Friday, September 08, 2006

Bible Translations, Part 6 of a Draft Article

This is the 6th and final installment of a series of draft portions of an article I am writing on Biblical translations. Comments are welcome via e-mail. See also Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.


So in the light of all that has been said, which translation of the Scriptures should we use? Unfortunately, there is not a simple answer for English speakers at present. I will address the question first in terms of the best options available for personal use, then the best options for liturgical use, and say a few words about how one can make use of the various translations available in their personal study of the Bible.

Options for Personal Use:

A. The King James Version

Generally speaking, the King James Version is where all English translations of Scripture should begin… and it remains one of the best options available, even without any revision. The pronouns and verbal forms that it uses are not hard to learn. The primary problem with it is the occasional translation that needs to be corrected, and the occasional word that is likely to confuse most contemporary readers. Most readers could easily remedy the second problem by simply expanding their vocabulary by about 200 or so words.

The best edition of the KJV available currently is the New Cambridge Paragraph Bible with the Apocrypha, which has modern spelling, punctuation, and formatting, and includes the Deuterocanonical books.

B. The New Authorized Version

The New Authorized Version (NAV), which has been published without the Deuterocanonical books as the 21st Century King James Version and as the Third Millenium Bible with them included, has much to recommend it. Many of the obscure portions of the KJV have been revised to make them clearer. My primary complaints with this version are that they occasionally embed margin notes into the text with brackets, which is likely to confuse most readers that they are reading the text of Scripture rather than a margin note, and also that they did not revised many words or phrases that needed revision, but revised many more words that didn’t… and frankly, the only real purpose that most of these changes seem to have accomplished is that they enabled the publisher to copyright the text (which they would not have been able to do had they made fewer changes). For example, the publisher has removed the word “spake” and replaced it with “spoke”… but does anyone really think that the average reader had a problem figuring out what “spake” meant?

If we take another look at John 1:14-17, we find the following differences between the King James and the NAV:

KJV: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. John bare witness of him, and cried, saying, This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me. And of his fullness have all we received, and grace for grace. For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.”

NAV: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only Begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth. John bore witness of Him and cried, saying, “This was He of whom I spoke, `He that cometh after me is preferred before me, for He was before me.’” And of His fullness have we all received, and grace for grace. For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.

In my opinion, such changes are not an improvement of the text. Nevertheless the text does remove the most common linguistic stumbling blocks that trip up the average reader. Some words in the King James Version now mean something else entirely. For example, the word "convince" in the KJV meant "convict"; "prevent" meant "precede"; and "conversation" meant "manner of living.” And so if we take a look at Psalm 21:3, we can see where the NAV has improved the text for the contemporary reader:

KJV: "For thou preventest him with the blessings of goodness: thou settest a crown of pure gold on his head."

NAV: "For Thou goest before him with the blessings of goodness; Thou settest a crown of pure gold on his head."

Most contemporary readers would not have come away from the text in the KJV with a correct understanding of the text, whereas here the revision of one word has made all the difference. Also the use modern punctuation and formatting, is far easier on the eyes than most King James texts that are on the market.

C. The New King James Version

The New King James Version uses the contemporary English, which is seen by many as a great advantage, but which I personally find to be greatest drawback of this version. I believe that traditional English is better suited for liturgical use, and I also believe that ideally we should use the same translation for worship that we do in private study, because this helps us better memorize the text, and allows the words to better take root in our souls. This is of course a different subject which is beyond the scope of this article, and so I will simply concede that many other Orthodox would not agree and would find the language of the New King James entirely compatible with the style of English they use liturgically.

In any case, the New King James has its advantages. It generally corrects the translational errors of the King James Version, though is based on the Received Text of the New Testament, and so is entirely consistent with the textual tradition of the Church. It also has perhaps the best textual footnotes of any translation in English. It is, of course, more easily understood than the KJV.

As mentioned previously, in the next year or so we should have available the complete Orthodox Study Bible, which will contain the New King James text in the New Testament, and the complete Orthodox canon of the Old Testament which will be a translation of the Septuagint, that uses the New King James Old Testament text as the starting point, and makes changes to that text only as needed in order to make it conform to the Septuagint text. I hesitate to recommend a text that I have not yet seen, but I certainly am hopeful that this will be an excellent option for personal study for Orthodox Christians.

D. The Douay Rheims Version

I must say that the Douay Rheims is not a version I have or probably ever will use a primary translation for personal study, however, I know many Orthodox who do. The text is certainly acceptable, and has the advantage of using traditional English, and having the Deuterocanonical books. It is at times awkward, and it uses terminology that is unfamiliar to most English speakers. It is certainly a version worthy of consultation, when comparing various translations.

Options for Liturgical Use

A. The Psalter

For a Liturgical Psalter, there is currently only one text that I would recommend: The Psalter According to the Seventy published by Holy Transfiguration Monastery. This is far from a perfect translation, but there are no other suitable texts that are currently in print. There has been some talk of revising the Coverdale Psalter, to correct it according to the Septuagint – and if this is well done, it may someday present a better option – but currently this is what we have to work with, and it has the advantage of being the Psalter used in many other liturgical translations available.

