Against Idle Speculation

expertSometimes, bible commentators can wander off into idle speculation. Because they’re well-educated, we often give them the benefit of the doubt. After all, they’ve studied the text longer than we have, so we shouldn’t dismiss what they have to say.

Yeah, but . . .

We should still use our common sense. I have a good example. In the Book of Revelation (a book which is not nearly so difficult as we make it out to be), we read this harsh message from Jesus to the Christian congregation in the city of Laodicea:

I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth (Revelation 3:15-16).

There are two common interpretations:

  1. Jesus is criticizing them for their apathy. They aren’t “on fire” for God (i.e. “hot”). They aren’t outright disobedient, either (i.e. “cold”). Their collective attitude is . . . meh. They’re apathetic, indifferent slugs who sit on their couches, too lazy to be obedient or blatantly disobedient. Or . . .
  2. The cold and hot water are both good, and Jesus is unhappy that they aren’t either of them, or both. Instead, they’re “neither cold nor hot,” and thus disgusting. This interpretation is based on the fact that the city of Laodicea drew its hot water supply from the nearby city of Hierapolis, and its cold water from Colossae.[1] It assumes John had this in mind, and was drawing a parallel.

There are several problems with the second interpretation, but I’ll focus on one – it is based entirely on assumptions which are not verifiable. It sounds like a learned, scholarly answer, doesn’t? It’s based on “background knowledge” of the contemporary situation. It sounds good. Is it? I don’t think so. This isn’t the way people write or talk in the real world.

The curious case of the Madagascar scholar

I’ll prove to you how backward this kind of interpretative method can be.[2] Pretend that, today, I write this sentence on a piece of paper:

“Fed up with my son’s filthy room, I have decided to cleanse it of all Legos, NERF bullets and cars until they learn the error of their ways! They may cry and complain, but I shall let the chips fall where they may!”

Six hundred years go by. The United States is long gone. The most powerful nation in the world is the country of Madagascar. A team of archaeologists, working in what used to be known as the Pacific Northwest, unearth the ruins of a beautiful home and, inside, they find that piece of paper, miraculously preserved.

Excited beyond words at this critical find, the archaeologists scan this precious find and send it electronically back home, to the most learned and scholarly English-language expert in the world. You see, English has been a dead language since the early part of the 21st century, when America’s impetuous and maniacal president triggered a nuclear war that destroyed his country and the whole of Western civilization. This means my paper is an important find, and our English-language expert is eager to get to it.

After laboring for two years, he releases a synopsis of his findings:

As is well-known, early 21st century America was obsessed with food. Available data suggests many Americans were overweight or obese by this period of time. It is unlikely, therefore, that the author chose the words “fed up” by accident. This was possibly an unconscious reference to the unhealthy American culture, which he appropriated in an odd way to refer to his feelings for his son’s room.

Fragments from several religious volumes (Christian in nature) were found in the same house as this note, which have striking significance for his use of the adjective “filthy” to refer to his son’s room. The word can simply mean “dirty,” but the religious bent of the author suggests a deeper meaning. As is well known, the Christian religion has a long tradition of referring to unclean or morally impure things as “filthy.” This indicates the author’s problem with the room was not so much “untidiness,” as “moral unsuitability.” What this moral defect was, we cannot say. Perhaps the son was failing in some dire Christian duty, in which case the adjective “filthy” is more about moral failure than a simple “dirty room.” Note also the use of the world “cleanse,” which is also pregnant with Christian religious implications. Likewise, the phrase “error of his ways” also carries religious overtones, and may be a free paraphrase from a religious text.

Hopefully, you can see how stupid this kind of reasoning is. This is all idiotic. You might have even laughed a time or two. But, how often have you read bible commentary writers doing the very same thing? As the poet Robert Plant said, “it really makes me wonder . . .”

But, our Madagascar scholar isn’t done yet. Here is the crux of it:

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this find is the phrase “I shall let the chips fall where they may.” Extensive archaeological monographs have shown this region, now a vast nuclear-scarred wasteland, used to be known as the “Pacific Northwest,” and was renowned for lush vegetation and large amounts of trees.

No doubt, the author had this in mind as he penned these words. Perhaps, from his home, he looked out at the vast forest surrounding his abode, and penned these words as he watched lumberjacks cutting down trees. Immersed as he was in this kind of environment, it is folly to assume he was not influenced by it.

