Saturday, June 05, 2004

Bible Translation, Textual Criticism and Pastoral Responsibility

The Jollyblogger tipped me off to Parablemania's review of Bible Translations. A while back one of my family member's wanted to know if the New King James Version was a good version. I see several criteria for selecting a Bible translation. These are similar to, but not identical to, Parablemania's criteria.

1. Faithfulness to the original text - In a sense I would guide people away from using paraphrases. There is a part of me that says, let's just quit the whole attempt at paraphrasing. However I have to think about my own walk with the Lord. He used The Living Bible, a paraphrase, to draw me nigh to him. While I really liked Parablemania's article, I really don't understand using a paraphrase during a devotional reading. I think there is a sense that people want to connect more on an emotional level with the scriptures during devotions. I hold that there should be whole person engagement in devotional readings, engage all faculties; mind, will, emotions, spirit, soul, etc...

2. Reading Level - Bibles have different reading levels. If someone has trouble reading, they should pick a Bible that has a lower reading level. If you have trouble with this one, you should probably ask someone to help you. Take their suggested Bible translation, sit down and read three chapters from the four gospels. If it feels difficult, try another translation that is easier. If you think you might appreciate a more challenging text, pick up the New American Standard Version (NASV) or the English Standard Version (ESV). Then do the three chapters in one sitting test. It's sort of like trying on a pair of jeans.

3. No Theological Agenda - The translators should focus on being faithful to the original text and not their church's theology. This is difficult to do. The New International Version and several other modern translations selected translators from several denominations in an effort to check one another. The New World Translation is driven by theological agendas. Someone pointed out to me that my criteria is not friendly to Catholic translations. Well, okay, I'm Presbyterian (PCA) and I would not recommend a Catholic version to any one, but I'm not throwing stones at them. I have a great deal of respect for the Catholic scholars I have read. While publishing houses have taken on the job of gathering a group of translators, I prefer that a Bible Society do this work. This organizational structure is somewhat independent. Organizationally this is preferred, however, the ESV is a response to a group attempting to make gender neutral language a translation standard. I have to say that my preference for Bible Societies has been challenged by these events.

4. Selection Of Original Text - Though it has died down somewhat in recent years, there has been a big debate over the King James Version (KJV). While I can not treat this debate with fairness here, let me say this, one foundational issue for the advocates KJV point is use of the best original text. Textual criticism is not an easy discipline. At the risk of over simplifying, there are two schools of thought in textual criticism. One says we should use the received text, also known as Textus Receptus. Those who advocate Textus Receptus point out that we should not use the oldest text but the one that was used most by the church. In their way of thinking it was used because it was reliable. The other school of thought looks at a modern scholar or set of scholars who examine all the texts that are out there and select the one they are convinced is the original. Sometimes the selection of a text comes down to a vote. (Bible by committee does not sound like revelation but politics.) Personally, I am a part of the school of thought which appreciates scholars examining all the texts. I used both the United Bible Society (UBS) text and like texts. I use Textus Receptus on computer because it is free but that is not my preference.

5. Public Reading - The translation one selects is something of a choice, I would be very careful about making one translation the official translation. However, there is a sense that public reading of the scriptures is one important means of experiencing the scriptures. For this to be the most helpful, the translation should be authoritative and clearly understood from public reading.

Pastoral Responsibility

The textual criticism is not for the average layman. Most people in the pew want the pastors and Bible scholars to hand them a trustworthy text. This is as it should be. When we put textual criticism in the arena of the lowest common denominator we get some strange things. In my humble opinion, the KJV only crowd do some real over simplification for convince sake. The position that they take is one laymen can comprehend because it solves all the complexities of textual criticism in one fell swoop. Textual criticism in my opinion must be tackled one text at a time. There should be two levels of expertise that are needed. The first is the scholars who translate the scriptures must be competent in this technical field. The second is that of the normal pastor who preaches in the pulpit. He need not be an expert on the same level as the professional scholar, however, he should, as a part of preparing for the message study, understand textual issues in the passage. (You can see my thinly veiled preference for expository preaching.) Like issues of original language usage and technical issues of historical context, he should know the issues well, use them to clarify his own understanding of scripture and bring depth to his own grasp of the scripture. While he should understand the textual issues very well, he should hardly ever or possibly never mention directly textual criticism issues from the pulpit. Pastors have a great deal of responsibility in explaining the text of the Bible and preserving the text. This can not be outsourced to Princeton or the United Bible Society. I know this is a difficult issue to deal with when pastors are going to get little or no interest from their congregation on the issue, but none the less, pastors are responsible not only to explain the Word, but evaluate the work of scholars.
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