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Friday Bible Blogging - Introduction and Picking a Translation

This entry is part of a series. For a listing of all entries in the series, go to the Index. To browse all entries in the series, go to the category, Friday Bible Blogging.

BibleWhen I was younger and still a committed Christian, I read the entire Bible. I would say cover to cover, but it was actually two different books. The first was a nice leather bound Good News Translation that I'd received as a Christmas present. A few Christmases later and partway through, I received a new Bible as a Christmas present, this time a New Living Translation sold as a TouchPoint Bible. So I switched. At the time, I still accepted the Bible as the inerrant word of God, which I'm sure colored the way I read it. Now that I no longer think of the Bible as a divinely inspired book, I thought it might be interesting to read it again and see what type of impression it makes on me now.

So, I'm starting a new series - Friday Bible Blogging. I'm going to try to read a couple verses a day, and then every Friday I'll write a short blog entry on my impressions. Don't look for deep theological discussions here. I fear that if I try to get too technical, I'll get bogged down in details and stall out on the project. From my first time reading the Bible, and from my recent reading of The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb, I know that the Bible can be boring enough. The pressure of writing weekly blog entries should keep me motivated enough to get through the whole thing, but detailed entries might be overwhelming.

I'll note one way I'm going to approach this differently than the first time I read the Bible. Back then, when I believed that the Bible was the divinely inspired word of God, it followed that every word in it must have been important. So when I say I read the whole thing, I mean the whole thing. No skimming over the A begat B begat C... sections. If a person's name was in there, it must have been because God thought that name was important enough to include, so who was I to ignore it? Now, I don't have that kind of devotion, so I admit up front that I'm going to skim through the genealogies and other similarly boring insubstantial sections.

When I read the Bible the first time, I didn't yet appreciate the importance of the translation. Now that I've learned a bit more, I've come to realize that the translation can have a significant effect on the meaning. I've discussed this before on this blog in the entry, Reliance on Bible Translations. It's a pretty complicated issue. Without being able to understand ancient Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic, most of us are reliant on translators giving us accurate translations. Unfortunately, not all translations are of the same caliber.

First of all, there's the issue of what to translate to begin with. It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that we no longer have any of the original versions of any books of the Bible. In fact, for some books, even if we had a time machine, it would be difficult to pick an original version. For example, just go read the Wikipedia section on the Origins of the Book of Genesis to see how that book developed. And this doesn't even concern the origins of the stories themselves, such as Noah's flood being a variation of the Mesopotamian Flood Myth. For all of the books, there are numerous copies in existence, and none of the copies match exactly. So the translators will have to decide on how to combine all the different copies to come up with a text that most closely resembles the 'original'.

But then, even once a text is agreed upon to translate, there's the question of how to accomplish the translation. Languages are not the same as math. They're imprecise, with ambiguities and nuance, double meanings and puns. And different languages have their own nuances. Anyone who's bilingual has known the difficulty of trying to translate directly from one language to another. Sometimes it's easy enough, but other times it's simply impossible to translate the full meaning of a statement without adding some side explanation*.

And then, unfortunately, there's the motivation of the translators. For something with as much cultural impact as the Bible, people are going to approach it with different preconceptions. And sometimes, people will let those preconceptions cloud their interpretation. A cautionary example is the New International Version (NIV). It was a project of evangelical Christians who had already decided that the Bible was inerrant. The blog entry I linked to above includes an example of that translation changing the meaning of a passage to avoid a contradiction, and it's not the only one. To quote N.T. Wright (source - Wikipedia):

When the New International Version was published in 1980, I was one of those who hailed it with delight. I believed its own claim about itself, that it was determined to translate exactly what was there, and inject no extra paraphrasing or interpretative glosses.... Disillusionment set in over the next two years, as I lectured verse by verse through several of Paul's letters, not least Galatians and Romans. Again and again, with the Greek text in front of me and the NIV beside it, I discovered that the translators had another principle, considerably higher than the stated one: to make sure that Paul should say what the broadly Protestant and evangelical tradition said he said.... [I]f a church only, or mainly, relies on the NIV it will, quite simply, never understand what Paul was talking about.