We conclude the author deliberately used this idiom as a result of his context. In this analogy, the son is the lumberjack, and the “chips” which fall are the result of the son’s actions. These should be morally suitable “chips,” but they are not. So, the father (our author) has decided to let the “chips fall where they may,” and let the son suffer the consequences of his own action.

It is evident that background knowledge of a culture provides critical context for interpretation, none more so than in this case.

Back to reality

The example is over. What do you think about our scholar’s learned and amazing comments about the “chips?” What do you think about his assumption that I was influenced by my context when I wrote, “I shall let the chips fall where they may?”

Our Madagascar scholar might suspect this, but he’ll never actually know. But he’s banking on it, isn’t he? When you look at everything he wrote (above), is any of it actually true?

Nope. None of it. Think about that when you read a bible commentary that veers off into speculation, or listen to a preacher who engages in flights of fancy.

So, what was Jesus referring to in Revelation 3:15-16? You figure it out! But, remember this – those who prefer the second interpretation might be doing the very same thing our Madagascar scholar did . . .

Notes

[1] For a representative example of this interpretation, see Leon Morris, Revelation, in TNTC, vol. 20, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 84.

[2] I was inspired to make this example by a similar one from Moises Silva, God, Language and Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991), 11-14

A Word from the Secretary

Picture4Robert Gates is a former Secretary of Defense. He served under both President George W. Bush and President Obama. I served when Gates was Secretary. I always admired the man. He struck me as competent; a leader, not merely a political appointee.

Recently, Gates wrote a wonderful book on leadership. He is uniquely qualified to write it. He served as head of the CIA, President of Texas A&M University, and as Secretary of Defense. He was in government service for fifty years. He knows what he’s talking about.

I served on active-duty for 10 years, as a government contractor, in various church leadership roles (including as a pastor), and now I’m a supervisor in state government. I’ve been intimately involved in large bureaucracies all my adult life, as a technician and as a middle manager. I’ve seen lots of people come and go, and seen plenty of mistakes. Gates’ book is the best thing I’ve ever read on leadership.

Here’s one example why:

[T]he most critical thing a new leader at any level should do is listen.

Too many new bosses arrive confident they have all the answers—the solutions to an organization’s problems—and on day one begin firing off e-mails and giving orders to “light a fire” under people, to demonstrate a new sheriff is in town ready to kick ass and take names, and to show dynamism (and control). Too many openly disdain their predecessors and all that was done before: “Things are going to be different around here now that I’m in charge!”

We all have worked for such “conquering heroes,” who see themselves as riding in on a white horse to save the day. What they do, mainly, is scare the hell out of people, who then focus on keeping out of the way—lying low—and keeping their jobs. Employees quickly come to resent the arrogant know-it-all who has just condemned the work they had been doing and either resolve to do all they can to thwart the new leader’s agenda or passively stand to one side waiting for him to fail. The conquering hero (or hostile-takeover approach) is, in my view, all wrong.

Framing the Gospel All Wrong?

Picture3I have a problem with many Gospel tracts. No doubt, they’re written by well-meaning, kind Christians. But, they’re often badly written, leave out the resurrection completely and invite the reader to pray a pre-scripted prayer (as if obedient recitation will actually do anything). But, perhaps the best reason why I don’t like most Gospel tracts is because they often frame the Gospel all wrong.

Jesus’ Good News doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There is a context, a backstory, a history and a timeline that produced this Good News. Yet, most Gospel presentations are incredibly self-absorbed . . .

  • It’s all about you and your sin
  • It’s all about God desperately wanting you to join His club
  • It’s about Jesus wanting you to believe in Him, as if He’s a jilted lover, crying in the street like a pitiful damsel, hoping against hope you’ll throw open your door to your heart so He can seek shelter from the storm
  • It’s all about how you can escape hellfire and damnation
  • It’s all about how God loves you and has a great plan for your life

No. No. No.

It isn’t so much that all this is untrue. After all, Jesus did die to atone for our sins. God does desire people to be saved. The Gospel does save you from hellfire. If you’re chosen by God for salvation, then He does have a great plan for your life.

