Rightly Dividing the Word
Through my life, I have spent a lot of time interacting with Christians in a Bible Study setting, usually guiding a group through a study of a book of the Bible and how to effectively study the Bible for themselves. I have found this to be a life-long goal for me, to challenge and enable believers to be strong students of God’s Word. What a privilege it has been to share together with so many the “joy of discovery” when studying together in God’s precious Word!
Paul’s challenge to each of us as Christians is to study the Bible like the Bereans did (Acts 17:11), receiving the Word eagerly and examining it daily. We should be working “diligently” to demonstrate ourselves”approved by God” by “rightly dividing” the Word (2 Timothy 2:15). That means we “study” and “handle” the Word, and accurately interpret and effectively apply its truths. We must know the Word deeply in order to know Christ intimately. We need to be competent men & women who take God’s Word seriously and study it diligently so that we are capable of “wielding the sword” with power and ministering it effectively in our unique world of influence (Eph. 6:17)!
With that lofty goal in mind, as I study God’s Word, I have sought personally to be a responsible and effective student and teacher of the Word, and communicate those values to those I fellowship and minister with. When I consider Paul’s challenge to “accurately handle” the Word, I am reminded to consider carefully the tools and methods available to me in order to study effectively.
- Bible Study Methods – I encourage you to develop skill in what is referred to as the “Inductive Study Method” of Bible Study. This method takes the four-step approach of Observation – Correlation – Interpretation – Application (the Kay Arthur Bible Study site http://preceptaustin.org/ provides an excellent introduction to this method, and this site is a great resource for Bible Study students.) You also need to develop a skilled understanding of interpreting the Bible with a normal/historical/literal approach (referred to as “hermeneutics”).
- Bible Study Tools – Among the many tools available (concordances, dictionaries, commentaries, etc.) there are also computer-based tools which provide access to many of these tools with automatic links to the passage you are studying (I recommend e-sword.net). There are also several good online resources to take advantage of – bible.org with their “Lumina” tool; studylight.org; biblegateway.com; blueletterbible.org; preceptaustin.org.
- However, the key strategic tool to have is obviously the Bible itself, especially when combined with a high quality Study Bible (see my notes on this below). Like a sword, we want that tool to be as sturdy and sharp as possible, so we look carefully at options and choose the tool with the best features and quality. My conclusion in this regard is that the man or woman of God that wants to handle the Word as well as possible – to hold it high, exercise its power with deft strength – should want the highest quality Bible translation possible. The challenge before us today is the large number of translation choices available. These verses might help your quest:
- 1Cor. 2:10 – “For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God.”
- 1Cor. 2:16 – “For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.”
- John 16:13 -1 “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come.”
- 2 Tim. 3:16-17 – “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.
In the 20th century and earlier, the Bible-believing Christian’s choice of what version to use was fairly simple: the KJV – the RSV was for liberal churches, the Douay for Catholics – so the KJV was it. A few good study Bibles were also published, all using the KJV, such as the Scofield, Pilgrim’s, and Thompson study Bibles. The Bible-believing Church survived and to some extent prevailed through three centuries using the KJV, and many Christians still treasure that version, although today there are millions of Bible-loving Christians worldwide who are using a newer translation in their own language. However, beginning in the later 20th century, several new translations started popping up which has led many Bible-believing Christians to consider using a translation other than the KJV. Following are some thoughts to help you in that consideration.
Some Translation Road Bumps:
- You may be thinking, “I have a Bible – why do I need to worry about a translation?” Well, every Bible we have is actually a translation – the authors who wrote the books of the Bible did their writing in either the Hebrew or Greek (and a little Aramaic) language. So unless you know Hebrew or Greek, in order for you to glean the rich truths of God’s Word, we need a translation. Please forgive a little further academic elaboration… The challenge about translations is two-fold: 1) Who did the translation work, and how are they qualified so I can trust their results? 2) What copies of the Bible writer’s original document are they using as the basis of their translation (some copies of the originals are considered to be more authoritative than others)? The quality of today’s Bible translations is determined by the answers to those two questions.
- Don’t confuse “version/translation” with “study Bible”. You may have a Scofield Study Bible, for example, but that’s not the version, or translation – a Study Bible will have the NAS, NKJV or other version as the Bible it is based on, and it will include the study notes by someone such as C.I. Scofield who authored the study Bible.
