Bible Translation Tribalism

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It’s been a while since I’ve been so excited about a post by Scot McKnight (um, I think this is actually a first), but he really nailed it in this post on Bible translations and tribalism. Here’s an excerpt:

The politics of Bible translation is a sad case of colonizing the Bible for one’s agenda. There is lots of stone throwing about translations as if one is wildly superior to the others, but often that is about tribes and not the translation.

Each group has its Bible, has its translation, and you declare your allegiance to your tribe by carrying and citing the Bible of your tribe. Show your cards by exposing the Bible you use and you will be telling us which tribe is yours.

I believe what he says is true. And I think it’s true, sort of ironically, precisely because God doesn’t call everyone to be a Greek or Hebrew scholar—so they’re stuck trusting someone else to tell them what translation to use. And who are they going to trust but their tribal leaders? I don’t think that’s all necessarily bad. I think it’s, in a way, part of God’s plan—Christ gave teachers to his church, Eph 4. We’re supposed to trust them, even submit to them (1 Pet 5:5; Heb 13:17). But I do think those gifted teachers themselves (many of whom don’t have the requisite Greek and Hebrew chops either) need to come to recognize the truth in McKnight’s post and end Bible translation tribalism.

I have two cavils:

bottom1. The common translation continuum diagram really is saying something of value. I am totally with McKnight in wanting to urge Christians to drop the politics and take advantage of the embarrassment of riches we have in major English Bible translations, but I would still want Bible readers to know something about the dynamic to formal continuum so they can make the best use of their translations. If they’ve never studied another language, that continuum may be useless (I never used modern translations while still monolingual, so I don’t know). But if they have even a minimal understanding of Spanish, say, I think it’s useful to explain to them why the NASB or ESV or KJV may tend toward more difficult renderings and the NIV and NLT to smoother ones. Some simpler believers, too, are indeed troubled by the apparent disagreements among translations. And a recognition that some translations feel free to be a bit more interpretive is helpful for them. People need to know that “I try to find common ground with everyone”—the NLT’s rendering of “I have become all things to all people”—is an interpretation, and a helpful one. They need to know that the NLT does things like this characteristically, and they need to give up the suspicion that the NLT translators do things like this for nefarious reasons. McKnight, I think, is perfectly right:

Most words are translated in all Bible translations with formal equivalence and…some words are translated more or less in a dynamic, or functional way.

2. Second, my own pastor engages in extremely careful (and engaging) exposition. I don’t think the NIV would fit his preaching philosophy as well as the NASB. He would have to disagree with the translation too often; it would get awkward. I, however, preach to a group of poor readers every week, so I use the NIrV. In other words, Bible translations should be seen as fantastic tools with slightly differing reasons for existing. Some are better for some purposes than others. And, in other words, it isn’t a 100% accident that more word-focused tribes characteristically use certain translations and more experience-focused tribes characteristically don’t.

But if all we had were the NIV, I think we should be grateful. Many languages have far less. And the NIV is not all we have, so we should be vastly more grateful. Too many translations to choose from? What a good problem to have! I urge Christians to make use of multiple good translations all the time. I use the ESV, KJV, NASB, NIV, NET, HCSB, and NLT every day, in ways appropriate to their particular character. A wise commenter on my blog (clynn) recently said,

As a seminary graduate with access to some of the best translation and interpretation resources available (i.e. resources like BibleWorks and Logos), I still find that one of my best resources for understanding scripture is a comparison of two or more modern English translations.

HT: Kouya

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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