No, the problem is framing. This is framed all wrong. It’s not about you; it’s about God. This kind of presentation (above), which I only slightly exaggerated, is morbidly self-absorbed and selfish. There is no context there. It’s as if the Gospel just dropped out of heaven onto your lap; (1) you’re a sinner, (2) but God loves you and sent Jesus to die for you, (3) so just pray this prayer, and (4) you’re saved. Halleluiah! Pass the popcorn, and fill the baptistery.

I’ll write more on this later. For now, ponder this:

Christianity is all about the human response of faith, or so popular teaching and perception would have us believe. Undeniably, faith is essential to Christianity— right? Or is it? I would argue that like rot in an apple, much of the malaise in contemporary Christianity stems from a rotten core. The gospel, salvation, and the Christian life have little to do with “faith” or “belief” as generally defined or understood, and this is the decay in the interior— so much so that it would be best if these words were abandoned with regard to discussions of salvation among Christians.

The Greek word pistis, generally rendered “faith” or “belief,” as it pertains to Christian salvation, quite simply has little correlation with “faith” and “belief” as these words are generally understood and used in contemporary Christian culture, and much to do with allegiance. At the center of Christianity, properly understood, is not the human response of faith or belief but rather the old-fashioned term fidelity.

The author continued, later in his book, and explained:

My intention is not to flatten the rich multiple meanings and nuances of pistis into a bland singleness. Rather it is to claim that, when discussing salvation in generalized terms, allegiance is a better overarching English-language term for what Paul intends with his use of the pistis (p.78).

These are provocative words, and Bates’ book is full of provocative thoughts. I don’t agree with all of them, but I do appreciate all of them. However, he does hit upon something profound – does our modern notion of “faith” match what the Old and New Testament consider “faith” to be? Has our “me-centered” culture made us unwittingly re-frame the Gospel in a very selfish way?

We must remember that God has a kingdom, Jesus will rule over this kingdom, and Christians are His slaves whom He’s rescued from darkness, and all who reject the Gospel (i.e. reject the King) will be killed.

So, what is faith?  When we preach the Gospel to unbelievers, how should we frame the Gospel story? When we urge people to “repent and believe” and be justified “by faith,” what is faith, exactly?

  • If God has been working all salvation history towards His coming Kingdom (see Revelation 21-22)
  • and if Jesus will be the King of this Kingdom
  • and if Christians will spend eternity worshipping Him and serving Him in a new earth, in a new and better creation

Then, are we really capturing the essence of “faith” if we reduce it to “I believe in Jesus!” Isn’t there a bit more freight to the content of this belief?

Surely, whatever else may be said, “”faith” includes allegiance and submission to Christ as King. If we can get this, then perhaps we can begin to appreciate how badly we often frame the Gospel. Perhaps, too, we can begin to have a richer understanding of what faith actually is.

Pssst! Yes, I take the Lordship position on salvation . . .

The Old Testament is Dying

Picture2If you’re a Christian, look at your Bible. Does the fake gold trim still gleam on the first 3/4 of your Bible? Flip through the pages; do you still hear that crisp crackle of virgin pages? Do some of these pages still stick together, pure and fresh as the driven snow?

Have you ever read Deuteronomy, perhaps the grandest book in the entire Bible? Do you know the Old Testament law, from Leviticus? If you do, you’ll realize how sincere Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector, was when he pledged to reimburse all whom he’d wronged at 400% each (Luke 19:8; cf. Lev 6:1-7).

Listen to this:

[T]he Old Testament is dying. Much needs to be said about this claim to explain it, let alone establish it, but for me let it gloss it further by stating my firm belief that for many contemporary Christians, at least in North America, the Old Testament has ceased to function in healthy ways in their lives as sacred, authoritative, canonical literature.

These individuals — or in some cases, groups of individuals (even entire churches) — do not regard the Old Testament in the same way (or as highly) as the New Testament, do not understand the Old Testament, would prefer to do without the Old Testament, and for all practical purposes do exactly that by means of their neglect and ignorance of it, whether in private devotion or public worship or both.

All of that is what I mean by the shorthand claim “The Old Testament is dying.” Indeed, in many circles, the claim “The Old Testament is dying,” as stark as it is, is not nearly stark enough. “The Old Testament is dead” is far more accurate.

