Some Thoughts on the NET Bible

net-bibleAbout six months ago, I stopped using the KJV for my personal devotions. I’ve preached from the King James for several years, but the time had come when I felt its shortcomings outweighed its strengths. I’d used the NET Bible for several years for comparison purposes. Among “normal” Christians, this translation is not well known.

The NET Bible was produced by a team of scholars centered around Dallas Theological Seminary. The translation’s purpose was “to answer the global need for a Bible translation that can be distributed without cost on the internet and be freely used in ministry.”[1] The finished version was released in September, 2001. The editors explained their translation ended up “somewhere between the two extremes”[2] of formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence.

I’ve used this Bible for six months. I’ve done my private devotions with this translation. I’ve preached from this translation. I’ve compared it to my own rough translation of the entire book of Philippians from Koine Greek. I really like the way the editors and translators handled the New Testament. A lot. I think it is a stunning achievement.

Notes on the NET

But, I am sometimes uncomfortable with the way the NET Old Testament translates poetry. In many cases, I believe it destroys the poetic structure of the text. It is dangerous to make sweeping statements about translation choices, so I’ll provide two concrete examples:

Jeremiah 5:5 (NET)

Jeremiah 5:5 (RSV)

I will go to the leaders and speak with them. Surely they know what the LORD demands. Surely they know what their God requires of them.” Yet all of them, too, have rejected his authority and refuse to submit to him. I will go to the great, and will speak to them; for they know the way of the LORD, the law of their God.” But they all alike had broken the yoke, they had burst the bonds.

Notice the RSV translates what the text actually says. The yoke has been broken. The bonds have been burst. Now, look at the NET. The translation eliminates the imagery and bluntly tells you what the imagery means. Yes, it is true God’s authority has been rejected and they refuse to submit. But, consider the picture of a yoke being put on the Israelites, to guide them and govern them. Consider the allusion of the bonds which tie us to our sovereign God. Poetry is special because of the imagery it creates in your head, the picture the words paint to make the point. The NET has destroyed that here.

Jeremiah 4:4 (NET)

Jeremiah 4:4 (RSV)

Just as ritual circumcision cuts away the foreskin as an external symbol of dedicated covenant commitment, you must genuinely dedicate yourselves to the LORD and get rid of everything that hinders your commitment to me, people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem. If you do not, my anger will blaze up like a flaming fire against you that no one will be able to extinguish. That will happen because of the evil you have done. Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, remove the foreskin of your hearts, O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem; lest my wrath go forth like fire, and burn with none to quench it, because of the evil of your doings.

The NET, in its zeal to make things clear for the reader, has butchered this command. You can see how much longer it is than the RSV. It abandons the command “circumcise yourselves to the Lord,” which is a phrase rich in Biblical allusions (cf. Jer 9:26; Deut 10:16, 30:6; Rom 2:28-29; Col 2:11, etc.). Instead, the translators sought to explain what it means.

The reader cannot ponder what it means to “circumcise the foreskin of your heart,” because the command has been taken from him. Interestingly, the NET translates this allusion in Rom 2:28-29. However, because the allusion is not translated here in our passage, the English reader might not ever connect the dots in his mind.

Now, to be fair, the NET Bible is infamous for its footnotes. It has over 60,000 of them. In every single place I’m aware of where the translators drop poetic imagery, they have a footnote which tells you all about it. Every single time. Good for them. I’m still not comfortable with it.

There are other examples, but the point is made. I think the NET Bible sometimes does a poor job with poetry. Its desire to help the reader understand the text is commendable. However, in carrying out this mission the translation sometimes destroys allusions and poetic imagery which I think ought to be retained, even at the expense of temporarily puzzling the reader.

What Now?

I’ve decided to check out another translation, and settled on the RSV. This never was a popular translation with fundamentalists or conservative evangelicals. I read one particularly hysterical contemporary review which made me chuckle. I’ve heard this was a very literary, very polished and very good translation. I’ve read Leland Ryken confess he was a “closet” RSV admirer for many, many years.

I recently rescued an old hardback RSV from the booksale cart at my local library. It cost me $0.25. Not a bad deal. I opened my RSV and took a stroll through Jeremiah 4-8, which I had just read in the NET. I was impressed. This looks to be a very literary and very polished translation. It is written in deliberately stately, slightly formal prose. It is certainly not colloquial, but it also isn’t antiquated (e.g. “wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?” KJV, Lk 2:49).

I have high hopes for the RSV. I think I’ll try it out for a few months. I know the ESV was a revision of the RSV, which itself was a revision of the ASV, which was based on the English Revised Version, which was a revision of the KJV. Whew, what a mouthful! So, I suspect I may eventually end up with the ESV as my standard translation. I want to settle on something and use it forever.

Regardless, though, I’m really looking forward to the RSV. I like its slightly formal, stately and majestic prose. It reads very well, and sounds dignified without being archaic. It should be fun.

Notes

[1] NET Bible, “Preface to the Reader’s Edition,” 5.

[2] NET Bible, “Principles of Translation,” 1425.

3 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on the NET Bible

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