Dave’s Mailbag: Which Bible translation?
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A friend asks for my thoughts on Bible translations. Here is my response:
The short answer is:
For English, I recommend the New American Standard Bible. Alternatively, I recommend the Revised Standard Version (NOT the New Revised Standard Version).
For an annotated bible, I recommend this one, which is my usual Bible when I want an English translation:
Note that this is the 3rd edition. There are two considerations when choosing an annotated Bible: The translation itself, and the editor who wrote the notations. Bruce Metzger, Bart Ehrman’s mentor, edited that one and he knew what he was doing. There is a newer version, the 4th edition, but it’s an annotated bible based on the NRSV translation, which is not as good, and it has a different editor (Michael Coogan et al; Bruce Metzger died in 2007 and the 4th edition came out in 2010). Don’t get me wrong, Coogan is extremely competent and qualified in his field; I just prefer Metzger’s tone and the RSV specifically.
If you are interested in an annotated bible (which I recommend), check out the 3rd edition linked above, even though it’s older. The translation itself is just much truer to the Greek.
The Revised Standard Version is widely considered to have the most agreement with the Greek NA27 (the most common text used by Greek NT scholars and seminary students studying the NT in its original Greek). If you’re looking for accuracy in comparison to the most commonly-accepted Greek compilation of sources (the NA27), here is a list of 20 translations, ranked in order of agreement:
If you can read Latin, I also highly recommend the Vulgate.
I am the wrong person to ask about the OT, but if pressed for a recommendation, I suggest the Jewish Study Bible (ed. Adele Berlin et al), published by Oxford.
For quick reference, I also recommend the YouVersion Bible app for Android and iPhone. What I like about this app is that you can select from about 150 translations and swap back & forth if you want to compare them. It has multiple Greek, Latin, English, and other-language translations, including Koine (although unfortunately not the NA27), and allows you to highlight & take notes, and share specific verses on Twitter & Facebook. Although the lack of the NA27 and annotations make it inappropriate for study, the app is free, and it’s useful for speedy access during discussions with people or during debates. To access a specific verse, just tap the top of the screen and scroll to the book you want. It will display, in a series of squares, all the chapters in that book, like a page from a monthly calendar. Click on the chapter you want, and it will display (in a series of squares) all the verses in that chapter. Click the verse you want and it goes right to it. You can access any specific verse in roughly 3 seconds.
The long answer:
This question is one that’s very important to me, and it’s part of the reason I stopped believing that the Bible has any more authority than any other religious text. It was only a short step from there that I stopped believing that any of these books are holy in the first place. More on that in a moment.
As far as which translation is “best,” I would take this fellow’s advice: He is Robert M. Price, one of the world’s leading Bible scholars and a world expert in higher biblical criticism, a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, etc. Aside from teaching and writing books, he has a radio show where he answers people’s questions. Someone asked him on the radio show’s Facebook page which version(s) of the Bible he recommends; you can read the discussion here:
You might also want to listen to this podcast of his radio show where a listener asks about the same topic (skip to 52 minutes for the relevant part):
Historically, the Vulgate is probably the most influential and important translation. I would go so far as to say it is difficult to overstate the Vulgate’s influence on the history of Western European religious scholarship since the 4th century. It was the basis of more-or-less all vernacular translations and teaching for well over 1,000 years, from its commission in 382 until the Protestant Reformation/modern era around the 16th century, and the time that English began to come into play as mover-and-shaker language. The King James is heavily influenced by the Vulgate (see below), and the Douay-Rheims is a translation from it into English, as well. The Vulgate was (more-or-less) the only Bible available to scholars, priests, and Christians altogether throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Another reason the Vulgate is historically important is that it’s credited with being the first translation of the Tanakh directly from Hebrew to Latin, rather than via the Greek Septuagint – you can lose a lot in a translation-from-a-translation! The Vulgate also had an immeasurable influence on the development of the English language. Many modern English religious words come to us via the Vulgate: creation, salvation, testament/testimony, angel/angelic, evangelist/evangelize/evangelism, rapture, apostle, justify/justification, etc all exist in English because of the influence of the Vulgate.
Ultimately, it’s useful to read multiple translations. The more Greek, Latin, and Hebrew you know, the more you can get out of reading different ones, and understanding the interpreters’ word choices and annotations. (Notice I said “interpreter”: There really is no such thing as a “direct translation”; unless you’re talking about English & Pig Latin, which have direct parallels for literally every word, and the grammar and syntax are literally identical.) It is helpful even just to learn some basic root words and cultural rudiments, whether or not you’re interested in learning a whole new language. Additionally, the more you know about ancient Roman and Jewish culture and history, and Semitic mythos, too, the more you will get out of reading the Bible, annotated or not.
