Sunday, January 7, 2024

What Is The Best English Bible Translation?

Because of my recognized passion for and facility in the biblical languages I have often been asked this impossible question: “What is the best English Bible translation?” It is impossible because all translations differ from others and even from themselves occasionally. The questioner is really asking, “Which translation consistently and accurately reflects the original Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic text?” The answer to this question is easy! Without apology—None! Languages communicate differently and there are nuances of meaning in the original that cannot be duplicated or even recognized in English—The definite article presence and absence, data tied to word order, figures of speech, poetics, and much more. In this article I probe this question by focusing on “fidelity” in translation.

Fidelity — “1. strict observance of promises, duties, etc. 4. adherence to fact or detail; 5. accuracy; exactness” (Webster’s College Dictionary). In chapter two of Translating the Word of God, Beekman and Callow ask “What is Fidelity in Translation?” They answer with these excerpts . . .

“It seems axiomatic, therefore, to conclude that a definition of fidelity will focus on the meaning of the original text.

“The linguistic form of the original was natural and meaningful. It did not represent a grammatical or lexical structure that was impossible or discouragingly difficult to understand but one that was already in use by the people in everyday conversation.

“The message [of a faithful translation] is not distorted or changed; it has neither unnecessarily gained nor lost information. . . .  On the other hand . . . the writers were not penning abstract theses or obscure philosophies but had a very practical aim in view; they wrote to be understood.”

Based on these comments, this article questions the fidelity of the following popular translations at 1 Peter 1:1-2:

New International Version (2010 and earlier editions), NIV

International Standard Version, ISV

NET Bible, NET

New American Standard Bible, NASB

New King James Version, NKJV

King James Version, KJV

Amplified Bible, AB

The issue in 1 Peter 1:1-2 centers on one word and three prepositional phrases. The present author’s summation and English translation with the associated Greek text visualizes the problem:

“to the elect [ἐκλεκτοῖς] strangers of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia according to the foreknowledge of God the Father [κατὰ πρόγνωσιν θεοῦ πατρὸς] in sanctification by the Spirit [ἐν ἁγιασμῷ πνεύματος] unto the obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ [εἰς ὑπακοὴν καὶ ῥαντισμὸν αἵματος Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ]”

The adjective “elect” [ἐκλεκτοῖς] serves either as a noun substitute or modifies the following word “strangers.” A natural translation of these two words would be “elect strangers,” or as A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, 3rd edition, translates, “chosen sojourners.” The above-listed translations displace “elect” from “strangers” and connect it to the prepositional phrases that begin verse two. This change not only alters the wording but also changes Peter’s focus in the entire book.

Separating “elect” from “strangers” follows two patterns: (1) The NIV places a comma (punctuation was not part of the Greek text) after “elect” and again after Bithynia effectively making the adjective a substantive and connecting it with verse two —“To God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia,”. Then, (2) apparently to reinforce this interpretation, it inserts an English participle to the beginning of verse two. This addition, either as a substantive, “chosen,” or as a participle, “who have been chosen,” can be seen in the following versions: NIV, ISV, NASB, NKJV, KJV, AB. The NET Bible follows this pattern, however, it does add a footnote: “Or ‘to the chosen sojourners.’” This note not only identifies the issue facing the translators—to what do the three prepositional phrases connect—but also cracks open the door to a different meaning for the 1 Peter. Bigg’s comment on this passage alludes to the reason for changing the text (St. Peter and St. Jude, 91):

“The general and preferable arrangement is to take [the prepositional phrases] with ἐκλεκτοῖς [“elect”]—‘Elect according to foreknowledge,’ etc.; this gives perfectly good sense; the only difficulty is that we should have expected ἐκλεκτοῖς [“elect”] to be placed after Βιθυνίας [Bithynia].”

However, the suggested “preferable arrangement” of the words that “gives perfectly good sense” implies that Peter’s original wording does not make “perfectly good sense” and needs to be rearranged. Such a hypothesis must be validated before accepted.

E.D. Hirsch’s significant work, Validity in Interpretation, p. 236, outlines a procedure for validating an interpretation (italics added highlighting the criteria with minor alterations):

“To establish a reading [interpretation] as probable it is first necessary to show, with reference to the norms of language, that it is possible. This is the criterion of legitimacy: the reading must be permissible within the public norms of the langue [language possibilities] in which the text was composed. The second criterion is that of correspondence: the reading must account for each linguistic component in the text. Whenever a reading arbitrarily ignores linguistic components or inadequately accounts for them, the reading may be considered improbable. The third criterion is that of generic appropriateness. For example if a text follows the conventions of a scientific essay, it would be inappropriate to use the words found in casual conversation. The genre must not be consciously or unconsciously varied. When these preliminary criteria have been satisfied, there remains a fourth criterion which gives significance to all the rest, the criterion of plausibility or coherence. The three preliminary norms usually permit several readings, and this occurs when a text is problematical. Faced with alternatives, the interpreter chooses the reading which best meets the criterion of coherence. Indeed, even when the text is not problematical, coherence remains the decisive criterion, since the meaning is “obvious” only because it “makes sense.”