- Don’t confuse “translation” with “paraphrase”. A key reason to exercise care in considering various translations is that some of the “versions” that have been published are not translations at all but a “paraphrase”, essentially done by one person, which makes it a commentary, and actually follows the beliefs and opinions of the one doing the writing. Although sometimes providing an interesting view of a verse, the serious Bible student needs to be very careful about using a paraphrase to determine the correct interpretation of a verse. Later revisions of a paraphrase are sometimes marketed as having been updated to a translation but be careful as the work is usually loyal to the original paraphrase.
- Literal or Dynamic – There are two basic approaches to Bible translation, and every translation is basically committed to going one way or the other, although on occasion they might “slip”. A Literal translation (“word for word”) seeks to represent the best understanding of every Hebrew or Greek word as it appears in the original manuscripts. This approach supports the Literal/Normal/Historical hermeneutic mentioned above. A Dynamic (“dynamic equivalent”) translation (“thought for thought”) also uses the original manuscripts as their source (to some extent), but lay an “interpretive lens” over the translation in an effort to make the wording and phrasing make more sense – this results in many words being added that aren’t in the manuscripts, or not specifically showing words in the translation. The serious Bible student should strongly favor a reputable Literal translation so that your focus and dependency is on the actual inspired words of God, not the opinions of the translators.
- A commitment to faithful translation of the original manuscripts is strategic. However, there is a strong debate among Bible-believing scholars about which manuscripts are to be considered most authoritative. This discussion is basically separated into two perspectives with many godly and wise people in both. One is committed to viewing older manuscripts (some copies of original manuscripts made as early as 2nd century AD, basically one to two generations after the original author wrote) to have more authority, quality and dependability – this is the NAS/NKJV/ESV “stream” related to the Westcott-Hort/Nestle-Aland/UBS Greek texts. The other “stream” views the 1000s of manuscripts which are manuscript copies (copies of copies…) made in the last 1000 years – this is the KJV (“only”) approach which only accepts the Textus Receptus or Majority Text Greek text. There are many questions about this latter view in my mind and thus much more confidence in the older manuscript view, and my reason for using the NAS for the last 40 years for Bible study & teaching.
- Reasons to consider a translation other than the KJV:
- The Old English wording and grammar can cause today’s reader to be distracted or struggle
- The resources used by the KJV translators had a variety of issues – e.g. using the Latin Vulgate as a source, the poor quality Greek texts available
- Translation Comparison Chart – You can click and save this chart in order to print it. It shows some of the current translations with an approximate reference to each’s approach to translation (literal or though/phrase),
An Excess of Riches
In the 21st century, we have a broad array of translations. That’s both good & bad news because there is questionable value in some, so it is fair to say that choosing a good translation is a challenge today. All the publishers’ marketing will try to convince you that theirs is best. Ask God to guide you in your choice, and seek out valuable counsel from trusted Christian friends and your pastor.
Following are some thoughts that might help to shorten the list. We’re not always sure of the goals behind all of these versions, but some likely come from a genuine desire of the translators to provide a substantively valuable study tool. Some have not gained much attention, others have commanded strong “market share”, often as a result of significant marketing investment by publishers.
- New American Standard Version (NAS)
- Since its introduction in 1971 (John in ’60, NT in ’63, updated in 1995), this translation has held “post position” as the the most dependable and readable literal translation for Bible-believing Christians. Now a three-horse race with NKJV and ESV.
- Based on the Nestle Greek text, 23rd edition. While some suggested the translation was “wooden”, I fail to see what raises that sense although there is some inclusion of original language idioms, somewhat resolved by the ’95 revision.
- The Editorial group is populated by strong biblical, conservation scholars associated with broad array of respected and biblical schools and organizations. That’s a key feature/asset when compared to other versions such as the ESV.
- From the options of NAS, NKJV and ESV, my recommendation is to stick with the NAS. That is, unless you and/or your church favor staying with the KJV, or are leaning towards Reformed theology (ESV).
- New King James Version (NKJV)
- This is a good update from the KJV, very faithful to its translation and flow. It was introduced with the NT in 1979 and the whole Bible in ’82, strongly influenced by conservative Baptists needing a reasonable option to the KJV. The Translators are generally a significantly biblical group similar to the NAS, there are a few with roots in schools that I would wonder about.
- The translation uses the KJV’s 1611 Textus Receptus (Byzantine Greek) as its primary source, and basically does not refer to more authoritative and accepted manuscript resources. To the translation’s credit, there are substantial footnotes referencing these important sources.
- Although the translation is committed to being literal, its commitment to being faithful to the KJV & the TR cause the NKJV to occasionally fall behind the NAS in comparison for best representation of the original text. There are also occasions where the KJV rendering is unnecessarily retained. One simple example: In Romans 1:5 the NKJV has “obedience to the faith” instead of “obedience of faith”.