One Old Testament scholar has lamented,

. . . there remains a distressing absence of the Old Testament in the church. It is possible to attend some churches for months without ever hearing a sermon from the older testament, which represents well over three-fourths of what our Lord had to say to us. This vacuum is unconscionable for those who claim that the whole Bible is the authoritative Word of God to mankind.

Well . . . ?

On “Vision Casting” and Other Stupid Clichés

visionThere are certain phrases, buzzwords and slogans that make the rounds every now and then. I remember, long ago in a galaxy far, far away, when “the bomb” was a common way to express how interesting or amazing something was. Of course, nobody in his right mind would use that term now. Its too passé . . .

No one is immune to these fads. We’re prisoners of our culture and social context. Christians are no different. There are certain phrases that percolate in the pastoral sub-culture, each more mindless and idiotic than the next. One is “vision casting.”

Theoretically, this is a process whereby a dynamic and really spiritual “leader” conceives a vision, a path forward, a roadmap to bring his congregation from where it is, to where it simply must go. Eager and enthusiastic, this hip pastor “casts the vision” to the congregation. Of course, they see it, get it, and sign on for this “vision.”

If you’re a young pastor, you gotta “vision cast.” It’s, like, the cool thing to do.

Pardon me while I retch. In the real world, this is otherwise known as leadership. But, I understand. Leadership doesn’t sound cool. It lacks that sense of deliberate ambiguity, of abstract mushiness, that “vision casting” has.

There is no need to “vision cast,” because the Bible already gave us our mission. We just need to follow it. In this teaching lesson from 1 Peter 2:4-10 (our second one from this passage), the apostle tells us what congregations ought to be focused on. He tells you what you ought to be focused on.

  1. What is a church’s purpose? Its mission?
  2. If you’re a Christian, what is your most basic purpose in life? Why did God save you?
  3. If you’re a Christian, what role do you play in your church’s mission? Where do you fit in?
  4. What are the implications for you? For your work? For all the relationships and circumstances which comprise “your life?”

You see, there’s no need to “vision cast.” Pastors don’t need to catch visions, or cast them to church members. Peter tells us all about our mission, and its clear as day. What are the answers to these questions? How do you find your place and purpose in life, as God intended it to be?

Read 1 Peter 1:1 – 2:10, and think for a little while. Or, do that and listen in as we talk about all this. Drop me a line, or leave a comment if you’d like to chat.

The PDF notes for this week’s lesson are here. As always, all audio and PDF notes from the entire 1 & 2 Peter teaching series are here.

 

They’re Watching . . .

Dear friends:

I’m begging you – because you’re foreigners and temporary residents here, keep far away from the worldly lusts which are doing battle against the soul.

Always keep your whole way of life pure among the unbelieving nations, so that as they speak evil about you as though you’re criminals, because of your good deeds (which they’re watching) they might give honor to God on that day when He returns to judge the world.

Submit yourselves to every human authority for the Lord’s sake, whether to [the] emperor as one who governs, or to [the] officials who are being sent by him to punish evildoers and praise those who do right.

Because this is God’s will, that by doing right you’d silence the ignorant slander of foolish men — like freed slaves, and not like those who’re wearing this freedom like a cloak of wickedness, but like God’s slaves.

Respect all men. Love the family of believers. Always have fearful reverence for God. Always respect the Emperor.

  • 1 Peter 2:11-17 (my translation)

All About Bible Translations

stack-of-BiblesI think the best way to do figure out what a confusing passage means is to compare English bible versions. We have lots of them, and they’re usually good. Some have different goals, and they’re translated with these goals in mind.

In this post, I want to provide a brief overview of some common English bible translations that I think are helpful for Christians. Along the way, I’ll give some brief answers to common questions about bible translation. Here goes . . .

Why so many English versions?

There are many reasons. First, Christian translators and scholars are eager to always improve English translations; to fashion a new and better translation that speaks to the “common man,” and all sorts of other spiritual stuff. That’s good.

Also, Christian publishers want to market their own materials using their own proprietary translation. Who can blame them? It’s easier for Crossway, for example, to have its own translation, rather than potentially having to pay to use somebody else’s translation in the books it publishes. So, while the translators and scholars have noble goals, what’s even more true is that these scholars wouldn’t ever get the chance to fashion their new “ultimate” English versions unless a publisher thought it’d be worthwhile to sell the finished product.