Considering the above-mentioned translations, classifying the adjective as a substantive, “elect ones,” and rearranging the location of that word in the text, are possible within the norms of the Greek language. Therefore, these changes found in the NIV and other translations meet the criterion of legitimacy even though Peter could have but chose not to write his text in this manner.

The criterion of correspondence, where every detail of the text including word order is taken into account, appears to be disregarded by many translators.

Perhaps Hirsch’s third criterion may be able to establish legitimacy for the translations that altered Peter’s wording. Generic appropriateness means that the text fits the nature of the overall writing. The prepositional phrases are theological in nature and these are identifiable in other parts of 1 Peter. But is 1 Peter a theological treatise centered around these ideas thereby establishing its theological nature? Or does 1 Peter partake of a different focus that supports Peter’s original wording? If it does, a legitimate interpretation must give Peter’s wording “first priority” unless it can be unequivocally shown to be inadequate and not “making sense.”

Finally, coherence connects directly with the previous criterion. Does Peter’s word arrangements make sense or must they be changed to make sense? Apparently for many translators Peter did not make good sense. However, a competing hypothesis necessarily interposes itself: Peter said what he wanted to say in the way he wanted to say it, and he made perfectly good sense in doing so. This, too, needs validation.

Summerizing, Peter’s own wording clearly meets the criterion of legitimacy. The criterion of correspondence is validated because no detail of the text is shunted to the side including the all-important detail of word order. Generic appropriateness exists because 1 Peter as a whole represents a pastoral epistle more than a theological treatise. An exegesis of the book confirms this criterion and clearly demonstrates coherence. The text as written makes sense!

Numerous scholars support the pastoral aspects of 1 Peter. Raymer writes (The Bible Knowledge Commentary, 837):

“First Peter was written to Christians who were experiencing various forms of persecution, men and women whose stand for Jesus Christ made them aliens and strangers in the midst of a pagan society. Peter exhorted these Christians to steadfast endurance and exemplary behavior. The warmth of his expressions combined with his practical instructions make this epistle a unique source of encouragement for all believers who live in conflict with their culture.”

Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 791, provides this keen observation:

“The keynote of the letter is hope and Peter wishes to exhort these Christians to live in accordance with the hope they have received through Christ. He gives practical guidance to assist in their human relationships and particularly exhorts them to endure suffering in a joyful manner for Christ's sake. His main purpose is, therefore, hortatory, but not infrequently he introduces theological considerations which press home the ethical injunctions.”

Peter’s motivation for writing 1 Peter was primarily pastoral and secondarily theological. This means that the wording of the text should not be “distorted or changed,” to use the Beekman and Callow terminology. It also means that the theological term “elect” and the theologically-oriented prepositional phrases have direct bearing on the pastoral concern of the writer and provide the initial encouragement for the suffering believers of Asia Minor. Peter’s letter sent to “elect strangers” points to three truths much-needed then and now:

(1) that God not only elected them but did so in the contexts of a specific time and place, “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father” (1:1-2; cp. Acts 17:26).

(2) that their difficult life situations are the arena of their “sanctification by the Spirit” (1:6-7; 1:13-17; 2:11-12; 3:13-16; 4:1-19).

(3) that they have a divinely-appointed purpose as witnesses to those around them, “unto the obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ” (2:9-11 and 3:15-17).

None of this denies the theological truths imbedded in the passage and expounded by many commentators, but the emphasis by Peter lies in shepherding those caught in difficult life circumstances. He ties theology inseparably to the “struggling saint on the street.” Perhaps one should state that 1 Peter contains both theological and pastoral exhortations with the primary emphasis on the pastoral aspects and the secondary focus on the theological underpinnings. Based on Peter’s wording, this is certainly true in 1 Peter 1:1-2.

One final note about the listed translations at 1 Peter 1:1-2—the well-meaning but unacceptable distortion of Peter’s emphasis preconditions contemporary readers for deep theological discussion when what they really need to hear is that God puts His people where He wants them, uses their difficult circumstances to build them up spiritually by the power of the Holy Spirit, and commissions them to witness for Christ.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You taught me this 20 yrs ago and I have found it accurate and meaningful in ministry. Thx as always. Fred