My own usual Bible is this one; it’s the one I bring with me when we do the Ask an Atheist table:
I have a few important criticisms of this one, namely that the NT is based on the (Greek) Textus Receptus, which is hardly my first choice as a source text. Although it was the source text for the Luther Bible and the King James (the missing parts were filled in from the Vulgate as mentioned above, which is why I keep it at the Ask an Atheist table), it is not even close to what I would consider the best that modern scholarship has to offer. The NA27 makes use of a more systematic method of identifying copying errors, and places more weight on older documents versus documents that we have in great numbers.
When you’re talking about which translation is the “best,” there are a couple of important things to keep in mind. Firstly, we don’t have the manuscripts — the original, hand-written documents, as opposed to just copies — for ANY of these books. We only have copies. More accurately, we only have copies-of-copies. In fact, the oldest fragment we’ve found from any part of the New Testament dates to about 125 CE, and it’s a bit from the book we now call the Gospel according to John, which was written last chronologically, of the four canonical gospels.
When trying to piece together ancient history, one thing we like to see is records that aren’t too removed chronologically from the events they describe. The oldest complete copy of the New Testament dates to around 325 CE, or about 250-300 years after the events it describes.
As far as ancient precedent, that’s actually not as bad as it sounds, but when we’re talking about miracle claims, we have to set the bar a little higher. Carl Sagan popularized a wonderful summation of this concept in five words: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
Ideally, we want independent, unbiased, multiple eyewitness manuscripts. By that I mean, in a perfect world, we’d have multiple people who do not know each other and did not collaborate, and who have no reason to lie, writing in their own hand, about events they saw with their eyes. This is what we have come to expect for news reporting in the modern world — multiple, independent reporters writing from the scene, who employ journalistic integrity to the best of their ability.
We actually do not have any of these things. What we have are copies-of-copies, written by people who most definitely collaborated, whom we know with certainty fudged their accounts, and further, who were not eyewitnesses. In the case of Paul, who wrote [allegedly] 14 books of the 27 in the New Testament, and the case of Luke, who [allegedly] wrote the Gospel according to Luke and also the book of Acts, they tell us explicitly that they are not eyewitnesses and did not know Jesus personally. I might take some heat for this, but I’m willing to say it: The New Testament is pretty much a worse-case scenario when it comes to historical reliability. In the wonderful words of former SASHA president James Pflug, “The Bible doesn’t know anything about anything, and why people listen to it is the only miraculous thing about Christianity.”
We have examples of miracle claims today that meet the modern standard as stated above, but I think it’s important to note that few people actually believe these modern miracle claims, and that’s extremely telling. If people are going to rely on written accounts of miracle claims, they should at least be consistent on what they believe and don’t believe based on the strength of the evidence. As Dave Fitzgerald points out in his book Nailed, we have 1st-edition, 1st-printing copies of the Book of Mormon signed by Joseph Smith himself, which include eyewitness affidavits from 11 people who also signed off swearing that they have personally seen and handled the golden plates. What stronger written evidence could you possibly want? Yet for most Christians, this level of evidence is not persuasive, and they don’t believe the miracle claims of the Book of Mormon. Inconsistently, they believe miracle claims from a series of books that are much, much older, with anonymous and in some cases fraudulent authors, relying on copies-of-copies. It makes no sense.
You might also be interested in this book:
It’s called “Life in Year One: What The World Was Like In First-Century Palestine” by Scott Korb over at NYU. It’s very helpful for understanding a lot of the cultural reasons for certain linguistic phrasings, analogies, metaphors, parables, etc.
Although a departure from Bible translation recommendations, I also HIGHLY recommend this one:
called “Christianity: The First 3,000 Years” by Sir Diarmaid MacCulloch. It’s a history book about Christianity as a whole and lengthy (~1,200 pages), but I just cannot recommend it highly enough: Though it only came out in February 2011, it’s already being praised as one of the greatest non-fiction achievements in the history of English books about Christianity, and I agree with this wholeheartedly–It will be a very long time before this one is outdone. MacCulloch’s scholarship is simply unparalleled in the study of the history of Christianity. I also like his attention to Christianity in non-traditional places, which is often neglected or underestimated in Euro-centric courses and history books.
Hope this helps!
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Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com.
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