B. The Gospel

The best option for a Gospel book that is formatted according to Slavic usage, is from Holoviaks Church Supply. They published a very fine edition which uses the King James Version, however, their supplies of this edition are gradually diminishing, and they thus far have no plans to reprint this text (which is a shame, but I hope they will eventually change their mind). They currently only sell this edition if it is purchased with a metallic cover, thus making it very expensive. The reason they currently do not plan on re-printing their King James Gospel is that they have recently published one that uses the New King James… and for those who prefer the NKJV, obviously this would be an excellent option.

A new option for those seeking a traditional English translation of the Gospels, is the Gospel Lectionary published by the Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies. It is based on the King James Version, but is formatted according to Byzantine usage… again, an advantage for those of that tradition, but a disadvantage to those who of the Slavic tradition. It does have a scriptural index in the back that will help those following Slavic practice to find the correct reading more easily than most Byzantine style Gospel Books. This edition is very affordable, and the format of the Byzantine lectionary is actually very well suited for those who would like to have a Gospel Book at home to read the daily readings.

C. The Epistle Lectionary, or Apostolos

The best option available at present for those following Slavic practice is the Apostol, published by St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press. The translation used is neither King James, nor New King James, but a synthesis of the two. It retains the traditional pronouns (for the most part) and verb endings, but eliminates archaic words. At times one might have wished that they had kept more of the King James text than they did, but the text is more easily understandable than the unrevised King James text would have otherwise been.

For those following Byzantine practice the Epistle Lectionary, published by the Center for Traditionalists Orthodox Studies is a good option. Like the Gospel Lectionary they publish, this too is based on the King James text. One of its draw back is that it is published only in paper back at present. This has the advantage, however, of making it inexpensive enough for individuals to purchase a copy for home use. Another downside to this edition is that some of the “corrections” of the King James text in this edition are debatable. For example, in the KJV, 1st Corinthians 11:14 reads “Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?” The CTOS edition emends this to read “Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have flowing hair, it is a shame unto him?” I understand the point that they are trying to make, and the translations is not completely indefensible; but no other translation translates it this way. If one wanted to bring out the nuance that they are trying to highlight it would probably have been better to have translated it as “wear long hair” rather than “have long hair” or “have flowing hear”, and also this really gets us beyond translation into the realm of commentary… and that is what commentaries and footnotes are for. And although emendations are made such as this, many instances in which the text of the King James is no longer easily understood, and could easily be corrected by updating a word or two are unfortunately left unrevised. Nevertheless, on the balance, this edition is a good option… again, particular for those wishing to follow the daily readings at home.

Using Various Translations in Personal Study

For those who have not studies the original languages of Scripture – and even for those who have – it is often helpful to compare various translations in order to gain a fuller appreciation for the possible range of meaning of a text. While I would not recommend the following translations for use as the primary translation an Orthodox Christian should use, for reasons addressed above, these versions are useful for comparison:

1. The English Standard Version

2. The Revised Standard Version

3. The New Revised Standard Version

4. The New American Standard Bible

The RSV, and NRSV are also especially useful because they contain the complete Orthodox canon of the Old Testament, and so until the complete Orthodox Study Bible is available, one or the other of these versions is an essential text to have on hand.

One of the advantages the internet affords is that we can compare numerous translations with a few clicks of a mouse, without having to have hard copies of them all at home. Some of the better web sites for this purpose are:


Some dismiss concerns about Biblical translations as unimportant, or a simple matter of taste. “To each his own,” and “What ever floats your boat” are the sacred proverbs of our culture today. However, as Bishop Tikhon of San Francisco noted, “the word "Orthodox" itself implies a certain care about correct syntactics, semantics and pragmatics, the correct use of language…”16 Words mean things, accuracy matters, fidelity to the traditional understanding of the Scriptures is essential, and beauty in worship (and this in our translation of the Scriptures, which is at the core of our worship) is something we must strive for.

As with most things in the Orthodox Church, there are boundaries of acceptability -- within which, there is a certain amount of diversity of opinion that is completely acceptable, but outside of which there is spiritual danger that must be avoided. There may even be some disagreement about exactly were the lines should be drawn that mark those boundaries, but Orthodox Christians should be in agreement that translations that distort and obscure the meaning of the text, that strip the text of significant Christological and prophetic concepts, and lack a reverence for the words that the Holy Spirit has inspired his prophets and apostles to write are to be avoided.

The translation of the Sacred Scriptures should be approached with the utmost care and reverence – this should be obvious. The selection of a translation calls for care and reverence as well. Furthermore, the reading of that translation calls for all of that plus a great deal of diligence, as we read in the Psalter:

“Set before me for a law, O LORD, the way of Thy statutes, and I will seek after it continually. Give me understanding, and I will search out Thy law, and I will keep it with my whole heart” (Psalm 118:34-35 LXX).

As anyone who has invested the effort into the reverent study of the Scriptures can attest, the rewards are well worth the effort.

16 Bishop Tikhon of San Francisco (OCA), Bishop's Pastoral Letter on the New Revised Standard Version, The Orthodox West, Winter 1990, Sept. 8, 2006 <>.