I need help deciding which version of the Bible I should use in some courses I’m taking. I’ve listed the options available to me per the curriculum below:
New International Version (NIV) · English Standard Version (ESV) · New American Standard Bible (NASB) · New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) · New Living Translation (NLT).
Which version do you recommend?
Each of these translations are going to have some nice things about them—I don’t believe that sinister or purposely misleading insertions are an issue in most modern translations—but you have to find that balance between preserving the purity of the writing and the intent of the thought. Some translations chivalrously attempt to keep the purity of the written words (be they Greek or Hebrew) into the English, but this well-intentioned effort leads readers to miss out on the cultural and linguistic shades of meaning that may not transfer with a 1:1 translation into modern English. (Imagine trying to translate the script of the sitcom The Office, with its heavy use of American sarcasm and irony, into Greek for someone like Paul to understand—it would take a lot more than just a word-for-word effort to get him to comprehend it!)
The alternative approach is to find a translation that strays from the purity of the writing in order to communicate the intent of the thought. This would be ideal if (and only if) the actual intent of the thought could be known. This method would take all the cultural and linguistic intentions of the original and translate it completely into something that can be likened to ourselves. (The Book of Mormon narrative if handed to us raw would probably be interpreted by modern translators as having a lot to do with tribal ceremonies and peace pipes, but the Lord cut through all of that and gave Joseph the intent of the thought; in fact, this is the root of the conflict between Egyptologists and Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Abraham).
As it would be a mistake to trust to any modern translator the task of understanding the intent of the thought of all Biblical authors (though I would trust Joseph Smith with that), can we find a balance of the two approaches (or at least not an egregious over application of one or the other) among the translations among which you’ve been tasked with choosing? To aid in this, let’s examine the same verse rendered by each of the translations. We will take as our text Colossians 2:8 – 10:
For reference, let’s start with the verses as they appear in the King James Version (note the bolded phrases for comparison):
“Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power.”
Now let’s look at the same verses as they appear in these other translations:
“See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority.”
“See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.”
“See to it that there is no one who takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception in accordance with human tradition, in accordance with the elementary principles of the world, rather than in accordance with Christ. For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over every ruler and authority.”
“See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority.”
“Don’t let anyone capture you with empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense that come from human thinking and from the spiritual powers of this world, rather than from Christ. For in Christ lives all the fullness of God in a human body. So you also are complete through your union with Christ, who is the head over every ruler and authority.”
For reference, here is the Greek:
Βλέπετε μή τις ὑμᾶς ἔσται ὁ συλαγωγῶν διὰ τῆς φιλοσοφίας καὶ κενῆς ἀπάτης κατὰ τὴν παράδοσιν τῶν ἀνθρώπων, κατὰ τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου καὶ οὐ κατὰ Χριστόν· ὅτι ἐν αὐτῷ κατοικεῖ πᾶν τὸ πλήρωμα τῆς Θεότητος σωματικῶς, καὶ ἐστὲ ἐν αὐτῷ πεπληρωμένοι, ὅς ἐστιν ἡ κεφαλὴ πάσης ἀρχῆς καὶ ἐξουσίας.
Here are some key words that are taken differently by the various translations:
- στοιχεῖα (stoicheia, “principles, elements, rudiments”), as in, “The στοιχεῖα of the world and not…Christ” (v. 8).
- Θεότητος (Theotētos, “divinity, deity, godhead”), as in, “the fullness of the Θεότητος bodily” (v. 9).
- πεπληρωμένοι (peplērōmenoi, “fill, fulfill, complete”), as in, “you are in him πεπληρωμένοι” (v. 10).
The first thing to note is how many translations assume στοιχεῖα (stoicheia)to mean spirit entities of some kind. This is because the word has connotations in other Greek writings with spirits that were said to govern the sun, moon, and the planets, so that the bondage of heathenism was understood to mean that man was ruled by astrological superstition. Here Paul seems to contrast that type of subjection with the freedom that comes from recognizing Christ as the only controlling spirit that man has to worry about. But Paul doesn’t specifically state that in the pure writing. Translations that latch on to the spiritual entity notion of the word then risk injecting more ambiguity into Paul’s writing than they probably intended (even if the concept was right). So we see above that some translations opt for written purity, such as the King James Version, where most go out on a limb in this case with the intent of the thought (but the thought is not carried through completely in any case).
Clearly, you have to be watchful for the zealous usage of the most recent and popular ideas being injected without a judicious spirit involved—the intent of the thought may be entirely wrong! This is apparent with Θεότητος (Theotētos) where some translations straight up say “God” instead of “Godhead.” The word godhead comes from the same root as godhood and denotes the quality of being divine or as a god. Unless your agenda is to add in triune precepts at every chance possible (i.e., the trinity), changing this word to denote “God” as a singular entity is a pretty serious use of artistic liberty (the Greek has a completely different word for just “God”). Some might say that the qualifying “fulness” describing Θεότητος (Theotētos) enables its translation as “God” to infer “godhood,” but it would be more accurate with an indefinite article (e.g., “the fulness of a God”). For the most part, the translations above wisely keep to the pure written word (who would dare retroactively apply the creeds of Nicaea to Paul’s mind?).
Lastly, it may seem inconsequential to choose between “filled,” “fulness,” and “complete” when translating πεπληρωμένοι (peplērōmenoi), but each word carries with it a slight shade of unspoken meaning that may cause the reader to view the subject of that action in very different ways. In this case, the subject is you, so it’s vital to get this one right or we risk understanding ourselves improperly. A common Christian precept is that all one needs to be saved is to admit that Christ is your personal savior. Of course this is something a devil cannot do, but it has the unfortunate effect of making people believe that they can be subject to a God without having to take thought about what that God would have them do as his subjects. Depending on the word choice, we may think that either God is done with his part or we are done with ours! The second part of the verse should be taken into account, along with the context of the preceding verses, to give us the answer. Not surprisingly, most of the translations above go with the intent of a thought that may not be thus justified since the concept of free grace is popularly accepted.
WIth that in mind, here is how I would personally interpret the Greek (the Joseph Version):
“See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to fallen traditions and astrological superstition, instead of relying on Christ. For in the person of Christ is established the fullness of divinity [power over spirits and destinies], and your destiny is already fulfilled by him who is the head of every governing spirit and authority.”
The translation that comes closest to this in my mind is actually the Good News Translation (GNT):
“See to it, then, that no one enslaves you by means of the worthless deceit of human wisdom, which comes from the teachings handed down by human beings and from the ruling spirits of the universe, and not from Christ. For the full content of divine nature lives in Christ, in his humanity, and you have been given full life in union with him. He is supreme over every spiritual ruler and authority.”
In the context of the rest of the chapter addressing superstitions, astrological feasts, etc., this translation keeps the intent of the thought alive most correctly, in my opinion.
Now, I could have just pointed to a translation off the bat as a recommendation, but I wanted to give you some perspectives and tools that will hopefully help you understand how to approach Bible translations. With all of that instruction in place, here is what I recommend: use more than one translation. This approach will allow you to dig in (when desired) to the subtle differences in translations that may go back and forth between purity of the written word and intent of thought.
If for some reason you can only use one, I will rank your options below; if you can have more than one, I’d recommend the top few in this ranking:
Hope that helps!