Each major Christian publisher has commissioned and produced its own translation.

  • Zondervan has the NIV.
  • Crossway has the ESV.
  • Broadman & Holman have the CSB (formerly known as the HCSB).
  • HarperCollins has the NKJV; Thomas Nelson actually produced the thing, but it was bought by HarperCollins.
  • Tyndale House owns the NLT.

I could go on, but you get the point. But, the providential end result is that we have a lot of English bible versions. They’re usually all good. You should make use of them.

What are the differences between translations?

Generally, there are two issues readers should be aware of; NT textual basis and translation philosophy.

New Testament textual basis

There are basically three options for bible translators and scholars to use when it comes to the New Testament; (1) the Textus Receptus, (2) a Byzantine text, or (3) an eclectic text.

The Textus Receptus is a compiled, printed Greek text which began life in 1518 as an edited, printed compilation of perhaps a half-dozen Greek manuscripts containing the New Testament. The earliest of these dated from the 10th century. This printed edition was revised several times, but it continued to be based on very few Greek manuscripts. This is the first printed Greek New Testament, and its dominance lasted nearly 400 years. You can still buy a copy of one version of the Textus Receptus today, from the Trinitarian Bible Society. The KJV, NKJV and Modern English Version (MEV) are based on the Textus Receptus.

The Byzantine text platform is an edited, compiled, printed Greek text based on the vast majority of Greek manuscripts. However, most of these Greek manuscripts date from the Middle Ages, which means they aren’t very early at all. There are at least three printed, compiled Greek New Testaments based on the Byzantine text, all of them published within the past 40 years. There has never been a major English bible translation done from the Byzantine text, so don’t bother looking for one.

The eclectic (or critical) text is an edited compiled, printed Greek text based on a whole host of factors, from early manuscripts and later ones, too. It doesn’t strictly favor earlier Greek manuscripts or later ones, but in practice the earlier manuscript copies are often given more weight. It evaluates differences in Greek manuscripts on their own internal and external merits, and chooses the reading which makes the best sense. Different editions of this critical text have been published for over 100 years. Every major English bible translation (except the KJV, NKJV and MEV) is based on this eclectic text.

Some Christians passionately believe in the Textus Receptus, and the KJV whose New Testament comes from that Greek text. They may tell you all other Bibles are perversions. They’re wrong.

What are the differences between these different Greek New Testaments?

There are lots of spelling variations of different words, which are usually meaningless. There are lots of other meaningless odds and ends. The most striking differences are in (1) the longer ending of Mark, (2) the section from 1 John 5:6-8 which reads “and these three are one,” and (3) the story of the woman caught in adultery.

The Textus Receptus has all three of these. The printed Byzantine texts usually don’t count the “and these three are one” bit from 1 John 5:6-8 as being original, but have the other two. The eclectic printed texts don’t include any of these, because they aren’t in the earliest Greek manuscripts.

These are very complicated issues, and there are other less significant differences, but these are the most noteworthy. In fact, if you pay attention, I guarantee you’ll see notes in the margins of your Bible in the New Testament which read something like “other, later manuscripts include . . .” This isn’t a secret.

For some excellent information about this entire subject (which scholars call “textual criticism”), see these wonderful short lectures by Dan Wallace; look under the “textual criticism” heading.

Translation philosophy

It’ll be very challenging to write about this in a few paragraphs, but I’ll give it a shot. Modern English translations ran a whole gamut, from very literal to very free with their translation philosophy. This chart should make things clearer:

types-of-bible-translations

You may have been told that more “literal” translations are more accurate. You may have even been told that “thought-for-thought” translations are “liberal.” No. No. No. No.

Some translations seek to render the Greek word order as closely as humanly possible, believing this is the best way to translate. The NASB is the best example. This translation is so faithful to the original word order, and is so fearful of making any interpretive decisions, that it reads a bit like cardboard. In some places, it is very difficult to understand.

Other translations seek to make things clear. They’re willing to sacrifice a nearly word-for-word equivalence in order to make the idea crystal clear. The NLT is the best example. A child can read this translation with no problem. I know adults with low reading levels who benefit greatly from this translation.