- English Standard Version (ESV)
- According to the Translators Introduction, the words and phrases themselves grow out of the Tyndale-King James legacy, and most recently out of the RSV, with the 1971 RSV text providing the starting point. That by itself is a sobering (really disqualifying) issue , considering that the RSV is a product of the liberal National Council of Churches, used by liberal churches nationwide to this day. A possible fatal flaw.
- Additionally, the ESV translation was led and championed by Wayne Grudem, premier theologian and key Reformed theology proponent. His major influence, along with the many of the other translators either clearly reformed or related to liberal theology institutions leads to important questions about the dependability of the translation.
- Because of Grudem, et.al.’s affinity with the translation, along with the major marketing effort that has been occurring ongoing, the reformed Christian community has embraced the ESV as their “badge of honor” – if you’re Reformed, it is the translation of choice. What confuses me is when large groups of clearly non-reformed Bible-believing groups don’t see that alignment and choose to “jump on the bandwagon” as well.
- When the exciting news of a new translation was first announced as the “ESV”, my only response was wondering what made it needed. With the NAS already solidly established in Bible-believing circles, we already had an excellent, faithful translation in hand. While the ESV does seem to be an adequate translation, I wonder what might be hidden underneath the covers.
- King James Version (KJV)
- 1611 is a long time ago, and this version retains all the dusty ruminations of the King James’ translator minions. To its credit, the translation takes a literal approach to translation, however the translators depended on the Latin Vulgate and a couple of Greek texts with many questionable errors.
- It is somewhat odd to think that the strong KJV adherents view the KJV as the only translation containing God’s inspired words, yet there was no KJV before 1611 – how did the church survive before that? And one would also note that there is no KJV in foreign languages, e.g. unknown people groups with a new translation – how have those millions of people had God’s inspired word available to them with no KJV?
- Christian Standard Bible (CSB)
- This seems to be a good translation, published by Holman apparently so that Lifeway/Southern Baptists could put out an updated translation partnered with a study Bible. The work was led by the same editor as led the NKJV translation, and it was first published in 2003 as the Holman Christian Study Bible
- New International Version (NIV)
- The NT was introduced in 1973 and the full Bible in 1978. It is a “dynamic equivalence” translation – it seeks to express what the translator understands to be the thought of the writer, thus amounts to commentary/interpretation. The 1996 & 2011 revisions took steps further away from a conservative view by employing “inclusive” language with forced gender-neutral translation.
- Conservative examination of this translation raises many instances of questionable results. This combined with the NIV’s “loose” thought-oriented approach makes it less than desirable as a primary resource. Use it as a companion, perhaps for devotional reading, and also as a source of input for possible ways to express a passage.
- Conclusion – My Bible recommendations:
- Translation – in this order of priority:
- New American Standard
- New King James
- ESV (although see notes above)
- Study Bible (each coupled with NAS or NKJV:
- Newer Christians – Life Application Study Bible
- Growing Christians – Ryrie Study Bible
- Mature Christians – MacArthur Study Bible (with a couple of caveats on questionable items)
- Translation – in this order of priority:
- American Standard Version – completed in 1901, associated with British Revised Version and ended up controlled by ecumenical National Council of Churches. While related to this liberal organization, the ASV has established itself as a basically dependable translation of that earlier era.
- Revised Standard Version – published in 1952, also owned by the ecumenical (liberal) National Council of Churches
- Young’s Literal Translation – A respected notably literal translation of the Bible done in 1862. These older translations can have value but note that there has been significant growth in biblical scholarship through the last 100 years which has led to better translations more recently.
- Williams New Testament – This is also a respected translation, just the NT, based on good scholarhsip, with the byline “in the language of the people”. That theme possibly influenced the translation accuracy somewhat, but this is a good reference.
- Amplified Bible -A very respected translation first published in 1965, it does a very good job of expanding word meaning using original Hebrew & Greek word meanings, using the ASV as a base text. This translation is a valuable study tool.
- The Living Bible – This started as a paraphrase by Ken Taylor, which means it is a one-man commentary. It can be helpful at times, but Taylor isn’t regarded as major Hebrew/Greek and Theology scholar. His first installment, Living Letters, was published in 1962. The Living Bible followed in 1971. A very “loose” paraphrase, not a translation. A major revision done in 1996 is the New Living Translation (NLT) and while multiple translators did refer to original texts, it still has its roots in the paraphrase roots of the Living Bible, and is a very loose, dynamic equivalence approach. As a result, it remains more of an interpretive work, not literal, and serious Bible study should not depend much on it.