Sunday, February 20, 2005

PBS on the TNIV Bible

How to think about translations and paraphrases of the Bible? My friend Derek regularly uses "The Message", a modern paraphrase that he feels is helpful in understanding God's word. When I was a new Christian it was the "J.B. Phillips translation" that we highschoolers all used. This PBS program (click on title...can play in RealPlayer) touches upon the controversy surrounding the TNIV "translation" that Zondervan is hoping to sell to twenty-somethings, and whose stockholders (is no longer in any way a "Christian" publishing house) are hoping will sell in the several-millions like the NIV did a couple decades ago. Judging from other articles I've seen, this brief coverage is a pretty fair exposure of the issues involved.

Let's say right off the bat that Wayne Grudem's dislike of the new translation is a serious red flag to me; I deeply respect his work and regularly refer young serious Christians to his "Systematic Theology" in its long and short versions (depending on just how serious and academic the young person is...) He points out some very serious shortcomings in the the new translation that relate chiefly to two types of changes: the change of the singular exemplary "man" to the plural "humans" or "those", and the change of some male pronouns to gender-neutral pronouns. These obviously overlap, but are two separable concerns.

Those who want the church to de-emphasize the individual's relationship to God and instead emphasize God's interest in groups, and the Christian's membership in the collective Church, might welcome changes such as those in Psalm 1, from "Blessed is the man who does not walk in the council of the wicked" to "Blessed are those who...etc". Likewise, those who have cringed when reading over and over again Solomon's admonitions to his "son" while studying Proverbs in a mixed group might welcome language that suggested come concern for his daughters.

I think that one's approach to this question derives somewhat from one's approach to God's sovereignty, with those believing in the largest scope and depth of God's sovereignty weighing in on the side of the most literal translations possible. For us, there are no accidents, and especially no cultural/historical accidents, in the original manuscripts nor in their transmission down through the centuries. That is not to say there were no corruptions or losses, only that every single such was completely under God's control and oversight. Arguments deriving from the Hebrew culture, for example, that they thought in patriarchal and exemplary terms (ie, the one can be understood as standing in for the many) mean to me that God so directed the culture that, at the time of the writing of His word, it was precisely so because He wanted that perspective, those "flavors" if you will, in his word. I do not need to fully understand why. It is the same respect we would offer a poet, to believe that every word in the original language was just so because he wanted it so, and whatever interesting or distressing implications of word choice or image were meant to be interesting and distressing.

But poetry does not translate well, as we all know. The simple fact is that we do have to translate the Hebrew and Greek into English, and that complex decisions about original intent and clarity/connotation issues will arise. Which is preferable: "He left none alive who urinate against the wall" or "He left no men or boys alive" or "He killed all the males"? (I Kings 16:11) It isn't as though there were no word for males; so why this colorful phrase (which, by the way, does not even appear in the pretty-literal NASB except in the margin.)? I personally prefer to have the idioms left intact, and make the effort to learn enough about the ancient culture to understand and appreciate them. But I can see how this deeper appreciation may be beside the point to a new Christian, or even more so in the context of evangelism.

Whatever we say, the TNIV is coming out, and it will most certainly sell a lot of copies and show up in the hands of our young people and new Christians. As a teacher in the Church, I plan to treat it as I do any other paraphrase, for so I believe it to be. In changing the text for the sake of "first-read clarity", it places itself on the shelf with J.B. Phillips (which was trememdously useful to me in my spiritual infancy) and "The Message" and perhaps the "Good News Bible" (another one I used as a kid, but would never recommend to serious Bible student.) I do not allow such paraphrases to be used as the primary Biblical reference in a class. We do not read aloud from such versions without reiterating a disclaimer every time, that such paraphrases may be good for a start at the meaning but can never be relied upon as authoritative. Whenever a student bases an "insight" on his or her paraphrase that is not supported by the literal text, we gently discuss the shortcomings of the paraphrase and I urge a move, as a step toward mature study, to one of the more literal versions, or best yet, the Hebrew/Greek.

Hopefully, this version will not become the official pew Bible anywhere (though I fear it certainly will.)

1 comment:

  1. "The TNIV is more accurate than its remarkable predecessor, the much-loved NIV, while retaining all the readability of the latter. It is a version I can use with confidence, whether I am speaking at a university mission, or in a Bible conference anywhere in the English-speaking world. I am deeply impressed by the godliness, linguistic competence, cultural awareness, and sheer fidelity to Scripture displayed by the translators. Thirty or forty years from now, I suspect, most evangelicals will have accepted the TNIV as a 'standard' translation, and will wonder what all the fuss was about in their parents' generation — in the same way that those of us with long memories marvel at all the fuss over the abandonment of 'thees' and 'thous' several decades ago."
    - D.A. Carson, Ph.D
    Research Professor of New Testament
    Trinity Evangelical Divinity School