Which one is best? All of the above. Let me give you an example; look at these samples from a wide variety of translations. They march in order from more “word for word” to “thought for thought.” Pay particular attention to the portions I highlight and underline, and watch how the sense changes between translations, from rigid English to freer, looser and clearer English:

  • NASB: “Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation,” (1 Pet 2:12).
  • ESV: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation,” (1 Pet 2:12).
  • RSV: “Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation,” (1 Pet 2:12).
  • Mine: “Always keep your whole way of life pure among the unbelievers, so that as they speak evil about your pure way of life as though you’re criminals, because of your good deeds (which they’re watching) they might give honor to God when He arrives,” (1 Pet 2:12).
  • NIV: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us,” (1 Pet 2:12).
  • NLT: “Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God when he judges the world,” (1 Pet 2:12).

I focused on three aspects of this sentence; (1) “Gentiles,” (2) “speaking evil about you,” and (3) “the day of His visitation.”

Gentiles

This word could mean “Gentiles,” or it could mean “nations” (i.e. pagan nations). How should it be translated? If you believe Peter wrote his letters to primarily Jewish Christian congregations, perhaps you’d keep “Gentiles” or “nations.” The terms have a particularly Jewish flavor to them, especially in light of the OT. A Jew would get it.

But, if you don’t believe Peter wrote to majority Jewish Christian congregations, how should you render it? Does “Gentiles” really do the trick? Is that what Peter was literally getting at? They could live like demons among Jews, but if a Gentile comes along – be good? Doubt it. Peter seems to be referring to “unbelievers.”

Should it be translated it as “unbelievers?” The NLT went with “unbelieving neighbors.” The NIV and NEB chose “pagans.” The NET went with “non-Christians.” Phillips chose “surrounding peoples in your different countries,” which is clearly an attempt to retain the “nations” sense of the Greek. Lattimore chose “the heathen.” Most other English translations, which are often more essentially literal than these, went with “Gentiles.” Which one is better? Which one is clearer?

I think we need to make a distinction between meaning and clarity. The rendering “Gentiles” or “nations” is more technically accurate. But, the translation “unbelievers” is (I believe) much more clear. If something is clearer, is it not, in reality, more accurate?

Note that, in the list of translations (above), the reference to “Gentiles” drops after the first few entries. That’s because translations that trend (more or less) towards “thought for thought” realize that “Gentiles” is meaningless to the uninitiated; thus you have options like “unbelievers,” “non-Christians” and “pagans.” They realize that Peter seems to mean “unbelievers.” Which one is best? Both of them!

Speaking evil

The Greek syntax is tricky here. The NASB renders it faithfully (“so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers”), but let’s be honest – that’s a really hard sentence to understand. What on earth does this even mean? I’d rather read an inter-office memo about break-room etiquette than this.

The NASB is deliberately not trying to smooth things out; they want to stick to a woodenly literal translation. In my own translation, it’s obvious I think Peter is saying these unbelievers are slandering Christians because of their holy life, so I translated it that way (“so that as they speak evil about your pure way of life as though you’re criminals“). I have grammatical reasons for doing this, and they aren’t important now.

The point is that, as you go down the list, you see a change from wooden literalness to a drive for clarity. You might not agree with the NLT here (“even if they accuse you of doing wrong“), but at least you know exactly what they think it means. The NASB leaves it to you to figure it out, which isn’t a bad thing.

The day of His visitation

What does that even mean? In the list (above) you see the different translation philosophies very clearly. The NASB rendered it faithfully from Greek, but didn’t try to make it clear. The NLT, on the other hand, went all in for one particular meaning (“give honor to God when he judges the world“), but that isn’t literally what the Greek says. It’s probably what it means, but it isn’t what it says. Which is best? Both.

Hopefully, this crash course in translation philosophy has been helpful to you. The point is that translations are different, and you can learn a lot by comparing a few good ones.

Which translations should you compare?

Here is the short list of the ones I use. You could use others, but I’ve found these to be very helpful. You can find most of them at biblegateway.com.

