just published this year (unofficially being called the NIV 2011). (The NIV 2011, by the way, replaces Biblica's controversial Today's New International Version, which was never embraced by the evangelical community due to the controversy around gender-neutral language. Some of that controversy continues to dog the NIV 2011). I was looking for an full NIV Bible with which I can easily travel but which also doesn't have tiny print. It also needed to come with a good box that would protect it in my luggage or backpack. This NIV Thinline Bible seemed to meet the bill and I purchased one. So I'll read this NIV until a desire for more analytic expression puts me back in the ESV camp!

The truth is that the NASB, the NIV, and the ESV are all fine translations. I exclude the KJV not out of disrespect - its language is majestic and classic - but only because its language is 400 years old and many adults who didn't grow up with it simply will not understand all of its phrasing.

What's most critical is that we allow the Scriptures to serve their original purpose: as a conduit for the relationship between God and us.

Oh, and here's the NIV 2011's version of Psalms 37:3:

"Trust in the LORD and do good;
dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture."

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