I should probably mention the King James Version (KJV) specifically, since it is the most famous of all English translations. Unfortunately, it has many problems. There were not as many early manuscripts available at the time it was translated, so it's not a translation of the current best guess of the 'original' versions of all of the books. Some sections were translated incorrectly. And it's written in an archaic form of English that makes it more difficult for the modern reader to understand. So I decided against reading the KJV.

So, what translation should I choose? It seems as if there are even more opinions on this than there are translations themselves, but there does seem to be one translation recommended more than others by serious biblical scholars**, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). I've read and respect Bart Ehrman***, and according to the Endorsements section of the NRSV, he has said, "In my opinion, the New Revised Standard Version is without peer as the best available Bible translation, for both readability and accuracy." Here's a page I found, A Discussion of Bible Translations and Biblical Scholarship, written by a professor of religious studies at Missouri State University, Mark D. Given, which also highly recommends the NRSV. I looked for a recommendation from Hector Avalos, since I've read and respect him as well. I couldn't find a direct recommendation, but I did find this article written by him, Can Science Prove that Prayer Works?, in which all Bible quotes were from the NRSV, a kind of implicit recommendation. And of course, Bruce Metzger, who was intimately involved in the creation of the NRSV, recommended it.

So, I've decided to read the New Revised Standard Version. Unfortunately, it's not included at BibleGateway.com, an otherwise excellent resource for the various Bible translations, but it is available online for those who want to follow along. I recommend the GodWeb link, which provides links to all of the chapters hosted on oremus.

So how long is this going to take? According to a few sources, there are 1189 chapters in the Protestant version of the Bible, or 1334 in the Catholic version. If I go with the longer version for the sake of completeness, and if I can average 10 chapters per week, that's 133 weeks, or a little over 2 ½ years. I think that's manageable. 10 chapters per week is few enough that I'll still be able to read more enjoyable books during that period, and also few enough that my weekly blog entries won't be overwhelming. It does mean 133 blog entries, so I'm going to make a new category for this series, Friday Bible Blogging.

I'm also going to make an index page to provide links to all of the entries in this series, to allow users to jump to reviews of different sections of the Bible.

Stay tuned for my first review entry, starting from the beginning with Genesis, Chapter 1.

*Here's an example of translation issues. One of my favorite corny jokes in Spanish goes like this.

¿Que dijo el agua al pez?


The first sentence is easy enough to translate - 'What did the water say to the fish?' But the answer is a double entendre. 'Nada' can mean either 'nothing' or 'swim'. Yes, it's corny, but it illustrates the difficulty in trying to make a simple translation without a little extra explanatory text. This example was only a small note, but even small notes can add up to a big distraction when there are enough of them.

**Of course, most serious Biblical scholars say that the best way to understand the Bible is to learn the ancient languages and read the various ancient manuscripts, and to basically do all the things that Biblical scholars do.

***Which is not to say that I agree with all of Ehrman's positions. His position on the historicity of Jesus doesn't appear to be very well founded. See Richard Carrier's, Ehrman on Jesus: A Failure of Facts and Logic. Well, I've found a different article that sways me to think Jesus's existence was more likely than not: Quora: Do credible historians agree that the man named Jesus, who the Christian Bible speaks of, walked the earth and was put to death on a cross by Pilate, Roman governor of Judea?, Tim O'Neill.

Update 2013-03-22: I was double checking the chapter counts for myself instead of relying on other people's counts, and I found that it gets to be a bit complicated once you get to the Apocrypha. It depends on how you're going to do the tally. For example, take a look at this page on Oremus, Additions to Esther 11. How should that be tallied? For the purpose of this series, since I'm going through chapter by chapter in the Oremus Bible Browser, I figure it makes sense to use their divisions to count chapters. For example, that means the link I just provided would be counted as a single chapter. That means 929 chapters in the standard Old Testament, 203 chapters in the Apocrypha, and 260 chapters in the New Testament, for a total of 1392 chapters. So, it will take me about 2 months longer to complete this project than I'd initially anticipated.

Updated 2012-10-18: Fixed a few typos, corrected a few links, and revised a few sections to make them more clear, but nothing that altered the meaning of any of the sections.

Updated 2013-02-11: Fixed a couple more types that I just noticed.

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