  1. NASB. Extraordinarily literal. This is the most literal version in English today. It’s a favorite for preachers who prefer very close exposition and study. This means it’s not a pretty translation, but it is accurate.
  2. KJV. More literal translation. Old-fashioned, beautiful. May be hard to understand.
  3. RSV. More literal translation. Revision of the old ASV, which in turn was a revision of the KJV. The old standard for mainline Protestant denominations in the middle of last century. It retains “thee/thou” when bible characters address God. It’s normal English, but has an indescribable air of elegance. It’s beautiful. This is the translation I use.
  4. ESV. More literal translation. A revision of the RSV. Elegant, modern English. Very solid choice.
  5. NKJV. More literal translation. A 35-40 year-old revision of the KJV. Modern English. Clear. Solid choice.
  6. CSB (Christian Standard Bible, formerly HCSB). Literal translation. This is a completely original translation, commissioned by the Southern Baptists. It’s a good choice. It was completely revised and the update launched last year.
  7. NIV. Trends towards thought-for-thought. About 40 years old. Probably the best-selling English Bible of the last few decades. If you want clarity, combined with a commitment to stick close to the Greek text, this is it.
  8. NET (New English Translation). Thought for thought. This is not a well-known version. Produced by a team of scholars largely concentrated at Dallas Theological Seminary. It was produced for free distribution on the internet. This is an extraordinary translation, and any Christin who reads it will find it beautiful, accurate and enriching. I love this translation.
  9. NEB (New English Bible). Thought for thought. This is a mid-century British translation. It isn’t well known today. It’s a very nice translation, and their choices are often bold and striking. I like it.
  10. Phillips. Thought for thought. John Phillips was an Anglican preacher who started his own translation of the New Testament in the London underground, during the Blitz in World War 2. He later completed the entire New Testament by the mid-1950s. His translation is excellent, thought-provoking, and rewarding. He aims for clarity for the reader.
  11. NrIV. (New Readers International Version). Thought for thought. This is a sub-set of the NIV, designed specifically for children. My 7-yr old son uses it. It is a very good, very simple and very accurate translation. My son reads his bible aloud during our family devotions, and I am always impressed with how the translators got the meaning across in simple prose, in a way that is faithful to the Greek text. This is a very good translation.
  12. NLT. Very thought for thought. This is probably as far as you can go without falling off the cliff into paraphrase. This is a very free bible version, which makes extraordinarily bold translation choices. You may not agree with the NLT, but you’ll always know what the translators thought the phrase meant. They aimed for clarity, and they achieved it.

Should you use a paraphrase, like The Message?

No. Paraphrases are completely unnecessary, and are very nice incubators for heresy and foolishness. There are plenty of thought-for-thought translations on the market (e.g. NLT, NrIV) that are very, very, very easy to understand.

A translation actually considers the original language, the grammar, the syntax, and renders it faithfully. A paraphrase is one guy’s restatement of a passage in a deliberately simplistic manner. It’s not anchored to the actual words of Scripture, so it’s very dangerous to count on a paraphrase.

For example, this is how The Message renders 1 Peter 2:12:

Live an exemplary life among the natives so that your actions will refute their prejudices. Then they’ll be won over to God’s side and be there to join in the celebration when he arrives.

Pardon me while I retch. Unbelievers are not “natives.” Peter said these unbelievers are slandering Christians, making them out to be criminals and evildoers. That is completely gone. Poof. They don’t have sin; they have prejudices. There is no mention that these unbelievers are watching the way you live your life. God is reduced to the guy at the party who made a pizza run, and will be cheered when he returns (“Dude! Where’s the pepperoni!?”).  Eternity, coupled with God’s righteous and wrathful judgment on Satan and all who refuse the Gospel, is reduced to “the celebration.” Eternity is now a frat-party.

This is foolish, unnecessary, and cheap. You don’t need a paraphrase, and you don’t need The Message.

Wrapping Up

So, what’s the point? If you read something in your bible, and you’re confused, I want you to reach for a different bible translation. Don’t ask Pastor Google or Pastor Bing, or even (heaven forbid) . . . Pastor Yahoo. Just look at another bible translation. Have a short list of go-to comparison translations, with a whole spectrum of translation philosophies. Keep a NLT, ESV and NIV handy, for example.

For some more on all this, see this wonderful article by Mark Ward, entitled “Which Bible Translation Is Best? All the Good Ones.”

You don’t need to know Greek or Hebrew. You have a whole host of good resources in English bible translations. They’re each different. They each have different translation philosophies. But, they’re all good. Use them, use your brain, think about the text, and it’ll become clear.

Happy studying. Ciao.